Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.

                                                                               -- William Butler Yeats

Why New Jersey Needs School Reform

New Jersey requires students to pass the High School Proficiency Assessment (HESPA) to graduate. Beginning in their junior year, students may attempt the exam three times. Passing scores for language arts and mathematics are 47 percent and 50 percent respectively. Students who cannot pass the exam after three tries may take the Alternative High School Assessment (AHSA), a successor to the discredited Special Review Assessment (SRA). Virtually every student who took the SRA passed and graduated.

Derrell Bradford, Director of Excellent Education for Everyone, reviewed this year’s AHSA results. Among his findings are:

  • Almost all of the 10,308 New Jersey students who took the AHSA failed it in 2009. As an alternative to the HSPA, the AHSA should be the easier test. But students who couldn’t pass the HSPA also couldn’t pass the alternative exam.

  • In 2009, the State Department of Education (DOE) conducted a review of the course work of students who had repeatedly failed the HSPA. The DOE found that 90 percent of these students took and passed Algebra I. Eighty-six percent passed geometry, while 71 percent and 91 percent took and passed Algebra II and Biology respectively.

So these students who couldn’t pass HSPA, which is described as a “middle school level exam,” somehow took and passed rigorous math and science courses.

The great majority of students who cannot pass HSPA are in the failing schools of New Jersey’s urban districts. When these students took the earlier alternative exam, the SRA, virtually everyone passed and was graduated. Now, these students cannot pass either the HSPA or the new alternative exam. Yet most have received passing grades from their teachers in demanding high school courses.

These students and New Jersey’s citizens can be termed victims of fraud. The grades and the diplomas awarded are worse than worthless, as they attempt to deceive students, their parents, and potential employers.

How can the State’s legislators, education officials, and local school boards permit this injustice for students, and for all New Jersey’s citizens?

Do Charter Schools Work? Findings from Research

A recent article in Education Week (July 14, 2010), reviews results from several studies of charter schools’ effectiveness. Before we look at the findings, a caveat: no matter how carefully these studies are conducted and analyzed, we must be cautious in generalizing from their relatively modest samples to the 5,000 charter schools in the U.S.

  • Mathematica Policy Research of Princeton studied 2,330 students who applied to 36 charter schools in 15 states. The study met the gold standard of educational research by drawing on random samples of students admitted by lottery to charter schools. The study concluded that “students enrolled in the charter schools performed, on average, no better in reading and mathematics than their peers who lost out in the random admissions process and enrolled in nearby public schools.”     

  • Another Mathematica study released in June 2010, found that student gains in mathematics after three years in a charter school run by the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) are large enough in about half the schools to narrow significantly race- and income-based achievement gaps among students. The gains in math after three years in the KIPP schools equaled 1.2 years of additional instruction, and .9 years of additional instruction in reading.

  • A study of charter schools’ effectiveness was conducted by the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes at Stanford University. This non-randomized study concluded that, in general, charter schools were producing similar or worse results for students than were traditional schools.

  • Opposite conclusions were reached by Caroline Hoxby, also of Stanford. She used random samples of applicants who enrolled in New York City charter schools versus those applicants who could not be admitted because of charter school apace limitations and who attended traditional schools. According to the Hoxby study, New York City’s charter schools yield significant positive results in student achievement.

The apparently incompatible conclusions from these studies can be better understood by focusing on the question “What kind of students do or do not benefit from attending charter schools?”

The four studies listed here provide some preliminary and tentative data that, in general, show that charter schools provide considerable gains in academic achievement for educationally disadvantaged students while showing no advantage for more educationally or economically fortunate students. The divergent findings from the two Mathematica studies indicates that some charter schools are much more effective than others.

The effectiveness of the relatively recent charter school movement obviously needs further studies equal in quality to those cited above. The question “Do charter schools work?’ should be refined by asking, “In what charter schools do which students learn significantly better than in comparable traditional schools?” The question that should immediately follow is, “Why? That is, how do these successful schools differ from their regular system counterparts? Do they hold different expectations and standards for their students? Are they better able to enlist parental support for their programs? How do their curricula differ in content, sequencing, and teaching methods from less successful schools? How many hours of instruction do their students receive annually?

Research should also expand the measure of achievement used in these studies to include student, parent, and teacher satisfaction, rate of dropouts for high schools, and evidence of behavioral differences in terms of incidents of violence or student suspensions.

