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3-3-14 Education Issues in the News
NJ Spotlight – Fine Print: Teacher-Tenure Law Will Take More of Supervisors' Time, Study Finds…New Montclair State analysis details extra hours supervisors will have to spend observing and judging teachers under TEACHNJ

Star Ledger - Can Christie's plan for longer school days boost U.S. education? A Q&A

NJ Spotlight - A Promise to Renew: Try, Try Again at Quitman Street Renew School…Hidden successes, public shortfalls and a make-or-break year for one Newark school

Star Ledger - Moment of truth for Newark school reform: Editorial

NJ Spotlight – Fine Print: Teacher-Tenure Law Will Take More of Supervisors' Time, Study Finds…New Montclair State analysis details extra hours supervisors will have to spend observing and judging teachers under TEACHNJ

John Mooney | March 3, 2014

 

Title: “The Opportunity Costs of Teacher Evaluation – A Labor and Equity Analysis of TEACHNJ Legislation”

Researchers: Douglas Larkin, assistant professor in Montclair State University’s Department of Secondary and Special Education, and Joseph Oluwole, associate professor of education law in MSU’s Department of Counseling and Educational Leadership.

Related Links

“The Opportunity Costs of Teacher Evaluation – A Labor and Equity Analysis of TEACHNJ Legislation

What it is: New research by two Montclair State University professors found that New Jersey’s school administrators will need to spend at least 35 percent more time observing teachers under the state’s new teacher-tenure law, known as TEACHNJ. The study measured the minimum requirements for classroom observations under the new law and matched it to the number of applicable administrators and teachers in each district in the state.

What it means: The study provides some of the first hard numbers on the increased hours being required under the new law, long a point of contention for school district officials who contend the state has done little to help them implement the teacher-evaluation changes.

The researchers stress that with the increased responsibilities in teacher evaluations, administrators’ other responsibilities have not much changed. Still, by one researchers’ own admission, the study is purely a look at the rawest data, and further study is needed to determine what impact there will be on administrators’ and teachers’ overall workload.

Quote: “Of course, teacher evaluations are taking more time now, and I don’t think anybody disagrees with that,” Larkin said yesterday. “But the issue is that it has done little to subtract from administrators’ other responsibilities.”

“It’s taking resources from something else,” he continued. “That’s the discussion not taking place: What is the trade-off?”

Methodology: Larkin and Oluwole looked at the minimum requirements under the new law compared to the old law, and matched that information to the latest state data on the number of administrators and teachers in a given district who would fall under the revamped rules.

Straight math: Under the old law, untenured teachers required at least 100 minutes of observation per year, and tenured teachers had to be observed for a minimum of 40 minutes. Under the new law, the minimums are now 100 minutes for untenured teachers and 60 minutes for tenured teachers.

The new law also adds a required fourth year for gaining tenure, compared to the previous three years.

Researchers applied those requirements to the number of administrators and their corresponding number of tenured and untenured teachers in each district to develop what the study calls “observation hours per administrator” (OHPA).

The findings: The report found the median OHPA for an administrator rising from 12.5 hours to 17.0 hours under the new law, a 35 percent increase. But the numbers varied, with one district with as many as three administrators for a faculty of just 10 teachers to those with one supervisor for close to 100 teachers.

An example: The report cited the differences between Monroe Township, where there are 20 administrators for 501 teachers, and Atlantic Highlands, with its five administrators for 34 teachers. In Monroe, the new law will boost the requirements for teacher observations from 21 to 30 hours per administrator. In Atlantic Highlands, it will increase from five to seven hours for each administrator.

The assumptions: The research only looked at district-wide data and did not evaluate school-by-school data, given that central office administrators may take responsibility for some school observations. The study also assumed that all administrators conducted teacher observations, when that may not always be the case. The study did not look at the time required beyond the observations, including the pre- and post-conferences.

What’s next: Larkin said he hopes for further study of the impact of evaluation on administrator responsibilities, including in-school interviews and other tracking of administrators’ daily workload.

“I’d hope we have laid the groundwork for that,” he said. “We just wanted to lay out the facts.”

In February, Quitman’s third- through fifth-grade classes began dividing into small, rotating groups: one at any given time working with the teacher, one doing a group activity or project, and one online working on assignments individualized to address a child’s specific deficiencies. Glover had invested $75,000 get-ting his teachers trained and buying the necessary laptops and digital content.

Blended learning is one of the most rapidly growing trends in education because it gives teachers the abil-ity to simultaneously meet the needs of various ability levels. Glover does not yet know whether it will help turn the tide for the school, but in his heart he knows this:

Related Links

Read the Entire Quitman Series.

