Thursday, April 30, 2009

Lonegan Solves N.J.'s Educational Ills

Republican gubernatorial candidate Steve Lonegan has some, er, interesting ideas about dealing with N.J.’s public education problems. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, he is proposing that the State give each district a per-pupil contribution, regardless of economic or educational needs. Districts who want to spend more would be free to do so through local taxes. Second, if students fail math or language tests two years in a row, they would get vouchers, presumably from the local district, so that they could attend a private, charter, or parochial school. However, the kids who fail for two years can only apply their vouchers to schools in their district. Not to worry: Lonegan is confident that “the private sector would open schools to take care of the need.”

Where to start? Let’s give Mr. Lonegan the benefit of the doubt and assume that he’s thoughtfully analyzed the repercussions of enacting a system that would grossly augment the disparities among school districts. Rich districts could decide, say, that they want to budget $25,000 per pupil, effectively limiting residence to those who can pay very high taxes. Can’t pay? Move out.

But let’s forget about the fact that N.J.’s public schools are already among the most segregated in the country. Do Lonegan and/or his advisors have any idea how many kids fail math and language tests two years in a row? Districts in N.J. are assigned District Factor Group classifications based on average income. A D.F.G. of “A” is the poorest, and “J” is the wealthiest. Take an average D.F.G. of, say, “DE” – sort of in the middle. Choose a district in that D.F.G., like Sayreville Boro in Middlesex County, a 6th-8th grade middle school. How many of their 427 6th graders failed the ASK 6 test? According to the D.O.E. data, 45.3% failed the Language Arts portion, and 24.8% failed the Math portion. (Actually, that’s fairly average for that D.F.G. across the State.) If those kids don’t do better on the ASK 7, then according to Lonegan’s grand plan, about 200 kids – from a middle school with a total population of 1,372 – would be eligible for vouchers.

What are their options? They can only use their vouchers for schools in their town. In Sayreville, the options are two Catholic schools – St. Stanislauskostka and Cardinal McCarrick – and a Goddard school, which doesn’t take anyone beyond kindergarten age. That leaves “the private sector,” according to Loneghan, which apparently would jump right up and create private schools and charter schools limited to non-Catholic Sayreville residents who fail 6th grade tests. (Note to Lonegan: public schools already pay tuition to charter schools.)

Sounds like this candidate needs to do a wee bit more homework…

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Abbott v. S.F.R.A. Update

The current hearings before the State Supreme Court on Abbott vs. S.F.R.A. pit Corzine and D.O.E. against the Education Law Center, the primary advocates for the 31 poor urban Abbott districts. Here’s Corzine, courtesy of The Record, on why his new funding formula is a winner:

The S.F.R.A. provides tax relief to over-taxed N.J. households and is “the right policy from the standpoint of our children and from the standpoint of the law” because it addresses “the needs of all students, regardless of where they live.”

And on the other side of the ring, here’s Stan Karp from E.L.C. on why the Court should preserve the Abbott decisions and distribute money based on zip code:

Perceived inefficiencies are no reason to take away funding in low-income districts. “The needs in Paterson [one of the Abbott districts] are really obvious. Waste and inefficiency is not a reason to take resources away. It’s a reason to have accountability.”
The simplistic reasoning on both sides is that the whole problem of the underachievement of poor kids boils down to the way we distribute extra money. Fix the distribution and the problem is solved, right?

Not really. Here’s a couple of other issues:

1) New Jersey can’t sustain its current level of spending on impoverished students, especially if we spread the extras to the other 49% of equally poor kids who don’t live in Abbott districts. No state in the Union could afford to spend close to $20,000 a kid on a public school education and remain solvent.

2) One of the reasons we spend so much is that we are duplicating numerous services and programs because we won’t give up local governance of schools.

3) Waste and inefficiency aside, all the extra programs and services aren’t working so well; academic achievement in Abbott districts is pretty abyssmal. (Side note: it’s not just Jersey, but everywhere. See today’s New York Times piece on the “stubbornly wide” achievement gap between white and minority students in spite of Former President Bush’s assertion that N.C.L.B. is helping.)

4) Educational progress, however, is tied directly to pedagogical skill. Our best teachers help kids learn, regardless of economic circumstances. The NJEA’s refusal to consider the benefits of linking teacher salaries to student growth – the most fundamental form of accountability – is an enormous obstacle in providing poor children with a fair shot.

The false dichotomy of Abbott vs. S.F.R.A. is a distraction from the larger problem of a fundamentally inefficient and inequitable education system in New Jersey. Our educational leaders, including Lucille Davy and the D.O.E. and the Education Law Center, need to acknowledge the flaws in the pretense that extra cash leads directly to extra academic achievement. The problem is far more complex and demands a measure of accountability, reform, and structural change that will take more analysis and creativity than a different way of writing checks.

At one point in the hearings, the following exchange took place, according to the Star-Ledger:

"The extreme poverty, racial isolation ... those conditions have not changed and in some cases are worse," David Sciarra of the Education Law Center in Newark said of the Abbott communities.

"The governmental purse is not inexhaustible," Justice Barry Albin said to Sciarra at one point in the hearing. "What do we do?"

One place to start would be to look beyond the cash.

Using Special Education Reforms as a Model

The Washington Post editorializes today on the confluence of two education stories. First, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing arguments today on Forest Grove v. T.A., which considers whether parents of children with disabilities have the right to enroll their child in private special ed schools at public expense without first trying out a public placement. Second, the agonies of the D.C. voucher program, the Opportunity Scholarship Program, which allows parents of poor kids to use public money to pay tuition at private schools. Says the Post,

Don't get us wrong. We're not arguing for the unilateral right of parents to enroll their sons and daughters in any school they wish with the taxpayer picking up the tab. Abuse of special-education provisions has contributed to escalating costs that threaten to take needed money from general public education funds. Safeguards are needed. Public schools should be pressed to do a better job for students with disabilities and students without. But there are schools in Washington where statistics show that failure is almost guaranteed. If a school system can't educate a child -- whether because of acute special needs or its own historical failings -- why should that child not have options for a "free appropriate public education"?

In other words, do children with impoverished backgrounds have the same rights as children with disabilities? Is poverty a kind of disability? Remember that special education advocates in the 1970's modeled their movement, which resulted in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, after the Civil Rights movement. Maybe the next movement will be the reformist attempts to reshape our educational system to address the inequities engendered by wealth.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Abbott Myopia

This morning the State Supreme Court hears arguments from the D.O.E. and the Education Law Center on whether Corzine’s new School Funding Reform Act is constitutional. What does this mean? Depends upon whom you ask. Advocates for Districts-Formerly-Known-As-Abbott, 31 poor urban districts once believed to house the vast majority of our economically-disadvantaged children (it's actually 51%), say that the Supreme Court’s decision 30 years ago is the only fair way to provide a “thorough and efficient” educational system and we should continue subsidizing those children at the rate of our wealthiest districts. The D.O.E., and others, argue that poverty is rife in many other places besides those 31 districts and that supplementary funds should be allotted on a per-pupil basis, regardless of the district of residence.

The Record has a good summary here.

The Abbott decisions are informed by the hypothesis that money can assuage the damage inflicted by poverty. If only it were that easy! A quick glance at the academic performance of the Abbott districts belies that claim. According to No Child Left Behind data, the vast majority of Abbott districts are labeled Schools in Need of Improvement, and have been on that list for years. Now, there are a couple of bright spots: Salem City and Hoboken have only been on the SINI list for 2 years, Keansburg and Pemberton for 3 years. And there are plenty of other wealthier districts that land on that list also. The point is that pouring in lots of money – the average Abbott district is funded at about $17,000 to $18,000 per pupil – doesn’t work.

The definition of insanity, usually attributed to Einstein, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Can we widen the discussion to include factors that may not be ameliorated by money? Do our impoverished kids need longer school days or longer school years or better social services? Can our public schools take some lessons from charter models that seem to have promise?

The equation of a thorough and efficient education with a price tag of close to $20,000 per year per kid (more in some districts in N.J.) is unsustainable. We’ve got a bad case of educational myopia and we need a new prescription. Can the Court see and think outside the box of obsolete assumptions and data?

Trenton Idol

Sounds like quite the circus at last night’s school board meeting in Trenton, as hundreds of food service workers, teachers, aides, and custodians protested lay-offs of between 400 and 500 staff members. The crowd staged a mock funeral and, according to the Trenton Times, serenaded the school board:

"We are the world, we are the workers," they sang to guitar accompaniment, as board President L. Diane Campbell banged her gavel repeatedly. "It's a choice you're making. You're killing our own lives."

