Thursday, December 24, 2009

Happy Holidays from NJ Left Behind

Thanks, as always, for reading. We'll be back next week with more news and analysis of public education reform in the Garden State.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

NJSBA Gets RTTT-Fever?

New Jersey School Board Association’s Executive Director, Marie Bilik, has issued a set of recommendations to Gov.-elect Christie, including “advancing merit pay,” “the elimination of lifetime tenure,” and “strengthening academic standards.”

Good move on the part of the usually-staid NJSBA, primarily because it aligns N.J.’s 600 school boards with at least a few of the Race To The Top criteria. Okay -- maybe the document doesn't specifically mention RTTT, but there's enough overlap there to applaud NJSBA's foresight. It also shifts the dynamic a bit. If out-going Ed Comm. Lucille Davy and the DOE pull those all-nighters and crank out some semblance of a RTTT application, they’ve already got official buy-in from local boards. What don’t they have? Buy-in from the leaders of NJEA, whom have relentlessly repeated on the record their opposition to reforms like merit pay and elimination of tenure.

Is the leadership of NJEA ready to bear responsibility for depriving N.J.’s public schools of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants? While lack of buy-in from presidents of local unions isn't a deal-breaker, it certainly doesn't help our chances for success. We’d like to see an set of recommendations to Christie from NJEA which indicates recognition of what’s at stake, and a willingness to accept, perhaps even embrace, necessary changes in the footprint of the teaching profession.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Seeds of School Choice

During our rambles, we stumbled upon an interesting piece of testimony from 1998 during a hearing of the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee regarding our incubating Interdistrict School Choice Program. Two things pop out:

1) One of the initial arguments for creating the program is that in 1992 NJEA bargained successfully with the Legislature to pass a statute that says, “"Resident enrollment shall include, regardless of residence, the enrolled children of teaching staff members who are permitted, by contract or district policy, to enroll their children in the educational program of the school district without payment of tuition." In other words, children of N.J. public school teachers can choose to attend the district employing their parents. Testifies then-Education Commissioner Leo F. Klagholz, “We saw this as an unfairness” because “tuition was waived for the children of educators but not for other parents.” And, thus, Interdistrict School Choice was born.
2) Senator Robert J. Martin brought up the case of Mountain Lakes, one of the best high schools in the state. Out-of-district parents with sufficient income regularly pay tuition to send their kids there, and part of the intent of Interdistrict School Choice was to allow parents, regardless of means, to have a choice too. Explains Senator Martin,
I am troubled, as I know many other people are, with the fact that New Jersey is as segregated as it is with public education. One of the features that I could foresee with choice-- You would have to take some aspects of voluntariness, and it would have to be well crafted, and there's a lot of other features, but I saw that as a potential for easing and creating more integration not on a, perhaps, wide scale, but at least as a means of, perhaps, breaking down some of the barriers with districts that now are either decidedly white or decidedly black, even though they're almost door to door.

Warp Speed for Interdistrict School Choice

The Philadelphia Inquirer gives us a status report on our embryonic Interdistrict Public School Choice Program, conceived in 2000 as a five-year pilot. It’s been fairly successful within its circumscribed limits and could offer choices for kids stuck in falling schools if the Legislature gives a thumbs-up to move it off pilot-status, where it’s been sitting for the last 4 years in spite of recommendations for expansion. Right now its constraints include limiting receiving districts to one per county and limiting the number of kids allowed to transfer to 2% per grade from the sending school. The new bill would allow more than one district per county to be labeled as a receiving district and expands the quota of kids allowed to transfer to 15% per grade or 10% of a school. In its current configuration the program serves about 900 kids who, because they’re lucky enough to have a receiving district within their county (15 of our 21 counties do) can get out of a failing school and into a higher-achieving one.

As we’ve reported before,
sometimes the non-expanded version doesn’t work so well. Each district gets to volunteer (or not) to be a “choice district.” In Mercer County, for example, the only district to raise its hand is Trenton School District. Therefore, all those kids at Princeton High, where 100% pass the 11th grade HSPA, can elect to attend Trenton Central High where 48% of kids can pass the HSPA. In Burlington County, the volunteer is Green Bank, an impoverished K-8 district with a total population of 69 kids. If you want to take advantage of Interdistrict School Choice and you’re a high school student in Burlington, tough luck.

By all reports, the current group of kids who do elect to take go this route are happy, well-adjusted, and eager to take advantage of greater educational opportunity. (The Inquirer piece interviews a mother who exudes gratitude that her daughter can attend a school outside of her home district of Camden.) So why has the expansion been put in suspended animation for the last 4 years?
"This is all about providing opportunity," said NJEA spokesman Stephen Wollmer, "but you have to ensure you're very careful you don't deny opportunity to the kids who stay behind."
This is actually the same argument used against charter schools: if a kid is lucky enough to have proactive parents who show up at charter school lotteries, then this hurts the home school by “creaming off” the best kids and leaving the unlucky ones in an even lower-achieving environment. It’s a strange sort of logic. While everyone agrees that this child might be better off at a charter or an interdistrict choice school, the needs of the one – the kid with the proactive parents -- are deemed less worthy than the needs of the many – the kids stuck back at the original school. Misery loves company? The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? (We think that’s from a Star Trek movie.) Odds are we’ll get to expand the Interdistrict School Choice Program now that Christie’s behind it and Senator Turner is pushing hard, noting that legislative approval of its expansion could help N.J.’s Race To The Top application (due in less than a month). May it live long and prosper.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Disability Rate in Camden High: 32.9%

A new bill on Gov. Corzine’s desk will create a 13-member reading disabilities task force that will study how best to educate students who have specific reading and language disabilities. Senator Jeff Van Drew of Cape May County, who helped usher the bill through the Legislature, is quoted in The Record: "Special education classes are too costly and inappropriate for students who are only being held back because of a reading disability. Rather than providing generic special education to kids who should be classified differently, we must focus our limited educational resources to meet the students' unique needs."

This bill harkens back to a 2007 NJSBA study, “Financing Special Education in New Jersey,” that points out that New Jersey has the 4th highest classification rate in the country for students deemed eligible for special education services, 16.8% in 2006. This new bill intends, in part, to provide appropriate reading programs so that districts avoid the expense of classifying kids, and kids avoid potential exclusion and lower academic expectations.

Will Bill A-880/S-2400 do anything to mitigate the eye-popping disparity in special education classification rates between wealthy districts and poor districts? N.J. classified 16.8% of our state population in 2006. However, Moorestown High School classifies 12.4% of their kids and Camden City High School classifies 32.9% of their kids. What’s the difference? Moorestown is a rich town (rated as an “I” District Factor Group on a scale from A-J) and Camden is a poor town (DFG of “A”). Does poverty explain a tripled rate of disability? Are schools over-classifying kids to cash in on the extra federal and state aid accorded to children with disabilities? Beats us.

NEA and the D.C. Voucher Program

The Wall Street Journal speculates that when the U.S. Senate approved a bill that kills the D.C. voucher program it was following orders from the National Education Association.
"Opposition to vouchers is a top priority for NEA," declared the union in a letter sent to every Democrat in the House and Senate in March. "We expect that Members of Congress who support public education, and whom we have supported, will stand firm against any proposal to extend the pilot program. Actions associated with these issues WILL be included in the NEA Legislative Report Card for the 111th Congress."
The Journal nails Senator Dick Durbin as the villain in this political parable. The other players, supposedly, are the 1,700 kids in the programs, plus their parents, who hoped to find a way out of the perils of the D.C. public schools. Then there’s the NEA that was simply doing its job by protecting its members from any reduction, no matter how small (vouchers were worth $7,500 per kids), to public school revenue streams. Blend in the other wimpy Democrats who voted to kill the program, clinging to their seats during hard times and loathe to antagonize a muscle-bound union that boasts, “better than three of every four candidates recommended by NEA have been elected to Congress and to state legislatures.”

