9-8-11 Recap: Recent Education Issues in the News

Njspotlight.com 9-8-11 School Improvement Program Needs What Money Can't Buy -- Time...Rescuing NJ's worst schools could take almost $100 million and several years to see real results

By John Mooney, September 8 in Education

The latest effort to save New Jersey's very lowest-performing schools faces any number of challenges, from the quality of teachers and leadership to the high-risk communities outside the building. Related Links SIG Presentation Analysis of SIG In 42 States Add one more obstacle that may prove even more daunting: time, or the lack of it. State Department of Education officials yesterday gave the State Board of Education an update on School Improvement Grants (SIG), a federally funded program that is providing close to $100 million in grants to leverage what officials call "transformational" changes at New Jersey's worst public schools. These changes include replacing principals and a majority of teachers and imposing longer school days and years. The Bottom 5 Percent Twenty-one schools have been approved for SIG grants, including Newark, Camden, Jersey City, Paterson, Lakewood and Roselle.

All were in the bottom 5 percent in overall achievement, with as many as half the students not proficient in math and language arts. Officials said there have been some encouraging signs out of the first 12 schools receiving the grants, but there have also been overwhelming obstacles and at least one outright failure. And with another nine schools added this fall, officials said it will probably take a few more years to really tell if this cure will hold in even the most successful models.

Other experts have put success on an even longer trajectory. The state's acting education commissioner, Chris Cerf, acknowledged that patience may be in short supply. He has upped the volume, too, requiring that with the latest SIG grants districts revamp their teacher evaluation and student testing for all their schools, not just those getting the money.

The program is "a genuine experiment to see whether this amount of investment, focus and attention can turn around what have been labeled dropout factories," Cerf said at yesterday's board meeting. "We're nervous, but I'd say we're hopeful." Then he raised the stakes: "If this doesn't work you have conclude that the turnaround strategy is destined to failure and you have to think about a replacement strategy [and] closure. There are a lot of chips on the table."

National Attention Whether closing schools outright is any more effective in helping students is debatable among experts and educators, but the comments reflected the attention and focus that the SIG program has generated, not only in New Jersey but in other states.

The program has been a signature one for President Obama and his administration, using federal money and the bully pulpit to transform schools. New Jersey's experience so far looked familiar to that of other states, said John Jennings, director of the Center for Education Policy in Washington, D.C. Jennings said he has seen similar national pushes over the past two decades, including through the No Child Left Behind Act.

But the SIG program is different, with considerably more money invested and attention paid to high schools that previously got short shrift. Still, he said none of the models offered in the program -- including closure -- has proven effective without one key factor. Time Is of the Essence "To be honest, we probably won't know the results for several years, once, of course all the money runs out," he said. "But if we are going to be serious about this, we are going to have to stick with it for a long period of time." New Jersey's assistant commissioner Barbara Gantwerk yesterday described for the state board a number of positive signs so far among the 12 schools that received the first grants last year, on average totaling $6 million per school over three years. They included smarter professional development for teachers and increased focus and time on instruction for students.

One school in Jersey City added four weeks to the school year, with others lengthening the day or holding Saturday classes. Student achievement also took a jump in some cases, including a significant improvement in Central High School in Newark and Jersey City's Snyder High School. "To the eye, we can see that they are going in the right direction," Gantwerk said, standing before a bar chart showing mostly gains in both language arts and math scores at six high schools. Still, she tried to temper expectations so early in the process. "The assumption is it takes at least three years before you see dramatic changes," Gantwerk said at another point. "We have seen some early and encouraging results, but I don't think we'll know yet the full outcome for students."

But even with limited results, not all were even encouraging. In what one state board member called the "tale of two Central High Schools," Trenton's Central High School did not fare as well as its namesake in Newark and was dropped entirely from the program. Gantwerk said the school failed to meet the requirements of the grant, including new leadership, training and instructional time. "It takes leadership and commitment to be able to do these things," Gantwerk said. "These are difficult issues. In Trenton, they were not able to implement the components required."

The Record 9-8-11 Schools lofty goals bump into hard reality THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 8, 2011 LAST UPDATED: THURSDAY SEPTEMBER 8, 2011, 2:04 AM BY LESLIE BRODY PATERSON —

School 10 opens this year with a boon of $2 million in additional federal money aimed at turning around the nation's most troubled schools. To win the federal grant, the district promised "bold and dramatic change" in the chronically failing K-8 school in one of the city's toughest neighborhoods.

