Wednesday, July 1, 2015

N.J. Suburban Parents Bury Their Heads in the Sand Too

Erika Sanzi at School Matters asks whether suburban parents are burying their heads in the sand regarding their perceptions of school excellence versus actual reality.
Parents prefer relationships to data. Most of us enjoy people more than numbers and like parent teacher conferences better than bar graphs.  We take comfort in knowing that our kids are being educated in a safe space and worry very little about the high school profile or SAT participation rate in our town. 
 It’s human nature to listen to our hearts instead of our heads and it’s normal to be driven by connections we feel to teachers and coaches and school leaders to whom we entrust our children every day. 
 Hard truths however are better learned early than too late. Parents in my little state of Rhode Island deserve to know how their kids match up educationally against kids from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and even Maryland. Is the education they’re receiving as good as it feels like it is or are there systemic and measurable deficiencies that parents need to acknowledge?
Indeed, there's a presumption among suburban parents across the nation, including New Jersey, that their local schools are immune from lagging student outcomes typically associated with urban schools. Even in N.J. most acclaimed public high schools -- Livingston, for instance, where Gov. Christie announced his candidacy yesterday to the boos of teachers and where, in fact, he went to high school -- one out of four seniors score below 1550 on SAT's, considered the cut-off for college and career-readiness. The median household income in Livingston, by the way, is $133,271.

At Montclair High School, another monied suburban district (median household income: $126,983), only 59% of students get that 1550 on their SAT's that indicates readiness for success in college and careers.

For a less exclusive example, see Woodbridge High school, where the median household income is $79,606, about $10K above the N.J. average. There, only 32% of graduating students have an SAT score of over 1550. In other words, two out of three students in Woodbridge don't make the college-career readiness benchmark. In fact, only 73% of students even bother to take the SAT, a typical prerequisite for four-year colleges.

Mythology is hard to crack. One of our myths is that our suburban schools adequately prepare students for success after high school graduation. Joseph Campbell once said that "myths are public dreams." Maybe it's time we wake up.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Christie and Baraka: Perfect Together?

It depends upon whom you ask. The latest wranglings over the return of local control to Newark Public Schools is predicated on an agreement between Gov. Christie and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka to have a committee of nine -- five chosen by Christie, four chosen by Baraka -- create a transition plan after 20 years of state control of New Jersey's largest school district. The committee is called the Newark Educational Success Board.

From NJ Spotlight:
The governor’s appointments are Cerf, a longtime ally who awaits expected approval by the state Board of Education to take over the district; state Higher Education Secretary Rochelle Hendricks, also a Christie appointee; former Verizon CEO Al Koeppe, an outspoken business leader; Donald Katz, founder and CEO of Audible Inc., a Newark-based company; and Newark Trust for Education president Ross Danis. 
The mayor’s appointees are the Rev. Perry Simmons of the Abyssinia Baptist Church in Newark; Mary Bennett, the former principal of Newark’s Shabazz High School; Grace Sergio, a parent activist from the city’s South Ward; and Jose Leonardo, a senior at Science Park High School and president of the Newark Students Union.
Mayor Baraka took some flack for agreeing to the plan and issuing a joint statement with the Governor which says, in part, "[i]t is with great pride that we, the Mayor of Newark and the Governor of New Jersey, come together to establish a shared vision for empowering the people of Newark to make decisions over their schools, while sustaining and growing a culture of high educational expectations, accountability and results in the city."

Bob Braun, Baraka's cheerleader-in-chief, insisted that the Mayor had been "played." Baraka, lashing back, accused Braun of "liberal paternalism," a fair criticism. And, really, what choice did Baraka have? Newark Public Schools consistently fails N.J.'s accountability metric called QSAC (although it recently passed the section on fiscal accountability) and QSAC, according to state statute, is the lever for return of local control.