Of course it’s not that reductive. The dynamics between the power of a lobbying organization with millions in political contributions to burn and the politicians in its sway can provoke bizarre results. Happens all the time, right? But it brings out the righteous indignation in us when the victims are poor kids trying to get escape a failing school system, whether or not one regards vouchers as a cure for our educational woes. (Even the Superintendent of D.C.’s schools, Michelle Rhee, supports the voucher program.) The kids had a chance and it was swiped by some arcane alchemy of power, need, and posturing.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sunday Leftovers

John Farmer, Dean of the Rutgers Law School, argues that the weakening of the power of the governor and the strengthening of local control has led to New Jersey’s current fiscal crisis: "Instead of choosing state spending over local spending, we have for decades chosen both, and we are now nearly bankrupt. Now, more than ever, we need a strong institutional governor; now, more than ever since 1947, the governor lacks institutional strength."

New Jersey School Boards Association met with
Christie’s “Mandate Review Subcommittee” to talk about some of the new state efficiency regulations that are actually, well, inefficient. And old regulations too: “The exchange also addressed burdensome tenure laws that limit districts’ flexibility, and obstacles to effective collective bargaining, such as the elimination of a school boards ability to implement its last best offer when negotiations are fully exhausted.”

Three separate school districts – Stone Harbor in Cape May County, Elmer in Salem County, and Chesilhurst in Camden County – are fighting closure. Stone Harbor is a K-8 one-school district with 61 kids, Elmer is a K-4 one-school district with 80 kids, and Foster Elementary in Chesilhurst has no kids because the 100 there have already been sent to neighboring Winslow. Nonetheless,” new machines line the computer lab, and $3,000 touch-screen blackboards stand ready in the classrooms. The smell of fresh paint fills the hallway,” as the principal fights to get his students back home.

Bob Ingle on when Corzine jumped the shark: "But I think the end was in sight much sooner, when Corzine addressed a state employee rally, waved his fist into the air and shouted, “I stand with you.” That signaled he didn’t get it, that he works for the people, not union leadership. His employer decided to terminate that relationship Nov. 3. Come Jan. 19 Corzine is a free agent and can be a union organizer, if he thinks that’s his calling."

Trenton Public School District
axed hundreds of positions last year, and now will cut 49 more because of frozen state aid and the implementation of the School Funding Reform Act which reduced aid to Abbott districts.

Atlantic City School District spent almost $1.5 million on legal costs last year, more than any other school district in the state, according to the Press of Atlantic City. The school superintendent says it’s due to a culture of litigation. A lawyer representing three teachers suing the district says the board “is retaliatory and vindictive, and won't settle even when it will save money.”

Diane D’amico agrees that we should expand the interdistrict school choice program. (See our posts here and here.)

Weird but true: the Superintendent of Little Ferry has been arrested for forgery, falsifying records and harassment, but the local school board says this will have no impact on his ability to run the district.

Friday, December 18, 2009

NJEA And Merit Pay

Here’s NJEA in its December newsletter on why “both NEA and NJEA have made and will continue to make the case against merit pay:” because “great teaching is as mysterious as it is magical; groups who attempt to define it for the purposes of merit pay are unlikely to reach consensus.”

The problem with NJEA’s Byronic definition of teaching – mysterious, ineffable, magical – is that it is grounded in input, not output. Great teaching should result in great learning, right? But the editorial’s references to student achievement are limited to Ed Commissioner Lucille Davy's statement at this year’s NJEA’s convention that“children are not widgets” (rejoins the writer, “neither, for that matter, are educators”) and a mocking of standardized tests to measure achievement.

There’s a kind of Romantic narcissism at the heart of this, a lopsided lens that sees only what a “great teacher” emits, rather than on what a student absorbs. Sure, it’s politically convenient: if we can’t measure magic, then quantifying teacher performance is a lost cause. This conclusion pits NJEA’s leadership against Race To The Top goals and our shot at $200-400 million dollars. Is the NJEA Executive Committee suggesting that its union leaders will refuse to sign off on our application because of philosophical opposition to tying student assessment to teacher performance?

While it's true that neither teachers nor students are widgets, that doesn’t mean that instruction is some sort of magical, immeasurable effluvium, or that data on student achievement is irrelevant. It’s time for NJEA’s leadership to get out of the 19th century.

Quote of the Day (with apologies to Diane Ravitch)

One of the reason Honda and Toyota ate General Motors’s lunch is that the Japanese car companies adopted statistical quality assurance while Detroit was still inspecting every part coming off the assembly line to see whether it was within tolerance. Why are we using those same outdated principles to manage the much more complicated problem of teaching children to read, write, and reckon?
From Reality-Based Community’s “Edward Deming meets No Child Left Behind." (Deming is credited with transforming the Japanese auto industry through the application of statistical methods.)

N.J. One of "Disinterested Dozen" in RTTT Tech Support

EdWeek reports that “education policy wonks” are linking states’ odds of winning Race To The Top grants to whether or not they won technical assistance from the Gates Foundation.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation first offered $250,000 grants to 15 states that passed “litmus tests” on teacher tenure policies and student-teacher data. After a howl of protest from non-Gates-graced states, the Foundation threw open the door to everyone else contingent on effective applications and, in the end, awarded 10 more grants.

Edweek speculates that not winning a Gates grant is a bad sign for a state's RTTT prospects since the criteria are similar. The twenty-five winners shouldn't gloat, though: it seems unlikely that Duncan will be that generous in the first round. And where’s New Jersey in all of this? Edweek calls our club the “Disinterested Dozen,” since we join 11 other states that never even applied for help from the Gates Foundation: Alaska, California, Idaho, Maine, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Utah, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming.

To be fair, Virginia also has a new governor and maybe that's enough instability to blame for inaction. Still, Lucille Davy is hiring a consultant to help us complete our application after its brief hiatus, and that consultant's duties no doubt include technical assistance. Wouldn't it have been worth our while to stand in line and try for a Gates' hand-out?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Only in New Jersey

Newark Central High School’s principal, Ras Baraka, is engaged in a fierce battle to win a Council seat in the South Ward. Son of the former Poet Laureate of New Jersey, Amiri Baraka (who wrote a poem ascribing blame for the September 11th, 2001 attacks to Israel and George Bush), the younger Baraka radiates pride at his accomplishments during his two-year tenure at Central, telling Politickernj, “[m]y position is all kids deserve a state of the art high school like this one."

Can he be head administrator of Central High and Council Member at the same time? No problem, says Baraka.
I intend to collect both salaries. I think it's funny that they keep asking about that since some of them have three or more jobs. Joe Parlavecchio was principal of East Side High School and chair of the party. Come on. Being a principal keeps me grounded. This is political. I'm going to use part of that City Hall salary to employ people at City Hall, particularly people from the South Ward.
Let’s look at that "state of the art high school" that all kids deserve, Newark Central High, where things run so smoothly that its chief administrator can moonlight as City Councilman.
  • 58.1% of students failed the Language Arts portion of the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA).
  • 77.8% of students failed the Math portion of the HSPA.
  • 49.7% graduate via the Special Review Assessment (for students who can’t pass the 8th grade-level HSPA)
  • Average SAT scores: 330 Math, 340 Verbal
  • Two Advanced Placement courses offered. No student received a 3 or better.
  • Comparative Cost per Pupil: $18,580
Grim? Not according to Principal/Councilman Baraka, who writes on something called Alumni Round-Up, “Right now I’m working on turning my high School, Central High, around. I’m working on making it a safe haven, and educational gem in the community a resource and a shining beacon for the entire community. I am also working on developing an anti violence initiative and approach to dealing with urban crime that can be duplicated all over the country. As well as work on a spoken word presentation.”

