N.J. Schools Put Reform To the Test

By Caroline Hendrie — April 21, 1999 11 min read
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When the New Jersey Supreme Court handed down a ruling last spring requiring hundreds of urban schools to implement wholesale, schoolwide change by no later than next year, heads turned in the nation’s education community.

Never had a court written--or a state been required to fill--a prescription for “whole school” reform of anything approaching that magnitude. In essence, the court was mandating a process from on high that by all accounts relies heavily on the commitment of those at the bottom.

Now, nearly a year later, it’s still too soon to say whether New Jersey’s unprecedented experiment will succeed.

Yet one thing is clear: Anyone who expected the process to move smoothly and according to plan has been in for some surprises. In ways large and small, reform New Jersey-style hasn’t quite stuck to the script.

“There’s an intent to do something, and then there are practical difficulties,” said David C. Hespe, who was sworn in two weeks ago as the state commissioner of education. “We are dealing with an ever-changing concept here.”

As that reality evolves, educators around the country are paying attention, given the mounting interest in whole-school reform as a promising but unproven solution to the problems of educating disadvantaged children. That interest has been fueled by federal funding that recently became available for the comprehensive redesigns known by that label.

“I don’t think anybody’s going to bet the farm on the New Jersey approach,” said Cynthia G. Brown, the director of the Resource Center on Educational Equity at the Council of Chief State School Officers, based in Washington. “But they want to see what happens.”

Reform Plot Twists

What has happened in New Jersey so far would have been hard to predict from the game plan laid out in the state supreme court’s order last May.

The ruling came in a long-running lawsuit over state funding of 28 poor urban districts. Earlier orders in the case, known as Abbott v. Burke, required the state to equalize spending between those city systems and New Jersey’s wealthiest suburbs, yielding hundreds of millions of additional dollars for the city schools during this decade. Last year’s ruling focused on what programs were needed to make the extra money translate into achievement gains for urban students.

Since that decision, controversy and confusion have arisen over the mismatch between what initially seemed to be in store for the schoolwide-reform effort and the direction it has taken.

The Education Law Center, the Newark-based legal-aid group that brought the lawsuit, has gone so far as to charge that the state is violating the ruling because of those departures. State officials strongly disagree.

The two sides also differ on how well the reform initiative is progressing overall. While state officials give it largely positive reviews, the law center argues that there are serious implementation problems.

One point both sides agree on, however, is that the potential payoffs should ultimately be worth the costs.

“This is the first judicially enforced whole-school-reform program in the country,” said David G. Sciarra, the law center’s executive director. That creates the opportunity, he said, “to not just have reform but to sustain it with adequate funding for years to come.”

Commissioner Hespe, who recently took over from Leo F. Klagholz, said no one should have expected such “a large, large task” to proceed seamlessly. But, he added, “This offers the best opportunity that the children in our urban districts have ever had to get the resources they need.”

Presumptive Model?

One highly debated issue has been the shifting approach state officials have taken toward one of the nation’s most popular reform models, Success for All, and how vigorously they have pushed schools to adopt it.

The program, developed by researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, is now operating in more than 1,100 schools around the country. The full-blown version of the program, referred to as Success for All/Roots & Wings, combines Success for All’s elementary-level literacy program with mathematics, science, and social studies components called MathWings and WorldLab.

At first, Mr. Klagholz believed that all 319 elementary schools in the 28 city districts should be required to implement the program. The then-commissioner later softened his stance, arguing that while Success for All should be the model of choice, because of encouraging research on its effectiveness, alternatives should be allowed under limited circumstances.

The state adopted that position during proceedings leading up to last year’s supreme court ruling, and the court endorsed it. The decision directed the state to require schools in the Abbott districts “to adopt some version of a proven, effective whole school design,” with Success for All/Roots & Wings “as the presumptive elementary school model.”

The court said implementation should proceed according to a three-year schedule proposed by the state that called for 50 elementary schools in the first cohort of schools, 100 in the second, and the remaining 169 in the third. Robert E. Slavin, a Johns Hopkins professor who is the chairman of the Baltimore-based Success for All Foundation, testified that the foundation that runs the program could accommodate that schedule.

Under the state plan, the court noted, a school could adopt one of four other models approved by the commissioner “if it could show convincingly that the alternative model it chose would be equally effective and efficient as SFA or that the model was already in place and operating effectively.”

Freedom vs. Force

In practice, urban educators say, the state has given schools free rein to choose from among the five designs it has endorsed.

State officials say this reflects their recognition that comprehensive reform will not work if schools feel that a particular model is, in Mr. Klagholz’s words, being “rammed down everybody’s throats.”

“You can’t mandate it from the top and then expect it to happen from the bottom,” said Barbara Anderson, the state’s assistant commissioner for student services.

Research supports that view. Studies have shown that while reform designs can produce achievement gains, implementation varies widely, depending in large measure on the commitment of educators in the schools. (“Most Edison Schools Report Rise in Test Scores,” April 14, 1999.)

As it turned out, 55 elementary schools signed on for the first cohort. Joining them were 17 middle and high schools, which are required to explore whole-school reform but not necessarily adopt it.

