Sunday, January 31, 2010

Sunday Leftovers

The Courier-Post analyzed the rate of teacher absenteeism in Camden Public Schools and found that teachers are absent more than kids. For example, At South Camden Alternative, teachers missed an average of 23 days. After the report's release, Schools Superintendent Bessie LeFra Young and state monitor Michael Azzara were summoned to Trenton where they argued that their own absentee statistics are probably wrong.

More hopefully, George Norcross, chairman of Cooper University Hospital (among other things) says that Cooper wants to open a charter school in Camden and challenged Rutgers University-Camden “to adopt the city’s public schools and become responsible for their success.” (Philly Inquirer)

The Record looks at potential resistance to implementing some of Christie's Education Transition Committee's recommendations, including a one-year freeze on teacher salaries, merit pay, and a five-year wait for tenure instead of the current three. Example: Peter Tirri of the Paterson Education Association: “How do you overcome a negotiated contract? It’s astounding they are even considering something like that . . . he’s [Christie's] got a vendetta against the NJEA.”

The Wall St. Journal recommends that Arne Duncan "set the reform bar high" and give Race To The Top awards to only 2 or 3 states in the first round.

The new superintendent of the Paterson Public Schools, Dr. Donnie W. Evans, faces some stiff odds: "Paterson, with more than 24,000 students, has gotten an "in need of improvement" designation since enactment of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Among the students taking standardized tests in the district last year, only 45 percent were competent in literacy, and 50 percent were competent in math."

The Matawan-Aberdeen Regional district explains why NJEA's stance on RTTT is bogus, specifically its objection to formative assessments because it would increase time and cost devoted to student testing. In fact, many disticts already do such assessments in-house, and others would welcome it.

Gov. Christie vetoed a change order for Burlington City High School which would have approved an additional $1.3 million for a project already 60% over budget, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer.

How bad is it out there? The Record reports that the Fort Lee Board of Education is looking at out-sourcing child-study teams, school nurses, custodial workers, and security services. Parsippany’s Board is considering out-sourcing 90 custodians, says the Star-Ledger. The Garwood School Board is going to charge parents for preschool (unless the children qualify for free or reduced lunch).

Jay P. Greene
challenges a press release from NEA that claims that inflation outpaces teacher salaries: “The only problem is that this is not what the data in the NEA report actually show…we see that salaries increased by 3.4% nationwide over the last decade after adjusting for inflation. The increase in average salary outpaced inflation in 36 states.”

Friday, January 29, 2010

HS Principal=Community Activist

However you react to South Ward Council candidate/Principal of Newark Central High Ras Baraka (earlier coverage here), this anecdote from PolitickerNJ is worthwhile. At a rally on the steps of Newark City Hall, Baraka went after Mayor Cory Booker, shouting “We don’t need people with six-figure salaries to come up with answers. We don’t need six figure-salaries in the City of Newark when the streets are not clean in the South Ward!” Continues PolitickerNJ,
Perhaps anticipating the hypocrisy charge boomeranging in light of his talk about salaries, Baraka addressed his position as principal of Central High School, a job he said he would keep if elected South Ward councilman.
"Being the principal of a school is the same as working in the community," Baraka said. "Being a principal is being a community activist."
Cheers sounded.
"They go hand in hand," he added.

"This is a movement, this is a movement," someone yelled.

Quote of the Day

Joe (not Joel) Klein in Time Magazine berates the NY State Legislature for cowering before the powers at the UFT and turning down $700 million in potential RTTT funds.
There are national implications to this fight. As [Albert] Shanker pointed out, American schools have been slipping for decades — our students are now 32nd internationally in math scores, 10th in science, 12th in reading. It will be impossible to rebuild our economy — to create the sophisticated, high-paying jobs we need — as long as we have an archaic, industrial-age school system. It's also hard to keep a strong democracy with a citizenry that is increasingly uneducated and ill informed. No, teachers' unions are not the only problem here. Troglodytic local school boards and apathetic parents are just as bad. But the unions, and their minions in the Democratic Party, have been a reactionary force in education reform for too long. Barack Obama began to change that last year with Race to the Top. It's a fight he needs to expand, and win.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

We’re in receipt of a memo from NJEA,

dated yesterday, which itemizes its objections to new recommendations from Gov. Christie's transition subcomittees regarding pension and educational reforms. (Sorry: no link available.) Predictably, the NJEA leadership disparages Senate President Steve Sweeney’s intention to address the pension fund’s insolvency by rolling back increases, moving to defined contribution plans, and using the last five years to calculate pension pay-outs instead of the last three years.

The criticisms of the Education Transition team (see our cheat sheet here) get a little more interesting. NJEA, the memo says, is “preparing to act according” to fight any legislation that would enact the recommendations, specifically collective bargaining, tenure, and school choice.

Re: the Education Subcommittee’s recommendation to freeze salaries for FY 2011: “NJEA believes that contract imposition is antithetical to the process of collective bargaining and we oppose changing the collective bargaining law to allow that practice.”

Re: the recommendation to award tenure after five years, not three: “NJEA firmly maintains that tenure is a necessary due-process requirement which protects teachers from arbitrary, capricious or politically motivated firings. The current three-year probationary period, in which a teacher does not earn tenure protection until the first day of the fourth year of employment, provides sufficient time for administrators to evaluate new teachers and determine whether tenure should be granted.”

Re: the recommendation to expand charter schools: “rushing the application process in order to meet an unrealistically short timeline of opening 5-10 new charter schools this year would not allow for adequate review by the Department of Education and planning by the charter school operator. That is not the way to maintain high standards.”

Re: Gov. Christie’s executive order on “pay to play,” which would restricts state unions’ lobbying efforts: “NJEA’s attorneys are reviewing the order to determine if it is applicable to NJEA. While we are awaiting a final opinion, it appears likely that the executive order will not be able to prevent NJEA and its members from exercising our rights to engage in the political process.”

Re: the recommendation to support scholarship/voucher programs for children trapped in chronically failing schools: “NJEA remains firmly opposed to using public funds to subsidize private school tuition costs. The proposed voucher bill would divert up to $360 million from the state treasury during the trial period alone. Public funds should be used to support accountable public schools, not to subsidize private, for-profit or sectarian schools.”

Where’d they get that $360 million? From the April 2008 Senate Bill 1607, co-sponsored by Senators Ray Lesniak and Tom Kean and stuck in Senate purgatory since it passed through committee. The “Urban Enterprise Zone Jobs Scholarship Act” seeks to establish a pilot program in Camden, Elizabeth, Lakewood, Newark, Orange, Paterson, and Trenton by offering tax incentives to corporations that provide tuition scholarships to kids trapped in some of our worst schools. In exchange for the scholarships, corporations can receive tax credits over the five years of the pilot program. The total amount of tax credits is capped at $24 million the first year, $48 million the second, $72 million the third year, $96 million the fourth year, and $120 million the fifth year. Grand total: $360 million.

If only math were that simple.

Parochial schools usually charge about $7,000 in annual tuition. As more and more of these schools close down, particularly in poor urban areas like Abbott districts, children transfer to public schools where annual costs runs about $20,000 -$25,000 per child. What’s a better deal for NJ taxpayers? In the first year of the pilot program, $24 million in tax credits would pay for 3428 poor children to attend a parochial school. Or, taxpayers could cough up $68,560,000 - $85,700,000 to send those kids to a (failing) Abbott district school.

Maybe the math is that simple.

Reasonable people can disagree about the propriety of public scholarships for faith-based schools. Should government tax credits support Catholic or Jewish schools, even if the school admits children of any religion according to S 1607? What about the separation of Church and State? Yet is it fair to bar poor children in chronically failing schools from an opportunity at a substantive and safe educational experience because of abstract and philosophical objections? Is there a point at which we acknowledge that more than half the kids attending Camden High didn’t graduate in 2008, and that a fierce urgency obliges us to come up with an immediate alternative?

The issues are complex. NJEA’s memo, specifically regarding S 1607, is reductive and innumerate.

School Choice Comes to Jersey,

as long as you dwell in the shining city on a hill, otherwise known as Princeton. West Windsor-Plainsboro works too. The Trenton Times reports today that The Princeton International Academy Charter School will open in September, one of the fast-tracked applications approved by ex-Commissioner Davy. This dual-language school, which will use the elite International Baccalaureate curriculum, draws its scholars from Princeton, West Windsor-Plainsboro, and South Brunswick, and only admits residents in other towns if open slots remain, an unlikely scenario.

