Friday, July 31, 2009

Morris and Ocean County Consolidation

School district consolidation recommendations are in from Morris and Ocean counties, but don’t hold your breath. The Star-Ledger reports that the likelihood of implementing the plan from Morris Executive County Superintendent Kathleen Serafino is “uncertain.” Says Mike Yaple of the New Jersey School Boards Association, "Usually these plans just die on the vine. If there is a public vote, the plans are rejected." The Press of Atlantic City cuts to the chase on the Ocean County proposal:
All final proposals would go before the voters in the affected districts, and if voters in any district reject it, that plan does not take effect.
There’s lots of evidence out there that school district consolidation saves money and improves educational opportunities. The Center for Policy Research at Syracuse University has a report that explains how “consolidation makes fiscal sense” and quantifies the savings at 28% for very small districts and 9% for larger districts. Bruce Baker, Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers (and blogster at School Finance 101), rates New Jersey as his top pick for school district regionalization and consolidation. He writes,
The case is similar, though arguably even more exaggerated in the nation’s most population dense state – New Jersey. Like Vermont, New Jersey has a multitude of small, non-unified school districts, not in the remote southern pine barrens area, but in densely populated areas adjacent to New York City (Bergen County) and near Philadelphia. In some cases, undersized K-8 school districts span a few city blocks. Even more so than Vermont, New Jersey has made efforts to improve equity in school funding – but some of these gains are necessarily offset by the awkward and inefficient organization of New Jersey school districts.
In spite of solid evidence that school district consolidation not only addresses property tax inequities but also educational ones, New Jerseyans are stuck. The Legislature’s 2007 CORE Act, which was supposed to address our sky-high property taxes is, well, flaccid as a wet noodle. One dissent from any school district kills the deal, in spite of the clearly delineated advantages of decreasing segregation and increasing educational equity.

Not to mention agendas from New Jersey School Boards Association and the New Jersey Education Association. As far as NJSBA goes, how could any lobbying group advocate for eliminating posts for its members? Here’s their FAQ sheet on regionalization, which is remarkably balanced given their members’ interests. Less balanced is the NJEA’s view on even the most minor forms of regionalizations, like consolidating county special services boards of education and county vocational boards. From the NJEA’s Government Relations Committee Report to the General Assembly on an Assembly bill that would consolidate just those county schools districts:
NJEA initially had several serious concerns about this legislation. With the assistance of UniServ and NJEA network attorneys, the Association crated amendatory language to protect and preserve the rights of NJEA members. This amendatory language was incorporated into the bill making it possible for NJEA to take a neutral position on it.
In other words, the Assembly folded to NJEA demands and rewrote the bill to eliminate any potential cost savings.

How much do we spend anyway on all our layers of governance, not only in schools but in our multiple municipal layers of government? John Bury of the Star-Ledger is toting up the costs of freeholders and county payrolls. It’s enough to make you want to consolidate.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Education Law Center Logic Lapse

The Education Law Center’s current agenda, as evidenced by some recent publications, betrays some cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, ELC damns the State Legislature for cutting aid to poor kids. On the other hand, the ELC casts aspersions on charter schools, usually held out as an opportunity for poor kids. What’s going on?

First, Executive Director David Sciarra, in a press release dated July 22nd, reprimands the State Legislature for cutting $303 million from the School Funding Reform Act in the last budget. Says Sciarra,
The Legislature's decision to jettison SFRA means that students in underperforming schools in high needs districts - the vast majority of whom are low-income and Black and Latino - will have fewer resources than the formula prescribes as necessary to meet state academic standards. The aid cuts deprive these students of the funding their schools need to improve performance, provide needed supplemental programs, and meet new State high school course and graduation mandates.
Sciarra provides a chart that lists 44 poor districts (40% or greater rate of poverty) that account for $94.7 million of the cut. These school districts have a District Factor Group rating (DFG: socio-economic label of A-J, with A the poorest and J the richest) of either A,B,CD, or DE.

(According to the DOE’s lastest data, there are 254 districts in New Jersey – close to half – that share DFG’s somewhere between A and DE.)

Sciarra’s conclusion is that poor and (mostly) minority students are suffering more from the State’s inability to fund SFRA than wealthier students. No doubt he’s correct, since higher DFG districts rely far less on state aid. In some J districts, the state’s share is less than 5% of a district’s budget.

Okay, we’re with the ELC. Fair enough.

However, on July 9th the ELC posted an editorial from Gordon MacInnes, former Assistant Commissioner of Education in charge of Abbott districts, who berates U.S. Ed Sec Arne Duncan and the Obama Administration for requiring charter school expansion as a criterion for Race to The Top money.
If my analysis of New Jersey’s worst-performing schools is any guide, then Secretary Duncan’s plea should be ignored. Expecting charter schools to suddenly operate as turn-around specialists in the nation’s toughest schools is akin to asking the school nurse to perform a liver transplant
MacInnes claims that N.J.’s charter schools have advantages over traditional public schools that make comparisons flawed. For example, charters are “largely immune” from “the wave of Latinization” that affects poor urban schools’ demographics, and charter schools have advantages over traditional public schools of “a stable student population.” The best, he says, have “practically no student turnover.” Another advantage that skews comparisons: charter school students in N.J., he says, “have parents that sought a better education for their children.” In addition, charters schools have no teacher unions and a lower percentage of kids with special needs. So there’s no real evidence, according to MacInnes, that charter schools do any better with poor urban kids and, therefore, there is no reason for expansion.

Here's a couple of quibbles: he conveniently ignores the possibility that the stable student population of charter schools is a reflection of their success and not an inherent advantage. He draws no conclusions from the fact that the teachers usually are not unionized. He suggests, with no evidence, that charters discriminate against Latino kids. He penalizes charter school success because he thinks that those kids have more proactive parents. There's no mention of the 11,000 children on waiting lists for charter schools. And no mention either of the intense opposition towards charter schools from NJEA.

Here's the cognitive dissonance: Sciarra points to the Legislature’s failure to fairly fund needy public schools because it deprives poor kids of educational opportunities (and undermines SFRA). MacInnes decries the Federal call for more charter schools because they offer educational opportunities to only some poor kids. Wouldn’t a unifying logic for the Education Law Center encompass both viewpoints -- that we should fairly fund traditional and charter public schools and try to even out supply and demand?

MacInness’ defense of the deplorable record of poor urban schools in N.J. is unsettling. ELC and NJEA have forged an alliance over the last 40 years and perhaps that explains some of his illogic. But it’s puzzling that an organization vested in the academic success of our neediest kids would espouse dueling viewpoints.

Lakewood Tries Merit Pay

School administrators and principals in Lakewood Public Schools will have their performance tied to compensation, a first for this district and a rarity in Jersey. The Asbury Park Press reports that principals of schools that meet annual state standards will pick up an extra $3,000 and assistant principals will garner $2,000.

The agreement came from recent contract negotiations, which also include annual salary increases of 1.9%, 2.5%, and 3.15% over the next three years. These percentages are lower than typically seen in the state, and certainly less than the administrators’ union’s proposal of 4.5%.

It’s hard to say how easily this victory for accountability will be duplicated. Lakewood is its own (kosher) animal, as the district has a high percentage of Orthodox Jews who send their kids to private yeshivas and, in some cases, also serve on the public school board. (A recent Friday night meeting was truncated so that members could get home in time for the Jewish sabbath.) The typical union politics that might impede this sort of heretical compensation arrangement may be weaker on this Ocean County board, but it’s a handy precedent much in sync with Race To The Top priorities.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Quote of the Day

Corzine can't win with this level of support among what should be his base. So far, he's resisted calls for him to drop out of the race. If poll numbers continue to show such weak support over the next month, expect one of two things: 1) President Obama to make Corzine an offer he can't refuse; or 2) Corzine to overhaul his campaign team, and/or message.
In The Lobby, after new poll numbers show Christie has expanded his lead over Corzine to 14 points, 50-36.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

As Goes Washington, So Goes Jersey?

