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Failing District Improves After State Takeover

In 1989, the state of New Jersey, employing its pioneering but controversial “academic bankruptcy” law for the first time, seized control of the failing and corrupt Jersey City public schools.

Reacting to reports of chronic fiscal mismanagement, nepotism, cronyism, and crumbling school buildings, state officials abolished the local school board and removed the superintendent and other top administrators, replacing them with state appointees. Such severe steps were necessary, the state argued, if the local schools were ever to get back on the right track.

Now, four years later, a new study by an independent evaluator has concluded that the state takeover has resulted in significant educational, managerial, and fiscal improvements for the troubled district. The “takeover is working,” says the report, written by the consulting firm Arthur Andersen & Co. “By most reasonable measures, quantitative and qualitative, the Jersey City Public Schools have improved substantially since the takeover.”

The report urges state officials to consider extending the period of state control. Under the current arrangement, a return to local control could occur as early as the 1994-95 academic year. “The substantial progress that has occurred in providing thorough and efficient education to the children of Jersey City could be affected adversely if state control ends in two years,” the report concludes. “We believe that up to three additional years beyond the 1994-95 school year are needed to implement the programs and controls to institutionalize quality education.”

The Arthur Anderson study evaluated the Jersey City takeover in five major areas: management, educational programs, community relations, finance, and facilities. Significant progress has been made in each area, the report indicates. Among other things, the study found that district schools have been reorganized into clusters of elementary and high schools; principals now have greater control of their buildings than before; a revised curriculum at all levels and a career-education program have been introduced; and tough new financial controls on district funds have been instituted.

Leader Of Reform Initiative Quits

In a move that surprised many national education leaders, Ann McLaughlin announced in February that she will resign as the president and chief executive officer of the New American Schools Development Corp.

Citing a number of outside commitments, McLaughlin said she is unable to devote the time necessary to effectively lead the Arlington, Va.-based corporation, a private, nonprofit foundation created by business leaders at the behest of President Bush to raise $200 million to create a generation of “break the mold schools.”

“Sadly but realistically,” McLaughlin said, she had reached the conclusion that continuing as president would not be fair to her, the corporation, or her other commitments. McLaughlin, who was appointed to the position just last summer, serves on the boards of nine corporations and five nonprofit organizations, and is the president of the Federal City Council, a group of business and civic leaders dedicated to improving the nation’s capital. She was President Reagan’s secretary of labor.

Saul Cooperman, president of educational programs at the Amelior Foundation and chairman of NASDC’s education advisory panel, said he was “startled” by the news. “I really liked her,” he said. “I think she was a very take-charge, get-to-the-heart-of-matters, no-nonsense person.”

Observers speculated that McLaughlin’s departure, while not precipitated by the change in presidential administrations, will clear the way for the organization to select a leader who is not as closely associated with the Reagan and Bush era.

McLaughlin took the helm of the organization at a particularly difficult time. Fund-raising had become more difficult due to hard times among the businesses that have been the initiative’s chief backers. To date, the organization has raised about $48 million. During McLaughlin’s tenure, NASDC received only one new grant—$3.6 million from General Motors Corp.

No date has been set for selecting a successor to McLaughlin. In the interim, NASDC will be led by its four-member executive management council.

Group Drafts Standards For Novice Teachers

A consortium of state policymakers and representatives of the teaching profession has developed a model set of standards for beginning teachers that identifies for the first time the “common core” of knowledge and skills all new teachers should possess.

The Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium, a project sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers, is now seeking comment on the model standards for licensing teachers. The group also plans to develop standards for new teachers in specific subject areas and to create prototypes of assessments that states could use to evaluate candidates for licensure.

Unlike most current state requirements for teacher licensure, the model standards describe what novice teachers should know and be able to do rather than what courses they should have completed.

The effort was begun in order to help states make their requirements for initial licensure compatible with the work of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. In devising the common core of standards for new teachers, the interstate consortium drew heavily on the work of the national board, a privately incorporated group that is developing a system of voluntary national certification to recognize outstanding teachers.

The consortium also decided to undertake the project because a number of states are currently overhauling their licensure standards and because various subject matter groups are setting standards for what students should know and be able to do, according to Linda Darling-Hammond, chairwoman of the consortium’s standards-drafting committee. “We aren’t going to be able to achieve our goals if we only prepare teachers to cover the book,” she explains.

