School Study Highlights Abbott Success

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by David G. Sciarra

STATE — More data has been released confirming gains in achievement by New Jersey’s low income, Black and Latino students and a narrowing of the gap with affluent and White students.

The latest data, an analysis of state test scores for 2006-07 and 2007-08 to by the Washington, DC-based Center for Education Policy, shows performance by low income, Black and Latino students on the NJ 4th and 8th grade assessments rose by 3-4 points, while affluent and white students gained 1 to 2 points.


The CEP data follows closely on heals of data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress showing a narrowing of the Black-White achievement gap in New Jersey from 1999-2007.

Researchers and scholars are focusing on the reforms mandated by the 1997 and 1998 landmark Abbott v. Burke decisions as the driving force behind these achievement gains. In a recent commentary in the National Journal, Professor Linda Darling Hammond of Stanford University, attributes the steady and sustained rise in performance of New Jersey’s low income, Black and Latino students to the strong emphasis in Abbott to targeting funding to effective programs and reforms at the school level:

One example of how strategic investments can produce systemic improvement can be found in New Jersey. Most are familiar with the Abbott decisions that have come out of the legal cases initially launched in the 1960s. But the real legacy of Abbott is the set of systemic changes recently made in P-12 education across the state, providing an extraordinary leap in equity and opportunity that has propelled New Jersey to one of the top-achieving states in the nation and dramatically reduced the achievement gap between white students and their black and Hispanic peers.

After decades of legal battles to avoid equalizing funding for the state’s low-income, high-minority school districts, the state finally responded in the late 1990s to the Court’s repeated rulings by providing a major infusion of funding to high-need school districts.

First, state aid brought per-pupil revenue in the 28 (later 30) Abbott districts up to the per-pupil expenditures in the state’s 110 successful, suburban districts. Previously, districts serving most of the state’s African American and Hispanic students had spent about half what well-heeled districts like Princeton could spend.

Professor Darling Hammond further underscores the key to Abbott’s success: directing funding to effective and critically needed programs, services and reform. With additional parity and supplemental funding, she writes, New Jersey went about implementing a new state curriculum linked to state standards.

These dollars were designed to support whole school reform, ensure early childhood education for three- and four-year olds taught by a highly-qualified teaching force, full-day kindergarten, and enable smaller class sizes.

The new resources allowed for greater investment in classroom technology, while ensuring adequate facilities and supporting health, social services, alternative, and summer programs to help students catch up. They supported extensive professional development, new urban teacher education programs, and literacy programs that brought classroom libraries and expert literacy coaches to inner-city schools. Most importantly, these dollars equalized the system, seeking to close the resource and opportunity gaps between the haves and have nots.

The record of Abbott progress will figure prominently in Darling Hammond’s forthcoming new book The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future. Gordon MacInnes’ recently published study — In Plain Sight also highlights the progress and challenges of the Abbott reform effort.

Under the SFRA, NJDOE Has Dismantled Abbott Reforms
Despite this notable success, and with the urgent need to make further progress, the NJDOE inexplicably used the enactment of the new school funding law – the School Funding and Reform Act (SFRA) – to dismantle key components of the Abbott reforms. In 2008, NJDOE let lapse the State’s Abbott XX regulations that carefully guided annual planning and budgeting for the Abbott reforms at the school and classroom levels.

As a result, beginning 2008-09, high poverty, urban districts and schools were no longer required to implement the heart of the reforms praised by Professor Darling Hammond and others, including:

Elementary School Reform: supporting a cohesive approach to curriculum and instruction, focused on language arts literacy and math, with coaching, mentoring and supports for teachers and tutors and small group instruction for students

Secondary School Reform: requiring middle and high schools to provide college preparatory curriculum and small learning community environments including expanded academic and social supports for all student

Supplemental Programs and Services: providing, either on their own or through partnerships with community organizations, social and health services, drop-out prevention, parent liaisons, safe schools and violence prevention, academic after school and summer school, with the level or programming based on local student need

District Accountability: requiring schools and districts to develop needs-based budgets, with review by the NJDOE, to drive funding to needed programs, services and reforms

State Accountability: requiring the NJDOE and State education officials to assume responsibility to ensure funding is effectively and efficiently used to enable students to achieve State content and performance standards, and to provide technical assistance and support, including ongoing program evaluation, to districts and schools

NJ Now Lacks a Reform Initiative for High Needs Districts and Schools
After discarding the Abbott reforms in 2008, NJDOE has yet to put in place any suitable, comparable replacement. In 2008, Education Commissioner Lucille Davy adopted SFRA regulations designating 92 districts as “high needs,” defined as having more than a 40% rate of student poverty and failing to meet state performance benchmarks on the third, eighth and high school graduation test.