Great article in Washington State’s News Tribune regarding eligibility requirements for Race to the Top funds. Here are some core requirements and Washington’s status:
• A state must connect data on student performance to individual teachers. The logic for this is blindingly obvious: The data connection can not only help evaluate teachers, it can help evaluate the curriculum they use, the schools of education that trained them and the effectiveness of their principals.
The failure to make that connection cripples accountability all around. Washington doesn’t make it.
• A state must reward high-performing teachers. For the most part, Washington does not.
• A state must encourage educational innovation by not imposing a cap on the number of charter public schools – schools commonly organized and self-governed by teachers and parents. Washington imposes a cap: zero.
• A state must have a credible way of stepping in and fixing failing schools. Washington doesn’t
The piece concludes,
Gov. Chris Gregoire, who was in Washington, D.C., last week to talk to Duncan and Obama about Race to the Top, returned saying that Washington wouldn’t be seeing any of the money, at least not in this round. Any chance at it in the next round will depend on whether the Democrats who run the Legislature are willing to stand up to some of their most powerful constituent groups.

Republicans have been arguing for some of these reforms – such as merit pay and charter schools – for decades. Now the arguments are coming from the most liberal Democratic administration this country has seen since the 1960s. Somebody should get a clue.

Campaign Nosh

The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board links New Jersey’s “overregulation” with the recent corruption scandal:
The point is that politicians and officials have more to sell in an environment of high taxes, big spending and overregulation—the same things that help explain New Jersey’s anemic economic growth and job creation. When government gets too big and complicated for businesses to get their permits and approvals and funding honestly, the dishonest prosper. And the honest get fed up and flee.
The Journal posits that our big government culture (New Jersey created only 6,800 private sector jobs from 2000 to 2007 while public sector jobs grew by more than 55,800) creates a nifty opening for Chris Christie.

Frank Esposito, an interim dean at Kean University, will be long-shot gubernatorial candidate Chris Daggett’s choice for lieutenant governor. Esposito is a strong supporter for school choice, including both charter schools and vouchers. The pick aligns Daggett with Christie on school choice issues and underlines the differences in education agendas between Corzine and Christie. Now that Daggett is eligible for matching funds, he’ll be included in the debate with Corzine and Christie. We vote for an education question. In the meantime, the NJEA gets a handy dichotomy to work with.

Bob Inlge over at Politics Patrol quotes a good line by Daggett: “The cancer of corruption inside and outside the law is so deeply embedded in New Jersey that unless the FBI is put on a monthly retainer, only a truly big change will make a difference.”

Chris Cillizza at the Washington Post reports that a “senior Democratic strategist” said that the FBI sting was a “tipping point” for Jersey voters looking “for an excuse to vote against business as usual but didn’t have an acceptable alternative.” Writes Cillizza,
"His [Corzine's] clearest route to victory had been to spend tens of millions making clear he'd cleaned up Trenton and bloodying Christie with accusations of graft and corruption," said one Democratic operative with long ties to New Jersey. "Now, a member of his cabinet and mayors he needs for turnout are caught up in a huge corruption ring, so he can't run on ethics reform. So now what's his road map to victory?"

NAACP Goes to Trenton

A representative from the Trenton branch of the NAACP told the Trenton School Board last night that it must do something to improve the “abysmal” high school graduation rate. According to the Trenton Times, Board member Marcellus Smith assured the crowd that he, along with the rest of the Board and Superintendent Rodney Lofton, “intends to turn the district into a world-class school system.” Good luck with that.

The most recent DOE data shows that about half the kids drop out between 9th and 12th grade. 78% of Trenton High students fail the math HSPA and 55% fail the language arts HSPA (the state test required for high school graduation). 48.1% fail the HSPA three times and are “graduated” using the Special Review Assessment, a back-door diploma mechanism that artificially inflates N.J.'s high school graduation rate. Average SAT scores are 374 for math and 382 for verbal. Cost per pupil? $16,120.

Trenton High School is in its 6th year as a "School In Need of Improvement." According to No Child Left Behind Sanctions, all children enrolled there should have “public school choice” for the last 4 years. Let’s see… they could go to the other public high school in Trenton, Daylight/Twilight High School where 90% of the kids fail the math HSPA and 78.7% fail the language arts HSPA. Every kid who graduates does so through the SRA; SAT scores average 351 for math and 355 for verbal.

There are some charter schools in Trenton, but none that we can find that take high school kids. Their records are spotty; then again, they spend less money per child. They all have waiting lists.

So, do we take Mr.Smith at his word and wait for Trenton Central High’s transformation? Or do we actually give the kids a chance by bringing in KIPP or Green Dot or Uncommon Schools Network, which runs Newark’s North Star Academy where 100% of kids passed the language arts HSPA and 91% the math HSPA? Or – here’s something radical – admit that the fractured nature of our public school system segregates poor kids into ghettos and offer the opportunity to aspiring Trenton students to travel to one of the 8 other public school districts in Mercer County?

How bad does it have to get for us to try something new?

Also at last night’s Trenton School Board meeting, Superintendent Rodney Lofton got a one year contract with no pay increase, putting him at $180,353 for the 2009-2010 school year. Trenton has 12,000 kids in 21 schools About 10 miles down the road Princeton Regional Schools Superintendent Judy Wilson will be paid a $220,480 salary to oversee 3400 kids in 6 schools, according to the Princeton Packet.

Yeah, it’s just money. But if our goal is to offer comparable, equitable academic opportunity to all the children in New Jersey, we’re a State in Need of Improvement.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Education Reform in the Soprano State

Can we finally agree that a primary source of N.J.’s woes – both political and educational – flows from the legacy of home rule? Our local governance is so energetically parsed that we have created an environment ripe for corruption and bribery. In the educational sector, this leads to the most inefficient, segregated, and expensive school system in the country.

Here’s some pundits on N.J.’s most recent political scandal. From Brad Parks (formerly of the Star-Ledger) in the Wall Street Journal:
In most states, the local unit of government is the county; in others, it’s the municipality. In Jersey, we have both, and lots of them. There are 566 municipalities—California, with four times the population, has only 480—and each has a mayor and/or councils. The 21 counties have their various freeholder boards and utility commissions and there are also 120 state legislators. When that many people have their hands in the cookie jar —and there are that many cookie jars—is it any wonder that you get people selling Oreos out of their trunk in the parking lot to make a little extra cash on the side?
Murray Sabrin of Politickernj agrees:
The most pervasive "corruption" in the State of New Jersey is the size and scope of government. Government spending has grown for decades, far exceeding the rate of inflation, making the tax burden in New Jersey one of the highest in the nation. And we have yet to see indictments of anyone involved in the scandal ridden $8.5 billion school construction fiasco and other state boondoggles.

However, if we really want to end low level political corruption in New Jersey and elsewhere, legal plunder must be abolished by streamlining the size and scope of government.
From Bob Ingle and Sandy McClure, co-authors of “The Soprano State: New Jersey’s Culture of Corruption" in the New York Times:
With 566 municipalities in New Jersey (California has only 480), 603 school districts (more than the states of Maryland, Delaware and Virginia combined), 187 fire districts, 486 local authorities, 92 special taxing districts, and 21 county governments, which tend to be units controlled by entrenched political bosses, there’s a lot of opportunity to cheat, steal and corrupt the system
It’s one thing to recognize it. It’s another thing to fix it because the root of the corruption is itself the obstacle to reform. These are the guys who are going to eliminate their own jobs?

In fact, our overabundance of school districts dilutes the two main drivers of school reform: school choice and merit pay. For example, while No Child Left Behind includes a provision to transfer kids from a “School in Need of Improvement” to a higher-performing school, the typical district in N.J. only has only one high school because the districts are so small. And kids aren’t allowed to transfer to a better school if it means crossing district boundaries. Our fragmented school system empowers the leadership of NJEA and dilutes local districts’ ability and wherewithal to effect change. Merit pay? Not likely.

(How will Jersey fare with the $5 billion in stimulus funds contingent on connecting educators’ compensation to performance and the expansion of charter schools? We need a DOE [and a governor] that actively promotes and facilities the development of successful charters; then we may be able to get some momentum and, with it, some cash.)

Corzine seems to get it. He has taken baby steps to consolidate districts and standardize curricula, but local resistance is so strong that he can’t get the legislation passed to take make substantive strides. The commotion incited by the elimination of 13 non-operating school districts was disheartening to anyone interested in educational progress. Until we find it within ourselves to sacrifice local control for effective and efficient government and education, the best we’ll do is creep along.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sunday Leftovers

Booker for Governor?
George Norcross, a Democratic mover and shaker, is “working the phone lines" to get Corzine to resign, according to In The Lobby. Choice replacements are Mayor Cory Booker or Rep. Frank Pallone.

Acting U.S. Attorney: N.J. is the most corrupt state in America:
New Jersey Newsroom reports on the FBI agents’ ire at the depth of corruption in the Garden State, which “stopped just short of urging New Jerseyans to go to their windows, lean out and shout, 'I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore.''