According to New Jersey Monthly’s Top New Jersey High Schools rankings, Princeton currently is the 6th top high school in the state and West Windsor-Plainsboro is 19th among all 316 high schools. Slacker South Brunswick, about 14 miles away from Princeton, is ranked only 74th, so there’s a nod towards spreading the wealth, as it were.

How about the kids at Trenton Central High, 12 miles away from the luminous halls of Nassau Street, who toil unproductively in a high school ranked 310th, the 6th worst in the state? Maybe their parents can relocate to Princeton.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Corzine and Christie on Ed Reform and RTTT

The near-simultaneous release of NJ’s Race To The Top application and The Education Subcommittee Report conveniently provides an opportunity to compare Corzine’s and Christie’s vision for educational reform. Here’s a few contrasts: Corzine/Davy envision a grander and more powerful DOE, weighted with additional oversight; Christie/Schundler look towards a diminished role for the DOE. Corzine/Davy say, “full speed ahead” with our increased graduation requirement and academic rigor; Christie/Schundler say "slow down" until we get poor urban districts properly outfitted. Corzine/Davy make no distinction between the needs of high and low performing districts; Christie/Schundler envision more local control for the former. Corzine/Davy see minimal expansion of charter schools and no expansion of interdistrict programs. Christie/Schundler are impatient to expand both.

Here’s the irony: our RTTT application is supposed to propose a package of meaningful reform but; sadly, with few exception, it doesn’t. On the other hand, the Education Subcommittee’s recommendations, if fully implemented, would substantially alter our educational infrastructure and landscape and is more in line with RTTT goals than our actual RTTT application.

For example, one of the tenets of RTTT is an expansion of school choice. Here’s an excerpt from our RTTT application on the subject of charter schools, which begins by noting that NJ’s charter statutes were originally adopted in 1995 and the number of allowable schools was capped at 135:
Since January 11, 2000…there are not longer any caps on either the number of charter schools in the state or the size of any individual charter. As of December 31, 2009, there were 68 charter schools opened and operating in New Jersey…Since charter legislation was adopted by New Jersey in 1995, the DOE has received 365 charter school applications…The large number of application withdrawals or non-completions in earlier years was attributable to the relative inexperience of applicants, many of whom were unable to raise sufficient funds and secure facilities between approval and the planned opening.
There is no mention of any shift in the way we facilitate charter approvals or offer aid for facilities. We’ve got our plan and it’s working.

However, the Education Subcommittee report is a different animal, advocating opening 5-10 new charters by September, investing the authority to approve charters in multiple boards, expediting the process, and offering facilities aid. Sound familiar? It would if you’ve read the July 2009 report from the Hall Institute on Public Policy, which makes many of the same recommendations. (It also notes that NJ's statutory ability of local districts to appeal new charters may serve as an impediment and explain why “no great augmentation of the charter school count has occurred since the beginning of charter schools in New Jersey.”)

Here’s another illustration: we already have a program called Interdistrict School Choice, which allows children in one district to cross over to another district in the same county. However, this “choice” is limited to 900 kids. (See our discussion here.) Our RTTT application refers to this program as an example of our innovation yet concludes, “[a]t this point, Interdistrict school choice has reached its capacity for participation.” Christie’s report? “Expand the Interdistrict School Choice program.”

Corzine/Davy, and our RTTT application, envision a growing role for the NJ DOE, which would administer, grade, and distribute internal assessments, provide professional development to teachers and principals, produce “exemplar units” of instruction, create “a network of instructional coaches, and devise a “curriculum and assessment spine.” From the application:
With Race to the Top funding, New Jersey will provide intensive, content-focused
professional development to teachers across the state, delivered through county offices and onsite and online through a network of instructional coaches, to support teachers delivering this hard-to-teach content through the curriculum spine.
Even the ability of LEA’s to evaluate district teachers is limited: “LEA’s will have the opportunity to add transparent, rigorous and valid measure to the…evaluation. However, in order to maintain the integrity of the state-level system, these measure may not exceed 15% of the overall weight.”

Christie and Schundler propose taking a hands-off approach to high-performing districts (after defining the difference between high and low performers, which we don’t do now), eliminating county offices and executive county superintendents, and limiting the oversight of minutiae. There’s an assumption that functional districts need less help than dysfunctional ones. Davy’s take is that all teachers need help, and maybe even some coddling. Listen:
Data Analysis – In a data-driven culture, the abundance of data can quickly overwhelm educators, especially those without a mathematics background. New Jersey will help educators learn to ask good analytic questions and to use multiple data sources to draw appropriate inferences from the data they are accessing.
Is it us, or does this sound a trifle condescending?

Interestingly, our RTTT application plows ahead with increased academic rigor required for high school graduation, in spite of the outcry from advocates for poor urban kids, particularly the Education Law Center. Christie/Schundler back off a bit, acknowledging that our failure rate at poor urban schools is already distressingly high; in addition, these schools often don’t have adequate lab facilities for newly-required science requirements. (Where’d all that Abbott money go? Beats us.)

While no one can fault Davy for not working hard enough to make a tight deadline, it's hard to picture our currently clumsy and cumbersome DOE efficiently navigating a sea change of any magnitude. It's also hard to comprehend the NJEA leadership's truculent opposition to what turns out to be a largely conciliatory application. NJEA's two scapegoats of dissent -- increased standardized testing and merit pay -- are largely absent. (Internal assessments such as the ones specified in the RTTT application -- Learnia and NWEA -- are quick, differentiated, computer-based snapshots easily incorporated into instruction. The merit pay proposal is per school, not per teacher, and seemingly more palatable to union stalwarts.)

So maybe the US DOE will reject our RTTT proposal. Here's some hope: Commissioner Schundler has a pretty good working draft for the next round in June.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Here's NJ's RTTT Application

just released from the DOE. Click here.

Cheat Sheet for Christie's Educational Agenda

Here’s a Spark’s Notes version of Gov. Christie’s Education Subcommittee Report, which constitutes a list of recommendations to improve public education in N.J. Some are considered “early action,” i.e., to be completed within 90 days. The rest have a whopping 6 months for completion. Okay: maybe it’s more of a wish list, but it gives any reader a clear sense of Christie and Schundler’s agenda.

We’ve divided these 17 pages of pre-K through 12th grade recommendations (there’s another 8 on higher education) into 3 basic categories: School Finance, School Reform, and NJ DOE Oversight.

School Finance:

1) Identify “immediate opportunities to eliminate waste and expenditures from practices…that are making no or only limited contribution to the quality of education for children.”
2) Review the efficacy of Corzine’s School Funding Reform Act where, famously, “the money follows the child.” Establish an “expert task force” to assess N.J.’s “overall funding system.”
3) Freeze salaries for all public employees, including pre K-12 teachers, for FY 2011.
4) Support and adopt A-15/S-1861, which eliminates public votes on school budgets that come in below cap.
5) Reduce costs in the “difficult area” of special education by limiting tuition increases at private out-of-district placements (currently 8-10% per year), shifting the burden of proof from local districts to parents when disputes arise regarding placements, and providing adequate state funding under IDEA to lift the financial burden off of local districts.
6) When school districts and local bargaining units reach an impasse, allow districts the ability to invoke a “last best offer,” a practice in effect until the McGreevey administration.
7) “Create regional salary guides to control escalating salary increases.”
8) Figure out how to fund recurring expenditures now underwritten by ARRA money. Closely track the $327 million dollars due Jersey of Phase II ARRA money in FY 2010 budgets.

School Reform:

1) Immediately redo N.J.’s Race To The Top application to ensure a successful grant proposal for the second round in June.
2) Open 5-10 new charter schools in high-needs districts in September 2010 by expanding charters of successful charter school operators. Allow new charters to use underutilized space in district schools and equalize the funding disparity between traditional public schools and charters.
3) Create a “reliable, integrated data system that links student, teacher and school performance…in ways that have intellectual integrity and that provide transparency and clarity both for government and the larger community.”
4) Allow reciprocity for N.J. teaching and administrative certification, i.e., allow teachers and principals certified in other states to bypass the onerous bureaucracy to ease recruitment in high-demand disciplines.
5) Redefine what we mean by “low-performing” and “high-performing” schools; rely on formative assessments rather than annual high-stakes testing.
6) School Choice: families should have access to “a full range of high quality educational opportunities, including a strong, traditional public education infrastructure and a robust offering of charter schools and private school options.” Allow multiple chartering authorities, such as universities, instead of limiting charter approval to the DOE Commissioner. Provide tax credits to corporations that donate scholarships to poor kids to attend private schools. Expand the Inter-District school choice program, which allows children to attend public schools in neighboring districts. Rescind charters of low-performing schools “to demonstrate commitment to high standards for new and existing charter schools.”
7) Put a brake on the new graduation requirements under Corzine’s High School Redesign until there is adequate facilities upgrades. Allow the new half-year course in financial literacy to be included in existing courses. Slow down implementation of end-of-course exams.
8) Teachers should be eligible for tenure after 5 years, not 3. Streamline process of tenure removal for low-performing teachers.

