Friday, August 26, 2016

QOD: If You Think That Charter Schools "Cream" Top Students, Look at Traditional Schools

David Osborne and Anne Osborne in US News and World Report
Creaming can take several forms: self-selection by the most motivated families; long applications that may deter uneducated, non English-speaking and/or immigrant parents; handpicking students with higher test scores; and "counseling out" or expelling difficult students. 
Traditional public schools do all these things. Many districts give parents choices, and the most motivated parents choose the best schools. Many magnet and exam schools require applications and high test scores. And some traditional schools push out or expel the most difficult students. More of them ignore such students until they drop out. 
Surely a few charter schools do the same. But research has found no evidence that most charters skim off the highest performing students. A 2009 RAND Corporation study found that "the prior test scores of students transferring into charter schools were near or below local (districtwide or statewide) averages in every geographic location included in the study." A study of New York City charters found that their applicants were more likely to be black and poor than traditional public school students. It also found that their lottery systems were completely random. 
Research has also shown that a low-performing student is no more likely to leave a charter than a high-performing student – or than a low-performing student is likely to leave a traditional public school.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Local Control Returns to Newark (Or is it There Already?)

Late yesterday the nine--member panel called the Newark Education Success Board issued  a report, “Pathway to Local Control,"  that recommends that the state, after 21 years, return local control to the Newark School Board beginning in the 2017-2018 school year. The non-binding recommendation is contingent on the district meeting all five metrics of  the state accountability rubric called QSAC (it currently has Operations, Fiscal Management, and Personnel, but not  Governance and Instruction and Programming) as well as approval by the State Board of Education.

(Here’s coverage from the Star-Ledger and the Wall Street Journal. Here's the press release from Newark Mayor Ras Baraka's office, which includes a link to the Executive Summary.)

The return of local control is politically necessary for Mayor Baraka, who chose to take heat from the Newark Teachers Union and aligned lobbyists for working with state-appointed superintendent Chris Cerf.  But what will it mean for Newark families when the School Board (either mayor-appointed or elected, depending on voter preference) has the power to pick its own superintendent and oversee all functions, including a billion dollar a year school budget? What will it mean if current trends continue and more and more parents shift from the traditional school sector to the charter school sector?

Probably not very much. And that's not a bad thing.

To wit: the NESB report includes an excellent timeline of Newark Public Schools (Appendix A), which details the travails of N.J.’s largest school district,  currently serving about 34,000 children in traditional schools and 14,000 children in the city’s robust charter school sector. Politicians and lobbyists who claim that NPS went downhill after the state takeover in 1995 ignore history. A 1993 report concluded that “the Newark Public School system has been at best flagrantly delinquent and at worst deceptive in discharging its obligations to the children enrolled” and  the district struggles “under the weight of poor performance on the part of many students, neglected buildings, charges of mismanagement, nepotism, cronyism and rampant political interference.” (See my take here.)

Derrell Bradford quotes from the report in his excellent analysis up today on Eduwonk:
“Children in Newark public schools are victimized by school and district leaders who force them to endure degrading school environments that virtually ensure academic failure.”
”The first world is that of the children who are subjected to substandard facilities and poorly equipped classrooms and libraries…The second world is that of the board of education of Newark. The board’s world is comprised of the finer things in life, such as travel to Honolulu, St. Thomas and San Francisco, dinners at fine restaurants, new cars and flowers.”
I've never met anyone who has disputed these grim circumstances, which prevailed for the better part of a century.

Bradford points out that local control has, in its most salient sense, already returned to Newark. Finally, parents have public options outside of the traditional sector and they are exercising those options vigorously. Charter school enrollment has tripled over the last five years. During the district’s most recent universal enrollment period 42% of K-12 Newark families chose a charter school as their first choice. Bradford writes,

In 2015, 50 percent of the city’s K-8 applicants (via the city’s common enrollment process) chose North Star Academy, part of the Uncommon Schools network, as their preferred choice. Overall, charters made up seven of the eight most popular choices. And with 15,000 students in Newark charter schools—all of which enrolled during an extended period of state, not local, control—it’s tough to argue Newark parents aren’t, in large measure, in control already—and with more power than they ever had under an elected board. If there is something more democratic than this, I’m not sure what it is.
One other note: the NESB panel justifies return to local control not only because of recent improvements but also because of  N.J.'s adoption of the Common Core and aligned assessments (PARCC). There's no longer wiggle room (or not much, anyway) on standards and accountability. In other words, this loss of local control enables local control. Just sayin'.

