Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Props to the Assembly

Interdistrict school choice is inscribed in law after an Assembly vote yesterday, 78-0. Of course it’s all voluntary: districts apply, if the spirit moves them, to offer empty seats to students outside of municipal boundaries, and students can apply for those seats. Sending districts are responsible for transportation and the money follows the kid.

The big question: will any districts actually apply? The pilot program, initiated in 1999, allowed one district from each of our 21 counties to be labeled a “choice district.” In fact, 15 did so (here’s the complete list), leaving 6 counties without any options. And some of those choice districts are limited. For example, Burlington County’s choice district, Green Bank Elementary School, has exactly 2 students enrolled from out of district for the 2009-2010 school year. On the other hand, according to DOE data there were 83 kids enrolled K-8th grade for the 2008-2009 school year.

Apparently one of the incentives for schools to volunteer as choice districts is survival. That’s a pretty good cattleprod but doesn’t really address the primary issue of allowing students stuck in chronically failing schools to have an escape hatch to a successful one.

But bully for the Assembly. It’s a no-brainer, this one, and let’s hope that the bill promotes expansion of school choice in NJ. If it doesn’t, perhaps some meaningful incentives might provide the necessary poke.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

NJ Dems Split-Personality-Disorder

Professor Pat McGuinn of Drew University, sitting in for Rick Hess at Edweek, examines the growing rift within the Democratic Party over national education reform. Two narratives emerge, according to McGuinn: one is based on equity of school resources and another is based on accountability. Read the whole thing, but here’s a sample:
Fundamentally, the disagreement centers on issues of governance and the appropriate role of the federal government in education. The central issue for Democrats has been how best to close persistent racial, socio-economic, and international achievement gaps in a fragmented and decentralized educational system. This is what might be called the 50/15,000/100,000 problem in American education reform--we have fifty different state education systems which collectively contain approximately 15,000 school districts and almost 100,000 schools. While the U.S. now has clear national goals in education, it lacks a national system of education within which to pursue these goals, and the federal government can only indirectly attempt to drive reform through the grant-in-aid system.
In New Jersey, of course, we have a 1/591/2,500 problem: one state education system that contains 591 school districts and 2,500 separate schools. We also have two competing narratives, one voiced primarily by NJEA’s leadership and Education Law Center (who echo national scholars like Diane Ravitch), arguing that our schools are generally well-performing and that poor student performance is a result of intractable poverty. The other narrative, argued by smaller, less powerful groups like E3 and Democrats for Education Reform’s NJ headquarters, plus a few loudmouths like me (we’ll get to our Republican governor in a moment) asserts that while our state is dotted with pockets of educational excellence, on balance we fail our poor urban students and the cause of this is not economic but political.

For the former narrative – the NJEA/ELC argument -- emphasis on accountability and all it entails (attention to data, tenure reform, merit pat) is counter-productive. It’s not the tests, it’s the poverty. Teachers know best how to reach students and using data as a metric is inherently unfair to students and educators. There’s an acknowledgment of either hopelessness or realism or resignation, depending on your wont. If educational achievement rides on the coattails of the amelioration of poverty, then we could be in for a long haul.

For the latter narrative, however, --- is it essentially hopeful or fantastic? How ironic is it that a data-obsessed movement could be painted as pollyannaish? -- accountability enables education to bypass the political interests that freeze out our ability to address deep-seated problems and inequities. Data is non-judgmental, unbiased, and indifferent to special interests, and all kids can learn.

(Back to the irony department: how did we get to a place where Bush’s speechwriter’s (Michael Gersen?) famous phrase, “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” is now the hallmark of the more powerful educational wing of the Democratic party?)

Anyway, back to Jersey. NJEA/ELC’s half-nelson on NJ’s education reform prospects would bring latter-narrative-Democrats to their knees if not for one curious happenstance: the current Republican Governor and his Administration are almost completely aligned with an educational constituency whose most influential spokesperson is the Democratic President of the United States. So the former-narrative-caucus – we won’t fix our educational potholes until we eliminate poverty – finds itself battling not only the NJ DOE but President Obama, whom they fought hard and expensively for a year and a half ago. And the latter-narrative caucus – the status quo fails our poor students; the problem is not just their poverty but our rejection of accountability – finds itself in a sort of transcendental bi-partisanship, finding bedfellows in odd places and allies that span traditional political divides. See the recent hail-fellow-well-met-amity between Gov. Christie and Democratic Mayor Cory Booker over Newark’s chronically failing schools.

In NJ, at least for now, the power rests with rooters for the status quo, McGuinn’s first narrative. State House antics aside, it's unclear how much the Legislature is willing to buck its pocketbooks and at least some core of its constituency. But adherents of the second narrative hope that the combination of federal commitment to education reform, increasing attention to the chronic failures of NJ’s poor urban districts, and the alliances of strange bedfellows will add up to a New Jersey-wide movement that sharpens the focus on the decades-long failures of our school system to offer an equitable education system to all children.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Board Members of Jersey City

Last week a divided Jersey City Board of Education extended Superintendent Charles T. Epps Jr.’s contract until 2013. Today one of the newly-elected Board members who had voted against the extension, Sterling Waterman, issued a press release charging that the Jersey City Board violated state law by holding a vote on Epps’ extension without adequate public notice:
“If Superintendent Epps wants two more years, he and the Board have to give an opportunity to the parents, students and citizens to discuss it openly before the Board,” he continued, ”The people were denied their legal right to a public hearing."
Last month Waterman had published an op-ed arguing that the Board should conduct a nationwide search for Epps’ $260,000 position. According to a Star-Ledger article, at last one of the Board members, Angel Valentin, had agreed with Waterman but during the meeting explained that he changed his mind because a search would be too expensive. From the Star-Ledger:
Superintendent since 2000, Epps, 66, acknowledged yesterday that the majority of the public schools in the city are considered to be failing based on test scores. But he is credited with closing the achievement gap, improving passing rates in lower grades, and putting the district, which has been state-run since 1989, in a position to regain local control.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Sunday Leftovers

Edweek's Pat McGuinn on dueling interpretations of NJ's NAEP scores, courtesy of NJEA's and Christie Administration spokespeople:
A few weeks ago, when new National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data was released that ranked New Jersey first in the nation in student achievement, a Christie spokesman dismissed the positive results as "irrelevant" and declared the New Jersey public school system to be "wretched." The NJEA responded by focusing solely on the good news and ignoring the Christie administration's criticism of the system's failings. On average, New Jersey public schools can indeed be considered excellent, but this should not be surprising given that the state has among the highest per-capita income (and per-pupil spending) rates in the country and that test scores are highly correlated with income. But this high average hides many truly abysmal public schools (particularly in urban areas) and the persistence of large racial and socio-economic achievement gaps. The current overheated political rhetoric precludes an honest, balanced conversation about the system's strengths and weaknesses, as well as the reforms AND resources it would take to improve it for poorly served children.
The Press of Atlantic City analyzes recent teacher salary settlements that have gone to the Public Employment Relations Commission, or PERC, which happens when school boards and local bargaining units reach an impasse. The report also looks at the widely-shared criticism of state arbitrators, who “have continued to recommend annual teacher salary increases of at least 4 percent over the last two years.”

Mike Petrilli over at Fordham’s Flypaper looks at the downward in students identified as having learning disabilities (an 11% drop in 5 years) and links it to NCLB’s Reading First program, recently eliminated by Congress.

NJ’s Supreme Court doled out a loss to NJEA, which was trying to force the State to fully fund its pension obligations.

Local NJ districts are starting to charge students for summer school (The Record) and extracurricular activities (New Jersey Newsroom). Other cost-saving new trend: replacing elementary world language teachers with computer programs like Rosetta Stone. (Star-Ledger).

Supporters of the Opportunity Scholarship Act, NJ’s proposed voucher program currently gummed up in the Legislature, held a free concert in Newark yesterday. E3’s Derrell Bradford commented to the Star-Ledger, "Every other kid in Newark goes to a failing school.”

On Tuesday the Institute of Education Sciences released its final evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, the voucher program. The results are “mixed:” no increase in achievement but increased likelihood that students would graduate high school. The Quick and the Ed blog recommends that we need “longer term measures, like high school graduation and college attendance” in order to evaluate these programs more effectively.

