Friday, February 27, 2009

James Watson on Dumb Science Teachers and Corrupt Unions

James Watson, Nobel Prize-winning geneticist, lets loose on the poor quality of science teachers in the latest issue of Scientific American:

But Watson said he believes there is a larger hole in the U.S. educational system that is sapping our lead in science. "Part of the problem is too many of our teachers are dumb," he said, balking that "Teachers' unions are corrupt." He said that the relatively low pay educators receive has prompted smart people to flee teaching for other careers— although he made a point of noting that he does not support giving them raises. Teachers like the "bright woman that taught me Latin are nowhere near our schools [now]," he crowed.

Watson continued to insist that educators are "not as bright" as they once were, before moderator and former TV reporter Garrick Utley politely cut him off. Despite being silenced, Watson continued to mutter snippily, prompting the audience to roar with laughter.

One of Those Jersey Lake Wobegons

CentralJersey reports that teachers in Montgomery Township are lobbying the local school board to bring in a budget at the 4% allowed by cap.

Why? Apparently town residents came to the last board meeting to plead for tax relief, but the teachers are concerned that not stretching to cap will limit their compensation. Montgomery Township Education Association President Chris Crow justified going to cap by explaining that,

the association’s teachers are willing to work hard, citing their attendance rating as the highest in the area. ”I’m urging the board, for the sake of the community, to seek the full 4 percent increase,” he said.

Montgomery Township Public Schools in Somerset County is a member of the most exclusive club in New Jersey, having achieved a DFG of “J.” This means that their District Factor Group, or socio-economic level, places them among the richest districts in the state. Rated by New Jersey Monthly as the 16th highest-achieving school in the State, with test scores to die for, even their kids with disabilities are gifted.

Really. First of all, only 8.8% of their high school kids have I.E.P.’s, which is low. And, while the state average of kids with disabilities who fail the Language Arts portion of the HSPA is 47.6%, at Montgomery High it’s only 15.9%. Across the state, kids with disabilities failed the math portion of the most recent HSPA 65.8% of the time. But in Montgomery? Only 36.4% of special needs kids failed.

And the non-disabled kids? Get ready to grovel. Here’s the data.

Another factor stands out as remarkable in this town: they don’t spend very much money on their kids, at least according to the NJ State Report Cards. While the average total cost per pupil in NJ for 2007-2008 was $14,359, the average in Montgomery was $12,142. That’s $2,217 less per kid and about 14% less than your average Jersey public school.

It’s no great shock that money doesn’t equal educational success, and this is an unfair basis for comparison. There are no numbers available on the number of Montgomery students who go to fancy preschools, or have all sorts of cultural and intellectual enrichments in their lives, but one can certainly make an educated guess that it's most or all of them. And it doesn’t cost an exorbitant amount of money to provide a rigorous curriculum for them.

It’s when you get into more deprived backgrounds that the dollars add up for ESL classes, support services, higher rates of disability and behavioral problems. And, as most of the Abbott districts have proven, generous funding reaches a point of diminishing return.

Our state is structured so that we are peppered with exclusive enclaves – like Montgomery – where the needs are entirely different (less) than other districts, Yet the current intersection of politics and policy in New Jersey has put us on a trajectory to provide a cookie-cutter approach to education, all in the name of equity.

Montgomery probably doesn’t care, aside from the extra paperwork. In fact, if the State data is correct, they could spend more per pupil and still be rated “thorough and efficient.” It’s the districts in the middle who care, the ones who aren’t Abbotts and have a higher needs population. The Montgomerys of New Jersey get away with the occasionally silly board meeting.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Ravitch on Obama and Charters

Diane Ravitch, Education historian, Research Professor of Education at New York University, senior fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford and the Brookings Institute, offers her view of Obama's support for charter schools (courtesy of Politico):

President Obama's enthusiasm for charter schools is baffling. Doesn't he realize that they are a deregulation strategy much beloved by Republicans? Deregulation works brilliantly for some schools as it does for some firms. But it produces many losers too. If he thinks that deregulation is the cure for American education, I have some AIG stock I'd like to sell him.

Davy Gets Off-Track

Education Commissioner Lucille Davy continues to argue for school consolidation this week during an interview with Asbury Park Press editorial board. You’ve got to give her points for consistency: in spite of a plethora of challenges from NJSBA (see here), NJEA, members of the State Assembly and other assorted local officials who have much power at stake, she is standing firm as the DOE and Corzine try to rein in our troubled school system. From the Asbury Park Press report:

State Education Commissioner Lucille E. Davy believes that consolidation of school districts to create kindergarten-to-12th-grade districts would provide students with a more organized, broader educational experience than the current system, which includes elementary-only and high school-only districts.

She’s right, though the most compelling argument has less to do with the quality of education than the standardization of education in New Jersey. Why? Because Davy and Corzine know that the current Abbott funding formula is unsustainable, given the growth of poverty in districts outside of the anointed 31, and the only way to fairly apportion extra aid has to be student-driven instead of district-driven (the philosophy behind the State Funding Reform Act). And the only way to funnel extra money to individual students is to have system-wide curricula, system-wide cost-per-pupil, system-wide graduation requirements.

It’s a great idea if you live in a lower-performing, less wealthy district (not a direct correlation, but it’s a least an indirect one) and a terrible idea if you live in a high-performing rich district.

But then her comments get a bit sketchy as she segues into accountability regulations and accuses local districts of “poor judgment.” Really, guys, how many times can we use the examples of the Keansburg superintendent who walked about with $740K (in an Abbott district, by the way, that was under State oversight) and the Freehold Regional Board who happened to think that doctorates are earned with a postage stamp and a check? Bad jobs on the part of the State and the two school boards, but hardly an indictment of the governance of all the 614 other districts. Yet Davy jumps right in:

"We're leaving a lot less to chance for local boards," Davy said. But, it is unfortunate that these "stewards of local taxpayer dollars" had not been more vigilant, she said.

"I really think professional adults should know for themselves that, when they're going to give you a doctorate for (very little money), that something isn't quite right," she said.

It's a cheap and gratuitous shot. Most school boards do a good job and, anyway, their performance is beside the point in the argument for consolidation. We have to muster the will, and the State has to muster the muscle, to consolidate and standardize our schools because it’s the right thing to do. We have a State where the educational disparity among districts is a gaping chasm. It’s bad for kids. That's the argument.

NJEA: Having it Both Ways

North Jersey gives the NJEA's boiler-plate response to Obama's call for performance-based pay for teachers:

Steve Baker, a spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, said the union would want to see details but generally opposes merit programs that are tied to standardized test scores or competition for a limited amount of funding.

"Anything that puts teachers in competition with each other … [is] problematic. It takes away from the cooperative effort you like to see in a classroom," he said.
Let's see...teachers are professionals, and should be paid like professionals. But we can't adjust pay to performance, like professionals. Maybe the NJEA needs some remediation courses in logic.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

SFRA Update

Star-Ledger columnist Bob Braun updates us on the State Funding Reform Act hearings, which should finish up this week. Justice Peter Doyne gets to decide whether Corzine’s move to eliminate the Abbott districts in favor of a supplemental funding formula passes muster with the State Constitution. The Supreme Court’s Abbott decisions send money to 31 specially-designated poor urban districts, and the SFRA would send money to poor kids regardless of what city they live in. Braun writes,

Those who run urban districts know that, once the Abbott designation is gone, the Supreme Court leaves the field, at least for a while, and those systems and the kids they serve lose their edge and face what other districts now face: A Legislature that doesn't fully fund its schools, no matter what the formula. Even in good times.

In other words, our school funding formula is broken and, whatever Judge Doyne decides, it will still be broken – that is, if we define brokenness as educational inequity. The SFRA is only a piece of Corzine’s fix: the rest is consolidation of school districts, standardized curricula, and efficiency formulas. It’s a recipe for school district similitude that’s anathema to New Jersey’s culture of home rule, which is why everyone is kicking up such a fuss. State standards, financial and academic, dumb down wealthy districts and raise up poor districts, and New Jersey can't square that with our devotion to local power.