Doesn't happen too often, but we’re speechless.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

From Our In-Coming Big Cheese

Here’s Governor-Elect Christie (courtesy of the Asbury Park Press) on how to cut school costs, the main driver of N.J.’s crippling property taxes:

1) Eliminate loopholes that allow both school districts and municipalities to bypass our soft 4% cap on annual increases. Christie: “[We’ll enact reforms] that will make it a hard cap. Right now we have a Swiss cheese cap.
2) Stop the “teacher contracts that increase salaries by 4 to 5 percent and then, on top of it, layer onto it health benefit increases and pension expenses increases.”
3) Review “mid-level management jobs at schools” because “we no longer can have that plethora of mid-management…that are not necessarily bringing quality to the classroom.
4) Control school spending at the state level. However, "if all you do is cut aid and you don't do the downstream capping of expenditures at the local level, history tells us that school boards will just raise spending at the municipal level and pass that on to the taxpayer."

Give him two years, says Christie. If he doesn’t succeed by then, he’ll call for a constitutional convention.

Will it work? The devil’s in the details. He can try to legislate a Parmigiano Reggiano cap, but it’s unclear how he’ll lower contractual salary increases without repairing our non-binding arbitration system. Many schools lack the plethora of middle managers already – in fact, state accountability standards already penalize schools that creep over the student/administrator ratio. The bulge is in our poor urban districts, however. Example: the average ratio on students to administrators in N.J. is 1/178.8. However, in Newark’s Central High (more on that tomorrow), the student/administrator ratio is 1/71.5 (which may in part account for the Newark’s comparative cost per pupil: $18,580).

Christie utters nary a word about consolidation and shared services, Corzine’s efficiency hobbyhorse. Christie may be correct to disregard a lost cause since voters seem likely to veto any proposed consolidation of school districts. Question: each of our 21 counties has employed for the past two years an Executive County Superintendent whose job description is focused on offering plans for consolidation by March 2010. Each has about a $200K salary and benefits package, about $4 million in total. Does that count as middle management?

Quote of the Day

You can believe in choice because you believe in competition, or because you believe in freedom. You can believe in it because you think the market has amazing power to generate opportunity where capital and the will of free people are available. Though valid and true, I don’t care about any of this, and I think it’s important for the movement as a whole to grow beyond these arguments, which have sustained us but which have not made us full. Right now across this country, there are hundreds of thousands of children dying a civic death in the nation’s worst schools. In some places, those schools are among the most expensive not just in the country, but in the world, like in Camden where, for 13,000 students, we’re spending $360 million this year – that’s over $27,000 per student. For that, Camden students get the state’s two worst high schools and five middle schools that have failed for the last eight years in a row. They get schools no one would ever send their children to if they had a chance to go someplace else.
Derrell Bradford of E3 in the feature story of the School Choice Advocate.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

What Preschool Can Teach Us About "Diverse Delivery Systems"

A new report our from the New America Foundation depicts New Jersey’s preschool initiatives as innovative and successful, particularly because of our “diverse delivery system” that combines “community providers while also maintaining a strong role for school districts.” Over many years, N.J. has developed a model that combines traditional public schools, community-based child care centers, and Head Start programs that deliver high-quality full-day preschool services to primarily low-income children. The report extols the collaboration between public and non-public, with 2/3 of Abbott schoolchildren now attending programs in non-public settings. There was initially concern about whether the non-publics could deliver the rigorous, research-based programming. However,
Although community-based providers [in N.J.] once trailed public school classrooms on quality indicators, community-based classrooms now achieve quality comparable to – and in some cases better than – that in public school settings.
How is this “diverse delivery model” different than a K-12 school system that combines traditional public schools and charter schools? (Full disclosure: this is part of our quest to uncover the antipathy of some educators towards charters. We’re discounting fear of competition and union pressure as unseemly.) All preschools in the system are paid for with public funds. All preschools comply with state regulations regarding rigor of instruction and core content standards. They exist together, public and non-public, collaborative and committed to kids.

The report has a few recommendations. One is that the state provide facilities funding to the non-public preschools (echoing recent recommendations, not to mention Race To The Top gestalt, that N.J. offer facilities funding to charters.) Another recommendation takes this diverse delivery system a step further: since some districts in N.J. have only half-day kindergarten, why not extend the model to include full-day kindergartens too? Some kids go to kindergarten in public school. Some kids go to kindergarten in non-public school. What a concept. How about first grade?

NJSBA and NJEA on November School Board Elections

Ray Pinney over at New Jersey School Boards Association predicts that “moving the school board member elections to November, along with eliminating the vote on the school budget (if the budget is at or below cap), will occur in the next legislative session.” The benefits: moving school budgets to the Fall buys times for the Legislature to “find a solution to the budget crisis”; voter turnout will increase; it's cheaper than holding a separate April election. The deficits: “board members are concerned about the encroachment of party politics in a nonpartisan arena of education.”

The Record also chimes in, listing many of the same benefits as Pinney but painting NJEA as the loser if the bill passes through the Legislature:
Critics, including the New Jersey Education Association and state School Boards Association, worry that it will turn school board elections into partisan affairs. Officially, elected school boards are not affiliated with any political party. School board elections are supposed to focus on educational issues, not party dominance, these critics argue.

Maybe so. But currently, the teachers union appears to have more financial involvement than political parties do in school board elections, according to a report by the state Election Law Enforcement Commission. Statewide, about 9 percent of school board campaign contributions were from political parties, compared to 40 percent from donors with ties to the NJEA, the commission found in 2002.
You know where we stand.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Potholes in N.J.'s Race To The Top Track

Democrats for Education Reform has just put out a list of states that recognize the opportunities for children and schools in the Race to the Top competition and have stepped up to the starting line. New Jersey is conspicuously absent and for good reason: we’ve yet to produce anything like the comprehensive packages from proactive states stipulating commitments from local districts and union leaders on front-burner reforms like improved data systems, expansion of charter schools, and linking teacher evaluation and compensation to performance.

Last we heard, the N.J. DOE was playing hucky sack with our RTTT application, with both Corzine and Christie denying responsibility for our shot at receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants to reform our school system. Meanwhile, other states are proceeding with what DFER calls “stunning…edu-political reform.”

Let’s look at one RTTT requirements: the lack of legal, statutory, or regulatory barriers that interfere with linking teacher performance to student achievement. Florida is on DFER’s list and its RTTT application just went public (hat tip to Eduwonk). Local districts and union leaders who want to share in Florida’s potential grant funding have to agree to “utilize the Department-selected teacher-level student growth measure as the primary factor of the teacher and principal evaluation system.” Here’s another item on Florida’s application:
D. COLLECTIVE BARGAINING RESPONSIBILITIES: The parties bargaining agreement will use their best efforts to negotiate any terms agreement necessary for the full implementation of the State Plan. The failure to negotiate any term or condition in a collective bargaining agreement implementation of the State Plan will result in termination of the grant.
In other words, local units of the Florida Education Association have to negotiate agreements that support RTTT goals. Try something else and the district loses its grant money. Union leaders aren’t celebrating (see this Orlando Sentinel piece for sentiment) but momentum is building, DFER regards their chances as good, and Florida may well end up with hefty amounts of federal grants to support reform.

