Friday, April 30, 2010

RTTT Update

The New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association has an update on our Race To The Top application, due June 1st (32 days from now, but who’s counting). We came in 18th out of 40 states, not terrible, but not good enough to qualify as a finalist. Deputy Commissioner Willa Spicer explained to NJPSA that key changes from Round 1 will include: strengthening of our “curriculum and assessment spine,” development of a longitudinal data system (using Colorado’s as a model), and, most interesting, “legislative changes to bolster the application.” These would likely include bills that mandate links between student performance and teacher evaluation, authorization of a statewide performance evaluation system for teachers and principals, and merit pay, either at the level of schools buildings or individual educators. Rock on, Jersey!

Fact-Checking Linda Darling-Hammond

Bob Braun at the Star-Ledger writes of renowned education scholar Linda Darling-Hammond’s lecture in New Brunswick this week in which she lauds New Jersey’s success in closing the achievement gap among White, Black, and Hispanic students. “She listed measures of success in New Jersey — higher graduation rates, higher test scores, higher national rankings. Darling-Hammond drew gasps of appreciation by noting that, on one national exam, the average scores of black and Latino students in New Jersey were as high as the average scores of all students in her home state, California.”

Let’s put aside graduation rates for the moment (though just for the moment) and look more closely at the data that Darling-Hammond cites. There’s only one national test that NJ and California students take: the National Assessment of Educational Progress, fondly known as the NAEP. And while it’s true that average scores in California for all 4th and 8th graders (the two age groups tested by NAEP) are comparable to average scores for Black and Latino students in NJ, there’s one piece of data missing from Dr. Darling-Hammond's analysis: 53% of California’s students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, the metric for establishing economic disadvantage. In contrast, 31% of NJ’s 4th graders are eligible for free and reduced lunch and 26% of 8th graders are. So the differences in state averages directly correlates with degree of affluence. On average we’re richer here than in California. Our kids score better on tests.

Let’s dig a little deeper. The 4th grade reading results for California show that white 4th graders average 227 points. Black Californians average 27 points lower (200) and Hispanic 4th graders average 31 points lower (196). 4th graders in NJ have a slightly smaller gap. White students in NJ average 237 points. Black and Hispanic NJ 4th graders average 213 (24 points lower). The 8th grade reading test results demonstrate more similar profiles. In California, 8th grade white students average 269, while black 8th graders average a 26 point achievement gap and Hispanic students average a 28 point gap (243 and 241 respectively). In New Jersey white 8th graders average 281 points. Black students average 250 points, a 31 point gap, and Hispanic students average 256, a 25 point gap.

Not much difference. While we can be justifiably proud of our test score averages, we might as well be proud of affluence. Here’s the bottom line from the NAEP commentary:
In 2009, the score gap between students in New Jersey at the 75th percentile and students at the 25th percentile was 41 points. This performance gap was not significantly different from that of 2003 (43 points).
Dr. Darling-Hammond’s lecture was sponsored by the Education Law Center, not a disinterested party. ELC is currently fighting Gov. Christie’s school aid cuts and arguing that the State is obliged to fund poor students at the same rate as rich students, the backbone of the Abbott decisions, now codified in the School Funding Reform Act. Bob Braun writes in the article, “[h]er purpose was to describe how, at least until recently, New Jersey’s dramatic, if expensive, policy of ensuring financial parity in the public schools had actually begun to pay off.” That may well be, but her Exhibit A –the NAEP scores – don’t do much to advance the argument that our system of urban education for impoverished students in NJ has borne much fruit, or at least done much for the achievement gap.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Unharmonic Convergence

NJEA’s leadership, marching in lock-step with the police and firefighters’ unions, filed suit against pension reform laws that force all public employees to contribute 1.5% of their base pay towards health benefits. Here’s the actual suit, which names as defendants Chris Christie, Steve Sweeney, Sheila Oliver, The State of New Jersey, and the Department of the Treasury, among others. The lawsuit claims that the imposition of S3 is “contrary to the collective bargaining process,” and violates the due process clause of the 5th and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution (“no state shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law”). In addition, NJ’s new-born pension and benefits reform bill violates the Equal Protection Clause (all employees give back the same percentage of base pay regardless of what health coverage they choose) and the Tax Fund Clause, which prohibits any tax levy on personal income unless it is used only for NJ’s Property Tax Relief Fund.

One can argue the merits of the lawsuit till the cows come home (isn’t giving money back to school districts funded by property taxes a form of property tax relief?) but one thing’s certain: bad timing and bad strategy. What’s NJEA thinking? That this salvo will muster sympathy from voters who look upon a 1.5% contribution to health benefits as chump change?

Carl Golden over at New Jersey Newsroom says that this lawsuit “may turn out to be a classic case of the wrong fight in the wrong place at the wrong time,” filed 72 hours “after taxpayers defeated nearly six in every 10 school district budgets — the greatest rejection rate in 35 years — in a stunning backlash against ever increasing government spending and ever increasing property taxes.”

No offense (yes, yes, none taken) but does NJEA pride itself on this sort of tin-eared, flat-footed strategic debacle? How many ways can its leadership demonstrate an uncanny deafness to public perception? Can’t you hear the buzz?: “You want a health care contribution? I’ll show you a health care contribution. You wanna swap?”

Quote of the Day

From NJEA v. State of New Jersey, et.al, which strives to overturn NJ's new health benefits contribution mandate of 1.5% of base salary:
These members...have provided long-standing, honorable and essential services to the public school students of the State of New Jersey. As a result of S-3, these public employees will be singled out and punished for their service, unlike their private sector counterparts.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

AHSA Follow-Up

Yesterday (see below) we described the sorrow engendered by NJ’s abject failure to adequately educate poor urban children, and the results of our newly-accountable Alternative High School Assessment. (Of the 4,500 kids who took the language arts portion, 90% failed; of the 9,500 kids who took the math portion, 66% failed. The discarded Special Review Assessment, used for years to award meaningless diplomas, had a 97% pass rate.) A high school principal kindly forwards to us a letter dated today from Ed. Comm. Bret Schundler addressed to Chief School Administrators and Charter School Leaders. The letter explains what exactly to do with all those failing students: “allow seniors to walk and participate in related graduation activities and programs,” as long as they agree to “complete AHSA requirements for the summer of 2010.” However,
Students who have not passed the HSPA or the AHSA should not receive a New Jersey high school diploma during commencement ceremonies. But again, we would encourage you to allow them to participate.

Glenn Beck Award

To Dr. Diane Ravitch, who writes in her epistolary blog "Bridging Differences,"

So, the big idea today is that the way to fix American education is to identify bad teachers and fire them. I agree that we should get rid of bad teachers (but only after a fair hearing, in which charges against them are substantiated). But I also believe that this issue is a red herring that distracts us from far more important issues.

Right now, I would say that Bush's No Child Left Behind and Obama's Race to the Top are more injurious to American education than bad teachers. There is a way to solve the problem of bad teachers. They can be denied tenure or fired, but no one knows how to stop the damage done by NCLB and the predictable damage that will be done by RTTT.

*New 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."

Union Support for RTTT: Fuggedaboudit

How important is NJEA support for NJ’s second Race To The Top application for up to $400 million in federal school aid? Many states, including NJ, have assumed that successfully soliciting local union presidents’ signatures on Memoranda of Understanding is the be-all and end-all for competitive proposals. Yet in the last few days Ed Sec Arne Duncan seems to be suggesting otherwise. First there was his comment in the Wall St. Journal on Monday that “watered-down proposals won’t win” and his warning that states shouldn’t weaken reforms just to win support from unions. And Edweek does the math: there’s 500 points available for grading state applications and only 20 points “have anything to do with district, or to a lesser extent, union support.”

In addition, the pool is getting smaller. According to Andy Smarick over at Flypaper, four states will now officially not compete – Arkansas, Indiana, Texas, and Vermont; odds are high that Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska will drop out; and it’s looking likely that Alabama, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, Nevada, and West Virginia will be next. Whether this all proves that Woody Allen was right about success being all about showing up (as Smarick quips) or whether everyone is just plain tuckered out, this is good news for NJ’s prospects. After all, there’s nothing to stop us from putting together a truly reform-minded proposal if there’s no worries about NJEA buy-in. In addition, our (unprecedented?) education upheaval – both politically and fiscally – creates a fertile soil for reform. There’s nothing like discontent for breeding change.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

How We Fail the Kids in Camden


My heart is crushed right now just because he worked hard to reach this point," [Beyonka] Walden-Utley said about her youngest son. "Please understand, I don't want him given anything he did not earn. But at the same token, I don't want him to not to have the same opportunities all the other children had prior to him to achieve this goal."
That’s a heart-breaking quote in the Courier-Post’s story today from a parent of one of the hundreds of Camden City High seniors who failed the Alternate High School Assessment (AHSA), which for the first time this year replaced the old SRA. (For background, go here.) According to the article, an unnamed source said that half of the Camden’s seniors didn’t pass, which makes them ineligible for graduation and puts them in crowded company; our first go-round with the new ASHA and its more stringent procedures resulted in a failure rate of 90% of the 4500 kids who took the language arts portion and 66% of the 9,500 kids who took the math portion. The DOE’s take on this is that the new assessment hasn’t been field-tested yet it was “surprised” by the high rate of failure. Deputy Commissioner Willa Spicer issued a statement explaining that students who failed will take it again in August and “only then will we know how well students performed” because right now we have an “incomplete picture” and it’s too early to draw “meaningful conclusions.”

