At the conclusion of a budget season where some districts gained funding and others lost, overall state aid to schools rose to nearly a third of the total for all state spending. While school funding remains below levels required by state law, New Jersey has ranked in the top five states with the highest per-student spending, even when adjusted for regional cost differences.
But overall, New Jersey schools remain home to some of the nation’s largest, and most persistent, gaps in student achievement between poor and minority students and their classmates. While statewide data on 2017 PARCC exams show some consistent, encouraging progress for students overall, just over half of students are reaching grade-level proficiency. Information on performance by district, school and specific population groups will not be available until later this summer.
State officials worked through details of their plan for English learners, special-needs students and other specific populations before it received full approval by the U.S. Department of Education earlier this month.
New Jersey will modify the ways school success is evaluated under the new approach, paired with expectations about the pace of change and the need for effective implementation. In this way, structural changes in funding, accountability, improvement, and professional development can be shifted from input-driven compliance to an outcome-based, authentic and innovative system.
Getting buy-in from teachers doing the hard work of improving academic results, and supporting the right in-classroom adjustments, is critical for large scale change. At the same time, though, districts need to leverage the opportunities in the state’s plan to address achievement gaps and take learning deeper by making it personally relevant to each learner.
Rapidly-advancing educational technology is also providing opportunity — and pressure — to shift from the classroom teaching models of a hundred years ago to modern individually-focused approaches. The Every Student Succeeds Act, ESSA, has provisions and funding that New Jersey and its districts can use to transform educational practice, where learning is responding to real-time adjustments, not after-the-fact record keeping.
A big improvement in New Jersey’s new accountability system is a focus on student growth over time, rather than point-in-time measures of student proficiency. New Jersey will now be looking at how all students taking the state assessment are progressing from year-to-year, regardless of the student’s starting point or if he or she has not yet achieved — or has far surpassed — grade level proficiency.
In a nod to competency-based education, where student progress is based on content mastery, the state is looking to develop multiple learning pathways for middle school students to complete Algebra I supported with professional development for teachers.
Ultimately, to reach the full potential of these changes, New Jersey’s districts and schools will have to leverage state support to accelerate student outcomes. Some districts are ahead of the curve, and can be “lighthouse” districts to show the way for others. Freehold Township Schools, led by New Jersey’s 2017 Superintendent of the Year Ross Kasun, is one district leading the way implementing a district-wide personalized learning initiative.
Innovative leaders like Dr. Kasun are demonstrating that a combination of effective plans and sufficient buy-in from educators and others can produce powerful academic gains for all students, to reach the new plan’s potential.
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