DOE Oversight:

1) “The next Commissioner of Education, under the direction of the Governor, should review, refocus, and prioritize the efforts of the DOE to focus on the transformation of NJ’s schools to achieve excellence for all students, rather than focus on compliance and control that perpetuate the status quo and proliferate bureaucracy.”
2) Adopt Common Core Standards for math and language arts.
3) Reconstitute the State BOE as an “advisory board to the Commissioner with a central focus on long-term planning.”
4) Consider eliminating the 21 executive county superintendents and 81 employees in county offices.
5) Place a moratorium on both QSAC (the NJ Quality Single Accountability Continuum) which “is immensely burdensome to complete” and makes no distinctions between high-performing and low-performing districts, and on the 215 pages of accountability regulations issued by Davy (N.J.A.C. 6A:23A), which has “resulted in undue oversight, control and micro-management of school districts.
6) Amend laws that prohibit school construction projects from using “efficiencies in time and cost associated with methodologies used in the private sector.”

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sunday Leftovers

Hardly a leftover, but we'll put it on the table: Christie's Education Subcommittee for his transition released 25 pages of recommendations including freezing teacher salaries, expanding charter school in urban areas by September, a implementing a major do-over on our Race To The Top application, starting tenure after 5 years of teaching (instead of 3), executing moratoria on QSAC (our state-directed monitoring system) and the vast regulations issued by Corzine's DOE, etc. See here.

Here's the final list of N.J. school districts that signed MOU's for Race To The Top.

Peter Denton of E3 on the Schundler pick:
“Does it send a message? I think it confirms a message. The Governor-elect ran on dramatic change in our public education system that includes things that the NJEA doesn’t support. They tried very hard to defeat him and they didn’t, so I think he’s made a choice of someone for this position who’s going to support the policies on which he ran.”

Gov. Tom Kean in a Star-Ledger interview: "Our basic problem is that we spend more per child than anybody else. We have the highest paid teachers in the country, the highest pensions. We can’t afford that anymore. It’s not that you don’t want to do these things; it’s that you reach a point where you can’t afford to."

Israel Teitelbaum, cofounder and director of Parents for Free Choice in Education, argues in today’s Trenton Times that school choice is a civil right.

The Star-Ledger Editorial Board extrapolates from a new study from the Alliance for Excellent Education that looks at the cost of high school drop-outs:
In Newark, for instance, of the 11,750 current high school students, approximately 5,400 will drop out before their graduation day. Cutting that rate in half would mean the additional graduates would earn $24 million more each year and pay approximately $3.5 million more in taxes. They would spend $12 million more and invest an additional $4 million a year. Over their lifetimes, they would spend $40 million more on homes.
More bad news from Camden Public Schools: The Courier-Post has a 6-page story analyzing teacher absenteeism data from last year, concluding that teachers miss more school than students, averaging 11 days of class time. In South Camden Alternative, teachers missed an average of 23 of their 187 days.

And Lucille Davy finds good news in the Education Trust’s latest report: New Jersey is closing the achievement gap while making gains among all groups of students. Likewise, our low-income and minority students are outperforming their peers in other states."

Regionalizing and consolidating school districts may be a lost cause, according an analysis in the Courier Post. Says NJSBA's Frank Belluscio,
Home rule sentiment is not what stops initiatives like this -- it's the financial impact. We are talking about a lot of readjustment having to do with taking on debt, taking on operations of schools, contracts with teachers. It's not a simple process.

Quote of the Day

Charles Sahm, a program officer at the Manhattan Institute, considers the “growing divide within the Democratic party” between “anachronistic Tammany Hall–type pols … with their longtime obeisance to the reform-resistant teachers’ unions” and “a growing cadre of Democrats… who are championing an aggressive education-reform agenda.” Sahm writes in the City Journal,
Joe Williams, director of Democrats for Education Reform, believes that voters must start paying attention to which politicians are on the side of the teachers’ unions and which are on the side of the children. As he puts it: “Right now, the only people holding elected officials accountable on education are the teachers’ unions—and the teachers’ unions are driving public education into the ground.” It’s time for New Yorkers [ed. note: New Jerseyans too!] to get angry and start holding officials accountable for obstructing real education reform.

Friday, January 22, 2010

NJEA: Our Urban Schools Are Great

Interesting poll out from Quinnipiac University, and then either a lightening-fast response or a coincidentally-apropos column from the execs at NJEA. First, the survey, which shows that two-thirds of N.J. voters want to link teacher pay to performance and weaken tenure laws, and the same percentage expect Gov. Christie to mitigate the power of NJEA. Almost half of voters, 48%, think that teacher unions are a bad influence on public education, while 39% disagree. Here’s Poll Director Maurice Carroll in Politicker NJ:
Maybe it was the campaign rhetoric. Maybe it’s the (Bret) Schundler appointment. Whatever, New Jerseyans expect Christie to get tough with a long-time sacred cow, the teachers union. The teachers’ unions get bad marks. Almost half say they’re a negative influence.
The data on views of charter school is mixed. A majority of voters oppose expansion – 52% to 40% -- but the devil’s in the details. Opposition is stronger in households with union members and children who attend public schools. However, urban households support charter schools by 53%-43% and Black voters support expansion by 52%-43%.

That’s unsurprising. New Jersey’s worst schools are in urban areas populated by minorities, so it makes perfect sense that these residents are clamoring for better opportunities for their children. (It also would be worthwhile to know whether the survey questions on charter schools ascertained interviewees’ understanding of charter schools, since many areas of N.J., especially wealthier ‘burbs, lack a single one.)

The survey came out Tuesday. Today NJEA President Barbara Keshishian issued a letter extolling N.J.’s “outstanding resources,” “strong economic base,” “knowledge-based industries,” and “public schools” which “are the best in the nation.” She continues,
Our success extends to our urban schools, frequent targets of criticism from those who may not be aware of the good things now happening there. In July, the Christian Science Monitor called New Jersey “a bright spot” for being one of just three states to significantly narrow the black-white achievement gap in both reading and math at the fourth-grade level.
In other words, if people were more “aware” they would regard our urban schools as models of scholarship. Is that insulting or funny?

Keshishian might want to talk to the Camden School Board, who unanimously approved its Race To The Top MOU last week even though an award could lead to the closing of 8 schools, yet will most likely lose a potentially large award because the leadership of NJEA refused to sign. Or, better yet, talk to parents with children who are stuck in one of those "bright spots" for narrowing the achievement gap in 4th grade. At Cramer Elementary School in Camden 71.1% of 4th graders failed the NJ ASK language arts test, 73.6% of 4th graders failed the NJ ASK math test, and 79.1% of 4th graders failed the NJ ASK science test. (DOE data here.) “Good things happening there”? Not for the families relegated to this failing school, or the taxpayers, who foot the bill there of $15,407 per student per year.

Some problems can be spun away by skillful marketing. Urban education in N.J. isn’t one of them. Keshishian and her buddies at NJEA need to stop spinning their wheels and start acknowledging, along with the majority of interviewees, that we’re failing our poor urban kids.

Lucille the Apothecary

The Record has come out hard against Corzine’s party favors to good pals, specifically Davy’s appointment to the Pharmacy Board, which will secure her government pension after she shows up for meetings once a month for three years. (The editorial also notes Corzine’s appointment of ex-Labor Commissioner and non-therapist David Socolow, the newest member of the Board of Marriage and Family Therapy Examiners, who will also qualify for a pension in three years.)

Davy’s response: "I didn't ask to be placed on that particular board. My assumption is that the governor appointed me because he knows the work ethic I bring to what I do and the critical thinking and other skills." Meanwhile, Gov. Christie is vowing to slash state Boards stacked with political appointees waiting to collect on the public’s largesse.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Bret Schundler’s Nomination is Safe,

At least according to the Hudson County News which reports that none of the three Democratic Hudson senators will exercise senatorial courtesy. Senators Sacco, Cunningham, and Stack all have indicated that they will allow the nomination for Commissioner of Education to proceed.

New Collaborative: Disparity in Resources Leaves Poor Kids Behind

The New Jersey Organizing Collaborative, an arm of the Education Law Center, the Abbot Leadership Institute, and the Paterson Education Fund, is charging that our newly rigorous high school graduation requirements, particularly those in science, will “drastically increase” drop-out rates in poor urban schools. According to The Record, 17 out of 25 high schools in Paterson, Jersey City, Newark and Elizabeth lack adequate science lab equipment, qualified science teachers, and educational support for struggling students.