July 2010

Follow the Child

To discover an explanation for some complicated matter, an old and wise counsel is to "follow the money." Looking for an explanation of the terrible state of education for children in too many urban schools, like Trenton Central High, in comparison with more successful schools, like Montgomery High, this adage leads to some understanding. In Trenton, most of the funding comes from the State, simply because the local tax base cannot support the schools adequately. In Montgomery, nearly all the budget comes from local taxes.

Now we look at the money flow as it impacts the focus of people on the job. In Trenton, the teachers and administrators look toward the department of education and the legislature as their clients. These are the source of their funding, and they do whatever seems necessary and effective to make their clients happy. In Montgomery, the teachers and administrators give their attention to the parents and children, to the PTA and the local school board, because these are their clients.

So, we can explain how it is that in Montgomery the children get what they need, and wind up with a fine education, while in Trenton, the real needs of children scarcely enter the picture because they are not the clients from whom resources flow. Of course there are exceptional teachers and principals in the Trenton schools, just as there are in Montgomery, but their job is more difficult because they have to look in the opposite direction from the child and her parents. They are hired and fired by educational policy makers, and attend to union leaders whose agendas are very different from that of a mother or a PTA committee. In Montgomery the client and the source of funding are the same, so the focus is not divided or diverted.

Let us ask, then, why should we not ensure that the client is always the child and his or her family? A simple rule to make that happen is for the educational money, whatever its source in local or state taxes, to follow the child. Then we will see democracy and competitive economics in action. Let money follow the child, and better education will follow the money.

New Jersey’s Schools: Good News, Bad News

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) , the only nation-wide test comparing schools by state, New Jersey schools are at least average, and often well above average in student test scores. The state’s eighth graders rank 14th in reading and 3rd in math. In science, the state’s fourth and eighth graders rank 25th in the nation. In fourth grade reading and math, only Massachusetts has higher average scores. So the good news for New Jerseyans is that, on average, their public school students are learning at or well above the national norms. New Jersey taxpayers may find this information consoling, since the average per pupil expenditure in New Jersey is the highest in the country.

In comparing per student funding, expenditures in affluent versus impoverished school districts works in reverse of what we would expect. Years ago, New Jersey’s Supreme Court mandated very large annual funding of schools in some 21 of the state’s poorest urban schools. As a result, schools in impoverished communities like Trenton receive as much as $24,000 per student, while neighboring affluent communities like Princeton or West Windsor spend $8,000 - $10,000 less. Because poor urban communities have low tax bases, their school funds are drawn almost entirely from state income tax proceeds. More prosperous communities support their schools almost entirely from local property taxes (the nation’s highest).

Note that term “average.” When we speak of average student assessment results, we are lumping together the large number of outstanding students who are in schools within communities of well-educated and affluent populations like Milburn or Morristown with those in New Jersey’s impoverished urban communities like Newark, Camden, and Trenton. A typical example of these stark differences in student learning can be seen in comparing the results for Milburn Senior High School and Camden High School on the Language Arts and Mathematics tests of High School Proficiency:

 High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) 2007-08

 Marginal Proficient Advanced
 Milburn  Language 
  3% 69.4% 27.6%
 Milburn Mathematics  3.9%   26.4%  
 Camden Language
   73.6%    26.4% 0%
 Camden Mathematics 87.1% 12.9% 0%

This example tells us that New Jersey operates two sets of public schools: one that produces good results for the children of affluent parents, and quite a different result for children from severely impoverished homes. These differences are not determined by what the children bring to school, but what they find when they arrive.

New Jersey’s failing urban schools are truly bad news. Not only for the youngsters who experience constant failure, drop out of school, and have almost no hope of finding decent jobs, but for every New Jersey resident and taxpayer who will support them. To be sure, Camden does not receive the well-prepared students that attend Milburn's schools. But Camden's school system has failed to provide the environment and curricula that would enable its students to achieve, and this must be changed.

A Successful School

What is a successful school? It’s a school in which students learn knowledge and skills that enable them advance their learning and to lead happy and productive lives. The schools we especially honor are those that help students succeed despite handicaps of severe poverty and learning disadvantages. There are many such successful schools in this country.

One example is George Hall Elementary School, in Mobile Alabama. This school is in a high-poverty, high crime area of Mobile. Every student is African-American, most are trapped in intergenerational poverty. These children begin school with limited vocabularies and scant background knowledge.

