Statement of Gordon MacInnes
Assistant Commissioner for Abbott Implementation
New Jersey Senate Education Committee
February 3, 2005
Student Achievement in the Abbott Districts

Good morning Senator Turner and members of the Committee. I welcome your curiosity about Abbott, the largest investment New Jersey makes in a single program. I have prepared these remarks to give perspective on where we’ve been and where we’re going.

Celebrating great progress

New Jersey has a lot to celebrate about Abbott:

  • New Jersey provides a high quality preschool education to a higher proportion of the disadvantaged children who need one than any other state. We now reach about two-thirds of such children (about 80% in Abbott districts). No state comes close to New Jersey in assuring them well-trained teachers in small class sizes with the instructional resources that will make such a huge difference as these three- and four year-old children move up to kindergarten and beyond.

  • New Jersey has the resources and agreement on the policies and practices to greatly increase early literacy. Other states are still arguing about the ideology of reading instruction or the appropriate class size—we have a unified set of policies and the funding to make sure that 90 percent or more of all third graders are strong readers and writers of English.

  • We have gone further than any other state in providing poor school districts with the funds they need to educate concentrations of children from economically disadvantaged homes. Last year, the average spending per pupil in the Abbott districts ($13,258) was higher than the average spending in the most affluent (I and J) districts.

All these achievements, plus the undertaking of the most ambitious public construction program in the state’s history, we owe to the Abbott decisions and to the bi-partisan support of successive governors and legislatures to provide disadvantaged children with an education that gives them the same chances in life as their affluent peers. As a former member of both houses of the Legislature, I might prefer that the agreement on these policies and resources had emerged from the legislative process, but I salute the vision of the Court to give all New Jersey students a fair chance.

An Abbott snapshot

Let’s put our discussion in context. There are 31 Abbott districts, 28 of which were determined by the Supreme Court from a list appended to a decision in 1977 of low-income, property-poor, low-performing K-12 school districts that were eligible for state "urban aid." The legislature added Neptune and Plainfield in 1998 and Salem City in 2004. Together these districts enroll 274,336 K-12 students (42.3% of whom are African-American and 41.9% are Latino) and 40,000 preschool students. While representing roughly 20% of all students (19.9% of New Jersey’s 1,380,882 ), Abbott districts educate 51% of all New Jersey students eligible for free and reduced lunches, half of all Latino students statewide and nearly half of all African American students.

In the 2004 fiscal year, Abbott districts spent an average of $13,258 per K-12 student and $9,637 for each preschool student. With total Abbott district spending of $5.4 billion, 82% came from State aid, 7% from federal assistance, and the balance from local property taxes. The state aid comprised $2.6 billion in Comprehensive Educational Improvement and Financing Act (CEIFA) formula aid, $900 million in Abbott parity formula aid, $450 million in supplemental funding, and $440 million in Early Childhood Program Aid (ECPA) and preschool expansion funding.

I’ve attached tables and graphs depicting the academic performance of Abbott students in the 4th and 8th grades. Two preliminary findings leap out: first, the goal of universal literacy in Abbott elementary schools is realizable; and, second, when students go onto the middle and high school years with limited literacy, they cannot pass New Jersey’s rigorous 8th and 11th grade standards. Consider that when the first state 4th grade test was given in language arts in 1999, only 33% of Abbott students were proficient; last year, 75% were proficient or advanced proficient. This is dramatic (but still insufficient) progress and confirms that the focus on early literacy is not only essential, but realistic. The goal is to ensure that 90% of all Abbott students are strong readers by 4th grade.

The second finding grows from the first: if we don’t teach young children to be strong readers by 3rd or 4th grade, their chances of being able to "read to learn" later are greatly diminished. This is documented in some of the woeful results on the GEPA tests. Where districts emphasized early literacy, their 8th graders perform better, in some cases like West New York, better than the state average. We are moving the emphasis on literacy into the middle grades, basing our policies and practices on the best research available.

The setting for Abbott

There’s another context beyond the numbers that will help our discussion today. Abbott isn’t the only set of mandates affecting the Abbott districts, and it is important to note that some of the Court’s specific prescriptions are inconsistent with other requirements and expectations set down for all New Jersey schools.

