Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sunday Leftovers

An audit of Camden Public Schools finds that the Schools Food Services Dept. is missing $2 million. In addition, thousands of meals were purchased but never served, says the Courier Post.

The Wall St. Journal profiles
two graduating seniors from a largely Hispanic and impoverished neighborhood in Oklahoma City, one who attended a charter school and one who attended a traditional public school.

Bob Ingle says that Christie blinked first and NJEA won the battle over NJ’s Race To The Top application.

PolitickerNJ reports that a Fairleigh Dickinson University poll reveals that not only have Gov. Christie's approval numbers gone down, but so have NJEA's: “It is unusual for any one interest group to be front and center for such a sustained time in state politics,” said Peter Woolley, a political scientist and director of the poll. “It is even more unusual that a candidate, party or interest group investing so much in advertising and organizing would lose ground.”

The Center for Education Reform's "RTTT Reality Check" says that Race To The Top is "too good to be true:" "reviewer comments paints a depressing portrait of the reform landscape – and a stark reminder that sometimes, crafty text in applications doesn’t reflect reality."

E3’s Derrell Bradford and NJEA Prez Barbara Keshishian go head to head in the Asbury Park Press on whether or not teacher tenure has outlived its usefulness.

The Record reviews
how the Christie Administration is backing away from forced consolidation of school districts.

The Philadelphia Inquirer
looks at voters' discontent regarding school administrators' pay.

NJ Spotlight looks at miniscule movement for urban schools on the part of the School Construction Corps: "50 projects are sitting in limbo, and state officials said yesterday it could be at least several more months before they learn their fates."

Assemblyman Paul Moriarty has introduced legislation that would move school board elections to November, reports New Jersey Newsroom. Budgets under cap would escape public votes and Board members would be seated first thing in January.

Friday, May 28, 2010

NJEA and Schundler Embrace Ed Reform?

Word’s out: Ed. Comm. Schundler and NJEA’s Barbara Keshishian and Vince Giordano made a deal, and local bargaining units will sign off on NJ’s Race To The Top application. (For the best news coverage, see NJ Spotlight and The Record.) Question #1: Will it help us win up to $400 million? Question #2: Does it matter?

#1: Iffy. While the final draft of the application hasn’t been released yet (though here’s the letter and plan), it appears that Comm. Schundler gambled that the benefits of NJEA buy-in – both short-term and long-term – were valuable enough to deliberately undermine the State’s application. For example, our original proposal states that when school districts are forced to lay off staff, decisions will be based “on evaluation data, not seniority.” However, according to NJEA Spokewoman Dawn Hiltner in The Record, “the commissioner backed off on that goal so seniority will continue to determine who keeps jobs.” The original application stated that “student learning must represent at least 51% of teacher and school leader evaluations.” The compromise document, according to NJ Spotlight, “calls for 50 percent of an educator’s evaluation to be decided by “multiple measures of student learning,” including test scores, according to the union.”

The DOE had proposed that awarding of tenure be extended from 3 years to 5 years and “require three years of ‘effective’ or better evaluations for a teacher to be granted tenure.” Instead, there will be no change to tenure laws. The original draft called for a “state bonus pool” that would directly reward effective teachers, with another portion allotted to school staff and programs. Now, says NJ Spotlight,
Half of the money would go only to school-wide bonuses, a union demand, while the other half would be distributed on a pilot basis to selected districts to use as they see fit, including the possibility of individual teacher bonuses. And even there, it would require at least half of a school’s staff to agree.
On the other hand, bonuses will still be awarded to effective teachers who agree to teach in chronically failing schools, and a major concession on the part of NJEA is that now a significant portion of teacher evaluations will be based on student growth.

So our application is weaker, and whether it will increase our odds of winning the federal competition is anyone’s guess. NJEA buy-in is big -- the lack of support from local units was clearly a factor for Round 1 evaluators – but Schundler’s concessions are big too. Example: feedback from the US DOE noted that our Round 2 application should “use evaluation results as a basis for tenure and Reductions in Force,” i.e., lay-offs. We're not doing that. Six of one, a dozen of the other?

On the other hand, there’s only 34 states and a ton of money left in the competition, since Round 1 garnered just two winners, Delaware and Tennessee, and states are dropping like flies. Schundler seems genuinely committed to President Obama’s educational agenda, and the new hiring of big-time eduwonk Andy Smarick as Deputy Commissioner only adds to the DOE’s new ed reform luster.

(Question of our own: if we lose RTTT, do the NJEA concessions still stand? Or are they solely dependent on a winning application?)

#2: The NJEA/DOE d├ętente is big. After months of sideswipes and jibes, everyone’s tired of playing Hatfield and McCoy. Education reform is NJ necessitates at least a modicum of cooperation between the feuding sides and the RTTT treaty is a great step in that direction. Bravo.

Winning RTTT would be terrific too, but we’re guessing that this is not Schundler’s strategic pot of gold. He’s stated repeatedly that ed reform in NJ is coming, regardless of RTTT results. A weakened application – and it is, indeed, weakened (though, notably, it’s NJEA that’s running the press cycle, and not the DOE, perhaps by design) -- may be a cost that Schundler’s willing to pay for a public hug between warring factions. Much of the original RTTT application was predicated on Legislative cooperation , by no means a sure bet with NJEA’s hold over elected officials. Now NJ has a shot – with or without that $400 million – of making some badly needed reforms to our public school system.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

NJEA and Schundler Make a Deal

NJEA will advise its member units to sign NJ's Race To The Top application, reports The Record. After days of negotiations the NJ Department of Education will revise its proposal:
Dawn Hiltner, an NJEA spokeswoman, said the updated proposal makes no attempt to change seniority rules, and ensures that students’ standardized test scores are not the main measure for evaluating teachers.
More tomorrow.

He Said, She Said

Eduwonk is following some unexpected aftereffects of Steven Brill’s New York Times Magazine article, "The Teachers' Unions' Last Stand." The American Federation of Teachers sent out a talking points memo to attack Brill’s piece, specifically accusing him of making up quotes and attributing them to AFT Prez Randi Weingarten. Brill then responds to the memo, saying he never made up quotes and he “regret[s] that they feel compelled to challenge this quote.” Here's the quote that Weingarten says she never said:
The teachers’ unions have become accustomed in recent years to fighting off reform efforts by Republicans and think-tank do-gooders. They ignore the rhetorical noise, while sticking to the work of negotiating protectionist contracts with the politicians who run school systems and depend on their political support. But what happened last month in Washington could signal a new era in which the unions have to worry that Democrats, like Washington’s mayor, Adrian Fenty, not only won’t yield in contract negotiations but will also support laws and programs aimed at forcing accountability. That is the threat posed by the Race. “Deliberately or not, President Obama, whom I supported, has shifted the focus from resources and innovation and collaboration to blaming it all on dedicated teachers,” Weingarten says.


Speaking of NJEA, two pieces today look at the ability of the union’s leadership to make strategic decisions to benefit members. First, NJ Spotlight gives the inside scoop on negotiations between Comm. Schundler and NJEA leaders as they toil to come up with acceptable compromises on our Race To The Top application. (Apparently we're up to 402 school districts signing on the dotted line: pretty cool.) How much is union buy-in worth if the price is a weakened application?

Next, Kevin Manahan of the Star-Ledger Editorial Board flogs NJEA’s leaders for the fall from grace of NJ’s teachers because union leaders wouldn’t take that one year salary freeze. (N.B.: we suggested that three months ago (here) and, yes, the facebook group, “New Jersey Teachers United Against Gov. Chis Christie’s Pay Freeze” is still going strong.) Explains Manahan,
Teachers listened to their overpaid brain trust, the architects of this disastrous public relations strategy. Together, NJEA president Barbara Keshishian, executive director Vincent Giordano and spokesman Steve Wollmer earn more than a million dollars. Keshishian, who has been outmaneuvered by the governor at every turn, earns $256,450 annually. Giordano, with salary and deferred compensation, earned $550,203 in 2009, and Wollmer makes $300,000.
Is it possible that Manahan’s take is outdated, at least in regards to NJEA's bosses' inability to make sound strategic decisions? If union leaders are not simply dismissing our RTTT application but truly, in good faith, trying to nail down acceptable compromises, then there may be some reason to hope. After all, while the Keshishian/Christie war has provided occasional entertainment, it's not terribly useful in addressing the profound problems of our public school system.

Wall St. Journal Gets a Wee Bit Ahead of Itself

With today’s editorial entitled “Christie for President.” Ed-bite:
He noted in his speech...,"Things that used to be considered sacred cows, the third rails of politics, no longer are. They've been replaced by the issue of affordability…”
Mr. Christie was especially blunt on the malign influence of the New Jersey Education Association -- "an absolutely out-of-control union that is used to getting everything it wants." Without a change of direction, he added, New Jersey is "careening our way toward becoming Greece."

