New Jersey is usually overlooked as a leader in anything except population density, corruption, and Superfund sites. It has also never been known as an education role model, either. It spends more than any other state, but the gaps in student achievement are vast. Some of its larger urban districts, such as Newark and Camden, have become nationally known for their poor student performance and official corruption. The state is also home to long-running and contentious lawsuits over inequities in education funding and disparities in student achievement. But in the last decade, New Jersey has discovered some answers to improving schools for its poorest children by focusing on achieving literacy in the early grades.
The 30-year legal battle over school funding, in the case Abbott v. Burke, has led to the nation's highest-spending urban districts. In 2007-2008, for example, the 31 city districts covered by the state Supreme Court's order to equalize funding enrolled 20 percent of New Jersey students, received 55 percent of all state aid, and outspent the wealthiest districts by about $3,000 per student.
Despite years of effort, and various faddish and simplistic solutions, student achievement only took off when the state set a tangible goal that unlocked everything else: Work with cooperating city districts to increase literacy among 9-year-olds. The effort was made possible by the example set by a poor urban district with a high concentration of immigrant and first-generation students who enter school with little English: Union City. The story centers on what works for teachers and students to improve early literacy. Its implications extend to any place with concentrations of children from poor families.
We know very well what the basic problem is: Poor children begin kindergarten with insufficient vocabulary and general knowledge and without a familiarity with print needed to make them strong readers by third grade. Weak readers at age 9 or 10 rarely attain the reading capacity to master the increasingly rigorous content expected of students beginning in fourth grade. Poor children fall further behind, drop out, or graduate from high school unequipped for college or the job market.
The solution is disarmingly simple to describe. First, give poor children at least one year of high-quality preschool. Second, closely connect their experience in preschool with intensive early literacy from kindergarten through third grade. In brief, make them literate by age 10. Finally, provide a rich and engaging curriculum of increasingly rigorous academic content in grades four through 12 to prepare them for a university education.
Walking through Union City, New Jersey, you will see no front lawns or hear much English. Union City is one of the nation's most densely populated cities. It is crammed with immigrants, and its students are among the poorest in the state (more than 90 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price meals) with 75 percent from families that speak Spanish at home. Concentrated poverty and no English at home are the strongest predictors of reading difficulty.
Union City is run by one of the nation's most efficient political organizations; the mayor calls the shots. In 1989, the mayor -- -Bob Menendez, now a U.S. senator -- watched as the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) seized control of neighboring Jersey City's school system under the nation's first "takeover" law. Since Union City's schools were also among the lowest-performing in the state, the mayor was nervous about losing control of his school district -- the city's largest employer. The Union City schools superintendent was given six months to get the district off the NJDOE's "watch list." He handed the job off to Fred Carrigg, then the supervisor for bilingual education.
Carrigg concluded that Union City fourth-graders did not read well enough to master what was expected of them in history, science, English, and math. He traced the problem back to kindergarten, where most students did not possess enough general knowledge, vocabulary, or sufficient mastery of books to get ready to read. Carrigg determined that the district should do everything possible to get to kids before kindergarten to increase their familiarity with words, stories, ideas, and general knowledge in either English or Spanish. For this he initiated a read-aloud program with operators of local day-care centers, most of which employed caregivers fluent in Spanish.
Over time, working with teachers and literacy experts, Carrigg developed a set of practices and resources he called Intensive Early Literacy (IEL): Start early, connect preschool experiences to instruction from kindergarten through third grade, expand the time for literacy instruction, keep careful track of student progress, adjust instruction to reflect individual needs, surround students with books and words, focus on small groups for most instruction, spend extra time with struggling readers, and support teachers and engage them in making necessary changes.
IEL has worked pretty well. New Jersey first tested fourth-graders in literacy in 1999. Only one-third of Union City's fourth-graders were proficient, a gap of 31 percentage points with students in the higher-performing districts not covered by Abbott. Union City was 11th among the 31 Abbott districts, trailing even Jersey City. By 2008, 77.7 percent of Union City fourth-graders were proficient, the gap with non-Abbott districts closed to eight percentage points. Only two small, blue-collar Abbott districts did slightly better.
Nationally, improvements in reading test scores for elementary school students haven't always translated into improvements in later grades. Union City, with its emphasis on strong early literacy and an engaging curriculum in the middle grades, broke this pattern. One indicator: Only 42.3 percent of Union City's eighth-graders were proficient on the state's 1999 math assessment, 26 percentage points behind non-Abbott students but 12 percentage points ahead of other Abbott students. By 2008, Union City eighth-graders trailed non-Abbott students by a bare three percentage points (70.1 percent versus 73.6 percent) but were 31 percentage points ahead of other Abbott students.
