Lessons the Nation can learn from NJ schools

January 28, 2013

So one of the favorite talking points of politicians is education, and America’s lagging progress with respect to the rest of the world. Our usual solution is to simply throw more money at the problem, and hope this will fix the issue; however, this normal solution has done little in the past. In fact many other nations spend far less than us per student, and have better results. US graduation rates are similar to that of Poland, a nation which spends half of what we spend on education (http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/docserver/download/9612041ec016.pdf?expires=1359386381&id=id&accname=guest&checksum=2CF931B9C59E2CB1B272F418F52C013E )

A unique case which backs up this argument is a phenomenon which, as far as I am aware, is unique to New Jersey. In NJ we have what are known as “Abbot Districts”. These are school districts that are in poor urban areas, and which have a history of underperformance. A system was set up to secure extra funding for these schools in the hope this would increase academic performance, and once a school was classified as an Abbot District, it could not lose this classification, or the extra funding. The program has been criticized by many in NJ because of what a spectacular failure it has been. These schools spend about $21,978 per student, with a student teacher ratio of about 12:1 (Norcross). However, even advocates of the program who point to 2% increases in test scores, such as Gordon MacInnes, the Assistant Commissioner for Abbot Implementation, should be embarrassed. Yes, that 2% increase took place in only one year (2003), but statistically, this isn’t a huge improvement. As biology major, I see small variations in lab all the time, and can be due to any number of mitigating circumstances.  My former high school, while far from the best performance-wise, spends almost half that, at $12,913 (as of 2009), yet still yields much higher results.

Now, in our times of massive debt, and out of control government spending, we need to look at real solutions. America is desperately trying to reclaim our position as a scientific and technological leader in the world, and, as always, the proposed solution is to throw more money at the problem. In some respects, I believe that this may be good, as the sciences are typically under-funded in American schools. However, we should consider making the money we currently spend work better. Many of my fellow 50 Conservative bloggers are older than I am, and may not have witnessed, first-hand, the amount of waste that goes on in the public school system.

Perhaps the most egregious waste of money was the way a technology grant was spent in my school. One of the required classes to graduate was called “InfoTech” which was essentially a glorified typing course. However, we did have some hands-on experience in the basics of how computers worked, building circuits, and repairing and upgrading computers. The materials we used included a mock-motherboard with expansion slots, which we used to learn how to install computer components such as graphics cards, RAM, and things of that nature. The only problem was that they were based off old technology from the 90s, and the course was very sparse. Instead of using money to update this course, and expand it beyond its core material (how to type on a keyboard), my school allocated that money towards the installation of flat screen televisions in the cafeteria. I cannot remember how many there were, but I believe they installed between eight and twelve. These televisions would be tuned into ESPN during lunch time.

Now, I don’t know the specifics of how this money must be spent, but considering that we had to purchase our own reading books, and were offered extra credit in exchange for donating them to the classroom, I believe this money could have been used to supplement the existing maintenance costs of our existing technology, and then reallocated the funds elsewhere. Our school system, which is fairly small, consisting of about 1,200 students in the High School, which held students from five separate towns, also had several different Superintendents. My middle school had one, who oversaw the elementary and junior high students, and one just for the High School (I also believe there were several superintendents amongst the other towns, but I am not sure.) Each of these superintendents were paid over $100,000 a year, and in the case of our High School superintendent, he was paid about $170,000, and received a $20,000 stipend for God knows what reason. The average teacher salary was $62,000 as of 2009.

Now, I don’t want to come off as anti-teacher, I believe they earn every penny, particularly putting up with some of the students there. However, the administrations of many NJ schools are paid upwards of $150,000, and often get special perks and bonuses. I know there was some controversy a few years ago when one of the Abbot Districts spend money to buy televisions to reward the administration. They also receive big bonuses for unused sick time upon retirement, sometimes totaling as much as $150,000 (in the case of Two Garfield Administrators.) In fact, the abuses are so astounding, I won’t even detail them here, simply read this article from NJ.com, since the article sums this up perfectly.

But what can be done about this? For as long as I can remember, NJ has always accepted political corruption as just part of business as usual. For those not in the know, Chris Christie made a name for himself by clamping down on this corruption, and exposing it, and while I do not like his “neutral” (more in line with anti) gun stance, he has earned my respect for fighting the political corruption machine of NJ. Naturally, the first step must be to examine schools across the country, and while I hate the idea of more government, a congressional oversight committee into school budgets, and where they spend the money may be useful. Parents and students also must work to expose any apparent waste of education funds, and hold schools accountable for anything that seems unnecessary, or which is not beneficial to the actual education process.