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

RTTT Update

The Record reports that as of yesterday 292 districts out of our 658 districts and charters had sent back their Memoranda of Understanding, signifying that they will be part of NJ’s Race To The Top application. 378 districts and charters signed our first application, but the DOE keeps extending the deadline (originally yesterday) hoping for a better outcome. In addition, soon-to-be-ex-Deputy Commissioner Willa Spicer sent out a memo on May 20th to districts and local NJEA presidents promising that each district that signed off would, at minimum, receive $100,000 if we win the federal competition.
If New Jersey wins $400 million, NJDOE will offer a minimum of $100,000 to ALL districts that sign the MOU, in addition to the funds going directly to Title I districts. (These monies will come from the state's portion of the grant, as necessary.)
(Emphasis her own.)

New Jersey School Boards Association
has sent Comm. Schundler a letter of endorsement, stating that it believes that “the grant application represents our state’s commitment to genuine education reform.” NJEA’s support? Unlikely, though Schundler says he’s optimistic. Yet NJEA instructed its local units to not sign our first application and the second proposal is far more specific regarding merit pay, tying teacher evaluations to student academic growth, reforming tenure, and closing chronically failing schools. NJEA Spokesman Steve Baker told The Record,"There are still significant areas of concern remaining. Nobody has seen the entire application they're being asked to sign off on."

True enough. The full application has not been released yet. Maybe the DOE is hoping that incoming Deputy Commissioner Andy Smarick will do a quick rewrite.

Nationally, the list of drop-outs from the competition is growing. Politics K-12 says that Minnesota, Kansas, Indiana, West Virginia, Vermont, South Dakota, Idaho, Wyoming are out. Unlikely to apply are Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, and Virginia. Obviously, Delaware and Tennessee, the two first-round winners, sit out this one. Of course, Texas and Alaska are non-players.And Massachusetts, one of our highest-achieving states with curricula to die for, may drop out also. Boston’s NPR station, WBUR, (hat tip Politics K-12) reports, according to Ed. Commissioner Mitchell Chester, MA may not reapply because it lost points on the first round for not committing to the national common core standards and that this was “maddening” because the standards were not yet ready for review. Also, one of its largest teacher unions won’t sign.

So that leaves only 33 states left in the competition. Does that up our chances? Might. Unfortunately Senate Resolution 102, approved last Thursday (see post here), weakly “expresses support” for our RTTT application, yet is practically a sin of omission, semaphoring to the Feds that our Legislature has no intention of amending state statutes necessary to implement the DOE’s proposal. In other words, we can propose all sorts of innovative solutions to NJ’s inequitable and unsustainable public school system, but if our balls-challenged Legislature won’t pass the necessary legislation than we’re stuck. And so are our urban kids warehoused in chronically failing schools.

The Charter School That Schundler Built

John Mooney at NJ Spotlight profiles the charter school that NJ Education Commissioenr Bret Schundler started, the Golden Door in Jersey City. While it has had various growing pains,
Still, Golden Door has showed the agility and adaptability that is one of the hallmarks of charters. Without the constraints —or the unions—of the traditional schools, it employs a merit pay system for its teachers. In another hallmark of charters, parents and students describe the school as an intimate and warm place buffered from the crime and poverty of this city of 240,000 people.
Also at NJ Spotlight, I look at the the politics of the new national Common Core standards in the context of NJ's math wars.

Andy Smarick on His New Job

Andy Smarick, NJ’s new Deputy Commissioner of Education, explains why he’s leaving the Fordham Foundation and taking on education reform in the Garden State:
It seems to me that there’s never been a better time to work on these issues at the state level. As a rule, the most important education policies are made in state capitals, and that’s doubly true right now. The burgeoning national education reform movement has been given extra energy by the Race to the Top, and to an extent never seen before state governments are tackling, or at least discussing, the most pressing issues.

New Jersey has a new governor who believes deeply in choice and accountability, and he’s committed to reforming his state’s K-12 system. The state commissioner is of the same mind, hoping to tackle school finance, teacher quality, and much more. I’m especially excited to get to lend a hand to the effort to improve Newark’s schools. The city has a set of superb charter organizations, a remarkably strong nonprofit support infrastructure, and a hard-charging mayor.

I’ve been very lucky in my career to be able to bounce in and out of government at different levels with spells in the non-profit and think-tank world. The last year plus has been a blessing; I’ve had the chance to rebuild my stores of intellectual capital and work on a number of terribly interesting issues. I’m very excited about the opportunity to put this thinking and writing to work–both because I believe deeply in certain reform strategies and because it’s important for a pundit to step up and put his money where is mouth is.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Money Is The Root of All Education Reform

Charles Stile at The Record reports on the relatively new presence in NJ of Democrats for Education Reform. Stile writes that DFER intends to “peel Democrats away from the grip of the New Jersey Education Association, the powerful teachers union.” DFER’s NJ Director Kathleen Nugent says, “"I haven't identified our top 10 legislators who are for us and our top 10 legislators who are being detrimental” but she’ll find out "who is supporting their kids and who is supporting the unions."

Here’s NJEA Spokesman Steve Wollmer’s response: "Just what we need is hedge fund operators driving education reform in New Jersey. Let's hope they don't drive it into the same ditch they drove the economy."

What’s up with the animus towards capitalism? Public schools cost money. Teachers – certainly in NJ – value their paychecks and benefits; in fact, 30,000 of them showed up in Trenton on Saturday to complain that they weren’t getting enough. Yet successful money managers incite sneers, even as they funnel much-needed money into public education (like charter schools) and advance the education reform agenda of President Obama, whose campaign was buoyed by the support of teacher unions. Here’s famous education historian and best-selling author Diane Ravitch on DFER:
Who is DFER? The Times says it includes the founders of hedge funds such as: Anchorage Capital Partners, with $8 billion under management; Greenlight Capital, with $6.8 billion; and Pershing Square Capital Management, with $5.5 billion. DFER is actively supporting candidates in many states who will help charter school legislation and actively opposing those who do not.

But something about this scenario is troubling. I guess it is the fundamental unfairness of a fight in which one side has an all-star list of billionaires (and mere multi-millionaires), and the other side has parents and teachers whose resources are meager. Granted, the teachers' unions have some independent resources, but what they have to spend politically to defend public education is peanuts compared with what the billionaires spend to privatize public schools
Okay. Fights between rich people and impoverished unions are fundamentally unfair, like pitting Rocky against Urkel. Here’s a recent Press of Atlantic City recent update on NJEA finances:
The New Jersey Education Association collected $98.4 million in dues from its members during its 2007 tax year, as is shown on its most recent Internal Revenue Service filing, which covered Sept. 1, 2007, to Aug. 31, 2008.

Those dues, paid by almost 130,000 teachers in annual increments of $731 (50,000 noncertified employees pay less), support one of the most influential lobbying forces in the state. The NJEA’s gross receipts for 2007-08, including $717,000 in proceeds from the annual convention in Atlantic City, were $131.4 million.
There’s a false dichotomy between public schools and financial success. The aroma wafting up from statements like Wollmer’s perpetuates an obsolete Hallmarkian sentiment that fiscal know-how taints the magic of learning. Yet public education costs money, especially if you want to start a charter school in NJ, which is precisely what Wollmer and NJEA want to thwart.

It’s not about hedge fund managers. (Anyone check NJEA Executive Director Vince Giordano’s stock portfolio lately?) It’s about political influence which, in NJEA’s case, has taken on a bland flaccidity. Meanwhile, Ravitch and Wollmer’s animosity towards monied education reformers just hurts schoolchildren, the potential beneficiaries of replenished school funds, and spotlights their own obsolete agenda.

From the Department of "It Could Be Worse"

Democrats for Education Reform's update on Arizona's Race To The Top application:
The state says it intends to file a Round 2 application, but it's not at all clear how they plan to improve on their 40th place showing in Round 1. The Governor did sign a bill into law last week banning "ethnic studies" programs in Arizona, especially those the state deems as promoting "resentment of a particular ethnic group," but did not provide an explanation of how that would help the state make up any of the 259.8 points reviewers deducted from the state's application in March. One upside, though, is that it looks like the new law dictates that teachers won't be burdened with having to explain laws passed by the state the previous month which legalized racial profiling of people with dark skin and which will require our first black President to show proof that he was born in the United States (as if) when he runs for reelection in 2012.