And, really, no one's being "played" here. Even back in 1995 when the state first took over Newark Public Schools, critics insisted that the move was politically motivated. We need only listen to Robert Curvin, Newark historian and civil rights leader, who told the Star Ledger in April,
The state compliance investigation revealed horrors that in my mind were shameful and manifested a pitiful lack of concern on the part of leaders throughout the system for the children, Anyone who argues that the state takeover had nothing to do with the quality of education in Newark at the time is simply not telling the truth or is intentionally ignorant."
Certainly, Chris Cerf has his work cut out for him, primarily in gaining trust of the community. But the Mayor's agreement to collaborate is the only possible trajectory towards regaining local control. As such, he's showing leadership, not gullibility.

"Small But Mighty Group of Teachers" Urge Senate to Include Accountability AND Action in ESEA

Alice Johnson Cain, Vice President for Federal and State Policy at Teach Plus, makes a convincing case for why the U.S. Senate must include action as well as accountability in a newly-authorized ESEA. While leaders of NEA, she says,  correctly point out that NCLB’s interventions in failing schools was overly punitive and prescriptive, a “small but mighty group of teachers” are “echoing the civil rights community”  in calling for revisions in the current draft because “it doesn’t fulfill its mission as a civil rights law.  Cain explains,
The Senate is on the verge of throwing out the hammer, scalpel and rest of the toolbox by stripping the law of meaningful accountability. The fatal flaw with the Senate bill to replace NCLB, the Every Child Achieves Act (ECAA), is that a school can gather data that shows year after year -- or decade after decade -- that, for example, its Hispanic fourth graders are struggling, but no steps have to be taken, ever, to address the problem. 
At a recent Congressional briefing, Los Angeles teacher Chris Hofmann, who has a record of excellence in a school where 96% of the students are Latino and 90% qualify for free and reduced meals, explained: 
The current legislation is akin to saying I have to give tests, identify the students who can't read, put them over in the corner, say they need help and that's it. We wouldn't accept that from our teachers, and we shouldn't accept that from our states.
ECAA should not only require states to identify schools 'in need of locally-determined intervention'; it should also require states to act on it. Unless we make it clear that some action is necessary, I am worried that some schools and some students in some states won't get the help they desperately need.
NEA's demand for inaction is misguided, Cain concludes. Instead, Senators should heed “advice from effective teachers who spend their days with the students ESEA was designed to help [because this] is the best way Congress could honor the law's civil rights legacy.”

Monday, June 29, 2015

Note to U.S. Congress on ESEA Rewrite: Take a Tip From the Supreme Court's Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

After I read the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage on Friday, I couldn’t stop thinking about the pending reauthorization of ESEA, newly christened the Every Child Achieves Act (ECAA).

Okay, that’s not completely true. My family, like many across America, rejoiced in the ruling itself, and not just because we have a gay child. We celebrated the wisdom of the five Justices who carefully balanced states’ rights with equal protection, exhilarated by Justice Kennedy’s pronouncement that  “while the Constitution contemplates that democracy is the appropriate process for change, individuals who are harmed need not await legislative action before asserting a fundamental right.” Heck, we practically draped ourselves in American flags.

But I just can’t stop myself.  The nation’s long-running debate over same-sex marriage has focused on the balance between federal “equal protection” laws (embodied in the 14th Amendment, passed in 1868 after the Civil War, and the basis of Brown v. Board of Ed, the case that dismantled racial segregation in schools) and the rights of states to set their own rules.  One area of dissent over a reauthorized ESEA is the proper balance between federal oversight --  equal protection of all students, regardless of state of residence --  and the rights of states to decide independently how to manage chronic underperformance of schools and cohorts of students.

Consider the parallels. Justice Kennedy,writing for the majority, notes that same-sex couples have been “consigned to an instability many opposite-sex couples would find intolerable.” Just like children in chronically underperforming schools, particularly those from impoverished families, are consigned to an instability that many wealthier families would find intolerable. Same-sex couples and their children, posits Justice Kennedy,  have been “denied the constellation of benefits that the States have linked to marriage.” Just like children, mostly minority ones, are denied the constellation of benefits that many non-minority children have access to through high-performing schools.  The inequality and lack of access to the institution of marriage, says Justice Kennedy, has subjected to the LGBTQ community to “a grave and continuing harm.” Just like the grave and continuing harm endured by students consigned to failing schools.