A few highlights from the report:

On the necessity of  collaboration between the traditional and charter sector:
Students and families are best served when the different sectors communicate and share resources to ensure that all schools in Newark are delivering the highest quality education for all children. Core to achieving this vision is the ability of these sectors to acknowledge a shared responsibility to ensure equitable access to high quality education in Newark, and develop a shared commitment to work together in a productive manner to address barriers to equity.
And,
The NPS Board of Education and the New Jersey Department of Education, through its Office of Charter Schools, should advocate for and actively support a NPS/Charter/Faith-Based Working Group to develop a shared vision for high quality education in the City of Newark that includes equitable access for all children in the City.

In fact, the traditional sector should emulate some charter practices:
The Working Group would develop recommendations to help influence innovations in policy and practice such as: pursue providing options for high performing district schools to operate with levels of autonomy comparable to that of high performing charter and independent schools,
Also,
Charter school enrollment has tripled in the past five years. Parents are demonstrating that they value more quality school options. For the 2015- 16 school year, 75% of kindergarten families preferred a school that was not their closest district school and 42% of families selected a charter school as their first choice. Over 60% of students got into their 1st choice school. 86% got into one of their top 3 choices. 
On fiscal matters:
While the 2015-2016 deficit of $75.6 million was closed and a balanced budget is in place for 2016- 17, the anticipated shortfall for 2017-18 is in excess of $70 million. Clear, two-way, on-going communications with parents, families and community about the state of the budget, the strategies that will be used to address it, and the principles that decisions about equitable resource allocation will be based on, will also be critical to promoting increased transparency, deepening trust, and faith in the district’s willingness and capacity to garner and allocate resources on behalf of the best interests of students

The Newark Teachers Union should agree to continue the merit pay provision agreed to in the last contract negotiated with Cami Anderson:
A nation-leading CBA provided, among other things, that raises were not automatic with the passage of time, but were only awarded to teachers who were evaluated as effective. The teachers’ contract allows NPS to reward teachers who are rated “highly effective” with bonuses, ranging from $5,000 to $12,500 a year.
Chronic student absenteeism, defined as missing 18 or more school days per year, is way too high:
 22% of students in K-8 schools and 49% of students in high schools were identified as chronically absent in the 2014-2015 school year.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Where I Vent Some Poorly-Suppressed Anger at White Privilege in N.J. Education Politics

I’ve been squelching some anger for a couple of weeks hoping  it would dissipate.  It hasn’t. If you follow my blog you know that reticence isn’t one of my strong suits but I really do try to avoid calling people out by name. It happens a lot to me so I know how it feels and, even if we disagree, we're all on the same side because we want better schools for kids, right?  But I can't let this go.

Three unrelated events occurred over the last two weeks. First, a few local papers covered some old news: children in highly-subsidized “Abbott” districts aren’t doing as well as students in equally poor districts that don’t get large infusions of state aid. (Translation: piles of cash don’t ameliorate poor student outcomes without school reform.)

Second, the New Jersey State Board of Education made a fair and logical decision to adopt two PARCC assessments -- 10th grade language arts and Algebra 1, which students typically take in 8th or 9th grade --  as the state’s qualifying exams for high school diplomas, beginning with the class of 2021. (Students with disabilities, English Language Learners, and those who are fail the tests multiple times will have the option of submitting portfolios.)

Third, I spent three days at the N.J. Parent Summit where I had the honor of talking at length with many parents of color from Newark and Camden who are ardently dedicated to their children’s academic success. I also spent much of a day last week with a Newark mom who, despite heart-wrenching challenges that include extreme poverty, abusive foster care, and homelessness, triumphed educationally and professionally.