Big Change at the NJ DOE

Andy Smarick, Fordham Fellow and highly regarded eduwonk, will be Bret Schundler’s lone deputy at the Department of Education, according to the Edweek blog, Politics K-12. If so, he’ll replace Deputy Commissioner Willa Spicer as Schundler’s right-hand man.

Does Smarick’s ed reform bona fides get us extra points on our Race To The Top application?

Says Edweek, “Smarick officially starts his new role sometime this summer, probably in early August (although if New Jersey were wise, it would tap his expertise as it puts the finishing touches on its Round 2 Race to the Top application, due June 1).”

Monday, May 24, 2010

13 Miles

Princeton High School in Mercer County is bemoaning the fact in today's Trenton Times that the new Alternative High School Assessment has resulted in a “higher than usual” number of students in “graduation limbo.” In fact, 4 seniors our of a class of about 340, about 1.2%, are waiting to find out if they passed the test, given to students who fail the standard high school exam three times.

Thirteen miles away at Trenton High School, also in Mercer County, 200 seniors out a total class of 370, or 54%, have yet to pass either the HSPA or the AHSA. Interdistrict School Choice, anyone?

Grading the Achievement Gap

In yesterday’s Star Ledger, columnist Tom Moran excoriates Gov. Christie for not reappointing Justice John Wallace to the NJ Supreme Court. In defense of Justice Wallace and his colleagues, he itemizes a series of decisions that have been fair, including the Abbott school funding decisions:
Take school funding. Most of the anger aimed at the court belongs at the feet of the legislators and governors who have monstrously failed to make the most of our education dollars. The court did not demand excessive salaries, or overweight bureaucracies, or swimming pools. Nor did it block innovations like merit pay for teachers.
It’s true. The Court is not to blame for subsequent government corruption. But Moran’s next claim is baffling:
What the court demanded was equal rights for poor kids. And despite the stumbles, New Jersey is closing the racial achievement gap faster than any other state.
Mr. Moran should have looked more closely at the data from the test scores he’s referring to, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as The Nation's Report Card. We’ll do it for him.

Samples of students are tested through NAEP at 4th and 8th grades. Results are tabulated by race, gender, and whether or not a child is eligible for free/reduced lunch (the barometer for poverty). While there’s some upward movement in the achievement gap between races in NJ, our achievement gap between impoverished and non-impoverished students remains intractable. For example, in 1992 fourth grade Black students in NJ scored 35 points below White students in the reading test, in 2009 that gap was only 25 points. However, according to the NAEP discussion, “In 2009, students who were eligible for free/reduced-price school lunch, an indicator of low income, had an average score that was 26 points lower than that of students who were not eligible for free/reduced-price school lunch. This performance gap was not significantly different from that in 2003.” Fourth grade math shows similar results: lower gaps by race, but not by indicators of poverty: 1996 results were “not statistically different” (32 point spread) than 2009 (26 point spread).

For eighth graders, reading scores show similar trends between Black and White students. However, the achievement gap for Hispanic students and impoverished students remains solid. From the NAEP narrative:
In 2009, Hispanic students had an average score that was 25 points lower than that of White students. This performance gap was not significantly different from that in 2003 (28 points). .In 2009, students who were eligible for free/reduced-price school lunch, an indicator of low income, had an average score that was 27 points lower than that of students who were not eligible for free/reduced-price school lunch. This performance gap was not significantly different from that in 2003 (30 points).
8th grade math paints a grimmer picture. The achievement gap between White and Black students in 2009 (34 points) “was not statistically different than that in 1990” (38 points). Hispanic children in 2009 “had an average score that was 30 points lower than that of White students. This performance gap was not significantly different than that in 1990 (37 points).” And for 8th graders eligible for free/reduced lunch, the gap was 30 points lower in 2009, “not significantly different than that in 2003 (34 points).”

Is New Jersey closing the achievement gap? You decide.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Sunday Leftovers

The Record reports on the NJEA/CWA protest in Trenton yesterday. Charles Stile explains why Democratic leaders were no-shows.

Steven Brill, who penned today’s New York Times Magazine feature article, “The Teacher Union’s Last Stand,” gives the back story to Edweek.

Randi Weingarten says in the Wall St. Journal that the feds should provide a $23 billion bailout to save teaching jobs.

Plumstead is going to half-day kindergarten, but parents can shell out $2,750 a year for a full-day program, explains the Asbury Park Press.

NJ Spotlight: The NJ DOE makes a last-minute switch and announces that school districts – Title 1 or not – that support NJ’s application for Race To The Top will get at least $100,000.

The DOE redid the scoring method for the Alternative High School Assessment, but most kids still failed. The Star-Ledger says, “On their third try, 1,864 students, or 16.3 percent, passed the High School Proficiency Assessment for mathematics, administered in March. In the language arts section of the HSPA, 1,531 students, or 29.9 percent, passed the test on their third try.” Stan Karp of the Education Law Center tells the Press of Atlantic City that it’s a “dropout disaster.”

Megan McArdle in the Atlantic Monthly on teacher unions:
The issue with the teachers' unions is not the unions per se--agitating for higher pay wouldn't make much difference, and is indeed probably a great idea. The problem is that the structure they impose makes it almost impossible (though not quite!) to innovate, and to spread the innovations that work. The cushy job protections and strict work rules are great for the teachers. But the schools aren't there for the benefit of the teachers.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Quote of the Day

American education is, as always, in a state of crisis. In the past four decades spending per pupil (adjusted for inflation) has gone up 2.6 times, but SAT scores have not budged. Despite the $661 billion a year this country puts into public K--12 education, we are churning out a nation of mediocre graduates ill equipped to meet global competitors. Thousands of teachers are being laid off. Central Falls, R.I. fired all of its high school teachers (half will be hired back); in Kansas City, Mo. half the schools are closing. Reformist politicians in Florida, Colorado, Washington, D.C. and New Jersey are confronting teachers' unions and the sacred rights of tenure and rising compensation.
Daniel Fisher in Forbes Magazine, "What Educators are Learning From Money Managers"

Thursday, May 20, 2010

NJ's RTTT Prospects

This afternoon the State Senate has 31 bills on its docket: one that upgrades penalties for drag racing, one that designates September 26th of each year as "Mesothelioma Awareness Day,” and another – SCR 102 – that “expresses the Legislature’s support for the submission of the Department of Education’s application for a federal Race to the Top grant.”

According to a Star-Ledger article earlier this week, “The state Legislature is signing on to New Jersey’s application for up to $400 million in federal education funding — but without endorsing the plan’s most controversial elements, including a plan to base teacher pay on student achievement.” According to “supporters,” which includes the leadership of NJEA, the resolution was “modeled on Delaware’s successful application package in the last round of the competition.

Makes sense. Delaware won. Monkey see, monkey do.

Why did Delaware win? According to Richard Colvin in US News and World Report, Delaware boasted a teacher evaluation system that labels teachers “ineffective” if their students’ test scores don’t rise quickly enough.
The state also created an aggressive "school turnaround" strategy, which could require teachers unions to renegotiate parts of their contracts to accommodate reforms. It also will offer bonuses of up to $10,000 to teachers and principals willing to work in high-need schools.
EdWeek, in "Why Delaware and Tennessee Won," ascribes Delaware’s success to the fact that “teachers rated as "ineffective" for two to three years can be removed from the classroom, even if they have tenure.” The New Teacher Project’s brief, “The Real Race Begins: Lessons from Round 1 of Race to the Top,” explains,
[Delaware and Tennessee] won because they outlined bold, comprehensive visions of reform and demonstrated the ability to make them a reality. Statewide teacher effectiveness policies were the foundation for their success. They focused on putting effective teachers in every classroom and giving teachers the critical feedback and support they need to do their best work. They shifted to evaluation systems that improve their ability to recognize great teachers and respond to poor performance. Together they set a new benchmark for reform that Round 2 applicants must meet in order to win.
So Delaware won because it shifted to a system that recognizes that some teachers are effective and some teachers are ineffective, and that teaching effectiveness should be measured and rewarded. Delaware is our role model. Here’s NJEA’s official statements regarding the linchpin of Delaware’s winning application: “Tying test scores to teacher evaluations and tenure may actually harm students” and “merit pay has been proven to be a destructive force in public schools.”

Here’s what really happened. The NJ DOE, too late, too terse, and too exclusive, distributed an aggressive reform agenda two weeks ago. The Legislature, asked to endorse the application, instead emasculated it, cheered on by NJEA bosses, who now have an easy out. (We backed the Senate resolution, right? Now we escape last application's public wrath for thwarting NJ's chances for $400 million in ed reform money.) School districts, with five days left before the May 25th deadline for signing Memoranda of Understanding, don’t even know what they’re signing onto anymore, and probably don’t care. It’s a grim day in NJ’s education reform community. Who's the monkey?