A Newark School Leader’s Urgency to Renew

Perseverance at a Newark School Following Midyear Teacher Turnover

Special Education Expansion Brings Challenges, Hope to Newark School

It is Quitman’s make-or-break year.

Not only is the principal self-imposing a deadline to show results or seriously reconsider his path ahead, but he also wants to avoid the possibility of Quitman being placed on a school closure list next year. For both those reasons, significant improvement on NJ ASK is essential. Thanks to the extraordinary per-formance of a handful of teachers and the hard work of numerous others, Glover believes it is possible.

Yet the challenge to get scores up grows steeper still, as Quitman’s student population continues to grow even needier. This year, the school received 60 new students from two charter schools closed for poor performance. Most arrived far behind academically. Six students from a school for children with behav-ioral disabilities that was also shut down were sent to Quitman. Staff members throughout the building are identifying more students with untreated mental health issues.

Glover now needs his other hip, the right one, replaced, and his doctor wants him to do it soon. (He has avascular necrosis, a disease that restricts blood flow.) But with so much at stake for Quitman, he will not consider a surgery date before the end of June.

A New Teaching Strategy

Seeing the promise in Quitman’s NJ ASK scores requires a look behind the raw numbers. The best per-formance came in eighth-grade English, where the pass rate was 50 percent. That might not sound like much, but consider that, in 2012 as seventh graders, only 4 percent of those same students passed the state English exam.

To Glover, the improvement is proof of the power of excellent teaching. The eighth-grade English teacher is Christina Patterson-Bright, a longtime veteran of the school known for motivating instruction and a deep commitment to the students. Last year, she worked closely with Rosemary Coyle, one of Glover’s new recruits, who emphasized literacy skills in her social studies classes. Patterson-Bright and Coyle pushed the students to persevere when their math and science teachers quit midyear. Though half achieved grade-level proficiency in English, the pass rate in math was a mere 11 percent -- demonstrating the difference that teachers can make.

This year, Patterson-Bright remains at Quitman. Coyle reluctantly left in December to do a mandatory three-semester internship for a graduate program; though she hopes to return in the fall of 2015, her classes are now staffed by a long-term substitute. Seventh- and eighth-grade math are still taught by a teacher who isn’t certified in the subject, but Glover said he is dedicated and working hard, seeking guid-ance from the math consultant. To Glover, that is preferable to what he had before: a fully credentialed teacher who did not want to be there.

In his mind, last year’s midyear departures of all four sixth- through eighth-grade math and science teach-ers was no excuse for the middle grades’ poor performance on the state math test, but at least it offered an explanation for what were in some cases dramatic declines. Sixth graders saw their math pass rate fall to 32 percent from 57 percent the year before. In seventh grade, the drop was even worse: to 4 percent profi-cient from 45 percent a year earlier.

While the teachers who quit all had their own reasons for leaving, they generally were overwhelmed and ill-equipped to handle the demands of their jobs, despite the fact that three of them convinced Glover oth-erwise when he hired them the previous summer. One was a teacher the district had required him to keep on.

More perplexing were the results for third through fifth grades, where there wasn’t anything visibly wrong but something clearly was not right. In fifth grade, for instance, only 5 percent of students passed the reading test, down from 18 percent when they were fourth graders the year before.

Star Ledger - Can Christie's plan for longer school days boost U.S. education? A Q&A

 

By Julie O'Connor/The Star-Ledger NJ.com
on March 02, 2014 at 9:02 AM, updated March 02, 2014 at 9:18 AM

 

 
 
 

Gov. Chris Christie’s right: In this competitive new world, our kids are falling behind.

On international tests of critical thinking, American students do mediocre at best. We’ve tried for years to improve, to no avail, as other countries make huge strides.

It’s a national vexation. We spend more per student than nearly every other country, have more sports and activities and gadgets. So why are their kids smarter?

Could it be because they’re spending more time in class?

In his budget address last week, Christie announced he was allocating $5 million to study the idea of extending our school day and year. It’s an emerging trend across the country and a reform that’s already helped a number of highly successful charter schools in our state.

Yet while it’s true that Americans spend less time studying than students in some higher-performing countries, that’s not the whole story, says Amanda Ripley, author of “The Smartest Kids in the World — and How They Got That Way.”

Ripley, a journalist who grew up in Lawrenceville, spent a year shadowing American teenagers living in South Korea, Finland and Poland. She found that extra time can help — but it won’t necessarily make kids smarter. She recently spoke to The Star-Ledger about what works and what doesn’t around the world.

