Despite difficult financial times, New Jersey continues to be at the top of the nation in education quality and performance. On student achievement, school readiness, finance equity, graduation rates and other key measures of education performance, New Jersey consistently ranks at or near the top of the 50 states.
For more than a decade, our state made smart strategic investments to ensure equitable learning opportunities for all students.
These investments have yielded strong dividends: Early learning gaps are closing through access to high-quality preschool, a program considered the nation’s best. We’ve pioneered help for underperforming schools, requiring intensive literacy, ongoing professional development and extended learning time. We’ve rebuilt or replaced hundreds of antiquated school buildings across the state, moving our facilities infrastructure into the 21st century.
Most important, we’ve had positive results. New Jersey is consistently among the highest performing on the National Assessment for Educational Progress, and is one of the few states where gaps for low-income students are narrowing instead of widening.
Yet these solid gains are now threatened. Divisive rhetoric and reckless proposals that will undermine our public schools are diverting attention from urgent challenges: maintaining fair school funding for all communities; sustaining excellence in high performing schools; improving underperforming district and charter schools; strengthening the teaching workforce; and expanding preschool.
Now is not the time to turn back the education clock. We must move forward, building on our progress and redoubling the effort to close stubborn gaps in opportunity and performance.
We need the next generation of bold reform, not the latest flavor-of-the-month fads that will drain resources and quality from our public schools.
Here’s an education reform blueprint for 2011, driven by the needs of our students:
- Starting early, starting strong — expanding access to high-quality preschool for all at-risk children, fulfilling a 2008 commitment made by the Legislature in the School Funding Reform Act.
- Supporting great teachers and principals — piloting appropriate and fair methods of evaluation, and redesigning professional support based on effective practice.
- Improving high-need district and charter schools — enacting a “Teacher Equity Initiative” to attract and retain effective teachers in high-needs schools; restarting the successful “Urban Literacy Reform” program to ensure reading proficiency by grade three; and launching a “Secondary Reform Initiative” to transform underperforming middle and high schools.
- Connecting school to community — piloting “Children’s Promise Zones” in high-poverty neighborhoods to integrate education, health, child welfare, parenting, employment and other services, birth through grade 12; and launching one or more “Promise” initiatives in high-needs districts, modeled on the Kalamazoo (Mich.) Promise, to guarantee tuition for all public school graduates to attend New Jersey two- or four-year colleges.
- Strengthening accountability top to bottom — fixing the serious deficiencies with the state Department of Education, including upgrading state data collection systems; and making sure charter schools operate effectively and equitably, and contribute to improving educational opportunities for all students in host districts.
- Advancing public school diversity — supporting multidistrict magnet and charter schools that seek to enroll a socioeconomically diverse student body, and by phasing in school consolidation to “K-12 only” districts within five years.
These are substantive initiatives, designed to advance continuous improvement. If we actively engage stakeholders in development and implementation of these reforms, our students will reap the benefit and experience the success they deserve.
As a start, let’s stop calling our public schools “failing.” Many schools are excellent and many more are working hard to achieve excellence. A smaller group of district and charter schools are struggling to make progress. These schools need our full support, not cheap, soundbite criticism.
And we simply cannot afford to divert scarce public resources from the job of improving — not closing — public schools for children in our poorest neighborhoods. We must take private school vouchers off the table. They will do nothing but drain the motivated students and families, community support and funds our most challenging public schools must have to improve.
So in 2011, let’s commit ourselves to rolling up our sleeves to work on real education reform. Let’s make sure New Jersey not only stays on top, but takes our educational performance to the next level. It’s time to put the needs of our student first — again.
Copyright © 2011 Education Law Center. All Rights Reserved.
Director of Policy, Strategic Partnerships and Communications