And where is New Jersey? Local school boards are twiddling their thumbs waiting on the DOE, but the NJEA leadership is preparing for fisticuffs. Here’s a section from its update to members on recent federal activity on reauthorization of ESEA/NCLB, which will most likely be aligned with RTTT goals:
Critical to our concerns was…draft language calling for “pay for performance” tied to student test scores and contravening any collective bargaining rights for local affiliates…We asked them to slow down consideration of the bill and stop any action on “pay for performance/merit pay initiatives. Our effort was successful.
And Corzine’s appointees on the N.J. State Board of Education are falling in line. NJEA reports that its Executive Committee just met with five members of the State BOE. When one bold member asserted the need to reward good teachers, fellow BOE member Edie Fulton (coincidentally a former head of NJEA), instructed,“Research shows that merit pay doesn’t exist in the private sector as much as people think.”

Another NJ Board of Ed member, Ron Butcher, was all reassurance: “Butcher added that he felt the board needed to have a conversation about merit pay, but noted that “we may find out after the discussion that we don’t want to go there.” He assured the audience that he would never vote for merit pay based on student test scores.”

Our current long odds for capturing some of the RTTT purse is not just the fault of NJEA: line up also the timorous NJ DOE, home rule-happy local school boards loathe to cede control, and difficulties inherent in corralling 600 school districts into some sort of consensus. But until the executives at NJEA are willing to sign onto something resembling Florida’s commitment, including assimilating RTTT goals into collective bargaining agreements, N.J.’s struggling schoolchildren and teachers will sacrifice hundreds of millions of dollars in the name of old-school resistance to educational reform.

Quote of the Day

Research shows that merit pay doesn’t exist in the private sector as much as people think.
Edie Fulton, current New Jersey State Board of Education member and former NJEA president, speaking to members of the NJEA Executive Committee about why she’s against linking teacher compensation to performance.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Sunday Leftovers

Tip to "New Jersey Newsroom": the word-for-word duplication of an NJEA press release with a journalist’s byline attached doesn’t actually constitute journalism. Here’s the NJEA statement about charter schools. Here’s the NJ Newsroom “article,” currently running under “Top Stories.”

We posted about the NJEA anti-charter school screed here. So did Diane D'amico on her Press of Atlantic city blog, who comments:
Baker's data is clear, but any study that focuses solely on test scores is missing a major reason why parents choose charter schools. In many cases parents just believe charter schools are safer and nicer than their local public schools. It's an image issue as much as an education issue, and one the public schools can't ignore.
Bob Ingle of Politics Patrol has this to say about the N.J. League of Municipalities' suggestion that we finance schools through an income tax:
This is not reform. It’s switching sources. Schools should be more efficient and less of a tax drain no matter what the source. Henry Coleman, professor at Rutgers University’s Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, told the Star-Ledger: “You’d have to double the best year ever with the income tax. And we haven’t had the ‘best year ever’ in a long time.” What the league should be doing is demanding more accountability and efficiency from the school system establishment. My guess is if the schools were switched to the income tax the property tax would go down then slowly creep back up as the towns represented by the League find other uses for the property tax.
The Press of Atlantic City looks why N.J. is suffocating under the weight of governmental pensions.
In the past, public employees received high benefits to compensate for lower pay than the private sector received. But government salaries have increased. Press analysis, reported in March 2006, showed that more than three-quarters of state workers earned more than the median wage in New Jersey. And few private workers get the lifetime health benefits and pensions found in government work.
NJEA rejects that reasoning. Spokesman Steve Wollmer says that 3%-5% annual raises are right in line with the inflation rate [reality check: CPI for Oct. '09 was 0.3%] and “If anyone thinks $40,000 is an extravagant pension, raise your hand. It’s not.”

Sticking with the theme, Former New Jersey Attorney General W. Cary Edwards, now chairman of the State Commission of Investigation, editorializes in the Star-Ledger, "the economic storm now ravaging the Garden State and the rest of the nation is a game-changer of immense proportions. We simply can no longer afford business as usual in business or in government -- at any level. And merely thinking outside the box won't be enough. These dire circumstances demand courage to actually get it done outside the box in very practical and realistic ways."

How cash-crunched are N.J. schools? In West-Windsor Plainsboro Regional School district they’re contemplating outsourcing custodial services despite community opposition. In Parsippany they may outsource substitute teachers to a Cherry Hill staffing company.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Move School Board Elections to Election Time

Assembly Democrat Wayne DeAngelo has issued a press release voicing support a bill that has been immobilized in the Legislature for a year or more. Bill A-15 is two parts: one moves school board elections from April (where average turnout is less than 15%) to the general election in November, and the second part eliminates school budget votes for budgets that come in under the 4% cap. While school board members and NJEA leadership are perfectly happy with the second part, they sharply oppose the former. Says the School Boards Association, “school boards members maintain that November board member elections would result in partisan politics dominating local education issues on a wide scale, in spite of best efforts to prevent it from occurring. NJSBA will seek amendments to have this provision removed.” NJEA concurs:
This move would politicize what is currently a non-partisan election process.
Who are they kidding? Some school boards are already partisan, and the ones that aren’t are highly political anyway. School board members’ names will be printed on a separate non-partisan portion of the ballot and more people will vote. Incumbents and union favorites will suffer a bit. The taxpayers won’t get stuck with the expenses incurred by having a separate election in April.

As far as eliminating school budget votes, districts' finances are already tightly constrained by state regulations, oversight, and the 4% cap. Indeed, with union annual increases almost always over 4% and insurance rates rising, every district is cutting back. The vote itself is just a charade: if a budget fails, it goes to the municipality, which usually doesn’t cut anything anyway. If it does cut, the district can appeal to the state. It’s a silly, time-consuming exercise that turns school districts into marketing teams.

It’s time to pass A-15.

Assembly Democrat Makes Hay out of Christie's RTTT Waffle

Yum. John Wisniewski, an Assembly Democrat has issued a press release criticizing Gov.-Elect Christie for “having difficulty sticking to what he says” because “either his transition team wants New Jersey to apply for Race to the Top federal education money or it doesn’t.”

This prompted a response from the Republican State Committee spokesman Kevin Roberts, who said, according to Politickernj,
John Wisniewski is obviously more concerned with petty politics than addressing New Jersey's considerable financial problems. Wisniewski's careerism was on full display in a release from his legislative office today, which can only be viewed as a taxpayer-funded audition in his well-known pursuit of the slot of Democratic State Committee chairman. If Wisniewski can't put the well-being of New Jerseyans above his ambitions, the very least he can do is not campaign on the taxpayer's dime.

"This is nonsense on top of nonsense,"

is the Star-Ledger’s take on N.J.’s Race To The Top application debacle:
Now, however, politics has entered the calculation. In response to the criticism from Christie, Corzine folded, as usual, and has agreed to apply now. So the Department of Education will waste its time devising a reform blueprint that has no chance of being enacted under Christie, and so has almost no chance of winning this competition.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Status Report on N.J.'s Charter Schools

Nelson Smith, President and CEO of D.C.’s National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, reviews N.J.’s progress on charter school expansion in the Star Ledger.

1) President Obama’s education platform and Chris Christie’s election (yes, folks, education reform is a post-partisan movement).
2) No official cap on charter schools (only a political one)
3) The DOE’s “reasonably rigorous process for approving new charters while adding greater numbers of new schools in recent years” (He’s being kind.)
4) The School Funding Reform Act, which establishes a “more level playing field.”

1) Lack of equitable funding (“In a state that has spent decades trying to rectify school funding disparities, it is unconscionable that a public charter school should receive only 75 cents for every dollar that goes to a district school to educate the same student.”)
2) Lack of facilities support (Smith recommends that charters should get the same aid from the School Development Authority as do traditional public school, and charters should get first dibs on extra space in vacant classrooms in other districts.)
3) We only have one authorizer for new charters – the DOE. We should follow the lead of other states and allow universities and single-purpose state boards to authorize charters. Think of it: Rutgers University Charter School, Middlesex Community College Charter School, Seton Hall Charter School. Why not?

