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Opinion: The Latest in School Reform -- Ambition and Arrogance

NJ wants out of No Child Left Behind. Does it have anything better to offer?

New Jersey has joined 10 other states in taking U.S. education secretary Arne Duncan up on his invitation to be excused from No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The state's waiver application is a hefty 365-page tome written in reformist patois that melds ambition, acronyms, and arrogance.

It sounds good.

For starters, rather than reaching 100 percent proficiency by 2014, as specified by NCLB, the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) posits a more sensible goal: cutting the achievement gap in half over the next six years. The DOE proposes a new system of teacher and principal accountability (required by the waiver application).

It also outlines a new scheme for rating schools and intervening in the ones that don't work. The big push is to intercede in the 251 schools and 74 districts labeled "Priority" or "Focus" in the proposed framework -- the state's bottom 15 percent in terms of performance.

The DOE confesses that it has concentrated much too much on compliance and paperwork and not nearly enough on providing effective services to schools in need. It has reorganized itself to emphasize four functions: Academics, Talent, Performance, and Innovation.

The department also intends to create seven Regional Achievement Centers (RACs), employing between 112 and 147 experienced "masters" to work with struggling schools and districts.

Note to the U.S. DOE: Neither NCLB nor QSAC Can Work

It doesn't matter which you choose, NCLB or the state's current Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC). Neither approach can work.

Title I has been around since 1965, providing supplemental funds to schools and districts with kids from poor families. With NCLB, emphasis goes to schools where even small subsets of students do not perform well, thus tumbling the school into the "failed" category..

QSAC is rightfully criticized in the waiver request for "placing a premium on districts' submission of reports and faithful compliance with rules." Here's how the current system doesn't work:

  • Schools that do not make "adequate yearly progress" must prepare a School Improvement Plan (SIP), outlining how they will improve instruction and test results;

  • Districts with schools needing improvement must approve and incorporate the SIP into the Local Education Agency Plan (LEAP) and agree to work with and monitor struggling schools;

  • If a school fails to make promised progress, it must submit a Corrective Action Plan (CAP), specifying how it will improve academic performance (usually by promising more "embedded professional development" and better "data-driven instruction");

  • NJDOE reviews and approves all plans and incorporates them into its annual report on Title I to the feds;

  • Schools with the lowest results must work with a Collaborative Assessment for Planning and Achievement (CAPA) team of experienced educators and DOE personnel to determine what is not working and how to improve instruction.

Almost all schools on the lowest-performing Priority list are found in 17 of the 31 former Abbott districts (plus one each in Roselle and Lakewood). Forty-eight of the 74 schools are in Camden (23), Newark (16), and Trenton (9), which happen to be among the poorest districts in the nation.

Note to the NJDOE: Buzzwords Alone Won't Get the Job Done

The premise of both the current and the proposed system is that the state knows how to fix these stubborn problems. Here's how the replacement system would work:

  • Schools are judged by a more useful measure than the NCLB's: Priority schools are those performing at the bottom in terms of student proficiency or in graduation rates;

  • Priority schools will be visited by a team of experienced educators from the yet-to-be-established Regional Achievement Center. They'll use the Quality School Review, which closely follow the QSAC CAPA reports;

  • In consultation with the school and district, the RAC team produces a "differentiated" school improvement plan (SIP) that diagnoses problems and prescribes interventions. If the school culture needs to be improved, for example, the RAC may order the "embedding" of a "school culture specialist" and professional development for the principal and teachers;

  • The district incorporates the SIP into its LEAP and signs an assurance that it will faithfully assist in its implementation;

  • The DOE will withhold all Title I funds from the district if it fails to include the school improvement plan or its assurance in its LEAP;

  • The school has two years, possibly three, to demonstrate measurable improvements in student achievement by implementing the specified interventions. If inadequate progress is made, even if the "research-based interventions" are faithfully implemented, the DOE may use its powers to close the school or reallocate funds or reassign teachers.

Sound familiar? Except for unrealistic timetables, a vast new bureaucracy, and the tough-guy threats of cutting off funding, the waiver proposes a conventionally bureaucratic approach reminiscent of CAPA. Think of it as an Edsel with a new paint job.

Priority schools, without exception, are not just high-poverty schools; they are "poverty-only" schools, with 80 percent to 95 percent of their students eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

Note to NJDOE: Admit That Poverty Is the Real Problem

For four decades, the nation has wrestled with the problem of what to do with schools where everyone comes from poor families. Usually, the policies and public discourse have avoided focusing on the implications of concentrated poverty, choosing instead to find convenient, fast-acting, and unproven "reforms." The waiver application is faithful to this failed tradition. In fact, it makes no mention that the failed schools are all in very poor places, while the high-performing Reward" schools are in the state's most affluent towns.

I would have hoped for a hint that turning around failing schools in the poorest neighborhoods is hard work. Most highly advertised, over-promised efforts over the decades have failed. I would like to see it acknowledged that improvement might take some time and require adjustments to off-the-shelf plans. But that is not in the vocabulary of cocksure reformers.

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