Friday, June 25, 2010

School Choice Update

Here’s Education Law Center’s David Sciarra on the non-movement (according to NJ Spotlight) of the Opportunity Scholarship Act, or the voucher bill: “We don’t want to see it get out of here,” said David Sciarra, the ELC’s executive director. “We don’t want it to get any momentum. Who knows what would happen if it got out of committee." Spoiler alert: it doesn’t, mainly due to the efforts of Budget Committee Chair Paul Sarlo. In a companion piece, John Mooney looks at a bill that got quadrilateral support (i.e., Republican, Democrat, education reformer, status quo proponent), the Interdistrict School Choice program, stuck in post-pilot purgatory since 2005 and now ready to be adopted and expanded.

Senate Bill 1073,
sponsored by Shirley Turner, continues the small but successful program that currently allows 919 kids to cross school district boundaries and attend a presumably better “choice district.” According to NJ Spotlight, just under one-third of the participants attend Englewood schools, which helped them diversify, and about one-fourth attend Folsom Elementary School in Hammonton.

It’s a no-brainer to authorize the program’s continuity; the problem is that it doesn’t go far enough. Becoming a “choice district,” i.e., opening vacancies to students outside district boundaries, is totally voluntary and carries with it no incentives. According to a Fiscal Impact Statement from the Office of Legislative Services, “the net effect would be no change in total revenue to the choice district (unless the increase in aid associated with the enrollment of choice students exceeds the amount of adjustment aid received).”

Here’s a better idea, if hugely unpopular: require all high-performing districts with empty seats to allow students in neighboring districts to attend. Take our favorite example: Willingboro High School in Burlington County, a dysfunctional, chronically failing district, and Moorestown High School, a high-achieving district nine miles away. According to the most recent DOE data, Moorestown High’s freshman class numbered 324 students. The sophomore class was 364 students. Does that mean that Moorestown High has 40 empty seats? What if Moorestown was required to fill those seats with kids trapped in a nearby chronically failing school? Would that be a better use of taxpayer dollars? Would that offer better academic opportunities for Willingboro’s kids confined within a separate and unequal school district?

When New Jersey gets serious about zip codes not determining academic destiny, then we’ll have meaningful interdistrict school choice.

Waiting for Principal

Joan Whitlow in the Star-Ledger looks thoughtfully at five Newark City schools that have garnered almost half of the $45 million in federal improvement grants for turnaround schools in New Jersey. One recipient is Newark’s Central High School, which has the distinction of boasting a superman at its helm: Ras Baraka, not only Principal of the school, but also Councilman-Elect of Newark’s South Ward.

Typically turnaround schools are required to replace their principals, but Principal/Councilman Baraka is immune because Central High had already been under a reform plan. Perhaps the district should reform its administrators’ training in statistics.

When Ms. Whitlow queries Baraka on the fact that only 4.6% of Central High’s students graduate via the traditional High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA), “Baraka said that’s false. Kids get more than one chance to take the exam and better than 50 percent of his pass after more than one try.” Maybe on Krypton (Superman’s home planet). Here at earth-bound Newark Central High, according to the DOE database for 2009, 72.3% of students graduated via the alternative assessment, which means that they failed the HSPA three times. No way that “more than 50%” of Central High’s kids pass the HSPA. Is Principal/Councilman Baraka is conjuring his stats out of thin air? Does Central High need magic or a full-time principal?

Quote of the Day

A Hamilton Township Education Association member to HTEA President Fred Schwartz on his decision to refuse a salary freeze and disallow a membership vote on the matter:
“Please explain how Mr. Schwartz and the HTEA feel that it is professionally, or for that matter morally, acceptable for them to make a decision for the entire union without allowing the teachers to vote,” said one of the teachers who requested anonymity for fear of retribution.

“I have spoken to hundreds of teachers and other staff who state that they would be more than willing to donate some sort of concession or freeze in order to save the 70 young teachers’ lives that are now ruined; but yet, they get no say, no vote, no nothing,” the pink-slipped instructor said. “How are these 70 young teachers suppose to get a job in New Jersey now?” (The Trentonian.)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Voucher Musings

It’s the same old play-off roster between the supporters and detractors of the Opportunity Scholarship Act, S1872, the Senate bill that would set up a system of offering privately-funded vouchers to students in chronically failing schools. On one side we have Gov. Christie (with surprise teammate Sen. Ray Lesniak, and predictable allies like E3 and the Black Ministers Council), masterfully scapegoating the teacher union leadership as anti-school children, and querulous legislators as weak and beholden to special interests. On the other team we have NJEA and the Education Law Center exercising their strategic game plan to evoke specters of church/state conflict and the misuse of public funding for private and religious schools. Here’s Dr. Lauren Hill, ELC Program Director:
This is a clear assault on NJ public schools, which are recognized as among the best in the nation. Parents, students, educators and all those committed to keeping our public schools strong and equitable need to oppose this harmful bill. Let's make sure New Jersey stays voucher-free.
These internecine scrimmages cast the issues as far more dichotomous than they really are. The church/state thing is troubling. The argument against using private funds for private schools is silly. (Come on. What about, say, health care? What about railroads? It’s positively American to combine the two.) New features of the bill, meant to facilitate passage, would mandate that the vouchers only be awarded in areas represented by legislators who support the bill, which is pretty bizarre. (Should poor parents move to neighborhoods where their representatives aren’t dependent on NJEA contributions?)

This is what the voucher bill has going for it (and I remain agnostic about its value): the “fierce urgency of now,” that resonant phrase penned by Martin Luther King and used to great effect by President Obama. It’s about a child right now in, say, a 7th grade class in Morgan Village Middle School in Camden City, where 83.7% of his or her classmates fail the ASK7 in Math and 84.2% fail the ASK7 in Language Arts. Tell that kid right now that, as Lauren Hill has it, “NJ public schools are the best in the nation.” Tell that child and his or her parents right now, as Steve Baker of the NJEA says, that “pulling resources, pulling students and pulling support for public education is not the way to strengthen those schools.”

It’s all well and good for Opportunity Scholarship Bill opponents to avow their general support for public schools and their fear that private vouchers will undermine that funding because voucher recipients will pull cost per pupil, or some percentage of it, along with them. But it’s a philosophical argument, an abstract construct, moralistic hair-splitting, meaningless babel to that kid and those parents stuck in a chronically failing middle school in Camden (or Trenton or Newark or Asbury Park). There’s no fierceness, no urgency, no now. That’s what that kid in that 7th grade class needs, and that’s what voucher opponents must address if they’re to win any points in this game.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Quote of the Day

Gov. Christie on proposed changes to the Opportunity Scholarship Act (transcribed from NJN video):
I’ll be happy to look at any recommended changes to legislation that folks have made. But I will not capitulate and be a participator in a capitulation which results in urban children and their families being denied an education because members of the State Assembly want to capitulate to the teachers’ union. That’s what this is. The delay in this is capitulation to the teachers’ union because what they stand for is putting money in their own pockets and they can not say that this is for the kids…

No achievement for these children and no freedom for their families. Why? Because of their zip codes. If the Education Law Center wants to sue over something, they should sue over that. That’s the obscenity of our public school system in our urban areas and it disgusts me…This is a moral question. This is a civil rights question.

Each one of those members of the Legislature who doesn’t support real opportunity and hope for those children should have to answer to why they deny civil rights for those children and families in order to placate a public sector union that has as its credo, “Me First, Everyone Else Second.”

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Department of Nepotism

Toms River Regional school district, the subject of state and federal criminal probes, is mired in a number of nepotism conflicts that prevent the board of education from voting, or even discussing, Superintendent Michael J. Ritacco's job unless board members first jump through a rarely used legal loophole. Ritacco, whose home was raided by the FBI and Internal Revenue Service in April, supervises the relatives of five of the nine board members. One board member's relative also works for a company that sells meat to the school district's cafeteria, an Asbury Park Press investigation found.
Today's Asbury Park Press

Monday, June 21, 2010

NJSBA Press Attack

Both the Star-Ledger and The Record ran articles yesterday describing New Jersey School Boards Association’s deep pockets, in spite of the impoverishment of the 588 school districts they serve. Here’s a few of the numbers bandied about: $7 million in district dues (school districts are mandated by state statute to pay for membership in NJSBA); $2.7 million in 2009 income from conferences, ads, and services; $4.6 million in payroll; $12.3 million in cash and investments; $7 million in current renovations to its Trenton office (instead of the planned $18 million conference center in Hamilton, though it already paid $1.6 million in cash for the land).

Not to mention that “its staff is enrolled in the state-run health and pension systems even though they are not government employees.” But, hey, who’s counting.

What do we expect? With almost 600 school districts and 4,000 school board members, NJ has spawned an entire industry that offers education, services, information, and lobbying. NJSBA provides other valuable services, particularly negotiations training and new member orientation. The staff we know at NJSBA works valiantly to promote legislation beneficial to school boards and school children. And yet… let’s see: $7,143,825 in annual dues divided by 4,000 board members is $1,786 dollars per board member per year. Yikes.

