Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sunday Leftovers

Andrew Rotherham at Eduwonk on Gov. Christie's Teaching Effectiveness Task Force:
Chris Christie, New Jersey’s bombastic governor, is surely a piece of work. But he pulled a fast one with his new teacher effectiveness task force. When the state NEA affiliate is stuck protesting that a panel including an executive of the state AFT affiliate doesn’t have teacher representation, well…that’s a pretty hard sell.
Also see NJ Spotlight on the nine-member committee.

Elsewhere (in Time Magazine) Rotherham explains how ed reformers recognize de facto school segregation but put their energies elsewhere:
No one in the mainstream of the education debate wants segregated schools. But while such schools are not an immutable condition, they are an unfortunate fact of life. That's why so many in the reform community see issues such as improving teacher effectiveness, providing a better curriculum and expanding high-performing charter schools in underserved communities as more impactful and immediate steps than grand schemes to change housing policy or school-district boundaries. And of course, there are plenty of schools that demonstrate that high poverty rates and low achievement are not inexorably linked. These reformers, myself included, are not opposed to efforts to create more economically integrated schools. We're just keenly attuned to the practical constraints.
Sara Mead at EdWeek continues the conversation on the "limits of socio-economic integration."

There's yet another entry in the burgeoning education reform film industry: "Teached."

Norman Atkins of Uncommon Schools
explains how some of the best charter schools get results in poor urban areas and challenges city superintendents to “embrace this new generation of teachers and innovators and hold them accountable for results, rather than clinging to old models.”

101.5 is reporting that Chris Christie formally offered the DOE Commish job to Michelle Rhee, but don’t hold your breath.

New Jersey School Boards Association has formally come out against S-1940/A-2772, a bill that would force school districts to apply any money saved through effective bargaining with unions to rehiring teachers from that union.

NJEA leaders and the Christie Administration are still arguing over whether NJ’s last-minute application for $268 million in Edujobs money forced districts to lay off teachers unnecessarily. Steve Baker of NJEA says that “the governor put politics ahead of up to 3,900 jobs.” Michael Drewniak, Christie press secretary, said, “The NJEA could have been part of the shared sacrifice, but this outfit does not share and does not sacrifice.”

Friday, October 29, 2010

School Choice Pile-Up

Here’s an interesting contrast regarding our newly-authorized Interdistrict Public School Choice Program. This week two wealthy NJ districts (both have DFG’s of I on a scale of A-J) entertained the option of volunteering to be “choice districts,” i.e., open any extra seats to students within the county but outside of district boundaries. Home districts get the revenue, needy kids get a chance, and everyone’s happy right?

Depends if you live in Marlboro or Evesham. In Marlboro in Monmouth County, the Board voted unanimously and with little debate to participate in the Interdistrict School Choice Program. (Asbury Park Press.) On the other hand, when the superintendent of Evasham Public Schools in Burlington County recommended that the district apply, 200 audience members gave the idea a thumbs-down, despite a potential $581K in revenue amidst a grim fiscal picture.

According to South Jersey Local News, a representative comment came from parent Joe Barbagiovanni, who “expressed concern that there would be an effect on the housing crisis, saying, 'If (people) knew we were bringing (students) in from the outside, why would they move here?'”

Not that they don't have the space. According to the paper, Superintendent John Scavelli's proposal would have limited participation to kindergarten and first grade. Enrollment in the district in 2003 was 406 kindergarteners and 544 first graders. This year there are 359 kindergartners and 485 first graders, a decrease of over 13 percent, or 700 students.

But the motion did not even come up for a vote. It was withdrawn due to obvious public sentiment. That's bad news for families in districts in Burlington, like Willingboro or Beverly City or Mount Holly, where a seat in Evesham would be like winning the lottery. Ah, Interdistrict Public School Choice, the Blanche Dubois of New Jersey's education reform movement, where a seat in a high-performing district depends on the kindness of strangers.

Asbury Park Follow-Up

Earlier this week we took a somewhat grim look at Asbury Park Public Schools, including the results of their 2007 QSAC monitoring, the instrument the State DOE uses to evaluate a district’s fiscal, educational, operational, and structural health. Those 2007 scores were nothing to write home about, but the district has just released their 2010 scores, which show good improvement.

For example, in 2007 Asbury Park received a 36% in Fiscal Management. Now the score is 65%. Personnel limped in with a 28% in 2007, but now it’s up to 68%. Governance was an embarrassment at 11%; three years later it’s at 66%. Operation Management was 72%, but dropped this year to 58%. Unfortunately, Instruction and Assessment, arguably the most important category, was largely unchanged: 15% three years ago, and now only 18%.

The passing score for each section is 80%.

According to the Asbury Park Press, Superintendent Denise Lowe, currently battling with State Monitor Frank Sinatra over whether or not to hire a supervising principal, gave credit for the improvements to the Board, administrators, and Sinatra, who provides various and sundry services to districts across the state through his business entity Sinatra Associates.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Education Effectiveness Panel Named

Gov. Christie has announced the nine members of the new Education Effectiveness Task Force. Chair is Brian Zychowsky, Superintendent of Schools in North Brunswick Township. Members are Derrell Bradford, Executive Director and Director of Communications for Excellent Education for Everyone (E3); Jesse Rector, Clinton Hill Campus President of North Star Academy Charter School; Ross Danis, Associate Dean of Education at Drew University; Donna Chiera, an Executive of the American Federation of Teachers and Special Education Resource Teacher; Rafael Fajardo, former President of the Elizabeth Board of Education; Rev. Edwin Leahy, Headmaster of St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark; Jane Cosco, retired teacher and Director of Operation Goody Bag; and PeggySue Juliano, Executive Board Member of the Lacy Township High School PTA.

According to the press release, the panel is will present by March 1st a recommendation for a “fair and transparent system of educator evaluations that centers on student learning and achievement. The recommendations must center on a fair and transparent system of educator evaluations that fairly weigh measuring student achievement and utilizing demonstrated practices of effective teachers and leaders.”


A week from today is the first day of the NJEA’s two-day Teacher Convention in Atlantic City, known to parents as “the four-day weekend that renders November a scholastic-free month, especially when you add on Thanksgiving recess and, often, half-days due to parent-teacher conferences.”

But the wrath of parents falls unfairly on NJEA’s shoulders. That weight rests on our legislators, whom in their wisdom approved State Statute 18A-31-2:
18A:31-2. Attendance at conventions of New Jersey Education Association
Whenever any full-time teaching staff member of any board of education of any local school district or regional school district or of a county vocational school or any secretary, or office clerk applies to the board of education by which he is employed for permission to attend the annual convention of the New Jersey Education Association, such permission shall be granted for a period of not more than two days in any one year and he shall receive his whole salary for the days of actual attendance upon the sessions of such convention upon filing with the secretary of the board a certificate of such attendance signed by the executive secretary of the association.
Here’s where NJEA gets a wee bit sneaky. Just about every state teacher association in the country has an annual convention, but holds it either on the weekend or over the summer. (Four states hold it during the school year [Vermont, Minnesota, Utah, and Wisconsin]; so does Maryland, but it’s over a Friday-Saturday, so kids miss only one school day.)

And, although the statute states that teachers can “apply” for permission (that must be granted) and submit proof of attendance, all traditional public schools just shut down anyway.

Given NJEA’s rotten public relations week (almost 300,000 hits on the video), what better way to gain some goodwill than to give those two days back to the kids? Starting next year, move the annual convention to the summer or a weekend, like the vast majority of other states in the U.S. Reinstate those two days as regular school days, a veritable gift of instructional time. If that’s too hard a stretch, schedule the convention as a Friday-Saturday event instead of Thursday-Friday so that the kids reap one day more.

New Jersey School Boards Association Annual Workshop set the example this year, down-sizing and economizing in Somerset instead of Atlantic City. Perfect? No. Responsive to the times? Yes. It’s all about the kids, right? Give them back the days.

Quote of the Day

The National Academies, the country’s leading advisory group on science and technology, warned in 2005 that unless the United States improved the quality of math and science education, at all levels, it would continue to lose economic ground to foreign competitors.

The situation remains grim. According to a follow-up report published last month, the academies found that the United States ranks 27th out of 29 wealthy countries in the proportion of college students with degrees in science or engineering, while the World Economic Forum ranked this country 48th out of 133 developed and developing nations in quality of math and science instruction.
The New York Times Editorial Board

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Asbury Park Mess

Struggles continue at Asbury Park Public Schools, reports the Asbury Park Press. There is a “profound disagreement” between Superintendent Denise Lowe and State Fiscal Monitor Frank Sinatra over whether or not the 2,000-student district needs another administrator to mentor principals. Lowe says “yes” and Sinatra says “no,” because in a “district this size” the superintendent can surely supervise principals. (Here’s the School Board minutes that cover some discussion of this matter.)

