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8-10 and 11-11 NJ Spotlight - Education News


The four articles below are all from NJ Spotlight (njspotlight.com)


Statewide School Survey Indicates Increasing Class Size Is the Norm

Even with a slight boost in state aid for the current school year, many districts say class size will still climb

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By John Mooney, August 11 in Education|Post a Comment

Always an important number for parents, class size is also often a barometer of the fiscal condition of a school system: the tighter the dollars, the fewer the staff, the more students in each classroom.

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A new survey of New Jersey schools over the past two years proves that this state is no exception -- although the results also present some interesting twists.

The New Jersey School Boards Association contacted all 575 districts in June to quiz them on how class size has been affected by two budgets: last year's (2010-2011), which saw steep cuts in state aid, and this year's (2011-2012), which saw a slight increase.

A total of 186 districts responded. Not surprisingly, about a third of all participants again said class size climbed last year, largely due to shrinking state aid.

And even though budgets are a bit beefier this year, a third of all respondents said class size is likely to increase again. Of the remainder, nearly two-thirds said they would stay the same, while one in 10 said they would decrease.

"It seems to be leveling off a little," said Frank Belluscio, the association's communications director. "They are doing everything they can to retain programs, keep their teachers, but we still have a third increasing class size."

A Report Card

New Jersey tracks class size for every school as part of its annual School Report Card, and although there are some questions as to how it is computed, the average had been slowly but steadily dropping over the past decade.

In the most recent Report Card for the 2009-2010, the state listed the average as 18.2 students per classroom, considerably down from even five years ago, when it was in the low 20's.

But if the school board survey is accurate, it looks as if it will bump up class size for the next Report Card and possibly the one after that. And that second increase is not entirely due to state aid reductions.

As indicated, last year's cuts -- amounting to 5 percent of budgets -- were the big reason for the increase in class size. But school officials said a range of factors are going into increases this year.

The top one is the new property tax caps, listed by a third of respondents as a driving force in larger class sizes. Another fifth said their own enrollment had increased. The third factor is the continued dearth of state aid.

The range of comments that came with the survey also represented an interesting mix of reactions from school leaders. Many listed class size as arguably the single most important factor in learning, and said some classes had become untenable, as large as 30 or even 40 students.

"Class size has been our district’s sacred cow," wrote one Bergen County board president. "We have tried to look everywhere except at class size policy when cutting expenses."

But a few others called class size overrated, saying it only becomes problematic when classes exceed 30 students. Still others said classes that are too small are stifling.

"Too small a class leads to little discussion and challenging of ideas and not enough motivators to encourage others to learn," wrote a Hunterdon County administrator and former teacher. "The best combination is a large class size with in-class support, and a strong school discipline policy to prevent misbehavior."

One caveat to be aware of is that the survey was completed before the final state budget was struck, including an additional $650 million for schools. The bulk of that went to the 31 highest-poverty districts under the Abbott v. Burke ruling.

That could affect class size, especially in those districts where it has been the biggest challenge.

But in urban and suburban districts, many school leaders have also said that the late addition of aid will likely have limited impact on the coming school year, since many districts are choosing to hold onto the money as a cushion for the year after.


Anti-Bullying Law Starts for Schools Next Month

Administrators charged with implementing tough new Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, from new definitions to new jobs.

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By John Mooney, August 10 in Education|Post a Comment


Every school year brings changes and challenges, but few are as formidable as the one now facing administrators: implementing the state's new anti-bullying law.

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The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights requires districts to have a host of new procedures and protocols in place when schools open their doors, strengthening the rules put in place in 2002 and 2007.

These include requirements that spell out the specific number of days allowed for a case to be reported, investigated and resolved. The law also expands the definitions of bullying, including the tricky issue of online or electronic harassment taking place outside of school.

More than 1,000 school administrators have gone to day-long training sessions across the state over the past month, organized by the New Jersey Association of School Administrators and the New Jersey School Boards Association.

The most recent was yesterday in North Brunswick, with one more left in Pomona tomorrow. The state is also conducting its own training sessions with representatives from every district in September. Ultimately, every teacher and staff member will undergo some training.

For the time being, districts in September will need to submit to the state their revised policies meeting the new requirements.

