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Opinion: Are NJ's High-School Diplomas Worth the Paper They’re Printed On?

Are we being over-optimistic when it comes to how well NJ’s middle-class students are being prepared for college?

laura waters
Laura Waters

If you live in one of New Jersey’s many middle-class suburbs, you most likely take great pride in your public-school district, each one a reflection of distinctive township identities, our much-maligned “municipal madness” rendered benign. Ninety-seven percent of our teachers, the N.J. Department of Education just informed us, are effective instructors. NJEA celebrates that our state school system “is second in the nation in performance and improvement.” Our teachers are our neighbors. Our schools are our hearts and our second homes.

It’s painful, then, to acknowledge that our cherished small-town public schools are not adequately preparing our children for college and careers. But that’s what both data and educational experts are telling us. Perhaps it’s time for a suburban version of education reform.

These days “education reform” is a loaded phrase, evoking politically charged disruptions of cherished institutions, Christie-ish harassment of honorable educators, and testing-mania. Certainly, if our schools are fine, we don’t have to change. If they’re not but we pretend they are, then we’re doing our children a disservice. As Mark Twain said, “denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”

So let’s look squarely at the data.

The median annual household income in New Jersey is $71,637. Those of us who dwell in middle-class suburban New Jersey know that our children don’t have access to schools like those in moneyed Millburn (median household income: $156,078), where 85 percent of students get more than 1550 points on the 2400-point SAT (1550 is considered a benchmark for college and career readiness) and 63 percent take an AP course, another marker for success beyond high school. But we also know that we don’t have the same concerns as families in Trenton (median household income: $36,727), where only 11 percent of high school seniors get at least a 1550 on the SAT and 4.9 percent take an AP course.

Let’s take three middle-class New Jersey communities: Nutley (Essex County), Florence (Burlington County), and Plumsted (Ocean County) and look at the most recent available data from the New Jersey Department of Education’s 2013-2014 school performance reports. All three towns have median household incomes that are average for New Jersey and all three have high schools that, according to the narrative that begins each performance report, are considered average in terms of “graduation and post-secondary readiness.”

First, Nutley, eight miles from Newark, which has a median household income of $76,167. Almost every student at Nutley High passed the High School Proficiency Assessments in math and language arts (the HSPAs, just replaced this past spring with PARCC tests). But only 35 percent of Nutley High’s graduating class got 1550 or better on their SATs and only 23 percent took an AP course. Sixteen months after graduation, 81 percent of students were enrolled in two- or four-year colleges.

Florence Township is another middle-class suburban town with a median household income of $75,219. But only 28 percent of students received a combined SAT score of 1550 or better, only 20 percent took an AP course, and 16 months after graduation 72 percent of students were enrolled in college.

Finally, Plumsted, where the median household income is $73,790. The high school in this middle-class township is called New Egypt High School; according to the DOE., “this school’s academic performance is about average,” while “its graduation and post-secondary readiness is high when compared to its peers.”

At New Egypt High School almost every student passed the state tests (12 percent failed the math portion). Thirty-three percent got 1550 or higher on the SATs and 18 percent of eligible students took an AP course. Sixteen months after graduation 68 percent of students were still enrolled in a two- or four-year college.

Now, not every student has to go to college (although I would argue that every student should be well-prepared enough to have a choice). Some young people successfully transition directly to the job market or to the military. But the U.S. Census Bureau has reported that college graduates earn twice as much as high-school graduates over their lifetimes The unemployment rate for non-college graduates is twice as high as for those with two- or four-year college educations and, says the Pew Research Center, 22 percent of adults between the ages of 25 and 32 with just a high school diploma are living in poverty, compared with 6 percent of today’s college-educated young adults.

Anyway, most of us in suburban New Jersey expect that our children will go to college. How will they do?

According to the data, thirty-two percent of students entering the state’s four-year colleges require remediation; that is, they are not adequately prepared for basic college courses and have to take remedial courses. Seventy percent of students entering our two-year community colleges require remediation. “Lack of readiness for college,” states a brief from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, “is a major culprit in low graduation rates, as the majority of students who begin in remedial courses never complete their college degrees.”

At a NJ Spotlight Roundtable in 2012, Raritan Valley Community College President Casey Crabill described his incoming class: "They are ill-prepared, and they don't know it," Crabill said. "You spend about six months in remedial education trying to convince them that this really will help. For many of them, it is discouraging. They come to us because they want to study automotive tech, but they don't have the skills to read the textbook.”

On a recent edition of PBS’s Frontline, William Galston, the director of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, explained that, while suburban districts weren’t “in crisis” like poor urban schools, “in the suburbs of this country … the public school system could be better and should be better. In many respects it is mediocre, particularly when compared to our international peers in the advanced industrial nations.” Stanford’s Chester Finn, never one to mince words, added, “I think a lot of suburban Americans are living in a kind of fantasyland.”

Finn’s remarks may be a bit strong. This is Jersey, not Disneyland. But surely we can agree that we need to raise our expectations for our children and that a high-school diploma from our great suburban schools should signify proficiency and readiness for college and career paths. We can love our schools and, like our children, expect more. That’s called reform.

Laura Waters writes about education politics and policy for NJ Spotlight and other publications. She also blogs at NJ Left Behind and has been a school board member in Lawrence Township (Mercer County) for 10 years.

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