Friday, July 30, 2010

Saturday Leftovers

A day earlier than usual, true, but I'm taking a week off.

Proof of the achievement gap among Jersey's wealthy and poor districts: The Courier Post reports that Cherry Hill School District, rich and high-performing," just completed studies that show that "when students transfer from a lower-performing district [to Cherry Hill], it can take five years for an achievement gap to disappear."

Peggy Noonan hearts Chris Christie.

The NEA hearts House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey.

Seven of Newark’s low-performing schools, totaling 3,500 students, will become a special enterprise zone called Global Village School Zone, modeled after Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone (New York Times).

The Philadelphia Inquirer supports superintendent salary caps.

Joseph Summers in the Trenton Times makes the case against Race To The Top:
RTTT places public education in great peril. It aims not to reform public education, but to revolutionize it. In so doing, it is setting unattainable standards for schools to meet. The result, of necessity, will be the diminution or elimination of public education. Moreover, for the Obama plan to "succeed," it must depend on the grossly distorted use of private and federal power and money.
In The Lobby on what Gov. Christie predicted at a rally in Ocean City: “He told the crowd to “expect drastic public employee pension and benefit reforms this fall, saying of an initial round of changes that affected new hires: ‘You ain't seen nothing yet.’”

NJ Spotlight interviews Executive Director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, Richard Bozza, who confirms that he was on the “short list” to be Gov. Christie’s education commissioner. "He also served on Christie’s transition committee for education, one that incidentally didn’t propose a cap on superintendent salaries. So, what if he was chosen for the job? 'I’d rather stay away from that topic. There’s nothing I would say that would help.'”

Also, John Mooney looks at charter considerations in one of NJ’s most wealthy districts (Glen Ridge) and one of NJ’s poorest (Newark).

The Asbury Park Press concludes that there's no way that NJ can meet its pension obligation.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Ed Reform Backlash?

This morning President Obama spoke at the National Urban League to address criticism that Race To The Top (and education reform in general) is neglecting poor urban minority school districts. Here’s President Obama, as reported on the New York Times website:
All I’m asking in return, as a president and as a parent is a measure of accountability. Surely we can agree that even as we applaud teachers for their hard work, we need to make sure they’re delivering results in the classroom. If they’re not, let’s work with them to help them be more effective. And if that fails, let’s find the right teacher for that classroom.
But we can’t even agree on that, certainly in New Jersey. NJEA’s leadership is fierce in its opposition to salary differentiation among teachers based on performance. A new analysis out from the Education Commission of the States on “Pay for Performance Proposals in Race To The Top Round II Applications” (hat tip: NJ Spotlight) shows that NJ had the second lowest percentage of districts – local school boards and superintendents, not NJEA affiliates – that signed off on using teacher evaluations to inform compensation. (NJ’s percentage for LEA’s was 34% and Ohio was 21%. I didn’t count the states using small pilot programs instead of State-led initiatives because the difference skews the approval rate.)

To some it’s obvious, and well-expressed by Megan McArdle in The Atlantic Monthly:
Imagine a setting where you care about performance (e.g. a professional football team, or a currency trader). You wouldn't think of granting tenure. So why do it in academics?
"Lifetime drycleaning"? "Permanent tax advisor"? When an academic starts pushing the tenure model for anywhere outside academia, I will find their defense of its use in academia more convincing.
To others it’s not. (See Bruce Baker’s post at SchoolFinance101 on why we can’t use value-added assessments for teachers.) But there’s something deeper driving the opposition to basic elements of ed reform from traditional defenders of poor minority kids like The National Urban League, NAACP, Education Law Center (for a Jersey example) and other civil rights groups. In fact, this week a group that includes the National Urban League, NAACP, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Right Under Law, et. al. published a “new comprehensive blueprint…to ensure all public school students have the opportunity to achieve high academic standards” (according to Education Law Center’s press release) called Opportunity to Learn, which would use NJ school funding under Abbott as a national model. The group also calls for ending Race To The Top because it promotes "ineffective approaches for turning around low performing schools and education systems."

The irony, of course, is that many ed reformers (see Education Equality Project's home page) view programs that promote teacher accountability like RTTT as key to ameliorating decades/centuries of segregated and discriminatory education in America. But there’s an (increasing?) backlash from groups with exactly the same goals. Somehow the idea of increased federal funding for innovation – like higher pay for great teachers – and its corollary, no increased money for status quo schooling, is seen as undermining pillars that support poor kids.

There’s a component about race here also. Feel free to chime in.

At any rate, such opposition is troubling, and more than a matter of perception or insufficient marketing or economic concerns or the influence of labor unions (though there is all that too). The movers and shakers among ed reformers might want to address this awkward resistance squarely rather than waiting for it to peter out. I don’t think it will.

Update: check out PoliticsK-12 for the evolving craziness behind whether or not the National Urban League and six other civil rights group back Race To The Top:
I just talked to the Rev. Sharpton. He told me that the critical framework was "prematurely released" and that his National Action Network, the NAACP, and the Urban League, are actually not supporters of the framework. He added that these three groups didn't have "concerns" about the President's education agenda, but "questions," which were addressed in a Monday meeting with administration officials. In fact, the Rev. Sharpton said, "I agree with [the president]...I'm prepared to fight for a lot of what he's saying."

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

RTTT Hucktooey

“The relationship between the state teachers’ union and the governor has deteriorated to such an extent that news that both sides agree is good becomes a political spitting contest.” That’s Darryl Isherwood in PolitickerNJ commenting on the salivous press releases (see post below), which reduce what is indeed good news – NJ is a finalist in the federal Race To The Top competition – to an increasingly silly series of yo mamas between NJEA’s execs and Christie.

And here’s Charlie Barone, federal policy director of Democrats for Education Reform, in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal: "One could argue that New Jersey has a lot of work to do before they could carry on a statewide reform effort."

So in spite of our sophomoric application process (Ed. Comm. Schundler working out the midnight compromise between NJEA and the DOE, Gov. Christie publicly disavowing the deal, and the frantic revision to get the proposal in on time to the Feds), we made the top 19. Not such a leap, when you consider that we came in 18th in the first round, only two slots below making finalist back in April.

If only New Jersey was like the dull student fidgeting in the back of the room all semester who produces a knock-out term paper, defying expectations and revealing brilliance and ambition. We were great all along! We were ready to reform our public education system into a model of collaborative enterprise, equal opportunity, and integration of best practices! You just couldn’t see our potential!

Here’s the problem: in spite of what is indeed worth a hearty celebration, the next step is a lot harder. When a team from the DOE goes down to D.C. in a couple of weeks they’ll expected to demonstrate to a panel of judges just how we will implement the reforms itemized in our application.

Example: under the section entitled “Improving teacher and principal effectiveness based on performance (worth 58 points out of the total 500), our applications says the following:
Our reform strategy in this area will follow a three-step process: First, we will measure student academic progress. Second, we will create the nation’s finest teacher-evaluation system: a system that is based directly on measures of student academic progress, and on measures of practices that correlate with student academic progress. Third, we will use these evaluations to drive the most important personnel decisions. We believe deeply that this will continually improve the effectiveness of New Jersey’s teachers and make itpossible for all of our children to be taught by high-quality educators.
It sounds great. But it’s a long way from stating that we’re going to “create the nation’s finest teacher-evaluation system” to actually doing it, and that’s what’s going to make or break the deal in D.C. Our data systems are Jurassic (at least regarding interoperability). The facebook page “NEW JERSEY TEACHERS UNITED AGAINST CHRISTIE”S PAY FREEZE” has over 75,000 members. Is it possible to implement meaningful reform amidst the animosity?