In the last ten years, the setting for public schools in general and Abbott schools in particular, has been dramatically altered. No discussion of Abbott’s progress can ignore these other forces impinging on our ability to realize the lofty goals set by the Court. Think back to New Jersey’s schools in 1995:

  • New Jersey’s 617 local school boards alone decided what would be taught in their schools. In 1995, New Jersey was yet to join the national push for "standards-based reform."

  • In 1995, there were two state tests to warn 8th graders whether or not they had the basic skills to graduate high school and the high school test to decide.

  • In 1995, the Abbott litigation had yielded three decisions in fourteen years that dealt exclusively with the equity in school finance laws, most recently having struck down the Quality Education Act II of 1991.

  • In 1995, the federal government was in its 30th year of providing (Title I) funding for remedial programs in schools with concentrations of poor children picking up about 5% of all costs in the state.

Within the next five years, all these conditions would change in important ways for all public schools in New Jersey, but even more for the Abbott schools. Consider:

  • In 1997, the State Board promulgated new compulsory curricular standards for eight disciplines comprising more than 850 "indicators of progress" for just the 4th, 8th, and 11th grades. Among the more noticeable changes was the advent of world languages in the primary grades, the replacement of arithmetic with national math standards in K-8, and a strong emphasis on writing in language arts.

  • By 1999, the State had mandated state tests to determine mastery of the Core standards in grades 4, 8, and 11 (the 3rd grade test is "official" this spring). The tests demonstrated that the new standards were rigorous and exceeded local expectations in most districts, but certainly in the Abbotts. After less than half of New Jersey 4th graders were found not proficient in language arts, the state lowered the cut score to increase the percentage proficient by 20 points.

  • In 1998, the Supreme Court in Abbott V recognized the new Core standards as an appropriate measure of a constitutional education, but went on to mandate the most specific and prescriptive set of instructional measures ever handed down by a high court. In addition to requiring a high quality preschool and small class sizes, each of the 300 Abbott elementary schools was mandated to adopt an approved national model of "Whole School Reform."

  • In 2001, the President signed the "No Child Left Behind" law that zeroed in on state standards, mandated that all states annually test students in grades 3 through 8, and established penalties and sanctions for schools and districts in which students underperformed. Importantly, NCLB requires all students to take the state tests, including those classified disabled (SPED) and those still learning English (English language learners, or ELL).

For a discussion of Abbott’s progress, two quick observations are needed. First, at precisely the time non-Abbott districts were focused on adapting their instruction to new state standards by revising the district curriculum, buying new instructional materials, and hiring new subject-specialized teachers, the Abbott districts were focused just as intently on implementing models of WSR and other Court mandates all at the individual school level.

Second, with the advent of NCLB and its commendable focus on the performance of special education and ELL students, the Abbott districts were implementing Court remedies that did not address either subgroup, even though they now represent about 35 percent of all Abbott students. Moreover, not one of the models approved by the Commissioner gave specific attention to either subgroup. It is no wonder, then, that most of the schools "in need of improvement" as defined by NCLB are in Abbott districts.

Abbott V (May 1998) and the Whitman Administration

With that context, let us consider the situation in 2002 when the present administration assumed office. In a climate of persistent litigation it may not surprise that the Whitman administration concentrated on implementation of the Abbott decisions and on budgeting. School-level reports and budgets were approved directly by the Department (circumventing the district central offices) following a checklist of compliance with the Court’s very specific mandates, with most attention given to the implementation of WSR models. Virtually no attention was given to whether Abbott districts had realigned their instruction to meet the Core standards.

To further confuse these issues, the responsibility for Abbott implementation was spread across five divisions of the DOE with no central overview.

Abbott’s second phase beginning January 2002

The new administration adopted a simple, two-goal approach to Abbott reflected in four fundamental changes that were announced in 2002 and remain unchanged:

  • The first goal of Abbott is to close the achievement gap between the poor and affluent and between Abbott and non-Abbott. Student achievement, thus, with a particular focus on early literacy, is the measure of Abbott’s success or failure. A single division that combines program, budgeting, the state-operated districts, and preschool was created to simplify and give focus to teaching and learning. (Abbott facilities remain the responsibility of another division).

  • The focus on achievement requires the Division to shift from dealing with over 450 schools to the district central offices. It is impossible and wasteful for each Abbott school to review the Core standards to create its own and it is impossible for the department to work effectively with schools directly. All of this must be done centrally. We have shifted the DOE-district relationship from compliance with myriad mandates to cooperation on instructional priorities.

