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Scrutiny of New Jersey Schools Goes Right to the Core

New measures of success will ultimately rehash familiar news about education inequities, inadequacies.

Here’s a truism: All American schoolchildren, regardless of place of residence, should have access to an ambitious and cohesive curriculum that will enable them to succeed in college and career. Hard to argue with, right? Think again. One of the most divisive issues in public education these days, in New Jersey and elsewhere, is an initiative created for exactly that purpose called the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

The Common Core is a state initiative that was developed by the National Governors’ Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, although its lineage can be traced back at least as far back as 1983, when the Reagan administration commissioned a report called “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform].” This report famously asserted that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people." Cue gradual consensus that America’s public schools fail to adequately educate children, particularly those from impoverished backgrounds. Cue “No Child Left Behind,” which highlighted gaping achievement gaps. And cue the Common Core.

Only a year ago CCSS was heralded as a crossroads of national educational equity. New Jersey, along with 44 other states and the District of Columbia, signed on (induced in part by federal incentives). Now, however, the project is beset by problems both of perception and substance. Insiders speculate that only two dozen or so states will end up taking part in the launch during the 2014-2015 school year.

New Jersey will probably be one of them. That’s appropriate, because much of our educational ideology is driven by issues of equity. The state Supreme Court’s Abbott decisions, which drive our school funding, are, at heart, a mandate to provide all children, regardless of ZIP code or family circumstance, with an equally-challenging curriculum. In other words, a Common Core. (The first Abbott lawsuit was filed two years before the publication of “A Nation at Risk.”)

So we’ve been at this a long time. Most likely we won’t join Indiana, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, South Dakota, and Alabama in pulling back from commitments to implement the new curricula and the (far more problematic) attendant testing. Most likely our state Legislature won’t, like Michigan, refuse to finance necessary infrastructural costs. Most likely Governor Chris Christie and Commissioner Chris Cerf won’t, like The American Federation of Teachers, the American Association of School Administrators, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the National School Boards Association, and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, all call for a one-year moratorium.

But we have our own New Jersey-style backlash.

Part of it stems from reasonable concerns about the rapid pace of implementation and the ability of the state Department of Education to oversee the demands of this complex initiative.

Another aspect of the backlash is New Jersey’s fierce allegiance to local control, an impulse shared by two apparently dissonant groups: Tea Party enthusiasts who regard CCSS as a federal intrusion into state autonomy and anti-education reform folk who regard CCSS as a state intrusion into school district autonomy. Same song, different verse.

The third source of the backlash against the Common Core has less to do with the technical integrity of the DOE or local control over classroom content, and more to do with the new assessments that are the main instrument of accountability. (Two national consortia are developing versions; New Jersey has signed on with the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, or PARCC.)

More rigorous curricula, more rigorous tests, right? Not a problem for New Jersey’s high-achieving districts, our Madisons and Moorestowns and Millburns. The Common Core will be largely invisible to their students and families, if less so for districts faced with new technology costs and curricular tweaks.

But the testing is a big problem for our segregated poor districts like Newark. where http://www.njspotlight.com/stories/12/10/29/roundtable-series-panelists-agree-new-jersey-s-schools-aren-t-making-the-grade/Gemar Mills, principal of Shabazz High School, told NJ Spotlight that “from my perspective as principal of my school, we have already not mastered what most are considering low-rigor testing.” Or for Camden, where 84 percent of 11th- and 12th-grade students failed the math portion of the statewide high school assessment, a far easier test than the PARCC. Or for Asbury High School, where the graduation rate is 49 percent

Stan Karp, director of the Secondary Reform Project for New Jersey’s Education Law Center (legal counsel for the plaintiffs in the Abbott cases) expressed his reservations about the new assessments: “We are particularly concerned about the implementation of the assessments at the high school level where they are likely to carry high stakes for graduation.”

In other words, when the PARCC assessments kick in, we’ll once again expose the inconvenient truth that many of New Jersey’s poorest kids are receiving instruction that fails to provide them with the skills necessary for success in college and the workplace, despite loads of state funding.

This is old news. But opponents fear that a harsh spotlight on systemic failure will continue to undermine our public education system, promote charter school expansion and other forms of school choice, and challenge our fragmented and segregated infrastructure (591 school districts, more per square mile than any other state in the country).

The backlash is not about kids; it’s about fear of exposure.

A more measured, student-centered response would put aside that fear and confront our inequities, regardless of potential hits to our traditional public education “brand.” The Common Core isn’t perfect, but it’s a logical step forward along a path that New Jersey has been on for some time.

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