Quote of the Day

I think all schools should be funded through the state. New Jersey needs to get away from home rule. We can’t afford home rule anymore.
Morristown Mayor Donald Cresitello on the New Jersey League of Municipalities’ campaign to fund schools through an income-based tax rather than through property taxes. (However, experts cited in the Trenton Times piece say that income taxes won’t come close to covering the school tab, which came to about $12.4 billion in 2008.)

RTTT as Political Football

The Star-Ledger has obtained a November 19th email to Ed Commish Lucille Davy from Susan Cole, head of Christie’s education transition team, telling Davy not to apply on Jan. 19th for the first round of Race To The Top.

This is in direct contradiction to what Christie’s transition team spokewoman Maria Comella told The Record last week: “We are extremely disappointed that the Corzine administration was wholly unprepared to meet a January deadline… This will cost the state valuable time.”

In the email Cole tells Davy, “It makes more sense to leave to the new administration the development of the application for the second round of proposals in June of 2010, rather than for you to try to make a January deadline.”

Davy also told the Star-Ledger that the email followed a lengthy phone conversation that reinforced Cole’s instruction that she should put the application aside. To add to the confusion, Christie spokeswoman Maria Comella told the Ledger that Christie and Corzine had a conversation about the application on November 12th in Newark and Christie told Corzine that the DOE should make the January deadline.

So, what's going on? Botched signals between Christie and Cole? A DOE so dysfunctional and rudderless that no one knows what's going on? Entrenched opposition to school reform? Take your pick. Following public outrage, mostly directed at Davy, the current DOE now plans to meet the January deadline. Judging by the status of, say, Pennsylvania’s application, ours will be, at best, a rushed and incomplete job, lacking strategic forethought, buy-in from local districts, school boards, and NJEA leadership, and legislative adjustments.

The revelation of Cole’s email resuscitates Davy’s reputation and undermines the veracity of Christie’s education transition team. It does nothing for New Jersey’s chances to win desperately-needed federal funds for school reform. Who wins? Opponents to the agenda of RTTT, i.e., those who deride charter schools, data systems that measure student achievement and inform instruction, and linking teacher performance to compensation. Who loses? Our kids.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Can New Jersey Salvage its RTTT Application?

True, things look bleak. Our Race To The Top application was gathering dust in the DOE until Monday when Lucille Davy appeared before the Senate Education Committee and said she’d hire a consultant to get us back on track for the Jan. 19th deadline. Good plan. Here’s another: look at the 21-page document (hat tip to Flypaper) that the Pennsylvania Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak just sent to school district superintendents and borrow liberally.

Pennsylvania shares many of N.J.’s educational woes: chronically failing schools, too many districts (500 of them), and what Zahorchak calls “significant barriers, entrenched practices, and a status quo mindset to be overcome.” Yet in spite of these obstacles, the PA DOE has produced a cohesive strategic plan for education reform rooted in closing bad schools, tying teacher compensation to performance, implementing data systems that measure student success and inform instruction, offering signing bonuses to experienced and effective teachers, and expanding charter schools. The document asks that each school district interested in sharing in the potential $200-400 million available through Race To The Top submit a letter of intent by Dec. 18th signed by the superintendent, school board president, and local union leader. Zahorchak writes,
Pennsylvania’s application will strongly assert that we can and will execute our plans, taking full advantage of your proven ability to get things done and the state infrastructure to support launching and supporting the highest-impact reforms.
We can do this too. It’s not too late for the N.J. DOE to produce a similarly proactive strategic plan, garner the support of stakeholders, and give our schools a shot in the competition for federal funds. Sure, we’ve got a late start, but the stakes are high. We can take the lead from our neighboring state and give our kids a chance at expansive resources and increased academic opportunity. What do we have to lose?

NJEA Honchos Need To Work on Reading Comprehension

NJEA published its monthly missive yesterday, this one refuting any value to charter schools in New Jersey, except as short-term “laboratories” to test “best practices.” Specifically, the “NJEA News Service” cites Bruce Baker’s analyses of charter schools throughout the country. Here’s NJEA’s summary:
In fact, data released by Rutgers university researcher Dr. Bruce Baker indicates that charters perform at a level below most public schools.
In fact, here’s Dr. Baker’s recap on his blog, SchoolFinance101:
So, what does this more complicated, but still not complicated enough analysis tell us? It tells us that average charter school performance from 2004 to 2006 on elementary assessments is no different from that of average performance in other poor urban schools – specifically the host districts of those charters. It just says this in a more complicated way. Sometimes simple averages – when not deceptive – can be sufficient.
In other words, Baker, no charter school advocate, concludes that most charter schools perform at a similar level to traditional public schools.

The NJEA leadership is doing no favors for its members by distorting borrowed data. We know it's threatened by the charter school movement and Obama’s Race To the Top criteria, but that’s no excuse for political propaganda disguised as scholarship.

Quote of the Day

Teachers are not the problem. It’s the over-politicized of the leadership of their union.
Governor-Elect Chris Christie on 101.5's "Ask the Governor" radio show last night when asked about NJEA's animosity towards him (via Bob Ingle).

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Here’s Why N.J. Got a “C” on Charter School Regs

The Center for Education Reform has just come out with a new report, "Race To The Top for Charter Schools: Which States Have What it Takes to Win." We got a middling grade on our charter school regulations because:

1) Only one agency can authorize new charter schools: the State DOE. Most other states have universities or independent boards that approve new charters.
2) CEF’s President Jeanne Allen (per the Star-Ledger) said that New Jersey's laws also create "unnecessary processes" and "burdensome" paperwork requirements.
3) Our funding is inequitable. N.J. laws require that local districts pass on only 90% of cost per pupil, plus charters aren’t eligible for the adjustment aid available through the School Funding Reform Act. That drops charter funding to about 65%-75% of other schools. On top of that, we offer no facilities funding.

Here’s the full report.

Here’s why N.J. School District Consolidation is a Pipe Dream

Morris Plains Borough, a two-school K-8 district in Morris County with a grand total of 680 kids, would seem ripe for consolidation with K-12 Morris School District next door. In three months time, Morris’s Executive County Superintendent, the felicitously-named Carole Morris, has marching orders to propose various mergers, including a mandate to
recommend to the commissioner a school district consolidation plan to eliminate all
districts, other than county-based districts and other than preschool or kindergarten
through grade 12 districts in the county, through the establishment or enlargement of
regional school districts.
No brainer, right? Not according to the folks in Morris Plains. The Star-Ledger reports that residents there have already articulated why consolidation is a terrible idea – costs for textbooks, transportation, and teachers’ salaries would increase, their administration costs are already low, and they don’t have the money for the required feasibility study, estimated to cost $50,000.

Whether all this is true or not – most of it is – doesn’t even matter, because all that’s needed to nix the consolidation is a thumbs-down from Morris Plains residents. The big piece of change, of course, is salary differences between teachers employed in Morris Plains and teachers employed in Morris School District. According to DOE data, the average teacher in Morris Plains makes $50,888 and the average teacher in Morris School District makes $66,409. State law (N.J.S.A.18A:6-31.4) mandates that the teachers' contract that was in place in the largest district before consolidation becomes the new contract for everyone in the newly-formed regional district and larger districts almost always have higher salaries.

So maybe we’re not ready to reduce the onerous number of school districts yet. Maybe we need to look at county-wide negotiations whereby all districts in one county would share a contract. Talk about saving time and money.

One other item about the non-merger of Morris Plains and Morris County School District: Morris Plains is an “I” district, which means its socio-economic level is the second highest on a scale from A – J. Morris County is a GH district, still comfortable but not in the same league as its wealthier neighbor. And it’s far more diverse. In Frelinghuysen Middle School in Morris County School District, there are 172 white kids, 50 black kids, and 66 Hispanic kids in the 6th grade. However, in Morris Plains Borough's 3th-8th grade school the kids are all white, or at least the minority population is so small as to not qualify as a subgroup on state testing.

