Wednesday, January 28, 2015

N.J.'s Teacher Pension System Gets a "C"

The National Council on Teacher Quality just released its state-by-state rankings of teacher pension systems, and N.J.'s is mediocre. We did well on categories related to how teachers uniformly accrue pensions for each year of work. However, we did poorly on how well our system is funded (current liability is $90 billion) and on its fairness and flexibility for teachers. Here's the drill-down:

Snapshot of New Jersey’s Pension System

Teacher pension is well-funded (at least 90%)                                                               NO
Teachers have the option of a fully portable pension plan                                             NO
Teachers vest in three years or less                                                                                 NO
Teachers leaving early can take at least a partial employer contribution with them      NO
Teacher and employer contribution rates are reasonable                                               NO
Retirement eligibility is based on age only                                                                    YES
Pension benefits accrue in a way that treats each year of work uniformly                    YES

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Give the Cami-Bashing A Rest: Woes in Newark Go Way Back

My new Spotlight column is out today. It starts here:
News from Newark Public Schools is alarming. Earlier this month state legislators who sit on New Jersey’s Joint Council of Public Schools tag-teamed an all-out assault on Superintendent Cami Anderson: “You need to get your house in order,” sniped Senator Ron Rice; "I'm so angry,” said Sen. Teresa Ruiz; “You make the assumption that you are the sharpest tool in the shed,” taunted Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver. Afterward, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka sent a letter to Anderson demanding her “immediate resignation.” 
Earlier in Anderson’s tenure, the School Advisory Board unanimously issued a no-confidence vote and a week later the City Council unanimously approved an otiose moratorium on all school-reform initiatives. The Newark Teachers Union pronounces defiantly (if illogically) on its homepage, “Cami’s height of hypocrisy and indifference towards the work that teachers do has reached an all time low.” 
What we’ve got here is a kind of inverted cult of personality, a superintendent-as-villain meme, convenient for tweets and screeds and political pandering but useless as a strategy for thinking about how to improve educational opportunities for Newark’s 40,000 students.
Read the rest here.

Monday, January 26, 2015

QOD: Teacher Unions Are Alienating "Blue-State Democrats"

I have little affection for Reason, a publication that sings the anthem of "free minds and free markets," but this piece  kind of nails it. Last Thursday New York Governor Andrew Cuomo met with the Daily News Editorial Board and lit into the UFT, which represents most of the teachers in New York City's public schools. Cuomo, according to the Daily News, "referred to the teachers unions and the entrenched educational establishment as an 'industry' that is more interested in protecting the rights of its members than improving the system for the kids it is supposed to be serving." Cuomo also maintained that“if (the public) understood what was happening with education to their children, there would be an outrage in this city," adding, “I’m telling you, they would take City Hall down brick by brick."

Here's Reason:
The fact that this fiery anti-union tirade passed the lips of a blue state Democrat tells you everything you need to know about just how thoroughly teaches union have alienated many of their natural political allies. And this isn't merely some quirk of New York politics, as the same thing has happened on a local scale in numerous cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles. Democratic politicians everywhere are more willing to take on teachers unions than ever before. 
I suspect that's because they recognize the long-term unsustainability of this alliance. Teachers unions have continued to extort delusional concessions from lawmakers and taxpayers, even as their leaders' antics grow more distracting and hateful. Their demands are so unreasonable, so out of step with the very moderate package of school reforms that a growing consensus of politicians on the left and right now support, even people like Cuomo and former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg—who are not exactly friends of libertarianism—can't help but object to the shrill divisiveness of Michael Mulgrew, Karen Lewis, Steven Cook, etc.

