License to Experiment on Low Income & Minority Children?

John Mooney at NJ Spotlight provided a reasonable overview of the NJDOE waiver proposal to “reward” successful schools and sanction and/or takeover “failing” ones.

The NJDOE waiver proposal includes explanation of a new classification system for identifying which schools should be subject to state intervention, ultimately to be managed by regional offices throughout the state. This new targeted intervention system classifies districts in need of intervention as “priority” districts, with specific emphasis on “focus” districts. Mooney explains:

In all, 177 schools — known as Focus Schools — fell into this category, largely defined as the bottom 10 percent in terms of the achievement gaps between the highest- and lowest-performing student groups over three years.

The new system also has a reward program:

The same list also includes the schools that the state designates as Reward Schools, based on both their overall achievement and their progress. Reward Schools with high poverty concentrations will also be rewarded with cash: $100,000 each.

But, some significant questions persist as to whether the state is over-reaching its authority to intervene in the “focus” and priority schools. Here are a few comments from a related article:

“Consistent with state law, they can go in and direct districts to take particular actions,” said David Sciarra, director of the Education Law Center that has spearheaded the Abbott litigation. “All of that, they clearly have the authority to do.

“But nothing that I am aware of allows them to close existing schools,” he said. “And they have no power to withhold funds. That’s even outside the scope of the federal guidelines. ”

Paul Tractenberg, a Rutgers Law School professor and noted expert on education law, said he also questioned whether the application’s reform plans ran counter to the state’s current school-monitoring system, the Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC).

“As a constitutional matter, it is pretty clear the commissioner has whatever power he needs to ensure a thorough and efficient education,” he said. “But that’s different than saying if there is a legislation out there, he can just ignore it.”

In terms of significant alterations such as reassigning staff or directing changes in collective bargaining, Tractenberg said, “there are all kinds of big-time issues about their legal authority to do that.”

Of course, a related twist here is just which schools are involved. NJDOE like other state agencies has adopted a set of performance metrics most likely to single out schools serving the largest shares of low income and minority students for dramatic interventions – for school closure – or for major staffing disruptions (strategies with little track record of success).

Here’s the breakdown of which schools will be subject to closure, staff replacement or other intervention, versus those who will be left alone and those eligible for a check for $100,000.

When considering racial composition, poverty and geographic location (metro area) simultaneously as predictors of school classification:

  • A school that is approaching 100% free lunch is nearly 30 times more likely to be classified as a focus school (as opposed to all other categories including priority) than a school that is 0% free lunch.
  • A school that is approaching 100% free lunch is nearly 60 times more likely to be either a priority or focus school (compared to all other options) than a school that is 0% free lunch.

While the typical FOCUS school is 26% black, 39% Hispanic and 51% free lunch, the typical reward school is 7.2% black, 11.3% Hispanic and 10.3% free lunch.

[note: several NJ schools had missing data in the 2009-10 NCES Common Core of Data which were merged with the NJDOE schools list Total school enrollment data were most commonly missing, and where possible were replaced with the sum of racial subgroup data for calculating racial composition. Complete data were matched and available for 160 of the 177(9?) focus schools and 120 of the 138(?) reward schools. Thus, I am sufficiently confident that the above patterns will hold as remaining missing data are added.]

NJDOE will likely argue that they are intervening in these schools because poor and minority kids are the ones getting the worst education, which may in part be true. But causal attribution to the teachers and administrators in these schools and districts stands on really shaky ground – especially on the statistical basis provided by NJDOE.  The accountability framework chosen is merely identifying schools by the extent of the disadvantage of the students served and not by any legitimate measures of the quality of education being provided.

Further, and perhaps most disturbing, is that this policy framework, like those proposed and used elsewhere is, in effect,  (self-granted) license for NJDOE to experiment on these children with unproven “reform” strategies which are as likely to do harm as to do good (that is, likely to do more harm than even simply maintaining the status quo).  Helen Ladd’s recent presidential address at the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management provides exceptional insights in this regard!


  1. Gerardo Lopez (now at Univ of New Orleans) considers this a new form of colonialism where affluent (and mostly white) policymakers make decisions for low-income neighborhoods without ever engaging with or communicating with people who actually live in the community. While this has generally been the case with education reform throughout the history of education (with some notable exceptions), we know that engaging with the community (community members, parents,teachers, and administrators) in developing new strategies and reforms It is not as if they don’t want their schools to be better.But they need adequate resources and support from the state and to be part of developing solutions rather than simply pawns for rich people in a game.

  2. Why would schools serving 100% free lunch be so much more likely to have huge achievement gaps? I’d expect low overall average achievement there, but the biggest gaps? Who in those schools is doing so much better than everyone else?

    1. I assume you’re referring to the intended parameters that would lead to a school being identified for intervention (gap measures), and then questioning why there are so many vary high poverty schools classified for intervention? Right? That if gaps are a big part of classification, it doesn’t make sense that homogeneously poor schools would be classified. I didn’t try to explore the breakout for why different schools got the label that they did. But yeah, I agree. That wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense. I’d assume the same as you have here.

Comments are closed.