Maybe it is. Maybe this is some deviously smart good cop-bad cop routine between Christie and Schundler, with the NJEA bosses oblivious participants in a scheme to paint the NJ teaching industry as overcompensated and unaccountable, inspiring public outrage and appetite for systemic change. (Actually, their lobbyists are doing a pretty good job on this without help from the Governor.) Maybe thirst for reform driven by negativism is good enough to make it happen.

It would probably be worthwhile for someone at the DOE to start championing the benefits of education reform that have less to do with gotchas and more to do with substantive improvements in educational outcomes for kids.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

NJ is a Finalist in Race To The Top

18 states plus D.C. made the cut. More later.

Update: The finalists are Arizona, California, Colorado, D.C., Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, NJ, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and South Carolina.

Now the NJ DOE goes into overdrive in preparation for the high stakes dog-and-pony-show in D.C. sometime in August. Winners of the $3.4 billion pot will be announced in late August or early September.

Governor Christie's comment: "President Obama and Secretary Duncan today recognized our administration's plan for bold reform of our state's education system. This announcement affirms our decision to stick with real reform and not capitulate to the watered-down, failed status quo approach advocated by the NJEA. Now is the time for New Jersey's leaders to join me to begin enactment of the pillars of real education reform contained within our Race to the Top application - more charter school opportunities for students, more choice for parents and fidelity to placing student success ahead of union self interest."

Another update: NJEA's Barbara Keshishian responds to Gov. Christie's statement: "Gov. Chris Christie has used what should be good news – New Jersey’s selection as a finalist for $400 million in federal ‘Race to the Top’ funding – to once again attack NJEA and its members. It’s a tired act, and it needs to end. This governor – who has cut $1.4 billion from public education, resulting in the layoff of thousands of teachers and deep program cuts that will hurt students badly – now wants to make people believe he’s the champion of public education.That’s absurd and dishonest."

Lede of the Day

From the Sacramento Bee: "Scott Plotkin, executive director of the California School Boards Association, announced his retirement Friday amid revelations he had charged thousands of dollars to a company credit card at area casinos, and according to the most recent tax filings, was drawing annual pay of more than $500,000."

Monday, July 26, 2010

RTTT Finalists Tomorrow

Ed Sec Arne Duncan will announce Race To The Top finalists tomorrow at 1:00 pm during a speech to the National Press Club. Michele McNeil and Lesli Maxwell at PoliticsK-12 have posted their best guesses at who will make the first cut of this second round of the Federal competition, and New Jersey is on the list.

In the first round this past Winter New Jersey came in 18th, missing the finals by 2 slots. (There were 16 finalists.) For this second round Duncan had said that there will be between 10 and 15 winners, so it’s reasonable to assume that the list of finalists will go as high as 20 and we’re in like Flynn. Here’s McNeil’s and Maxwell’s list: Arkansas, California, Colorado, D.C., Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, NJ, NY, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and South Carolina.

Andy Smarick’s going to hit the ground running.

When a Rose Isn't a Rose

New Jersey may have one of the nation's top high school graduation rates, but when it comes to college just 40.9 percent of residents hold an associates degree or higher. That puts New Jersey eighth in the country, according to the new College Board College Completion Agenda, and behind the national average of 41.6 percent. New Jersey's college completion stats are no better: of those seeking bachelor's degrees, 60.1 percent finish in six years, earning the Garden State a ranking of 13. More striking, just 13 percent of those seeking associates degrees in New Jersey are successful within three years, the second-lowest rate in the nation, ahead of only Delaware.
That’s NJ Spotlight’s “Number of the Day,” which points out some cognitive dissonance on the K-12 education scene in NJ. We have the highest high school graduation rate in the country (see here for NJEA’s cyber-cheer). We have the second-lowest rate of associate degree-completion in the country. What’s up with that?

At the Education Reform Now community forum in Newark on Saturday morning, Charlie Barone of Democrats for Education Reform spoke of some of these inequities visited upon school kids who go to public schools in cities like Newark. Lower graduation rates, greater reliance on alternative testing instead of traditional assessments, lower percentage of kids who begin college (38% in Newark vs. state average of 60%), lower participation in AP courses (21% of Newark high schools pass one AP test, while the state average is 70%, which tells you something about college-readiness).. Barone’s overview is that while NJ does a great job in early education, particularly our preschool programs, there’s a “huge divergence” once kids get to middle school and high school.

In other words, kids who attend a great NJ public school are adequately prepared for both our high school diploma qualifying exam (the HSPA) and for successful college completion. Those who aren’t adequately prepared either don’t graduate or find themselves in the heartbreaking situations (see earlier coverage here) of having been duped into thinking they were honor students but, instead, were unable to pass a middle-school level qualifying exam. Here’s E3’s Derrell Bradford in an editorial for The Press of Atlantic City:
[T]he State Board of Education ordered an examination of the course work of students who took the then SRA in 2009. Since 68 percent of SRA takers used it because they failed the math portion of the HSPA, one might imagine they had gaps in their course work. As the study found, however, the opposite was true. The Department of Education 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
As Charlie Barone pointed out, “there’s no accountability regarding what’s being taught” in chronically failing schools in places like Newark. Or, as Assemblywoman Mila Jasey said on Saturday morning, “you can’t hold children accountable for what they haven’t been taught.”

A course in Algebra I means one thing in Montclair or Moorestown and another thing entirely in Newark or Camden. It’s fine for the State to sign on to the national Common Core, which specifies course standards for language arts and math. It’s a whole other ball of wax to implement those standards across the state, regardless of local district, and to hold schools accountable for course content.

Our old alternative qualifying test, the Secondary Review Assessment, perpetuated the charade that Algebra I is Algebra I. The new alternative qualifying test, the Alternative High School Assessment, revealed that calling a course “Algebra I” is not in itself meaningful. Very post-modern of us, but without course content accountability our kids will continue to be unprepared for community college.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Quote of the Day

What everyone knows – and few will admit – is that the only way to reduce property taxes in New Jersey is to cut the amount of government. What no one has effectively done, however, is make the case to New Jerseyans about how less government – whether it’s by consolidating towns or school districts, or eliminating counties, would reduce their tax bill.

Yes, New Jersey loves home rules. But its residents are tired of paying ever-higher taxes. As lawmakers debate, the tool kit, don’t be surprised if someone adds eliminating government into the mix.
In the Lobby

Sunday Leftovers

Race To The Top finalists: word on the street is that they'll be announced early this week.

The New York Times "Room for Debate"
asks whether national standards will improve education.

Today’s Philadelphia Inquirer looks at a tight job market for new teachers in the Jerz.

NJ Spotlight examines the cost-saving trend of NJ districts shelving full-day kindergarten programs.

The Star Ledger Editorial Board argues that the current plan to cap sick pay at $15K for all public employees doesn't go far enough. Instead, "scrap the $15,000 cap. Make it zero for new hires and prohibit all employees from additional banking after their current contracts expire. No more banking from that day on, for anybody. Period."