The plan includes extensive outreach to parents, a new principal, replacing half the staff, intensive teacher training and a pledge to extend learning time by 300 hours a year.

But lofty goals have bumped into hard realities on the ground. With policymakers debating education reform across the country, School 10's experience so far provides a glimpse into the challenges of turning around weak schools in the face of tight timelines and difficulties attracting staff. Even Hurricane Irene got in the way.

The storm canceled the district's second attempt in late August to host a meeting for School 10 parents, who wonder when they will get information about the overhaul. In August some parents expressed frustration they still hadn't heard about changes in schedules, expectations or the choice of a new principal. "It's like walking down a dark alley without a flashlight," said Linda Reid, a grandmother on the Home School Council.

"I don't like to play guessing games with my grandchildren's educations." Reid said the lack of communication was ironic, considering the claim that parent involvement would be a key to success. "They say they want the community to buy in, but when decisions are made, who is at the table?" she asked. There's a lot at stake. School 10 and Paterson's School 4 (which was suddenly forced to send children to two other locations because of this week's flooding) are among nine New Jersey schools sharing about $55 million in new School Improvement Grants, along with 10 schools that joined the program last year.

The grants require major revamps, including more rigorous teacher evaluations and more state oversight. School 10 hopes to show strides in student achievement and earn $4 million more in grants in the next two school years. State officials expect to award it $2 million this year, with the final contract still being hammered out. The SIG program "is a genuine experiment to see whether this amount of investment, focus and attention can turn around what have been labeled dropout factories," acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf told the state Board of Education on Wednesday. "We're nervous but I'd say we're hopeful. If this doesn't work you have to conclude that the turnaround strategy is destined to failure and you have to think about … closure and replacement."

Re-staffing School 10 posed a challenge. Federal rules required SIG recipients to replace at least half the staff, with the goal of bringing in new energy and commitment. District officials said that only two Paterson teachers applied to transfer in, and nobody outside the district responded to a job posting. There wasn't much time to recruit because the state gave the district official notice it was getting the grant only in July, after many teachers had already made professional moves.

It took until late August for the district to tap Lolita Vaughan as the permanent principal. Four teachers transferred there said they were surprised to be told by letter in early August they had been reassigned. Udetta Chestnut-Garache, a kindergarten teacher, said she didn't know why she was moved to School 10 but didn't object. "I love children and I love to teach," she said, but "a lot of people may resent coming to that school in that area; it's not one of the safest in Paterson." "If you're going to revamp," she added, "the district should have called us all in to tell us their plan and asked our opinion.'' Samantha Hinton, a fifth-grade math teacher, was also surprised to be switched to School 10. "I definitely would prefer to stay at a school for consistency," she said, "but I go where I'm placed and do my best there."

Cerf, the acting commissioner, said districts awarded SIG money had to take steps to eliminate or minimize forced placements. He said districts must move quickly toward "mutual consent," in which a principal and teacher both agree that working together is a "good fit." School 10 has 70 employees, including 18 returning certified teachers and 13 transferred teachers. Superintendent Donnie Evans said the district met its obligation to replace half of the school's staff.

Federal rules allow districts to count people who are not certified teachers in the 50-percent replacement calculation, and the district did bring in several new cafeteria monitors and aides. Cerf said the intent of the turnaround model was to replace half of the instructional staff. Arguably the most important hire was the principal.

Sarah Yatsko, who studies SIG turnarounds at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, said the best chance for success is picking a leader with a great record for boosting the performance of failing schools. "We know so little about what works with school turnarounds but one thing we feel sure about is you need principals who know what they're doing," she said. Vaughan, the new leader of School 10, did not come from the principal ranks. She was instructional leader at School 3 and a vice principal at School 26, both among the state's lowest-performing schools.

Evans said he had great confidence in Vaughan's skills. "She has a track record that's very clear in terms of her impact and the work she did as a leader … that resulted in better outcomes," Evans said. The district declined to have Vaughan, who was appointed interim principal in July, talk to a reporter before she got settled in her new job.

