New Jersey Begins to Venture Beyond No Child Left Behind

John Mooney | August 9, 2011 | Education
As federal education secretary Arne Duncan announces NCLB waivers, NJ already looking at – and imposing – a few changes of its own

Arne Duncan
A decade into the federal law that changed the debate on public schools, the federal No Child Left Behind Act looks like it will be gone well short of its goal that all students be proficient in reading and math by 2014.

President Obama’s education secretary Arne Duncan yesterday announced that his department will be granting regulatory waivers to states to get around the 100 percent proficiency goal and other rigid provisions of the NCLB.

In New Jersey, more than half of the public schools don’t meet the federal standards now, according to the state. Some predicted a failure rate as high as 80 percent nationwide in the next few years.

But then came Duncan’s caveat. To be granted a waiver, states will need to set up their own school oversight systems with some tough requirements concerning student testing, teacher evaluation and school-by-school accountability.

It will require more frequent testing using new national Common Core standards, looking more at student growth than static scores. And it will also require new teacher evaluation systems that that take into account student performance, he said.

A Waiver for New Jersey

With actual guidelines still a few weeks away, New Jersey education officials yesterday wasted little time in saying they would likely apply for the waiver, since this is an approach the Christie administration is already pursuing with its own reforms.

“We need to see what the regulations will look like, but we have been actively considering a waiver,” said acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf yesterday. “From the day I got here, I have always thought it made much more sense to have a single accountability system.”

And in fact, the administration has quietly begun placing similar rules on some of its largest districts through the leverage of another federal program, the School Improvement Grants (SIG).

Cerf has placed several conditions on the recent grants to low-performing schools in six districts, including Newark, Paterson and Jersey City and Camden. They must revamp their teacher and principal evaluation, institute so-called formative assessments that take place throughout the year, and change other personnel policies that he said hamper improvement.

Several of these conditions are currently under debate in the legislature, but Cerf said he felt the new SIG grants offered a unique chance to press them in districts.

“It is pushing the envelope a little bit,” Cerf said yesterday, in describing the conditions. “This is a lever we have to affect change . . . another tool in the toolkit.”

After the Fact

That hasn’t gone over well in all quarters. Some advocates have said the conditions came after the districts applied for the SIG money.

“It appears the department engaged in a ‘bait and switch’ by belatedly adding conditions to the SIG grants after districts applied,” said Stan Karp, a director at the Education Law Center (ELC) in Newark.

“It is also using the grants to coerce districts into adopting its ill-conceived teacher evaluation plans and other test-driven approaches to reform,” Karp said in an email. “This will be good for testing companies, but bad for schools and students.”

Cerf did not deny the he added the conditions later, but said districts could still opt out. And he said he was “confident I have the authority” under the federal guidelines. Efforts to reach federal officials yesterday were unsuccessful.

Still, the aggressive approach on the state and federal level hardly surprised Patrick McGuinn, an associate professor of political science at Drew University who specializes in education policy. He said the federal government is increasingly leveraging federal money with specific policies, including in its Race to the Top grants last year that came with similar conditions for reforms.

States, in turn, are are doing the same with districts, McGuinn said, even as some have raised questions as to whether the executive branches in both Washington, D.C., and Trenton are overstepping their bounds.

“It’s an interesting and creative approach to governing,” McGuinn said. “And I certainly give them credit for the creative part. Whether constitutional or not, it’s hard to say.”

A National Movement

New Jersey is not alone in pressing the cause, either. McGuinn said New York State recently considered its own Race to the Top-like competition to nudge districts to specific strategies.

“It’s a movement across the country, not Republican or Democratic,” he added. “You are seeing more and more pressure being exerted on districts to change and improve than ever before.”

Of course, what forms these new systems will ultimately take is yet to be determined, with Cerf offering few new details yesterday.

One of the conditions Duncan spoke about in the NCLB waiver is a specific and clear rating for every school. Many states and cities — including New York City, where Cerf was previously deputy schools chancellor — have used letter grades. Cerf yesterday said it is premature to say what New Jersey’s rating system would look like if it pursued the waiver, but he has not hid his displeasure with the state’s current monitoring system.

“There should be a clear and transparent set of goals for every school and every district that shows their progress,” he said. “That is not necessarily the same as letter grade A to F.”

McGuinn said that remains the biggest quandary for any of these top-down approaches: matching the goals with the eventual implementation.

“There is a real tension with federal and state policy and their desire for improvement immediately, and the reality of bringing it about,” he said. “There remains this tension between speed and quality, and that’s not going away.”