Marcus Winters at the Manhattan Institute takes on the delicate subject of whether or nor NJ public school teachers are adequately paid relative to other professionals, and says that they are.

"New Jersey nonpublic schools save taxpayers $2.7 billion annually while providing 160,000 students an education, according to a state report made public Tuesday." (New Jersey Newsroom.)

Time Magazine makes the case against summer vacations. (Link is to abridged edition.)

Superintendent Caps: from Alfred Doblin of The Record: "The governor has not suggested superintendents aren't doing good jobs. He has said these jobs are not worth nearly $200,000 a year on average. Philosophically, it's a subjective argument. Fiscally, it is not. The state cannot afford to be paying anyone top dollar. Which brings me back to a subject I wrote about in May: Rutgers head football coach Greg Schiano." Also in The Record: the Christie Administration is worried that superintendents will try to evade new salary caps by extending their old contracts, so Executive County Superintendents will impose the caps immediately. Ensuing hue and cry from the Garden State Coalition of Schools, New Jersey Association of School Administrators, and some highly-paid superintendents. And Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula says we’d save more money by centralizing public school administration and governance at the county level.

Trentonkat
is so fed up with the Trenton public schools that she proposes this solution: "With the recent news that our school system is more of an outrage than we suspected, firing every single district employee, and starting over again with an entirely outsourced system, seems like a really, really good idea to me."

Friday, July 23, 2010

Rating NJ's Content Standards

The Fordham Foundation has released its 2010 review of individual state standards for language arts and math as a stunningly high number of states (29 so far, including NJ) are agreeing to adopt a national set of Common Core standards. Accompanying the review is an article in the National Review by Checker Finn and Mike Petrelli, which praises the Common Core as superior to what most states have in place (three states had better standards on their own without any help – Indiana, California, and D.C. (really!) – and 12 were “too close to call” (including the highly-regarded Massachusetts standards). See NJ Spotlight for a good overview and interview with Deputy Commissioner Willa Spicer, who calls the new standards “a sea change” for NJ districts.

A few facts from Fordham’s review of NJ’s standards, pre-replacement with the Common Core:

For Language Arts: “some strength in key areas…but enough problems exist in other areas…that the standards on balance are rather mediocre.”

“The New Jersey standards are a mix of specific and vague.” “’Comprehension Skills and Response to Text’ standards…are not organized in any systemic way…Finally it must be noted that NJ has developed a single set of standards for grades 9-12. It is impossible for one set of standards to cover so much material at a level of specificity that is useful, and no guidance is offered for specific high school grade levels.”

“The NJ early reading standards are fairly rigorous. Key topics…are all addressed…Vocabulary is addressed in every grade.” However, various gaps “leave at least 35% of the essential K-12 content missing.”

For Math:
“NJ’s standards are extremely difficult to read and understand.”
“The general presentation of the standards is very poor and extremely difficult to follow because essential content and clarification is scattered across several documents…the use of examples in the clarification documents is a good feature, but they are not provided consistently and frequently fail to provide needed illumination.”
Re: content in early grades, “standards on measurement are strong and clear” and “some of the high school content is well-covered.” However, “the high school material is missing some content” and much of the STEM-ready material is missing.”

What is it with NJ and high schools? While both our Language Arts and Math standards earned a “C” from Fordham for K-12 content, much of the criticism is directed at the lack of clarity and specificity for 9-12 graders. In fact, our lack of measurement of high school student achievement that was a factor for reviewers of our first Race To The Top application. On the other hand, we did better in math than Connecticut, which got a "D," and Pennsylvania, which got an "F." Maybe they're grading on a curve.

Caps and Games

NJ Spotlight reports on a fast timeline for new caps on superintendent salaries, as Ed Commissioner Schundler told “top county executives” (Executive County Superintendents maybe?) to “impose new limits immediately.”
Some discretion would be provided for those new contracts already in the pipeline, said spokesman Alan Guenther, but the aim is to prevent any superintendents from trying to extend existing deals or negotiate new ones before the new limits are formally put in place.
Sounds a lot like the State is trying to prevent a redo of this past Spring when some local NJEA bargaining units rushed to nail down contracts to evade the new 1.5% of base pay contribution to health benefits. This new contribution only applies to new contracts, so employees with pre-negotiated deals evade the deduction until after the current contract expires.

The rush to evade the new contribution may also attribute to a fact reported in the Westfield Patch yesterday that since January teacher contracts have settled at an average salary increase of 2.2%, down from last year’s average of 4.4%. In fact, that 2.2% settlement average of recent contracts is actually 3.7% in real numbers. The health care contribution is only applicable to brand new contract; pre-existing contracts are immune until they expire. So employees laboring under rules of pre-existing contracts get to keep the 1.5% that other employees hand back.

Anyway, it sounds like the State expects a sudden rush in superintendent/school board contracts that may not adhere to the caps. No fools they.

Corruption Are Us

As Gov. Christie and the State Legislature try to pull back the reins (2% tax increase cap, superintendent salary caps, pending toolkit) on school spending, two examples of runaway horses are in today’s papers: fraudulent billing in Trenton and Perth Amboy.

In Trenton, according to the Trenton Times, 80 teachers instructing homebound students billed Trenton Public Schools almost $2 million over two years, in many cases double billing or giving lessons to ineligible students. In Perth Amboy, reports the Star-Ledger, two insurance brokers bilked the school district out of $2,593,400 “by charging the school for non-existent and unauthorized healthcare related programs and services, including a wellness programs and employee assistance program, state Attorney General Paula Dow said.”

Nota bene: Trenton and Perth Amboy are both Abbott districts, under enhanced State scrutiny for years. How’s that working for us?

Most NJ school districts’ finances (including other Abbotts) are overseen by competent business administrators and checked annually by competent outside auditors. No disrespect intended toward any pending tools, but until we get a handle on school district finance fraud we’re closing the barn door after the horse has bolted.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Shameless Self-Promotion

If you're interested in parallels between the way NJ's public education system segregates children of color and children with disabilities, check out my column today at NJ Spotlight.

Quote of the Day

President Obama has threatened a veto [of Congressman Obey’s plan to send $10 billion to school districts to avoid teacher lay-offs, some of that money coming from Race To The Top funds] . Keep an eye on it. If this Democratic president stops that Democratic congressman from knee-capping school reform to protect unionized teachers from the world the rest of us live in, you can mark down August 2010 as a first step back from the crack-up. That would be the kind of change Mr. Obama's admirers thought they were getting.
Daniel Henninger in The Wall Street Journal

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Charter News

Five Democrats are sponsoring legislation that would give Rutgers University the authority to approve new charter schools. Right now only the DOE has that authority, an oft-mentioned criticism of our tightly constrained charter school authorization process. Here’s Assemblywoman Mila Jasey in the Asbury Park Press piece:
Jasey said the goal in giving Rutgers that authority is to shift some of the burden from the short-staffed Department of Education and improve New Jersey's prospects of getting federal funds through the Race to the Top program, which favors states in position to generate and support more charter schools. "I'm not looking to expand the number of charter schools exponentially," Jasey said. "I want it to be a very measured, deliberate, careful growth process."
Exponential isn’t our problem. Right now we have 67 charter schools that serve 1.5% of NJ’s 1.38 million schoolchildren, 2/3 of whom qualify for free and reduced lunch. The Education Law Center, by the way, opposes the legislation.

