Christie’s School Accountability Plan To Focus on Urban and Suburban Districts

John Mooney | November 17, 2011 | Education
New rules will target both achievement and achievement gaps

The Christie administration’s new accountability system for public schools will save its strongest measures for urban districts like Camden, Trenton, and Newark. But there may be a few suburban names coming under extra scrutiny, too.

Gov. Chris Christie yesterday rolled out the accountability plan being proposed to the federal government as an alternative to the rules that have existed for a decade under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

It will be heavily focused on the lowest-performing schools, now to be called “Priority Schools,” offering assistance and often requiring changes at the threat of losing state or federal funding. Those changes could include everything from new teacher training to a longer school day to closure and replacement of all staff.

Tucked at the back of the 365-page document is the list of schools that would rate intervention if the new system were in place now. And while heavy with schools from New Jersey’s cities, there also are some from suburbs like Westfield, South Brunswick, Paramus, and West Windsor-Plainsboro.

They’re on the list because the new accountability system also addresses schools where there are wide achievement gaps between students of different races, needs, and income—and where poverty is less a determining factor.

In all, 177 schools — known as Focus Schools — fell into this category, largely defined as the bottom 10 percent in terms of the achievement gaps between the highest- and lowest-performing student groups over three years.

At a press event held at Secaucus High School to announce the new plan, Christie and acting education commissioner Chris Cerf yesterday stressed that the interventions will differ significantly for different schools depending on their problems. They said that a hallmark of the new accountability system, in general, was that it would be customized to individual school’s needs.

“We will receive a full range of options up to withholding of aid,” Christie said. “And it doesn’t mean there has to be instant success. We want people to be making progress.”

But Christie also said there is only so far the administration will go if progress is not made.

“Their response will dictate my response,” he said. “The goal in this is cooperation, but we also know at some points that doesn’t work.”

The same list also includes the schools that the state designates as Reward Schools, based on both their overall achievement and their progress. Reward Schools with high poverty concentrations will also be rewarded with cash: $100,000 each.

That list also contains many expected names of high-performing schools, like Millburn High School and High Tech High School, both perennial high-achievers.

But it will include a few from urban districts as well, including three of the selective high schools in Newark and another in Jersey City.

Still, for all of this, the plan remains a work in progress, with state officials saying some of the details to be worked out and none of it expected to be in place until next year, at the earliest.

Indeed, the new accountability system as outlined in the federal waiver application is sweeping and complex in many regards. It goes into great detail as to interventions or so-called “turnaround strategies” that would replace the now-notorious system under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) that was slowly marking virtually all schools “in need of improvement.”

Under NCLB, the quandary came in the law’s requirement that every school make it to 100 percent proficiency by the year 2013-2014, a goal that no state found attainable. In New Jersey, the statewide passing rates on the math and language arts tests remain in the 70 percent to 80 percent range.

But the new system would still set passing rates for schools, to be achieved by 2016, using a detailed formula that takes into account where the school is starting from. Each school will then have set benchmarks for progress for a given year, which will be listed on the new School Performance Reports to be issued in place of the current School Report Cards.

The new reports as outlined in the plan are vastly different than the current report cards, with rankings of where schools fall statewide and also against comparable schools. It will be color coded for improvements and declines, and whether the school met specific performance targets.

Schools will be rated on not just test scores, either, but also different metrics such as a high school’s percent of students both taking and passing AP tests. Ultimately, the plan is to also track graduates with the state’s data system beyond high school into college, and factoring whether they needed remedial help and whether stayed in school.