Of course it’s embarrassing. The SRA has allowed us to blithely offer diplomas to inadequately educated kids, thus inflating our high school graduation rate (much touted by NJEA as a sign of the health of NJ’s public education system) and covering up the failure of schools like Camden High. It’s not much of a cover-up; the data’s right there. For example, parents like Ms. Walden-Utley send their children to Camden High where the graduation rate is 39.8% (state average is 93.3%) and 33.3% are classified as eligible for special education services. There are no Advanced Placement courses. 31% of kids – the top achievers, most likely – even bothered to take the SAT’s, and average scores last year were 342 for Math and 352 for Verbal. Only 25.9% are able to pass the standard HSPA, a middle-school level test, and 53.3% used the old SRA last year. In fact, 80.5% failed the language arts portion of the HSPA in 2009 (up from 73.6% in 2008). In 2008, 87.1% failed the math portion; this year so few kids passed math that there is an asterisk in the state data under that column. A footnote explains, “To protect the privacy of students, the Department of Education suppresses sufficient information to eliminate the possibility that personally identifiable information will be disclosed.”

There are few other options for families. There’s another public high school, Woodrow Wilson, where 13.4% of kids pass the HSPA (though more kids go to college from there and there’s even a few A.P. courses. One student out of the 986 kids there got a passing score.) Camden Public Schools has a couple of magnet schools like Brimm Medical Arts, with stellar test scores and a passing rate of 89% on the HSPA, and Creative and Performing Arts High School, with less stellar scores and a 57.7% passage rate.

How about our Interdistrict School Choice Program, reviewed yesterday morning by the Senate Education Committee for potential reauthorization? Too bad. The one school that offers Camden students the ability to cross district lines in Camden County is Brooklawn Public School District, with 314 kids in grades K-8. High schoolers in Camden are out of luck.

The AHSA results are not the problem. They are the symptom of the gross failure of Camden Public Schools to thoroughly and efficiently educate their students. As Derrell Bradford explains in today’s editorial in the Press of Atlantic City, the kids who passed the SRA, but are now failing the AHSA in droves did just fine in school, including Camden High. A study undertaken by the DOE “discovered that 90 percent of SRA users took, and apparently passed, Algebra I. A stunning 86 percent took and passed Geometry, while 71 percent and 91 percent took and passed Algebra II and Biology, respectively.” Yet these same students can’t pass the HSPA or, it appears, a more rigorously-proctored AHSA. When queried about the tendency of students to get shunted through courses like a piece of mail through a pneumatic tube, a DOE official explained, "School districts can call a course anything they want."

We’ve been calling a high school diploma anything we want. Accountability, anyone? Until we get there kids like Ms.Walden-Utley’s son will not only lack a high school diploma but also the scholastic knowledge it’s meant to celebrate.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Educate the Assembly

Some big-name coverage today of the kerfuffle between NJEA’s leadership and Gov. Christie over unsustainable school costs and the high incidence of school budget defeats last Tuesday. From The New York Times:
It’s a New Jersey story, of course, because that’s where government bloat and dysfunction have become an art form… It’s pretty clear that current trends in salaries and benefits for public employees are unsustainable, but it’s also clear that fixing budget and tax policies will take more than getting tough on them.
Josh McMahon, former political editor for the Star-Ledger notes in New Jersey Newsroom:
[T]he take away from the historic school board elections is doh…the people aren’t happy.They want property taxes brought under control. They think teachers and government workers are out of touch with economic reality. They want meaningful change and they're not willing to wait years for it to happen,
Alfred Doblin, Editorial Page Editor of The Record, takes umbrage at NJEA bosses’ refusal to consider concessions and warns about consequential public outrage:
[T]eachers also must be realistic — most private-sector workers are making sacrifices.

The louder the rallies, the more likely public support will move closer to the governor and farther away from hardworking, middle-class men and women who teach. A 1.5 percent contribution toward health care is nothing. Retiring at 62 or even 65 is not the end of the world. A pension, instead of having to rely solely on a 401(k) and maybe savings, is still a very good thing. And tenure – well, if the angry rallies continue, tenure will be on the table. And that is a Pandora’s box best left shut in this political climate.
The Times also notes that NJ's school districts have just suffered the highest rate of school budget defeats since New Jersey School Boards Association started keeping track of these statistics in 1976. Yet a casual listener to the 4 and 1/2 hour Assembly Budget hearing this afternoon would be forgiven for thinking that taxpayers reside in one NJ -- one where school costs are patently unsustainable -- and that some of the Assembly members reside in a separate reality -- where it's appropriate to gripe about school aid cuts, teacher lay-offs, lack of adherence to the school funding formula, and Comm. Schundler's prediction that next year could be worse. If the Assembly can't read the electorate, maybe it should start reading local papers.

Quote of the Day

Ed. Sec. Arne Duncan in today's Wall St. Journal on whether it's worth watering down RTTT proposals in order to garner local union support:
Mr. Duncan said in an interview that he welcomed the friction between union and state officials but warned against states weakening their overhaul plans simply to win buy-ins from unions. "Watered-down proposals with lots of consensus won't win," he said. "And proposals that drive real reform will win."

Schundler Goes to the Assembly

Education Commisioner Bret Schundler is just finishing up his testimony to the Assembly Budget Committee. Here's his formal testimony, and a sampling:
[Solving school districts’ financial problems] CANNOT be achieved on a continuing basis by school boards and school district administrators. The most courageous and talented amongst them will manage the resultant challenges better than others. But it would be ridiculous for anyone to imagine that school boards are all spineless and superintendents are all incompetent and that’s why costs are soaring in every school district. The pervasive financial distress you see in our school districts is the product of state laws. Past state leaders created districts’ structural financial problems and only you and the Governor can solve it.

Recognizing this, Governor Christie will be advancing proposals that will work to moderate the pace at which school district salary and benefit costs are rising throughout New Jersey. In addition, he will be proposing a constitutional cap on the pace at which spending for direct state services can rise. Checking the growth of state government will ensure that when economic growth does increase state revenues, the money is kept available for property tax relief and the education of our children.

School Choice and RTTT

It’s a big day for advocates of NJ’s fledgling Interdistrict School Choice program, which has been in suspended animation since 2005 when the pilot expired (though about 1000 students are still served). The Senate Education Committee is scheduled to hear a bill this morning that would make the program a permanent feature of NJ’s public school system. The bill, which coasted through the Assembly last month, is sponsored in the Senate by Shirley Turner and Tom Kean, Jr. Back when the pilot expired, then-Commisioner William L. Librera pushed hard for reauthorization (here’s his report) but to no avail.

Odds are that the bill will pass muster in Committee and the Senate, and it’s a great baby step towards opening up successful schools to children and families trapped in neighboring failing schools. Here’s another benefit: the timing is perfect for our next Race To The Top application, rumored to be unveiled any time now, though so much depends on NJEA support.

The official reviews of our first heat in the federal competition garnered this criticism of NJ’s narrow attempt to allow students to cross district lines: “Interdistrict school choice has reached its capacity for participation. This one (identified) attempt — now at capacity — seems meager in light of the many types of innovative programs available to public schools and LEAs since 1999.” While NJEA’s leadership originally supported the fiercely circumscribed program (only one “choice” district per county, districts must volunteer regardless of empty seats), it’s remained lukewarm about efforts to increase capacity. Here’s NJEA’s Steven Baker back in 2009: "The concern we have is ... if enough kids were to move out of a district in one grade or school ... it could lead to a cut in services or programs for kids left behind. It was never intended to harm the students who were not taking advantage of the program."