Cerf said there are "mountains to climb" to turn around School 10 and other troubled schools, but early results from last year's SIG recipients were encouraging, and the reform plans should be given some time to work. "Here's a school that consistently failed children," Cerf said. "Now it has the full attention of the superintendent of the district and the state Department of Education …. Let's give it a chance to get on the plan and be successful." E-mail: brody@northjersey.com

Star Ledger 9-7-11 Most N.J. residents happy with local public school education, poll finds

By Nic Corbett/The Star-Ledger

Despite two years in which school reform was at the forefront of the political debate in New Jersey, a majority of the state’s residents are happy with the education provided by their local public schools, according to a poll released Tuesday.

But at the same time, many said they would not object to merging districts if it meant lower taxes. The poll of 1,000 likely voters, conducted for the Kean University Center for History, Politics and Policy, found 70 percent of those questioned were very or somewhat satisfied with local public teachers and school quality.

Thirty-nine percent said New Jersey spends too little on K-12 education, compared with 27 percent who said the state spends too much. "Whatever politicians out there are saying about public schools, when you get down to it, most people are having a very positive experience," said Steve Baker, a spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

Meanwhile, the tide of public opinion on school consolidation may be turning. Of those polled, 63 percent said they strongly or somewhat favored district mergers in exchange for lower property taxes. "It was a major turnoff before," said Leila Sadeghi, an assistant professor with the Department of Educational Leadership at Kean. "Obviously, citizens didn’t want to give up home rule."

Since 1982, just four regional school districts have been created, said Michael Yaple, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association. "It’s not for lack of trying," he said. "The big obstacle is property taxes. After regionalization, each town gets new tax rates, and usually one town’s taxes go down and another town’s taxes go up."

The move doesn’t always lead to lower costs. Under state law, if two districts merge, the teachers’ contract from the larger district, which is usually more generous, takes effect for all teachers, Yaple said. "It’s not the easy panacea that some people believe it might be," he said.

The Kean poll looked at a host of other educational issues. Merit pay (tying teacher pay to student performance as opposed to contractual raises) was supported by 75 percent of those polled. Baker said this question was posed without describing how merit pay could be implemented, which he said would necessitate "a massive increase in standardized testing."

As for standardized test results, 68 percent of those polled said they are very or somewhat important in measuring a school or district’s success. Lynne Lenches-Derwid, a social studies teacher at Hillsborough High School, said parents like to see how their kids stack up. "They find comfort in it. It validates how their kid is performing, so it doesn’t surprise me," she said. "I just think there’s so much more to an education ... than just a test score. Some of the most intelligent people and successful people out there are just not test takers."

The poll also found voters continue to be split on charter schools, with 39 percent favoring them and 35 percent opposed to increasing their numbers in New Jersey as part of a statewide plan to improve student performance. "It is a somewhat divisive issue, and it’s partly because charter schools themselves have a very mixed record," Baker said. "There is some concern about the rapid and large-scale expansion of something that is not necessarily a better or superior option." Rick Pressler, director of school services for the New Jersey Charter Schools Association, said the results show voters don’t know enough about charter schools — 26 percent responded "not sure." "This can influence a respondent’s answer — either positively or negatively," Pressler said.

The poll, taken Aug. 29 and Aug. 30, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Njspotlight.com 9-6-11 NJ Education: What's Hot, What to Watch Think the 2011 elections will take all the sizzle out of education? Think again.

By John Mooney, September 6 in Education|Post a Comment

It’s not called "silly season" for nothing, since the next two months leading up to the New Jersey’s legislative elections will surely be more about rhetoric than substance when it comes to public policy.

Education will be no exception, with key votes on topics like tenure reform and charter schools likely to wait until at least November 9, the day after the election.

But with stakeholders and policy-makers returning this week from their summer breaks, and schools opening across the state, that’s not to say there won't be plenty of drama centered on education in the next few months.

Here are a few places to keep an eye on:

