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Education - "It boils down to good management."
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"It boils down to good management." ... _showdown_nj_gov_chr.html

Schoolyard showdown:
N.J. Gov. Christie criticizes giving urban districts so much aid. He should visit Union City.

Published: Sunday, February 20, 2011, 5:55 AM

By Gordon MacInnes

To hear Gov. Chris Christie and the voucher advocates tell the story, there is only one kind of school serving poor kids in New Jersey cities: ?chronically failing? schools. The money poured in by the numerous Abbott v. Burke decisions over the past 40 years was wasted, they tell us. No progress, no lessons learned, no reason to support public schools.

New Jersey taxpayers might be surprised to learn that this investment is actually producing results. Black and Latino students in New Jersey now outperform virtually all their peers in other states on national assessments; only black fourth graders in Massachusetts and Latino students in Florida do better.

And the racial achievement gap, while it remains wide, is steadily shrinking in New Jersey ? again more than in other states.

But we can all agree that while this news is good, it is not good enough. And we can agree that the record is spotty: Some poor districts are succeeding brilliantly, while others are failing even with the added money.

What should we make of this? For one, the discussion in Trenton mostly misses the point. The challenge will not be answered by firing ineffective teachers, opening more charter schools, or giving vouchers for religious schools.

It?s much tougher than that. The hard-won success stories in New Jersey are based on the conviction that poor kids can learn, that an early start focused on reading and writing is critical, progress must be constantly measured, and that adjustments must be made to ensure success. It boils down to good management.

Let?s look at two Abbott districts that pursued different paths and produced very different results. Trenton and Union City have a lot in common:

Given that Union City students are noticeably poorer than Trenton students and that most of them come from Spanish-speaking families, one might expect Trenton students to perform better academically.

They don?t.

And there is a reason for the different results.

* * *

Union City ? the nation?s most densely populated city, which lies near the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel ? accepted two truisms that are indisputable: Reading is essential to education, and reading is a practice learned early or not at all. If a child is not reading at grade level by the fourth grade, the chances he or she will ever reach grade level are only 1 in 11.

Union City?s leadership concentrated on preparing 3- and 4-year-olds for kindergarten by exposing them to much more reading, language and stories in English or Spanish. The advent of the Abbott preschool program in 1999 increased the number of kids involved and the quality of instruction. As kids came to kindergarten knowing their letters and more words, kindergarten teachers had to adjust their instruction. Then, first grade teachers needed help as more and more kids started that class already reading. And so forth.

Because families are poor and change addresses often, students in Union City tend to move from one school to another frequently. So officials figured out that only the district ? not the individual schools ? could produce a coherent and uniform approach to literacy. Working closely with teachers, the district office created a lively curriculum and interim tests to track how every student was doing. Teachers were encouraged to work with students in small groups with the same problem.

More class time was devoted to literacy than in most other districts (two hours uninterrupted). As funds became available, Union City invested in libraries of at least 300 titles in every classroom. It created a data system that gave teachers and principals timely updates on how each student was performing and highlighting their problems.

Union City used additional funds to build time into the schedule for teachers to work and plan together, and also to spend extra time before or after school working with struggling students.

As more and more primary grade ?graduates? started fourth grade reading and writing well, Union City concentrated on making instruction more engaging for teachers and students. Textbooks were eased out, cross-subject projects were introduced, and the emphasis on reading, writing and more reading and writing was carried into the middle grades.

Teachers were given the time and latitude to work out problems with their peers and to get together with colleagues in other schools. They were treated as adults and professionals.

* * *

Trenton followed the more popular path of acting as if every school could pretty much solve the instructional challenges they faced. Trenton was a wizard at applying for grants and for building up its budget with all sorts of special programs, new technology, new positions. It sued the state nearly every year arguing that it needed more money.

The vision pursued by Trenton was to train principals to be better leaders and then to develop their own curricula and approach. Even though the state adopted the Core Curriculum Content Standards in 1999, Trenton had no district curriculum to help teachers figure out what should be taught for how long and in what sequence. When Abbott required each school to adopt a ?model? of school reform, Trenton schools adopted six or seven models emphasizing very different approaches. (Most did not stress academics.)

When questions arose about the consistently poor performance of Trenton students on state tests, Trenton blamed the state for not showing it what to do. The district lacked basic data on school performance. There was no coherence, no clarity, no follow-up to obvious instructional problems.

For example, when the state math test was first given to eighth graders in 1999, only 18.2 percent of students could pass it; nine years later, only 21.9 percent passed. No curiosity was shown about this dismal performance, no steps were taken to try to improve instruction districtwide in the middle grades, and no plausible explanations were offered.

During the same time, Union City eighth graders went from 42 percent to 71 percent proficiency, beating the statewide average.

* * *

So here?s the real challenge for the governor: How can New Jersey replicate the success in places such as Union City, and bring it to places such as Trenton?

One thing is certain: Charter schools and vouchers won?t do it. Eliminating tenure and enacting merit pay won?t do it either.

And if Christie takes a serious whack at funding for urban schools, as is widely feared, he will surely hurt a place such as Union City, which is using the money effectively.

Talking about vouchers and merit pay may make for good YouTube moments. But talk is cheap. And building good schools is not.

Gordon MacInnes oversaw educational programs in poor urban districts as assistant commissioner of the state Department of Education under Gov. Jon Corzine. A former state senator and assemblyman, he is a fellow at the Century Foundation in New York.


New Jersey?s long battle over school equity has its roots in a single phrase in the state?s constitution that promises all children a ?thorough and efficient? system of education.

That was added in 1875, inspired by the glaring inequities in a public school system that was still taking shape. For decades now, the state Supreme Court has wrestled over the meaning of that phrase.

A turning point came in 1985, when the court ruled on a lawsuit filed by Raymond Abbott, a Camden student, against Fred Burke, then the commissioner of education. The court has since made 20 rulings in the Abbott v. Burke cases, affecting roughly 360,000 students in 31 of the state?s poorest districts.

The rulings required the state to provide base funding in the Abbott district that is equal to spending in the wealthiest and most successful districts. In addition, it ordered the state to provide additional money to compensate for the effects of poverty, and to offer preschool instruction to all children in these districts.

The result, however, was that the wealthiest suburbs and poorest cities spent the most money, with middle-class suburbs spending far less.

Two years ago, former Gov. Jon Corzine revamped the school aid formula, eliminating the special category of Abbott districts and dispersing extra aid to districts with students who are poor, who don?t speak English, or who require special education.

The money, Corzine said, should follow a child?s need, no matter where the child lives. That limited aid to the former Abbott districts, but provided more to suburban districts with poor kids.

The court approved that change, effectively eliminating the Abbott designation. But it also ruled that the new formula must be fully funded to satisfy the constitution. With the recession and budget crisis, the state has failed to do so.

Today, the court is considering a challenge to the state?s failure to provide full funding. A decision is expected within a few months, and could force the state to make substantial increases in school aid in the next fiscal years.

? 2011 All rights reserved.

Posted on: 2011/2/21 13:56

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