Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Posting Will Be Light This Week...

as njleftbehind leaves New Jersey behind for a few days. We'll be back this weekend, rarin' to go.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Fun Fact

New Jersey was the first state in the U.S. to pass a law giving tenure to teachers. That was in 1909, and the purpose was to "protect teachers from the whims of autocratic principals and patronage allocating administrators. Until then, teachers could be fired for speaking up, questioning educational practices, or merely because an administrator wished to give the job to someone else for political reasons or nepotism."

That's from a report from The Center for American Progress by Joan Baratz-Snowden called "Fixing Tenure: A Proposal for Assuring Teacher Effectiveness and Due Process." Among the suggestions for improving teacher quality while protecting teachers from arbitrary job dismissal are:

1) Get rid of the term "tenure" and use "continuing employment status."
2) Overhaul current provisions for job protection: 3 years is too short a time.
3) "Continuing employment status" should only be awarded after considering evidence of student learning.
4) New models for tenure must be created collaboratively with the teachers unions or they won't work.

It's a great read, and especially relevant now that a few unions in other states have been progressive in working with charters that require new models: think the new contract between Steve Barr's Green Dot charter school in the Bronx and the UFT which does not contain the word "tenure." Huh? Read Gothamschool's excellent post here.

Press of A.C. and NJSBA Slam Assembly for Kowtowing to NJEA

The Press of Atlantic City's Editorial Board comments on two of the bill proposals that passed unanimously in the Assembly’s Education Committee last week. One, that they call well-intentioned, but micro-managing, disallows districts from charging students for extra-curricular activities. The other, they write, “seems aimed at garnering support from the New Jersey Education Association at the expense of taxpayers.” That’s Bill A-4140, the one that tells local school districts that they can’t subcontract out work, even if it’s cheaper to do so. (See our post here.)

The New Jersey School Boards Association also released a statement that not only condemned Bill A-4140, but also A-4142, which gives tenure-like protection to teachers who don’t have tenure (see our post here). Marie Bilik, NJSBA Executive Director, also faulted the process that went into the, uh, deliberations: the June 22nd Monday morning committee meeting was first announced at 6:46 p.m. on Friday, June 19th, and no drafts of the legislation were available until right before the meeting. Said Bilik,
Today’s committee meeting is a clear example of why the public needs to watch the Legislature, and watch it closely, during an election year. In seeking not to alienate the teachers union, the majority of committee members today approved two bills that are not in the interest of education or taxpayers—especially in these harsh economic times.
We've heard it suggested that this NJEA show of brute force through manipulation of the political process is meant to be an elegant reminder of the power they hold in an educational environment that seems to be getting a little bolder in advocating for non-traditional strategies, like charter schools and merit pay. We've also heard it suggested that these bills will get lost in Assembly purgatory and passing the bills in the Assembly Education Committee was a sort of cynical handful of crumbs tossed to the union as a face-saving offering. It doesn't matter. Senator Shirley Turner's Education Committee has no business passing quietly passing bills that hurt kids and school districts.

Snaps to the Press and NJSBA for speaking forcefully about the Assembly Education Committee's shameless pandering to NJEA.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Quote of the Day

The NEA's letter [to U.S. Senators claiming erroneously, according to the WSJ, that the D.C. voucher program lowered student achievement] was a pre-emptive strike against the possibility that 750,000 students in military families would benefit from vouchers. That idea was raised in a Senate hearing this month, when military families explained that frequent moves and inconsistent schooling was harmful to their children. "The creation of a school voucher program should be considered," Air Force wife Patricia Davis dared to say.

President Obama pledged to support whatever works in schools, ideology notwithstanding. But neither he nor Mr. Duncan have dared to speak truth to the power of the NEA. Military families can join urban parents on the list of those who matter less to the NEA than does maintaining the failed status quo.

Wall Street Journal Editorial on the NEA’s opposition to allowing military families to use school vouchers.

Sunday Leftovers

Bobby Jindal Emulates New Jersey:
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is apparently a fan of N.J.’s Special Review Assessment, a test that N.J. high school seniors take after they fail the standard assessment three times. The Advocate reports that a member of the Board of Elementary And Secondary Education, Chas Roemer (son of former governor Buddy Roemer) publicly criticized Jindal’s “support for legislation that would offer public high school students a “career diploma” in a bid to trim the dropout rate.”

Supports Tougher Graduation Requirements:
Also bear in mind that New Jersey is well behind in making these changes, possibly because educators fear graduation rates for the Garden State — No. 1 in the nation — will slip as a result. More likely, those rates will now better reflect the quality of the job the Garden State is doing to prepare its children for the rigors of later life; nearly half the states have stiffened their graduation standards in recent years, many demanding more than New Jersey does.
U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Favors Parents of Special Needs Kids,

At least if they have lots of disposable income. The Court ruled 5-4 this week (here's the ruling) that parents had the right to place children with disabilities in private placements without school district consent and then sue for reimbursement. Unclear how this squares with the Individual with Disabilities Education Act, which requires placement in the "least restrictive environment."

Star-Ledger Features Series on Struggles of a Private Special Education School:

John Mooney's 4-part series reviews the educational successes and bureaucratic tribulations of Garden Academy in West Orange, a school that serves severely autistic children for a tuition of $80,000 per year.

Loch Arbour Update:

The tiny village in Atlantic County has asked a Superior Court judge to “postpone implementation of the state's new school funding formula to stave off a 400-percent tax increase for its residents," reports the Star Ledger. Loch Arbour has been paying $300,000 a year for school taxes to send their few resident children to a nearby district, but if SFRA is implemented then the average household would see a property tax increase of $12,000 per year. Then again, the average home price is $1.4 million.

Asbury Park Press Says "No" to Public Preschools:
Mandatory preschool in the current economic climate makes no sense. Even in good times, the long-term value of keeping 3- and 4-year-olds in school for 6 and 7 hours a day — not counting the time getting there and back — is debatable. What isn't debatable is that it will be expensive — $11,205 to $12,596 per pupil — and everyone will pay for it, regardless of the funding source...Taxes are taxes are taxes. Davy and her boss, Gov. Jon S. Corzine, aren't taking the millions of dollars it will cost to babysit — er, teach — kids barely out of diapers out of their own personal bank accounts.
Dysfunctional School Board of the Week:

And the winner is the Sussex-Wantage School Board of Education, which voted 5-3 this week to press ethics charges against former President and current member Arthur Jacobs. Allegations are that he gave confidential information to former board members and a local newspaper and repeatedly accused the current Board President of nepotism, reports The New Jersey Herald.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Assembly Committee: Give Tenure Rights to Non-Tenured Teachers

What’s with the Assembly Education Committee? On the one hand, they’re squirting out preposterous bills that prohibit districts from finding cheaper ways to provide non-educational services and getting rid of incompetent teachers; on the other hand, they keep telling us to be efficient and accountable. Just this week they released two bills, both strongly backed by NJEA. One would prohibit districts from privatizing food and custodial services. Another gives tenure-like rights to non-tenured teachers.

The latter is worth a closer look, though it’s gotten little media attention.

Assemblyman Joseph Cryan sponsored a bill labeled A-4142 this week in the Assembly Education Committee. The Committee unanimously approved it. This bill prohibits school districts from dismissing non-tenured employees without arbitration. It’s instant tenure, life long job security from the moment you walk in the door. Yes, school boards can arbitrate but it’s such a long,expensive process that many won’t even bother.

This bill came as a big surprise to the New Jersey Supervisors and Administrators Association, especially since the Appellate Division of New Jersey Superior Court decided two cases recently that came to opposite conclusions. NJPSA Staff Counsel David Nash describes Northvale Board v. Northvale Education Association, in which the union charged that the termination of a part-time teacher and part-time secretary, neither tenured, couldn’t be done without “just cause.” The court held that as long as the district gave the contractual 60 days notice the district was permitted to the dismissal. The second case was Pascack Valley Regional High School Board of Education v. Pasack Valley Regional Support Staff Association, which involved a mid-year termination of a custodian. The union argued that arbitration was necessary because the dismissal was a form of “discipline,” but the court said the district gave the contractual 15-day notice. Seems clear enough – if you’re not tenured, then you can be dismissed if given the proper notice.

Well, maybe not clear enough. If A4140 passes into legislation, tenure protection written into collective bargaining agreements will extend to individual contracts, i.e., contracts between a district and an untenured employee. Here’s the exact language from the proposed bill:
In all cases, the terms of a collectively negotiated agreement shall supersede the terms of any individual contract between a public employer and individual public employee whose position is within the bargaining unit covered by the collective agreement. No term or provision in such an individual contract may be applied or interpreted in a manner which limits, restricts, or circumscribes, or has the effect of limiting, restricting, or circumscribing a provision or right contained within the collective agreement.
Okay. All employees who are members of a bargaining unit – in other words, all teachers, aides, custodians, etc. who work for a school district, even if they’ve worked there for a week or a day – cannot be dismissed unless the district is ready to go to court. In spite of the fact that districts everywhere are laying off (or getting ready to lay off) staff because the State has cut aid or reneged on mandated aid payments, districts can’t reduce the number of non-tenured staff.