The Press also mentions the School Board’s response to the our newly-reauthorized Interdistrict Public School Choice Program, which would theoretically allow up to 10% of Asbury Park students to transfer to another Monmouth County school district. Sinatra advised the Board to cap the number of students allowed to leave at 5%; enrollment is declining as it is.

A little paranoid, no? After all, the only “choice district” in Monmouth, i.e., other traditional public schools open to Asbury Park’s kids, is the agricultural program at Allentown High School, which has exactly one seat available for the 2011-2012 school year. Even non-aspiring farmers might fight for the seat because here’s Asbury Park High School’s DOE data for the 2008-2009 school year: 72% of its students failed the High School Proficiency Assessment in language arts and 86.1% failed the math portion. After three tries, only 34.9% were able to pass the HSPA; a stunning 64.6% relied on the Special Review Assessment, which has since been eliminated after the DOE determined that it was impossible to fail.

Average SAT scores are 325 in math and 330 in verbal. Total cost per pupil? $21,177.

The younger kids don’t do much better. At Barack Obama Elementary School (formerly Bangs Avenue Elementary) 87.7% of 3d graders failed the NJ ASK 3 in language arts and 75.3% failed the math portion.

Speaking of interdistrict opportunity (or not), seven miles down the road at Manasquan High 100% of high school juniors and seniors passed the HSPA. 94% are college-bound and average SAT scores are 521 in math and 504 in verbal. Cost per pupil is $14,310. There's also a charter school in Asbury Park, Academy Charter School, which enrolls 195 kids in its high school program, with 159 on the waiting list. It's not Manasquan, but 85% of its kids pass the HSPA. FYI, 15.3% of Academy's students are special ed kids.

Meanwhile, Asbury Park worries about enrollment ( 478 kids in 2009 at the High School) and jousts with the Fiscal Monitor about adding administrative positions. But this is old news. Asbury Park Public Schools underwent QSAC monitoring (NJ Quality Single Accountability Continuum) a formal review by the DOE in 2007. Final scores for the district:

Operations Management: 72% of indicators met.
Personnel: 28% of indicators met.
Instruction and Programming: 15% of indicators met.
Governance: 11% of indicators met.
Fiscal Management: 36% of indicators met.

Minimum score for each section is 80%. Asbury Park failed every one. Meanwhile, the Fiscal Monitor suggests that Asbury Park apply to be a choice district itself and "develop a performing arts academy at the high school level to draw in students." Maybe they'll hold a lottery.

NJEA Youtube Sensation

NJEA is considering legal action against James O’Keefe (late of ACORN fame) for releasing the video “NJEA Teacher Unions Gone Wild.” According to the Star-Ledger, Steve Wollmer, NJEA spokesman, called the video a “complete fabrication.” With 177,372 hits on youtube, it’s circulating widely and purports to catch in action attendees at the NJEA Leadership Conference in August at a bar in the East Brunswick Hilton.

There’s actually three videos. The first and most popular is 6 minutes of apparently drunk NJEA leaders boasting about how hard it is to fire a tenured teacher, even if a teacher shouts racial epithets at students. There's also lots of chanting, like "Let’s have a whiskey and get a little misty. Join me now and slander Chris Christie!" In the second, an actor posing as a parent calls Assistant Superintendent of Passaic City Schools, Lawrence E. Everett, to complain that his child was called the “n-word” and Everett explains that the teacher won’t be fired because “that’s not usually how it works.” The third has NJEA Associate Director Wayne Dibofsky discussing alleged voter fraud by NJEA during the 1997 Jersey City mayoral election.

From the Star-Ledger: “Wollmer said teachers paid for conference attendance themselves, or were sent by their local unions. No public money was involved, he said.”

Really? How about the fees – somewhere between $700-$1,000 a year – that teachers pay in union dues? Didn’t some of that go towards expenses for the 1,500 members who attended the August conference? The 200,000 NJEA members might have something to say about the appropriate use of their hard-earned money.

Quote of the Day

Especially when it comes to education. It’s encouraging that even a paleo­liberal like Mondale now believes that “we should weed out teachers who are unsuited to the profession” and that teachers’ union rules “must have flexibility.” There’s a great struggle under way today within the Democratic Party between Obama and the reformers on one side and, on the other, hidebound adult interest groups (especially the National Education Association) that have until recently dominated the party. If liberalism is about practical problem solving, then establishing the high standards and accountability necessary to rescue a generation of poor minority youths and train the American work force of the future must move to the top of the progressive agenda. Education reform is emerging as the first important social movement of the 21st century, a perfect cause for a new generation of ­idealists.
Jonathan Alter in the New York Times Book Review on the “tactical split within liberalism itself,” one between “action liberals” (policy wonks willing to cooperate with “deal-making and Big Money connections that often turn off the base”) and “movement liberals (“dreamy idealists” who prefer “emotionally satisfying gestures to incremental but significant change”).

Monday, October 25, 2010


Bruce Baker at Rutgers (and fellow blogger at School Finance 101) takes umbrage at my piece today in NJ Spotlight: the argument that our chronically failing districts could benefit from school choice, better teachers, and accountability, he says, is “ill-conceived,” “offensive,” “deeply distorted,” “dreadfully oversimplified,” “bombastic,” “misguided.” Plus it’s “reformy.” Ouch.

But he brings up two important points (that I’d post as a comment on his blog but can’t since he’s eliminated the comment section. Put it back, Bruce!). First, he writes:
this editorial argues these [that wealthy successful] districts should band together… should coalesce, to RAM DESTRUCTIVE, ILL-CONCEIVED POLICIES DOWN THE THROATS OF THEIR POOR URBAN NEIGHBORS. That’ll fix ‘em! And without comparable adverse effects on their own districts! [Emphases his own.]
What I actually said was, “Surely school leaders, legislators, New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) executives and the DOE can coalesce around" various kinds of education reform. And I meant school leaders in wealthy, middle-class, and impoverished districts. This is important: NJ education discussions are often as segregated as our districts, as provincial as our home ruled culture. Who cares what happens in Camden if you live in Saddle River?

Sometimes it seems that our investment in community ends at the township line. Bruce falls into that trap by assuming that “school leaders” refers to one cohort (the rich one) of districts, not school leaders as a united group dedicated to providing an effective educational system to all NJ’s kids.

No doubt I could have been clearer.

Secondly, I was by no means suggesting that expansion of charter schools, merit pay, and teacher accountability would cure all that ails us. Here’s Bruce:
The present NJ Spotlight argument begins with a deeply distorted, selective “factiness” about the failures of New Jersey’s urban districts (some of the nation’s worst! evidence?) and reasons for them (not enough charters, and no merit pay for teachers) and then jumps quickly to the most extreme and dreadfully oversimplified representation of the solutions (solutions, mind you, that may be far worse than the “disease”) to all of our – excuse me – their problems.
It’s an old argument. There is no perfect value-added method of teacher valuation; therefore, all value-added teacher evaluation is worthless. (For a more nuanced view, see this great report from The New Teacher Project, “Teacher Evaluation 2.0.”) The success record for charter schools is mixed; therefore, expansion of charters is otiose. (See this report from Jay P. Greene: “Measuring test score improvements in eleven states over a one-year period, this study finds that charter schools serving the general student population outperformed nearby regular public schools on math tests by 0.08 standard deviations, equivalent to a benefit of 3 percentile points for a student starting at the 50th percentile.”)

The point isn’t whether there is a perfect solution out there. Newsflash: there’s not. The point is that across America there’s a growing recognition that our public education system needs to change. (Heck: even Randi Weingarten, President of The American Federation of Teachers, supports Race To The Top.) Teacher evaluations will include value-added data. School choice will expand. Teacher unions will eventually move past industrial labor models and treat members like professionals. Pay will be differentiated. Technology will transform classrooms.

Defending the status quo from misguided reformy types may be fun, but it's sort of like arguing that our agrarian school calendar, holidays coinciding with harvesting time, is relevant to the 21st century, or that the only useful model for education is one teacher in front of a desk-lined room of 25 kids.

Truly, Bruce, I respect your work. But do you really think that the NJ's traditional educational system is working well for kids in Camden, Newark, and Trenton? If not, what should we do now?

"NJEA Teachers Gone Wild"

Circulating on youtube right now, it purports to be “actual footage from the NJEA Leadership Conference."