Other Comments on Changes in the Race:
Charles Stile writes,
"Thursday's historic federal sting may not be the death blow to Corzine's reelection, but it was a body blow. It disabled a sizeable chunk of the Hudson County Democratic machinery."

"The State of New Jersey isn't broken," says Alfred Doblin of the Record. "The state Democratic Party is. Some would argue they are one and the same."

John Bury
tags his editorial, "Corzine Must Resign ."

Debating the Timing of Changing Proficiency Scores on NJ ASK :
The Record records the debate between NJEA, the DOE, and a North Jersey superintendent on whether the DOE's decision to change the cut scores months after schools took the test was good timing. (The real reason for the DOE's decision: see here.)

Asbury Park Press vs. Education Law Center on Efficacy of Preschools:
While most media reported favorably on N.J.’s investment in free public preschool for poor 3 and 4 year-olds after a report from National Institute for Early Education at Rutgers said it was increasing academic achievement, the APP Editorial Board says it’s an untimely investment and that the report was “flawed in several ways.” David Sciarra of the Education Law Center shoots back today on the benefits of preschool.

Even the Food Stinks:
The travails of Camden Public Schools extend to its food services department. New Jersey Newsroom reports on “rampant waste, and possible fraud and theft” after a consultant estimated that Camden school cafeterias neglected to collect $500,00 in meal fees and wasted $1,500,000 in food.

Dysfunctional School Board Award of the Week:
Goes to Fairfield Board of Education, where one member has sued another, reports The News of Cumberland County. The original charges of “terroristic threats” were downgraded to “harrassment” after a Board member said that her colleague had threatened to “punch her in the face and take her out.” At least it was during a closed session.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Today's Corzine Obituaries

There will be a lot to say about this group in the upcoming weeks. But I want to pause a moment and look for implications in the gubernatorial race. The basic take-away is this: There is no way to spin this as good news for Corzine, and no way to take it as bad news for Christie. In fact, I'll go out on a limb and say that the only way Christie loses at this point is if he lives up to Edwin Edwards' prophecy - for those who aren't familiar with Louisianna politics, Edwards boasted that he would win unless he were caught in bed with a live boy or dead woman.

As Dandy Don used to tell us Monday Night Football fans...Turn out the lights, the party's over.
Thurman Hart, Star-Ledger

For Corzine, already trailing in every poll taken so far, the path to re-election just got considerably steeper. He'll be blamed, fairly or not, for the astonishing level of corruption revealed by yesterday's arrests. While he had no responsibility for or authority over the people arrested, the backlash will impact him and his candidacy simply because he's the person in charge.

It will be a struggle for him to re-direct attention toward the state's other problems – largely economic and tax issues – and even more difficult for him to make a case that he's the person to lead the state out of its current funk.

It will only be a matter of time – if it hasn't begun already – before speculation is fired up concerning Corzine's immediate future. If, for instance, polls continue to show him running a double digit second or if the results reveal a widening gap, there will be murmurings about a potential withdrawal from the race.
Carl Golden, New Jersey Newsroom

Thursday's events nonetheless seriously wound Democrat Corzine's re-election chances. Though some of those arrested are Republicans, (Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt of Ocean County, for one) more are pols from North Jersey Democrat machines often viewed as corrupt.
Gloucester County Times Editorial Board
At a press conference Thursday, Acting U.S. Attorney Ralph Marra Jr. spoke of his disgust at "the pervasive nature of corruption in the state." He called corruption "a way of life" for public officials, who "existed in an ethics-free zone." He noted that "giant loopholes" remain in campaign donation rules that contribute to the problem — rules Gov. Jon Corzine, Senate President Richard Codey and the Democratic leadership have refused to tighten.
Asbury Park Press Editorial Board

Corzine wanted to be known as a reformer. But the moniker hasn't stuck because while he has pushed through reforms, the reforms fall short...Advisers to the governor should be telling him, you can't have too many reformers on your ticket. Instead, critics of Weinberg are telling him you can't have too many reforms. The headlines today show the consequences of that logic.
Alfred Dobin, The Record

Thursday, July 23, 2009

N. J. Spends 3.5 Billion Dollars Per Year on Special Education

It’s the highest in the nation on a per pupil basis, about 1.6 times what we spend per general education kid. Why? In large part because we educate our most fragile children outside of their local home districts, which adds both educational and transportation costs. In fact, N.J. educates 10% of our kids with disabilities in private and out-of-district placements, with no other state in the country even close. (Massachusetts is next at 7.2%.) The United States Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation cited N.J. as having highest proportion of kids in separate settings. (For more data, look at NJSBA's extensive report on special education.)

So it should be no surprise that N.J.’s special education costs substantially top every other state in the country. And it should also be no surprise that the primary reason is all the redundancies and inefficiencies engendered by our 600 school districts. After all, if you want to have a class of, say, kids with an autism diagnosis, then you’ll need a half dozen of them to fill the class. But most districts are so small that they can’t come up with the cohort so they send the kids to another public district or a private school for kids with disabilities (Those schools are represented by ASAH, the non-profit that represents the 125 schools and agencies in the state that serve 11,000 kids.). Outside placement costs more than keeping the kid in the district. It also violates the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which mandates that children with special needs be educated in "the least restrictive environment."

So what’s a DOE to do? Issue regulations, of course! And so it did, giving our new Executive County Superintendents vast powers to veto out-of-district placements and oversee each student’s Child Study Team, a group that includes a kid’s teachers, therapists, case manager, and parent. But the regulations issued by the DOE as part of the vast 6A legislation are against federal law. Details, details.

The New Jersey Coalition for Special Education Funding Reform testified at a public hearing last month against the new regulations. The group “applaud(s) the language that focuses referrals and services and programs in local school districts” because this will “help advance the Department’s efforts to build local capacity and will help insure that special education services are delivered, to the maximum extent possible, in settings with typical students.” In other words, our current system unnecessarily segregates our children with special needs. But, continues the Coalition, the new regulations are “overly prescriptive” and “undermines the IDEA-mandated IEP (Individualized Education Plan) team decision-making process.” The end result will be to drive costs up even further.

On May 18th, Education Commissioner Lucille Davy issued a memo that sought to “clarify” the ECS’s role in student placement, and she backed off a bit. But not enough to satisfy the NJ Coalition, and the dispute will probably end up in court. As is often the case, the world of special education elucidates concerns in general education, reflecting up, in exaggerated form, problems that might pale in a typical field. Our special education students are segregated, cordoned off from higher-performing students. The residents of New Jersey spend too much money on education, for kids with disabilities and without. The DOE responds by issuing a plethora of regulations that do nothing to ease inefficiencies. Sound familiar?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Are NEA Top Dogs Making a "Huge Miscalculation?"

The Boston Globe reports today on Mayor Thomas Menino’s charter school conversion, which was ignited by frustration with the Boston Teachers Union’s aversion to change. According to the Globe,
Teachers, a longtime component of the Democratic political machine, are increasingly finding themselves at odds with education changes proposed by party leaders nationally and locally, including President Obama, Governor Deval Patrick, and Menino. All are pushing for creation of more charter schools, which often operate without unions or with scaled-back contract provisions. This, supporters say, spurs cutting-edge teaching techniques that can boost student achievement.
Says Paul Grogan, president of the reform-minded Boston Foundation, “The mayor was driven into the arms of charters by the unions…History will record this as a huge miscalculation on their part.”

It’s not just a shift in the Democratic party leadership. Suddenly, stalwart union supporters are starting to question the teacher unions’ defense of the status quo, in spite of mounting evidence that our public education system is ineffective. Massachusetts has taken it a bit further then Jersey – Cozine is keeping his NJEA creds clean. That probably helped get him elected four years ago. The irony is that this year that loyalty could lose him the election as the cry for charter schools and increasing teaching effectiveness broadens and slams smack into union dogma.

What will it take for the NJEA to acknowledge that charter schools have a place in the public school complex? Here’s Joyce Powell, NJEA President (until September, when she joins the Executive Committee of the NEA) on Ed Sec Arne Duncan’s visit to N.J., which was showcased in front of Newark’s North Star Charter School:
NJEA is pleased that Secretary Duncan has chosen to come to New Jersey.We’re proud of our public schools, and believe our success could serve as a national model. That’s why I hope Secretary Duncan also chooses to visit a traditional public school, since these are the schools enrolling the vast majority of children in New Jersey and across the United States
Even a ramrod article of faith in the educational gospel – small class size – was heretically questioned by Bill Gates yesterday when he was asked how states could maintain school standards in the current economic climate. Reports the Philadelphia Inquirer,

"I am not against small class size," he said, but class sizes can grow, without negative consequences, "if you can raise the average effectiveness of teachers."

