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Advice From New Jersey: How Not to Waste Money in Closing the Achievement Gap

A school district needs to have a coherent plan in how to spend extra funds to raise academic performance for low-income, minority students in cities for the money to make a difference. If the district has a good plan, dramatic improvement can occur. If the district doesn't have a good plan, more money can produce confusion and even declining academic performance among students. That's one lesson that New Jersey officials learned in their implementation of increased funding to improve educational outcomes in low-income school districts that resulted from the Abbott v. Burke New Jersey Supreme Court case, according to the book In Plain Sight: Simple, Difficult Lessons from New Jersey's Expensive Effort to Close the Achievement Gap.

The book about lessons learned is written by Gordon MacInnes, a former assistant commissioner for implementation of the Abbott funds in that state. MacInnes will be in the nation's capital tomorrow, where he's being hosted by the Center for American Progress to talk about how increased funding works well to raise achievement only if district officials set priorities right for the use of that money. (For details about the event, which will take place from noon to 1:30 p.m., click here.)

It's a timely topic, given that the federal government has begun to release stimulus funds for education. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said that one goal of providing that money is to increase academic rigor across the nation.

Here are a few recommendations that MacInnes offers in his book, which I've lifted word for word from the press release for it:

—Academic achievement trumps other important objectives.
—The state, and the district, must set forth a clear set of ambitious academic goals by grade level and content.
—Priority must go to teaching primary grade students to read and write English well.
—The district must keep track of the progress that each student is making in meeting academic goals.
—When a student falls behind, there must be a system for rescuing him or her, which includes spending whatever additional time is required to bring that student up to par. The expense for such attention must take precedence over other spending demands.

The press release notes that only in Massachusetts did 4th graders do better than New Jersey in reading on the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress. And the release points out that New Jersey is "more diverse" than Massachusetts.

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