Friday, December 24, 2010

Quote of the Day

Here’s the New York Times earlier this week with two of its four suggestions for New York State’s public education system:
Personnel costs are skyrocketing. Outside New York City, the cost of pensions, health insurance and others benefits for workers has been increasing about 10 percent a year since 1998, according to the State Department of Education. The Legislature over the years has sweetened benefit packages as a way of rewarding teachers or other workers. Mr. Cuomo should push for regional collective bargaining instead of district by district. The goal should be pensions and health care systems for government workers that are more like those in the private sector…

There are too many separate school districts — about 700 ranging from New York City, with 1,700 schools, to others that have fewer than 200 students. Consolidation could save money and even enhance curriculum.
Wow. When the New York Times advocates emulating private industry for pension and health care costs, you know times are a changin’. And that school consolidation suggestion? NY State has 2.74 million kids in about 700 school districts. NJ has 1.38 million kids in about 600 school districts. No need for the Garden State and the Empire State to play “biggest loser,” but New York is smoking us in the efficiency department. Time for some educational New Year’s resolutions…

Meanwhile, have a great one and I’ll be back next week.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Final Words of Wisdom from Joel Klein

From outgoing-Chancellor of NYC Schools Klein's last weekly memo to principals (courtesy of Eduwonk), two of the three "critical issues" facing his school system that are equally applicable to New Jersey's:
The first is the issue of phasing-out schools and replacing them with new ones. Proposing to phase out a school is the hardest decision we make. But, unfortunately, it’s a necessary one. Schools that persistently have graduation rates below 50%, or where a low percentage of students are on grade level, after years of numerous efforts to turn them around, are unacceptable. I don’t think any of you would send your own children to one of those schools. That’s a pretty telling fact. And if that’s true, whose children should go there? Surely, the answer cannot be those with the most challenges and fewest options in life. Let’s not allow job security and nostalgia to stand in the way of doing the hard work necessary to do right by our students.

Third, I fear that, next year, for the first time in recent memory, we will have to lay off teachers. I wish it were otherwise, but the economics of our state and city make this virtually impossible to avoid. If we have layoffs, it’s unconscionable to use the last-hired, first-fired rule that currently governs. By definition, such a rule means that quality counts for zero. Our children cannot afford that kind of approach. They need the best teachers, not those who are longest serving. (If you had to have surgery, would you want the longest-serving surgeon or the best one?) This doesn’t mean that many of our longest-serving teachers aren’t among the best, but this is not an area for “group think.” We need individual determinations of teacher effectiveness to decide who stays and who doesn’t.
And, in conclusion,
as I formally say goodbye to the best group of school leaders a Chancellor could ever have hoped for, I am confident that, working with Cathie Black, you will continue to move this system forward. It won’t be easy, and it won’t happen without controversy. But as long as we have schools to which you wouldn’t send you own children, we cannot tolerate the status quo, no matter how comfortable it is for the adults. You know what’s right. Make it happen.
[Note on Cathie Black, Klein's replacement: Mike Petrelli of Flypaper at Fordham says she'll be gone by Easter.]

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Quote of the Day

James Ahearn of The Record on superintendent salary caps:
Christie isn’t the first American governor to peg superintendent salaries to his own. Minnesota used to limit superintendents to 95 percent of the governor’s salary. As a result, by 1997 a critical shortage of superintendents had developed. While teachers in Minnesota were paid the national average for their jobs and principals got slightly more than the national average for theirs, superintendents averaged $72,000, or $26,000 below the national figure for their jobs.

Administrators with the qualifications and the oomph to seek and obtain jobs in other states did so, en masse. Minnesota abandoned the 95 percent pay cap.
Here's a better idea: cap superintendent salaries in small non-K-12 districts in order to promote consolidation and shared services. Leave large K-12 districts alone. If one of those small districts agrees to share a superintendent (or business administrator, or special services director) with a larger neighboring district, let free market prevail in establishing salaries.

NJEA's Luddism

Local school district referenda on school construction often serve as a barometer of the voters' willingness to support costs of public education. If that truism is correct, than New Jerseyans are spent out and fed up. For example, in 2002, reports New Jersey School Boards Association, 102 districts held special elections and 72% of such proposals passed; the total amount of spending approved was $1.329 billion. Not so much this year: results for 2010 are: 34 elections for school construction and passage rate of 50%. Total approved spending is $218.667 million. Another comparison: in 2002 66.1% of total proposed spending was approved by voters and in 2010 26.3% of total proposed spending was approved by voters.

From NJSBA: “The 50-percent success rate for 2010 – which is the lowest record since NJSBA began tracking school construction proposals in 1998 – reflects voters’ reluctance to take on additional debt during a struggling economy.”

The answer is not to spend more money. The answer is spend less in a more intelligent and productive way. Here’s U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan describing what we do wrong in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute called "The New Normal: Doing More with Less:"
Our K-12 system largely still adheres to the century-old, industrial-age factory model of education. A century ago, maybe it made sense to adopt seat-time requirements for graduation and pay teachers based on their educational credentials and seniority. Educators were right to fear the large class sizes that prevailed in many schools.
But the factory model of education is the wrong model for the 21st century. Today, our schools must prepare all students for college and careers--and do far more to personalize instruction and employ the smart use of technology. Teachers cannot be interchangeable widgets. Yet the legacy of the factory model of schooling is that tens of billions of dollars are tied up in unproductive use of time and technology, in underused school buildings, in antiquated compensation systems, and in inefficient school finance systems.
And here’s Harvard Professor Paul Peterson on how to do it better:
As I explain in Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning, we need fewer teachers, not more, and those few teachers must reach thousands of students at a time. Fortunately, this possibility, once remote, is now arriving with a speed as rapid as that of the avatar-laden space ship zeroing in on the planet Pandora. As we enter the world of high-powered notebook computers, broadband internet connections, 3-dimensional curricula, open-source product development, and internet-based games, both co-operative and competitive, students will learn by accessing dynamic, interactive instructional materials that provide information to each student at the level of accomplishment he or she has reached.
That’s why the NJEA’s tenure reform proposal, “Making Concessions Count for Kids” is wrong-headed and anachronistic. According to the marketing material, the union is pushing hard on Assembly bill 2772 (it’s already passed the Senate as S-1940) which would “require that the monetary equivalent of any wage or benefit concession agreed to by a collective bargaining unit must be used by the school district to offset any reduction in force initiated for economic reasons.” In other words, if a local bargaining unit of NJEA agrees to any salary or benefits concessions, the money the district saves must be spend on re-hiring laid-off teachers.

But in ten years (maybe less, though the NJ DOE better get their data systems out of the 20th century) we’ll surely need fewer teachers, maybe fewer buildings as students work from home or from community college campuses. Hopefully the smaller cadre of NJ’s teachers will be uniformly effective, subject to professional accountability measures, and paid in a way commensurate with their performance. Like professionals, not factory workers.

That is, if we want concessions to count for kids, not teachers.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Trouble with Seniority

There’s not many opportunities to use Trenton Public Schools as an exemplar, but the School Board and community wrangling over the fate of a popular basketball coach points to the constraints of privileging seniority over effectiveness. The district had the chance to bring in Greg Grant, ex-NBA-er and assistant coach of The College of New Jersey men's basketball team, and he actually held two practices to great acclaim. Then the Trenton Education Association stepped in and argued – correctly – that the job legally goes to Charles Jackson, the junior varsity coach who has been in the district ten years with proper certification.

The Board tried to side with public sentiment and dimwittedly reinstated Grant, but State Fiscal Monitor Mark Cowell, according to the Trenton Times, said the board violated tenure laws. "Even though Mr. Grant may be the most qualified coach, Mr. Jackson also has coaching experience," Cowell told the board. "But the fact that Mr. Jackson is a certificated teacher working in the district -- he gets preference."

Sure, it’s a basketball coach, not a language arts or math teacher. And the Board really should know better. And the union official was correct to tell the Board that "You have chosen to break the law, and have the taxpayers incur litigation expenses which the district cannot afford, all due to being star-struck.”

But it’s simple, right? There was a better candidate (at least according to families and students, board members and State Fiscal Monitor) who won’t be coaching basketball because promotions/perks/extra-duty positions are awarded on the basis of longevity, not skill. The more qualified man, the one who told the Trentonian, “The reason I’m here is I hate to see Trenton High kids not go off to college. Maybe I can give them incentive to make something of themselves,” has been "told to stay away" from all varsity basketball games.