Check Out...

my opinion piece today in NJ Spotlight, Separate and Unequal: Bringing All the Kids Under the Tent.”

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Quote of the Day

The Wall Street Journal l
ooks at the relationship between NJEA President Barbara Keshishian and Gov. Christie. Here’s Andrew Rotherham: "Chris Christie isn't the most convenient messenger for the education-reform movement, because of his take-no-prisoners style. But he's on to something big—that the huge cost for public schools is no longer sustainable." The piece continues,
The average New Jersey teacher makes $61,277 a year, well above the U.S. average of $52,800, according to the National Education Association. New Jersey teachers get medical and other benefits costing $19,140 a year, according to the teachers union. The New Jersey Treasurer estimates its unfunded liabilities relating to lifetime health benefits for current and retired teachers is $36.32 billion.

To foot that and other bills, New Jersey residents pay an average of 11.8% of their income in state and local taxes, the highest in the nation, according to the Tax Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank. The average property tax bill for owner-occupied residences in New Jersey is $6,579, also a U.S. high.

Sunday Leftovers

Teachers at a charter school in Englewood, the Palisades Charter School, have voted to join the American Federation of Teachers, reports The Record, after officials extended the school day. NJEA spokesman Steve Baker applauded the move because unionization will prevent “tremendous burnout.” Shelley Skinner of the NJ Charter Schools Association, remarked that , “[w]hen you start being into heavy-duty labor agreements it can hold you back from being able to have flexibility."

Speaking of charters, Mastery Charter Schools is moving to Camden, says NJ Spotlight. Currently operating in Philadelphia with seven schools, Mastery has a solid reputation, “with its focus on accountability and assessment that has helped lift its test scores soundly above those of other Philadelphia public schools.”

And don’t miss NJ Spotlight’s update on the Abbott rulings. Education Law Center is arguing that Gov. Christie’s last-minute school aid cuts violated the School Funding Reform Act, while the Administration argues that the cuts were necessary due to “extraordinary financial circumstances.” Amicus briefs have been filed by NJEA, NAACP, and special education advocates.

Everyone’s talking about Michael Ritacco, Superintendent of Toms River public schools, who was indicted on Thursday for taking between $1 million and $2 million in bribes from the district's insurance broker between 2002 and April 2010, including Rolex watches worth $56K (one for him and one for his girlfriend, whom he employed in-district), a Florida apartment, various home applicances, etc.See Asbury Park Press for full coverage.

Here's Ritacco's contract, which includes a salary of $237K, a car, 25 vacation days, 15 sick days, and 5 personal days. School Board Vice President Edward Gearity says, “I believe he is the best Toms River has ever had, and he's been wonderful to the district," Gearity said. "I have no doubts about him period."

EdWeek has a great update on the Common Core State Standards Initiative’s “collisions of vision and value.” And Chester Finn and Mike Petrelli at The Thomas Fordham Institute have a paper out called "Now What? Imperatives and Options for Common Core Implementation and Governance."

Slate examines the surprisingly low-tech approach to education in high-performing countries. On the other hand, school days and years are much longer. Most importantly, “school systems in Singapore, Finland, and Korea recruit 100 percent of their teachers from the top one-third of their academic cohort, according to a 2010 McKinsey & Co. report, 'Closing the Talent Gap.' 'In the United States, about 23 percent of new teachers—and only 14 percent in high-poverty schools—come from the top one-third. "It is a remarkably large difference in approach, and in results,' the report concludes."

Amnesty International asks that readers consider attending a panel on “The State of Poverty and Human Rights” on Nov. 2nd from 6:30-8:30 at Rutgers-Newark Paul Robeson Campus Center in Newark. For more info contact Alejandro Salagado at

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Logical Corollary

The Star-Ledger Editorial Board worries today that the recent surge in applications for new charter schools – a record 51 at last count -- will lead to a plethora of “bad schools” because the NJ Department of Education’s “handful of harried staffers” can’t sufficiently monitor “the more than 70 charters that already exist.” Frets The Ledger,
Some thrive anyway, drawing hundreds to their waiting lists after choosing students by lottery. Others are failing, but tough to close because parents will still fight to keep them open. Bad schools are supposed to be shut down after three to five years, but parents would sometimes rather keep their children in a charter just because it seems safer than district schools.
It’s true: the DOE does seem somewhat harried at the moment and the Ledger is right on the money in pushing for other authorizers like universities to offer oversight. After all, five years is long enough for a school to demonstrate that it incapable of effectively providing educational services, right?

Now let’s jump to another Ledger piece that appeared yesterday. The subject is two public schools in Trenton, Mott Elementary School, which serves children pre-K through 8th grade, and Grace Dunn Middle School, a 6th-8th grade school. District officials are proposing that 6th-8th graders attending Mott be moved to Dunn because of overcrowding, but parents are concerned about Dunn’s history of “violence and poor academic performance.” Fiscal Monitor Mark Cowell (placed there by the DOE after multiple reports of district-wide fiscal improprieties) responded by noting that only 25% of Mott’s second graders were reading at grade level, which he attributed to overcrowding.

A little more assessment data, courtesy of the DOE: At Mott Elementary, 73.5% of 4th graders failed the NJ ASK in language arts. 71% of fifth graders failed the NJ ASK in math. Older kids at Mott do better in reading – only 38% failed the NJ ASK8, but 70% of 8th grades failed the math portion. At Grace Dunn Middle School, 76.5% of 6th graders failed the NJ ASK in language arts and 62.2% failed the math portion. In 8th grade, 60.6% failed language arts and 71% failed math.

Mott Elementary School has been open since at least 1963, about 47 years. Grace Dunn Middle School has been open since at least 1967, about 43 years.

If we apply the logic of the Star-Ledger Editorial Board fairly across all public providers of education – charter and traditional – Mott and Dunn would have closed long ago. Yet they remain open, in spite of the fact that if a child doesn’t learn to read by the end of first grade, he or she has only a one in eight chance of catching up. The Board says, "[q]uality control is crucial. So if only 10 applicants out of those 51 have shown they are truly equipped to run a school, then they’re the only ones who should.” Yet we accept a far lower bar for traditional public providers.

Having high expectations for new charter schools is great. But until we apply those same expectations to Dunn and Mott, kids in Trenton are stuck in a system without quality control administered by officials truly unequipped to run schools.

Rhee Watch

Wall Street Journal: "Outgoing Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee is considering jobs in both the public and private sectors, she said Wednesday, declining to say whether she was offered or would consider New Jersey's top education post."

The Star-Ledger: "In fact, the Christie administration wanted Rhee to consider the vacant state education commissioner’s post, a more attractive offer to her because it signified a step up on the ladder of national education reform influence, according to sources who sought anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss confidential matters. But the state could not get Rhee "past the gate" because of frustration that a move to New Jersey would take her away from her family. Her husband Kevin Johnson, a former NBA All-Star, is the mayor of Sacramento, Calif."

San Francisco Examiner: "Well, you don’t get the chance to hire Superwoman very often, and if you’re looking for someone not afraid to take on the unions, Rhee’s the perfect candidate. Unfortunately, Rhee doesn’t seem to0 keen on taking the job."

CBS News: "Two people familiar with the negotiations told The Star-Ledger of Newark Michelle Rhee is seriously considering the offer."

Fox 40 in Sacramento: "Rhee had initially turned down the offer upon thinking the position would require her to run the entire public school network for the state. However, sources close to the negotiation between the Governor and Rhee said she has reconsidered the offer."

Washington Examiner: "Now Rhee has a chance to bring her reforms to New Jersey, a state which suffers similar levels of high spending and poor results as the nation's capitol. Since Christie has been governor, he's met stern opposition from the powerful New Jersey teachers' unions, forcing through stiff cuts in education spending and running the tightrope between public sympathy and the tough choices facing the state budget which is in deep crisis despite some of the nation's highest tax rates."

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Rhee to the Jerz?

The Press of Atlantic City is reporting that Gov. Christie has offered D.C.’s Chancellor Michelle Rhee the job of NJ Education Commissioner.

According to the piece, Rhee originally turned down the offer because she thought Christie wanted her to run Newark’s schools, though she has refused comment.

Quote of the Day

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor for The Atlantic, on “a terrible mismatch between the characteristics of teachers most likely to produce excellent outcomes, and the characteristics of the systems that seek to attract and retain them" (hat tip: Megan McArdle):
Work environments hospitable to continual innovation tend to have relatively low barriers to entry, and relatively low barriers to exit. Schools invert that. Many have extensive up-front credentialing requirements, forcing novice teachers to invest substantial time and money at the beginning of their careers, before they can even decide whether they are indeed well-suited for the job. Early career teachers tend to get the least desirable assignments, and to be paid barely enough on which to live. On the other hand, most compensation packages are grossly back-loaded, offering lock-step seniority raises and substantial retirement benefits. So it's tough to get in the door, and once you do, leaving entails abandoning the rewards for which you've already labored before you can enjoy them. That's crazy.