The announced 5% drop in dues this year isn’t enough to lessen the blow. The 3 day-come-to-Atlantic City-and-party convention has been reduced to drop-in-for-the-afternoon-in-central-Jersey: prudent, yet an attendance killer. A fee-for-services schedule would be more attractive to school boards and less attractive to NJSBA.

In many ways, NJSBA is a symptom of NJ’s bloated educational infrastructure, impossible to rectify unless we can get past our addiction to local control. Just hypothetically, think county-wide districts. 21 school boards would yield 189 school board members, less than 5% of our current 4000 elected school trustees. 21 rounds of negotiations with NJEA instead of 591 rounds. 21 prepared budgets instead of 591. The mind reels.

Would NJ taxpayers get back 95% of the current allocation towards NJSBA? Who knows. But it wouldn’t be chump change.

The irony is that in the last year or two NJSBA has actually developed into a surprisingly progressive organization that seems willing to confront NJEA's regressive tendencies. It's promoted NJ's Race To The Top application and tenure reform, and made a deft switch to online conferencing. But the heat from the press and the public was inevitable; there's a gaping discrepancy between value and cost in its pricing structure. Not to mention that its employees need to get off the government health benefits wagon.

Here's an idea: what if NJSBA agreed to a membership fee freeze for one year? Give all school boards a pass on dues and come up (quickly, but they have the staff, right?) with a pricing structure that experiments with a fee for service schedule. If it doesn't work, they go back to a charging annual dues -- mandated by law anyway -- and if does work than they have a new paradigm. Either way they recover some luster and show a sensitivity to districts' financial morass. Win-win.

Update: Frank Belluscio, Director of Communications for NJSBA, refers us to a letter from NJSBA Prez Raymond Wiss that disputes the article published yesterday in the Star-Ledger and The Record (see above). According to Mr. Wiss, the article “starts with a faulty premise,” an imagined link between the building renovation approved in 2009 and the state aid cuts and budget defeats a year later. In addition, NJSBA’s current building is a dump, NJSBA dues increases are lower than stated, and only 10% of its activity is lobbying. Here’s a link to the full rebuttal.

Andy Smarick's New Gig Starts on Aug. 2nd

We reported a month ago on Fordham’s Andy Smarick’s pending appointment as Bret Schundler’s Deputy Commissioner, but NJ Spotlight is the first of the mainstream media to announce Smarick’s new job. The article also parses the general reorganization of the DOE, especially noteworthy in the light of the Education Law Center’s skewering last week (see this post) of the department’s inefficiencies and dysfunction.

According to NJ Spotlight, three assistant commissioners – Willa Spicer, Barbara Gantwerk, and Rochelle Hendricks – will stay but be given new responsibilities. State Testing Director Timothy Peters is leaving and Spicer will head Standards and Assessments. Hendricks has the new title of Commissioner of the Division of School Effectiveness and Choice. Two people associated with Excellent Education for Everyone, a school choice proponent, will join the DOE – Valarie Smith and Eric Taylor. Also, Jessiana Gordon, former President of the NJ Charter School Association, will take a research job.

Here’s an organization chart.

Could there be a simpler signal that this is not your father’s DOE?

Also in today’s NJ Spotlight, I have an article on why we must reform our practice of laying off teachers based on seniority, not effectiveness.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Sunday Leftovers

"I'm a believer in the Malcolm X school of education - by any means necessary," said Ed. Comm. Bret Schundler at the graduation of 370 former high school dropouts at an alternative school in Camden, as reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

A new Quinnipiac University poll reported by New Jersey Newsroom:
New Jerseyans like their teachers 56 to 26 percent, but by a 50 to 24 percent margin they have a negative opinion of the teachers' union. Residents with children in public school like their teachers 65 to 23 percent, but dislike the teachers' union 53 to 22 percent. While 45 percent trust the union more to make the right decisions about teacher contracts, 43 percent trust Christie more.
After 60% of school budgets were rejected by voters in April, local municipality officials have cut with a butter knife, not a scalpel, according to NJ Spotlight, making “relatively small cuts ... and in 30 of the 315 budgets, no cuts at all.” Also in NJ Spotlight: everyone's talking about whether Newark Schools Superintendent Cliffford Janey will get renewed or not.

The Star-Ledger reports that New Jersey School Boards Association is “spending millions to renovate its headquarters” after deciding it was too pricey to build a new $18 million conference center on land that is paid $1.6 million for:"The New Jersey School Boards Association collects more than $7 million a year from 588 member districts, which are legally required to join. It has socked away so much in dues and conference fees — $12.3 million, an amount greater than the group’s annual operating budget — that it is paying cash for the improvements."

On today's front page of the NY Times
, public schools struggle to educate severely disabled students.

The Asbury Park Press wishes that the NJ DOE adoption of the Common Core standards came with concrete explanations: "Well, they could simply trust Sandra Alberti, director of the education department's Office of Math and Science Standards, who described the new standards as "clearer, fewer, higher" than the preceding standards.What exactly does that mean? That description is positively mist-like in its explanatory power. Let's hope the new national language arts standards would not find that sentence acceptable in a freshman essay, let alone from the mouth of an educational professional."

"Although Hispanics are the largest ethnic group in New York City’s public schools, there are almost twice as many blacks among the 30,000 charter school students, an analysis by The New York Times shows." (NY Times)

David Oscar,
president of the NJ Association of Health Underwriters, says that the feud between Christie and NJEA’s leadership is not about salary freezes but about heath care premiums.

Friday, June 18, 2010

ELC: "The NJ DOE Is Still Failing Our Students"

David Sciarra, Executive Director of the Education Law Center, excoriates the NJ Department of Education in the most recent widget to emerge from ELC’s press release factory called "The DOE Is Still Failing Our Students":
There's a lot of heated rhetoric these days about "failing" public schools. Education Commissioner Bret Schundler took it up a notch when his spokesperson recently called New Jersey's public school system "wretched." Whether our schools are "failing," and by whose definition, is debatable. But that label can fairly be applied to the NJ Department of Education, which has been failing our students for years.
Sciarra goes on to reference a 2007 evaluation (cost to taxpayers: $1.2 million) by the outside agency KPMG which finds, among other conclusions, that

1) The reporting structure and authority levels between the State Board of Education and DOE fosters an environment with the potential for competing priorities and inconsistent decision making processes.
2) The Strategic Plan for Improvement in Public Education in the State of New Jersey is not aligned with current DOE objectives, goals, and initiatives.
3) DOE’s compliance monitoring activities are impacted by a lack of people, processes, and technology. Further, it appears coordination across units performing compliance and monitoring activities is lacking.
4) Current personnel allocations within DOE may not support the roles and responsibilities of the Divisions or Offices.
5) Due to a lack of cross-training and documented policies and procedures, an institutional knowledge gap exists when employees leave DOE or change positions.

You get the idea. The DOE is a god-awful mess: dysfunctional, mismanaged, obsolete, encumbered by outdated technology, procedures, personnel, and redundancies, crippled by a dearth of professionals (local districts and private industry pay a lot more), lack of authority (the State Board of Education, all political appointees, can overrule it at a drop of a hat), and no communication between (occasionally unnecessary) divisions. Here’s the original KPMG evaluation, here’s ELC’s summary, and here’s a September 2007 editorial by Sciarra entitled "An Education Department Incapable of Doing Its Job."

Mr. Sciarra’s right. The DOE’s a mess and that’s a poorly-kept secret. Here’s the list from his press release of what he views as the DOE’s most recent follies: the rejection of its grant application from the Feds to update our data collection system; the new Alternative High School Assessment, which ELC views as a disaster because so many kids failed; and “NJ’s now infamous application for a federal Race To The Top grant” when, “at the eleventh hour,” Gov. Christie “took a my way or the highway approach.” ELC now calls upon the Legislature to convene hearings on reforming our wayward DOE, using the “quietly shelved” KPMG audit as a starting point.

(It’s unclear whether any of the mess at the DOE has been cleaned up since the KPMG report came out three years ago. Of course, the shop was run by Jon Corzine and Lucille Davy, ex-governor and Commissioner of Education, although the roiling rancor of Sciarra’s latest missive is directed elsewhere. In all fairness, he was pretty pissed at Corzine and Davy back then too.)

Here’s what’s not in the press release. ELC is probably going to lose its current Supreme Court battle over the restoration of full funding for poor urban districts. Twelve of our chronically failing (sorry) Abbott schools just received federal grants for extreme make-overs. NJEA’s rep continues to sink (see this latest poll) and the umbilical cord between the two organizations drowns any distinction. But Sciarra’s screed presents an opportunity to make the ELC relevant again if it can see its way clear to controlling its anger at Christie and managing its NJEA-separation anxiety.