Quote of the Day

Let’s sum up. One of if not the biggest beneficiary of NJOSA is not a) the children trapped in poor urban (Newark, Camden, Jersey City) schools, or b) cash-strapped urban Catholic Schools (which lack sufficient other private contribution support to keep afloat), but rather, the highly racially and religiously segregated Lakewood Orthodox Jewish community and its schools. They constitute the largest number – by far – of “income qualified” current private school enrolled children in the state

This is not quite the narrative about the NJOSA voucher proposal I’ve been hearing about.
Dr. Bruce Baker at SchoolFinance101.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Lesniak Explains His Support for Voucher Bill

See video here.

Memo of the Day

Dated May 17th, from Willa Spicer, Deputy Commissioner, to District Superintendents and Charter School Leaders regarding the high failure rate on NJ's Alternative High School Assessment:
It is possible that there is an unusual student who, despite five chances in two formats still cannot put forward his or her skills. Therefore, if you have a student in your system who absolutely surprises you, one who the staff believes has accomplished all that is required to receive a NJ diploma, the Department will study the case and make a final determination. If you have such a student, please send me a short summary of why the test has not revealed that student’s skills and two written papers or math assessments.

Don't Miss "The Teachers' Union's Last Stand,"

next Sunday's New York Times magazine feature article by Steven Brill. Teaser:
A building on 118th Street is one reason that the parents who are Perkins’s constituents know that charters can work. On one side there’s the Harlem Success Academy, a kindergarten-through-fourth-grade charter with 508 students. On the other side, there’s a regular public school, P.S. 149, with 438 pre-K to 8th-grade students. They are separated only by a fire door in the middle; they share a gym and cafeteria. School reformers would argue that the difference between the two demonstrates what happens when you remove three ingredients from public education — the union, big-system bureaucracy and low expectations for disadvantaged children.

$131 Per Kid

School superintendent salaries are much in the news these days, especially regarding the discrepancies between Gov. Christie’s ($175K) and Comm. Schundler’s ($145K) salaries and those of many chief school administrators. (See here for Star-Ledger coverage, here for The Record, and here for Asbury Park Press, which also includes a handy-dandy data base.) Sort of a silly comparison: next we’ll be comparing President Obama’s relatively paltry compensation package to chief executive officers of corporations. The best school superintendents in NJ earn every dime and it’s a competitive market.

And yet…when you look at, say Bergen County, 234 square miles and 75 school districts, the ol’ efficiency-meter starts to pulse. For argument’s sake, let’s call it 74 school districts because one is Ho-Ho-Kus, which consists of one school, 663 kids, and a superintendent who doubles as a teacher and gets paid $775/year for administrative duties. Using that convenient database from APP, we can see that Bergen County shells out $12,859,000 in salaries for superintendents, with an average annual salary of $173,770. No doubt some chief administrators work their tails off. Then there’s that odd case raises eyebrows. No offense intended – just looking at numbers – but take a gander at Ridgefield Park School District, all of 4 school buildings and 2,011 kids. Superintendent John Richardson will take home $262,500 this year. That comes out to 131 dollars per child enrolled in the school. Shared services, anyone?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Water-Logging RTTT

The State Legislature has emitted a grand “yes” to NJ’s Race To The Top application for the second round. Except for the part about linking teacher compensation to student achievement, the signature part of our proposal. The Star-Ledger reports that this little omission will allow NJEA’s leadership to instruct its local presidents that it’s hunky-dory to sign on, which will improve our chances of winning some federal cash. Except for the part where U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told states,
Some have misread our intent in designing RTTT believing that watered-down reforms with broad buy-in is the best strategy. Nothing could be further from the truth; only the best and boldest plans will win.

Following the Money

The Trenton Times reports today that an audit of Trenton Public Schools revealed that the district has $1.9 million dollar deficit because “last summer the district received bills for out-of-district special education programs it did not know students were attending.” Mark Cowell, the state fiscal monitor, told the school board, "[Trenton’s child study teams’ ] record keeping is not too good.”

We’ll withhold value judgements, but at the least it’s troubling. Then again, special education in New Jersey is troubling, at least in regards to overclassification of students as disabled. From Jay P. Greene, Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute: “ One of the reasons we know that reported disability rates lack credibility is that they vary dramatically from state to state. In New Jersey, for example, 18 percent of all students are classified as disabled, but in California the rate is only 10.5 percent. There is no medical reason why students in New Jersey should be 71 percent more likely to be placed into special education than students in California.”

Our overclassification of minority students is worse, a long-time scourge of NJ’s education system. The NJ Council on Developmental Disabilities reports that “[a]lmost one in four male African-American students in New Jersey is identified as having a disability.” So maybe Trenton Public Schools should be congratulated for its low classification rate. On the other hand, there is that $1.9 million discrepancy. Let’s look at the record-keeping more closely.

Abbott districts tend to have very high rates of children classified as eligible for special education services. NJ outdoes just about every other state in bestowing labels of disability on children– an excellent report on special education funding from the Education Law Center puts it at 11.9% -- but our poor districts blow that number out of the park. For example, John Kennedy High School in Paterson has 24.1% of their students listed in the state data base as special ed eligible, Wildwood High in Cape May County has 30.2% of their kids in that category, and Camden Central High says 33.2% of its kids are disabled.

Yet not in Trenton. According to the NJ Report Cards for 2008-2009, the two high schools in Trenton, Trenton Central High and Daylight Twilight High, have precisely 15.6% of kids listed as eligible for special ed. Hmm. Among Trenton’s middle schools, Grace Dunn classifies 15.6% of its students and Wilson classifies 15.6% of its students. Trenton has a number of K-8 schools; classification percentages range from 11.4% (PJ Hill) to 19.8% (Luis Munoz-Rivera). The lowest classification rates for K-5 schools were 7.6% at Wilson and the high was exactly 14.3% at both Parker and Cadwalader.

Trenton’s $1.9 million deficit flags more than poor record-keeping from child study teams. At about $40K - $45K for an out-of-district placement, i.e., sending a child with disabilities to either a county special services district, a private special education schools, or another public school district, that $1.9 million represents about 45 kids lost somewhere in the netherworld of Trenton’s public schools. Then again, it's hard to believe the numbers coming out of Trenton anyway.

Quote of the Day

If the NJEA doesn’t change its position, if it doesn’t start urging local unions to accept the wage freeze, if it doesn’t recognize that thousands of families will be devastated when they lose their jobs, and that the kids who they purport to put first will have fewer teachers in the classroom, then there is only one conclusion to reach.
The NJEA is more interested in increasing their body count in their “war” with Christie, then they are in protecting the jobs and livelihoods of their members.
Today's In The Lobby.

Monday, May 17, 2010

We Pay Teachers Too Little

Lots of coverage over the last few days regarding staff compensation in school districts. Yesterday’s Star-Ledger, for example, features an analysis of teacher compensation across the state that finds that “New Jersey’s average teacher pay of $63,154 is higher than the per capita income in the state, $50,313, but lower than for some comparable professions.” (One quibble: the analysis doesn’t factor in heath and pension benefits, though it does include shorter work years.) Yesterday’s Record finds that the highest paid teachers work mostly in Bergen and Passaic counties. TodayBob Braun looks at a new study out from Rutgers that private employees make “11 percent more in wages and 5 percent more in total compensation than public workers.”

Maybe NJEA’s leadership has been right all along. Teachers don’t get paid too much, they get paid too little. Many have graduate degrees, work tirelessly for their students, spend hours every day prepping for classes, analyzing data, evaluating pupil work. Yet something is out of whack. (Hold that thought about administrative salaries.) NJ’s educational costs are unsustainable, so something’s got to give.

Maybe the problem is not that we pay our teachers too much. Maybe we just have too many teachers.

NJEA's leadership firmly believes that tenure is just due process. However, school districts across the nation (see this pivotal piece from The New Yorker, “The Rubber Room”) are forced to overstaff to compensate for ineffective teachers. In private industry you’d fire them. In public education, you can’t. So you hire someone else and both stay on the payroll. If we reformed tenure, we’d enable districts to function with fewer staff, thus allowing us to spend less and pay teachers more.

Even without tenure reform, our peculiar brand of municipal madness begets overemployment of teachers. Right now, the state average is 11.1 students per faculty member. Some high-needs districts, however, can justify crowded staffing. For example, Woodrow Wilson High in Camden City (District Factor Group of A) has a ratio of 7.1 students per faculty member. Makes sense: 14.7% of Wilson’s 986 students are English Language Learners and 26.1% are classified as eligible for special educational services. The academic achievement is dismal. The total annual cost per pupil there is $16,178.

