Saturday, May 30, 2009

Sunday Leftovers

More Abbott Fall-Out:

The press continues to ponder the Supreme Court's ruling on Thursday that the School Funding Reform Act (S.F.R.A.) is "constitutionally adequate" . The Associated Press, in a story picked up by both the Courier-Park Press and the Wall Street Journal, mused,
The question of how to fund schools is wrapped up with one of New Jersey's biggest education conundrums: How does a mostly suburban state where the schools generally perform very well deal with the gaps in learning in its cities, some of which are deeply impoverished?
The A.P. falls for an an obsolete truism in New Jersey: while learning gaps may have once indeed been limited to deeply impoverished cities, they now appear in deeply impoverished rural and suburban areas too. The former logic drove the original Abbott decisions and may have been appropriate 30 years ago. Not any more.

The Express-Times calls the decision “a devastating blow” to the Abbott districts, and quotes Phillipsburg Superintendent Mark Miller: “It’s going to be a tough road ahead.”

The Daily Journal calls it, um, devastating:
But Thursday's ruling will be devastating in the coming years to students and taxpayers in special needs districts, such as Vineland, Millville and Bridgeton. In the so-called Abbott districts, the ruling means more deep cuts to staff and programs. Think property taxes are high now, just wait? It will mean property taxes in the poorer urban districts could skyrocket to make up for the loss in millions of dollars in state aid just so the schools can maintain current class sizes and educational programs. We see nothing but tough decisions ahead for school administrators and boards in Vineland and Millville and other special needs districts.
MyCentralJersey damns with faint praise, calling the School Funding Reform Act “one of the few things Gov. Jon Corzine’s administration has gotten right.”

The Record entones
, “Abbott is dead:”
In some cases, education has improved over time: through more teachers and smaller classes, widespread access to quality preschool and increases in test scores, particularly in the early grades. In such districts, the money was spent wisely and Abbott worked. But not in all. In those cases, the court could not overcome the entrenched power of cronyism or the hindrances of poverty itself. We will never know exactly how much of the money was beneficial to the children and how much was wasted.
Abbott is dead. All hail S.F.R.A. Here's a couple of other nuggets to chew on:

1) S.F.R.A. is a conceptual improvement over Abbott because it acknowledges that our poor kids are not confined to 31 cities. But another piece of funding reform is just as important: the new regulations issued eight months ago by the D.O.E., fondly knows as N.J.A.C. 6A:23A-1 or, more formally, The Fiscal Accountability, Efficiency, and Budgeting Procedures. The two, S.F.R.A. and 6A, work in concert. 6A attempts to rein in our profligate cost per pupil by establishing an "adequacy formula;" it says "here's how much each district should be spending for a thorough and efficient education, and if you don't stay within those parameters we'll cite you on QSAC (the monitoring rubric each school district is graded on)." Every school district has to prove to the D.O.E. that they are within the parameters for everything from snacks for school board members to professional development for teachers. Every district is the same, says 6A, whether you live in Short Hills or Hamilton. With the Court's approval of S.F.R.A. the 31 urban districts which got special treatment are now grouped together with the other 575 or so other N.J. districts

2)The adequacy formula established by the D.O.E. is still very high because our educational infrastructure, such as it is, is wildly inefficient: 616 school districts, with consolidation an apparent pipedream. There's been some slight flogging of the smallest ones, like threats to lose state aid. They couldn't care less, though, because the State contributes so little to wealthier districts. It's going to take more political will to deal with this than is apparent in the current landscape

3) Even with the damper effect of the adequacy formula, New Jersey still can't afford to offer services to all our poor kids comparable to those offered in the Formerly-Known-As-Abbott Districts: full-day preschools, after school services, Saturday academies, summer schools. Corzine intended, as recently as this past Fall, to fund preschools for all poor children. Plans were made, budgets forecast, facilities identified. But then the funding got cut back, cut back again, and then the whole thing got chucked due to lack of funding.

S.F.R.A. is better than Abbott. But it doesn't come near to addressing our fiscal woes due to a inefficient and poorly managed educational system.

Consolidation Kerfuffle:
The Asbury Park Press reports that Assemblyman Joseph Cryan faced a tough crowd in Spring Lake, where he tried unsuccessfully to argue that consolidation of school districts is financially wise, given that there’s a potential $365 million savings at stake.

Spring Lake School District in Monmouth County has one K-8 elementary school with 335 students. It's got a school board, a superintendent, separate bargaining agreements, the whole kit and caboodle: a perfect candidate for consolidation. But the rules governing consolidation of school districts mandate that if any one district within a proposal votes “no,” the whole deal is off. Count Spring Lake out:
"We don't trust the government anymore," said Donna Ayers-Vorbach, 48, of Manasquan. "We are fearful this will be decided by a liberal Supreme Court."
In other (non)consolidation news, the Local Unit Alignment, Reorganization and Consolidation Commission (LUARC) met on Thursday and agreed that one of the major roadblocks in the way of “doughnut-hole mergers” is the presence of separate school districts. For example, Delran and Riverside are a potential merger, as is Beverly and Edgewater Park, but that would mean consolidating school districts. No deal, reports the Burlington County Times.

Health Insurance Premium Alert:
As if losing one state aid payment and having another deferred wasn’t bad enough news for N.J. school districts, State Pension Director Fred Beaver announced that health insurance premiums for more than 250 school districts could go up by more than 20%. Reports the Star-Ledger,

New Jersey School Boards Association spokesman Frank Belluscio said districts that have already based their budgets on previous 4 percent increases are alarmed by Beaver's announcement.

"Coming midway through the school budget cycle, in January 2010, double-digit rate increases will present severe budgeting difficulties for the school districts enrolled in the plan," he said.

The Dysfunctional School Board Award of the Week...

...goes to Pleasantville School District in Atlantic County. Former School President Jayson Adams was sentenced to 2 ½ years in prison for conspiring with a company he thought was an insurance brokerage firm to buy school board votes for an insurance contract. He also has to forfeit the $62,000 he received in bribes. Four other school board members were also arrested, reports the Press of Atlantic City.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Supreme Court Gets Mugged

The difference is monumental, no matter how it is measured. Those needs go beyond educational needs, they include food, clothing, and shelter, and extend to lack of close family and community ties and support and lack of helpful role models. They include the needs that arise from a life led in an environment of violence, poverty, and despair. Urban youth are often isolated from the mainstream of society. Education forms only a small part of their home life, sometimes no part of their school life, and the dropout rate is almost the norm. The goal is to motivate them, to wipe out their disadvantages as much as a school district can, and to give them an educational opportunity that will enable them to use their innate ability.
Abbott v. Burke IV, May 14, 1997

The legislative and executive branches of government have enacted a funding formula that is designed to achieve a through and efficient education for every child, regardless of where he or she lives. On the basis of the record before us, we conclude that SFRA is a constitutionally adequate scheme. There is no absolute guarantee that SFRA will achieve the results desired by all. The political branches of government, however, are entitled to take reasoned steps, even if the outcome cannot be assured, to address the pressing social, economic, and educational challenges confronting our state. They should not be locked in a constitutional straightjacket. SFRA deserves the chance to prove in practice that, as designed, it satisfies the requirements of our constitution.
Abbott v. Burke, April 28, 2009

Irving Kristol famously quipped that a neoconservative was a liberal who had been mugged by reality. That definition is also a good way to describe the Supreme Court’s decision yesterday on the constitutionality of the School Funding Reform Act. Hailed by the Star-Ledger as a “stunning shift,” the decision (see here for complete text) overturns our long reliance on the designation of 31 special-needs districts in favor of a funding formula that allots extra school aid based on individual children. For those interested in local coverage, the Trenton Times emphasizes the ruling as a political victory for Democrats and Corzine;, The Record focuses on some of the historical misuse of the Abbott money and the stigma attached; The Press of Atlantic City quotes some unhappy Abbott administrators who fear the worst from a lower level of funding; the New York Times presents the Court’s decision as fair and balanced; New Jersey Newsroom cites the Court’s caveat that “There is no absolute guarantee that (the funding plan) will achieve the results desired by all;”Columnist Bob Braun calls it a “an almost whimpering concession that the state should be allowed to try to do the best it can.”

