These days “education reform” is a loaded phrase, evoking politically charged disruptions of cherished institutions, Christie-ish harassment of honorable educators, and testing-mania. Certainly, if our schools are fine, we don’t have to change. If they’re not but we pretend they are, then we’re doing our children a disservice. As Mark Twain said, “denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”
So let’s look squarely at the data.
The median annual household income in New Jersey is $71,637. Those of us who dwell in middle-class suburban New Jersey know that our children don’t have access to schools like those in moneyed Millburn (median household income: $156,078), where 85 percent of students get more than 1550 points on the 2400-point SAT (1550 is considered a benchmark for college and career readiness) and 63 percent take an AP course, another marker for success beyond high school. But we also know that we don’t have the same concerns as families in Trenton (median household income: $36,727), where only 11 percent of high school seniors get at least a 1550 on the SAT and 4.9 percent take an AP course.
Let’s take three middle-class New Jersey communities: Nutley (Essex County), Florence (Burlington County), and Plumsted (Ocean County) and look at the most recent available data from the New Jersey Department of Education’s 2013-2014 school performance reports. All three towns have median household incomes that are average for New Jersey and all three have high schools that, according to the narrative that begins each performance report, are considered average in terms of “graduation and post-secondary readiness.”
First, Nutley, eight miles from Newark, which has a median household income of $76,167. Almost every student at Nutley High passed the High School Proficiency Assessments in math and language arts (the HSPAs, just replaced this past spring with PARCC tests). But only 35 percent of Nutley High’s graduating class got 1550 or better on their SATs and only 23 percent took an AP course. Sixteen months after graduation, 81 percent of students were enrolled in two- or four-year colleges.