Not surprisingly, the session at North Brunswick High School yesterday, which brought together 200 superintendents, principals and other administrators, was led by a panel of lawyers.

Three areas stood out as likely posing the biggest challenges to schools.

No More waiting Game

There is no grace period for bullying claims anymore. The new law sets up a strict timetable:

·         School staff must report to the principal any alleged cases that they either witness or receive reliable information about within one day,

·         Witnesses must write reports within two days,

·         Principal alerts parents, and initiates investigation within one day,

·         Investigation completed within 10 days, and reported to superintendent two days after that,

·         Superintendent must recommend for intervention or other action to school board at next meeting; findings shared with parents. Parents may request hearing.

Those deadlines contain some wiggle room, to address extenuating circumstances. But the law sets a very clear protocol that one attorney compared to the now-standard workplace harassment rules that put the onus clearly on management.

"You may have had this in policy before, but this is now state law," said Michael Kaelber, director of legal services for the school boards association.

Online and Out-of-School Liability

The law's strictest provisions may concern a district's responsibility to address harassment that takes place over the Internet or through texting or other electronic means, often outside of school hours.

This can be very tricky ground to negotiate, and the law seeks to establish clear parameters as to when a school must respond: 1) when school personnel have been made aware, and 2) when the action affects the school environment.

"The out-of school behavior creates a hostile educational environment, or substantially disrupts or interferes with the orderly operation of the school or the rights of other students," reads the law.

That, like all laws, is open to interpretation. Yesterday, the lawyers advised districts treat online harassment the same as any other incident.

"I wouldn’t worry so much about the medium in how it occurs," said Beth Finkelstein, assistant counsel to the school administrators group. "It is still the same action that occurs, whether online or in person."

A Go-to Person in Every School

As much as policies and practices are meant to affect behaviors, the new law also puts feet on the ground. Every school district is to have a anti-bullying coordinator, and every school is to have an anti-bullying "specialist," serving as the first line of defense.

The specialist is likely to be a guidance counselor or school psychologist appointed by the principal, and the role will be a sensitive one. It's up to the specialist to conduct the initial investigations and coordinate a school’s anti-bullying programs. The law requires the school provide contact information for that specialist on its website.

One thing the law does not stipulate is how to pay for these extra duties, and everybody yesterday expected there would be additional time and resources required.

"Definitely anticipate additional complaints and workload, especially in the beginning," said Kaelber.

He said the training sessions -- required for the broader school community of parents as well -- will surely lead to an increase in complaints, at least for a little while. Under the law, districts be required in their policies to include specific outlines for that community training.

"There will be this recognition, an 'I never knew' kind of reaction," he said. "Know that the next few weeks after that (training) there will probably be a spike."

But he and others said they expect it will ultimately calm as the schools and parents grow used to the new rules and protocols.

"I use the analogy of the workplace rules," said Kaelber. "Are we better off than we were in 1995, definitely. Is it perfect, no, but now everyone is more aware of what is appropriate and what is not."


NJ SMART to Track Students Through High School -- and Beyond

School data system to assess who graduates, who drops out, and why

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By John Mooney, August 5 in Education|Post a Comment

The aspect of NJ SMART -- the state's school data system -- that has gotten the most attention is its promised ability to link individual teachers to student test scores. That linkage is at the center of Gov. Chris Christie's proposals to revamp how teachers are evaluated and ultimately granted or denied tenure.

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But the information the system will deliver about the students themselves may well be just as compelling and revealing.

Starting next school year, NJ SMART will begin reporting detailed data on graduation rates for every high school -- including what happened to students who didn't finish, officials said.

According to assistant education commissioner Bari Erlichson, the state’s chief school data expert, NJ SMART also will collect and report information on college matriculation. That is expected to include the percentage of a graduating class that enrolls in college within 16 months and completes its freshman year within the first two years.

Surveying Students

College-bound rates are now collated from student surveys that list intentions, not actual attendance. But links between NJ SMART and nationwide higher education databases will show the reality, said Erlichson.

In time, the state will also have data on college completion, student majors, and the percentage of students who needed remediation, Erlichson added. It may even be broken down by gender, income and other specifications that can help shape a school’s curriculum.