The original Abbott decisions were marked by sweeping outrage at the inequity of New Jersey’s public education system due to funding based on local property taxes. We must right the wrongs engendered by poverty and prejudice regardless of cost, bellowed the Justices, with a fervor linked to the sins of segregation. Yesterday’s decision, however, is infused with economic concerns as the cost of a nobly-intentioned educational system highjacks the State’s solvency: “These efforts [to ensure that S.F.R.A. is fair] are all the more impressive due to the coordinated branches’ collective will to do so during difficult economic times when there is scarce state resources.” Justice Jaynee LaVecchia, who wrote the decision, painstakingly outlines in a footnote that the richest districts in N.J. spent $14,046 per child this year, Abbott districts spent $17,325 per child, and the average cost in the U.S. this year was $9,154. She also remarks that the Court “cannot ignore the State’s estimation that the Abbott districts will receive cumulatively over the next two years approximately $630 million in Federal funds.”

Bleeding hearts cauterized by an economic recession? 1970's flower children wizened by exposure to corruption? Depending upon whom you ask, New Jersey has either grown up or given up.

This intrusion of reality into what is, in essence, a philosophical and ethical issue, is not a bad thing. The facts are unavoidable: Abbott didn't work. New Jersey cannot sustain its current level of spending on education.

The Education Law Center issued a press release yesterday mourning the decision, charging that “the SFRA is a major setback in the quest for educational equity for all New Jersey school children,” and vowing to fight on. The ELC also makes the salient point that the backbone of SFRA – that the State would provide all the Abbott services to poor kids regardless of where they live – has already been undermined by Corzine’s inability to swing the cash for full-day preschools for poor kids.

Here’s the problem: unless we find more efficient ways to deliver educational services to our kids, we still won’t be able afford the pricetag. Our current infrastructure, dominated by home rule gone mad (616 school districts!) -- is unsustainable. ELC is right: we can’t afford to run full-day preschools in hundreds of school districts. What if we only ran one in each of our 21 counties? Wouldn’t that be a step toward an efficient and fair education system for Jersey kids?

If New Jerseyans are committed to equitable educational opportunities, then we need to be willing to look beyond our quaint little suburban idylls and think a bit more globally -- or at least within our own county.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Quote of the Day

That doesn’t mean that unions don’t matter. It just means that they aren’t all-powerful. But they are tenacious and need to be defeated, over and over and over again if reform is to advance. And more than anything, that takes courageous leaders willing to endure the battles but also the long war.
Mike Petrilli from The Fordham Institute's Flypaper blog.

Ravitch Savages Education Equality Project

Esteemed education scholar Diane Ravitch is engaging in a bizarre bit of sniping at the Education Equality Project, the education reform group headed by NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and Reverend Al Sharpton. Ravitch posts on a sort of epistolary blog called Bridging Differences, which is hosted by Education Week, and her latest entry attacks E.E.P.’s claim that closing the achievement gap is the new Civil Rights battle.
Frankly, I am tired of the claim that education is the civil rights issue of our generation. No, it is not. The leaders of EEP say that the civil rights revolution will be completed if only the test scores of whites and blacks converge; and that if kids take test prep endlessly and conquer the demands of standardized testing, then Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy will be fulfilled.

If the EEP “reformers” were truly concerned about civil rights and not just posturing, they would have a plan to do something about de facto segregation; they would launch a program to make sure that every child had access to good health care and started school ready to learn; they would coordinate between the schools and other government agencies to make sure that families had access to job training programs and social services and the basic necessities of life.
What’s got her goat? Why the enmity towards a group that espouses the goal "to eliminate the racial and ethnic achievement gap in public education by working to create an effective school for every child?" Maybe their claim of a new front in the Civil Rights movement is histrionic. Maybe it’s not. At any rate, Ravitch’s outrage seems out of proportion to the semantics of her argument. She even seems to be indulging in a kind of paranoia; in response to some bemused reader comments on her entry, she notes that the NYC Department of Education has “assigned public relations staff to monitor blogs and make anonymous comments” and that a PR firm working in support of Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein was “lurking” on blogs: “I fear that this blog is now hosting some of these paid lurkers.”

Andrew Rotherham of Eduwonk
conjectures that Ravitch’s ire is a result of the anti-union predilections of groups like E.E.P. He writes that Ravitch “is now a stronger teacher unionist than most of my friends active in teachers’ unions.” It’s true that the growing number of education reform groups out there like E.E.P. share an agenda that seem anti-union, like the calls for differentiated pay, teacher accountability, and advocacy of charter school.(Most charter school faculty are not unionized.)

Ideally, the agenda of teacher unions correlates with the needs of students. But the new information coming out of reformer experiments (like charter schools) is that our poor kids, the ones defended by both Ravitch and E.E.P., need non-traditional/non-union-ish education models to succeed. There’s a consensus evolving that needy kids require a different and more varied menu of educational services than our wealthier kids -- longer school days, longer school years, tying teacher pay to student growth. So the agenda of teacher unions and the agenda of education reformers start to diverge and what is pro-union becomes anti-kid, and what’s anti-union becomes pro-kid.

It's a dichotomy that needs to be tamed if we're going to get anywhere.

In New Jersey, the N.J.E.A. appears impervious to pleas from school districts to consider more varied school schedules, or teacher accountability, or tying increased pay to student growth and teacher productivity. In fact, N.J.E.A. seems to morphing into a parody of job protectionism, especially as N.J. districts slash programs and increase class size in order to meet payroll. NJEA, here's a word of advice: rigidity is not your friend.

Ravitch lost her head for a minute, and we have faith that she’ll recover her erudite panache. We all need to recover our sense of shared mission. Education is a’changing, and either we all change along with it or the kids truly will get left behind.

Dominoes in Trenton

To get a sense of the domino effect of Corzine’s decision to delay State aid payments to school districts, take a gander at Trenton Public Schools, which will need to borrow $21.6 million to cover payroll and other expenses through the remainder of the school year. The number is so high because Trenton is a poor urban city (we can’t say “Abbott “ anymore), so the State foots the bill for over 80% of their budget. The State will also have to cover the interest on the bank loan, about $46,000. The majority of N.J. school districts are finding ways to cover the non-payment through their own bookkeeping maneuvers, although some will be forced to borrow money.

The Trenton Times reports that the district will not pay staff overtime until they get the money from the State, which is supposed to happen in July.No word on what will happen if the State still can’t come up with the cash.

S.F.R.A. Upheld by Supreme Court

The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled unanimously today that Corzine’s School Funding Reform Act is constitutional and can replace the Abbott system of awarding large amounts of state aid to 31 poor urban districts.

It’s a victory for Corzine, who now can claim a triumph in the skirmish over how New Jersey addresses the educational needs of poor children in a state that funds schools through property taxes. No doubt the Education Law Center, the primary advocates for maintaining the Abbott formula, will have lots to say. And it’s not clear how the D.O.E. will manage to channel money to poor children, regardless of zip code, in a timely and efficient manner. More later.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Abbott Alert

The Record reports that the State Supreme Court is scheduled to announce its decision at 10:00 a.m. tomorrow morning on the "mother of all school funding cases." The Justices will rule whether the School Funding Reform Act can supplant the Abbott decisions, which designate 31 poor urban school districts as eligible for State aid that equalizes spending per pupil at the same cost as N.J.'s wealthiest districts.

Stay tuned.

The Cost of Education in Loch Arbour, N.J.

The Star-Ledger reports today on a bizarre result of the new School Funding Reform Act in the tiny wealthy Monmouth County village of Loch Arbour. How tiny? Total population is 280 people, total school-age population is 23 children. How wealthy? The average home is assessed at $1.4 million.

Loch Arbour has a long-standing sending relationship with Ocean Township School District, whom they pay $16,000 per kid per year for a modest $300,000 annually. This funding arrangement dates back to a 1999 bill called the Kiely Act, named after a former mayor. But a little-known consequence of the S.F.R.A. overturns Kiely and bases tuition for the 23 kids on property values. For residents of Loch Arbour, this means that the $16,000 per kid per year balloons to $68,750 per kid per year.

The Ledger quotes Betty McBain, President of the village's Board of Trustees:
For a school funding formula that was supposed to benefit all children and all communities, this is backfiring big time. This is a formula for ruination for us.
Loch Arbour residents have been agitating to get some sort of waiver from the D.O.E. The village website details their progress (not much), including a summary of a meeting with Education Commissioner Lucille Davy and their County Superintendent Carol Morris, though Davy was a no-show. Reports the Ledger,
Kathryn Forsyth, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said her agency understands Loch Arbour's plight but its hands are tied.