The ruling cites one state’s 1971 law that legislated that “the husband is the head of the family and the wife is subject to him.” Should women, then, await state action to gain equal rights? No, the ruling says:  “when new insight reveals discord between the Constitution’s central protections and a received legal stricture, a claim to liberty must be addressed.”  And, while the Constitution contemplates that “democracy is the appropriate process for change, individuals who are harmed need not await legislative action before asserting a fundamental right.”

That’s the ESEA dispute in a nutshell. While the current draft requires each state to publish gaps in achievement between different groups of children (low-income, minority, special education), it completely eliminates any requirements to address the problems it identifies. States and districts would be free to ignore achievement gaps and low graduation rates while still receiving federal funds aimed at closing those gaps.  Students would be denied a fundamental right while awaiting state legislative action.

It’s like same-sex marriage before Friday. The federal government was able to take certain circumscribed actions. President Obama repealed “don’t ask, don’t tell” and decided not to defend the “Defense of Marriage Act,” but no act of federal law could force state legislatures to accord gay couples access to the institution of marriage, even when certain state laws rendered to them grave and continuing harm.

It’s no accident that some of the primary advocates for a stronger federal role in education are civil rights leaders.  Under the current draft of ESEA, states have to identify subgroups of children underserved by schools but they don’t actually have to do anything about it. Here they are, a state could confess: low-income children in this school district or this school demonstrate unequivocable achievement gaps. Lah di dah.

Is it federal overreach to require action? Is it a denial of states’ rights to proscribe specific forms of remediation? How long do harmed individuals -- in this case, our neediest children -- have to wait for state legislative action before the federal government steps in?

This s the balance that Congress weighs as we approach a vote on ESEA. The Supreme Court did the right thing on Friday. Let’s hope we celebrate Congress's wisdom too.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Sunday Leftovers

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and Gov. Christie will work together on a transition plan to return local control of public schools to Newark, and the plan will start with the appointment of a Newark Educational Success Board. "The group – a panel of nine people with four appointed by the mayor and five, including Cerf, appointed by the governor – will be tasked with providing a return-to-local-control plan, with benchmarks, by the end of the 2015-16 school year, the announcement said. The goal is to '(restore) full local control as soon as possible after the established benchmarks have been met.'" 

N.J. State Senator Cory Booker said that "Cami Anderson accomplished much during her tenure as head of Newark public Schools, 'things that will in time come to light.'" reports the Star Ledger, including forging a close partnership with AFT and ensuring that charter schools represent traditional district enrollment." (Sen. Booker must not follow Randi Weingarten's tweets.) "She came here, she gave service, and she's now moved on," Booker said. "Let's look forward to the next superintendent, which I see as an interim superintendent,  leading to a much more urgent cause, which is a return to local control. Hopefully we will see that in a year or two."

Gov.  Christie said that Anderson did an extraordinary job but “it was time for Cami to move on. Four years of full-scale combat in Newark is a lot for anybody,”

In a demonstration of the challenges confronting a return to local control in Newark, the School Advisory Board voted to endorse a bill that would place a moratorium on all charter school growth, despite the fact that almost 40% of Newark students already attend charters and another 10,000 students sit on Newark charter school waiting lists. (On the other hand, last month the Newark City Council approved a resolution that opposes the proposed moratorium.) Also, 100 members of the clergy called for a dismantling of Anderson's One Newark plan.

"As if Newark schools didn’t provide enough drama for the Christie administration lately, the state has received a rebuke from the U.S. Department of Education as to how it has carried out its school monitoring and improvement efforts in the district." (NJ SpotlightHere's the press release from Education Law Center.

Democrats tacked on an extra $40 million to the state budget for pet projects, including $7 million for vocational schools, $5.2 million for security for non-public schools, $20 million for Paterson Public School District, and a cool million for Montclair for "achievement gap" funding. (Why does suburban Montclair get subsidies for issues shared by all schools? Beats me. Anyway, Christie vetoed the line item.) See NJ Spotlight, PolitickerNJ, Star Ledger

Speaking of Montclair, the district interim superintendent Roland Bolandi was quizzed by the Montclair Civil Rights Commission about a new report issued by the Montclair Achievement Gap Advisory Panel. The study was initiated by former superintendent Penny MacCormack, who resigned in April to take another job (and after sustained shelling from Montclair's anti-reform army). The Commission asked about achievement gaps, suspension gaps, and the pending approval of a new $170K/per year position called "assistant superintendent of equity and achievement." Here's Bolandi on whether there's a correlation between race or poverty and academic achievement: "When I hear that bullshit about socioeconomics and they can't learn because of poverty, that's bullshit." See The Record.

