Will Reforms Get Done Well or Just Get Done?Questions of capacity abound for local districts as well as for the NJ Department of Education in implementing new mandates.
Improved achievement for all students – a goal that every New Jersey educator supports and works toward as each strives to improve his or her practice. New initiatives outline a great deal to be accomplished by school personnel continuing into the next school year.For many months, discussion among New Jersey school district leaders has focused on the resources needed not only to accomplish local district goals, but to address the increasing challenges created by both federal and state government mandates. Chief Education Officers, their staffs and school boards wrestle with the question of how to obtain needed resources, both human and capital, to implement overarching changes to educator evaluation; revise curricula and teaching practices to address the Common Core State Standards; identify and provide the bandwidth and devices for the digital assessments required of new PARCC assessments; and ensure that school environments and staff actions achieve the goals of New Jersey’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights.
It is clear to those directing the educational, operational and support services for students in local districts that these many changes are advancing quickly without the needed time and support to ensure their success. What is the response of state officials to the questions of capacity? Let’s take a look:
· The State Funding Reform Act (SFRA) Remains Underfunded
SFRA was developed after detailed study, cost analysis and determination of the fiscal support needed to provide the state mandate of a “thorough and efficient education.” All districts and taxpayers are affected by the underfunding. There is no current year or proposed FY 2014 funding for programs required to address harassment, intimidation and bullying.
· Funding based on Average Daily Attendance Reduces District Aid
A proposal to use average daily attendance rather than student enrollment will reduce state aid if average attendance is less than 96%. Basic materials such as textbooks, supplies, equipment and transportation required for students aren’t based on their attendance, but on their enrollment in the district. State aid shouldn’t shortchange districts, particularly those that have the most challenges in promoting student attendance. This proposal is not a component of the state education funding law.
· No Funding Provided for New Educator Evaluation Programs
All New Jersey school districts are required to implement new evaluation protocols this coming school year. The regulations introduced by the State Board of Education and the Governor’s budget proposal don’t recognize that additional resources are needed to train staff, set performance goals and measurements based on student outcomes, observe professionals more frequently in their work and conduct additional conferences to discuss student and staff progress. Even more importantly, there is no recognition of the needed resources to support the collaboration among educators in Professional Learning Communities to achieve the desired outcomes of the reforms bringing higher learning standards, new assessments and more rigorous performance appraisals.
· Administrative Budget Caps Impose Unnecessary Restrictions
Imposing a 2% cap on the increase of property taxes to support school districts provides sufficient control of education spending. School district leaders should be free to determine where to allocate approved funding, making the caps placed on administrative spending unnecessary, even counter-productive to providing the personnel necessary to accomplish the mandates of AchieveNJ.
· Election Change Implemented, but Not Timeline Adjustments
The great majority of school districts have moved school elections to November and eliminated budget votes by adhering to the 2% cap on the increase in property taxes used to support education spending. The enabling legislation left the job half done, however, as districts needed to mobilize budgets, public hearings and adoptions in short order after receiving state aid figures as though they were preparing for April elections. School officials’ time is valuable resource that could be used more prudently under revised guidelines.
· Debt Service Assessment Means Districts Have Less Aid
The Office of Legislative Services reports that 270 districts, or 48 percent, will realize net losses under the proposed FY 2014 budget ranging from a few hundred dollars to more than $200,000 since bills to districts for debt service on school construction grants are increasing. These fees were added as charges to districts and not included in their initial funding agreements or construction budgets.
Personnel of the State Department of Education find themselves stretched to the limit as well as they take on the leadership and oversight of the many reforms that affect all districts. In addition, the ramped-up work with schools demonstrating very low student performance and great discrepancies in achievement between student subgroups through the Regional Achievement Centers represents a significant dedication of Department resources. The recent announcement of state takeover of the Camden School District can only create significant additional demand on colleagues working within the DOE.
I had the privilege in April to attend the National Summit on Educator Effectiveness with NJ DOE colleagues. I believe that we all were struck by a presentation focusing on successful and unsuccessful implementation of evidence-based policies. Research demonstrates that even effective policies and interventions will fail if there are not effective implementation methods. As Robert Burns put it; “The best-laid schemes o' mice an 'men Gang aft agley.”
How do New Jersey educators avoid failed outcomes as we collectively march toward realization of the many initiatives that are before us? We need to first confront the reality of the lack of implementation resources and recognize that implementation strategies and field experience are in their seminal stages, not complete or tried and true. We must help government and political leaders understand that the resources of financial and human support, time, practice, feedback and collaboration among educators are critical if we are to achieve the outcomes that we all desire for our students.
NJASA leaders are engaged in this important conversation with legislators and senior officials at the NJ DOE. It is imperative that each of you joins with us in speaking about these issues in your communities with staff, parents, local leaders and state legislators. The will of education reformers may be strong, but the backs of practitioners bear the weight of transforming our schools to ensure that every New Jersey student is truly ready for a career or post-secondary education following graduation. Let’s work together to accomplish this important goal!