"This has to be corrected legislatively," Forsyth said. "If the legislators want to pass special legislation, it's fine with us."
Was the D.O.E. aware that, as a result of S.F.R.A., a village would end up paying close to $70K a kid? Heck – the town would save big bucks by shipping the kids off to an exclusive private boarding school. Is it an oversight on the part of a mismanaged bureaucracy or a calculated move on the part of a savvy government entity intent on finagling consolidation of small towns? Does the D.O.E. figure that no one will have much sympathy for people who live in million dollar homes? Are there other Loch Arbours out there?

It's anyone's guess. Regardless, count it as another chink in the armor of the School Funding Reform Act, already undermined by a fiscal predicament that curtails Corzine's promise to fairly fund education in New Jersey.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Movie and Popcorn Time

Bob Ingle reports on the new feature-length movie “The Cartel,” which pans American education in general and New Jersey public education in particular. Here’s some Garden State-related highlights, courtesy of Ingle (who makes a cameo appearance in the flick):
New Jersey is the No. 1 spender per pupil while our SAT college entrance exam scores are 37th. (Slight quibble here: we also urge many more kids to take the SAT’s than other states, so our pool of test-takers is far more diverse.)

The movie “tells of the outside audit commissioned by the New Jersey Department of Education that questioned $83 million in spending by the state's Abbott districts, the 31 that get more than 50 percent of the state's education budget.”

In one scene "The Cartel" tells about the $8 billion that disappeared from the School Construction Corp.'s coffers with little to show for it. That's followed by Gov. Jon Corzine boasting he plans to put more money into education.
There is Corzine's education commissioner, Lucille Davy, looking like a deer caught in the headlights, unable to explain why three charter schools were rejected by her department. There is Joyce Powell, head of the New Jersey Education Association, claiming she doesn't know why charter schools do better.
You can see it for yourself. The film premieres on May 30th at 2 at the Hoboken International Film Festival.

Hope Academy to D.O.E.: We Want Our Funding

The co-founder and school leader of Hope Academy Charter School in Asbury Park, Alexis Harris, has an editorial in the Asbury Park Press in which she chides the State for not making good on payments due. Charter schools are supposed to receive 90% of the funding per child in a traditional public school, but Harris claims that Hope Academy is getting less than 50%.

What’s this mean in real numbers? The State pays $26,000 per kids in Asbury Park district schools – remember, that’s an Abbott district – but this year has cut Hope Academy’s budget to less than $12,000 a kid, according to Harris. She writes,
We are not asking for an outlandish sum. In fact, we are showing how much more can be attained with less funding. But less funding should not mean inadequate funding nor should it value a charter school child's education at less than half the value placed on the education of a district school child. Both are children in public schools in the same community but they are being treated unequally because of some discriminatory decisions.
Let’s look at some of the real numbers, at least the most up-to-date numbers on the D.O.E. website for 2007-2008. Hope Academy, tiny with only about one class per grade (though it has a waiting list of 141 kids – more than the current enrollment) averages about 13-15 kids per class. Only 4.5% of their kids are classified as needing special education services. Their test scores are mixed: on the NJ ASK 3, the State test given to all 3d graders in math and language arts, 73.3% passed language and 53.3% passed math. (Yes, 46.7% of their 3d graders failed – er, were “partially proficient” in – math.) On the NJ ASK 5, 13% of the 5th graders passed language arts and 33.3% passed math. The total cost per pupil on the DOE website is listed at $16,994.

Asbury Park doesn’t have a K-8 school, so we looked at an elementary school, Bradley Elementary, which serves kids in grades K-3, and an intermediate school, Asbury Park Intermediate, which runs 4-8. Bradley has an average class size of between 18 and 22 kids; A.P.I. has an average class size of 15-25. At Bradley, 11% of kids have Individualized Education Plans, which means that they are classified as needing special education; at A.P.I. 19.2% have I.E.P.’s. 65.4% of Bradley’s 3d grade students passed language arts and 48.1% passed math. That’s slightly worse than 3d graders at Hope Academy. For fifth graders at A.P.I., 15.4% passed language arts and 34.7% passed math. That’s a tiny bit better than the kids at Hope. The total cost per pupil for both Bradley and A.P.I. is listed at $20,104.

It’s not clear what the real discrepancy in spending is. The D.O.E.’s numbers for 2007-2008 make it a measly $4K per child, but Harris says it’s more like $14K. The D.O.E.’s numbers don’t completely reflect the extra services allotted for Abbott students, and it’s certainly likely that the State and local district didn’t make good on the full amount due to the charter school. Neither set of test scores is anything to write home about and the district schools have more kids with special needs.

Here’s what is not ambiguous: Hope Academy is managing to educate children about as well (or about as poorly) as the traditional public schools in Asbury Park. They are spending less money per child to do so. More parents would like their children to be educated at the charter. Shouldn't the State D.O.E. be encouraging alternative ways of providing education to our kids, especially those in poor urban districts with a history of failing schools?

Turnabout is Fair Play

New Jersey Newsroom reports that Governor Corzine has asked the State Health Benefits Commission and the School Employees Health Benefit Commission to enact rules that will disallow school districts from delaying payments on employee health insurance plans. His directive is in response to news that premium costs will increase substantially by January.

Can we have a directive to disallow the State from delaying payments to school districts, especially in light of the “deferral” of state aid last month?

Monday, May 25, 2009

NJ Social Studies Educators Denounce D.O.E.

Math teachers (see this post) are not the only group raising questions about the D.O.E.'s revisions of core curriculum content standards, the mandated teaching guides for school districts in New Jersey. A group called The New Jersey Social Studies Educators has issued a scathing critique of the proposed N.J. core curriculum standards for social studies. The signatories on their Statement (go here, and then click on the "Statement" on the left) include two professionals who were directly involved in writing the standards (Ivy Urdang of the NJ Council for Social Studies and Arlene Gardner of the NJ Center for Civic and Law-Related Education) and other luminaries in the NJ social studies community: representatives from NJ Social Studies Supervisors Association, NJ Council for History Education, NJ Council for the Social Studies, etc. This group charges that the proposed standards:

Do not constitute a coherent and well-designed approach to social studies education that will guide teachers;
Do not effectively integrate geography, history, civics and economics;
Provide no articulation or scaffolding of kindergarten through grade 12;
Do not meet existing statutory requirements for Holocaust and genocide education or N.J. history;
Have glaring omissions and perplexing redundancies and inaccuracies;
Include confusing Cumulative Progress Indicators and cumbersome and ineffectual sample lessons and foundations;
Lack intellectual rigor or sustained emphasis on critical thinking;
Lack meaningful opportunities for student engagement; and
Do not reflect the efforts of the clarification project or any current scholarship or research in social studies education.

What’s a Clarification Project? Apparently some first step in the process of developing the standards; here's a letter from Assistant Commissioner Jay Doolan regarding this phase and, appropriately, asking for feedback. But here’s a wrinkle. One way this project achieved its gravitas, apparently, was through the heft of a national education consultant named Grant Wiggins, who seems to be an industry unto himself. Wiggins has developed a model for curriculum development called Understanding by Design (UbD, which may be trademarked) and conveniently has a contract with Pearson, a major publisher of school textbooks. Doolan carefully notes in his memo that the standards were developed “under the guidance of Grant Wiggins,” who also supplied a training video. But one of the NJ Social Studies Educators’ criticisms is that
The proposed standards do not include Grant Wiggins’ Understanding by Design model, which was the basis for the Clarification Project conducted in NJ a year ago to help bring greater rigor and critical thinking to the existing social studies standards. In short, the authors of the proposed 2009 social studies standards failed to consider, make reference to or in any way use the existing scholarship and research in the field of social studies education.
The NJ Social Studies Educators recommend that we chuck the current proposal (which, by the way is twice as long as the 2004 CCS) and call for a do-over. It's that bad.

Meanwhile, we’d be curious to know what the budget was for this curricular effort, how Wiggins regards the final product, and who exactly is writing the core standards -- the bedrock of instruction - in New Jersey.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sunday Leftovers

D.O.E. Loosens up Teacher Certification Process:

The Press of Atlantic City reports
that the D.O.E. is proposing new rules that would loosen requirements for teachers coming in from other states. If, for example, a certified teacher from outside New Jersey had three years of good standing, they could get certified here without taking the praxis test required for certification.

How about if they are former teachers from Massachusetts, where WRPI reported on Tuesday that nearly three-quarters of the people who took the state elementary school teacher’s licensing exam this year failed the new math section?

Reports WRPI,
Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester was not surprised by the results. He told the Boston Globe that these results indicate many students are not receiving an adequate math education.
Okay, so we share our teacher quality problems (not that there aren’t great and gifted teachers in N.J.) with other states. And we're all for looking beyond the traditional paths to tenure, especially in hard-to-fill positions like high school math and science. But elementary school level math? Really?

