Sunday, March 1, 2015

Sunday Leftovers

PARCC Division:
C. Andre Daniels, chair of the National PTA Resource Development Committee, says it "is time for someone to say publicly and sincerely, 'Shame on those refusers.'"
Rather than undermine the assessment, these people should put that energy into supporting parents, teachers and administrators to use the tests to lift up all students. Higher standards do not just benefit those at the bottom, but it reinforces the success of those at the top. Opting out for fear of stressing out your child isn't helping anyone. 
Scoffing at annual assessments is a deliberate attempt to undermine a collective, devoted effort to provide all students with equal access to a strong education. The opposition groups attempting to undermine standardized assessments are contributing to the marginalization of under-resourced communities.
Kati Haycock in NJ Spotlight addresses  N.J. parents who are contemplating opting-out their kids from PARCC exams (The comment section is worth reading too, for those who want to get a whiff of the distortions and misconceptions promulgated by anti-testers):
We get why parents and teachers are sometimes frustrated by the number of tests that schools are giving. Over the years, many school districts piled on lots of extra tests -- many of them not so good --for a variety of purposes. The answer to that problem, though, is not to throw out the best tests we have ever had -- the new Common Core Tests like PARCC (Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) and Smarter Balanced -- but to demand that school districts stop requiring excessive numbers of other, lower-quality assessments. 
We also understand why some parents are tempted just to opt their children out of the assessments. But all of our experience tells us that is a dangerous road to travel, for kids who aren’t tested simply don’t matter to schools nearly as much as those who are.
In the Asbury Park Press, Sen. Joe Kyrillos explains the benefits of PARCC testing 
 Not only does PARCC indicate to parents and teachers which concepts their students have mastered or are still struggling to grasp, it also allows them to compare their results to peers across the state and the nation. PARCC gives teachers and administrators detailed, timely reports on each student to help them determine how to improve instruction. 
Despite these benefits, a vocal group is encouraging parents to opt out of the PARCC tests and pushing the state Legislature to impose a moratorium on the use of PARCC scores…It is natural to worry about changes that affect our children, but we have been integrating these bipartisan-supported standards and tests for four years, better than other states. I understand that those concerned with PARCC may have the best interests of their children at heart, but opting out or any other movement against PARCC risks leaving students behind their peers and unprepared to lead us all into the future.
From the Wall St. Journal: "Anti-testing groups have campaigned aggressively on social media, and the New Jersey Education Association unleashed radio and television advertisements last week saying high-stakes testing spurs too much test preparation, drains resources and exhausts children.
'The NJEA is spending a lot of money to try to get students to opt out,' Mr. Hespe said in an interview. 'We are worried.'"

 NJ Advance Media held  a testing forum to “dispel a few myths” about the PARCC test. NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer agreed that the tests were “no-stakes” for schoolchildren but he remains concerned because "We've been giving standardized tests for decades, but all of a sudden everything is new now.”

The Star Ledger reports  on a new website to answer questions about the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exams. "Best Foot Forward NJ, which launched Monday, addresses many of the common concerns about PARCC. Unlike the New Jersey Education Association ad campaign against PARCC that debuted last week, the website focuses on how to best support students as they take PARCC tests."

The Times of Trenton’s Editorial Board compares N.J.’s PARCC roll-out to Obamacare – “an epic fail” -- but says that “no testing system is perfect, and PARCC has its problems, but it should be given a chance.”

And, now, back to our regularly scheduled program:

John Mooney traces the arc of the “bouncing ball of Christie’s position on Common Core, which had his full support at least until 2013 but has evolved into a far more critical position as Christie has traveled the country and faced Republican voters in gearing up for his likely bid for the party’s nomination for the presidency.”

Cami Anderson was reappointed as Superintendent of Newark Public Schools. See NJ Spotlight and the Star-Ledger.

Parents of Mastery Schools in Camden presented a petition with over 1,000 names to Paymon Rouhanifard on Tuesday pleading for expansion. See the Courier-Post and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Gov. Christie says the media misunderstood his message when he said during his budget speech that he had reached an historic accord with NJEA regarding pension reform. From the Asbury Park Press: "Christie said it's not his fault if people got the impression the NJEA had caved and agreed to givebacks. He blamed the media for butchering his message, though NJEA leaders who attended the speech Tuesday blasted the Republican governor for jumping the gun, saying there are negotiations but no deal." Also see the Star Ledger, NJ Spotlight, and The Record.

The Trentonian tries to drill down on two budget gaps in Trenton. One is within the district where there’s a $19 million budget gap and the other, up to $80 million, is in unremitted payments allegedly due from the municipality to the school district:
According to numbers provided Wednesday by the Trenton teachers union, the city shorted the school district a total of $80.2 million from the local tax levy over the past six years. With the district currently facing a $19-million budget shortfall, the figures show the city paid $21.1 million of the required $36.1 million in taxes this year, a difference of nearly $15 million. 
“These figures don’t lie,” Janice Williams, Trenton Education Association’s grievance chair, said Wednesday at the union’s headquarters. “They haven’t been paying their fair share.”
The State released school aid numbers, which are mostly flat. See NJ Spotlight, Asbury Park Press, and NJ Herald for details and databases.

Friday, February 27, 2015

We Raise New Jersey Announces New Coalition Members

We Raise New Jersey, an organization committed to help parents raise student achievement (and counter some of the distortions promulgated by anti-testing lobbyists) just announced that two new members have joined the coalition: The Garden State Coalition of Schools (an association of about 100 school districts) and the N.J. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, a group that supports N.J.’s students, teachers, and administrators.

Other members of the coalition include New Jersey PTA, N.J. Association of School Administrators, N.J. Council of County Colleges, N.J. Chamber of Commerce, JerseyCan, N.J. Principals and Supervisors Association, and N.J. School Boards Association.

From the press release:
"We want to create a real dialogue across the state about the role standardized testing should play in our schools,” said Debbie Tyrrell, president of the New Jersey PTA. “Schools and parents should talk about the ways they are helping children transition to the new assessments.”  
“New Jersey is a national leader in education,” said David C. Hespe, New Jersey’s Commissioner of Education. “I commend the education and community leaders of the coalition for reinforcing our commitment to providing students with the best possible education using the best available resources.” 
Earlier this week, We Raise NJ launched Best Foot Forward to address the growing number of questions from parents about the PARCC assessments and to help parents make informed decisions about how to best support their children during testing season.  In addition to the resources on the website, the initiative features weekly text messages, a blog and a brief video, which provide parents important information during testing season.

Here's additional coverage from NJ Spotlight.

Parent Empowerment Drives Camden Education Reform

(Note: a modified version of this post appears at WHYY Newsworks.)

On Tuesday evening, just before the start of the Camden City Public Schools board meeting, fifty Camden parents handed Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard a stack of petitions signed by over 1,000 families requesting an expansion of Mastery Charter Schools. Mary Jane Timbe, a Camden mother of four, declared, “we want more Mastery schools. We want our kids to be able to from kindergarten to 12th grade and then on to college.”  Sherell Sharp, parent of a 5th grade Mastery North Camden School student, explained to Rouhanifard that “for my daughter, Mastery means that she hops out of bed and is ready to go to school [and] that’s after years of her hating school. That’s a blessing.”

Last Wednesday, just across the river, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission (PSRC) voted to turn down thirty-four out of thirty-nine charter school applications, including some from highly-regarded charter operators like Mastery and KIPP that already have solid records of success in Philadelphia. One PSRC member, Marjorie Neff, voted “no” on every single application to resounding applause from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

What explains the collaborative public school environment in Camden, one that empowers parents to coalesce around efforts to expand educational options for their children? Chalk it up to a combination of fair school funding, well-conceived legislation, and synergetic leadership.

First things first: money. Camden Public Schools is a beneficiary of New Jersey’s historic Abbott decisions. By order of the State Supreme Court (and, later, through the School Funding Reform Act) N.J. has established a progressive school aid formula that provides compensatory funding for poor urban schoolchildren. This year Camden’s cost per pupil was about $25,000. Philadelphia’s public school students, equally needy, eke out instructional and supplemental services at about $15,000 per pupil; this austerity breeds acrimony and short-circuits collaborative efforts.

While Philadelphia parents’ desire for better schools are cramped by the politically-driven PSRC, Camden families (and, technically, those in Trenton and Newark) benefit from a 2012 state law called the Urban Hope Act (UHA), which NJEA described as “an innovative effort to improve educational outcomes for children in some of our most challenging educational settings” and “a creative expansion of public school choice that uses public funds to support public education.” (Full disclosure: NJEA reneged on their support for an amended version of the bill when Gov. Christie vetoed a line that would grant generous early retirement packages for Camden teachers.)

UHA permits the creation of hybrid charter/public schools known as “renaissance schools,” per approval of the Camden School Board. While Camden already had a charter school sector before the enactment of UHA, the bill has fostered more options for families desperate for high-quality seats. Mastery opened under the auspices of UHA, as did KIPP and Uncommon Schools. (Another disclosure: one of my kids used to teach at a Mastery school in Philly.)

Currently, Mastery’s North Camden Elementary serves 300 kindergarten-fifth graders, temporarily located at Pyne Poynt Middle School, and 100 kindergarten-second graders, temporarily located at Cramer Hill Elementary. (Mastery will break ground next week on its own building, as required under UHA.) Approximately 18% of students have disabilities, 10% are English Language Learners, and almost all are economically-disadvantaged. Next year, North Camden Elementary will add sixth grade and Cramer Hill Elementary will add third grade, but that’s it for the parents and children who treasure, as one parent put it, “great seats for every child.”

Thus, the petition presented to Superintendent Rouhanifard, which reads in part, “I want Mastery to create more schools so more children in Camden can go to high-quality, safe, neighborhood Renaissance schools from K-12.”

PSRC meetings are raucous events. Last week’s charter vote in Philadelphia, reports CBS News, “was frequently disrupted by protesters opposed to new charters, four of which were arrested.”

While Camden has certainly had some heated school board debates, the petition delivery on Tuesday was marked by collegiality. Rouhanifard warmly welcomed the parents (here’s a video clip), who comprise part of a new grassroots campaign called BEST, or “Building Excellent Schools Together.” Mastery’s expansion would require school board approval and, if necessary, an amendment to extend the Urban Hope Act’s summer deadline for new applications.

Ms. Sharpe said it best: “A Rutgers professor posed the question, ‘how much power do residents have in this process?’ Well, here we are. This is your answer. We have reached out, we have gone door to door in North Camden, East Camden, and Cramer Hill and more than 1,000 families and growing have stepped forward and said let’s do what it takes to have great schools for every child.”

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

QOD: N.J. School Boards Opposes Assembly's Anti-PARCC Bill

From NJSBA's Legislative Update, which cites the Association's testimony against A-4190 because the bill could "jeopardize federal funding," "frustrat[e]" tenure reform efforts, and "eliminate a tool to help students."
On Monday, Feb. 23, the state Assembly passed  A-4190, which would establish a three-year moratorium on the use of PARCC scores for students and educators.
The legislation eliminates the use of the PARCC test as a component of any evaluation rubric that the school district would use to assess the effectiveness of teachers and adminstrators for three years beginning in the 2015-2016 school year. It would also ban the use of the PARCC assessment for purposes of student placement in a gifted and talented program, placement in another program or intervention, grade promotion, as the state graduation proficiency test, any other school or district-level decision that affects students.     
NJSBA Testimony NJSBA opposed the bill, testifying at an Assembly Education Committee hearing on Feb. 12 that the bill could jeopardize federal funding for the state, that would eliminate a tool to help students and local decision-makers, and that it frustrates ongoing tenure reforms. 
“As written, the bill's language would immediately put the state and local districts out of compliance with the federal ESEA waiver, which could jeopardize over $300 million in federal funding,” noted the NJSBA testimony. “New Jersey’s ESEA waiver requires a statewide assessment as part of overall measurement of student groups for purposes of determining need for intervention and/or corrective action. The ESEA waiver, which the Legislature supported in 2010 through the passage of ACR-127 and SCR-102, specifically requires the state to provide an annual assessment that districts are permitted to use as a tool for determining the need for intervention and corrective action within student groups, or entire schools.  A-4190 frustrates those purposes.”

