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Abbott History

Section I

The improvement of public education in the U.S. has been of cardinal importance for the last two decades. During this period, one has seen several waves of reform initiatives aimed at rendering American students competitive with their counterparts elsewhere around the world. Of special concern has been the improvement in the academic performance of pupils attending those public school systems in which the intersection of socio-political and economic factors has resulted in educational institutions in which achievement remains problematic. While unearthing the underlying causative factors behind these systems’ failures has remained difficult, and has evoked widely varying viewpoints, the lack of economic resources and the failure of States to provide adequate funding supports have been cited in several court decisions as significant contributory factors (Pincus, 1974)1. These judicial decisions on the States’ culpability in the continued underachievement in poor districts have resulted in various attempts at school finance reforms. Throughout the country, including the State of New Jersey one has seen a move to legislate funding policies that are more equitable in their consequences (Goertz & Doden, 1999). However, the argument has been advanced that while additional funding is a necessary precondition for reducing the achievement gap between affluent and poor districts, that funding by itself lacks sufficiency, if the additional funds are not used to support meaningful educational change. Thus, it has been suggested that for funding to result in a quality educational experience for poor students it must be linked to specific educational measures and programs whose effectiveness have been established by prior research.

In 1997 and 1998 the New Jersey State Supreme Court in two landmark decisions ordered the New Jersey State Department of Education to put in place a number of remedial measures linked to increased funding in the twenty-eight neediest districts in the state. These measures were designed to redress the educational disadvantages experienced by public school pupils in the state’s special needs districts. Implicit in the rulings was the assumption that the historical disenfranchisement of pupils in property poor districts necessitated the implementation of a comprehensive reform agenda. Further, it was assumed that the successful implementation of this agenda would afford these pupils the opportunity to receive the thorough and efficient education to which they are constitutionally entitled. Both decisions represented the culmination of a series of previously rendered decisions dating back to 1973 in which the State’s funding policy was found to be unconstitutional. Referred to as Abbott 1V and V, the court rulings set out an ambitious agenda for reform based on the recommendations of the Commissioner of Education. These recommendations hold significant implications for school governance, educational programming, facilities improvement and the relationship between schools and their communities to include social agencies. The cornerstone of the proposed reform especially at the elementary level is the notion of whole school change. In this model, educational improvement is envisioned as encompassing changes in all the critical facets of a school’s environment in a coordinated and systematic manner.

Ambitious reform agendas, that is, reforms that are multidimensional in focus, tend to be negatively affected for a number of reasons by the vicissitudes of implementation. Studies on school change in particular, and systemic reform in general have consistently demonstrated that complex reforms tend to fail to produce their intended results largely as a consequence of difficulties encountered during implementation (Fullan, 1991). These difficulties arise from the tangible problems associated with capacity, support, resource adequacy, training, coordination of implementation activities, leadership and district and school level personnel buy in. However there are more subtle and intractable problems that tend to further compound the implementation process. For example, it has been shown that policy makers often underestimate or tend to eschew the impact of the multiple realities which districts and individuals confront in the implementation process. Unfortunately, the structure of these realities tend to significantly impact on how the reform gets translated into concrete practices. Also, the penchant for externally driven reform to be general and vague in directly addressing implementation issues can result in the development of what Fullan terms false clarity (Fullan, 1991). Under these conditions, district and school level staff tend to exhibit feelings of anxiety and frustration about the reform. Research has shown that each of these factors both individually and in their combination if left unaddressed, has the potential to significantly destabilize any reform effort (Schaffer, Nesselrod & Stringfield, 1997).

Within the context of New Jersey, understanding the current educational reform in the Abbott districts against the backdrop of these factors seemed highly important for a number of reasons. First, the emerging empirical data on implementation efforts at the school level reveal that schools are encountering varying problems as they begin implementing whole school reform (Erlichson 1999). Second, there is evidence to indicate that with respect to some aspects of the reform namely the early childhood component the spirit and intent of the court’s ruling are being compromised. This has resulted in the court’s recent decision to hear the submitted complaints that have been filed on behalf of the districts. Third, and most importantly however, identification of factors that are likely to derail the reform at this early stage of the process provides the opportunity to formatively make corrections before the reform ends up as another failed attempt to bring about meaningful change in these systems.