Home rule allegiance is one thing. Segregation is another. The former is here to stay. The latter won't be addressed until the State puts some teeth into consolidation efforts.

More on N.J.'s Race To The Top Fracas

Here’s a few more details from Davy’s meeting with the Senate Education Committee yesterday, when she was called on the carpet to explain why the DOE had decided to skip the January 19th deadline and risk losing N.J.’s shot at federal money to be distributed through the Race To The Top competition.

Of course, rug burns were averted when, according to today’s Record, “the Corzine administration reversed course” and said it would indeed apply for N.J.’s potential share, somewhere between $200 and $400 million. Davy says now that after Christie won the election, his transition team told her to stop working on the application. Christie’s team said they only told her to stop after it became clear that the DOE was unprepared to make “a thorough, successful pitch.” But now everyone’s friends, and Davy will hire a consultant to help the DOE complete the voluminous paperwork due in 6 weeks.

In explaining the decision to delay applying til the second round in June, Davy had said repeatedly that she had been assured by the Federal DOE that there was no downside to waiting. A spokesman said that while states that wait until Phase Two “won’t get left out in the cold,” there is an inherent advantage to applying in January because states that don’t make the cut will get feedback on how to emend their applications for the second round.

During the Monday meeting, Senator Shirley Turner asked Davy about her overall vision for education; Davy invoked the power of preschool education. From the Record: “Turner advised Davy to ‘talk with the incoming administration so we all understand where we’re going and how we’re going to get there… Too many of our kids are failing to graduate high school.’”

Monday, December 7, 2009

Corzine and Davy Change Their Minds

The NJ DOE announced this afternoon that it will indeed apply by January 19th for the competitive first round of Race To The Top stimulus money, which could bring our public schools between $200 and $400 million if the application signals a openness to education reform. After a public spat (see here and here) between the incoming and outgoing administrations, The Record reports that Corzine is “bowing to pressure” and Davy told the Senate Education Committee today that her staff will commence work with the transition team to complete all the paperwork.

Too bad that the application's been gathering dust since the election, but Corzine is to be commended for his change of heart.

"Do Charter Schools Deserve the Spotlight?"

asks National Journal on its education blog. Ed Reformers like Tom Vander Ark and Andrew Rotherham say “yes,” as do five other experts. Two people vote “no”: Dennis van Roekel, President of NEA says,
Charter schools are not a magic bullet, and they aren't the only schools where you can find innovative ideas at work today… Thankfully, the Administration has listened to NEA and others who were concerned about the emphasis on charters. The revised guidelines for the Race to the Top grants now refer to "innovative, autonomous schools" -- which is not limited to charters.
Diane Ravitch, the other nay-sayer, is less equivocal:
Charter schools are being overhyped and oversold. They are no panacea. They represent deregulation and privatization. Deregulation nearly destroyed our national economy. What will it do to public education?
Mike Antonucci of Education Intelligence Agency sums it up:
If charter schools were all controlled by school districts, administrator opposition to them would evaporate. If they were all unionized, NEA and AFT would rarely find them worthy of comment, much less prolonged campaigns of containment. But then, they wouldn't be charter schools anymore, would they?

Speaking of Charter Schools,

The N.Y. Post reports today that highly regarded "charter-school operators from other states are urging New York's elected officials to increase the number of charter schools allowed in the state or risk having them set up elsewhere.” That’s because New York has a cap on allowable charters at 200. New Jersey has a cap of 135 (although we only have 68). Those charter school operators examining prospects in N.Y. probably aren’t going to look across the Hudson River in our direction. That’s bad news for the 11,000 New Jersey school children currently trapped on charter school waiting lists.

Are Edu-Entrepreneurs "Racist Zealots?"

The New York Times ran an article yesterday on how nerdy, quirky hedge fund managers have found a satisfying match for their entrepreneurial and altruistic impulses in NYC charter schools. It’s a growing trend, a way of combining data analysis, financial savvy, and opportunity, and, according to Robert Reffkin, one of the hedge fund managers profiled, a way to be part of “the civil rights struggle of my generation.”

What’s not to like? Smart, ethical people with cash to burn want to help expand educational opportunities for poor kids outside of the confines of traditional governmental constraints. Here’s a reaction from schoolmatters, a popular blog:
Those racist efficiency zealots were the first to look to tests, the IQ variety, as the preferred "scientific" tool for their generation's WASPy war on the weak and the poor and the brown.One thing is for sure: at the rate that experienced principals are fleeing the schools, the new leadership academy will be running overtime to fill those slots. Of course, this outcome is most likely a part of the Bloomberg-Klein plan--to seed the schools with their own trainees who share their blindness and lack of compunction when it comes to treating children like commodities or manufactured components
"Racist efficiency zealots." “A WASPy war on the weak and the poor and the brown.” “Treating children like commodities or manufactured components.” While schoolmatter’s reaction may be a tad histrionic, it echoes in the writings of Diane Ravitch and other education luminaries. What’s driving this aversion to charter schools?

We accept with equanimity a melding of the public and private worlds in higher education and preschool. We even accept the idea that parents can choose to pay to send their kids to independent private schools and parochial schools. But there’s something about using governmental money to fund charters that rankles some traditional educators, even when charter schools can provide a safer environment and the potential for higher academic achievement, particularly for kids in poor urban districts. Whether the argument is “creaming” off the best kids or the insertion of capitalism into a sacrosanct culture, people start foaming at the mouth. Charters become a deviant threat to the comfortable, complacent world of traditional education,

But isn’t the merging of free enterprise and ethics a quintessentially American practice? (We’ll start quoting John Winthrop any minute now.) Part of that ethos is that if a model doesn’t work successfully, you experiment with something new. One could argue that urban education, in New Jersey and elsewhere, is an Edsel, but we’re loathe to try something different because we get mired in the mythology of education as an ineffable, magical practice.

Of course, kids aren’t commodities and teachers aren’t widgets. But we’d rather drive (or have our kids drive) a Suburu than a lemon. If there’s a better model out there, why do we remain shackled to a less successful and outdated one? We're stuck in an entrenched dichotomy between traditional public schools and sound business practices, and in the end that just hurts kids.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Sunday Leftovers

Paging Diane Ravitch: New Jersey is one of 14 member states that have signed on to the agenda of the Partnership for 21st Education Skills, or P21, along with National Education Association. Over at Education Week, Stephen Sawchuk examines this group that detractors “allege, is a veiled attempt by technology companies—which make up the bulk of the group’s membership—to gain more influence over the classroom.”

Bob Ingle on the DOE missing the deadline for Race To the Top money:
Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean and Sen. Diane Allen describe as disappointing the news that Corzine's Department of Education can't complete applications for federal "Race to the Top'' education grants. Published reports say Education Commissioner Lucille Davy's minions stopped working on the application in mid-November. Gosh, suppose that has anything to do with that election earlier?
Davy Gets Sent to the Principal’s Office: The Record reports that Ed Commish Lucille Davy will have to answer for a “lapse in judgement” in missing the RTTT deadline by appearing before the State Senate’s Education Committee tomorrow. Commented Ilene Sterling of the Paterson Education Fund, "The two leaders of the state [Corzine and Christie] are each finger pointing. The kids are the political football."

The Star-Ledger Editorial Board urges Governor-Elect Christie to expand the Interdistrict School Choice Program (see our post here), which allows some kids to cross district lines to attend better schools.

James Ahearn thinks that the Quinnipiac poll is wrong and that, in fact, New Jerseyans are willing to pay higher taxes in order to avoid school district and municipal consolidation.

