It’s becoming an annual “State of the Schools” address, with the New Jersey's education commissioner and top lieutenants exhaustively outline the administration’s plans and priorities for the coming year.
Last week, state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf’s so-called convocation before 400 school administrators gathered at Jackson Liberty High School lasted more than two hours and nearly 80 PowerPoint slides.
In the end, the presentation included both the familiar and the new, including a guest appearance of the old topic of early literacy. Yet Cerf was also reminded by those in the audience that even modest plans don't always fall in place as smoothly as a slide show.
What did the presentation that tested the endurance of both presenters and audience include? (Click the links below to view each speaker's presentation; a recap of some of the highlights follows):
Cerf: Reading By Third Grade
This was Cerf’s second convocation, but his first since he was confirmed as commissioner this summer. His reception last week was polite -- at times supportive -- and Cerf delivered a conciliatory message. He applauded the schools overall, and struck the familiar theme of trying to free the good ones of state rules, while helping those in need to improve.
He came with new statistics, including 2011-2012 tests scores that showed high school achievement on a slight rise, while elementary and middle schools held mostly steady.
On the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA), 92 percent of juniors passed in language arts, and 79 percent in math, both increases. On the elementary and middle school test, known as NJASK, 66 percent in language arts and 75 percent in math.
But those stats came with Cerf’s familiar clarion call to close the achievement gap, which is narrowing in the high school tests but remains wide in other grades.
He also spent much of his time outlining the administration’s latest push to ease red that binds many schools -- especially the state’s voluminous monitoring system. That pledge drew the first and maybe the loudest applause of the morning.
One new campaign, although hardly a new cause, was Cerf’s insistence that children be able to read by third grade, a key indicator of later success, he said. Tracking of students could begin in kindergarten, starting with a pilot assessment program in a half dozen districts, Cerf added.
Goals would be set each year to gauge third-grade proficiency, with each gain of three percent meaning another 2,000 young students able to read at grade level statewide, he said.
“Every one of those students has a name, and you are serving all of them,” Cerf told the school leaders.
Data, Data, Data
Next up was Bari Erlichson, Cerf’s assistant commissioner and chief performance officer. Erlichson, the department’s data guru, provided the latest updates on NJ SMART, the student-based system that will include everything from test scores to post-graduate success. For the first time this year, she said, every district’s graduates have been tracked as to how they are doing in college two years later -- assuming that they continue their education.
It was a presentation heavy with spreadsheets, detailing how NJ SMART will track where students succeed and where they fall short, down to the kinds of questions on the tests.
Districts have already started to receive this information, with more on the way. One point of continued contention: the state’s plans to link student achievement to individual teachers, a central component of the new teacher evaluation initiative.
The plan is to have the evaluation component in place by 2013-2014, but districts are only now starting to submit and verify teachers’ schedules and class rosters. Erlichson said the first correlation of student scores to teachers should be in place by early next year.
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