Q. First, how did you figure out which countries had the smartest kids?

Amanda Ripley, journalist and author 

A. The international test I found most relevant to the modern economy and the questions I wanted to answer is called the PISA test, which is designed to measure kids’ ability to think for themselves, to solve problems they haven’t seen before and to make an argument — not their ability to memorize. This test is given to a half-million 15-year-olds in 65 countries every three years.

Q. How do American kids stack up?

A. They do better in reading, particularly in the elementary years. As we get older, we start to fall behind. By the time our kids are 15 years old, they’re performing below average for the developing world in math and about average in reading and science.
There are now about 20 countries with higher high school graduation rates than ours. So we could be doing worse, and we could be doing better. What is probably the most disconcerting is the way socioeconomic status is so determinate in our schools. There are countries now where even if you come from a low-income family, you can more or less be confident of getting a decent education. The U.S. is no longer one of them.

Q. One solution is to extend our school day and year. Your take?

A. It’s a good idea and it’s a bad idea. On the one hand, Christie’s right that kids — particularly low-income kids — can benefit from more time in school. But the quality of the time matters far more than the quantity, past a certain baseline amount. Historically in the U.S., we have invested heavily in quantity: We have a lot of education technology, homework and tests. We spend a lot of money. But we have focused less on the quality.

If Gov. Christie can convince everyone that the quality of the extra time in school is going to be high, or if he’s going to give teachers more opportunity to prepare for that extra time, I would say, great idea. 


Q. You followed students in countries that outperform us. Are they doing better because they spend more time in class?

A. The things that seemed to matter most were not really about time, with the exception of South Korea, which is a pressure-cooker model of education. There, kids get to school at 8 a.m. and finish around 4 p.m. After that, most kids do after-school tutoring. Korean kids spend extreme amounts of time studying online, in private cram schools and in public school. They are getting to the top of the world, but doing it in a grueling, inefficient way, as anyone in Korea will tell you.

Q. Where do kids do better without putting in a lot of extra time?

A. Finland is a highly effective and humane model for getting to the top of the world. It not only has a reasonably sane school calendar, but also very few kids go to tutoring after school and they don’t have an inordinate amount of homework. Their kids are not spending a ton more time in class than our students. But they’re doing significantly better.

Q. So what’s their secret?

A. Finland is a great example of putting quality over quantity. It was not always a very impressive country, educationally speaking. In the 1950s, Finland had a 10 percent graduation rate. It was less industrialized, very agrarian. In the 1960s, the country began a period of reform. The effect of these changes over time was to make school more serious in every way — not just the work the kids were doing, but the prep and support for teachers.
In 1968, Finland shut down its education colleges, where people go to become teachers, and reopened them in only the top eight most selective universities in the country. This was controversial, but as it turned out, very smart. Because not only did you have the best-educated people becoming teachers, it sent a signal to everyone else in the country — the parents, the politicians and the kids — that education was important and teaching was hard.
We say these things in the U.S., but many of our educational colleges let almost anyone in. We try to reverse-engineer an effective teaching corps after teachers are already in the classroom, which is a very painful and ineffective approach. And you lose that signaling.
Kids in Finland know that getting into the education colleges today is as hard as getting into MIT in the U.S. They may not always like their teacher, they may complain about school or tests, but they know their teachers themselves walked the walk. I think that builds credibility and buy-in that’s more powerful than almost any other policy change.

Q. Is it easier to get rid of a bad teacher in Finland?

A. All these countries have some version of tenure. It’s extremely hard to dismiss a teacher all over the world. Teachers unions are very powerful in most countries. But in Finland, they filter out some of the low performing teachers before school starts — the high-stakes part is before they enter the classroom. Most of the top-performing countries in the world make it harder to become a teacher. This includes Canada, Japan, Singapore, Korea and Finland.

Q. Do highly paid teachers make their students smarter?

A. It’s true that most high-performing countries pay their teachers salaries that are more comparable with what other professions earn. We spend more per student but don’t pay our teachers particularly well. It’s sort of a paradox. What I’ve come to conclude is that yes, we should pay our teachers more.
But the more powerful way to compensate and recruit great teachers has less to do with money and more to do with prestige and autonomy in the classroom. Teachers in Finland do not make dramatically more than teachers in the U.S. But they are compensated in other ways. They have more time to collaborate, they have more freedom in the classroom and are more trusted by the system — partly because they had to kill themselves to get there. It’s easier to have a high-trust, high-autonomy system when you make it very hard-core up front.

