Monday, August 31, 2009

NEA's "Manifesto" on Education Reform

Comments on Race To The Top were due on Friday, and the National Education Association submitted theirs last week. (Link to the complete document through Sherman Dorn’s website or have fun going looking through all of them here.) Here’s Dorn’s comment:
Let me be clear on my perspective as an NEA member and as an observer of political processes: There are lots of reasonable individual passages within the document, but you don't submit a manifesto when you comment on regs as an organization. You don't submit a manifesto that covers up any potential for effectiveness with what amounts to political poison. And you don't submit a manifesto that undermines your credibility.
True, but NEA is doing just what they’re supposed to be doing: protecting teachers’ rights. Can we stop being surprised by that? There might be a little more bite to the manifesto because NEA clearly feels betrayed by the Obama Administration’s insistence (if you want the stimulus money, that is -- states are free to decline it) on lifting caps on charter schools and linking student achievement to teacher effectiveness. Then there’s the Diane Ravitch-inspired argument that the whole thing stinks of occlusion of states’ rights, which NEA borrows from happily. Here’s the betrayal:
The details of the RTTT proposal do not seem to square with the Administration’s earlier philosophy. The Administration’s theory of success now seems to be tight on the goals and tight on the means, with prescriptions that are not well-grounded in knowledge from practice and are unlikely to meet the goals. We find this top-down approach disturbing; we have been down that road before with the failures of No Child Left Behind, and we cannot support yet another layer of federal mandates that have little or no research base of success and that usurp state and local government’s responsibilities for public education.
One of the NEA’s main objections is, of course, RTTT’s emphasis on linking student test data to teacher performance. Ironically, NEA is now put in the position of defending the much-loathed NCLB legislation, which has limited teacher evaluation to a category called “Highly Qualified.” A teacher reaches that level by passing a state test and completing a college degree. It’s high qualification, not high performance, a metric based on eligibility, not effectiveness. RTTT goes further. It’s not just where a teacher passes a state test and has a bachelor’s degree; it’s whether student formative assessments indicate teacher proficiency. That’s one of NEA’s beefs, and they duly footnote their prospectus with studies that show that teacher proficiency increases with seniority. (For the counterview, see Jane Hannaway’s work at the Urban Institute; she’s long made the argument that teaching proficiency levels out after about 5 years.)

It makes perfect sense that an NEA member would be embarrassed and offended by this “manifesto.” If nothing else, though, all the recent media attention to NYC’s Rubber Rooms clarifies the distinction between a lobbying group hell-bent on exorcising any measure that could potentially harm job security and the teachers themselves, who actually want to educate children.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sunday Leftovers

Hard Times:
The Courier-Post reports on south Jersey districts that are laying off teachers, raising class size, and cutting out enrichment and sports programs due to flat state aid and/or failed budget votes.

H1N1 Goes Viral:
A hacker broke into the North Hunterdon-Voorhees Regional School District’s website this week and posted the message, “No school due to swine flu,” reports the Star-Ledger. The district erased the message but it went right back up the next day.

Wanderlust in Bergen:
After the administration at Bergen County Technical and Special Services School Districts spent $900,000 in travel to China, Taiwan and Las Vegas, county officials issued a moratorium on all “non-student related travel.” District Superintendent Robert Aloia spent $27,000 in 2008 on travel just on his own, reports The Record.

Contract Negotiations Update: A new school year is a harbinger of contract resolution – who wants to start classes with angry teachers and board members? Ringwood BOE will be announcing details of a new contract with the local teachers union. No details yet, but the 2008-2009 contract had a 4.85% raise. Mount Olive just approved a contract with district administrators for about 12% raise over the next 3 years, or 3.75% per year. Reports The Record,
Absent from the new agreement was a proposal to grant administrators up to $1,000 to attend night meetings. That provision was part of preliminary negotiations released at a school board meeting in June which included 3.5 percent pay increases and elicited outrage from parents who called for fiscal restraint in uncertain economic times.
Heavy Competition for Most Dysfunctional School Board of The Week:
Pequannock School Board, which just passed a new policy barring teachers from using cell phone. (Guess they’ll have to borrow them from the kids.) In fairness, it was a 5-4 vote, with some board members calling it an insult to teachers and a poor way to begin contract negotiations.

Vineland School Board, where at the monthly public meeting Board President Frank Giordano called Superintendent Charles Ottinger “disrespectful” and Ottinger sallied back by telling Giordano he “was acting like a dictator.”

Sparta School Board, where the former Board president violated the Code of Ethics by sending a letter to the papers on behalf of the board without alerting the board to the missive.

Clifton School Board, where Board President James Daley told Board member Norman Tahan at a public meeting that his behavior was “toxic” because Tahan has “verbally abused and threatened violence during facilities committee meetings."

West Milford Board of Education, where Superintendent Bernice Colefield publicly expressed “frustration” with overly-enthusiastic board member John Aiello because she doesn’t have time to spend her days “answering questions” and fears a “micro-management scenario developing.”

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Quote of the Day

Of course, those systems [that link student achievement to teacher performance] need to be sensible and fair. But the country will never get where it needs to be if we take the approach — as union leaders have sometimes done — that student test scores should be out of bounds when it comes to judging teacher effectiveness. That is an indefensible position. The unions can either help to create this system, or get left behind.
Today's New York Times editorial, "Accountability in Public Schools." Hey, it's almost starting to feel like a movement.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Are Gifted Kids Getting Left Behind?

In an op-ed in the New York Times today, Tom Loveless and Michael Petrelli argue that our brightest students are suffering from “benign neglect” due to NCLB's emphasis on low-achievers, despite a recent report that says otherwise. Over at The Quick and the Ed, however, Chad Alderman says whoa, not so fast: it’s unclear what is and isn’t attributable to NCLB and here’s some data that shows that bright kids are doing okay.

It’s a worthwhile exercise to evaluate gifted Jersey kids using the data from the National Assessment for Educational Progress. That’s the national test given to kids across the country in 4th and 8th grades (it used to be just math and reading, but now science and writing have been added), and it’s the data used by Loveless, Petrelli, and Alderman. Trends from NAEP are more reliable than the NJ state assessments, where cut scores ebb and flow like the tides.

Contrary to the conclusions voiced in the Times op-ed, gifted kids in N.J. seem unaffected by NCLB’s focus on low-achievers, at least if you define “gifted” as scoring in the category of advanced proficiency on the NAEP. NCLB went into effect in 2002. From 2003-2007, the percentage of 4th graders in N.J. who scored in that exalted category went up 1% (from 11% of the population to 12%) in reading and 4% (from 5% to 9%) in math. The percentage of 8th graders who scored “advanced proficent” in reading was 3% in 2003 and 4% in 2007. For math, 6% scored at the top level in 2003 and 10% got there in 2007, a net gain of 4%.