The Garden State Coalition of Schools has a little write-up about the bill, which notes that there was a “lack of transparency” about the proceedings of the Education Committee because there was “virtually no public notice, no vetting allowed by abrupt process.” The GSC also notes that the bill amounts to a “mixed message: district cost-saving measures nullified while legislature tells districts they spend too much.”

Maybe this is a good thing. The union-backed bill (hey, even the NJSBA called it a union-backed bill) egregiously places teachers’ rights to lifetime employment and benefits over the ability of a school to be fiscally responsible and fair to kids. Is there any clearer indication that the leadership of NJEA values job protection, even without tenure, over competent teaching or fiscal solvency? What an embarrassment to the many good teachers who care about educating children.

Quote of the Day

The New Jersey Teachers Union and its advocates, Corzine among them, is against vouchers, charter schools and anything that smacks of competition. But The Times [see our post here]reports the Democrats who have broken with the NJEA include Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Sen. Ray Lesniak, South Jersey political broker George Norcross, the Rev. Reginald Jackson of the Black Ministers Council and Martin Perez of the Latino Leadership Alliance. Some heavy hitters. And smart folks who see the education system is failing, especially in urban areas, needs to be fixed. This is the kind of campaign from which heroes emerge.

Corzine and his education department show no interest in making real reforms. Christie told the NJEA he wasn't interested in seeking its endorsement, a smart move since it will go to Corzine anyway. He faces a risk of alienating its 200,000 members but most of them are smart enough to see the political games played in their name. The dedicated teachers want a great education system. They know failure when they see it. The union wants to collect dues and throw its weight around. The kids are an after thought.
Bob Ingle of the Courier Post's Politics Patrol on Christie's strategy of offending the teachers union and achieving alliances with "heavy hitters" dedicated to school reform.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

10 U.S. Senators Endorse a Reform Education Agenda

Can you say “momentum?” President Obama received a letter today from Senators Evan Bayh, Tom Carper, Blanche Lincoln, May Landrieu, Michael Bennet, Joseph Lieberman, Bill Nelson, Claire McCaskill, Mark Warner, and Herb Kohl. Ascribing their fellowship to joint membership in the "Moderate Democrats Working in the United States Senate" (Lieberman? Whatever), their letter addresses the need for education reform, noting that “academic achievement is too low for many students and over 1.2 million students drop out of high school every year."

The letter then goes on to endorse “a number of education reform proposals put forth in your Fiscal Year 2010 budget.” These include:

1) dedicating “increased resources to the Teacher Incentive Fund” which should “support states and districts that recognize student achievement to be the most important indicator of an educator’s performance. They specifically note “new compensation systems.”
2) “We support the expanding the number of effective charter schools.”
3) “We support.your Administration’s desire to extend student learning time.”
4) “We believe our education agenda should be driven by accurate information….”

In other words, merit pay, more charter schools, extended school years, and data- driven growth models to track student performance. Sound familiar? Maybe we’re actually moving towards a national consensus.

Hey, NJEA: How About County-Wide Contract Negotiations?

A teacher contract resolution in Ramsey (Bergen County) is the subject of opposing op-eds in The Record. First, former Ramsey mayor and brand-new School Board member Richard Muti bemoans the recent contract settlement, arrived at after two years of (non-binding) arbitration. The four-year agreement gives Ramsey educators a 16.9% raise over the course of the contract without any health insurance givebacks, according to Muti.
Ramsey has about 330 teachers, and in the next school year, 51 of them will have salaries of $100,000 or more, 23 will get $90,000 to $100,000, and 21 more will get $80,000 to $90,000. That’s for a 10-month work year. None of them contributes toward health insurance: single coverage for untenured teachers, full family benefits for tenured.
Muti also complains that the teachers stopped writing college recommendations, took days off “en masse,” and generally behaved badly during the drawn-out mediation process.

Yesterday, however, Joseph Tondi, the New Jersey Education Association's field representative for the Ramsey Teachers Association, offered a different version. Contrary to Muti’s claims, Tondi says that most Ramsey teachers make some contribution towards their premiums and accommodated the seniors by offering student information to subject supervisors (who wrote the recommendations).
Ultimately, the agreement was based on the recommendation of a neutral fact finder, appointed by the state, who took testimony from both sides about the district's financial situation and crafted a mutually satisfactory proposal. The fantasy of strong-arm union tactics and a system skewed in favor of one side is just that: a fantasy.
Here’s a Record piece that details the actual settlement, and here’s the full report from the State Fact-Finder. Best as we can tell, the teachers asked for no change in health insurance premiums, a 5.25% annual salary increase, and a 4-day reduction in their work year. The Ramsey Board asked for an increase in work days for new hires and two options: yearly increases in pay of 4.7%, 4.4%, and 4.2% for each year with givebacks in health insurance premiums or 3.9% yearly increases with no givebacks. The Board also wanted to eliminate traditional coverage and provide paid insurance coverage through a PPO or POS plan, which saves money. The Fact Finder kept the work year the same for everyone and proclaimed,
Therefore I recommend that there be no changes in the health insurance and that salaries be increased by 4.2% in each of the three years of the agreement
So who’s right? Your guess is as good as mine, but it’s a window into a collective bargaining process that takes place every three years in over 600 districts in New Jersey with relatively untrained volunteers (School Boards) pitted against representatives from NJEA. Now, school board members have the option of taking a crash course from NJSBA on the ABC’s of negotiation, but that’s hardly enough ammo for a seasoned NJEA rep. It’s one reason, though only one, why our teacher salaries are so out of line with cost of living adjustments.

Why don't we change from a system of individual district negotiations -- best defined as a redundancy that contributes mightily to inequity among our 600 school districts -- and experiment with county-wide negotiations? It would streamline the process, save money and time (think about it: 600 negotiating committees with 600 Board-appointed lawyers whose fees are footed by residents), and slightly smooth the peaks and valleys between districts. There's no way we're going to lower costs of education in the Garden State -- now the highest per pupil in the country -- unless we start the process of regionalization. Contract negotiation might be a good place to start.

As the Ramsey settlement stands, teachers will indeed get 16.9% increases over the next four years (though not necessarily per teacher – individual raises are determined by union’s salary guide) and will not contribute to their health insurance premiums, which remain at single coverage for untenured teachers and full family coverage for tenured teachers, paid in full by the taxpayers of Ramsey. (The district estimates a full benefits package at about $19,000 per employee.) It’s a triumph for the Ramsey Education Association, even without the full increase and other frills requested .

But how much of a triumph? Certainly, our teachers deserve fair and professional wages. But when the Ramsey Board of Education starts working on their 2010-2011 budget, they will be cutting programs because just paying the teachers will put them above the mandated 4% cap. It’s an unsustainable enterprise, at least for the children, who will lose services, and for taxpayers, who will pay the bill.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

N.J. Assembly: Lapdogs of NJEA

Question: Why would the Assembly Education Committee release two bills that increase costs for local school districts?

Answer: NJEA

New Jersey School Boards Association put out a press release yesterday
on two bills from the Assembly Education Committee. “With little advance notice,” says NJSBA, the Committee “released two union-backed bills that would increase costs to taxpayers and undermine efforts to improve the quality of education.”

Bill A-4140 makes it “virtually impossible” for local districts to cut costs by outsourcing food services, maintenance, and transportation. As budgets get tighter, privatization of these services becomes financially attractive so districts can keep cuts away from the classroom.

Bill A-4142, sponsored by Joseph Cryan, is a whopper. According to NJSBA,
It would place many decisions not to renew the contracts of non-tenured teachers into arbitration, driving up legal costs and making it even more difficult for school districts to remove under-performing staff. The change would take place at a time when the state is penalizing school districts for non-classroom expenditures.
In addition, under the bill, determinations over disciplinary actions, such as withholding a teacher’s increment, would be made by labor arbitrators, who have no educational expertise. Moreover, even if the increment withholding were allowed, the amount of the increment would still count toward the teacher’s pension—an unusual provision, considering current concerns over the financial health of the state’s public employee pension system.
So, in other words, A-4142 would disallow local districts from dismissing teachers before they have tenure. And the tiny bit of leverage administrators have with under-performing teachers, withholding an increment (not giving them an automatic salary increase because of one more year of seniority, though they would still get a raise based on bargaining agreements), would be put in the hands of labor arbitrators “who have no educational experience.”

Huh? We’ve got reams of pages of Accountability Regulations from the D.O.E. on creating efficiencies and cutting costs, but the State Legislature is entertaining bills that create inefficiencies and raise costs? How could this be?