Marques Lewis, all of 21 years old, is the youngest person ever elected to the Newark School Board.

Carl Golden prognosticates in the Asbury Park Press that these times they are a'changin:
Spending cuts once shunned as draconian may now be embraced as necessary. Counties, municipalities and school districts long accustomed to relying on state aid will be forced to look for greater economies in their operations. Government work forces may be required to accept downsizing or, at the least, givebacks in scheduled salary increases and benefits.
And In the Lobby prophesizes that new Senate President Steve Sweeney will get serious about cutting state employee benefits since “he won’t have the rug pulled out from under him by a governor who at times acted more like a union organizer than the employer.”

Quote of the Day

From the Star-Ledger's feature today on the waning of NJEA's influence:
It was the latest example of how the NJEA has long flexed its political muscle. But it was far from the first. One of the most expensive demonstrations of the union's clout came in the summer of 2008, as Corzine was preparing to run for re-election. After the Legislature adopted controversial pension reforms over the objections of the NJEA and other public-workers unions, Corzine intentionally held off on enacting the package because the NJEA insisted it needed more time to notify its members.

Even Democratic allies of the governor were livid at the maneuver, given the tough fight they endured to pass the measure. But Corzine, standing in the arena where Barack Obama was given the Democratic presidential nomination, said he had no problem going along with the NJEA's request.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Race To The Top Detritus

Senators Tom Kean and Diane Allen, both members of the Senate Education Committee, expressed “disappointment” that N.J. “is woefully unprepared to apply for federal Race To the Top education grants.” According to their press release, “published reports indicate that the state Department of Education ceased working on the application in mid-November.” Both promised to work closely with Governor-elect Christie to make sure we’re ready for the second round in June.

From Kean:
I believe, especially in our current fiscal situation, it is imperative to make every effort to apply for all of the federal aid for which we are eligible. Remember, New Jersey only gets back 61 cents of every dollar we send to Washington. To refuse to apply for a $200 million to $400 million education grant is simply inexcusable.
And here’s today's editorial from the Record, still the only paper covering the story, bemoaning a missed opportunity: "Perhaps in better economic times we would be more sympathetic. But these are not those times. It's unfair to students and just plain foolish to sit on the sidelines."

6,891 Abbott Children Deemed Ineligible for Preschool

The Education Law Center, the primary advocates for students in our 31 poor urban Abbott districts, announced yesterday that the NJ DOE has revised the way it calculates the number of children eligible for preschool and “lopped” 6,891 children off the preschool rosters. The action, according to ELC, was “taken without notice or opportunity for public input.” How’d the DOE do it despite laws mandating that Abbott districts have to enroll 90% of eligible 3 and 4 year-olds? The DOE decided not to count children enrolled in private and parochial preschools so that “numerous districts that had for years been below the 90% goal suddenly found themselves in compliance.”

The Star-Ledger reports
that among the newly ineligible kids 1/5 of them are from Newark where 1,632 received free preschool in 2008 but now won’t, and another 2,000 are from Paterson and Jersey City.

Update: The DOE just issued a press release entitled “DOE Response to ELC Preschool Release.” It begins,
The Education Law Center's claims that almost 7,000 children in former Abbott districts are no longer eligible for preschool are "incorrect andmisleading, and have created a great deal of confusion in the preschool community," Education Commissioner Lucille E. Davy said today.
The point seems to be that, according to the DOE, the ELC is conflating the way the DOE estimates “the preschool universe” with the actual funding mechanism. He says, she says. Someone’s right and someone’s wrong. Maybe the ELC will put out another press release.

N.J. DOE Gets Okay From Feds to Redefine "Adequate Yearly Progress"

This past summer the DOE announced with great fanfare that it was raising the cut scores for ASK 3 and ASK 4, the standardized tests in language arts and math taken by 3d and 4th graders. In a press release dated July 15th, Ed Commissioner Lucille Davy said, “Setting these new standards is one part of our initiative to raise expectations for student achievement at all grade levels.” As we prepare our students for the “21st century world, we must set about “challenging many of our old assumptions about student and school performance.” In numbers, explains Davy, this means that instead of defining “proficiency” as answering between 40% and 45% of questions correctly, now 3d and 4th graders will have to answer 50% correctly to achieve proficiency. She warns that we may see a drop in the number of higher percentage of students in the “partially proficient” category, the state euphemism for “failing,” but kids will adjust and scores will rise over time.

Apparently the DOE has had a change of heart because it’s just successfully petitioned the US DOE for permission to change our definition of “Adequate Yearly Progress” for 3d and 4th graders. On the original scale, 73% of these kids would need to achieve “proficiency” in language arts for the school to make AYP. Now it’s 59%. In math, AYP has been dropped from 69% to 66%. Here’s the pdf from the NJ DOE, which obliquely explains the change through a new AYP chart and a vague statement about how "the safe harbor calculation for elementary schools this year is not straightforward."

Maybe it’s smart. NCLB/ESEA is up for reauthorization any time now, and it’s possible that a more enlightened administration may concede that 100% proficiency may not be realistic by 2014. If not, though, we’re stuck. It’s one thing to move from 73% to 100% by 2014. It’s another thing to move 59% to 100%.

Was the DOE too ambitious in raising cut scores from 40% to 50%? Was there evidence that an embarrassingly large number of elementary schools would fail to make AYP? If so, the back-tracking from the DOE should be accompanied by some discussion of the real reasons for the appeal to the Feds.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Why Did the N.J. DOE Bag Our RTTT Application?

Here’s how the spokeswoman for out-going Education Commissioner Lucille Davy explained why New Jersey won’t make the deadline for its share of the $4.35 billion in Federal aid for school reform called “Race To The Top”:
“Since the new administration is taking over, they will be the ones who have to administer whatever the big idea is and it may be that their priorities might not mesh with ours,” Forsyth said. Race to the Top requires “a huge, comprehensive application. You’re being asked to hold people accountable, raise scores and show how you will use the data to make decisions.
Well, that’s true: how could one posit that Christie's DOE will want to hold people accountable, raise test scores, and use data to make decisions?

The Record, apparently the only major medium covering the story (though the Paterson Education Fund sent out an email blast), has a follow-up today in which it notes that New Jersey is one of only two states waiting for the second application round, due in June. That’s from a poll taken by the Center for Education Policy in D.C. (4 states said that hadn’t decided and 5 states didn’t respond to the survey); CEP President had this to say about N.J.’s decision to “sit on the sidelines”: "I wouldn't wait," he said. "If you have 39 states going at it first and only two holding back, it's possible most of the money would be gone.”

So, why is the DOE throwing in the towel? On October 29th (5 days before the election), Davy told an audience at the NJSBA Convention in Atlantic City that the application process was on track. Here's some guesses:

1) The application process is extremely time-consuming, too onerous a task for our overworked, 900-employee DOE.
2) The application requires buy-in from NJEA, not a particularly big fan of charter schools, merit pay, and school reform, all criteria for the competition. Bagging the application is a sloppy farewell kiss from the Corzine administration to its stalwart fans. (On the other hand, NJEA spokesman Steve Wollmer told the Record that “[i]f the current administration can work that out with the new administration in time for Jan. 19, they should probably do that” because we need the money. Though that’s easy to say now that we’re not in the running for the first round.)
3) Spite. We hope not. And yet if Corzine had won, wouldn’t our application be ready as promised?
4) N.J.'s potential financial boost from RTTT, somewhere between $200 million and $400 million, is chump change compared to the expense of the political problems it would engender.