At issue is the fact that food services in the Trenton City schools lose about $3 million a year. The State regs mandate that districts have to break even so the school board there is stuck between public sentiment and economic common sense. At least they don't have to run for reelection, since the board members there are all appointed by Mayor Doug Palmer.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Quote of the Day

Mr. Willingham makes a convincing case that the distinction between visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners (who supposedly learn best when body movement is involved) is a specious one. At some point, no amount of dancing will help you learn more algebra.

From the Wall Street Journal review of “Why Don't Students Like School?” by Daniel T. Willingham, who argues that the current trend of differentiating learning styles in order to help children learn is based on flawed theory.

New York State of Mind

Hold onto your seats. Timothy G. Kremer, the Executive Director of the New York State School Boards Association, has a proposal in the New York Post suggesting that the school boards association and the United Federation of Teachers work together to get legislation passed that would use student-performance data as one way to evaluate teachers for tenure. (Hat tip to E3.)

Kremer explains that the New York State Legislature was supposed to put together a special commission to review the issue but they dropped the ball. Now he’s asking UFT President Randy Weingarten, who said she was “disappointed” that the commission wasn’t created, to work with him to push lawmakers to move forward:

We look forward to working with the teachers union and lawmakers to ensure that New York public-school children are taught by effective, qualified and accountable teachers.

Let’s give Kremer a round of applause. Sure, he could be goosing Randy Weingarten on what he says is a “common sense” issue, right in line with Obama’s agenda, NCLB (however the reauthorization goes, it’s a safe bet that they’ll use student growth models to assess performance) and division of stimulus dollars. Or he and Weingarten could really be in agreement and it’s the NY Legislature that’s holding this reform up. The point is that the spokesperson for a neighboring school boards association has the balls to speak truth to power, you should pardon the expression. Kremer is confident enough to look squarely at a looming battle – and it is looming, on the fronts of both teacher evaluation and tenure – and take the high road, inviting his colleagues on the other side of the aisle to work with NY State School Boards.

NJSBA, take some notes. Let’s be proactive. Every conscious school board member knows that using student performance data to evaluate teachers is coming down the pike. Shouldn’t our advocacy group take a stand on such a seminal issue? Shouldn’t there be some discussion? Sure, it’s bound to be unpopular with NJEA but we’ve got tough hides. Can we emulate our neighbors across the border and be bold?

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sunday Leftovers

It Takes a Village:

The saga of (Dr.) James Wasser’s educational adventures as Freehold Superintendent continues apace. Predictably, the winning school board candidates ran on an anti-Wasser slate based on his flaunting of a bogus doctoral degree from a diploma mill. Democracy is a wondrous thing.

D.O.E. to Trenton: Don't Think Ahead:

Superintendent Rodney Lofton of Trenton got grilled by the City Council this week on why he is cutting up to 400 staff members, a number that includes 177 cafeteria workers who would be replaced by a private company (a usually cheaper option for a district: no big benefits packages and no union to deal with). When City Council President Paul Pintella asked about the typically large number of students who show up unexpectedly in September and whom might affect staffing needs, Lofton explained that "the state Department of Education, which provides most of the district's $289 million budget, does not allow budgeting based on projections of late registrants."

Really? Projections are not part standard operating procedures for budgeting? In what universe?

You-Can’t-Make-This-Stuff-Up Department:

Rosa Diaz, Principal of a Carteret school, has filed assault charges against the President of Carteret Teacher’s Association for hitting her with a classroom door.

Star-Ledger Reads the Tea Leaves on Low Voter Turnout:

What do the results mean? It's hard to draw any general conclusions, especially when voter turnout was a dismal 13.4 percent. School elections never bring out many voters, in part because they come in April with far less publicity than the general election in November. As we've said before, that should change.

Board Seat Winner in Ramsey Explains Why He Won:

From The Record: "Political enemies, friends and strangers alike cast their ballot for him, he said, because they share his beliefs — that the teachers should pay for their health benefits and that their raises should be smaller, given the economic conditions."

Trenton Times
Pushes November Elections:

While those who advocate keeping school board elections in April argue that November elections would "clog up the ballot" and "confuse voters" (boy, they must think we're stupid!),

We reject that argument. Voters soon would get used to looking for and voting on the budget questions and the candidates running for office. Municipalities now send out sample ballots and many newspapers, including this one, still publish voter guides to help citizens learn the candidates and issues before heading into the polls.

A fall vote would be a far better barometer of what constituents think of their public school system. Eliminating the spring elections also would save towns the tens of thousands of dollars it takes to run an election.

Gloucester County Times Urges Continued Consolidation Talks:

Despite the budget approvals, there is no cause for complacency. Education costs continue to comprise the largest part of property tax bills. Tuesday's vote should not be seen as a mandate by school boards and superintendents to discontinue district merger and shared service talks.

The D.O.E. Needs to Lose their Rigidity:

Especially regarding the School Funding Reform Act when applied to towns who don't need their help. Lake Como and Pemberton, two non-operating districts, were forced by the State to raise taxes even when the money wasn't needed because of an arcane mechanism embedded in the S.F.R.A. (See Asbury Park Press article here.) Unless this is actually a politically-astute ploy by Lucille Davy to demonstrate to non-ops that they're better off in oblivion than in the universe of school-tax paying districts.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Black Students in N.J. Proficient in 8th Grade Math: 14%

There’s lots of buzz about the new education report put out this week by McKinsey & Company which attempts to quantify the economic cost of the achievement gap among poor and minority students. “The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools” puts a dollar figure on the shortcomings of our educational system by culling through federal and international test data and interviewing educators and economists. According to their report, if we closed the achievement gap the GDP in the U.S. would be $3 billion to $5 billion more per day. Here’s the New York Times synopsis:

Nationally, the gap in test performance between white and Hispanic students grows by 41 percent from Grade 4 through 12, and between white and black students it grows 22 percent, the report said. Students educated in different regions also showed marked variation in test performance, despite having similar demographic backgrounds. In Texas, for instance, schools are given about $1,000 less per student than California schools, but Texas children are on average one to two years of learning ahead of their counterparts in California.

This report, which was not commissioned by anyone, is proving quick fodder for reformers such as Joel Klein, Chancellor of the New York City Schools and a a signatory of Education Equality Project (EEP), (he introduced the report at the Press Club in Washington), and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Both pointed to the proof that we need uniform data systems to track student and teacher performance, national education standards, and “incentives” for good teachers and principals (translation: merit pay).

EEP has a handy gadget on their website that allows visitors to check their own state’s achievement gap. So how are we doing in New Jersey?

Graduation rate for all students: 83.3%
Graduation rate for white students: 87.3%
Graduation rate for black students: 62.2%
Graduation rate for Hispanic students: 64.4%
Graduation rate for Asian Americans: 86.3%

Here’s the percentage of students who achieved proficiency in 8th grade math tests:

All Students: 40%
White: 51%
Black: 14%
Hispanic: 20%
Asian-American: 69%

You get the idea.

Amidst the bleakness of the report, there are occasional stray sparks of optimism; most significant is proof from various initiatives and studies from other countries that we can narrow the achievement gap. In fact, we’ve seen proof right here in New Jersey. But can we overcome the obstacles of bureaucracy, inertia, and political interests?

Is Mississippi Proficient in Math?

In Time Magazine, Walter Isaacson makes a compelling argument for national standards in education. Here’s a tease:

National standards have long been the third rail of education politics. The right chokes on the word national, with its implication that the feds will trample on the states' traditional authority over public schools. And the left chokes on the word standards, with the intimations of assessments and testing that accompany it. The result is a K-12 education system in the U.S. that is burdened by an incoherent jumble of state and local curriculum standards, assessment tools, tests, texts and teaching materials. Even worse, many states have bumbled into a race to the bottom as they define their local standards downward in order to pretend to satisfy federal demands by showing that their students are proficient.
It's hard to argue with his premise: that without national standards, states play a statistical game of dumbing down curricula to escape the sanctions of No Child Left Behind. Isaacson gives us a case study of Mississippi where the state claims that 89% of their fourth-grade kids are proficient in reading. Hey! That’s the best in the whole country! Something in the river? Nah, the national test given periodically by the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that only 18% of fourth-grade Mississippians are meeting benchmarks and, in fact, they rank as the worst in the country.