Update: The Trenton Times reports today that Charles Jackson, the teacher in line to coach boys' basketball in Trenton, submitted a letter withdrawing his intention to serve. Therefore, the Trenton School Board reappointed Greg Grant. But stay tuned: "That interpretation is being challenged by the teachers union, however. Union officials argue that [Fiscal Monitor] Cowell manipulated Jackson to withdraw his application, and they say Jackson has since sent the monitor another document that reverses his withdrawal."

It’s a poorly-kept secret in NJ

that the Department of Education is understaffed and overwhelmed with tasks as diverse as completing design and construction of a data system capable of linking teacher effectiveness to student growth, to filling out federal grants properly. Amidst the news of Christopher Cerf’s imminent appointment, a few more leaks:

From The Record:

If confirmed by the Senate, Cerf would take over a state Education Department that has had no permanent chief since the summer. ..

The state Department of Education has also been strained by serial departures, with six out of seven assistant commissioner spots now vacant.
From NJ Spotlight:
The administration official said part of the discussion lately was also what kind of freedom Cerf would have in bringing in his own people to the state Department of Education. The department has been decimated over the past year, with only two assistant commissioners left.

“He’s got a very free hand,” said the official. “It’s not like there are a lot of people left there to replace.”

Monday, December 20, 2010

Cerf's Up!

Now that Christopher Cerf is, for all practical purposes, our next Commissioner of Education, what will this mean for school reform prospects in NJ?

First, a little background on Mr. Cerf. He’s been on the short-list for Ed Commish for some time, and is well known as a supporter of charter schools, merit pay, and tenure reform. His last gigs include senior advisor of education for Michael Bloomberg’s mayoral campaign, president and CEO of Edison Schools, associate counsel for Bill Clinton, and clerk for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. He was also deputy chancellor of NYC’s public schools, reporting to Joel Klein, and closed down 90 failing schools. He began his career as a high school social studies teacher and most recently served as CEO of Sangari Global Education, which supplies science material to schoolchildren.

Most notably, he has a history of working well with teacher unions. Today’s NJ Spotlight quotes UFT President Randi Weingarten:"Chris may not have agreed with us, but he always listened. Our union was constantly at the table with the Department of Education discussing what teachers need to do their jobs well."

So Cerf can ably play “good cop” to Christie’s indefatigable “bad cop” routine. Bret Schundler tried on that costume but got caught in the crossfire of Race To The Top. And our new commissioner enters an arena where, arguably, relations between NJEA and the Governor’s Office have never been worse.

Specifically, Cerf’s advent onto the NJ educational scene coincides with the roiling battle between NJEA and the Christie Administration over lengthening the time from first day on the job to lifetime employment; using student growth for at least 50% of teacher evaluation; and streamlining teacher dismissal processes. There’s much at stake. If Christie can get this done (odds are pretty good: the Legislature, from all appearances, seems ready to work with him) then the balance of power shifts from a school system that privileges adults over children to a system that (dare we say it?) regards academic achievement as the primary metric for establishing success.

Enough blue sky. Let’s go back to one section of NJEA’s loudly-trumpeted tenure reform proposal, important both for its vision of tenure reform as expansion of union control and for what Cerf’s up against. (For review, see my first take here.) NJEA proposes that the following items would now become eligible for negotiations between a local district and its bargaining unit: budget development, professional development, teacher transfers and promotion, class size, and selection of instructional materials.

Some of these addenda to the typical negotiations platter are non-starters. Local districts are unlikely to partner with union representatives on staff transfers or promotions to administrative positions. Nor is class size likely to be on the table: increases are anathema to teachers, yet fiscal constraints and the introduction of virtual learning into classrooms will change the way we look at the centuries-old model of one teacher in front of twenty-five kids.

But there are some opportunities within NJEA’s wish list for Cerf to win some smiles. Perhaps instead of direct union involvement in teacher promotions, we can work out a system whereby our most effective teachers become master teachers who are paid additional money (i.e., merit pay) for coaching less effective teachers. (This would involve acknowledgment that some teachers are better than others, which would be a breakthrough for school reform.) And why not have our all-stars be part of the discussion of selection of instructional materials and professional development? If we can shift NJEA’s proposal from an expansion of union power to an expansion of authority for our finest teachers, then everyone wins.

Of course, the sticking point is that old union canard that our tools are inadequate to differentiate our most effective teachers from our least effective ones. But if Cerf can bring NJEA leaders to a qualified stance – something like data-driven measurements of student learning are imperfect but still valuable for distinguishing our finest educators – then we’re on the right track.

Quote of the Day

From the Governor's press release announcing Christopher Cerf's nomination as NJ Commissioner of Education:
“Governor Christie has made it clear that 2011 is the year for education reform in New Jersey. He has put forward a bold plan and vision for remaking the system and taking on the challenges of inequity that currently exist,” said Christopher Cerf. “With the Governor’s commitment to a high-quality education for every child, it’s clear that we can go far in increasing student achievement, and providing every child the quality education they deserve regardless of zip code. I look forward to being a part of this fundamental and transformational change.”

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Sunday Leftovers

Derrell Bradford of E3 comments to the Wall St. Journal on Cerf's nomination: "In New Jersey, there are 611 wars going on right now, essentially one in each school district. The leader of the state department of education is going to have to manage every one of those battles financially and ideologically, and that is way more complex than what they had to do in New York."

Tenure Update: NJ Director of Democrats for Education Reform Kathleen Nugent tells the Journal, "School districts shouldn't need to have the modern-day version of Sherlock Holmes to make sure our kids are being taught by the best teachers we can give them. The fact that most district leaders are forced to pretend the problem doesn't exist is a sure sign the [tenure] system is broken."

The Star-Ledger looks at both the history and abuses of teacher tenure, including the case of Curtis Robinson, a teacher for children with disabilities in Paterson, who “hurled classroom chairs, punched a boy in the chest for failing to do homework, and shoved another kid against the blackboard until he cried.” The district successfully brought tenure charges against Robinson, but it took four years of legal proceedings, more than $100,000 in legal costs, $120,000 to pay a substitute teacher, and $283,864 to pay off Robinson.

The Star-Ledger Editorial Board urges the end of “lifetime tenure:” No matter how much money is pumped into schools, real progress isn’t likely until we turn the focus to the quality of teaching. The record on this is clear: Students who get two or three strong teachers in a row improve their performance despite their backgrounds, while those stuck with a series of weak teachers may never recover.”

NJ Spotlight examines the "troubled and troubling" history of tenure in NJ.

Everyone's talking about the parent trigger bill in California, which allows 51% parents to vote to close a school down or convert it to a charter if the school is judged to have failed its students for three consecutive years. Here's Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Washington Post:
In California, like in many other states, our public education system is not based on merit or holding the adults in whose care we have placed our children accountable. Some students get a good education, but others do not, and report after report reaches the same conclusion: No matter how much money we throw at the problem, unless the school is fundamentally fixed, we will not get the results in student performance we all deserve.
Here in Jersey Sen. Joseph Kyrillos is proposing a similar bill.

Richard F. Keevey analyzes NJ’s budget woes in New Jersey Newsroom, including school aid:
the Supreme Court has ruled the State has a constitutional obligation to fund schools at certain levels, especially for the poorest districts. Given the existing formulae it is estimated that $13.5 billion is needed by the year 2015 — almost 40 percent greater than now raised from the income tax. In the current year, the Governor put a ‘halt' to school aid increases, and most likely this ‘spending pause' will continue. The underlying school formulas, and other requirements/mandates, need to be re-examined so requirements can be matched with revenues.
Wayne Public Schools, according to the Record, wants the DOE to approve a new superintendent's contract (the district is about to start on its third interim super), but the DOE won't do it without the candidate's name and the Board President says he needs to protect confidentiality. Is the DOE so leaky?

Charter school trustees' least favorite activity: required training from NJ School Boards Association. (NJ Spotlight)

Nepotism Are Us, at least in Hamilton Township. According to the Trenton Times, the school superintendent’s daughter is a vice principal, the purchasing administrator is the son of the director of student services, and the business administrator is the nephew of the former mayor.