Obama On Education Reform

Here's the education nut of Obama's address last night:

But we know that our schools don’t just need more resources. They need more reform. That is why this budget creates new incentives for teacher performance; pathways for advancement, and rewards for success. We’ll invest in innovative programs that are already helping schools meet high standards and close achievement gaps. And we will expand our commitment to charter schools.

Sounds like he's still standing firm on merit pay and charter schools.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Good Read

Kalman Hettleman, former Commissioner on the Baltimore City School Board, has a piece in the Washington Post called "5 Myths About Education Reform." Here's the first one to whet your appetite:

1. We know how to fix public schools; we just lack the political will to finish the job.

Wrong. For the past 25 years, K-12 education has been at or near the top of most politicians' domestic agendas. Candidates vie to become the "education" president, governor or mayor. The public cries out for better schools and is even willing to pay higher taxes to get them.

There is no shortage of strategies for education reform, either. The most famous (or infamous) is the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), with its federal mandates for rigorous student testing. School districts across the country have been flooded with other initiatives, too. Conservatives generally advocate breaking up teacher unions and privatization, while liberals call for more money, less testing and greater teacher autonomy. But nothing has succeeded. In 2006, experts at the Harvard-based Public Education Leadership Project concluded that all these efforts, including NCLB, "have failed to produce a single high-performing urban school system."

Musical Chairs in Willingboro

What happens when a school gets flagged enough times by the NCLB watchdogs to merit the dreaded sanction “Implement Restructuring Plan?” It’s happening in Willingboro Public Schools in Burlington County where the Board of Education there last week approved a reshuffling of administrators in front of 200 residents. New Superintendent Thomas McMahon explained that the State DOE requires him to implement an “action plan” to try to jumpstart academic growth – a sanction that drops once a school is in the its 5th year of a School in Need of Improvement (SINI). Now, technically the kids stuck in the failing school should have had an earlier sanction imposed on the district, school choice, which would have allowed them to transfer to another school in the district. But we’re in New Jersey where, due to our 616 districts, there is rarely another school in the district.

We've taken previous looks at Willingboro Public Schools because it’s a useful example of a school district that often suffers by comparison with its richer neighbors and doesn’t get any of the State assistance available to Abbott districts. So how are they doing this year? While a few of their elementary schools made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), the other schools flunked. AYP requires that 79% of high school kids pass the HSPA in Language Arts and 64% pass the HSPA in math. However, at Willingboro High 72% passed Language Arts and only 36.6% passed the math test. Across the State in 2007-2998, 89.2% of kids graduated by passing the HSPA; in Willingboro 48.4% graduated through the HSPA. The New Jersey average for kids who took AP courses in high school was 18.3%; in Willingboro a paltry 2.4% took AP courses. New Jersey Monthly rated Willingboro High as 247h in a ranking of 316 high schools.

So the clock ticks on NCLB, sanctions are imposed, and it’s musical chairs among administrators: principals moved from one building to another, or made curriculum supervisors, or curriculum supervisors turned into principals. (You can’t bring in new people because they all have tenure.) To wit, courtesy of the Burlington County Times,

■ Memorial Assistant Principal Sonya Nock was appointed acting principal.
■ Theodore Boler, principal of Levitt Middle School, will become district-wide supervisor of special projects and work with Ellerbe.
■ Dumar Burgess, assistant principal at Levitt Middle School, will become acting principal of Hawthorne Elementary School.

■ Hawthorne Principal Nadine Tribett will become district supervisor of curriculum and instruction for kindergarten through grade five.

■ Walter Poroszok, the district's supervisor of No Child Left Behind and grants, will become the district's supervisor of curriculum and instruction for grades six through 12.

■ Stuart Elementary School Principal Brita Woodard will become district supervisor of science for grades kindergarten through grade 12.

■ Jade Yezzi, the district's kindergarten through grade five math supervisor, will become the acting principal of Stuart Elementary in March. Until that time, Howard Colvin will serve as interim principal.

■ Tiffany Godfrey will become the district's director of technology at a salary of $88,000.

■ Carrie Sterrs will become the grants writer and community education specialist at a salary of $48,500.

■ Ellis Brown, a 10-month assistant principal at the high school, will become a 12-month employee

It’s anyone’s guess whether this reshuffling will help the kids, who play their own game of musical chairs with Willingboro’s 43% mobility rate. Is it money? The average cost per pupil in New Jersey for 2007-2008 was $14,359 and Willingboro’s per pupil cost is slightly below that at $13,892. Probably not. Is it mismanagement? Maybe. The State District Auditor found that in 2005 Willingboro ended the year with a $5.9 million general fund deficit that was due to approval of a budget that was “grossly insufficient” and contained “certain inappropriate transactions.” The population continues to decrease, with about 500 fewer pupils this year, so it's more difficult to increase services.

Meanwhile, down the road plenty of kids attend excellent schools with competent administrators and higher academic achievement. NCLB is a pretty weak ticket when school choice is a meaningless option because there’s only one high school in Willingboro. What would happen if the children attending schools in the 5th year of SINI got a ticket out and could attend another high school in a neighboring district? The old canards – it’s too hard to work out a fair cost appropriation, transportation, whatever – seem to pale before a chance to give these kids a fair shot.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Paging Bill Murray

We’ve occasionally looked across the Delaware River to see how our neighbors in Pennsylvania are faring with Governor Rendell’s aggressive attempts at consolidating their 511 school districts. Now, in another echo of New Jersey’s educational politics, there is a battle within the Pennsylvania State Legislature over whether to require high school graduates to pass a number of new competency tests. State Senator Jane Orie, often critical of Rendell, is sponsoring a bill that would stop all work on the new tests because she says that the math, English, science, and social studies assessments will cost at least $45 million.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that, while most educators welcome the new standards, the Pennsylvania State Educators Association, the largest teacher union in the State, opposes them:

PSEA stands in opposition to this proposal or any other that seeks to implement yet another high-stakes test for our students, said Jerry Oleksiak, a PSEA official. There are too many unanswered questions for the commonwealth to move forward and implement a policy that will have wide-ranging social, economic and educational impacts.

And another nay-sayer, a local principal from Bentleyville, must have breakfasted on our side of the river.

He expressed concern that the tests would discourage students who are poor test-takers or non-traditional learners, leading to a higher drop out rate.
He also said that the tests would further erode local control.

Remember the movie “Groundhog Day?”

All these criticisms are true: state-issued high standards will discourage non-traditional learners, lead to higher drop-out rates, and erode local control. But what's an acceptable alternative?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Sunday Leftovers

NJSBA Gets Gob-Smacked:

Princeton School Board member Joshua Leinsdorf blasts NJSBA as a money-gobbling lobbying group that stymies minority involvement. He writes in the Trenton Times,

There are problems with the School Boards Association other than its racially biased voting structure, such as its failure to follow its own bylaws when it suits the leadership, and the lack of a secret ballot in delegate assembly votes. So, there can be no real reform of the New Jersey schools nor progress in closing the achievement gap without the reform, or preferably, the abolition of the New Jersey School Boards Association. That would save taxpayers $7 million a year right off the bat.

Ocean County Thinks Creatively:

The Asbury Park Press reports that a group representing the potential consolidation of school districts in Island Heights, Seaside Heights, Seaside Park, and Toms River Regional has come up with a possible solution to the wet blanket that drapes itself over all potential consolidations: new allocation of costs.
Recently, it was revealed that as part of the proposal, the Toms River district would take in students in seventh through 12th grades who would normally attend school in the Central Regional School District at no cost to either the parents of those students or the municipalities of Seaside Heights, Seaside Park and Island Heights.
The plan to avert moldy blankets (in the form of taxpayers voting “no”) includes a special purpose State grant of an additional $1 million in funding. Nice to see some proaction on this front, instead of the usual hand-wringing and prognostications of doom.

Ed Rendell as Don Quixote:

Here’s an interesting take on the challenges of school consolidation from the Philadelphia Inquirer. A profile of tiny Morrisville, a town in Pennsylvania right over the river from Trenton, the piece reveals some of the obstacles: home rule love, fear of falling property values (from Morrisville’s neighbors), fear of change:

As for (Governor Ed) Rendell's bold proposal to forcibly squeeze 500 districts across the commonwealth into 100?