Imagine this: ELC becomes the voice of reason in promoting an open Legislative evaluation of the DOE’s progress since the KPMG audit. Part of its agenda becomes a progressive dialogue about improving teacher quality in our poor urban districts through improved data systems. In a unique partnership with the DOE, ELC opens a series of charter schools in chronically failing districts. ELC partners with Teach for America in order to recruit a new generation of committed teachers to Districts-Formerly-Known-as-Abbotts. It’s called “Teach for New Jersey."

Hey – it’s Friday. We can dream, right?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Quote of the Day

Disclosure: I lent a hand to NJ's RTT application so I'm no longer an impartial observer. Please judge all my future RTT comments with this in mind.
Andy Smarick, Fordham's Flypaper blogger and incoming Deputy Commissioner to Bret Schundler. Possible explanation for our Race To The Top's bizarre NJEA buy-in/buy-out journey?

Shooting the Messenger

The Education Law Center has a press release out that assails the NJ DOE for “deny[ing] diplomas to unprecedented numbers of seniors on the basis of this year’s Alternative High School Assessment,” the test given to high school seniors after they fail the traditional High School Assessment three times. ELC’s primary complaint:
ELC's analysis of the AHSA test population indicates that English language learners and urban students of color will be disproportionately affected by the imposition of diploma penalties on students who have otherwise met all their course credit and local graduation requirements.
In an accompanying letter to Josephine Hernandez, President of the State Board of Education, ELC presents an analysis that claims that this year’s replacement of the old Special Review Assessment (which no one failed) with the new AHSA (which lots of kids failed) unfairly punishes English Language Learners. Specifically, the new test “effectively restricted or eliminated many the accommodations previously available to these students,” like translated material and extended time to take the tests.

That seems like a legitimate complaint, though it’s unclear to what extent English mastery matters in awarding high school diplomas. Regarding “students of color in poor urban districts,” ELC complains that, “statewide only 18% of students of students attend schools where more than half the population qualifies for free/reduced lunch” but “more than 50% of the April AHSA test takers came from such schools. “

Help us out here. Half the kids who failed the HSPA three times and were required to take the AHSA came from schools largely populated by poor kids. Ergo, claims ELC, these kids are being unfairly targeted by the whims of AHSA scorers. Wouldn’t a more reasonable conclusion be that these poor urban kids of color are attending schools that don’t meet their needs? In other words, it’s not the test that’s the problem. The problem is that the schools aren’t effectively teaching the kids who take the test.

It's not a testing problem. It's a learning problem.

Cash for Reform

The NJ DOE has awarded $45.3 million in federal grants to 12 of our worst schools. These schools won the money by agreeing to choosing a new model to overhaul their system: 7 chose “transformational” (replacing principals), 4 chose “turnaround” (replacing principal and at least 50% of the staff), and one, Newark’s Renaissance Academy, chose the most radical, the “restart,” which will divide the alternative school into 14 small programs in two independent schools. Here’s the full list.

How desperate are these schools for reform? The Courier-Post reports that at Cramer Elementary School in Camden, which received $2.8 million for a “turnaround,” nine out of ten 3d graders tested below proficiency in NJ ASK tests, and 82% failed to meet proficiency in math.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Quote of the Day

The Wall Street Journal looks at the lousy teacher attendance rates in Newark’s traditional public schools. In spite of an attendance improvement program, 7% of Newark’s teachers are absent on any given day, twice as many as in other urban districts. Part of the problem is the overly-generous teacher contract (negotiated by NFT, not NJEA,) which included this past year’s 4.9% salary increase:
Under the expiring contract, most Newark teachers get 18 paid sick and personal days off during the school year, and those with 25 years or more of service get up to 28 days out of their 191-day school year. By contrast, in New York City, teachers get 10 sick days and three of those can be used for personal business… Joseph Del Grosso, the president of the Newark Teachers Union, attributes the large absences to either stress or the impending retirement of some teachers, who may want to take some of the portion of their accrued sick days that they can't cash out.

Asked whether the teachers have a duty to work if they're not actually sick, he said: "We're not priests or nuns."

Comic Relief

Aasif Mandvi from The Daily Show exposes the communist threat as Hacienda Heights introduces a Chinese language program to middle school kids.

About That Public Input...

A savvy reader points us to a document released yesterday from the NJ DOE, “Resolution to Adopt Common Core Standards in English Language Arts and Mathematics,” specifically the following “whereas:”
WHEREAS, the Department has elicited extensive public input through regional feedback sessions, written comments, and electronic feedback submitted through its website;
Really? Extensive public input? We’re having vague recollections of promised stakeholder committees that never actually materialized. Must be some other extensive public input.

Whatever. The Common Core State Standards, coordinated by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers are apparently superior to our less illustrious NJ state standards. Implementation is a whole other story. Stay tuned.

Voucher Wars

Both opponents of the Opportunity Scholarship Act (NJEA, ACLU, Education Law Center) and proponents (Education for Everyone), which would use private donations for tuition in exchange for tax breaks to private companies, are getting revved up for battle.

Here's three 30-second youtube videos from E3's "School Choice is Your Choice" campaign:" Fantasia Barrino, Mayor Cory Booker, and Terrence J. And in the other corner of the ring we have the NO Vouchers NJ new facebook group, announced in a press release from Education Law Center, only 46 members but no doubt poised for growth. In the bizarre political alignments that appear de rigeur in the education reform world, the "No Vouchers" facebook group seems to be administrated by Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey, whom is also quoted on the left-leaning Blue Jersey website: "I urge people weighing this issue to look at the Education Law Center's analysis to learn more about the real-world implications of vouchers."

Head spinning yet? We feel like the little girl Regan in "The Exorcist" over here.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Abbotts and the Death of "Old Jersey"

There’s a remarkable admission from Gordon MacInnes, assistant commissioner for Abbott Implementation for the NJ DOE from 2002-2007, in NJ Spotlight. In his discussion of the Education Law Center’s petition to the NJ Supreme Court to restore Christie’s school aid cuts on the grounds that the cuts violate the School Funding Reform Act, he says,
The Abbotts seem to have a strong case. And they'll probably lose.
The impending loss, he explains, stems in part from a shift from the “Old New Jersey” (“THE state for progressive school funding”) to “The Emerging New Jersey” (where public employee pension and benefits” are “unsustainable” due to decades of bicameral fiscal mismanagement). Other reasons include a move away from a “progressive, no-ideological center,” a Supreme Court lauded for activism, and Governor Christie’s “blunt arrogance,” particularly his “verbal assault on his own education commissioner for the compromise struck with the NJEA” over Race To The Top.

One quibble with MacInnes’ dirge for the good old days: Christie’s “ideology,” according to MacInnes, is “best illustrated by his cut of $900 million in state aid for the 1.3 million public school students while advocating a brand-new program of $360 million to subsidize tuition payments for a few thousand students attending private schools.” The reference is to the Opportunity Scholarship Act, which gives companies dollar-for-dollar tax credits to provide scholarships for poor kids to private and parochial schools. So it’s not exactly cutting $360 million (over a five-year pilot) from this year’s state aid cuts. Ironically, whether one is a supporter for the voucher bill or not, both it and the Abbott rulings are intended to aid the same cohort of kids.

Is it possible to wrap our heads around a system that acknowledges that we’re failing low-income kids – and, in fact, have been doing so for decades, including during the years of Court-ordered Abbott funding – and develops a catalogue of remedies? Charter schools, privately-funded scholarships, additional state aid to poor districts, and implementation of education reform initiatives in our traditional public districts can all be part of our list. They all share one goal, right? MacInnes is mourning the Death of Old Jersey, but all that’s happened is that Education Law Center now has many more allies than before, all driven to find more opportunities for our neediest kids.

Monday, June 14, 2010

New Jersey the Outlier

Edweek’s Michele McNeil has looked at all the Round 2 Race to the Top applications and come to the following conclusion:
States significantly increased buy-in from local teachers’ unions in round two of the Race to the Top competition, but made far less progress in enlisting districts or expanding the number of students affected by the states’ education reform plans.

In this latest round of applications, those competing for a second time got, on average, 61 percent of their districts on board, and within those districts, 68 percent of local unions signed on. In the first round, those states on average had buy-in from 62 percent of districts and 46 percent of unions.
In other words, most states were able to increase the level of teacher union support from Round 1 to Round 2 without weakening applications, though there was not any meaningful increase in school district or school board support. States attributed increases in teacher union buy-in to better communication, more transparency, more time spent on explaining proposals, and legislatures (about a dozen of them, according to the New Teacher Project) passing teacher-evaluation laws that tie compensation to student performance.