How About Some Journalism Courses?:

The New Jersey Newsroom, our new media outlet staffed by ex-Star Ledger reporters, published a press release from the Education Law Center disguised as hard-hitting journalism. Here’s the press release. Here’s the New Jersey Newsroom “article.” Come on, guys. We need you out there. You’re too new to get lazy.

Autism Bill Passes Assembly:

The State Legislature approved a bill on Thursday that would mandate insurance coverage for “medically necessary treatment” for autism spectrum disorders. The bill now goes to the Senate, where hordes of school board members will prostrate themselves as they plead for passage.

Why? Because right now school districts pick up much of the tab for the expanding percentage of kids diagnosed with everything that now falls under the umbrella disorder. And much of the treatment involves lots of expensive one-on-one therapy, like Applied Behavioral Analysis, for as much as 40 hours per week. What's the difference between “medically necessary” and “developmentally necessary?” Are fads like chelation therapy, which removes metals from blood, or hyperbaric oxygen therapy, where the child is put in a highly-pressurized oxygen tube, medically necessary? Some doctors and parents believe that autism is caused by allergies. Is it medically necessary for a school building to be gluten or cassein free?

It’s absurd that many health insurers don’t cover basic necessary treatment like speech, occupational, and physical therapy for children with developmental disabilities. And children and their families stricken by such diagnoses need full coverage. We need to be wary, however, of the “autism industry” that has sprung up in the wake of a disability that now is estimated to handicap 1 in 150 kids. (For a sobering view, see today’s New York Times op-ed by the brother of a 42-year-old man afflicted by the disorder.)

NJEA, Do You Hear the Clarion Call?:

The New York Times reports on a number of New York communities where teachers are agreeing to wage freezes and reductions in order to forestall lay-offs and program cuts that would hurt students.

Howell Township: "About that Pension Deferral...":

Howell School District, according to the Asbury Park Press, was all ready to accept their Town Council’s one million dollar reduction of their failed budget. One tiny problem: the School Board assumed that the million included the deferred pension contribution of $487,000 due to the State’s failure to make their payment, and the Town Council thought that the $487K was on top of the million. Oops.

An Ex-School Board Member slams NJSBA:

And maybe has a wee bit of a savior complex (Trenton Times op-ed here).

Dysfunctional School Board of the Week Award:

Goes to Hopewell Township in Mercer County where a a board member, Armelle Daniels, resigned and then offered some public pearls of wisdom. Reports CentralJersey,
Among other things, Ms. Daniels said she hoped members “will recuse themselves from situations in which they have clear conflicts of interest, rather than letting personal agendas guide actions and decisions,” and “will accept accountability and responsibility for difficult decisions, rather than pursuing disruptive paths of blame and finger-pointing.”

Friday, May 22, 2009

Star-Ledger: NJ Can't Afford Preschools

The Star-Ledger Editorial Board weighs in today on New Jersey’s inability to provide free preschool to poor kids who don’t live in Abbott districts:
One of the governor's own top priorities -- expanding free preschool to more school districts -- now moves to the "maybe someday" list. It may end up on the list of things state government just can't afford to provide.
That’s true. We can’t afford to provide the educational services available in Abbott districts to equally poor kids who live elsewhere. This hard reality decimates the new School Funding Formula, which is supposed to provide equity by distributing school aid based on personal income, not zip code. The Ledger suggests that the answer lies in “severely slash(ing) the aid that props up local government,” i.e., “more sharing services, less spreading taxpayer money around to campaign contributors.”

That’s a tepid drop in the bucket, guys. We need a major overhaul of our educational infrastructure, buy-in from NJEA, expansion of charter schools, and meaningful leadership from the D.O.E. Anything else is like relying on a rain dance to reverse a drought.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Should N.J. Schools Offer Hondas or Cadillacs?

As if the deferral of school aid payments and the loss of preschool money wasn’t enough bad news for local districts, it’s looking like the State will also renege on $35 million worth of debt aid for school construction. Actually, the bad news will be next year’s budget, when the book-balancing gimmicks catch up with us. Reports the Philadelphia Inquirer today,
Nonpartisan analysts from the Office of Legislative Services have predicted $6 billion deficits in future budgets as the steps taken to balance the 2009-10 plan expire.
Assembly Republican Leader Alex DeCroce puts part of the blame for our fiscal mess on the lack of oversight of Abbott districts. In an editorial today in the Trenton Times, he catalogues the oft-quoted Abbott abuses that are starting to jingle like a Christmas carol: eight school board members at a ski resort, seven students take flying lessons, six limo rides, five golden rings. DeCroce then nails Commissioner Lucille Davy:

But it was disheartening to hear the response of Secretary Davy and Democratic legislators when the commissioner was asked about these questionable expenditures at a recent Assembly Budget Committee hearing. They seemed to indicate a big deal was being made out of nothing. Ms. Davy said there was no way the Department of Education will ever be able to oversee every school expenditure and that school superintendents are the ones who should be held accountable, not her. She didn't sound like a supporter of "the-buck-stops-here" style of government.

Our fiscal mess is far ranker and deeper than Abbott funding. But the financing of school districts is a significant factor. Corzine has tried to control costs through the School Funding Reform Act by creating a prototypical New Jersey public education and slapping a price tag on it – the “adequacy formula.” But that adequacy depended on the State ponying up the bucks for things like preschools, and that’s not happening this year.

The other problem with S.F.R.A. is that it creates a sort of generic pricing for public education – equity is based not on our wealthiest kids, but on our average ones -- which is in direct opposition to the logic used by the courts when they handed down the Abbott decisions. The Education Law Center issued a press release on Tuesday, "Funding Gap Widens Under S.F.R.A.," that reiterates that logic: poor urban students are deprived, and the only way to square the deprivation is by funding each of those kids at the rate of a rich suburban kids. The E.L.C. sounds the alarm:
Just as the experts predicted, the gap in per pupil funding between urban and suburban school districts in New Jersey has widened in only the first year under the State’s new school funding formula.
An analysis of K-12 per pupil revenue by Education Law Center (ELC) shows that the gap in overall funding between wealthy, suburban districts (District Factor Groups I & J) and poor, urban (“Abbott”) districts rose from $901 to $1066 in just one school year. That’s an 18.3% jump in funding disparity.

The Abbott decisions were noble and quixotic: our poor urban children will be treated like royalty! Or at least like kids who live in Short Hills! But we can’t afford to do that anymore, if we ever could, and a reasonable compromise is to educate our needy children – urban, rural, suburban –-at the cost of our middle-income kids. The S.F.R.A. attempts/ed to do that, and it’s not unlike the way we treat our children with disabilities. By federal law, special education children get a free public education, and the analogy their parents are handed every day is “you get a Honda, not a B.M.W.”.

The S.F.R.A. is supposed to give everyone a Honda, a generic education, the drugstore brand. It’s necessary and timely. But Corzine’s most recent cuts threaten to strip the car down so that effort becomes moot: those districts relying on the aid for, say, public preschool for poor kids, are reduced to handing out clunkers and we’re back where we started, saddled with a public school system that that lacks accountability, achievement, efficiency, and equity.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Preschools Get Cut

According to the Star-Ledger, State Treasurer David Rousseau announced yesterday that one of the ways that Corzine is balancing the budget is by eliminating the $25 million for new preschools for non-Abbott districts.

That must hurt. Corzine is bound by the State constitution to produce a balanced budget. Yet, one of his most ambitious initiatives during his term has been to overturn the budget-breaking Abbott decisions in favor of his School Funding Reform Act. A pillar of the S.F.R.A. is that it will fairly distribute money and services to all poor kids, regardless of zip code, and the one of the proofs was the preschool money: aid intended to provide Abbott-like services (like free full-day preschool) to non-Abbott students. With preschool available to all low-income children, Corzine and the D.O.E. could elegantly argue to the courts that Abbott designations were obsolete. So much for that argument. With that $25 million slash, the only poor youngsters guaranteed free full-day preschools are those lucky enough to dwell in Abbott districts.

So, does the School Funding Reform Act, undermined as it is, have a pulse? Can Corzine and the D.O.E. uphold this initiative without equitable funding? Are we willing to recognize that no State can sustain this level of educational spending without going broke?

You Say Deferral, I Say Denial

Corzine is trying to make his decision to delay school aid payments more palatable to school districts by fast-tracking legislation that would allow districts to borrow money and the State to pay the interest. The Asbury Park Press reports that the bill was introduced Monday and passed the Assembly Budget Committee on Tuesday, “bypassing a committee hearing entirely.” The vote comes before both the Assembly and Senate tomorrow.

