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Fine Print: T&E – A Primer for School Improvement in New Jersey (1976)

A Colonial primer helps introduce the concept of "thorough and efficient" to local communities.

Synopsis: At a time when New Jersey was just starting to grapple with school equity, the primer produced by the state Department of Education 35 years ago was meant to explain a process for each community to decide what "thorough and efficient" education should look like.

What it means: As New Jersey continues to grapple with school equity -- and the state Supreme Court about to add a new chapter -- the 1976 primer provides a little perspective as to what is happening in 2011. Borrowing its presentation from the familiar children's primers of Colonial times, the T&E version reflects its own time and language and its own vision of what needed to be done. Yet some of the same issues remain.

A little history: Before there was Abbott v. Burke, the school equity case that won’t go away, New Jersey was in court with Robinson v. Cahill over many of the same inequities. As a result of Robinson, the state enacted the Public Education Act of 1975, better known now as Chapter 212, and laid out some of the most comprehensive measures to date for every district to provide the "thorough and efficient" education required by the state constitution.

A tumultuous summer: The primer came out in what may be the most eventful year for public education in New Jersey's recent history, with the state Supreme Court content with the act but not the legislature’s unwillingness to fund it. The court shuttered the schools for seven days over the summer of 1976, before the state enacted its first income tax.

Process v. outcome: This was before the standards and testing movement that swept the nation in the early 1990s, and the primer explains the new requirements of Chapter 212, noting that it is up to every community to determine what is thorough and efficient.

Key line: "Autonomy in the running of local schools is enhanced by the Act and by the plan for implementing it. The local district sets its own goals, objectives and standards for improvement. Nothing in T and E demands any particular curriculum, mode of teacher training or system of evaluation."

Needless to say: As time has passed, the state and especially the Christie administration are more active than ever in seeking to dictate the curriculum, as well as training and evaluation of teachers.

A different Department of Education, too: The current 700-employee department probably longs for the days when the agency was flush with programs. As explained in the primer, among them were the department’s now-defunct research and assistance hubs placed across the state, known as Educational Improvement Centers.

Familiar terrain: It was the beginning of accountability, just in different form. The state's assessments were only just beginning, and the primer explained that schools would need to keep track of their progress through testing. "Through this process, the district is able to demonstrate to the community that expenditures and other inputs to education lead to beneficial outputs in the form of student achievement."

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