I don’t pretend to understand all the nuances of Black Lives Matter but I’m trying hard. Here’s what I do know: the reactions of two white privileged women stands in stark contrast to the perspectives and ambitions of a large segment of black and brown N.J. parents.

Let’s cut to the chase. The women I refer to are Rutgers Professor Julia Sass Rubin, the founder of Princeton-based Save Our Schools-NJ (an anti-choice and testing group),  and Susan Cauldwell, current president of SOS-NJ. SOS-NJ is allied with NJEA, the state's primary teacher union, and the Education Law Center, which litigates the Abbott cases.

Here’s Rubin on the failure of the Abbott remedy to achieve educational inequity: “Graduation rates and test scores in high-poverty districts will never be the same as in wealthy districts.”

Here’s Cauldwell on the State Board’s decision: “The main problem we have with PARCC as a graduation requirement is that students aren’t going to graduate.”

All I could think of was Rubin’s comment two years ago to the Star-Ledger when “she suggested poor families are less able to focus on the best place to educate their children…’People in abject poverty don’t have the bandwidth to even evaluate charter schools,’  she said. ‘It’s just not going to be high on their list..’”  (Newark mom Crystal Willliams shot back, “Who is Julia Sass Rubin and what does she have against my kids?”)

The cluelessness is crushing.  Check out this twitter exchange Rubin had with my (famous!) friend and colleague Chris Stewart on Twitter.
Citizen Stewart @citizenstewart
.@JuliaSassRubin "“Graduation rates and test scores in high-poverty districts will never be the same as in wealthy districts."
Deplorable.
Julia Sass Rubin @JuliaSassRubin
@citizenstewart It's not defeatist to state that. It's reality. What's sad is that you didn't focus on the real problem in that article.
Citizen Stewart @citizenstewart
@JuliaSassRubin You are perpetuating institutional racism and classism. Acting as if these correlations are immutable, it's just sad.
Citizen Stewart @citizenstewart
@JuliaSassRubin It is a self-fulfilling prophecy that dooms underclass kids and fails to address systemic racism.
Let's get a few things straight. Poor children of color can flourish in high-functioning schools. Poor children of color can pass PARCC tests and do as well -- or better -- than students in "wealthy districts."  Poor children of color can match graduation rates in high-income districts. And, believe me, parents of color have ample "bandwidth" to see through the rationalizing rhetoric of privileged status quo apologists.

That, Julia and Susan, is reality.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

De Blasio's Dilemma: How Can He Maintain "Progressive Bluster" yet Eschew Educational Change?

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, notes Robert J. Bellafiore in an entertaining post peppered with references to the Three Stooges and Abbott and Costello, is on “wrong side of history.” The mere mention of charter schools appears to trigger a kind of tic in the Mayor's countenance whenever a reporter asks him about the results of this year’s proficiency tests, which showed that traditional school students improved marginally and charter school students improved substantially.

Here’s Bellafiore:
With a week’s worth of snark and sniffling, de Blasio managed to: 
a) Insult every charter student who did well on the state exams by saying they were trained to score well, like puppies are trained to do tricks;
b) Denigrate the hard work put in by hundreds of school teachers; and
c) Tell thousands of mostly black and lower-income city parents their children’s accomplishments were a fraud. 
He even referred to kids in city schools as “our children.” Meaning charter school students are whose children, exactly? 
Well, exactly. Hasn’t the Mayor been paying attention to the increasing clamor of parents, especially those of color, for options besides traditional schools? Why is de Blasio “clutching to a centralized bureaucratic mindset that tells parents obviously unhappy with the city’s schools to ‘suck it up’ and send their kids there anyway?" Why does he “barnacle himself to a public education system that imposes its will on people who don’t have the means or the mobility to exercise their own?" With all his “progressive bluster,” why is he “tied to the old way?”