Quote of the Day

Mickey Kaus of Slate on school officials in Los Angeles Unified School District trying desperately to overturn State laws and union intractability that make it impossible to fire incompetent teachers:

At least with General Motors--which arguably makes much better cars than the L.A. Unified School District makes schools--there is the possibility of bankruptcy to force changes in excessively protective union rules. In public education, there's only the hope that charter schools will eventually expand so rapidly that they displace conventional schools governed by the UTLA (before they succumb to union pressure themselves). Go Steve Barr! ....

Another Call for November Elections

Star-Ledger on the pitiful turnout for school board elections on Tuesday:

What do the results mean? It's hard to draw any general conclusions, especially when voter turnout was a dismal 13.4 percent. School elections never bring out many voters, in part because they come in April with far less publicity than the general election in November. As we've said before, that should change.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Will Duncan Deliver?

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had an editorial in the Wall Street Journal yesterday that lays to rest any concern that he’s going to get wimpy about his commitment to higher standards (national ones?) or to linking student achievement to teacher quality:

When parents recognize which schools are failing to educate their children, they will demand more effective options for their kids. They won't care whether they are charters, non-charters or some other model. As President Barack Obama has called for, states should eliminate restrictions that limit the growth of excellent charter schools, move forward in improving or restructuring chronically failing schools, and hold all schools accountable for results.

One of the most controversial elements of the sort of school reform is merit pay for teachers. Says Duncan,
When community leaders understand that teacher and principal quality varies dramatically as the best educators gravitate toward higher performing schools, they will push for incentives that bring our most talented educators to schools in need. That requires being open-minded to policies like differential pay.

Hey – maybe he’s serious. Got hope?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Anyone Wanna Try November?

School district budget election results are in and, on balance, most districts did better than they feared. (Here's a run-down from the Star-Ledger.) Since school budgets are the only ones in the state subject to voter approval, local school boards feared the wrath of angry taxpayers, so they mostly dreamed small, left off second questions, and brought in pared-down proposals. All the results aren’t in yet, but it seems like New Jersey stayed the course of voting in favor of many budgets. Since we pay the highest property taxes in the nation and have the most expensive schools, that’s not too shabby.

Snaps to us.

On the other hand, this is largely a pointless exercise in local governance. If a budget fails, it goes before the municipal government, almost always composed of people who don’t have a clue about education. Typically the counsel makes some small symbolic cut, which the district can appeal anyway. And with the new regulations and formulas for “adequacy,” some budgets can’t be cut even if the voters vote them down.

Is marketing a budget, already highly regulated by the D.O.E., really how we want our school administrators and boards to spend their time? Here’s an idea: get rid of school board budget votes and move school board elections to November, when people actually come out to their local polling places. Actually, it's an old idea that seems to have no GPS and gets lost in State Assembly committees. Will the Legislature ever get the cohones to displease NJEA?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

From the Lips of Bob Ingle...

Home rule is a myth:

It’s election day in New Jersey. On the ballot — 548 school district budgets; 1,600 school board positions; 11 districts 2nd ballot questions, and 19 have new projects that would cost $212 million.

Some people think it’s useless to vote against these budgets because the local municipality can reinstate them. If that’s the case, the people involved should be booted out at the next opportunity.

The fact they would try to reinstate them or the state would puts the lie to Home Rule, it’s a myth.

The Politics Patrol

Honors Students Failing HSPA's?

Here’s a shocker. The Asbury Park Press’s Diane D'Amico reports that most kids who took the Special Review Assessment, an alternative test given to those who can’t pass the standard 11th grade test required to get a high school diploma after three tries, are taking college prep courses, including Algebra II, biology, and honors or AP English.

The prevailing wisdom was that kids taking the SRA were in remedial courses, struggling to pass the most basic concepts in language arts and math. D.O.E. Assistant Commissioner Jay Doolan remarked,
Our thought was that students (who failed the graduation test) were not taking college preparatory courses, but more general education classes. So we were surprised.

Doolan is confident that the State’s High School Redesign will fix the problem since specific content will be required for each course, but others are not so sanguine. Derrell Bradford of Excellent Education for Everyone, a pro-voucher and charter school organization, wondered, "Is what the students take not really algebra? Or does the person teaching it not know what they're doing? This is saying that nothing that happens to these kids in the classroom amounts to anything." Stan Karp of the Education Law Center said “the state should worry less about the tests and more about what and how students are learning.”

State-wide curricula should help. But only if something changes in the classroom, and that’s going to take a lot more than more mandates and regulations from the D.O.E.

Why did Cory Booker Endorse Mike Bloomberg?

That's an easy one. It's education, stupid.

Or it is once you parse the political pablum, thankfully at a minimum but repeated in the Star-Ledger (Bloomberg’s willingness to "cross the arbitrary lines of partisan politics”) and in the New York Times (Booker's belief that “Mayor Bloomberg is simply the model in America").

Here’s the real reason: education reform. Both Booker and Bloomberg are signatories for an organization called The Education Equality Project, a think tank started by odd couple Reverend Al Sharpton and N.Y.C. Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. Other signatories include such politically disparate figures like Jeb Bush, Henry Cisneros, John McCain, Michelle Rhee, Margaret Spellings, Newt Gingrich, and Richard Daley. Where’s Laverne and Shirley?

What binds this group together and makes a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat like Cory Booker join hands with the likes of Gingrich and Bush? A belief that the only way to truly raise the level of American education is through a complete overhaul of the way we train, evaluate, and reward good teachers. In fact, EEP’s first position paper, just published last week, is called “On Improving Teacher Quality.” Here’s the abstract:

The position paper "On Improving Teacher Quality" specifically calls on lawmakers and policymakers to focus efforts on:

1. Recruiting the best possible candidates for teaching jobs;
2. Giving aspiring and veteran teachers the right incentives and targeted training to perform well in the classroom;
3. Evaluating teacher performance fairly but rigorously;
4. Dismissing incompetent instructors after they have had an opportunity to improve their performance; and
5. Placing the best teachers where they are needed most

Read it. Here’s a few tempting tidbits:

Low-income minority students, who already struggle with the burdens of poverty and the vestiges of discrimination, should, by all rights, be taught by the nation’s most effective teachers. But in a travesty of the American creed of equal educational opportunity, access to the best teachers is now more a matter of zip code than need.

From the moment a prospective teacher enters a teachers college to the day of his/her retirement party, a teacher’s ability to elevate student learning is poorly assessed (if at all), and virtually never linked to consequences-either positive, as in the case of awarding merit pay, or negative, like being dismissed for poor performance

To be sure, many union leaders and education school professors still oppose efforts to move the teaching profession in the direction of a meritocracy, and some do not take seriously the notion that educators should be held accountable for student learning. But urban school reform and closing the achievement gap can no longer be about protecting the prerogatives of union representatives, district bureaucrats, and professors at teachers colleges.

This movement to change the profession of teaching from an industrial model to a meritocracy is not a new idea. But the confluence of high-profile and serious reformers in EEP is new and encouraging. Hats off to Mayor Booker for signing on. Mandates and regulations and high school redesign won't get it done, with all due respect to Governor Corzine and Lucille Davy. That's just window dressing. We need a whole new infrastructure ballasted by the very changes in the teaching profession outlined by the Education Equality Project.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Quote of the Day

Every state and every region in the country is stuck with some form of anachronistic and expensive local government structure that dates to horse-drawn wagons, family farms and small-town convenience.

If this is a reset, it’s time to reorganize our state and local government structures for today’s realities rather than cling to the sensibilities of the 20th century.

Tom Brokaw on the inefficiencies of home rule and the need to "radically change the antiquated public structures that exist beyond the Beltway." Today's New York Times

Special Review Assessment Denial

Reverend Reginald T. Jackson, Executive Director of The Black Ministers’ Council of New Jersey, testified before the State Board of Education last week and expressed ire and frustration with the D.O.E.’s newly rigorous high school graduation requirements and the continuing use of the Special Review Assessment (SRA) that lets underachieving students graduate anyway. According to the Reverend, 20% of our high school graduates receive diplomas based on results from the “dumbed-down” SRA – which they get to take after failing the standard 11th grade HSPA three times -- and 90% of incoming freshman at Essex County College need remedial help. He quotes Lucille Davy:

The HSPA, according to the Commissioner of Education, is a middle school level test. This has been corroborated from former Commissioners of Education who I have spoken to. So eleventh and twelfth grade students get three chances to pass a middle school grade test and, if they fail, they get to pass the SRA; for after all who fails the SRA? So then the SRA represents not a second chance but a fourth chance to pass a middle school level assessment where, in order to pass or to be considered proficient on the HSPA, in language you only need to score 47% and in math 50%.