Q. What about Poland, another high achiever? Do kids do extra tutoring?

A. Yes, but it’s not as intense as Korea, nor as relaxed as Finland. It’s hard to know how much this is responsible for kids’ results. Poland dramatically improved its outcomes over the past 10 years, more than tutoring can explain.
One thing that Poland did is adopt the equivalent of a Common Core standard in 2000. Over time, they have tweaked those standards to give teachers more clarity and autonomy. This is something you see in most educational superpower countries. They agree on a list of things kids should know that’s more rigorous, so there’s a common mission, and give teachers a lot of flexibility on their methods. That’s exactly what the Common Core standard is supposed to do, a plan which New Jersey and 45 other states have adopted.

Q. What else is working for powerhouse countries?

A. Parental involvement looks very different. You don’t see parents hanging out at elementary schools in Finland. You don’t see them getting involved in volunteer fundraising and coaching. You see them involved in education at home. At a very young age, parents in Korea see it as part of their jobs to help kids learn math and reading. The parents are a force multiplier for the teachers.
Our parents are not less involved — if anything, they’re more involved. But it’s in ways that don’t lead to learning. Also, in these other countries there’s clarity around what the goal of school is. You can’t get away with just showing up the way you can in many of our high schools. All over New Jersey, including in some very affluent high schools, there are far more kids playing sports than taking AP classes. That doesn’t work anymore. In this economy, you need to know what the priority is. Kids find out eventually that lacrosse is not going to take them as far as reading or math.

Q. What are our schools doing right?

A. One thing New Jersey has really tried to do more so than other states is make funding more equitable, which is what all the top-performing countries have done — try to distribute money based on need. New Jersey is still not anywhere near as equitable as Finland, but it’s a lot better than many other states. And I agree with Gov. Christie that it’s really important to send a real signal to kids and teachers that education is crucial.
Extending the school day and year could be one way to do this. It may not be the best or the most cost-effective way, but I do think kids need to believe in the system. If kids feel they’re just forced to sit there bored out of their minds for another 47 minutes, that chips away at their buy-in. But if that extra time is spent intelligently, kids can tell it’s more meaningful.

Star Ledger - Moment of truth for Newark school reform: Editorial

By Star-Ledger Editorial Board NJ.com March 01, 2014 updated March 02, 2014 at 7:56 AM

 
 
 

The political meltdown in Newark over school reform has reached an alarming stage and now threatens to derail the entire effort.

Superintendent Cami Anderson last week announced she would boycott the local school board until its president restores some semblance of order at the raucous public meetings.

That won’t help, but it’s understandable. These meeting have degraded into pointless shouting matches. It is an outrage that board President Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson allows it to go on.

But the hard truth is that Anderson has been unable to build a local coalition to support her reforms. She is not gifted in the art of political persuasion, and the rapid pace of change has provoked the status quo.

This moment is too important to allow a rowdy gaggle to derail the conversation.

Given state control of the district, Anderson has the authority to impose reforms on her own. But in the long run, her program is not sustainable without local support. A Democratic governor would almost surely return control to Newark, and the front-runner in the race for mayor, Councilman Ras Baraka, is hostile to Anderson’s reforms across the board.

Even Gov. Chris Christie may want to tap the brakes if the political heat continues to rise. Among those who have turned against Anderson is Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), an ally of the governor’s on school reform and the chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee.

So it is crunch time. And the job of turning the political tide cannot be left to Anderson alone. It is time for civic and religious leaders to engage more actively, and to insist on a civil public discussion. If the school board can’t provide for that, then the discussion should move to the city’s churches and public auditoriums.

This moment is too important to allow a rowdy gaggle to derail the conversation.

* * *

To get an idea of what Anderson is up against, consider the pending teacher layoffs. She has to shrink her teaching staff by 30 percent over the next three years, thanks to the shrinking population of district schools.

State law provides that she cannot lay off any senior teachers, no matter how ineffective they are. She must fire the least senior teachers, even if they are gifted.

To anyone who believes children, not adults, should be the top priority in the schools, this is obscene. It would force Anderson to fire hundreds of good teachers who could have lasting impact on students.

Anderson is applying for a waiver. That is a legal stretch and will surely land in court. But the education commissioner may have the authority based on his regulatory discretion, or the powers granted to him under the state Supreme Court’s Abbott rulings.

Ask yourself this: Would Newark be better off if Anderson didn’t make such a fuss? The easy path would be to follow the rules, no matter how wrong-headed. She is instead facing the wrath of the union and its allies with a bold and sensible move.

Another example: Her policies toward charter schools have provoked enormous opposition, all undeserved. Some object to her renting space in district schools to charters, even though there is ample vacant space. But these students are Newark’s children, too, and Anderson rightly feels they are her charges. And charters get no money for capital costs.

