Trying to spur improvement and innovation the old-fashioned way, the Christie administration will be sending checks to a dozen school districts that showed the strongest achievement among their students with disabilities.
Acting commissioner Chris Cerf is expected to announce on Friday a dozen “Special Education Recognition Awards,” totaling $1 million, to districts that last year had a combination of the highest scores among these students and those with the most improvement.
The districts each will be awarded between $50,000 and $100,000, depending on their enrollment, to be spent on programs for children with disabilities.
The awards span the different income levels, with districts split into five categories comparing them only against their socio-economic peers. There was also a separate category for high school districts.
Paid out of federal funds for special education, the state will extend the program next year as well, and instead of ranking districts off scores alone, it will ask districts and individual schools to apply with descriptions of their programs and services.
Providing direct cash awards for targeted populations is a new tack for the state, and one that Cerf said he hopes can be an incentive for districts to make gains in a number of areas.
These special education awards are also one of the first public uses of the state’s new data system measuring the growth of individual students, instead of whole grades of students.
Special education was a logical first choice for the incentives, officials said. Students with disabilities have often been overlooked and sometimes looked down upon in their achievement gains.
The federal No Child Left Behind Act eased some of that with its requirements for gains in all student categories, but also led to tensions within schools that those scores were pulling down the others.
“We know that these awards have a lot to do with the increased attention being paid to the education and achievement of students with disabilities,” said Barbara Gantwerk, assistant commissioner. “This will really put a spotlight on students with disabilities.”
Among the winners, for example, three quarters of Lincoln Park’s students with disabilities passed the state’s tests, and more than half did so in North Bergen. These schools also showed higher than average growth in their students’ test results over the course of the year, officials said.
The districts chosen were the two highest ranked in their income categories by the achievement measures. There also were a few conditions to insure fairer picks, officials said, including that the winners’ special education populations were sizable and that there wasn’t an over-classification of students.
The 12 winners were: