Thursday, February 11, 2016

Los Angeles Teacher Union Counting Votes on Whether to Raise Dues to Pay for "Ideological Activities"

The 32,000 members of the Los Angeles teachers union, UTLA, is counting member votes on whether to raise mandatory dues, which currently average about  $760 per teacher per year. Why is the union leadership pleading for more money? Because, reports the Los Angeles Times,
Union President Alex Caputo-Pearl said that the money will help combat a brand of reform that favors operating schools more like businesses — for example, by using metrics-based performance evaluations such as standardized test scores to rate teachers.
I’m confused. I thought the union’s argument in the Friedrichs lawsuit currently before the Supreme Court was that mandatory dues are not a violation of the First Amendment – in this case the right to personal views on political issues – but instead represent a member’s “fair share” of the costs related to collective bargaining.  But this plea for more money (UTLA pulled in $38.2 million in 2013) is for blatantly political activities like lobbying against charter school expansion, tenure reform, and sponsoring campaigns for pro-union school board candidates.

That seems above and beyond negotiating for salary increases.

A New York Times piece last month quoted the 1977 Supreme Court decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education.  Compulsory fees are constitutional , said Justice Potter Stewart, although  “to compel employees financially to support their collective-bargaining representative has an impact upon their First Amendment interest."Such interference as exists," however, "is constitutionally justified” to ensure “labor peace.”

But, Justice Potter added, what crossed a constitutional line was forcing objecting workers to pay for “ideological activities unrelated to collective bargaining.”

Hence my confusion. Isn’t anti-charter school lobbying an ideological activity unrelated to collective bargaining? Isn’t a dues-funded campaign against the use of student growth metrics in decisions about teacher tenure an ideological activity unrelated to collective bargaining?

Sure, one could argue that charter schools have the option of employing non-union teachers, which cuts down on UTLA’s (ever-decreasing) bottom line, which has an impact on its ability to fully man board-union salary negotiations. Or that data-driven teacher evaluations has an impact on job security. But aren’t we crossing the line delineated by Justice Stewart?

The Times piece starts with this anecdote:
Harlan Elrich is a high school teacher in California, and that means he must pay about $970 a year to a labor union. He teaches math, and he said the system did not add up. 
“I get to choose what movie I want to go see,” Mr. Elrich said. “I get to choose what church I want to go to. I get to choose what gym I want to join.” 
He should have the same choice, he said, about whether to support a union.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

In Camden, Renaissance Schools are Community Schools

One of the constant complaints from the anti-charter cadre is that independent schools decimate neighborhood schools, which sometimes serve as community centers. For example, here Marie Corfield, an ardent anti-choice blogger, interviews Keith Benson, a Camden Public Schools teacher who runs PR for the Camden Education Association and is a member of Save Our Schools-NJ. Benson says that if he were superintendent of Camden he would “put additional money into supplemental services…Make sure students are getting the counseling, the food, the extra support to help alleviate the blocks that make attending school difficult. More social services – a lot more social services, things that focus on the whole child – not just the student."

Makes sense, right?

Then Benson adds, “if we’re being really honest, this education ‘reform’ movement is not about helping students succeed, it’s about helping private corporations get access to public dollars.”

In other words, the expanding charter school sector in Camden is all about profit, not serving communities.

Perhaps Mr. Benson will reconsider, now that Camden Public Schools has announced  that the city’s hybrid charter/traditional “renaissance” schools have signed an agreement to build programs that include family programming, adult job training, financial literacy workshops, legal seminars, coat and food drives, health screenings, greater access to facilities for community events and sports, support services for needy residents, volunteer projects for neighborhoods, school-based resource centers that will provide computer access to all local residents, gym access, and cancer-screening. Also, KIPP, Mastery, and Camden Prep, the city’s renaissance school operators, will guarantee job interviews for open positions to all city residents. Here’s coverage from the Courier-Post and the Star-Ledger.

Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard said. "I appreciate the educators and the community leaders coming together to support these opportunities that will benefit students, families, and residents all over Camden."

