Opinion: How Washington’s Educational Models Help New Jersey Schools Fail

Gordon MacInnes | August 2, 2010 | Opinion
The latest models for education reform refuse to acknowledge the real problem: the concentrated poverty that isolates the poorest students

Another president. Another call for educational reform. Another prospective failure.

For 45 years, the federal government has targeted the problem: poor kids do not achieve as well as affluent kids. Yet successive administrations have ignored undisputed knowledge about the nature of the gap and powerful evidence of how to close it.

Kids from poor families who go to failed schools with mostly other poor kids are the problem. If their families do not speak English, the problem is compounded.

The problem is concentrated poverty.

First, Acknowledge the Problem

What works best is to acknowledge the problem and concentrate on young children. High-quality preschool can narrow the “kindergarten gap” and intensive early literacy in the K-3 years can make most third-graders good readers. It all sounds intuitively sensible and simple. Getting it done requires focus, relentless attention to early literacy and special attention to struggling readers. Intensity of effort is what counts most. It also requires encouragement from federal and state policymakers.

Federal Secretary of Education Arne Duncan provides no such encouragement. He is confident that he knows how to fix the 5,000 worst-performing schools in America by providing them guideposts and $3.5 billion by way of “school improvement grants.”

Duncan tells us that there are only four ways to fix a broken school: “transform” it by replacing the principal and paying a lot of attention to curriculum and instruction; “turnaround” the school by firing half the teachers and the principal; or “restart” it by contracting with a for-profit company or charter management organization. Shuttering the school, the fourth model, does not fix anything and just kicks the can down the road.

Smug Certainty

Washington mandates with smug certainty models that produce very mixed results, ignoring the best hope of poor, young students and their schools. Sadly, New Jersey must tag along. Its School Improvement Grants announced in June set up false hopes that effective reforms are imminent.

No surprise that the twenty schools on New Jersey’s “Tier I” SIG list of failed schools are all in poor city neighborhoods, thirteen of them in Camden or Newark. Ninety-eight percent of the students are black or Latino and 80 percent are eligible for free meals. Almost one-quarter are either disabled or English learners. Over a fifth of the students at these schools turn over each year.

One strong indicator of how far behind these students lag is that 80 percent of the third-graders are not reading at grade level — a powerful predictor of underperformance in eighth grade.

Only four Tier I schools will receive first-round grants; the other eight are high schools with graduation rates of 40% or lower (“Tier II” in SIG parlance).

Three of the SIG schools opted for the turnaround model, which means between June and September a new principal must be selected and then she or he must recruit, sign, and orient new teachers. Thirty-nine are needed at the Fred Martin middle school in Jersey City; 51 at Snyder High, also in Jersey City; and 41 at Newark’s Shabazz High.

It’s up to the new principal to recruit the new teachers, ensuring that they can cover the subjects and grades of departed teachers. It’s also up to the principal to make certain that new recruits fit in with returning teachers, accept a new approach and operate with high morale and optimism.

This frenetic activity makes it easy to overlook a simple question: What standards were used to decide which teachers were to be replaced?

Defensible Decisions

Let’s start with an assumption—a very large one. When a district applied for a SIG Grant in late April, it had already gone through the complicated process of evaluating (with an eye to possible litigation) each teacher. The result: a defensible list of those who would be fired or re-assigned.

But a sensible district would also want to take the time to organize, recruit, orient and nurture new principals and teachers so that there is some chance of making radical change work. The curriculum and instructional materials need to be checked, schedules revised so teachers have more time to work together and with struggling students, and a means of checking student work developed.

In other words, why not treat the problems to be solved as the most difficult professional tasks ever assigned teachers, principals, and supervisors? Instead, US Department of Education insists that first-round schools implement its models in the 2010-11 school year. They are not to deviate from the requirements of each model.

Under these circumstances, failure is almost guaranteed. If it were as simple as firing some teachers, extending the school day, and setting up a bonus scheme, the problems would have been solved years ago. Taxpayers, parents, teachers, and all educators should be insulted by the imposition of unproven bureaucratic mandates when effective alternatives exist.