Some say the governor is tilting at educational windmills…

Class Size? Fuggedaboudit:

From yesterday’s New York Times, the question of whether small reductions and increases in class size make any difference. Short answer: no. The most important factor is a good teacher, not the number of kids he or she has to teach.

But while state legislatures for decades have passed laws — and provided millions of dollars — to cap the size of classes, some academic researchers and education leaders say that small reductions in the number of students in a room often have little effect on their performance.

AFT Prez Talks Sense:

Randi Weingarten makes the case for national standards in the Washington Post. Listen:

Should fate, as determined by a student's Zip code, dictate how much algebra he or she is taught? Such a system isn't practical: Modern American society is highly mobile. And it's just not right -- every child attending U.S. public schools should be taught to high standards, regardless of where he or she lives.

Hmm. She could be talking about New Jersey.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Davy Smack-Down

This month’s “School Leader," NJSBA’s bimonthly magazine, mostly comprises a special section called “Regionalization: New Jersey Takes Another Look at Combining Districts.” First, Commissioner Lucille Davy makes the case for moving ahead with the consolidation of school districts. And then, wham: most of the leadership of NJSBA submits her to a slapfest.

Well, it’s not so much an assault as a polite and politic undermining of every argument she makes in favor of regionalization, from whether or not it saves money, to whether or not communities will approve merges, to whether or not it has educational advantages, to how the unions will react. But somehow you can’t help imagining the skinny nerd with the taped-together glasses getting shoved into a locker by the top jocks in the cool clique.

There’s also a partial transcript from the NJSBA November Delegate Assembly, which included a panel discussion on school district regionalization. See our post here regarding that raucous event.

Here’s a few highlights:

Davy’s earnest defense for consolidating school district includes a dab of valium: settle down, guys, she counsels: the list of objections to Corzine and the DOE’s plans are just “myths and misperceptions.” It’s better to regionalize because it facilities curricular consistency, expands options for small districts, and centralizes administration but not facilities.

Then Frank Belluscio, head spokesman for NJSBA, lands the first punch, walking us through the failed history of attempted consolidation in New Jersey since 1969:
In fact, with the possible exception of the Kean Administration (1982-1989), every governor since Brendan Byrne (1974-1981) has promoted some type of regionalization initiative. In the end though, these state-produced recommendations, which usually contained an element of forced regionalization, went nowhere—as have most locally initiated regionalization discussions.
He takes another jab with an extended explanation of how NJ’s education costs are really very low (uh, really? We’re the second highest nationwide – maybe he doubled up on his valium) and how consolidation would actually raise costs. In large part this would happen because NJ Administrative Code mandates that in the event of a consolidation the larger collective bargaining unit’s contract would prevail and the assumption is that the salaries are higher in a larger group.

Curt Wary, Directors of NJSBA Labor Relations, takes over and goes into more detail about higher teacher costs:

If seniority entitlements result in a regional district having a more senior work force, this may present both financial and labor relations complications. For example, a new regional district could incur a greater overall salary cost, as a result of more advanced placement of senior staff on the salary guide, and possible entitlement to longevity payments. Boards may also find that a senior staff is more resistant to changes in terms and conditions of employment, such as managed health care plans, professional development requirements, salary guide restructuring, and limitations on payment for unused sick leave.

(Hmmm. We’re not talking about lowering class size, so we won’t necessarily decrease the number of teachers. Oof! Just got sucker-punched.)

Then Michael Kaaelber, NJSBA’s Director of Legal and Policy Services, jumps in, discussing the apportionment of board seats on a regionalized board and, more importantly, cost apportionment among districts. He concludes pessimistically,

It would appear that for the immediate future, the executive county superintendents will continue to encourage school districts to explore regionalization. Given the impediments of cost allocation with winners and losers, the political power of seat apportionment on the regional board of education and New Jersey’s long standing tradition of home rule, the prospect of voluntary regionalization on a large scale is unlikely.

Now you have to step back and size up this scene: under the pretense of politeness, comity, and shared purpose, the trade group representing the officials of the to-be-consolidated districts destroys the State’s argument for its most reform-minded initiative. New Jersey’s history of failing over and over again to create economies of scale in schools is daunting enough. And while Corzine and the DOE have found a few allies among the Legislature (Shirley Turner comes to mind), their failure/carelessness to bring the major lobbying groups on board for a reform that depends on community approval seems, well, a bit masochistic.

Logic dictates that the only way to create a more equitable school system is to standardize curricula and get our municipal madness down to a sane size. For the former, the DOE’s made a valiant effort but is already forfeiting major points by pushing too hard and too fast. (See post directly below this one.) For the latter, it’s looking pretty dim, at least according to the New Jersey School Boards Association.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Redesigning High School Redesign

The Star-Ledger reports today that the DOE granted “preliminary approval” to their own plan to increase graduation requirements for the state’s high schools. (Boy, must have been a grueling debate.) You can see from our earlier post here that they’ve back off some: algebra 2 is not on the list of required courses, nor is chemistry, though kids will still have to pass some version of chemistry, environmental science, or physics, and also take a third-year math course “drawing on different disciplines.”

It’s a slightly watered-down version of the High School Redesign Steering Committee’s original recommendations, which came under fire from the Education Law Center (who argued that the increased rigor would increase the drop-out rate among poor urban kids) and the Vo-Tech schools (who argued that the increase in graduation requirements would stymie their kids’ success by limiting the time available for vocational programs.)

The Star-Ledger adds,

There has long been acknowledgement that New Jersey schools produce some of the nation's brightest scholars. But the spectrum is broad. In support of the changes, education officials have trotted out embarrassing statistics showing nearly half the students entering some four-year public colleges here and even more entering community college require remedial training.

It's all part of Corzine's attempt to standardize curricula across the State in order to diminish the differences among our 616 districts. The DOE had to make the requirements rigorous in order to satisfy high-achieving districts who already offer algebra 2 and chemistry, not to mention calculus and AP physics. The problem is that erasing differences is not as easy as approving your own recommendation. A wave of the Governor's wand won't turn Camden into Short Hills.

Here's the piece from the Asbury Park Press, which gets into the opposition to the mandate. According to the Press,

A group of urban parents protested the plan, saying that more needs to be done to be sure teachers are trained and schools are properly equipped. In an open letter to the state board, they asked that the board insist on a plan that "won't punish our youth for our school systems' failures.

And Stan Karp, of the Education Law Center, reiterated:

The plan imposes new mandates but does little to help schools reach them.

Here's the pickle we're in: our high school graduation requirements are too lax for our high-achieving districts but changes make the requirements unduly rigorous for some of our kids who don't have the educational advantages often inherent in wealth, like classy preschools and enriched cultural opportunities. This conundrum is not unique to New Jersey. But if the DOE and Corzine are to make any progress in their attempts to consolidate school districts and lower property taxes, they have to have a paper trail that proves that you can go to school in a neighboring township and still get the educational advantages of your home school. This is the agenda of High School Redesign, and the compromises announced today must be a bit disheartening to proponents of regionalization.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

School Board Games

Joe Albright of Jersey Journal wonders aloud whether Senate President Dick Codey is “running out the clock” on legislation that would move school board elections from April to November. Codey has scheduled only two voting sessions, February 23d and March 16th.

Comments Albright,
Lawmakers, who often talk about "participatory democracy" and reducing local costs, should embrace the April to November switch.

The New Jersey Education Association consistently opposes November elections. The union's critics claim the union and its allies exert undue influence on the outcome of the elections in April.

Your Federal Tax Dollars at Work

My Central Jersey reports that a group of 13 teachers and administrators from Edison used a $897,500 federal grant to travel to India for 12 days to learn how to jumpstart a new course in Hindi at the two district high schools. Maybe the kids in Edison can plan for careers in providing stateside tech support for computer-challenged Indians.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Teacher Pay Palaver

The lead article in the Star-Ledger today says that the economic recession is slightly influencing teacher contract talks, but not without some blowback by the NJEA. According to NJSBA, the average salary increase in New Jersey for the 2004-2005 school year was 4.69%, but for contracts negotiated since October the average is 4.4%. Statistical aberration or trend?