New Jersey Education Association has a publication called “Legislative Programs,” which lists the union’s stand on various issues. From their most recent blast:

NJEA opposes:
Privatization: NJEA opposes any legislation that would permit school board or institutions of higher education to contract with outside organizations for educational management services.
Mystery solved.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Education As Political Football: Corzine and Christie

Here’s a twist: Chris Christie is touting his educational agenda in poor urban areas, typically a Democratic stronghold, and Jon Corzine is boasting about his new School Funding Reform Act to suburban audiences, who are usually more sympathetic to Republicans, according to today’s Star-Ledger.

Sure, it’s politics as usual. But it’s still an opportunity for N.J. education reformists. Apparently education is going to be a campaign issue – an AP piece printed in the Courier Post yesterday was headlined “Education is the Issue of the day in N.J.’s Race for Governor” -- though the dynamics are still evolving.

Here’s what we know so far.

Jon Corzine played nice with CWA (despite the attempted spin on the furloughs). Christie made news by snubbing NJEA when they invited him to speak on the grounds that he would never get their endorsement anyway. The New Jersey School Board Association is endorsing Corzine already in a non-endorsement-ish sort of way. Their bi-monthly magazine, School Leader, features an “Exclusive Interview with Governor S. Corzine” entitled “Education Is My Number One Priority.” The NJSBA interviewer explains in the preface,
“During the conversation [a chance meeting on a train] he mentioned that he hoped our membership knew that he had made education a top priority. ‘Why don’t you tell them yourself,’ I responded, and asked if he would agree to an interview for School Leader.”
Let’s just say we’re not holding our breath on which candidate the institutional lobbying groups will endorse.

Corzine is banking on their power and numbers, and also on the appeal the SFRA holds for suburban voters who have been, as they say, majorly pissed off at the amount of cash funneled to poor urban districts. Christie seems to be banking on an increasing antipathy towards the NJEA, mainly due to its recalcitrant opposition towards more realistic salary increases and contributions to health benefit premiums, and also towards a growing sense that the state school system fails to provide equitable education to poor children. Christie will also try to argue that Corzine and the D.O.E. have inadequately supported the growth of charter schools and has strongly signaled his support for vouchers.

In a strange twist, one could argue that Christie is more aligned on educational issues with Ed Sec Arne Duncan, a Democrat, than is Jon Corzine. (Duncan has made several appearances with Corzine, but that’s just a sign that the national Democratic party is worried about losing a gubernatorial seat.)

What role can educational reformists in New Jersey play over the next five months? Can we tilt Corzine towards concessions for fairly funding charter schools and expediting their growth? Can we suss Christie out more on how he would reinvent the stumbling D.O.E.?

Corzine seems to be cleaving to a strategy of defense, asserting that our schools are great and getting better, and that he’s fixed the funding after decades of waste. Christie is on the offense, addressing a graduating class in Camden and pointing to the failure of our schools to serve poor urban kids.

The irony is that the goal of – well, let’s be generous and say everyone – is to level the playing field and reinvent a public school system that affords all our kids the opportunities for scholastic achievement. But the current dynamics of the governor’s race are starkly pitting rich against poor, etching more deeply a historic division that only undermines educational reform. Can education reformists in New Jersey stake out a unifying voice, one that advocates realistic adjustments to teacher compensation, intelligent growth of alternative models, and honest appraisal of our system’s strengths and weaknesses? Can we be the voice of reason?

If we can, then we extend our influence at a unprecedented moment in New Jersey’s struggle for equitable education.

Teacher Unions: From Victims to Oppressors

Today’s Star-Ledger features a piece on the infamous “rubber room” in New York City that warehouses 700 fully-paid teachers who have been accused of everything from insubordination to sexual misconduct. They sit in an unfurnished room painting portraits, doing crossword puzzles, chatting, entitled to full pay and benefits. Reports the Ledger,
Because the teachers collect their full salaries of $70,000 or more, the city Department of Education estimates the practice costs the taxpayers $65 million a year. The department blames union rules.

"It is extremely difficult to fire a tenured teacher because of the protections afforded to them in their contract," spokeswoman Ann Forte said.

City officials said that they make teachers report to a rubber room instead of sending they home because the union contract requires that they be allowed to continue in their jobs in some fashion while their cases are being heard. The contract does not permit them to be given other work.
Compare this description to a New York Times article back in October, 2007 entitled “Where Teachers Sit, Awaiting Their Fates.” Writer Samuel G. Freedman depicts an intrepid young man who boarded a ship in Stockholm, “the final leg in a complex and risky process of escaping to the West from his native Bulgaria. Newly free, he believed that he had left totalitarianism forever behind.” Alas, his hopes were dashed: this artist, “whose etchings were exhibited in the National Gallery,” experienced “a certain sense of gulag déjà vu” when he was ordered to report to the rubber room, “ a place of “stale, spartan conditions and the absense of any physical or intellectual stimulation” that provides “a ceaseless reminder that in some respects they are guilty until proven innocent.”
“There is a spirit of the K.G.B. about it,” Mr. Valtchev [the Bulgarian art teacher] said. “Their main strategy is to destabilize the person, reduce his self-respect."
So, who are the victims and villains here? According to the Times two years ago, the victims are the NYC teachers union members, betrayed by the system, unethically imprisoned in quarters straight out of a Solzhenitsyn novel; the villain is the New York City Board of Education, practically Gestapo-like in their infringement on freedom and tenure. According the Ledger today, however, the victims of the rubber room are the taxpayers and the villain is the leadership of the teachers union, cleverly cloaking contracts with untenable protection for the worst offenders.

Who’s right? Who knows? That’s not the point. The radical shift in the media's description of NYC’s tenure laws – from necessary and valiant protectors of the oppressed, to craven and opportunistic loopholes –speaks volumes about public perception of teacher unions.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Mainstream Media Pans N.J.'s Backdoor Diploma Scam

The Jersey papers are chock-full of stories and editorials today about the SRA scam in which kids who fail the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) graduate anyway through the SRA. The HSPA itself is nothing to write home about: it assesses eighth grade skills and the passing grade is 50. If kids flunk it three times, they take the Special Review Assessment in which a teacher instructs the child on a small part of the material and then gives an assessment immediately with no time limits. James Ahearn of The Record reports today,
If a student fails a mini-quiz, the teacher does not accept defeat. Instead, she coaches him on the mini-content of the lesson and gives him a makeup quiz on it. The procedure can be repeated until finally (hooray!), he regurgitates the material satisfactorily.

Then it is on to the next bite-size lesson. Practically everybody who takes the SRA passes. Last year, more than 11,000 students did, 12 percent of all New Jersey seniors
Ahearn also reviews the D.O.E.’s assessment of its assessment, which yielded some surprising results: the kids who fail the HSPA and go on to take the SRA are not low-achievers. In fact,
Most [of the coursework taken by SRA-takers] were nominally college-prep courses. Ninety percent of the SRA students had taken, and passed, Algebra I. Eighty-six percent took and passed geometry. Ninety-one percent passed biology. Nearly three-quarters passed Algebra II, a course that, properly taught, is quite difficult. Bear in mind that all these students had flunked the middle-school-level HSPA.
In other words, it's not the test that's the problem; it's the curriculum and instruction that is the problem.

Next, The Record Editorial Board worries that changing the SRA will lead to higher drop-out rates, but concludes that “it’s not working as it was meant to” since “almost no student ends up failing”:
State education officials say they are changing the alternative test so that it will be given over a matter of weeks, not months, and graded outside of the district, not by local teachers.

It remains to be seen whether these changes will end the two-tiered graduation system that exists in New Jersey. And without closing the achievement gap, far too many high school seniors will graduate deprived of the education they are entitled to.
Moving right along, the New Jersey Herald interviews D.O.E. spokesman Richard Vespucci, who says that over the years “we found increasing numbers of students taking the tests and schools were straying from their original purpose," adding that the SRA “was not meant to be a back door to getting a diploma.” Good for him -- we like plainspeak from the D.O.E. Local superintendents, however, are in a panic about because changes to the SRA will mean inevitably lower graduation rates.Superintent Joseph DiPasquale of Wallkill Valley Regional High School, for example, says the SRA really is worthwhile:
I think they (the state Board of Education) are going to run into several problems if they try to modify the assessment, especially in city schools. What people don't realize is that so many of those students are transients and it's difficult to keep them on task.
"Keep them on task?" Is that a euphemism for educating urban kids?

Vernon Township superintendent Anthony Macerino complains,
I do not know who comes up with these mass assumptions that the test is too easy. As is usually the case in New Jersey, we tend to correct inequities or wrongs with a broad brush.
Finally, the Daily Journal has an editorial today by Francis Reilly entitled “N.J. Exaggerating Educational Achievement,” which completes today's Bartlett's:
Derrell Bradford, executive director of Excellent Education for Everyone (E3), a New Jersey think tank, has called the SRA route to graduation "a conspiracy to disguise failure as success while propping up the state's inflated graduation rate."

