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WHOLE SCHOOL REFORM IN ABBOTT DISTRICTS

Background Paper

In its May 1997 decision, the Supreme Court accepted the State's Core Curriculum Standards covering seven academic subjects as the definition of what students need to learn as the result of the "thorough and efficient education" that our State Constitution promises them. A year later, in their recent decision, the justices strongly endorsed "whole-school reform" as an approach that can enable students in the 28 Abbott school districts to reach those goals.

In arriving at its decision, the Court directed the Department of Education to study all of the various approaches to improving the academic achievement of students from low-income families. Based on its extensive review of programs and research across the nation, the department proposed "whole-school reform" as being far and away the most effective approach.

The Supreme Court appointed a Superior Court judge, aided by a nationally recognized expert, to hold hearings on the department's findings. Through these extensive hearings, the department's research was thoroughly scrutinized, the opinions of other experts were solicited, and urban school improvement efforts throughout the nation were reviewed. Opponents of the department's proposals were rightfully given every opportunity to challenge them with contradictory evidence.

Based on the hard evidence produced by this exhaustive process, the Supreme Court accepted the department's recommendations and ordered the implementation of whole-school reform in all elementary schools in the Abbott districts.

What will a school look like after it has implemented this approach?

Essentially, whole-school reform combines into a single program all of the individual educational practices and strategies have been shown over the years to be the most effective in enabling disadvantaged students to achieve. Therefore, the different whole-school reform packages developed by various experts have common basic elements. Yet they differ in their details and emphases. Therefore, the best way to describe whole-school reform is to use one package as an illustration.

The best documented whole-school reform program, and the one the department prefers, is the Success for All/Roots and Wings (SFA/R&W) program developed by Johns Hopkins University. When an elementary school in one of New Jersey's Abbott districts adopts SFA/R&W, it will implement the following specific measures.

The school will be led by a strong, committed and effective principal. Because research has shown that such leadership is an important determinant of children's academic success, the Department of Education and the district central office must and will take whatever actions are needed to assure that it exists in the school.

Parents and teachers will be involved in key decisions concerning the school's program and budget. Specifically, a School Management Team, comprised of parents, teachers and administrators, will be empowered to make key program, staffing and spending decisions. Both research and practical experience show that parents and teachers can productively be involved in making such decisions. And they must be involved in order for children to achieve academic success.

The New Jersey Abbott school that adopts the SFA/R&W package will provide its students with a safe, disciplined environment conducive to learning. Secure facilities with adequate security staff will be provided. A code of student conduct will be clearly defined, presented to teachers, parents and students, and consistently enforced.

All students will begin their education early. They will be provided half-day preschool at ages three and four, and full day-kindergarten at age five. Emphasis will be placed on laying the foundation for the development of reading and language skills.

There will be a concerted program to enable each student to read at grade level by the end of third grade. This will mainly involve regrouping the students in small classes across grades according to their current progress for a daily 90-minute reading period. Certified tutors who understand the reading program will be available from the start to make sure each child keeps pace.

Students in all grades will receive instruction in a challenging Roots and Wings curriculum aligned with the State' standards in seven academic subjects. Classes will be of an appropriate size. Teachers will use proven methods of developing students' subject knowledge, computer skills, and high-level thinking and problem solving skills, as defined by the standards.

So teachers can concentrate on teaching, the school will have the services of a Family Support Team comprised of a counselor, social worker and school nurse. This team will help promote parents' involvement in the school and identify children and families with health or social problems that inhibit learning. The support team will either assist these students and families directly or refer them to other agencies better equipped to address their problems.

Before the program is implemented, the school staff will be trained in their roles and in the SFA/R&W methodology, and they will receive extensive training continuously thereafter. The school will have a trained facilitator, a staff member with the expertise to help teachers and other staff to implement their respective parts of the program.

The school's entire operation - instruction, management, parent programs and student services - will be supported by sophisticated technology. It will have a technology coordinator who will oversee the placement of computers and help the staff use them effectively to enable students to achieve the standards.

The school will adopt a goal of implementing these various programs and strategies so effectively in the early grades that it can avoid or minimize the practice of later pulling students out of the educational program for special education or remediation. SFA/R&W calls this preventative approach "neverstreaming."

The school will also participate in an accountability program. It will set specific goals for student achievement of state standards, measure students' performance against those goals, and be rewarded based on the results.

While other whole-school reform models differ in their details and emphases, all will include the same basic elements as the SFA/R&W model.

Some additional observations need to be made about what else whole-school reform means in general terms.

First, it means that in order for the reforms to succeed, attention must be focused primarily on the school level. The task must be seen as one of rebuilding each individual school, one by one, from the ground up, with the participation of the principal, teachers, parents and students of the school.

Second, whole-school reform means that in order to achieve full academic benefit, the elements described above must be implemented as interrelated parts of a comprehensive program. Those elements cannot be treated as a menu from which the school may choose some and not others, as has been the common practice. In order to maximize gains in student performance, the school has to implement all of the elements.

Third, whole-school reform must actually be reform. The essential components are not "extras" to be added onto whatever the school is already doing. Ultimately, they must replace those existing practices that may not be effective.

Fourth, therefore, the main financial task in implementing whole-school reform is to combine all of those district resources and use them to create a budget for each individual school. That budget must be sufficient to support the elements of the school's whole-school reform program, and the school must be able to use it for that purpose.

The concentration of all available resources to support a single strategy, called "zero-based budgeting," is an essential part of whole-school reform. Zero-based budgeting is not just a matter of fiscal efficiency. Instead, it is educationally necessary that resources be allocated and reallocated at the school level to support a single reform strategy.

Individual schools will have the opportunity to demonstrate the need to retain existing practices as well as the need for additional resources. However, the ability of whole-school reform to enhance student achievement will be diminished if existing resources are used to support disparate conflicting practices - in fact, that would not even be whole-school reform. That is why the Supreme Court stated in its decision that, "consistent with zero-based budgeting, the Commissioner may, before seeking new appropriations, first determine whether funds within an existing school budget are sufficient."

At the conclusion of the hearings on the Department of Education's proposal, the Court appointed expert stated in his report that "the approach taken by the State, if fully and faithfully implemented, would represent the cutting edge of re-engineering school finance to the purposes of standards- and school-based reform." The Superior Court judge who conducted the hearings stated, "This court strongly endorses the concept of whole-school reform with the presumption in favor of.Success for All. In sum, this court agrees with the State's overall approach for educational and financial reform at the school level." Finally, the Supreme Court concluded, ".the evidence in support of the success of whole-school reform encompassing Success for All is impressive. In summary, and consistent with this position, we determine and direct that .the commissioner implement whole-school reform."

For the first time in more than a quarter century, there is consensus on an approach that clearly has demonstrated great potential to provide the state's poorest school children with the kind of education they deserve.