It’s harder to be sanguine, however, when you look at our kids who score either “basic,” which NAEP defines as “partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade” and “proficient, which means “solid academic performance.” There’s also an undefined “below basic” category, which presumably means that mastery is less than partial. In an ideal world, large percentages of 4th and 8th graders would move successively from “below basic” to “basic” to “proficient” to (pftt! pftt!) “advanced proficient.” We’re not there yet. 7% of 4th grade readers extracted themselves from “below basic” and distributed themselves in the “basic” and “proficient” categories between 2003 and 2007. But 8th grade readers had basically flat scores: a drop of 2% of kids scored “below basic” (from 21% to 19%), a flat 42% were stuck in the “basic” category, and there was no change in “advanced proficiency (4%). In math, 20% of 4th graders scored “below basic in 2003 and 10% in 2007, a nice drop. But 23% of our 2007 class of 8th graders scored “below basic” and another 37% scored “basic,” not terribly different from the 2003 numbers. We're not sustaining our gains in the early grades.

Interesting, some of the biggest gain came before the implementation of NCLB. More kids being tested? An increase in the economic diversity in the Garden State? Test fatigue? Chime in.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Here's a Fact from “The Rubber Room,"

Steven Brill’s must-read in The New Yorker: 99% of all NYC teachers in 2001 received a “satisfactory” performance rating. Is there any other industry where 99% of workers receive satisfactory evaluations? (Sheltered workshops don’t count.)

To be fair, Joel Klein became Chancellor in 2002 and since then, writes Brill, “unsatisfactory ratings for tenured teachers have risen from less than one per cent to 1.8 percent.” So now only 98.2% of teachers in NYC educate students in a satisfactory manner.

Much of the education reform agenda focuses on measuring and differentiating teacher performance in relation to student achievement. How do we square that principle with a system constructed – through contractual language, culture, historical precedent – on a bulwark of effacing differences among teachers? It’s the teacher unions’ homogeneous widgets versus the education reformists’ heterogeneity.

That’s the irony: the unions should be in a lather about the demeaning comparison of teachers to widgets. But, instead, the leadership of the NEA and the UFT weld themselves to the widget analogy (coined in New Teacher Project’s “The Widget Effect”) by resisting any attempt to measure difference. Brill describes the NTP report, which assesses the damage wrought by an industrial model union and a cowed public education system:
“Our schools are indifferent to instructional effectiveness,” the study declared. Under the subhead “All teachers are rated good or great,” it examined teacher rating processes, and found that in districts that have a binary, satisfactory-unsatisfactory system, ninety-nine per cent of teachers receive a satisfactory rating, and that even in the few school districts that attempt a broader range of rating options ninety-four per cent get one of the top two ratings

In other words, teaching has become a profession where output is irrelevant.

Here in New Jersey, the media recently trumpeted Lucille Davy’s pronouncement (see here) that almost 100% of N.J. public school teachers are “highly qualified” and, indeed, this is one of the mandates of No Child Left Behind. But all Davy’s done is promote the perception that teacher competency is linked only to eligibility, not performance, playing right into the union leadership’s demeaning mantra that teachers are interchangeable cogs. Once you have your diploma and have passed the Praxis test, you sit out three years waiting for tenure. Mission accomplished.

It’s not at all clear that performance before tenure is awarded is relevant anyway. In NYC, reports Brill, 97% of all teachers received tenure in 2002. In New Jersey, there’s a bill in front of the Assembly (Bill 4142) that would give non-tenured teachers the right to arbitration upon dismissal. In other words, even before a teacher has tenure, he or she can’t be let go without the school district going to court even if performance evaluations are unsatisfactory. In some ways, it's a perfectly logical corollary of the current system.

Albert Shanker (who seems to be getting quoted a lot these days) once said, “When school children start paying union dues, that 's when I'll start representing the interests of school children.” He was just being honest about union priorities. No shame, no blame. The problem is when the a state government -- aw, heck, let's use N.J. as an example -- is either so beholden, cowed, or co-opted by the NJEA that the school children's interests aren't represented by anyone.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

African-American High Schoolers in N.J. Drop Further Behind

SAT scores are in the news today. The Star-Ledger’s lede is that New Jersey students’ average SAT scores “inched upward one point this year,” though that still leaves them below the national average. The N.J. DOE says that’s okay: we have a higher proportion of kids who take the test, the 6th highest in the nation.

Here’s the real news:

Camden High School has 392 juniors and seniors. 55 took the SAT. Average scores were 344 in Math, 346 in Verbal, and 335 in Essay. Indian Hills High Schools in Bergen County has 465 juniors and seniors. 210 took the SAT. Average scores were 541 in Math, 544 in Verbal, and 547 in Essay. (DOE data here.)

Buried in the bottom of the Star Ledger story is the real lede:
Students [in New Jersey] from families with an income between $40,000 and $60,000, who accounted for 13 percent of test takers, averaged a score of 1433. Those from families with an income of $200,000 or more -- 9 percent of test takers -- did 269 points better.

And the average math score of African-Americans trailed the average score of whites by 117 points. African-Americans made up 12 percent of test takers, while whites made up 58 percent. In 2004, that difference was 109 points.

In other words, in the last 5 years, the discrepancy in SAT scores between African-American test-takers in N.J. and white test-takers in N.J. increased by 8 points.

Public education in N.J. is a bargain if you go to Indian Hills High School and a raw deal if you go to Camden High School. The Star-Ledger’s talking head for the piece is Rutgers Professor William Firestone, who surmises that the discrepancy is due to the failure of No Child Left Behind and other “proposed legislative remedies,” which is, we assume, an allusion to the “Race to the Top” priorities (expansion of charter schools and linking teacher evaluation to student performance). Tell that to the kids at Camden High.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Quote of the Day

New Jersey spends more on education than any other state in the nation, but we are not getting a good return on those dollars when 20% of graduates can’t pass an 8th grade level assessment and 30% of “New Jersey Stars” need remedial help, 80% in some counties. New Jersey must do better for its children and be more honest with its citizens.

I call on the State Board of Education to follow through and raise standards on the HSPA, abolish the Special Review Assessment except for students who have emotional disabilities and reform tenure so that it is not lifetime and to make it easier to remove ineffective teachers.
Reverend Reginald Jackson, stumping for Chris Daggett (at least on his education agenda).

Monday, August 24, 2009

Does Teacher Proficiency Matter?

The State DOE trumpeted the news last week: 99.7% of New Jersey classroom teachers are Highly Qualified! Declared Education Commissioner Lucille Davy, this victory “represent(s) one of the many ways we assure citizens that their children are receiving the best education possible.”

Sure, the Highly Qualified tag is a requirement of No Child Left Behind, and in 2005 N.J. was embarrassed by a Fed analysis that there was a 10% gap between the percentage of Highly Qualified Teachers (HQT) in low poverty and high poverty districts. Now the gap is down to 0.8%; no more red faces and, supposedly, model teachers in each classroom, regardless of district income level.

