In just the last week New York and New Jersey residents were confronted with some hard facts about K-12 student outcomes. StudentsFirstNY issued a report that called the de Blasio Administration’s touting of higher high school graduation rates in New York City a “facade” to cover up signs of “systemic failure” proven by “off the charts” rates of student remediation rates in CUNY colleges. Education Reform Now issued its own report that shows that New York State is “abandoning students in the worst-performing schools” by “re-designating their schools in a way that either slows school improvement efforts down or brings them to a halt completely.”
And over the holiday weekend New Jersey Governor Chris Christie wrote an editorial in the Star-Ledger that many give some clues to his motivation to propose a dead-in-the-water “fair funding” plan to flat-fund all students, regardless of socio-economic status, at $6,559 a year. He writes,
Ninety-seven billion dollars in taxpayer money has been given to 31 SDA districts [Abbotts] over 30 years. Eighty-eight billion dollars has been divided among all the other 546 districts over the same time period. All that money — just from state income tax payers — for a 66 percent graduation rate in Asbury Park, a 63 percent rate in Camden and a 69 percent rate in Newark…
Here is the real truth: The overwhelming number of those “graduates” need remedial training for at least a year to even sit in a college classroom. Those diplomas are an illusion, and that failed system, they say, we must pour more money into it [sic] every year.
While the New York reports are data analyses and Christie’s editorial/proposal may be a last-ditch strategic ploy (more on that in a moment), all three coalesce around an undeniable truth: for poor minority students — indeed, one could argue, for all students who don’t attend elite, exclusive public schools — claims of improvement are an “illusion,” a “facade.” We cheer for our high school graduates and then send them on their way cloaked with a polyester gown and a piece of paper that serves as a false pretense for college or career readiness.
This charade makes adults feel good, at least those who rail against higher standards like Common Core and greater accountability like standardized assessments, for those invested in resistance to change. As my colleague Tracy Dell’Angela would say, this artifice of success allows us to bury our heads in the sand.
I’ve been hard on Christie lately. True, he’s earned that criticism on his own steam, but his editorial shows that there may be some method to his madness. Although he has proposed a school funding plan that would usurp N.J.’s proud (and court-ordered) tradition of generously funding 31 poor school districts, one that will never pass through a Democratically-controlled legislature, his editorial gives some hints to a more nuanced strategy.
Simply this: Christie reminds us that New Jersey, despite its passage of tenure reform (4 years instead of three; quicker turnarounds for due process; 30% of teacher evaluations infused with student outcome data, later reduced to 10%), still has a school system that privileges adults over students and costs way too much. We endlessly kvetch about sky-high property taxes but disdain systemic reform. Decade after decade SDA/Abbott districts (with the exceptions of Newark and Camden, which provide more opportunities for school choice. and a few other bright spots like Union City) fail the very students we pay to reach.
Money is necessary but not sufficient.
Liberals like the editorial board of The Star-Ledger continue to believe — 30 years of evidence to the contrary notwithstanding — that pouring money into a demonstrably failed system is an essential element to any salvation for our failed urban education system. They cite Newark charter schools’ success sending Newark children to college. Yet they fail to explain how they do it at one-half to two-thirds the cost of the failed traditional public schools without the handcuffs put on them by the Democratic Legislature they endorse or the failed public educators they quote such as Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. Layoffs based on seniority rather than merit. A strangling tenure system that requires us to pay awful teachers in the SDA districts not to teach. And those are just two examples of the madness.
I don’t think that Christie believes that his “fairness formula” has a breath of life (and I could have done without his aspersion of “liberals”). But if his strategy in proposing a radical new school formula is to highlight N.J.’s failure to overturn its adult-centered system of privileging seniority over instructional effectiveness during lay-offs and profligate spending in places like Asbury Park that yield no benefit to children, then he deserves just a little bit of credit.
New York and New Jersey, two of the top spenders on public education, remain invested in school systems that give the pretense of improvement only through facade and illusion. It takes courage and honesty to acknowledge that spending alone isn’t sufficient to create effective education systems.