This study investigates the factors that are likely to impinge upon the successful implementation of reform in the Abbott districts. It is particularly interested in looking at factors that broadly impact on the Abbott districts’ abilities to implement and sustain the reform. In so doing, the study aims to arrive at findings that may be used to guide future policy directions as well as implementation efforts as the districts become more involved in instituting the changes mandated by the courts. The research questions were guided by the extensive body of research on factors that play a critical role in influencing successful reform efforts. With respect to the current reform, it is felt that early identification of potentially destabilizing factors and their amelioration are likely to increase the probability of its success. The following six questions are addressed by the present study:

  1. To what extent do the Abbot Districts philosophically embrace the remedial measures in the Courts rulings?

  2. What is the perceived compatibility between the remedial measures embodied in the reform and prior reform initiatives undertaken in the Districts?

  3. What is the level of civic support emanating from civic groups and institutions in the Abbott communities for the reform, and what factors impact on the districts’ abilities to garner support for the reform?

  4. What is the current status of the districts’ implementation efforts and what resource constraints, if any, do they face?

  5. What are the districts’ perceptions regarding the level and quality of support received from the New Jersey Department of Education?

  6. How confident are the Abbott Districts that factors crucial to bringing about improvement in their educational systems are being critically addressed by the current reform and what do they see as their most pressing needs?

Research Methodology

The study is primarily descriptive in focus presenting pertinent information on the districts’ efforts in the first year of implementing reform. In gathering data on the districts’ implementation efforts a survey instrument was developed and sent to all of the Abbott districts (See Appendix A). The instrument consisted of over a hundred questions and was organized into five major sections reflecting the six research questions (research questions 1 and 2 were subsumed under Part A of the instrument). The questions drew heavily on the findings from implementation research and an attempt was made to get as comprehensive a picture as is possible through the use of survey research techniques. Given the breadth of the instrument, a decision was made to scale most of the questions using a likert type format. However, some of the scaling on the resource items was based on scaling techniques used in previous implementation studies. In addition to scaled items, several open-ended questions were included on the instrument. These items allowed districts to provide amplification to some of their responses. Prior to its formal administration, the instrument was piloted with one district primarily to identify questions whose wordings were problematic.

Two mailings of the instrument took place. A general mailing was first sent to all superintendents in the twenty-eight districts in February 1999. In the directions accompanying the questionnaire, districts were advised to have the instrument responded to by the person or persons most knowledgeable about the implementation process. We felt that such a person or persons would be in the best position to provide insights into the issues districts directly confront as they sought to implement the measures. A second mailing occurred during July 1999. The questionnaire was resent to districts that had not responded to the first mailing by the end of the school year. In all twenty-two out of the twenty-eight districts returned the survey resulting in a response rate of 79 percent.

In order to facilitate the analyses, responses provided by the districts on several questions were combined to create indices that were subsequently used in the correlational analyses. In addition to the survey data, other data sources were tapped for use in the study. These sources included 1990 census data, state level reporting figures, and published articles in the New Jersey Star Ledger.2 Data culled from these sources were used to aide in the construction of profiles of the districts and in the correlational analyses that were conducted in the study. Information contained in the Star Ledger articles were used to augment some of the discussions that emanated from our research findings.

Profile of the Abbott Districts included in the Study

The Abbott districts are a group of 28 districts which based on socio-economic indices are considered to be the poorest in the state (See Table 1.1). For example, in 1996 roughly 74% of students enrolled in these schools systems were eligible for free or reduced lunch, as compared to 24% statewide. Unemployment figures for 1997 indicate a rate of 9.2 percent for the Abbott communities in contrast to a statewide rate of 4.5%. For the same time period, the crime rate per thousand in these communities was 74%, while for the state the rate was 40.9%. Data on the academic performance of students reveal the disparities in educational outcomes that exist between these systems and the state as a whole. In 1997, the graduation rate was 56% in the Abbott School Districts, while the State’s graduation rate was 83%. Key data on the racial composition of the student population in the Abbott districts reveals the disproportionate representation of Black and Hispanic students. In 1997, the Black, Hispanic and white school population figures were 18, 14 and 62 percent respectively statewide. The comparable figures for the Abbott districts were 45, 38 and 15 percent respectively.