Disgraced Toms River superintendent Tom Ritacco pleaded not guilty to additional federal charges of fraud, bribery and conspiracy. Earlier in the year he was charged with accepting bribes of up to $2 million, plus mail and wire fraud. (Asbury Park Press)

Willingboro Public Schools just appointed a new superintendent, its seventh in the last five years. The Burlington County Times says, oddly, that "terms of his contract are still being negotiated."

the sequel to “NJ Teachers Go Wild,” called “Happy Holidays from the Teachers Unions

Quote of the Day

New Jersey has one of the best education systems in the country, which can only mean it’s being led by a dedicated group of educators. At the same time, there are certain communities in this state where we should all be ashamed about the gap between children who are rich and poor and black and white.
Christopher Cerf, Nominee for NJ's Commissioner of Education, in today's Star-Ledger.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Christie Nominates Chris Cerf

Last night Gov. Christie nominated Christopher Cerf, former deputy chancellor of NYC public schools, as NJ's Commissioner of Education. From the Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Cerf, 56 years old, will be nominated to lead a department that has been adrift since the sacking of its former commissioner, Bret Schundler, in the wake of the state's loss in a federal education grant competition. A spokeswoman for the governor wouldn't confirm the selection.

Mr. Christie has spent the past year cutting school funding, tangling with teachers and superintendents, and trying to make New Jersey's schools do more with less. He has pointed to Newark and other cities as examples of school systems where more money has not led to sufficient education gains, leaving children "trapped" in failing schools.

Joel Klein, the outgoing chancellor of New York City schools, where Mr. Cerf served as a deputy chancellor until 2009, called Mr. Cerf "a man of enormous intellect, talent and deep understanding of K-12 education and would be a terrific leader."

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Viral Testing

NJEA President Barbara Keshishian in the Asbury Park Press bemoans the “test score culture” that has invaded our public schools like a stealthy virus, begotten through No Child Left Behind’s “triumph of sound-bite politics over sound educational policy.”
Because of the rise of the test score culture in schools, when a teacher has to decide whether to spend 45 minutes on a really creative social studies lesson or on 45 more minutes of test preparation, an administrator's voice is whispering in the back of her head, "Test scores must increase." When schools make decisions about how much time to devote to art, music, physical education or creative writing, that voice is always whispering, "Test scores must increase."
So high-stakes testing is bad for students because it narrows the curriculum to what is tested (students are “denied the broad, comprehensive education that would serve them best in life”) and bad for teachers because “what really matters in education cannot be measured by filling in a bubble on an answer sheet.” NCLB, therefore, the fount of all testing, is bad for kids and teachers.

It’s enlightening to compare Ms. Keshishian’s opinion piece with yesterday’s New York Times profile of Shael Polakow-Suransky, NYC’s sort of Assistant Chancellor (appointed to be Cathy Black’s sidekick after her appointment as Chancellor ignited blow-back given her lack of educational experience). Polakow-Suransky has served for years as chief accountability officer of the New York City Department of Education; before that he was a teacher and then principal of both a progressive public school in Harlem and a school in the Bronx for new immigrants. His view of high-stakes testing is, uh, a bit more measured than Ms. Keshishian’s. They’re not even a necessary evil; they are a potential means of instruction.

Here’s the goal, says Polakow-Suransky: “to actually create something that you would want kids to prepare for; that is rich, engaging, interesting, rigorous curriculum, so when they prepare for it, they’re learning.” And here’s a sample question he offered:
He described one prototype question. Students would be asked to calculate the diameter that a straw needs to fit through a juice box’s hole, then write to a juice box manufacturer whose straws keep getting stuck in the hole to explain why its diameter should be changed. “It’s a ninth-grade problem that involves geometry and algebra in an unfamiliar context,” and tests several skills at once, he said.
In other words, tests aren’t evil, nor is NCLB. Our current tests may stink, but the problem is the quality of the tests, not the nature of testing itself. Polakow-Suransky: "To put it very simply,” he said, “how do you know that the kids are learning?”

One other quibble with the APP piece. Ms. Keshishian compares NCLB to the
meltdown of the financial sector, where misplaced incentives led to unwanted results. When executives and traders were rewarded on the basis of short-term outcomes — higher quarterly profits or ever-increasing stock prices — they found ways to reach those goals, for a while. They made ever riskier bets in the hope of immediate gains. They pursued strategies to maximize profits today, at the expense of the long-term health of their companies and well-being of their shareholders.
It’s a handy anaology; that Wall Street reek encapsulates all things anathema to the anti-testing/NCLB cadre. Keshishian effectively conjures up that stink of edu-entrepeneurs, for-profit charter schools, Mark Zuckerberg’s check to Newark, assaults on tenure, and all that ed reform rot.

But is her comparison accurate? Didn’t the meltdown happen in part because of lack of regulation and the belief that markets can self-correct without federal oversight? It’s not clear that her animosity towards accountability is best expressed through our distressed financial markets.

Anyway, her anti-testing fervor might be better served by focusing on NJ's simplistic tests rather than the nature of testing itself. Accountability is here to stay, for students and teachers. We just need to do it better.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Quote of the Day

Somewhere along the way, the schools in which we invested so much time, thought, and capital, slowly began to crumble—figuratively and literally. . . . Why, for so long, have we allowed denial and indifference to defeat action? I do not raise this question lightly, and I do not come to my conclusion from a lack of experience. I was a legislative advocate for the California Teachers Association, and I was a union organizer for United Teachers of Los Angeles. . . .

Over the past five years, while partnering with students, parents and non-profits, business groups, higher education, charter organizations, school district leadership, elected board members and teachers, there has been one, unwavering roadblock to reform: UTLA union leadership.

While not the biggest problem facing our schools, they have consistently been the most powerful defenders of the status quo. I do not say this because of any animus towards unions. I deeply believe that teachers' unions can and must be part of our efforts to transform our schools. Regrettably, they have yet to join us as we have forged ahead with a reform agenda.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in a speech, Dec. 7 (Wall Street Journal).

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Librera the Bellweather

Here’s William Librera, NJ Commissioner of Education from 2002-2005 and current Executive Director of Rutgers Institute to Improve Student Achievement, reflecting on his tenure as head of the DOE in today's NJ Spotlight:
I regret I was not as successful as I wanted to be in changing the nature of the discussion away from charters vs. public schools as we now define it, which I think is unfortunate, and instead to emphasize public school choice, because that is what we need. Public school choice can go beyond charters, it is not synonymous, and given the fact we have stacked the deck against charters has not helped us expand the opportunities. You can do that inside districts. It’s good for teachers, its good for kids, and it’s good for parents as well.
Five years (and three commissioners) later, and we’re still unable to let go of anti-charter fervor and embrace public school choice which, as Librera points out, would benefit kids, families, and teachers.

Commissioner Librera has a history of being ahead of his time – he’s the official responsible for the original implementation of the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program and author of the evaluation that pleaded for its expansion. He also wrote a memo in May 2005 that declared that the Special Review Assessment (SRA)“hurts the very students we seek to help, and it must be replaced.” Newbies may not recall that the SRA, the old alternative assessment for 11th graders that condoned high school graduation with no accountability, represented one of NJ’s most flagrant pretenses of educational success.

It took the educational establishment a few more years before it owned up to the abuses of the SRA and the necessity for expanding interdistrict choice. We’re still flailing within the false dichotomy of charter vs. public schools, but maybe that too is a matter of time.

New Report Out on Achievement Gap

The Center on Education Policy has a new report out that charts trends in achievement gaps from 2002-2009 nationally and state by state. Data is based on state assessments and NAEP scores. Here are the four bullet points from the Executive Summary:
  • Achievement gaps are large and persistent.
  • Every major student group has made gains since 2002 on state readingand math tests. But even when achievement has increased for all groups, gaps have not always narrowed.
  • For most student groups, gaps on state tests have often narrowed since2002. Gap trends vary, however, based on the student group and indicator of achievement examined.
  • Although gaps have narrowed more rapidly for some groups than for others, at the current rates of progress it would take many years to close most gaps.
For New Jersey’s profile, trends in the achievement gaps were unavailable for 4th and 8th graders; because of our test changes, there's not enough data to draw comparisons.

Eleventh graders in NJ showed a slight narrowing of the achievement gap for math, as increases for white kids were smaller than increases for other subgroups. While white students increased scores by .5, African-American scores went up 1.0, Latino scores went up 1.6, and low-income went up 2.6 from 2002-2009.

Reading scores for 11th graders showed improvements for Latino and low-income students: white students increased scores by .4, Latinos by 1.1, and low-income by 1.6. However, African-American students increased reading scores by only .1, less than that of all other cohorts.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Le Roi est mort, vive le Roi!