The Paterson Press reports that Paterson Public Schools mistakenly advertised for a special education director without requiring special education experience. “There’s nothing about special education,” said Luisa Alcala-Van Ess, a child psychologist who works with special education students at School 27. “This is why special education in this district is going down the tubes. They hire people who don’t know what’s going on.”

Little Ferry School District is pleased that PARCC will be reduced to one testing window next year.  Supervisor of Instruction Rachael Carletto told the Record, "overall, the PARCC test administration was a positive experience. Students enjoyed taking a computerized test. It was the length of the PBA [performance-based assessment] and two test sessions that were a bit of a struggle for some learners." 

The Jersey Journal reports that "a bill aimed at providing more resources and to increase the number of educators qualified in the state to teach students with autism has been approved by a State Assembly panel."

The Courier Post looks at Christie's budget and says that both NJEA and public schools lost.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

"If [Cerf] lasts three years in this job I'll light my hair on fire."

That’s Tom Moran in yesterday’s Star-Ledger editorial on the story that’s lit up the state and national media, as well as the blogosphere: on Tuesday Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson announced her resignation and N.J. Education Commissioner David Hespe nominated former N.J. Ed. Comm. Chris Cerf as Newark’s interim superintendent.

While much ink has been spilt on Anderson, the story has less to do with her than with Newark’s fight for local control over its 45,000 student school district. Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, who owes his seat to her (he turned last year’s mayoral election into a referendum on Anderson), conceded as much: "This whole fight over Cami Anderson is really about the state. It's not really even about her," Baraka said. "It's time for the state to go."

Anderson signaled this as well. “Newark Public Schools,” she said in a statement, “are finally in a stable condition and can begin the return to local leadership.”

Anderson leaves Newark with a list of achievements which include carefully expanding public school choice for families,* creating a universal enrollment system (flawed but inspired), elevating expectations for student learning, updating technology, overseeing the district’s successful implementation of PARCC assessments,  and finagling an innovative collective bargaining agreement with the Newark Teachers Union.

At the same time she’s been a divisive figure, painted as something of a dragon-lady: immune to criticism, a hapless communicator, defiantly confining herself within what some underlings called “the Cami bubble.”  So those achievements have gotten lost in a hostile vortex amplified by the city’s aversion to state control, an aversion that runs so deep that it appears to feel like an unfriendly military occupation.

Cerf’s success depends on his ability to render himself superfluous. To do so he must  transform community resentment into collaboration, work with state legislators and other officials to create some sort of transition model to local control (none currently exists), pacify Newark’s increasingly militant teacher union, and, most importantly, protect Newark families’ access to educational opportunities.

But he’s got his work cut out for him. For example, this week the Newark School Advisory Board voted in favor of a resolution supporting an ill-begotten charter moratorium bill sponsored by Assembly members Mila Jasey and Patrick Diegnan. This vote  disenfranchises the large cohort of Newark schoolchildren who attend public charter schools – estimates put next year’s charter enrollment as close to 40% -- as well as another 10,000 children on waiting lists.

(To their credit, the Newark City Council voted against a similar resolution.)

This is new territory for New Jersey. We’ve never returned full local control to any of the four districts ( Jersey City, Paterson, Newark, and Camden) under state stewardship and Newark is probably the toughest case. Newark, after all, is the largest employer in the city with an annual budget that's close to a billion dollars. Examples of corruption and political patronage within the 100-school district fill books, as well as a 1,000 page report from the state, issued in 1994, that declared, "the Newark School District has been at best flagrantly delinquent and at worst deceptive in discharging its obligations to the children enrolled in public schools.”