NJEA Staff Salaries Highest in the Nation

While we're on the topic of labor union benefits, Mike Antonucci at EIA is “in possession of” staff salary figures from NEA affiliates, which are usually closely-guarded secrets. As a public service, he’s released some information from the internal survey that NEA collects each year. The survey doesn’t include salary and benefits for union presidents, vice presidents, treasurers, union executives, or managers.  Antonucci notes that “the data are divided into two categories: professional staff (UniServ directors, communications, etc.) and support staff (secretaries, administrative assistants, etc.).”

New Jersey, once again, leads the pack:
The highest professional staff salaries belong to the New Jersey Education Association, which average$100,018. Connecticut professional staffers come in second at $93,115, and California is third with $92,010. Bringing up the rear is South Carolina at $42,091. At $50,764, NEA-Alaska had the highest paid support staffers. Professional staffers of the California Teachers Association are at the top in total compensation, thanks to a retirement plan that contributes almost $20,000 per employee per year. CTA’s UniServ directors average $135,434 in salary plus benefits, one of 18 state affiliates in which the professional staff compensation package reaches six figures. 
Average salaries can fluctuate wildly from year to year, especially in small affiliates, when highly paid experienced staffers retire and are replaced by lower-paid new employees. Fortunately, the NEA survey also provides average salary data for the last 10 years, which allows for some leveling out of these spikes. The highest average professional salary increase last year came from the Virginia Education Association. UniServ directors there made $68,660, an 18.5 percent increase from 1999. Professionals saw double-digit average pay hikes in Texas, North Carolina and Nevada. The Nevada State Education Association also had the largest average pay increase since 1991– 66.0 percent. Support staffers in North Carolina saw a 27.1 percent average pay raise last year, while Delaware, California and New Hampshire also saw double-digit increases. Since 1991, Nevada support staffers have seen their average pay more than double — a 100.4 percent increase to $35,328.

Christie Celebrates "Historic Agreement" with NJEA; NJEA says "Not"

Gov. Christie gave his budget address yesterday afternoon and the big news was what he described as a “historic agreement” with NJEA  intended to  alleviate New Jersey’s enormous pension system debt, which John Reitmeyer of NJ Spotlight estimates as “between $37 billion and $83 billion depending on which accounting method is used.”

With all the featured players – Christie and  NJEA leaders as well as gubernatorial hopefuls Steve Sweeney (Senate President) and Steve Fulop (Jersey City  mayor) -- currently jockeying for power positions, it’s hard to know exactly what transpired behind closed doors. But it’s pretty clear that NJEA did engage in discussions with a study commission tasked with coming up with solutions for N.J.’s pension crisis and that other labor unions were not notified of these negotiations. (Here's the study commission's report entitled "A Roadmap to Resolution.")

The “agreement" touted by Christie, which NJEA disputed yesterday after the speech, is based on a series of reforms that includes freezing all state pensions and  creating a new cash-balanced hybrid defined contribution plan. From PolitickerNJ: "Among the plan’s specifics are to freeze existing pension plans, aligning future public employee retirement benefits with private-sector levels, and transfer the assets, liabilities and risks of the existing pension and new retirement plans to employee entities willing and able to assume this obligation.”