New Jersey is not mentioned in the article, by the way. We don’t quite gel with the EdWeek thesis.

Top High Schools

Newsweek’s list of the top 1,600 public high schools in America is out. The list includes just 6% of possible candidates. Jersey City’s McNair Academic comes in at #48. High Techology in Lincroft is #192, Ridge High School in Basking Ridge is #194, and Millburn High is #227. Sixteen other NJ high schools made the list.

Surplus is Fair Game

The Perth Amboy school district went to Appeals Court today, charging that Gov. Christie’s executive order forcing schools to use surplus money to compensate for $475 million in state aid cuts was unconstitutional.

Nope, replied the Court. Christie's order "does not require that the excess surplus be used.” From the Star-Ledger: "A school district may have sufficient resources without transferring excess surplus to support its current operating budget. If not, other reserve funds may be considered, and the district may review its budget for potential efficiencies."

Apparently all remaining surplus is up for grabs during the 2011-2012 school year.

Do We Pay Teachers Enough?

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Jack Kelly examines total compensation packages of public employees (teachers specifically) and private sector employees, reciting statistics that show that the former do better than the latter, particularly in New Jersey.
[A teacher in Rutherford] told Mr. Christie she teaches "because she loves it." I don't doubt she meant that. But private sector workers in New Jersey -- the ones whose taxes pay Ms. Wilson's salary -- don't think she's suffering financially for her career choice. ..And the resistance of the teacher's union to the modest sacrifices Mr. Christie is asking them to make in New Jersey is making people angry. In a poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University released late last month, only 33 percent of respondents had a favorable view of the New Jersey Education Association, while 44 percent had a negative view
They’re all correct. (How’s that for pulling punches?) Mr. Kelly’s right: if you add in generous benefits and summers off, teachers make more than private sector employees. Gov. Christie and an riotous public are right: public education costs too much in NJ; it’s an unsustainable enterprise, especially in our near-bankrupt circumstances. While the average state spends $10,889 per pupil per year, in NJ it’s a whopping $17,620, according to the National Center on Education Statistics. And the Rutherford special ed teacher is right. (She’s made headlines for going head to head with Christie at a town meeting that went viral on youtube.) If she’s a great teacher, she’s not adequately compensated for her graduate degree, experience, and hours dedicated to students beyond the school day.

Here’s the problem: if we pay all our teachers equally, the only metric seniority, then we stiff our best instructors and overpay our poor ones. If the Rutherford teacher wants to be compensated appropriately, then she needs to get her NJEA representatives to agree to treat her like a professional, not a widget. The problem’s not, as the article discusses, the Governor’s request (largely disregarded) for a one-year pay freeze and a 1.5% contribution of base pay to health benefits. The problem is that we don’t incorporate teacher effectiveness into compensation. The result is that our best teachers don’t get paid enough and our mediocre teachers get paid too much. Average it out and you have one unhappy Rutherford teacher.

Yeah, yeah, it’s hard to measure teacher effectiveness. It’s not that hard, especially if we upgrade our inadequate and clumsy DOE data system. It won’t be perfect. But we’ll get better at it as we go along. Courage! Don’t make the great the enemy of the good!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Sunday Leftovers

Schundler Watch: Josh McMahon writes in New Jersey Newsroom, “Christie has to deal with an independent-minded education commissioner who has already clashed twice with the chief. It's possible that Schundler won't make it to the end of June." And EdWeek asks, "So, if Schundler does lose his gig, can we declare him the first high-profile casualty of Race to the Top politics? Are there others out there in the states?"

The Independent Press
examines why some north Jersey school districts signed onto to our Race To The Top applications, while others begged off.

The Star-Ledger reports that recent school district settlements with local NJEA units show a lower increase in annual salaries: down to 3.4% from about 4.3%.

The Manhattan Institute
says that a 2.5% cap on local property taxes won’t hurt our public schools. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says that it will.

NJ Spotlight interviews Education Law Center’s David Sciarra regarding this week’s filing in Supreme Court charging that Gov. Christie’s state aid cuts to schools violates the School Funding Reform Act.

The New York Times
looks at why a few teachers ad administrators tamper with student scores on standardized tests

All hail Colorado, which has changed tenure rules so that teachers are judged on whether or not their students show progress for two consecutive years. Kate Walsh, the president of the Washington-based National Council on Teacher Quality, says that it’s “the boldest education reform in recent memory,” according to the Asbury Park Press.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

NJ's "Telenovela"

Patrick Riccards over at Eduflack reviews the “telenovela” in Jersey over our Race To The Top soap opera: Ed. Comm. Schundler announces a hard-edged proposal, NJEA bosses turn up their noses, Schundler brokers a deal, Christie bitch-slaps him down, NJ submits the original sans union buy-in amongst cat calls of betrayal and rage. Here’s Riccards’ suggestion, informed by his belief that Schundler will stick around and that it’s a “long shot” that Jersey will win RTTT anyway (he’s right about that):
Now is the time for the state to step forward and issue three challenges, challenges focused on outcomes and students. For instance, scrap efforts to award high school diplomas to anyone who is 18 and with a pulse and ensure that a NJ high school diploma means more than an attendance certificate. Figure out what is working in places like Newark and replicating those programs and initiatives in other struggling urban centers. Implement a real strategic plan for charter school expansion across the state. Even figure out the best practices that can be learned from the Abbott Schools, and apply them in other schools (without the promise of big dollars).
Sounds good, and Riccards’ first suggestion – stop giving a high school diploma to anyone “who is 18 and with a pulse” -- is already underway, thanks to the DOE out-sourcing the scoring of our Alternative High School Assessment. (Of course, just about every kids failed, which led to protests, concessions from the DOE (see this memo from Deputy Commissioner Willa Spicer) and a new round of scoring. The challenge is not revising our graduation process; it’s copping to the fact that a significant cohort of 18-year-olds go through NJ public high schools and can’t pass a middle-school level test. Only then can we have any meaningful discussions about measuring high school achievement, or lack therof.)

Charter school expansion? Sure. Thousands of kids sit on waiting lists and NJ added exactly one new charter this year. (Word is that 10 more have been approved.) That would bring our grand total up to about 80 across the state. For comparison’s sake, New York City alone has 100.

It’s a challenge to separate “lessons learned from the Abbott schools” from “the promise of big dollars." Full-day free preschool for all needy kids scattered all over the state, not just in 31 urban districts, was planned by Corzine and then scotched when the economy took a nosedive. Once again: county preschools, anyone? Twenty-one, one for each county, housed in our special services facilities, serviced by the well-staffed offices of Executive County Superintendents, efficient and integrated. Home rule be damned.

Quote of the Day

The past few years have seen an absolute change in the correlation of forces. It used to be that a few policy wonks would write essays assailing union rules that protected mediocre teachers; these pronouncements were greeted with skepticism in the media and produced no political movement. Now powerful political players, most notably President Obama, are making such arguments. The unions feel the sand eroding under their feet. They sense their lack of legitimacy, especially within the media and the political class. They still fight to preserve their interests, but they’ve lost their moral authority, as we’ve seen in New York City, Denver, Chicago, and even Washington, D.C.
David Brooks in The Atlantic Magazine.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

We're Number One!

At least in cost per pupil. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, NJ spends the most per pupil: $17,620. NY edged us out last year, but these latest numbers give its per pupil cost for 2008 as $16,794. The average cost per pupil in the US is $10,297.

ELC Tilts at Windmills

To no one’s surprise, the Education Law Center filed suit yesterday in NJ Supreme Court charging that the Christie Administration is violating the 2008 School Funding Reform Act by cutting state aid to school districts. SFRA overturned decades of Abbott funding by altering the way the state channels extra money to poor schools. Instead of using the designation of an “Abbott” municipality (named for the original plaintiff, Raymond Abbott) for 31 of our poorest areas, the formula sends extra money to individual students, regardless of zip code. SFRA passed probationary muster with the Court, leaving room for additional filings if the state failed to fully fund the formula. Christie cut state aid to all school districts equal to 5% of total budgets this past winter, and here we are. Question for the Court: does the State’s ability to pay have any impact on allocation of fund?