In 2004, the school’s abysmal performance on state indicators led the school district essentially to close the school, then reopen with a new principal, and with teachers obliged to reapply for their jobs after being interviewed and evaluated.

Today, under vigorous new leadership, George Hall School is one of the highest performing achievers in the state, according to state and national standardized assessments. Among the school's distinctions are:

  • Designated a “National Blue Ribbon School” in 2008

  • One of a few schools in the state rated a perfect 10 on the Great Schools rating system

  • Its strongest feature is the Accelerated Reading Program that has resulted in large gains in literacy. Accelerated Reading is a daily instructional and assessment software system created by Renaissance Learning.

  • In Grade 3 Reading, 100 percent of students meet/exceed state standards; state average is 85 percent.

  • In Grade 3 Math, 99 percent meet/exceed standards; state average is 78 percent.

  • Results in Grade 5 are equally stellar, with advantages of 12 – 22 percentiles over state averages in reading and math.

  • The school’s achievements have been featured in several journals, most recently in U.S. News and World Report (Jan.2, 2010).

How has George Hall School turned around its failing curriculum and proven thateducationally disadvantaged student can learn? Two qualities can be readily identified: first, a strong emphasis on language, especially reading. The earliest grades emphasize decoding skills; in these early years, teachers read to their students for vocabulary building and general background knowledge. Building on this foundation, students are led rapidly to more complex language acquisition.

A second explanation for this school’s success is leadership. In 2004, the newly-installed principal declared her guiding conviction that George Hall students could and would learn. Given those expectations, the staff installed a system for intensively remedying students’ most serious deficiency, that of language knowledge and skills.

This example of a school that successfully teaches disadvantaged students in an impoverished urban neighborhood is being multiplied many times throughout the nation. There is no question that New Jersey’s failing schools can be added to the list. The prescription is simple: good leadership and a clear-minded emphasis on basic skills from beginning to end.


Surprise is good for education. Kids love to be surprised, and we all suddenly pay attention in a remarkably potent way when something truly unexpected happens. The mind is designed to see what changes, and we learn quickly and permanently if our attention is powerfully focused. So, here's a "surprise" book recommendation: Flatland, A Romance of Many Dimensions. This is an old book, written in 1894, which many of us read in high school or college, and it is one that sticks with us -- at least it does with me. It is a small book, and my memory (some 50 years old, probably) is of having suddenly a powerful new perspective and insight about the nature of the real dimensional world in which we live, the world of space and time. But the book was not written primarily about geometry and dimensions. It is a satirical novella by the English schoolmaster Edwin Abbott Abbott. Writing pseudonymously as "a square", Abbott used the fictional two-dimensional world of Flatland to offer pointed observations on the social hierarchy of Victorian culture. But the novella's more enduring contribution is its examination of dimensions. In a foreword to the novella, noted science writer Isaac Asimov described Flatland as "The best introduction one can find into the manner of perceiving dimensions". [Description extracted from Wikipedia]

This small book should be considered for recommended reading by kids in middle school. About the time they are learning (it is to be hoped) the rudiments of geometry, they also are learning very clearly where they live, as persons in a complex society. The surprise will be, I suspect, that the kids would love this book -- its simplicity of form and presentation, almost cartoon and game-like, will appeal. And the surprise of a new, unimagined perspective on what it means to be a 3-dimensional being looking into a truly different world of two dimensions will be unforgettable. More intense, and more difficult, is the unimaginable challenge of looking the other direction, so to speak, into the "multidimensional" world outside of youthful experience. If you are a square living in a two dimensional Flatland, how can you envision a sphere? This is the second and more important surprise. When you think about it, looking out from our personal experience toward worlds suggested by books, TV, movies, but otherwise untouchable, is a common feature of life. We get a romanticized whiff of what's there, but we make up imaginary notions of others' lives that may create problems we could do without. Abbott called his book a "romance" but he aimed it straight at the social world in which an educator lives, with its layers and complexities. His little book might be surprisingly helpful in the challenge of arming students with the tools and perspectives to succeed. We all do better to enter and engage the world with open eyes, and Flatland is a sharp rap on the table. Attention, wake up!

Flatland (5th edition, 1963), 1983 reprint with foreword by Isaac Asimov, HarperCollins, ISBN 0-06-463573-2