In this age of measuring education quality through assessment, the designation of Highly Qualified Teacher surely must count for something, right?

That’s unclear, even to the NJ DOE. Its 2006 report, “New Jersey’s Plan for Meeting the Highly Qualified Teacher Goal,” comprises 87 pages of the history of the disparity of HQT’s in high and low income districts and N.J.’s efforts to ameliorate the inequity. By 2006, 96% of teachers were already highly qualified and the disparity was down to 7%. Indeed, the DOE successfully reduced the difference every year so that Davy can boast, three years later, that we’re at 99.7% across the board and the discrepancy between high and low income districts is 0.8%. But here’s the question: does it matter?

Here’s the conclusion from the DOE’s 2006 report: “The NJ DOE acknowledges the importance of having highly qualified teachers in every classroom (p.39)."

Here’s the other conclusion from the DOE’s 2006 report: The Pearson linear and correlation coefficient, which “is a very weak 0.0602,” "strongly suggests that the quartile comparison cited elsewhere is misleading and that in fact HQT average is not a dominant factor in poor performance in high quality schools (p.51, Appendix C)."

The HQT designation is important to students. The HQT designation is not important to students. Glad we’ve cleared that up.

What’s a Highly Qualified Teacher anyway? Since 1985, teachers in N.J. have to prove competency by having an undergraduate major in their field, or by earning 30 credits, or by having National Board Certification. In addition, they have to pass ETS’s Praxis test in their area of expertise. (Veteran teachers have been able to fulfill requirements by using the High Objective Uniform State Evaluation (HOUSE) Standard Content Knowledge Matrix, which lets them bypass the requirements through accruing 10 points in college coursework, professional development courses, and seniority, but it’s being phased out now.)

So, it’s college coursework, plus passing ETS’s Praxis test, which purports to assess a teacher’s content knowledge. New Jersey, in fact, is one of 48 states (California and Texas use their own in-house tests) that uses the Praxis, a multiple-choice, two-hour exam. Let’s look at one of them – the Mathematics Content Knowledge, 10061, taken by all new middle school and high school teachers in N.J. Every state gets to set its own passing grade. The highest possible grade is 200 and the lowest possible grade is 100. According to Eduinsights, Colorado sets the highest bar, requiring a score of 156, which equates to correctly answering 63% of the questions. Arkansas has the lowest bar, a passing rate of 116, which equates to correctly answering 20% of the questions. New Jersey is in the middle. To meet the requirements of a Highly Qualified Teacher in N.J., you need a score of 137, i.e., correctly answer 42% of the questions.

Is the test so difficult? Not according to ETS: “The Praxis Series tests are intended to measure the knowledge, skills, or abilities that groups of experts determine to be important for a beginning teacher.” Let’s say the Math Praxis II is more difficult than the others. (It may be. Derrell Bradford of E3 notes in a post on the Special Review Assessment that 42% of prospective N.J. math teachers, including 2/3 of minority applicants, failed.) But as NCLB keeps pushing the bar up for students and as N.J. implements more rigorous high school graduation requirements, shouldn’t our teachers’ proficiency be an item of discussion?

Why is a score of 42% adequate? Do we need a No Teacher Left Behind law? How can we justify mandating increased proficiency levels for kids without mandating increased proficiency levels for teachers?

Either teacher proficiency matters or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t matter, we should give up the farce of requiring content knowledge tests with a passing rate of 42%. If it does matter, then perhaps it’s time to not only ask more from our students but also ask more of our teachers.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Sunday Leftovers

The New Jersey Urban Youth Research Initiative is talking to Abbott high school students in Jersey City, Newark, and Paterson about the DOE’s new high school graduation requirements. Students’ concerns include whether the state is focused on making high schools harder instead of better, and whether poor urban kids will be punished for their school’s shortcomings. The Record quotes Deputy DOE Commissioner Willa Spicer:
The schools themselves are the problems that we have, and the school people know it. There is no attempt on the part of the state of New Jersey to wish bad things upon children in the schools. There is instead a belief that if you leave things the way they are, you and your friends, your brothers and sisters, will not be able to compete in the society in which you find yourselves.

At The Negotiating Table: NJSBA says that a growing number of school boards and teachers’ unions in NJ are agreeing to “lower raises, more instructional time and cost-saving provisions for fringe benefits,” according to PolitickerNJ.

Are districts starting to toughen up? Maybe a bit. Last year, 63% of districts negotiating new contracts with their local unions had not reached agreements. This year it’s 73%. Also, the NJSBA analysis shows an increase in contracts that require employee contributions to health care and a little give on percentages: average pay increases for 2009-1010 are 4.47%, but for settlements reached since January 2009, average increases are 4.31%.

At A Different Negotiating Table: Across the river in Philadelphia, there’s a weighty negotiating battle going on between the School District, which is pushing for longer days, different work rules, and ending job assignments based on seniority, and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, who thinks at least some of these changes are “highly inappropriate,” according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

How Many Clowns Can You Squeeze into a Volkswagon?: The Hillsborough School Board considered the state’s new requirement for a personal finance course at their recent meeting. The new requirement for high school graduation goes into effect with the 2011 freshman class, although details are fuzzy. Said Board member Marc Rosenberg in CentralJersey,
The ultimate issue is every time we put something in the curriculum, we have to take something out. I think we need to be very careful about what we’re putting in and what we’re taking out.
Dysfunctional School Board of the Week Award: The winner is Pleasantville School Board in Ocean County, where Board President Dorris Graves authorized editing out a portion of the audio recording of a recent meeting where an angry resident got into it with the Board attorney. The Press of Atlantic City got a copy of the censored bit, which went a bit viral. See (er, listen) here.

Quote of the Day

When you come up as a student, there are a lot of students in your class and maybe one or two are disruptive, but those disruptive students mess up the whole class. So from a young age, students don't get a lot of educational experience. There are so many other factors around, like gangs and drugs. There are just a lot of things that prohibit learning.
Kwame Gilbert, 18, of Paterson, on whether urban schools in N.J. are prepared for newly rigorous high school graduation requirements. (The Record today.)

Friday, August 21, 2009

Why Ed Reform is Healthier Than Health Reform

On Wednesday, Ed Comm Lucille Davy told the Star-Ledger that, while she was gratified that almost 100% of N.J. public school teachers are “highly qualified,”
That being said, there are other things that go into the determination of teacher effectiveness and qualify. That, I think, becomes the next level.
The same day, NJEA President Joyce Powell told the Star-Ledger Editorial Board,
Merit pay, pay for performance, alternate pay -- these are all the buzz words we're hearing. After polling our members, I don't see merit pay as an attraction for them.
Local districts can bargain for that, but it should be voluntary participation, have a sustainable funding source, and not be based on one measure. Merit pay has to be based on what you as an individual do, not the student.
Snaps to Davy for her candor: the “highly qualified” measurement is simply a checklist of paperwork cordoned off from actual classroom performance. (There’s a lively conversation going on now about whether formal certification matters anyway; here's an example.) The next step is, indeed, those “other things”: evaluating teacher performance through student academic growth (i.e., merit pay). It’s the opposite of Joyce Powell’s/NJEA’s wont, and an atypical divide between a Democratic administration (at the state and federal levels) and the teachers’ union.