  • The great advantage NJ has been given with the mandate for school beginning at age three will mean nothing unless the quality of teaching is greatly improved and a high quality curriculum implemented in all pre-k classrooms. This means working with 31 districts, 450 contracted community providers, and approximately 3,000 classroom teachers. The pace of improvement is impressive with preschool students showing much better preparation for kindergarten and 94% of all preschool teachers now college graduates.

  • The second goal is to increase efficiency. The budget review for 2005-06 will be the first in which the comparative spending standards developed in cooperation with McKinsey & Co. will be used to identify areas for potential savings and reallocation. This is the first year when we can review proposed budgets before they are submitted and work with districts to reach agreement (in the first three years, the process and standards for budget review had to be decided by the Court).

What results and preliminary conclusions can we point to for these three years of effort? Improving academic achievement in schools that have under-performed their suburban peers is complicated work, but this is what we have learned: we can teach all primary students to read and write well. I say this because we have two Abbott districts—West New York and Garfield —where more than 90% of their fourth grade general education students were at least proficient on the 2004 NJASK4 language arts test. No one argues with the assertion that reading is the doorway to a good education and we now have evidence from West New York that more than 85% of unclassified students can master 8th grade English, math, and science! These are not theories or hypotheses, but sustained and consistent results from districts with high poverty rates, evidence that New Jersey can indeed close the achievement gap.

We have the resources and we know how to make sure that young Abbott students are readers. Last year we concentrated on districts with high proportions of non-readers. In the three where we were able to get started early enough to influence the March state assessment (Orange, Asbury Park, and Pleasantville), we saw the percentage of proficient general education 4th graders grow from 18 – 20 percentage points over 2003! Overall, the percentage of proficient 4th graders in the Abbott schools increased by a respectable 8.2%. True, this is one year and one test, but because we were using New Jersey’s Intensive Early Literacy standards as our guide, we have every confidence that such improvements can and must take place across the board.

The problem in the Abbott districts is not one of students or teachers. Of course, our job would be easier if more Abbott students came to kindergarten with the same vocabularies and rich experiences their affluent peers bring (children from poor families have about one-fourth the vocabulary of children from families with professional parents). As more students complete preschool, even this gap will close. But we know from Orange, Pleasantville and other districts that these students can read if they’re given the appropriate instruction. Teachers need to be shown what works and given the support and training to implement those practices in their classrooms. For the first time, the department is working cooperatively in about half the Abbott districts—those with the lowest literacy rates—to help align their curricula and demonstrate how to implement classroom practices that work.

The most likely explanation for why Abbott students do not perform as well as their suburban peers is that they are not taught what they are expected to learn and what they are tested on in the state assessments. Most Abbott districts have not yet caught up with the changes introduced by the Core standards. They need to work with teachers, specialists and principals to design a district curriculum that captures the content and skills specified by the CCCS and use that curriculum to select instructional materials and software and to determine what professional development their teachers require to master the content and to work with struggling students. This is the basic foundational work that was overlooked in the rush to implement Abbott.

Finally, note the important demographic shift that continues to characterize the Abbott districts: the growth in the numbers and percentage of students for whom English is a second language. Latinos will become the majority minority this year. The rapid growth in newly-arrived immigrants presents instructional challenges that are not easily or quickly surmounted. Too many districts have failed to provide the trained teachers or instructional materials to give these students an effective transition to English mastery. Again, we are confident that these students can learn to speak, read, and write English well, in part because of the results from districts like West New York, Union City, and Perth Amboy and from individual schools in other districts.

Abbott prospects

The advent of the new administration in 2002 marked the first effort at collaboration between the plaintiffs and defendants in Abbott’s 24 year history. A joint application was made to the Court for a "time out" from annual budget appeals so that we could sort through what was working and what wasn’t. Since the plaintiffs, the department and administration, and the Abbott districts agree on the urgent need to uplift student learning as the primary goal of the Court, we are hopeful that a shared spirit of collaboration and close cooperation on instructional practices and efficiency will prevail prospectively.

Abbott’s success rests on a relentless focus on student learning, starting with early literacy, and on the efficient delivery of effective instruction. We have the resources to get the job done. Otherwise, we fail New Jersey’s most disadvantaged students and the citizens who are asked to make this crucial investment.

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