Q & A at the NJSBA Convention

Question from a board member during the New Jersey School Boards Association Workshop in Somerset yesterday during "A Conversation With the Acting Commissioner." (This session started out as "A Conversation with Commissioner Bret Schundler" and was changed to "A Conversation with Acting Commissioner Rochelle Hendricks." But, with Hendricks flu-ridden, the session was christened "A Conversation with Assistant Commissioner Willa Spicer, Acting Assistant Commissioner Yut'se Thomas, and Bergen County Executive County Superintendent Aaron Graham.")

Board Member: Our schools are great -- the best in the country. But the DOE has a "governmental attitude" towards our public schools that is "very negative." Why don't "you people stand up for our schools?"

Willa Spicer: "Our problem is that we have children in schools that are not great. Our attention is drawn, simply out of humanity, to the children who are not served well."

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Don't Superman and Wonder Woman Win at the End?

Bob Braun of the Star-Ledger has drunk the kool-aid. Here’s his favorite take on Michelle Rhee’s resignation and the news that Harlem Children’s Zone, the charter operation started by Geoffrey Canada, had less impressive results this year:
"Superman and Wonder Woman Meet Kryptonite" was the headline to these stories suggested by Paul Tractenberg, the Rutgers Law School professor who has, for decades, championed education reform done the hard way — by paying for, and persistently pursuing, it.
In other words, education reformers have it all wrong. New Jersey’s system of increased funding to poor districts with no accountability is still the best system. We’ve got to pay the money and be persistent, that’s all. Simple. These ed reform types are slaves to fashion, drooling over fads like merit pay and tenure reform, showing “public scorn for teachers by emphasizing the idea that many should be replaced or just dismissed.” Current initiatives are simply another orbit in the historical cycle of ebb and flow, another item in the catalogue that, Braun says, includes Sputnik and “A Nation at Risk” and Reagan’s “Morning in America.” Wise educators will simply wait out the storm and all this nonsense will go away.

Braun bases his argument on two sources: a New York Times article that analyzes HCZ’s drop-off in private donations and grades that NYC awards schools for student growth, and a Brookings Institute white paper on academic performance of HCZ students. From the Brookings Institute report:
HCZ works, at least to raise academic achievement among the population of students whose families try to enroll them in HCZ charter schools. Harvard researchers Dobbie and Fryer conducted a study of the HCZ that took advantage of a New York City regulation that requires public charter schools to select students by lottery when the demand for slots exceeds supply.[vii] By comparing academic outcomes for lottery winners vs. lottery losers, they were able to create the conditions of a randomized experiment, thus assuring that any differences among the two groups in academic outcomes were due solely to the opportunity for enrollment in the HCZ charter schools. The researchers found very large effects on academic achievement, particularly for math at the end of middle school. They conclude that, “the effects in middle school are enough to reverse the black-white achievement gap in mathematics.”
Hmm. Seems like HCZ works pretty well. What the Brookings report found was that “there was no compelling evidence that investments in parenting classes, health services, nutritional programs, and community improvement in general have appreciable effects on student achievement in schools in the U.S.” It's not the educational initiatives that are in question, it's the extra services, and that certainly bears more study. So how do we get from successfully reversing the black-white achievement gap to Braun's suggestion that we persist on our current trajectory that costs too much and doesn't improve student growth?

What’s that quote from that Jersey guy Albert Einstein? "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Tidbits from Friday’s Panel... Princeton University, “Education as the Civil Rights Issue of Our Time.” Full crowd to hear Joel Klein, Chancellor of NYC Schools; Shavar Jeffries, President of Newark Public School Advisory Board; and Leslie-Bernard Joseph, Teach for America alum and Dean of Students at Coney Island Prep, a charter in Brooklyn. The moderator was Shirley Tilghman, President of Princeton.

Tilghman: The U.S. K-12 public education system is the “least effective and most expensive in the world.”

Klein: People like to say we won’t fix education until we fix poverty. “But it’s the other way around. We’ll never fix poverty until we fix education.”

“From 1983 til 2010 we’ve doubled the amount in real dollars that we spend on education.”

There are three “core transformations” that must occur:
1) We must move “teaching from a trade union to a profession” with “real accountability.”
2) K-12 shouldn’t be a “monopoly provider.” Only people who live in high-poverty areas get no choice.
3) We must “bring schools into the 21st century,” i.e., tech and distance learning. We must move away from “the model of one teacher to 25 kids.”

Example: Coney Island Prep (Mr. Joseph’s school) where the school day goes from 7:30-5:00. The students at this charter school include the highest percentage of special needs kids in NYC, except for schools designed exclusively for special needs. Yet it wins awards for achievement.

Tilghman: “How will we get to a professional teaching corps?”
Klein: “We work 180 days a year and go home at 3:00.” That has to change. “We must build constituencies, because that’s what changes political systems.”

Klein’s lightbulb joke: “How many unions does it take to change a lightbulb?” “Only one, but the union has to want to change.”

Quote of the Day

This is not a war on teachers en masse. It is recognition of what every parent knows: Some teachers are exceptional, but a small number are dreadful. And if that is the case, we should think of ways to change the balance...

There is a place for an enlightened union that accepts the simple premise that teacher performance is an integral part of effecting reform. As the late Albert Shanker said in 1985, when he was president of the American Federation of Teachers: "Teachers must be viewed . . . as a group that acts on behalf of its clients and takes responsibility for the quality and performance of its own ranks."

The bottom line is that focusing on effective teachers cannot be taken as a liberal or conservative position. It's time for the unions to drop their polemics and stop propping up the bottom.
Eric A. Hanushek in today's Wall Street Journal.

Monday, October 18, 2010

School Reform and Patriotism

Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meiers co-star on one of the most popular education blogs, Bridging Differences, which seeks to find consensus (in an epistolary format) on education reform issues. It’s unclear at this point if the two eminent education historians produce any sort of counterpoint – if there is a bridge between them it’s a mighty short bridge indeed – but Ravitch more stridently makes the case for teacher unions, against the unreliability of student and teacher performance data, and in general spews bile against charter school “edu-entrepreneurs” whom are in it, she says, just for the money.

Meiers takes a more moderate, thoughtful approach than her rock star-pen pal and asks good questions about how to reconcile the urgency of instant rescue for kids trapped in failing schools with the long-term needs of poor communities.

From Meiers’ last post:
Progressive educators—in my definition of the term—are often accused of favoring very "unstructured" school environments. I've always said that it's quite the opposite. In traditional schools, the only structure is "keep your eye on the teacher and do as she says." In a progressive classroom, one needs much more explicit structures in order to insure that learning is not sacrificed to freedom, that the available choices are healthy ones, and that the rights of both the larger community and the individual are kept in balance.

That’s it right there: “the rights of both the larger community and the individual.” Somehow ed reformers are under indictment for violating the necessarily slow and incremental progress of chronically failing schools. If we respected the rights of the larger community, if we, in Meiers’ words, valued “the connections between democracy and schooling which so absorbed our founding fathers,” then we’d fight insurgent charter schools that merely “cream off” kids with aspiring parents and leave the rest to rot. If we respected the rights of the larger community, then all advocates for reshaping our public education system – Barack and Michelle Obama included – would send their own kids to neighborhood public schools. (The Obamas’ school choice for their children is a frequent target on “Bridging Differences.”) If we respected the rights of the larger community, then in New Jersey we’d let the Abbott money flow, regardless of impact, because it’s undemocratic to privilege the rights of the individual student over the rights of the whole city.

This is how the anti-reform movement gets to “we can’t cure educational inequity until we cure poverty.” Unless the kids in Camden en masse enter great schools then we’ve violated the rights of the community. Change must be global and simultaneous. It’s not only not enough to offer some of Camden’s students, say, a chance to go to a better charter school, it’s worse than offering that choice at all unless every single kid gets to go.

(How is this different than denigrating Rosa Parks for taking a seat at the front of the bus because public transportation was racially segregated in 1955 and the larger community was still stuck in the back?)

