Live From Atlantic City

I'm in Atlantic City at New Jersey School Board Association's annual Workshop and Convention. Many of the sessions this year focus on the looming implementation of NJ's new tenure and teacher evaluation reform bill, which has many districts in a tizzy. More on that tomorrow at WHYY Newsworks.

One popular session yesterday afternoon in the commodious Convention Center was Ed. Comm. Chris Cerf's presentation to school board members, administrators, and lobbyists on his priorities for 2012-2013. Here's a few highlights.

Enrollment trends: pretty flat, but there have been significant changes in demographics. Fewer of NJ's public school students are white and many more are Hispanic. There has been an increase in children identified as economically-disadvantaged.

Student Achievement: Many NJ students perform superbly. However, there's been almost no decrease in performance gaps among racial groups, specifically black kids and white kids. For example, in 2005 there was a 32 point gap in achievement and in 2012 there was a 31 point gap. The gap between poor kids and wealthier kids has widened over that same time period. In 2005 there was a 26 point gap and in 2012 there was a 32 point gap. The low test scores, said the Commissioner are "incredibly predictive of graduate rates and college and career-readiness," adding, "our central mission is to do something about that."

Good new and bad news on the HSPA: We're starting to close the achievement gap on NJ's High School Proficiency Assessment. However, the HSPA is considered an 8th grade level test and will be replaced by more rigorous exams through a consortium called PARCC.

School Funding: "Education spending in high-needs districts exceeds statewide averages."  The total nut of NJ's education costs (including state aid and local levies) is $25 billion per year. The Comm. noted Newark's annual cost per pupil of $21,706, Camden's $22,306, Trenton's $20,340, and Jersey City's $22,397, among others. (The state average is $17,352.) Our lowest-performing schools are already "well-resourced," with better student/teacher ratios and higher teacher salaries. "It's not how much we're spending but how we're spending." We'll have to make some "courageous choices."

What's the DOE Doing About It?: "Investing in what matters," "exchanging autonomy and empowerment for accountability," and "prioritizing resources and support to lowest-performing schools to close the achievement gap." "We are committed to taking a state that has always led in the quantity of data" to a state that presents data transparently, "without spin." And, "I think that most of our schools and districts are doing just fine without a bunch of bureaucrats telling them what to do."