Another part of the equation rests with teachers and the unions. Surprisingly, the teachers do get screwed over quite a bit, my sister is a teacher, and I can attest to this, as they won’t, and haven’t, received more than a 2% raise in the past 10 years in her district, so I am sympathetic towards teachers, and if anything, I take more of an issue with administrator salaries and perks. However, the unions have failed our students, an issue I want to go into more in a later post, while tenure helps prevent schools from firing teachers to reduce salaries, it doesn’t help much when it prevents a lack-luster teacher from being let go. We have a major issue in America where our students are not as competitive as they should be, we spend more than any other country, and we must look at teachers as a potential part of the problem.

Many conservatives may remember the Chicago teacher’s strike that occurred in 2012. Chicago, where teachers make close to $70,000, but which has terrible academic performance, should be an example of what’s wrong. We need to figure out a way that is fair to teachers, but which can still root out the effective ones from the less effective ones. This is not an easy problem to fix, since a teacher who may receive students who are weaker in subjects may be penalized for the failings of a previous teacher. But we do need some method to fix this problem.

We also should look at other nations, and see what they do. My girlfriend, who is a dual citizen of Taiwan and America, went to my school district until fourth grade, and went to school in Taiwan until her junior year of high school before returning here. In Taiwan, schools are not broken up into districts, but rather, you must test into the schools you attend. While perhaps less convenient, it helps to ensure that the smart kids are not forced to go to failing schools, and removes  the potential for one to argue that academic failure is caused by living in a lower socio-economic area. It may also have an added bonus of increasing the drive students have to get into better schools. I believe part of our problem is a general apathy towards school since we are essentially locked into whatever district we live in. If my parents live in a bad district, and cannot afford private school, that is the fate I must accept, if I know that my hard work can get me somewhere better, then perhaps students will be spurred by a more immediate goal than the seemingly distant vision of college admission. I know that personally, the more distant a goal, the less urgent it seems, and I believe this feeling is familiar for many young people. That is why junior year always seems to have more importance than any other year of high school; it’s essentially the final push before applying to college.

The question of improve our schools has been a joke. So far we’ve simply asked the question, thrown money around as a solution, and then been surprised when there was little improvement. They say insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result (which, if true, tell us our government is completely “coo-coo bananas” in that case). It’s time we start looking for real solutions. Part of Rome’s collapse was caused by their dependence on importing grain from Egypt, draining the treasury (actually, it was a social welfare program, but more on that another time). Rome bled itself dry because it had failed to improve agricultural technology, and thus had to import from abroad. We will suffer a similar fate if we cannot reclaim our position as technological leader, and are forced to import the technology that is crucial to the modern world. But it all begins with our students.  We cannot continue importing the best and brightest from other nations as we have been, with the emergence of the Chinese as an economic powerhouse, and other formerly poor nations developing robust economies, the draw of America to the best students from around the world is weakening, and when that shine finally dims due to our budget crisis, we will be stuck in the intellectual dark.


Works Cited

MacInnes, Gordon . “Student Achievement in the Abbott Districts.” The Official Web Site for The State of New Jersey. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2013. <http://www.state.nj.us/education/archive/abbotts/info/statement.htm>.

Norcross, Eileen, and Frederic Sautet. ”  Case Study: Has Abbott Worked? : Institutions Matter: Can New Jersey Reverse Course?.”  Institutions Matter: Can New Jersey Reverse Course?. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2013. <http://newjersey.mercatus.org/has-abbott-worked/>.

Star Ledger Editorial Board. ”            Abbott school districts still lag |                                                                    NJ.com.” Blogs – NJ.com. N.p., 2 Apr. 2010. Web. 28 Jan. 2013. <http://blog.nj.com/njv_editorial_page/2009/02/abbott_school_districts_still.html>.

“Sterling High School (New Jersey).” Wikipedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sterling_High_School_%28New_Jersey%29>.

Stone, Colleen. ”         Analysis shows big perks in some Abbott districts |                                                              NJ.com.” New Jersey Local News, Breaking News, Sports & Weather – NJ.com. N.p., 1 June 2008. Web. 28 Jan. 2013. <http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2008/06/big_perks_in_some_abbott_distr.html>.







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