‘No Child Left Behind’ news worth celebrating in New Jersey

On Feb. 9, New Jersey welcomed the news that it is one of 11 states to be granted a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law.

This is part of a series from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

On Feb. 9, New Jersey welcomed the news that it is one of 11 states to be granted a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law.  

Here’s why that’s news worth celebrating.

For 10 years, states have adhered grumpily to the law – publishing district-by-district data on how many kids are deemed “advanced proficient,” “proficient,” or “partially proficient” (i.e. failing) in math, language arts, and science.  And they’ve braced for Armageddon in 2014 when, by federal mandate, every single child in America is supposed to be magically transformed into a proficient student.

Under No Child Left Behind, Schools that don’t meet proficiency targets get pinned with four scarlet letters: SINI.  That stands for School in Need of Improvement.   Schools in this category face escalating sanctions spelled out in the law. For example, a school in Year 2 of SINI status might be required to offer after-school tutoring to kids with poor test scores. A School in Year 6 might be required to fire the principal or restructure the school.

While some school reformers welcomed the extra scrutiny the federal law brought to the performance of poor and minority kids, districts rebelled. They hated how poor test scores for one subgroup of kids – say, ones with disabilities, or with English as a second language — could damn the school to NCLB sanctions.

The U.S. Congress promised to revise No Child Left Behind. It didn’t. So this year the Obama Administration offered waivers to states that could articulate a different plan to address educational deficiencies.   (This week, 26 more states, plus the District of Columbia, applied for the waivers already obtained by New Jersey and 10 others.)

New Jersey’s 392-page waiver application spotlights what many consider to be the paradox of the Garden State’s public education system: It is home both to some of the nation’s best schools, and some of the worst.   It’s a great place to find chasms separating the achievement of white and minority students, between children of means and children of poverty.  

The state’s waiver application lays out the grim facts:

“While in the aggregate New Jersey’s students perform at nation-leading levels, the State has a number of troubling deficiencies. On the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam, New Jersey ranked 50 out of 51 States (including DC) in the size of the achievement gap between low and high-income students in 8th grade reading. Tens of thousands of children attend schools where only a minority of students meets basic levels of proficiency in reading and math. Across the State, over 40 percent of third graders are not reading on grade level. And perhaps most alarmingly, a distressingly high percentage of those who do graduate from high school are unprepared for success: nearly 90 percent of students entering some of New Jersey’s community colleges require remediation.”

Lower Cape May Regional High School is a good place to see the capricious nature of NCLB sanctions:  Most kids at the school meet the baseline standard of “adequate yearly progress.”   Yet, its group of special education students don’t, so the school gets the dreaded “School In Need of Improvement“ label.

To escape the punitive whip of the law, New Jersey proposes to  divide its public schools into four groups: Priority Schools – 74 really troubled schools, (23 of which are in Camden); Focus Schools (179 of these, not as bad as Priority Schools but still nothing to write home about); Reward Schools (the top 10 percent, who will get cash bonuses); and, in the fourth category, all the rest.

NJ’s approved waiver now lets us focus on the real problems among our disparate schools, not just the cosmetic glitches.

Here’s an example.

Asbury Park Middle School in Monmouth County is its 11th year as a School in Need of Improvement.  More than 70 percent of its African-American kids failed the  state assessment in language arts, as did nearly 68 percent of its Hispanic students. (There are not enough white or Asian kids in Asbury Park to count as a subgroup. Welcome to New Jersey’s segregated school system.)

Math scores are even worse. The annual cost per pupil, by the way, is $22,495.

NCLB has done nothing for the kids stuck in Asbury Park Middle School. However, under NJ’s new accountability system, Asbury Park is a Priority School and the DOE will now “structure intense, mandatory interventions and supports (in alignment with the application’s ‘turnaround principles’) that match each school’s particular needs.”

Will this more nuanced approach help Lower Cape May Regional High School, well-performing yet subject to the strident hammer of NCLB sanctions? Probably. Will it help the kids stuck in Asbury Park High School? That’s a harder call, but it’s certainly worth a try.

Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJleftbehind.

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