She has also found an elegant answer to the chief criticism of charter schools — that they don’t take their fair share of children who are poor, can’t speak English or have special needs. Under the “One Newark” plan, all families will choose a school from a menu of options, charter and conventional. She will then match students to schools, with a thumb on the scale to ensure that charters take their share of tough cases.

So it is time for a gut-check in Newark. If Anderson is going to win this fight, she needs help. And if she loses, the city may not see vigorous reforms for many years to come.

 

NJ Spotlight - A Promise to Renew: Try, Try Again at Quitman Street Renew School…Hidden successes, public shortfalls and a make-or-break year for one Newark school

Sara Neufeld, The Hechinger Report | March 3, 2014

 

Erskine Glover was home recovering from hip replacement surgery last summer when the scores arrived.

The principal of Quitman Street Renew School knew based on internal assessments that more than 80 percent of his students had shown growth during the 2012-2013 academic year. But he also knew that most were still not performing at grade level, and the state’s standardized tests are grade-level exams. So he was hoping for the best but bracing for bad news.

Related Links

Read the Entire Quitman Series.

A Newark School Leader’s Urgency to Renew

Perseverance at a Newark School Following Midyear Teacher Turnover

Special Education Expansion Brings Challenges, Hope to Newark School

Still, when the pass rates landed in Glover’s email box, he felt as if he’d been punched in the gut. Fourth-grade reading: 9 percent of students proficient. Fourth-grade math: 17 percent. Not all numbers were that low, but the best performance, in eighth-grade English, was 50 percent proficiency. Most grades and sub-jects saw declines, and overall, fewer than a quarter of students scored at or above grade level, placing Quitman in the bottom 2 percent of schools statewide.

“It looks like we’re not even doing anything,” Glover said. Nothing could have been further from the truth. He and numerous staff members have been putting in tremendous hours, in some cases -- his included -- at the expense of their own health.

 

He wondered if he should step aside and allow someone else the chance to turn around one of Newark’s historically low-performing schools, which serves an impoverished population of 600 children in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. It took a serious pep talk from his boss, Assistant Superintendent Peter Turnamian, to persuade him to stay the course. If anyone could be the right fit for Quitman, it should be Glover, 44, a highly educated and painfully sincere African-American leader in a predominantly African-American school. He commands widespread respect from colleagues and parents, and many students look to him -- the father of two teenagers -- as a paternal figure.

Although Glover has been principal of Quitman since 2010, it had only been a year since the start of Newark’s “renew school” reform initiative, giving him and seven other principals hiring power and increased resources and budget-ary discretion. Superintendent Cami Anderson said from the beginning she knew the payoff wouldn’t come overnight, and she would wait a few years before passing judgment on the principals’ success or failure. They were, after all, trying to reverse decades of inadequacies.

What’s more, several factors beyond Glover’s control influenced the outcome of the New Jersey Assess-ment of Skills and Knowledge (NJ ASK) at Quitman. For one thing, the tests themselves were harder as the state began phasing in the tough national Common Core education standards. For another, Quitman’s student population is rapidly changing: There was an influx of children with special needs when their school closed last academic year; meanwhile, some of the highest-performing students are being re-cruited by well-regarded charter schools. And much of Quitman’s best progress has occurred in the early grades that don’t take the state tests. (NJ ASK assesses third grade through eighth.)

So Glover decided to keep trying, buoyed by the belief that vastly different results can come from the same children depending on the actions of adults. Yet again he resolved to prove to the world that he is not a failure, and his students are just as capable as children anywhere.

Today, six months later, several new initiatives are in place at Quitman. All classes now have a half hour a day of “sustained reading” -- with students quietly reading a passage and answering analytical questions to prepare for the next round of state exams this spring. The school day is now 7.5 hours long, compared with a national average of 6.5. A hundred students have been asked to stay for an additional hour and a half of daily tutoring, and about 80 of them typically do. The most advanced middle school students now have their own honors classes.

Glover is spending more than $80,000 for a consultant from the company that makes Quitman’s new math curriculum to work on site with his teachers. It is a lot of money, he knows, but the district required schools to adopt new textbooks last fall, and Glover felt his team needed considerable support to teach the material effectively. He said the investment is already paying dividends in the quality of instruction he observes.

“We’re counting on these things to launch us to another level,” said Evelyn Vargas, the vice principal.

Quitman was one of four Newark schools recently selected by the district to try what’s known as “blended learning” in third through fifth grades, some of the classes with the lowest test scores. The schools were chosen based on academic need, coupled with officials’ belief in their technological capacity and leader-ship ability to roll out yet another new initiative smoothly.

Glover sensed teacher motivation lacking in some cases; in others, he said, teachers were trying hard but struggling to be effective. He hopes that blended learning will infuse new energy into those classrooms, resulting in better performance.

