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9-2-15 Education Issues in the News

The Record - As school returns, state testing issue hasn't faded

SEPTEMBER 1, 2015, 10:00 PM    LAST UPDATED: WEDNESDAY, SEPT 2, 2015, 7:02 AM


Will the state change standards that outline what kids should learn in each grade after a review ordered by the governor?

Will New Jersey officials agree on a way to pay for the public employees’ pension fund, which has been underfunded for years?

Will there be changes to the state tests that caused so much controversy last year?

New Jersey schools will grapple with these issues and more during the school year, which begins today in some districts. The governor’s political aspirations could also factor into education decisions this year, but so will New Jersey’s economy, which is still hurting post-recession with lingering low revenues. Testing will also loom large as schools continue adapting to controversial exams that were required for the first time last year and that sparked a test boycott and created havoc in some schools.

In New Jersey, thousands of families refused the test for their children — a situation that could repeat itself this year amid criticism that the test is too difficult and confusing and pushes teachers to focus their teaching on the test. Meanwhile, schools’ efforts to address testing skeptics could be eclipsed by state reviews on testing and education standards that were ordered by Governor Christie and are under way.

“There is a whole lot this year that is going to continue to play out,” said Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators. “What will be the impact of the governor’s presidential aspirations on New Jersey? We’re already seeing that [with the standards review]. That’s the unknown.”

Christie ordered a review a year ago to look at the scope of testing in schools and see what’s needed and what’s repetitive, and what can be cut or consolidated. The final report was due July 31 but still hasn’t been completed.

The review was ordered amid controversy over tests, known as PARCC, that were developed by a group of states to measure students’ knowledge of standards called the Common Core. The system was designed to be more challenging and to require more critical thinking than previous tests and standards.

But the tests — given in math and English language arts in Grades 3-11 — sparked complaints from parents and educators who say that they are too difficult and confusing, and that they push teachers to narrow their teaching to test subjects. There is also concern that the tests take up too much time.

In New Jersey, test opposition is strongest in affluent, suburban areas and crosses political lines. But in other states, critics also oppose the tests because they’re tied to the Common Core standards, which some believe are a federal overreach into local schools. The standards are voluntary but are linked to federal dollars.

Students and educators in New Jersey and other states that give the tests will get some relief this year, when the exam will be shorter and given in one session, instead of two like last year. The news was welcomed by educators, who said the new tests took up too much instruction time, especially at the high school level, where students take many other exams.

“Hopefully, this will allow us to administer the assessment and move on,” said Glen Rock Superintendent Paula Valenti. “We had months of assessment last year.”

It’s uncertain, though, whether the shorter state tests might sway some parents to drop their opposition. In New Jersey, refusal rates for the state tests last year ranged from 4 to 15 percent depending on grade level and were highest in high schools.

Activists say they will continue rallying their communities to opt out of the test, and they hope the refusal movement will be even bigger this year. At the same time, state officials will ask districts that had high number of refusals to come up with plans that involve engaging parents and promoting the test as a valuable part of the school system.

Parents decisions’ could be influenced by children’s test results that will be released this fall, said Barry Bachenheimer, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for the Pascack Valley Regional High School District.

It may also depend on the direction provided by the state, he said. Last year, school leaders complained that state officials had sent mixed messages — including comments that the test “won’t count.”

“It’s hard to say what the future will bring,” Bachenheimer said. “I think a lot will depend on the state standpoint going forward.”

A group of states had banded together to create the PARCC tests, but the backlash has led many of them to drop the exams altogether. The number of participating states has fallen from 26 in 2010 to just seven states today.

Will Christie take similar action to get rid of the controversial state test? So far, the governor has stood by the exams as a necessary tool to know how students are performing. He has noted that the federal government requires annual state testing for students. For now, it seems, the tests aren’t going anywhere.

But while he backs the tests, Christie has been critical of the standards on which they are based. The standards, which define what students should know by grade level, are unpopular among conservative voters who see them as a federal intrusion.