Not to be too harsh, but isn’t this sort of adherence to abstract consistency in the name of patriotism sort of self-indulgent? Tell the kids at TEAM Academy in Newark that they’re lucky to go to a public charter school where everyone graduates and goes to four-year colleges. Tell them it stinks that their neighbors, the kids in the larger community, are still stuck in lousy schools. But would you tell those kids that the founders, faculty, and families of TEAM are un-American because they support a superior education system thriving in the midst of widespread failure and their children should join the larger community until traditional public schools catch up?

What’s missing in the Ravitch/Meiers philosophical construct,of course, is any sense of urgency. Offering some children a way out right now is asystemic and individualized; it undermines the fairness doctrine. Their “all or nothing” approach makes for some elegant and self-righteous letters, but it sure wouldn’t have gotten Rosa Parks to the front of the bus.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Sunday Leftovers

Derrell Bradford of E3 is BFF with Michelle Rhee.

Newsflash: Mayoral control over a school district is not a "magic bullet" and, according to the Star-Ledger's lede, "may not help increase students’ performance in the classroom." The article refers to a new report out from Rutgers called "Governance and Urban School Improvement" which did not find a direct correlation between improved achievement and a mayor's increased role.

Question: how do we get from a "lack of direct correlation" to "mayoral control is bad?" What's wrong with "it may not be such a bad idea in Newark" or "a $100 million gift shouldn't be turned down because one of the strings is an increased role for Cory Booker?"

The Department of Education received 51 applications for charter schools, the highest number ever.

Barringer High School in Newark finally has a new principal (all of 27 years old) and things are looking up. Previous coverage here.

A new report out from McKinsey & Co. says that countries with the best school systems recruit teachers from the top third of high school and college graduates, while in the U.S. “only 23 percent of teachers come from the top third of college graduates—and in high-poverty schools, that rate drops to 14 percent,” according to EdWeek.

New Jersey School Boards Association has formally asked the Legislature to “begin serious discussion of changes in the state’s century-old tenure laws.” From the press release: ““New Jersey’s tenure system has devolved into a lifetime job protection for teachers, regardless of how well they perform in the classroom.” Here's NJSBA's white paper. Also, see “How to fix our schools: A manifesto” signed by Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, Arlene Ackerman, et. al. in the Washington Post.

From today's Courier-Post on Gov. Christie's toolkit:
It's insane. If the majority Democrats in the state Senate and Assembly think all they have to do is install a cap and just sit on their hands and hope the public and the governor forget about the other reforms, they're fools. They're fools who, like the leaders of public worker unions who support them, seem to think that if they dig in their heels enough, that New Jerseyans' desire for lower property taxes will disappear, that the budget deficits this state faces will vanish and that everything will be alright for them again, like it was in years past when governors were afraid to push for real spending reform… it will demonstrate total fiscal irresponsibility and a clear willingness to hang towns and school districts out to dry in favor of protecting Trenton's sacred cows of the past -- the public worker unions and a system skewed heavily to benefit those unions.

Friday, October 15, 2010

If the Education Committee’s Session Wasn’t Enough of a Hoot

...the Senate Education Committee is considering a bill, S295, that disqualifies school board members from service without criminal history background checks.

Perfectly reasonable, right? (Though, of course, school board members are volunteers yet would have to foot the cost of their own finger prints.) Then, according to PolitickerNJ, Mary Catherine Sudiak, a board member from Cranford, inquired, "'Why are board members being singled out given the other legislators,' Sudiak said, before dropping the Central Jersey smackdown: [Legislators] Joe Vas, Daniel Van Pelt, Neil Cohen."

Oh, snap! Assemblyman Joe Vas: indicted on charges in 2009 for conspiring with Perth Amboy employees to bill the city for clothing and sneakers, plus rigging a housing lottery to benefit his personal driver.

Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt: convicted in May for accepting a $10,000 bribe from a corrupt real estate developer.

Assemblyman Neil Cohen: pleaded guilty in April for distributing child pornography.

Assembly Education Committee Needs Some Schooling

Speaking of attempts (or not) to rein in the NJ’s public school costs, the Assembly Education Committee passed a bill yesterday, A2772, which would require “the monetary equivalent of any wage or benefit concession agreed to by a collective bargaining unit to be used by the school district to offset any reduction in force initiated for economic reasons (PolitickerNJ).”

In other words, if a school board is able to negotiate a contract that results in the district saving money, that money must go to re-employ teachers whom the district laid off to save money. Sponsored by Patrick Diegnan, Ruben Ramos, Nelson Albano, and Celeste Riley, the bill passed through committee unanimously. Here’s the actual language:
Requires that the monetary equivalent of any wage or benefit concession agreed to by a collective bargaining unit be used by the school district to offset any reduction in force initiated for economic reasons.
What to make of this NJEA-backed bill? (See here, page 6.) Public school enrollment in New Jersey is relatively stable – about 1.38 million kids, though there’s been a slight drop this year to 1.37 million. Yet according to the National Center for Education Statistics, our total staff continues to increase. In 2007-2008 total NJ public school staff numbered 161,408 people. In 2008-2009 total staff was 168,764, about a 4.5% increase. Now the Assembly Education Committee seems bent on passing legislation that would negate hard-won concessions by school districts historically hobbled by salary increases and benefits that exist in a reality-free dimension. How? By coercing districts to use any savings to hire back staff who may or may not be necessary for the purposes of providing a thorough and efficient education for kids.

No wonder we can’t afford the tunnel.

Quote of the Day

From today's Wall Street Journal on Gov. Christie's reluctance to commit $14 billion to fund the construction of a passenger-train tunnel to Manhattan:
From 2001-2008, New Jersey government spending increased by nearly 59%...The Tax Foundation says New Jersey's state-local tax burden is the nation's highest and, at 8.95%, its income tax is among the highest.

In 2002, pension costs were 8.6% of the New Jersey budget. In fiscal 2011, they're 16%, and that doesn't include a $3 billion payment the state was supposed to make toward its $46 billion unfunded liability. Had that not been postponed, the pension share of the budget would have been 26.5%.

Here's a modest proposal that Mr. Christie might consider making to his many liberal critics. If Democrats in Trenton and government unions will agree to his recent pension reforms, then he'll go ahead with the tunnel.

Glenn Beck Award*

Vince Giordiano, Executive Director of NJEA, during Senate testimony yesterday regarding Gov. Christie’s proposed 2% cap on annual salary and benefits increases for public employees (Philadelphia Inquirer):
Had the cap been in place in 1968, when the state passed its first public-sector collective-bargaining law, teachers would earn an average of $20,715 today...That figure, he noted, is below the poverty line for a family of four. A family of three earning that amount would qualify for food stamps.
*Award from NJ Left Behind in honor of Mr. Glenn Beck of Fox News whom Jon Stewart describes as "a guy who says what people who aren't thinking are thinking."

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Middle Management for Trenton

Justin Cohen over at The Quick and the Ed argues for a “Middle Management for America” because
any strong organization – whether it be public, private, nonprofit, or NGO – relies on a strong core of both managers and doers at every level. The work in the middle is largely unsexy,* but that “middle” does things like making sure kids are fed, deciding how to order curriculum materials, and procuring toner for classroom printers. At lot of times that “middle” becomes a sprawling, unwieldy bureaucracy, and that’s not good. The response to our current infrastructure shouldn’t just involve tweaking at the edges, but rethinking the entirety of the way services and education are delivered by our school systems. Until we transform those systems into attractive, functioning, performance organizations, we will never sustain reforms – or the most talented individuals – for the long-term.
This insight is particularly relevant to Trenton Public Schools. Yesterday beleaguered superintendent Rodney Lofton resigned. In his place will be Interim Superintendent Raymond Broach. Mr. Broach’s interim status is apparently de rigeur in Trenton; his placeholder status is shared by Interim Executive Director of Management Information Systems David Gadallah, , Interim Executive Director of Curriculum Dr. Heather Jackson, and Interim Executive Director of Special Education Patricia Emmerman,

Here’s Trenton’s organizational chart. Talk about a sprawling, unwieldy bureaucracy. Twenty-two principals, four assistant superintendents, and countless coordinators, specialists, supervisors, etc. This mess serves about 11,000 students.

How bad does it have to get there before we give up tweaking and start rethinking?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Trenton Superintendent Lofton Out

Trenton Superintendent Rodney Lofton just resigned with two and a half years left on his contract. Raymond Broach, former superintendent of Ewing Public Schools next door, has been appointed on a interim basis.

The Trentonian i
s reporting that Mayor Tony Mack expressed disappointment that the Trenton School Board didn’t appoint one of the assistant superintendents currently under contract. He complained, we “will now have two individuals on payroll simultaneously for the same role, this is concerning and we are not clear why this was done.”