Newark School Superintendent Clifford Janey says the SRA "has morphed into a culture of low expectations."
Do we have a consensus, folks? With the exception of a few superintendents who live in dread that eliminating the SRA will tar their New Jersey Report Card numbers (the DOE measurement of individual districts which includes the number of kids who graduate) and their NCLB numbers (which also require a prescribed graduation rate), the educational illuminati of N.J. are in agreement: the SRA allows N.J. to conceal the fact that many of our kids leave high school without the means to proceed academically.

Can we look at that fact squarely? Can we concede that the SRA is a scam, a cosmetic injection of botox for New Jersey's education rates? If we can't look at our blemishes honestly, then the joke is on the kids.

Dems for Ed Reform Cites N.J.'s Two-Tier System

At Democrats for Education Reform, Executive Director Joe Williams and Director of Federal Policy Charles Barone have released a series of short papers under the heading "Racing to the Top: American Recovery and Reinvestment Act Issues Brief Series." (Go here for full texts.) The four briefs are “Public Charter Schools and High-Quality Pre-K,” “Unleashing Innovation,” “Entry Points to Teaching,” and “Standards and Assessments.” Williams and Barone argue in the preface that the $100 billion in ARRA federal education funds can go two ways: one, “the old way, the path of least resistance – where government officials succumb to political pressure to reward states that have proven to be unable or unwilling to advance credible and ambitious reforms.” The second, the new way, would be “to make major investments in only those states and districts that have shown the willingness to break out of the old way of doing things, and advances game-changing models that best serve our children.”

Coincidence that Arne Duncan is giving a speech right at this moment on charter school growth (previewed here by the New York Times)?

All the papers are worth reading. For the New Jersey-centric, we’re referenced in “Standards and Assessments”:
Higher standards require more rigorous coursework, which in turn requires qualified teachers who can provide college-prep driven instruction. Any effort to implement higher standards must be coupled simultaneously with an aggressive and sustained push to put educators in place who can teach to them. Efforts in New Jersey, for example, to fully implement algebra as part of New Jersey’s high school exit exam have been hampered by uneven quality of instruction between schools, usually along the class and racial lines.
Diplomatically put. To put it less diplomatically, our kids in wealthier suburban schools in Jersey already have access to a rigorous curriculum and "educators in place who can teach to them," while our kids in poor areas don’t. When the State D.O.E. threw in an Algebra II requirement for high school graduation, toney districts yawned: been there, done that, got the tee-shirt. Poor districts went ballistic: graduation rates will plummet, they argued, because large numbers of their kids can't pass Algebra I, let alone Algebra II. Plus there were some questions about whether Algebra II was really the best use of everyone’s time.

Now we’re having the same argument about the Special Review Assessment, which awards high school diplomas to kids who can’t pass the standard test. And where are the bulk of those kids? In our poor school districts. Do away with the SRA, chant enraged purists. Go there, intone reps of poor districts, and more than half of our kids will never get a high school diploma.

The two-tiered educational system in Jersey paralyzes us. True educational reform isn’t possible when we hold one group of kids accountable for one set of criteria, and another group accountable for another, or when our teacher competency is so uneven. The D.O.E. mandates to raise academic standards are tantamount to Lucille Davy shaking a stick at the section of road where Rte. 295 and 195 diverge: she can wave that wand all she wants, but those cars are traveling down different highways.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Sunday Leftovers

The Star-Ledger Editorial Board on the new high school graduation requirements:
Some advocates fear the new standards will have the opposite effect -- actually lowering graduation rates. Davy argues that the higher standards will force struggling students and schools to perform better. How Davy and the school board will ensure those better results is unclear.
NJSBA on Christie's NJEA Snub:

Ray Pinney, blogger for New Jersey School Boards Association
, writes,

While the NJEA may not be enamored with Gov. Corzine, at least they feel they can work with him. Christie’s snub may motivate NJEA to work harder than they might otherwise have to re-elect Corzine. In fact I was informed that the day after the “snub” went public NJEA received a phone call from someone looking to make a donation to their PAC and did so a few days later. While NJEA President Joyce Powell was diplomatic in her public statement there is no hiding their anger on this “snub”.
Eighth-Graders Do Well in Math:

The Press of Atlantic City reports that New Jersey 8th graders perform well on math assessments "according to an international grading system released Tuesday by the American Institute for Research":
The news is pretty good for New Jersey, which earned a B for its fourth-grade results and a C-plus for eighth grade and scored above the U.S. averages.
Consolidation News:

Somerset County Executive Superintendent Trudy Doyle held a meeting to discuss a possible merging of Hillsborough and nearby Manville. According to CentralJersey,
Past regionalization efforts halted when residents realized joining another school district could mean increased employment costs since districts would need to agree on a new pay scale for the teachers, potential tax property tax increases for communities, and limited savings. In addition, state law requires the larger school’s contract — the larger districts often pay more than smaller districts — be used when combining districts

Gloucester County's Elmer Board of Education voted unanimously to endorse a plan for a sending-receiving relationship with Pittsgrove Public Schools. Now the Pittsgrove Board gets to vote.

Teachers in Philly Describe Pressure to Pass Kids Along:

We have the Special Review Assessment in Jersey that awards diplomas to kids who can’t pass standard assessments. Across the river, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer,

The pressure to pass students - even those who rarely go to class or can't read - is pervasive in the Philadelphia School District, teachers around the city say.
The push comes in memos, in meetings, and in talks about failure rates that are too high, the teachers say. It comes through mountains of paperwork and justification for failing any student. It comes in ways subtle and overt, according to more than a dozen teachers from nine of the city's 62 high schools.

That Didn't Take Long:

David Sciarra of the Education Law Center writes in an editorial on New Jersey Newsroom that if the State Budget gets final approval, then the State will have effectively abandoned the School Funding Reform Act just approved in Superior Court on the condition that it be fully funded. It's not. Writes Sciarra,

The FY2010 budget also jettisons expansion of the Abbott preschool program to 84 additional higher poverty districts across the state. The failure to fund the pre-K expansion formula — a centerpiece of the SFRA — means that over 6,000 children will not be able to attend preschool this September. There is no word on when or if the SFRA preschool formula will actually be funded.

Dysfunctional School Board of the Week Award:

Runner-Up: Clinton Board of Education, where a Board member has sued the full Board to force it to fire the board attorney (see here).

First Place: Wayne Board of Education, which is exploring filing charges against former Superintendent Maria Nuccetelli for pandering to the husband of a school board member (see here).

Quote of the Day

While our kids' education is first-class in nearly all parts of the state, another truth is that in too many districts, entire generations of children aren't learning the basic skills is reading, writing, and science. Especially where schools are failing -- particularly in our urban districts -- we have an obligation to reject the status quo in favor of new, innovative approaches, I support school choice and vouchers in these districts to give kids and parents locked into failing schools the ability to choose the right school for their individual needs. I support merit pay for our best teachers. And I firmly believe that the quality of one's education should be based on more than the dollars spent on it. Above all, I am committed to improving our worst schools while protecting our best.
Letter to NJEA President Joyce Powell from Governor-hopeful Chris Christie on why he won't be seeking the teacher union's endorsement.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Quote of the Day

This year, in Paterson, more than 40 percent of the seniors took the special test [given to students who can't pass the standard test]. In a handful of districts, the figure is closer to 60 percent.

That’s unacceptable. State education officials say they are changing the alternative test so that it will be given over a matter of weeks, not months, and graded outside of the district, not by local teachers.

But, realistically, these changes will not end the two-tiered graduation system that exists in New Jersey. And without closing the achievement gap, far too many New Jersey high school seniors will graduate deprived of the education they are entitled to. They will have the diploma, which means something. But what about the skills they need?
The Record Editorial Board on the State Board of Education's decision to increase requirements for high school graduation in spite of the fact that many poor high school seniors can't meet current requirements.

Corzine vs. Christie: It's the Education, Stupid

The New York Times has a must-read today on Chris Christie’s appeal to New Jerseyans committed to education reform. While this state tends to swing Democratic,
what could emerge as the sleeper issue is Mr. Christie’s push for education reform: merit pay for teachers, more charter schools, and above all, vouchers as a way to give poor and minority children better educational choices and create competition that would improve the public schools

The Times reports that that Christie’s recent snub of NJEA (see here) has aligned him with an unusual cohort: Mayor Cory Booker, Senator Ray Lesniak, Assemblyman Joseph Cryan, George Norcross, Reverend Reginald Jackson of the Black Ministers’ Council, and Martin Perez of the Latino Leadership Alliance.

Folks, we have an opportunity here. Many of us share a belief that public education in New Jersey is shackled by inequity among our 616 school districts (which won’t be ameliorated by new funding formulas), lack of support for non-traditional schools, and obeisance to NJEA. Over the 5 months remaining in the governor’s race, we can work together to frame the issues and drive the conversation about education.