By the way, no other state in the U.S. offers this sort of shortcut to graduation.

Now, there is some dispute over the usefulness of the SRA, though anyone speaking honestly will acknowledge that it is badly overused. In 2003 the D.O.E. published a white paper that recommended that we eliminate the SRA, calling it a “prudent and acceptable choice,” given that the accountability and auditing of the testing process is, well, nil. On the other hand, in 2007 CUNY published a paper called “New Jersey’s Special Review Assessment: Loophole or Lifeline?” One of the co-authors is Stan Karp of the Education Law Center, the primary advocates for students in Abbott districts. Their conclusion? Keep the SRA and make it better; anything else is “diploma denial.”

It's a conundrum. How do we square tougher high school graduation requirements with the fact that 20% of our children can't pass easier ones? Sure, it looks pretty on paper, gives the warm and fuzzies to politicians, and tags along nicely with No Child Left Behind's placid demand that all children are above-average.

If a high school diploma is supposed to denote a certain mastery of material, then how do we justify handing it out to kids who can't read at a middle-school level? But it's not their fault: it's the crappy schools, crappy teachers, crappy parents, crappy poverty, whatever. We can't abandon them.

The SRA is not the problem. It's the symptom of the problem.

High Anxiety: School Board Elections Tomorrow

Tomorrow is Election Day for school board candidates and 550 school district budgets. Dire predictions abound, as school budgets are the only arena for tax-tired residents to assert themselves. The Philadelphia Inquirer has a nice overview, emphasizing that “Superintendents say their proposed budgets are among the leanest in years - through staff cuts, combined services, refinanced debt, and reduced programming.” Districts are getting creative (or desperate, take your pick): soliciting corporate sponsorships, charging for extra-curricular activities, laying off staff, freezing administrators’ salaries.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Sunday Leftovers

Mercer Technical School Broke:

The Times of Trenton reports that the Mercer County Technical schools, six training centers in central Jersey, are “falling apart.” Superintendent Kim Schneider is begging for the cash for basic repair to facilities and may lay off up to 125 employees.

How Will Our New Super-Superintendents Affect Budget Votes?:

The school elections on Tuesday will be the first year that our 21 Executive County Superintendents have exercised line item vetoes on district budgets. Will voters have more faith in proposed spending plans? Does the public even know that our superheroes are on the job? Can we gauge anything in this queer year? Richard Vespucci of the D.O.E. thinks the ECS’s will give the public more confidence in the process, reports the Star-Ledger, and gives the example of South Brunswick, where the state appointed-ECS told the district to cut an additional 25 jobs from their first budget draft.

Dems Out-Foxed by Union Pros?:

Jay Greene, a Professor of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, deconstructs the politics of the school voucher—charter-school—teacher union triangulation in the Wall Street Journal. His view is that the Democrats expressed lukewarm support for vouchers, specifically in D.C., as a kind of animal sacrifice to the Union Gods in hopes of getting the NEA to back off their opposition to charter schools. Bad strategy, Dems. Writes Greene,

But these reformers are starting to learn that appeasement on vouchers only whets unions appetites for eliminating all meaningful types of choice. With voucher programs facing termination in Washington, D.C., and heavy regulation in Milwaukee, the teachers unions have now set their sights on charter schools. Despite their proclamations about supporting charters, the actions of unions and their allies in state and national politics belie their rhetoric.

School Choice In NJ Timelag:

Lucille Davy, Commissioner of the D.O.E. explained to the state Board of Education this past Wednesday that her ability to expand school choice is stymied by the Legislature’s failure to renew the state statute. The Atlantic City Press reports that

The current code, based on a 1999 law, allows just one school in each county to accept students from other towns as a choice school. That law, which set up a five-year pilot school choice program, expired in 2005. The choice program has been frozen in place since then, with about 870 students attending 16 choice schools.

A bill was introduced to the Assembly Education Committee to establish a permanent school choice program (sponsors: Assemblywomen, Mila Jasey, R-Essex, and Joan Voss,
D-Bergen) but is stuck somewhere in committee purgatory.

Asbury Park Cover-up:

Adrienne Sanders, President of the Asbury-Park-Neptune NAACP and Reverend John Bradley, President of the Asbury Park-Neptune Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, take the Asbury Park Board of Education, Lucille Davy, and the DOE to the woodshed over “the biggest cover-up in the history of education.” In an editorial in the Asbury Park Press, they itemize a series of poor decisions by the offenders that came to light during a recent board meeting:

Also at that meeting, parents were asking why we were still paying for two superintendents. Antonio Lewis' salary is $188,000 per year. He has been suspended for more than two years with pay. Since that suspension, the board paid Kathy McDavid about $88,000 to be an interim superintendent. She resigned abruptly, leaving the board without a superintendent, which, by law, they could not be without for more than 48 to 72 hours.

The current interim superintendent is being paid his normal $115,000 per-year salary plus a stipend of $200 per day. Also being paid is an interim vice principal to cover the interim superintendent's regular position. This has become a great math problem, at which the taxpayers have to solve for "y." The Board of Education pulled this same stunt back in 2006, costing taxpayers an estimated $907,666 to date, not including the salary of the fiscal monitor or interim vice principal.

Want More Teachers? Have a Recession:

The Star-Ledger reports
that a record number of new teachers in New Jersey come through alternate route certification.

Friday, April 17, 2009

D.O.E. Bait and Switch

The Education Law Center has been busy. After apparently going AWOL after the Judge Peter Doyne ruled last month that the new State Funding Reform Act was constitutional, the ELC has emerged with guns blazing. First was the report that detailed the cuts in school aid from districts with large amounts of impoverished students in spite of the the fact that SFRA guaranteed millions of more dollars. (See post below.) And Wednesday Stan Karp, Director of the ELC’s Secondary Reform Project, testified before the State Board of Education on the D.O.E.’s “ill-advised retreat” from its Secondary Education Initiative (SEI) -- the years-in-the-making architecture designed to raise high school achievement for high school students and whittle away at the achievement gap. Says Karp,

Yet, over the past year, as the Department rolled out its high profile campaign for "secondary transformation," support for SEI has virtually disappeared. Last June, the SFRA regulations watered down SEI requirements. SEI’s well-attended network meetings were abruptly discontinued. The consultant contracts to provide technical assistance to districts were allowed to expire. Department personnel providing implementation support for SEI were released or reassigned. The district pilots designed to test and modify the reforms were never conducted. A research and evaluation plan required by regulation was never developed. The SEI Advisory Committee was disbanded, while a new Secondary Advisory committee required by the SFRA regulations was never convened.

Followers of the D.O.E. will detect a familiar pattern: a kind of "bait and switch" technique that promises reform or improvement and then mysteriously disappears.

We’re thinking about starting a catalogue to keep the D.O.E.'s strange subterfuge straight:

1) N.J. Steps: High School Redesign:
Algebra II is a requirement. On second thought, never mind.
All high schools will require a course in finance. Well, maybe we'll try a pilot program with 6 schools.
All high schools will require a full year of lab chemistry. Hmm. Well, maybe something chemistry-like.
"Personalized learning plans" will be required for all high school students to promote differentiation of instruction. Oops -- no funding. And we really meant just 15 high schools.

2) The D.O.E. will mandate free preschools for all poor three and four year olds.
Just kidding! Maybe for some poor three and four year olds. And there's no funding promised for next year.

3) The D.O.E. will consolidate all non-kindergarten through 12th grade school districts.
Well, maybe most of the ones without actual school buildings. And we really didn't mean consolidation; we were really talking about just sharing services, already widely implemented among N.J.'s 616 school districts.

4)No school districts will lose state aid. In fact, every one will get an increase.
Except for the ones that get decreases, which will be everyone because the D.O.E. is stiffing all districts on their Spring aid payment. Also, some districts that receive "extraordinary aid" for multiply-disabled students will see a zero in that column.

We are accepting contributions for our catalogue.

Now, it's not clear that the D.O.E.'s intent is to scam the public into buying into a plan or a budget that it never intended to deliver. That is an unlikely scenario, with all due apologies to Stan Karp. What is more likely, and not necessarily any better, is that the D.O.E has lost too much credibility to successfully manage a well-intentioned reform of a broken system.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Quote of the Day

In the end, the savings to Glen Gardner would likely be minimal. But in a broader sense that shouldn't matter. Even if the community didn't save a dime, Glen Gardner's school board is precisely the kind of unnecessary governing body that New Jersey has to start carving away. For all of Corzine's financial missteps as governor, he is right that the absurdly large numbers of municipalities and school districts in the state, all with their own individual administrative structures, are among the key elements driving property taxes to such unacceptable heights.