We did a random sampling of high school eleventh-grade HSPA scores in these cities. According to the DOE database for the 2007-2008 school year, 40.4% of kids at Eastside High in Paterson passed the HSPA, 45.2% of kids at Lincoln High School in Jersey passed the HSPA, 49.8% of kids at Westside High in Newark passed the HSPA, and 42.1% of kids at Elizabeth High in Elizabeth passed the HSPA. This doesn’t mean that, for instance, 47.9% of Elizabeth High’s kids drop out; in fact, only 6.2% do so because over 50% bypass the HSPA through an alternative called the Special Review Assessment, which is impossible to fail. (See here.)

Our highly-touted high school redesign presents no challenges to wealthy districts. These schools boast well-equipped labs, plenty of science teachers, and high-achieving students who probably already take at least as many science courses as our new curriculum requires. But the kids represented by the N.J. Organizing Collaborative are stuck between what looks good on paper and the brick-and-mortar reality of an Eastside High.

Versatility Is Her Middle Name

Ex-Ed Commish Lucille Davy is now a Trustee of the State Board of Pharmacy. One of Corzine’s last-minute appointments, her new post will allow her to become vested in the state pension system, according to The Record:

Davy, for example, who was replaced as education chief on Tuesday, got a post on the state Board of Pharmacy. If she attends all its monthly meetings, she would earn enough of a stipend to stay in the pension system. Pensions are calculated based employees’ three highest salary years; her 2009 salary was $140,460.

The three-year appointment would enable her to stay part of the system long enough to be vested and eligible for yearly payouts of nearly $28,000 when the board term ends in 2013, according to the state formula and 2009 pension records.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Ethics of Ed Reform In N.J.

With all the adrenaline hosed on Race To The Top (including our own), a pattern in N.J. is emerging amidst the spray: the 21 school districts that managed to wrestle all three signatures – superintendent, board president, and union president – onto MOU’s are disproportionately urban and poor, at least based on assigned District Factor Groups (DFG’s) that rate a community’s socio-economic status.

[Exceptions: Wealthy Rumson Borough and Boonton Township, both with “I” DFG’s on a scale of A-J, and middle-class Delaware Valley Regional and Kingwood, both in Hunterdon County, both “FG” districts.]

Of the remaining districts, 4 are “A’s,” 7 are “B’s,” 1 is a “CD,” and 5 are DE’s. Here’s the complete list from the Star-Ledger, though it only notes those few districts that have all three signatures, not the 378 that got OK's from board presidents and superintendents. Regarding those 378, the Star-Ledger notes, “Among the school districts who signed memorandums of understanding supporting the application were some of New Jersey’s largest; Newark, Paterson and Jersey City. Many districts supporting the effort said it was difficult to turn down a shot at more funding.”

It’s the same old template: our poor urban kids are stuck in chronically failing schools and the adults in charge are more willing to take risks (like signing an RTTT application). Most of our wealthy districts are happy with the educational status quo. There’s a sense in New Jersey that our willingness to embrace school choice, improved teacher evaluation metrics, and other educational innovations, is aligned with degrees of impoverishment and/or civic outrage. RTTT, or other challenges to the traditional education industry, becomes a moral imperative. It also explains how the N.J. education reform movement draws from a broad array of unlikely compadres like Republican Gov. Chris Christie and Democratic Mayor Cory Booker, Reverend Reginald Jackson and the liberal Senator Ray Lesniak.

This puts the leadership of NJEA in a tough spot. Its opposition to educational reform starts sounding less like advocating for sound educational practices and more like advocating inequity. This is Charles Stiles’ description of NJEA’s Communications Director Steve Wollmer as he assembled talking points for NJEA’s instructions to local unions to refuse to sign RTTT applications:
Wollmer sounded as if he was in the early stages of boiling down the union's 4-inch-thick binder of policy papers into sound bites and sharp retorts. There has been no link, he said, between student achievement and merit pay. A limited pot of merit-pay money will end the collaborative spirit essential to teaching, turning colleague into a competitor for a limited supply of cash. And while the union is willing to discuss ways to improve the tenure process, it will fiercely oppose any plan that strips teachers "of their due process rights."
It’s one thing to champion the rights of workers in the marketplace. It’s another thing entirely to position oneself as leading the charge to deprive poor kids of a shot at improved schooling, or even the $200-$400 million dollars that N.J. may have squandered by failing to get buy-in from people like Steve Wollmer. Maybe that’s Ex-Gov. Corzine’s fault, or Lucille Davy’s for not proactively courting the Wollmers of the world. Maybe that’s New Jersey’s wealthier communities, segregated and satisfied. Yesterday Gov. Christie, in his inaugural address, proclaimed,
The era of broken schools and broken streets and broken dreams in our cities has not worked. Too many urban school districts have failed despite massive spending per pupil. Crime is too high, and hope is too low. Today, we are taking a new direction. Today, a new era in which parents have choices, in which charter schools can help young people pursue excellence, in which we work to attract people to cities instead of driving them out, begins now. Today, change has arrived.
His Obama-inspired rhetoric equates educational reform with ethical necessity. Opposition to reform is immoral and advocacy of reform becomes cloaked in colors of civil rights, justice, even patriotism. Of course it’s not that simple. But for Christie it may be a useful dichotomy as he tackles an inequity that continues to haunt New Jersey's educational establishment.

WSJ on Schundler

The Wall St. Journal lauds Gov. Christie’s choice of Bret Schundler as N.J.’s next Commissioner of Education (along with Virginia’s new Secretary of Education, Gerald Robinson):
This is good news for all school children in both states, but it's especially auspicious for low-income kids stuck in failing schools who have the most to gain from a state education official who is unafraid to shake up the establishment. Virginia has a grand total of three charter schools, one of the lowest numbers in the nation. New Jersey spends more money per pupil than all but two states, yet test scores in Newark and Jersey City are among the worst in the country.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Quote of the Day

Jersey serves as an example of how money alone, absent reform, does little to help failing schools. A series of court orders has forced the state to funnel billions of dollars into 31 urban districts (the total's now about $4 billion a year), with little impact on student achievement. Camden has a whopping $340 million budget for a system serving 13,000 students (more than $26,000 per student), yet 26 of the city's schools failed to make adequate progress last year toward federal education requirements. In Newark, only about 42 percent of eighth graders were deemed proficient on recent state math assessment tests.
Steven Malanga, senior editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal, in the New York Post.

Obama Will Announce Long-Term RTTT Funding

Education Week is reporting that President Obama intends to seeks an additional $1.35 billion in next year’s budget to extend the Race To The Top program. The President is scheduled to make the announcement this afternoon, coinciding with the deadline for states to submit their RTTT applications. Says EdWeek,
Unanswered questions aside, the administration sees Race to the Top as a successful venture that it wants to expand, according to senior White House officials speaking on a background basis. In a briefing call Monday, they cited as evidence of the program’s impact the fact that 11 states have moved to enhance their chances of securing a grant by, for example, lifting charter school caps and strengthening state intervention in turning around low-performing schools. That reaction shows “the importance of continuing the Race to the Top beyond the funding that was provided under the Recovery Act,” a senior administration official said.
Here’s another possible reason for the Feds’ decision to announce a commitment to long-term funding: a calculated response to steep opposition from many state teachers’ unions to the RTTT reform agenda. In N.J., for example, a scant 20 local units of NJEA agreed to cooperate with local boards and administrators and sign the application. After getting flogged by local media for undermining N.J.’s chances at hundreds of millions of dollars for education, NJEA President Barbara Keshishian explained NJEA’s objections in a Star-Ledger editorial on Sunday:
But when federal funds have strings attached, states should look before they leap. That is especially true if those strings obligate states to spend additional funds that may not be covered by the grants. NJEA is concerned about the strings attached to the "Race to the Top" funds, because of the potential cost to the state and local districts and because of the negative educational impact of some of its required "reforms."
In other words, Keshishian claims that NJEA is not only concerned with the fundamental reforms imbedded in RTTT like using data to inform instruction, linking teacher compensation to competency, and expanding charter schools, especially in cities with chronically failing systems. NJEA also focuses its rhetoric on potential liability for districts that sign up for longer school days or expensive technology systems, and then find that the pot of money runs dry. That’s a reasonable concern expressed not just NJEA but other state unions.

