New Jersey granted NCLB waiver

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Local school district unsure of effects

New Jersey was among 10 states granted waivers from the requirements of the No Child Left Behind law last week, but what that means for local school districts remains to be seen.

Gov. Chris Christie said comprehensive, aggressive and ambitious educational reforms would help turn failing schools around and deliver a quality education to every student. Part of a national, bipartisan reform movement being pursued around the country, Christie said this “proves that New Jersey is leading the way on the issues that matter most to our children's future and our shared future as a state and nation.”

“The Obama Administration's approval of our education reform agenda confirms that our bold, common sense, and bipartisan reforms are right for New Jersey and shared by the president and Secretary Duncan's educational vision for the country,” Christie said. “This is not about Democrats or Republicans – it is about pursuing an agenda in the best interest of our children whose educational needs are not being met, and those who are getting a decent education, but deserve a great one.”

Ocean City Superintendent Kathleen Taylor said school leaders are awaiting more information about the impact of the change on individual districts. Acting Commissioner of Education Christopher Cerf sent a memo last week, she said, but it offered few details.

“We do know that things are going to change, but we’re not sure how,” she said.

The Ocean City School District is one of 10 statewide selected to participate in the Excellent Educators for New Jersey program, a pilot teacher evaluation system for the 2011-2012 school year.

Based on the recommendations of a task force report dated March 2011, the new evaluation system will provide meaningful, actionable feedback to teachers and school and administrators to better help all students. Pilot districts will have the opportunity to help shape the new system from its inception and will provide critical information and guidance to the New Jersey Department of Education.

Taylor said Ocean City’s participation in the program puts the district at an advantage as possible changes are implemented.

“It’s good that we are in the pilot program,” she said.

A change of this magnitude, she said, means that seat at the table is much more valuable. Ocean City will be ahead of the curve.

“We’re continuing with teacher training next week,” she said. “We will be utilizing a new teacher observation tool after that. We’re moving along, giving input to the state. We’ve been doing walk-throughs using the new model. It’s a work in progress.”

The new model, she said, is like holding a mirror up to a teacher.

“It gives a better perspective,” Taylor said.

Changes may come in testing, scoring, and cost.

“Are we going to do the New Jersey ASK or not? We don’t know. They haven’t rolled it all yet,” she said.

The governor said the waiver is part of a broader effort to reform the state's overlapping and contradictory accountability systems and a comprehensive education reform agenda to increase academic standards, the effectiveness and talent of educators, and accountability for results in the classroom.

Implementing the reforms would make New Jersey a leader in developing a new and more meaningful accountability system to better identify troubled schools, diagnose the causes of their struggles, and target resources to improve the lowest-performing schools, he said.

Christie has advocated for four specific pieces of legislation, one of which has been enacted,  needed to achieve the education reform goals agreed upon by the Christie and Obama administrations in the NCLB waiver application.

“As we implement a new accountability system to more effectively assess, identify and intervene in troubled schools, we must also take the next steps to enact legislation to ensure our students have the most talented, effective teachers in classrooms and hurdles to innovation and creativity are removed,” he said. “There is no single solution to turn around chronically failing schools or close the achievement gap. So, it is critical that the Legislature join me, standing alongside President Obama and Secretary Duncan, in providing the comprehensive set of tools needed to give every child in every part of our state the opportunity and hope that only comes with a quality education.”

New Jersey schools, Christie said, will no longer be subject to the requisite “antiquated” NCLB accountability provisions and sanctions for not making Adequately Yearly Progress.

Christie said a “more nuanced accountability system” measuring schools based on both growth and absolute attainment, focusing state resources on drastically improving failing schools – or those with big gaps – will be in place.

Cerf said he had heard from “countless schools” over the past year that the flaws of NCLB limited their ability to identify and improve areas of need in their schools.

Partnering with educators across the state, he said a new accountability system was developed that measures schools on what matters most: how much growth they make in a given year.

“In doing so, we will give unprecedented freedom to those schools that are doing well to continue to achieve without state or federal intervention,” Cerf said. “We will also be able to identify the 15 percent of schools that need the most help and make sure we target our resources to turning them around.”

The Christie Administration outlined plans to act on three principles shared with the Obama Administration, including the support of college and career-ready expectations for all students, state-developed differentiated recognition and accountability and effective instruction and leadership.

The state will create three tiers of schools, Christie said, which will be identified using both growth and absolute proficiency. These schools will be identified during the summer, and interventions will begin in the 2012-13 school year.

Priority schools are the lowest-performing five percent of schools across the state using proficiency, growth, and graduation rates. Focus schools are those with low performance or graduation rates and achievement gaps between students of different backgrounds or races.

Reward schools are those demonstrating high proficiency levels or high levels of growth, including progress toward closing achievement gaps.  These schools will be rewarded for their achievement, Christie noted.

County offices would be eliminated in favor of seven new Regional Achievement Centers to better intervene and help priority and focus schools in the turnaround process. Interventions will include a focus on improving instruction, using data to drive decision making and expanding learning time. Financial bonuses for reward schools will be developed and opportunities to share best practices statewide offered.

School Report Cards will be redeveloped so school districts can identify areas of strength and weakness.

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