A Race To The Top Proposal

We were awfully hard on the Education Law Center yesterday (see below), so here’s some praise: its April 15th press release does a great job of reminding everyone that NJ’s second Race To The Top application is due in five weeks. Our first application tanked (see our analysis here and federal scores here), in large part because of lack of NJEA support: only 5% of union presidents signed off, a mortal blow in our quest for up to $400 million in federal stimulus money.

Will Comm. Schundler garner more union buy-in with NJEA’s leadership on our next RTTT effort than did ex-Comm. Davy? Let’s see…Gov. Christie assailing teachers yesterday for using students as drug mules, NJEA members calling Gov. Christie a “fat fuck” on Facebook…well, you see how this is going. So here’s a way to bypass the rhetoric and work up an application that focuses on something we can all agree on: reforming education in our poor urban districts, the very schools discussed yesterday where only 10% of high school seniors can pass the language arts section of the newly-administered Alternative High School Assessment, where our drop-out rates approach 50%, where we have utterly failed to provide adequate education despite years of valiant advocating by ELC, vast sums of money, and endless streams of services.

That’s what Race To The Top is supposed to be about anyway, right? That intransigent achievement gap between wealthier, suburban kids (whom NJ does pretty well by educationally) and poorer, primarily urban kids (where our whole system breaks down). Recent NAEP scores prove that we’ve made no progress on closing the gap between performance of poor, mostly minority kids and wealthier, white kids. Why don’t we put together a Phase II RTTT application that punctures the pretense that our graduation rate “is the highest in the nation” and faces squarely our dismal history of segregating poor students in chronically failing schools?

We already have various lists (here’s one) of our poorest performing schools. We could put together a package of reforms that we’d apply to these specific districts while hewing closely to RTTT’s four assurances: rigorous standards that prepare students for success in college and the workforce, recruiting and retaining effective teachers, turning around low-performing schools, and building data systems to track student achievement and teacher effectiveness. For example, Camden City Schools, where 53% of high school seniors graduated only because we allow districts to ignore their academic failings through bogus assessments. Our RTTT application would mandate that, in Camden, we link teacher compensation to student growth, keep academic standards high, and expand school choice. In Camden. Wouldn’t that be an either sell for NJEA’s local units than trying to force reform in functional school districts?

Conveniently, our chronically failing districts are distributed across NJ, so in essence this is state-wide educational reform. But it would take the support of all stakeholders – NJEA, local school boards, the Legislature, the DOE, ELC too – in order to put together a convincing proposal for reform. If we focus our efforts on the kids who really need it, we might just amass the buy-in we need.

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