It’s the same argument waylaid against any sort of school choice, most specifically charter schools (and not just by NJEA; Diane Ravitch is the president of that club). Offer choice to students and you’ll “cream” off the most motivated families, leaving the traditional public schools worse off. Here’s a tip to NJEA’s leadership: let this one go. It’s going to pass through the Senate and voicing recalcitrance only heightens the perception that NJEA is deadset on undermining any sort of education reform. How about a press release that praises the bill’s intention to offer kids a way out of chronically failing schools? At least that’s one feature of our Race To The Top application that NJEA can embrace. It’s a win-win opportunity for the DOE and NJEA.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Sunday Leftovers

The Herald News recommends that Gov. Christie expand his focus:
The governor needs to replace "NJEA" in his vocabulary with "home rule." While it is important that he continue to keep the powerful teachers union's feet to the fire, he cannot tread quietly around police, public works departments or public utilities. There are too many patronage jobs that exist solely to give politically connected people health benefits and pensions.
Good overview on school budget failure sequellae from Philadelphia Inquirer.

Senator Loretta Weinberg explains to The Record that “we simply have too many school districts and too many layers of government.”

Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Cryan decries Gov. Christie's attitude: ""Gov. Christie seems content to view public employees as his personal whipping boy -- unaware or willfully ignoring the fact that his actions continue to wage war on New Jersey's middle class and threaten the retirement planning of tens of thousands of hard-working residents."

Assembly Deputy Speaker John F. McKeon says that "the Governor was exploiting the people's pain to advance his personal vendetta with the New Jersey Education Association."

The Record calculates that teacher retirement incentives could result in the loss of 29,300 of NJ’s 143,750 certified teachers, or 20% of the work force. Some school districts are worried about losing their most experienced teachers, though Gov. Christie says "there are plenty of good, enthusiastic teachers ready to take their place."

The New York Times examines NYC's public schools' predicament, where there will be many lay-offs. Commissioner Joel Klein says that seniority rules, which require that the most recently hired teachers be the first to lose their jobs, are "anachronistic:" "In an era of accountability, they say, the rules will upend their efforts of the last few years to recruit new teachers, improve teacher performance and reward those who do best."

Ron Williams, Executive Director of the B.J. Wilkerson Memorial Child Development Center, gets paid $300K per year as head of a two-campus preschool and daycare center. The Center’s total annual budget is $4.3 million and 98% of it is government funds. So taxpayers compensate Mr. Williams at a rate of about $1,000 per toddler per year. On the other hand, reports The Record, Mr. Williams’ salary is set by the Center’s Board. Williams’ wife is vice-president of the Board.

Even-handed editorial today from the Star-Ledger Editorial Board, which urges the NJEA leadership to support local district salary freezes and urges Gov. Christie to exercise “flexibility” on the millionaire’s tax: “The typical school district faces a state aid cut amounting to 5 percent of last year’s budget, and a personnel cost increase of about 4 percent. Fixing one problem won’t take care of the other, but it sure would help.”

John Bury
on NJ’s “Bleak House” for pensions: reforms adopted this year are “otiose” and won’t save a cent til 2035: “All this legal action will do is profit a bunch of lawyers, including Carla Katz. The system is unsustainable and you can't sue money into existence.”

The high rate of budget failures on Tuesday got the attention of national education analyst Joanne Jacobs:
Statewide, school spending increased by $1,003 per student last year, an average of 8 percent, reports New Jersey’s education department. Average per child comparative costs in K-12 districts rose to $13,601 during the 2008-09 school year, compared to $12,598 the prior year, and $11,939 in 2006-07. New Jersey is one of the highest spending states, but the reliance on property taxes means that some districts spend a lot more than others.
Over 14,000 public school students in NJ have registered for a new facebook page called “Protest NJ Education Cuts-State Wide School Walk Out.” The walk-out is planned for this Tuesday from 8-4; location is “everywhere in NJ.”

Friday, April 23, 2010

Countdown Clock to RTTT Deadline: 40 Days

On June 1st, Race To The Top applications are due for states trying for the second round of the federal competition for stimulus funds. After Tennessee and Delaware’s victories in the first round, state education departments have a better idea of what Arne Duncan and his board of reviewers (secret identities revealed here!) are looking for. One obvious criterion: teacher union buy-in, a fact that has raised questions among education reformers concerned that states will weaken proposals to solicit signatures from local associations.

A new trend – perhaps unexpected from the feds – is that states are starting to drop out altogether. Kansas is throwing in the towel, and state associations in Colorado, Massachusetts, and Indiana have announced that they will refuse to participate, an effective death knell. New York’s chances look unlikely. All these states placed above us in the first round.

The NJ DOE is strangely silent, but who can blame them? What are the odds of NJEA’s leadership reversing course from our first try and instructing local presidents to sign off on our next application? Pretty slim. On the other hand, what better way for NJEA to resuscitate its image than to join with the DOE, local school boards, and superintendents in solidarity for improving public education? The rotten tomatoes aimed right at union leader heads would be replaced by roses as all applaud NJEA’s progressive determination to improve our schools.

If NJEA’s leadership maintains its strategy of nay-saying, all local associations will bear the brunt of continued assault. A Race To The Top “yes” can turn that rotten ship around.

Quote of the Day

George Will in today's Washington Post:
Challenging teachers unions to live up to their cloying "it's really about the kids" rhetoric, [Christie] has told them to choose between a pay freeze and job cuts. Validating his criticism by their response to it, some Bergen County teachers encouraged students to cut classes and go to the football field to protest his policies, and a Bridgewater high school teacher showed students a union-made video critical of him. Christie notes that the $550,000 salary of the executive director of the teachers union is larger than the total cuts proposed for 190 of the state's 605 school districts.

He has received some support from the Democratic president of the state Senate, Stephen Sweeney, a leader of a local ironworkers union. This suggests waning solidarity between unionized private-sector workers who are weary of paying ever-higher taxes to enrich unionized public employees.

How About That Pay Freeze?

Education Commissioner Brett Schundler has an idea: in the 58% of NJ school districts where budgets failed to gain voter approval, bring local teacher unions into the discussions and push for pay freezes. Recounts The Record, "Schundler said sometimes a new voice can help facilitate a heated discussion between two counter-parties, just as in a marriage. “There are times when I’m discussing something with my wife and we disagree” and getting another perspective is valuable, he said."

That would be novel. The way it works now is that educationally-illiterate municipal leaders – town councils and the like – come up with an arbitrary cut that they think will satisfy the electorate and throw it back to school boards. Wanna put more pressure on NJEA? Here’s the ticket, must be the thinking in the Governor’s office.

It’s not a bad idea, though our best guess is that local union leadership will be instructed by NJEA to refuse to participate in such a huddle.

Then, of course, there’s situations like in North Bergen School District, where voters, notes Wally Edge at PolitickerNJ, rejected the budget by a 83%-17% margin. Therefore, the budget will go to the municipality for slicing and dicing. The Mayor of North Bergen, who will be the Chief Decider regarding cuts in the school budget, happens to be State Senator Nicholas Sacco, who will then send it back to North Bergen Schools, where Senator Sacco is also, conveniently, the Assistant Superintendent of Schools. Ah, New Jersey.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Christie's "Seismic Shift"

NJEA and Education Law Center, cozy as two peas in a pod, have twin press releases out, both regarding this report out from the Office of Legislative Services. NJEA says that the OLS study proves that freezing teacher pay across the state would never compensate for cuts in school aid, and that property taxes would have gone up anyway. ELC says that the OLS study proves that Gov. Christie’s school aid proposal in the FY11 State Budget violates the School Funding Reform Act.

They’re both right. Page 25 of the report says, “it is estimated that if all school districts took these actions [freezing teacher salaries] they would still have to address a budget shortfall of at least $849.3 million,” proving NJEA's point. (More disingenuous is the statement in the press release that “New Jersey already ranks 45th in the nation in state support for local public school," a blatant misrepresentation of NJ's school funding model.) On to ELC's press release that itemizes the ways in which next year’s school budget shortchanges SFRA:
* setting the Consumer Price Index at zero instead of using the true CPI of 1.6%;
* reducing state aid growth-- the maximum amount by which a district's aid can increase in one year -- to zero rather than 10% for districts spending above adequacy and 20% for districts spending below adequacy;
* reducing aid by an average of 4.99% of a district's total general fund budget for FY10 by cutting funds from specific SFRA formula categories, including: 1) adjustment aid; 2) transportation aid; 3) security categorical aid; 4) special education categorical aid; and 5) equalization aid;
 reducing extraordinary special education aid by 15%.
Here’s the question: does it matter if Gov. Christie fudged the math on the impact of wage freezes? Does it matter if the School Funding Reform Act assumes higher state contributions to local districts? Whether or not Tuesday’s school board elections represent the “seismic shift” that Gov. Christie confers on voters’ judgments, there’s no going back. Fuzzy math and Abbott history aside, who can imagine a scenario where, for instance, our Governor wades into a crowd of union members, raises his fist and cries out “I’ll fight for you!” (Corzine in 2006.) Or the State Legislature amicably passes Statute 18A:31-32, granting “ whole salary” to “any teacher, secretary, or office clerk” who want to buzz down to Atlantic City on a Thursday and Friday in November for the NJEA Teachers Convention? (The only NJEA state associations that allow this practice are Vermont, Minnesota, Utah, and Wisconsin. All other state confine their conventions to weekends or summer, though Maryland closes for one Friday.) Been there, done that. From today’s New York Times:
The message of “enough is enough” resounded across the state, from urban to rural districts, and even in well-to-do suburban communities like Ridgewood, where residents are particularly proud of their schools. It was a drastic change from a year ago, when voters approved nearly three-quarters of the school budgets during the height of the economic downturn.
Pending is a proposed constitutional amendment that would limit annual property tax increases to 2.5% (effectively capping salaries way below standard practice), retirement incentives that could potentially transform NJ’s teaching force (NJEA estimates that 30,000 school employees will retire), and mandated health benefit premium contributions. Welcome to whole new economic vision of public education in NJ.