CentralJersey editorial
on eliminating non-operating school districts like Glen Gardner.

Hoisting Your Own Petard

The Education Law Center released a report yesterday that shows that the State has disregarded its own spanking-new funding formula, the School Funding Reform Act. While the SFRA is intended to supplant the old Abbott formula by dispersing school aid across the state to economically-disadvantaged children, Corzine’s new budget will cause a $303,000 000 shortfall.

The reason? Corzine’s capped all school aid at 5%. So districts that were, under SFRA, supposed to see aid above that amount will instead get less than the SFRA says they deserve. Here’s the five districts with the biggest losses in aid:

* Hamilton Township (Mercer), $8.1 million (24 % student poverty)
* North Bergen (Hudson), $8 million (56% student poverty)
* Bayonne (Hudson), $7.6 million (53% student poverty)
* Freehold Regional (Monmouth), $7.6 million (6% student poverty)
* Pennsauken (Camden), $6.8 million (57% student poverty)

The Education Law Center has a press release out – no fools they, as their team is currently battling the SFRA in court – with Executive Director David Sciarra in high dudgeon:

The ink is hardly dry on the new formula, and legislators are ready to break it. We’re once again neglecting the needs of at-risk students in moderate- and middle-income communities across the state. Only this time, Abbott districts can’t be blamed, since most of the Abbotts are ‘flat-funded’ and get no increase in aid at all under the SFRA formula.

Talk about undermining yourself. Just last month the courts ruled that the SFRA was a fair replacement for the old Abbott formula, but it was a highly qualified decision that specifically said, "we need to see how this works in real life." Sometimes reality bites.

Maybe it's not Corzine's fault. Maybe our municipally-mad cost-per-pupil is out of whack by any measure and by any formula that attempts to provide equity. Has New Jersey created an educational monster, bloated by administrative costs, replication of services, and concessions to unions, that is so expensive as to be unsustainable?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Arne Duncan the Drag Queen

The New York Times has a piece today that pits No Child Left Behind advocates against its defamers. To the disappointment of some, new Education Secretary Arne Duncan has announced his support for the general framework of the federal legislation, while vowing to create national standards, erase loopholes that states use to dumb down curricula so their kids get better test scores (here’s one: Colorado now uses the euphemism for failing – “partially proficient” – as a passing grade), and equate a successful high school experience with the ability to continue on to college without taking remedial courses. He’s big on testing, data systems, charter schools, and measuring teacher quality through student performance. And his biggest detractor seems to be the usually thoughtful and sane Diane Ravitch, who blogs with Deborah Meier in a somewhat Victorian exchange of epistles on the Education Week site.

Here’s Dr. Ravitch:

However, based on what I have seen to date, I conclude that Obama has given President George W. Bush a third term in education policy and that Arne Duncan is the male version of Margaret Spellings. Maybe he really is Margaret Spellings without the glasses and wearing very high heels. We all know that Secretary Spellings greeted Duncan's appointment with glee. She wrote him an open letter in which she praised him as "a fellow reformer" who supports NCLB and anticipated that he would continue the work of the Bush administration. (Recall, Deborah, that the media today defines an education reformer as someone who endorses Republican principles of choice and accountability.)

Yikes! Ravitch is pit-bull mad, not just at Duncan but also at Obama, whom she derides for sending his kids to private school and having too great a faith in data, assessment, and test scores. Since when are endorsements of choice and accountability a Republican trait? Maybe, just maybe, this debate has transcended partisan politics and Americans are actually ready for the paradigm shift required for true education reform. Maybe we’re all ready to get serious.

Quote of the Day

This just confirms ... the ineptitude of the state Department of Education to give more attention to the cycle 1 scores (first released scores) than to the cycle 2 scores (second released scores) when the cycle two scores are, in fact, the correct ones. I think there are a lot of people in education who work very hard ... It borders on being libelous that the state prints the test scores ... knowing that they are going to change.

Don Frank, Principal of Weston School in Manville, where two schools were labeled Schools In Need of Improvement because the D.O.E. didn't include scores from the alternative assessments taken by some children with disabilities. (Courtesy of CentralJersey.)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Does Montague Need a Geography Lesson?

The New Jersey Herald is reporting on a bizarre situation in the Sussex County school district of Montague where parents are complaining that the district is breaking the law in serving their special education children. Montague is a K-6th grade, 285-student district that only sends its special needs kids to either Port Jervis High School or Orange-Ulster BOCES in Goshen, both in New York State, in spite of the fact that placement of children with disabilities is supposed to be dictated by necessary services outlined in Individualized Education Plans. On the other hand, all their non-disabled kids go to Port Jervis too. The article lists several allegations of violations of I.D.E.A. such as Montague refusing to allow independent evaluations, ruling out other placements even when Port Jervis or BOCES didn’t provide I.E.P.-mandated services, and making placements without parental consent. Now parents are contemplating a class action suit while a website called Montague Buzz has been started to rally the troops.

The Montague situation has a complex history. In a series of letters in 2003 and 2004 between then-Education Commissioner William Librera and the Director Office of Special Education Programs Stephanie Lee Smith there’s a fair amount of back-and-forth over whether special ed Montague students placed in New York State retain their rights to due process in New Jersey. At one point, Smith gripes in a letter dated May 26th, 2004,
Your response appears, on the one hand, to assume that the NJDOE can relinquish its responsibility for general supervision of education programs for children with disabilities living in New Jersey, but attending a school in New York, to New York, while at the same time arguing that NJDOE treats Port Jervis “as it would any receiving school in New Jersey,” noting the application of New Jersey regulations to “receiving schools” and the responsibilities of “district boards of education” (defined as the school district of residence by 6A:14-1.3) for the education of children placed in ‘receiving schools.’ Frankly, we are unable to see how these two concepts can be reconciled.
Who’s running the shop there?

Undermining S.F.R.A.

Governor Corzine’s grand plan to provide all poor three and four-year-old children with publicly funded preschools is colliding with reality. Currently all young children in the 31 urban Abbott districts go to a full-day preschool with the State picking up the tab, and a key component of the D.O.E.’s new funding formula was providing those services to poor children across the state, regardless of place of residence. After all, if the logic against the Abbott designations is sound, then it shouldn’t matter why you live: if you are poor, you get free preschool. So all districts prepared for new programs with the promise of State funding.

Now we’re all cutting back, and Corzine is saying that the State will fund only some of those kids. The New York Times quotes the Governor:

“I think we should get started in those areas where there are heavy concentrations of at-risk kids,” Mr. Corzine said at an appearance in Lodi. “To me, that should be a priority. We know what happens when children start school prepared. They perform better not only at the start but throughout their careers.”

So much for sound logic. The new/old reality is that if you are a poor toddler and live in an Abbott district you will get free preschool. But if you are a poor toddler and live in a non-Abbott district, then you toss a coin. Count on the advocates for maintaining Abbott districts making hay out of the State's failure to fund all poor kids equally, the heart of the much-debated School Funding Reform Act.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Wimping Out on Consolidation

The D.O.E. has ordered Executive County Superintendents to file reports by March 2010 on consolidation of school districts, and word is leaking out that the emphasis will be on the more palatable sharing of services, rather than outright elimination of non-efficient districts. Corzine’s Local Unit Alignment, Reorganization and Consolidation Commission, or LUARCC, which must file reports on consolidating municipalities, seems to be on a similar trajectory. The Trenton Times reports today that while a merger of Hightstown and East Windsor in Mercer County, for example, would yield lower taxes, at least in Highstown, the recent report from LUARCC is takes the wind out of the sails of consolidation enthusiasts. The Times quotes the LUARCC report:
The literature suggests caution in drawing simple conclusions about the cost-efficiencies to be gained through consolidation.

There is ample evidence that service sharing saves municipalities hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars a year ..." providing strong incentives to towns looking to cut costs and balance their budgets.

That tagline urging caution is likely to be the conclusion of many of the ECS’s recommendations: go with the safe, non-controversial sharing of services rather than the panic-inducing consolidation of existing districts. Why not? It will make everyone feel good and who can argue with, say, sharing purchasing or a bit of professional development, or even some special education transportation routes?

Here’s the problem: most districts do this already. They don’t need a governor-appointee to tell them that it’s cheaper to buy paper or toner cartridges in bulk, or that two neighboring districts can share a long trek to a private special education school for a couple of kids. Are municipalities so clueless that they're not doing this already? Or are the reports from LUARCC and the ECS's equally condescending and meaningless?