Here’s the first cut at a list of changes in policy and direction that might appear on a New Jersey education reformist wish-list:

1) Policy-driven support and full funding for charter schools.

2) Reasonable accommodations from NJEA: merit pay (extra pay for working in more challenging schools, pay linked to student achievement); limits on tenure; member contributions to benefits; discussion about longer school days/school years; annual increases in line with economic reality.

3) D.O.E. leadership: complete overhaul of the Accountability Regulations (which right now add costs and overhead to school districts); honest appraisal of the achievement gap (no, we don’t have the best graduation rate in the country (see here), Special Review Assessment (see here).

4) School district consolidation (the only way to bring down our sky-high costs and have a chance to desegregate), despite opposition from local governments and school boards.

What else can we add? What would an education reformist platform look like in Jersey? What should your governor espouse? With five months to go and a heated race where education is apparently a wedge issue, are we ready to get serious? It’s not about Christie vs. Corzine (well, not yet). It’s about building momentum and getting people to pay attention. Jump in.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

What To Do When Half our Poor Kids Can't Pass an 8th Grade Test?

While recent New Jersey history is not part of the State Board of Education’s just-released high school graduation requirements, let’s stroll back down memory lane to May 13th, 2005. On that day, William L. Librera, our erstwhile State Education Commissioner, issued a memo to the State Board of Education regarding the controversial Special Review Assessment (SRA), the high school graduation test used for kids who can’t pass the HSPA, a middle school level test. It reads in part,
Approximately 18 months ago, the Department of Education issued and circulated a white paper on the Special Review Assessment (SRA). [See here.] The white paper concluded that the SRA had evolved from a program designed to serve a small number of students who, because of special needs or extraordinary circumstances, could not pass the High School Proficiency Test (HSPA) into an alternate statewide test that enabled approximately 20% of the high school senior students each year to get diplomas, without having passed the regular state graduation test.

This evolution went well beyond the original intent, and the present results suggest that approximately one-fifth of our students are unable to meet the state requirement for a diploma. This raises disturbing questions and conclusions about the ability of a large portion of our student to learn and master important content. Today, after 18 months of review and experiences with our summer institutes, our conclusions are no different. The SRA hurts the very students we seek to help, and it must be replaced.
Question: Why don't we follow Librera’s directive and the recommendation of the D.O.E. (at least the 2003 D.O.E.) and eliminate the SRA?

Answer: Because elimination of the SRA will dramatically reduce our much-touted high school graduation rate and make the current Administration look bad. And limiting high school graduation to HSPA passers will mean that many poor kids will go through our public school system and never receive a high school diploma.

We’ve reduced the number of kids who use the SRA to graduate from about 20% to 12%, but that’s just an average. At Camden High, 51.8% of kids graduated through the SRA process in 2008. In Bergen County’s Indian Hills High, 4.2% did. (DOE data here.) Talk about in your face: are we ready to look squarely at the fact that the achievement gap in New Jersey is alive and well?

The Education Law Center and CUNY Graduate Center published a lengthy, research-driven treatise in 2007 called “New Jersey’s SRA: Loophole or Lifeline?” (Tip: if you want to see some sample questions, click on the link and go to page 37.) Their conclusion:

The plans to eliminate the SRA as an alternate route to a diploma should be revisited. Currently, over 13,000 students, more than a third of Abbott graduates and 20% of all New Jersey graduates, receive their diplomas through SRA. Eliminating the SRA before significant and demonstrable improvements are made in secondary programs and supports would be punitive to students and have disparate impact on immigrant youth and youth of color. It would also negatively affect the climate for reform. The existing lack of coordination and alignment between High School Redesign/ADP, SEI, and proposed changes in SRA increases the prospects that fragmented policy initiatives will raise dropout rates, lower graduation rates, and disproportionately affect students of color. This would, almost by definition, constitute bad public policy.

Translation: New Jersey’s public education system doesn’t support poor kids. (Sidenote: in some ways, the ELC paper is confirmation that the Abbott system doesn’t work, or at least hasn't worked yet.) While there are a number of initiatives underway to address the shortcomings, eliminating the SRA would be unfair to “students of color” because the system is still broken . According to ELC, we’ve got to keep awarding diplomas to kids who can’t pass the standard assessment because we haven’t built the supports they need to reach the benchmarks and we just cause further damage by denying diplomas.

So, we arrive at a compromise, articulated by current Commissioner Lucille Davy at an NJEA meeting:

“The SRA is a legitimate concern for legislators and the public,” Davy noted, given the large numbers of students using this option. But she believes that the legislature won’t eliminate the SRA if it is convinced that changes are being made. “We know we need an alternative exam; we just don’t know what it will look like yet,” she said.
So we’re not eliminating; we’re tweaking, adjusting, implementing some oversight in the scoring. (Right now the same teachers who instruct the kids grade the assessment; there’s a proposal to move the grading to an external agency.) That's fine. But when do we directly address the fact that N.J.'s public educational model works well for privileged kid but leaves about half of our poor kids without the skills they need to pass an 8th grade test? If we don't admit the system is broken, how can we fix it?

Quote of the Day

As long as teachers are paid more based on seniority versus other measures of demonstrated success, districts will mask the inequitable distribution of experienced, better paid teachers across their schools. If we truly care about raising student achievement, the truth about teacher qualifications at individual schools has to come out.

MaryEllen McGuire in U.S. News and World Report on how urban children suffer from having less experienced teachers (typically less than 3 years in the classroom, i.e., untenured) because union contracts let experienced teachers choose less challenging assignments.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

State Board Approves New H.S. Requirements

The State Board of Education has just issued a press release stating that they have adopted new high school graduation requirements and revised the Core Curriculum Content Standards. Here's the new requirements:
  • Three years of mathematics, including algebra I, effective with the 2008-09 ninth-grade class; geometry, beginning with the 2010-11 ninth grade class; and a third year of math that builds upon these two courses, beginning with incoming freshmen in 2012-13;
  • Three years of lab science, including biology, effective with the 2008-09 ninth grade class; a choice among chemistry, physics or environmental science, beginning with incoming freshmen in 2010-11; and a third inquiry-based lab or technical science, beginning with incoming freshmen in 2012-13; and
  • One half-year of economics and financial literacy, beginning with incoming freshmen in 2010-11.
There has been a fair bit of niggling over the rigor of the requirements, which have been watered-down from an earlier permutation that included a full year of Algebra II, after people pointed out that many students can't pass Algebra I and illustrious mathematicians said it was unnecessary, and a Chemistry requirement, which incited other protests. The NJEA was not happy about the financial literacy/economics course. (Do they fear it will reveal financially illiterate pay hikes? No, really, they say their math teachers can incorporate the material into other courses.)

So, high school in New Jersey just got harder. Will students and teachers rise to the occasion? Will our graduation rates sink, as some have argued it will? Does that matter, as others have argued, since our Garden State diplomas should mean something? And what about the Special Review Assessment, currently under attack as a back-door to a diploma?

To be continued...

Flipping the Bird to the Supreme Court

An organization called Our Children/Our Schools, which describes itself as "a statewide education justice campaign whose membership includes education, children's advocacy and civil rights organizations," has an opinion piece in New Jersey Newsroom which underlines the obvious: Corzine’s budget underfunds the new School Funding Reform Act, in spite of the political and legal pressure to do so:
Full funding of the new school aid formula and expansion of pre-K were the two strongest "selling points" for the SFRA last year when it passed by one vote in the N.J. Senate and Assembly. Now both are gone.
OC/OS also remarks (correctly) that SFRA requires, according to the State Supreme Court, full funding for all students who meet its criteria, and Corzine’s cap on state aid increases “results in a huge $300 million gap between what the formula calls for and what districts will actually be receiving this year.” It also complains about SFRA’s “adequacy” formula for school spending, “a threshold so low that almost 400 districts around the state spent more in the 2007-2008 school year than is considered “adequate” for 2008-2009.”

It's true: Corzine has painted himself into a corner with SFRA. The Court was clear that underfunding the formula would jettison its credibility and that’s exactly what is happening. Lucille Davy can repeat her mantra as often as she likes : ommm -- no school district will receive less money next year than it did this year and about a third will see more. But ask around and you’ll find that district after district in New Jersey has lost state aid and expects the other shoe to drop after Election Day.

OC/OS also remarks, almost as an aside, that the High School Redesign Plan coming fast through the D.O.E. will require significant investment in teachers, lab facilities, and extra services for kids who can’t possibly pass courses like Algebra and Chemistry on their own steam.

We’ve got several different strands here that will tie us up in a big knot. The first strand is OC/OS’s correct explanation of the fiscal pickle we’re in: SFRA is predicated on full funding, both logically and ethically, but “fund” actually means “fund,” and the State can’t do that. The second strand is High School Redesign, which raises the achievement bar for all kids and will require at least some extra cash (again, a “can’t do") . Then we have the third strand, much in the news: the Special Review Assessment, that scandalous “test” given to kids who can’t pass the standard high school test, even after given three tries, and which artificially raises our much-heralded state graduation rates.

