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Lagging Districts Under Pressure to Boost Performance

John Mooney | November 27, 2012

Three months into the school year, more than 250 schools in nearly 90 districts are going through the first phases of the Christie administration’s expanded oversight for schools that show low performance or wide achievement gaps.

Each of the schools designated as Priority Schools or Focus Schools under the administration’s new accountability rules has gone through a state evaluation of its programs called a quality school review (QSR), state officials said yesterday.

The schools are now completing improvement plans for addressing their weaknesses, ranging from new principals to adjusted schedules for more teacher planning to new data specialists in virtually every one of the targeted schools.

The consequences could be significant, based on new regulations released this week that lay out new details on the interventions and the process leading up to them.

Among them -- and sure to generate some controversy – will be requirements that schools that fail to improve enter into agreements with outside organizations to provide direct support.

Other provisions include the state stepping in on staffing, budget and curriculum decisions.

There’s even an appeal process for districts that don’t go along with the state’s demands, although the requirements would be in effect in the meantime.

Not included in the regulations is the possibility that persistently failing schools could be shut down by the state or handed over to charter school organizations to operate.

State Education Commissioner Chris Cerf yesterday did not rule out the possibility of closures, but said that step and even the use of outside organizations are last resorts after all other remedies are exhausted.

He said such consequences would likely be, at the earliest, two or three years away, unless a district defied the state outright.

“It’s a power we would use sparingly, if at all,” Cerf said of the outside partnerships.

Of possible school closures, he said that’s “neither the plan nor reflected in the regulations.”

Still, Cerf sounded ready for the likely debate over the extent of the state’s powers, saying any criticism that the administration is seeking to dismantle or privatize public schools is ill-founded.

“We have invested more money than ever into our public schools,” he said. “This is about strengthening public schools, and sometimes that gets lost.”

Some of those critics were withholding judgment last night until they could review the new regulations.

The Education Law Center in Newark, the advocacy organization that has led the Abbott v. Burke litigation, had Education Law Center Letter on Regulationsthreatened a legal challenge] asserting that the accountability measures were being put in place without required regulations. Its director said last night that the state Attorney General’s office responded a month ago that the regulations would be forthcoming.

“We were prepared to file legal action if the Commissioner failed to issue rules governing all elements of new State accountability system,” read a statement from David Sciarra, the ELC’s executive director. “We will carefully review to determine if these rules are legally sufficient.”

The outlines of the state’s plans have been in the public domain for close to a year, as they were included in its successful application for a waiver from the federal No Child Left behind Act, approved last February.

The plans focuses on schools ranked among the very lowest performers on state tests, now called Priority Schools, or those with the widest gaps in achievement between different racial groups and other groups of children, labeled as Focus Schools.

Much of the intervention would come by way of seven new Regional Achievement Centers (RACs) created by Cerf as the centerpiece of his reorganization of the state Department of Education.

But the new regulations add new and greater detail to those plans, as well as the basis for the state enforcement of those rules.

The regulations, issued by the commissioner unilaterally, do not need additional approval from the state Board of Education. There will be a 60-day public comment period before they go into effect.

Among the newest details is the use of outside organizations – termed “qualified turnaround partners” (QTPs) -- for schools that don’t improve. The organizations would be chosen by the education department based on their track records in other districts, Cerf said, and could be private, for-profit or nonprofit.

He said they would be more focused on specific deficiencies in a school, as opposed to overall operations.

“These are schools that by any measure are failing, and the fact is, even today, many such schools are already partnering with these kinds of organizations,” he said, referring to private organizations involved with districts on everything from professional development to preschool to special education.

The organizations’ services would be paid for by the districts, according to the regulations.

Other specific interventions outlined in the regulations include the power to reassign staff, require specific training or curriculum changes, or redirect spending and make other budget decisions.

Cerf said most schools targeted as the lowest achieving have one-third or fewer of their students at grade level in reading or math, and all remedies must be explored.

“We are prepared to do everything and anything to repair that,” he said.

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