Sounds like community schools to me.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

QOD: Graduation Rates Fall at Some of de Blasio's "Renewal Schools"

Graduation rates fell or stagnated last year at 10 of the low-performing city high schools targeted for “renewal” by Mayor de Blasio, data reveal. 
The city Department of Education has pumped millions of dollars into programs to turn around these academic laggards instead of shutting them down, which was the policy of the Bloomberg administration. 
But results show the graduation rate dropped at August Martin HS in Queens from 39.2 percent in the 2013-14 school year to 25.9 percent in the last school year, and at Lehman HS in The Bronx from 53.3 percent to 40.8 percent. 
The rate also plunged at the Bronx Leadership Institute from 42 percent to 28.6 percent, Education Department records show. Automotive HS in Brooklyn, which de Blasio visited last spring, saw its rate fall from 50.8 percent to 46.9 percent.
The New York Post adds that graduation rates did improve  by 2% at about two-thirds of the city's "Renewal Schools." The de Blasio Administration is spending $149 million over three years to save 94 long-failing schools from closure. The average graduation rate at the 34 Renewal high schools this past year was 54.5%.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Education Law Center and Diane Ravitch: Perfect Together

Education Law Center (ELC) is justifiably proud of what it describes as its "decades-long promote fair and equitable school funding and effective school reform." The litigation group has always worked with a simple formula: amply fund poor school districts and educational equity will follow. But over the last five years or so, that apolitical conviction has been supplanted by an uneqivocally political agenda. If there was any doubt about ELC's shrinking credibility, it's now touting its collaboration with Diane Ravitch's anti-reform organization called the Network for Public Education (NPE).

NPE just released its "50 State Report Card" that ranks each state by how rigorously it adheres to an anti-reform agenda. Ravitch writes,
[I]t is also important to identify states that have weakened public education—by seeking to privatize their schools or turn them into profit-making ventures, as well as states that have aggressively instituted a regime of high stakes testing that unfairly sorts, ranks and demoralizes students, educators and schools. Unlike other organizations such as The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst, whose report cards rank states in relation to their willingness to privatize public education and weaken the status of the teaching profession, we take another path. We give low marks to states that devalue public education, attack teachers and place high-stakes outcomes on standardized tests.
In other words, states get higher scores if they have laws that decouple student outcomes from teacher evaluations, restrict school choice, and eschew standards and assessments. Sounds like Ravitch to me. (Not one state got an overall grade higher than a "C," although Alabama got an "A" in the "no high-stakes testing" column. Too easy to unpack the irony so I'll restrain myself.)

Schools also score points for generous school funding, one aspect of NPE's agenda that I can get behind, as long as spending is partnered with accountability. Money should buy, well, something, particularly student growth. And what does NPE use for its  source for funding equity information?   Education Law Center, which just issued a press release (no link yet) that touts this: "the school finance portion of the [NPE] report relies on information in "Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card," by Bruce Baker, David Sciarra, and Danielle Farrie.

Sciarra is Executive Director of ELC and Farrie is its Research Director. Bruce Baker is a Rutgers professor allied with ELC's anti-reform tenets.

NPE is what it is: a lobbying organization with a clear and political agenda that privileges teachers' labor rights over students. But ELC is supposed to represent kids, who haven't been all that well-served by 25 years of Abbott funding  (named for the first plaintiff in the alphabetical list on the first brief,  Raymond Abbott).  One example: Asbury Park Public Schools, one of N.J.'s 31 Abbott districts, spends $28,893 per pupil. Last year 4% of Asbury Park High School students scored over 1550 on the three parts of the SAT's, a benchmark of college and career readiness.

Would Asbury Park families be better served by school choice or by entrapment in Asbury Park Public Schools? ELC doesn't care. It's all about the money, all about preserving a debunked theory of educational equity.