NJEA says the economy should have no impact on teacher salaries. According to the Star-Ledger, NJEA spokeswoman Christy Kanaby argued,

You need to maintain those salaries that they have worked so hard to achieve. When the economy was good and plenty of money was coming in to districts, nobody was coming to teachers and saying, 'You deserve a double-digit increase.' I'm not sure why people expect teachers to take a step backwards.

But everyone’s aware of the fall-out from the recent settlement in Roxbury. “Roxbury Teachers Get Nearly 20% Raise,” railed the Associated Press. “Roxbury is out step with teacher pay hike,” rabble-roused the Star-Ledger. “Teacher Pay Increase Recession-Proof,” raged the Daily Record. “Teachers in Roxbury Township are getting raises at a time when many private sector employees have had their salaries frozen,” ruminated Newsday. You get the idea.

So, NJEA claims that the “tough economic times” argument is gratuitous. But the vast majority of the public thinks otherwise. (Yeah, we know it’s the Mainstream Media, but check out the voluminous public comments appended to some of these links.) Does public perception matter? Will arbitrators care?

The Daily Record piece concludes,

Change can only come about if a district is courageous enough to challenge the system. Let a district refuse to budge from its 2 percent offer and let the negotiating process in all its steps be carried out. And when the district inevitably loses, let it go to court and challenge the system. That's the only way to bring about a negotiating session that considers such external factors as the general economy and the state's high property taxes.

So, are we mad enough that we won't take it any more? Does the NJEA have any concerns about public perception? Are board members worried about reelection if they are on record approving out-of-sync pay hikes? The State Legislature has taken on all sorts of obscure school management issues; will they bite on this one?

It's the NJEA, Stupid

The Beacon, a weekly paper in Lambertville (Hunterdon County), praises two local school districts for freezing administrators’ salaries for the coming year. Lambertville Public School and West Amwell Elementary School share a superintendent and a business administrator. What’s that save them? $10K? Hey, it’s real money.

At any rate, the editorial, perhaps inadvertently, gets to the real point of this new trend (yes, it’s a trend) of freezing the salaries of top administrators, often at their own behest and over (muted) polite protests from the board members.:

If the economy and the finances of the State of New Jersey continue to be concerns, schools — state aid or not — might have to find less expensive ways to do a good job of educating children.

It’s not about the paltry numbers generated by an administrative salary freeze. It’s the precedent it sets for the NJEA and its local chapters. In other words, if the head honcho forgoes a salary increase in order to accrue money for educational services that would otherwise be cut in a wretched economy, should his minions also make a sacrifice?

“But of course!” say local school boards.

“Au contraire,” bespeaks NJEA.

It’s a battle that will be played out on the stage of all contract negotiations in the foreseeable future. Freezing administrative salaries sets the scene.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Abbott vs. SFRA

The Asbury Park Press has a well-reasoned editorial today on why Corzine should reverse his preschool plans right now. This past Spring Corzine announced to great fanfare that the DOE would roll out mandates requiring school districts to provide full-day preschool to all low-income 3 and 4 year old children. This plan, in its original conception, had the State providing about $12,000 per child per year. As it has become clearer that the State won’t have the cash, many districts put their spreadsheets and job descriptions in the circular file, assuming that this was a plan to nowhere. Apparently some districts have more faith, like Marlboro Public Schools, which is still, according to the article,

considering plans to expand one of the schools in its K-8 district to accommodate the 19 preschool pupils it would be required to educate under a state mandate starting in the fall.

Why would Corzine be reluctant to state the obvious: that his plan to provide free preschool to all economically-disadvantaged children is DOA?

Because this plan is tied (in)directly to the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA), now in court being challenged by the Education Law Center, primary advocates for the Abbott districts.

Abbott districts provide free full-day preschools to all children because there’s lots of research showing that early childhood education helps close the achievement gap. Corzine’s main argument for SFRA is that there are many children who live outside of Abbott districts and don’t have access to services like full-day preschool. The SFRA is intended to provide extra money to all poor kids, regardless of address, and the preschool initiative is of the same cloth: poor kids get free preschool regardless of whether they happen to reside in an Abbott district.

If (when) Corzine announces that the preschool initiative is dead, as the editorial suggests he do immediately, he will be conceding that an alternative formula for equity other than Abbott has failed. This doesn’t mean that SFRA is kaput, but it will undermine the big-picture argument that the State has a viable plan for fairly balancing educational funding.

It's too bad, really. The Abbott decisions are anachronistic -- if all our poor kids once huddled in cities, they no longer do -- and the SFRA has some merit, its main failing being its reliance on the DOE to provide implementation when it has proved over and over that it's not up to the task.

On the other hand, preschoolers in Abbott districts will continue to receive services that their counterparts in poor-yet-non-Abbott districts don't get. Perhaps this will mollify their advocates to some extent as they continue to argue in court this week that poor children in Abbott districts deserve services that equally poor children don't.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sunday Leftovers

Prison Prep?:

Martin Perez, of the Latino Leadership Alliance of NJ, testifies on the connection between failing schools in cities like Newark and Camden, wasted money, and inevitable imprisonment:

New Jersey spends more per pupil on education than any other state in the nation, and within New Jersey urban districts spend more than any others: Newark at $25,000 per pupil; Camden at $30,000 per pupil. Yet these districts graduate an overwhelmingly disproportionate percentage of its students to prison, rather than higher education. The moral bankruptcy of a system that spends that kind of money, pretending to give Latino and Black children educational opportunities that are really nothing more than pipelines to prison and jail is a capital crime for which there is no sentence or prison.

Camden Decries SFRA:

Speaking of Camden, the Courier-Post reports that since 2000 the number of kids enrolled in Camden Public Schools has dropped by more than 15%. However, the district of about 15,000 children has been protected from any drop in aid because of the way Abbott schools are funded. If the SFRA passes muster in the courts and the State shifts from a model where we funnel money directly to poor kids instead of to pre-designated districts, Camden could see a drop in aid of $21,000,000 over three years. Said a representative from the Education Law Center,

"If any of (the budget) is cut, then the education opportunities for our kids are sacrificed," said Lauren Hill, the director of the Education Law Center's Camden Initiative. "The point is that we stand to lose if the (new formula) is held as the law of the land for district's like Camden who require additional support.

Watch Those Waivers!

Washington Township in Gloucester County is experiencing some budgeting problems. Last year the school district received permission from the State to go over their 4% cap, and now they’re stuck trying to squeeze a bloated belly into skinny jeans because you don't get to count those extras when calculating the cap for the following year. Reports the Gloucester County Times,

Between 2002 and 2008, the district added 241 employees to its books. Superintendent Cheryl Simone said the numbers seem inflated because many of the full-time positions were turned into part-time jobs with hourly pay and no benefits Ð resulting in a lower cost, but more bodies. About 80 percent of the budget is salaries and benefits.

Not to mention that school boards across the State are approving budget with gaping holes of information, like how much State aid they’re set to receive, or if they’re getting anything at all from the Federal stimulus package. Crystal balls are looking better and better.

Paul Mulshine a particularly reductive mood:

The Abbott construction plan came because of a 1998 order by the state Supreme Court in the never-ending Abbott school-spending case. Our ultraliberal Supreme Court ordered the state to pick up the entire cost of building new schools in 31 "special-needs" school districts that had special needs mainly because they were mismanaged by urban Democratic machine politicians.

Get Your Tickets Here!:

And Eduwonk is running a contest to rename NCLB. Get your suggestions in now! Entries include "No Child Left Untested," "The Act of Contrition," and "Could we Start Again Please Act."

Friday, February 13, 2009

Elizabethean Manners

The Star-Ledger reports that a group of enraged parents have filed a court injunction against the Elizabeth Board of Education for limiting their public comment during public board meetings.

The Board passed a resolution last month that requires residents who wish to speak at Board meetings to sign in beforehand. The resolution also limits speaking time for residents to three minutes and gives the Board President the right to cut off comments for a variety of reasons.