Here’s a quote from today’s New York Times:
Listen closely to the actual budget debate, and there is widespread agreement that New Jersey’s finances are in stunningly bad shape…At a time when many, if not most, states face their gravest budget crises since the Depression, New Jersey has the third-biggest deficit, as a percentage of revenue, trailing Illinois and Nevada, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In raw dollars, the $11 billion deficit in New Jersey for the next fiscal year is the second largest, behind California — and larger than the $9 billion gap facing New York, a much bigger state that is rarely held up as a paragon of sound budgeting.
So, is NJ’s “stunningly bad” fiscal climate relevant to dispersal of school aid? David Sciarra of the ELC (in the role of Don Quixote) says no: "Our Constitution, and the Court ruling, require that every student, regardless of where he or she lives, receives funding at the amount the State itself says is needed to succeed in school..The State, by its devastating aid cut, is disregarding the law and putting the future of our students and state at risk.” Everyone else is, well, not so sure. Some of ELC’s fiercest advocates, like the suburban Garden State Coalition of Schools (GSC), “questioned the timing of the filing” and “hardly jumped to ELC’s support,” according to NJ Spotlight.

Our fiscal situation is dire. Is it reasonable, therefore, to exercise frugality in every arena, including our public school system? Is a rotten economy, an $11 billion budget gap, and one of the highest cost per pupil in the country relevant to school funding? While ELC quixotically poses school funding as a ethical issue (and, indeed, it is), Christie, playing world-weary Sancho Panza, poses it as an economic one (and, indeed, it is). The Governor, in fact, smartly changed tactics from the original state aid cuts, which hit Abbott districts harder, to a different spreadsheet, whereby every district, regardless of need, was hit equally.

ELC is nonetheless trying to frame the issue in a way that does not pit poor districts against suburban districts, simultaneously ignoring the fiscal dimensions of NJ's plight. In its press release, it says, “The school children claim that the massive cut in State formula aid deprives all New Jersey children -- particularly vulnerable, "at-risk" children -- of a thorough and efficient education.” Note the word “all.” However, if ELC prevails then suburban districts will eat the reallocation to Abbott districts, thus undermining its strategy (and explaining GSC’s decision to sit on its hands for this one).

In the Spring 2009 final court decision on the constitutionality of the School Funding Reform Act , the Justices wrote,
On the basis of the record before us, we conclude that SFRA is a constitutionally adequate scheme. There is no absolute guarantee that SFRA will achieve the results desired by all. The political branches of government, however, are entitled to take reasoned steps, even if the outcome cannot be assured, to address the pressing social, economic, and educational challenges confronting our state. They should not be locked in a constitutional straightjacket.
In other words, “pressing…economic…challenges” are, indeed, relevant. Budget constraints rule the day, not ethics. Don Quixote can swing away at windmills all he wants; in the end, we can't afford the economics of his quest.

Paging All Fact-Checkers

Here’s Tom Moran on yesterday’s filing by the Education Law Center to overturn Christie’s public school education cuts because they violate the School Funding Reform Act:
[F]or the record, New Jersey is closing the racial achievement gap faster than any other state.
Really? In what alternate universe? While Hispanic kids did slightly better, we have made no progress on closing the achievement gap between needy kids and wealthier kids. Here’s the narrative from our most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress report on 4th graders:
In 2009, students who were eligible for free/reduced-price school lunch, an indicator of low income, had an average score that was 26 points lower than that of students who were not eligible for free/reduced-price school lunch. This performance gap was not significantly different from that in 2003 (30 points).
For 8th graders:
In 2009, students who were eligible for free/reduced-price school lunch, an indicator of low income, had an average score that was 26 points lower than that of students who were not eligible for free/reduced-price school lunch. This performance gap was not significantly different from that in 2003.
Want another source? Here Democrats for Education Reform’s report card on our first application for the Race To The Top application:
While African-Americans make up 15% of the state’s K–12 student population, they represent at most 5% of those taking Advanced Placement (AP) classes. Latinos, who also make up 15% of the state’s student population, represent only 6% of those taking AP classes. Moreover, there are huge racial gaps on the pass rates for the national AP exams, even for those students who get to take the classes. While 85% of white students pass the AP Language and Composition test, only 49% of Latino and 46% of African-American students do.

The cumulative result: Approximately half as many African-Americans and Latinos in New Jersey (25 or older) hold a B.A. (20% and 15%) compared to their white counterparts (36%). It is clear that New Jersey’s second round application must include a detailed, bold, and ambitious high school reform agenda with the goals of dramatically increasing high schools graduation, college enrollment and completion rates for all students, with particular emphasis on students of color. Reviewers in Round 2 may also want to pay closer attention to the fact that a large number of the state’s students, and a disproportionate percentage of poor and minority students, take an “alternative” high school exit exam that is not aligned with state standards.

Schundler: "The Incredible Shrinking Ed. Comm."

The Star-Ledger Editorial Board labels Bret Schundler “The Incredible Shrinking Education Commissioner.” Cute. Schundler’s anorexia, according to the Ledger, is due to his eroding credibility after cutting a deal with NJEA over our Race To The Top application, only to have our governor reject the negotiated agreement.

The Ledger says Schundler shouldn’t resign, just check with his boss more often. Agreed. Who knows? Maybe they’re just good-copping/bad-copping the NJEA. Or perhaps Schundler judged that a strong application without union support would get a thumbs-down from Arne Duncan (in spite of Duncan's protestations that buy-in is less important than strong reform). Did Schundler second-guess the Feds and decide that it's better to achieve a d├ętente with NJEA bosses and move forward with a scaled-down version of education reform rather than none at all? As it stands, our application is strategic and bold, yet heavily dependent on the Legislature’s ability to withstand union pressure.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

You Remember the Teacher Retirement Incentive Plans Announced for Aug. 1st?

Never mind. The Star-Ledger reports that the Christie Administration is backing off on pending pension and benefits changes that would have made it financially nonsensical for teachers eligible for retirement to remain on the job.

Teachers who had already filed their paperwork to retire can change their minds too.

Does Trenton Need an I.E.P.?

The Trenton Times reports that the state fiscal monitor who oversees Trenton Public Schools told the School Board that there are “pervasive management problems in the special education department.” An audit revealed that the district is paying millions of dollars in tuition for students enrolled in out-of-district placements that they don’t actually attend. Recent staff cuts eliminated the people who track attendance, so the fiscal monitor has ordered that Trenton refill those positions. Trenton is also operating currently without a special education director; Superintendent Rodney Lofton has taken over those responsibilities. (Let’s see: about $100 –$150K for a special ed director vs. millions of dollars in unnecessary payments…)

The DOE’s “user-friendly budget”
shows that in 2009 Trenton sent 289 kids to private placements (some over $50K per year in tuition), 481 kids are sent to “other districts – special ed program,” and 201 are in “state facilities.” Total enrollment in Trenton Public Schools is about 11,500. Does Trenton really send 10% of its kids out-of-district? Your Abbott money at work.

NJ Goes For Common Core

The final draft of the Common Core State Standards are out, and NJ is apparently all over it. Section B, Standards and Assessments, of our Race To The Top application includes the promise that on June 16th the State Board of Education will “vote on a resolution to adopt the Common Core Mathematics and English Language Arts Standards.

According to education scholar Chester Finn, we could do worse:
They’re clearer, better structured, more coherent–and very ambitious. The “text exemplars” (appendix b) are mostly terrific. The “samples of student writing” (appendix c) are helpfully analyzed and annotated. A lot of commendable “content” is tucked in among a well-crafted assemblage of important skills. And while I remain underwhelmed by the research base (appendix a), in the end standards have more to do with judgment than with science….millions of American school-kids would be better served if their states, districts and schools set out in a serious way to impart these skills and content to their pupils rather than the nebulous and flaccid curricular goals that they’re now using.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Quote of the Day

Gov. Christie on NJ's Abbott funding, via NJ Spotlight:

“Now this has been going on for about 20 plus years now, and yet we don’t see much if any improvement in our urban schools,” Christie said in the videotape.

“So the Supreme Court’s theory that if you put more money in it, it’s going to just by magic get better has proven to be wrong,” Christie said.

Hentoff: Growing Divide between Teacher Unions and Black Parents

In the Village Voice, Nat Hentoff considers the growing divide between the teacher unions and black parents who struggle desperately to get their kids into charter schools:
In Harlem, where thousands of parents apply for charter schools on civil rights grounds, State Senator Bill Perkins—whose civil liberties record I've previously praised in this column—is in danger of losing his seat because of his fierce opposition to charter schools. The UFT contributes to his campaigns. His opponent, Basil Smikle—who has worked for Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Bill Clinton Foundation, and, unfortunately, Michael Bloomberg—says: "Education has galvanized the community."
And, particularly apropos for New Jersey:
As I've reported here, there are now more segregated public schools in big cities than when the Supreme Court ruled public-school segregation unconstitutional (1954). The betrayal of that decision began and continued long before there were ever charter schools, because of lower federal court decisions ultimately confirmed by the Supreme Court (Elena Kagan won't be asked what she thinks about it at the confirmation hearing).
Hey -- we beat NYC. Some of our most segregated school districts are outside of big cities. Primary example: Willingboro in Burlington County, which would win top prize if there was a contest for most dysfunctional school district in the state.