The official word is that Lofton is out on sick leave for a hernia injury, but the paper reports that he told other staff members that he was resigning. Trenton schools have been plagued by poor academic achievement, corruption regarding home instruction payments, criticism from the State Monitor, and dysfunctional management.

Education Law Center's Prism

Check out the new report, “Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card.” Authors are Bruce Baker from Rutgers, David Sciarra, Executive Director of Education Law Center, and Danielle Farrie, Research Director at ELC. ( Executive summary here, though it’s worth reading in its entirety.)

The report grades each state on four measures of “fairness”: funding level (comparison of per pupil spending); funding distribution (whether a state delegates more money to poorer kids); effort (per pupil spending relative to state wealth); and coverage (proportion of kids attending either public or private schools along with the income ratio of their families). The data is from 2006-2007.

How does NJ do in funding fairness? Great. We’re number 2 in mean actual state and local revenue per pupil: $17,115. That figure is adjusted for regional wage variation and population density, and we're bested only by Wyoming, which spends less ($16,238) but increased spending 4%. Tennessee is the laggard at $6,966. The national average is 10,132 per pupil.

In funding distribution relative to student poverty, NJ gets an “A.” For districts with 0% poverty we allocate $13,464 per pupil; for districts with 30% poverty we allocate 140% of that, or $18,841. This makes our funding formula progressive, rather than regressive like in Illinois, Nevada, and New Hampshire.

The third funding fairness measure is the percentage of the state’s GDP used to fund public schools. Again, we get an “A.” (Interesting note: Hawaii, recently in education news for going to a 4-day school week, gets an “A” while Massachusetts, often recognized for its academic rigor and student achievement, gets a “C.”) The fourth funding measure involves the percentage of children who attend that state’s public schools relative to the number who opt for private and parochial schools and the incomes of families who send their kids elsewhere than public school districts. We rank 21st, with 85% of our kids in public schools and a 1.31 ratio in income between families that send their kids to public or private.

Two points: The ELC, of course, is awaiting a ruling from the state Supreme Court on its challenge to Gov. Christie’s school aid cuts, arguing that those cuts violated the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA). Originally Christie planned on cutting deep into Abbott district funding, but reversed course at the last minute apparently after realizing that disproportionate cuts to high-needs district would violate SFRA. Instead, all districts, regardless of need, saw their state aid cut by 5%. We’ve got no crystal ball here, but it seems likely that the Court would find the last-minute cuts unfortunate but fair.

Secondly, while the report includes a disclaimer about funding as the sole leveler of the playing field, it’s difficult to overcome the angle that, indeed, it is. From the report:
Of course, funding alone will not lead to better academic performance and outcomes for students. Funding also must be invested wisely, focusing on key areas such as quality teaching, strong curriculum, programs for struggling students, effective supervision, and sufficient supports for districts and schools from state education agencies and institutions of higher education. High poverty schools need sufficient funds, effectively and efficiently used, to achieve established outcome goals and prepare their students for high school graduation and for post-secondary education or the workforce.
An overarching focus on funding, say the writers, “will not lead to better academic performance and outcomes” but, they continue, there’s not substitute for an overarching focus on funding. It’s all about input. Output – student growth and achievement – gets nary a mention or a graph or a grade.

The report's tacit equation is that more money equals improved student growth. While this paradigm suits ELC's four-decade-long battle for funding equity for poor kids, it might get more bang for its buck by modifying that equation to incorporate what we've learned in the last forty years about non-financial impediments to educational success.

Michelle Rhee Steps Down Today

This morning D.C. Chancellor Rhee will resign at the Mayflower Hotel. The grapevine is aquiver with New Jersey folk wondering if her next stop is Newark (or Trenton), though others wonder whether she's holding out for Secretary of Education in a second Obama Administration, and others expect her to return to the non-profit sector. Presumptive D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray is sifting through resumes to fill Rhee's slot (Deputy Chancellor Kaya Henderson will take over on an interim basis) and word is that Gray rejected Clifford Janey, late of Newark, as a prospect.

DOE Accepting Calculator Donations

The final number of students who failed to graduate is still not determined, officials conceded.
That’s from NJ Spotlight’s report today on a new template issued by the NJ Department of Education designed to identify and remediate students who most likely will fail both the traditional High School Proficiency Assessment and its fallback, the Alternative High School Assessment. Students are offered the AHSA after they fail the HSPA three times.

NJ’s published education rate was flagged by Race To The Top reviewers, who noted that “the state has been inflating [the graduation rate]” and “New Jersey acknowledges that its historical graduation rate data is unrealistically inflated and has plans to implement a new tracking system soon. Some available data shows low graduation rates for Hispanic and African-American students. There is no evidence that graduation rates have improved.”

How did we inflate those numbers? Through our old Secondary Review Assessment, which was impossible to fail. Last year the SRA was replaced by the AHSA and almost 10,000 students failed, though about 8,000 (what's with the uncertainty?) of those students were able to pass through portfolios, appeals, teacher recommendations, and additional tutoring over the summer.

The NJEA’s website still touts our high school graduation rate as "the best in the nation: New Jersey ranks number one in the percentage of students graduating high school.” Maybe it’s time for an update.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Quote of the Day

New Jersey can’t afford to build its tunnel, but benefits packages for the state’s employees are 41 percent more expensive than those offered by the average Fortune 500 company. These benefits costs are rising by 16 percent a year.

New York City has to strain to finance its schools but must support 10,000 former cops who have retired before age 50.

California can’t afford new water projects, but state cops often receive 90 percent of their salaries when they retire at 50. The average corrections officer there makes $70,000 a year in base salary and $100,000 with overtime (California spends more on its prison system than on its schools).

States across the nation will be paralyzed for the rest of our lives because they face unfunded pension obligations that, if counted accurately, amount to $2 trillion — or $87,000 per plan participant.

David Brooks in today's New York Times

Redefining School Reform

Let’s start with something we can all agree with: some of NJ’s public schools are great and some stink. The worst schools are usually in the most impoverished urban areas. This disparity has remained unchanged through many different education commissioners and both Democratic and Republican administrations.

Another truism: we’ve recognized this fact for decades and have tried mightily to alleviate disparities through additional funding to impoverished districts. This has worked well in a few places and less well in many others.

And another: NJ is broke. We’re spending as much as (or more than) residents can bear for public education. Increased state funding in our neediest districts is not an option.

Let’s continue the truisms: New Jerseyans love their home rule. A Garden State school board and administration in a well-performing district is insular, circumscribed, a world unto itself. Our bulimic state government – scarfing down money and vomiting out regulations and mandates – merely increases a functional district’s isolation and lack of shared responsibility to poor kids outside its wrought iron gates.

Yet politicians, union officials, and power brokers shy away from acknowledging the real-life distinction between academically healthy suburban districts and academically frail urban ones. Maybe it’s because the richer ones are mostly white and Asian and the poorer ones are mostly black and Hispanic; no one wants to bring race or economic status into the discussion. Maybe it feels unpatriotic to give up the pretense that we educate all our kids equally.

In fact, the two pieces of legislation passed this year intended to expand educational choice to underserved students make no distinction between districts inside the gates and those outside. The first one, the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program, took a 1995 pilot program whereby school districts could apply to be “choice districts” and accept kids from within the county but outside district boundaries. There are 15 choice districts in the state, mainly tiny schools trying to stay alive. No other district has yet expressed interest in opening its doors.. (Example: Nutley’s Superintendent Joseph Zarra told the Nutley Sun that “I don’t envision a lot of space available for interested students.”)

The second piece of legislation intends to expand charter school growth through allowing other authorities besides our embattled DOE to approve charters and expediting the approval process. Currently the legislation is fending off attacks by wealthy districts that fear loss of revenue and additional transportation costs. (Example: a Mandarin-immersion program intending to serve kids from three wealthy areas – Princeton, West Windsor, and South Brunswick – was blocked from opening through political pressure and a tiny technicality on its application.)

Here’s an idea: what if we acknowledge the obvious. School districts like South Brunswick and West Windsor are different than school districts like Newark and Plainfield. Opposition to reform initiatives like school choice is voiced most adamantly from districts where students are, by and large, well served. There’s no sense of urgency in South Brunswick, no lives on the line, unlike, say, families whose kids go to Barringer High in Newark. There, according to the Star-Ledger, “all of the 88 doors are broken,” “holes in the walls allow rats and mice in the building, the roof has holes and many rooms are without thermostats” and there is “a breakdown that is leaving students vulnerable to violence and depriving them of a basic education.”