When Jim McGreevey was elected governor in 2001, his education platform was to make every third-grader a strong reader. Abbott allowed, but did not guarantee, that pre-kindergarten through third grade could be the focus. He struck a truce with the Education Law Center (which was representing the children in poor districts in the long Abbott case) to end the animosity and incessant litigation that prevailed during Christine Todd Whitman's administration. The ELC was invited to advise on reorganizing Abbott implementation within NJDOE and selecting its leadership. A "coordinating" council that included the ELC was established by executive order; the ELC supported the administration's petition for a one-year "timeout" in implementing Abbott's long list of programs and services (which was granted).
The new Abbott division focused on two related goals: increasing enrollments and improving the quality of preschool; and intensifying early-literacy instruction in kindergarten through third grade. The metric for evaluating Abbott districts shifted from their compliance with judicial mandates to whether their third-graders were strong readers and writers. The rationale was as simple as the goals: Weak readers cannot be well educated, and reading is a skill and practice learned early or not at all.
"K to three, learn to read; four through 12 read to learn," is a common saw among educators. Trite as it is, the saying conveys succinctly the moral responsibility of elementary schools. No third-grade test was given until 2003, but the evidence from the 2001 fourth-grade test provided all the evidence the NJDOE needed to frame the problem: Barely half (55 percent) of Abbott students were "proficient" on the state language-arts test, 30 percentage points behind their non-Abbott peers.
The districts in New Jersey making these efforts offer a case study for what happens in trying to get the preschool through third-grade part right. No state funds preschool so generously. Abbott gave New Jersey the mandate and means to bring the Union City approach to its poorest districts. Specifically, the state Supreme Court ordered in 1998 that each Abbott district offer high-quality preschool beginning at age 3, followed by full-day kindergarten and four years of intensive literacy instruction in a class of no more than 21 students. The state was directed to pay 100 percent of the preschool costs.
True, New Jersey's implementation of preschool and intensive early literacy was made easier by the fact that it was mandated and funded. Fortunately, Montgomery County, Maryland, public schools (MCPS) are proof that generous state funding or judicial orders are not essential to the introduction of intensive early literacy. Jerry Weast, the MCPS superintendent since 1999, has demonstrated that at least one year of quality preschool can be provided by combining Head Start, Title I, and district funds. Further, he increased spending for full-day kindergarten and small class sizes in elementary schools serving poor kids, all the while maintaining quality in Montgomery's affluent neighborhoods. And when the Great Recession hit, Weast temporarily increased Title I funds to expand and strengthen preschool and class-size reductions in Title I schools.
In concentrating on preschool, small-group instruction, clear and specific academic expectations, extensive sharing of the evidence from student work with teachers, and adjustment in instruction, Montgomery County and Union City have pursued remarkably similar paths without consultation. Their results in schools with concentrations of poor students are also similar, and beyond the usual fourth-grade plateau.
Another lesson from the New Jersey experience is the importance of beginning with preschool. New Jersey has the advantage that districts were required to provide full-day preschool and did not have to pay for it. To accelerate enrollments, the state Supreme Court directed that any licensed day-care center could contract with its local district as long as it agreed to Abbott's more demanding requirements: a college-educated, early-childhood-certified teacher and a teacher's assistant in classrooms with no more than 15 children.
Most Abbott superintendents saw preschool as just another mandate. They resented having to contract with outside day-care centers and did not accept that preschool paid off in improved literacy. In regular meetings to discuss early-literacy progress, most superintendents implied that "real" reading instruction started in first grade. While Carrigg emphasized strengthening instruction in kindergarten and first grade to start, they deployed their best primary teachers to drill third- and fourth-graders for test-taking.
Many educators are skeptical about the fuss made over "high quality" preschool. What, they opine, can be so difficult about teaching a roomful of curious, playful, eager, nonthreatening 4-year-olds? The evidence is mounting that poor children exposed to creative uses of play to introduce new words, concepts, problem -- solving approaches, and stories are better prepared for kindergarten and, later, reading and writing. Well-trained and fairly compensated teachers are essential. Between 1999 and 2007, the percentage of Abbott preschool teachers holding bachelor's degrees increased from 38 percent to 97 percent. Moreover, the quality of teaching and learning in the affected districts has increased from a rating of barely "good" in 1999 to almost "excellent" in 2007 even as enrollment exploded from 19,000 to 43,000.