President Obama’s message today, however, will strategically undermine that concern and force the leadership of state unions to reinvent talking points. If RTTT is an on-going federal program, then a linchpin of NJEA/NEA’s logic evaporates. The Feds also respond to a growing cry from ed reformers that RTTT has the potential to backfire, rewarding states that propose weaker agendas and therefore manage to solicit union buy-in, and punishing states that propose more ambitious agendas but, in doing so, fail to cajole union leadership to sign on the dotted line.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Who's Your Daddy?

Andy Smarick over at Fordham’s Flypaper blog, has been having fun with what he calls the “Universal State Application Theorem,” which holds that there is an inverse relationship between a state’s Race To The Top application and stakeholder (particularly, state teacher union) support. In other words, the more progressive and reform-minded the RTTT application, the fewer local bargaining units will sign on. He notes that “In Florida, only 5 local unions signed on…the state has 67 districts.”

Well, New Jersey should be proud. While Florida can boast a respectable RTTT application because only 7.46% of local FEA chapters signed off, we leave them in the dust: 20 local units of NJEA out of 591 signed our RTTT application, or 3.38%.

"The Most Outrageous Nomination Battle of Them All"

That’s what The Auditor calls the internal shenanigans behind one of Corzine’s last political appointments, which also sheds some light on the likelihood of Bret Schundler’s confirmation as Education Commissioner.

Seems that Gov. Corzine’s final furious flurry of political appointments included Vince Giordano of Jersey City to the Civil Rights Commission. Giordano, who must be a multi-tasking kind of guy, is also Executive Director of the NJEA – which ran a multi-million dollar campaign to keep Corzine in office. From The Auditor:
Christie and company convinced Sen. Brian Stack (D-Hudson) to block Giordano’s nomination. An enraged Corzine then threatened to block $11 million in special aid for Union City, where Stack is mayor. Stack held firm as Christie vowed he’d restore any aid cut by Corzine.

Then Corzine told the Senate he would instead nominate former NJEA president Joyce Powell. Christie, at home in Mendham, phoned incoming Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and implored him to block Powell as a sign of good faith. Standing in the Judiciary Committee hearing room in Trenton, Sweeney, who has long battled with NJEA, agreed.
An edu-wrinkle: Sen. Stack is one of the three Hudson County legislators who can potentially block Bret Schundler’s nomination as Education Commissioner (see here). If this reporting is accurate, there’s not much for Schundler to worry about. Giordano got approved, Corzine got to give one last gift to NJEA, and the Republicans got a spot on the Civil Rights Commisssion.

It's all sleezy enough. But what’s with Corzine’s last-minute pay-off attempts to NJEA head honchos, first Giordano and then Joyce Powell, currently on the Executive Committee of NEA? Clearing the books? Promises to keep? Setting up I.O.U.'s for some future run at public office?

Quote of the Day

Parental choice supporters Gerard Robinson and Bret Schundler have been appointed to lead the Departments of Education in Virginia and New Jersey respectively. Buckle up- this is going to be fun. Robinson is the President of the Black Alliance for Educational Options. Schundler is the former Mayor of Jersey City, gubernatorial candidate and a longtime parental choice advocate. Both Robinson and Schundler are outstanding people deeply committed to improving opportunity for students. Cry Havoc and let slip the dogs of war!
From Jay P. Greene's Blog

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Sunday Leftovers

RTTT Update: About half of N.J.'s public schools sent their Memoranda of Understanding in on Thursday for a shot at Race To The Top federal funds: 361 schools districts out of 591 and 67 charters, almost all of them. However, only 20 union presidents out of 591 signed on the dotted line, mainly because of concerns about tying compensation to teacher competency. From The Record:
The New Jersey Education Association fought the state's proposal, saying it has serious flaws, including its push for using student test scores as one of the measures for determining teachers' pay and tenure. The union's disapproval is expected to hurt the state's chances of winning the money because the Obama administration has made community support a key factor in awarding grants.
Gaze enviously over the river to Pennsylvania for a useful comparison where, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, "Pennsylvania's bid to get up to $400 million in federal stimulus money to boost public education has been significantly improved with a pledge by Philadelphia's teachers union to help implement the comprehensive reform plan and with its endorsement by the state's largest teachers union."

And in an editorial in Asbury Park Press Lucille Davy makes a final plea to districts, union heads, and superintendents to send in their MOU's.

Overview of NCLB: Worth reading from The Record, an analysis of the 2002 federal legislation. From Mike Yaple, spokesman of NJSBA: "Like it or not, in many people's eyes, NCLB made students' test scores the benchmark of a school's success."

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Corzine has informed local school districts that if surplus accounts contain more than 2% of an annual budget (often a measure of good fiscal management and ability to mitigate increases in local tax rates), the State may seize the money to make up shortfalls in state school aid to other districts. Courier-Post.

Looking for Quarters Under the Couch: West Windsor/Plainsboro, a wealthy Mercer County district, may privatize custodial services to save money.

Courier-Post Pinpoints Corzine's Fatal Flaw:
But under Corzine there were not major, sweeping changes. The system that benefits so many tens of thousands of public workers across the state was never shaken up as it needed to be for the sake of overburdened taxpayers. There was not a true, concerted attempt to lower property taxes, to clean up government corruption, to stop pay to play, to make government more efficient, to get kids out of failing urban schools or to negotiate a labor deal with state workers that really put taxpayers' interests ahead of state workers.
New Jersey Gets Mixed Test Results on the annual Quality Counts 2010 report released by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center. According to the Press of Atlantic City, we did great in school financing and student achievement but lousy in "the difference between the top spending and lowest-spending districts, with an $8,250 difference" and also faltered in the category of "teacher profession," which measures "such issues as whether student achievement is linked to teacher evaluations, and whether there are incentives for teachers to work with under-achieving students."

Call it the "Wasser Bill": The Legislature approved a bill 76-0 that is supposed to stop school districts from having to pay tuition and bonuses to administrators who receive bogus degrees from diploma mills. Here's the text of Bill S-2127/A-3671.

Friday, January 15, 2010

National Study Belies Advantages of Pre-School

We’re justifiably proud of our extensive preschool programs in New Jersey. Out-going Education Commissioner Lucille Davy has labeled preschool availability to poor children the “game-changer,” and accepted wisdom is that if you offer full-day preschool services, long-term academic achievement follows. However, a new report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Head Start Impact Study,” finds that while student achievement increases in kindergarten for children who receive preschool services, “the benefits of access to Head Start at age four are largely absent by 1st grade for the program population as a whole.”

What does that mean for N.J.’s assumption that preschool makes all the difference in long-term academic achievement for children? Are we backing a flawed strategy?

802 N.J. Schools Miss NCLB Targets

Speaking of a failing status quo, Adequate Yearly Progress reports for New Jersey were published yesterday and, under the strictures of No Child Left Behind, 802 of our public schools, or 36%, didn’t meet established targets for student achievement. That’s an increase of about 150 schools compared to last year, though AYP increased this year and some of tests were upgraded. Here’s the DOE’s press release and here’s a handy tool from the Star-Ledger that lets you plug in your district and view the results.

NJEA Gets Slammed on Recalcitrance re: RTTT

Question of the day: does it matter?

Today’s the deadline for local school boards to submit applications to the NJ DOE in order to garner federal funds from the Race To The Top competition. There’s no count yet on how many N.J. districts threw caution to the wind and signed on the dotted line despite NJEA’s adamant refusal to be part of a program that could funnel hundreds of millions of dollars in education aid to N.J. Word is that Executive County Superintendents are advising districts to sign, and the only reason not to do so is fear of union reprisal. (Okay, okay. There was no time to properly study the proposal only released a week and a half ago, but local board approval can be retracted at any time.)