However, the regulations do not require these high needs districts to implement the keys to Abbott success: elementary school reform, supplemental programs and services, and accountability through annual school and district planning and budgeting. Nor is there any requirement for the State to provide technical assistance, program evaluation and other supports essential to improving school performance.

While the NJDOE still suggests high needs districts restructure middle and high schools, and the State Board of Education has passed new tougher graduation requirements, the SFRA regulations watered down the Abbott secondary reform mandates. The consultant contracts to provide technical assistance to districts were allowed to expire. NJDOE personnel providing implementation support for secondary reform were released or reassigned.

The district pilots designed to test and modify the reforms were never conducted. A research and evaluation plan required by Abbott regulations was never developed. The Abbott secondary advisory committee was disbanded, while a new Advisory committee required by the SFRA regulations was never convened.

In short, under SFRA, the State has retreated to its posture pre-Abbott: provide funding, mandate standards and tests, and pass the buck for school improvement and progress for student achievement off to under-performing districts and schools, with little or no support.

Time to Restore and Expand Abbott Reforms
In upholding the SFRA in the May 2009 Abbott XX Decision, the NJ Supreme Court only authorized the Commissioner and NJDOE to replace the Abbott funding streams for the 31 Abbott districts – parity and supplemental funding – with the funding provided through the components of the SFRA formula.

The Court did not release the Commissioner or NJDOE from the obligation to continue implementation of the Abbott reforms, preschool through high school graduation. In fact, the Court stated that the Abbott preschool and K-12 supplemental programs and reforms remain in place, accepting the Commissioner’s representation that the formula funding under SFRA is adequate to enable the districts to continue the reforms.

In light of the evidence of progress in student achievement, it is time for NJDOE and State education officials to move quickly to restore and expand the Abbott reforms. This means:

Restore: the current NJDOE regulations defining “high needs” districts, but lacking substantive reforms, expire in November 2009. The Commissioner should immediately convene a working group of education experts, district educators and community representatives to develop new regulations, building on the lapsed Abbott regulations. ELC is ready to assist the State in assembling the group and facilitating its work in a timely fashion.

Expand: as noted, the NJDOE has now classified 92 districts as high needs, based on concentrated poverty and lagging student performance. This classification includes the 31 Abbott districts, with the remaining districts slated to receive additional funding and the Abbott preschool program under the SFRA. High needs districts are also under federal and state improvement directives, including new Title 1 school improvement mandates from the US Department of Education . Thus, the revised Abbott reform regulations should extend not just to the 31 Abbott districts, but to all districts classified as high needs statewide.

Full Funding: the SFRA formula mandates additional state aid to many high needs districts, along with expansion of the Abbott preschool program. The Legislature’s refusal to fund the formula in the FY2010 State Budget has hindered reform and must not be allowed recur in FY2011. In short, the Legislature must meet its legal obligations and fully fund the needs of high needs students and districts, as determined n the SFRA law and as mandated by the Supreme Court in Abbott XX.

As a result of implementation of Abbott funding and reforms from 1999-2008, New Jersey has emerged as a national leader on numerous indicators of education equity for low income students and students of color: access to high quality preschool, needs-driven school funding, and systemic reform and improvement.

In approving the SFRA funding formula, the NJ Supreme Court accepted the State’s pledge that it would sustain and deepen the Abbott reforms, within the context of the SFRA funding framework. As the evidence of progress under Abbott mounts, and to prevent backsliding, those reforms should be renewed and extended, now.

David G. Sciarra, a civil rights lawyer, is executive director of the Education Law Center, which has sought parity funding for urban school children and produced the state Supreme Court’s landmark Abbott decisions.

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