Asbury Park (NJ) Press
Schools around the country have begun to show measurable progress closing achievement gaps, according to evidence from a growing range of sources. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that in New Jersey, this progress is much more limited, and it is African-American young people who seem to be losing out the most.
Despite an influx of new funding to New Jersey’s poorest urban school districts following the state Supreme Court’s Abbott rulings, student achievement levels remain mostly flat at the lower end of the spectrum.
• The percentage of black eighth graders who scored above “basic” in reading actually declined, from 62 percent in 2005 to 60 percent in 2009 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
• Overall, there was virtually no difference in the average scores for eighth graders over this period, with more than 80 percent of black eighth graders scoring below “proficient” in reading.
This is a very different picture than described by reform opponents like the current leaders of the New Jersey Education Association, whose persistent claims of progress in inner-city schools are as harmful as they are inaccurate.
Along with New Jersey missing out on the important progress in schools around the country, the innovations that appear to be driving them are proving elusive here as well.
One of the most important stories of the last decade in American education has been the emergence of a number of highly-effective families of public charter schools, whose ability to replicate success closing achievement gaps combines data-driven instructional strategies with impressive strategies for bolstering the human capital of their teaching staffs.
Save for an exciting, growing network of KIPP charter schools in Newark, that serve nearly an exclusively minority population of students, New Jersey has largely been missing out. There certainly appears to be reason for optimism that increased interest and improving policies will cause this trend to change in the months to come.
In particular, the impressive results being demonstrated by “blended” classrooms that combine cutting-edge technology and online learning, enabling classroom teachers to guide instruction to the strengths and weaknesses of individual children, could make a powerful difference, especially for children performing consistently below grade level.
Meanwhile, the Obama Administration has aggressively sought to focus an unprecedented stream of new federal education dollars to induce states and school districts to embrace these and other pieces of its reform agenda. With state and local education budgets tight all over, New Jersey has been largely ignored in these efforts.
But increased spending without meaningful reform cannot be expected to produce the needed changes. For ten years prior to 2008, state aid to Abbott districts increased 75 percent, to over $14,000 per pupil. An analysis by the policy organization Excellent Education for Everyone calculated that actual spending was even higher than these official figures, 23 percent higher in fact, when prekindergarten and personnel costs are thoroughly accounted for.
Using their methodology, the Newark Public Schools spend $22,251 per child, a price that could command a fine education in most of the country.
So what could educational innovation do for New Jersey children? Quite a bit of good, if results elsewhere in the country are any indication.
Fixing the tenure and teacher evaluation systems is one important place to begin. As with any profession, job performance should matter for teachers, recognizing and rewarding them for a job well done, or for choosing to teach in more challenging environments where they are especially needed.
Parents deserve decision-making power as well, through the ability to choose which school best suits their children’s individual needs and to redirect taxpayer dollars to the school of their choice. In many cases, New Jersey parents can already decide which public or private provider is the best match for their 3 and 4 year olds’ preschool education, but that same decision is not afforded to parents in the K-12 system.
If 2011 is truly to be the year of education reform in the Garden State, those reforms must be guided by outcomes, like classroom results, and not solely by inputs like spending levels.
Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, DC, and is coauthor of a recent study, “Reform with Results for New Jersey Schools,” available for free at www.lexingtoninstitute.org.
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