Bellafiore has a suggestion for the Mayor. Accept that charter enrollment will grow and that empowered parents will continue to demand choice. Like James Earl Jones said in The Field of Dreams, “people will come." Instead of the trigger-happy defiance, Mr. Mayor, consider this position instead:
Look, you know I have concerns with some charters. But some of them appear to be done very well. Yes, there probably are things we can learn. We don’t have a monopoly on good ideas so we’re gonna take a look. It can only help what we do for the one million kids in the city schools.
 "What’s there to lose?" asks Bellafiore. Even Nixon went to China.

What's that About "Cherry-Picking"? Check Out the Neighborhood Charter School of Harlem

It’s about good schools that treat families fairly.  So please let us move beyond the education wars in NYC, and the personal battles between the Mayor and Ms.  Moskowitz.  You guys don’t like each other.  We get it.  We don’t care.
That’s Dirk Tillotson at Great School Voices nailing the sentiments of New York City parents fed up with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s disparagement of charter schools. To recap, the Mayor recently ho-hummed charter school students’ sharp spike in proficiency test scores -- particularly those who attend Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies -- by attributing those gains to untoward attention to test preparation and “cherry-picking” students. Tillotson belies the Mayor’s claims by profiling the Neighborhood Charter School of Harlem, which serves students on the autism spectrum.

He writes,
A parent was talking about how her son was basically mute in school, and at Neighborhood, how he had come to open up, talk, make friends, and develop an otherwise unknown social circle.  The joy and contentment is evident on kids’ faces when you visit, alongside a responsive design where every class had individual supports for students. 
And the results are really remarkable—75.4% of their students were proficient in Math, compared to 16.7% in the district and 69.7% of kids were proficient on ELA compared to 21.5% for the district.
How does Neighborhood achieve these results with students who many schools write off? The school “has a robust program of support that integrates students on the spectrum and helps them develop socially in a safe and staged way,” while concurrently maintaining high expectations for academic development.

Neighborhood may be one of a very small cohort of charter schools that exclusively serve students with special needs but charter school enrollment of students with disabilities, contrary to the Mayor’s claim,  is increasing. And so is their academic growth. From the NY Post:
For kids with disabilities, 16 percent of those attending charter schools were proficient in reading, compared with 10 percent of public-school students.
For math, 24 percent of charter students with disabilities scored at proficient levels, as did 12 percent of public-school kids.
Even NYC Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina, who typically toes the Mayor’s charter school line in the sand, told Chalkbeat yesterday,
“Look, I think parents have to have options, and if that’s an option that parents take, that’s fine,” she told Chalkbeat Wednesday in her first public comments on the clash. Charter schools “have their own process and their own way of teaching and making decisions. But parents chose those schools for that purpose.”
Tillotson tells Mayor de Blasio to suspend  his relentless attacks on alternative public schools. So do the parents of special needs children who attend the Neighborhood Charter School of Harlem.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

When What's Good for Kids Conflicts With What's Best for Adults: Privatizing Services in Public Schools

In  yesterday’s NJ Spotlight, Jerell Blakeley, campaign organizer for a group called the New Jersey Work Environment Council, is disturbed by the growing trend of school districts to outsource custodians to private agencies in order to cut costs. He worries about the “wholesale replacement of knowledgeable and dedicated veteran staff members...with lesser-paid temporary workers and the impact on the school’s hygiene and maintenance, “misleading cost-benefit analyses,” the loss of institutional knowledge of a building’s quirks. Most critically, Blakeley worries about the disproportionate impact on custodians of color and quotes Bruce Bodner, the lawyer for the Transit Workers Union Local 234 in Philadelphia, who says that with “public employment in general being under attack, it’s really an attack on these communities.”

But Mr. Blakeley conflates two very different concerns that are worth unpacking because they tie into larger questions of the balance between schools as institutions of learning and schools as employment agencies.  His first concern is one of quality: he argues that privatizing buildings and grounds work  hurts school hygiene and maintenance because  privately-contracted custodians are less effective than district-employed ones.