NJEA vs. B4K

Politics has a big place in policy, of course, and the legislative election and some developing themes will provide interesting tensions that could carry over into the new year and higher-profile elections to come. A big one will not be so much about the politicians but their backers. The New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), the state’s dominant teachers union, has made it clear that it does not suffer gladly what it sees as traitors to its cause and members, and it will make its voice and electoral machine well-heard in the coming months with all 120 legislative seats on the ballot. This summer, it proudly announced that it supported no candidate, Democrat or Republican, who backed this spring’s pension and healthcare reform, and that left a lot of powerful and usual names off the union’s endorsement list. How much that matters this year is arguable, with just a half-dozen or so districts up for grabs, but the NJEA has no qualms about flexing its muscle and staking out its position when elections carry bigger stakes, namely the governor’s seat in 2013. There are some new players on the other side that want to stake their claims as well. Most notable is a group called Better Education for Kids, or B4K, that is being funded by two millionaire financiers and led by prominent school choice advocates. The group is actually two entities, one a political action committee (PAC) that will be a direct player in the election and the other its advocacy arm that will take the issues to the airwaves. Able to keep its donors anonymous although pledging to make the biggest ones public, the advocacy group is readying for a large-scale campaign -- especially about teacher accountability and tenure reform that is now being proposed by Gov. Chris Christie. “Philosophically, there are two ways to approach education reform,” said Derrell Bradford, director of the B4K and former leader of the pro-voucher group, Excellent Education for Everyone. "One believes that everything is working and only thing we need to do is tinker," he said. "And the other says that in large and small ways, there is a lot more we can do to improve." Steve Wollmer, communications director for the NJEA and frequent combatant with Bradford, said he expects B4K to be fully engaged in defense of an agenda being otherwise promoted by Christie and his administration. "They will give Christie all the air cover he needs and take some pressure off him to carry what is a corporate reform movement," Wollmer said. "And that is what this is, corporate-backed reform." Wollmer played down a direct confrontation between his union and B4K, but didn’t shy away from it, either. "Everyone wants a storyline, but put it this way, we are not going to let B4K and Chris Christie define us or our members without a discussion," he said.

Nexus...Newark Christie and his acting education commissioner, Chris Cerf, have never hidden their intent to make Newark a main stage in their education ambitions, be it reforms within the district or the expansion of charter schools outside of it. The timing then appeared perfect for not just the announcement last year of a $100 million gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, but also the chance to appoint a new superintendent in the district, Cami Anderson. With schools opening today, now it’s put-up time. Anderson spent much of the summer preparing the schools for this opening, putting in place new systems for principal and teacher hiring and assignments, setting up a training system for principals in which she herself led the training, and readying each school building for opening. Hurricane Irene didn’t help much, the damage forcing at least one school to start in another building. But otherwise, Cerf said he is pleased with the progress, describing Anderson’s attention to every detail, from personnel to scheduling. "I think we’ll have a real strong opening," Cerf said yesterday. "I have been extremely impressed with the incredible focus. The district has never seen anything like it, this kind of discipline and operational care.” But it will take more than preparation, and there are many new initiatives at play. Anderson is rolling out a personnel policy this year that will put dozens of teachers in paid limbo until picked up by individual schools, potentially leaving a sizable hole in her budget as well. There are shared campuses between district and charter schools in three locations, and growing tensions as to whether the charters will be treated better than their hosts. And six virtual high schools are slated to go online, the first evidence of Anderson’s focus on providing numerous pathways to graduation. The district’s contract with its teachers is also still unresolved, potentially a key obstacle in bringing about changes in instructional time and practice. And what about all this Zuckerberg money and the additional $100 million that must be raised to match it? The head of the foundation that is administering the funds, the Foundation for Newark’s Future, said recently that there will be a roll-out of a number of unspecified initiatives in the coming months to help both district and charter schools. "What is that mixture going to look like, that is something that I think the foundation will help set a real vision," said Greg Taylor, the foundation’s new director. Still, Taylor acknowledged the foundation's strategies will rest in not just the presentation but the execution, with not a lot of time and public patience to show real accomplishments. A key player will be Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who played a pivotal role in securing the Zuckerberg money. But not running for reelection in the city, he has been mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate, running against the Republican incumbent with whom he has shared the Newark stage. The Newark community may not wait that long. The district's local advisory board has already filed a legal appeal to the state’s ongoing operation of the district, a matter likely to head to court and sow still more uncertainty.

Quack, Quack

Many of the hard deliberations -- at least in the State House -- may have to wait a couple of months, with many politicians and pundits expecting that any actual legislative action on education will likely hold off until the lame duck session held after the election. That includes significant debate over tenure reform, with at least three major bills having been filed that would alter the state’s existing law in meaningful ways. The one getting the most attention comes from state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chairman of the Senate education committee. She has pledged hearings on the bill before the election, but few expect actual votes.

Much of any debate on tenure also hinges on changes to how New Jersey schools evaluate and track teachers, two separate components that are also going through their own trials this coming year. A pilot program to test out new teacher evaluation methods is slated for 11 districts.