Bad move, Elizabeth Board of Ed. Occasionally disrespectful and/or angry residents are part of the process, and a well-run Board should be able to handle a little dirt without getting their knickers in a twist. Lighten up, let the public speak, and exercise control through discerning use of parliamentary procedure. The Board’s wimpiness is a symptom of a larger problem, and they need to spend some time on a real diagnosis rather than downing some tylenol.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Stale Doughnuts

The Star-Ledger reports on a bill making its way through the Assembly that would force N.J.’s dozen “doughnut” municipalities to merge. Doughnuts are small towns completely encapsulated by larger towns; for example, the borough of Metuchen is surrounded by the city of Edison and Princeton Borough is the hole in the doughnut of Princeton Township. Reed Gusciora, who is sponsoring the measure, thinks it would reduce costs through shared services, though the Ledger says the proposal went over “like a stale muffin,” which we guess is slightly less palatable than a dunkin munchkin. Continues the Ledger,

Assemblyman Michael Carroll (R-Morris), a member of the committee, said the state's municipal map might look different if communities were being designed from scratch. But he said Gusciora's proposal would be tough to sell in a state with 566 municipalities and a long tradition of home rule.

"You simply can't ignore 200 years of history," he said.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Trenton Conundrum

As Governor Corzine and Lucille Davy continue to woo the court to replace the Abbott rulings with the new School Funding Reform Act, the Trenton Times has a piece today on one of our 31 Abbott districts, Trenton. The Times reports that because the State has frozen Trenton’s aid to last year’s number -- $222,000,000 – the Board of Education there is planning various staffing and programming cuts to make up the difference.

While Trenton has applied for some supplemental aid, local board members and Superintendent Rodney Lofton commented that the extra cash could come at too high a premium – more control by the DOE. Board Vice President Alex Brown said,
It's really an intrusion, potentially, into the total operations of the district. We have to work out whether it's really in our best interest to go through that process.

There’s an irony here, as Trenton is subject to an enormous amount of intrusion as it is. The primary tool for the DOE’s oversight is QSAC (Quality Single Accountability Continuum --who comes up with these names?) a mind-numbing catalogue of checklists that every district must provide. However, the final reports can be insightful. Here’s a sampling from Trenton’s:

Regarding the question, what is the most urgent need of the district:

At the forefront is the lack of rigorous, coherent curriculum, instruction and assessment practices in grades K-12.

At the secondary level, the 2006-2007 NJ School Report Card indicates a trend of improvement from middle school through high school in Language Arts scores, resulting in improved proficiency percentages. However, mathematics scores continued to decrease in proficiency percentages as students advance through the grades. Of particular note is the shortage of Highly Qualified math and science teachers at the secondary level.

A sampling of the 2006-2007 elementary NJ ASK scores in the district indicates that as students moved from grade 3 to 4 (2005-2006, 2006-2007), the proficiency percentages remained about the same in Language Arts, but greatly decreased in Mathematics. During analysis of the State data, in addition to the lack of a rigorous, cohesive curriculum, stakeholders also identified low expectations for students, the lack of rigorous formative and summative assessments, an inconsistent grading system, and lack of professional learning opportunities for staff in corresponding areas, including socio-cultural issues, equity issues, and data analysis. Also raised was the need to establish practices and programs to meet the needs of different, non-traditional learners, in addition to our culturally diverse learners (DPR I/P A7-A13).

You can see it for yourself here; the district posts the report right on their website, which is great.

But it sure is depressing. The schools are gang-ridden, the teachers aren’t teaching, there’s no curriculum to speak of, and the whole system seems to be marked by a culture of failure. Will replacing the Abbott designation with the SFRA help? Doesn’t seem likely. How about a merit pay system that substantially rewards successful teachers? How about bonuses for simply teaching there? How about pushing more forcefully for charter schools?

Trenton Central High is in its 5th year as a School In Need of Improvement (SINI). According to No Child Left Behind, this sad status entitles the kids there to public school choice and supplemental services, and the school itself must plan for “restructuring,” which means that they can either convert the place to a charter school, fire the administrative staff, or meet the requirements for substantive change. But public school choice is not a meaningful option in Trenton – what, the kids will move over to Daylight/Twilight High which is also in its 5th year of SINI and 84.8% of its kids failed the math HSPA ?

Too bad they can’t move across the district line and go to school in Hamilton or Ewing or Princeton.

The Abbott system of administering make-it-fair money has failed in Trenton. The SFRA won't make it better. But that's not what's at stake in the Bergen County Courthouse today.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Michelle Rhee Pushes On

Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of the D.C. Public Schools and enemy of the tenured educator, makes nice to teachers in today's Washington Post:
I often speak of our district's performance data with sadness and outrage. The situation for our city's children is dire. Yet while I acknowledge the seriousness of the work we face, I want to be clear about something: I do not blame teachers for the low achievement levels.
Her offer to the D.C. union -- to create a new compensation plan that offers either standard pay and job security or big money and no tenure -- has created quite a stir. Here's the union's counter-proposal.


This past Friday New Jersey School Boards Association hosted a conference in conjunction with the Policy Research Institute for the Region at Princeton University called "The E in Thorough and Efficient: How we can insure Efficiency in Spending School Tax Dollars.” The main topic was consolidation of school districts and included a panel discussion with Ernest Reock, professor emeritus from Rutgers University, Assemblyman Joseph Cryan, chairman of the education committee, Michael Ritacco, superintendent of the Toms River School District and Gerald Vernotica, assistant commissioner for field services at the state Education Department.

So, what’s the consensus on the value of consolidation? According to the Trenton Times, NJSBA spokesman Frank Belluscio said,

School district consolidation is not the cure-all for high property taxes that some claim.

Then again, the audience included board members from Princeton, one of whom thought the conclusions reached were "brilliant, absolutely brilliant." We guess Princeton is not eager to consolidate services with neighboring districts like Trenton.

Abbott Reality Check

The State is arguing today at the Bergen County Courthouse that its new SFRA should replace the Abbott decisions as the funding mechanism that provides educational equity in New Jersey. (Here's the Star-Ledger article today.) Seems like a good time to review some of the core issues that got us to this point.

Thirty-one school districts in New Jersey were labeled Abbott districts in 1997 by the State Supreme Court as a kind of grand social experiment: take the most educationally bereft areas in a State that funds public schools through local property taxes, and replace the local funding with State aid so that those districts receive at least as much money as the wealthiest districts. Not as much money as the average district (as other states do), but the wealthiest. This decision came after sixteen years of litigation (the first Abbott case was filed in early 1981 by the Education Law Center) and the ELC and the State have basically been in court ever since. A few of the Abbott districts have had great success, many others have not. So, has the experiment worked?

No, not really. Over two years ago, the New York Times reported,

Today, the Abbott districts serve 286,500 children in kindergarten through 12th grade — about 21 percent of the state’s students — but get $4.2 billion a year in state aid, slightly more than half of all the state money given to New Jersey’s 616 school districts. The Abbotts are among the highest-spending school districts in the state, averaging $14,038 per student compared with $10,509 statewide. The vast majority of districts that fall between richest and poorest say they are increasingly bearing the burden of the Abbotts’ getting so much of the money.

The numbers are now more inflated. The average spending on a child in an Abbott district was $16,407 for the 2007-2008 school year, 24% more than the average cost per pupil in the rest of the State.

It’s not the number themselves that are troubling (okay, they are too). The troubling part is that there are many children in New Jersey who don’t live in Abbott districts yet experience as great or greater degrees of educational deprivation. What are we doing about those kids? Tell them all to move to Camden? On the other side of the coin, there are districts that are labeled as Abbott that are, well, not so Abbott-y any more. Hoboken comes to mind.

The logic inherent in Abbott dictates that we reevaluate all our districts, identify the poorest, and send State aid their way so that their kids get the same money as kids in Short Hills. If we did that we’d go broke, and everyone knows that. But we’re stuck in some sort of 1970’s time warp where educational deficiencies can be reduced to race and urban residence. It’s more complicated than that, at least in New Jersey. Here’s a quote from a recent ELC press release on Abbott versus SFRA:

Noted civil rights attorney Lawrence S. Lustberg of the Gibbons law firm in Newark, co-counsel to the school children in the Abbott case, issued the following statement on the State’s motion:

"On behalf of New Jersey's poor urban schoolchildren, we are strongly opposing the State's extraordinary request to get out from under its long-established obligation to continue implementing the Abbott remedies. The State has fallen far short of making the required showing that those remedies are not needed or are ineffective. To the contrary, the evidence shows that the remedies are having a positive effect on urban schools and their students, and that the need for them continues. It would be contrary to the law and harmful to the children if the State's motion is granted."