Back in 1990, N.J. Supreme Court Justice Robert Wilentz wrote in the second of what is now 21 Abbott rulings,
We note the convincing proofs in this record that funding alone will not achieve the constitutional mandate of an equal education in these poorer urban districts; that without educational reform, the money may accomplish nothing; and that in these districts, substantial, far-reaching change in education is absolutely essential to success. The proofs compellingly demonstrate that the traditional and prevailing educational programs in these poorer urban schools were not designed to meet and are not sufficiently addressing the pervasive array of problems that inhibit the education of poorer urban children. Unless a new approach is taken, these schools -- even if adequately funded --will not provide a thorough and efficient education.
The Judge has been proven right. Money without reform accomplishes nothing. NPE is free to disregard that fact. ELC is diminished by its dogmatism.

Brookings Institute School Choice Correcxtion

Last week the Brookings Institute issued the Education Choice and Competition Index, which ranks 100 school districts on the "ease with which parents can exercise the choices afforded to them, and the degree to which the choice system results in greater access to quality schools for students who would otherwise be
assigned to a low-performing public school based on their family’s place of residence."

One correction: the Index gives Camden Public Schools an "F," which signifies "that families have very little in the way of school choice other than the choice that parents can exercise by purchasing a residence within the geographical assignment zone of their preferred public school." The researchers may have missed that last Spring Camden implemented a universal enrollment system that allows parents to choose among traditional, charter, and hybrid renaissance schools.

Newark, with a similar system, got a "B+."  A notch above Newark on the Index is New Orleans, Denver, and New York City.

The "Time Loop" of Opposition to the Common Core

In today’s New York Times, Paul Krugman opines that the current GOP presidential contenders represent the “time loop party” who preen on debate podia and spout “canned talking points that are divorced from reality.” Krugman is referring to Saturday’s spectacle where Marco Rubio robotically chanted pre-packaged streams of verbiage. Also on his list are Republican rituals of calling votes to repeal ObamaCare,  describing tax cuts as a “universal economic elixir,” and absurd platforms on immigration.

Krugman could have GOP positions on the Common Core in his catalogue of “doctrines every Republican politician now needs to endorse, on pain of excommunication."  (John Kasich gets a pass on this.) At this point, opposing higher standards for K-12 students is about as divorced from reality as building a wall around Mexico.  Sure, it’s slow: for example, Carol Burris, avid anti-standards and accountability hawk and Diane Ravitch acolyte, continues to intone against the Common Core. So do the members of the Badass Teachers Association, who blindly snipe at this most recent step towards educational equity. But, as Leslie Brody reports today in the Wall Street Journal,
While political jousting has dominated much of the debate about the Common Core, a cadre of teachers are eager to advance what they see as a more powerful and consistent set of expectations. Some post their new lesson plans on Twitter and Facebook to spread the word.It’s happening. Teachers, parents, and school officials are experiencing the value of standards that teach critical thinking skills, rather than rote memorization. 
Brody writes,
East Moriches, a small, middle-income district about 75 miles east of New York City, switched to the Common Core early on. Superintendent Charles Russo, a vocal supporter, used to get hate mail, with some calling him an idiot for his stance. 
He believes the standards brought results, including the elementary school’s National Blue Ribbon Award in 2014. On tests for grades three through eight, the district outperformed the state last year, with 47% proficient in language arts, compared with 31% statewide. The district, though, has a lower share of at-risk students. 
The standards aim to be “fewer, clearer and deeper” than prior guidelines, to prod students to read passages closely to find evidence for their arguments and to use more technical and nonfiction texts than in the past, among other goals.
Raising expectations for all children comes with a core dilemma: how do we square commitment to college and career-ready standards with America’s long history of awarding high school diplomas based on attendance rather than proficiency? I don’t know the answer to that question.

But decrying meaningful and necessary educational course content for all children, as well as assessments that measure student growth, is its own “time loop,” as Krugman has it, “symbolic and substance free.” We deserve more than “empty suits” on educational issues and so do our kids.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Sunday Leftovers

N.J. PARCC analyses continue to trickle in. The Star-Ledger reports that  Millburn and Livingston (both on the list of rich white districts with  high opt-out rates) were top scorers among traditional schools in Essex County; Newark's North Star Academy and Robert Treat Academy were the top scorers among charter schools. Newark had about a dozen traditional schools where not a single student in a particular grade achieved proficiency in either language arts or math. Also see NJ Spotlight.