Here it is: we can’t fund the SFRA because our school system is extravagantly inefficient (we pay more per pupil than anywhere in the nation). Despite the profligacy, many of our poorest students can’t pass our standard assessment test. Yet we are raising high school graduation standards and concurrently admitting that our weakest students only get through high school with a dumbed-down assessment. (Someone asked Lucille Davy how many kids fail the SRA and she couldn’t come up with a number. She gets points for honesty.)

Talk about a triple-whamy: cut school funding despite court order, raise graduation requirements, and cement up the back-door diploma route. Is it over-reaching? Political gamesmanship? Necessary pain? Thumbing your nose at the Supreme Court? Chutzpah? Take your pick. It does take a certain boldness to multi-task to this extent, so snaps to Corzine and the D.O.E..

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Quote of the Day

The SRA [Special Review Assessment] is in some ways a modern paraphrase of the Wizard of Oz's gift to the scarecrow: "I can't give you a brain, but I can give you a diploma." With the SRA, schools are saying to the most vulnerable students, "We can't give you the skills you need, but here's a piece of paper saying we did." The current system allows school districts to wash their hands of low-performing students.
Asbury Park Press Editorial on N.J.'s SRA, an alternative test given to 12% of our high school seniors after they fail the standard HSPA three times.

Monday, June 15, 2009

N.J. Scores a "C" for Charter School Growth and Support

The Center for Education Reform has put out its 2009 Ranking and Scorecard, which rates every state on how it funds, governs, and encourages the growth of charter schools. The maximum possible score is 55; you get 15 for “Multiple Chartering Authorizers,” 15 for “Equity,” 15 for “Operations,” and 10 for “Number of Schools Allowed. The total scores are then converted to letter grades: A, B, C, D, and F. The top three scorers in the country are D.C., Minnesota, and California. The bottom three are Virginia, Iowa, and Mississippi.

The C.E.R. explains that they have changed their scoring metric, mainly because of the recognition of the way politics inserts its way into public education. For example, they’ve substantially changed their “Equity” category:
What is fiscal equity? Equity is not just about dollars, it’s about equity in the way schools are funded. We have always taken the long view that while quick, short term fixes are helpful, they put charters in a position of having to forever fight for their fair share. The new scoring is the result of continuous review – we have learned the hard way that charters need to be inoculated by good laws from the whims of elected officials and special interests year to year. Additionally, our enormous data set on closed charters informs us of the reasons that most charters close, which have to do with factors in the law.

How’d we do in Jersey? Fair to middling. We score a C with a total of 27 out of 55 points, ranking us 17th out of 41 states that have charter schools. We smoked “Number of Schools Allowed” – 10 out of 10 – because we don’t have a cap on charter school growth, but we tanked on “Multiple Chartering Authorizers” – only 3 out of 15 points because we’re don’t allow independent authorizers. “Operations” was a mixed bag, mainly because of our onerous D.O.E. regulations (onerous for traditional schools as well as charters). The “Equity” category is interesting: there’s a total of 15 points available, divided into “100% Funding,” “Facilities Funds,” and “Implementation Points.” We actually got 6 points for the “100% Funding” (which will be news to some charter schools) and 0 points for the other two areas.

The Center promises extensive state-by-state analysis soon, and we’ll keep you posted. Certainly, their mission has some high-octane rocket fuel from Arne Duncan’s “Race to the Top” Fund, which promises extra stimulus money to states that ease the way for charter schools. We'll give them additional relevance points for tie-ins to “the 36 Gubernational elections on the horizon,” in case federal cash infusion is not enough reason for people to pay attention.

Let Them Eat Bologna

The Garden State Coalition of Schools has issued a statement opposing two bills currently in Assembly: S1882, which would allow municipalities to charge local school districts for crossing guards, and S2850, which would set a minimum wage for private food services operations in local government agencies, including schools.

(GSC was once considered a Bergen County (i.e., rich suburban district) advocacy group, but now has expanded to other counties and 120 school districts. Most GSC member districts still rate a high DFG, though, for example, Ewing in Mercer County is on the list, with a DFG of DE.)

Lynn Strickland, Executive Director of GSC, says that S2850, which would set a “prevailing wage” among food district workers, would amount to yet another unfunded mandate from the State. In addition, the new regulations from the D.O.E. require that district food service operations do no worse than break even, so ordering an increase in wages would put many districts out of compliance with the very regulations that are bound to comply with.

The union for food services workers is Service Workers International (SEIU) and representatives have been showing up at lots of school board meetings in New Jersey over the last couple of months, with signs and very large inflatable rats (really). The Union recently commissioned a study from Rutgers University Center for Women and Work, which concluded that many school district food workers get below minimum wage, mainly due to the weasly wiles of Pomptonian Food Service, which employs 700 SEIU members.

Should food workers get more money? Sure, that would be nice. But how do we make the math work? Right now no district can raise their budget above the 4% cap. NJEA contractual raises are commonly above that already, so we’re in the hole before we start. Plus, the State has been stiffing districts on school aid payments, which sinks districts even deeper. And regulations, of course, demand balanced budgets. Not to mention that we spend more on per pupil than anywhere else in the country. The goal here is to cut costs, not raise them.

(FYI: Food services would be more cost-effective if districts consolidated.)

It’s a Catch-22. If we pay food service workers fairly/in accordance with proposed S2850, then we’re out of compliance with State regulations because cafeterias won't break even. Now, the D.O.E. can “correct” the regulations – this is a regular occurrence since they were so poorly vetted – and make an exception for food service costs, we suppose. Or a district could decide to not offer prepared food, or only offer it to Title I kids, and have custodians keep the cafeteria clean. Or we could pass out pre-packaged bologna sandwiches – oops, can’t do that. There’s state regulations that mandate certain nutritional benchmarks. The question is how much financial stress can we put on the backs of school districts without compromising learning?

Answer: not this much.

Corzine, Daggett, Christie Triptych

You mean there’s someone else running for Governor besides Corzine and Christie? Yup – his name is Chris Daggett, an Independent, and he has quickly weighed in on Christie’s decision to slight the NJEA by resisting a summons and neatly wedged himself right in between the two main party candidates.

PolickerNJ reports that Daggett said,
Absolutely I will ask for their [NJEA’s]endorsement. We have a number of positions that may be different, but my view is you have to engage people, and I'm happy to do that. You have to engage your opponents and your proponents. This is not about the NJEA or me, this is about New Jersey, and being governor requires a conversation with a broad range of people.
Daggett’s comments are reasonable, although it’s hard to blame Christie for declining a meaningless exercise with an organization with sinking stock. Right now, dissociating oneself with NJEA is a politically savvy move; Christie's purposeful tweak of their fealty to Corzine plays exactly right, especially with the recent media scurry around the fact that only 12% of the 200,000 NJEA members contribute anything to their health insurance premiums.

A blog called “In the Lobby” remarks,
Local school districts are going to need help from the state when it comes to negotiating new contracts with the NJEA. We’ve already seen, with too much clarity, how Corzine continues to put the interests of the public sector unions ahead of the taxpayer.

Imagine what would have happened if Corzine, instead of just agreeing to reduce the number of furlough days from 14 to 9, defer a 3.5% raise by a year, and sign a no-layoffs pledge through 2011, had negotiated instead another .5% or even a 1% increase in the amount employees pay toward health insurance, in exchange for job security.

But we’ve already seen that Corzine doesn’t stand up to the public sector unions. He stands with them, against the taxpayer.

If local school districts and municipalities are going to be successful in requiring contributions toward health insurance premiums, they are going to need a strong governor in Trenton who’s got their back. One who’s not afraid to make the union leadership unhappy.

We already know that won’t be Jon Corzine.
Corzine needs to extract himself from the union sidepockets. On the other hand, 200,000 is a lot of votes. How many members are there of CWA? Maybe he’s got the right idea.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sunday Leftovers

High School Redesign:
The Star-Ledger begins a series today on New Jersey high school reform. Today’s piece is on the D.O.E.’s High School Redesign, which raises the academic bar to graduate. Tomorrow they’ll focus on the S.R.A., the controversial and overused Special Review Assessment given to high school juniors and seniors who fail the HSPA (the standard 11th grade test required for graduation) three times.

Spinning Health Insurance Premium Contributions:
Which lede would you choose? “12% of N.J. public school teachers already pay a portion of their health insurance premium” or “Only 12% of N.J. public school teachers pay any part of their health insurance premium." The Star-Ledger votes for the former, New Jersey Newsroom (mostly relying on NJSBA propaganda) on the latter.