If we want to continue to fund poor kids at the same rate as our wealthiest kids, then we’ve got to find a different way to identify them. The Abbott designations are no longer meaningful. (Where we’ll find the money is a different issue.) And if we’re going to fund poor kids like rich kids, the State’s got to control how much municipalities are allowed to spend on their rich kids, which is provoking much panic from the landed gentry. From the Star-Ledger article:

Richard Snyder, who represents 40 wealthier, high-performing districts in a group called Dollar$ & Sense, said his members have their own concerns with the funding formula. He said the new formula will force them to spend less than they deem appropriate to provide the best education.

"The state wants to resolve its funding problems by having the suburban districts dumb down their programs," said Snyder, a board of education member in Ramsey, Bergen County.

If one were a conspiracy theorist, one could conjecture that all the new mandates, all the efficiency standards, and all the new high school graduation requirements are a scheme to equalize our school districts so that all the kids get the same cookie-cutter set of educational services. That’s the great fear of groups like Dollar$ and Sense. But what else can we do except go broke perpetuating the myth that all our kids get a fair share of the pie or, according to the Abbott logic, get the biggest piece of the pie? The math just doesn’t work.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Overturning Abbott

This morning lawyers will gather in Superior Court Judge Peter Doyne’s courtroom for three weeks of testimony regarding the constitutionality of Corzine’s School Funding Reform Act (SFRA). Last year Corzine convinced the State Legislature to abandon the way we channel vast amounts of money to 31 poor urban districts – the Abbotts – in favor of giving extra money to poor kids regardless of where they live in New Jersey. The new funding formula was challenged in court by the Education Law Center and has now wound up back in court. There’s much at stake, including whether we continue to privilege poor urban children over poor non-urban children.

The Star-Ledger reports,

Abandoning the legal designation of the Abbotts would take New Jersey in a whole new direction in a case that began a quarter century ago. The court has progressively increased supplemental funding to the districts and their 300,000 children, ordering state-funded full-day kindergarten and preschool, the repair or replacement of hundreds of decrepit, overcrowded buildings and enough operating costs to match the state's wealthiest communities.
Countless stories of corruption, waste, and mis-appropriated funds have become a staple of New Jersey newspapers. Reasonable doubts have been voiced about the DOE’s ability to implement a system whereby the money, in effect, would follow the (needy) child, especially since poor kids are more likely to move from district to district. But the logic behind the Abbott decisions – that the lagging academic achievement of poor urban kids can be ameliorated by funding their school districts at the level of our wealthiest districts – is flawed.

An editorial in the Star-Ledger points out,

Except for a handful of schools, New Jersey's Abbott school districts continue to lag solidly behind their peers in language arts and math. And Department of Education commissioner Lucille Davy said the results are a reminder of just how much work those mostly urban districts have ahead to narrow the gap.

Throwing money at the problem doesn’t work. We’ve proved that in New Jersey. What’s that definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

It’s easy to be glib. It’s a lot harder to find a way to provide education for our growing number of impoverished children who live in rural and suburban areas of New Jersey, not just 31 specifically-designated urban areas. The Education Law Center’s success in achieving fair funding for poor children through their advocacy of the Abbott decisions is admirable and honorable. But right now it’s an anachronism. Perhaps twenty years ago, when the Abbott v. Burke case was first litigated, it made sense to aim State aid squarely at those 31 districts. Right now, however, that aid, financial and otherwise, needs to be disseminated more strategically. Proliferation of the current Abbott financing is like aiming a fire hose at one small section of a forest fire. Yeah, you’ll quell the flames in a hot corner but everyone else gets burnt.

How About We Consolidate with Pennsylvania?

The concept of consolidating school districts in New Jersey seems to incite either enthusiasm or vitriol. The efficiency-obsessed policy wonks wax eloquent over potential reduction of costs and redundancy of services. The home rule aficionados bear testimony to the charm of small town governance and the State’s ineptitude to run anything, let alone public education. But we’re one of fifty states in the Union. How do other states resolve this issue?

Funny you should ask.

Right across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania, another state that loves its home rule – it has 501 school districts, not too far behind our 616 -- Governor Ed Rendell has announced plans to consolidate.

The Morning Star reports

If the measure goes through, it would be the first state-forced consolidation since 1962, when the number of school districts went from 1,900 to 600. It could reduce the number of districts to one or two per county -- Lehigh and Northampton counties together have 17.

''We just don't need that many school districts, and more importantly, in today's economy we cannot afford them,'' Rendell said in his budget address Wednesday before a joint session of the state House and Senate. He also proposed increasing basic education funding by an average 5.7 percent to an estimated $5.9 billion.

Rendell is not just tossing around numbers. In 2007 Standard and Poors did a study of school mergers for the Pennsylvania Legislative Budget and Finance Committee, looking at 88 districts with fewer than 3000 pupils. Continues the Star,

The study concluded that a merger between Weatherly and the nearby Jim Thorpe Area School District could save as much as $2.5 million a year, based on their 2004 spending levels. Pairing 34 districts could save $81 million, it said.

Of course, protest has come from predictable quarters: the Pennsylvania teachers union (PSEA), suburban districts, the state school board association. Just as in Jersey, residents and representatives of well-to-do towns are fighting to keep the status quo. The Bucks County Courier Times quotes a school board member from Pennsbury:

But my number one concern is the quality of education for Pennsbury students and the cost to taxpayers, especially as we approach some very, very difficult financial times.

Translation: I’m elected to protect the kids in my backyard and we’re doing just fine; what possible incentive could there be for us in Pennsbury to merge with lower-achieving districts?

The conversation in Pennsylvania, however, does seem a little more nuanced, and at least Rendell is willing to come right out and talk about it. (Note to Governor Corzine: don’t worry so much about offending NJEA.) Why don’t we take it a step further by consolidating services with PA and studying the question together? Sure, we’re different states, but the issues are largely similar. There’s a little efficiency for you.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Sunday Leftovers

More School Cuts:

With State revenues down substantially – 7% in most categories – Corzine is including mid-year cuts in his budget address on March 10th. The Star-Ledger reports that school aid will be cut by $75,000,000 and school boards are sweating as they brace themselves for atypical staff-layoffs, programming cuts, and professional development freezes.

Middletown Melodrama:

The Asbury Park Press reams out the Middletown Board of Education for reducing school board meetings to once a month because of “squabbling among board members.” After a barrage of public condemnation and the resignation of a board member in protest, the Board reinstated the extra meeting. Expect some board turnover in April.

Reality Check:

The Asbury Park Press addresses the sobering fact that poor kids struggle academically, regardless of where they go to school:
Data included in the state school report cards released Wednesday by the state Department of Education show that across the board, test scores improve in wealthier districts. But poor students do not show the same rate of progress. Almost a third of disadvantaged students who live in suburban districts still fail state tests, compared with less than 10 percent of all other students.

Vo-Tech Rules:

John Mooney, former education writer for the Star-Ledger and current education writer for the New York Times, looks at how some New Jersey public schools based on vo-tech models – like Communications High School, High Tech High School and Academy for Math, Science and Engineering – are outperforming our academic all-star schools like Princeton and Millburn.

What's That About Equity?

Chuck Wehrle, a Montvale borough councilman, decries any advantage to regionalizing school districts. In an editorial in NorthJersey on the Pascack Valley High School District, which takes kids from 4 surrounding towns, he explains how unfair it is for residents of Montvale, one of the feeders, to pay more per pupil because the value of its property is higher. He puts it succinctly:
Any school district knowing Montvale's experience would be insane to merge with another.