Two other charter items: Capitol Quickies reports on the State Appeals Court’s rejection of a class-action suit brought by 3,100 Newark kids who want charter school regulations changed so that local districts have to give 100% of per pupil funding to the relevant charter, instead of the current 90%. No dice, said the trial judge: the suit’s claim that the 10% withholding violates equal protection rights isn’t “viable” because those kids can always go to their neighborhood traditional public school.

Finally, battle wages on, reports the Trenton Times, between planners for the Princeton International Charter School, which intends to offer immersion Mandarin to 170 willing children of Princeton, West-Windsor-Plainsboro, and South Brunswick, and the sending districts, which are lobbying fiercely against the DOE’s approval. The technicality is a necessary site variance from the Plainsboro zoning board; the meeting was set up but the zoning board cancelled it “after public school officials contended the group had not given proper public notice.” Anyway, those kids buy their own lunch.

Glenn Beck Award*

Yes, two Glenn Beck awards in a week. It’s that kind of week. Here’s the Star-Ledger Editorial Board’s thoughts (we’re using the term loosely) on Gov. Christie’s plan to cap superintendent salaries:
We don’t want to hear any whining from school boards. They had the power to rein in salaries, but kept handing out chubby contracts, loaded with perks like cars, laptops, cell phones, fully funded health-care and exorbitant amounts of sick and vacation time.
Oh…right. The raison d’etre of volunteer school board members, who pay the same taxes as the communities they represent, is to blithely heap barrels of money and perks on incompetent superintendents. It gets us off and ignites the serotonin levels. Hey, it’s better than happy pills. Profligacy is our middle name.

Come on, guys. No doubt some superintendents get paid too much and some school boards are dysfunctional. But comparisons to the Governor’s salary are specious, and we’d love to see documentation on the assistant principal of an elementary school, cited in the editorial, earning more than $200K. Now that’s crazy.

NJ superintendent salaries – minus the few egregious cases that do indeed need to be reined in – are based on market forces. They get what they get because it’s a competitive market. “Fully funded health-care” and “exorbitant amounts of sick and vacation time” stem from NJEA contracts, which mandate the same when adjusted for 10 month vs. 12 month employees. Which is the point, isn’t it?

Any money saved from imposing salary caps on superintendents is insignificant. The value is in imposing salary caps on NJ's public education industry, starting with superintendents (a politically popular move) and extending that concept to its logical conclusion: salary caps on other administrators and teachers. And then, of course, augmenting those capped salaries (county-wide or state-wide contracts?) with merit bonuses, which is part of Christie’s proposal for superintendent compensation and also part of our Race To The Top proposal. Sort of elegant.

That’s your lede, guys, not stoning school board members.

*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."

Monday, July 19, 2010

Doing the Math in Camden

Today the Courier-Post examines the dipping graduation rates in Camden City’s five public high schools, where “at least 100 fewer seniors graduated…June 30 than last year, and it’s not clear if all students who walked in ceremonies have earned their diplomas."

Actually, it’s hard to say exactly what’s happening, besides the obvious: the students who can’t pass the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) now take the more-carefully-proctored Alternative High School Assessment (AHSA), which is harder to pass than the recently-deceased Special Review Assessment (SRA), which was, in fact, impossible to fail. (Stay with us here.) So even though students who can’t pass the 8th-grade-level HSPA can take the AHSA three times, captivity in a chronically failing district yields chronically failing students.

According to the article, in 2009 (the SRA’s last year) 551 seniors got diplomas among the five schools. This year only 451 did. When a Camden City School Board member queried Superintendent Bessie LeFra Young about particulars, “none were provided.”

Here’s a few particulars. The latest DOE data is for the school year 2008-2009. The total number of freshman in all five Camden City high schools in 2004 was 826: 391 at Camden High, 300 at Woodrow Wilson, 66 at Brimm Medical Arts, 41 at Creative & Performing Arts, and 28 at Met East. The total number of seniors in all Camden City high schools in 2008 was 537: 212 at Camden High, 200 at Woodrow Wilson, 64 at Brimm, 34 at Creative & Performing Arts, and 27 at Met East. In other words, there are 35% fewer kids in the senior class than in the freshman class.

How exactly do we calculate drop-out rates?

If we look at just the two general ed high schools – Camden City and Woodrow Wilson – the freshman class had 691 students, but four years later enrollment had dropped to 412 students. That’s a gap of 41% in enrollment. And that’s before they take the AHSA.

For comparison’s sake, let’s look at Cherry Hill, also in Camden County. At Cherry Hill High East, there were 490 kids in the freshman class in 2008-2009 and 343 kids at Cherry Hill West. Seniors numbered 552 at Cherry Hill East and 379 at Cherry Hill West. So the senior class at both Cherry Hill high schools is 112% of the freshman class the same year.

Another point of comparison: total comparative cost per pupil at Cherry Hill's high schools is $12,914. In Camden it's $16,131.

Eureka! All those missing Camden high school students (District Factor Group of A, the lowest possible socio-economic ranking) moved to Cherry Hill (DFG I, the second highest socio-economic ranking). The fundamentals of our economy are strong.

Glenn Beck Award*

To Assemblywoman Celeste Riley, who demonstrates in a widely-distributed press release that she has perfected the art of paradox:
Voting for the new cap was the right thing to do...One of New Jersey's best-selling points is its strong public school system. Our students and teachers are the envy of many other states. And we need to make sure it stays that way by retaining quality teachers with competitive salaries, benefits and a fully funded pension system.
*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."

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sunday Leftovers

Department of Corruption: The Trenton Times reports that teachers employed by the Trenton Public Schools to supply infirm students with home study overbilled the district by about $300,000. According to the report of a State Fiscal Monitor, “The district paid more than 80 instructors almost $2 million over two years for home visits…The program was rife with teachers either double billing or being paid without providing records of visits, in addition to giving lessons to ineligible students.”

Here’s the State’s official release of “The Christie Tool Kit: Putting Children First By Cutting Out-of-Classroom Costs,” which details the superintendent salary caps.

Assembly Republican Whip Dave Rible and Assemblyman Domenick DiCicco announced on Friday that they will draft legislation to cap superintendent salaries.

2% Tax Cap. 5.7% health insurance increase for schools enrolled in state plan. How to reconcile? Gloucester County News.

Just-retired Freehold Regional Superintendent James Wasser of diploma-mill fame(who just received $132,223 for unused sick and vacation time) has applied to be a substitute administrator at Long Branch Public Schools, according to the Asbury Park Press.

The Record looks at the impact of reinstalling the ability of school boards to impose "last, best offer," one of the items in the "Christie Toolkit."

NJ Spotlight
examines how the "voucher bill" is bogged down in both Houses and, in another piece, looks at the potential effects of privatization on preschools.

