The New School Year - Issues to WatchThe new school year will undoubtedly be an interesting one with many controversial issues resurfacing from the prior year! Here are some issues to focus on as the school bell rings again in September.
It has become abundantly clear that the Governor’s bid to become President is impacting New Jersey educational policy. He declared the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) to be a failure by some unknown standard and placed reviewing the standards at the head of the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) work schedule. (NJASA members Dr. Christopher Manno, Chief Education Officer, Burlington County Special Services School District and Burlington County Institutes of Technology; and Dr. Kathleen Taylor, Chief Education Officer, Ocean City School District; have been selected to serve on the NJDOE Standards Review Committee which will monitor the progress of subcommittees, ensure alignment of content across grade levels and subjects, and make final recommendations to the New Jersey State Board of Education.)
Recently, the Governor again criticized teacher unions. What is coming next from the Governor and how his policy statements will affect local school districts remain to be seen.
Common Core and PARCC Assessments
Governor Christie may have thrown the CCSS under the bus, but he is sticking (so far) with the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). In July of 2014, Governor Christie’s Executive Order 159 put in place a task force to examine student assessments. Officially titled the “Study Commission on the Use of Student Assessments in New Jersey,” it comprises nine members (including NJASA member, Dr. Marcia Lyles, Chief Education Officer, Jersey City Public Schools) and is chaired by NJDOE Commissioner David Hespe. The Study Commission issued a preliminary report on December 31, 2014 and final report and recommendations are yet to come.
At one time PARCC was adopted by 26 states; it’s now used by fewer than ten. Backlash against the assessments by both the political right and left have left PARCC in a state some have labeled a “death spiral.” A surprising number of students in many states, particularly in New Jersey and neighboring New York, have refused to participate (or their parents have prohibited them from participating) in the test.
Hearing the voices of some students and parents, the New Jersey Assembly unanimously passed legislation this past spring that would have required schools to provide students refusing the PARCC exams with an ungraded alternative activity or to allow them to engage in supervised reading or other self-directed work. If a student's regularly scheduled class were in session during the administration of a PARCC test the student is refusing, that student would be allowed to attend the class, according to the bill. Interest in the bill withered in the Senate, however, and was never passed.
The PARCC assessment schedule slated for 2016 has been shortened and combined into one test period and the percentage of a teacher’s and administrator’s evaluation where the PARCC results are used has been held to ten percent of the total evaluation rather than the scheduled twenty percent. Opposition to the testing hasn’t seemed to diminish much as a result. The controversy will continue and be alert for any new requirements for student participation issued by NJDOE. Watch closely for the October release of student scores and for the decision of the Commissioner as to what level of achievement as measured by the PARCC assessments will be required for high school graduation.
It is clear to everyone that the New Jersey economy is lagging behind neighboring states. The State has received nine credit downgrades during the current administration. The Transportation Trust Fund, established to finance the cost of “planning, acquisition, engineering, construction, reconstruction, repair, resurfacing, and rehabilitation of the State’s transportation system” is nearly depleted. Public pension funds are in a precarious state due to underfunding by many Governors. School district financial support required by the School Funding Reform Act passed in 2008 has never been fully provided and has been woefully underfunded in the ensuing years’ State budgets since its enactment. With the Governor’s pledge of no new taxes, what can New Jersey school leaders anticipate when he provides his budget address early in 2016? It won’t likely be a rosy forecast for the next school year!
State Operated School Districts
The State of New Jersey has operated three school districts for more than two decades: Jersey City, Newark and Paterson. The controversial reforms undertaken in the Newark School System have resulted in the ouster of Superintendent Cami Anderson and the return of former Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, as the new Superintendent of Schools. While Cerf’s appointment remains controversial, it has come with an agreement between Governor Christie and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka which established a nine-member panel tasked with providing a return-to-local-control plan, with benchmarks, by the end of the 2015-16 school year. You can be certain that leaders in both Paterson and Jersey City are looking for the same path to total local control.
Certainly much less controversial, but not without controversy, is the recent state operation of the Camden Public Schools where local schools are being turned over to charter school operators. There is strong cooperation by Camden officials with the Governor and his administration, resulting in changes in the schooling of children and policing of residents.
School Starting Times
Governor Christie endorsed Democrat sponsored legislation in August that directs the NJDOE to assess the health, academic, and safety benefits associated with later start times for middle schools and high schools. The legislation is a response to the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that schools for teenagers should start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. Approximately 85 percent of middle and high schools start before that time.
The Commissioner and his staff must also identify negative effects on school districts and consider strategies for addressing them. The cost of student transportation, athletic and co-curricular schedules, student work schedules, religious instruction, sibling care, and parental preferences are among the inhibiting factors listed by those having interest in modifying school starting times. At the conclusion of its study, NJDOE will make a recommendation on whether the State should establish a pilot program to test later school start times in select middle schools and high schools throughout the State.
American Sign Language
August also witnessed the Governor endorsing legislation which authorizes American Sign Language to be recognized as a world language for the purpose of meeting any state or local world language requirement for high school graduation. This is a personal favorite as I was privileged to serve early in my career as the Superintendent of the Marie Katzenbach School for the Deaf, or as its graduates prefer, the New Jersey School for the Deaf. This initiative serves to remind us of the many high expectations and important traits that public education seeks to instill in its students such as citizenship, character, appreciation of the arts, patriotism, economic independence, tolerance, and the like.
Clearly, the school year ahead will be challenging. I’m privileged to work with NJASA members and staff who work daily to ensure a superior statewide system of education for our students and their families. Let’s all support their work!