Reactions from legislators are predictable. Democrats defended Corzine’s decision to defer payments and Republicans threw tomatoes.

From Assemblyman Louis Greenwald, D-Camden:
Delaying a payment for which nobody misses a dime, for which all the costs are incurred, for which no school suffers a lost day, for which no school is closed a day, where teachers' pay is not docked 13 percent as is being done in other states.

From Republican Budget Officer Joe Malone, R-Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean (quoted in New Jersey Newsroom):
Only in New Jersey government can you hear someone say that 19 payments instead of 20 is not a cut. We cannot continue to play the same game and repeating the same mistakes that have led to our current budget problems. ‘Deferring' this payment is like playing musical chairs and when the music stops someone is going to be without a seat.
It all comes down to whether Corzine’s budget sleight-of-hand is an accounting gimmick or a loss of revenue. If it’s just a gimmick, everyone can live with that – after all, strange times call for strange measures. But if history is any teacher, districts won’t ever see the payment since the last time a payment was deferred was 2003 and we’re still waiting. Corzine and, by extension, the D.O.E, are flirting with a real credibility problem.

Side note: For an example of the credibility problem see yesterday’s Star-Ledger story on Roselle Park. The district made elaborate plans for a full-day preschool program for their low-income kids, per D.O.E. instructions, only to have the State reverse course on funding. Superintendent Patrick Spagnoletti remarks,
We already had the program all in place, and then we received notice in March after our budget had been struck that the plan wasn't going to be funded. That's why for one year, we can offer it to anyone who wants it for tuition.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Battelle Report on Bio-Science Education

There’s a new report out from Battelle,an international non-profit science and technology enterprise, called “Taking the Pulse of Bio-Science Education in America: a State-by-State Analysis.” The comprehensive study looks at how well students in the U.S. are being prepared for careers in the biosciences and, more generally, in math and science; how well states are incorporating the biosciences into school curricula; and how extensively students are exposed to bioscience. Battelle used data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test used by every state for 4th, 8th, and 12th graders, A.P. tests, S.A.T. scores, and A.C.T. scores.

Nationally, how are we doing? Says the report, “our nation is falling short.” For example, 52% of 12th graders are at or above a “basic level of achievement for the sciences” and “average scores for 12th graders in the sciences and life sciences have actually declined from 1996-2005.” On a more positive note, science achievement gap between low-income and high-income middle schoolers narrowed slightly. Their bottom line: “High schools are not preparing students to pursue college-level science.”

The report includes a state-by-state breakdown. So how are we doing in New Jersey? Not so bad, compared to other states. Here’s a few data samplings:

Grade 8 NAEP math: we rank 6th among the 50 states, 4th in reading, and 1st in writing.

Grade 8 NAEP science: we rank 20th among the states and 14th in Life Sciences.

While we rank very high (6th) for the number of kids who take the S.A.T.’s, our rank in scores is 33d for math, 42nd for reading, and 36th for writing. (Obviously there’s some correlation there.)

We’re 5th in A.P. math and English test scores above a 3, and also 5th in high school graduation rates.

We’re 2nd in A.P. science test scores above a 3 and 3d in biology scores above a 3.

We rank 8th across the states regarding science teachers with majors in assigned fields. Our numbers of certified science and biology teachers were “not available.”

So, New Jersey gleams a bit in an otherwise grim landscape. It's nice to see a bit of light.

What? D.O.E. Worry?

Here’s the official letter from Katherine P. Attwood, D.O.E. Assistant Commissioner of Finance, explaining what school districts in New Jersey should do in light of Corzine's deferral of June state aid payments. Not to worry: Attwood explains that districts don’t need to change their 2008-2009 budgets in spite of the shortfall, because N.J.S.A. 18:22-44.2 says that if a State payment is not made til the next school budget year, schools can still count the non-payments “as revenue for budget purposes in the current school budget year.”

Phew. Glad that’s cleared up. We don’t get the money but our budgets need not reflect that piece of trivia. Attwood goes on to concede that the delay “may require more districts to borrow for cash flow needs” but the D.O.E. will let us know when the payment will actually show up as soon as they find out: “as soon as it is determined, we will immediately let districts know.”

Meanwhile, some districts will have to take out bank loans to cover the necessities and our new fiscal accountability regulations will, with the help of the State Legislature, be amended right away to facilitate new debt.

Monday, May 18, 2009

D.O.E. Gets Some Remedial Math Tutelage

Ever wonder about the process the D.O.E. goes through when revising Core Curriculum Content Standards? Say, for instance, math curricula? Especially since 40% of New Jersey high school graduates require remedial math courses when they enter N.J. colleges and universities, and 80% of N.J. high school graduates require remedial math courses when they enter N.J. community colleges?

Now you can be a fly on the wall. A group called New Jersey Coalition for World Class Math, which counts as a co-founder a Board of Education member in Bridgewater-Raritan, has a website that chronicles its advocacy for rigorous math standards that prepares our kids for college without the need for remedial courses. This group believes that our poor math achievement is tightly linked to the heavy use of math programs such as “Everyday Math,” a touchy-feely curriculum light on traditional algorithms and memorization and heavy on calculators and games.

After getting stonewalled by the D.O.E., the Coalition started getting trickles of information, including the list of math educators who were writing the State standards. At a State Board of Education meeting, members of the group addressed the D.O.E.’s math standards team and urged them to reject the proposed standards. Amy Flax, a Co-Founder of the Coalition, said,

In 2005, our standards received a “D” grade by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a non-profit organization that conducts research in education. Three states: California, Massachusetts, and Indiana, all received an “A” grade.

Some of the reasons that NJ received a “D” in 2005 are: widespread use of calculators, the lack of memorization of basic facts, the rejection of teaching standard algorithms, insufficient instruction on fractions, obsession with patterns and manipulatives, the over emphasis of estimation, probability and statistics, and not gradually increasing the difficulty of problem solving.

The Coalition also solicited criticism from math professors across the country, including, for example, a Professor Wu from Berkeley, who wrote:

Thank you for filling me in. I have just taken a brief look at the algebra standards, and I was literally stunned speechless by the everywhere presence of solecisms in the document. It is not anywhere near a *mathematical* document by any stretch of the imagination. In mathematics, we insist on precision, clarity, and logical reasoning, at the very least. I could find almost none of these qualities here. If I
were to document the many transgressions against mathematics, I would need a volume.

To the D.O.E.’s credit, they appear to be responsive to concerns expressed by rigor-hungry mathophiles and are revising standards to move away from the trendy and ineffective “Everyday Math.” More worrisome: is there a NJ Coalition for World Class Language Arts or Biology or Social Studies? Would a Dr. Wu with a degree in Biology please edit our standards to eliminate imprecision, lack of clarity, and illogical reasoning?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sunday Leftovers

Star-Ledger: Corzine is “kicking the can down the road" deferring $450 million in state aid payments, mostly for education, until July:
Taxpayers with long memories will recall that a governor by the name of Jim McGreevey used this trick in 2003. McGreevey freed up $296 million in his budget by simply delaying a school aid payment until after July 1.
Asbury Park Press Pokes Corzine’s Budget Magic:
"Governor Corzine keeps sticking his fingers in the dike as new leaks in the state's revenue stream develop daily," said Sen. Anthony Bucco, R-Morris. "It's clear now that he's running out of fingers."
The Philadelphia Inquirer in Reductionist Mood:
New Jersey's passion for quality education and lower property taxes clashed last week as towns worked to resolve school budgets that voters rejected in April.
Ah, if only it were that simple...

"Shot-gun" Town Mergers:

Here's an Asbury Park Press
piece on the need for consolidation in a state "where a whopping 566 municipalities vie for a shrinking pot of state aid and homeowners suffer property taxes that are double the national average."

The paper editorializes on the the odds of a proposed merger of Chester Township and Chester Borough: "the weight of history is against them. There has been only one successful town merger in New Jersey since the 1950s, despite numerous attempts. That occurred in 1997 in Warren County when Hardwick Township absorbed Pohaquarry, population 7."
Whenever we've tried to bring people to the altar it hasn't worked; what we need is a few shotgun weddings," said Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, D-Princeton, who wants "doughnut hole" towns — small boroughs surrounded by larger townships — to share services or merge within the next decade.
Winners of Dysfunctional School Boards of the Week Awards:

First Place goes to Roxbury Township, where, according to The Record,
School Board President John Moschella used his prerogative to prevent two board members from speaking at a public meeting about the defeated budget but both got their chance after the Township Council intervened.
Second Place goes to Greenwich Township Board of Education, which was unable to make quorum at its reorganization meeting after two member refused to show up to protest election results. (Gloucester County Times.)