Budget Fall-Out

Today's Wall Street Journal:
The election results are obviously a big setback for the Democratic Party-government union alliance that has ruled Trenton for the past decade. So far, Governor Christie is winning the spending debate. The lesson for other governors is that opposition from public-employee unions is not insurmountable if you can articulate to voters what's at stake.
Joseph Marbach, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Seton Hall:
I think the governor was very successful in ... portraying the teachers union as out of touch with what’s going on with working families. The voters are more aligned with his position... I think it ... gives him continued momentum to continue to rein in costs.
Star-Ledger Editorial Board:
In this springtime production, Gov. Chris Christie played the Wizard of Oz, pulling levers to produce thunder and fire, while casting teachers union president Barbara Keshishian as the Wicked Witch of Trenton.The governor apparently won over most of the audience. Yesterday he said the voters’ rejection of a majority of school budgets shows they agree with his push for “real, fundamental change.” But there is still strong public support for New Jersey’s public schools as evidenced by the 41 percent of budgets passed and the narrow margins of defeat for many others.
Joseph DePierro, Dean of Seton Hall College of Education:
It connects with a little bit of the tax rebellion going on in the state and nation. Maybe we can’t afford the Cadillac. We have to go back to the Ford version of our education.
The Courier Post Editorial Board:
Teachers and teachers union leaders who continue to ignore or minimize these facts do so at their own peril. They want to look at voters rejecting budgetsas an evil attack on kids brought on by a Darth Vader in the governor's mansion. They don't want to recognize that when people say they're fed up with the continual property tax increases that outpace their modest income increases, they actually mean it. That's why Christie got elected in November and why school budgets got voted down Tuesday.
Patrick Murry, Director of the Monmouth U. Polling Institute, in New Jersey Newsroom:

So, here's what we know about the New Jersey public:

  1. They think the size of the cuts in state aid to local schools is unfair.
  2. They think the teachers' unions should be willing to come to the table and agree to a wage freeze and benefit contributions.
  3. They don't want educational programs cut.
  4. They don't want their property taxes raised.
State Senate President Steve Sweeney in PolitickerNJ:
He's cut school funding dramatically but he has people thinking it's other people who are the problem. He found a villain in the teachers, and he's saying, 'It's not me, it's these guys over here. Politically, it was a masterful job. He cut the funding to cause taxes to go through the roof, so it's his lack of funding causing school budgets to go up. And people are angry.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Whither Goes NJ?

Politics K-12 is reporting that New Jersey is absent from today’s all-day technical assistance program run by the US DOE for states who are applying for the second round of Race To The Top. 42 states are either on-site in Minneapolis or tuning in via conference call. NJ joins Alaska, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Nebraska, Texas, Vermont, and Wyoming in the list of no-shows. Here's a section of the letter from Ed Sec Arne Duncan inviting governors to attend today's event:
On April 21, we are hosting a workshop for Phase 2 applicants where officials from Tennessee and Delaware will share information about the reforms under way in their States and answer your questions. We hope that this information provides your teams with inspiration and ideas, but we should emphasize that the best Phase 1 proposals built on individual States' unique needs, strengths, and assets. So as you take this time to develop your applications, we recommend that you draw on the lessons that you have learned from your highest-performing districts and schools, research from your universities, and the assistance and capacity offered by your nonprofits, community organizations, and foundations.

NJEA Loss

Only 41.3% of school budgets were approved yesterday, compared with 73.3% last year. It’s the first time that a majority of budgets were voted down since 1976. Major media spin casts this as a win for Gov. Christie. The Philadelphia Inquirer says the Governor “won a major victory.” The Associated Press says, “New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie appears to have won a major victory as voters in the 59 percent of the state's school districts rejected school budgets in local elections.” In The Lobby says,
From last night's results, it seems clear who won. (Hint: it wasn't the teachers union.)

The NJEA, for all its talk, just lost a significant amount of its clout in the Statehouse. After all, Christie just went to war with the union -- which make no mistake, was the most feared in Trenton -- and not only survived, but won.
It’s not clear that this was Christie’s win. Remember, he urged voters to turn down budgets where NJEA local bargaining units turned their noses up at salary freezes. However, in school districts where concessions were made -- about 20 by our count – 12 of those budgets still got voted down. (For those of you keeping track: Burlington City, Florence, Willingboro, Hunterdon Central Regional, Manalapan-Englishtown, Upper Freehold Regional, Wall, Hopewell, Bridgewater-Raritan, Hillsborough, Vineland, and New Providence,.) Not quite King Christie. Still, the loser is easy to identify. NJEA’s relentless focus on the “millionaire’s tax” apparently didn’t cotton to voters, and its rhetoric back-fired.

Whether it’s a “major victory” for Christie is debatable, but it’s a major loss for NJEA’s leadership.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Quote of the Day

Mr. Christie doesn't think that state and local budget problems can be fixed without tackling education spending. That's because the state has a hybrid system in which local property taxes fund schools and some of the money is redistributed by the state from affluent areas to poorer communities. According to Mr. Christie, New Jersey taxpayers are spending $22,000 per student in the Newark school system, yet less than a third of these students graduate, proving that more money isn't the answer to better performance.
James Freeman, Assistant Editor of the Wall Street Journal

A Race To The Top Proposal

We were awfully hard on the Education Law Center yesterday (see below), so here’s some praise: its April 15th press release does a great job of reminding everyone that NJ’s second Race To The Top application is due in five weeks. Our first application tanked (see our analysis here and federal scores here), in large part because of lack of NJEA support: only 5% of union presidents signed off, a mortal blow in our quest for up to $400 million in federal stimulus money.

Will Comm. Schundler garner more union buy-in with NJEA’s leadership on our next RTTT effort than did ex-Comm. Davy? Let’s see…Gov. Christie assailing teachers yesterday for using students as drug mules, NJEA members calling Gov. Christie a “fat fuck” on Facebook…well, you see how this is going. So here’s a way to bypass the rhetoric and work up an application that focuses on something we can all agree on: reforming education in our poor urban districts, the very schools discussed yesterday where only 10% of high school seniors can pass the language arts section of the newly-administered Alternative High School Assessment, where our drop-out rates approach 50%, where we have utterly failed to provide adequate education despite years of valiant advocating by ELC, vast sums of money, and endless streams of services.

That’s what Race To The Top is supposed to be about anyway, right? That intransigent achievement gap between wealthier, suburban kids (whom NJ does pretty well by educationally) and poorer, primarily urban kids (where our whole system breaks down). Recent NAEP scores prove that we’ve made no progress on closing the gap between performance of poor, mostly minority kids and wealthier, white kids. Why don’t we put together a Phase II RTTT application that punctures the pretense that our graduation rate “is the highest in the nation” and faces squarely our dismal history of segregating poor students in chronically failing schools?

We already have various lists (here’s one) of our poorest performing schools. We could put together a package of reforms that we’d apply to these specific districts while hewing closely to RTTT’s four assurances: rigorous standards that prepare students for success in college and the workforce, recruiting and retaining effective teachers, turning around low-performing schools, and building data systems to track student achievement and teacher effectiveness. For example, Camden City Schools, where 53% of high school seniors graduated only because we allow districts to ignore their academic failings through bogus assessments. Our RTTT application would mandate that, in Camden, we link teacher compensation to student growth, keep academic standards high, and expand school choice. In Camden. Wouldn’t that be an either sell for NJEA’s local units than trying to force reform in functional school districts?

Conveniently, our chronically failing districts are distributed across NJ, so in essence this is state-wide educational reform. But it would take the support of all stakeholders – NJEA, local school boards, the Legislature, the DOE, ELC too – in order to put together a convincing proposal for reform. If we focus our efforts on the kids who really need it, we might just amass the buy-in we need.