Christie was an early supporter of the Common Core as a means to raise rigor in schools and better prepare students for college and work. But over the past year as he has courted conservative voters, he has been more critical, culminating in a speech in May in which he said the Common Core was not working for New Jersey and needed to be overhauled to address local needs. He ordered a commission to study and recommend changes by the end of the year.

Despite Christie’s concerns, the standards that are ultimately put in place will probably look much the same as they do now, said officials from the state Education Department and state Board of Education.

David Hespe, the state commissioner of education, said the standards will only be tweaked and not dismantled. But he said the state is heeding concerns from parents and educators about how time-consuming the testing is.

“I think we have already taken some bold steps in trying to keep that footprint as light as possible on the school by collapsing the windows and cutting back some of the time,” Hespe said in a recent interview. “We’re doing what we can to minimize the impact of the tests on school culture, school environment and the school day.”

The tests are supposed to show how well individual students and schools are meeting standards. The information will help guide instruction, state officials have said. For instance, teachers will be able to see student responses to test questions and know where they may have struggled and need help.

But some educators say they don’t expect instruction to change much because the results of last year’s tests are not expected until late October, after schools have already decided what they will teach and how they will teach it. Also, they note that year-to-year progress can’t be measured because the tests are too new and because the changing format will make this year’s hard to compare with last year’s. Others say the tests are just a small part of the big picture in a child’s education.

“This is the initial year,” Valenti said. “We will not be making any major decisions based on the assessment results this year.”

For school employees, the issue that will continue to overshadow their jobs during the year is the unresolved pension crisis.

After years of neglect from politicians in both parties, the state pension system is facing $40 billion in unfunded liabilities. Christie also has not made full payments promised in a 2011 pension reform law, citing budget constraints and unexpectedly low revenues.

In the meantime, teachers and other public employees say they fear they won’t be able to collect their pensions. More than 773,000 public workers and retirees are enrolled in the system.

On Aug. 10, the governor vetoed two bills to boost the pension system — one that would steer a projected surplus of $300 million from last fiscal year to the fund and another that would require quarterly payments.

The governor said the state cannot afford to pay for the full cost to cover all the retirees’ benefits payments because of economic problems and that he will not raise taxes. Christie also just signed a pledge not to raise taxes if elected president — making it even more unlikely he would do so at home while under a national spotlight.

“It’s clear. He will not talk about revenue sources needed to provide full funding for the pension,” said Steve Wollmer, communications director for the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union. Wollmer claimed the governor’s presidential aspirations were having an impact on schools.

Unions lost a court case on appeal that would have compelled the state to make full pension payments. Some labor leaders have raised the prospect of a constitutional amendment to secure pension funding.

Email: adely@northjersey.com 


NJ Spotlight – Newark and Camden School Districts In Line to Receive Hefty Private Donations…Although exact dollar figures have not been named, state-run districts could see private largesse running to ‘six figures’

John Mooney | September 2, 2015

Schools open next week in two of the state’s most-closely watched -- and most troubled -- districts, and both will mark it with announcements of some much-needed financial aid from outside sources.

The superintendents of the state-run Newark and Camden school districts plan press conferences this morning to announce donations in the hundreds of thousands of dollars -- or more -- from private benefactors, part of a trend of philanthropic help for public education.

Newark Superintendent Chris Cerf -- the former state commissioner of education under Gov. Chris Christie -- will be standing with the Foundation for Newark’s Future, the foundation created out of the $100 million donation to the city’s schools made by Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

The fund has been a prolific benefactor to the district since its launch in 2011; for instance, it came up with the bulk of the extra pay in the city’s teachers contract.

But the foundation has had a sometimes-chilly relationship with Cerf’s predecessor, Cami Anderson, and has only recently stepped up its public presence in the district, working with the city and with Mayor Ras Baraka.

District officials would not say how much money is in play, but it comes at a time when help is needed. Cerf announced last week that there remains a $15 million - $20 million shortfall in the district’s fiscal 2016 budget that has required some reductions in staffing, albeit not teachers, he pointed out.