50% or 60% on Second Questions?:
A Board member from Denville in Morris County has filed a suit in Superior Court regarding the new State regulation that second ballot questions attached to school budgets need a 60% plurality. Denville Public Schools, reports the Ledger, had a second question of $240,145 for extra-curricular activities and a custodian; the final tally was 59.4%, so the question failed. The Board member, Al Gellene, alleges that “the margin is arbitrary and violates federal one-man, one-vote fairness rules.”

Yea or Nay on Charter Schools:
The Los Angeles Times has a three-part series that pits a charter school advocate against a charter school opponent.

Science Opportunities: Newark vs. Ramsey:

The Record had a piece two weeks ago that we missed, but it's definitely worth a look: a description of a delegation from Newark Public Schools that visited Ramsey Public Schools. Newark has an “A” DFG, which means its one of the most impoverished towns in N.J. Ramsey, in Bergen County, is an “I” on a scale of “A” through “J.” The cost per pupil in Newark is about $19,000 per year, plus two years of free full-day preschool. The cost per pupil in Ramsey is $13,600. Yet the article describes the awe-struck reactions of the Newark visitors as they heard recitations of only 200 kids to a guidance counselor or viewed one of the science labs:
"Now THIS is what a lab should look like!" [Raymond Yarborough of the PTA at Science Park High School in Newark] exclaimed, walking into a recently refurbished classroom. "They got hot plates. Scales. Beakers. A hood — oh, that's important. This is what I'm talking about! Look at these microscopes!"
How long will it take us to learn that it’s not about the money?

Quote of the Day

To say we had some preconceived notion isn't fair to us. We look at all the facts.
Joyce Powell, President of the NJEA, on whether Chris Christie was over-reading the tea leaves in deciding it was not worth his time to woo the teachers union for an endorsement. From the Star-Ledger: "Powell disputed the conventional wisdom on State Street that Christie stood a better shot of getting Barack Obama to headline a fund-raiser than of scoring the NJEA endorsement."

Friday, June 12, 2009

NJEA Flags “The Cartel” as a Right-Wing Conspiracy

Last month, Bob Bowdon’s documentary “The Cartel” premiered at the Hoboken Film Festival. The movie criticizes American education, and New Jersey in particular, as over-priced and under-delivered. For example, the film notes statistics from the National Center of Education Statistics that shows that New Jersey spends the most in the country per pupil and ranks 37th in the country in SAT scores. Nationally, 35% of high school seniors are proficient in reading, 23% are proficient in math, and we rank 34th in the world, behind Latvia and Azerbaijian, in math skills for 15-year-olds.

It’s no surprise that such disclosures would put N.J. educational traditionalists on the defensive, and the film’s website addresses this:
Is “The Cartel” for or against traditional public schools?

This very question is out of date.

We're for schools that are effective and efficient, whether they be public district schools, charter schools or private schools. We're critical of schools that are dysfunctional, no matter what kind. Supporting all of any type of school, without regard to how different ones perform, is a way of picking one category of adults over another, at the childrens' expense.
Hard to argue with. Unless you're the NJEA, which has posted a screed (no author attached) that attacks Bowdon and the film’s producer, Moving Picture Institute (MPI). Here’s a few choice excerpts:
MPI is “the AV department for the vast libertarian conspiracy.”

“News accounts” note that MPI has backed films that are “pro-business, anti-Communist, and even anti-environmentalist.”

MPI “relies on some of the Right’s biggest contributors, major givers to the national voucher movement, Far Right think tanks and anti-NEA organizations – and New Jersey’s Excellent Education for Everyone.”

“One MPI board member is Elizabeth Koch, though it’s not immediately clear if she is related to the prominent Far-Right family with the same name.”
You get the idea. Just to test this, uh, fact sheet, we found one of those “news accounts,” a 2007 New York Times piece on Thor Halvorssen, a founder of MPI. It’s true: the Times does say that he’s backed “pro-business, anti-Communist, and even anti-environmentalist” films, though the context is that Halvorssen seems to eschew labels: “He’s uncategorizable,” Nat Hentoff, the journalist and First Amendment advocate, said [in the article]. “Thor’s the embodiment of the nonpolitically correct person.”

In addition to serving on MPI’s board, Halvorssen also is a co-founder of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and a board member of the Human Rights Foundation, which counts Elie Wiesel as a trustee.

Maybe "The Cartel" is a product of a right-wing hack. Or maybe the NJEA is just a tad bit defensive. Does it matter? Wouldn’t it be more useful for the NJEA to acknowledge that New Jersey has some educational problems that denial and vitriol will not solve? The leaders of NJEA would serve its members better by focusing less on contrived diatribes and more on legitimate conversation about how we can better serve our kids.

Christie Disses NJEA

The New Jersey Education Association just issued this press release announcing that Chris Christie will not seek its endorsement:

In a letter to NJEA President Joyce Powell, Christie refused an invitation to participate in NJEA's gubernatorial candidate endorsement screening process this weekend. Powell expressed her disappointment in Christie's unwillingness to participate in a constructive dialogue about educational issues in New Jersey.
In a statement, Powell said: "It is unfortunate that Mr. Christie is unwilling to take the time to have an honest discussion about educational issues with the organization that represents the overwhelming majority of the state's educators. It is also unfortunate that the Republican standard-bearer has chosen to break his party's long-standing tradition of candid discussion and direct communication with NJEA."
NJEA represents more than 200,000 teachers, education support professionals, higher education staff, and retired educators in New Jersey.
Well, there's a clue...

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Corzine, Christie, and NJEA

Why is Corzine’s labor deal with CWA a bad sign for education reform in New Jersey?

The jury’s still out on whether a deal that precludes lay-offs of state workers is good or bad: Governor Corzine and his supporters say it's good because the employees won’t get their raises until January 2011 and in the meantime we’ll have money to work with, while Chris Christie and his supporters say its bad because we’re just pushing off inevitable debt and maintaining a bloated work force. Take your pick. What is clear is that a deal that perpetuates the model that union employees have unlimited job security is bad for education in New Jersey.

The New Teacher Project, a non-partisan group, just put out a report called “The Widget Effect: Our National Failure to Acknowledge and Act on Differences in Teacher Effectiveness.” The report studied 12 districts in 4 states -- Arkansas, Illinois, Ohio, and Colorado – and looked at teacher evaluation systems. NTP found that “all teachers are rated good or great” (99%, actually), that “excellence goes unrecognized,” that districts have “inadequate professional development,” and “poor performance goes unaddressed.”
Despite uniformly positive evaluation ratings, teachers and administrators both recognize ineffective teaching in their schools. In fact, 81% of administrators and 58% of teachers say there is a tenured teacher in their school who is performing poorly, and 43% of teachers say there is a tenured teacher who should be dismissed for poor performance. Troublingly, the percentages are higher in high-poverty schools. But district records confirm the scarcity of formal dismissals; at least half of the districts studied have not dismissed a single non-probationary teacher for poor performance in the last five years.

The equation of unionized employees with widgets – interchangeable parts with no acknowledgment of differentiated effectiveness – gets in the way of meaningful education reform. The CWA deal colors the union landscape by fostering the notion that performance is immaterial. It’s just like the NJEA leadership, which insists on treating their members as widgets, resisting any call for merit pay or tenure limits or more effective teacher evaluations. (In N.J., the teacher evaluation process is part of the local bargaining unit’s contract, negotiated with the evaluatees. Weird, huh?)

Our best teachers resent being relegated to a cog on a wheel. They would welcome having their excellence recognized and losing incompetent colleagues. It’s one of the attractions of the charter school movement (much stifled in Jersey because of the NJEA’s resistance and the D.O.E.’s lack of backbone) because charters are not tethered by an archaic and demeaning union culture.

New Jersey needs an educational system that doesn’t treat teachers like widgets. We recognize in myriad ways – the School Funding Reform Act, the D.O.E.’s new focus on differentiated instruction and individualized pupil plans – that our students require different strategies to succeed. Why wouldn’t that be true for their instructors? But until the NJEA leaders escape their time warp, we’ll all be stuck in a system that interferes with academic achievement for our kids and job satisfaction for our teachers.

It may be a leap to say that Corzine's concessions to CWA paint him as too soft with union leaders to reform our educational system. It's certainly a leap to say that Christie would do anything differently, or whether he has any understanding of the union/D.O.E./school advocacy dynamics that both drive reform attempts and undermine progress. Hey, Camp Christie -- give us a clue.

$210K for 2,100 Kids

The Record has a little blurb today about Ridgefield Public Schools, which just hired a new superintendent, Robert Fazio, for a salary of $210,000. Totally unremarkable: most superintendents work their butts off; the pay is exactly what the Board paid their last superintendent; the contract will coast through the Executive County Superintendent office; Bergen County, Ridgefield’s locale, has a relatively high cost of living. Just one thing: Ridgefield is composed of 3 schools, including one school for preschoolers, with a total of 2,100 kids.

