Herald News: Fixing Schools

November 18, 2011

CYNICS say the best thing about the No Child Left Behind Act is its name.

While we're not going that far, it's apparent that the federal law has some significant flaws. Ever since it was passed with bipartisan support in 2001, New Jersey educators have questioned a labeling system that rates a school as "failing" if a small group of students fails to meet state targets on a standardized test. By that measure, a lot of New Jersey schools are failing. Figures show that last year, 56 percent of New Jersey schools failed to meet benchmarks under the act.

Labeling a school as failing can have serious ramifications. Even though the failure could be attributed to the struggles of a small number of special needs students or other groups, the label taints the entire school in the eyes of the community. That can be a hard obstacle for local school district officials to overcome.

Higher officials are beginning to act on the problem. The Obama administration says it will offer waivers from provisions of the act to states that establish plans to improve struggling schools. And on Wednesday, Governor Christie and Christopher Cerf, the acting education commissioner, announced plans to do just that.

Visiting Secaucus High School, the governor and Cerf proposed dividing the state's estimated 2,500 public schools into various categories. From the best to the worst, the categories would be reward, focus and priority. The lowest-ranking schools would be labeled "priority" to emphasize the state's intention to give them the most attention. If that ranking system were in effect today, the only "priority" schools in Bergen and Passaic counties under a preliminary state list would be six schools in Paterson. Statewide, there would be 74 priority schools, 179 focus schools and 138 reward schools according to the state's preliminary list.

Cerf said that the state would seek to improve priority schools by replacing staff or lengthening the school day. He also proposed withholding state aid, but if a school is truly underperforming, it's hard to see it performing better if state aid is substantially cut.

Schools in the focus category would be schools with major achievement gaps. Those in the reward category are proposed to get monetary bonuses for good work, which could be problematic in a state with financial problems.

The state's latest proposals were welcomed by some superintendents and criticized by others. The New Jersey Education Association dismissed the heavy emphasis on testing as No Child Left Behind on "steroids." While that response is clever, we think it's important to evaluate the job schools are doing. The state should get an answer on its waiver application by January. However, Cerf says he wants to implement the new system of tracking schools even if the waiver is denied. Given the fact there is bipartisan agreement that No Child Left Behind is not working as well as planned, it's good to see the Christie administration taking a different approach.

It is also noteworthy that education policy has become refreshingly bipartisan – at least for now. Both Christie and the Obama administration are on the same page on not only tweaking No Child Left Behind, but in supporting such things as merit pay for teachers and charter schools. If only we could trap that bipartisan spirit and apply it elsewhere.