There’s been all sorts of comparisons made between the nation’s health reform movement and the education reform movement. Andrew Rotherham over at Eduwonk astutely wondered aloud earlier this month about the inversion of health care and education: Health care reform is focused on taking a sector dominated by privatization and improving it through increasing public sector involvement, while education reform is focused (at least in part) on taking a sector dominated by public sector involvement and improving it through privatization.

Health care remains a highly partisan issue (though the Dems are doing a pretty fine job of screwing it up all by themselves). On the other hand, education reform seems to sit astride both aisles, in spite of the infusion of the private sector. If so, NJEA would be wise to find some common ground.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Is Diane Ravitch Channeling Strom Thurmond?

Diane Ravitch is arguing that the President Obama’s educational agenda – using federal money to woo states to facilitate the expansion of charter schools and tie teacher evaluations to test scores – is a violation of states’ rights. In a letter to the Department of Education, she urges “respect (for) the requirements of federalism” and counsels that “(h)umility is sometimes the best policy, especially when you are not on firm ground with your remedies.”

Kevin Carey at “The Quick and the Ed” (click the link for a full copy of the letter) suggests that Ravitch’s argument is specious: no one’s ever tried to tie test results to student evaluations so we don’t know if it will help, and the caps on charter schools stifle meaningful competition so we have no way to determine if expansion will produce better results. He also says that Ravitch’s defense of state control of education amounts to “preserving a system of vicious institutionalized racism” embodied in the vast disparities in academic performance between whites and minorities, though it’s more accurately a system of vicious institutionalized classism. High income students get to draw from the pockets of excellence and poor students are stuck with the rags.

Not to be inflammatory, but how is Ravitch’s defense of states’ rights in education different from Senator Strom Thurmond’s defense of states’ rights in racial segregation? (He holds the record for the longest filibuster speech in Senate history – 24 hours and 18 minutes – as he attempted to derail the Civil Rights Act of 1957.)

From Ravitch’s letter to the US DOE:
I think the DOE should respect the requirements of federalism and look to states to offer their best ideas rather than mandating policies that the current administration likes, even though there is no evidence to support them.
There wasn’t much "evidence" to support eliminating Jim Crow policies either. Is that the scent of magnolias in the room? Really, she’s too smart to stoop to this.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

New Report Casts Doubt on Efficacy of School Vouchers

A report released today from Bruce Baker at the Great Lakes Center, “Private Schooling in the U.S.: Expenditures, Supply, and Policy Implications,” questions the viability of using vouchers to augment school choice. The report is based on a review of financial and enrollment information contained in IRS tax returns combined with data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Baker concludes that private school spending varies enormously and the differences are explained by religious affiliation. Christian schools spend the least, but also have the lowest student test scores, often no better than public schools. Hebrew day schools and other independent day schools spend much more – often twice as much as traditional public schools – and also boast much higher student achievement.

Arguably, then, implementing a voucher system in poor sections of New Jersey, as both Christie and Daggett have suggested, would render the better private schools out of reach for poor families unless the private schools were willing to subsidize large portions of tuition. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine that a kid would be better off at Camden High School than at Camden Catholic High School. The parents of kids who attend private schools through the D.C. voucher program might have some thoughts to share with Dr. Baker.

Monday, August 17, 2009

New "Cartel" Trailer Out

Right here; for a Camden-specific comment, go to about 2:00.

Christie on Charters, Vouchers, Pre-K

Last month School Leader, the monthly mag from NJSBA, published an interview with Governor Corzine. This month it’s Chris Christie’s turn, and there’s a couple of tidbits that that cast some light on Christie’s heretofore murky educational agenda.

Charter schools: we should look at "which models work in urban settings and create more of them."

Vouchers:"I think the issue of vouchers becomes necessary in failed districts where you have economically disadvantaged people who do not have the option to remove their child from what they consider to be a failed school or a failed district. The way I see the voucher system working is that it would only happen in failed districts."

Education Commissioner:" I would like to see a commissioner who sets a tone at the department, that those people who want to come in and try to establish charter schools are not the enemy, and that the Department of Education should be a resource to help them."

New School Funding Reform Act: "I thought it was a small step in the right direction but that it did not go far enough."

Consolidation and regionalization: "I leave it in the hands of the taxpayers who are paying the bills. It should be studied by people who are interested in looking at the regional approach or consolidation, but I’m not somebody who thinks Trenton should be forcing that down people’s throats."

No Mandatory Pre-School: "No, I do not believe in mandatory pre-K, in part because we have a thriving private pre-K industry in our state that I wouldn’t want to see destroyed…. I am opposed to mandatory pre-K paid for by the taxpayers in every municipality and state taxpayers in N.J."

On collective bargaining and civil service: "I think we need to look at the entire way we deal with all public employment across the board. It makes no sense to me that in this state, we have collective bargaining and civil service existing at the same time."

Special Ed Parents to DOE: Get Your Nose Out of Our Placement Business

Special education advocates continue to be alarmed by the broad powers granted to each county’s Executive County Superintendent (ECS). Originally, new DOE regulations seemed to suggest that the ECS had to approve any out-of-district placement made by each child’s Child Study Team, and had the authority to recommend non-private placements for kids with disabilities. When the N.J. special ed community gave that a big Bronx cheer, the DOE backed off and Commissioner Lucille Davy issued a fawning memo “to clear up any misunderstandings.”

Apparently there’s still some clearing up to do. Alicia Brzycki, a special ed parent and advocate, has a piece in the Trenton Times charging that the new regulations violate state and federal law:
As it pertains to this position, the level of direct oversight that would be provided this individual undermines the mandate of the U.S. Congress via the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) that the IEP (individualized education plan) decision-making process be a collaborative effort among the child-study team members and parents who make up the team.
The objection seems to be that any role that the ECS plays is inappropriate and unlawful and that Child Study Team decisions are not subject to oversight from an outside administrator. While it's not uncommon for in-district administrators to oversee placement decisions, it's another matter entirely for a political appointee to insert him or herself into the painstaking and occasionally painful process that leads to the determination of the best possible placement for a special needs kid. Does such an insertion violate Federal law? We'll see if the DOE is willing to die on this hill.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sunday Leftovers

Bergen County School Administrators Eschew Motel 6 For 4 Seasons:

The Record reports
that Bergen County Technical and Special Services School Districts took “taxpayer-funded trips to China, Taiwan, and Las Vegas, even as they were cutting programs and laying off employees.” Oddly, when the DOE was asked about oversight, a spokeswoman said they don’t collect data on district travel. Actually, they do.