Monday, April 19, 2010

NJ's Diploma Scam, Part II

To recap: the Education Law Center is irate because this past January the vast majority of the 10,000 high school seniors who couldn't pass the HSPA after three tries also failed the new and carefully supervised Alternative High School Assessment (AHSA).The previous alternative test, the Special Review Assessment, was impossible to fail. Therefore ELC has asked Commissioner Bret Schundler to “set aside” the test results so that the students can get high school diplomas.

While there’s no official response yet from Comm. Schundler, there is unofficial news from the NJ DOE. Michael Parent, the Principal of Dumont High School in Bergen County, heard a rumor that the NJ DOE was planning on having Gov. Christie sign an Executive Order stating that all high schools in NJ must allow every student to march in graduation regardless of whether he or she passes the AHSA. So Mr. Parent wrote a letter to Deputy Commissioner Willa Spicer regarding this rumored Executive Order, which he believes “trump[s] the graduation policies of districts” and serves as an abrogation of the DOE’s stance on increased academic rigor. Here’s Dr. Spicer’s reply:
We do not know if we need an executive order but we want students who have passed all their courses, come to the remedial program regularly, come to school regularly and attended to the work of his or her classes to march in graduation. They will not receive a diploma but will be able to attend a summer program and take another test at the end of the summer. We hope that the state will be able to provide software that has proved effective in other states and we hope that those students who are willing to work with the system will be able to read, write and do math well enough to earn a NJ diploma by August. I know that you, too, hope for the best for the students. We would be happy for your help in achieving the purpose.
Okay. Fair enough. We all want our high school graduates to read, write, and do math. We all want the best for our students. Yet of the 10,000 students tested in January only 1,000, or 10%, passed the language arts section. From the Education Law Center’s press release: “In 120 school district not a single student passed the language arts portion, and in 40 district not a single student passed the math portion.” How is it possible that after a “summer program” and “software that has proven effective in other states” that every one of these students, who have walked across the graduation stage celebrating the successful completion of their high school careers, will pass the AHSA?

Does the NJ DOE plan to toss a test that accurately assesses student academic achievement (or lack thereof) and reinstate the much-abused Special Review Assessment? Just how meaningless is a New Jersey high school diploma? To what degree are we willing to perpetuate the pretense that NJ adequately educates the children in our poor, segregated school districts? We await further word from the DOE.

NJ's Diploma Scam: Part I

Last Tuesday the Education Law Center (ELC) sent a letter to Commissioner Bret Schundler requesting that he “set aside the results of last January's Alternate High School Assessment (AHSA) after preliminary reports showed high failure rates that threaten June graduation prospects for thousands of seniors.”

ELC’s logic is that the test is flawed and all scores should be invalidated. In fact, these test scores point to the systemic failure of NJ’s public schools to adequately educate the population that ELC advocates for poor urban students.

Let’s back up. First of all, New Jersey is the only state in the country that allows students to bypass standard state assessments. Originally AHSA (called the Special Review Assessment until last year) was intended for special education students who, for reasons of disability, could not pass the standard HSPA. However in 1991, as a DOE white paper from May 2003 recounts, districts started using the alternative test for any student, disabled or not, who failed the HSPA three times. Over time, districts with large numbers of failing students have relied more frequently on this back-up test in order to graduate acceptable numbers of children. Example: last year 53% of Camden High School’s students graduated high school based on SRA results, as did 53.8% of Trenton Central High seniors and 59.1% at East Side High in Paterson. The DOE white paper nails the conditions that allow barely literate students to receive NJ high school diplomas:
  • It is nearly impossible for the state to monitor the conditions in which the SRA is administered.
  • The secure storage of materials is another challenge to the validity of the system.
  • Although the department provides clear direction in the selection of PATs and criteria for the appropriate scorers, there is little capacity to audit all districts to ensure compliance.
  • It is not feasible to perform the widespread re-scoring of student papers to necessary to determine the level of local scoring reliability.
Here's an NJ Left Behind blog post that describes the administration of the old SRA, including this description from a journalist who sat in on a student's test: " If a student fails a mini-quiz, the teacher does not accept defeat. Instead, she coaches him on the mini-content of the lesson and gives him a makeup quiz on it. The procedure can be repeated until finally (hooray!), he regurgitates the material satisfactorily."

Fast forward seven years to our new test, the AHSA, which was given for the first time in January and graded by a reputable outside agency called Measurement, Inc. The testing materials from Measurement include this adviso (in large bold letters) which gives a window into the sham that has allowed high school seniors to graduate in spite of an inability to pass an 8th grade level test: "ONCE THE STUDENT BEGINS TESTING, THE TEACHER OR ADMINISTRATOR WHO IS ADMINISTERING THE AHSA PAT MAY NOT ASSIST THE STUDENT IN ANY WAY EXCEPT TO MAKE SURE THAT THE STUDENT IS ON THE CORRECT PAGE IN THE ANSWER DOCUMENT."

The results of such basic oversight? According to ELC’s press release, of the 10,000 students who took the test in January, only 10% passed language arts and 34% passed math. In 120 school district not a single student passed the language arts portion, and in 40 district not a single student passed the math portion.

This rate of failure, indicative of the inability of our urban schools to effectively educate students, is, apparently, an embarrassment for both the ELC, which has argued heartily that excessive funding produces adequate learning, and for the NJ DOE, which is ultimately responsible for awarding high school diplomas to illiterate students. We could throw in the NJEA too, which highlights on its website that “New Jersey continues to have the highest graduation rate in the nation.” Sure we do, as long as hand out meaningless diplomas like glowsticks at a rock concert.

Next, we'll look at the NJ DOE's response.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Quote of the Day

Since 2001, spending by local towns across New Jersey has risen by 70 percent, with average 4 percent raises for teachers each year playing a major role in the increases. During that same period, property taxes have risen by 56 percent. Christie…has called on teachers to agree to a shared sacrifice of freezing their salaries and helping to cut school costs so taxes can be lowered and property owners will stop griping that it costs too much to live in New Jersey. My prediction: Christie is going to win this war.
Mike Kelly in The Record.

Sunday Leftovers

The Monmouth University Poll says that 1/3 of registered voters think that teachers are suffering unfairly under Gov. Christie’s proposed budget, but a new Rasmussen poll shows that 65% of New Jerseyans “favor a one-year pay freeze on the salaries of administrators, teachers and school workers to reduce the state’s level of local school aid.”

Bob Ingle of Gannett papers
says that “Tuesday[‘s school budget elections] brings a showdown in the battle between Gov. Christie and the NJEA,” with the teachers union spending more than $1.8 million on anti-Christie advertising.

The Press of Atlantic City suggests NJ may be ready for county-wide school districts because “educating students is a societal responsibility” and we should “spread the tax burden more broadly than it is now.”

David P. Thompson at Associated Content compares Christie and Schundler to Laurel and Hardy.

Alfred Doblin, editorialist for The Record, comments on NJEA’s “Respond to Negative Editorials Week: "The BCEA can flood an editorial board with self-serving letters of support if it chooses, but it would do better to earn support from the public at large. A lesson from the recent Corzine campaign: You can’t buy love. If voters decide you are not right, for whatever reason, no amount of money can change that. And if you are spending millions of dollars to convince voters that your members have no money, you have a fundamental problem with logic.and its response to bad press."

Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Cryan and Assembly Education Chairman Patrick J. Diegnan, Jr. slam Gov. Christie’s pension and benefits reform because it will “trigger the retirement of tens of thousands of highly qualified educators who would be forced to leave our classrooms to protect their retirement planning.”

The Asbury Park Press looks at local school districts' fears about failing budgets on Tuesday.

The Courier Post has a 12-page article on local school budgets, and notes that "For the first time since school elections began here in 1903, Tuesday's vote may be more exciting than the usual snooze."

The State of Maryland has issued its draft proposal for the June submision of Race To The Top applications, and the Education Law Center complains that the NJ DOE is gambling with the support of stakeholders by releasing no information.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Quote of the Day

From a Q and A with Education Commissioner Bret Schundler at a Senate Hearing, courtesy of New Jersey Newsroom:
The thing holding up action [on collective bargaining, health benefit cost-sharing, and pension reform legislation] is fear. New Jersey's public sector unions are powerful. The teachers union alone has dues income greater than the budgets of New Jersey's Democratic and Republican parties combined. Public employee unions oppose the Governor's proposals because the reforms would bring public sector compensation growth more in line with private sector compensation growth, instead of allowing it to rise 2 or 3 times as fast.