N.J. Reconsiders the "Harrowing Stresses" of "Data-Driven Education"

On Friday New Jersey’s “Study Commission on the Use of Student Assessments in New Jersey.” issued its Interim Report. (See today’s NJ Spotlight for details.) The  Commission  was created last summer when the Legislature was in the midst of a brawl about PARCC, the standardized testing consortium that is producing new assessments linked to the Common Core State Standards. The regulations attached to N.J.’s new teacher tenure law, TEACHNJ, mandates that standardized tests comprise 30% of teacher evaluations for instructors in language arts and math In grades 3-8. After a hard-court press by NJEA, which included calls for a moratorium on value-added teacher assessments, as well as pressure from anti-testing lobbyists like Save Our Schools-NJ and Education Law Center (both receive funds from NJEA), in July Christie issued a compromise in the form of an Executive Order: this year, only 10% of tests scores – not just PARCC, but a portfolio of assessments --  will infuse teacher evaluations.

As part of this compromise, Christie also ordered the creation of the Study Commission to  look at larger issues regarding student testing.

The country is in a tumult about standardized testing, fomented by the seething opt-out movement and current Congressional discussions about reauthorizing ESEA. Are students subjected to too much pressure from the onus of assessments? Are teachers? Do American schools devote an undue number of  hours of instructional time to testing? Is classroom creativity and instructional latitude squelched by the burdens of measurement?

These are all valuable questions. The Interim Report from the  N.J. Study Commission notes,
Within the last decade, the public debate regarding the issue of excessive testing (“over-testing”) has grown. Nationally, parents and teachers have related harrowing stories of the stresses and strains that their children experience in the name of “data-driven” education. Negative attitudes toward over-testing are manifested in many ways, perhaps most noticeably in the antipathy that assessments.
Unfortunately, these reasonable concerns about testing have been  funneled into a maelstrom of antagonism towards one single assessment: the PARCC. Sure, it’s new. Sure, the technology required is daunting to some districts. Sure, student scores will be lower because the tests are aligned with higher level standards instead of N.J.’s traditional high school assessment, the HSPA, which requires only a mastery of 8th-9th grade level material.

And, of course, test-taking is not relegated to the days when students take PARCC this Spring. For example, Princeton Public Schools, a district to which most parents would sacrifice their eye-teeth in order to afford the mortgages that buy admission, is ready to administer mid-terms this week and next. According to the schedule on Princeton Public Schools’ website, high school students will have half-days Thursday  through Tuesday and instruction time will be eliminated on all four days so that students can take these district assessments. That’s almost a week of school, plus whatever class time was devoted to preparation.

But no one is complaining  about this sort of in-district testing, which is high-stakes for students, not teachers.  Don’t these tests create stress for students? Don’t they compromise the purity of instruction? No one suggests that these midterms and finals and quizzes  are toxic and I haven't seen any opt-out movements or lobbying  by school boards and legislators to issue a moratorium.

We should think harder about how much time we allot to testing and the cumulative impact on students and teachers. But this is only about PARCC to the extent that the brand has been damaged by education politics that have little to do with the way children learn and how we can best keep track of academic growth.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sunday Leftovers

From today's New York Times on a GOP forum in Iowa where the party's most conservative candidates railed against the Common Core State Standards:
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a Tea Party hero, challenged attendees to demand that Republican leaders prove their conservative bona fides. “In a Republican primary, every candidate is going to say, ‘I’m the most conservative guy who ever lived,’ “ he said. “You know what? Talk is cheap.”
Rising to his own challenge, Mr. Cruz called for “the locusts” of the Environmental Protection Agency to be stifled and for padlocking the Internal Revenue Service, then redeploying its agents to secure the Southern border.
“If you said you opposed the president’s unconstitutional executive amnesty, show me where you stood up and fought,” he said of President Obama’s executive actions on immigration. “If you said you oppose Common Core, show me where you stood up and fought.”
One of the attendees at the Iowa forum was our own Chris Christie, as he continued to back-pedal on his once stalwart support for higher standards. Here's the Governor in a NJ Spotlight piece this week on a set of public hearings on PARCC testing, the accountability instrument for the Common Core:
“What I have concerns about is the Common Core, and that is why I established this commission to examine this and come back with recommendations,” Christie said on the radio station’s “Ask the Governor” show. “I am hopeful sometime in the next 30 to 60 days to come back with some observations and recommendations.”
When asked specifically whether the recommendations could affect PARCC, Christie did not rule out further executive action: “It could affect PARCC, in that the Common Core is integrated into PARCC, so it could change the nature of the testing a little bit.”
But everything's relative. Charles Stile in The Record says that Christie's comparatively moderate stance at that GOP forum "represents a bold and significant step" for the Governor.