The Burlington County Times recently reported that the district has hired an “expert” ($650/day) to provide “technical assistance” to a nine-member school board comprising 6 spanking new members just elected in April (never a good sign of a district’s stability). In a report on May 21st, Expert Donald Warner explained that “I am very concerned that we have regressed to dangerous levels of noncompliance with local and state-mandated indicators of educational effectiveness." Another one of his concerns: “no budget committee meeting was held and that the spending plan was not "thoroughly reviewed and/or discussed with board members" before negotiations with the Township Council to certify a tax levy that was rejected by voters.”

Not to mention that the district goes through administrators like nurses go through latex gloves: in the last five years it’s disposed of six superintendents and five business administrators.

And the kids? The audience members "gasped" as Warner reported that 65 of the 175 Willingboro High seniors won't graduate because they can't pass the new Alternative High School Assessment (though this was before the DOE insisted that all scores be recalibrated).

Willingboro is one of our most segregated school districts. It can't compete for poor performance with the likes of, say, Camden High or Trenton Central, and it's barely a mention in our list of poor-performing schools in our Race To The Top application, just squeaking into the list of Tier III schools (i.e., not necessarily eligible for federal funds). It's bad enough to wince, but mediocre enough to ignore.

Charter schools? Not really. There are two new charter schools in Burlington County, but Willingboro kids won’t have much of a shot. The Renaissance Regional Leadership Charter School (no website) serves kids from North Hanover, Springfield, and Pemberton Township, and the other, Riverbank Charter School of Excellence, will draw its kids from Florence. Another proposed charter, Yes We Can Academy, aimed at Willingboro K-3d graders didn’t make the cut. So parents and their children in one of our highly segregated and dysfunctional school districts are trapped.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Sunday Leftovers

Race To The Top/Schundler-Bashing Update:

John Bury on Schundler's status at the DOE:
Gov. Chris Christie is both a former prosecutor and rabid baseball fan. So the whole three-strikes-you’re-out thing is the ethos he lives by. And according to the governor’s reckoning, Education Commissioner Bret Schundler has two strikes on the count.

"It’s possible he’s already had more than two strikes," one Christie adviser said of what’s gone on behind closed doors. "But either way, there’s only one strike left."
Steve Adubato considers Schundler's mistake: "I’m not saying Schundler was right and I don’t know if he’s wrong, but I do know this—in the Christie Administration, no one, and I mean no one, negotiates big deals (and maybe even smaller deals) but the governor himself."

And the Assembly Democrats are really pissed off. Assembly Ed Chair Patrick Diegnan, for example, says, "The governor's last-second decision to sabotage New Jersey's Race to the Top proposal is an irresponsible step backward in our hopes to improve education."

Mike Kelly in The Record:
"But the real mystery was Schundler. What was his point in striking such an extraordinary compromise with the teachers union anyway? Why didn't he get the governor's backing before agreeing?"

James Ahearn says that Schundler negotiated the RTTT changes out of respect of teacher professionalism and that Christie is Dr. Seuss’ famous elephant, Horton. (Come on, now. Elephant jokes?)

Teacher contract settlements are trending downwards, according to NJ Spotlight.

David Brooks, New York Times columnist, is bullish on Pres. Obama's education reform process:
This is not heavy-handed Washington command-and-control. This is Washington energizing diverse communities of reformers, locality by locality, and giving them more leverage in their struggles against the defenders of the status quo.

Second, the Obama administration used the power of the presidency to break through partisan gridlock. Over the past decade, teacher unions and their allies have become proficient in beating back Republican demands for more charters, accountability and choice. But Obama has swung behind a series of bipartisan reformers who are also confronting union rigidity.
There's still 4,500 high schools students (about half the original number) who won't graduate because they were unable to pass the Alternative High School Assessment, reports The Record. Says Stan Karp of Education Law Center in the Philadelphia Inquirer, "we're glad they've opened a few more doors for graduation, but the department has badly mishandled his test."

From today’s Asbury Park Press editorial
regarding the 91 school administrators who get more than $200K /year:
Showing that poor P.R. skills aren't confined to the New Jersey Education Association, in an op-ed piece the head of the state Association of School Administrators, Richard Bozza, defended the fact so many superintendents were paid more than Gov. Chris Christie, who makes $175,000, by saying, "we concede that the governor is underpaid."
Bruce Baker at SchoolFinance101 argues that tying student achievement data to teacher evaluation and retention will not lead to awarding and retaining effective teachers. Instead, teachers fired because of poor performance will sue the pants off districts -- we'll see an "explosion of litigation" -- because of arguments of violation of due process, statistical inconsistencies, and civil rights challenges.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Quote of the Day


Frank Belluscio of New Jersey School Boards on NJ's Race To The Top prospects:
What’s left now is a conceptually stronger application, but one which political controversy might sink. Let’s hope that the U.S. Department of Education evaluators don’t read news websites before making decisions on grant applications. What’s at stake here is $400 million and a lot more.


Rumor Mill: Schundler is Still Cookin'

Ed. Comm. Schundler quashed rumors of his resignation yesterday, announcing that his early demise was prematurely reported. Various papers, including New Jersey Newsroom, say that Schundler told the Senate Education Committee yesterday that he is not leaving anytime soon, though there's still the matter of whether or not his credibility is damaged enough to render him ineffective.

The consensus? Depends upon whom you ask. The Record quotes Joseph De Pierro, dean of the College of Education at Seton Hall, who says, “now when people negotiate with him they’re not going to have confidence that what he says will stick with his boss. He’ll be constantly running back to the governor to make sure the governor is on board with whatever is being proposed. It’s going to limit his effectiveness.” Steve Wollmer, spokesman for NJEA, didn’t mince words: “His credibility is terribly damaged…everyone assumed he had the authority to negotiate. …The commissioner, frankly, has been undressed in public.” Derrell Bradford of E3 was more sanguine:
“What in any other year would have been a procedural faux pas in a complex machine winds up being ‘Oh the world is ending,’” Bradford said. “The commissioner will be fine and his relationship with the governor will be fine. … Bret has an extremely long track record on education reform. … The governor picked him because of where he is and that won’t change.”
NJ Spotlight looks at the impact of this “terrible damage”/”procedural faux pas” on our Race To The Top prospects. We’re one of just a few states that applied for federal money without teacher union support. (However, check out Edweek’s Politics K-12, which details how Florida is signing deals with teacher unions that seem contrary to their RTTT application.) Charlie Barone of Democrats for Education Reform comments,
There’s still a wide variability. A lot more have seen union buy-ins this time, because they realize the states would apply, anyway. But it still comes down to if you don’t have robust reforms, you won’t get high scores.
We have the "robust reforms" written into our application -- tenure overhaul, tying teacher effectiveness to student achievement, imminent adoption of the Common Core, plans to turn around failing schools, beefing up our data systems -- but where are we without union buy-in? Does Arne Duncan care? Would he have any interest in using NJ as a poster child for implementing education reform without union support?

My best guess is that Schundler is damaged, but not mortally. In fact, he's now the very best liaison to NJEA that the Christie Administrative could have: "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," and all that, or at least that's how Schundler could play it. In some ways, however, it makes the stakes for our RTTT application even higher. If we win, then Christie/Schundler has money to move forward in spite of union opposition. The public pressure would be enormous to capably spend hundreds of millions dollars to improve education. If we lose, though, then NJEA regains the upper hand, having proven to a fare-thee-well that there's no game if NJ's teacher union picks up its marbles and goes home.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Rumor Mill: Schundler is Toast

The Record is printing a rumor that Ed. Comm. Bret Schundler, thrown under the SCHOOL BUS by Gov. Christie (we’re keeping track of how many reporters will use this rip-roarer today), will resign next Wednesday. All eyes on Schundler at today’s hearing of the Senate Education Committee, where he’s scheduled to stare down the headlights and answer reporters’ questions.

Question: where is Andy Smarick in all of this? He’s scheduled to start serving as Schundler’s Deputy Commissioner in early August, presumably replacing Willa Spicer, who may move elsewhere in the DOE. Smarick is widely regarded as a Race To The Top guru; EdWeek calls him an “uber-analyst” who “perhaps knows as much about the Race to the Top competition as the folks at the U.S. Department of Education.”