The Asbury Park Press has this to say about school district consolidation: “it’s dead in the water, at least for now.”

True enough. In 2007 the post of Executive County Superintendent was invented specifically to make recommendations to eliminate all districts not K-12 (here's the statute), and those consolidation plans were filed nine months ago in March. However, the DOE now says that although it has “those reports in hand,” the “money isn’t available to study those consolidation recommendations in more detail.” In other words, our government created a new level of management that is now, arguably, either gratuitous or badly in need of a new job description. Not to mention that we still have almost 600 school districts of which only 220 are K-12. (To be fair, Executive County Superintendents do a few other things, but consolidation was the heart of their mission.)

We can rail about the waste of money, time, and countless school board and community meetings devoted to analyzing consolidation proposals and addressing concerns. We can groan at the irony of a DOE-initiated project intended to foster efficiency evanescing into dust right back at the DOE, like some black-humored moebius strip.

In the end, the consolidation project was dead in the water from the get-go. Legislation requires that every district targeted could vote the proposal up or down. Since at least one district in each new consolidated area would see an increase in taxes, it takes no genius to see where that one was headed.

Couldn't we have figured that out in the first place?

Quote of the Day

Derrell Bradford explains why No Child Left Behind has been successful in shining “a great spotlight on what we all knew: Poor kids were getting a raw deal,” particularly in New Jersey. NCLB’s accountability measures and its emphasis on assessment have been described as unfair to teachers,
But one thing is clear: Public education in America before NCLB's implementation was absolutely unfair to students, who were failed in the shadows, and taxpayers, who funded school systems that were inherently broken. Most importantly, however, it was unfair to those outstanding teachers who didn't and don't fear measurement, and who understand the vital role they play in preparing our children for a globally competitive world on a fast track to leaving them all behind.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Sunday Leftovers

Stephen Sawchuk in EdWeek looks at the new Gates Foundation study on the validity of value-added teacher evaluations:
“Value added” gauges based on growth in student test scores and students’ perceptions of their teachers both hold promise as components of a system for identifying and promoting teacher effectiveness, according to preliminary findings from the first year of a major study.
The analysis shows that teachers’ value-added histories strongly predicted how they would perform in other classrooms or school years—as did students’ perceptions of their teachers’ ability to maintain order in the classroom and provide challenging lessons.
The Star-Ledger interviews one of the nine members of the Governor's Task Force on evaluating teachers, Donna Chiera of the American Federation of Teachers (i.e., the union representative who is unconnected with NJEA):
Q. Why has the AFT been more open to the educational reform agenda than the NJEA?

A. I think in general, the AFT has always been a more practical organization. Randi Weingarten, the national AFT president, has a realistic philosophy: Instead of having it done to us, it needs to be done with us. To be honest, there are members who do not agree with that position. There’s opposition and push-back, but Randi’s message has been clear: This is going to happen. As for the NJEA, I know their position at a national level has been, “We’re not agreeing with this.” But that’s not going to do their members any good. That’s just going to leave all the decisions to the non-educators.

NJSBA President Raymond Wiss in his testimony to the Senate Education Committee on the need for tenure reform: “Our state’s public schools have succeeded in spite of, not because of, the current tenure system. In elementary and secondary public education, tenure does not exist to preserve academic freedom or to advance knowledge; it merely serves as lifetime job protection.”

Key point from NJ Spotlight's coverage of the tenure hearings (and one of the reasons we lost Race To The Top): "And while there has been much discussion of better linking teacher with student performance, an official from the state Department of Education conceded the state still lacked the data system to even track such a link. He said it is still at least a year away. 'We don’t have the data system to prove that a teacher is ineffective,' said Chris Emigholz, the department’s legislative liaison.' With the current system, it is hard to get there.'”

Speaking of flawed data, Joan Whitlow of the Star-Ledger looks at incompatible numbers for Newark's high school graduation rate.

Rishawn Biddle at Drop Out Nation discusses lessons in school finance gleaned from Jersey City and notes that while there has been some improvement in graduation rates, there’s been a steep decline for young white females: in 2004, 91% of white girls made it to their senior year of high school, but in 2009 only 69% did.

The Courier-Post has a smart and thorough review of issues surrounding caps on superintendent salaries.

The Record on America's PISA scores
: "Scores from the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment released Tuesday show 15-year-old students in the U.S. performing about average in reading and science, and below average in math. Out of 34 countries, the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math."

The Washington Post reports on a study from the Tennessee State Board of Education that shows that teachers trained by Teach For America are getting better test scores out of their students than nearly every college of education in the state (the only exception: math teachers from Vanderbilt University).

Friday, December 10, 2010

Quote of the Day

Don't miss Andrew Rotherham's latest piece in Time Magazine regarding school funding's "lack of attention to productivity, i.e., thinking about outputs (student learning) in relation to inputs (spending). In education circles, productivity is a four-letter word. Cost and benefits? Never heard of 'em!"
In 1970 America spent about $228 billion in today's dollars on public schools. In 2007 that figure was $583 billion. True, some of the increase can be traced back to growing enrollments, better programs, and improved services for special-education and other students, but much of the increase is just a lot of spending without a lot to show for it. And given all the various pressures on state budgets (including our aging population, health care costs and the substantial obligations states and school districts owe for pensions and benefits), the golden age of school spending is likely coming to an end.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

NJEA Reform Proposals Get Panned

Charles Stile of The Record:
New Jersey’s embattled teachers union’s new "vision" for public education could best be summarized this way: "We’ve taken a hard look at this issue and you know what? We kind of like the way things are, thank you very much."

The New Jersey Education Association’s list of reforms – unveiled Tuesday by its president, Barbara Keshishian, in a monotone, State of the State-length speech, sans applause lines – was at its heart a Declaration of Defense of the Status Quo.
But the policies Christie supports are no longer the fantasies of right-wing ideologues. They are the policies of Change Agent Barack Obama or Cory Booker, the social media mayor of Newark.

They are the policies of African-American and Latino parents, reliable Democratic voter blocs, but who don’t want to send their kids to failed, status quo urban schools. They want choices. They want to talk about the very things the NJEA is unwilling to talk about.
The Courier Post quotes New Jersey School Board Association's Frank Belluscio:
"We need a fair and consistent evaluation system going forward. It shouldn't be that complicated to remove an ineffective teacher from the classroom, but it is. Tenure only serves as an obstacle for school districts to put the best people in the classroom," he said."What we would propose is renewable tenure in which teachers would work under contracts of three to five years and at the end of the contract, a decision is made on extending employment and tenure based on job performance. That's closer to how the rest of the world operates," he said.
In The Lobby reacts to NJEA’s insistence that our current tenure system’s only flaw is the long time line between a district’s filing of tenure charges and a judge’s decision. (For context, see yesterday’s PolitickerNJ, which explains that “Executive Director Vince Giordano said the union does not believe that the complaints about tenure include the “fairness” of the process, but rather the time involved in removing a teacher.”)
Of course, the fact that the NJEA still believes the tenure system works, when everybody knows it doesn’t, was probably a clue that their proposal would be more show than substance.

But the fact that the NJEA felt compelled to come up with a competing plan shows just how much the debate in Trenton has changed.

Now the question is whether the Legislature will choose to hide behind the NJEA smokescreen, or move ahead to fix the system.
And here’s none other than Bob Braun of the Star-Ledger on how NJEA is “trying to convince the world it isn’t really a union” and
then proceeded to make matters worse by calling for expansion of the scope of collective bargaining to make issues like class size and textbook selection part of labor negotiations… Keshishian’s comments ran aground on this issue. "Collective bargaining," she said, "has benefited the quality of our public schools and research shows quality public schools are a primary driver of high property values."

What? Labor talks mean higher property values? She said a broader scope of bargaining would lead to educators being held "responsible for education reform initiatives." But how would a union, or its members, be held accountable by the public for the results of bargaining? The lack of logic results from feverishly trying to marry policy to bare-knuckles bargaining.
Herald News:
IT WAS billed as "significant reform." But the New Jersey Education Association’s tenure reform proposal is an uninspired tinker...the proposal introduced by NJEA President Barbara Keshishian Tuesday does nothing to answer the murky question of how to separate poorly performing teachers from the pack. And so it falls tragically short of any real attempt to engage in the widening public debate about tenure and the lifetime job guarantee it has become.
Fred Snowflack of The Daily Record:

The New Jersey Education Association set forth reform proposals Tuesday about tenure and other matters, including collective bargaining. Here is what one line said:

“NJEA will make the case that collective bargaining has benefitted public education as a whole and is a driver of high property values.”