For something completely different, take a look at Englewood Cliffs in Bergen County, an I DFG. 268 kids attend this grades 3-8 school. 1.1% are English Language Learners. 13.7% qualify for special education services. Academic performance is super. Ratio of students to faculty member? 7.3%. Total annual cost per pupil is $20,169.

In other words, we staff a ritzy, high-performing, low-needs district at the same level as one of our very worst urban districts. No egg on Englewood Cliffs’ face; it’s too small to be efficient.

How does Jersey with its 11.1% student/teacher ratio compare nationally? From the National Center for Education Statistics:
The ratio of students to teachers, which is sometimes used as a proxy measure for class size, declined between 1990 and 2006, from 17.6 to 15.9 students per teacher for all regular public schools.
Too many teachers in New Jersey? Just asking.

RTTT Roster

Here’s the latest list of states that will and will not be applying for Race To The Top funds, courtesy of a new website, Yes: Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, Ohio, South Carolina, Utah, and Washington. No: Alaska, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesotat, South Dakota, Texas, and Vermont. EdMoney also has a feature that allows you to see how federal economic stimulus funds are used by each state. Look here for Jersey.

Quote of the Day

The unions are still strong, but every day they’re a little bit less strong. And this is how it happens – the social justice folks are waking up to realize what the unions are all about, and they’re starting to contest the unions’ hammerlock on the Democratic party. What was it Danny DeVito said in Other People’s Money? “Obsolescence . . . down the tubes, slow but sure.”
Greg Forster on Jay P. Greene's Blog.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Sunday Leftovers

The Record looks at superintendent salaries in Jersey.

Carla Katz says
the 2.5% cap is “an illegal attack on the constitutional rights of public employees disguised as reform."

Carl Golden at New Jersey Newsroom
says Christie facing special interests is like Stalin facing Hitler. (Does he mean that in a good way?)

Eight retired NJ Supreme Court justices ask Gov. Christie to reappoint Justice Wallace.

Charles Stile at The Record i
s bewildered: “I'm at a loss as to explain why Christie is so confident — he will still need to negotiate with the ruling Democrats. He has the bully pulpit, but not the votes."

Here's Dr. Lauren Hill's testimony, representing the Education Law Center, against the voucher bill.

Stephen Sawchuk at Education Week
looks at reasons why, over the last 8 years, “the teacher force has increased at more than double the rate of K-12 student enrollments.”

Diane Ravitch prognosticates,
“I believe that 10 years from now RTTT will be widely recognized as a colossal waste of federal money that eroded state control of education and compelled cash-hungry states to embark on programs that did not improve education. We may never be able to undo the damage to children, schools, teachers, public education, and federalism now being done in the name of "reform."

The Wall St. Journal says that “charter schools lack the operational autonomy they need to be effective” and that “Teachers unions and school boards lobby politicians to impose these rules in the hope of hobbling school reformers.”

The Record looks
at the repercussions of the high failure rate on the new Alternative High School Assessment. Leonia superintendent Bernard Josefsberg remarks, "In some respects there’s political advantage to be derived from large numbers of failures. It becomes a way of highlighting the failure of schools whose performance you’re calling into question."

The Asbury Park Press Editorial Board supports a new bill “that would allow local and regional school districts to designate county school superintendents to act as the employer representative in negotiations with school district employee unions.”

Friday, May 14, 2010

Interdistrict School Choice Moves Ahead

Bret Schundler is checking off his list of legislative requirements necessary to bolster NJ’s Race To The Top application. Double whammy yesterday: the voucher bill (which offers entry to private and parochial schools for up to 20,000 kids in chronically failing schools) and the interdistrict school choice bill, S-1073. The latter is sponsored by Sen. Shirley Turner and would take the pilot program, in suspended animation for years despite the best efforts of former Ed. Comm. William Librera, and make it permanent. (See here and here for other NJ Left Behind coverage.) Right now, according to the DOE, only about 900 kids participate because the pilot program, which expired in 2005, continues to operate in 15 school districts. The Trenton Times reports that Sen. Turner said that the bill will “help strengthen New Jersey's chances of receiving federal funding through the "Race to the Top' program.”

In the Assembly the bill will be sponsored by Assemblywomen Mila Jasey and Joan Voss and Assemblyman Paul Moriarty. Here’s their press release.

Lesniak as Sunshine Superman

The Star Ledger Editorial Board paints the picture at the State House yesterday during the voucher bill debate when “Sen. Ray Lesniak confronted the bullies who run the state teachers union.” (Okay, maybe the Ed Board is flashing its bias a bit.) NJEA members had filled the seats of Committee Room 6 early for the 10:30 session, well before buses of parochial students arrived. Once they did, “children in Catholic school uniforms chanted in favor of the vouchers. Many of their sister schools have closed recently, and their own parents often strain to pay tuition. The voucher bill would address both problems.” The drama continues,
When Lesniak asked them to yield half the seats for the kids, the union refused.

"We have every right to be here," said NJEA spokesman Steve Baker.

Granted. But the rest of us have every right to think it’s creepy to close out the kids
So did Sen. Lesniak, who then moved the committee meeting outside "under the sun. The committee heard testimony and voted unanimously in favor of the bill. And so it was launched, in front of the kids."

For more details of how the state would maintain oversight of private and parochial schools if the bill proceeds through the Assembly, check out this NJ Spotlight piece.

Quote of the Day

[New Jersey Democrats'] calculation was also guided by this cynical belief: If Christie sounded like a seasoned politician off the trail, then it was safe to conclude that he didn't mean what he publicly said on the trail. It was all campaign Kabuki. Public school vouchers and merit pay for teachers? No chance of that happening. His pledge to purge the judiciary of activist judges? Red meat for right-wingers.

Snubbing the New Jersey Education Association, the state's most powerful union? Well, he'll come to his senses once he gets into office. Besides, we still rule the Legislature.

So Democrats hitched their fortunes to Christie's bandwagon but now the bandwagon threatens to run them over. And the campaign Kabuki plays like a nightmare.
Charles Stile, The Record

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Voucher Bill Passes Committee

The Senate Economic Growth Committee approved S 1872 today, which creates scholarships for students to attend private and parochial schools. The Record labeled the hearing “raucous;” when legislators arrived at the committee room it was already packed with NJEA members, who oppose the bill. There was no room for vsupporters, so Senator Ray Lesniak moved everyone outside. NJEA spokesman Steve Baker accused the Senator of trying to eject protestors: "He was trying to get them to leave based on their political beliefs," he said "We think that's utterly unacceptable."

Voucher Bill Politics

Big day today for advocates and opponents of Senate Bill 1872, The Opportunity Scholarship Act, a voucher bill that proposes to pilot a 5-year program for somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 children who attend the our worst public schools. (Here’s the list of schools, which represent the poorest-performing in the state.) The bill is sponsored by Sens. Raymond Lesniak and Tom Kean, and will get a hearing this morning at the Senate Economic Growth Committee. Rallies are planned, both anti and pro.

The voucher bill’s primary detractors are NJEA and the Education Law Center, a now familiar phalanx. (Interestingly, the ACLU is also campaigning against the bill.) On the other side are a coterie of groups like the NJ School Choice Alliance, the Black Ministers Council of NJ, the Latino Leadership Alliance, and Excellent Education for Everyone. Here’s Rev. Reginald Jackson in today’s Star-Ledger, who begins by recalling the blockage of an earlier permutation of the bill 5 years ago due to “several misguided legislators who took their cues from the New Jersey Education Association and the Education Law Center.” NJ’s “educational establishment,” he continues,
have throttled charters, disguised failure as success with the Special Review Assessment cover-up, and given lip service to nurturing school reform while strangling it in its crib. Indeed, they have taken vast sums of money, nearly bankrupting the state, while our children have paid the price of poor education with dim futures.

Now the NJEA and ELC oppose the bipartisan Opportunity Scholarship Act, a bill that increases choice for children in the state’s lowest performing 205 schools and drives reform in a manner similar to President Obama’s Race to the Top program through competitive grants aimed at turning these schools around...

Still, the NJEA and ELC oppose this bill, which puts children ahead of the next collective bargaining agreement or lawsuit to extract more money for less education reform. Indeed, they damn our children for their failure even as they drive the state to the edge of insolvency. They oppose this bill because it will enable low-income parents to choose the best schools for their children.
Irony resounds. We understand NJEA’s opposition; the bill would ostensibly redirect funds from public schools to private and parochial schools (though check out the amount of bandwidth on its website devoted to anti-voucher ravings, some of it directed right at E3.) It’s the ELC’s opposition that triggers cognitive dissonance. Here we have the primary advocates for NJ’s poorest Black and Hispanic children swept into the dust heap of the “educational establishment” by none other than the Rev. Jackson, sloughed off with those who would, in fact, camouflage failure as success, who would cravenly value money over student achievement. ELC’s somewhat flippant press release called “LET'S FOLLOW THE LEAD OF ILLINOIS LEGISLATORS AND DUMP VOUCHER BILL” doesn’t ease the headache.