Seniority and Teacher Effectiveness

NJEA’s latest press release decries the “catastrophic impact on public education” in NJ if the Legislature passes a bill that will give retirement incentives to teachers. The bill would coax teachers of retirement age to bow out by August 1st and elude the new health benefits contributions and formulas that could potentially lower pensions. In effect, the bill will also lower payroll costs across school districts since salary rises with seniority, regardless of performance. (According to Ed. Comm. Bret Schundler, salaries and benefits of new teachers cost 83% more than new hires.) Says NJEA President Barbara Keshishian, “Whether the governor realizes it or not, his legislation would be an all-out assault on the very future of public education in New Jersey. He is threatening to do irreparable damage to every public school system in the state, and to the 1.4 million students we teach.”

What would be the real impact on students if older, more experienced school teachers left and were replaced by less experienced instructors? After all, NJEA believes “as many as 30,000 could retire by Aug. 1st,” or about 14%, a substantial turnover. Will this bill do “irreparable damage?”

Ms. Keshishian says “yes”: “Christie’s proposal could cause thousands of veteran, talented teachers to retire before they would normally do so,” Keshishian predicts, “plunging districts into chaos as they scramble to hire new staff just a month before classes resume in September.” No doubt some wonderful, talented jewels of the profession would move on. But unacknowledged in her panicky diatribe is the well-established fact that additional years of experience do not improve teacher effectiveness.

In a study published in Education Next, “A Close Look at Teacher Experience,” three researchers conclude that “Teachers make long strides in their first three years, with very little experience-related improvement after that. The students of third-year teachers score 6 percent and 3 percent of a standard deviation higher in math and reading, respectively, than students of first-year teachers.” From The New Teacher Project’s study, “A Smarter Teacher Lay-off System:" “Seniority-based layoff policies are frequently defended with the logic that more experienced teachers are better teachers. This is not necessarily true. Numerous studies have demonstrated that teachers improve the most over the course of their first years in the classroom, then level off in effectiveness.” Study after study, in fact, shows that a twenty-year teacher is no more effective than a five-year teacher, and teachers themselves are well aware of this. The TNTP study surveyed 9,000 teachers in two large urban districts about lay-off policies:u
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.
Instead of panicking at the prospect of an unprecedented number of teacher retirements, here’s an opportunity to reexamine our flawed assumptions about teacher effectiveness, i.e., more years in the classroom yields better teachers. If we are truly to have an influx of new teachers, as Keshishian predicats, then why don’t we gather information on our rookies’ ed schools and try to gauge effectiveness of training? Why not do some controlled studies on professional development to determine the efficacy of various in-service training? The role of mentors? The value of certification?

Effective teaching is not about accumulating years of service, even if our salary guides perpetuate that myth. Teachers, administrators, and school boards know this. So, what makes a good teacher? Maybe this is our chance to figure it out.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

ELC and RTTT

David Sciarra, Executive Director of the Education Law Center, has an editorial at New Jersey Newsroom in which he attacks the “voucher bill,” or The Opportunity Scholarship Act, a bill (S1872) sponsored by Senators Thomas Kean Jr. and Raymond Lesniak. Among its failings, alleges Mr. Sciarra, is a flawed metric for evaluating failing schools, loss of state revenue through corporate tax breaks to companies that donate scholarships, too high a threshold for defining low-income students, lack of educational accountability for private and parochial schools, and loss of revenue for public schools.

Oddly, he adds another deficit: passage of the Scholarship Act, he claims, will hurt our chances at winning the next round of the Race To The Top competition:
Bill supporters also tout vouchers as a way to help the State secure a competitive Race to the Top (RTTT) grant. However, RTTT grants have extensive guidelines and requirements for stakeholder participation, along with strictly defined initiatives such as improving the distribution of qualified teachers and adopting more rigorous academic standards and assessments. Again, vouchers are not included as an RTTT reform strategy. If enacted, the voucher bill may well undermine the State's chance of winning an RTTT grant.
While voucher programs are not mentioned in the RTTT application, there’s a clear agenda for expanding school choice. And, in fact, one of the highest scorers in the first round of RTTT – Florida – has one of the strongest voucher programs in the country, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which is funded by corporate contributions in return for tax credits. Currently about 42,000 students (about half are special ed) receive vouchers.

How’d Florida do with its undermining voucher program? Out of the 16 states that were finalists for RTTT funds, Florida came in 4th. The two winners, Delaware and Tennessee, got 454.6 points and 444.2 points respectively (out of a possible 500). Georgia garnered 433.6 points and Florida ended up with 431.4. Pretty damn close, vouchers and all.

The most interesting question is why Mr. Sciarra chose to take a two-paragraph detour during his well-argued commentary, veering to a flawed argument about the impact of a NJ voucher program on our RTTT prospects. Was it a political calculation? After all, Vince Giordano, Executive Director of the egg-faced NJEA, is also a Trustee of Education Law Center, and might have insisted on its inclusion. Anyway, ELC has no fondness for RTTT (here’s one of its press releases criticizing the federal program) and isn’t likely to want to help NJ along in its quest for education reform funding. What gives?

Quote of the Day

Apologists for our educational failure say that we will never fix education in America until we eradicate poverty. They have it exactly backward: We will never eradicate poverty until we fix education. The question is whether we have the political courage to take on those who defend a status quo that serves many adults but fails many children.
Co-Chairs of the Education Equality Project Joel Klein (Chancellor of NYC schools), Michael L. Lomax (Pres. of the United Negro College Fund), and Janet Murguia (Pres. of the National Council of La Raza) in the Washington Post.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Long a Rumor, Now Reality?

New bills that provides retirement incentives to NJ’s older (i.e., more expensive) teachers are now slated to go before the Legislature by June 30th. New Jersey Newsroom is reporting that, along with bills that propose contributions to health benefits beyond 1.5% of base pay, there will be legislation that allows teachers who are eligible for retirement to get out by August 1st and escape the new fees yet still receive full benefits. The set of bills will also include the constitutional amendment limiting all labor cost increases and property tax hikes to 2.5% and reinstall “last, best offer” for school districts engaged in negotiations with unions.

Guess this is the “tool kit” board members have been hearing about.

Certainly, the August retirement incentive plan would set a fair number of older teachers racing for the door, potentially saving money for districts and jobs for younger teachers. Here’s another factor: many leaders of local NJEA bargaining units tend to be older teachers. The new legislation, if passed, could bode well for those who favor changes in local union leadership.

Chris Christie Takes on Morning Joe

The Governor went on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” with Joe Scarborough and suggested that NJEA should take a bye on teachers’ dues this year so that members suffer no loss from the 1.5% of base pay health benefits contribution. According to The Record, Christie said,
This is a union problem. This is a union boss problem. If they're so concerned about the $750 a year the teachers would have to pay, you know, their dues that they make every teacher pay are $730 a year -- just about the same amount. It raises $130 million a year for the teachers' union. How about they just try and get by on the $130 million they got last year, waive the dues for this year, and then their teachers would be held harmless?
In other humor, Pat Lobley at New Jersey Newsroom educates the leaders of the Bergen County NJEA office who sent out the “prayer” for the Governor’s swift demise. Says Lobley,
But just because something is offensive, doesn't make it funny. A joke can be in bad taste, but bad taste doesn't mean there's a joke in there somewhere. This is a cop out that typically unfunny people make when they want to make a joke, but do not have the skill and dedication required to do so. If you are thinking you would like to try be funny, here are some tips:

First, think of rhythm and pace. You can't just have some rambling statement ... "Dear Lord, blah blah blah this year you have taken, yada yada" ... and on and on. You've got to be crisp. Set up, payoff.

Second, invoking the premature, agonizing deaths of people like Patrick Swayze and Farrah Fawcett is not that funny. Not really a good way to get the audience on your side. There is humor to be found in tragedy, but that kind of sophisticated comedy is best left to professionals.

Third, test your material before you put it in prime time. Even the most tried and true comedians go to small, quiet venues to try out their new jokes. Sending out an untried joke to 17,000 people is just too risky.

It's a tough time to be a teacher right now. The last thing they need is leaders that are a bunch of jokers.

See what I did there?

Department of CYA

Apparently Gov. Christie didn’t really mean on Monday that NJ residents should vote down local school budgets. At a Senate budget hearing yesterday, Ed. Comm. Bret Schundler clarified the Governor’s remarks:
Schundler said he thought the governor meant he understood how voters were going to feel. He said no when asked directly whether he thought voters should reject budgets without wage freezes.

"I think what the governor was trying to say was he understands how voters are going to feel if they're looking at the possibility of a property tax increase of 5 percent and they're being asked to, if you will, sacrifice to avoid layoffs," Schundler said. "It's not that they should feel that way, but I think a lot of them are going to feel that way. I think that's what the governor was trying to get at."
Whew. That’s a relief.