Hmm … A driver of high property TAXES would be more like it.

Daily Record Editorial Board:

After being lambasted by Gov. Chris Christie as a greedy public union for months, the New Jersey Education Association on Tuesday came out with a proposal to change teacher tenure laws in the state.

It should try harder. The NJEA's proposal fails to question whether teachers should get tenure after three years, as they do now, or even if tenure should exist.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Want Some More Tea With Your Sugar?

Lots of coverage today as NJEA released its reform proposals: check out the Star-Ledger (which focuses on the Christie Administration’s reaction), the Philadelphia Inquirer (which looks closely at NJEA’s proposal to quicken the currently glacial pace for removing ineffective tenured teachers), and NJ Spotlight (which compares NJEA’s proposals to those in Delaware and Massachusetts, both highly regarded public school systems that use student growth data to evaluate teachers).

It’s commendable that NJEA wants to speed up the process by which a district tries to remove a tenured teacher from its ranks for “inefficiency, incapacity, conduct unbecoming or other just cause.” Right now it takes longer than a year, and after 120 days school districts have to pay employees in tenure-limbo full salaries, not to mention legal costs and lots of administrative time. The Philadelphia Inquirer notes that “dismissals are rare in New Jersey” and “in 2008 there were 35 education-tenure cases, about one for every 6,600 employees.” Find another profession with that rate of ineffectiveness. On the other hand, don’t bother; it doesn’t exist.

And that’s the problem with NJEA’s proposal: it confers additional authority to teachers (or at least their union representatives) without the logical corollary: additional responsibility. In typical workplaces, additional authority includes additional responsibility for productivity or outcomes. The two go hand in hand, from secretaries to lawyers to engineers. But the proposal released yesterday divorces one from the other. It’s all authority and no responsibility.

For example, one piece of the package proposes that certain aspects of running a district be transferred from the aegis of school boards and administrators to the bargaining table. Here’s the list of what would now become negotiable items, though the text notes that the new legislation required "should include but not be limited to:"

• whole school reform issues (shared decision-making, school budget development, peer assistance, etc.);
• professional development;
• transfers and promotional matters;
• selection of instructional materials;
• class size; and
• issues related to chaperoning overnight field trips or weekend activities.

Presumably, if a district decided that it would benefit students to raise class size in order to pay for, say, technology that would facilitate independent learning, that decision would have to be signed off on by the bargaining unit.

Another proposal titled “Making Concessions Count for Kids” is based on a new bill before the Legislature (already passed by the Senate and NJEA “expects the Assembly to pass counterpart legislation”) that would require districts to use any money saved from salary and benefits concessions for the sole purpose of rehiring laid-off teachers. Again, strategic decisions usually in the hands of school boards and administrators would require buy-in from union officials.

It’s not really “school reform,” per NJEA’s p.r. package. It’s really union reform, or the expansion of union power, which would diminish the power of the general public through its representatives, school board members. This would make some sense if the package also included accountability measures – that responsibility piece that’s missing – like merit pay or (taking a page from Massachusetts) eliminating tenure in exchange for five-year renewable contracts. But accountability, the hallmark of national education reform, is absent from NJEA's proposal.

Like everything, it’s a negotiation. Maybe that’s part of NJEA’s strategy: to propose something clearly unpalatable in the hope of moving towards some sort of compromise. If that’s true, then they’ve done a great job.

We’re not much for litmus tests here except for one: is it good for kids? In this case, it’s good for union members, and maybe happier teachers make happier kids. But that’s a pretty amorphous benefit within the context of improving schools. NJEA’s proposal tweaks a little here and there, but calling it “school reform" is a pretty big stretch of the imagination.

Quote of the Day

New Jersey School Board Association's Frank Belluscio responds to NJEA's reform package:
While expediting the tenure hearing process would have some benefit, it doesn’t get to the root of the situation... NJSBA supports replacing the current system of lifetime tenure with renewable contracts, with continuation of tenure based on performance. Tenure was established in 1909. Since then, a body of case law and statute has developed that protects teachers from arbitrary dismissal and discrimination. Plus, collective bargaining in education–not a factor when the tenure laws were enacted–provides additional protection in areas such as disciplinary procedures and grievance arbitration.

There are public policy issues, including class size, that should be determined in an open public meeting, rather than behind closed doors in negotiations. They should be deliberated upon by school boards, which represent the public, in public. These education policy decisions should be based on the recommendation of the administration, and not be subject to the give-and-take (or armed warfare) of negotiations.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Quality-Blind Lay-Offs

Sometime this afternoon, NJEA promises, it will unveil its blueprint for reforming our outdated tenure laws and using student growth as a measure of teacher effectiveness. Smartly, the union is launching a preemptive strike before the Governor’s Committee on Teacher Evaluation unveils its own blueprint, sans NJEA representation (though with UFT representation, which is sort of the same thing but not really). It’s like the nerdy clique in high school pulling a fast one on the giggly lunchroom table of popular girls. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Anyway, there are no leaks that we’re aware of, except for the obvious: NJEA’s proposal will be informed by its convictions that tenure is merely due process and that linking student growth to teacher evaluations is specious and unfair.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that view. NJEA is doing its job, and doing it with political savvy in spite of (or because of) Christie’s relentless snub-fest. Teacher unions exist to protect jobs and increase member income. Bully for NJEA.

Here’s the difference: there’s a growing awareness that we pay an educational price because of the nature of an industry that puts the needs of the professionals above the needs of its clients.

There are other models for professional-client relations. Doctors are rated all the time on, say, their success rate in performing heart bypasses or treating cancer or managing infertility. There’s allowances made for sicker patients, maybe, or facilities that lack state-of-the-art technology. But the information is made available, and a substandard doctor loses his or her job in spite of protections afforded through due process. No one would suggest that a doctor who works for three years is immune to accountability measures, or that doctors are interchangeable, or even that an longer-serving doctor deserves job protection at the expense of a more effective doctor who has been on the job for fewer years.

Sure, teachers aren’t doctors (though it would be hard to argue that health care is less important than education). Teachers make a lot less money and historically job protection, generous benefit packages, and lots of time off have been compensatory mechanisms for low pay. On the other hand, maybe if we treated teachers like doctors they’d make more money and reap more respect. As an added bonus, maybe our education schools would draw more students at the top of their class (right now only 23% do) and we'd get our thick skulls around the fact that paying teachers more for attaining masters degrees is a waste of their time and our money, except for math and science instructors. (For more on this see Fordham's "Cracks in the Ivory Tower.")

Out on the other coast, the LA Times’ article on the effects of quality-blind teacher lay-offs is careening through cyberspace. In Los Angeles, like in New Jersey, reductions in school staff are based not on job performance and student growth but on length of time served. The article depicts the travails of a public school with an impoverished population, John H. Liechty Middle School, notable for its dismal student achievement. In 2007 the school reopened with a young, energized faculty. (Older and tenured teachers were all offered jobs there but turned them down; thus the new cohort.) Anyway, test scores soared, kids and parents were enthused, and teachers waxed eloquent over the academic progress in their classes. But in the summer of 2009, California’s budget got slammed. You got it: massive lay-offs. At Liechty, half the faculty was laid off on the basis of seniority, its best teachers were given the boot, and since then the school has regressed to its original failing state.

From the LA Times:
Because seniority is largely unrelated to performance, the district has laid off hundreds of its most promising math and English teachers. About 190 ranked in the top fifth in raising scores and more than 400 ranked in the top 40%.

Schools in some of the city's poorest areas were disproportionately hurt by the layoffs. Nearly one in 10 teachers in South Los Angeles schools was laid off, nearly twice the rate in other areas. Sixteen schools lost at least a fourth of their teachers, all but one of them in South or Central Los Angeles.

Far fewer teachers would be laid off if the district were to base the cuts on performance rather than seniority. The least experienced teachers also are the lowest-paid, so more must be laid off to meet budgetary targets. An estimated 25% more teachers would have kept their jobs if L.A. Unified had based its cuts on teachers' records in improving test scores.

"How can we be doing what's in the best interest of kids if we don't even consider a teacher's impact on kids when making key decisions?" asked Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Education Data and Research at the University of Washington.
Let’s cut to the chase. Quality-blind lay-offs are good for grown-ups and bad for kids. They’re designed exclusively for the benefits of teachers and administrators. The case study of Liechty Middle School illustrates the effects of ignoring teacher effectiveness when issuing pink slips. New Jersey has a chance to leave this old canard behind. Can we do it? Stay tuned.