Members of the consortium hope that the model standards will be used as a guide by states interested in revising their licensing procedures and by professional organizations concerned with teacher education and development. Currently, says Darling-Hammond, a professor of curriculum and teaching at Columbia University’s Teachers College, there is “a huge disparity across the states in terms of the nature of standards for teacher licensure and the rigorousness of those standards.” The level of interest in the consortium’s standards-setting project—40 states are involved—could mean that such gaps will close.

The model standards were drawn up over the past year and a half by a drafting committee that included representatives of 18 states and a number of professional associations, including both national teachers’ unions, the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, and the National Council on Accreditation of Teacher Education. The consortium expects to issue a final set of standards in June, after gathering feedback.

The draft standards are organized into 10 “principles”; each includes an explanation of what teachers must know and be able to do. The principles state that new teachers should:

• Understand their discipline and how to teach it to students;

• Know how children learn and develop and be able to provide learning opportunities that support that development;

• Understand that students learn differently and adapt their instruction to diverse learners;

• Use a variety of instructional strategies to encourage critical thinking, problem-solving, and performance skills;

• Create environments that encourage positive social interaction, active learning, and self motivation;

• Understand effective communication techniques and use them in the classroom;

• Plan instruction based on knowledge of subject, students, the community, and curriculum goals;

• Use formal and informal assessment strategies to evaluate and ensure the continuous development of the learner;

• Continually evaluate their own practice and seek opportunities to grow professionally; and

• Foster relationships with colleagues, parents, and community agencies to support students’ learning and well-being.

Copies of the draft standards are available at no charge from Jean Miller at the Council of Chief State School Officers, 1 Massachusetts Ave., N.W., Suite 700, Washington, DC 20001-1431; (202) 336-7048.

New Assessments For New Teachers

The Educational Testing Service has unveiled a new, three-part assessment package that states can use in licensing teachers.

The new tests, called the Praxis Series: Professional Assessments for Beginning Teachers, will replace the NTE (once known as the National Teacher Examinations) over the next five years, company officials say. The NTE, a basic-skills test, currently is used by 33 states.

Prospective teachers in several states will begin taking the first two sections of the Praxis Series as early as next fall. Catherine Havrilesky, executive director of the ETS’s teacher programs and services, says every state that now uses the NTE has met with company officials about the new assessments, and none has said “we are not interested.”

The Praxis Series is designed to assess skills at different stages in a new teacher’s training. The first component, Praxis I, is a basic-skills test in reading, writing, and mathematics that candidates can take either on a computer or in paper-and-pencil format. This part of the assessment package is designed to be administered to college sophomores who are considering becoming teachers. For candidates who need to improve their skills, ETS has put together a computer-based brush-up course.

The second component of the series, Praxis II, is designed to test prospective teachers’ knowledge of their chosen fields as they finish their college educations. Each of the assessments—in physical sciences, general sciences, chemistry, physics, biology, mathematics, physical education, French, Spanish, elementary education, music, art, social studies, and English language, literature, and composition—includes a core multiple-choice test.

To provide states with flexibility, the Praxis II assessments also include optional “modules” that require candidates to write essays on topics that are difficult to test with multiple-choice questions. The elementary education assessment, for example, includes a two-hour multiple-choice test and an optional, two-hour “performance assessment” that asks the candidate to write four 30-minute essays. A sample essay question asks the candidate to analyze writing produced by a 2nd grader and to suggest how the student’s skills could be improved.

The final stage, Praxis III, sends trained assessors to observe new teachers’ performance in the classroom during their first year on the job. It combines written documentation, interviews with the teacher, and in-class observations. The testing company has been working with California, Delaware, and Minnesota on this third leg of the series.

Gregory Anrig, president of the ETS, says the new assessments are “radically different” from the NTE because they offer candidates feedback and help in upgrading their skills, are based on a national job analysis of teaching conducted by the ETS, and provide states with greater flexibility. He adds that the ETS is keeping an eye on the work of the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium, which currently is crafting standards for beginning teachers. (See preceding item.) He believes that the Praxis tests will complement that effort.