What if we focused efforts for school reform in districts that need it right now? How could the NJEA officials ethically oppose new charter schools for kids or experiments in merit pay and tying student growth to teacher compensation at schools like Barringer High? How could legislators (like Senator Shirley Turner, who voted against expanding charter school authorizers because "I am concerned that some of these charter schools are turning into private schools at taxpayer expense”) make an argument against new options for Barringer familes? Why would school boards in functional districts fight approval of charters outside their jurisdiction?

For decades we've distinguished our West Windsors from our Barringers through school funding, first the Abbott rulings and now the School Funding Reform Act. Now it’s time to distinguish our functional districts from our dysfunctional ones through application of reform initiatives for the kids who need it right now.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sunday Leftovers

How much is the total comparative cost per pupil in Newark anyway? Take your pick. The NJ DOE says its $19,305, or at least was in 2008-2009. Gov. Christie says it's $23,141. (See NJ Spotlight here for more analysis; John Mooney also has more recent numbers from the DOE, about $2K less per pupil.) The Education Law Center's David Sciarra writes in the New York Times this week that "Newark spends $10,500 per pupil." Bruce Baker says that, while Newark's per pupil costs are relatively high, "Newark is not some massive outlier."

The New York Times asks a panel of experts (David Sciarra, Rudy Crew, Richard Rothstein, Kevin Carey,, “Can $100 Million Change Newark’s Schools?”

Rick Hess at EdWeek adds,
The likelihood that his $100 million was going to make any difference was already negligible. Why? Well, first off, astonishingly enough, in the scheme of school spending it just wasn't that much. Newark is spending $940 million this year. They are already spending more than $22,000 per pupil and yet graduate less than half their students. Even including the one-to-one match that Zuckerberg required, the gift will yield $50 million a year for four years. That's just over five cents on the dollar. It's hardly enough to transform a district that has already been subject to vast new outlays and court-mandated reforms for four decades.
The Record looks at dropping test scores in Paterson, where only 36.6% of third-graders passed the NJASK 3 last March. Also in The Record, out of 29 applications for new charters, the DOE gave approval to 6 of them.

The Star Ledger Editorial Board notes today that charter schools exist “without their fair share of state funding…They’re public schools, but get only a portion of what a local district spends per student – and, even worse, no public funding for facilities at all.”

Aaron Houston (“The Auditor”) in The Star-Ledger psychoanalyzes Senator Teresa Ruiz’s behavior during the hearing on Race To The Top this week, whom “insiders” say “is caught between loyalty to her Democratic colleagues and loyalty to Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, for whom she works when she’s not in Trenton.”

NJ Spotlight looks at one of the lightning rods of education reform in NJ: the 1967 seniority clause in state statute that requires a school district to use seniority in determining lay-offs.

The Philadelphia Inquirer interviews scholarship students to area private schools who “thrive outside of Camden.”

Friday, October 8, 2010

Quote of the Day

The United States is home to more than 2,000 dysfunctional high schools. They represent less than 15% of American high schools yet account for about half of our dropouts. When you break this down, you find that these institutions produce 81% of all Native American dropouts, 73% of all African-American dropouts, and 66% of all Hispanic dropouts.

At our grade schools, two-thirds of all eighth-graders score below proficient in math and reading. The average African-American or Latino 9-year-old is three grades behind in these subjects. Behind the grim statistics is the real story: lost opportunities, crushed dreams, and shattered lives. In plain English, we trap the children who need an education most in failure factories.

Rupert Murdoch (of all people) in today's Wall Street Journal.

Sounds like the kids at Barringer High School in Newark

should apply for the new NBC series, “School Pride,” a sort of extreme makeover reality show for decrepit public schools. According to the Star-Ledger, a large crowd of Barringer students walked out to protest a “filthy,” “unsafe” school environment rife with “rats, mice, cockroaches, spiders, and fights in the hallways.” Two weeks ago a 15-year-old student was sexually assaulted in a classroom. There's no principal: the former administrator left to go work at a charter school, the current principal is out on medical leave, and students report that they didn't receive class schedules until the third week of school

A Newark Schools official assured parents that the system exterminates vermin regularly.

That’s not the only problem with Barringer. Here’s the rundown: in 2008-2009, according to DOE data, 65.3% of juniors and seniors failed the language arts portion of the High School Proficiency Assessment and 73.5% failed the math portion. (How to square those scores with the fact that the DOE reports that 90.6% of students graduated high school by passing the HSPA? Got me.) A quarter of the senior class doesn’t show up on any given day; in fact, daily attendance grades 9-12 is 79%. All this for a comparative cost per pupil of $19,305.

Call Me Bret

If nothing else, Bret Schundler’s testimony before the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee underscored the odds against New Jersey’s battle to provide equitable educational opportunities for poor urban children. If it were just about money, this would be a cakewalk. (Remember, the cash we lost -- $400 million – is less than half of what we spend in one year for Newark’s public schools.) But it’s not just about money.

It was hard to remain unmoved by the authenticity of Schundler’s narrative, one of personal betrayal, his boss's privileging of politics over meaningful reform, a brash Governor Ahab-like in his megalomaniacal quest to thwart NJEA and rule talk radio. How many times did Schundler take personal responsibility for the error in the mythical F(1) question, the one that asked for 2008-2009 financial data? Here was an honorable man wronged by out-sized egos and clumsy political maneuvers, falling on his sword (no! not harpoon!) amidst a sea of dysfunction and lies.

So, the take-away (here’s full coverage from PolitickerNJ, the Courier-Post, and The Record; here’s Schundler’s written testimony) is that Gov. Christie lied and Bret Schundler honestly believed that the compromise application would have moved education reform forward in NJ. NJEA comes out smelling like roses, having made an honorable attempt to compromise and work through differences. The Department of Education is in shambles. The Senate is embroiled in petty fisticuffs, the Democrats shooting broadsides at the Governor and the Republicans angrily deflecting fire. Meanwhile, Christie is practicing magic tricks and sleights-of-hand. (Look over here! Look at the tunnel!)

Meanwhile, it would have been useful to hear from NJEA’s leadership (did anyone think of subpoenaing them?) and Wireless Generation, the consultants hired to oversee the application, is all lawyered-up and still MIA.

So now what? A swift reconstruction of the DOE is imperative; the organization chart has more holes than a hunk of swiss cheese. The current Acting Commissioner, Rochelle Hendricks, is, we hear, a smart, reform-minded leader, though unlikely to get the nod for the full-time gig. Willa Spicer, Assistant Commissioner and repository of all institutional knowledge, announced her retirement yesterday. Timothy Peters, the state’s testing director, left over the summer. Sandra Alberti, the math and science education director, is on her way out. The eminently-qualified Andy Smarick, whom Schundler brought in from the Fordham Foundation in August to be Deputy Commissioner, can’t get Senate approval, apparently because he’s not a native New Jerseyan. (Come on, guys – isn’t that a plus? Also, now that you’re so enamored with Bret, maybe you should take his pick as a going-away present.)

The NJEA’s willingness to collaborate with Schundler is promising, perhaps a fleeting opportunity for buy-in not to be squandered. While the instigation for compromise may have been in large part due to Gov. Christie’s successful vilification of union bosses through platforms like Jim Gearhart’s show on 101.5., NJEA’s press release yesterday attempted to cast the lobbyists in a more reform-ish light: “We call on [Christie] to begin a dialogue with educators about how to bring much-needed resources and research-based reform to New Jersey’s public schools.” Ironically, Christie’s public castigation of the union may have forced a private reckoning. For the moment, at least, NJEA seems to be accepting some of the tenets of Race To The Top like expansion of charter schools, heavier reliance on student growth to evaluate teachers and administrators. There’s an acknowledgment, tepid or not, that, at least in our poor urban schools, the application of reform principles is inevitable.

So: final lessons. Gov. Christie needs a talk-radio intervention and should stop listening to 101.5. None of this plays well in NJ or on the national stage. An apology to Bret Schundler might be too much to ask for, but ignoring these proceedings looks juvenile and ham-handed. How about a thoughtful, inclusive statement on the urgency of education reform for all stakeholders? How about talking about next steps?

A crisis is an opportunity, at least according to Rahm Emanuel. We’ve got a whole list of the former: an dysfunctional, demoralized DOE, the legal challenges to forging ahead in Newark, a bickering Legislature, and, need we add, an entire cadre of chronically failing schools. An incisive leader would gather the shards, navigate through the shoals, and articulate a unified message about public school reform that gets us moving in the right direction.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Senate Legislative Oversight Committee Interviews Bret Schundler

During questioning from Senator Barbara Buono today, Schundler describes hearing that Governor Christie was nixing the final draft of our Race To The Top application that represented a compromise between the DOE and the NJEA:

Schundler: “The Governor called me Friday morning. I was about to go to a meeting at Liberty Science Center and I got a call on my cellphone. The Governor said he was going to abandon the application. He said that he heard Jim Gearhart [morning show host on 101.5 FM] say that he had caved in to the union on these points. He said that he had been demeaned by the union. That after all of their attacks on him he was not going to go through the fire merely to cave in to the union. He said that emphatically and for a rather extended period of time.”