Further expansion of the state’s student database -- including the first links of student achievement to specific teachers is getting its initial tests this year as well. Neither are expected to see hard results until after the new year.

A number of bills addressing concerns about charter schools are also still pending, and while some may see some life -- or at least hearings -- in the fall, others that would require local approval of charters, for instance, or tougher restrictions on them are maybe too contentious.

There are others in that category as well, including the proposed Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA) that would provide private school scholarships paid for by public tax credits. That is now its umpteenth iteration, with few making predictions as yet to its next version. Still, educators and their policy-makers will likely be kept plenty busy this fall.

Almost halfway through Christie’s tenure, Cerf continues to finalize his staffing at the Department of Education. The state is expected to apply for a waiver from some of the stiffest strictures of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which could bring big changes to how the state tracks and supports its schools. And while the charter school law may go unaltered for a few months, there are still applications in the pipeline and approvals pending.

The Record 9-6-11 Lawmakers, advocates mark start of N.J. anti-bullying law TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 6, 2011 LAST UPDATED: TUESDAY SEPTEMBER 6, 2011, 5:34 PM BY MONSY ALVARADO FORT LEE — Advocates and legislators of the state’s new anti-bullying law stood at the entrance of the high school on Tuesday and touted the law’s potential to help students and save lives. “Today it’s official, it will be a uniformed policy,” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, one of the sponsors of the bill. “Every school in New Jersey needs to adhere to this policy.”

Since the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights was signed in January, several school boards throughout the state adopted new anti-bullying policies to coincide with the law, which officially went into effect on Sept. 1. Students found to be bullying could be suspended or expelled, and administrators who don’t properly investigate complaints can be held accountable under the legislation.

Hotline - The hotline can be reached at 877-NJ Bully or text NJ Bully to 66746. Huttle, a Democrat, said thousands of children stay home from school every day because they are afraid to go to class because of bullying. “These are the kids we are concerned with this morning, these are the kids that we need to give that message to this morning, that they will be protected,’’ she said. “The school will protect them, the parents in the community will be stake holders in this…so today is a historic day.”

Jennifer Ehrentraut-Segro, of Fair Lawn, whose cousin Tyler Clementi committed suicide last year joined legislatures in marking the day. Clementi, a Ridgewood High School graduate and Rutgers University student at the time, jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate used a webcam to broadcast a romantic interlude he had with a man in their dorm room, authorities have said. 

Ehrentraut-Segro, who became emotional when she first spoke about her cousin’s life being cut short, said bullying should be taken seriously, and that it’s important to remind each other to be kind, and to be aware of the impact that bullying can have. “It could be just being upset for a day or an hour, or it can end someone’s life,’’ she said. Ehrentraut-Segro, along with Steven Goldstein, chair of Garden State Equality, an organization which pushed for the legislation, unveiled the group’s new state-wide anti-bullying hotline for students, parents, and others to be able to call or text to report incidents of school bullying.

Ehrentraut-Segro said she will be answering calls as a volunteer. “We can guarantee that there is a caring person on the other end,’’ she said. Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono, another Democrat who also sponsored the legislation, joined Huttle on Tuesday and said districts are still waiting for guidelines from the Department of Education, which she said would help clarify some procedures and help schools implement the law better.

“If this governor continues to drag [his] feet our government would have made our children an empty promise,” said Buono. Allison Kobus, spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said the agency sent a model policy and guidance document to school superintendents and charter school administrators in April, to help them when writing their policies. The information could also be found on its website, she said. “The department implemented the law that was set forth by the legislature and signed by the governor,” Kobus said Goldstein, in an e-mail sent Tuesday afternoon, described the documents sent by the DOE in April as “rudimentary” containing information already in the law.

Raymond Bandlow, superintendent of schools in Fort Lee, where students started classes on Tuesday, said among the items that he would like to get more clarification and information on is how to approach cyber bullying incidents, and how the parent appeal process will work. But Bandlow said that the district has already incorporated anti-bullying measures and is moving forward with complying with the law.

“There are still specific things that are left unanswered, and that’s where we have to develop procedures,’’ he said. Besides updating their policies, teachers and administrators in several North Jersey school districts have already had some training on the new legislation and lined up guest speakers to talk to students. And in other districts, some staff members will be taking workshops on investigating complaints of harassment, intimidation, and bullying in coming weeks.