Dawn DiGiovanni, who teaches fourth-grade math and science, estimates that about 50 percent of her students are below grade level, 20 percent perform above average, and everyone else is somewhere in between. Last school year, her first at Quitman and in a full-time teaching position, she said she did not have the capacity to meet the wide array of needs in her classes.

Related Links

Read the Entire Quitman Series.

A Newark School Leader’s Urgency to Renew

Perseverance at a Newark School Following Midyear Teacher Turnover

Special Education Expansion Brings Challenges, Hope to Newark School

This year, DiGiovanni has undergone extensive training and planning in preparation for blended learning. Even before the new initiative began, she had started dividing students into small groups and having them rotate around the room with activities better suited to their individual strengths and weaknesses.

On a recent Tuesday, DiGiovanni began the morning math period with a quick lesson on fractions with the number 1 in the numerator. She then gave the 15 children in the room a few questions to test basic understanding. (Kevin and Olivia are going to share a pizza cut into six slices…) She walked around to check their work, distributing painted popsicle sticks accordingly: Kids with all correct answers got pur-ple, those with one wrong answer got green, and those with multiple wrong answers got red, although they were not told the reason for their placement in a particular group.

For the next 45 minutes, the children moved in 15-minute intervals. The red group began with DiGio-vanni reviewing the basics with fraction puzzle pieces to show, for instance, how eight-tenths is equal to eight one-tenth pieces. The green group worked independently on drills at the Hewlett-Packard laptops along the right side of the room. The purple group played a game in pairs, adding and subtracting frac-tions with different denominators. When the red and green groups later had their turns for the game, they got easier problems in which the denominators were all the same.

 

DiGiovanni said the new approach to teaching is particularly helpful to struggling students. Some of the top performers said they also are learning more as they are no longer being held back by classmates in need of remediation.

“The math is very, very great,” said Arshad Mallard, 10, a purple group member wearing a royal blue New York Giants T-shirt in lieu of Quitman’s uniform royal blue polo. He said he discovered that his textbook “has a lot of over-my-level things inside of it,” and now he’s getting to try them out.

And DiGiovanni, who said she felt overwhelmed at times last year and sought much guidance from expe-rienced colleagues, can see herself becoming a more effective teacher. “I’m definitely meeting the needs of more children,” she said.

Southern Inspiration

Glover is particularly excited about what’s happening in the fifth-grade math and science classes of Jes-sica Allen, a teacher he hired in September. Allen, a 12-year teaching veteran, had just moved to New Jersey from Virginia because of her husband’s job. She chose to work in Newark despite living nearly an hour and a half away, near the Pennsylvania border, because she loves teaching urban youth, and she chose a position at Quitman over one at a charter school.

Coming in for a tour and interview, she had not expected a school labeled failing to look so inviting and engaging, and the students she met seemed genuinely happy to be there. “I walked in here, and I was just amazed,” she said. “I was amazed by the colors on the walls, the bulletin boards. I just fell in love with it.”

Allen said she wanted to cry when she saw her students’ dismal NJ ASK scores from last year as fourth graders. In the months since, she has been working hours comparable to or even longer than Glover’s, leaving home at 4:30 each morning so she can be the first person in the building when it opens at 6:30 a.m. She stays until 7 or 8 p.m. despite having two children of her own, a daughter in sixth grade and a son in seventh.

At the beginning, middle, and end of each academic year, Newark administers a test to gauge schools’ progress and compare their performance to one another. In the fall, none of Allen’s students passed the math portion. In January, her classes had the highest fifth-grade scores in the city. The scores don’t count toward Quitman’s state rankings as NJ ASK results do, but at a minimum, they serve as inspiration.

“All we had to do was try harder, and we did it,” said 10-year-old Jahson Allen (no relation to his teacher). He is one of many fifth graders who come in early and stay late for tutoring when Jessica Allen asks them to. “She motivates us to not give up,” Jahson said. “She helps us to do our work very good.”

Some of Allen’s teaching strategies are practical ones for test preparation. She is constantly drilling stu-dents on the concepts they have learned throughout the year so they do not forget. But while many urban educators are criticized for taking the fun out of learning to get their students to score better on state ex-ams, Allen stands out for the opposite reason. Her third-floor classroom is part garden and part zoo, with students growing corn, basil, and peas, to name a few, and raising snails, turtles, beetles, and frogs. The guppy fish are having babies. Students are preparing for a squid dissection, and Allen will bring in her deep fryer so they can make calamari.

Related Links

Read the Entire Quitman Series.