But the DOE Doesn’t Miss This:

The Hanover Park Regional High School District School Board planned on paying a suddenly-departing superintendent $205,079 in some sort of obscure buy-out, reports the Daily Record.

The Star-Ledger Interviews Newark Superintendent Clifford Janey on Teacher Tenure:
Q: Is tenure one of the problems you face?

A: I think so. Tenure comes too easily. There's a burden of proof that hasn't been considered for one's worthiness to be considered for tenure. Teachers are tenured after three years, but it should be after five years, at a minimum, and there has to be a set of rigorous standards throughout that five-year period, established not just by me but with others in the district, including the teachers union.

We had eight teachers last year on tenure charges (Editor's Note: when a teacher is brought up on tenure charges, it falls within the categories of inefficiency, incapacity, conduct unbecoming a teacher or other just cause.) Now we have a principal-led program, a tier system that provides a 90-day window for the teacher to improve through an assistance program with Seton Hall University. We have 74 teachers on tenure charges now.
Is $150,000,000 Too Much or Too Little for a New Trenton High School?

Depends upon whom you ask, reports The Trenton Times.

Camden City School Board Engages in Deep Reflection:

The Courier-Post reports that the board members sat with NJSBA field rep Diane Morris for a self-evaluation. Said Morris, “One of the things I noticed, you're doing barely an effective job in monitoring progress towards achievement of your goals and objectives. The board needs to have a system they're committed to in place so they don't lose sight of what is most important."

Economizing Strategy: Get Rid of Substitute Teachers:

West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District, reports The Princeton Packet, will implement a new policy in September: instead of hiring substitutes (who get $75-$90 per day), high school students with an absent teacher will go to the cafeteria for a study hall. It's a good thought, especially for a high-achieving district with an extremely low teacher absentee rate. Might not work so well in Camden.

Friday, August 14, 2009

N.J. Assembly: Let's Make it Harder to Get Rid of Ineffective Teachers

While two out of three gubernatorial candidates call for education reform in N.J., including a reevaluation of tenure, the Assembly is now contemplating bill A 4142 (see here and here) which gives non-tenured teachers the right to arbitration if their contracts aren’t renewed. How out of step can you get?

The Garden State Coalition of Schools, and NJSBA have issued angry statements protesting a bill that hikes public education costs and keeps ineffective teachers in the classroom. The GSC says it’s “in conflict with the stated goal of all other legislation which is to reduce the cost of education in New Jersey.” NJSBA Executive Director Marie Bilik says the bill "is a clear example of why the public needs to watch the Legislature, and watch it closely, during an election year." One of the members of the Education Committee, Assemblyman Scott T. Rumana (R-District 40), told The Record Wednesday that
"First off, we didn’t even have copies of the bill until the morning we walked into the room. So there basically was no time for real review of the bills, but I do have very grave concerns about bill 4142."
It’s hard to see this bill as anything but a sop to NJEA, which is asking its members to lobby legislators so that the bill gets passed this Fall. The fact that this bill even made it out of committee paints our legislators' priorities as woefully misaligned with efforts to improve teacher quality, the surest route to higher achievement for our kids.


From In The Lobby on Chris Christie's and Chris Daggett’s support for charter schools and vouchers, and Daggett’s call yesterday to abolish tenure:
That puts the two candidates in the same camp as a group of urban parents, politicians and ministers who are fighting for better education in city schools. It also puts them at odds with the NJEA and Gov. Corzine, who oppose school choice.
In The Lobby argues that Daggett's and Christie's consensus on school choice hurts Corzine because Daggett may tempt traditional pro-(school)choice Democrats who wouldn't vote for Christie anyway. Also, traditionally Democratic-voting leaders in the Latino community are disenchanted by Christie’s choice for L.G., Monmouth County Sheriff Kim Guadagno, who supports immigration enforcement. On the other hand, Christie is starting to smell less rosy and Daggett’s education reform creds may attract voters who saw Christie as the only pro-choice candidate, thus hurting Christie.

Is Daggett doomed to play the spoiler? Or can he create a viable candidacy in the next two months?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

NJEA on Daggett’s Proposal for Tenure:

"Before there was tenure, anyone could throw a teacher out a window so their Uncle Charlie could get a job."
Now, now. Not quite. But let’s back up a bit.

Steve Wollmer, NJEA spokesman, is waxing hyperbolic about Candidate Chris Daggett’s just-released education proposals which are, in fact, much in line with the current wisdom on how to improve American education. At a Statehouse news conference yesterday, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daggett said,
It is time for a change - a change that focuses on accountability and performance - and that reexamines fundamental assumptions about such institutions as high school graduation tests, tenure, and the public education monopoly.
Daggett is proposing that newly hired teachers in New Jersey be offered 5-year performance-based contracts with opportunities for merit pay, instead of the current system of lifetime job entitlement. Current teachers would be grandfathered under the “old” tenure system. As far as Uncle Charlie goes, the DOE issed new regulations on nepotism just this past year. Here’s NJSBA’s explanation:
The definition of “relative” includes an even broader list: spouse, civil union partner, domestic partner, or the parent, child, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, grandparent, grandchild, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, stepparent, stepchild, stepbrother, stepsister, half-brother or half-sister, of the individual or of the individual’s spouse, civil union partner or domestic partner, whether the relative is related to the individual or the individual’s spouse, civil union partner or domestic partner, by blood, marriage or adoption. It doesn’t specify that they live in the board member’s household.
Sorry, Charlie.

Actually, over the last ten years only 47 New Jersey teachers were terminated under tenure charges. Any school board member will tell you that a district that attempts dismissal for cause is in for massive legal costs, years of litigation, and almost certainly the return of the teacher to the classroom, or at least to the district’s payroll.

Daggett, who holds a doctorate in education from University of Massachusetts, may just give Christie and Corzine a run for their money, at least on education issues. He also seems willing to take on the abuse of the Special Review Assessment whereby failing students are awarded high school diplomas through the pretense of assessment. The Star-Ledger reports,
Daggett also recommended eliminating the Special Review Assessment, an alternative test that allows students to receive a diploma even if they fail the High School Proficiency Assessment.
He said the state's graduation rate would plummet from first in the nation to 24th if the test was eliminated.
"The SRA is the lie that underlies our education system -- the lie that educators use to tell parents that they have provided a quality education to our children," Daggett said.
NJEA has directed their ire squarely at Christie. Now they’ll have to do double duty and make it less an anti-Christie campaign than a pro-Corzine one. Is Daggett a reform candidate without the baggage of the GOP and Christie’s history? Can he wedge himself in here?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Let's Do The Time Warp Again

Two more Jersey towns are feeling ripped off by their school costs, reports The Record. Woodcliff Lake and Montvale in Bergen County want to withdraw from a sending-receiving relationship with Pascack Valley Regional High School District because they say they can do it cheaper on their own.

