Last week NJ Spotlight’s John Mooney interviewed Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet on NJTV. (Here’s his write-up, which includes a link to the full video.) I confess to a bit of jealousy: With all the turmoil roiling around the Commissioner and the Department of Education, I have a few questions myself.
And so, as a sort of wish-fulfillment exercise, I decided to ask my own questions here which include requests for elaboration on some of Repollet’s responses to John and other topics that might have come up had the segment not been limited to 8 minutes.
For your reading pleasure, I’ve added in a make-believe Lamont Repollet, although all “his” answers come from comments he’s made elsewhere. (For that info, click on the appropriate link.) Roll the tape! (Sorry, no actual tape.)
Laura: Commissioner, you’ve spoken a lot about educational equity, a topic of concern for many of us in the education sector. We can agree that equity isn’t giving the same resources to low-income students as higher-income students; that’s just equality, which won’t close the achievement gap. Instead, equity is making sure that low-income students and, historically, students of color, have access to exceptional teachers, great schools, and funding to provide them with the kind of high-quality education they need to succeed. Do you agree with that description?
Repollet: Of course! The long-term success of our state relies on the ability to provide children with education equity and access to quality education.
Laura: Exactly! We’re in complete agreement! So how do you square that definition of equity with your initiative in Asbury Park — staffers call it “The 64 Floor” — that makes it impossible for high school students to fail courses which, in turn artificially inflates grades as well as the district’s graduation rate? Do you consider that scheme an example of equity? I manage a blog in New York and a high school in Queens was just outed for the same system — teachers call it the “Maspeth Minimum.” After whistleblowers exposed the scam, a City Councilman called it a “fraud,” “possibly criminal,” and the opposite of equity.
Repollet: Look, as we start to look at equity, you can’t really look at students from different locations, in different districts, in different zip codes, the same. People may say it is but that’s equal, it’s not equity.
Laura: Wow! That’s word for word what you told the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee when Senator Declan O’Scanlon asked you to comment on The 64 Floor. But when you pass students through grade after grade without giving them access to course content they’ll need to get a job or go to college, that’s not equity.
Repollet: You’re looking at this all wrong. At Asbury Park I instituted a Floor because it needed to be equitable across the board. And as the Commissioner of Education and our Department moving forward and our Governor talks about a stronger and fairer New Jersey, well, the fairer piece is equity and we will continue to operate so that our students don’t have just equal and not just access but have opportunities and that’s the equity piece.
Laura: But I still don’t understand how the 64 Floor is an example of equity. We agree equity means that low-income students have access to exceptional teachers and funding so they are able to access the same educational opportunities available to wealthier students. You can’t tell me you don’t have the resources: Annual cost per pupil at Asbury Park is $42,382. So why do one out of five high school students there meet expectations in reading and only one in six in math on state tests? To me, that points to lowered standards and expectations.
Repollet: As you know, I explained to the State Board of Education that we have to make sure that we provide all of our students with an opportunity to pass this assessment, and not just some students. At the same time, I don’t think it’s good for the self-esteem of students to keep failing test after test that they already know they’ll fail.
Laura: Yes, I get that you want to lower standards across the state and make cut scores so low that everyone passes standardized assessments. That’s not equity. That’s perpetuating a pretense that hurts our most vulnerable students and their families.
Anyway, moving along, you said at that Senate hearing that the other reason you needed a 64 Floor is because “teachers weaponize grades.” How are you and NJEA leaders getting along? Any pushback on your insult to NJ’s great educators?
Repollet: NJEA and I get along just fine, thank you very much. NJEA President Marie Blistan tells everyone how the progress in Asbury Park under my leadership shows that I know how to convert those values into real-world results.
Repollet: Sure, he says their support is a badge of honor and I agree.
Laura: Okay, back to education, you told John that replacing PARCC was your biggest unaccomplished initiative.
Repollet: That’s correct. As I told John, we’re being methodical. We’re doing lots of outreach and will have a set of new assessments ready for the school year 2022.
Laura: That’s not really “Day 1,” which is what Murphy promised NJEA.
Repollet: We ran into some problems. As I told John, we had a plan but then we received information that our proposed system was invalid.
Laura: You mean NJ has a law that says that diploma-qualifying tests can only be taken in 11th grade and your plan had them taking the tests in earlier grades because you’re lowering diploma requirements. Didn’t anyone at the DOE Office of Comprehensive Support, which supports Abbott districts like Asbury Park, mention that?
Repollet: No, I fired everyone in that office.** Anyway, it’s a minor detail. We’re still ascertaining what is the best test for NJ students, that it’s fair and that our children don’t get anxious and frustrated. We will satisfy all stakeholders. We are on our way to ending PARCC.
Laura: Yes, that’s what you told John. But why is the determining factor the frustration level of students and parents? Isn’t it worthwhile to get an accurate read on school quality, which we’re required to do under federal law?
Repollet: But we do! New Jersey schools rank number one in the nation, thanks in part to our commitment to funding education and to our push for educational equity for all students.
Laura: Yes, we were ranked number #1 by EdWeek’s Quality Counts because its methodology gave us lots of extra points for spending so much. We really don’t do so well in accountability and closing the achievement gap. The former certainly didn’t work out so well for you when you tried to cancel the DOE audits
Repollet: Hey, I’m still here, at least until that job at Kean University comes along. It’s good to be the king!***
*Here’s the breakdown of funders to Murphy’s PAC, New Directions:
**Dr. Repollet didn’t say this but it was confirmed by multiple sources. Click on the link.
***Dr. Repollet didn’t say this either. Mel Brooks did, although the Commissioner was enstooled as a King when he, along with 25 other friends/relatives, travelled to Ghana at taxpayer expense under the guise of the trip being a federally-funded enrichment opportunity for low-income students. See here for the whole story (which includes photos, including the one at the top, as well as a video of the enstoolment ceremony).