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The Coming Year in Education -- Bigger Questions, Higher Stakes

2013 is the year that educational theories like tenure reform and online charters run into reality.

Tenure reform, teacher evaluation, charters, school turnarounds, state oversight . . . There was no shortage of education news in 2012, but it's the coming calendar year that will see those issues put to their first real tests.

Throw in an election year for the governor and Legislature, and that leaves a lot of unanswered questions. As 2013 gets into gear, here's a look at some of the more pressing ones that are likely to be addressed -- if not answered fully in the coming year.

Will teacher evaluation systems required by education reform law take hold?

At the start of the year, the selection of teacher evaluation systems appear largely on track. The law originally required that every district have an evaluation system approved for teachers and principals by the end of 2012, but the state has already shown some flexibility, moving the reporting deadline to February 15. Nonetheless, many districts have made their choices or are close, and there is no indication that districts will be unable to at least start the process this year.

How well it goes after that is a big question in and of itself, with 30 pilot districts that have been testing the systems for a year already conceding that there are many challenges, from training staff to agreeing on measures beyond test scores, to determining how and if students are learning -- particularly in grades and subjects that are not tested.

And that doesn’t even address the uncertainty as to how to use test scores. In early 2013, the state plans to roll out its measurements of student progress, including the use of of a methodology known as “student growth percentiles.” It puts a student’s scores from one year to the next up against those of comparable students, and then matches them to a particular teacher in that year.

If the debate about using student test scores to evaluate teachers was heated, it could go nuclear when teachers get their specific ratings. It has sparked furious exchanges in California and New York, to name just two states, and New Jersey is not likely to be an exception.

Will New Jersey get its first real look at virtual schooling?

That was one the primary issues to come from last year's debate about how the state will approve and monitor charters. The larger issue has been simmering for a few years and centers on whether the Christie administration was approving too many charter schools in general, especially in relatively well-performing districts. While that’s not settled, the state Department of Education under Commissioner Chris Cerf have somewhat calmed that storm in pulling back those approvals to a scant handful a year.

The next question was if the administration would start green-lighting online charters that clearly want to gain a toe-hold in a state with some of the most generous education funding in the country. And that remains an open question.

Two online charter schools that were in partnership with the nation’s largest online schooling company, K12 Inc., have received preliminary approval and were on their way to open last year. But neither won final approval to launch, as policymakers, legislators, and advocates continued to argue about if the schools should be allowed to proceed and -- more fundamentally -- how they are to be defined. Two other charters have opened based on a blended or hybrid model that includes both online and face-to-face instruction.

Deliberation over a new charter school law is likely to get a lot of attention in the coming year, including whether there should be added measures of accountability. Both legislators and advocates expect virtual and hybrid charters to be a big part in that deliberation.

Meanwhile, the two virtual charters are again set to open next fall -- one out of Newark and the other out of Monmouth-Ocean counties, so New Jersey may get some real-life lessons relatively soon.

Will Christie’s school-turnaround strategy start to show results?

Much of Cerf’s and the Christie administration’s education agenda has focused on the very lowest-performing public schools, most of them in large urban districts like Newark and Camden.

Under its plan, the administration has placed new demands on these schools, in some cases closed and reopened them altogether, and created new Regional Achievement Centers throughout the state with the express purpose of helping them improve.

In Newark, a great deal rides on the stewardship of its Christie-appointed superintendent, Cami Anderson, and her reforms in about a dozen of the weakest schools so far, including new principals and overhauls of their faculties.

An even bigger test may come in Camden, where three-quarters of all its schools fall into the bottom 5 percent statewide in terms of student achievement. Cerf has given the district an ultimatum to begin to hit specific benchmarks or else.

The “or else” may come in 2013, with Cerf saying strong state intervention and even state takeover is not out of the question. Even short of that, however, one of the options under the new RACs is to close schools or replace principals and teachers.

Of course, the question always comes back to whether any of these schools have had enough time under new leadership or other strategies to improve. It’s an argument posed to this administration when it moves against struggling schools only starting to turn around. Now the administration may have to answer with its own reforms in place.

Is the state Department of Education up to the task?

The linchpin of all of these questions is the state Department of Education’s ability to provide the assistance, continue the monitoring, and oversee the testing and other assessments that will be central to its ambitious agenda.

Cerf has completed a significant reorganization of the department with the aim of streamlining and repurposing its far-reaching functions, bringing in a host of new assistant commissioners and directors to lead the effort. The creation of the seven new RACs in itself was a major undertaking, reassigning dozens of staff to the new field positions.

But the department is still as short on resources as it ever has been, and it has relied increasingly on outside funds to provide help with organizational work. The legislature last year even rejected funding for the new RACs, forcing the department to find the money elsewhere in its budget.

Some has come from the federal Race to the Top competition, but other funding has come from organizations like the Ely and Edythe Broad Foundation, sparking debate as to how much say these outside groups should have over public policy.

Even without new strategies, the department’s plate is full. The implementation new assessments and curricula under the national Common Core State Standards would be a heavy lift for even the most robust agencies. The state’s charter school office is almost back to full strength, but it too is being asked to do more.

And these are just a few of the topics and questions to be addressed in the coming year. School funding is always an issue, especially with the state facing its own fiscal cliff -- or at least a very steep slope. In the past month, school security has horrifyingly come back to the fore as well. And more specific topics are sure to rear their heads about school construction and special education, since the Legislature has turned its eye to how to better help students with disabilities.

For all these issues, and for the state and the public schools it serves, the biggest question for the DOE may continue to be a familiar one: can it do more with less?

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