The Wall St. Journal
commends the Obama Administration for resisting House Appropriations Committee Chairman Dave Obey’s campaign to cut Race To The Top funds in order to provide money to ease teacher lay-offs:
Mr. Obey and his union defenders insist that teacher layoffs will harm kids. But school districts have been adding to their payrolls for decades without regard to student enrollment and without much to show in academic improvement. Total education spending grew by 32% between 1999 and 2009, while K-12 enrollment has grown by less that 1% each year over the same time period. The reality is that districts could economize and trim the bureaucracy without having to lay off as many teachers as they claim.
Politico gives an in-depth look at the national Democratic Party's "education debacle," explaining how "finding $10 billion in a multitrillion-dollar budget to avert threatened teacher layoffs — months before the midterm elections — would seem a shared goal for the party. Instead, it’s produced veto threats, stalled war funding and created a destructive divide between job-hungry lawmakers and a White House anxious to burnish its business credentials at the expense of teacher unions."

Department of Gossip: U.S. Representative Patrick Kennedy is dating an Atlantic City teacher. From Politicker NJ: "if Kennedy ties the knot and settles in New Jersey, the Democratic Party scion could be a willing -and personally motivated - participant in taking up the cause of the flagging New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) troops against Gov. Chris Christie."


Friday, July 16, 2010

School Superintendency as Civil Service

What’s behind Gov. Christie’s surprise announcement that he is capping school superintendent salaries? Isn't this sort of un-Republican? What happened to the free market economy? Is it a sort of shooting-fish-in-a-barrel move, a free ride fueled by public animosity towards school taxes or the occasional exorbitant salary? Is it a set-up for capping teacher salaries or installing statewide contracts? Is Christie trying to get some love from Jersey City, where citizens are fighting back against a mishandled $268,000 annual superintendent contract? Is the heat getting to him?

A few facts to throw out there: first, superintendent salaries are a tiny piece of school costs. From New Jersey School Boards Association’s press release yesterday:
The department’s National Center for Education Statistics indicates that New Jersey directs 9.5 percent of public school expenditures toward central-office and school-level administration, as compared to a nationwide average of 10.8 percent. According to this report, New Jersey administrative spending is lower than that of 42 other states. At the same time, New Jersey’s spending on instruction and student support services (71.9% of total expenditures) is higher than the nationwide average.
Secondly, one reason for high salaries, to whatever degree they’re high, is because school superintendents don’t get tenure. (A blog called Dr. Petrosino's Education Project argues that the DOE should reinstate tenure to balance out newly-cropped salaries.) Thirdly, the cap of $175,000, except for the 16 districts with more than 10,000 students, will encourage some unknown number of superintendents to go to Pennsylvania or New York or Delaware, which remain capless. Not so good for maintaining quality. See what happens, Gov. Christie, when you go all non-Republican on us? (Read Bruce Baker’s post at SchoolFinance101, specifically his chart of NY superintendent salaries which are almost all above $175K, at least in southern NY., though his larger point that the cap is arbitrary is rebutted by John Mooney at NJ Spotlight in the comment section of today’s column, also well-worth reading.)

Of course the cap will also wreak havoc with administrators – supervisors, principals, directors -- further down the food chain, some of whom get more than $175,000. (The slick comparison to Christie’s salary, also $175K, by the way, is a canard: not too many superintendents we know are contemplating higher office or big book deals in a couple of years. Superintendency is typically the last stop.)

In effect, Christie’s plan takes school superintendents out of the marketplace and places them on a pay grade on the civil service scale. Next to come is business administrators and assistant superintendents, according to Comm. Schundler. Are teacher salaries the endgame?

Quote of the Day

Given an opportunity, the governor declined to potshot any particular school super, some of whose salaries infamously run into the vicinity of $275,000 and above.

"I'm not getting into a role call of outrageous contracts," he said.

Asked if he regrets aiming at teachers' salaries prior to the administrators, the governor said, "No. The real money is in the teachers' union. These numbers are flashier, but it's just a numbers game. We were always moving toward school superintendents."
From today's PolitickerNJ

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Christie Plans to Cap Superintendent Salaries

Bret Schundler told the State Board of Education today that Gov. Christie wants to cap superintendent salaries at $120,000 for K-8 districts with fewer than 250 students, $175,000 in for districts with up to 10,000 students, and slightly higher for 16 districts with more than 10,000 students.

According to Bloomberg News
, 70% of NJ’s public school superintendents would have salaries reduced from current levels. Fifty superintendents have base salaries of higher than $200,000.

Districts could award up to 15% of base pay for merit bonuses. Christie says that although local boards of education negotiate contracts, the State has the power to limit pay packages.

In other news, the Washington Examiner is reporting that NJ may need to increase the amount it charges schools for employee health insurance by 6-12%.

Update: A savvy reader points out that, in fact, upticks in district contributions to employee health insurance will vary considerably. See this document from NJ’s School Employees’ Health Benefits Commission July 14th meeting.

Residents Fight Back in Jersey City

A formal Verified Petition of Appeal was filed yesterday with the State DOE to compel Commissioner Schundler to make a decision about whether the Jersey City School Board violated state law by extending the contract of Superintendent Charles Epps. The Petition was filed by Board of Education member Anthony Shaperson, Education Activist Shelley Skinner, parent Elvin Cominci, and City Councilman Steven Fulop, and follows an email drive (see here) in which more than 2000 J.C. residents emailed Gov. Christie to protest the contract extension. Here's some earlier NJLB coverage.

The petitioners charge that the Jersey City Board of Education violated the Open Public Meeting law, N.J.S.A. 18A:11-11 by extending Superintendent Epps' contract without proper public notice, voting 6 for, 2 against, and 1 abstention. The law requires public notice for the alternation of the contracts of certain employees, including school superintendents. Epps’s current contract is for $268,000. He oversees 40 schools in this Abbott district, of which 35 are Schools in Need of Improvement under NCLB. Ms. Skinner said in a press release,
We are going to keep the pressure on the Jersey Board of Education. The appeal will give the Commissioner the ability to decide on the board’s willful attempt to disenfranchise the public. Hopefully the vote is reversed. The law is very clear on this matter.

Great Piece on the SRA, But...

James Ahearn takes on the Special Review Assessment in The Record, reviewing how students would take the SRA after failing the traditional high school proficiency exam several times and then be coached through the alternative sham. It’s a good piece and makes the salient point that the SRA has allowed students (mostly poor and urban) to receive high school diplomas while effectively cheating them out of a thorough and efficient education while artificially inflating our high school graduation rate. Here’s a couple of quibbles:
  • William Librera, Commissioner of Education under Gov. Jim Mcgreevey didn’t “acknowledge” two years ago that the SRA should be phased out. He positively pleaded with the State Board of Education five years ago to toss the meaningless evaluation, writing in a May 13th 2005 memo, “The SRA hurts the very students we seek to help, and it must be replaced.”
  • The State Board of Education accommodatingly passed a resolution that same year eliminating the SRA, but after a campaign by the Education Law Center and the New Jersey Education Association the resolution was rescinded in 2007 in order to leave time to develop a replacement test.
  • Mr. Ahearn describes the resistance of the Education Law Center to the replacement of the SRA with the Alternative High School Assessment, which is graded mostly by an outside vendor. (See this 2007 white paper, “SRA: Loophole of Lifeline.”) The ELC, in fact, was joined in full voice by the leadership of the New Jersey Education Association. Here’s President Barbara Keshishian at a February 2008 State Board of Education meeting:
"The SRA has served New Jersey's students well. It is based upon educationally sound practices and offers students who cannot pass standardized tests a legitimate alternative to receive a diploma. Unfortunately, many in the media and business community have mislabeled the SRA as a back-door to graduation. On the contrary, the SRA has provided students with a viable path to a diploma."
Always thought-provoking to ponder the ways in which one organization truly devoted to kids (ELC) and another truly devoted to grown-ups (NJEA) find common cause. (We’re not being snarky. Just pondering.)
  • Finally, what’s up with The Record’s headline writer? “Retooled Graduation Test Procedures are Working.” Sure, if the goal was to verify that, in fact, a substantial number of high school seniors in poor urban district can’t pass a middle-school-level test, and that the SRA served as a form of anabolic steriods, pumping up our high school graduation rate like The Incredible Hulk while enervating academic achievement in our poorest towns. NJEA’s website still boasts that “High school graduation rate as the best in the nation.” Guess they haven't gotten the memo yet.