And an Honorable Mention to Clifton Township, where, the Record reports, during a discussion of the town’s failed budget,
Board member Michael Paitchell responded that even though he has been on the board for three years, he does not know where the money goes and said he had not received answers to budget questions.

Friday, May 15, 2009

State "Delays" School Aid Payments

The Garden State Coalition of Schools just put out a press release regarding their conversation yesterday afternoon with Lucille Davy, who confirms that Corzine will “delay” the next state school aid payment until July. This enables him to do a little bookkeeping abracadabra with the $383 million due and defer the debt until next year.

Does it matter? Depends upon whom you ask. According to an A.P. story in Forbes, Corzine assured everyone that the delay won’t hurt school districts because the State will pay interest on the payment and it’s just a matter of timing. Jersey School Boards Association spokesman Frank Belluscio worried that in 2003, the last time the State deferred a payment, schools never saw the money: "It was almost like a permanent deferral.”

Hmm. What's the difference between a "permanent deferral" and reneging on a commitment? Maybe it's all in the timing.

Commissioner Davy recommends that districts “need to review their cash flow situation immediately to see if they will require borrowing,” according to Garden State Coalition, and suggest districts “use a ‘cash flow summary’ sheet already posted on DOE website.”

School Reform Ex-Lax

It’s de rigueur to blame the teachers’ unions for the constipation gumming up the works of school reform. Andrew Rotherham of Eduwonk says in US News and World Report that“special interest groups” are, indeed, largely responsible for the plodding pace of progress, though lack of civil right law and toothy-policy is also a factor. Proponents of No Child Left Behind had assumed that schools would improve once all the data was out there on failing schools, but “seven years later the political resistance to education reform is as potent as ever and former Bush aides now acknowledge placing too much faith in the power of information.”

Rotherham continues,

Still, parents and students lose in the policy battles more often than they win because that information alone does not force change on powerful stakeholders or the formidable array of special-interest groups resisting reforms with costs for the groups they represent. In that way, education reform is an old story in a representative democracy like ours: The unorganized general interest is often trumped by organized special interests.

So, the problem’s not a lack of market forces driving competition through charters and vouchers. The problem’s not a lack of information (though, as he points out, it’s easier for parents to get documentation on new appliances than schools). Until we wrest away the power from special interest groups and hand it over to unorganized general interest groups (parents, students), school reform will remain a flaccid enterprise.

In New Jersey, though, it’s not fair to blame it all on NJEA. Justice demands that we also place culpability on the fumbling D.O.E., on our mechanisms for school funding, on our home rule-driven inefficiencies and inequities. There’s plenty of candidates, which makes school reform in Jersey that much more intractable.

Groundhog Day for School Aid Payments?

From the Record:

To get out of the current budget year without a deficit, the state will use $450 million from surplus funds and push another $450 million in planned expenses, including school aid payments and business grants, into the new budget.

Is Governor Corzine about to stiff school districts on another state aid payment? The past March 31st, all school district Business Administrators received an email from the D.O.E. with the jaw-dropping news that no one would get their quarterly aid payments due the next day and districts could either suck it up or defer pension payments. Is this going to be a regular thing, Guv?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Whistling Dixie in Jersey

School districts and town councils continue to wrestle with failed budgets, and one puzzling item keeps appearing in news report: calls on the part of council members, perhaps serving as taxpayer megaphones, to cut teacher salaries in spite of the legal standing of negotiated contracts. Are they being naïve? Are they being obnoxious? Who knows.

In Wayne, the Record reports that the Township Council ordered a $1.75 million dollar cut to the defeated $118.6 million budget, although the Council President Joseph Scuralli voted against it, arguing that the cuts didn’t go far enough and that administrators and teachers should take pay cuts.
Tonight I am not supporting this because I think the board could have gone further. I think the union could have put something on the table. It doesn’t have to do with children — it has to do with adults.
In Moorestown, 500 people, mostly teacher union members, attended the Town Council’s meeting on the failed $68.5 million budget. According to the Burlington County Times,
The council, which is required by law to review and possibly make changes to the budget, has suggested reducing teachers' raises from 5 percent to 3 percent, freezing wages for administrators and principals who earn more than $100,000, and having district employees contribute 5 percent toward health insurance.
Acting Mayor John Button said that council members were merely offering ideas to reduce the budget and were “not trying to negotiate school contracts,’” but trying “to fix a very difficult and complex problem.”

It's actually not "very difficult and complex;" it's simple. Districts can't reduce costs in any meaningful way when about 85% of the nut come from contractual obligations, transportation, and utilities. This year,districts are finding some savings around the edges. For example, the Ramsey Borough Council (see here) is recommending to the local Board that they lay off aids, reduce middles school sports, and cut some extracurricular activities. The Mount Olive Town Council (here) is recommending eliminating courtesy busing (transportation for kids who live within the State’s limit of 2 and ½ miles), middle school sports, ice hockey, and new technology purchases.

These cuts hurt a little and save a little. But what happens next year when contractual teacher salary increases go up between 4% and 5% (that’s about average across the State) and there’s little left to cut? That’s when districts will have no choice but to lay off staff and increase class sizes. There’s nowhere else to go as long as contracts – untouchable, in spite of the pipedreams of town council members --- mandate unsustainable salary increases and health benefits.

N.J. Cheats Charters?

Jessani Gordon, Executive Director of the New Jersey Charter Public Schools Association, writes today about New Jersey’s “historic failure” to adequately fund charter school students. State law mandates that these kids get 90% of the amount budgeted for public district school students, but they actually get about 78%.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Chiusano: All Evil Springs from Abbott

Assemblyman Gary Chiusano (Republican 24th District) is writing a series of editorials in the new New Jersey Newsroom, a web-based newspaper started by about 40 of the laid-off journalists from the Star-Ledger. The first entry in Chiusano’s series, “The ABC’s of Why Your Property Taxes are so High,” amounts to a screed against Abbott districts and the jurists who created them. Here’s a sampling:

We pay more and more in property taxes because the Court – with the connivance of Abbott bureaucrats and activists – have continued to tweak the Abbott decisions to take more state funding away from the middle class school children. The number of suburban districts that receive essentially no classroom aid has gone up from 140 to 260. To add insult to injury, just last year many members of our state legislature who are supporters of the Abbott Districts even had the impudence to improperly rely upon the Court’s Abbott decisions to justify their approval bonding for another $3.9 BILLION for school construction in these districts without even allowing you a vote.

Let’s toss Assemblyman Chiusano a valium and concede that he makes a few valid points. Our Abbott districts are overfunded and do suffer from a lack of accountability. Chiusano writes, “Handed down by an unelected and unaccountable judiciary, these decisions made per-pupil spending the criteria by which education would be judged in New Jersey. Results no longer mattered – spending did.” That’s true. The State Supreme Court did say that educational equity can be measured by money spent, and we now know that it’s not that simple.

The Assemblyman then points to other states that use a per-pupil cost for a “basic education” and says we should do the same. Actually, that exactly what the D.O.E. is trying to do. They call it an “adequacy formula,” and penalize districts who spend more than that. The problem is that the data shows that educating poor kids costs more than educating wealthier kids. While it’s appealing to put a dollar figure on a “basic education,” that number can shift for a variety of reasons, including poverty and disability.

Curiously, Chiusano ignores the current court battle over Corzine’s Spending Formula Reform Act, which would overturn the Abbott designations and channel money directly to needy children. While there’s plenty of reason to distrust both the formula and the D.O.E.’s ability to implement it, the SFRA does address many of Chiusano’s concerns.

He’d be a bit more credible and maybe even a little less strident if he looked at another reason why we spend so much on education in New Jersey: our inefficient and expensive reliance on over 600 school districts to educate our children. That’s a situation worth a bit of Chiusano’s bile.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Quote of the Day

Fixing [U.S. underperforming schools] is itself a multi-faceted challenge. In some cases, money is the issue. Local financing of schools means that students in rich areas are lavished with resources, whereas schools in poor areas are often starved. On the other hand, money is not the whole story. High-tax jurisdictions, such as Washington DC, have among the highest rates of spending per pupil in the country, and among the worst test scores.