Sharing services is easy. Getting districts -- or municipalities -- to give up local control is hard, but that’s where the real savings are if the Legislature does it right and allows for a mechanism to even out tax rates. But right now it’s not clear that Corzine has the political will to push either consolidation of municipalities or school districts.

If Corzine is disappointed by the lack of support for his plan to reduce the number of towns in N.J. – there’s 566 of them, and a third house under 5,000 people – Lucille Davy is likely to be equally disappointed by the E.C.S. reports, which will probably recommend sharing of services rather than consolidation. There’s even some blowback from our 25 non-operating school districts. If we can’t get rid of those, then we might as well just throw in the towel right now.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Sunday Leftovers

New Recessionary Budget Trend:

Districts in N.J. are starting to cut high school freshmen sports, says the Gloucester County Times.

Charter Schools in Camden:

The feature story in today's Courier-Post compares charter schools and public schools in Camden. With seven charter schools and an enrollment that’s quadrupled over the last decade to 2,763, public schools are feeling the money hit and charters are feeling momentum. Camden City School Board President Sara Davis says "the charter schools are not performing better than the city's programs and are stealing money from the district." However, reports the Courier-Post,
Students at LEAP and DUE Season [two charter schools in Camden] are two of the lower test performers when compared to their local charter counterparts. Still, they outperform most Camden City schools in several test areas, according to a random selection of the most recent results from the NJ ASK and HSPA testing for grades 3, 5, 8 and 11.

Al-Shanker-Would-Roll-Over-in -his-Grave Department:

The New York Times editorial staff praises
Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s reform efforts but warns that the current stimulus package has no enforcement teeth because it's too easy on crummy teachers:
If properly spelled out and enforced, this provision would allow parents to see that most teacher evaluation systems are fraudulent and that an overwhelming majority of teachers are rated as “excellent” even in schools where the children learn nothing and fall far below state and national standards.
But the Times staff denounces the loopholes available so that school districts can talk the talk but not walk the walk.

Dysfunctional School Board Department:

The Atlantic City Press reports
that the Pleasantville Board of Ed voted against changing to a state-run health care plan for employees even though the shift would result in a 40% reduction in health costs. Why? Board members said that the Administration had not explained things thoroughly and they got details too late.

The Asbury Park School Board, overseers of an Abbot district where the per pupil cost is $22,277, or 74 percent above the state average, rejected a school budget that cuts 62 staff positions. Their decision was then overturned by the state fiscal monitor, Mark Cowell. Reports the Asbury Park Press,
"We're trying to change how we're doing things in Asbury," Cowell said "What we have is not working."
In Mercer County, members of the Hamilton School Board are charging other Board members with nepotism. For example, reports the Trenton Times, Superintendent Neil Bencivengo’s wife, sister, and daughter all work for the school system and attempts to publicly discuss the issue have been shut down by the Board President.

Department of Dysfunctional D.O.E.:

The Burlington County Times reports that the School Board of Pemberton Township, one of those tiny non-operating districts, is being forced by their Executive County Superintendent to raise taxes because of a “little known state statute called the minimum school tax levy requirement.” The district petitioned for a waiver in order to lower taxes, but Lester Richens, county executive superintendent of schools, refused to approve it. The Board approved the lower budget anyway. So Richens called an emergency meeting of the Board so that they could vote again for the state approved, more expensive budget. They dutifully met and voted 4-0 to refuse to change their budget. Commissioner Lucille Davy has now sent a letter ordering them to follow orders.

Is it a deft ploy by the D.O.E. to convince non-ops that they’re better off dissolved? Are we giving Davy too much credit?

Friday, April 10, 2009

N.Y. and New Jersey's School Reform

Diane Ravitch’s op-ed in the New York Times today accuses New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein of fudging testing data and graduation rates to create the impression that the city’s schools have sharply improved. For example:
The graduation rate is another area in which progress has been overstated. The city says the rate climbed to 62 percent from 53 percent between 2003 and 2007; the state’s Department of Education, which uses a different formula, says the city’s rose to 52 percent, from 44 percent. Either way, the city’s graduation rate is no better than that of Mississippi, which spends about a third of what New York City spends per pupil.

Ravitch’s real beef is with mayoral control of schools, and the source of her disappointment is Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s support for continuing the Bloomberg reign. (The New York Legislature will decide in June whether or not to renew the law that gives the Mayor carte blanche with 1.1 million kids and 1440 schools. For a different view of who runs the NYC school system see yesterday’s New York Post article entitled “UFT’s Arrogant Puppet State: Teacher Lobbyists Run Amok.”) Ravitch, a little more reasonably than the Post, calls for some system of checks and balances so that Bloomberg’s and Klein’s claims of greatly improved student achievement can be properly audited.

Who can argue with a well-reasoned call for due diligence? Ravitch asks for the “legitimacy that comes with public participation,” i.e., school boards with some degree of authority. How does the N.Y.C. system compare with New Jersey’s? Apples and oranges is not even close; they’re not even in the same phylum. While our local governance is bloated and redundant, NYC’s is barely a paper rabbit, as all board members, according to Ravitch, just rubber-stamp the Mayor’s dicta and, in fact, are hand-picked by His Honor. On the other hand, our D.O.E., which emits countless mandates and regulations and seems beholden to no one, is almost Bloomberg/Klein-esque: witness last week’s D.O.E. wave-of-the-wand which reversed the State’s responsibility to issue an aid payment to all districts.

The bottom line is that reform doesn’t happen without public buy-in. If Diane Ravitch is any indication, N.Y.C. hasn’t achieved that. And neither has New Jersey’s D.O.E. Maybe we are the same phylum.

D.O.E. letter Promoting Fiscal Irresponsibility

Here's the letter from the D.O.E. dated March 31st, which informs districts that they will not be receiving state aid payments for April-June 2009 and kindly gives districts the option of deducting the amount of the stiffed payment from their pension bills. Backstory here.

Anti-Tenurists Are Hip

You know that the zeitgeist in New Jersey has tilted away from the merits of teacher tenure when The Star-Ledger Editorial board denounces it. Today’s editorial praises both Reverend Reginald Jackson and Newark Superintendent Clifford B. Janey, who recently have spoken out against teacher tenure on the grounds that it keeps incompetent teachers in the classroom.

From the editorial:

Tenure is not necessary for a school system to attract and keep quality teachers. It's not even necessary to protect good teachers from being fired unjustly. Teachers would benefit more from better training, support from administration, rewards for good performance and a fair, impartial evaluation system.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Quote of the Day

"We’re trying to come up with a new way to distribute educational dollars not based on zip codes."
Governor Jon Corzine at a budget forum in Nutley discussing how the district is getting "short-changed" by the new funding formula, courtesy of the Star-Ledger.

New Jersey Preschools: The Most Expensive in the Country

A new report is out today on national preschool costs and access, courtesy of The Rutgers-based National Institute for Early Education Research. Right now 38 states provide some sort of publicly funded preschools and NIEER rates them all on access, standards, and cost. As Michael Symons points out in The Asbury Park Press, New Jersey has 26% of its 3 and 4 year olds enrolled in state-funded preschool, which puts us 15th out of 38 in access. The NIEER data base shows that our enrollment has been steady for the last five years and our quality, based on NIEER criteria, is pretty good too.

How about cost? You guessed it: New Jersey spends the most per pupil: $10,989. Again, from the NIEER database:

• Cost of academic-year program: The National Center for Education Statistics projects the total cost of a year of K-12 public school to be $8800 for 2002, with an average pupil- teacher ratio of 16:1. Quality preschool programs need an assistant teacher in each class. This second person could increase costs (assistant teacher salaries average $15,000 plus 25% in benefits), however, public school costs already include aides and other support costs, as well as costs that may not apply to preschoolers. Therefore, NIEER assumes the average cost of preschool during the academic year would be the same as the K-12 cost-per-child, approximately $8800

The top three states that spend the most per pupil are New Jersey, Oregon, and Minnesota. The states with the most frugal/cheap/cost-effective programs are Maine, South Carolina, and Colorado.

Our most expensive programs are in Abbott districts, partly because they’re full-day. We spend $12,297 per child. Our non-Abbott state-funded preschools are a bargain at $4,580 a child because they’re half-day programs and they also meet fewer of the standards: 6 out of 10, unlike the Abbotts, which meet 9 out of 10. Our Early Launch to Literacy Initiative (ELLI) preschool is just a tad over $4,000 per youngster, although the State grants that fund this program, started by former Governor James McGreevey as a way to provide preschools for poor kids who don't live in Abbott districts (sound familiar?), have reportedly disappeared.