Today's Star-Ledger looks at the growing "opt-out of PARCC tests" movement in N.J, which finds common ground with that conservative GOP base.  Education Commissioner David Hespe says,  “The PARCC exams, unlike anything else we have ever done in the state, will provide much more robust information about your child’s education, how the schools can help them, how you as a parent can help them." Also see the Press of Atlantic City. And N.J. School Boards Association has a FAQ on PARCC.

 NJ Spotlight: "Only 25 percent of New Jersey’s teachers are involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work, according to the Gallup Daily tracking survey of the teachers in the most populous U.S. states. Engaged teachers know the scope of their jobs and look for new and better ways to achieve outcomes...New Jersey ranked second-highest for “actively disengaged” after Florida."

The Trenton Public Schools is projecting a $19 million budget gap for 2015-2016. “'You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that teachers are going to lose jobs, principals are going to lose jobs, secretaries are going to lose jobs,'  said Janice Williams, the grievance chair for the Trenton Education Association." (Trenton Times)

Thursday, January 22, 2015

New Newsworks Column: Christie Gives the Bird to a School Choice Program

It starts here:
"It's a great program," says New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney.  It "meets an important need, and it does so utilizing New Jersey's excellent public schools," says New Jersey Education Association. "We knew there would be interest in this program because of enrollment trends" and we're "very supportive," says N.J. School Boards Association. 
This object of this rare consensus among lobbyists and legislators -- not to mention parents and students -- is N.J.'s Interdistrict Public School Choice Program (IPSCP), which allows students to attend public schools in other districts even if their parents can't afford to live there.  But there appears to be one dissenter from this happy unanimity: the Christie Administration. While the Governor continues, as recently as this month's State of the State address, to hawk a pipedream of parochial school vouchers, he has steadily diminished budgetary support for a program that offers a non-polarizing and popular form of school choice.
Read the rest here.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Camden Principal Honored by U.S. Sec. of Education Arne Duncan

Camden Public Schools reports that Principal Keith Miles of Woodrow Wilson High School met yesterday with Sec. Duncan and other senior U.S. D.O.E. officials for “a full day of learning and advising, as part of the new Principals at ED effort."

From the press release:
The goal is to bring groups of highly innovative and successful principals from across the country to the Education Department to learn more about federal programs and to share experiences from their jobs as school leaders. Throughout the day, the principals will meet with senior staff from across the agency to learn about and give input on a variety of the Department’s programs, policies and initiatives. The participants will spend time with leaders from the offices of early learning, English language learners, special education and educational technology—to name a few. The day will culminate with a roundtable discussion with Secretary Duncan and Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Deb Delisle.

“Strong school leadership is the key to ensuring that the best teachers are recruited and supported and that high-quality instruction is offered to kids in every classroom, every day,” said Secretary Duncan. “We are excited that principals from all over the nation will spend a full day with us to share their perspectives on leading schools of excellence and equity. Great school leadership matters now more than ever.”

Added Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, “Great schools start with great school leaders, and we’re supporting our principals more than ever. Principal Miles is an extraordinarily hard-working school leader who is making real progress to Woodrow Wilson High School, and I congratulate him on this well-deserved honor.”
Woodrow Wilson High School is the alma mater of graduate Aleysha Figueroa, whom Superintendent Rouhanifard profiled in the Philadelphia Inquirer last week as a symbol of the urgency of improving Camden Public Schools. Aleysha speaks for herself here, about 27:30 into  a video celebrating Camden's "Remarkable Graduates."