Close scrutiny of the demographic data for individual districts reveals the variation that exists among the communities with respect to certain key indicators. For example, although we noted above that the unemployment rate in 1997 for these communities as a whole was 9.2, there were at least four communities with double-digit rates of 10.10, 10.5, 11.0 and 11.40. Similarly, there is significant range in the percent of the school budget that is funded through state aid, ranging from as low as 28% to as high as 91%. Graduation rates for individual districts also reflect differences. There were four districts that in 1997 had rates that were under 50%. However, there were four districts with graduation rates of over 80%. Although Black and Hispanic students are over-represented in the Abbott districts, the degree of racial concentration varied among the districts. For example, in 1997 six out of the twenty-eight districts were predominantly White with 50% or more of their school population being classified as White. Similarly, seven districts based on the same indicator could be classified as predominantly Black and six as Hispanic. The remaining districts had varying proportions of racial breakdowns.

Table 1.1

Key Demographic Data on Abbott Districts


Abbott Districts


Percent of students eligible for free and reduced lunch based on total school enrollment-1996



Unemployment rate – 1997



Crime rate per 1,000 inhabitants-1997



Percent White student population-1997



Percent Black student population-1997



Percent Asian/Island Pacific student population-1997



Graduation rate-1996-1997




Organization of Study

This study is schematically organized into the following sections. Section I frames the study within the context of the legislative history behind the Abbott reform decisions. It also seeks to implicate the reform within the broader context of reform efforts elsewhere in the country. Section II begins the presentation of the data obtained from the districts and is devoted to a discussion on the level of support for the philosophical premises and elements of the reform. It also examines the prior reform histories of the Abbott districts and the degree to which specific reform initiatives are compatible with the present reform. Section III broadens the concept of support for the reform to include the support emanating from civic groups. It introduces the concept of civic capacity as an important variable in the implementation process and describes the level of capacity that currently exists. Issues related to internal capacity as reflected in organizational resources are taken up and discussed in Section IV. Specifically this section seeks to establish the extent to which the districts in implementation have the internal capacity to support their efforts. The quality and level of support received from the New Jersey State Department of Education as perceived by the districts are discussed in Section VI. A brief description of the districts identification of critical factors impacting the reform and the areas in which they need help is presented in section VII. Concluding comments and recommendations are outlined in the final section to the report.

The data reported in the ensuing chapters represent the perspectives of those individuals identified by the Superintendents as most knowledgeable about the reform in their respective districts. We made the assumption that the superintendents felt that these individuals were the ones most likely to be familiar with their districts’ position on the areas measured in the survey, since the survey as will be seen from the analyses presented, dealt more broadly with system rather than school level issues. Our rationale for examining system issues was twofold.

First, although the reforms focus on the local school as the site for change, there are several responsibilities that the central offices have to bear, whether or not these responsibilities are formally stated or required. For example, the central offices have to share in the co-ordination of the reform serving as communication conduits between the state and the schools and assisting the schools with implementation. They also have to engage their schools in various capacity building activities, as many schools during the early stages of the reform are likely to suffer from low capacity. The central offices also have to exhibit the kinds of behaviors that will assure the local sites that they too have bought into the reform.

The second reason for looking at system-wide factors is the need to understand the quality of district-wide capacity to handle the reform. The local schools are embedded in a larger operating environment that impacts on what they do daily. How that larger operating environment holds up under the demands of the reform is important especially in light of the previously made comments on the responsibilities of the central offices. Understanding the reform from the perspective of these broader issues provides invaluable insights into the possible trajectory of the reform, particularly if these insights are conjoin with school level data.

1 Several reform initiatives have been introduced in these communities, such as vouchers, charter schools, and changes in governance structure and state takeovers.    

2  Some of this data was taken from a constructed profile of each Abbott District developed by the Educational Law Center.