On Monday, January 13, Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a bill to evaluate the benefits of full-day kindergarten. The next day on Tuesday, January 14, Christie proposed longer school days and a longer school calendar year. These back-to-back decisions illuminate the current schizophrenic nature of education policy in New Jersey. Which reform will it be tomorrow? We don’t know because we lack a cohesive education policy.
New Jersey deserves a cohesive education policy. But when asked about the governor’s new proposal for longer days or a longer school year DOE Commissioner Cerf could only provide this insight, “It is literally under design,” Cerf said of the broader plans. “Ideas are being generated, and thoughts drawn out. We’re balancing a number of considerations.” Uh-huh.
The creation of a debate about what’s more important, full-day kindergarten vs. longer school days vs. after-school programs is set up to follow the already charged discussion about traditional public schools vs. public charter schools. None of the preceding choices excludes any of the others. Without an integrated education policy, there is no clear path to choose which options make most sense for New Jersey students and which options are the most cost effective.
One of the seven turnaround principles for priority schools in the NCLB waiver is redesigning the school day. The recent choice of longer days instead of full-day kindergarten appears to be in response to New Jersey’s failed promise in the waiver to add extended learning time (ELT). This was highlighted in a report in December by the Center for American Progress. An education policy decision not driven by data, cost, or outcome analysis and one which has no relationship to any of the other initiatives already being implemented.
All of these initiatives cost money. And all of them are only as good as how they are structured and implemented — even if funding is provided. Districts and schools are already burdened with labor-intensive new teacher evaluations and implementing common core standards. No additional funding for these initiatives has been given to schools. What should be given is the time to gather the data on these initiatives to inform us of their potential rather than muddying the waters with new programs. We need this data and we will only get it with time. This is not a plan, this is scattershot.
Maybe longer school days would help teachers to move through the curriculum in a way to cover all of it or to ensure understanding by the students. Maybe adding full-day kindergarten ensures that more children will be ready to begin the first grade core curriculum from day one. Maybe a more inclusive group of people, specifically teachers, administrators, and superintendents, should be at the table in developing a cohesive education policy in New Jersey.
Or education could just continue being driven by court cases, new education fads, the chase for funding, and the agenda of certain individuals. The children of New Jersey deserve the sum of education to be greater than its parts, and the citizens and taxpayers deserve a well thought-out, integrated education plan.
Education initiatives such as teacher evaluation, core curriculum, and approaches that some of the charter schools are using are promising in moving education forward in New Jersey but only if they are part of an integrated plan that is well structured, measured, community supported and sustainable.