At any rate, NJEA is catching flack for its obstructionist stance. Here’s an editorial from the Asbury Park Press:

The New Jersey Education Association is either blind to how defensive and self-serving it appears to the citizens of New Jersey. Or it just doesn't care.
Either way, the latest example of its teachers-come-first mentality is stunning.
The NJEA, which is constantly reminding everyone how underfunded the schools are and how underpaid its teachers are, is objecting to the state's decision this week to pursue a $400 million "Race to the Top" federal education grant, a major initiative of the Obama administration to encourage innovation and reward success in the classroom
After years of political pandering to the NJEA in Trenton, it will be refreshing to have a governor who is more interested in seeking creative ways to educate children than placating the teachers' unions.
From the Star-Ledger Editorial Board on NJEA’s instructions that local units to refuse to sign their district’s RTTT application:
That’s just plain reckless. The NJEA refuses to embrace any approach to evaluating teachers that does not conform with the status quo. And with the state facing a huge budget shortfall, it’s foolish for a teachers union that cares about the education of New Jersey children to handicap the state’s chances of getting millions in much-needed federal aid for education.
With the Jan. 19 deadline approaching for the competition’s first round, the union needs to give the state education department’s proposal a try. If the NJEA really cares about improving education and seeing real change, it will get on board. Leaving the money behind benefits no one.
From The Record:
With the New Jersey Education Association rejecting the state's attempt to get Race to the Top grant money from the federal government then it better have a concrete alternative for school reform. Change is needed to improve the state's underperforming school districts. This is an unprecedented opportunity to receive up to $400 million to help shape our education system… Rejecting Race to the Top isn't the answer right now. The NJEA should embrace the chance to help the state create the best program it can.
While we’re not privy to the strategic planning within NJEA’s interior offices, its decision to undermine N.J.’s chances for federal cash seems to have back-fired in the public relations skirmish. But maybe NJEA doesn’t care. It owns most of the Legislature. It’s rolling in revenue from dues – over $100 million per year. While Randi Weingarten at the AFT has declared herself open to reforms to tenure, such a concept is anathema to an organization averse to measurement of competence. The open question: will the execs at NJEA target Education Commissioner-Nominee Bret Schundler, well-known for his advocacy for school choice and school reform, and belabor beholden legislators to stymie his nomination? It’s the first meaningful test of whether N.J. moves beyond a failing educational status quo.

Quote of the Day

NJSBA believes that the Christie administration should advance concepts, such as merit pay, the elimination of lifetime tenure (essentially, a job protection), and the further strengthening of academic standards...The new administration should also strengthen local school boards’ position in contract negotiations by changing state laws that favor unions in negotiations.
From a New Jersey School Boards Association press release welcoming Bret Schundler and setting out a progressive education reform agenda.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Weighing Schundler's Odds of Confirmation

How likely is it that the Senate will approve Bret Schundler’s appointment as Commissioner of Education? The custom of senatorial courtesy allows any one senator from the nominee’s district to put the kibosh on approval, so in this case it is the three Democratic senators from Hudson County: Sandra B. Cunningham of Jersey City, and Nicholas Sacco of North Bergen, and Brian Stack of Union City.

We count Cunningham as a shoe-in. After all, she is happily serving on Christie’s Transition Team. Sacco sounds wary yet jovial: he’s no voucher advocate, but says he can be won over: “"I'm in wait and see mode and interested to learn what type of knowledge he has," Sacco tells PolitickerNJ before deadpanning, "I thought they might be looking toward a former superintendent of education." (Sacco, in addition to serving as a state senator, is also an Assistant Superintendent of North Bergen Public Schools. Huh? Right. Only in New Jersey.) While he tells the New York Times that “I do believe that the governor has a right to make his choices,” he also confides that “I do have somewhat of a concern about this particular choice.” Does NJEA’s opposition come to mind? Perhaps. He tells PolitickerNJ, “in certain organizations, teachers unions, vouchers send out alarm bells,” but he “has a completely open mind.” However, there’s a history dating back to 1995 of Sacco and some fellow politicos trying to stymie a voucher plan proposed by then-Mayor Schundler. Maybe it’s water under the bridge.

Senator Brian Stack is another kettle of fish (also, another superman: in his spare time he's Mayor of Union City). PolitickerNJ, in a separate piece, calls the breech between Stack and Schundler “an impassable divide.” Why the breach? There seems to be a perception that Schundler is too strong an advocate of marrying private enterprise and education, what some call (disparagingly) edu-preneurship, while Stack beams at the brand-new multimillion dollar Union City High School construction project, courtesy of the Corzine administration.

Here’s some free advice to Ed Commish-hopeful Schundler: ensure senate confirmation by reassuring Supermen Sacco and Stack that you’ll put vouchers on the back-burner for the immediate future. Focus your energies towards reaching consensus on common core standards, expanding charter schools, particularly in our poor urban areas, and producing a Race To the Top application that may actually garner some cash. Work on the funding formula. Help school districts incorporate elements of education reform -- merit pay, changes in tenure laws -- into bargaining agreements so that we reward our best professionals and can boot our worst. Don't worry about the NJEA leadership: it's so nineteenth century. Enough to keep you busy for the first year, Mr. Schundler?

Schundler Reaction List

Here’s some choice bits from press coverage of Christie’s pick for N.J. Commissioner of Education. Not surprisingly, much of it focuses on juxtaposition of a school choice advocate unafraid to piss off the leadership of NJEA. The New York Times, for instance, says,
The man once described by teachers’ union leaders as “the antithesis of everything we hold sacred about public education” was chosen to serve as state education commissioner by Governor-elect Christopher J. Christie on Wednesday.
PolitickerNJ gets nostalgic: "In 1993, a Wall Street Journal editorial identified Schundler as the National Education Association’s “Public Enemy #1” because of his school voucher initiative," and Bill Pascoe at CQ Politics reminisces about Schundler’s appearance before the NJEA when he ran for governor. He “told them some uncomfortable truths…I've never forgotten the response from the teachers' union's leader, which was something along the lines of, "I congratulate Mayor Schundler for having the courage to come here. And I congratulate our teachers for not throwing their knives and forks at him."

The Star-Ledger catches Schundler in a hopeful mood: "Schundler, who gained national attention in the 1990s as Republican mayor of the Democratic bastion of Jersey City, is a longtime advocate of school choice. Schundler said there's bipartisan support for charter schools and merit pay for teachers, despite opposition from the teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association."

The Record captures the post-partisan nature of education reform: "Schundler sounded conciliatory on Wednesday, saying his goals as education commissioner would be in line with those set out by the Obama administration in the Race to the Top program that could bring more than $200 million in federal stimulus money to the state."

Matt Friedman of PolitickerNJ quotes Democrat Shelley Skinner, Director of Developpment at the Learning Community Charter School: “I think it sends a message to the quote unquote education establishment that there is change coming."

And Tom Moran is worth reading from beginning to end. Here's a tease:
The NJEA’s grip over education policy, in other words, is slipping. They are standing still, trying to block these reforms, while the world around them changes.

“I am reminded that Rip Van Winkle slept through a revolution,”[Reverend Reginald] Jackson said today as he endorsed the Schundler appointment. “I think the NJEA will be left behind.”

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Quote of the Day II

Gov.-elect Christopher Christie could not have found a nominee for Commissioner of Education that would rile up the New Jersey Education Association more than Bret Schundler, the pro-school choice former Mayor of Jersey City. It was a move of extraordinary testicular fortitude for the new Republican governor, and potentially puts the NJEA into an early campaign if they decide they want to test their strength in the current political environment by fighting his confirmation in the State Senate.
Wally Edge at PolitickerNJ

Bret Schundler, NJ's new Commissioner of Education

The A.P. has just published a report that Gov.-Elect Christie will choose school-choice advocate Bret Schundler to replace Lucille Davy as Commissioner of Education:
Schundler has taken on national and state teachers unions in the past. Like the incoming governor, he is a proponent of giving parents more choices on where to send their children to school.
Word is that Christie will formally announce his selection at a press conference this afternoon.

Quote of the Day

While NJEA doesn’t agree with all of the proposed “reforms” under RTTT, that doesn’t make NJEA anti-reform. NJEA will not stand by while our critics suggest that is the case.
From NJEA's article, "NJEA Details Concerns with Race to the Top."

Is Union Support and Meaningful Change Mutually Exclusive?

Or, more specifically, is NJEA support for N.J.'s Race to the Top application only possible with a weak proposal? We've raised this conundrum before, and so have others. On the same topic, here's Andy Smarick from Flypaper:
Ohio got lots of its districts to sign on to its RTT application because the proposal is, well, pretty weak. We’re seeing in lots of other places (Michigan, Florida, California, Louisiana, etc.) that stakeholders won’t sign on when the application is strong.

So we have a problem. The Department wants both—strong applications and lots of stakeholder support—but these variables appear to be negatively correlated. We all hope for a couple outlier states, ones that are somehow able to move off the line and into the upper right corner.

But of those many states with proposals on the line, which will the feds favor? Which variable carries more weight.
In other words, will the US DOE favor bold applications that reinvent public education through true innovation despite NJEA oppostion? Or will the US DOE favor meek applications laden with compromise but boast NJEA approval?

Example: N.J.’s application, under “Great Teachers and Leaders,” says:
(iv)(b) Use evaluations to inform compensation, promotion, and retention
State Responsibilities:
Create guidelines for evaluation criteria that qualify teachers for additional responsibilities and associated stipends of additional pay.
Develop rigorous and transparent criteria for a school-wide bonus for principals and teachers in schools that exceed school-level growth expectations.
Provide funding to support stipends and additional compensation for highly effective teachers taking on additional responsibilities
So a basic platform of N.J’s RTTT proposal is linking effective teaching to additional pay, right in line with the federal agenda.