Is nothing sacred anymore?

Have We Reached a Consensus on How to Achieve Education Reform?

Here's Bill Gates, speaking yesterday at the National Conference of State Legislatures:

On expanding the growth of charter schools:
Caps should be lifted for charter school operators who have a proven record of success—and charters should be offered the same per-pupil funding as other public schools. As you know, a relatively small percentage of schools are responsible for a high percentage of the dropouts. We can make dramatic advances by replacing the worst schools with high-performing charters —operated by organizations with a great track record.
On merit pay:
But we don’t identify effective teachers and reward them. We reward teachers for things that do not identify effective teaching—like seniority and master’s degrees. And we don’t reward teachers for the one thing that does identify effective teaching—great performance.
Last year the New York legislature passed a law that says you can’t consider student test scores when you make teacher tenure decisions. That was a strategic win for people who oppose reform – because no real reform will happen until we can evaluate teachers based on their students’ achievement.

I understand the legitimate concern of teachers who point out that, without the right design, teacher measurement systems based on student performance could seem arbitrary.

But without them, we won’t be able to identify our best teachers, reward them, help others learn from them, or deploy them where they’re most needed. We won’t be able to see what curriculum, instructional tools, and teacher training work best.
Any questions?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Grading on a Curve

Why did Lucille Davy and the DOE suddenly raise the score required for “proficiency” on N.J.’s standardized assessments for middle schoolers after the tests had already been graded? Same reason they did it last year for 3d and 4th graders: New Jersey’s standardized assessments wildly overstate our kids’ academic skills when compared with the gold standard: the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

This set of tests, commonly known as the NAEP, is given to samplings of kids across the country at 4th, 8th, and 12th grades and provides a common metric so that one state can really see how its kids do compared to other states. An analysis of N.J.’s results (here's all the data) shows that, indeed, our state tests – the ASK’s, the GEPA’s, and the HSPA’s – artificially inflate our performance. In addition, the NAEP results highlight the achievement gap between higher income kids and poor kids.

In 2007, our state-designed NJ ASK test given to 4th graders resulted in 81% of them deemed proficient in reading. The NAEP test given the same year showed that 43% of our 4th graders read proficiently. In other words, our state test overestimates by a factor of 2 the percentage of our kids who are able to successfully perform on the national assessment. When broken down into subgroups, the NJ ASK test results labeled 61% of our African-American kids proficient in reading; the NAEP showed 18%. Compared to the other 49 states, though, our results aren’t too shabby: we came in 4th in for African-American kids and 5th for Latino kids. Socio-economic class differences were stark. The reading performance of our 4th grade higher income kids was 3d in the country and our lower income kids came in 16th.

Let’s jump to 8th grade math, where N.J. uses the GEPA. 69% of our kids were deemed proficient in the state-designed GEPA, though only 40% of 8th graders were proficient in math when assessed by the NAEP. While our higher income kids came in 4th in the country on Grade 8 mathematics, our lower income students came in 28th. We just beat Missouri and Arkansas. The NAEP also looks at access to qualified teachers, certainly a factor in student achievement. How’d we do? Across the nation, we came in 41st in access to teachers who are trained in the field they instruct.

As far as cost per pupil, we’re 1st in the country.

It's not all bad news. From 2003 to 2007, the performance of African American kids in 4th grade reading went up by 12 points, though Latino kids only went up by 2 points. In grade 8 math, African-Americans went up 11 points over 4 years, Latinos went up 9 points, and Whites went up 6 points. Compared to the rest of the country, we were 15th in math performance for African Americans and 9th in math performance for Latinos.

What really jumps out is not the discrepancy in performance among ethnic groups, but the discrepancy in performance between higher income and lower income kids. If anyone needs more proof that the N.J. public education system is inconsistent and segregated, it's all right here.

At a NJEA conference last year, Commissioner Lucille Davy was asked why the State DOE raised proficiency levels on NJ ASK scores after they had already been graded. She replied, “In my heart, I thought it was right to raise proficiency standards. We must prepare our kids for success in the 21st century.” Well, it’s not just her heart telling her it was right; it’s the NAEP telling us that our State assessments are wrong.

Monday, July 20, 2009

How Education Reform Is Changing N.J.'s Political Landscape

A funny thing is happening on the way to the gubernatorial election in New Jersey. The education reform movement is starting to overturn traditional alliances among Democrats, advocates for low-income and minority students, and the New Jersey Education Association. Just last week Martin Perez of the Latino Leadership Alliance called Corzine “ineffective” because of his education policies and teetered to the edge of endorsing Christie. Reverend Reginald Jackson of the Black Ministers Council told the Record that Corzine could lock up inner city votes if he’d back a specific voucher program, but “the support among parents and parishioners in Orange and other communities is no match for the power of the New Jersey Education Association in the State House hallways.”

Public awareness of and anger towards our struggling and expensive public education system is growing; the New York Times has called it the “sleeper issue” of the campaign. Adding heft to this post-partisan movement is the strange cadre of bedfellows coalescing around issues like merit pay and charter schools. In New Jersey this loose coalition includes, besides the Black Ministers Council and the Latino Leadership Alliance, Derrell Bradford of Excellent Education for Everyone, New Jersey Charter Schools Association, and Newark Mayor Cory Booker. Outside of N.J., there’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan and his boss, D.C. Superintendent Michelle Rhee, N.Y.C. Mayor Mike Bloomberg, and the N.Y.C.-based Education Equality Project, whose signatories include everyone from Jeb Bush, Newt Gingrich, and John McCain to Joe Williams of Democrats for Education Reform, Harold Ford of the Democratic Leadership Council, and Al Sharpton.

Merit pay and charter schools: the bedrock of education reformers’ strategy and the antithesis of NJEA’s agenda. It’s stark – not much wiggle room there – and right now Jon Corzine is stuck in the unenviable position of having to choose. He’s tried to have it both ways during his present term as governor, touting his victory in the courts with the School Funding Reform Act, which is supposed to channel make-it-fair money to poor kids, regardless of whether they live in an Abbott district or not. He’s pushed preschools hard, though the funding has dried up. He’s raised graduation requirements (though he hasn’t touched the Special Review Assessment, a state-wide embarrassment [see here] that artificially inflates our high school graduation rate and puts kids out on the street with a diploma but no academic skills).

So he’s had some successes. But merit pay and charters? Not so much. It’s the third rail of the NJEA and he won’t touch it.

Here’s an example. Everyone from President Obama on down has called for the expansion of charter schools. There’s 11,000 kids on waiting lists in New Jersey. Federal stimulus money is dependent on our commitment. Arne Duncan chose to make his New Jersey visit against the backdrop of the North Star Academy, a charter school in Newark. But here’s an excerpt from an NJEA Q & A with Education Commissioner and Corzine-appointee Lucille Davy, who is asked “what are your thoughts on charter schools? ” (Full transcript here.) “We’ve got outstanding public schools that aren’t charter schools too. We ought to be highlighting what all of these schools are doing, particularly where they are succeeding with populations of students that lots of folks think you can’t succeed with.” A more tepid endorsement of charter schools would be hard to find.

Even to a casual onlooker, Corzine’s obeisance to the NJEA leadership must seem over-the-top. For example, in 2008 he put off signing a pension reform package at NJEA’s request so that new hires would get more generous benefits. He let a bill go through the Assembly Education Committee that would give job protection to non-tenured school workers (see here). And, according to Rev. Jackson, he backed out of a promise (or Budget Chair Barbara Buono did – same difference) to allow a committee vote on school vouchers. It’s this sort of deference to union leaders that has started to alienate a historically supportive base.

Christie is playing it just right. His “snub” of NJEA was deft, and he’s even got pictures of President Obama on his website. It’s that post-partisan thing: it’s not about the party anymore, at least in New Jersey. (No wonder Paul Mulshine just called for the Republicans to draft a different candidate!) If Christie manages to win, partly because of the support of this new coalition of education reformers, then the leadership of the NJEA has lost. And if support for the leaders of the NJEA (and, by extension, the NEA) is undermined, then this opens the door for New Jersey to set a national example for meaningful educational reform.

This is not an endorsement for Christie. Frankly, we don’t know where he really stands, except for spending less money. He says he’ll support charter schools and seems drawn to a reform agenda, but the devil’s in the details. And Corzine is not the only politician in the state who is beholden to the NJEA; legislative gridlock won’t get us anywhere.

