Corzine and Christie on Ed Reform and RTTT

The near-simultaneous release of NJ’s Race To The Top application and The Education Subcommittee Report conveniently provides an opportunity to compare Corzine’s and Christie’s vision for educational reform. Here’s a few contrasts: Corzine/Davy envision a grander and more powerful DOE, weighted with additional oversight; Christie/Schundler look towards a diminished role for the DOE. Corzine/Davy say, “full speed ahead” with our increased graduation requirement and academic rigor; Christie/Schundler say "slow down" until we get poor urban districts properly outfitted. Corzine/Davy make no distinction between the needs of high and low performing districts; Christie/Schundler envision more local control for the former. Corzine/Davy see minimal expansion of charter schools and no expansion of interdistrict programs. Christie/Schundler are impatient to expand both.

Here’s the irony: our RTTT application is supposed to propose a package of meaningful reform but; sadly, with few exception, it doesn’t. On the other hand, the Education Subcommittee’s recommendations, if fully implemented, would substantially alter our educational infrastructure and landscape and is more in line with RTTT goals than our actual RTTT application.

For example, one of the tenets of RTTT is an expansion of school choice. Here’s an excerpt from our RTTT application on the subject of charter schools, which begins by noting that NJ’s charter statutes were originally adopted in 1995 and the number of allowable schools was capped at 135:
Since January 11, 2000…there are not longer any caps on either the number of charter schools in the state or the size of any individual charter. As of December 31, 2009, there were 68 charter schools opened and operating in New Jersey…Since charter legislation was adopted by New Jersey in 1995, the DOE has received 365 charter school applications…The large number of application withdrawals or non-completions in earlier years was attributable to the relative inexperience of applicants, many of whom were unable to raise sufficient funds and secure facilities between approval and the planned opening.
There is no mention of any shift in the way we facilitate charter approvals or offer aid for facilities. We’ve got our plan and it’s working.

However, the Education Subcommittee report is a different animal, advocating opening 5-10 new charters by September, investing the authority to approve charters in multiple boards, expediting the process, and offering facilities aid. Sound familiar? It would if you’ve read the July 2009 report from the Hall Institute on Public Policy, which makes many of the same recommendations. (It also notes that NJ's statutory ability of local districts to appeal new charters may serve as an impediment and explain why “no great augmentation of the charter school count has occurred since the beginning of charter schools in New Jersey.”)

Here’s another illustration: we already have a program called Interdistrict School Choice, which allows children in one district to cross over to another district in the same county. However, this “choice” is limited to 900 kids. (See our discussion here.) Our RTTT application refers to this program as an example of our innovation yet concludes, “[a]t this point, Interdistrict school choice has reached its capacity for participation.” Christie’s report? “Expand the Interdistrict School Choice program.”

Corzine/Davy, and our RTTT application, envision a growing role for the NJ DOE, which would administer, grade, and distribute internal assessments, provide professional development to teachers and principals, produce “exemplar units” of instruction, create “a network of instructional coaches, and devise a “curriculum and assessment spine.” From the application:
With Race to the Top funding, New Jersey will provide intensive, content-focused
professional development to teachers across the state, delivered through county offices and onsite and online through a network of instructional coaches, to support teachers delivering this hard-to-teach content through the curriculum spine.
Even the ability of LEA’s to evaluate district teachers is limited: “LEA’s will have the opportunity to add transparent, rigorous and valid measure to the…evaluation. However, in order to maintain the integrity of the state-level system, these measure may not exceed 15% of the overall weight.”

Christie and Schundler propose taking a hands-off approach to high-performing districts (after defining the difference between high and low performers, which we don’t do now), eliminating county offices and executive county superintendents, and limiting the oversight of minutiae. There’s an assumption that functional districts need less help than dysfunctional ones. Davy’s take is that all teachers need help, and maybe even some coddling. Listen:
Data Analysis – In a data-driven culture, the abundance of data can quickly overwhelm educators, especially those without a mathematics background. New Jersey will help educators learn to ask good analytic questions and to use multiple data sources to draw appropriate inferences from the data they are accessing.
Is it us, or does this sound a trifle condescending?

Interestingly, our RTTT application plows ahead with increased academic rigor required for high school graduation, in spite of the outcry from advocates for poor urban kids, particularly the Education Law Center. Christie/Schundler back off a bit, acknowledging that our failure rate at poor urban schools is already distressingly high; in addition, these schools often don’t have adequate lab facilities for newly-required science requirements. (Where’d all that Abbott money go? Beats us.)

While no one can fault Davy for not working hard enough to make a tight deadline, it's hard to picture our currently clumsy and cumbersome DOE efficiently navigating a sea change of any magnitude. It's also hard to comprehend the NJEA leadership's truculent opposition to what turns out to be a largely conciliatory application. NJEA's two scapegoats of dissent -- increased standardized testing and merit pay -- are largely absent. (Internal assessments such as the ones specified in the RTTT application -- Learnia and NWEA -- are quick, differentiated, computer-based snapshots easily incorporated into instruction. The merit pay proposal is per school, not per teacher, and seemingly more palatable to union stalwarts.)

So maybe the US DOE will reject our RTTT proposal. Here's some hope: Commissioner Schundler has a pretty good working draft for the next round in June.

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