How Are Public Schools Doing?

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In the annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallop Poll concerning the national public school systems, 83 percent of Americans give public schools a grade of C or less.

Results from opinion polls, comments by those running for political office and studies by education scholars, show a country divided on the performance of the public school's system: its challenges, its problems and its needs.

Americans differ sharply on the usefulness of standardized tests, the value of international comparisons, and the importance of charter schools and voucher systems.

There are calls for greater competition via expanded school choice programs and charter schools. These calls are met by voices that defend the public schools citing a lack of funding as the root of many problems and warning that policy directions that increase competition will undermine a much-needed national resource.

We hear that socio-economic variables are creating unbridgeable gaps in school performance saddling the schools with problems the schools alone cannot overcome.

Where a consensus does form is on the goals of a public education, there is general agreement that schools are there to prepare students academically and to prepare them for the workplace.

Years of federal programs like "No Child Left Behind" and "Race to the Top" have relied on financial incentives to gain support for national standards with years of assessment efforts showing vast numbers of students unable to satisfy standard definitions of basic competencies.

Reaction to such programs has increased support for local control of the school systems, allowing local boards of education to align public education to community needs.

In New Jersey, the burden for funding public schools is largely a local one. Almost 58 percent of all public school funding in New Jersey is provided from local taxes.

The state’s spending per pupil is among the highest in the nation. The performance of our schools is an essential public policy question loaded with political controversy.

How does one begin to evaluate how schools are doing?

College Readiness

New Jersey education officials have adopted a vision of “College and Career Ready,” a vision they back with a system of grade-level standards and assessments. Yet, success has been elusive.

The final report of the state’s Education Transformation Task Force stated in 2012 that despite high secondary school graduation rates, “we should also be deeply concerned that a high percentage of our graduates require significant remediation before being able to pursue higher education.”

The New Jersey Department of Education (DOE) acknowledges that “approximately 40 percent of New Jersey high school students are college ready.” The DOE says that 70 percent of first-year students entering the state’s community college system need remedial instruction.

The U.S. Department of Education reported in 2017 that almost one in three students in public four-year colleges need remedial courses after high school graduation.

Remedial work involves math, and English skills students should have mastered in high school. Such work not only delays students pursuing post-secondary degrees, but attrition studies show it is a major factor in students not persisting in college.

Prepared for the Workforce

A state Task Force on College and Career Readiness in 2012 states the goal that students leave the public school system fully prepared for the workforce. 

Each county addresses some vocational and technical training through special district schools which enroll a small fraction of the overall student population.  

These schools cover programs of study as varied as Agriculture, Health Sciences, and Industrial Education.

Activities might include apprenticeships, internships, and other supervised experiences.

The comprehensive high schools also offer vocational programs. Agricultural programs, for example, are offered in 18 comprehensive high schools, 20 county vocational schools, and two special services districts.

The same type of approach is taken with fields like auto mechanics. Outside the county vocational schools, however, the extent of vocational offerings can vary significantly.

Importantly labor-force readiness is not solely defined by vocational education programs. Employers are continuously urging schools give them graduates competent in basic skills and work-related social capabilities.

Here employers cite a need for graduates with problem-solving skills, team work experience, both verbal and electronic communication skills and an appreciation for timeliness. What are termed “soft skills” are critical to even entry-level jobs.

Critics of the public school systems complain that the push to have students take a path to traditional higher education has in some cases allowed the career readiness aspect of public education to be relegated to a secondary role.

Ironically even with an emphasis on college preparation, post-secondary remediation rates remain stubbornly high.

New Jersey Performance Reports

The state’s 2015-2016 high school performance reports show Cape May County’s five public high schools sending from 60 percent to 75 percent of their graduates into two or four-year after-high-school programs within a year and half of high school graduation.

They also show those same students scored at rates ranging from 12 percent  to 41 percent on assessment tests meant to measure whether students had met or exceeded knowledge and skill levels needed for college success.

The dichotomy suggests that the social expectations for many students to go on to post-secondary education pulls students unprepared and in some cases uninterested, into an education pathway that leaves many without a degree, skills needed for meaningful employment and with high levels of debt.

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that the graduation rate for full-time students taking six years to pursue a four-year degree is only 60 percent. 

Three years after full-time students began a two-year degree program at the nation’s community colleges, the graduation rate is 30 percent. This is even with the support of a federal loan program in which students have racked up $1.4 trillion in outstanding debt.

Cape May County

Cape May County presents a set of serious challenges for the public school system. Census figures show that 10 percent of the county’s population lives below the federal poverty level and one in three are at a level of income calculated to be below “a basic survival threshold.”

The $6-billion-per-year tourism industry is the lifeblood of the economy, but its seasonal nature produces peaks and valleys in unemployment levels. Those unemployment rates reach double-digit levels for significant portions of the tourism off-season.

The county hosts 50 percent of the state’s second homes. Many of the island municipalities are left with small permanent population levels and the annual task of ensuring that the islands are ready when the taxpaying second-home property owners return.

The county is also losing population and aging simultaneously with a median age of 48 years old and almost one in four residents 65 or older. 

With the perception of a persistent lack of full-year career opportunities and with cost of housing creating a burden beyond the means of most young families, the county is facing an outflux of the young.

These problems do not arise from the school systems, but the public school systems are vital tools in addressing them.

Over the next months, the Herald, in conjunction with Cape Issues, will embark on a series looking at the health of the public school system, its alignment with county needs and its transition points for students going on to after-high-school education or entering the labor force.

The series will also look at what others in the country are doing, what new approaches seem to be working and how innovative and successful models might speak to the needs of Cape May County. 

To contact Vince Conti, email vconti@cmcherald.com.

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