Quote of the Day

Maybe the conundrum for Democrats is that much of the governor’s message makes sense. Christie is saying in public what many legislators have been saying in private: The state has been spending too much and elected officials have been too fearful of taking on public employee unions to make substantial changes in generous contracts.

Democrats should be giving Christie a run for his money. Instead, they are giving victory after victory. In Little League terms, it is a slaughter. There are more backroom deals being made in Loehmann’s than there are in the current Legislature
Alfred Doblin of The Record on Christie's 2% Solution achieved amidst Democratic flaccidity.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

School Choice Dud

The Record takes a look at the Interdistrict School Choice Program, recently expanded in the Legislature from a pilot in suspended animation to a reenergized opportunity for kids to cross school district boundaries. Here’s Assemblyman Paul Moriarty in his joint press release with Mila Jasey, rejoicing in the bill that makes interdistrict choice official:
"Public school choice is an idea whose time has come for the benefit of our children," said Moriarty (D-Gloucester/Camden). "We’ve been talking about this for a long time and we need to finally make a long-term commitment to it. It’s this simple – for some students and schools, this program can be a step toward a lifetime of educational rewards."
Well, not according to some superintendents from North Jersey, who dismiss the program as “unlikely to have much of an impact” because of the lack of incentives for districts who volunteer empty seats to kids in desperate need of an escape hatch from a chronically failing school. From The Record: “Passaic County Superintendent Robert Gilmartin said he knows of no other districts in the county that are interested in participating in the expanded program.”

Well, that’s what you get for asking poor urban kids to depend on the kindness of strangers or any sense of shared educational mission. The Blanche Dubois strategy isn’t going to work. What if we required successful public school districts with empty seats to open those spaces to poor kids? Or what if there was some sort of incentive program? Carrot or stick, whatever works. Right now it’s not.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Knee-Capping NJEA

Here’s NJEA President Barbara Keshishian on yesterday’s Assembly approval of legislation to cap property tax increases at 2%:
This is a devastating day for children and public education in New Jersey. On the heels of more than $1.3 billion in cuts to public education, the Legislature and the governor have put an ill-conceived and shortsighted policy in place that will prevent our public schools from ever climbing out of the hole that has been dug for them by the state.
An understandable reaction, if a bit histrionic. The hole we’re in doesn’t have a lot to do with any sort of property tax cap, but to an expensive, inefficient, and unsustainable public school system.

Anyway, it’s not the cap that’s so scary to NJEA’s leadership. It’s the “toolkit” that’s looming on the horizon. Next in line for the Assembly is the 33-bill Craftsman package meant to accompany the cap. One bill reinstates “last, best offer” when school boards and bargaining units reach an impasse during contract negotiations; another bars annual salary increases of more than 2% for public employees, including schoolteachers (unless the community votes to exceed the cap); another limits sick leave and vacation time carry-over. Two more will have a big impact on the negotiations game: one changes the process for choosing public arbitrators (which right now favors NJEA) and another disallows arbitrators from recommending any settlement over 2%. School board elections would be in November and it’s likely that school budget votes would be eliminated.

Exempt from the cap are health care, pension payments, debt service, and spikes in school enrollment. A special education exemption, heavily lobbied for, didn’t make the cut.

If these bills pass (Gov. Christie vows to have it done before the summer is out, though that seems a wee bit optimistic), we’ll have an entirely new system of union/school board negotiations after years of 5% annual salary increases. Through the NJEA lens, jumps in teacher retirements (since pensions are based on the last 3 years of salary [moving soon to 5] it makes financial sense for eligible teachers to bail out), increased class sizes, and stingy professional development funds will devastate public education in NJ. Through the taxpayer lens it’s just a market correction. Who gets such hefty annual salary increases anymore? Who gets such generous sick leave and vacation time rollovers? Who gets close to a free ride on health benefits and pensions? Who gets such advantages at the bargaining table, if you even get to bargain?

President Keshishian is not so much criticizing policy as much as mourning the likely end to the halcyon days of teacher union dominance. How this all plays out for the kids is yet to be determined.

Quote of the Day

Like Icarus, Christie is flying high. But whether or not the rooking governor can hold on to the stack of chips he has hauled in from the budget and cap negotiation poker games remains to be seen. Massive layoffs of teachers and cops could turn the general public against the Republican in the coming years, melting his wings and sending him earthward, while a turnaround of the tax burden in the Garden State could make him a national darling.
PolitickerNJ: Winners and Losers/Cap Edition

Monday, July 12, 2010

Dialogue of the Day

Former Governors Brendan T. Byrne and Tom Kean in the Star-Ledger:
Q: Will the cumulative effect of overrides [on the probably 2% municipal tax cap] in wealthier towns create a greater imbalance in education?

BYRNE: You have inequality in education now. Caps are not going to do anything to minimize that.

KEAN: And you have to remember that in this budget, as in previous budgets, the state gives the majority of its school aid to less wealthy municipalities just to try to mitigate that inequality. And that will continue.

BYRNE: Local officials will tell you they are expanding the use of special education funds, that they are inadequate. So there’s always a gimmick.

KEAN: But remember only one shoe has dropped. The second shoe is a tool kit that will give mayors and councils the ability to deal with the cap, and that may include things like a better way of doing collective bargaining, and perhaps ways of dealing with special education. That won’t come until later in the summer or in the fall, but this tool kit will be more important to mayors than the 2 percent cap.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sunday Leftovers

Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, on the nature of teaching in The Wall Street Journal: "Successful teaching is nothing magic. It's nothing elusive. It's about talent and leadership and accountability."

NJEA publishes talking points against the 2.5% property tax cap.

School districts get creative amidst budget crunches: the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Glassboro Public Schools wants to charge for remedial summer schools (North Bergen Public Schools is already doing so, according to Senator Nick Sacco, the bill sponsor, who moonlights as North Bergen's Assistant Superintendent [huh?]) and Marlboro Public Schools wants to sell ad space on its school website, according to the Asbury Park Press. The Courier Post looks at area districts that may share athletic directors.

More on special education: The Trenton Times editorializes on the need to get a handle on out-of-district costs, using as an example Montgomery Public Schools, which "spends $22 million on general education programs for 5,000 students and $8 million on special education programs in the district and private schools for 540 students." The Star-Ledger prognosticates that Gov. Christie will never allow an cap exemption for special education costs and urges districts to expand in-district offerings. The editorial adds, controversially, "The burden of proof must be placed back on parents, if they’re the ones challenging a placement, to demonstrate their children require services that can’t be provided in-district." And NJ Spotlight looks at the need for a cap exemption for extraordinary special education costs.

