School & District Management

With NCLB Waiver, N.J. Lays Out Turnaround Plans

By Andrew Ujifusa — August 15, 2012 6 min read
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As many states embark on implementing their waivers from the federal No Child Left Behind Act, New Jersey is taking an approach centered on the creation of seven Regional Achievement Centers that will monitor and intervene in the state’s lowest-performing schools, which ultimately could be subject to closure by the state.

The state has a long and controversial history of taking direct control of districts like those in Jersey City and Paterson. But this time New Jersey officials say they have struck the right balance between state-driven priorities and the development of approaches that mesh with each struggling school’s needs.

The plan revolves around the use of advanced interventions at the individual school level. Such possible interventions include revamping curriculum, installing a full-time data specialist at a low-performing school, and redesigning the use of the school day to require more student learning time. It also gives the state the power to close schools that still fail to improve.

“This is a good example of what’s going on in many states,” said Chris Minnich, the senior membership director of the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers, which through a private grant is providing research and other resources for the achievement centers. “The state is re-examining its relationship with low-performers.”

Mr. Minnich said states also are trying to use lessons learned from initiatives like the $4.6 billion federal School Improvement Grant, or SIG, program, which provided aid to states and districts for major interventions in struggling schools.

But a plan like New Jersey’s that directs actions at individual schools “needs to come with clear expectations in some areas and freedom to act in other areas” for the staff and move beyond mere checklists, said William S. Robinson, the deputy director of the University of Virginia’s Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education, which has worked on related issues with several Western states.

New Jersey’s strategy has not escaped criticism, however, amid concerns that it would bypass local authority and create counterproductive pressure through the threat of school closure. There have also been complaints that the state revealed more to a private foundation in a grant proposal than to the federal government.

A New Approach?

Like every other state seeking an NCLB waiver, New Jersey had to identify its strategies for improving the performance of “priority” schools (the bottom 5 percent, based on state test scores) and “focus” schools (those with prominent achievement gaps based on race, ethnicity, or other categories, for example).

Part of Washington State’s strategy will be to use regional Educational Service Districts, for instance, to provide access to professional development and technical help for struggling schools, while Ohio requires priority schools to work with a state Office of School Turnaround.

New Jersey’s plan includes the creation of seven Regional Achievement Centers for professional development, training, and intervention work, serving a total of 253 schools (including 74 priority schools, 19 of which are SIG participants) and 183,000 students. Center staff will conduct extensive reviews of each school through classroom visits, data analysis, and other methods, and implement specific changes at schools based on those reviews. Subsequently, the centers will also be responsible for schools meeting what the state calls “explicit performance targets.”

The timeline for the centers’ work is about two years, with another assessment of turnaround efforts expected by 2015, the state said.

The Los Angeles-based Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation is providing a grant of $1.5 million to the CCSSO to assist the state with its school-intervention work.

Another $430,000 goes directly from the foundation to the state department to fund professional development, staffing, and training at the centers, and for statewide charter school research not exclusive to priority and focus schools, said Barbara Morgan, a spokeswoman for the state department. Total state and federal funding for school turnaround initiatives, including the achievement centers, is slated to be $24 million next year, when their work is set to begin.

In an op-ed published in the Star-Ledger newspaper of Newark in June, state Commissioner of Education Christopher D. Cerf discussed the urgency of the state’s work on improving schools or, in some cases, “even closing down the school and creating a better option for the students—which research has shown to have worked in other parts of the country.”

David G. Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center, a Newark-based school advocacy group, blasted the state department for revealing more about the regional centers and potential school closures in the Broad documents than in its waiver request. The pursuit of the private money itself, he said, was not done transparently. (In a July letter to education officials, Mr. Cerf noted additional support from Startup: Education, a foundation launched by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg that is engaged in turnaround work in Newark schools.)

But he directed much of his ire at the plan itself: Mandating that schools improve while holding the threat of closure over their heads, and at the same time trying to “bypass” district governance, creates the wrong atmosphere for schools to improve, he argued.

Instead, he said, what works for troubled schools is intensely local efforts over a sustained period involving diverse community stakeholders, such as institutes of higher education, parents, and school boards. Such efforts, he noted, must also have “adequate funding.”

By contrast, top-down efforts that don’t work closely with the local community are doomed to fail, as the state’s own experience shows, Mr. Sciarra argued. (The center obtained and published documents on the state’s grant proposals to Broad through a public records request.)

“You couldn’t write a better script for how not to proceed,” he said.

‘Every Single Possibility’

The fears expressed by the Education Law Center are “disingenuous” and overblown, said Ms. Morgan, arguing that the point of using outside groups is to provide the department with expertise it lacks. Arizona’s work with English-language learners and Montana’s efforts in rural districts are two possible policy approaches New Jersey could adapt for itself, she said.

“We are looking at every single possibility if these schools do not turn around, ... and that’s what the research is for,” Ms. Morgan said.

Essentially, the state believes its turnaround strategies combine the best of outside research and close support of school stakeholders. The achievement centers, rather than a representation of a rigid state takeover, are designed to work closely with districts and schools, she said, even as the state pledges to act “aggressively” towards schools that continue to perform poorly. (The waiver plan does call for regional centers to discuss strategies with school and district leaders as part of a “collaborative” effort, although it does not say district and school leaders must sign off on those strategies.)

Nothing in the proposal to the Broad Foundation would shock anyone who read the NCLB waiver application, Ms. Morgan said.

While local school officials believe the state has been clear regarding the centers, said Frank Belluscio, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association, their main concern is that they be involved in the turnaround plans.

“We do not want to be obstructionist,” he said.

At the same time, the centers should not veer too far from state authority and become “clients” of the schools and districts they serve, said Sam Redding, the director of the Center on Innovation and Improvement, a federally funded organization based in Lincoln, Ill., that works with states in developing regional educational centers.

A version of this article appeared in the August 22, 2012 edition of Education Week as With NCLB Waiver, N.J. Lays Out Turnaround Plans

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