Now, here’s NJEA’s comments on this section of our proposal, which includes a lengthy list of items why N.J. should not link effective teaching to additional pay. Some samples:
 There is no research proving a link between student test scores and teacher quality.
 If a teacher knows her job depends on test scores, she could easily be tempted to spend all of her time “teaching to the test.” This is not teaching. It is test preparation.
 Tying test scores to teacher evaluations and tenure may actually harm students.
 Merit pay has been proven to be a destructive force in public schoo
You get the idea. And NJEA has every reason to trust the power of their lobbying efforts. From a union newsletter on federal legislation:
Working closely with the NJEA Leadership Team…NJEA members targeted our three Congressional members who serve on the House Education and Labor Committee: Rob Andrews, Donald Payne, and Rush Holt. We asked them to slow down consideration of the bill and stop any action on “pay for performance/merit pay initiatives. Our effort was successful. NJEA and NEA will remain vigilant when Congress takes up reauthorization of ESEA later this year.
Any meaningful education reform in New Jersey will be vilified by the leadership of NJEA. Thus, any N.J. application for federal funds which incorporates meaningful education reform will lack local NJEA chapters' stamp of approval. What does that mean for our chances in the RTTT competition? Do we give up? Or do we get a shot at the hundreds of millions of dollars desperately needed to address our schools’ woes despite steadfast union opposition?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

For An Out-of-the-Box View on RTTT

Read Educflack’s Patrick Riccards, who has a new post up on why New Jersey should either 1) hold off on applying to Race To the Top til June, or 2)simply not apply at all. Riccards, a native New Jerseyan, explains the benefits of either proposition:
1) While Davy’s proposal is “a good plan,” Christie’s transition team was uninvolved in the details and, in fact, Christie won’t even be able to sign it since the application is due the day he gets sworn in as Governor. The state would be better off waiting until Christie’s new team can reshape it to conform with his vision of education reform.
2) Fuggedaboudit. N.J.’s too screwed up to take on another big initiative. Deciding not to compete in RTTT would be a bolder move: “he [Christie] could decree that his education improvement agenda is focused exclusively on the expansion and support of charter schools, and since charters are but a minor part of Race's intentions, he's going to go all-in on charters in his own way, and he'll find the state and private-sector support to make it happen without the federal oversight.”

Riccards notes that the “major wrinkle” canopying N.J.’s ed reform efforts is NJEA’s opposition. He writes, “rewriting the Race app means losing NJEA support entirely…and the state needs the endorsement of the teachers union to put forward an acceptable application.” Well, he wrote his entry this past Friday and since then the NJEA head honchos have made it clear that any chance of even the most meager support is a pipedream. NJEA’s website now includes talking points to argue with board members; a screed that attacks standardized testing and merit pay (despite research like this that shows that it works), a list of “school reforms that work,” which includes the NJEA annual convention, preschool, and reducing class size; and the much-cited Michelle Fuetsch piece that lauds N.J.’s now-obsolete Abbott district funding.

We’re not the only state where state chapters of NEA (see Florida and Minnesota) are inciting local leaders to advocate passing up hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid to schools. Should states be punished for having particularly militant NEA chapters? Hardly seems fair. There’s a sense in which submission of applications despite lack of teacher union sign-off indicates an even stronger commitment to reform. Isn't it easier to send in a proposal when everyone is celebrating consensus rather than sending in one which ignites the fury of opponents of reform? Can we get bonus points for that?

Quote of the Day

We believe in the talent, creativity and drive of our teachers. The union's arguments against linking pay with student scores — that it is unfair and will necessarily stifle collaboration — simply ring hollow. Workers elsewhere are given financial incentives without staging subterfuge. Perhaps principals could require teachers to work in teams — just as many teachers require of their students.

We are confident our teachers will thrive when given federal resources, even with strings attached. We urge the NJEA to encourage its members to join the "Race." Otherwise, New Jersey schools will be stuck on the sidelines while others build a better future for their students.

What kind of teacher would settle for that?
The Record Editorial on why the NJEA leadership should drop its "litmus test" on linking teacher pay to performance and reverse its decision telling local units to refuse to sign Race To The Top applications.

School Board Elections Are in April,

at least this year. Non-partisan municipalities have the option of moving elections to November.

Monday, January 11, 2010

RTTT and N.J. Senate's Gay Marriage Grovel

In the Star-Ledger, Tom Moran condemns the Senate Democrats’ moral cowardice and inability to stand up to powerful lobbyists during last week’s vote on the gay marriage bill:
“The reason for that is we have not been bold enough,” [Ray] Lesniak said. “The Democratic Party has lost its moral compass. We have been timid.”

And, “Democrats have stepped around the big problems for a decade, hoping to just make it through the next election. They’ve never picked a fight with the overfed teachers union, and did nothing when salaries went up another 4 percent even during this Great Recession.”

And, “And if you want timidity, this is how bad it got yesterday: Sen. Steve Sweeney, who will soon take over as Senate president, didn’t even vote. As other senators reached for their voting buttons, he held his hands on his desk, staring ahead with a blank expression.

“That’s a real profile in courage,” one Democrat muttered.”
Now think about Race To The Top. School boards and superintendents will have their own vote on a civil rights issue with moral dimensions – equal educational opportunities for poor children – at the end of the week. Choice One: send in the Memoranda of Understanding by Thursday, electing to offer N.J.’s most deprived children a chance at hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds for education. Buck the status quo and anger the NJEA lobbyists who deplore RTTT’s emphasis on teacher accountability, expansion of charter schools, and educational reform. Choice Two: cower in fear before powerful lobbyists, masquerade pusillanimity as prudence, and throw the MOU in the trash.

Okay. Maybe it's a bit more nuanced than that. The N.J. DOE screwed up and threw this complex document at school districts without any meaningful time for comment and discussion. It failed to get buy-in from the NJEA leadership (arguably, it never would have gotten that anyway). It's a rushed job, there’s another round of applications in June. Nonetheless, school districts in New Jersey have a clear choice to make. Are we as spineless as the Senate Democrats? Or are we ready to stand up for kids?

Comic Update: Jay Leno commented on the N.J. Senate rejection of gay marriage and asked, "what's wrong with that? The last time a gay man got married there he went on to be governor." (hat tip: Politics Patrol.)

Quotes of the Day

Critics have often charged that charter schools look better academically because they skim off the most talented students from neighboring traditional schools. The Stanford study rules out this explanation by carefully controlling for all known variables, including race, gender, ethnicity and achievement level.

The success of high-quality charter schools in places like New York supports Mr. Duncan’s view that charters can play an important role in efforts to reform the country’s flawed education system — but only if they are closely monitored and held to high standards.
From today's New York Times.

And The Star-Ledger Editorial Board argues that school board elections should be moved to November:
Wayne DeAngelo, a Hamilton Township assemblyman, calls the school elections "a costly charade" where voter turnout has rarely topped 18 percent. Last April’s school board elections brought out only 14.3 percent of voters. That’s unacceptable when one considers the responsibility of the board in establishing school budgets and property tax rates to underwrite those budgets… The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s teachers union, opposes the move, saying it would politicize board elections. But no one would mistake the current school board environment for politically virgin territory.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sunday Leftovers

New Jerseyans want Mercedes Benz-level services, and they don't even want to pay Kia prices. The basic reality is, both as a nation and as a state, we have been living a lifestyle we can no longer afford. There are going to be wrenching adjustments that have to take place
James W. Hughes, a Rutgers University dean and public policy expert, in today's Asbury Park Press.

The time has come for the NJEA to move beyond pitting traditional public schools against charter schools in a counterproductive struggle for positive public opinion. From this point on, we need to all work together to ensure that high-performing schools are given the chance to succeed while underperforming schools are either reformed or closed.
Senators Joseph Kyrillos and Raymond Lesniak in a "Reader Forum" in the New Jersey County News, Jan. 1.

Well-Managed Schools Pay Price: Public schools with surplus funds over 2% of total budgets, typically targeted for special projects and tax relief, will have to forgo state aid until they spend down their surplus, according to Corzine’s recent proposal. From the Gloucester County News: "I equate it to an individual being told by their employer that they aren't going to get a paycheck because it was found out you had extra money in your bank account," said Joseph Jones III, superintendent of Woodbury schools. "It's an unusual situation for schools to have to face mid-year where revenue that we had anticipated coming to us from the state we may not receive."

