Administration Looks to Outside Experts for School Turnaround Strategies

John Mooney | August 8, 2012 | Education
Developer of Common Core Standards will be working with state to help ameliorate lowest-performing schools

As the Christie administration considers its options for how to improve the lowest of the state’s low-performing schools, it will be leaning heavily on a group out of Washington, D.C., that is finding itself more and more in the education limelight.

The Council for Chief State School Officers, the national association of state education commissioners and superintendents best known for developing the Common Core State Standards, has entered into a $1.55 million contract with New Jersey’s education department that will focus on so-called school turnaround strategies.

The project will be two-pronged: First, help with the establishment of the state’s still-evolving Regional Achievement Centers (RACs), the immediate hubs for school improvement efforts; second, study long-term interventions for schools that still don’t improve, right up to direct state control.

Announced last month, the project has drawn some extra scrutiny, given the high stakes for schools and districts. One of the Christie administration’s more aggressive options laid out in its grant proposal for the work was a so-called achievement school district that would oversee individual schools across the state, akin to the state-controlled “recovery districts” in Louisiana and Tennessee.

That grant application was to the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, a California-based organization known for its reform philosophy and leadership efforts. The Broad Foundation will be funding the CCSSO project.

But executives of the national council said this week that the CCSSO team comes into the project with “no preconceived notions” as to what it thinks would work best in New Jersey.

“I don’t think anybody knows how it will go at this point,” said Chris Minnich, the council’s senior membership director. “What we’ve learned in this project is local context is very important. This work will be looking at the needs in New Jersey and what is best for New Jersey.”

Minnich didn’t hide that he believed the recovery district concept can work with the right pieces in place, especially leadership. But he also said post-Katrina New Orleans, the best known use of the model, is a unique example after the devastation to the schools and the community.

“What we are trying to do with this grant is bring lessons from other states,” he said.
“Some lessons may be applicable, but it is not about picking up what they’ve done and putting them in New Jersey.”

Long a well-respected group nationally, the council has risen in prominence lately as a lead player with the National Governors’ Association in the development of the Common Core State Standards, the subject-by-subject guidelines that are the closest move yet to a national curriculum.

Forty-five states have signed into the Common Core, including New Jersey, and once implemented in the schools, the curriculum is expected to revamp how and when subjects are taught and the testing used to measure student achievement.

Aware of the tensions over its work ahead in New Jersey, Minnich pledged that the process involving the school turnaround project will be transparent and public. He said the details are still in development, but expected the opportunities for public input would roll out over the course of the next year.

“There will be a conversation about what is the best way to do this, and it should be a public conversation,” Minnich said.

He also said the funding through foundations is not unusual for the council, with Broad funding a similar project in Connecticut. Other foundations — from longtime players like the Carnegie Foundation to the newer ones such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — provided funding for the council to help states apply for the waivers from the federal No Child Left Behind Act. New Jersey was among them.

“It is pretty common for us to get these resources to do work with states,” Minnich said. “Our foundation base is broad and any type of money we can get is a good thing for us.”

More immediately, the CCSSO is working with the state to staff up its RACs, the seven regional centers being created across New Jersey to directly work with an estimated 200 schools that are the lowest performers in state tests. Part of the grant is the CCSSO’s own recruitment efforts to find directors and other staff, and it has also hired an outside search firm.

While the RACs are to begin their work in earnest this fall, both Minnich and New Jersey officials acknowledged that hiring has been difficult and the centers may take a little longer to be full staffed.

Throwing one wrench in the process was political debate over the need for the centers, with the Democrat-led Legislature cutting $1.7 million in funding for the centers in the state’s fiscal 2013 budget.

Barbara Morgan, the department’s press secretary, said yesterday that the department has been able to adjust with existing funding, allowing it to proceed with the RACs as planned.