Politics makes strange bedfellows? Sure. ELC and NJEA share leadership, specifically Vince Giordano who doubles as ELC’s Trustee and NJEA’s Executive Director? Okay. And yet…

Time for some tylenol.

NTU Says "Yes" to RTTT

The Newark Teachers Union, a branch of the American Federation of Teachers (i.e., not NJEA), will sign on to NJ’s Race To The Top application. NJ Spotlight reports that NTU President Joseph Del Grosso said he’s all for merit pay and tenure reform, not just the $400 million.
"[Merit pay] can work under the right circumstances,” he said. “I don’t think it should be just about test scores, that’s ludicrous, but a lot of different things …. But we should be able to recognize people who do something extra.”
And Mr. Del Grosso on NJEA’s leadership: “We get along good. But they don’t listen to me.”

Damn Statistics

Fordham's Flypaper remarks on a decrease in population among school age children in Ohio and an increase over the same period of time in the number of teachers:
Rick Hess often points out, as he did in a speech at the City Club of Cleveland last week, that if teacher-student ratios had remained constant since the 1970s we could have average teacher salaries in this country closer to $75,000 than $50,000. But these figures show us that, in Ohio at least, you don’t have to go back near that far to see a more right-sized version of education and that a lot of the current pain schools are feeling might have been prevented if they hadn’t gone on a hiring binge over the past decade.

We can lament all we like the wave of teacher layoffs and the impact of “last hired, first fired” policies. But with such a mismatch between the number of teachers and students, teachers’ salaries and benefits accounting for a good three-quarters of school budgets, and states and schools facing record deficits, a right-sizing is simply inevitable.
How about in New Jersey? Like many other states, we’ve lowered class size over the last ten years. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, our student/teacher ratio in 2000 was 13.3; in 2006 it was 12.4. For comparison’s sake, in 2000 the average student/teacher ratio across America was 16 and in 2006 it was 13.2. One could argue that everyone was just catching up (down) with us.

NCES also compiles data on teacher pay. The average U.S. teacher annual salary in 1969 (hold on to your hats) was $8,626. In 2009 it was $53,168. In NJ, average annual salary for 1969 was $9,130; in 2009 it was $62,150.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

NJEA: "Every Teacher is Meritorious."

NJEA’s website has a new feature: an analysis NJ’s RTTT application. While its censorious tone is no surprise, there’s a few factual misrepresentations. As a public service, we offer these annotations.

1) The proposal will call “for more and more testing, in all subject areas, in all grades.” Actually, the DOE is most likely going to eliminate statewide assessments in all grades except for 4th, 8th, 11th. New district assessments will be web-based and easily integrated into classroom instruction. (By the way, anyone want to figure out how much time and money was spent on developing our new grade 3, 5,6,7, and 9 assessments?)

2) “while NJEA was vilified for weeks by Christie when the poorly conceived and hastily written Phase RTTT application was rejected by the Obama Administration, Schundler told reporters he didn’t think NJEA’s support was central to approval in Phase II.” Actually, Schundler is echoing U.S. Ed Sec. Arne Duncan, who has explained that he prefers strong reforms without buy-in over weak reforms with union support.

3) “According to the administration’s plans, student learning “must represent at least 51% of teacher and school leader evaluations,” even though the RTTT application process does not require such a percentage, and there is no research to back up such a percentage.” In fact, the two winning states, Delaware and Tennessee, had higher percentages and Democrats for Education Reform commented on our application,
The state needs a much more rigorous plan to evaluate teacher effectiveness. At least half of a teacher’s effectiveness rating should be based on the academic growth of his or her students, as the top-scoring states both demonstrated.
4) Under the category of You-Can’t-Make-This-Stuff-Up: “ the entire presentation was billed through the media as a “merit pay” proposal” but that’s hyperbolic because the maximum award through RTTT is $400 million, or $100 million for four years. “Of that, 50 percent – or $25 million – would go to “teachers or teacher teams.” Based on 125,000 classroom teachers in New Jersey, that’s $200 per teacher (assuming every teacher is “meritorious”).”
No comment.

We've Been Outed

at NJ Spotlight.

Factoring 2.5%

Seems like everyone’s still digesting Gov. Christie’s scroll of fiscal reforms handed over to the Legislature over the past week. The centerpiece, of course, is Cap 2.5, which limits school district budget increases to 2.5%, mandates that Executive County Superintendents veto any school contract award, inclusive of all salary, benefit, and other economic provisions to 2.5%, and bars arbitrators from recommending any contract recommendation greater than 2.5%.

There’s no shortage of other items to inspire ire from public employees. For example, in the context of contract negotiations between individual districts and NJEA local units, school boards get back “last, best offer,” rescinded in 2003 during the McGreevey Administration, an important tool that invites reasonable concessions. Another item in the Governor’s quiver would dictate selection in arbitrators for union contracts. (A long-time rumor among school boards has it that NJEA exerts control over this selection by puppeteering legislators.) Another one is downright confounding: if compensation packages can’t rise by more than 2.5% and that cap includes health benefits, how does that work if, like this year, insurance rate increases came in between 12% and 20%? Then there’s the expansion of power for Executive County Superintendents:
The executive county superintendent shall disapprove all collective negotiations agreements that fail to comply with regulations adopted by the commissioner that: (1) contain salary, wages, and other forms such as health and insurance costs that cause a municipality to exceed the tax levy growth limitation calculated pursuant to the Constitutional 2.5% spending cap; (2) do not require the minimal amount of pupil contact for teachers as set forth in the regulations adopted by the commissioner; (3) do not require a minimum number of work days for individuals covered under the agreement consistent with regulations adopted by the commissioner; or (4) prohibit the contracting out of auxiliary services. The Commissioner of the Department of Education shall adopt a minimum amount of work days per year for school district employees and require a minimal amount of pupil contact time for teachers.
Districts still can ask communities to override caps, and wealthy districts will no doubt do so. On the other hand, budgets were voted down this year in towns like Montgomery Township, with a DFG of J. However, there is legitimate concern that this loophole would effectively allow funding gaps to increase between districts that house residents with deep pockets and those who don’t. (Here’s Education Law Center’s objections.)

So, what’s Christie’s strategy? Does he really think that he can pull off this sort of inside-out palace coup? Our best guess is “not entirely,” but that’s the method in the madness. Let Legislators turn him down on some of the more out-there provisions on establishing county school districts. Give a bit on unrealistic health benefits caps. At the end he’s still shifted the center to a whole new equilibrium.

Here's NJ's RTTT Application,

Round 2.

Quote of the Day

But some of Mr. Booker's biggest allies worry about the more than 40,000 students, or about 90% of the city's kids, who don't attend [high performing] charters. Newark's high schools graduated 54% of its seniors last year, but that included students who didn't pass the standard high-school exit exam and instead took an alternative test widely criticized as too easy. At Central High School, for instance, only 4% of the students last year passed using the standard state high school test…One study showed that in 2008, 98% of Newark students attending a local community college required extra help in math, and 87% needed it in English and reading.
The Wall Street Journal on what some perceive Mayor Cory Booker's lack of aggression in seizing control of Newark's failing district schools.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Data Impasse

John Mooney at NJ Spotlight raises an important point in his piece on the ability of NJ’s statewide student data base – NJ SMART – to perform a basic task that informs our new Race To The Top application: tie teacher evaluations to student longitudinal data. Writes Mooney,
In the last year, however, the system by all accounts has made important strides, with 10 years of test scores loaded and ready to gauge student and school-wide performance. But when it comes to some of the teacher evaluations that are now the focus of Christie’s agenda, the system is still not there. It could be years away from delivering the level of sophistication the plans require.
In fact, our RTTT report card from Democrats for Education Reform makes much the same point, as did the reviewers of our first application. Under the grading system used by the Feds, an individual state’s data system can reap up to 47 points. NJ got only 27.2. For comparison’s sake, the two winners, Delaware and Tennessee, got 47 points and 43.6 points respectively. From DFER:
A low score on Data Systems also hurt the state’s chances. Its score of 27.2 out of 47 possible points (58%) was one of the lowest of any of the 41 states entering the first round, only eight states scored lower. The core problem is that the state has fully implemented only three of the 12 data elements required under the America COMPETES Act. Arguable the most important component — a unique teacher identifier, necessary for teacher evaluations based on student growth — has only been partially implemented. The state currently does not link K–12 student data with data related to college-readiness or higher education outcomes. An accelerated schedule for fully implementing all 12 elements could significantly improve the state’s chances for a Round 2 win.
Now, Comm. Schundler has assured stakeholders that our RTTT proposal includes the promise that our data system will be brought into the “21st century, creating efficiencies and providing powerful tools and resources.” This will be done through “hosting a web or ‘cloud’ based system to support school operations, instructional planning, and public access to our school data, “ he says, and there does seem to be general consensus that a more robust data system is essential, at least among superintendents, school boards, and education scholars. One of the reviewers of our last RTTT application commented, “The State’s data system currently lacks capacity to measure and report ‘adjusted cohort graduation rates.’ The State, therefore, relies on estimating high school graduation rates, which, although high, have not changed over the years. As the State improves its data system, it is possible — if not probable — its graduation rates will decrease.”

