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March 14, 2013

Last week, NJ Education Commissioner Chris Cerf announced a list of 57 “Reward Schools.” According to the NJ Department of Education (NJDOE), Reward Schools have “high proficiency levels or high levels of growth, including progress towards closing the achievement gap.” 

The NJDOE agreed to create a classification of Reward Schools when it obtained a waiver in 2011 from the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Reward schools are eligible for “financial incentives” from NJDOE, but Commissioner Cerf has yet to say how or when he will distribute these “rewards.”  

Not surprisingly, the Commissioner’s 57 Reward Schools are, for the most part, located in affluent communities or are schools with high achieving students enrolled through selective screening.

The data on the 57 Reward Schools show:

  • Thirty-one (31) schools are from the state’s wealthiest districts.
  • Fourteen (14) schools are highly selective county vocational high schools that admit students on the basis of test scores and other indicators of academic achievement.
  • Five (5) schools are from middle wealth districts.
  • Seven (7) schools are from high poverty districts. Of those, however, four are urban middle or high schools with selective admissions (McNair Academy and Infinity Institute in Jersey City and American History High and Science Park in Newark); two are elementary schools housing Elizabeth’s gifted and talented programs (Terence C. Reilly and William F. Halloran); and one is a charter school (Robert Treat Academy in Newark, which was investigated for testing irregularities in 2012, and enrolls far fewer low-income, special education, and English Language Learners than the Newark Public Schools).

The data also show that the Commissioner’s Reward Schools serve fewer low-income students (23% in Reward Schools compared to 34% statewide), fewer bilingual education students (1% vs. 3%), and fewer special education students (10% vs. 14%). An astonishing 18 of the Reward Schools do not serve any low- income students at all, and 39 of the schools have no English language learners.

“The Commissioner is rewarding schools that succeed because they serve students in affluent communities, carefully screen students based on prior achievement, and minimize the number of students with the greatest educational needs,” said David Sciarra, ELC Executive Director. “Commissioner Cerf should explain how this recipe for success is relevant to schools serving high concentrations of poor and bilingual students, students with disabilities, and students at risk of academic failure.” 

At the other end of the spectrum, the Commissioner has identified 258 schools as “Priority and Focus Schools” based on their low achievement levels or large achievement gaps on State assessments. These schools are targeted for aggressive intervention by the NJDOE and, if they don’t improve in three years, face possible State takeover or closure. In sharp contrast to Reward Schools, these schools serve very high concentrations of low-income and bilingual students and Black and Latino students. They also are located in the state’s poorest communities. 

“The Commissioner has created a perverse accountability regime, one that rewards low poverty, highly selective schools, while threatening high poverty, neighborhood schools with sanctions and closure,” Mr. Sciarra added. “It is hard to imagine how this will improve educational opportunities and outcomes for our most disadvantaged schoolchildren.”


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Press Contact:

Sharon Krengel
Policy and Outreach Director
973-624-1815, x 24