Among the elementary schools, some of which had already been working with one design model or another, 27 chose Success for All/Roots & Wings. Of those, nearly half had been implementing at least some elements of Success for All in prior years.

Eleven elementary schools picked the Community for Learning/Adaptive Learning Environments Model devised by researchers at Temple University in Philadelphia, as did 11 middle schools.

One elementary school chose both the Temple model and the Comer School Development Program, developed at Yale University.

The Comer model on its own claimed 13 elementary and two middle schools. Two elementary schools chose the Modern Red Schoolhouse design, and just one selected the fifth state-approved elementary model, Accelerated Schools.

Mr. Sciarra of the Education Law Center faulted the state for failing to require schools picking models other than Success for All/Roots & Wings to prove they would achieve comparable results. He argues that this has rendered hollow the state’s contention that Success for All remains the “presumptive model.”

“They’ve clearly violated the court order,” he said.

Disputing that, Mr. Hespe said it would not make sense to force schools to produce research showing the effectiveness of the other four models, given that the state was already convinced of those programs’ promise.

Resistance Reported

As for the second cohort, the state is giving schools until late spring to say whether they’re on board for the coming year. Many observers report reluctance among schools to commit themselves.

“There’s been in general a lot of resistance toward the whole-school-reform movement,” said Rona Halbreich, the New Jersey regional manager for Success for All/Roots & Wings. “I definitely see a massive number of schools coming on in the third cohort.”

Ms. Halbreich said that, as of now, she expects about 28 new schools to adopt the model in the second cohort. Representatives of the Comer, Modern Red Schoolhouse, and Accelerated Schools models each reported signing up roughly half a dozen new Abbott schools for that group. A spokesman for Community for Learning could provide no preliminary estimates.

Despite the reported reluctance, state officials say they still expect about 100 schools in the second wave, roughly conforming to the schedule anticipated by the court.

Whether the rest of the districts will have to sign on in Round 3 has recently been thrown into question.

Some city school leaders are lobbying the state to seek court approval for an extension of the deadline for launching their reforms beyond the fall of 2000. Mr. Hespe has said he will consider their position.

Meanwhile, schools in the first cohort have reported some common problems. One obstacle, educators say, has been the state’s failure to come through with $50,000 grants that schools had been promised for launching the reforms. State officials blame the holdup on the legislature’s failure to appropriate funds.

Another stumbling block has been the budgets that newly formed school management teams are required to draw up at all schools undertaking the reforms. Most of the educators and parents involved had never had to create school-level budgets before.

Besides such inexperience, conflict and uncertainty over preserving existing jobs and programs in light of the new priorities have been a problem. Many schools have asked for more money, but the state insists instead that they reallocate their resources.

Bari Anhalt Erlichson, an assistant professor of public policy at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, said her ongoing study of the reforms’ implementation in 40 schools has turned up mixed views among classroom teachers.

Reservations Expressed

“Many teachers have gotten enthusiastic about particular models,” she said. “Then there are teachers who feel, ‘We have to do it, and I’m a professional, so I’ll do it. But it’s not something I’m excited about.’ ”

School leaders, too, are ambivalent. Some local board members and superintendents worry that schools are careering off in different directions, leaving little instructional coherence districtwide.

Given the high student mobility in urban schools, some administrators have resolved to push hard for consensus on a single districtwide model.

And there are those who fear that too many eggs are being put in the whole-school-reform basket. Deanna Burney, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Camden, worries that a focus on professional development aimed squarely at improving teaching may sometimes get lost.

“I can understand the state’s thinking in wanting schools to be accountable for student performance,” she said. “But I don’t think there was enough conversation between the state and the districts on how we can go about doing that.”

Some schools are hoping reforms they have already begun--or home-grown plans they have on tap--will convince the state that they don’t need a state-endorsed design. The state says schools can try to make such a case, but will bear a heavy burden of proof.

“If scores are going up every year and other indicators are good, people are saying, ‘Why should we turn everything on its head?’” said Jack DeTalvo, the president of the state’s Urban Superintendents Association and the schools chief in Perth Amboy.

As the state struggles with its paradoxical task of mandating universal grassroots reform, “states are watching what’s happening in New Jersey very closely,” said Lesley A. Dahlkemper, who coordinates work on comprehensive school reform for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

“Will it work to have the states mandate a small handful of designs, rather than having the schools select the models themselves?” she asked.

Federal Aid Eyed

The question has taken on added importance because of the growing interest in using money from Title I, the $8 billion federal program that underwrites services for disadvantaged students, to support comprehensive school change. The nearly $150 million in federal grants now being distributed to states for such approaches under the Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration Program is a step in that direction.

“New Jersey is the test case as to whether these whole-school-reform grants are actually a systemic way of addressing the academic and social needs of Title I students,” Ms. Erlichson of Rutgers said.

Mr. Slavin, a strong advocate of using Title I for schoolwide reform, said that he for one remains convinced that in the end, New Jersey will show that such an approach can work.

“With all the politics and problems, I remain very optimistic about New Jersey,” he said. “While there’s lots of moaning and groaning and carrying on, most educators realize they have been given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to show what can be done in high-poverty districts.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 21, 1999 edition of Education Week as N.J. Schools Put Reform To the Test


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