And that was before our new Alternative High School Assessment debuted, but who’s counting?

One set of stakeholders soundly rejects the relevance of improved data systems, if not the implementation. The Star-Ledger reports that NJEA President Barbara Keshishian, in the audience at Schundler’s presentation of NJ’s RTTT application yesterday, said “she could not envision endorsing the state’s application if student test scores made up half of a teacher’s evaluation. She also challenged the commissioner in front of the crowd, saying Governor Christie’s repeated attacks on the union sabotaged the chances for teamwork.”

Now, Pres. Keshishian may be right about that: odds for camaraderie among the DOE, local unions, and school boards on RTTT seems dubious at best. So where does this trajectory take us? NJEA's leaders will continue to reject teacher accountability, embodied in NJ's ability (or lack thereof) to tie student growth to teacher evaluations. Comm. Schundler will go ahead with our RTTT application sans NJEA support (or even school district support, judging by the lukewarm response to the proposal at yesterday's meeting). We'll win RTTT or we won't, but we'll still need the data and our teachers' spokespeople will deny it. Maybe we should try mediation.

Monday, May 10, 2010

On "Quality-Based Lay-Offs"

Regarding the memo below from NJEA president Barbara Keshishian and NJEA executive director Vince Giordano: we get the outrage at the 2.5% cap on municipal and school levies and annual increases in salary in benefits. After decades of free health benefits and annual salary increases of 4-5%, why wouldn’t a public labor union announce that “our war with the Christie Administration is now full-blown?” It’s NJEA’s job to express high dudgeon at any threat to the status quo in regards to teacher compensation. Here’s where we lose them:
Christie is also going after the civil service system, by allowing towns to opt out of civil service protections such as the use of seniority when determining layoffs. This is on top of last Friday’s legislative proposal announcement by Commissioner Schundler, which seeks to change our tenure system and to basically abolish the seniority system as we know it.
NJEA’s leaders refer to, of course, to Comm. Schundler’s announcement on Friday (superintendents and school boards hear it today) that part of NJ’s Race To The Top application will include changes to teacher evaluations and seniority rules. Specifically, our proposed Teacher Performance Index will “establish the principle that student learning must represent at least 51% of teacher and school leaders evaluations.” Regarding awarding of tenure – which would happen after 5 years employment, not 3 – “we should require a meaningful tenure decision based on effectiveness, not simply elapsed time. Finally, when lay-offs are necessary, our RTTT proposal specifies that we will “base decisions on evaluation data, not seniority.”

In fact, NJ’s second try at RTTT money aligns well with the latest research. For example, a new study out from The New Teacher Project called “A Smarter Teacher Lay-Off System” finds that not only does many years of experience play a minimal role in teacher effectiveness but also that classroom teachers believe that basing lay-offs on seniority alone is a bad idea. Part of the study surveyed 9,000 teachers on their views regarding “quality-blind lay-off rules:”
Teachers in these two districts overwhelmingly rejected quality-blind layoff rules. When asked whether factors other than length of service should be considered in layoff decisions, 74 percent of teachers in District A and 77 percent of teachers in District B said “yes.” A majority of teachers at every experience level favored considering factors other than seniority. Even among teachers with 30 or more years of experience, 51 percent of teachers in District A and 57 percent in District B indicated that other factors should be considered.
Teachers know that effectiveness in the classroom and length of service are two separate matters. NJEA’s leaders probably know that too. Maybe they should pick their battles more carefully.

Memo of the Day

TO:All NJEA Members

FROM:Barbara Keshishian, NJEA President
Vincent Giordano, NJEA Executive Director

RE:Tomorrow's Legislative Assault from Gov. Christie

Our war with the Christie Administration is now full-blown.

Every NJEA member should now be fully outraged at this governor and his agenda, because it is now an official attack on the very future of public education, and on the careers and livelihoods of each and every one of us.

Despite almost daily attacks on NJEA, its members, our students, and public education in general over the past four months, we are now faced with an all-out assault which we must mobilize to defeat.

As the Newark Star-Ledger reported today, Christie will propose 33 bills that seek to crush public employees on every level.

While the focal point of this attack may be its proposed 2.5% cap on annual increases in salaries and benefits, it also includes a 2.5% cap on annual increases in municipal, school, and county property tax levies, which would have a disastrous impact on the ability of districts to maintain services and programs.

Christie is also going after the civil service system, by allowing towns to opt out of civil service protections such as the use of seniority when determining layoffs. This is on top of last Friday’s legislative proposal announcement by Commissioner Schundler, which seeks to change our tenure system and to basically abolish the seniority system as we know it.

Please know that NJEA is on top of this attack:
  • We have had work groups analyzing and preparing research, talking points, and lobbying information on all of the key issues in this package, and that information is now in hand;
  • We will be holding emergency meetings first thing this week to analyze the specific legislation as soon as it is made public (sometime Monday);
  • We will move quickly to put an organizing/political action plan into effect; We will be providing all staff, leaders, local presidents, and members with constant updates as events unfold, to ensure the broadest possible awareness of and involvement in this ultimate showdown.
  • We must be prepared to move swiftly and decisively in the days ahead. We need everyone's singular focus on this crisis, if we are to turn back and defeat this unprecedented attack on public education, NJEA, and its members.
Stay tuned, and stay in touch with your local president for the latest updates.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Sunday Leftovers

NJEA President Barbara Keshishian calls Christie a "liar":
This dishonesty and rancor from a governor is reprehensible. But there is a pattern here. Like the Wizard of Oz (“pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”), diverting the public’s attention from what you’re really doing just may cover up your misdeeds.
NJSBA calls for the Legislature to restore “last, best offer” so that school boards have a fighting chance at the bargaining table, that it reform tenure laws, and overhaul seniority and bumping rights.

Newly-minted teachers face a tough job market and pin their hopes on teacher retirements (today’s Star-Ledger).

James Ahearn reviews the alternative high school assessment failure rate.

The Courier Post looks at Camden schools top-heavy infrastructure:
Camden City Schools approved next year's budget with layoffs of more than 300 staff. But in the midst of these cuts, the school district retains 102 administrators making more than $100,000 each in base salary, for a total of $12 million annually.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reports on uncertain teacher lay-off prospects in school districts where budgets failed.

The Christie administration is considering adjusting physical education requirements, eliminating it altogether in elementary schools and reducing the number of hours required per week – currently 2.5 hours – in upper grades.

The Farmingdale Teachers Associations says that it agreed to a salary freeze in spite of Gov. Christie’s request for same.