So, how do we make it fair? Just for argument's sake, let’s think of public education as a commodity. In fact, the DOE is pushing this type of model: assembly-line curricula, high school graduation requirements, efficiency standards. It’s all interchangeable, right? Wehrle’s argument is based on economics – school costs come from local property taxes so it’s not fair that Montvale pays more for the same commodity – and it’s a compelling argument. Why should wealthier residents pay more for the same product than poorer residents? Why should wealthy towns pay more for the same product than poorer towns? Why should wealthy towns have to share their superior/more expensive product with poorer neighbors? (Yeah, we know it's a commodity, but let's get real.) Until the State comes up with an acceptable answer, or at least gets a discussion going, we’re going to have a hard time finding fiscal economies in New Jersey’s bloated public school system .

Friday, February 6, 2009

Princeton Prefers Not To

As local school districts confront the DOE’s efficiency formulas which dictate how much we should be spending on everything from transportation to informational pamphlets, look to Princeton Regional School District as a harbinger of how elite schools will react.

At their school board meeting last week (here's a link to the online video), Superintendent Judy Wilson and Board President Alan Hegedus discussed their plans to “draw a line in the sand” if forced to reduce costs to conform to the State’s “median expenditure per student.” Hegedus recounted recent discussions with State Senator Shirley Turner and Assemblyman Reed Gusciora about “losing local control” which he finds “wholly unacceptable.” He also noted for the record that the Princeton School Board was willing to “challenge in court the constitutional right of the DOE” to mandate restrictions in local spending. Said Hegedus, “We haven’t spent decades getting to where we are without the expectation that that will continue.”

Why is this Mercer County district in such a blather? Easy: they want freedom from governmental interference in their wealthy and high-achieving school district, including the right to spend as much as they friggin’ want to on their kids. And they do. Princeton’s per/pupil cost is $18,110, well above the State average of $14,359. And they get what they pay for. For example, in Princeton High School, population 1306, the number of AP participants was 1315. (Obviously, lots of kids take more than 1 AP course.) Their AP results show that 863 kids got scores of 3 or more. 52.9% of high school students take AP courses and 83.4% go on to 4-year colleges. (DOE database here.)

Let’s look at another Mercer County district: East Windsor Regional, which is a nifty comparison since they spend $14,400 per pupil, just a tad above the State average. The 1416 kids at Hightstown High took a total of 317 AP courses and 173 scored 3 or higher, with a total AP participation rate of 15.9%. 50.3% of their graduates go on to a 4-year college.

Now, Princeton is a wealthier community, but not by much: they are rated as an I DFG (District Factor Group, a measure of the community’s socio-economic level) and East Windsor is a GH. So is the difference in achievement a product of the substantially greater resources that Princeton pours into its kids? Doesn’t the community have to right to decide to foot the bill? Or can the State create a platform of educational equity and legislate level playing fields?

By the way, just down Route 206 from Princeton is Trenton Central High, where there are 2475 kids of whom 7.2% take AP courses and 34.4% go on to 4-year colleges. But that’s a whole other story.

These kids all live within the same county. Should their residence within one municipality over another determine their education? Is our civic responsibility to provide public education limited to our street address or our state residence? If Princeton has its way, it will be left in the hands of the State Courts.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Salvaging the DOE

As the new data from the N.J. State Report Cards makes the rounds, the DOE is caught in the unenviable position of defending uneven test results from accusations of poor management. The Star-Ledger’s lede from today’s paper:

Gov. Jon Corzine's goal of raising standards in New Jersey high schools is getting off to a rocky start, with huge numbers of middle school students failing rigorous new tests designed to prepare them for the next level.
Broadly speaking, elementary and high school students did okay. But scores of middle school students tanked, in large part because the DOE changed the definition of “proficiency” at the last minute – in fact, the definition was changed after the kids had taken the test. Some wealthy districts did fine, but over 40% of all fifth and six graders failed.

Don Goncalves, assistant board of education secretary in Elizabeth, worried about demoralized students and teachers:
The state changed the rules in the middle of the game," he said. "We got lower scores when, in fact, there was progress in the classroom. It was a strange result.
Steve Wollmer, a spokesman for the NJEA, volunteered,
Any test where 40 percent of the kids are failing immediately has to be called into question. These kids did not suddenly lose the ability to communicate or compute.

The DOE is now stuck playing defense as various parts of its efforts to reform education in N.J. come under attack. One of the DOE’s grandest initiatives, mandating a rigorous curriculum across all high schools, has provoked a bill from the Legislature, A-3692, which would reassess the high school redesign next January because of concerns that it will cost too much and lead to increased drop-out rates. The mandate for universal preschool for economically-disadvantaged 3, 4, and 5 year-olds seems to be on a trajectory to oblivion because districts can’t afford $12,000 a child and the State can’t foot the bill either. The vast regulations unleashed by the DOE this past summer, fondly known as the Fiscal Accountability, Efficiency and Budgeting Procedures, are so error-ridden and poorly-conceived that Executive County Superintendents just invited administrators to submit lists of the regulations that not only don’t save money but actually increase costs. The new State Funding Formula for schools, intended to replace the Abbott decisions which require that we fund our poorest urban districts at the rate of our richest districts, is back in court. Corzine’s well-reasoned plan to force consolidation of school districts to lower property taxes and our high cost per pupil (we're second in the country, after New York State) is getting so watered-down that it needs a sump pump.

And now the beleaguered DOE is getting bitch-slapped by the formidable NJEA and various school officials for changing the testing rules in the middle of the game. Lucille Davy must feel like Job.

The question, then, is how the DOE can maintain its institutional authority amidst unmitigated assault? The goals are praiseworthy: bringing down costs, ameliorating tax burdens, and offering consistent and equitable public education. But the execution stinks. They've somehow managed to create adversaries of those they need as friends, and that's not a strategy for success.

November School Board Elections?

The Atlantic City Press makes the case for moving school board elections to November, in the context of the Senate State Government Committee's passage of a bill Monday that permits towns to schedule non-partisan elections to coincide with Election Day:

If only the educational bureaucracy felt the same enthusiasm these municipal officials do about moving school elections to November. But school boards and the teachers' union have been stubbornly opposed for years to a bill that would, similarly, move school elections from April to November. Save money? Increase voter participation? Not, apparently, if it shakes up a status quo that favors educational special interests. School elections generally draw - at best - about 15 percent of the electorate, which gives school employees and officials more power to influence the vote. The April vote costs about $5 million to $6 million in taxpayer money statewide.

Consolidation for Dummies

New Jersey School Boards Association has a handy cheat sheet available on potential consolidations of school districts. Though there is a slight bias towards the anti-consolidation front -- limited tax savings, higher payroll costs, the fact that there have been only 4 successful mergers since 1982 -- it's a useful primer.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Who's Partially Proficient?

The N.J. School Report Card data came out today and it's a bit sobering. We’re sure there'll be some punchy spin from Lucille Davy and D.O.E. soon enough, but right now we only have a few comments from newspapers and the stark reality of the numbers.

From the Star-Ledger:

New Jersey high school students did marginally worse last year on state tests designed to gauge proficiency, but middle school students facing a more rigorous test saw their passing rates fall dramatically, according to results released today
NorthJersey gives us a quick overview: high school scores were steady, elementary kids did a little better, and 5th –8th graders posted lower scores. The Asbury Park Press gives a few Southern Jersey notes and says to check back tomorrow.

Here's our first take.

Let’s look at some of the variables. First, the No Child Left Behind legislation, in its quest to make every kid in the U.S. achieve 100% proficiency in every subject by 2014, has periodic upticks in what is defined as “Adequate Yearly Progress.” This is one of those years. Therefore, for example, a high school in 2007 was deemed to make AYP if 79% of its 11th graders passed the state test in Language Arts, which in New Jersey is the HSPA. In 2008, AYP jumps to 85%. For math, 64% of 11th graders needed to pass the test. This year it’s 74%. (Here’s a link that takes you through the calculations.) Bottom line: more schools across the nation will fail to make AYP, more schools will be rated as Schools In Need of Improvement, more schools will be subject to sanctions.

Here’s another wrinkle. This past July the DOE raised the scores for “proficiency” in grades 5-8. Why? Embarrassment. Until that change, New Jersey considered a passing grade for those students to be anything higher than a score of 33%. That’s right – correctly answering 1/3 of the test questions garnered a passing grade. Now proficiency is defined as 50%. Bottom line: fifth through eighth graders get a double whammy because not only has the Federal government raised the bar for proficiency, but so has the State.