Schundler also explained why school districts were caught off guard after expecting a maximum loss of 15% of state aid, and instead were socked with cuts of 5% of total budgets, telling the Star-Ledger that he “lacked a good line of communication with individual districts.” More likely, it was a sudden change of strategy by the NJ DOE. The originally proposed cut – that 15% of state aid -- would slash too deeply at poor urban districts, some of whom rely on the State for over 90% of total school costs. That kind of axing would almost certainly provoke immediate legal action from the Education Law Center, which is momentarily biding its time until the School Funding Reform Act comes up for review. The 5% total aid cut took suburban districts by surprise, but saved the skins of Districts-Formerly-Known-As-Abbotts.

Glenn Beck Award*

To NJEA President Barbara Keshishian , who said in an NJEA press release yesterday,
When Commissioner Schundler claims that school district salaries are rising three times faster than the rate of inflation, that’s an outright falsehood. Over the past five years, the average rate of inflation was 2.76 percent. Over the past five years, the average teacher salary increased by 2.86 percent. Commissioner Schundler is misleading the public on this issue.
Hmm. That would mean that NJEA members have negotiated contracts that yield .57% per year over the last five years. Actually, annual increases over the last 5 years have averaged anywhere from 4.3% - 5%, not including increases in health benefits. Marlboro Township is a good example: the School Board there fought as hard as they could, proceeding through the entire ladder of negotiations at considerable cost to taxpayers -- Mediation, Fact-Finding, Superconciliation -- and teachers ended up with a 23% salary increase over 5 years, or 4.6% per year. If we're using the average rate of inflation, as Ms. Keshishian does, the final settlement in Marlboro is almost 10 times the rate of inflation.

*New 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."

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

If NJ Was In Indiana...

Interesting development in Indiana regarding Race To The Top: the State Superintendent, Tony Bennett, has written a letter to the president of the Indiana State Teachers Association explaining that because union buy-in is so important to wining the federal competition, “I ask for your unequivocal agreement to the following proposals.” If the Union won’t support Indiana’s RTTT application then Indiana won’t even bother applying for the next round in June. (Hat tip: Flypaper.)

Mr. Bennett goes on to stipulate that the application will only be submitted if ISTA agrees to support a requirement that 51% of teacher evaluations be based on student growth data, and new legislation that uses teacher evaluations to inform tenure and compensation decisions. The Union must submit a “strong letter of support and a recommendation that local associations sign on in support.”

Good strategy or not? Arne Duncan has taken some heat for giving blue ribbons to the two states – Delaware and Tennessee -- with almost unanimous union buy-in, so Mr. Bennett’s caution is understandable, as is his desire to lay the weight of a potential loss of several million dollars at the feet of ISTA’s leaders. Rick Hess in Education Week, in fact, argues that making union support a condition for victory rewards weaker proposals, the logic being that really transformational applications would never get state union support:
Tennessee boasted that it had obtained signatures of participation from 100% of Local Education Agency (LEA) superintendents, 100% from the presidents of local school boards, and 93% from the local teachers' union leaders. Delaware bragged that it obtained 100% of the signatures in each category. Is this really a good thing? When Louisiana faced board pushback because of the boldness of its proposals, and when Florida endured an FEA boycott over its own proposed measures, the decision to go with Delaware and Tennessee looks like the triumph of process over substance. If anyone believes that Delaware can get 100%--or even 60%--of districts or union leaders to sign on to efforts to dramatically retool K-12 schooling, I've got a couple of handsome monuments in downtown D.C. I'd like to sell them.
In some ways, Jersey’s DOE/Teacher Union relationship is a caricature of the rest of the nation. (Can’t think of any other state where unions are sending out emails asking God to strike the governor dead, or any other governor advocating that local taxpayers vote down school budgets.) What would happen if Gov. Christie wrote a letter to NJEA Prez Barbara Keshishian requesting union buy-in on, say, tying teacher compensation to student academic growth, or legislation rewriting tenure laws? (Cue in automatic weaponry sound effects.)

If Superintendent Bennett of Indiana is correct and union buy-in is a mandatory component for RTTT winners, then either we throw in the towel now or start our own prayers for enough teachers to get fed up with their representatives’ chicanery and elect new leadership. Do NJEA’s leaders care if the public is angry because union recalcitrance dooms our June application? Probably not; anyway, no one’s buying real estate in Trenton.

Christie's Strategic Blunder

Prayers for an early death aside, Gov. Christie made an strategic blunder yesterday when he called on the public to vote down school budgets in the vast majority of districts where local unions have not accepted pleas for salary freezes. Bloomberg News reported yesterday that the Governor told reporters in Princeton, “I just don’t see how citizens should want to support a budget where teachers do not want to be a part of the shared sacrifice. That’s my view on it.”

Actually, the public doesn’t need any prodding. It’s likely that many school budgets will fail to pass a week from today and Christie’s incitement to cast a “no” vote just makes him seem churlish and vindictive. Far better that he remain silent and trust in the democratic process (not to mention unprecedented voter anger) to achieve the same result. Anyway, our bizarre process of voting on school budgets (instead of, say, municipal budgets) simply means that failed referenda will be thrust at non-educationally-literate members of town councils who will make some meek suggestions and throw the whole document back at school boards. Who came up with this anyway?

Meanwhile, NJEA President Barbara Keshishian met with Gov. Christie yesterday afternoon for about 15 minutes and, according to The Record, refused to fire Joe Coppola, the president of the Bergen County Education Association, who signed the memo that included the prayer to our Maker to grant a wish for our Governor’s early demise. Technically Keshishian can’t fire Coppola anyway – local associations vote annually for their presidents – though that’s not to say that such a process couldn’t be hustled along. It’s moot anyway. Gracious apology given; apology less graciously accepted. Christie could have looked a whole lot more magnanimous if he’d let it go while the NJEA “prayer” continues its cyberjourney across the country.

He’d also do himself a favor by retracting his suggestion to voters. It’s unnecessarily intrusive and just flat out unnecessary. NJEA’s leaders are doing a fine job on their own looking greedy and out of touch. They don’t need any help from Chris Christie.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Quotes of the Day

I’m not sure which is more embarrassing for the NJEA, the fact that their local is circulating memos praying for the governor’s death, or the fact that their local is headed by a person whose favorite actor is Patrick Swayze, favorite acress is Farrah Fawcett, and favorite singer is Michael Jackson.
Jay P. Greene, Professor of Education Reform and blogger.

The good news is that a few state officials are starting to push back. In addition to New York's Governor Paterson, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is trying to reduce state aid to local school districts. In the past decade, student enrollment in the Garden State has grown by 3%, while total school hiring is up 14%. Instead of addressing this reality, a local chapter of the New Jersey Education Association responded to Mr. Christie's proposals by circulating a memo joking that it wishes the Governor were dead. Mr. Christie must be doing something right.
Today's Wall Street Journal.
Reagan had the air traffic controllers union. . . Bill Clinton had Newt Gingrich, and now Chris Christie has the NJEA. They are the foil to him that is allowing him to stake out positions in a clear and forceful way. When you are trying to define yourself, it is helpful to have the light and dark, the white and black.
Pete McDonough in Central Jersey.

THE MORE I watch the New Jersey Education Association and its local representatives attack Governor Christie, the more I believe their media adviser is former U.S. Sen. George Allen, R-Va. In case you may have forgotten, Allen used the racial slur macaca and then claimed he didn’t mean it in a bad way.

Voters who rejected Allen at the polls in 2006 didn’t mean that in a bad way either.
Alfred P. Doblin of The Record.

Judge Wallace and School Funding

Here in Jersey all jural eyes are on the looming question of whether Gov. Christie will grant tenure to Justice John E. Wallace Jr., whose term is up in April. Republicans are pressuring the Governor to choose a more reliably conservative jurist to prove his judical restraint bona fides while Democrats like Senator Ray Lesniak warn, "If Justice Wallace were not reappointed, anyone to be appointed in his place would stand a snowball's chance in hell to be appointed by the Senate Judiciary Committee."

One big issue the Supreme Court will face, as soon as this year, is a review of former Gov. Corzine’s School Funding Reform Act. The Education Law Center, which lost a suit against the DOE challenging SFRA last year, is accumulating an impressive pile of press releases and reports all pointing to the inadequacy of our school funding formula to equalize funding between NJ’s poor urban districts and wealthy suburban ones. Recent state aid cuts and the lack of expansion of free public preschool (promised under SFRA to poor children regardless of place of residence) is more fodder for ELC to prove that the Justices erred last time around.

