Lessons from New Jersey: Providing Poor Children with Stable, High-Quality Preschool and Kindergarten Will Make Them Higher Performers

By MacInnes, Gordon | The American Prospect, July-August 2010 | Go to article overview

Lessons from New Jersey: Providing Poor Children with Stable, High-Quality Preschool and Kindergarten Will Make Them Higher Performers


MacInnes, Gordon, The American Prospect


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. …

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