Gov. Christie’s “Privatization Task Force,” chaired by Dick Zimmer released its report on Friday, which includes recommendations for increased privatization of publicly-funded preschools and offering vouchers for special education students to go to private schools. In The Record, David Sciarra of the Education Law Center says the former would be an “educational disaster.”

New Jersey Spotlight looks at the results of QSAC, the Quality Single Accountability Continuum, which ascertains school district compliance with the vast regulations emitted by the State DOE. This year 73% of districts tested were labeled “high performing.” That stellar list did not include Millburn, one of the State’s best districts. It’s not compliant enough.

The Courier Post offers a 6-page analysis of what it’s like to be a teacher in NJ these days.

Lakewood Public Schools' audit found, according to the Star-Ledger, that "the district spent $2.5 million more on salaries than what was budgeted, and $1.2 million in health benefits were under-reported in 2007, according to the report. The audit highlighted $3,900 spent to send an empty bus to Washington to shuttle teachers -- after already dropping $5,000 to give them round-trip train tickets."

Relations have chilled between NEA leaders and the Obama Administration, reports the New York Times. At NEA's national convention this week, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel told the assembled thousand, “Today our members face the most anti-educator, anti-union, anti-student environment I have ever experienced."

Friday, July 9, 2010

A Different Kind of Segregation

As NJ moves closer to a 2% soft cap on property taxes, the hard costs of special education are moving front and center. See today’s New Jersey Spotlight piece, a press release from NJSBA, and an accompanying article from The Record.

Bottom line: for a small school district, an unexpected out-of-district placement for a child with serious disabilities is a budget-breaker. From the NJSBA release:
A 2007 study by NJSBA showed that out-of-district special education placements involve 10 percent of New Jersey’s special education student population, but make up 40 percent of the total cost of special education.
And, of course, that’s that ol’ Garden State problem of excess. According to the NJ Council of Developmental Disabilities’ report, “Where are We Now? Still Segregated in New Jersey,” the national average for kids placed in separate facilities is 2.9%. In Jersey, we outsource 8.8% of our classified kids to out-of-district placements. From the NJCDD report:
The 8.8 percent of New Jersey students who are placed in segregated facilities represents 19,596 students. Only one state, New York, had more students in segregated placements (but still had a smaller percentage of its special education population in segregated placements than New Jersey); while California, the most populous state with more than four times New Jersey’s population, has almost 6,000 fewer students in segregated facilities.
Do some kids require a segregated placement in order to insure a thorough and efficient education? Absolutely. Almost 9%? Probably not. So the problem is not just the need for cap waivers for extraordinary education needs for students with serious disabilities. We must also address the disproportionate number of kids who are educated in separate public and private facilities. Sure, home rule is a problem – too many districts, no critical mass to create efficient programming. But there’s got to be a better way than earning yet another ribbon in our apparent quest to become the segregated school system in the country.

NJ Fisticuffs

Senator Dick Codey narrowly averted a boxing match between Senator Mike Doherty and Senator Ray Lesniak when he thrust himself between them as they inveighed against each other’s stance on the School Funding Reform Act. Doherty, described as a “global warming skeptic, anti-abortion activist and stalwart of the state’s conservative movement,” was complaining loudly that SFRA unfairly benefits urban districts, and Lesniak, that hoary liberal and recent supporter of the voucher bill, pulled a Joe Wilson on him. (Senator Joe Wilson is the one who, during President Obama’s speech, piped up, “that’s a lie!”) Fun coverage in the Star-Ledger.

How frustrated are middle-class and high-end districts with SFRA? This frustrated: according to the Wall Street Journal (picking up on another Star-Ledger story), wealthy Glen Ridge School District, with a DFG of I, is devoting its annual board retreat to discussing whether or not the district should convert to a charter school. When Gov. Christie cut all state school aid by 5% this past winter in a move calculated to not violate SFRA’s formula, Glen Ridge lost every penny, $1.2 million. The Journal quotes Lynn Strickland, director of the Garden State Coalition, which represents mostly suburban districts:
"The frustration is at a fever pitch," Among the 59 school districts in New Jersey that lost all of their state aid, a third are members of Ms. Strickland's organization. All together, her members lost over $300 million from the state for next year.
Meanwhile, in a sign of the growing divide between rich and poor districts, Education Law Center has filed suit in State Supreme Court alleging that Christie’s 5% state aid cut for all school districts violates SFRA. From ELC’s press release:
The current legal action is compelled by Governor Chris Christie's unprecedented $1.08 billion, or 13.6%, cut in State aid in 2010-11. The Governor's aid cut reduces State funding below the levels required by the SFRA formula in 2010-11, and far below the funding amounts actually provided under the SFRA formula in the current (2009-10) school year.
So suburban districts are considering secession from NJ’s public school system since there’s no money there, poor urban districts are bemoaning state aid cuts that violate SFRA (with probably more to come), and senators are brawling in the Statehouse aisles. What’s next: Civil War?

Not so funny. Our municipal madness, which extends to school districts, may be great for town pride but it sucks away any sense of shared mission. Glen Ridge, after all, is in the same county as Newark (and, to bring us full circle, the hometown of Senator Doherty), but they might as well be in separate countries. Easy enough for a rich district to give the State the finger. Who needs the tsuris? Really hard to look at Newark’s children as equally entitled to a school system where all the teachers are strong and good-looking, and all the children are above-average.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Quote of the Day

If Chris Christie wants to make a lasting impression on New Jersey politics, he's going to have to look beyond the budget and the long-standing problem of punitive property taxes. He's going to have to take on the corrupt heart of New Jersey's home-rule empowered cheats, rascals, and thieves. There's no better place to start than the Jersey City School Board.
Thurman Hart in the Star-Ledger. Here's our coverage of the incident inciting Hart's ire, the renewal of Superintendent Charles Epps' contract without adherence to the Open Public Meeting Law, as well as a history, Hart claims, of patronage and double-dipping. Also see NJ Spotlight's coverage, which discusses the DOE's scrutiny of Jersey City's schools.

Volunteers Wanted

Ed. Commissioner Bret Schundler has just issued a call for teacher volunteers for the “Educational Effectiveness Evaluation Committee," a new advisory group engendered by NJ’s Race To The Top application. The mandate of the committee, according to The Record, is “try to resolve the contentious issue of how to use pupil performance to measure teachers and school leaders.” Its final composition will comprise members nominated by NJEA, NJ School Boards Association, NJ Principals and Supervisors Association, charter school operators, education professors, testing experts, etc. All appointments have to be approved by Gov. Christie.

Of course, it’s one thing to figure out how to use pupil performance to measure teachers and school leaders. It’s another thing entirely to agree that pupil performance should be used to measure teachers and school leaders. Will the committee be able to get that far? Our fingers are crossed.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Parsing the AHSA Results

The Star-Ledger reports that 2,900 NJ high school seniors failed the Alternative High School Assessment, the replacement for the long-discredited Special Review Assessment, which almost no one failed. The AHSA, which replaced the SRA just this year, is administered to students who failed the traditional assessment (the HSPA) three times.

