Advancing the achievement of all students is at the core of the New Jersey School Boards Association’s mission.
That was the impetus behind the appointment of a Task Force on Student Achievement. The task force included local school board members, school district administrators, educators, health care experts and representatives of the faith-based community, and was charged with exploring the challenges that school districts face in attaining this goal.
The task force was also directed to recommend best practices to advance the academic performance of economically-disadvantaged students. Within its purview were the academic achievement gap, the “digital divide” (limited access to technology), school climate, access to health services and the impact of high rates of incarceration. The task force also studied the impact of state and local education policy on the advancement of student achievement.
The NJSBA Task Force on Student Achievement approached its charge from a variety of perspectives, researching the physical and emotional health of students; the involvement of parents and communities; the impact of poverty; the benefits of early childhood education, and the role of local boards of education and their individual members.
In reaching its findings and recommendations, the task force heard presentations by representatives of the New Jersey Department of Education, Rutgers University, the teaching profession and the public health sector, as well as local school district leaders.
The task force also referenced numerous studies, research papers and articles in its final report, to be available this spring. Those studies influenced its recommendations and observations on the causes of the achievement gap, effective strategies, data-based decision-making, and effective school board leadership. In addition, the task force also surveyed superintendents on current practices. The group identified examples of interventions that all school districts should consider and implement, if applicable to their communities’ students and education programs. In all, the task force heard from more than a dozen experts in the areas of education, student health, and school climate, as well as from members of local school boards that had experience with one or more of the identified interventions.
Through the Lens of Student Achievement
Two years of research, healthy discussion, and the preparation of the task force final report, which is nearing completion, resulted in more than 100 recommendations and suggestions for NJSBA, local boards of education, board members, school district administration, local government and community organizations on ways to enhance student learning and to address the economic and racial academic achievement gap. Among the topics addressed: obstacles influencing achievement gaps; using data to tackle challenges; the impact of employment on student success; early childhood education; the juvenile justice system; social-emotional learning; labor-management collaboration, and collaboration with municipal government.
The task force offers these strategies for the consideration of local school boards as well as for individual school board members. A selection of these suggestions and recommendations accompanies this article, beginning below on this page.
As the result of its research and deliberations, the task force arrived at a number of themes and general principles that it believes should guide future efforts at enhancing student achievement.
A Review of Policy
The task force believes that all school districts should review their adopted policies through the lens of student achievement to ensure that they support, and do not discourage, achievement for all. Due to the significance of the achievement gap and the evolving nature of total school reform, including legislation at the state and national levels, the task force recommends that NJSBA continue its focus on student achievement for all regardless of community of residence, economic status, race, gender, or disability.
Social Conditions that Deter Success
The task force found that understanding the causes of student underachievement often led far from the schoolhouse door. Major social issues are at the heart of many of the struggles facing our children, and they require complex intervention by a variety of institutions. There are numerous ways to address the social conditions that deter student success and to increase the responsibility of the public school community in this effort.
The Benefits of Pre-K
A disparity of experiences among children begins at birth. Frequently cited research from the University of Kansas and the University of Alaska shows that many children in poverty hear 30 million fewer words than do their peers by the age of 3. This deficit has a negative impact on language development, including reading. Therefore, further work is required to comprehensively address preparation for kindergarten, which is most lacking in our rural and urban areas.
The task force believes these disadvantages can be overcome by effective early childhood education. The benefits of universal pre-kindergarten include increased academic attainment, less likelihood of becoming involved in the juvenile justice system, healthier adult lives, and higher wages. (See also “Why Early Childhood Education Matters.”
The Achievement Gap and the Employment Gap
Across the nation, the academic achievement gap is closely related to the “employment gap.”
Prior generations had greater opportunities to secure manufacturing jobs. Those individuals whose formal education ended with a high school diploma, and even those without a diploma, could secure manufacturing and industrial jobs that came with middle-income wages, and the ability to support a family in a “middle class” lifestyle. Substantially fewer such jobs exist today.
We are in the midst of technological revolution that creates an exponentially increasing amount of information. Today’s employment landscape requires a skill set far different than what was necessary for prior generations.
Advancing the academic achievement of all students is critical to addressing this issue, which not only affects the well-being of individuals and families, but also impacts the engine that drives our economic system. The goal of an education system is to provide all children, without exception, a path to heathy, happy, safe and secure lives. This includes the ability to financially support oneself. Children who do not benefit from an education that enables them to be independent become part of the great employment gap that has been growing for decades.
Overcoming Challenges Requires Collaboration
The task force identified numerous factors, or “impacts,” all of which affect student achievement, but to varying degrees based upon the individual community’s profile.
The list of “impacts” compiled by the task force encompasses factors within and outside of schools, including community, home and family life; family income level; personal/emotional support and self-image; faith; schools; teachers; facilities; curriculum; school climate; planning for the future; communications, and technology.
The wide variation of factors affecting student achievement underscores the critical need for collaboration in any and all improvement efforts. Collaboration among school districts and academia can contribute to enhancing learning for all students. Membership in the Rutgers Institute for Improving Student Achievement (RIISA), part of the Rutgers Graduate School of Education, and the Rutgers New Jersey School Development Council can provide exemplary instructional strategy and leadership professional development.
Participation in the National Network of Partnership Schools can also prove highly worthwhile. The professional development provided by networking with other school and education personnel, and the related guides and parent involvement materials will contribute to successfully addressing the achievement and climate challenges schools face.
Collaboration with the local governing body, faith-based groups, industry and business, service and community groups and especially with families is critical to the success of our children.
NJSBA is currently involved in a management-labor collaboration pilot project with the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. The multi-district pilot involves the NJEA, AFT-NJ, the New Jersey Association of School Administrators and the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, as well as NJSBA.
Boards of education and educational leaders should be aware of the benefits and positive impact on student learning and organizational climate provided by formal collaboration between labor and management.
The School Board’s Role in Advancing Student Achievement
Research conducted by the National School Boards Association’s Center for Public Education and the Iowa Association of School Boards illustrates how boards of education that embrace professional development, collectively and for their individual members, enhance student achievement.
The study, the “Lighthouse Inquiry,” categorizes boards of education as either “stuck” or “moving.” The task force submits that boards described as “stuck” are actually conducting business as per the expectations of a generation ago. Just as 21st Century expectations are rapidly changing for teachers, administrators, and especially students, as the Lighthouse Inquiry reports, the role of the board of education has also evolved. An essential responsibility of today’s board of education is to ensure that the schools serve as learning centers for all students, including those with the greatest needs.
Working through their administrators, school boards should make certain that classrooms are engaging places for young people to spend their days and that high expectations characterize all staff interaction with the students.
School boards must be encouraged to adopt practices that support student learning. For a school board, being data-savvy and participating in meaningful professional development is as important as ensuring that the district is financially responsible; this attribute contributes to the success of all students.
The epilogue to the task force’s report is titled “The Work is Incomplete.” It points to the task force finding that the over-arching challenge facing every school board is the issue of equity and excellence, including the challenges posed by implicit biases.
Therefore, the Task Force on Student Achievement strongly recommends that the Association continue its proactive efforts, including collaboration with education organizations, higher education and the New Jersey Department of Education, to identify and address the factors that affect student learning.
The Final Report of the Task Force on Student Achievement will be available in the spring.
For information about the NJSBA Task Force on Student Achievement, contact
Vincent DeLucia, NJSBA educator-in-residence/director of training and professional development.