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Op-Ed: New Jersey’s Educational Opportunity, A Chance for All to Succeed

New law gives state $900 million in federal funds and opportunity to make sweeping changes

Doug Mesecar and Don Soifer
Don Sofer and Doug Mesecar

Competing new school finance proposals from Governor Christie and Senate Democrats each seek to use funding changes to improve student outcomes across the state. Both sides describe their plan as supporting equality of opportunity, but neither get to the core of the problem.

This funding debate comes at a pivotal time as the implementation of the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is enabling states and districts across the country to pursue game-changing innovation – if they rise to the opportunity.

The new law, which provides $900 million in federal funding to New Jersey, requires states to redesign their school accountability systems by the start of the 2017 school year, with new flexibility to focus on deeper learning.

Instead of beating around the No Child Left Behind bush by only focusing on test-based proficiency, New Jersey can take advantage of major flexibility and authority under ESSA to completely transform its funding, accountability, testing, and instruction to better educate all of its diverse learners — without seeking Washington’s permission.

Why is such sweeping change needed? Even though New Jersey has among the highest average education spending levels in the country, more than 160% of the national average, it nonetheless has some of the most glaring, persistent (and growing) achievement gaps.

For example, on the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as the Nation’s Report Card, the state’s poor and minority students lag behind their peers by over 20 points in 4th and 8th grade math and reading. The gaps, some of the largest gaps in the country, often get worse from 4th to 8th grade.

Although New Jersey’s overall NAEP scores are above the national average, only 47% of students score proficient or above, which means that 53% of New Jersey’s students are not demonstrating skills deemed ready for college or career.

Funding is a necessary pre-condition to getting results and equality of opportunity, but it isn’t sufficient to produce transformative results or solve longstanding educational inequalities. Improving equality of educational opportunity and student outcomes for all students requires innovation. Two strategies gaining traction, and results, around the country are competency-based, personalized models for teaching and learning, and performance-based funding (or “pay for success”).

The Obama administration noted recently that, “For too long, the U.S. government has funded programs based upon metrics that tell us how many people we are serving, but little about how we are improving their lives.” With funding so thoroughly insulated against any real consequences of success or failure, our education system places a premium on responsiveness with only selective attention to results.

Rather than being constrained by a “wait to fail” model where students only get more attention and personalization as they fail to succeed, competency-based education cuts through the lost time and angst of students failing before getting the opportunity for success.

In a competency-based model, students advance as they demonstrate mastery of standards-based content. They are able to learn different lessons at different rates in different subjects. Such a system moves beyond student promotion based upon seat-time requirements and instead emphasizes application and creation of knowledge, along with facts and skills. It puts an end to concerns about “social promotion,” where students advance without addressing major gaps in knowledge, skills, and motivation.

Success with this new approach to instruction requires fundamental changes in how schools are run, diplomas are awarded, assessments are given, curriculum is designed, accountability for results is implemented, and funding is distributed.

Personalized, competency-based learning and performance-based funding are new, strategic directions in improving academic outcomes, funding schools, and critically, pursuing educational excellence and equality of opportunity.

New Jersey faces a new and powerful opportunity to retool its public education system and should start to incorporate the components of these reforms now. After all, the question isn’t whether New Jersey can afford to make changes, it is a question of whether New Jersey can afford not to.

Doug Mesecar and Don Soifer are education analysts with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia.

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