School districts in New Jersey pay their superintendents anywhere from, say, $150,000 to $250,000 anually (we’re leaving out outliers like Newark, where the super makes $300K.) But that salary range, with Mr. Fazio smack in the middle, doesn’t distinguish between school districts with 200 kids, 2000 kids, or 10,000 kids. Aha! A benefit of consolidation! If Ridgefield consolidated with nearby districts to raise the student population, tax payers would save money! (Sorry, we just can’t help ourselves.)

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Cory Booker on Charter Schools

For too long we've looked at charter schools and traditional public schools as separate. The great thing about Dr. (Clifford) Janey [Newark Superintendent] is he sees them as part of the same system ... that there is not one path but a need for an interwoven set of strategies.
Newark Mayor (and guv-hopeful) Cory Booker in the Star-Ledger

Cory Booker is right: in an ideal world, charters and traditional public schools would be an "interwoven set of strategies," especially in Jersey towns plagued by poverty and educational malaise. But they're not. Instead, public charter schools and public traditional schools in N.J. engage in turf wars over state aid, students, facilities, staff. It's partly due to the NJEA leadership's fear of charter flexibility in regard to teacher compensation, length of work day and work years, and job security -- anathema to the union industrial model which regards teachers as interchangeable cogs on a wheel. It's partly due to the fact that the D.O.E. treats charters like a neglected child, allowing the traditional public schools to only send charters a portion of the cost per pupil (it's supposed to be 90%, it was really 78%, and now under S.F.R.A. it will be less than 65%) and setting up stringent restrictions on growth.

We won't find that finely-woven tapestry until the NJEA leadership and the D.O.E. can get over the us vs. them jingoism that defines the relationship between charters and traditional schools. The writing's on the wall (see this Boston Globe article today on Mayor Thomas Menino's conversion from charter disparager to charter advocate); President Obama's stimulus money for towns that foster charter school growth is a symptom rather than a cause.

Can NJEA whittle away at its entrenched opposition to charters? Can its leadership accept a new era of accountability and performance-based compensation? Can it adjust to a changing landscape? Can the D.O.E. give more than lip service to the advantages of charter schools in some neighborhoods?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

N.J. Has The Highest Graduation Rate in the U.S. Not.

The Record crows today,
New Jersey continues to lead the nation in the percentage of students who graduate from high school, according to a national report for release today. The state has a graduation rate of 82.1 percent. It is one of three — Iowa and Wisconsin are the others — with rates of over 80 percent. The national average is 69.2 and Nevada and the District of Colombia fared the worst, with graduation rates of just under 50 percent, according to Diplomas Count 2009.
This claim is based on Education Week’s annual state-by-state high school graduation rate report. But it's wrong because the statistics for New Jersey include those kids who fail our High School Proficiency Assessment three times; after that, they are eligible to take something called the “Special Review Assessment (S.R.A.)." A passing grade on the S.R.A. is 47%. Derrell Bradford of Excellent Education for Everyone cites Education Commissioner Lucille Davy in a recent column:
The state does not keep track of how many students fail to complete the SRA; in an interview Wednesday, Commissioner of Education Lucille Davy said that hardly any students fail.
In other words, a high school student in New Jersey who sticks it out through 12th grade can get a diploma regardless of academic proficiency.

No other state in America offers this “alternative route” to graduation.

So, what does that do to our graduation numbers? According to D.O.E. data, 11% of our high school juniors and seniors earn their diplomas through the S.R.A, though that number varies wildly, depending on school districts. For example, in wealthy Northern Highlands in Bergen County, only 2.3% of kids were steered towards the S.R.A. In impoverished Camden, 62.8% of kids received high school diplomas through the S.R.A. Bradford does the numbers and says that if we eliminate the number of kids who bypass the HSPA, New Jersey’s graduation rate falls to 24th in the country.

If fact, the D.O.E. is well aware of the weaknesses of the test. In 2002 it commissioned "White Paper: New Jersey Special Review Assessment," which reviewed the history of the test and made recommendations. The original intent of the assessment, according to the report, was for use by students with disabilities; its use spread to students who were “test phobic” or had limited English proficiency. Beginning in 1991, however, N.J. administrative code was rewritten to allow all students who failed the HSPA to use the SRA.

From the D.O.E. summary:
As you will note in the paper, New Jersey remains the only state to administer a state-developed alternate assessment for students failing a graduation requirement test. Based on continued concerns and the results of our year-long study, the department included the following key recommendations in the paper: the elimination of the SRA; the creation of expanded remedial opportunities for students failing the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA); the development of an appeal procedure; and the award of a differentiated diploma for students who fail to achieve proficiency on the HSPA, but who do meet other graduation and attendance criteria.
In spite of the D.O.E- sponsored report and its unequivocal conclusion – get rid of the S.R.A. – we use it more and more. In August 2005, according to the Education Law Center (which supports keeping it with major revisions), the New Jersey State Board of Education
proposed phasing out the SRA beginning with the freshman class that entered in September 2006 for language arts and the freshman class entering in September 2007 for math. However, the State Board deferred final action until the Department of Education developed "alternative opportunities for students to demonstrate the achievement of high school graduation requirements." Those alternatives are still pending.
It’s bad enough that so many kids can’t pass the HSPA, which Commissioner Davy has referred to as a “middle school test.” It’s even worse that so many of these kids are clustered in poor areas, which exacerbates a school system segregated by not only ethnicity and economics, but also by achievement. But does the D.O.E. have to lie about it? Number 1 in the country in graduation rates? Who are they kidding? Does the D.O.E. think we all graduated from high school using the S.R.A.?

Monday, June 8, 2009

A Preschool Proposal

The stakes are high: if New Jersey doesn’t provide free public preschool to all poor children, then it has violated its spanking new School Funding Reform Act (see this press release from the Education Law Center for background). Failure to do so neatly sets up a trajectory for a return to Abbott v. Burke, which has failed to provide an equitable education to all low-income children, as well as most of the children who reside within the 31 specially-designated urban districts.

Conceptually, S.F.R.A. is great: provide a thorough and efficient education for each child by allocating money dependent on need and irregardless of zip code. Ergo, Abbott is rendered obsolete. But here's the stumbling block: we don’t have the cash. Commissioner Lucille Davy’s comment, "when the economy changes, preschool will be at the top of the list, I'm sure," will probably not satisfy the Justices or the Abbott advocates.

We’re back where we started, at least in regards to preschools. If you live in an Abbott district, you get free preschool. If you don’t and you’re poor, then you’re out of luck, which is exactly the scenario S.F.R.A. was meant to remedy.

So, why can’t provide preschool to all kids who need it? The answer is simple: money. N.J.’s educational infrastructure is profligate and inefficient, resulting in the highest cost per pupil in the country, whether you’re talking preschool or high school. Here’s some preschool data. The National Institute For Early Education Research lists per pupil spending for each of the 37 states that offer public preschool. The average across the states is $5149 per child, based on 2007-2008 spending patterns. New Jersey? $10,989 per child, more than double the average. No wonder we can’t pay for it.

(By the way, we’re not just comparing N.J. to the Ozarks. For more geographically akin costs, New York spends $3,948 per kid, Delaware spends $6,795 a kid, Pennsylvania spends $6,252 a kid.)

Why do we spend so much? Because our hypothetical preschool expansion in Corzine’s original budget called for each of our 600 or so school districts to independently create preschool facilities, hire preschool directors and staff, write curricula, oversee transportation, install those tiny toilets (really: it’s mandated) – all the different elements involved in a public preschool. A small, middle-class district might have 10 3- and 4-year-olds who might meet eligibility requirements,. A larger, poorer (non-Abbott) district might have 100. Even if these two school districts were next door to each other, they’d each be responsible for their own programs. In fact, Corzine’s initial allocation for preschool was over $12,000 per child so that districts could cover the costs.

Here’s another way to abide by S.F.R.A. and still control costs: create county-wide preschools. Remember, each of our 21 counties already has an Executive Superintendent and a Business Administrator. Each of our counties has large, often underused facilities, some practically posh, for special education kids. Each county has transportation facilities. Why don’t we use the resources we have for preschool education? Here’s another benefit: New Jersey has one the most segregated school districts in the country. Pooling our preschoolers within one county would allow for a degree of desegregation that our current system doesn’t offer.

(Alternatively, we could delegate state-wide preschool programming to KIPP or another charter organization with a proven success record. [It would be cheaper -- mainly because the staff would be non-NJEA.] If we handed off a few counties, we'd have our own clinical trial with a control group, which might garner some hefty grant money.)

Corzine’s plan for creating more efficiency is the now-loathed district consolidation, a concept that appears to be going nowhere fast; some Executive County Superintendents are even suggesting that putting proposals on the ballot is an exercise in futility. However, county-wide preschools give home rule diehards a little taste of regionalization, just enough to tease out the educational and financial benefits. Some sort of consolidation is our only hope for a less expensive public education system and more efficient governance of a municipally-manic state. Taking a baby step with preschools would start the journey.