A New Year: Five To Watch in Education

A look at who will be shaping schools in 2012

2011 was to be the year for education reform in New Jersey, or so promised Gov. Chris Christie. Well, maybe make that a two-year proposition since 2012 is shaping up to be no less exciting and could see some of the things that Christie started come to fruition.

The latest chapter in New Jersey’s epic school funding litigation opened last year, and may get a Christie epilogue with his next state budget. Charter schools expanded and passed the 25,000-student mark in 2011, yet could face the results of cooling public opinion this year.

Teacher tenure may get its first major makeover in a generation. And school vouchers, another year, another life. Will the Opportunity Scholarship Act actually become law in 2012?

Last year, NJ Spotlight with the help of its friends picked five headliners to watch in education in 2011: a governor, education commissioner, Supreme Court justice, state Senator and a mayor. None disappointed, and none are likely to go away anytime soon.

For 2012, NJ Spotlight offers five more names to keep an eye on; some from the familiar political and education circles, and a couple less known but hinting at a future we don’t yet know.

NJ Assemblyman Louis Greenwald (D-Camden)

The next battleground for the central tenets of Christie’s reform agenda is in the legislature, where teacher tenure reforms, school vouchers, charter school rules and, ultimately, school funding will be heard in the next six months.

It’s turning out that much will rise or fall in the Assembly, where much of the education debate has been bubbling and little has been resolved.

Enter Greenwald, the new Democratic majority leader and clearly a growing voice in the ear of Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver. He has especially taken the lead on the Opportunity Scholarship Act, the school voucher proposal that is as close as ever to passage in one form or another. He has also spoken up on charter schools and school funding.

Other legislators remain key, too, most of them Democrats, including state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Essex), and Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), and of course, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester). But look for Greenwald to have an imprint as much as any of them.

Cami Anderson, Newark Superintendent

The New York City transplant is halfway through her first full school year in the district, appointed by Christie last spring to one of the highest-profile superintendent posts in the country, much less the state.

Anderson has begun to make her mark, launching a new hiring and personnel system for New Jersey’s largest district, pressing turnaround efforts in some low-performing schools and creating new schools entirely, and starting a new conversation as to what it means to make Newark graduates ready for college and careers.

The superintendent takes satisfaction in bringing into the district new leadership and fostering existing talent. She said there is a new customer service mentality to the schools. And she looks forward to stronger measures in teacher evaluation and literacy instruction.

Something she does not immediately volunteer is the impact of the famed $100 million gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. It’s a five-year initiative that’s slowly beginning to make some noise. For the district to make the strides she has promised, Anderson said it will take both private help and public commitment.

Will Richardson, Gregg Festa, and Bari Erlichson

This is a joint nomination; these three represent different sides to the evolving technologies that continue to transform public education in not just New Jersey but nationwide.

The power of the Internet, the instant connectivity of cellphones and iPads, and now the ethereal heft of “the cloud” continues to shape how students think and how teachers reach them.

In 2012, New Jersey will likely see its first online charter schools, and explosive growth in online instruction for traditional schools, too. Add to that the data being collected about all of them, including standardized test scores, attrition rates for students, and, increasingly, the evaluation metrics for teachers.

It’s an old mantra for Richardson, consultant and co-founder of Powerful Learning Practices.

As a teacher at Hunterdon Central Regional High School a decade ago, Richardson was well ahead of the curve in espousing and tapping the power of the Internet to reach students. Now a nationally recognized consultant and prolific blogger, Richardson is no less convinced, even if a little disheartened in saying that too many schools and state governments, New Jersey’s included, still don’t fully get it.

Festa, the director of the ADP Center for Teacher Preparation and Learning Technologies at Montclair State University, has also won national accolades for his work at Montclair State with districts and teachers in creating “Classroom for the Future” and “digital backpacks.” He believes hybrid models may be the next big wave in 2012, mixing face time and online instruction in innovative ways. His center’s early progress in using panoramic video cameras to help teachers reflect and improve on their craft is something that some say could be helpful in ultimately evaluating teachers.

Lastly, as New Jersey’s assistant education commissioner and chief performance officer, Erlichson will have to make sense of it all. The point-man for data and research, it’s up to Erlichson to take the hard numbers from student learning and teacher instruction and help devise a way of supporting and evaluating all of the above.

In the end, in not just 2012 but beyond, none of the Christie’s initiatives about teacher evaluation, student readiness or school accountability will mean much without good data and analysis from Erlichson’s shop.

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