Bob Curvin, lifelong Newark resident, professor, civil rights leader, and author of  "Inside Newark: Decline, Rebellion, and the Search for Transformation," said  in a statement that the state took over the district because authorities found too many problems to ignore.

"The state compliance investigation revealed horrors that in my mind were shameful and manifested a pitiful lack of concern on the part of leaders throughout the system for the children. Anyone who argues that the state takeover had nothing to do with the quality of education in Newark at the time is simply not telling the truth or is intentionally ignorant."

But Cerf knows Newark and its history; he’s the right person for this transitional post. Much will depend on his ability to convince the  School Advisory Board -- which, upon the return of local control, will choose its own superintendent -- to transform itself from an adult-centered, politically-motivated, and  reactive group into a cohesive unit committed to oversight and policy that values the educational achievement of schoolchildren above all else.

*Anderson is hardly the charter school cheerleader often depicted by charter-haters. At a School Choice conference in Jersey City this past winter, she worried about the increasing popularity of this public school sector. She said there, “We don’t want to create awesome speed boats for some, but then the Titanic sinks faster for the others."

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Follow-Up to Quote from Newark Charter School Dad (Who Has Bandwidth to Spare)

Sometimes comments to editorials like this (see previous post) are just as illuminating as the editorials themselves. Shortly after NJ Spotlight published Mr. Frazier's editorial, Julia Sass Rubin of Save Our Schools-NJ chimed in. (Her organization is currently lobbying hard for a charter moratorium bill sponsored by Assemblywoman Mila Jasey.) Her quick response may have been prompted by an allusion in Mr. Frazier's editorial:
If we were to believe the critics of public charter schools, I would be singled out as a parent misinformed and misled by charter schools. I am not a parent misinformed, misled, or hoodwinked. I am a parent who supports schools that will provide my children with a quality education.
To whom and to what is he alluding? Here's my guess: last fall Ms. Rubin made this condescending remark to the Star-Ledger: "People in abject poverty don’t have the bandwidth to even evaluate charter schools. . . .It’s just not going to be high on their list.” (A Newark mom shot back in a subsequent piece, "Who is Julia Sass Rubin and what does she have against my kids?")

Hence, Ms. Rubin's reply to Mr. Frazier in the comments section of his editorial:
This editorial is part of a public relations campaign by the NJ Charter School Association to degrade local public schools, particularly in low-income communities of color, and to paint charter schools as a silver bullet. The reality is very different...
The Charter School Association is hiding behind charter school parents to masque an aggressive effort to grow market share at the expense of local public schools. The Association has been working closely with the Christie Administration to dramatically expand the number of charter schools without requiring any local approval or oversight. Few Newark residents know that almost a third of all publicly-funded Newark seats are now at charter schools, reflecting a 45% growth rate in just the last couple of years...This truly is a social justice issue, as a small group of edupreneurs work with the Christie Administration to grow their revenue stream at the expense of local public schools
When most people are in a hole they stop digging. But there's Ms. Rubin, shovel in hand, indefatigably digging away. How insulting is it to suggest that Mr. Frazier is a pawn of a conspiracy to "degrade public schools, especially in low-income communities of color"? How elitist is her dismissal of his  experience as a father determined to provide his children with an effective public education?

Never mind. According to Ms. Rubin, Mr. Frazier just doesn't have the bandwidth.

Ryan Hill, head of KIPP NJ writes back, "Newark parents are both capable of making smart choices for their kids, and of writing op-eds without some massive conspiracy. This piece by an incredible Newark father is evidence of that. We need to honor families and the choices they make, not vilify them as pawns who don't understand the needs of their kids. They know their kids better than anyone does, and they make the best choices for them, when politicians and special interest groups don't get in their way."  Another commenter says, "The fact that Mr. Frazier, an African American man from Newark, NJ, and can make his own informed choice for his children is beyond your narrow realm of understanding."

Ms. Rubin backtracks a tiny bit, saying that she didn't mean to imply that Mr. Frazier didn't write his own editorial. But no one can doubt her adamance that she's in a better position to dictate school choice for Newark families than actual Newark families. Talk about chutzpah.