The Christie administration is launching an effort to create a "model curriculum" for low-performing schools -- its most aggressive step yet to dictate not only what is taught but also how and when it is taught.
As part of a new accountability system proposed to the federal government, the state's Department of Education is beginning a year-long process that will see the first specific content outlines and school-based assessments in place for language arts and math by next fall, officials said.
Most of that initial effort will reflect the national Common Core State Standards already developed in those subject areas and adopted in more than 40 states, including New Jersey. But the state will do the same for other areas such as the arts, physical education, and world languages.
State officials stressed this is not an attempt at a state curriculum, and said it would only be imposed on schools where there is not a "quality curriculum" in place. Much of the proposed accountability system focuses on the state's 200 or so lowest-performing schools in terms of test scores and graduation rates.
"If they can demonstrate a quality curriculum, we would support that," said Penny MacCormack, the state's new assistant education commissioner and chief academic officer. "In the event they don't, we'd want them to utilize this."
While the state has developed standards and frameworks over the past two decades, this remains the first time that an actual curriculum is being devised. And like most of Gov. Chris Christie's education reform proposals, this is sure to spark debate over the state’s role in controlling daily instruction in the classroom.
"This is certainly a change in philosophy for the department," said Robert Morrison, chair of the New Jersey Arts Education Partnership, a statewide umbrella organization for the visual and performing arts.
"Historically, outlining how the content is taught is a line they have never crossed," he said. "I'm not saying that is bad or wrong, but it is clearly a major shift."
Morrison and others have said the state will need to be careful in making sure that different subject matters are given equal weight. Especially in the arts, it is a tricky balance and one that has sparked debates in the past in the development of the state's standards.
"This is new ground and very important ground, and it is critical that all the areas be involved," Morrison said. "Quality education in New Jersey does not start and stop with the Common Core."
MacCormack said the process has only just begun, and experts and educators in each subject area would be involved in curriculum development. She said public sessions would likely be held on each one, even broken down into different age groups.
She acknowledged completing the first phase by next fall will be a challenge. "This is a heavy lift, so groups will need to be very focused," she said.
And MacCormack agreed that there will be some philosophical issues to resolve, such as which languages to emphasize in a world language curriculum and which fine or performing arts.
"These are all decisions we will need to make," she said. "Choral music, instrumental, theoretical, all things we will need to consider.
Still, MacCormack stressed it should not be seen as a threat to local districts but an added resource.
"Educators like to see a model or an exemplar of something they need to develop themselves," she said. "This is a support for them, an actual support."