And while Camden may not have a Zuckerberg of its own, the district will announce what it described as a “major investment” and “six-figure” amount from local business and other leaders.

The announcement said the money, which will be a matched donation, will go directly to classrooms in both district and charter schools. The city is home to what may be the boldest expansion of charter schools yet through the state’s Urban Hope Act, which allows for hybrid “renaissance schools” that are currently authorized to serve as many as 10,000 students in the district.

Camden said the investment is part of a campaign to support the public schools that includes a social media component -- #AllSchoolsRise. The campaign will also coincide with the visit by Pope Francis to Philadelphia.

Still, it also comes at a time when the district is hardly flush. It announced in the spring that that it would be reducing staff by more than 30 teachers.


Star Ledger - How Newark schools will look with a more democratic concept of local control | Opinion

By Junius Williams

In 1982, Newark voters decided through referendum that they wanted an elected school board rather than a board appointed by the mayor. In the beginning years, there was a lively debate about the candidates, and heightened consciousness about issues, as people participated in determining who would sit on the school board.

But at some point, interest groups who were well organized and more experienced with the political process dominated the school board elections and substituted their collective will for that of ordinary working people. As a consequence, schools collectively became less important as centers of learning, and more important as a source of jobs and contracts.

In 1995, the state of New Jersey took over the governance of the school district. Parent and community engagement in schools was silenced even more, except for occasional outcries of anger and frustration.

The New Jersey Supreme Court decisions under the famous case of Abbott vs. Burke gave some sense of relief to the despair in classrooms by requiring more resources for Newark, new standards for school reform and more parent engagement. But in 2008 when the Abbott remedies were silenced by the state government, the stage was set for a new definition of school reform where charter schools became a primary engine of change, and made the issue of local control an even more complex issue.

So in 2015, when Mayor Ras Baraka and superintendent Chris Cerf declare that Newark should regain local control, what does this really mean, since approximately 28 percent of the district's 49,853 children attend charter schools which are publically funded and privately governed; and the remaining 72 percent require more resources and creative teaching methodologies because they contain most of the children who are educationally disadvantaged? Given the history of local control, state takeover and school governance split between charters and regular schools, how to we get to the new frontier?

Local control must begin from the bottom up and become a model for cooperation amongst the prevailing interest groups in the Newark Public Schools.

Strong PTAs must be developed throughout the district, with parents actually engaged in school governance. An old Abbott concept should be revived called the School Management Team. SMTs, led by the principal who has the final say, should include parents, community representatives, teachers, support staff and (older) students. SMTs have three purposes: planning, budgeting, and evaluation, all based on the particular needs of the individual schools. This model is similar to the one required in cities like Chicago (Local School Councils).

Governance in a shared and participatory manner will insure the beginning of a different conversation about education in Newark, one that is vitally necessary, with all stakeholders learning to listen and respect one another. It offers a way for those involved with charter schools and regular schools to share information and practice across a minefield now full of suspicion; and it will usher in a healing process, so long as parents, community people, teachers, administrators and students feel vital and appreciated in the process. Parents will be able to learn to appreciate schools, and ask questions and expect honest answers. They will once again feel as though they have a stake in schools, for the sake of their children and themselves.

Local Control needs a growing period, and it will be most effective if it comes from the bottom and not the top. People have to get used to the idea of being included. This requires a safe space for educators, parents and community members to be able to come up with ideas, and experiment with new education solutions. People have to practice formulating win-win solutions for all students with a fundamental guarantee of fair allocation of resources by the state, for all schools.

Unfortunately none of these proposals has ever been universally adopted, but they now offer the promise of a more democratic concept of local control, than just the more familiar elected and appointed school board. With a shared governance model as outlined, the elected school board will thrive, with well-informed voters as partners in the education of children, aware of the importance of schools, and able to withstand those who would use the districts resources for their own selfish ends.

Junius Williams is the author of "Unfinished Agenda: Urban Politics in the Era of Back Power" (North Atlantic Books, 2014), and director of the Abbott Leadership Institute at Rutgers Newark.

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