It’s just more of the same: we won’t bring down costs unless we find a way to streamline our delivery of educational services, whether it’s for three-year-olds or sixteen-year-olds.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Quote of the Day

I have had the opportunity to attend several events over the last few weeks and hear what various DOE officials and legislators are saying and trying to read between the lines. I have noticed a slight shift in the verbiage that the many in the DOE are using when it comes to this issue. I have heard the commissioner downplay “regionalization” as a solution in most cases and promote “consolidation” which, by her definition, is more along the lines of “shared services.”
Ray Pinney, NJSBA Blogger, on how the D.O.E. and Corzine's push for school district regionalization will crash and burn once legislators realize there will be no financial benefits, NJEA fights anything less than the salaries of the highest-paying district, and voters say "no."

New Jersey's Math War

Here’s a piece from the Star-Ledger
on New Jersey's "math wars," the pedagogical conflict between those who advocate reform math and those who promote traditional math. Reform math, the Ledger explains, focuses on conceptual understanding as opposed to rote computation:

Reform math also teaches students several different computational methods -- in addition to the traditional algorithms, such as long division -- with the goal of helping kids find one that works for them. It supports the use of calculators in early grades, and encourages student exploration -- such as using a tape measure to find the perimeter of routine objects -- under the theory it will help certain types of learners more easily grasp math concepts.
Advocates for traditional math instruction espouse a back-to-basics movement that incorporates conceptual learning but bans calculators until middle school so that children will memorize basic computation. Lucille Davy says she wants a "balance" between the two, believing that the State has erred too far on the side of reform math. Ergo, a new committee or “writing team” charged with incorporating elements of both sides and producing, hypothetically, a balletic amalgam that satisfies both those who believe children learn math through student-directed exploration and problem-solving, and those who believe that children learn math through long division and multiplication tables.

However, a group called Concerned Math Educators of New Jersey alleges that the D.O.E. appointed this committee/ writing team to oversee the revision of New Jersey's K-12 math curriculum and then ignored the findings. The group's website states,

The release of the February 2009 draft of the standards by the New Jersey Department of Education, however, was a shock to all of us. This draft bears little resemblance to the latest (December 2008) version of the work of the state-appointed writing team and essentially rejects a document that has been reviewed and endorsed by mathematics educators throughout the state. In effect, it proposes to replace them by standards that were developed without input from New Jersey teachers. A vast number of the cumulative progress indicators (CPIs) in the current draft – over 250 of them – are lifted verbatim from a few other state standards (primarily Indiana and California), and do not fit in with the rest of the document or connect to the surrounding CPIs or grade-level expectations. Nor do they correspond to established performance expectations for children of different ages. Although some of the individual changes might in themselves be reasonable, as a whole they produce a random collage. Thus it is not surprising that the balance, rigor, consistency, coherence, and continuity of the standards have all disappeared.

Endorsers of the group number about 300, including math professors at various colleges and universities and N.J. math supervisors, principals, and teachers.

Meanwhile, the D.O.E. already has egg on its face from its recent meeting with the Assembly, which largely derided cookie-cutter graduation requirements -- Algebra II quickly disappeared as a mandatory high school course -- and overly ambitious curricula.

The D.O.E. seems stuck within a paradox: on the one hand it espouses differentiated instruction – the buzzword these days in education circles for individualizing curriculum depending on a student’s strengths and weaknesses – and mandating standardized instruction and requirements. While autocratic mandates without stakeholder buy-in is not usually an effective strategy for effecting change, finding consensus, especially in the face of high-stakes testing, is equally onerous. The D.O.E. needs to find its own balance, or the Concerned Math Educators of New Jersey will not be the only group to fight back.

Monday, April 6, 2009

High School Reform (and they all look just the same)

Speaking of soliciting public input, the D.O.E. is inviting comment on the new high school curriculum and the subject specific tests that will become a graduation requirement. The Record reports that starting today comments can be sent to: Jay Doolan, assistant commissioner, New Jersey Department of Education, River View Executive Plaza Building 100, PO Box 500, Trenton, NJ 08625-0500.

Huh? The High School Redesign Committee has been meeting for over two years and just decided to ask the public what they think? Actually, the Committee already approved and recommended new courses and exit exams without much public assistance (okay – to be fair, the High School Redesign Committee held 15 public forums during 2006 and 2007), and introduced the new set of requirements to the New Jersey Board of Education for approval. Instead of the exultant applause that the Committee apparently thought its due, the Board nixed the end-of-course tests, most likely relying on data from other states who found that such exams lowered graduation rates. And, of course, the “one size fits all” underpinnings of the Illustrious Committee is somewhat discordant with New Jersey’s diverse student population, not to mention the differentiation much touted in current pedagogy.

Is this new interest in the public a way to maneuver around the State Board’s lack of enthusiasm? There’s already been some backtracking – for example, Algebra II was eliminated from the list of required courses after a dressing-down from experts in the field – and no answers for local boards asking how they’re supposed to pay for new science labs and find new math and science teachers giving the current dearth.

Is the D.O.E. hoping that there will be a gusty shout of approval from the unwashed masses to set the State Board straight on the need for high school reform? How much of this bar-set-high standardization is a result of the State's purported logic that special needs districts (i.e., Abbotts) are unnecessary because all our little high schools on the hillside dressed in ticky-tacky graduate the same model student?

Public Weighs in on Staff Costs

Here’s a new twist. As New Jersey’s ire grows towards teacher and staff recession-proof salaries increases and contribution-free benefits, residents are speaking up. The Trenton Times reports that at a public budget hearing in East Windsor, taxpayers instructed the Board to increase teacher contributions to health insurance as part of the current contract negotiations.

Superintendent Ron Bolandi told the public that the 75% of the district’s $83 million 2009-10 school budget is staff salaries and benefits. Not so bad – many districts count staff costs as 80% and up, so East Windsor is in better shape than many others.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Sunday Leftovers

All Budget All the Time:

School district budgets are the focus of much media this week, with many districts slashing programs and laying off staff to produce a budget that both meets D.O.E. adequacy formulas and is palatable to voters.

Layoffs include, for example, 55 staff members in West Orange, 90 in Camden, 60 in Wall Township, 60 in Woodbridge.

Anything for a Dime:

In what may signal a new trend to counter tight funds, Robbinsville Public Schools has hired the Middletown-based Corporate Marketing Association to sell ad space. The Trenton Times reports,

Modell's Sporting Goods already has an advertising deal with Red Bank Regional and Old Bridge school districts, and they're interested in Robbinsville because the company has a store in Hamilton, Gulluscio said. He said it may be the first corporate sponsor brought to the Robbinsville Ravens.

Footing the (Big) Bill:

Bergenfield Public Schools is in court over the residency of autistic twins whose educational costs come to $500,000 per year. The parents are divorced and live in separate townships, reports The Record. The boys are in a residential setting. Which township is responsible for footing the bill? Options, besides Bergenfield, include Howell and Freehold.

More Debate on Teacher Tenure:

Fred Snowflack of the Daily Record reports on a school board candidate forum where the subject of debate was whether teacher tenure is obsolete.

James Lytle Named in Student Suit:

Sixteen students who attended the scandal-ridden Sherman campus of Trenton Public Schools have sued the district, according to The Trentonian, "alleging the fiasco denied them the education they needed to get jobs or go to college." Ex-Trenton administrators named in the suit include Dr. James Lytle, now a Professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, former principal Priscilla Dawson, Sherman campus principal Al Williams, Sherman vice principal Melvin Cummings and Maria Azzaro, who was an interim principal at TCHS.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Pension Fund Shenanigans

This week’s missive from the D.O.E. telling school districts that they could skip their payments to the Teachers Pension Fund (see here) is almost moot. Sure, it’ll increase the shortfall – already $14.1 billion – but in the context of overall mismanagement it's just a drop in the bucket.

Two years ago, the New York Times ran an expose on the Fund, the ninth largest pension fund in America. According to the Times,
The state has long acknowledged that it has been putting less money into the pension fund than it should. But an analysis of its records by The New York Times shows that in many cases, New Jersey has overstated even what it has claimed to be contributing, sometimes by hundreds of millions of dollars.
Monkeyshines include funding a 9% pension increase for all teachers in 2001 by using a bookkeeping fluctuation, recording increases when the markets were up while failing to report decreases when the markets were down, and reporting health care costs as contributions when, in fact, they are not.