The dynamics of the race demand that Corzine find a way to distance himself from the leadership of the NJEA. (Sure, there are 200,000 members, but most teachers are not widgets; they're smart, compassionate, and want what's best for kids.) All Chris Christie has to do right now, at least on educational issues, is sit back and watch while New Jerseyans look past traditional affiliations and maybe, just maybe, try something new.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sunday Leftovers

Eliminating School Districts Without Schools:

Eliminating 13 non-operating school districts in N.J. may seem like just grabbing the low-hanging fruit, but not according to the eliminatees. For example, Rocky Hill and Millstone, both of Somerset County, are suing the State for merging them with Montgomery and Hillsborough respectively, although that’s where their kids go anyway. (Here's today's Trenton Times piece.)

While New Jersey School Boards Association didn’t join the lawsuit, they oppose the legislation that allows the DOE to eliminate non-ops without a public vote.

Duh. NJSBA is trying to protect school board seats from being dissolved. Rocky Hill and Millstone don’t want their taxes to go up. The DOE knows allowing a vote will leave us with our 26 non-ops intact, so it bypassed the vote. And if Corzine and the DOE want to push regionalization, they’ll have to suck up the fact that the only way to do it is by legislation also.

Impossible. Are we stuck with 590 school districts?

How About We Create Yet Another School District?

Meanwhile, the Record reports that the mayors of Hillsdale and River Vale are engaging in fisticuffs with Montvale and Woodcliff Lake, who want to withdraw from the Pascack Valley Regional High School District and create their own district. River Vale mayor Joseph Blundo said." "We think it goes against everything that New Jersey is encouraging." Woodcliff mayor Joseph LaPagila said, "There is no greater opportunity that exists to lower our property taxes in Woodcliff Lake than this initiative.”

It's true. The non-ops' property taxes will go up. But that's because their school tax burden has been circumscribed around the exact number of children in their tiny towns who happen to attend school that year. Now they get to join the bulk of New Jerseyans who pay full freight.

Joan Whitlow: Charter Schools Aren't the Answer:

Joan Whitlow, columnist for the Star-Ledger, hopes that during this election cycle the Democrats “don’t take the urban vote for granted” and the Republicans don’t just “recite what’s wrong with the cities.” And she’s no supporter of charter schools. While she applauds the results of Newark’s Robert Treat Academy, she also points out that
most charter schools are not posting the Robert Treat's academic results. There are public schools doing better than many of the charters. The public schools must take all comers; the charter schools have a more select student body, kids whose parents are involved enough to sign up for the admissions lottery that decides who gets in.

It seems to me that replicating the good public schools is the best model for turning around urban education at large. I'd take on teacher tenure, too. But who asked me?
Actually, charter schools do have to take all comers. But who asked me?

Loch Arbour Saga Continues:

A Superior Court Judge in Freehold denied Loch Arbour’s request to block Ocean Township from implementing their new budget, which will call for a tax increase in Loch Arbour of 450%. Here’s the whole scoop from the Atlanticville.

Dysfunctional School Board of the Week Award:

Hamilton Township in Mercer County wins for their public display of animosity, with three members vociferously claiming that the district has a weak nepotism policy, evidenced by the fact that three other board members and Superintendent Neil Bencivengo all have family members who work in the district.. The Trenton Times reports that Board President Elric Cicchetti (whose daughter works in the district) said that the policy is “minimal” but fine, and that a second reading and vote will take place at a school board retreat not open to the public. Actually, all board votes not covered by OPRA are open to the public. We hope the reporter got it wrong, not the board president.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Quote of the Day

This New Jersey thing, by the way. This is one of those boxes he has to check as leader of the Democratic Party. You don’t do a rally with 17,000 people in July unless you don’t want to be doing that rally with 17,000 people in October because you’re worried that guy is not going to win. They’re getting it out of the way.
Chuck Todd, political director of MSNBC, on why President Obama stumped for Corzine in July instead of in October. (Hat tip to In the Lobby.)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Davy Does the Numbers

Twenty-five percent of New Jersey’s third and fourth graders will fail the state tests on math and language arts for 2009. That’s the estimate Education Commissioner Lucille Davy gave yesterday, explaining that the reason for the somewhat disconcerting percentage was because the DOE made the test harder and changed a passing grade from 40% to 50%.

The tests, given this past Spring, haven’t actually been scored yet, but the DOE did a sampling so they could warn districts ahead of time. And it’s the test, not the kids, right? The Star-Ledger quotes Davy:
It is our belief that this doesn’t mean students have done any differently or that students did poorer. It means we have a higher expectation.
At least the DOE is consistent. Last year it changed the definition of “proficiency” (i.e., passing) for 5th –8th graders, also resulting in a a larger percentage of kids who failed the test (oops– kids who were “partially proficient"). But what’s with the timing? Can’t the DOE make these decisions before the kids take the test or, better yet, before subject supervisors and assistant superintendents start poring over spreadsheets to determine how many kids need to be smothered in special tutoring so that the school makes Adequate Yearly Progress?

That’s the problem with all these standardized assessments. Everyone looks at the cut-off and works from there, all eyes on the kids “on the bubble,” those right on the cusp of passing who might be pushed over the edge with extra tutoring. There’s far less attention for kids who are safely proficient or even in the pantheon of “advanced proficient.” And, in many cases, less attention for kids at the bottom of the barrel who won’t pass anyway.

Growth models, anyone? It’s the only way to move from arbitrary definitions of proficiency to really assessing education achievement for each child. Right now it’s just a numbers game.

QOTD: Ingle on NJEA and "The Cartel"

The teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, has endorsed Corzine for governor. It was unanimous. Meanwhile, "The Cartel" Bob Bowdon's documentary about why the education establishment sucks taxpayers dry but the kids don't get any smarter just won Best Documentary Feature from the 2009 Jersey Shore Film Festival. Both NJEA Presdent Joyce Powell and Corzine make an appearance in that.
Watch the previews for "The Cartel" by clicking here.

Bob Ingle blogging at The Politics Patrol in the Courier Post. Title of entry: "Who among us expected this?"

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Corzine and Christie on School Choice

In Steve Adubato's piece "No Magic Bullet for Urban Schools," he says that public education will be a major issue in the race between Christie and Corzine. Much of the debate hovers above the failure of our poor urban areas to sustain quality schools and how great a role should be played by alternatives – charter schools and voucher systems. Corzine seems to verbally support charters, though the Department of Education has a spotty record of charter support. The N.J. Charter School Program Act was approved in 1996 by Christie Whitman with a mandate to establish 155 charter schools (here's a little history), but right now there are only 62. One application out of 22 was approved in 2008 (under Corzine appointee Lucille Davy), though 6 more are slated to begin operations in September. There are currently 11,000 kids on waiting lists.

So Christie sees a handy dagger in his arsenal: he brandished it yesterday during some campaign stops in urban areas, reports the New Jersey Newsroom:
There are thousands of children in the city of Newark alone who are on waiting lists to get into Newark's charter schools. The demand for charter schools substantially outstrips supply and we cannot continue to ration educational opportunity where it is needed the most. We will make it easier to create and maintain charter schools.
Christie went as far as to say that he would appoint an educational commissioner “whose priority would be to approve high-quality charter schools” because "the Department of Education does not see it as part of its mission to encourage and facilitate charter school expansion.” Then he went further:
Christie said he would also allow children attending chronically failing schools to seek admission to any public school with available space willing to accept them. The entire per-pupil state and federal aid would follow the child to the new school "This 'dollars-follow-the-child' model would encourage low-cost, successful school districts to admit children from failing, high-cost districts,'' he said.
It’s a really interesting idea. (Full disclosure: we’ve suggested this idea here.) It’s also a political can of worms, pushing the buttons of every home rule diehard and NIMBY in New Jersey. Let’s take our favorite example in Burlington County: Moorestown and Willingboro. (There's a similar duality in every county in the state.) Willingboro was just in the news because its dysfunction is reaching Palinesque levels. The Burlington County Times reported yesterday that the Willingboro Public Schools spectacularly failed the New Jersey Quality Single Accountability Continuum, fondly knows as NJQSAC, the epic assessment instrument used by the state to measure a district’s instruction, fiscal solvency, operations, personnel, and board governance. You have to get an 80% in each of the five areas to pass. Willingboro scored 39 in instruction, 66 in fiscal, 80 in operations, 78 in personnel and 44 in governance. How bad is it? So bad that the D.O.E. called in one of their top dogs, Deputy Commissioner Willa Spicer, to flog the under-achieving School Board. She told them it would take “a lot of bravery” to fix the myriad problems.