So, getting way ahead of ourselves, if Schundler resigns, does Smarick get appointed as NJ’s Commissioner of Education? Does Bret Schundler get appointed to the NJ Supreme Court, replacing John Wallace?

Moving away from speculation, The Star-Ledger scored an “exclusive interview” with Gov. Christie. Here’s the scoop:
Christie said Schundler was never empowered to negotiate away key provisions of the governor’s education agenda and any impression to the contrary was wrong. The governor said the deal Schundler reached with the union did nothing but cave in to the NJEA and gut his plan for improving state schools. Christie said he heard Thursday night that an accord had been reached but knew no details.

“I did not hear any of the specifics of what Bret suggested we agree to until Friday morning. I called him and told him that was unacceptable to me,” the governor said.
Um, okay. If Schundler wasn’t “empowered to negotiate,” why was he openly negotiating with NJEA”s execs in the first place? Does Christie not read the papers? And, in an 18-wheeler irony, Schundler, who was identified in 1993 in the Wall Street Journal as NJEA’s “Public Enemy #1,” is suddenly the union’s hero and fellow victim.

Meanwhile, whither the prospects of our Race To The Top application? Will federal evaluators regard this multi-vehicle collision at NJ’s DOE as a sign that we’re incapable of implementing Christie’s education reform prospectus? Or will it be regarded as a signal of our seriousness of purpose? Certainly, the uncompromising version of our application – pre-NJEA edits – is a more progressive plan, much more in line with President Obama and Ed. Sec. Arne Duncan’s vision. But our political combustibility may get in the way of a federal commitment of hundreds of millions of dollars. In that case, the road kill is our public school system.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Christie, Schundler, and RTTT: Oy Vey

We’ve got three questions regarding the DOE Debacle over our Race To The Top application. One, will this damage Schundler’s effectiveness as Ed. Commissioner? Two, how will the ol’ switcheroo of our original application with the NJEA-authorized version affect our chances in the competition? And, three, is there any chance the street theater that played out yesterday is a brilliant strategy long in the works?

It’s hard to argue that any of this makes Bret Schundler look especially strong. NJEA’s (understandable) wrath is directed full bore at Christie, which casts the Ed. Commish in a victim-esque role, and probably not one he prizes. NJ Spotlight’s John Mooney writes that “the whole episode may only make the commissioner’s job more difficult as he tries to negotiate with various stakeholders for what is an extensive agenda, including school vouchers, charter schools, testing changes and a host of financial reforms.

The Star-Ledger reports that Schundler was castigated by Christie on Friday for agreeing to concessions to the original tenure and teacher evaluation reforms laid our in the NJEA-free application and that the Governor had not been informed about the compromises.

Is there a silver lining for Comm. Schundler? Only this: NJEA officials now regard him as a fellow victim of Christie’s agenda. (If Mel Brooks was in the house we’d hear a reprise of that old standard “The Inquisition”* from his farce “History of the World, Part I” with Christie playing Torquemada and NJEA and Schundler cast as various Jews and heathens.) Suddenly, Schundler is a fellow traveler, one of the oppressed, a member of the diaspora, no longer the cold edu-mongerer intent on savaging our public school system. On the other hand, has he lost all credibility?

Regarding the second question, the consensus seems to be that our chances for winning RTTT are simply stronger with the original unedited-by-NJEA application. The Record interviews Charlie Barone of Democrats for Education Reform:
Christie’s approach has been “ham-handed,” but the state’s application still has a chance for success despite the lack of union sign-on. A number of states, notably Louisiana and Illinois, have submitted proposals that don’t included full union support, he said.

Barone said he had been surprised Schundler had agreed to so many concessions since they seemed at odds with Christie’s agenda. “Why did they feel they needed NJEA support so badly that they shredded their application?” Barone asked. “Now they have a strong application but a lot of collateral damage.”
And, again in NJ Spotlight, Jack Jennings of the Center on Education Policy muses that we’ll “lose points on the application without union support” but the stronger proposal “could make up for it.” Certainly, the original application was stronger than the compromise document, and more in line with Obama Administration directives, specifically in regard to tenure reform (thrown out in the rewrite) and tying teacher evaluation to student achievement (diminished in the rewrite). In fact, the concessions agreed to by Schundler most likely would have resulted in a losing application. So we’d be out $400 million. On the other hand, one could make a strong case that this monetary loss would be compensated by the meeting of the minds hashed out last week between the DOE and NJEA officials. In other words, we’d have a chance to at least do a little ed reform with cooperation from the union. Carrot versus stick. If it turns out that we win RTTT, we’ll have a pretty big stick but a mighty obstreperous horse.

Brilliant strategy on the part of Christie and Schundler, a tour de force of political manipulation? Schundler comes out as a friend of the NJEA, Christie the cruel dictator (not that this will hurt his feelings much), and our application for federal funds is back on track with education reform dogma. Still, it’s hard to picture. Schundler’s been repackaged as an betrayed government worker (like the teachers?) but his stature as part of the Christie Administration seems diminished. Don’t these people talk to each other? And yet…these people must talk to each other. The fall of the NJEA in the eyes of the public (see this latest poll) is a powerful wedge issue that both Christie and Schundler have used efficiently and eloquently, in perfect harmony. Our RTTT application is too important a part of that dynamic for the two of them to overlook. Then again, maybe it’s just government work.

*"The Inquisition (here we go),
The Inquisition (what a show)
We know you're wishing, that we'd go away
So come you heathens and all you Jews,
we got good news for all of yous,
You better change your point of views, today,
'Cause the Inquisition's here,
and it's here to stay..."

Quote of the Day

From NJ's Race To The Top Application:
Moving forward, individuals and organizations across New Jersey’s education landscape are prepared for and committed to bold action. While the NJEA is not endorsing our application, we did discuss our plans with them during its development. Our administration’s firm commitment to strong policy around merit pay for individual teachers and retention decisions based on effectiveness was at odds with the NJEA’s position. We are choosing to act boldly rather than seek perfect consensus.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Christie's (First) Response

The Office of the Governor has put out a statement entitled "Christie Education Reform Agenda in Step with Obama Administration on Student Performance and Teacher Evaluation." In other words, the compromise Race to the Top proposal, which came about as a result of days of negotiations between the DOE and NJEA executives, is out of step with the Obama Administration’s emphasis on linking teacher performance to student performance. Therefore, it seems, Gov. Christie sent in the original, minus concessions.

Example: The original application stated that in the event of teacher lay-offs, seniority would not count, but teacher performance would. The negotiations between NJEA and the DOE resulted in this concession summarized by The Record last Thursday.
When districts must cut staff for budget reasons, the commissioner wanted an employee’s abilities to be a factor in deciding who stays. (NJEA Spokeperson Dawn) Hiltner said the commissioner backed off on that goal, so seniority will continue to determine who keeps jobs.
From Gov. Christie's cover letter accompanying our final submission:
In the event of a workforce reduction, educational effectiveness, not seniority, will determine which teachers keep their jobs.
Here's a contest: find a governor who has intoned the name of a sitting President of the opposite party more times than Gov. Christie has evoked the name of President Obama. More fun than contemplating the look on Comm. Schundler's face right now.

Update: According to the Star-Ledger, "[i]n a West Trenton press conference today, Christie said his Education Commissioner Bret Schundler had made a mistake by announcing an agreement last week with the New Jersey Education Association that included compromises on merit pay, teacher seniority, evaluations and tenure.made a mistake" by agreeing to NJEA concessions."

NJEA Prez: "Total Outrage" at NJ's RTTT Application

NJEA has just issued a press release that accuses Gov. Christie of “unilaterally remov(ing) the support of NJEA and hundreds of its local presidents” from NJ’s Race To The Top application. According to NJEA President Barbara Keshishian, top NJEA executives “met repeatedly and talked in detail with Commissioner Schundler and Deputy Commissioner Willa Spicer” to reach last week’s agreement. However,
“Instead of supporting the application agreed to by his Commissioner and staff, Gov. Christie has decided to submit his own application, and to unilaterally remove the support of NJEA and hundreds of its local presidents from it,” Keshishian said, adding that NJEA only learned about the governor’s decision after placing a call to Education Commissioner Bret Schundler to check the status of the state’s application.
She described her mood as “deep disappointment, utter frustration, and total outrage, adding,
Rather than put his support behind the agreement that his own Commissioner negotiated, Gov. Christie is insisting on an application that seeks to replace collaboration between teachers with competition for inadequate bonuses; an application that seeks to threaten teachers’ jobs rather than give them the confidence to take on new challenges.