A Newark School Leader’s Urgency to Renew

Perseverance at a Newark School Following Midyear Teacher Turnover

Special Education Expansion Brings Challenges, Hope to Newark School

She fits in more than most teachers imagine possible by being a stickler for time management, looking to save a few seconds anywhere she can. In a Southern drawl that is the source of much laughter in her classroom, Allen often speaks to her “munchkins,” as she calls her students, in fill-in-the-blank sentences (“So my answer is actually…”), awaiting their rapid reply. That’s faster and more effective than asking a question, waiting for students to raise their hands and calling on a single one, and it requires everyone to pay attention.

She designates a well-behaved child -- on February 18, a boy named Phillip -- as the student teacher, with authority to judiciously dispense bathroom passes so she doesn’t have to waste class time on matters so mundane. When students work independently and in small groups, she gives them extra worksheets on concepts learned previously so that, if they don’t understand something and she’s occupied with their peers, no one sits around waiting. “If you cannot do it on your own, there’s another activity you can be successful at,” she tells them. There are also “table captains” selected weekly who meet with Allen to learn how to explain assignments to their classmates.

Asked how much of her own money she spends on classroom supplies, Allen replied with a giggle. “Don’t tell my husband,” she said. “I do spend a ton.”

If Quitman’s 43 fifth-grade students (Allen sees them in two groups a day) were to take NJ ASK today, the school’s internal testing indicates that 16 of them would pass. But another nine are on the cusp, and others are not far behind. Allen’s goal -- she’s reluctant to say it out loud -- is an 80 percent pass rate, up from 17 percent for the same class last year.

“I want 80 percent of my children to walk out of this classroom being successful and ready to go to sixth grade,” she said. “I want them to walk into the room with confidence knowing that, when they sit down with that sixth-grade teacher, they will know every previous skill they needed up until now. I don’t want them to go to another grade and feel upset. I don’t want them to feel discouraged, and I don’t want them to feel that they hate math. I don’t want them to get back to that point.”

Behind the Numbers

Great teachers are one critical ingredient for a school turnaround. Involved parents are another.

Parents passing through Quitman’s main office are encouraged to pick up a four-page packet sitting on the counter. It is called “School Snapshot for Families,” and in no uncertain terms it describes the challenges facing Quitman -- and asks for families’ help. One heading asks, “Are Students Coming To School?” and pie charts answer the question: Last academic year, 29 percent missed more than two days per month, and 34 percent missed one to two days monthly. “Attendance is critical for school success,” the packet says. “Be sure to get your children to school every day on time.”

Turn the page, and the topic is NJ ASK. The question is how many students performed at grade level last spring, and the answers are grim.

Reading grades three through five: 14 percent, compared with 38 percent citywide. Math in those grades: 29 percent at Quitman vs. 53 percent in all of Newark.

Reading grades six through eight: 23 percent, compared with 46 percent citywide. Math: 14 percent for Quitman, 47 percent for Newark.

The packet does not include the good news: On another test, one administered internally to gauge pro-gress from the fall to the spring, more than 80 percent of students met computer-generated growth targets for the year, even though most still fell short of grade-level proficiency. (That test predicted with almost complete accuracy last spring which students would pass the NJ ASK and which ones would not.) And in kindergarten, 62 percent of children ended the year on or above grade level in math, compared with 30 percent the prior September.

This is the conundrum for educators in low-performing schools across the nation: If a student arrives in fifth grade reading like a first grader and makes three years’ worth of growth, he still will not pass a grade-level state test despite major progress and clearly effective teaching.

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Yet grade-level test results are the ones the public understands and were for years what policymakers used to make high-stakes decisions for schools. The system has been evolving, and New Jersey is now evaluating schools and teachers based on students’ growth compared against their peers across the state. Superintendent Anderson, too, says she cares more about growth than overall proficiency numbers. But Glover is keenly aware of how the public per-ceives his students, and sometimes those perceptions hurt.

At a recent citywide school enrollment fair, Glover found a fact sheet about Quitman stating that the school has a low-performing early childhood education program -- a conclusion based entirely on the NJ ASK scores of older students. In fact, three of Quitman’s teachers in the early grades have been deemed model instructors by the district, meaning that their colleagues from around the city periodically come observe them at work.

Glover has been worried about staff morale, and before the winter holidays, he and his administrative team personally paid for a teacher celebration. “This job is hard,” he said.

Throughout the fall and winter, Glover and his staff hosted three parent nights to inform families about the school’s performance and solicit their help in improving it. About 50 parents in total came, generally those who are the most involved anyway, and vowed to do their part. Glover tries to slip some of the same messaging into other events like student award assemblies that tend to attract bigger crowds.