Pascack Valley takes students from Hillsdale, Montvale, River Vale, and Woodcliff Lake. It’s a high-achieving high school (DOE data here) – top test scores, SAT’s, AP offerings. Everyone graduates. Everyone (well, 97% of the kids) goes to college. There aren’t enough African-American or Hispanic kids to even count as a subgroup. There’s more computers than students. What’d you expect? It’s an I DFG – the second wealthiest designation in Jersey – and the total cost per pupil is $19,498 – about $4K above average.

It’s starting to feel like a trend. Just last week, Chesilhurst School District in Camden County appealed a DOE decision that forces them to dissolve and send their 195 elementary-aged kids to Winslow Public Schools because they don’t want to pay $18K per year. Said the mayor of Chesilhurst, "What do we get? It's costing us $18,000 to send each student there. We could send our kids to private school for that."

Montvale and Woodcliff residents (or at least their representatives on their municipal councils) resent paying for schools based on ratables because they end up paying more than citizens who live in towns with lower ratables. In other words, we ask wealthy people to ante up more into the school funding pot than poorer people because we base school taxes on property values. It works the same way with garbage pick-up and park preservation, but you don’t see people protesting their property-based taxes for those services. That’s because school costs feel like a raw deal. We know we pay too much.

Corzine has tried earnestly to address our out-of-control education costs through the School Funding Reform Act, new legislation designed to set state-wide spending caps, and DOE efficiency regulations. But there’s too much resistance – from the Legislature, from NJEA, from local school boards who abhor interference.

It’s like trying to clean up a landfill with a bottle of Lysol.

There’s a sense in which New Jersey is stuck in an educational time warp. We define ourselves – indeed, pride ourselves – on the historical strength of our local governance, which by definition produces unequal school districts. But everything about educational progress, policy, politics, and economics is rooted in equity issues – ARRA stimulus funding, Race To The Top requirements, cutting-edge research on pedagogy.

Either we resign ourselves to an expensive and inequitable school system (not really an option unless we want to forfeit federal aid) or we get brave and opt for meaningful reform – consolidation, integration, and equity. The residents of Montvale, Woodcliff, and Chesilhurst are understandably irate at the high price of educating their kids, but the answer is not further fragmentation.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

N.J.'s Use of ARRA Funds

The Campaign for Educational Equity based at Teachers College, Columbia University, has published an analysis of each state’s application for ARRA school stimulus money. Its conclusion is that just about everyone’s given short shrift to equity:
Of the three stated educational goals of the Act -- stabilizing education funding, allowing continuation of equity and adequacy reforms, and promoting education reforms to boost student achievement -- only the first seems to have been substantially achieved. Virtually all of the states have stabilized their funding levels for FY 2010 at the previous year’s level, with the application of the federal stimulus funds. ( In many instances, however, this “flat funding” will nevertheless result in substantial cuts in educational services since mandatory cost increases will not be covered.)
How’d New Jersey do? Not so well. In fact, we’re singled out (along with Georgia, Virginia, and Washington) for acknowledging up front that we anticipate “falling short of full-funding levels in spite of the infusion of stimulus money.” The report notes specifically,
We do know from other sources that New Jersey’s budget shortfalls do specifically undercut equity and adequacy adjustments called for by the statutory formulae
"Other sources?" Could that be the Education Law Center’s June 2nd missive to Arne Duncan in which “ELC writes to request that the USDOE reject New Jersey’s amended application for initial funding under the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund Program?”

The 3-page letter, signed by Executive Director David Sciarra, explains that N.J. is violating ARRA’s directive to use the money not only to stabilize school spending in spite of the economic recession, but also to use the stimulus money “for phasing in State equity and adequacy adjustments.” While N.J., “correctly designates” Corzine’s School Funding Reform Act as the formula for distribution, ELC claims that we violate our own plan by only partially funding it, even with all the ARRA money. – we’re $3.3 million short. Sciarra also notes that, in turn, we’ve violated the terms of the State Supreme Court’s recent Abbott v. Burke decision, which is “premised on the expectation that the State will continue to provide school funding aid during this and the next two years at the levels required by SFRA’s formula each year.”

The USDOE, by the way, rejected ELC’s appeal. N.J. will get the stimulus money. We will also, according to ELC and The Campaign for Educational Equity, shortchange poor kids by limiting our use of ARRA money to maintaining the status quo.

How can we do otherwise? Our school infrastructure – 600 districts with demographics determined by tiny swatches of a diverse and segregated state – destines educational inequity among schools. The problem’s not whether we have enough money. (We do – our per pupil costs are about the highest in the country. Part of our problem is that we equate increases in student achievement with increases in funding.) By slicing ourselves so thin, we create school districts restricted to single neighborhoods, which drives up segregation. Unless we address our allegiance to local governance, the best we can do with public education in New Jersey is separate and equal. Right now we’re not even close to that low bar.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Does the NJEA PAC Represent its Members?

There’s some surprising poll numbers coming out in N.J.. PolitickerNJ reports that, according to the recent Monmouth County poll, Christie is leading 47% to 37% among teachers. That’s noteworthy because the NJEA PAC has loudly endorsed Corzine, and Christie is well-known for his unapologetic support of charter schools and vouchers, an agenda historically anathema to NJEA. Also, last week the PAC issued 70 endorsements for legislators, of whom 60 are incumbents. The message: stick with the status quo.

Does the discrepancy between the PAC’s Corzine endorsement and the Monmouth poll amount to anything? Wojciech Siemaszkiewicz, a Republican candidate for Assembly in District 37, is hoping so. He has a press release out exhorting NJEA members to ignore their PAC’s recommendations of his opponents Gordon Johnson and Valerie Vainieri Huttle:
By endorsing the tax-increasing ticket of Jon Corzine, already the current most Anti-Taxpayer Governor in the United States and the most Anti-Taxpayer Governor in New Jersey’s history and Lt. Governor candidate Loretta Weinberg, and their rubber stamping Assembly members Johnson and Huttle, the NJEA proves that it is not a non-partisan voice of its members. Rather, it is a special interest group taking care of its own self-interests regardless of the impact on the taxpayers of New Jersey, including its own members.
New Jerseyans are mad as hell right now -- at the State’s insolvency, at corrupt politicians, at their property tax bills. All this signals support for a new administration. But NJEA is demanding support for the status quo from its 200,000 members. Maybe teachers will follow orders at the end of the day, but the Monmouth poll indicates that at least some of them are thinking of breaking off from the PAC(k).

