On April 25, the New Jersey High School Redesign Steering Committee released its long-awaited recommendations for secondary reform in a report entitled NJ Steps: Re-designing Education in NJ for the 21st Century. In a presentation to a joint meeting of the State Board of Education and the NJ Commission on Higher Education, Governor Jon Corzine and Commissioner Lucille Davy outlined a major increase in state graduation requirements, including six new high stakes end-of-course exams that would be required to earn a high school diploma by 2016.

Although the report urges “a fundamental change in public education in the state that will affect students in all grades,” the committee did not propose any new resources to support its recommendations. The absence of new funds in a time of tight budgets and continuing controversy over the state’s new school funding formula raised serious questions about how the committee plans to reach its goal of “preparing every student for success.” There is also debate about how that “success” should be defined.

Aside from the costs of implementing the plan, education advocates raised concerns about the impact of the proposed tests and standardization of courses on school programs and student options, and about the top-down process that has so far shaped the HS Redesign effort.

End of Course Exams

The plan offers little direct help to the state’s large urban high schools that are already struggling to meet existing state standards and the escalating benchmarks of the federal No Child Left Behind Law. NJ Steps promises “special consideration” to such schools declaring, “The extra supports required by these students…must be front and center of any efforts to raise expectations.” However, these supports are not described in detail in the proposal or backed with committed resources.

By contrast, the new standards and tests are outlined in charts and timelines that leave little room for alternative visions of reform. To receive a high school diploma, students would be required to take and pass end-of-course exams in Language Arts, Algebra I & II, Geometry, Biology and Chemistry. The plan includes references to “individualized attention, more relevant coursework,” and “restructured learning experiences.” But the heart of the proposal is a largely conventional plan to ramp up traditional academic course work in a “one-size-fits-all” framework that will be difficult to impose and costly to implement.

As a report on exit exams from the Center on Education Policy notes:

“The direct costs of developing and administering the tests themselves make up a tiny fraction of the total costs of implementing an exit exam policy. The bulk of the costs go toward other ‘hidden’ expenses necessary to give students a strong chance of passing the mandatory exams. These include remedial services for students who fail, programs to prevent failure, and professional development to upgrade the skills of teachers who must prepare students for the exams….The true costs of an exit exam policy are often invisible to state policymakers, because the expenses are being borne mostly by local school districts—and often by shifting existing funds away from other educational priorities.” (“The Hidden Cost of High School Exit Exams,” Center on Education Policy, May 2004)

Currently only 35% of all NJ districts require Chemistry, less than 45% require Algebra II, and less than 70% require Algebra I, Geometry, and Biology. Moving these numbers up to 100% within eight years, as NJ Steps proposes, would require major increases in educational investment. The report acknowledges that “New Jersey is currently facing a shortage of qualified math, science, and special education teachers” and that “Teacher attrition…is especially acute in low-performing, high poverty schools where experienced, expert teachers are most needed.”

Under the plan, freshman entering high school in September 2008 would need to pass tests in Language Arts, Algebra I and Biology to get a diploma. Two years later, Geometry and Chemistry would be added. The following year’s freshman class would also have to pass an Algebra II exam.

Advocates for vocational ed programs are concerned that required courses will squeeze out the applied electives and practical real world training that attract students to such programs. Others are concerned that an expanded system of high-stakes exit tests will negatively affect graduation and dropout rates, especially if they are not matched by dramatic improvements in secondary programs and performance. Currently, New Jersey has the nation’s second highest graduation rate according to Education Week. Neighboring New York state, which adopted a similar series of tests several years ago, is number 40.

American Diploma Project

Although the plan was presented by the New Jersey High School Redesign Committee, its origins lie in the American Diploma Project (ADP) sponsored by Achieve, Inc. Achieve is a national educational consulting group created by business leaders and the nation’s Governors to align K-12 curriculum with the needs and expectations of the business world and higher education. Art Ryan, retiring CEO of Prudential and a national co-chair of Achieve, has been a leader of the NJ effort. Ryan, Corzine and Susan Cole, the president of Montclair State University, are co-chairs of the Redesign Steering Committee. According to NJ Steps, the “ADP benchmarks have become the foundation for change and redesign of high schools in New Jersey.”

In August 2006, the HS Redesign Steering Committee was formed with representation from the state’s major professional education organizations, including the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, New Jersey School Boards Association, New Jersey Commission on Higher Education, and the New Jersey Education Association. The Chamber of Commerce and the business-led New Jersey United for Higher School Standards were also represented. Parent and community groups, school-based educators and others were limited to asking questions at a series of public meetings designed to win support for the plan.