Update: Here's NJEA's proposal.

Quote of the Day

America's schools are failing our kids. While some people blame the kids, or simply want to throw more money at the problem, we know that real change requires a better system -- one that puts students' needs before those of special interests or wasteful bureaucracies.
From the website of Michelle Rhee's new advocacy group called "Students First." Also see today's story from the New York Times.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Finalists for NJ DOE Commissioner

NJ Spotlight says that the short list includes Acting Commissioner Rochelle Hendricks, Christopher Cerf, Andy Smarick, Deborah Gist, and Michelle Rhee (though we just heard she's taking a gig in Florida). Not out of the question: David Hespe of Willingboro, Richard Kaplan (current superintendent of New Brunswick), Rochester's superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard, NYC Deputy Commissioner John King, and North Brunswick super Brian Zychowski, who also chairs Christie's Teacher Evaluation Task Force.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Sunday Leftovers

Gov. Christie's town hall meeting in Parsippany, reports the Star-Ledger, was his "most explosive yet." It featured a near-fisticuffs with a teacher and a sign hoisted into the air by a board member in Chatham that said "Drop Dead."

Accountability Watch: the business administrator at Woodbridge Public School District, Dennis Demarino, has been receiving an additional $175 per day since August 20th to serve as acting head of the transportation department. That comes out to about $875 per week, or about $43K per year. Says Demarino, the job “entails several hours of work a day and some Saturdays.” No worries though: that’s a bargain for Woodbridge because the transportation job actually pays $78K plus full benefits.

The Atlantic City School District offered an illegal early retirement deal to teachers, reports the Atlantic City Press, and must now pay back $3 million to the state pension fund.

Robert Aloia, former superintendent of the Bergen County Technical and Special Services school districts and much in the news for excessive salary ($241K) and contractual perks, will receive a deferred compensation package of about $300,000, reports The Record.

NJ Spotlight looks at our fragile Department of Education, where there has been "significant staff departures in the past few months, and little sign as yet of replacements when [Acting Commissioner Rochelle] Hendricks’ standing remains in doubt."

The Education Law Center is worried about a “repeat of last year’s chaos” over the Alternative High School Assessment, the new test that is offered to high school seniors who can’t pass the standard HSPA.

Mike Petrelli over at Flypaper notes the 35th anniversary of I.D.E.A. and points out a couple of factoids from some recent U.S. DOE data:
  • Of the country’s 6.5 million children aged 3-21 who receive special education services, 45 percent are in the “specific learning disability” or “emotional disturbance” categories–neither of which would have been considered “disabilities” in 1975. (And both of which include many students who were simply poorly served by “general education.”)
  • New York State has about the same number of special education students as the state of Texas (444,000 vs. 452,000)–even though Texas’s total student population is 71 percent higher than the Empire State’s.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Crunching Superintendent Costs

Question of the day: why is Gov. Christie shellacking school boards over superintendent salaries? First there was the foofaraw over Le Roy Seitz in Parsippany and his new contract that will pay him $234K. Yesterday the Governor’s Office issued a press release trumpeting the refusal of the Executive County Superintendent to approve a new contract in Westfield for Superintendent Margaret Dolan, who will make $203K by the end of the five-year contract. Schools boards and associations are calling foul: it’s an interference in home rule and a board’s ability to secure the services of top professionals. (Parsippany has already paid its attorney $8,000 to mount a legal challenge.)

At a public hearing yesterday, a DOE hearing official explained the reasoning (courtesy of the Press of Atlantic City):
N.J. school superintendents have had average salary increases totaling 46 percent since 2001, and the average salary is now almost $168,000 statewide, and more than $182,000 in districts with more than 1,000 students.

By contrast, he said, the average salary in Pennsylvania is $125,000, and most districts are at least 50 percent larger than those in New Jersey. The average salary in New York State is almost $163,000, but districts there are also larger, while in Delaware the average salary is almost $144,000, and school districts are five times the size of those in New Jersey.
Let’s take a look at Bergen County, home of 74 school districts and (according to the last census data available) 126,123 kids enrolled in public schools. That’s an average of 1,704 kids per district (which, under the caps would limit salaries to $155K, though of course district size varies enormously).

Here's what some districts in Bergen pay for top administrators:

Alpine Public Schools, total enrollment 142 kids in one school, pays Superintendent Kathleen Semergieff $172K (data from 2009). Total cost of top management team is $431K.

Edgewater Public Schools, enrollment of 492 kids in one school, pays Superintendent Ted Blumstein $180K.

Moonachie Public Schools, enrollment of 277 kids in one school, pays Mark Solimo, who functions as superintendent and principal, $158K.

South Hackensack, enrollment of 233 kids in one school, pays Superintendent and B.A. William DeFabiis $225K.

Rochelle Park, with 505 kids in one school, pays Superintendent Lauren Schoen $151K. Total payroll for the superintendent, B.A., and principal is $355K.

That’s five districts, total enrollment 1,649 kids, with a superintendent outlay of $886,000. Seems a tad high.

The point is not that these districts should consolidate. (I chose them as examples of small enrollments with full-time superintendents, not on geographic proximity, though they’re all within one of our 21 counties.) But Christie’s sturm und drang is only partly about governmentally-imposed caps. It's also about eroding the magnetism of home rule that increases the toll on taxpayers as we fund one of the most fragmented and inefficient education systems in America.

Paranoia, according to Woody Allen, Is Simply Knowing All the Facts

Democratic Assembly Education Committee members are so peeved over Gov. Christie's speech on Tuesday in D.C. at the Foundation for Excellence in Education's convention that they issued a press release demanding the text. Here's the video at least. According to NJ Spotlight, the highlight is this:
It’s a pinball from district to district to get higher and higher salaries, and crazy school districts in New Jersey, especially our suburban ones, who believe the more they pay their superintendent, the more valuable their district must be. This conspiracy among the superintendents is extraordinary.
Conspiracy? Sounds a little paranoid. But no one can fault the Christie machine for the amount of press he's generating over this neurotica. For further coverage, check out the Wall Street Journal, Star-Ledger, Press of Atlantic City, and PolitickerNJ.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Trenton Interim Replaces HS Leaders

The Trentonian is reporting that Trenton Public Schools Interim Superintendent Raymond Broach has "cleaned house," replacing Trenton Central High School principal Elizabeth Ramirez, plus three vice principals: Keith Taylor, Ron Edwards and Alex Bethea (who also finds time to be a city councilman).

Legislative Inertia and Charter Schools

Here’s what’s missing in the Democratic Assembly pile-on regarding NJ’s loss of $14 million in Federal funding to help expand charter schools: the main reason we lost the money is that the Assembly has failed to pass Bill 3083, which would allow Rutgers to authorize charter schools. Right now the only authorizer is our troubled and understaffed DOE.

Look at the comments
from federal reviewers of our application for the cash (and check out NJ Spotlight’s coverage). Reviewers rated the 17 states that applied on six different categories. Twelve states won and five didn’t. Some of NJ's poorest scores were in “Flexibility Afforded by State Law” and “Authorizer Accountability,” though we also were at the bottom of the heap in “Quality of the Evaluation.”

Example’s of reviewers’ comments cited as weaknesses in our application:

“With only one authorizer, the SEA, the state’s charters do not have authorizing freedom.”

“The SEA is the sole authorizer in the state.”

“The application does not include a description of the oversight processes or appeal processes that the single authorizer implements.”

There was also hearty skepticism expressed from all reviewers regarding our ability to meet the proposed target of opening ten new charters per year with the grant money, given the lack of capacity at the DOE. For additional context, look at the hot-off-the-press report from the Center for Education Reform comparing state charter regulations:
All but one of the nation’s 41 charter laws (New Jersey) permit school boards to authorize charter schools. Those states have opened less than one quarter of the nation’s nearly 4,000 charter schools, while states with multiple authorizers are home to 80 percent of all charter schools. School boards are often unable or unwilling to have fair and impartial processes to vet charter schools, andmany that do approve charter schools create friction between the schooling entities.
(Also see this report from Ball State University, which called our charter funding inequity “severe.”)

Now imagine if the Assembly had actually allowed the bill (passed by the Education Committee by a vote of 4-1) to reach a vote, joining 40 other states in allowing multiple authorizers? While there are certainly other problems with our application, we might have had a shot at the money. So what’s holding up a bill that allows a great university like Rutgers to have a hand in helping us educate kids?