NJSBA Cut Off at the Knees?: Assemblyman John Burzichelli is introducing legislation that would make membership in New Jersey School Boards Association voluntary. Annual dues total $7.4 million per year, 3/4 of NJSBA's $10 million budget. From The Record: "The NJSBA is... a voice for school boards and we fight against legislation that would hurt schools and drive up costs. We’re the only statewide education organization that represents people who are not school employees, serving as a necessary counterbalance to the well-financed, powerful NJEA labor union."

Maybe She Has a Bridge Loan: The DOE’s lawsuit against Superintendent Barbara A. Trzeszkowski and the Keansburg school district has been delayed for three weeks while both sides try to work out a settlement. Keansburg Schools signed a contract with Trzeszkowski that awards her a $741,000 severance package, plus an annual pension of $119,000 a year and health benefits.

NJEA and RTTT: The Asbury Park Press assails NJEA for campaigning against N.J.'s application for Race To The Top federal funds: "The New Jersey Education Association is either blind to how defensive and self-serving it appears to the citizens of New Jersey. Or it just doesn't care."

Friday, January 8, 2010

RTTT: Taking Sides

NJEA gave us plenty of warning that it would advise its local bargaining units to toss N.J.’s Race To The Top application (here’s the full grant proposal) in the circular file. Back on November 7th, NJEA Executive Director Vince Giordano reported at an NJEA Delegate Assembly meeting that “NJEA sent a letter stating we will not sign off on anything that uses standardized test scores to evaluate teachers in NJ.”

If nothing else, you can’t fault them on their consistency. The message from NJEA is clear: input (teaching) is unrelated to output (student performance). From its December newsletter: “both NEA and NJEA have made and will continue to make the case against merit pay” because “great teaching is as mysterious as it is magical; groups who attempt to define it for the purposes of merit pay are unlikely to reach consensus.”

NJEA’s rigid opposition to one of the primary criteria for Race To The Top eligibility is only one of N.J.’s problems in the national competition. Forget about the will he/won’t he capriciousness in the months leading up to the application. (See here.) Forget about the rushed application process. (For context, remember that N.J. unveiled its proposal to districts on January 5th, 9 days before MOU’s were due. Pennsylvania sent out complete proposals to superintendents and districts on December 9th.) Don’t forget, however, about the doubts of school boards and superintendents regarding sign-off.

Star-Ledger: "Many educators expressed cautious support for the ideas, but said they had much to think and talk about before deciding whether to sign."

Philadelphia Inquirer:
Michael Moskalski, superintendent and principal of Rancocas Valley Regional High School in Mount Holly, called the state's draft "comprehensive," but said in an e-mail that he would rather see where the new governor stood on the proposal and then submit in the second round of applications in June.

"I have two weeks in which to discuss the draft with my association president and board of education and get their support," wrote Moskalski, who attended yesterday's meeting. "This is not enough time for careful consideration."

The Record: "Before officially joining the application, Segall said he wants to make sure the cost of participating would not exceed the grant Englewood might receive. If teachers leave the classroom for professional development, for example, he has to pay substitutes. His district is reeling from a $4 million loss of integration aid from the state.

"We’re down 19 teachers and five administrators this year compared to last," he said. "If participating requires us to expend a half-million dollars, we can’t."

Certainly, N.J. is not the only state with lack of buy-in from union leadership. But resistance from LEA’s is more troubling. Chalk it up to municipal fragmentation, change-aversion, dread of confrontation with local bargaining units. Maybe it’s some bizarre form of sibling rivalry: half of the potential grant money goes to Title 1 districts, and our wealthier districts already resent their low-income relatives for getting so much attention (financial and otherwise) from the state. It would be helpful if there was some leadership to coalesce around, but the DOE is molting, our lobbying group, NJSBA, is confining its advocacy to posting the application on its website, Executive County Superintendents are silent, and district leadership is splintered into 600 pieces.

Here’s a call from the trenches: sign the MOU. At both a federal and state level, RTTT is evolving into a battle between those who believe in teacher accountability, improved data systems, and improving failing schools, and those who don’t. As union rhetoric escalates, the battle lines harden. Do local N.J. school boards and superintendents want to rally for public education’s continuing lack of accountability or do you want to raise the flag for academic achievement for all children? Which side are you on?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

More NJEA/RTTT Fall-Out

From the Philadelphia Inquirer:
It's a very complex document, and, in our opinion, it is severely flawed," [NJEA President Barbara Keshishian] said, "and there are numerous objectionable positions that we will not be in favor of.
From The Record:
Barbara Keshishian, president of the New Jersey Education Association, said Tuesday afternoon that affiliates should not sign local memorandums of understanding agreeing to the state’s proposal.

“It’s a severely flawed plan,” Keshishian said. “There are numerable objectionable provisions” regarding merit pay and using student test scores to evaluate teachers. The NJEA’s disapproval could significantly damage the state’s application for the federal grant, which seeks extensive community buy-in and requires union representatives’ signatures.
Gov.-Elect Chris Christie's Reaction:
Christie, who has had a frosty relationship with the teachers union, said he was "disturbed" to hear the NJEA's position. He said the NJEA "pretends to put kids first," but instead "has become so insular and so self-interested" that it would turn down the chance at a cash infusion to help children learn.

Talking at a news conference in Newark, Christie said: "These are people who are so drastically out of touch with the crisis that we're facing in New Jersey, both fiscally and educationally."
And from Derrell Bradford of E3:
Derrell Bradford, executive director of the bipartisan advocacy group Excellent Education for Everyone, criticized the NJEA for its step "to hamstring the state's opportunity to get new money and drive reform so they can maintain the status quo."

Quote of the Day

The Wall Street Journal argues that RTTT guidelines are effectively rewarding unions that refuse to sign off on states’ applications. States without union support (Florida, Minnesota, New Jersey) lose points for lack of buy-in, effectively penalizing them for not making adequate concessions to unions:
Unions are mainly opposed to teacher accountability reforms. Both Florida and Minnesota want to implement or expand systems that tie teacher pay to student test scores. The irony is that both President Obama and Secretary Duncan have expressed support for such programs, yet Race to the Top is giving leverage to reform opponents who would eliminate or weaken these policies, and it punishes states that want to expand them over union objections.

Collective-bargaining agreements that protect bad teachers also harm children. Unions, which put the interests of their members above those of students, aren't bothered by this. But state reformers who are trying to correct the problem don't deserve to be penalized on their Race to the Top applications. They deserve some political cover from "the top," meaning Mr. Duncan.


NJEA President Barbara Keshishian has issued a formal explanation of her reasons for advising all local union presidents to refuse to sign N.J.’s application for Race To The Top. In a press release published last night she says that the federal program is “both economically and educationally unsound” because we would “need to significantly increase the number of students tested annually and the number of tests administered to each student.” The tests will be too expensive, and we should invest our money in expanding preschools, which are “the primary reason that New Jersey leads the nation in closing the achievement gaps between white and minority students.” In addition, RTTT proposals are “not supported by research.”

According to Keshishian, RTTT, both at a federal and state level, is all about the testing, and we’ve “already learned from ‘No Child Left Behind’ that a singular focus on standardized tests requires teachers and students to spend far too much time on test preparation.”

It’s a smart strategy to focus on standardized testing, a clever spin calculated to appeal to NJEA members, and to parents and children who loathe the state assessments given every March with results not available till late summer. But here’s where Keshishian’s rhetoric recedes from reality: N.J.’s RTTT proposal does not propose more standardized testing, but a shift to formative assessments or growth models that follow a particular student over time. About half of our districts already use such platforms – NWEA is a popular one – that are adaptive, integrated into the curriculum, short and friendly, and produce results within a day or two. N.J.’s proposal clearly allows LEA’s to use their own internal assessments, although it appears that the state will also offer its own version.

Here’s the real reason for Keshishian’s disdain for our application’s formative assessments (which are well-supported by research, by the way): the growth models will allow student performance to be indelibly linked to teacher competence, which is anathema to NJEA’s leadership.

It’s that same old conundrum. Is teaching an enigmatic, magical art? Or is it a profession subject to evaluation and measurement? NJEA votes for the former. RTTT in particular, and education reform in general, votes for the latter.

In the end, Keshishian’s contempt towards testing isn’t about economics or education; it’s about maintaining the moat between teacher performance and compensation. One could argue that it’s also about disdain for her members. We’re willing to bet that the vast majority of teachers would welcome a chance to be recognized monetarily and professionally for their competence and success in the classroom. But NJEA executives wants to treat them like widgets. That’s insulting to teachers, bad for kids, and obstructive to N.J.’s shot at $200-$400 million in cash for schools.