The keys – and here comes the political challenge – are accountability and competition. However you do it, through school vouchers if you want to be radical, or the faster expansion of self-governing charter schools if you do not, the crucial thing is to give parents alternatives to failing schools. This means firing the worst teachers and shutting the worst schools. Teachers’ unions have a death grip on the system and are having none of it. In many parts of the country, sacking a teacher, however incompetent, is next to impossible. Will Mr Obama dare to face down this powerful Democratic party constituency?

The Financial Times’ Clive Crook,
who references the McKinsey report, which quantified the economic impact of our failing school system and ranked U.S. students’ academic achievement 18th out of 24 industrialized countries.

Pyrrhic Victory for NJEA

Teacher unions have been under more scrutiny lately, especially the tenure laws that force districts to retain incompetent instructors (see here from the L.A. Times on teachers paid not to teach, and here from the St. Petersburg Times called “It’s Hard to Fire Teachers, Even if They’re Bad.”) A little closer to home, the Star-Ledger writes today about a case in Monmouth County in the Manalapan-Englishtown Regional School District. A seventh-grade English teacher was accused by the principal of the school of being incompetent and drinking on the job. In lieu of the district pursuing tenure charges, she agreed to retire on disability payments after a doctor said she had "organic brain syndrome, a condition marked by confusion, agitation and lapses in judgment and memory.” So she retired and the district dropped the case.

Ten years later, the teacher said she was recovered and ready to teach. The district declined her offer, she filed suit in 2002, and now both the Education Commissioner and the State Supreme Court have ordered Manalapan-Englishtown to reinstate her; Lucille Davy gets to decide whether she gets her back-pay.

The Ledger says that the case was “followed closely” by the NJEA, which filed a friend of the court brief.

Who gets to buy the celebratory first round?

Seriously, it’s this sort of nonsense that makes NJEA look ridiculously out of touch with reality.

Monday, May 11, 2009

From Booker's "A Hard Look at Education"

  • I have no loyalty to charter schools, traditional public schools, magnet schools, small school models, publicly funded scholarships (vouchers) or private schools. I have loyalty to results. The important question should not be one of philosophy or political perspective, it should be: What is working to empower poor and minority children to have the same educational opportunities in America as those who are more affluent? We should embrace those successful school models, learn from them, infuse that understanding into all of our reform efforts and no longer tolerate any institution that fails to live up to our common community standards of excellence.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker, writing for Huffington Post, of all places.

Charter School Fever

There’s been a fair amount of buzz regarding David Brooks’ column in the New York Times this past Friday. Brooks highlights The Promise Academy, a charter school operated by Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, and makes the somewhat astounding claim that the school “had eliminated the black-white achievement gap” in math. The proof is in the test scores: according to Brooks’ numbers, 8th graders at The Promise Academy score between 1.3 and 1.4 standard deviations above other 8th graders across New York City. He’s smitten, waxing rhapsodic on HCZ’s achievements, which include infusing massive amounts of social services into a neighborhood and running charter schools that “create a disciplined, orderly and demanding counterculture to inculcate middle-class values.” (For a more measured discussion of Canada's quest, see this Slate analysis.)

Call it Charter Fever, the trendy, contagious ague that grips those who recognize the failure of our public school system to address the woes that ail poor urban students. Victims include Joel Klein and Al Sharpton at the Education Equality Project in N.Y.C., L.A.'s Ramon Cortines and Green Dot, Cory Booker in Newark, KIPP-fanciers, Arne Duncan with his $300 million stimulus package to cities that loosen up charter school restrictions, Michael Bloomberg.

Is it a sickness or is it the cure?

Brooks’ febrile column gets some tylenol from Aaron Pallas, a former guest-blogger at eduwonkette who now blogs at Pallas put up a post the same day as Brooks’ piece appeared called “Just How Gullible is David Brooks?” Read it yourself because the details are fascinating. Pallas decides “to drink a bit more deeply from the datastream” and shows that the results Brooks points to are actually a statistical aberration.

In the HCZ Annual Report for the 2007-08 school year submitted to the State Education Department, data are presented on not just the state ELA and math assessments, but also the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Those eighth-graders who kicked ass on the state math test? They didn’t do so well on the low-stakes Iowa Tests. Curiously, only 2 of the 77 eighth-graders were absent on the ITBS reading test day in June, 2008, but 20 of these 77 were absent for the ITBS math test. For the 57 students who did take the ITBS math test, HCZ reported an average Normal Curve Equivalent (NCE) score of 41, which failed to meet the school’s objective of an average NCE of 50 for a cohort of students who have completed at least two consecutive years at HCZ Promise Academy.

Okay, fine. Brooks had a bad day, or at least a weak journalistic one. The statistically significant drop-off in participation in the math test vs. the reading list is troubling, especially to the growing number of New Jersey charter school devotees. But the Promise Academy still holds promise, and here in Jersey we need to push on.

Here’s a paradox for you. New Jersey public schools are regulated by the state and federal governments, which leads to standardization and uniformity of curriculum. (Over the past year we’ve witnessed a tightening of state regulation to the point of strangulation.) In addition, the NJEA tightly controls instructional time and nixes merit pay, adhering to an industrial model that reduces each teacher to a cog in a wheel. Finally, New Jersey, more than any other state in the union, has divided its student population into so many tiny pieces – 617, to be exact – that each district tends towards a homogeneity unheard of in the rest of the country.

However, we also know (getting back to HCZ) that children from impoverished backgrounds require different support and instructional strategies than children from more privileged backgrounds. In fact, our Abbott districts are also called “special needs districts,” the same turn of phrase used to refer to children with disabilities. It’s a tacit acknowledgment that poor kids require individualized instruction and special supports that are anathema to our current model of standardized programs and teachers.

On the one hand we have an extreme form of NJEA-and-D.O.E.-enforced uniformity among our school districts. On the other hand, we have a swelling population of kids who need non-standardized accommodations to succeed. It’s impossible to reconcile the two competing models within our current educational infrastructure.

In New Jersey, this sort of model is only available in the form of a charter school. We’ve got to resist the fever of over-exuberance, use caution with statistics, and continue the experiment.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Sunday Leftovers

Fallout from school Budget Failures:

While about 70% of school budgets passed in New Jersey on April 21st, the ones that failed to gain voter approval now go to local Town Councils. That doesn’t mean the budgets necessarily get reduced – the D.O.E. bars reduction, regardless of local voters, if the district is spending below “adequacy” level -- and the districts above the level can always appeal the cuts.

In Edison, reports the Star-Ledger, voters said “no” to the $203 million budget even though raises were held down and the district got stiffed on a lot of State aid. In Plainfield, an Abbott district, voters rejected the 8% tax increase, but, explains mycentraljersey, special needs districts are now being required to pick up more of their school tab and the vote was moot. In Hamilton, says the Trentonian,

The budget was voted down by a slim margin of voters in last month’s school election, but state law regarding school funding levels allow school boards to disregard the vote and pass them anyway.

In Roxbury, the failed $70.2 million led to the Town Council’s suggestion of a $1.1 million cut, but Superintendent Michael Rossi said the recommendation was "a total surprise and shock to me," reports the Record. An appeal seems likely. In Parsippany, also says the Record, the Board President is so fearful of school board members speaking to Town Council about the failed budget that he’s announced the appointment of a 3-member ad-hoc committee (which includes himself) and imposed a gag rule on the other 6 members of the school board. (That’s illegal, by the way.)

Why do we bother? April budget votes are a waste of money and time. The D.O.E. is imposing strict limits on spending. Failed budgets end up in Town Councils that are unschooled in education finance, and districts almost always appeal cuts. The whole exercise contributes to voter cynicism and anger.

Get rid of budget votes. Move school board elections to November.

Let's Lighten up on the Obama Kids:

Megan McArdle of the Atlantic Monthly, usually insightful and sane, lashes out at the Obamas' decision to put their kids in private school. Her real anger is directed toward the Obama Administration's weak-kneed response to the pending elimination of the D.C. voucher program, perhaps a better target than parents who don't use their kids as political symbols.

If you know me on this issue, you know that I am very, very upset. And that I think that there is probably a special place in hell reserved for politicians who betray our nation's most helpless children for the benefit of a sullen and recalcitrant teacher's union. There they spend all eternity explaining to their victims why they couldn't possibly have risked their precious babies' future in the public school system, yet felt perfectly free to fling other peoples' children into it by the thousands.
The Record: Kill the School Ethics Commission:

The Daily Record takes aim at the School Ethics Commission, which is supposed to regulate the behavior of school board members. It’s a worthless layer of governmental interference, the piece says, taking a year and a half to issue a 7-page report regarding the rights of a Washington Township school board committee that sent out a press release.