It takes more bravery for parents to send their kids there, and for kids to try to learn. Here’s the DOE data if you want to look in depth, but just for a sense of the odds against these kids, only 48% graduate using the HSPA, 5 kids got a score of 3 or better on the few AP courses offered there, and 58% of the kids failed the high school proficiency test in math.

So, if we take Christie at his word, kids at Willingboro, a chronically failing school by any standard (the high school is in its 6th year as a “School in Need of Improvement” according to NCLB data) should have the option to go to, say, Moorestown High, where 98.3% graduated via the HSPA, 294 got scores of 3 or better on the plethora of AP options, and 10% failed the math high school assessment.

Count him in for lots of votes in Willingboro and, well, maybe not so many in Moorestown. But is Christie for real or merely spouting the “cheap gimmicks and even cheaper rhetoric” that Adubato warns against? And other factors abound: the NJEA's focus on capping charter school growth, local school boards' resistance because they have to pay per pupil tuition (though 90%, not the full check), some charter school disasters due to poor planning that left kids worse off than before.

We need a D.O.E. that actively promotes and oversees quality charter schools. We need a system that rescues kids like those stuck in Willingboro, while a few miles away other schoolchildren reap the rewards of quality public education. Both Corzine and Christie would probably agree. But which one will follow through?

Quote of the Day

I say, put school choice, teacher merit pay and the expansion of charter schools up for a healthy and honest debate between Corzine and Christie. Further, while we are talking about improving urban education, let's also be honest with ourselves about the myriad of problems and challenges facing urban schools that no wealthy suburban communities have to deal with. (Does your kid have to pass through a metal detector every day when they enter their school?) I'm not talking about lowering expectations or standards, but rather being honest with ourselves about how incredibly difficult it is to both teach and learn in a city school. That's the debate New Jersey needs.
Steve Adubato on how education is the defining issue in the N.J.'s governor's race and what we should be talking about.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

NJEA Endorses Corzine

Here's the official NJEA press release.

Why Not Make Our Great Preschools County-Wide?

Governor Jon Corzine and Education Commissioner Lucille Davy are touting the results of a new study called "The APPLES Blossom: Abbott Preschool Program Longitudinal Effects Study.” The research was sponsored by NIEER, the National Institute for Early Education Research, and looked at the publicly-funded preschools in 15 of the largest Abbott districts: Camden, East Orange, Elizabeth, Irvington, Jersey City, New Brunswick, Newark, Passaic, Paterson, Perth Amboy, Plainfield, Trenton, Union City, Vineland, and West New York.

The results are heartening, showing that 3 and 4 year-olds who attend the full-day programs enter kindergarten considerably ahead of other poor urban children who don’t attend. The Press of Atlantic City reports,
Students showed the most gains in vocabulary and basic literacy skills, with those attending preschool for two years showing twice the gain of those attending for just one year. Students held those gains through second grade, although they still scored slightly below the national average
Math scores were also up, although the improvements in reading were not statistically significant. Retention rates went down: kids who didn’t attend preschool were held back a grade 11% of the time, but kids who attended for the full two years of preschool were only held back 5% of the time. Longitudinal studies will continue.

The price tag is high. New Jersey spends more on public preschool than any other state -- $12,500 per child in 2009 – which adds up to almost $600 million in the 2009-2010 budget. Maybe you get what you pay for.

Though we do pay a lot. The 2008 data is available in more detail from NIEER, and it shows that New Jersey spent $10,989 per child. Running a distant second, third, and fourth was Maryland at $8,558 per kid, Oregon at $8,337 and Minnesota at $8,310.

So cost is one factor. Another is equity. While we are apparently doing a fine, if profligate, job with our urban poor youngsters, Corzine's failure to fully fund his new School Funding Reform Act cheats non-uban poor 3 and 4 year-olds because they are not getting the much-lauded preschools. (The Education Law Center is no doubt culling the data to prove to the State Supreme Court that the SFRA, which replaced the Abbott funding formula, is a dud because it doesn't perform as promised: serve all poor kids with extra services, regardless of zip code.) Sure, the economy tanked. But in the meantime about 500 local districts, whether they had 10 impoverished kids or 100, put their elaborate preschool plans on hold when the money didn't come through. The result: no preschool for those kids.

We’ll say it again. With all the talk of consolidation and shared services, why are we redundantly creating cookie cutter preschools all over the state? Could one of the reasons we spend so much more than other states be that we needlessly replicate programs because we have so many school districts?

Solution: take our lovely county facilities and use them for preschools. Serve all the kids who qualify and integrate them into one space. We get equity and efficiency and maybe, just maybe, nudge New Jersey a tiny step toward a sense of a shared educational mission.

Quotes of the Day

To permanently lower property taxes in New Jersey, communities need to break away from the sense of home rule entitlement that has gripped the state since its founding. A great deal of study has shown we can save money by consolidating certain things, sharing services and merging where a common-sense case can be made -- starting with nonoperating schools seems to be a very obvious place to begin.
Assemblyman Joe Cryan, chairman of the Assembly Education Committee, in an editorial in the Star-Ledger on why it made sense to eliminate non-operating school districts.

A school district without schools is the absurd culmination of New Jersey’s brand of microscopic government.

Confronted with the concept of school districts — complete with school boards and administrators — that do not actually educate anyone, many are unable to suppress a snicker.

So the elimination of New Jersey’s 26 “non-operating” school districts is worth celebrating. It’s a small but meaningful victory against nonsense. And New Jersey’s nonsense lobby shouldn’t be underestimated.
Philadelphia Inquirer editorial, which notes that the "nonsense lobby" includes the New Jersey School Boards Association (it lobbied for putting elimination of non-ops to a community vote), and 27 State Legislaters, who voted "nay."

Monday, July 13, 2009

NJEA, Corzine, and Christie News

Joyce Powell, out-going NJEA president, will join the NEA’s nine-member executive committee on September 1st, reports the Gloucester County Times. The article juxtaposes Powell’s views on merit pay and charter schools with that of the Obama Administration:
Powell believes that personal teacher improvement, advanced degrees and professional development should be taken into account in determining teacher pay. But a single student test should not determine teacher achievement, she said.
Powell said she doesn't oppose charters; however, she believes their success is sometimes attributed to, and confused with, "innovation."
Translation: thumbs down on achievement-based compensation and charter school support.

Also today, PolitickerNJ reports on Passaic County Republican Freeholder Deborah Ciambrone, who is on the ticket under Chris Christie’s name, but was an NJEA delegate and is still a part-time consultant for the union. How does she square Christie’s “snub” of the NJEA (he declined to seek its endorsement) with her GOP creds?
Ciambrone said that when she first heard of Christie's decision not to seek the group's endorsement, she was "disappointed." But her opinion changed after learning that Christie expressed willingness to sit down with the group.

"As far as seeking the endorsement, I guess I could say very frankly, what were his odds of getting it? Although NJEA does at times endorse Republicans - for example they do endorse [Assemblyman] Scott Rumana - I think realistically they are going to endorse Corzine. So if he's willing to sit and talk with them, I am not so concerned with him going for the endorsement."
Finally, Star-Ledger columnist (and former NJ teacher) Joseph Wardy asks, “Who would be the real ‘education’ governor: Corzine or Christie? His verdict on Corzine:
Gov. Jon Corzine seems to be the choice based on the following: He is a strong supporter of NJEA and you may feel this union serves the kids as well as its constituents.

I am not in this camp as the union places its emphasis on the latter and not the former. Case in point: defending tenured teachers who are incompetent or mediocre. I could be swayed when I see union leadership supporting five-year modified tenure. I would imagine hell would freeze over first.
And Christie? Still an unknown, according to Wardy, though one factor would be whether he would be willing to fund charter schools at the same level as traditional public schools. He concludes,
One of the questions here is observe if the candidate gives priority to the system or the kids it serves. The more our elected governor panders to the system, the more the kids lose.

Philly Teacher Union Places Seniority Above Equal Opportunity for Kids

The bottom line is, the poorest students and the students of color have the highest number of inexperienced and ineffective teachers, the highest rates of teacher-turnover at their schools, the largest number of vacancies, long-term substitutes, teachers teaching outside their subject area and a host of other issues.
Nijmie Dzurinko, of the Philadelphia Student Union, a non-profit run by Philadelphia youth.