Supporting and respecting teachers is also key to improving early literacy. Effective districts operate on the assumption that teachers need frequent support and information to do their difficult jobs well. They must not be left alone but made a part of a professional and collaborative culture. Union City and Montgomery County schedule more time for teachers to work with one another on shared problems. They provide intensive support for inexperienced teachers. Evidence from student work is evaluated not to play "gotcha" with teachers but to explore with them how to improve student achievement. Both districts use their own interim assessments that are shared quickly with teachers and principals to spot gaps in instruction; compare results across classrooms, schools, and grades; and adjust the composition of small instructional groups.
The data provided useful information and helped different districts in New Jersey develop their own solutions. For example, in two small districts, Asbury Park and Pleasantville, the problem was that students had not been taught writing -- about half the score on New Jersey's language-arts test involved the composition of a paragraph. Fred Carrigg, who by this time had been elevated to the state Department of Education, organized in-school workshops for teachers in all the primary grades to intensify writing instruction. In Orange, a heavily black district, teachers did not have most of the elements of Intensive Early Literacy in place: Classroom libraries were skimpy or little used, nationally normed reading assessments were not in place, small-group instruction was rare, and the scheduled uninterrupted time for literacy instruction was insufficient. A coherent reading program was adopted for all Orange schools, classroom libraries were expanded, and regular assessments were conducted with twice-weekly meetings among coaches and teachers to review the needs of individual students.
Helping teachers understand what was expected from students was also part of the story. The primary grades benefit from broad agreement on what children should be able do and when -- for example, a first-grader should have a reading vocabulary of 300 to 500 words. Nationally normed assessments can help teachers evaluate students against expectations and suggest what specific assistance they need. Carrigg introduced and helped train teachers in districts with little experience with either assessments or small-group instruction.
The results of all this and much more can be reduced to a crude generalization: Students in districts that concentrated on sustaining the implementation of Intensive Early Literacy performed significantly better on New Jersey's third- and fourth-grade literacy tests. Students in districts that ignored the opportunity offered by the funding boost performed no better or slightly worse than students in prior years. The two districts with the largest gains -- Elizabeth and Orange -- were the districts most attentive to connecting preschools with primary grades. Orange's fourth-graders in 1999 were 25th among the 31 Abbott districts on the literacy test; by 2007 they were fifth with 75.6 percent of them proficient (tying Union City). Elizabeth's fourth-graders made similar progress (74.2 percent proficiency in 2008), despite their high poverty rates (80.5 percent eligible for free or reduced meals).
Unfortunately, the intense investment forced by Abbott was unsustainable politically or morally. By 2007, one-half of poor children attended non-Abbott schools. Districts with rapidly growing immigrant populations received no special state aid or advice to help with Spanish- or Creole-speaking students. In 2007, Gov. Jon Corzine pushed through a new school-aid formula that ended Abbott's two-tier funding. Instead, state aid would be determined by a district's poverty level, the number of English learners and disabled students set against the district's financial capacity to provide the extra funding required. Small, poor towns and blue-collar suburbs benefited; Abbott districts were protected against reductions, but most important, preschool was expanded from 31 to 78 districts.
The state Supreme Court blessed the new formula in 2008, with a plan to revisit the case yet again within three years to see if the approach is working. The Great Recession intervened to ensure that preschool expansion would not occur for at least three years. By 2010, just about every district in the state was looking at cuts in state aid.
Gov. Chris Christie took office in 2010 and signaled tough times for every category of public spending, including education. In his proposed 2011 budget, he protected preschool in the old Abbott districts while postponing its expansion. But he also supported efforts to divert $360 million in scarce funds to initiate a voucher program to support low-income parents in transferring their children out of failing public schools. In short, the future of New Jersey's generously funded early-literacy program is uncertain.
There are no surprises at the end of the New Jersey story. Focus, intensity of effort, expanded teaching time, attention to student work, and adjustments to instruction based on those results are at the heart of ending the state's and our nation's long failure to adequately educate poor children.
We have trifled with the lives of poor children -- and lost tens of millions of them in the process -- with rushed, simplistic solutions, always in the name of "reform." Those who urge "systemic" or "transformational" reform of public education deflect attention from improving what happens in classrooms. The lesson from New Jersey is that intensive investment, attention to what works, high-quality preschool, respect for teachers, and adjusting the approach based on data and results, over time, can get kids across the threshold that matters most for their future as learners and citizens: third-grade literacy.