The problem with New Jersey’s takeover of Camden schools

Gov. Chris Christie (By Lucas Jackson / Reuters)
Gov. Chris Christie (Lucas Jackson — Reuters)

Something had to be done for the 16,000 kids in Camden’s very low-achieving public schools, but there are big questions about whether the takeover by the state government of New Jersey will do much to help. After all, the state has in the past few decades taken over three other ailing public school districts, and there is limited progress to show for it.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie just announced the takeover of the Camden district because of its dismal academic record, and when you hear the statistics, you may think a state takeover seems reasonable. After all, 90 percent of Camden public schools are in the bottom 5 percent of the state’s schools according to standardized test scores, more than 80 percent of fourth graders score less than proficient in language arts, and the high school graduation rate is 49 percent. Under the plan, the local school board will have an advisory role, and Christie will appoint a new superintendent.

Things are bad, but they were, too, when the state — before Christie became governor — took over the schools in Paterson (in 1991) Newark (in 1995), and Jersey City (in 1989).

What happens to teachers when they perform poorly? Under today’s evaluation systems, many of them would have been fired already. Yet the state gets to keep trying.

According to the nonprofit  Education Commission of the States, 29 states have policies that allow state governments to take over a school district, most often for “a combination of inept administration, fiscal mismanagement, corrupt governance and academic problems within the school district.” Many state policies provide a succession of sanctions for academic problems, with a takeover as the ultimate sanction. Other state policies target a single troubled school district for an immediate state takeover.

There are lots of reasons why the state takeovers have not worked well in New Jersey thus far, including funding problems in high-poverty schools, and the focus of school reform efforts in recent years, which has been to blame teachers for their students’ poor performance. Certainly, there are some teachers who ought not to be in the classroom, and principals too. But the larger issue is broader, as explained by Earl Morgan for The Jersey Journal:

If the state wants these troubled schools systems to succeed, they’re not going to make that happen in the 51/2-hour school day. They will have to go deep into the weeds, to where students in low-performing schools live. It will take time to unravel the Gordian knot of turmoil, anxiety and despair these young people grapple with every minute of every day of their lives.

Ride the Amtrak past Camden and you’ll see something resembling the aftermath of a disaster movie with one dilapidated and abandoned neighborhood and building after another. If you want to improve education, it’s not charter schools or a few “vouchers” used to transfer a handful of students to more affluent districts. It’s the soul destroying poverty that must be confronted in Jersey City, Paterson, Newark and Camden. That’s where you need to start.

No, this doesn’t mean that schools can’t be improved until poverty is eliminated. But if anybody thinks they can fix schools by giving kids tests and evaluating their teachers by the results, they aren’t paying attention to what is really happening in our public schools.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | March 27, 2013