The plan would also affect public employees’ generous health plan benefits. From the Star-Ledger:
Public employers pay, on average, 95 percent of an employee's health care expenses, while the average employee pays 18 percent of premium costs. Benefits would be reduced, with the employer paying 80 percent of expenses and the average employee contribution to their premium increasing to 25 percent. Retirees would receive the lower level of coverage without having to kick in more… 
The alternatives to its recommendations, the commission cautioned, are extreme tax increases: it would take raising the sales tax from 7 percent to 10 percent or increasing the income tax by 29 percent to generate $3.6 billion a year. 
Even with a "millionaire's tax" charging the state's 16,000 richest an extra $50,000, on average, the state would still need to raise income taxes 23 percent. Funding the $3.6 billion entirely on the backs of millionaires would cost each an additional $228,000 a year, according to the report.
The study commission also recommended that local school districts take responsibility for employee retirement benefits, which would presumably be rendered net-neutral (or close) by district savings on health care costs.

John Mooney at Spotlight sums up the other education proposals mentioned in Christie’s speech:
For schools, there was, indeed, not much else new to report in the governor’s proposed budget, which called for no overall change in direct state aid to school districts, making it the third year of nominal or no changes in so-called “formula aid” to schools. The actual aid numbers for each district are to be released later this week. 
Elsewhere in the budget, there were some small increases or decreases, including $3 million in additional aid to preschool program and a $3 million allocation for inter-district school choice. There was a $2 million cut in aid for charter school start-ups, and $4 reduction million to nonpublic schools. 
In his only real initiative, Christie did revive his proposal for a relatively modest, $2 million school-voucher program that would use tax credits to raise money for “scholarships” to enable low-income students to attend private schools or public schools outside their communities. 
It’s one of the most contentious and longest-running education issues in the state. And, with its long-shot odds for winning approval in the Democrat-controlled Legislature, it warranted just a line in the governor’s budget address.
But the real news, of course, was Christie’s celebration of the pact with NJEA. Charles Stile of The Record notes, "Despite the post-speech quibbling over semantics, the fact that these bitter foes are even talking — albeit through intermediaries — represents a seismic shift in Trenton. It reflects a new political reality. Christie needs the union. And the union needs Christie."

Other union leaders were appalled.  Spotlight reports  that “the leader of a firefighters union said the NJEA should be ‘ashamed for allowing Gov. Christie to slash the terms of retirement their members have earned'” and Hetty Rosenstein of the Communications Workers of America “said the state pension payments affirmed by the court on Monday need to be honored.”

NJEA  President Steinhauer battled back with this statement:
“We have not agreed to any changes to pensions or health benefits. We have only agreed to continue looking at all solutions that may provide our members with more stable pensions and affordable, high-quality health benefits. The solutions proposed by the commission are complex, and they will require a much greater commitment from the state than has been shown in recent years. For this process to succeed, all parties will have to conduct themselves with the utmost honesty and clarity in order to build trust and allow real solutions to emerge.” 
For further analyses, besides the ones linked above, see Samantha Marcus and Tom Moran of the Star-Ledger. A.P. at Newsworks, Michael Symons at Asbury Park Press, and Jill Colvin and Geoff Mulvihill at the Courier-Post.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Big Happenings in Camden This Evening

According to a press release from Mastery Schools of Camden, this evening at 5:15, just prior to the city School Board meeting, over 50 families will present a petition to Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard asking for more school choice – specifically, more Mastery seats – for Camden children. The petition currently has more than 850 names.

From the press release:

Prior to the Camden City School District board meeting, more than 50 Camden families will present Camden Schools Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard with a stack of petitions signed by over 850 families - primarily from North Camden, East Camden and Cramer Hill - calling for more great public neighborhood schools.  The families signed the petition because they believe every child in Camden deserves a great education, and believe that part of what will make that possible is for Mastery to be afforded the opportunity to create more great public neighborhood schools. Mastery parents and students will also publicly testify about their experiences this year at Mastery's two Camden schools - how their children are learning, safe and excited about school as well as how teachers communicate with parents and support and challenge their children.

Over 850 Camden families have joined Mastery’s BEST (“Building Excellent Schools Together”) campaign calling for more high quality public school options for all kids.  These families represent a growing number of families from communities throughout Camden who are calling on the Superintendent and the School Board to move faster and more boldly to create more excellent public neighborhood schools, through the Renaissance initiative.