Answer: there’s strong cadre of opponents, including the Education Law Center, Garden State Coalition, Save Our Schools-NJ (based out of Princeton – here’s a letter to the Princeton High School PTO lobbying against the Assembly Bill), NJ Principals and Supervisors Association. (To its credit, NJEA says it supports the bill, although its position paper lists the reasons why charter schools stink.)

The Assembly Democrats' indignation is misplaced. Look in the mirror, folks. Complain all you want about losing the $14 million and rant against dysfunction at the DOE, but at least acknowledge that a fundamental reason for the loss is your own inability to pass a no-brainer bill.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Give the Dems a Kleenex

NJ Democrats are piling onto Chris Christie, assailing him for “recent missteps, which have called into question his commitment to education.” Here’s some of the Democratic members of the Assembly Education Committee right before Christie delivered a fire and brimstone speech at the Foundation for Excellence in Education meeting:

Chair Patrick J. Diegnan, Jr.: "From day one he has created a war with teachers and administrators, taken away nearly a billion dollars in aid to schools while raiding them of their surplus funds, and botched numerous applications to secure federal funding that would have helped offset these losses. Now he is headed to Washington to talk about excellence in education. If he has a secret plan to achieve this, then by all means, he should be sharing it with the legislature so we can work together to institute it."

Joan Voss: "Without an Education Commissioner or a Secretary of Higher Education, New Jersey is lacking the leadership necessary to achieve excellence in this area," Perhaps the Governor should cancel his trip to Washington and spend more time [filling these slots].”

Ralph Caputo: “One can only imagine that if the Governor is speaking on excellence in education, he will have to point to his first year in office as an example of what not to do.”

Mila M. Jasey: "I can't imagine how the Governor's imprudent approach to our children's future qualifies him to speak at a national forum on excellence in education."

Here’s a better idea. Instead of playing “who’s your Daddy” with the Governor over sound bites and harping on the $400 million lost in Race To The Top and the $14 million lost in Federal aid for charter schools, let’s look at costs in context.

New Jersey’s annual public school costs are about $20 billion. (That's about 1.38 million kids at a cost per pupil of $13,835 and represents total costs to local taxpayers, inclusive of state and federal contributions.) Our loss of RTTT money and federal aid to charter school expansion (obviously a Democratic pet issue) is approximately 2%, or less than half the tab of running Newark's public schools for one year. Now while that money is nothing to sneeze at, the geyser of mucus erupting from the Assembly Ed Committee would be better expended on our core educational issues: intractable achievement gaps, unsustainable infrastructure, lack of accountability, a hobbled DOE.

Yeah, we screwed up in losing that money. But Federal aid won’t fix our schools. That’s going to take collaboration on the parts of our tripping-the-light-fantastic-governor and resentful legislative leaders. Can we focus on issues of substance instead of crafting cheap shots?

Comic relief:
Last night during his speech Christie reminded the audience that teachers who want to opt out of NJEA have to pay a fee of 85% of their $730 annual dues. He quipped, “Now, for people in my generation…this is like the Hotel California. You can check out anytime you like, but you may never leave.”

Quote of the Day

Newsweek’s Andrew Romano explains why President Obama, the cerebral law professor, can learn some lessons in the "politics of austerity" from Chris Christie, NJ’s top Federal prosecutor:
Like any good prosecutor, however, the real engine of Christie’s success has been his calculated pursuit of enemies. While Obama takes pains to acknowledge the validity of his critics’ concerns in an effort to find common ground, Christie’s strategy is to use the power of the bully pulpit to make his opponents look foolish. They are the villains; he is the hero. In Hackettstown, the governor recounts some of his greatest hits for the audience’s amusement. When some teachers refused to accept pay freezes and contribute to their own health insurance to compensate for cuts in state aid, he accused them of “using children for political purposes.” When the state Senate president, a Democrat, tried to “trick” him into signing a bill that raised taxes on Garden Staters making more than $1 million a year (“The Fairness and Justice for All Act, or something like that”), he invited the state senator into his office and delivered “the fastest veto on record in New Jersey history.” He mocks overpaid superintendents (“Imagine the arrogance!”). He characterizes state legislators as “drunks” who require “adult supervision.” And he accuses previous governors of “closing their eyes and hoping it will all go away.”

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Monday, November 29, 2010

Ravitch Gets it Wrong

Diane Ravitch argues in the Wall Street Journal today that the Republican Party is faced with an “educational dilemma” because it’s always been the party of “local control” that “respects the common sense of the people back home.” However, now it’s caught in a trap of “supporting almost every effort by Democrats to expand the power of the federal government over the nation’s classroom.”

In other words, the GOP’s problem has less to do with the strengths or weaknesses of national educational reform than the parlous course of cooperating with Democrats. It’s not about schools. It’s about party perception.

Now, in all fairness, the esteemed education historian claims that initiatives like No Child Left Behind, Race To The Top, and the Obama Administration’s support for innovative teacher training like Teach for America are “virtually the opposite of what high-performing nations do.” (A specious argument, but one we won’t take on here.)

However, her key argument is that the GOP’s support of “Democratic” educational initiatives effaces a stalwart and necessary dichotomy between the two parties.

Ravitch is missing the point. One of the most exciting and elevating pieces of America’s growing consensus on fixing our schools is that it is bi-partisan, even post-partisan if you will. One of the most energetic groups in education is Democrats for Education Reform, as post-partisan a group as you’ll find these days. Jay Matthews recalls an event at 2008 Democratic National Convention organized by DFER where over 500 people cheered for the very ideas that Ravitch disparages and hooted at traditionally Democratic sacred cows like teacher unions. From Matthews’ account:
The Democratic supporters of reform largely (but not exclusively) consist of urban minority leaders, including Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Adrian Fenty, Cory Booker, Kevin Chavous, Al Sharpton, and Marion Bary. Go ahead and make all the Sharpton and Bary jokes you like, but this (mostly) minority defection of urban Democrats from union orthodoxy is like a political earthquake that will have important implications for future reform politics…But if the reform movement has traded some conservatives for the new generation of minority Democratic leadership, I think we've come out ahead.
The whole point is that the education reform movement is not Republican vs. Democrat. It's both. That’s one of the mainstays of its strength. Ravitch’s column festers in an anachronistic dichotomy that a new generation of education reformers have left behind.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sunday Leftovers

Wireless Generation, which NJ paid $500,000 to consult on our failed Race To The Top application, has been sold to News Corporation, coincidentally outgoing NYC Chancellor Joel Klein’s new gig. According to the New York Times, Newscorp will get 90% of Wireless’s stock for $360 million in cash.

James Ahearn of The Record says that Chris Christie’s cap on superintendent salaries and comparisons with other salaries is unfair because Christie’s wife makes a lot of money.

Twenty-four out of seventy-eight Bergen County superintendents (who tend to command higher salaries than their southern counterparts) are retiring this year, according to The Record. This list includes the highest-paid superintendent, John Richardson, who gets $262K for his 2,000+ district.

The Asbury Park Press' series
on special education in NJ found that there is no record of how much money is actually spent on programs for kids with disabilities, which serves about 200,000 students in New Jersey, and that the DOE hasn’t studied the issue in ten years. In response, Assemblyman David P. Rible has announced that he will propose legislation to examine the issue.

Jersey City Public Schools
passed two parts of their Quality Single Accountability Continuum evaluation – Fiscal and Operations Management – but failed the other three parts, Personnel, Governance, Instruction and Programs.

The Rutgers Transitional Educational Management program will set up a program in Daylight/Twilight High in Trenton to, according to Mayor Tony Mack, “ reconnect Trenton youth who are on probation or parole, truant or have dropped out of school.’’

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the Toms River Township Council has “urged the Board of Education to sue former Schools Superintendent Michael Ritacco, charged in a multimillion-dollar bribery-kickback scheme in the Ocean County district.” Ritacco is charged with taking as much as $2 million in bribes from the district’s insurance broker.

The Acting Superintendent of Willingboro, David Hespe, has had enough and announced that he is going back to his former gig as Assistant Superintendent. Also, the Board President resigned after a vote of no-confidence. Three other members have resigned since June.

Jersey schools are increasing class size to save money and relying more on local educational foundations.

In spite of protest from the community, the Montville Board of Education voted to outsource custodians, which will save the schools over $600K a year.