Under Newark Public Schools’ current reform strategy, Quitman faces competition from an increasing number of charter schools looking to enroll the same students. Kids who perform well and have involved families are most likely to be recruited by high-performing charters. Twenty-one students with proficient scores on the NJ ASK transferred out of Quitman last fall, primarily to high-performing charter schools. One couple told Quitman administrators they saw the chance to attend a charter school as an invaluable opportunity for their older son, but they keep their younger boy in second grade at Quitman.

Last year, Doris Slaughter was approached by two charter schools interested in having her enroll her grandson D’Andre Stevenson, now 11. She discussed the options with the child, who is on Quitman’s honor roll and student council, and together they decided to stay put. D’Andre, a sixth grader, has at-tended Quitman since pre-kindergarten, and he is comfortable there. Besides, “I don’t think the charter school is that much better,” said Slaughter, who attends virtually all of Quitman’s family meetings and events. “Since he’s doing so great, why mess with it?”

Slaughter said the fact that D’Andre is excelling academically and socially at Quitman is far more impor-tant to her than the school’s average test scores. And she said Glover has made great strides in improving the school culture, if not NJ ASK proficiency rates. “He turned it completely around,” she said.

The environment at Quitman is such that, when a student ran away from home last fall, he continued re-porting to school every day for more than a week. Glover was eventually notified that the boy was miss-ing and pointed his family to his classroom.

Irony and Determination

Glover’s challenge is to keep a positive culture and raise test scores while Quitman’s student population keeps getting bigger and needier. He is anticipating yet another influx of students next academic year as another of the original renew schools, Newton Street, is expected to close this spring. (Officials say they plan to turn the Newton building into a community center, a decision that has heightened anxiety at Quit-man as staff members wonder if their grace period, too, might be running out.)

Related Links

Read the Entire Quitman Series.

A Newark School Leader’s Urgency to Renew

Perseverance at a Newark School Following Midyear Teacher Turnover

Special Education Expansion Brings Challenges, Hope to Newark School

Then there is the matter of Glover’s health, as well as the health of his staff. The number of physical ail-ments in the building has become a running joke. The vice principal needs foot surgery, which she is put-ting off until the spring. The sixth- and seventh-grade English teacher and a special education teacher are both out on medical leave. The data coach is hobbling around with torn ligaments in her knee. “Quitman is falling apart,” Glover said, only half-kidding. “I work them so hard.”

Them and himself. Glover returned to Quitman in mid-September after having his left hip replaced in late July. He still regrets missing the August teacher training sessions and the first few weeks of school, apart from the first day, when he hobbled in despite doctor’s orders to stay home. He ripped his meniscus on his left knee during rehab and began having pain in his right hip. His doctor says he needs that one replaced now and should allow six to eight months for recovery. He’ll consent to surgery on June 30 and staying home most of the summer before going back to work.

That’s assuming at least half of Quitman students pass the NJ ASK this spring. Otherwise, he said, he needs to reassess what he is doing. Glover believes the school will meet a goal of 50 percent proficiency this year, and to get there he wants his staff to focus on good teaching, not test scores. But clearly the pressure is on.

Glover is aware of the bitter irony in his personal circumstances. If he wanted to be a rising star in urban education, all he would need to do is take an easier job leading a school with a more privileged popula-tion. Test scores would be higher and easier to move upward, and he would have time to finish his Co-lumbia doctoral dissertation, which has been sitting untouched for the past few years. Then he would have his pick of positions in a central office or in higher education.

But if he leaves Quitman without turning scores around, then what? He still has a family to help support, and his son and daughter will soon be applying to college.

He tries not to think too much about that scenario, just as he tries to tune out the physical pain he’s in walking up and down the school’s three flights of stairs to spend the majority of his days visiting class-rooms. “Why complain? It’s not going to change,” he said. “I can’t stop walking. That’s just the nature of what I do.” He wears sneakers beneath his suits, has a cane but usually doesn’t use it, and bends down whenever he sees a tissue or snack wrapper on the floor.

He prefers walking the halls to being in his office, where he never can keep up with all the emails and paperwork. He hates feeling like he’s in reactionary mode rather than being proactive. But so many little things demand his attention each day, whether signing off on a student report card being released to Child Protective Services or tracking down a contract for the math consultant.

On his daily rounds, he finds plenty of cause for frustration but also many reasons for inspiration in the hard work of his staff and students. Seeing them, he reminds himself to keep going.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

Sara Neufeld, a contributing editor for The Hechinger Report, has been writing about public education since 2000. She has been following Quitman since the beginning of Newark's renew school initiative two years ago for the award-winning "A Promise to Renew" series with NJ Spotlight.

 


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