His second concern is economic. He cites an article in the New York Times that estimates that about 20% of Black adults work in the public sector and outsourcing custodial work will reduce their income.

It seems to me that the jury’s out on Mr. Blakeley’s concern about quality. Public schools privatize all sorts of services that involve people: busing, food preparation, food service, speech and language therapists, nurses, etc. They sign private contracts with engineers, lawyers, architects, technology vendors, textbook companies.  New Jersey even out-sources many of its highly-lauded Abbott preschools to private operators. Most districts report no problems.  For example, a profile in EdWeek of a Michigan school that privatized custodial work found that the district has been "very satisfied" with the services provided by the company.”

Privatizing services is a matter of taste, not morality. Gustibus non disputandum est. Your champagne is my swill.

But it is economics that is at the heart of Mr. Blakeley’s real argument, a grievance that leaks into disputes about charter schools (outsourcing education to a different public operator unbound from lockstep salary guides and tenure), PARCC (oh no! It’s Pearson!), and even the Common Core State Standards (partially funded by that diabolical duo Bill and Melinda Gates when they took a break from investing in effective treatments for HIV, polio, and malaria).

And here we get to Mr. Blakeley’s true agenda.

It’s true that outsourcing public sector jobs hurts the public employment prospects of adults. Newark Public Schools, for example, is Newark’s  largest employer and most Newark residents are Black and Latino.  In that Michigan district cited in the EdWeek article, 50 district employees lost their jobs, although some were rehired by the private company at lower wages because public schools pay more for comparable work. According to this job site, the average custodian in N.J. makes $25K. But during the 2013-2014 school year, custodian salaries  in a typical N.J. school district (Roselle Public Schools) started at $33,660  and topped out at $68,715.

In other words, privatizing custodial work saves districts money that can then be reallocated to student instruction. But it also lowers custodians' salaries.

To many people, this would be an economic issue with moral implications. Again: are schools institutions of learning or employment agencies?

To Mr. Blakeley's organization, they're the latter.

The Board at the New Jersey Work Environment Council, is comprised of union  officials with the primary responsibility of protecting adult jobs.  Members include Sean Spiller, Secretary-Treasurer of the NJEA; Marie Blistan, Vice President of the NJEA; Diana Crowder and Adam Liebtag of the AFL-CIO; John Pajak of the Teamsters; Cheryl Skeete of AFT. Their  agenda has nothing to do with the well-being of schoolchildren but with the economic well-being and job security of adults.

School districts throughout the country regularly confront tough fiscal decisions when allocating fixed funding.  Responsible districts -- and here we're back into the realm of morality -- choose what's best for children over what's best for  adults, and sometimes that translates to outsourcing certain services. Mr. Blakeley and his organization would invert that equation. I think he's wrong.

Monday, August 15, 2016

QOD: Newark Superintendent Chris Cerf: "It's a Travesty" that a High School Diploma Doesn't Designate Readiness

From an interview on Friday with NJTV's Mary Alice Williams:

Cerf: I very much support the decision of the state and of the governor to stick with the PARCC test. It starts with having high, clear standards. It is a travesty that so many students graduate from high school, have the diploma in hand and when they go on to the next phase of life, college in particular, they need to take remedial courses. It is not the case that having a high school diploma is equivalent to being ready for success, so having high standards is important. If you are going to have high standards you have to measure whether those standards are being met and the PARCC does that better than any other test that was ever created.

Williams: But the PARCC testing this year the scores were just abysmal.

Cerf: Well, they were up, they were up considerably. In Newark, for example, in reading they were up by over 6 percent, which is 6 percentile points, which is a very significant increase. Remember the graduation requirement does not apply at the moment. It will first apply to students who are currently seventh graders.

Williams: So you’re hoping that by setting these standards high, and saying this will be a requirement for graduation, the kids will rise to that level by 2021?

Cerf: You really do have to set the standards high, otherwise you have a race to the bottom and that’s what we saw under the old regime. They define proficiency in such a low way that it had essentially had no meaning. Common core standards and the PARCC are a step in the direction of correcting that.