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Sunday Leftovers

Newark Superintendent Clifford Janey on Tenure:
Tenure comes too easily. There's a burden of proof that hasn't been considered for one's worthiness to be considered for tenure. Teachers are tenured after three years, but it should be after five years, at a minimum, and there has to be a set of rigorous standards throughout that five-year period, established not just by me but with others in the district, including the teachers union.
From Q & A with Star-Ledger

New Assembly Bill Bans Fees for Extra-Curricular Activities:

Not all districts do it, but it’s a growing trend as schools look for ways to cover deficits. Typically, a district will charge, say, $100 to participate in a sport, with a bye for low-income kids and a family cap. But a bill sponsored by Assemblymen John Burzichelli (D-Salem, Cumberland and Gloucester), Gary Schaer (D-Bergen, Essex and Passaic) and Assemblywoman Joan Voss (D-Bergen) would prohibit the practice. Look for schools to squeal. The Princeton Packet quotes Michael Vrancik, New Jersey School Boards Association director of government relations, who testified against the bill, calling it “unnecessary legislation that codifies practices that are, for the most part, in effect in school districts already.”

Fred Snowflack of the Daily Record charitably explains why the NJEA supports the status quo in New Jersey.

New Charter in Cumberland County:

Vineland Public Charter School has just opened, serving 108 kids from K-2nd grade from Vineland and Millville. How’s it different from the traditional elementary schools? It’s got a 200-day school year and runs a longer day, from 8 – 4. Oh -- it's also cheaper. While local districts are griping because they have to send about $7-8K per pupil to Vineland Charter, according to the Daily Journal, the cost per elementary school pupil in Vineland Public School District is $16,746. How’s this work again?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Have I Got a Bargain For You...

Chesilhurst School District in Camden County, with a grand total of 195 kids pre-K through 6th grade in one school, has been ordered by the DOE to dissolve and send their kids to Winslow Public Schools, where they already send their 7th – 12th graders. How’s this going over with the 1,900 residents? Not so well. In fact, they’re appealing the decision to Education Commissioner Lucille Davy because, according to the Courier-Post, they want Shirley B. Foster Elementary School to remain open and they don’t want to pay Winslow $18,000 per student.

Chesilhurst Mayor Michael Blunt says,
You don't close down a school on a whim. The people of Chesilhurst have been through a lot. Without a feasibility study, who's to say we're getting better services at Winslow? Winslow had a budget shortfall and now it's getting our state aid.

What do we get? It's costing us $18,000 to send each student there. We could send our kids to private school for that.
It’s true. Just for fun, we looked at local private and charter schools to compare costs. Haddonfield Friends School in Camden County offers top-notch academics, small classes, and all sorts of academic perks. Tuition for elementary school-age kids is $12,500 per year, with an additional $2,000 a year for parents who need their kids to stay til 6. Camden's Promise Charter School runs about $14,000 per elementary school kid, while Camden Academy Charter High School gets by on about $12,500 per year.

No wonder Chesilhurst residents are reluctant to consolidate. Until we get our per pupil costs under control, no smart shopper will be interested.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

It seems like every paper in Jersey is running the Asbury Park Press story (later picked up by the AP) that blares, “New Jersey public schools added more than 1,200 new positions in 2008, bringing the total number of teachers and administrators to 143,733.” The squib adds that last year’s total payroll was over $9.6 billion, and links to a DataUniverse spreadsheet for those interested in the minutiae.

Let’s settle down a bit. There are 2,430 schools in N.J. If there’s 1,200 more positions, on average less than half the schools added a position. And as we bring more special education students back to home districts, there is a requirement for more classroom aids, therapists, and special education teachers.

The real reason for the extra $400 million in payroll has nothing to do with more positions and everything to do with the local bargaining agreements overseen by NJEA, which proffer annual salary increases of 4%-5% per year. That doesn’t include benefits packages, way up this year, which cost each district over $18,000 per employee. Wrong target, folks.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Should Our Poor Kids be Eligible for an Extended School Year?

Thomas Carroll, President of he Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability, claims in yesterday’s New York Post that poor kids learn at the same rate as wealthier kids but lose substantial ground each summer. Presumably, rich kids are enrolled in enrichment programs and educational camps, while many less privileged children spent two and a half months with minimal exposure to academic content. Carroll quotes Karl Alexander, John Dewey Professor of Sociology at Johns Hopkins:
About two-thirds of the ninth-grade academic achievement gap between disadvantaged youngsters and their more advantaged peers can be explained by what happens over the summer during the elementary-school years.
If the Professor is correct, then there’s a fairly simple solution: mandate summer programs using the same model that we provide to kids with special needs. It’s that “poverty is another form of disability” thing.

In New Jersey, a Child Study Team writes an Individualized Education Plan (I.E.P.) for each child classified as eligible for special services. If there is evidence that a long summer break would cause academic regression, then the district is required to provide summer programming, formerly known as ESY (Extended School Year). This often takes the shape of 4-6 weeks of school at least 4 hours per day. And, as is typical in the world of special education, the parents who scream the loudest get the services for their kids.

Poor parents can scream as loud as they want, but unless they live in Abbott districts there is little summer programming available. It was one of the first cuts local districts made when the economy blew up.

So, what if we created 4-6 week summer programs for impoverished children, regardless of their place of residence? Worried about efficiency and equity? Have our Executive County Superintendents run the programs (or the county special services director) and use the county facilities. Hey – some of the county facilities even have pools. We might even be able to save money by not having to play catch-up in September.

NEA Declassified

The NEA has “declassified” a “classified document” which surveys 6 school districts across the country on variations of merit pay (hat tip to Joanne Jacobs). Their take is that the best models are those that reward teachers for, say, earning Masters degrees or special certifications, and the worst are those tied to student performance. The 51-page report includes a page of “Recommendations and Policy Implications,” including a statement that articulates their strategy for coping with the relentless call for performance incentives:
NEA should create strategies in the context of today’s political reality. Despite sparse evidence to support “merit pay” and “pay for performance,” many educators, researchers, and policy makers continue to support experimenting with performance incentives. The Association needs to carefully craft a message that recognizes this strong support, while continuing to promote salary structures that are consistent with sound compensation in a way that allows us to emphasize the elements that may hold promise: Advocating for skill-and knowledge-based programs that pay for things like embedded, relevant professional development and teacher career ladders.

In other words, redefine ed reformers' terminology and, thus, redefine their trajectory. Very post-modern of them.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Six New Charter Schools in N.J.

The DOE gave final approval to 6 new charter schools, which will all open in September: The Institute for Excellence Charter School in Winslow, Riverbank Charter School of Excellence in Florence, Dr. Ellen G. Pressman Charter School in Plainfield, The Ethical Community Charter School in Jersey City, Newark Educators Community Charter School in Newark, and the Vineland Public Charter School in Vineland,

It’s news with something to offend everyone. Charter school advocates will gripe that 6 is a paltry number and we have 11,000 kids on waiting lists, mostly in poor urban areas. Charter school disparagers will bemoan this year’s approval of 6 charters, as opposed to last year’s approval of 2. Local school boards will fear the loss of income since they’ll be writing checks for 90% of each child’s per pupil cost to send to new charter students. NJEA will worry about a burgeoning number of non-unionized teachers.