Now that the plan has been formulated and endorsed by “New Jersey’s higher education and business communities,” it is being submitted to the State Board of Education for approval. The plan also calls for creation of a “P-16 Council” of “key stakeholders to create a seamless, aligned system of public education in New Jersey.” The recurring theme of “aligning” the K-12 system from the top-down to meet the needs of higher education and business has sparked concerns that the plan does not represent the full range of interests that public education must serve and could reinforce new types of tracking and other forms of educational inequality.

Secondary Education Initiative

Throughout the process, the concerns of urban “Abbott” advocates been marginalized. A Court-ordered mediation agreement did lead in 2004 to the creation of the Secondary Education Initiative [SEI] which required the 31 “special needs” Abbott districts to develop plans to provide college prep curricula, small learning communities and student/family supports for all middle and high school students. But this effort was consigned to a separate, lesser track in the NJ Department of Education’s since-dissolved “Abbott division” and only belatedly folded into the HS Redesign effort. As it became clear that the Administration was developing a new school funding formula that would eliminate the Abbott framework, hoped-for supports for SEI, including formation of technical assistance teams, inclusion of SEI in district budget planning, and development of a research plan to evaluate the reform, did not materialize.

NJ Steps does pledge to continue SEI and even declares, “with the implementation of the new school funding formula in January 2008, these reforms will be expanded to districts throughout the state.” However the substance of these commitments is uncertain and the DOE’s record of sustaining secondary reform, especially in urban districts, is not strong.

NJ Steps says that “with strained local and state budgets, any additional resources will have to be found through strategic reallocations.” Yet for nearly 15 years the State has assumed full control of NJ’s three largest urban districts during a period with the highest, Abbott-mandated levels of funding for urban secondary schools in the nation. But little has been accomplished in the way of “reallocation” or sustained investment for secondary reform, particularly in the large comprehensive high schools. When the SEI regulations were first adopted in 2004-2005, four districts were selected as “phase one pilots” to test the assumptions of the plan and apply its lessons to other districts. But only one limited pilot, in Orange, went forward and a systematic evaluation of the results has not been done.

As it retreats from Abbott commitments, the Department is circulating a scaled-back, draft version of the secondary regulations for use under the new School Funding and Reform Act. Where the original SEI regulations required implementation of small learning communities and a defined program of student/family supports, the draft regulations ask districts to pick from a list of “personalization strategies” that include “adult mentoring programs” or “other practices.” Substantive elements like a requirement that teacher teams working with cohorts of students over multiple years receive two-three hours per week of common planning time have been removed, (even as NJ Steps declares that: “New Jersey’s schools must design and offer sustained, intensive, job-embedded professional development to enable teachers, superintendents, principals, and supervisors to support high student achievement.”)

Unfortunately, these are signs of the recurring pattern of reform failure. New plans drop from the sky without summing up the lessons of previous ones or addressing the real experience of school communities with past reform efforts. Those parts of the plan that can be moved “on paper,” such as standards and tests, are adopted by the State, with increasing detail and prescription, in the name of “accountability” and “higher expectations.” But the more difficult efforts to build local capacity that can address issues of school climate, improve professional practice and create inclusive, credible process don’t receive the sustained attention and resources needed to put them in place. The rhetoric of “higher expectations” substitutes for the real changes needed to achieve them.

There are too many examples of this in NJ Steps. In proposing that Chemistry, now required by just 33% of all NJ districts, be made mandatory for all students, the report says, “The Steering Committee recognizes that a Lab Chemistry course, as it has been traditionally taught, would require facilities that may not be available in many schools for dramatically increased numbers of students.” Yet instead of linking this recommendation to the need for equalizing educational opportunity, the report cites ways “to reorient how Chemistry is taught so that extensive capital investment by districts may not be required.” Such approaches raise doubts among educators, parents and equity advocates about the real intent and potential impact of the plan. A plan that relies so heavily on “raising expectations” through high-stakes exams has a special obligation to address the true costs of passing them.

New Jersey is in urgent need of a robust reform effort that promotes multiple pathways to success for an increasingly diverse student population. But such an effort must rely less on state standards and high-stakes exams and more on credible resources, school-based change, and an inclusive, collaborative reform process. Unless the NJDOE and the HS Redesign Committee heed the lessons of past rounds of failed reform, this new plan could do more harm than good or be “dead-on-arrival” in the schools and communities that need reform most.

For more info contact skarp@edlawcenter.org.

Prepared: April 30, 2008

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Sharon Krengel
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