ETS officials also note that the new assessments are more “culturally responsive” than the NTE, which has been criticized as a barrier to minority teachers. But FairTest, a watchdog group that has been critical of the NTE, has called the Praxis Series a “repackaging of current ETS exams.” Praxis III, it says, may be the only real innovation.

ETS officials, however, say the new tests are based on extensive research and involvement of teachers nationwide, including many members of minority groups.

Judge Orders An Overhaul

Legislators in North Dakota earlier this year joined a growing number of state lawmakers across the nation who have been chastised by courts for permitting gross inequities in their school finance systems and ordered to come up with something fairer.

They were given this ignoble distinction in February when District Judge William Hodny determined that North Dakota’s 20year-old school finance statutes violated both the education and equal protection articles of the state constitution and thus required a “comprehensive overhaul.” The funding disparities between school districts in the state, Hodny wrote, “sounded a warning a long time ago and should have been heeded.” He ordered lawmakers to establish a new system within six months that would fully comply with the constitution by the end of four years.

The ruling offers further evidence of the increasing success of court challenges to school finance systems across the nation. Only one month earlier, a Missouri judge struck down that state’s education funding methods.

The all-encompassing North Dakota decision, which ran 234 pages and followed a month-long trial last summer, marked a victory for nine school districts and a host of parents, taxpayers, and students who filed the suit more than three years ago.

Hodny found that the state’s finance system, which relies heavily on local revenues generated by property taxes, “arbitrarily and irrationally denies equal educational opportunities to children in low-wealth districts.” The system, the judge wrote, violates the constitutional requirement that the legislature provide for a “uniform system of free public schools throughout the state” by turning over that obligation to districts having vastly different amounts of taxable wealth.

State officials say they plan to appeal Hodny’s ruling to the state supreme court. In order to uphold a finding of unconstitutionality, four of the five justices on the high court must agree with the lower court’s ruling.

Charter-School Bids Trickle In

After the California legislature opened the way for the creation of “charter schools” last year, state education officials braced for a flood of requests from educators wishing to set up one of the independent, publicly funded schools. And because the new law limits the number of such schools to 100 statewide, the officials feared they would have a political problem on their hands.

They needn’t have worried. The flood of requests has not materialized. In February, the state board of education approved the first nine proposals, and officials found themselves in the awkward position of having to downplay the slow startup.

“Everyone has realized that putting together a functioning charter is simply more complicated than our first take on it,” said Merrill Vargo, director of regional programs and special projects for the state education department. “At this point, we’re not concerned that there are only nine. If a year from now there are still only nine, we’ll think there are some problems.”

But Vargo said she does not expect that. Why? Because draft proposals from several large urban districts have already crossed her desk, and phone calls are pouring in.

School Chief Is Sentenced

Bill Honig, the longtime California schools chief convicted on felony conflict-of-interest charges, was sentenced in late February to 1,000 hours of community service and ordered to repay the state grants that led to the charges.

Sacramento Superior Court Judge James Long agreed with the recommendation of state prosecutors and probation officials that Honig not be required to serve jail time; he suspended a one-year sentence in the county jail. Instead, Judge Long ordered Honig to pay a $337,590 fine, spend four years on probation, and log 1,000 hours of community service within eight months. Prosecutors asked that he not be allowed to perform his community service work near children, calling him an unfit role model.

Speaking outside the courtroom, a bitter Honig called the sentence “harsh.” The former superintendent had asked that the charges be reduced from felonies to misdemeanors. “I’ve paid my price,” he said, “but the question is: How much is enough?”

Honig, who has been one of the country’s preeminent education- al leaders, was convicted on charges resulting from four grants awarded by his office to the Quality Education Project, a national parental-involvement program that was run by his wife, Nancy, out of their San Francisco home. While prosecutors did not dispute that the grant money paid for the local programs, a jury decided that Honig stood to potentially benefit from the grants and thus was guilty under a state conflict-of-interest statute. Honig said he intends to appeal the verdict.

Following sentencing, California Gov. Pete Wilson appointed Marian Bergeson, a Republican state senator who has been a teacher and a school board member, to finish the term of the ousted superintendent. Her appointment must be confirmed by the legislature.

Vol. 04, Issue 07, Pages 6, 8-11

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