No, Ms. Dzurinko is not talking about Jersey, but describing conditions across the river in Philly. The Inquirer reports today on the 40-year Philadelphia desegregation battle which is pitting “racially isolated” and low-performing schools (90% African-American and Latino) against the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

At a hearing before a Commonwealth Court Judge, the Philadelphia School District promised to provide educational equity to poor schools by, in part, placing teachers with lots of seniority there and using merit pay as an incentive. But Jerry Jordan, PFT President, says he’s “in talk with union lawyers” since there are “contract issues.”

Really? Talk about tone-deaf. Now a state union leadership is aligning itself with Jim Crow?

NJEA November Convention: A “Microcosm” of What’s Wrong with NJ Schools?

Is the NJEA Annual Convention, held the first Thursday and Friday in November, an inspired opportunity for teachers to network and improve instruction? Or is it a symbol of the NJEA’s intractability to balance teachers’ and students’ needs? Joseph Wardy, a retired NJ public school teacher and current Star-Ledger blogger, blames the NJEA leadership, “the authority figure for teachers,” for promoting “group think,” specifically in regard to the scheduling of the two-day state-wide convention. The NJEA has argued, he says, that moving the convention date is “impossible,” in spite of the fact that the month of November is already fractured as instructional time by the Thanksgiving holiday and the two-day “mini-vacation” reaps no educational benefits.
In the four high schools and one middle school I taught in, there was never a word spoken about who attended or any discussion from teachers at any faculty meeting about what they learned at the Convention and how that learning can benefit kids in the classroom.
His argument concludes,
Our public education system will not attain excellence until the New Jersey Education Association balances the rights of its members to its responsibility to its students. The teachers convention in November is a microcosm of what is preventing public schools from achieving excellence.
According to Wardy, the problem with the NJEA is a lack of balance, an inability to commingle the overarching vision of job protection and educational needs of kids. In fact, the two days with full day is an item on the NJEA’s legislative agenda for 2009. From an NJEA publication:
NJEA supports S-209 (Singer)/A-2097 (Malone/Wolf) Convention Attendance: This measure would permit any full-time school district employee to attend the annual NJEA Convention for a period of no more than two days with full pay. NJEA supports this legislation because of the great diversity and expansion of our convention offerings. We believe it is important that all school employees be allowed to attend without loss of income.
In other words, NJEA’s logic – that teachers should attend the Atlantic City convention without “loss of income”-- precludes scheduling the conference over the summer or on a weekend since they don’t get paid then anyway. Does this scheduling help kids? No. Do teachers only get paid if they attend the convention? No. But it’s a perk that the leadership is loathe to give up, in spite of the fact that kids lose 4 teaching days (the convention + Thanksgiving) within 3 weeks. If this is a balancing exercise, then the kids have tumbled off the beam.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Sunday Leftovers

Public Preschool Expansion Trends in N.J.:

The Star-Ledger reports that despite the Corzine administration’s failure to follow through on funding for preschools for poor kids who don’t live in districts-formerly-known-as-Abbott, some local school districts are going ahead anyway. A child advocacy group called The Association for Children of New Jersey announced that at least 14 local districts are expanding preschools. For example, Hazlet Public Schools is doubling its preschool from 30 to 66 kids. On the other hand, Linden Public Schools hired teachers and made expansion plans, but when the projected $800,000 in state aid didn’t come through they put the kabosh on it. Reports the Ledger,
"We see enough value that we're trying to go forward with what we set up," (according to Linden Superintendent Rocco) Tomazic). "But clearly if there's no more money coming, we're not going to continue the expansion."
Assemblyman Joe Cryan Praises Elimination of Non-Ops:
To permanently lower property taxes in New Jersey, communities need to break away from the sense of home rule entitlement that has gripped the state since its founding. A great deal of study has shown we can save money by consolidating certain things, sharing services and merging where a common-sense case can be made -- starting with nonoperating schools seems to be a very obvious place to begin.
Cryan, Chair of the Assembly Education Committee, also points out that once all 26 non-operating districts are eliminated, we will still have 590 school districts, and still have 24 more school districts than towns – the only state in America to have that distinction.

The Express-Times Editorial Board Applauds Elimination of Non-Ops:

The editors opine,
The merger of the 13 non-operating districts could serve as a prelude for a much larger consolidation of New Jersey's 600-plus school districts, but big hurdles remain -- including home-rule loyalties, tax issues and the joining of labor contracts that by law are required to honor the higher-paying contract.

To date, New Jersey governors and legislators haven't shown the stomach to take on school consolidation, other than nibbling around the edges. That could change next year, when county school superintendents are scheduled to release their studies calling for countrywide school merger plans. We'll see.
Central Jersey Jumps on the Non-Ops Bandwagon:
It might seem a harsh remedy, but it is one that is long overdue and one that should stand as only the first step in a larger streamlining process aimed at reducing the number of school districts operating in New Jersey.
How Mad are N.J. Taxpayers about School Costs?

This mad: when the Edison Board of Education gave acting Superintendent John DiMuzio a 2% raise – negligible in the grand scheme of things – the public went ballistic. Well, the grand scheme includes the fact that Edison taxpayers continue to pay non-acting Superintendent Carol Toth to stay home since they’re buying out her contract without any meaningful explanation. Writes CentralJersey,
Those critics of the increase have ample reason to complain. Besides the obvious — that the public sector continues to blithely expand while the private sector continues to contract — Edison's salaries for its school administration are a particular source of heated scorn
National Math Standards Advocacy Group:

We’ve reported on a N.J. math advocacy group called New Jersey Coalition for World Class Math, whose goal is to work with the DOE to produce “world class” math standards. They are now part of a larger group called U.S. Coalition for World Class Math, which bills itself as a multi-state initiative to develop “voluntary ‘common core’ K-12 English and mathematics standards.”

Cato Institute on the NEA:

Neal McCluskey, the associate director of Cato's Center for Educational Freedom, is feeling grateful towards retiring general counsel Bob Chanin of the NEA, who gave a “salty valedictory” preserved on youtube. Writes McCluskey,
Why? First off, because his pugnacious presentation has a certain Teamsters feel to it, furnishing almost visceral confirmation that the National Education Association is a labor union pure-and-simple — not the high-brow “professional employee organization” it bills itself as — ready to slash tires or do whatever else it thinks necessary to get its way.

But I’m especially grateful because Mr. Chanin all but declares that the NEA is a power-obsessed, hyper-political union that serves not children, but adults. Of course, anyone who has followed the NEA knows that — indeed, its exactly what we should expect considering that it’s the adults who pay the dues — but it’s a shocking admission from someone so high in the association, and a reality the public all too often misses.

Quote of the Day: Obama and Merit Pay

As a candidate, President Obama signaled to teachers unions that he was open to the idea of linking teacher pay to student performance. Now, his administration is moving more aggressively to promote it.

Last week, Education Secretary Arne Duncan challenged the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, to drop its opposition to merit pay. The union’s leadership says it’s willing to talk, but most of its rank and file want no part of it. As more and more Democrats in Congress line up behind the idea, they may have no choice.
NPR's "All Things Considered," in report by Claudia Sanchez (audio here, and hat tip to Charles Barone at Swift and Change Able.) The remark is a bit odd: there's certainly been no sense from the union leadership that they're "willing to talk" about linking pay to performance (witness the accusations at the NEA Convention that merit pay is tantamount to "union-busting,") and some evidence that the "rank and file" are far more open to such initiatives. Any thoughts out there?

Friday, July 10, 2009

NJSBA to DOE: Your Efficiency Regs are Inefficient

The New Jersey School Boards Association has just released a report called “Accountability Regulations: The Cost to Local Districts,” which concludes that the Department of Education’s 215-page Fiscal Accountability, Efficiency and Budgeting Procedures has in less than a year resulted in $4.6 million in extra costs to school districts without any discernible benefit.

This is old news to New Jersey school districts, who have been angrily filling out meaningless paper work and implementing redundant procedures since the regulations went into effect last Fall. Here’s a couple of comments from district administrators included in the report:
The NJ DOE needs to take a statistical math class.

Once again, bureaucrats are making the rules and have lost touch with reality.

All this extra paperwork is nonsense.

The cost and burden on the staff of implementing the efficiency standards far exceeds the benefits…the worst part is the quality of service to the students has decreased.

Simply put: the efficiency regs have made us inefficient.
The report concludes with a letter of testimony from Eva M. Nagy of NJSBA who says the DOE regs are “intrusive” and “result in micromanagement” that “create an obstacle to progress.”