Can't Hack it on Wall Street? Teach!:

The New York Times reports today
on the rush of laid-off finance workers in New Jersey to programs that offer short-cuts to math and science teaching certifications. Too bad these people are unemployed, but it's not a bad thing for the NJEA to get a little rattled by potential teachers molded by private industry's work ethic.

Mulshine on Lonegan's Willingness to Wade into the Abbott Mess:

Paul Mulshine has an editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal
on the NJ GOP division: should they pick a moderate after the mold of Christine Whitman or go for the red meat? Steve Lonegan, in Mulshine’s view, meets the criteria of someone bold/brash/clueless enough to go after serious financial reform, including school funding:

One surprising divide within Republican ranks is over policies aimed at serving suburban voters. Stretching back to the mid-1980s, a series of lawsuits have compelled the state to spend an exorbitant amount of money on a handful of largely urban school districts, called "Abbott Districts" after the original court case. Abbott Districts are a hot issue because suburbanites in many of the 585 other districts pay income taxes to fund schools in these 31 districts while also paying steep property taxes for their own schools.

The situation has been politically untouchable because Abbott Districts tend to have large ethnic minority populations. Proposals to cut suburban income taxes invariably run into racial politics. I can't count the number of times a mainstream Republican has cornered me in the Statehouse to say that anyone who proposes suburban tax relief will be branded a racist.

For a sympathetic look at Lonegan's rocky rise in politics, see today's Star-Ledger.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Swine Whine

LUARC, the Local Unit Alignment Reorganization and Consolidation Commission, is ready to get serious about consolidating “doughnut hole” communities with their surrounding municipalities. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that LUARC Commissioner Robert F. Casey announced 26 possible mergers in North Jersey, though he doesn’t have the authority to mandate any mergers, but can only make “strong recommendations.”

New Jersey has more towns and cities per square mile than any state in America.

Think of it this way. With all the hoopla about Swine Flu (or H1N1, if you want to get technical), school districts across New Jersey started preparing for possible epidemics. Because each district is responsible for its own operations and calendars, over 500 superintendents and other school officials spent a couple of days last week on conference calls with the D.O.E., meeting with local health departments, gathering data, writing memos to thousands of school board members, writing separate letters to parents, meeting with local union officials, fielding tons of phone calls. We could try to put a dollar figure on the time spent based on annual salaries of superintendents, but that would be scary.

Might it have been a better use of resources to have our esteemed Executive County Superintendents perform these tasks and make decisions on a county-wide basis?

Quote of the Day

New Jersey will go bankrupt in 10 to 20 years because we cannot afford our employees as a state. I’m talking about every worker from the cities and counties to the state government. Eventually, we’re going to price ourselves out as a government or tax ourselves to death.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker in an interview with Bloomberg Radio regarding rising expenses for health care, pension, and salaries due to a state bogged down by 566 towns and cities, 617 school districts, and 21 counties.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Moorestown and Willingboro: Separate and Unequal

Two of our favorite towns made the news today: Moorestown and Willingboro of Burlington County. They’re nine miles apart, but seem to exist in alternate universes (except for the fact that both towns voted down their school budgets: stories here and here).

If you live on the right side of the tracks in Moorestown, you get a school district where every school made Adequate Yearly Progress. If you live on the wrong side of the tracks in Willingboro, you get a district where the high school hasn’t made AYP in 5 years, the middle school hasn’t made it in 4, and half the elementary schools are listed as Schools in Need of Improvement. In Moorestown, 98.3% of the seniors graduate through the HSPA, the regular 11th grade test, and only 2.7% fall back on the SRA, which is the alternative assessment used for kids who fail the HSPA 3 times. In Willingboro, 48% of the kids pass the HSPA and 39.5% get their diplomas based on the SRA. In Moorestown, average SAT scores for math, verbal, and essay were 581, 564, and 555 last year. In Willingboro the average scores were 409, 416, and 412. In Moorestown, 21% of 11th and 12th graders took AP courses (342 kids) and in Willingboro 2.4% of 11th and 12th graders took AP courses (19 kids total, which is better than last year when 1.2% took AP courses).

It’s the money, right? They must be spending more per pupil in toney Moorestown, must have smaller classes, better technology. Hardly. Cost per pupil in Moorestown is $13,318. Cost per pupil in Willingboro is $13,892. (D.O.E. data here.)

Why the litany? Because these two districts are an object lesson in what’s wrong with the way we educate kids in New Jersey. Should an accident of geography determines a kid’s academic path?

Yes, we’re being reductive. Moorestown’s District Factor Group (socio-economic ranking) is I on a scale of A through J. Willingboro is listed as a DE. The minority population in Moorestown is about 10%; it’s 75% in Willingboro. Fine. Wealthy families flock to Moorestown for the bucolic vistas and great schools. One of the reasons Willingboro's budget went down was because the public couldn't square any tax increase with a decreasing population. People vote with their feet. But should a public education system segregate kids through ethnicity and poverty? Is there an ethical dimension to our affection for home rule?

New Jersey is riddled with Moorestown/Willingboro educational polarities; you can replicate the division of opportunity in every county. Does that make it right?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Green Dot's Steve Barr

Great Douglas McGray article in the May 11th issue of The New Yorker on Steve Barr of Green Dot, the charter school group in Los Angeles. Only the abstract's online now but it's worth the $4.99. Barr's got an aggressive model that takes over chronically failing high schools in neighborhoods like Watts (he gets staff support by allowing unions but not tenure) and has attracted the support of Ramone Cortines, L.A. Superintendent, A.F.T.'s Randy Weingarten, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who summoned Barr to Washington and told him, "You seem to have cracked the code."

Update: here's the link to the full article.

High School Can of Worms

Derrell Bradford of E3 (Excellent Education for Everyone) has a new column out that slams the D.O.E.’s Special Review Assessment, the test that high schoolers take to graduate after they fail the HSPA three times. It’s a controversial test – Asssemblyman Joseph Cryan has called its overuse “criminal” while others argue that its necessary for kids who don’t “test well.” Bradford writes,

The rest of us believe that, though standards and testing are vital, what they reveal about student achievement is what’s important. And that the failure by between 11,000 and 15,000 students annually to pass the High School Proficiency Assessment– described by state Education Commissioner Lucille Davy as a “middle school level test,” which is passable with a 50 percent– is symptomatic of massive K-12 failure, ridiculous social promotion policies, and a conspiracy to disguise failure as success while propping up the state’s inflated graduation rate.

The scandal, he notes, is not limited to marginal students struggling in remedial courses. In fact, 90% of SRA users passed Algebra 1, 86% passed Geometry, 71% passed Algebra 2, and 91% passed Biology.

In other words, high school students who successfully pass our most advanced high school courses fail a middle-school math test. Is the HSPA deeply flawed? Probably not – it’s a pretty standard high-stakes test. Are our high school math and science courses too easy? Maybe, though all schools are required to follow the NJ Core Curriculum Standards, which carefully lay out a detailed curriculum for each course. Bradford lays the blame on poor quality of instruction, pointing out that 42% of prospective New Jersey teachers failed the math portion of the Praxis certification exam.

A blog called EduInsights describes a high school teacher’s experience with the N.J. certification test for physics:

If you have been following my earlier posts, you can guess how NJ got the physics people to pass chemistry and the chemistry people to pass physics. It just set very low standards. To earn physical science certification NJ required three tests. For physics, they used the one-hour Praxis II (10261) test of physics content knowledge, for chemistry the one-hour Praxis II (20241) test of chemistry content knowledge. [They also required a Praxis II test in General Science (10431) that includes biology.] The pre-2004 NJ cut-scores were a 119 for chemistry (19% of the scaled points possible) and a 113 for physics (13% of the scaled points possible).

In other words, the scandal is not limited to the awarding of a N.J. high school diploma to students who can’t pass an 8th grade math test. The scandal is also the low standards set for teachers who instruct these students. (To be fair, the low requirements are not limited to N.J. – you can check check cut-offs here – though we are on the low side for math.) To further muddy the waters, the D.O.E. is now pushing hard on their High School Reform, which is meant to raise standards for high school graduation and apparently includes requiring students who can’t pass middle school tests to take advanced courses taught by teachers who can’t pass teacher tests.

New Jersey prides itself on its high school graduation rates. However, if students receive diplomas without core knowledge, then that diploma is a meaningless measurement. If our goal is to increase student achievement in New Jersey, then we have to look beyond student test scores and delve more deeply into state-mandated curriculum, teaching qualifications and accountability, and grade inflation.