This is a running list. Feel free to add your own conjectures.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Newsflash: N.J. Won't Make the Jan. RTTT Deadline

The Record is reporting that New Jersey will not make the January 19th deadline for the first round of Race To The Top funds. A Christie Administration spokeswoman said, “The current administration made clear that they were completely unready. We are extremely disappointed that the Corzine administration was wholly unprepared to meet a January deadline.” In response, a spokesperson for Ed Commissioner Lucille Davy said, “Since the new administration is taking over, they will be the ones who have to administer whatever the big idea is and it may be that their priorities might not mesh with ours.”

Take your choice. It’s unclear how much money will be left for the second round of applications in June. The only other state transitioning to a new governor is Virginia, which will get in its application in on time.

Can N.J. Get Real About Race To The Top?

Thomas Carroll, President of the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability, has a piece in the New York Post on why New York State will have a better shot at Race To The Top funds if they accept Mike Bloomberg’s seven recommendations to state legislators. These include ending the cap on charter schools and providing funding for charter facilities; repealing N.Y.’s firewall that bars linking student performance to teacher evaluations; offering more pay for hard-to-fill positions like science, math, and special education; ending the “first in, last out” rule that forces principals to lay off teachers based on seniority rather than merit; closing the lowest 10% of schools based on student performance; limiting payments to displaced teachers; and ratifying the Common Core Standards immediately.

If Bloomberg is right and this is the formula for receiving Race To The Top funds, how does N.J. stack up? Not so well. To have a fighting chance, Christie and the Legislature are going to have to act quickly. To wit: we have an even lower cap on charter schools than N.Y. (135 to N.Y.’s 200) and we offer no funding for facilities. N.J. doesn’t have a firewall separating student performance from teacher evaluations (anyone with more info, please chime in), but in most cases contractual bargaining agreements bar such links, and NJEA looks dimly on any such efforts. We do not offer more pay for harder-to-fill positions and seniority in hiring decisions rules supreme. Our fragmented school infrastructure makes a convenient argument against closing failing schools, but doesn’t do us any favors with RTTT criteria.

How can we improve our chances? The Legislature needs to start by amending the Charter School Program Act, first signed by Gov. Whitman in 1996, by eliminating the cap. What’s the difference? Thirteen years after the legislation we have a grand total of 68 charters -- we’re not even half-way to the cap. Throw in the facilities aid also – fair is fair. Christie needs to appoint, as he promised he would, a Commissioner of Education who is an avowed charter advocate willing to take on the NJEA leadership’s animosity towards school choice and merit pay. Such an appointment would show the Feds that the Christie administration is serious about education reform. Finally, take our embryonic Interdistrict Public School Choice Program and make it real. Let kids cross district lines to escape chronically failing schools so that they have a chance at a decent education. According to the School Funding Reform Act, the money follows the kid, so what’s the difference if a higher-achieving district has the space? In the short term it will leverage our chances for RTTT cash. In the long term we start improving our inequitable and segregated education system. It’s a win-win.

Your NJEA Dues at Work

Last week we posted a powerpoint presented by NJEA’s Director of Governmental Relations, Ginger Gold Schnitzer, called “Campaign 2009: An Organizational Victory,” which documents NJEA’s enormous push to browbeat their members into voting for Governor Corzine. From the same source, Mike Antonucci’s Education Intelligence Agency, here’s the transcript of Schnitzer’s remarks that accompanied the powerpoint, which also offers details on NJEA members’ expenses for their union’s attempt at mind-control. For example, here’s Schnitzer on an August poll that revealed that members would respond to a campaign that focused on pensions, health benefits, collective bargaining, pre-school, school funding, and vouchers:
And when I saw the results one word came to my mind … DUH…. We just paid $41,000 for that??? I could have had a V-8.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Charter School Counterpoint

The Record editorializes that plans to open a charter school in Englewood should be dropped because, first, “the district already spends $1.8 million on an existing charter school in the city,” and, second,
The district's academic reputation isn't where it should be. That's part of the reason that many Englewood parents don't send their kids to the public schools. Taking away more financial support for the district isn't going to help. Charter schools and vouchers for tuition to other schools won't going to improve the state testing scores in the district. Complete community support can make that happen.

One of the founders for proposed charter school told the board that the district's money belongs to the children and "every kid has a right to be educated." That's true. And that right to an education is the public school system.
The Record’s editorial staff makes a commonplace error: charter schools are, of course, public schools, financed by taxpayers, open to all students, and subject to the great bulk of the accountability apparatus of traditional public schools. The argument seems to be that if parents opt to send their kids to any school not within Englewood School District then those parents are willfully undermining the system. School choice becomes renegade, a selfish, unpatriotic act, a betrayal of the community ethos despite any academic benefits that children might incur,

How widespread is this sentiment?

Widespread enough that famous education historian Dr. Diane Ravitch falls for it too. In her epistolary blog “Bridging Differences” she writes today,
Free public education helped our country to prosper. And above all, it provided almost everyone a chance to make a better life for themselves and their children.

Our public schools were never perfect. There was never a golden age when everyone graduated high school and learned to a high standard of excellence. Improving education and expanding equality of opportunity have been the slow, steady work of generations.

Yet now, we live in an age when it is the custom to bash the public schools, not to thank them for helping to build our nation.
(Actually, if you read her whole column you’ll see that it’s unpatriotic to bash public schools unless they are located in hometowns of either Arne Duncan or Joel Klein.)

Why isn’t it a patriotic act of “community support” (The Record’s words) or of “build[ing] our nation” (Ravitch’s words) to offer all children better schools? Since when did patriotism get defined as accepting mediocrity? Seems pretty un-American to us.

How Does N. J.'s Lack of School Choice Affect Kids?

Yesterday we badgered Governor-Elect Christie to address the paucity of school choice for kids stuck in chronically failing districts by expanding charter schools and our moribund interdistrict choice program. Here’s why.

Willingboro School District is once again in the news because Superintendent Thomas C. McMahon, installed this past January, has apparently taken another job in West Essex. We say “apparently” because, according to the Burlington County Times, he has not actually notified the Willingboro School Board, although West Essex has already posted a letter on its website that confirms the hire. Just call it another slap in the face to this struggling district. Here’s the bleak picture: Willingboro High School is in its 6th year as a School in Need of Improvement (SINI) according to NCLB. A whopping 37% of kids pass the HSPA, the high school proficiency exam. (It’s an 8th-grade level test.) 63% of the total population was suspended school during the last year. Average SAT scores for combined math and verbal are 800. Willingboro's Levitt Middle School is in its 5th year of SINI status. 64.6% of 7th graders failed the ASK7 in Language Arts. In Willingboro’s DFG of DE (socio-economic ranking with A the poorest and J the richest), 26.9% of 7th graders failed. In math, 71% of Levitt 7th graders failed. Compare this to other districts in their DFG where 34.6% failed.

You get the idea. Willingboro is a chronically failing district so dysfunctional that its superintendent doesn’t even bother to inform them that he quit.

And here’s where it gets really nasty. Willingboro is one of 41 school districts in Burlington County, According to the last census there are 423,394 inhabitants within its 805 square miles. Big place. There’s got to be educational alternatives, right? No. Burlington County’s first charter school, Riverbank, opened its doors this past September in Florence Township with 108 kids in grades K-2. That’s it for charter school options.

How about our interdistrict choice program? With 41 school districts, some of them very fine, you’d think some small portion of kids stuck in Levitt Middle School or Willingboro High could extricate themselves. Here’s the rub: the program specifically limits the number of receiving districts within each county to 1. In other words, only one district can volunteer to accept out-of-district students. In Burlington County, that district is Green Bank, a K-8 district with a DFG of A (the most impoverished category) with a grand total of 69 kids. It’s hard to know how well the kids do there because there’s so few of them there’s not enough to constitute a cohort. Much of the DOE data is blank. Oh – the annual cost per pupil in Green Bank is $20,062.

There's no school choice in Willingboro. There's really no school choice in all of sprawling Burlington County. It's time to change that.