School & District Management

N.J.'s ‘Whole School’ Approach Found Hard for Districts

By Caroline Hendrie — February 21, 2001 6 min read
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New Jersey’s court-ordered effort to overhaul its urban schools has been hobbled by problems that have left many schools struggling to implement state- mandated programs, a study concludes.

In a report covering the first two years of the state’s one-of-a-kind program of mandated “whole school” reform, two university researchers say that problems that bedeviled the effort’s first year persisted in the second. That finding is “troubling,” they say.

The study suggests that a variety of circumstances have conspired to make what is typically a trying process—the adoption of schoolwide redesign models—even harder for New Jersey’s urban schools. Those factors include the broad scale of the improvement measures, the fact that they are playing out amid ongoing litigation over the financing of city schools, and the simultaneous rollout of a related change: the mandated switch from district- level to school-based budgeting.

For More Information

Copies of “Implementing Whole School Reform in New Jersey: Year Two” can be obtained by calling (732) 932-2499.

“It might be safe to say that New Jersey is not only rebuilding the airplane in mid- flight, but also rethinking the physics of lift and drag,” the researchers observe in the study, which was released last week.

Under a May 1998 ruling in New Jersey’s long-running Abbott v. Burke funding-equity lawsuit, schools in 30 poor districts were required to adopt whole-school reform models by the current school year. By the fall of 1998, 72 of the more than 430 so-called Abbott schools had embarked on comprehensive reform programs, followed a year later by an additional 83 schools. Since then, the number of elementary, middle, and high schools that have begun using various models has risen to 370.

The report, which follows a similar 1999 study that looked at the program’s first year, was co-written by Bari Anhalt Erlichson, an assistant professor of public policy at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., and Margaret Goertz, a school finance expert and a co-director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. They are continuing to study the program, which is now in its third year.

New Jersey is the only state to require whole-school reform on a broad scale. So as interest in schoolwide redesign as a potential solution to urban education’s formidable performance problems grows, many experts see the New Jersey experiment as an important test case (“N.J. Schools Put Reform to the Test,” April 21, 1999.)

Common Problems

The new study does not attempt to evaluate the effectiveness of the various improvement models adopted in the 57 schools the researchers examined. But it does identify certain implementation problems that tended to arise with each of the designs being used in those schools.

The models adopted by the schools in the study were Accelerated Schools, America’s Choice, the Comer School Development Program, Community for Learning/Adaptive Learning Environment Model, Co-NECT, and Success For All.

In their report, the authors describe common experiences shared by schools as they shopped for redesign models and then sought to put in place both those designs and the related state requirement to move to school- based budgeting.

Among other findings, the report says the state education department, and in some instances the developers of the reform models, fell short in giving schools the support they needed to carry out the simultaneous changes.

Overly tight timelines and heavy paperwork burdens—associated both with adopting the improvement models and drawing up school-based budgets— presented one set of problems, the study found.

Another issue was the disruption in the accustomed governance relationships between schools, districts, and the state as the state shifted to dealing directly with schools. Staff turnover, both in the education department and with the developers of the models was another obstacle, the authors say.

In a written response to a draft of the report, state education officials took issue with some of the findings, including one citing a lack of coordination between the education department’s program and fiscal divisions over school budgeting issues. A spokesman for the department said last week that officials were reserving further comment until they had reviewed the final report.

Buy-In Seen as Uneven

Previous research on implementing schoolwide redesign models has suggested that success hinges on broad-based support among school staff members. (“States Increasingly Flexing Their Policy Muscle,” April 14, 1999.)

But surveys of New Jersey teachers conducted for the new study found that many were not strong believers in the models their schools had selected.

Among teachers whose schools launched the changes in the 1998-99 school year, just 48 percent of respondents in the schools studied said they believed their respective models were good for their schools. That figure rose to 59 percent among teachers in schools starting the new approaches in 1999-2000.

Ms. Erlichson of Rutgers suggested that the mandatory nature of New Jersey’s redesign efforts had contributed to the uneven support among teachers, as well as to other impediments to successful schoolwide change.

“The major issue that this study illuminates is the difficulty of taking comprehensive school reform programs and implementing them in a mandated context,” she said.

The Education Law Center, which brought the 20-year-old Abbott lawsuit against the state, couldn’t agree more. The Newark-based finance-equity center has taken the state back to court over its efforts to comply with the 1998 state supreme court ruling, including the “whole school” improvement initiative.

“We strongly opposed mandating whole school reform from the start,” said David G. Sciarra, the center’s executive director.

Steve Block, the center’s director of school reform initiatives, said the new study pointed up “major deficiencies” in the state- led effort, and called the persistence of problems from the first to the second year of implementation “disheartening.”

“The findings in the study reflect the anecdotal evidence we get all the time from people in the schools,” he said.

‘First Glance’

Robert E. Slavin, an education researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore who co-developed Success For All, said the new study was valuable “because it’s the first glance at a statewide effort of this kind.”

From his standpoint, most of the 67 Abbott schools that have selected Success For All are implementing it well. Some are not, however, and that presents a host of new questions that policymakers in the state need to address, he said.

“Programs that are not implemented don’t work,” Mr. Slavin observed. “If you can determine they are really doing just a lick and a promise, something dramatic needs to happen.”

James H. Lytle, the superintendent of the 12,000-student Trenton district, called the new report on target, but he cautioned against viewing it as an indictment of the court- ordered effort.

“New Jersey is investing more heavily in urban school reform than any other state in the country,” he said. “I hope that any critique can be construed as a constructive effort to make this work.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as N.J.'s ‘Whole School’ Approach Found Hard for Districts


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