In a few schools in Newark and East Orange, the D.O.E. left out data because "the numbers were so low in some categories that people within the school might be able to figure out individual students' scores."

In Clifton, reports The Record, the Director of Instruction presented PARCC scores at the recent school board meeting. "They look rather low," she explained, "but when you compare this to how NJASK was scored, in order to obtain… the minimum proficiency in NJASK, a student only had to answer correctly approximately 50 percent of the questions.This places the PARCC scoring in line with how NJASK was scored."

In East Brunswick, the superintendent said that "higher-performing students did not participate in the testing so we didn't get the benefit of their elevated scores." The teacher union president there confirmed that those students were taking SAT's and reluctant to miss A.P. and Honor's classes.

At Pascack Valley Regional, another high-achieving district with high opt-out rates, Superintendent Erik Gundersen said that high school students had skipped the PARCC tests to instead prepare for the SATs and Advanced Placement tests. “In their mind, those tests are high stakes and do have meaning,”

And, from The Record,
PARCC refusals were highest in some of the more affluent and high-achieving districts in Bergen County. But officials there don’t expect a negative impact on graduation rates because their students have strong performances on other tests. 
“You have kids who are able to take these alternative assessments, like the PSAT and the SAT and all those other assessments,” said Ridgewood Schools Superintendent Daniel Fishbein. The students, he said, tend to “do well.”
But many are concerned about what will happen after 2019 when Common Core proficiency, measured by PARCC tests, will become a high school graduation requirement. Right now prospective high school graduates can substitute SAT's,  ACT's, Accuplacer, or the military eligibility test. Students are also eligible to use alternative portfolio assessments or, for special education students, whatever is specified in their Individualized Education Plans.

MyCentralJersey quotes Ed. Comm. David Hespe: “Now that we’re entering the second year of PARCC testing, educators and parents are seeing the benefits of PARCC, They see it’s the most effective assessment tool the state has ever had, and they see how it can help improve teaching and learning in ways that our old tests never could. And that’s precisely where the focus should be: Improving the education we provide to children.”

The Star Ledger Editorial Board nails it: "the PARCC boycott movement is misguided. We need national standards for achievement, and they are meaningless without an accurate test to measure them."

In other education news,

NJ Spotlight reports that "The administration announced the state’s graduation rate had risen to its highest level since a new method of counting started five years ago, with nearly 90 percent – 89.7 percent, to be precise – of students graduating in 2015."

The top graduation rates continue to be in the wealthiest school districts or at magnet schools that are either part of a county vocational system or part of larger school communities.
For example, more than 20 schools saw almost all of their students – more than 99 percent -- graduate in four years, in a list dominated by county magnet schools.
Also see the Star-Ledger, the Press of Atlantic City, and the Asbury Park Press,

Some young Newark students and their parents are piloting a new app called Bedtime Math  The grant is privately-funded. That's great news, and one of the ways in which traditional public districts use private funds.

Speaking of that false dichotomy of public/private, Millburn Public Schools hired a private P.R. firm to market its referendum.

The Star-Ledger explains how Superintendent Chris Cerf closed Newark's $65 million budget deficit.

Diane D'Amico of the Press of Atlantic City examines a looming issue that has already started to impede school board/union negotiations: the 2011 pension and health benefits reform law, which requires state workers to contribute more to health benefit premiums, officially sunsets on June 30th. The Legislature says that school boards must now hold the line, but NJEA begs to differ. At stake, D'Amico explains, is about $4 billion/year, or 18% of all state and local taxes paid for public education in N.J.

In a related story, the Press of Atlantic City OPRA'd  health insurance financials from Atlantic City Public Schools and found that last year the local district "paid 357 employees $5.2 million for opting out of its health insurance plan." Seems like a lot? Maybe not. "The annual premium cost for family coverage under the district's private plan is almost $37,000."