Here’s the thing: it doesn’t really matter. The Abbott rulings, and the court battle over SFRA, are so last century. NJ’s zeitgeist regarding school funding has changed dramatically over the last year. Who would have thought that the NJEA’s leadership would so badly misjudge public sentiment and win Gov. Christie’s MVP Award for most helpful character assassin of the teaching industry? No one thinks that we don’t pay our teachers enough (well, hardly anyone). No one thinks that we don’t pay enough for public education. That old innumerate equation, money = academic achievement, is in the dust heap, swept there in part through NJ’s noble, failed experiment to create educational justice through financial compensation, and in part through the momentum of the reform movement, stylized via Race To The Top.

So Gov. Christie doesn’t need to die on this hill. He’s still going to get to remake the State Supreme Court; Judge Wallace faces mandatory retirement in two years and three other justices will either retire or be up for reappointment. School funding needs dramatic reinvention in the Garden State, but we’re in no danger of returning to the hoary Abbott days, especially after all the reports of corruption and waste (as if the State’s own financial neediness weren’t enough). Actually, we need an Abbott program for NJ. Any rich states out there willing to compensate us (maybe California too) for failing to fund ourselves adequately?

Seriously, the kids stuck in chronically failing schools in poor urban centers haven’t been rescued by decades of extraordinary funding. Their best chance is access to successful schools, which has nothing to do with the fate of the Abbott rulings or the School Funding Reform Act. That's where Gov. Christie needs to put his political capital, not in a pointless fight over a well-regarded Justice.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Quote of the Day

Here's an excerpt from a memo sent to local affiliates from the Bergen County office of the NJEA (which included the “prayer” in which, according to The Record, “the punch line is a thinly veiled appeal to God for Christie’s death”). NJEA President Barbara Keshishian has issued an apology to the Governor.
Get some dirt….go public. Keep your eyes and ears OPEN…the gloves are off! A disconnect between Trenton and the local leadership as well as Trenton’s lack of punches thrown at our governor. We now have a Rapid Response Team whose responsibility it is to follow Christie’s every move and every word and when he lies, call him on it. We are going after HIM. You will be seeing on TV and the internet and reading in local papers more from our officers and our leadership. They will be in his face and hard hitting...a real change in the old strategy. Add Bret Schundler’s name to the attack list.

Sunday Leftovers

Steven Malanga of the City Journal explains in the New York Post how NJ's public-school enrollment has risen since 2001 by 3% but total school hiring has risen by 14%; that health and pension costs have risen by 115% in the same period; that there's been little educational pay-off; and that Christie’s cuts are “the only way to bring spending back in line.”

Don't miss “The Real Race Begins: Lessons from the First Round of Race to the Top," out this week from The New Teacher Project.

In the Lobby
cites the statistics that 98% of teacher unions in NJ have chosen not to reopen contracts (so far) and thus “chose salary increases over the chance to save members jobs...So, ultimately, who’s responsible for layoffs in these districts?”

The Asbury Press Editorial Board c
hastises NJEA leadership for refusing to accept pay freezes: "The teachers' intransigence is a disgrace...Teachers around the state would do well to get on board — for their own sake, for the sake of taxpayers and, dare it be said, for the sake of the children."

The Star-Ledger Editorial Board
says that Gov. Christie’s request for voluntary teacher pay freezes is a “historic opportunity for NJ school districts and the NJEA to rethink and renegotiate their basic contract,” specifically the inclusion of rewards for improved student outcomes: "The time has come for performance pay" and the Gov. should require districts to include merit pay in contracts by 2011.

Teachers and students in Somerset County lined Route 206 to protest Gov. Christie’s school aid cuts.

Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, argues at New Jersey Newsroom that NJ’s school funding is “lunacy,” specifically our method of “adjustment aid, now hardwired into the state’s funding formula,” and the fact that the “majority of school boards lack common sense.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer has its annual Report Card up on area schools, which includes NJ’s Camden, Burlington and Gloucester counties.

The Star-Ledger says we should move school elections to November: "Please. Debating property taxes and school spending has never been an exercise in warm and cuddly. This is as political as it gets."

Friday, April 9, 2010

Quote of the Day

So if it’s a war teachers want, they’ve got it. There is no clearer signal in this struggle than the tone-deafness of the most powerful union in the state. Everyone who cares about the economy, the quality of education and the future of our public institutions has to be baffled…With their [refusal to accept wage freezes], unionized public employees are handing a huge base of public support to Christie, who’s finishing off his practice swings and striding to the plate.
Editorial Staff of the Lehigh Valley News

NJEA Prayer Goes Viral

From Cedar Rapids, Iowa to Oakland, CA, to San Francisco, to Kansas City, to 1010 WINS in NYC, everyone's chattering about the prayer included in a memo from the Bergen County Education Association and signed by NJEA field reps:
Dear Lord … this year you have taken away my favorite actor, Patrick Swayze, my favorite actress, Farrah Fawcett, my favorite singer, Michael Jackson, and my favorite salesman, Billy Mays. … I just wanted to let you know that Chris Christie is my favorite governor.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

NJ NAEP Reading Scores Flat

The National Center for Educational Progress (NAEP) has released 2009 reading scores for 4th and 8th graders (links are for NJ). Across the country 4th grade scores were flat while 8th grade scores were up slightly. In New Jersey, our 4th graders scored two points lower than in 2007 and our 8th graders went up 3 points from 2007. There was no meaningful change in NJ’s achievement gap: in 4th grade, black students scored 25 points lower than whites, Hispanic children scored 24 points lower, and low-income students scored 26 points lower. Black 8th graders scored 31 points lower than white 8th graders, Hispanics scored 25 points lower, and low-income kids scored 27 points lower.

Why NJ Botched RTTT

The US Department of Education has released reviews of each state’s Race To The Top application. (Here's our reviews.) New Jersey placed 18th out of 40 states with 387 points out of possible 500. Rating categories, which are then further subdivided, are: State Success Factors (125 points); Standards and Assessments (70 points); Data Systems to Support Instructions (47 points); Great Teachers and Leaders (138 points); Turning Around Lowest Performing Schools (50 points); and General (55 points). The additional 15 points are an all-or-nothing category called Competitive Preference Priority 2: Emphasis on STEM. There are 5 complete reviews in the NJ package.

We did really well in Standards and Assessments (ranging from 63-69 out of a potential 70 points) and “General,” (scoring between 47-53 out of a potential 55 points) which includes school funding, charter schools and innovative schools (technically we have no charter cap, though some reviewers mused over our slow growth), and preschool education. One reviewer had this to say about our Interdistrict School Choice Program: “Interdistrict school choice has reached its capacity for participation. This one (identified) attempt — now at capacity — seems meager in light of the many types of innovative programs available to public schools and LEAs since 1999.”

Where did we get slammed? That’s no secret: State Success Factors, which includes NJEA support, and Great Teachers and Leaders. Under the former, where scores ranged from 66-94 points out of a potential 125, reviewers noted the “strong commitment” from local school boards and superintendents, and remarked on New Jersey School Boards Association's letter of support. However, the fact that only 5% of union presidents signed off on Memoranda of Understanding led one reviewer to note the “serious problems in obtaining union president signatures” and another to surmise that “the evidence indicates a challenging environment in terms of gaining broad-based support, with public opposition to the plan by the state's teachers union” One reviewer noted, “the dramatic lack of union support may compromise the State's ability to implement its a la carte reform agenda.” Another reviewer commented that “the union leaders who did sign (mostly from small, 1-6 school LEAs)
should be applauded for their courage to stand up for and support this important school reform effort.”

While reviewers praised us for “providing high-quality pathways for aspiring teachers and principals,” our ratings on the rest of the category “Great Teachers and Leaders” was lackluster. Everyone commented on our lack of clarity in measuring student growth for high school students. Our professional development and evaluation plan for teachers and principals was labeled “a conundrum” and “potentially weak.” More importantly, we were unable to demonstrate a “rigorous and statewide accountability system, given the lack of standardization with job descriptions and development plans.” We only collect data on whether teachers are “highly qualified,” instead of “highly effective,” and this limits “our ability to create strategies for retaining and/or rewarding highly effective teachers and leaders.” One reviewer notes,
The RTTT reform effort focuses more on individuals than institutions, per se, with the understanding that if individuals are supported in improvements, that the institutions will also show improvement. The Applicant's compensatory plan is more institution-based, i.e. the school, as opposed to the individuals in the school being recognized for their accomplishments. This school-wide approach may offer cover for those staff members who may not be "highly effective.”
Where does this leave us? We're nowhere without NJEA buy-in, including support for measures that allow us to distinguish our most effective teachers from our least effective ones. There’s a sense in which reviewers intimated that our proposal was overly conciliatory, with several noting that we have “set a low performance goal to remove 5% of its ineffective tenured and non-tenured teachers and principals by SY 2012-2013." The real conundrum for NJ is how to achieve this collaboration with NJEA’s leadership. Unless that happens, our next application, due in two short months, will be as unrewarding as the first.