Sean Spiller, newly-coronated president of the New Jersey Education Association, had an opinion piece in the Star-Ledger Monday exulting in his conclusion that NJ teachers, students, and families have “ample cause for optimism despite the circumstances and the challenges ahead.” I’m all for optimism! However, Spiller makes two substantive errors that cry out for clarification. As a public service, here’s what he got wrong.
For one thing, New Jersey’s schools start from a position of strength. Recently named the nation’s best public schools, by Education Week in 2019 and 2020 and this spring by U.S. News and World Report, our schools have a track record of success. We’ve built a strong foundation over many years that has positioned us to continue succeeding even when life throws us a curveball, or even a whole series of curveballs, as we’ve seen for 18 months.
Here Spiller neglects to spell out the primary reason EdWeek rates NJ as having “the nation’s best schools,” scoring 87 out of 100 points. From the horse’s mouth: “New Jersey retains its crown as the top-ranked state largely due to its continued strength in school finance.” EdWeek explains, “99.9 percent of its students are in districts spending at or above the U.S. average.” Or, as Mike Lilley points out, “New Jersey’s unseating Massachusetts was entirely due to more education spending, where Massachusetts ranked 12th.” In other words, NJ K-12 schools are “first in the nation” not because of student outcomes but because we spend an average of $17,707 per student per year, or $4K more than the national average when “adjusted for regional cost differences.”
EdWeek adds, “even the top performers have substantial room for improvement.”
Spiller writes, the “most important” lesson from the pandemic is that “learning is a journey” and we should steer away from “prov[ing] our success through meeting certain benchmarks and achieving certain test scores.” Why? Because “the truth is that every student will ultimately chart a unique path…if we succeed in instilling a true love of learning” because “there is no destination” and “learning is a journey that has no end.”
Here’s a translation of this word salad: Forget about keeping parents, students, and school leaders apprised of student academic growth. Forget about measuring what schools are getting right and what they’re getting wrong. Forget about families, especially those red-lined into long-struggling districts, who want their kids to have a chance to break the cycle of poverty. Every child has a unique path! It’s a journey with no destination! All aboard!
Sure, easy for him to say, with a home in Montclair where the average home price is $842,602 and his annual salary from NJEA of about half a million dollars per year. Meanwhile those of us who toil among the great unwashed need an objective standardized measurement of whether our kids can read and do math. In fact, Phil Murphy’s State Department of Education, typically under NJEA lobbyists’ thrall, just announced that this spring all 11th graders will take New Meridian-designed, Pearson-delivered standardized tests to qualify for high school graduation. (There are alternative tests if kids don’t make the cut.)
NJEA is opposed to this new test, even though state law mandates it.
Why? Because union leaders oppose transparency and prefer New Jersey families labor under the pretense that we have “the nation’s best public schools,” a claim even EdWeek hedges on. (It’s the money, remember?)
Sean Spiller has national political aspirations. When President Joe Biden was selecting his Education Secretary, Spiller threw his hat into the ring, plus he’s got his eye on Murphy’s seat in 2025. Don’t underestimate him; he holds much power. But don’t believe him either.