It’s not Corzine’s fault. He’s merely one in a line of governors who have played the same game of shifting money around to accommodate debt elsewhere. According to Keith Brainard, Research Director of the National Association of Budget Officers, as reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer,
New Jersey has a long history of failing to make required contributions and that has played an important role in the plan's poor funding condition.
Allowing local districts to delay scheduled payments til 2012 to compensate for the D.O.E.’s failure to make good on aid is just more of the same.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Quote of the Day II

The entrenched system of home rule in our state is both a blessing and a curse. We simultaneously have the Jeffersonian ideal of hands-on government, with its promise of participatory democracy, and the unwieldy "Wild West" of a system where corruption can escape detection and punishment.

Paula A. Franzese, Peter W. Rodino Professor of Law at Seton Hall Law School and Chair of the State Ethics Commission and Daniel J. O'Hern, retired Associate Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, courtesy of the Star-Ledger.

Consolidation Consensus? Not So Much...

Is school district consolidation efficient or inefficient? Today’s papers give us both sides of the argument. First, the Asbury Park Press reports on a panel discussion in Freehold hosted by the New Jersey Association of School Administrators. Participants included Bruce Baker of Rutgers University, Monmouth County Executive Superintendent Carole Knopp Morris, and State Sen. Jennifer Beck, R-Monmouth. Morris, who has been outspoken about the potential benefits of consolidation in Monmouth, said that creating all K-12 districts would “improve programs and be more cost-effective.” Senator Beck was a bit more circumspect, remarking that the need for voter approval in every affected town might quash any consolidations.

However, over in Mulshine-land, the inimitable columnist for the Star-Ledger gives us his bottom line:

They say that bigger isn't always better.
But dumber is always dumber.
He’s talking generally about the D.O.E.’s mandate that all non-operating school districts be merged into their receiving districts, and specifically about the tiny town of Glen Gardner in Hunterdon County, population 1,902. Elementary-age children go to Clinton Public School and high school kids go to Voorhees High School, part of the North-Hunterdon-Voorhees Regional School District. Of course, Glen Gardner still has a school board that mainly writes checks to Clinton and Voorhees. Mulshine argues that this is a beneficial arrangement all around and that eliminating non-operating districts will only raise taxes and benefit union employees. The D.O.E., when queried, was less than helpful:

[Clinton Mayor Christine] Schaumberg complained that the state Department of Education won't tell the town just how or when this merger will be imposed. Department spokesperson Kathy Forsyth told me, "We know there are a lot of issues surrounding the non-operating districts. The department is working on all these issues and we hope to have a solution soon."

To cap off the debate, Governor Corzine weighed in during a question and answer session with community newspapers at Drumthwackett. CentralJersey reports that his determination to press for consolidation among school districts and municipalities is strong, despite the “difficulty of overcoming grass roots ‘home rule’ resistance.” When asked specifically about the need for non-operating school districts – like Glen Gardner – to maintain school boards to oversee their own students, Corzine replied,

”You would think that you could put together a system that watches out for the spending and the education of the children without having to have another administration."

The governor said that the multiplicity of governments and districts of all kinds in New Jersey is “one of our biggest problems on cost and, I think, on corruption ... so many units and levels without transparency.”

He said that public resistance to consolidation was, in part, due to “a historic failure of political courage. It will only change when people feel and are convinced by their political leadership. ... People have to vote for the people that they think will make this change.”

So there you have it. Mulshine waxes lyrical over Glen Gardner's charm, describing "driving past that red mill on a pond that has graced a thousand postcards and calendars." Corzine talks about trust issues that interfere with a delegation of control and corruption due to New Jersey's 1,900 governmental units. Executive County Superintendent Morris's favorite word is "efficiency," but the odds seem slim that every affected district will support a consolidation proposal.

We're not quite there yet.

Quote of the Day I

The governor is proud he is raising support for education, but our public boards have not dealt with student achievement in the public schools, nor have they dealt with the problems of workload at the state colleges and universities. Amid the economic suffering in the state, can professors still be teaching 6-9 hours a week as a full-time load for 30 weeks a year? Should we watch as the unemployment fund is seriously strained, while teachers get their cost-of-living and step increases in these districts? Can we have the same number of school districts, municipalities and fire districts as we did in flush times? The fragility of reform efforts have left us with few choices.

Michael P. Riccards, Executive Director of the Hall Institute of Public Policy-New Jersey in The Trenton Times.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Deadbeat D.O.E.

Local school districts in N.J. got an unhappy surprise yesterday afternoon at 4 pm: an email from the D.O.E. informing them that the State was stiffing them on their April – June 2009 aid payments. That’s right, the payments budgeted for the current school year.

Not to worry. The D.O.E. says that districts can choose to delay pension contributions of an amount equal to the state aid until 2012, or they can find cuts in the current year to compensate for the missed payment.

It’s sort of like child support. A divorced parent and his or her kids is depending on the check issued by the ex-spouse, but – surprise! – the ex changes his or her mind at the last minute and says, “never mind, I’m skipping the next few months. But it’s okay because you get to delay your mortgage payment. You still have to pay your mortgage, and I’m not responsible for the missed payment but we’re still good, right?”

At least the D.O.E. is consistent in its lack of reliability.

Living in a Post-Abbott World

Last week, Judge Peter Doyne announced a ruling that, if upheld, will change the way we finance the education of poor children in New Jersey. Since 1997, as a result of a long series of cases called Abbott v. Burke, New Jersey taxpayers have directed huge sums of money at 31 urban districts without much to show in terms of academic achievement or fiscal accountability. Judge Doyne’s decision lets the State use a different method, called the School Funding Reform Act, which proposes to allot extra education money to low-income kids regardless of where they live. The ruling also gives all of us an opportunity to reinvent our public education system so that it is no longer one of the most expensive and segregated systems in the nation. Whether we take this opportunity depends on whether New Jersey has the resolve to look squarely at three thorny issues: home rule, the Department of Education, and the New Jersey Education Association.

Here’s a fact for you: New Jersey, the fifth smallest state in America, has 566 towns and 616 school districts. It’s part of our charm – all those tiny little towns boasting personal identities and histories – and it’s a large part of our inefficiency. This “municipal madness” accounts for rampant redundancy of services, and an awful lot of elected officials. Every town has a local government. We have 486 local authorities and 186 fire districts. And just about every school district has a superintendent, a budget, and a school board. It’s a home rulist’s dream come true.

Governor Corzine is the most recent in a series of governors to attempt consolidation of towns and school districts. He’s right to keep trying because this duplication of services is largely to blame for sky-high property taxes and a school system that ranges from jewels like Millburn High, which offers 30 A.P. classes, to districts like Paterson, where the average ninth grader reads at a 4th grade level. Whether he’s successful of not depends on whether New Jerseyans are able to stomach some leeching of local governance for the pay-off of a more equitable and less expensive education system. Sure, tax levies will have to change – most for the better and a few for the worse – but the result could rescue our children from a de facto lottery system where their scholastic opportunities are tied to their place of residence.

The implementation of the new School Funding Reform Act will be the provenance of the Department of Education. Imagine: everything depends on the ability of this office to accurately follow each low-income child so that the money flows to the appropriate district. It’s a monumental task, and there’s little in recent history to inspire confidence. Last summer, for instance, hundreds of pages of regulations spewed from the D.O.E. office as part of the State’s Fiscal Accountability, Efficiency and Budgeting Procedures, which intends to cut unnecessary costs. (How unnecessary? We spend over $14,000 per child each year and the national average is about $10,000.) Districts quickly realized that adherence to some of the regulation, in fact, added costs. The D.O.E. then announced with great fanfare its High School Reform, which standardizes high school graduation requirements. But certain elements have already been removed – Algebra II, a 3d year of lab science – because of lack of due diligence and support. The much-vaunted universal preschool initiative has become a shadow of its hype. The result is a lack of credibility, a pattern of bravado and retreat.

Finally, the New Jersey Education Association needs to stop behaving like an industrial union and start behaving like a professional one. Lifetime tenure, annual pay hikes between 4% and 5%, and minimal (if any) contribution to healthcare are unsustainable. All signs point to a national education reform, including merit pay and limits on tenure, and the NJEA leadership needs to get over its recalcitrance and consider modifications to an obsolete model.

Judge Doyne’s ruling opens the door to a more efficient and equitable way to educate our children. Can we walk through that door? To steal a phrase, yes, we can. But we’ll only cross that threshold if New Jerseyans can stomach a little less local governance, the D.O.E. can manage its own business before it manages everyone else’s, and the NJEA can trust that its teachers are professional educators whom will thrive in an environment that rewards success.