Corzine will use it as ammunition. Christie will use it as ammunition. What else is new? (Special bonus: look at this anti-Christie ad just out from the N.J. AFL-CIO explaining why his views on charter schools and vouchers spell imminent demise for the Garden State.)

It would be healthy for everyone (especially the kids) if we found way to de-politicize the charter school movement, even just a little. The Hall Institute of Public Policy’s recent report – which found mixed results for charters across the country – explains why New Jersey was not included in the data analysis:
New Jersey is the only state to invest in one person, the commissioner of education, the responsibility of authorization. As most other states charge single or multiple boards with that responsibility, the effects of New Jersey’s unique charter policy and that of other states are not comparable in studies such as the foregoing.
In other words, the person with power to approve or reject a charter school application is a political appointee, our Commissioner of Education. And no other state does it this way.

Who came up with this system? Can we admit that it’s not working all that well? (N.J.’s original charter school legislation placed a cap on charter schools: 145. That’s gone away, maybe because we’ve never even come close to that number, despite the demand. Obama's measure of charter school non-receptivity -- the presence of caps -- may need a little tweaking.)

Charter schools will not fix our public education system. But they are a piece of a larger educational reform agenda with much promise. One step in the right direction would be to transfer the authority to approve charters from a single political appointee to a committee comprised of all stakeholders. What do you think?

Monday, August 3, 2009

NJEA Endorses Legislators

NJEA’s PAC has just voted to endorse 47 Democrats and 24 Republicans for the New Jersey Legislature. Here’s the complete list.

The press release also includes a statement from out-going NJEA President Joyce Powell, who is joining NEA’s Executive Committee:
We lead the nation with the best high school graduation rate and our public schools are among the best in the nation in preparing students for higher education. NJEA is committed to supporting pro-public education legislators who will help maintain our successes.
Well, sort of. New Jersey does boast one of the highest graduation rates in the nation, but that status is due to the use of the controversial Special Review Assessment. (Here's the DOE's Administrative Manual for 2009.) Kids who fail the regular state high school assessment three times (most fail the math portion largely due to the lack of certified math teachers in low-income districts) then take the SRA, where material is taught in in the form of a mini-quiz. The child is coached indefinitely until he or she can properly regurgitate back the material. When the child passes the series of tests, he or she is deemed eligible for a high school diploma. No one fails the SRA.

A report called “SRA: Loophole or Lifeline” (coauthored by Stan Karp of Education Law Center, big proponents of continued use of the SRA) estimates that 49.1% of children in either Abbott districts or “poor districts” were awarded high school diplomas through the SRA process. Affluent kids? 3%.

Interestingly, the NJEA has chosen to endorse Assemblyman Joseph Cryan of Union County, who is a co-sponsor of Bill 2250. The bill “prohibits State Board of Education from authorizing use of special review assessment as an alternative for meeting graduation requirements.” NJEA, unsurprisingly, is actively opposing the legislation. The 2009 NJEA Legislative Program states, “NJEA believes that the SRA process is a viably sound educational alternative for students who do not perform well on standardized tests.”

You can kind of hardly blame them. If we get rid of the SRA, what will happen to our graduation rates? At a recent NJEA convention, Education Commissioner Lucille Davy addressed concerns about the SRA, according to a union publication:
“The SRA is a legitimate concern for legislators and the public,” Davy noted, given the large numbers of students using this option. But she believes that the legislature won’t eliminate the SRA if it is convinced that changes are being made. “We know we need an alternative exam; we just don’t know what it will look like yet,” she said.
We probably do need an alternative exam: for kids with disabilities, for kids who are new English learners. We don't need a test that conceals gaping holes in the academic achievement of our low-income children for the purpose of a few good soundbites.

Bill 2250? Lost somewhere in Assembly purgatory.

Follow-up: The Press of Atlantic City notes today that the NJEA's picks are almost all incumbents, except for one case where the candidate was just charged with corruption.

Quote of the Day

The actions of the teachers unions in both Baltimore and New York make sense from their perspective. Unions exist to advance the interests of their members. The problem is that unions present themselves as student advocates while pushing education policies that work for their members even if they leave kids worse off. Until school choice puts more money and power in the hands of parents, public education will continue to put teachers ahead of student
Wall St. Journal editorial on the excellent academic achievement of the kids at the Ujima Village Academy in Baltimore, a KIPP charter school that has a population of 99% African-Americans of whom 43% qualify for free lunch. Union rules in Baltimore have run up the salaries of Ujima teachers so that the school has been forced to cut out programs and lay off teachers. The article also notes the recent UFT grievance in New York City against PTA-hired teaching assistants who were paid $12-$15/per hour. The union’s success means that parent groups may no longer independently bring in assistants but must use union members, who are generally less qualified and are paid $23/hour plus benefits.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Sunday Leftovers

Districts on Spending Spree with ARRA Funds:

N.J. schools are happily spending Federal stimulus funds –ARRA money -- intended to beef up supplies, programming, and professional development for poor and special needs kids. The Star-Ledger reports today that eligible districts are on buying sprees, while opinions differ on whether the extra money, intended to last for two years, will make any difference. Assemblyman Joseph Malone says districts will misspend it. David Sciarra of Education Law Center says these types of investments can’t “be sustained over time.” The DOE says, "This is a great hope for kids who need help."

Wall Street Journal
on whether Duncan and Obama will put their money where their mouths are:
NEA President Dennis Van Roekel told the Washington Post last week that charter schools and merit pay raise difficult issues for his members, yet Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said states that block these reforms could jeopardize their grant eligibility. We’ll see who blinks first. The acid test is whether Messrs. Duncan and Obama are willing to withhold money from politically important states as the calendar marches toward 2012.
Charlie Barone Does Stand-Up on AFT Prez's Logic:

Teaser: "The argument being advanced by the interest groups that are lining up in opposition to President Obama's and Secretary Duncan's call to tear down teacher-student data firewalls bear a striking similarity to hamburger eating and eternal happiness."

James Ahearn of The Record
explains why school consolidation is doomed.

Ray Pinney, NJSBA's resident blogger
explains the inefficacy of educational competition.

The Courier Post editorializes
on the lack of leadership in Camden schools:
Camden School Superintendent Bessie LeFra Young is not showing the leadership necessary to correct this sinking ship.Since she won't do it, we can only ask -- again -- that Corzine exercise his authority and ensure this district is run efficiently and without fraud and graft.
Dysfunctional School Board of the Week Award Goes to:

Easton Area School Board, where Board member Pat Vulcano Jr., reports Lehigh Valley News, is contemplating joining his daughter in suing the district. Vulcano’s daugher, who was hired as a fifth-grade teacher last year, is suing the district for not rehiring her after she failed to earn the credits necessary for teacher certification.