Speaking in a presentation to the state Board of Education on Wednesday, Erlichson described how a district will know, for example, how many of a school's female graduates vs. male graduates go on to be science majors.

All of this is being made possible by a data system that has been in development for nearly a decade, officials said.

The full capability of NJ SMART is still not there, Erlichson said Wednesday, but the key parts are on track to meet the federal deadlines.

The chief one is the ability to match teachers to the test scores of their students. The state had to promise that capability in order to receive federal education stimulus funds in 2010. The deadline to deliver that feature is September 2012.

"I think we are well positioned to meet the deadlines," Erlichson said.

The state is currently ready to report on graduation rates, another federal requirement. The goal is to provide a clear assessment of who graduates high school and who drops out -- and for what reasons.

New Jersey has the highest graduation rate in the country, by several counts. But many say the 80-plus percent is inflated by a system that undercounts those who leave school.

Under the new system, Erlichson said every child is being tracked in a central database from ninth grade through graduation, starting with 2007, when the class of Class of 2011 were freshmen.

The data will include those who graduate early and those takes an extra year, those who switch to private school and those who move out of state, and those who pass the state’s mainstream exit exam or those who graduate after taking the alternative exam.


Fine Print: PARCC Draft Curriculum Frameworks

Public comment period opens on national frameworks for upcoming New Jersey testing

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By John Mooney, August 10 in Education|Post a Comment

What it is: New Jersey has joined nearly two dozen other states in the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), a consortium developing an assessment system to match the new national Common Core State Standards in math and language arts. PARCC released its draft frameworks of what those assessments would measure and what students should learn.

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What it means: On the idea that teachers teach what is tested, this is the first look at what will be tested under the PARCC model. There is still a long way to go, with the assessments not expected to be online until 2014, at the earliest, and much work to be done in terms of design and development.

Public input wanted: The process includes a public comment period for which both institutions and individuals are invited to share their thoughts. Local districts were notified of the frameworks last week and urged to review them. The public comment period, complete with an online survey is open until August 17.

A new kind of assessment: One of two national models that states are pursuing, the PARCC assessments change the rules on standardized testing as we know it. The assessments would be given four times over the course of a school year, as compared with the current one-time testing in New Jersey, and many would be administered online. The aim is to provide timelier information to teachers and districts to actually adjust their teaching.

"Big ideas" vs. big document: The PARCC announcement of the framework said it will focus on the "big ideas" that it hopes teachers will pay attention to for each grade, hoping to drive both instruction and professional development. But the frameworks indeed get into the minutia, 162 pages of it.

Close reading starts young: For example, among the language arts standards is the goal that students be able to write based on information derived from written text, starting in fourth grade. That requires the ability not just to read, but read closely for information and tone. The frameworks for fourth grade help flesh that out, and explain how that will be assessed, including for vocabulary.

"Comprehending complex texts: This master competency requires students to read and comprehend a range of grade-level complex texts, including texts they encounter in the domains of ELA, science, history/social studies, technical subjects, and the arts. Because vocabulary is a critical component of reading comprehension, it will be assessed in the context of reading passages"

By graduation: The frameworks go up to 11th-12th grade, and this isn’t light stuff. But it follows the same notion of being able to write based on close reading of specific texts, just ramping up their complexity.

"The balance of student writing at this level is 80 percent analytical (40 percent argument and 40 percent to explain/inform) and 20 percent narrative with a mix of on-demand and review-and-revision writing assignments (building student competence and confidence with technology should be part of instruction)."

"Routine writing: Routine writing is for building content knowledge about a topic or reflection on a specific aspect of a text or texts (including short constructed-response answers to focused questions that require textual help lead to informed discussions). Routine written responses to such text-dependent questions allow students to build sophisticated understandings of vocabulary, text structure, and content and to develop needed proficiencies in analysis.

"Four to six analyses: All analytic writing should put a premium on using evidence, as well as on crafting works that display a high degree of logical integration and coherence. As students will be assessed on their ability to draw sufficient evidence from the text and to write clearly and coherently, these elements should be part of instruction. Analytic writing should include at least one comparative analysis and one paper incorporating research that focuses on texts that students have read closely."



Garden State Coalition of Schools
160 W. State Street, Trenton New Jersey 08608