The Christie Administration wants Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation to Newark to count as part of state funding.

NJ’s Civil Rights Division found probable cause that the Emerson School Board failed to stop bullying of a student.

Whitney Tilson has a new blog, “A Right Denied: the Critical Need for Genuine School Reform.” The first post is devoted to rebutting Diane Ravitch’s attacks on school reform.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Superintendent/Student Ratios

Everyone’s talking about superintendent salary caps. The Record reports that the New Jersey Association of School Administrators filed a motion in State Superior Court claiming that just because Gov. Christie has proposed caps doesn’t mean he can enforce them right now. The association also argues that Acting Commissioner Rochelle Hendricks “broke the law” by advising our 21 Executive County Superintendents to veto any contracts above the caps.

In other litigation, the Parsippany-Troy Hills School Board filed suit in the appellate division of Superior Court regarding the Morris County Executive County Superintendent’s refusal to approve the new contract for Superintendent Le Roy Seitz, which will pay him $234,065 by the fifth year of the 5-year contract.

Under the caps proposed by Christie, Seitz’s salary couldn’t rise above $175K because the district’s enrollment is 7,272 kids.

There’s a sense in which superintendents are merely a foil in this battle, an convenient symbol of unsustainable public salaries and benefits. No doubt the best superintendents in the biggest districts are worth a quarter of a million dollars a year, which is pretty much a rounding error in the context of an annual budget like Newark’s. But the math doesn’t work when you have 591 districts.

Massachusetts, for example, widely regarded as the national leader in public school achievement, has almost 1 million students (NJ has 1.1 million) and 329 school districts. Still a lot, but nothing like our student:district ratio. Maryland, another highly regarded system, has 821,360 kids and 24 school districts. Anyway, you get the idea. It’s fine to pay hard-working school superintendents what they’re worth. But can we really pay them at that rate when the ratio of superintendent:student is so low?

It's more likely that Christie's salary caps are aimed at publicizing the inefficiencies of NJ's public school system rather than extending the reach of state government. It's not about the salary caps. It's about systemic change.

Quote of the Day

Stephen Sawchuk in Education Week:

Perhaps no other governor has caught the zeitgeist of fiscal austerity as well as New Jersey’s Chris Christie.

His aggressive, bare-knuckle style, cuts to public spending, and well-publicized clashes with the New Jersey Education Association have made the governor a media sensation and shoved his education reform ideas—which include expanding school choice options for students and overhauling teacher tenure, compensation, and pensions—into the national spotlight.

Protestors Win Court Ruling in Jersey City

Did the Jersey City School Board violate accountability regulations and the Open Public Meeting Law when it approved Superintendent Charles Epps’ contract extension? Board President William DeRosa says he followed every regulation, in spite of the fact that there was no 30-day notice to the public. In the Jersey City Journal, De Rosa notes that “the terms of Epps' contract extension had not been negotiated and the board held another meeting and public hearing Aug. 11.” But a group of Jersey City residents, including Ward E Councilman Steven Fulop, parent Elvin Dominici, activist Shelley Skinner, and school board candidate Anthony Sharperson disagree. So does NJ Administrative Law Judge Margaret Monaco, who denied the Board’s motion to summary judgment.

The facts seem to be this: on June 18th the Board ran a notice in a Jersey City paper advertising that it was voting on June 22nd to extend Epps’ contract. A board agenda on the Jersey City Schools website show that a special meeting (no other business was transacted) was held on the 22nd to vote on “Approval to provide the Superintendent with written notice of its desire to enter into an employment agreement expiring on June 30, 2013.” The vote was 6 in favor, 2 against, and 1 abstention. After protests from the public, a second special meeting (agenda here) was held on August 11th – after the contract had been signed and approved, but after 30 days public notice -- that states the business as “Proposed Superintendent Contract (Subject to Executive County Superintendent Approval).”

Epps’ contract. The terms are a renewal from July 1, 2010 to June 30, 2013. Salary is set at $268,200.00 per year with no increases, a car, and a $10K annual annuity. The contract also notes that, upon retirement, Epps is due 439 ½ sick days to be paid out on a graduated schedule.

And here’s Fulop in the Jersey City Independent: “It was sad that the politicians who supported the contract put their politics in front of the school kids to try and sneak in a contract extension of $280,000 to a superintendent with 30 out of 35 failing schools. With this order, the one thing I know from today is that we are on the right track.”

Trenton Children’s Zone?

The Trenton Times reports that Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman escorted Trenton Acting Superintendent Raymond Broach, a Trenton principals and teacher, an NJEA rep, and various other dignitaries to visit Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) on Friday.

Coleman noted that public charter elementary schools that operate within the HCZ have longer school days and years; kids typically attend school for 10 hours per day and, after a two-week summer break, students attend school in July. According to New York state assessment results, 100% of third graders attending one of the Promise Charter Schools scored at or above grade level in math in state assessments and 87% of 8th graders scored at or above grade level in math.

For comparison’s sake, Trenton’s Stokes Elementary School (its principal was one of the visitors to HCZ) has a school day of 6 hours and 30 minutes. In NJ ASK test results for 2009, 46.2% of 3d grades were at or above grade level in math, 36.4% of 4th graders were at grade level in math, and 27.1% of 5th graders were at grade level in math. No 4th or 5th graders were above grade level in math.

Sounds like Trenton Public Schools is waiting for HCZ.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Leave Your Foreskins at the Door

The Asbury Park Press, as part of its series on racial disparities within New Jersey’s special education placements, zooms in on Lakewood Township Public Schools in Ocean County. Four years ago the DOE rebuked the district for sending only white children to a private special education school called The School for Children with Hidden Intelligence (SCHI). In fact, that is still the case: Lakewood is currently sending 53 white children there (total enrollment at SCHI is 130 kids) for an annual cost of $12.2 million. SCHI itself is situated on tax-free land that Lakewood Township handed over for $1 about ten years ago.

79% of Lakewood is white, but the vast majority of Jewish children attend one of the 27 private Jewish day schools in town. So the public school is 90% black and Hispanic. Sending Jewish children with disabilities to a segregated special education school may be merely a logical extension of town culture, although there is that wee problem of state residents (who foot half of Lakewood's $132 million budget) supporting what seems to be essentially a yeshiva for kids with special needs.

SCHI contends that it is not, in fact, a Jewish school. Could be. However,the New York Times has said the school “is known locally as a school for Orthodox families." The school, founded by Rabbi Osher Eisemann, has an atmosphere, according to The Jewish Press, that is “decidedly Jewish.” There's also this report at
This morning, Rav Malkiel Kotler, rosh yeshiva of Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, visited the School for Children with Hidden Intelligence (SCHI). Today’s special visit by the rosh yeshiva provided great chizuk and simcha to the special children at SCHI and to the dedicated staff members. Rav Kotler was given a tour of the SCHI campus by the founder of SCHI, Rabbi Osher Eisemann. Rav Kotler expressed his absolutely amazement with what he saw. He remarked that the smiles on the faces of the students, and the happiness expressed by the parents he has met, conveys all one needs to know about the accomplishments of SCHI.
Meanwhile, the Lakewood School District says that the reason for dearth of minority students at SCHI is that “no minority parents have ever sought a placement there.” Maybe that’s true. However, back in 2002 the Lakewood Board itself studied the inordinate amount of white children placed at SCHI and concluded that the district was out of compliance with federal law that specifies children with disabilities be placed in the least restrictive environment, ideally their home public school.

The conclusion wasn’t unanimous. According to the Asbury Park Press, Board Member "Rabbi Moshe Zev Weisberg, a member of Lakewood’s Vaad, the council of religious and community leaders that represents the interest of the township’s Orthodox Jewish community, called the report a ‘major misrepresentation and a complete rewrite’ of a draft that had been circulated in the committee.”

At any rate, Lakewood Public Schools (budget here) does seem generous in general with its out-of-district placements, sending 176 kids out of its school population of 4,509 kids to private placements and another 139 to other public school special education programs. Maybe that accounts for the discrepancy between its Comparative Cost Per Pupil and its Total Cost Per Pupil. The former is $11,954, according to the DOE data base. The latter is $18,356 per pupil, which takes into account tuition expenditures, transportation, and students sent out-of-district.

The public financial support for SCHI doesn't end at the NJ border. U.S. Congressman Chris Smith, who represents Lakewood in the U.S. House of Representatives, has specifically requested a $2,000,000 earmark this year to expand SCHI.

Go home rule!