N.J. Department of Education Outlines School Reform Plan

February 29, 2012

 Changes are on the horizon for the state’s public education system, as schools prepare to adopt new curriculum requirements and make significant reforms to teacher evaluations, state Department of Education officials said Wednesday.

Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf and his staff outlined the changes before school administrators from across the state who had gathered at Jackson Liberty High School. The department oversees some 2,500 public schools, 600 school districts and 1.4 million students, said Andrew Rinko, president of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators.

Though the state’s student achievement is equal to or above national averages, U.S. students lag behind students in other countries, Cerf told the administrators. In addition to making students more competitive in the global job market, the curriculum changes will address a significant racial divide in achievement, he said.

Cerf noted New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge tests showed a 20 percentile point proficiency gap between white and Hispanic students in math, and a 31 percentile point spread between white and black students.

The divide for college readiness between students of different races has only increased over time, Cerf said.

To close the gaps and provide all students with the same educational opportunities, state officials will adopt new, more vigorous standards than are in place now.

Peter Schulman, chief talent officer for the DOE, said attracting and retaining talented teachers is a large part of the solution.

Teachers are the “single biggest in-school determent of children’s success,” Cerf said. And “talent is a key lever of change.”

The new teacher evaluation system will provide better tracking of performance, the commissioner said.

Attracting high-quality teachers poses a huge challenge for some schools, said Nathan Parker, superintendent of Summit Public Schools in Union County, and a former superintendent for Orange Township Public Schools in Essex County.

When advertising an assistant principal position in the Orange district, only 8 to 15 applicants sought the job, Parker said, while addressing DOE officials. For comparison, more than 300 people applied for a similar position in Summit’s district, he said.

“These are districts of comparable size, comparable spending per child,” Parker said. “Attracting talent in districts that have not historically been able to attract a lot of applicants is a huge challenge. It can’t be fixed by evaluations systems.”

Cerf said some blame lies in state law that requires districts to lay off teachers based on seniority and not performance.

Schools that fail to implement the department’s changes and continue to have low student achievement will face state intervention, Cerf said. The department will consider adding time to the school day, adding tutors, or handing the school over to new management teams, he said.

“When a school is under-educating so many children, we need to look at all of our options,” he said. “We can’t be timid. We can’t be cowardly.”