Buono: "What were your instructions?"

Schundler: "I ultimately had a chance to respond and say, ‘Governor, we are not caving in. The Union has agreed to everything we have asked for except for one significant point that has to do with the Reduction in Force issue.' I tried to get the Governor to understand that we weren’t giving up our reform agenda…nothing precluded us from [pursuing other reforms] afterwards but if we had the unions on board with us I was almost certain that we’d win the 400 million dollars. At the close of that conversation the Governor said that he was even more upset then, that we’d allow victory to be spun as defeat, that in our own description of the agreement with NJEA we’d allowed them to say that we’d compromised on so many fronts.”

Buono: “The portrait you have painted of a governor under oath who has sacrificed 400 million dollars to further a personal vendetta is extremely troubling.”

Schundler: “I don’t know if it was a personal vendetta. I know it was a bad decision.”

Senator Paul Sarlo: “We did not elect Jim Gearhart to make policy decisions for NJ.”

Quote of the Day

The governor informed me that NJ 101.5 radio host Jim Gearhart was saying he had caved in to the union. He said that the leaders of the NJEA had demeaned him and that it was utterly intolerable for him to be viewed as having given-in to them. The money was not worth it.

With the governor emphatic that the money didn’t matter to him, I offered two other arguments to consider: first, that the compromises I’d approved were inconsequential; and second, that gaining the NJEA’s endorsement, beyond bringing New Jersey $400 million, would make it possible to implement 90 percent of our reform agenda immediately. We could then fight for the remaining 10 percent, instead of having to fight the NJEA, tooth and nail, for every reform we wanted to implement.
From former Commissioner Bret Schundler's written testimony regarding Gov. Christie's decision to revoke the NJEA-sanctioned Race To The Top application. Full text at The Record.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Evaluating Newark's School Staffing and Performance

Speaking of Newark Public Schools, this past December the well-regarded organization called The New Teacher Project (of Widget Effect fame) partnered with Newark to evaluate the “impact of the school district’s policies and practices…to build and maintain strong instructional teams.” Here’s the results:

1. Newark Public Schools sabotages its ability to hire high-quality teachers by not responding promptly to early applicants, especially in high-need subject areas. According to the report, teachers hired before June 1 for the coming school year are more likely to receive a “distinguished” evaluation rating, yet Newark waits until August and September to make most of its job offers. 73% of principals “have lost a desirable candidate because they could not make a timely offer.”

2. While both teachers and administrators vastly prefer to have interviews before being moved from one school to another, “more than half of all administrators have been forced to accept a less desirable teacher candidate 'force-placed' by the Human Resources Department. “85% of principals have had a teacher placed into their school without an interview.”

3. Newark’s teacher evaluation data is “useless.” Teachers with excellent reviews are not rewarded and administrators do not help teachers with poor reviews to improve. Instead, “some principals pass them from school to school: more than a quarter of principals report 'excessing' a teacher or encouraging a teacher to transfer on the basis of poor performance. As a result, NPS retains its least effective teachers at roughly the same rate as it retains its best teachers.

4. The highest-poverty schools in Newark have fewer highly-rated teachers than less impoverished schools. Attrition at the poorest schools is high and empty positions are often filled with internal transfers, “including forced placement.”

5. There’s no “reliable pool” of high-quality assistant principals ready to become principals, and over half of current principals “have enough experience to qualify for retirement.”

Newark/RTTT Update

Yesterday Acting Commissioner of Education Rochelle Hendricks testified before a legislative committee and confirmed that the Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC) would forbid a takeover of Newark’s public schools by either Mayor Cory Booker or Governor Christie. Senator Ronald Rice, according to the Star-Ledger, went as far as to call the much bally-hooed mayoral involvement during the course of the Facebook grant "direct sabotage of the QSAC legislation."

Okay. It’s against state regulations for Mayor Booker to assume responsibilities normally held by the district’s yet-to-be-named superintendent and the DOE so that Newark can effectively use $100 million to implement education reform strategies like tenure reform, tying student growth to teacher evaluations, and turning around failing schools.

In other capital news, former Commissioner of Education Bret Schundler will appear before a Senate committee regarding our failed Race To The Top application. A representative from Wireless Generation, the consultant that we paid $500,000 to oversee the application process, is also supposed to appear, but the company is now saying that it will not share documents relevant to the proofreading process because Gov. Christie is asserting executive privilege.

The loss of $400 million of federal money that our legislators are so aggrieved about would have gone to implementing education reform strategies like tenure reform, tying student growth to teacher evaluations, and turning around failing schools.

While the irony is fun, its entertainment value sinks once you look at the potential for impediments to moving forward. Surely there’s a way for Newark to not “sabotage” QSAC and still productively use the Facebook grant. How about creating a committee that includes Acting Commissioner Hendricks, Mayor Booker, the Newark superintendent, community members, and whomever else would be useful? Get creative, guys.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

How ELC is Like the NRA (Hold Your Fire!)

Education Law Center announced last week that it would sue both Mayor Cory Booker and Governor Chris Christie if either makes a decision regarding the oversight of Newark Public Schools. Executive Director David Sciarra told the Star-Ledger, "I have no doubt appropriate legal action would be taken on behalf of the residents of Newark to challenge such a move in court." Dr. Paul Trachtenberg, founder of ELC, agreed, adding that “ the notion of Booker having any sort of role controlling the Newark Public Schools raises "’a lot of concerns at a lot of levels.’" He also told Education Week that the Christie-Booker proposal was "an effort to totally blur the lines" of authority over Newark schools.

What does one make of the fact that this noble organization, dedicated to improving educational outcomes for poor urban students, is steadfastly opposing a large infusion of cash into one of NJ’s most struggling districts? Newark is where ELC has its offices. Newark is where the highest-performing schools happen to be charter schools (that’s not always the case; it is in Newark) and current successful charter operators there have already promised to expand capacity and open their doors to more students. Isn’t this sort of development beneficial to the very students that ELC defends? Even NJEA’s leadership, which usually holds positions indistinguishable from ELC’s, just conceded that there is “an important role for high-quality public charter schools to play in the overall effort to provide a great public school for every child.”

Is this some kind of good cop-bad cop strategy, with NJEA playing the role of progressive while ELC stridently defends a non-blurry, bold-stroked party line? Or has ELC becoming the NRA?

Stay with us here. The NRA is hard-core, pugilistically upholding the 200+ year old Second Amendment’s protection of the right to bear arms, in spite of the fact that uzis and assault weapons were not yet a gleam in the Founding Fathers’ eyes. ELC is hard-core as well, adamantly opposed to anything that could be perceived as a threat to the decades-old Abbot decisions that mandated vast increases in school aid to poor urban kids. This is in spite of the fact that 25 years of increased funding has not led to higher achievement, and that new state regulations control district spending, rendering the Abbott decisions obsolete.

In either case, compromise is regarded as capitulation and ambiguity is a form of weakness. Neither organization seems capable of incorporating new information (availability of guns and gang violence; ineffectiveness of extra money without meaningful education reform) into ossified mission statements. No blurring (supporting bans on assault weapons; acknowledging that some poor students might benefit from innovative charter schools) will be tolerated; it’s all bold lines, and stark edges.

Now imagine if ELC, still powerful and esteemed, opened a charter school in Newark. See it: David Sciarra and Paul Trachtenberg sit down with Acting Education Commissioner Rochelle Hendricks and propose the Education Law Center Academy (ELCA), maybe jointly sponsored by ELC and Rutgers. It’s a high school that prepares Newark students for the study or law. All the teachers are union members and NJEA is happy. Famous lawyers give guest lectures. Services expand to include preschools for ELCA younger siblings. Rutgers offers classroom space and college-level opportunities. Funding comes pouring in. No longer trapped in a local optimum, ELC’s new endeavor is so successful that it expands its charter and opens ELCA’s in Trenton, Paterson, and Camden.

It’s a partnership. It’s not a battle over 30-year court briefings. Let’s get past preoccupations with fuzziness and into the business of educating poor urban children. Arguing over niggling issues of governance is so last year. If ELC wants to remain NJ’s moral compass on educational equity, it will find its inner reformer and step up to the plate.