Gordon MacInnes, former assistant education commissioner for Abbott implementation:
There is no other way to read the actions and statements of Gov. Chris Christie: He is New Jersey’s first governor to be a sworn enemy of public schools. Never, never, never has a chief executive of New Jersey so flamboyantly turned his back on the 1.3 million public school students and their parents.
Comic relief: In Washington Township, reports the Gloucester County News, school board members declined to give their business administrator normal purchasing rights so there’s no gas for the buses on Monday.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Schundler Presents NJ's Race To The Top Application

Bret Schundler is taking Arne Duncan at his word. The U.S. Education Secretary told states recently that the Race to the Top competition would reward “political will, leadership, and the courage to make the best choices for students” instead of “watered-down reforms with broad buy-in." For our second try in the federal competition, NJ will bank on that commitment.
At a press conference this afternoon, the Commissioner allowed, “I would love to have NJEA’s partnership, but I don’t think we’ll get it.” So NJ will move ahead – minus teacher union support – with an application that includes the following elements:
  • A longitudinal data system that ties student growth to teacher effectiveness.
  • Adoption of Common Core standards for English and math.
  • Expansion of alternate pathways to teaching certification, and emphasis on content knowledge rather than abstract pedagogy.
  • Adoption of a teacher evaluation system in which at least 51% of the evaluation is based on student learning.
  • Extension of the tenure timeline to 5 years and a requirement that tenure be awarded only after 3 years of “effective” evaluations.
  • Establishment of new professional categories of “Master Teacher” and “Master Principal” to recognize and empower the best effective educators.
  • Lay-offs of teachers based on evaluations of student learning, not seniority.
  • Closure of failing schools.
  • Creation of “Achievement Academies” whereby effective teachers can open alternative schools within their own districts, creating their own salary guides.
  • Legislation that creates new Charter School Authorizers, instead of the current system whereby the only authorizer is the DOE.
  • Creation of a state bonus pool, or merit pay system, to reward teachers for student learning outcomes, with an emphasis on the most disadvantaged students.
Legislative changes on tenure law and charter authorization will wait until after June 1st. However, the Legislature will be urged to adopt a statement of principle that “the State of NJ shall make student learning the primary yardstick by which it measures districts, teachers, methodologies.” In other words, Schundler is looking for legislative buy-in if not union buy-in. How far is NJEA’s leadership from signing onto education reform? At a meeting yesterday, NJEA President Barbara Keshishian and NJEA Executive Director Vince Giordano were asked by Schundler, “can you measure student learning?” The answer: a unanimous “no.”

Other highlights from the Commissioner’s remarks:
“We have a very substantial proposal” and “a very substantial chance to win.”

We’d implement these reforms “even if there wasn’t a dollar attached. But there is $400 million dollars.”

The Obama Administration is “making it clear that unions will not have veto power over education reform in America.”

“School choice is an accountability mechanism.”

“We’re going full-out.” The buy-in from stakeholders isn’t as important as “a bold commitment to reform.”

“Will we tolerate failure forever? The Obama Administration said we should not, and moral considerations tell us we should not.”

Educational Enigmas

The National Journal has an online debate among education experts addressing this question: "As states prepare their Race to the Top applications, what is more important: Obtaining union buy-in or implementing bold reform ideas?"

You can read responses from such luminaries as Andrew Rotherham, Andy Smarick, Tom Vander Ark, Deborah Meier, Diane Ravitch, Most echo Ed Sec Arne Duncan’s admonishment that strong reform tops weak consensus, while others don’t. Among the respondents is our very own David Sciarra, Executive Director of the Education Law Center, who has this to say:
Secretary Duncan has called the crisis an "education catastrophe." He's right. So it's hard to fathom how the Education Department (ED) can forge ahead with the RTT competition in the face of this near 50 state financial meltdown. Putting aside the expert debate about the educational value of the RTT reforms, ED needs to rethink the RTT strategy in light of the extraordinary fiscal stress in state education budgets…There’s still time to call it off.
Here’s where we get confused. Race To The Top is a federally-funded stimulus program for states who develop coherent strategies to improve student growth, prepare students to succeed in college, develop effective teachers and principals, and turn around the lowest-performing schools. Such an agenda echoes ELC’s own core value, which it defines in its Mission Statement: “if given the opportunity, all children can achieve high academic standards to prepare them for citizenship and to compete in the economy.” So what’s up with the animus? Given the deplorable state of our urban schools (who educate the very children ELC advocates for) and the commonality of purpose between ELC and RTTT, wouldn’t alliance be more logical than defiance?

Yeah, yeah. It's all political (we hear cynics sniffing). ELC's Trustee is Vince Giordano, Executive Director of NJEA, stalwart foes of RTTT and all things Christie/Schundler. We don't buy it. Something's missing. We'll keep looking for it.

A Warm Welcome To NJ Spotlight,

the newest online news and analysis source in the Garden State. Just launched this week, NJ Spotlight is spearheaded by education reporter John Mooney of Star-Ledger, Bergen Record, and New York Times fame; Tom Johnson, veteran reporter for the Star-Ledger on energy, environment, and telecommunications issues; Publisher Kevin Harold, former VP of Operations for Rand McNally and Senior VP of Businessweek; and Managing Editor Lee Keough. NJ Spotlight focuses on budget, education, energy and environment, and healthcare. (Full disclosure: NJ Left Behind will have a regular column at NJ Spotlight.)

For example, today John Mooney looks at NJ’s Race To The Top application (due in 25 days and 6 hours, according to Democrats for Education Reform’s stopwatch). Comm. Schundler is advocating for the application’s focus on merit pay and tying student growth to teacher assessments.
"Delaware and Tennessee [the winners in the first round] didn’t just say they were thinking about this," Schundler said. "Delaware passed the law that said student learning will be the measure by which we evaluate teacher performance."
The elephant in the room, of course, is NJEA’s strident opposition to using student growth as yardsticks to measure teacher effectiveness. However, yesterday Schundler met with NJEA President Barbara Keshishian and Executive Director Vince Giordano who, according to The Record, “brought researchers’ documentation to the commissioner to show flaws in systems that evaluate teachers by student performance. The union has long opposed efforts to tie pay to student achievement, saying such systems are unfair to teachers with challenging pupils and creates too much pressure to teach to tests.”

Yet we’re nowhere without it the appropriate data systems. DFER’s tipsheet to NJ on how to improve our scores from last time (when we limped to the finish line in 18th place) notes that "the state needs a much more rigorous plan to evaluate teacher effectiveness. At least half of a teacher’s effectiveness rating should be based on the academic growth of his or her students, as the top-scoring states both demonstrated. New Jersey also needs to detail its plan for how to more equitably distribute qualified and effective teachers."

This battle of wills over two separate yet related elements -- tying student growth to teacher evaluations and awarding merit pay for educational success -- may very well prove to be the deathknell for NJEA-buy-in. (Whether that matters or not is another story.) Here's an idea. What if we squarely acknowledge that NJ's educational tragedy is, as President of the Latino Alliance Martin Perez, put it at the "Crisis and Hope" conference in Princeton on Wednesday:
NJ has some of the best public school in the United States. The problem is that Black and Hispanic kids are not in those schools.
Yeah, yeah, it's the old Abbott problem: we have some of the best schools in the nation and some of the worst, and our infrastructure bans kids in the worst from attending the best. (Fact: Raymond Abbott, the eponymous plaintiff in the Abbott cases, just got out of jail.) So can we create a system that honestly acknowledges that we have two separate and unequal school systems and use merit pay for the schools on that list? Can that hard truth form the basis for our application, one that directly addresses our indefatigable achievement gap? In other words, set up a data system that evaluates all teachers, regardless of where they teach, on student growth. But offer bonuses -- merit pay, if you prefer -- to teachers who are able to teach in our toughest schools and succeed with poor urban kids. Think of it as a pilot for state-wide merit pay, but start where we need it most. Such an approach might prove more palatable to NJEA's leaders and it sure wouldn't hurt to have their signatures on our RTTT application.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Getting Your Kicks on Rte. 676

The Courier-Post has a story today titled “Teachers: Union is Doing Its Job.” First quote in story: “The NJEA is like a life coach for our union. We are one and the same.” That’s Robert Johnson, a kindergarten teacher at Mantua's Centre City Elementary School and co-president of the Mantua Township Education Association. The Post couldn’t get any non-union leadership teachers to talk on the record: “none that spoke would agree to have their names used for this article.” The explanation for their reticence is “they say they are not afraid of their local union officials or the state NJEA, but do sometimes feel pressured by their district administrations and are angry and saddened that the governor is targeting them.” Could be.

A couple of quibbles: Steve Wollmer, spokesman for NJEA fulminates about some of Gov. Christie’s more impolitic comments,
We're not taking this without setting the record straight. Public education works in this state and the governor is intent on destroying it.
Really? Works for whom? According to Peter Denton, Chairman of E3, at yesterday’s “Crisis and Hope” conference in Princeton, 1,300 first graders enrolled in the Camden Public School but only 150 Camden high school seniors passed the HSPA’s, the state assessment that former Commissioner Lucille Davy labeled an 8th grade level test. A look at the DOE data confirms this educational dichotomy: at Camden High 18% of kids graduated by passing the HSPA. On the other hand, 8 miles away at Cherry Hill High, also in Camden County, 96.2% of high school seniors passed the HSPA’s. So I guess whether “public education works in this state” depends upon what side of Rte. 676 you’re on.

Second quibble: “It is not mandatory for teachers to join their local union, said NJEA spokesman Steve Wollmer, although he believes only a small number -- perhaps 1 percent -- choose to opt out.” Actually, NJ is not a right to work state, and teachers have no choice whether or not to join NJEA. Technically they can opt out of membership, but still get billed 80% of union dues as a fee for NJEA’s services in negotiating contracts. But who’s counting.