‘Not-As-Good-As-You-Think’ Schools: Overcoming NJ Suburban Resistance to Reality

Remember the Hans Christian Anderson story of  “The Emperor’s New Clothes?”  A vain king hires two swindlers who swear to him that they can sew for him the finest suit of clothes that to wise men will be beautiful but to fools will be invisible. The whole court, fearful of appearing foolish, gush over the ostensibly gorgeous garment. But during a parade a young boy shouts out, “The Emperor has no clothes!” and the pretense of royalty explodes.

This is a parable of New Jersey suburban school districts, where many families are certain that their public schools are arrayed in cashmere and silk. Why should they think otherwise?  We pay $19,211 per student per year, the second highest cost per pupil in the country. The state union blasts out messages like, “New Jersey schools lead the country in education!” and blame low scores on new standardized PARCC tests to “drastic changes.

But, as Lance Izumi explained on Monday at the Trenton State Museum during the launch event for Pacific Research Institute’s new publication  “Not As Good as You Think Why Middle-Class Parents in New Jersey Should be Concerned About Their Local Public Schools:

Many New Jersey students from non-low-income families have achievement issues. Also, a significant number of New Jersey high schools with predominantly non-low-income student populations are not preparing students for probable success in college.


Out of the 194 public high schools in New Jersey that had predominantly non-low-income student populations, 114 met the state target of 80 percent or more of eligible students taking the SAT. Out of these 114 schools, 32 schools — nearly three out of 10 — had half or more of their SAT takers fail to score at or above the college-readiness benchmark of 1550. Given the contrast between high-school scores on the state exams and the SAT, it appears that many students and their parents are being lulled into a false sense of satisfaction regarding achievement at middle-class high schools.

New Jersey has a peculiar pride of place that stems from what former Assemblyman Alan Karcher once called our “multiple municipal madness,” a  fragmented, splintered state chopped up into 565 municipalities and 591 school districts—more per mile than any other state in the country. Our school funding formula, with the exception of impoverished cities, relies almost entirely on local property taxes. We own our schools. They define us, just as we are defined by the unique characteristics of each little town. Our teachers are our neighbors. Our schools are our hearts and second homes.

In New Jersey, school quality is personal.

No wonder, then, that it’s hard to look at the hard facts that shows us that we’re more tattered  and shopworn than we’d like. But that’s the newsflash from the PRI study, which looks squarely at some disconcerting data that lays bare inadequacies in how we prepare students for college and career. If we’re going to solve these problems, then we must face them, and at least half the battle is overcoming suburban resistance to reality.

That’s what Izumi does in this study. One example, arbitrarily chosen: Emerson High School is in a Bergen County suburb with a median household income of $100,089, 43 percent higher than the state median of $70,169. At Emerson High in 2014, only 8 percent of students were classified as low income and 82 percent of eligible students took the SAT. However, 65 percent of these SAT test-takers failed to score at or above 1550, the benchmark for college and career readiness. The schoolwide average SAT score was 1453.

Emerson High’s scores are representative of New Jersey suburbia: relatively high wealth and inadequate preparation for college and careers. This glum truth is borne out by remediation rates at the state’s two- and four-year colleges. About 32 percent of NJ students entering four-year colleges and 70 percent of first-time students entering community colleges require one or more remedial classes before they can take credit-bearing courses. This has consequences. For example, at Atlantic Cape Community College, just 21 of the 1,065 first-year students graduated two years later with an associate’s degree and 40 percent didn’t even show up for their second year.

There is a rift between suburban New Jersey’s perception of school quality and its reality of school quality. Some refer to this rift as “the honesty gap.” Around here, we call it the “head in the sand” syndrome.  Indeed, much of the fracas over NJ PARCC exams – in which only 52 percent of 4th graders reached proficiency benchmarks in language arts and 40 percent of 4th graders  reached proficiency benchmarks in math (full results here) – stems from the distressing fact that we’re “not as good as we think.”

Those who advocate PARCC boycotts are like the emperor’s entourage, more fearful of appearing foolish then recognizing the naked truth.  Instead, we should collaborate and commit to elevating the quality of our suburban schools so that perceptions match reality and we are, indeed, as good as we think.

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Laura Waters
Laura was weaned on education and equity issues because her mom was a social worker and her dad was a social studies teacher in New York City public schools. She can no more get this passion out of her blood than she can her New York accent, even though she has lived in Central Jersey now for over 20 years. She and her husband have four children, and her youngest has multiple disabilities. Laura has been on her local school board for 12 years. She keeps education leaders on their toes at NJ Left Behind.

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