Education reform: Change comes slowly to relentlessly-studied issue

TRENTON – Since he was elected governor in 2009, Chris Christie has proposed seemingly bold, definitely controversial, ideas to reform the state’s education system.

Although New Jersey, with its high standard of living, has  public schools that generally enjoy a good reputation, the problems of low test scores and ineffective teachers in largely urban school districts where the majority of students are minorities have remained largely unchanged over the years.

To address this problem, Christie has proposed some drastic reform measures such as merit pay, allowing more parental voice in school choice, revamping the tenure system, and giving principals more authority.

He has also proposed so-called “turnaround” models, which largely call for gutting existing school brass and injecting new blood.

His battle against the 200,000-plus member New Jersey Education Association has been ongoing since the early days of his administration. The union has been quick to launch ads attacking Christie’s proposals, and perhaps most loudly – but unsuccessfully – against his overhaul that require teachers to make larger contributions toward their health insurance and pension benefits.

Underscoring how controversial the battle is, just last week a bill to permit conversion of non-public schools into charter schools was released by a Senate committee, only to be withheld from full Senate action that same day as it faces more work.

The ideas of introducing merit pay and revamping tenure have yet to see any legislative action as well. In the meantime, the governor continues to propose other ideas.

Two of them were proposed in the last couple of months:  allowing private enterprise  to run failing school districts and  requiring less-rigorous qualifications for prospective superintendents who want to lead at-risk, low-performing school districts.

Battle lines drawn

But not everyone thinks it’s a good idea to turn over the fate of at-risk public school districts to bottom-line private enterprise. 

The New Jersey Education Association dismissed the idea as another example of the governor’s “corporate top-down” approach toward fixing schools, an approach that the NJEA says hasn’t been successful.

“What a mixed message indeed,” said Steve Wollmer, a spokesperson for the NJEA, about the seeming irony of turning over the most challenged schools to individuals with little to no experience running a school. “This isn’t different from that old axiom that anyone can teach.”

Others are supportive of Christie’s ideas, such as Darrell Bradford of Better Education for Kids Inc., a non-profit education reform group. He described the governor’s ideas as “efforts to innovate at the edge.”

He champions the idea of outside talent . “There’s a lot of creative people from different disciplines who can be effective leaders,” Bradford said.

When it comes to charter schools, which are schools run by various groups, such as a business, foundation, or parents, Bradford admitted that not every one of them is successful, as evidenced by a recent closure in Trenton.

“We know not every charter school is great, just like every district school is not great,” he said.

With the closure of a charter school, Bradford said the alternative for those students only gets worse, since the students’ physical safety as well as their academic achievements are major concerns.

“They are going back to schools that are just as bad or worse,” he said. “There’s no parent in Millburn worried about their kids coming back home.”

Studying the issue

Bad or low-performing charter schools seem to be more the exception than the norm, according to one study. A 2004 Rutgers University report found that 75 percent of charter schools are in “poor urban districts.” It also stated that the average charter school had smaller classes than traditional public schools, had fewer students who moved, longer days and school years, and higher faculty attendance rates.

But at least one education expert, Kevin G. Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder, said that the reform measures overall have not been all that effective. Even more disturbing, he said, some of the measures, like charter schools, bring with them some “unfortunate, unintended consequences.”
“Most notably, charter schools tend to stratify/segregate by race, ethnicity, English-language learner and special needs status,” Welner wrote in an email response to questions.
Welner added that while the corporation-run schools could be effective in turning around some student performance, the results can be awfully skewed, too.
“A major complicating factor in most of these take-overs is that they institute a choice-based enrollment system, which means that the student bodies of these schools before and after the change can be very different,” Welner wrote.

“This lets advocates for one side or the other point to a given study and claim success (or failure). Wise researchers (and, one hopes, policymakers) never look to a single case study for guidance; they look to the entire body of high-quality research.”

Still, the demographics of the charter school students suggest that the charters are to some degree helping those most at-risk.

“(The charter schools) enrolled higher percentages of black students and students receiving free or reduced lunches,” the Rutgers study said.

And such popular schools have thousands of kids on waiting lists.

Achievement gaps

Over the years, education experts have talked about an achievement gap that exists between white and African-American students. A 2009 National Center of Education Statistics (NCES) report found the following among New Jersey school students, with white students having the higher scores in math and reading tests at the 4th and 8th grades.

It found the following:

*A 23-point gap between black and white students on the fourth-grade math test and a 35-point gap in the eighth-grade math test.

*A 26-point gap in the fourth-grade reading test and a 29-point gap in the eighth-grade reading test.

In testimony before budget committees earlier this year, acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf said the state ranks number 47 in the achievement gap between the haves and have-nots, calling it “a tremendous human tragedy.”

The Rutgers study also pointed out an ugly truth.

“New Jersey schools are among the most segregated in the country. More than those in Alabama, Georgia, and most of the other traditionally segregated states of the Old South. Segregation in the state has actually increased in recent decades.”

While the graduation rate for black students in New Jersey is problematic, the Rutgers study said that “very few states, and virtually no neighboring states, are doing any better.”

Cerf blamed entrenched interests for much of the problem, where decisions are made that don’t always take the students’ well-being into consideration.

He cited the ‘last in first out’ philosophy as an example, where long-time, but ineffective teachers get to keep their jobs over new or younger ones who are successful with the students.

“This practice is laid out in statute and mandates that school districts must dismiss a teacher who is superbly successful in advancing student learning to save the position of one who isn’t – solely on the basis of seniority,” Cerf said. “How could changing this process to be based on effectiveness instead of seniority not be better for students?”

He added that students trapped in the underperforming schools are 54 percent proficient on math and 30 percent proficient in science. He said there is a 30-percent gap in language arts between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students.

In New Jersey, Cerf said there are some 200 schools with a high rate of failure and student underperformance, particularly among minority students.

In some school districts, only four out of 10 African-American students are considered proficient, he said. Cerf added that in one Camden school, only one out of 10 students is proficient.

In such areas, transformation schools could fill the gap, according to Christie. However, the NJEA blasted that idea after he proposed it in June and continues to battle against the administration’s attempts to legislate education reform.

“This proposal is nothing more than an attempt to walk away from the state’s obligation to provide a thorough and efficient education to every student by handing over our students and our tax dollars to private companies,” NJEA president Barbara Keshishian said in a statement.

Previous coverage:

Charter champion: Christie adds 23 new charter schools

Poll shows NJ voters split on charter schools

Voters support tenure and voucher reform according to new poll

Charter school conversion bill clears committee



Education reform: Change comes slowly to relentlessly-studied issue