Back in October NJLB profiled two disparate schools within Burlington County: Moorestown High and Willingboro High. The contrast was alarming, as the kids from the much more impoverished school demonstrated dramatically lower achievement than a neighboring privileged population. There will more attention paid to 5th – 8th graders this year, so we revisited the two districts, 9 miles apart, to see how their upper elementary schools fared this year.

Let’s look at just a couple of data points from the new 2008 numbers. (All this info is available today on the DOE website.) In Moorestown Upper Elementary School, the number of 5th graders who failed the NJASK5 in Language Arts was 24%, and in math the number of kids who failed was 12.8%. In Grade 6, the number of kids who failed the NJASK6 in Language Arts was 27% and the number of kids who failed math was 12.2%.

Over at Willingboro Memorial Upper Elementary School, the number of 5th graders who failed the NJASK5 in Language Arts was 63.3% and in math the number of kids who failed was 36.7%. In Grade 6, the number of kids who failed NJASK6 in Language Arts was 67.1% and the number of kids who failed math was 47.2%.

In every case, the number of kids who failed to achieve proficiency in Willingboro was almost three times as high as the kids in Moorestown.

The scandal is not the number of kids who fail. The scandal is that New Jersey has two towns, 14 minutes apart, with dramatically different levels of achievement. We’re the ones who are not making adequate yearly progress, and we’re the ones who are failing the kids.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

High School Redesign Undermined

New Jersey’s High School Redesign Steering Committee recently issued a set of newly rigorous requirements for public school diplomas. This effort is part of Corzine and the DOE’s noble attempt to infuse some equity into the State’s segregated and unequal educational system, funded largely by local property taxes. (Hence, the inequity.) The Abbott decisions have proved largely unsuccessful in leveling the playing field with huge infusions of cash. So now we’re trying a rigorous, State-wide set of high school graduation requirements.

You’ve got to hand it to the DOE: it’s nothing if not ambitious. High schoolers will over the next few years be required to pass Algebra II, Biology, Chemistry, Economics, and even take personal finance and online courses. However, over the last week protest has sprung up among a diverse group that is questioning the “one size fits all” paradigm and, simply, the ability of our 600+ districts to mesh reality with the State’s idealism.

For example, last week Commissioner Lucille Davy found herself defending the Algebra II requirement to the Assembly Education Committee, who mustered the authority of Rutgers math professor Joseph Rosenstein of the New Jersey Math and Science Coalition. Said Dr. Rosenstein, according to the Asbury Park Press,

Most of our students don't need algebra II," said Rosenstein, who supports requiring more practical applied math courses.
And the new course in personal finance? Opponents range from NJEA, who say that the material can be incorporated into regular math courses and the Press of Atlantic City, who editorialized this weekend,

The state is in dire financial straits as well and can little afford to underwrite anything - although it's hoping the federal government will provide a bailout. The financial analysis of the bill provided by the Office of Legislative Services says that the state's costs to underwrite the pilot program depend on how schools implement it: If they hire new teachers, the cost would be as much as $400 per pupil; if they don't hire new teachers, the cost is negligible.

Meanwhile, the New Jersey Education Association says personal-finance lessons can be incorporated into existing course work in business, economics or math.

Now the New York Times reports that the requirement for an online course is causing some consternation among school officials because many of our high schools don’t have the technology to implement the new mandate. Frank Belluscio, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association, said cautiously,

There may be value to exposing students to this type of instruction. But it may not be such a critical part of high school redesign that we need to make it a requirement.

And Jim O’Neill, the Superintendent of Chatham Public Schools sounded wary. Reports the Times,

Still, Mr. O’Neill said that he does not support mandating online courses for every high school student right now because many school districts do not have the infrastructure to support such a requirement and state education officials have yet to address critical issues, including whether time spent in an online course should count toward school attendance or instruction time.

So three requirements of our redesigned high school curriculum have come under attack, or at least under question, within one week. (We’re not even touching the inevitable withdrawal of the preschool mandate.) Is it simply a resistance to change on the part of the establishment, the normal dragging of heels? Or has the DOE inadequately vetted the changes and miscalculated the financial liability of the new requirements? Or is it a show of strength from Trenton finally intent on changing the culture of home rule and standing up to local opposition? Stay tuned.

The Merger Macarena

As districts face the music generated by the DOE’s mandate on school consolidation, a predictable pattern is emerging: first, murmur agreeably about potential efficiencies and, two, cross your fingers and bow to home rule. For example, My Central Jersey reports that Somerset Hills and Bedminster are tiptoeing around the edges of consolidating some services. Bedminster, a K-8 district, already sends its high schoolers to Somerset Hills. The local paper editorializes,

The wretched economy and New Jersey's unrelenting tax problems have pushed the state to a kind of tipping point regarding school and municipal consolidations. It has long been acknowledged that a principal driver of the state's high property taxes is the existence of more than 560 municipalities and more than 600 individual school districts, which creates costly and widespread administrative redundancy, among other examples of wasteful spending.

But how do officials convince some of those towns and some of those districts to start voluntarily merging and — in theory, at least — save money?

The answer, it appears, is that they can't. "Home rule" sentiment, worries about a loss of services and quality, skepticism about the true potential savings — all play a role in public resistance to mergers. So too does a simple fear of change

Over in Franklin Township, The Gloucester County Times reports that the local Board of Education has decided to fund a feasibility study (cost: $35,000 - $47,000) over the next 6 months that will examine the benefits of merging Franklin, Elk, Delsea Regional, and Newfield school districts. But the murmurs are muted; even before the feasibility study is initiated, the parties involved are already expressing reluctance:

When the agreement was announced in December, Executive County Superintendent Mark Stanwood said he was disappointed that Franklin Township Board of Education acted without informing the other districts involved, because consolidation affects more than just Franklin.
Wanna place bets on the odds of either of these consolidations coming through? We need some new dance steps.

Monday, February 2, 2009

NJEA Fairy Tale

You’ve got to hand it to Michael Winerip of the New York Times. Once a hard-hitting reporter on beats like inner-city poverty – think Jonathan Kozol – over the last few years he’s been relegated to softer news as he now channels his inner Anna Quindlen: weepy articles about empty-nest syndrome, journal-like compositions on raising children, wistful memories.. Now he’s popping up in, of all places, the Sunday Styles section, right next to celebrity weddings and fashion pastiches. Journalism is tough.

But this week’s column in yesterday’s Times, right next to suggestions for Valentine’s Day presents (Small Stump’s Forever Cupcake, Marc Jacobs’ Love Story Clutch, love pillows by Maison de Vacances) is about the economic rewards of teaching, specifically in Rochester, New York. Here’s the lede from “Still Doing the Math, But for $100K a Year:”

THIS is a great economic time to be a veteran public schoolteacher. Valerie Huff, a math teacher at East High here, a tough urban school, made more than $102,000 last year.

Should all teachers move to Rochester? No need:

Nor is Rochester an aberration. Adam Urbanski, who is head of the teacher’s union here, estimates that 40 percent of school districts in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey pay as well as or better than his district.

Tack on stipends for teaching summer school and mentoring new teachers, explains Winerip, and these educators make anywhere from $120,000 to $130,000.

Hold it! Cognitive dissonance! We thought that teachers toiled in the infested rat holes of public education, counting pennies, hoarding pencils, bartending on weekends. Turns out that, once upon a time, we were right – but not any more. While once teachers were badly underpaid, now they’re doing just fine.

So why are contracts in New Jersey still coming in with 4% - 5% annual increases? NJEA’s mantra has always been that teachers are still playing catch-up, compensating for the years when, according to Winerip, salaries were $6,850 (1977) or $11,250 (1978). Isn’t that game over?

It should be. That’s an old song. Teachers make or break schools, and should be paid like the professionals they are. The point is that, finally, they are being paid appropriately. NJEA needs to stop singing that old musty tune or they might conjure up allusions to the fairy tale called “The Emperor’s New Clothes," with Winerip playing the part of the little boy who peels off the charade of the king's finery. Memo to NJEA: don't get caught with your pants down.