Several districts have also sent letters to parents about the new legislation. E-mail: alvarado@northjersey.com

Press of Atlantic City 9-5-11 Schools face change as year begins; focus placed on 10 issues By DIANE D’AMICO Education Writer | Acting New Jersey Education Commissioner Chris Cerf recently reorganized the state Department of Education around four priorities for education reform: Academics, Performance, Talent, and Innovation. The DOE will devote its resources to identifying what students should learn, how to prove they learned it, who will teach it to them, and how it will be taught. But those are not the only priorities facing students and staff as they head back to school. Here's a list of 10 education issues likely to get a lot of attention in the schoolhouse and the Statehouse during the 2011-12 school year:

1. NEW LESSONS: New Jersey has adopted the national Common Core State Standards, and during the next three years schools will be adapting what they teach, when they teach it, and maybe even how they teach it to mesh with state and national expectations for college and career readiness.

2. NJSMART: This statewide system for identifying and tracking the progress of every single public school student will be crucial to both the education of children and the evaluation of teachers.

3. TEACHER EVALUATIONS: Nine school districts from 31 applicants will be chosen to pilot a new state system to track teacher effectiveness using student performance and other measures. Implications are huge for the raises and tenure earned by teachers and administrators.

4. GRADUATION RATES: Starting with the Class of 2011, high schools will be reporting graduation rates based more on individual student performance than a mathematically calculated estimate. The new system, to be used for the 2012 state school report cards, is expected to provide a more accurate profile of student completion and put more pressure on schools to reduce dropout rates.

5. BULLYING: New Jersey’s new anti-bullying law has raised the profile of student behavior with strict timelines for reporting and investigating every incident. School districts must name an anti-bullying specialist and coordinator.

6. SCHOOL CHOICE: The Opportunity Scholarship Act still has supporters, including Cerf and Gov. Chris Christie. If passed by the Legislature, it would give urban students scholarships to attend private schools and tax credits to the businesses that fund them. Changes to the charter school law also are expected, but the state did not get federal charter school funding for a second year, so raising money to open will still be a challenge for new schools. Only nine new charter schools, including one in Millville, will open this year, though 23 were approved. More than 50 public schools in the expanded school choice program will welcome children from other towns.

7. SCHOOL FUNDING: The state school funding law hasn’t really been followed during the state budget crisis. Urban Abbott districts will get an extra $450 million this year as a result of a state Supreme Court ruling, but the Education Law Center’s David Sciarra said under-funded suburban and rural districts are likely to be the next funding battleground. Meanwhile Republican state Sen. Mike Doherty is proposing a plan to provide the same amount of aid to every student, no matter where they live, a windfall for wealthy districts but a disaster for the poor.

8. ADS ON BUSES: A new law allows school boards to generate revenue by placing ads on their school buses. The proposed regulations still need state Board of Education approval and outline everything from the size of ads to where they can be placed and what can’t be advertised.

9. NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND: Lacking Congressional re-approval, President Barack Obama did an end run around the process and told states they can get a waiver from NCLB requirements if they implement other proposed reforms. Cerf has expressed interest in applying for the waiver.

10. COLLEGE TUITION: Gov. Chris Christie has appointed a Secretary of Education, former acting Education Commissioner Rochelle Hendricks, so higher education, long neglected at the state level, may start getting more attention. Tuition and fees are up 4 percent on average this year, bringing the average annual cost to just under $12,000. Paul Shelly, spokesman for the NJ Association of State Colleges and Universities said the state must take a more active role in the future of its public colleges if they are to remain affordable and accessible to state residents.

BONUS ISSUE: PARENTS: The billions of dollars poured into urban schools have helped, but still have not generated a comparable huge increase in student performance. Researchers have noted the importance of socioeconomic and parental influence on a child’s educational success, and responsibility for student performance may shift away from just teachers. Contact Diane D'Amico: 609-272-7241 DDamico@pressofac.com

Politifact.com 9-4-11 NJEA claims New Jersey public school students have best Advanced Placement scores in nation: New Jersey’s largest teachers union believes the state’s public schools deserve recognition for a number of reasons. Among them: student performance on college-level exams. "New Jersey's public school students have the best Advanced Placement scores in the nation," a page on the New Jersey Education Association’s website says, citing 2010 data. With New Jersey students beginning another school year, PolitiFact New Jersey decided to check the union’s claim. On this statement, they get a perfect score.