What can explain the DOE’s motivation to spew vast amounts of regulations, riddled with errors and inconsistencies? Is the office understaffed? Was there some sort of arbitrary deadline that precluded proof-reading? Or is the DOE’s so focused on the real agenda of the regs – to standardize wildly disparate spending patterns among districts in the name of equity -- that it's giving short shrift to detail?

Major portions of the budgeting procedures are devoted to “adequacy formulas,” which prescribe how much a district should be spending on every aspect of education. For example, the regs state that districts should employ one custodian per 17,500 square feet of space; that staff to student ratios should be ‘higher than the state average” and administrative costs should be “below the state average;” that new hires should be at the lowest level of the salary guide (not possible, according to districts, for hard-to-fill positions like math, science, and special ed), and support services should be equal to or below the “state median” (which will continue to drop).

The intent, then, is to couple the regs with the School Funding Reform Act and to push high-spending districts -- not Abbotts, but wealthy districts with a high tax base -- to spend less, and the lowest-spending districts to spend more. The idea's not bad. The execution is.

N.J. offers a first-class education to kids who live in affluent communities and a mediocre education to kids who live in poor communities. We have the most segregated school system in the country and the highest cost per pupil. The DOE efficiency regs try to address the inequities without acknowledging them. The result is a ham-handed and inept document that skirts the real issue.

“Everybody Hates The Teachers' Unions Now" says Mickey Kaus...

...as the popular Slate blogger takes a look at the report from “Citizens Commission on Civil Rights" (see our post here), which describes the NEA’s and AFT’s strident and lengthy opposition to education reform. Kaus declares that “the tide of respectable opinion has decisively turned against the teachers’ unions” when a panel composed of Father Hesburgh, Birch Bayh, Bill Bradley, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Roger Wilkins “goes medieval on them." He concludes,
In other words, it implicitly serves as an argument against trying to reform the schools in cooperation with the unions, and in favor of trying to reform the schools by defeating the unions.
Whoa! Though maybe Kaus is right – when NEA members boo Arne Duncan when he mentions merit pay (one teacher yelled out, “that’s union-busting!") or makes an allusion to a successful charter school (Green Dot), then maybe the union leadership really is too far gone.

The teachers aren't, though. What will it take for the representees to see that they're being poorly served by a beaurocracy that sneers at meaningful ways to raise student achievement? They can't enjoy being treated like widgets. Is there any chance for an insider rebellion, a grassroots mutiny? Or is it as hopeless as Kaus thinks?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Quote of the Day: NJ Charter Schools


I hung out with some of the New Jersey folks, and was really impressed with what I learned. They are proud of what they have achieved, eager to do more, but also frustrated about inequitable funding of charter schools in the Garden State, where 11,000 are on charter school waiting lists and the state approval process is bottlenecked, dubious, and about as transparent as the Hudson River.
Charles Barone, Director of Federal Policy for Democrats for Education Reform, blogging at Swift and Change Able about a recent D.C. conference on charter schools.

This Isn't Brain Surgery

Can education reformists borrow strategy and language from the health care reform movement?

A piece in the Wall Street Journal today argues that
In health care and education, measuring and paying for quality is still novel. Being a teacher or a doctor once was seen, by practitioners and the public, as a calling, not a job. Doctors and teachers were said not to be motivated by money. For some, that's still true. But for many, the world has changed: Their jobs more closely resemble those the rest of us have. The argument that there is something wrong in principle with paying them for quality is losing force.
The parallels are interesting, and in the WSJ piece are extended to the business sphere as well, what with Obama’s emphasis on quality assessments that are measurable, consistent, and efficient. Some good quotes from Arne Duncan’s speech to the NEA, where he drove home the point that effective teaching should be measured and awarded accordingly.

Yesterday the New York Times ran a couple of pieces on the economics of health care reform, including one by David Leonhardt where he used his current fight with prostate cancer as a “litmus test” for different health reform tactics. He quotes Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, who says, “There has not been adequate attention to changing the incentives that drive behavior.” Leonhardt continues.
Plenty of good alternatives exist. Hospitals can be financially punished for making costly errors. Consumers can be given more choice of insurers, creating an incentive for them to sign up for a plan that doesn’t cover wasteful care. Doctors can be paid a set fee for some conditions, adequate to cover the least expensive most effective treatment. (This is similar to what happens in other countries, where doctors are on salary rather than paid piecemeal — and medical care is much less expensive.)

The answer isn’t obvious. But this much is: The current health care system is hard-wired to be bloated and inefficient. Doesn’t that seem like a problem that a once-in-a-generation effort to reform health care should address?
What if we took the passage from the Times article and substituted “schools” for “hospitals,” “students” for “consumers,” “teachers” for “doctors,” “choice of schools” for “choice of insurers.” The passage would read something like,
Schools can be financially punished for making costly errors. Students can be given more choice of schools, creating an incentive for them to sign up for a system that doesn’t cover wasteful services. Teachers can be paid a set fee for some typical students, adequate to cover the least expensive most effective instruction. (This is similar to what happens in other countries, where teachers are compensated differently— and education is much less expensive.)

The answer isn’t obvious. But this much is: The current education system is hard-wired to be bloated and inefficient. Doesn’t that seem like a problem that a once-in-a-generation effort to reform education should address?
You get the idea. It’s the same thing. Employ assessments that measure competence, efficiency, and healthy results, and then compensate practitioners in kind. Easy, right? Basic economics. Too bad the NEA has more clout than the health insurance industry.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

NJEA Gives "The Cartel" a Thumbs Down

The New Jersey Education Association is seething over Bob Bowdon’s film “The Cartel,” which depicts the New Jersey public education system as corrupt, wasteful, incompetently managed, and under the thumb of the teachers union. Here’s their just-issued press release, which charges that "the film is an orchestrated attack against public schools and the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA)” and here’s Bowdon’s really amusing response (hey – he did work for “The Onion”).

NJEA also links to an unsigned research paper that we posted about (here) last month. Should a union that represents educators ignore basic conventions of scholarship? Odd.

Canary Carnage!

What’s the big deal? Corzine eliminates 13 non-operating school districts and everyone’s in a tizzy. Oh, right: it’s the home rule thing, a proud N.J. tradition of valuing local governance and control, and, less righteously, a euphemism for NIMBY (not in my backyard, or keep your kids away from my kids). And let's not forget the sentiment, “keep your stinking hands off my mayoral/school board member/councilman pedestal." And, on a fiscal note, "let us be: we love paying school taxes based only on how many kids live in town and not contributing to the general cost of educating kids across New Jersey."

OK. Maybe it’s a big deal. The local papers think so. Today the Star Ledger Editorial Board says that “the merger is a small but important step in advancing the notion of consolidation and shared services and equity,” adding,
It's a long delayed attempt to bring some sense and fairness into the way we pay for our schools.
It's too bad it took 40 years.
The Record agrees:
With one signature, the governor's action means schools will operate more efficiently and be financed more fairly without any loss of education quality for the students involved. It fulfills all of the attributes of genuine education reform
Bob Ingle of Politics Patrol cuts to the chase:
Often we talk about how ridiculous it is to have 616 school districts in New Jersey. Now we can talk about how ridiculous it is to have 603 districts in New Jersey
The Philadelphia Inquirer is less sanguine, pointing out that the non-ops were, in some cases, quite efficient, and quoting the Business Administrator for to-be-eliminated Pemberton School District:
It's a precursor to what's going to happen. If a district doesn't choose to regionalize, it's going to be rammed down their throats."
Finally, the New Jersey School Boards Association’s resident blogger squawks over the dreadful implications:
While I have many concerns that this law will negatively impact the residents of these small communities, I am even more concerned that this process could be a precursor of things to come. Since the send-all districts have no buildings and are extremely small and represent very few voters, they have always been prime targets for elimination. Most districts might tell themselves that they are larger, and that they have their own buildings so they are not a target for elimination. I would tell these districts that the non-ops might be like the canaries in the coal mines. Once upon a time, miners brought canaries into coal mines because canaries are extremely sensitive to deadly gases. If the canary died, the miners knew dangerous gases were building up, and they should get out of the mine immediately. Many of our districts should at least take note of the demise of the send-all districts.
Canaries in a coal mine? Or an harbinger of a more efficient and less segregated public school system, a lower cost per pupil, a landscape rid of gratuitous schools board members and administrators? Guess it depends on where your roost is.