Advanced Placement, or AP, exams are college-level tests scored on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest score. Three is considered a passing grade -- and is the minimum score most colleges require for a student to receive credit for the exam. The New York-based College Board, which administers the AP tests, releases detailed charts breaking down student performance on AP exams in the 50 states and Washington, D.C. The most recent data available is from the 2009-2010 school year. Students’ scores from the most recent academic year won’t be released to the public until this fall, according to Kathleen Steinberg, a spokeswoman for the College Board. Steinberg said the claim by the teachers union "is, in fact, an accurate statement."

But, she said, the College Board doesn’t maintain rankings and doesn’t encourage anyone to rank states by performance because "you’re not comparing the same population." Still, Steinberg said, "Everyone loves to do that. States love to do it." Especially, she said, if they do well. And New Jersey did do well. According to PolitiFact New Jersey’s analysis of the data, the average AP test score of 3.34 for public school students in the Garden State outranked students in the rest of the country. In New Jersey, 39,895 public school students took at least one AP exam in 2010.

The average score includes all exams taking during a school year. So, if one student took five exams, the scores from each of those five exams are included in the overall average. New Jersey and Connecticut are tied for the highest average AP test score in the country for all students -- including both public and private school students -- at 3.32. For New Jersey, that number includes 48,836 students who took at least one AP exam.

For Connecticut, it includes 25,646 students. New Jersey, Iowa, Montana, North Dakota, Utah and Vermont are the only states where the average AP test score is higher for students who attended public school than the average score of all students in the state. As far as why New Jersey is doing well on the test, Gregg Fleisher, national AP training and incentives program director for the Texas-based National Math and Science Initiative, said, "obviously: good schools, good teachers and good communities."

But, Fleisher argued that average test score isn’t the most important metric because "it rewards exclusivity." If more students took the AP test in New Jersey, he said the state’s "mean scores and percent passing would likely go way down."

Steve Baker, a spokesman for the NJEA, said the fact that New Jersey public school students are scoring well on college-level exams "shows that New Jersey public schools are doing an exceptionally good job." But, Baker noted, the average AP test score is just one of a "broad array of indicators" the teachers union looks at to evaluate performance of public schools. Our ruling The NJEA claims the state’s public school students have the best Advanced Placement test scores in the country.

PolitiFact New Jersey compared the average AP test scores for students across the nation and found New Jersey’s public school students rank first. A spokeswoman for the College Board said her organization doesn’t compile rankings -- and doesn’t encourage others to do so -- but confirmed the union's statement was accurate. We rate this statement True. To comment on this ruling, go to NJ.com.

Star Ledger - Pilot evaluation system will judge N.J. teachers partially on students' performance The ten districts selected to participate among 31 applicants include: Alexandria Township, Bergenfield, Elizabeth, Monroe Township, Ocean City, Pemberton Township, Red Bank, Secaucus, West Deptford Township and Woodstown-Pilesgrove Regional…

9-1-11 By Jessica Calefati/The Star-Ledger

The state has chosen ten school districts to help pilot a new evaluation system that will, for the first time, grade New Jersey teachers half on their students' performance in the classroom. The state Department of Education expects to implement the system statewide by fall 2012.

If Gov. Chris Christie succeeds in pushing his education reform agenda before then — one that the state's largest teachers union staunchly opposes — teachers' performance under the new system could soon affect their tenure, pay and seniority rights.

"Precisely because teaching is an honored craft, we must recognize and respect effective educators, support teachers in their efforts to continue to develop their skills, and ensure that those comparatively few individuals who are unable to improve no longer remain in the classroom," acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf wrote of the pilot program in an op-ed published today.

Under the new system, districts will rate teachers half on student academic performance and half on classroom evaluations using a four-tiered scale, the worst grade being "ineffective," the best being "highly effective." Pilot districts are also expected to help develop evaluation criteria for untested grades and subjects.

The ten districts selected to participate among 31 applicants include: Alexandria Township, Bergenfield, Elizabeth, Monroe Township, Ocean City, Pemberton Township, Red Bank, Secaucus, West Deptford Township and Woodstown-Pilesgrove Regional.

Each pilot district will receive a slice of $1.1 million in state money to implement the program. Newark will also participate using separate, federal funding.