The reason for the change in passage rate – 96% for the SRA and now about 36% for the AHSA (8,000 kids took it) is due to the change in scoring. The SRA was scored by the teachers within the child’s district who administered the test. The AHSA is scored by Measurement, Inc., an outside vendor.

Past reactions to the fact that we’ve been awarding high school diplomas to kids who haven’t been educated effectively are instructive. Five years ago Education Commissioner William Librera urged the DOE to eliminate the SRA, but the political stakes were too high. Here's NJEA President Barbara Keshishian at a 2008 NJ State Board of Education meeting defending a test that no one failed:
The SRA has served New Jersey's students well. It is based upon educationally sound practices and offers students who cannot pass standardized tests a legitimate alternative to receive a diploma. Unfortunately, many in the media and business community have mislabeled the SRA as a back-door to graduation. On the contrary, the SRA has provided students with a viable path to a diploma.
Here’s the question, articulated by Ms. Keshishian: What’s a “viable path” to a high school diploma in NJ? There are countless heart-rending stories about students – some, like in the Ledger piece, already accepted to college on the assumption that they would pass the assessment – whom have been duped into thinking that they have achieved high school proficiency. But they fail and they’re stuck. What happens when you add a new level of accountability to a process and the results indicate lack of quality? Do you blame the messenger or look carefully at the message?

(For a longer-term perspective, read Diane D'Amico recent piece in the Press of Atlantic City that explains that 2/3 of NJ community college students need remedial coursework and only 15% of full-time NJ community college students graduate within 3 years. [Cost to NJ: $45 million per year.])

Deputy Comm. Willa Spicer has it right: "We have to tell the world we really do care that kids can read, write and do mathematics when they leave us. The point is to make sure we have evidence they can do it." The AHSA gives us the evidence. Now we have to act.

Tee Shirt of the Day

The one Dr. Diane Ravitch was wearing under her suit jacket at this week’s NEA Convention: “Public Schools: It’s a Right, Not a Race." Great coverage of the convention from Stephen Sawchuk at Edweek and Mike Antonucci at Intercepts.

Other highlights: NEA passed a vote of "no confidence" in Race To The Top, though only by a "razor-thin margin," according to Stephen Sawchuk, an atypical culmination. Also, among the 99 business items introduced, one posted by the California Delegation was thrown out. Business Item 44 would make a formal request to President Obama to replace Ed. Secretary Arne Duncan with "a person who is aligned with the interests of the NEA, its members, and especially the students it serves."

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Special Ed Segregation

Today’s Star-Ledger looks at the increasing cost of educating children with special needs in out-of-district placements, and districts' efforts to create in-district classrooms. Fact from the article: Bedminster’s Somerset Hills Learning Institute for autistic children costs more than $116,000 per student this year.

Here’s another fact (not from the article): New Jersey classifies children as eligible for special education services at a higher rate than any other state in the country. In fact 18%, almost 1 in 5, of our children are diagnosed with either learning disabilities or other handicaps. To round out the picture, we classify minority children at a much higher rate than white kids. From a 2007 report from the Harvard School of Education:
In Florida, Alabama, Delaware, New Jersey, and Colorado, the number of African-American students identified as mentally retarded was more than three times that of white students.
From Jay P. Greene, Head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas:
One of the reasons we know that reported disability rates lack credibility is that they vary dramatically from state to state. In New Jersey, for example, 18 percent of all students are classified as disabled, but in California the rate is only 10.5 percent. There is no medical reason why students in New Jersey should be 71 percent more likely to be placed into special education than students in California.
From the NJ Center for Developmental Disabilities’ study, “Where Are We Now? Still Segregated in New Jersey:”
Almost one in four male African-American students in New Jersey is identified as having a disability. Although progress has been made in several areas, an alarming pattern of segregation continues among students receiving special education services in New Jersey.
Either there’s something in the water (hmm…we’re pondering “Jersey Shore” and “Housewives of New Jersey”) or we hand out special education labels like peppermint sticks at Christmas time, especially to our Black kids. According to the NJ DOE data base, 33.2% of kids at the almost-all-Black Camden High are labeled as eligible for special education services. At Cherry Hill High West (mostly White kids), also in Camden County, 13.8% of kids are labeled as eligible for special education services.

So we classify far more kids in NJ than in other states, and among those kids are a disparate number of minority kids. New Jersey, due to its home rule mania, also tends to support far more private special education schools; 591 mostly small districts can’t drum up a large enough cohort of, say, autistic kids, to justify the costs of an entire classroom, so it’s easier and, in the short term, cheaper to pay that high tuition. The result is a whole other kind of segregation, the kind that excludes all children with disabilities from their home communities and, more specifically, excludes minority kids, who may or may not be disabled, from typical peers.

We’re the victims of our municipal madness and our funding mechanism for special education, which provides more money to the district if the child has “extraordinary needs,” i.e., is eligible for services that cost a lot -- like out-of-district placements -- although those placements are sometimes entirely appropriate.

The disproportionate number of minority kids classified here is far more troubling. Is it the funding? The advantages to excluding struggling kids from standardized tests or rambunctious ones from inclusive classroom? Amidst all of NJ’s educational woes, this one flies under the radar. It shouldn’t.

Quote of the Day

As school budgets, which have already been slashed this year, are stretched tighter, deeper cuts in staff and even larger class sizes are inevitable. This is a dark day for democracy and public education in New Jersey.
NJEA President Barbara Keshishian on the Statehouse agreement to implement a 2% cap on property taxes in NJ. (NJ Spotlight)

(For counterpoint, see a new blog hosted by The Trentonian called My Union Does Not Speak For Me.)

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Sunday Leftovers

If the Assembly approves the compromise tax cap agreed to by Gov. Christie and Senate President Steve Sweeney – a hard 2% cap with exceptions only for health benefits, pensions, debt service, natural disasters, or rising school enrollment – can school boards agree to anything more than 2% annual pay increases for teachers? (Hint: NJEA’s leadership says the plan is a “closed-door deal” that will “devastate New Jersey’s public schools and community services,” according to the Star-Ledger.)

New Jersey School Boards Association argues that any tax cap must give districts leeway for “the high and unpredictable costs for special education.” Superintendent Robert Holster from Passaic explains in The Record that “just last week he was told one child in his purview will need a $125,000 placement next year.”

Glen Ridge Goes Rogue: this top NJ school district will lose all state aid so its school board is contemplating secession by converting all its schools to either charters or private institutions. Why put up with onerous oversight with nothing in return? (Star-Ledger)

If NJ is broke, how does it fully fund the its schools according to the School Funding Reform Act formula? Education Law Center’s David Sciarra in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer: “This is a formula the Legislature enacted after a lot of work, bipartisan work. Both Republicans and Democrats voted for it. They all cheered when the court approved it. Now where are we?"

The Courier Post looks at failed school budgets in South Jersey and determines that “some municipalities refused to order any cuts to defeated budgets” anyway.

The Atlantic City School District spends more than $1,000,000 annually on legal fees, reports the Press of Atlantic City, more than any other district in the state. Marcus Rayner, executive director of the New Jersey Lawsuit Reform Alliance, looks at the need for tort reform across NJ’s public school system, looking particularly at an especially egregious case in The Chathams. (New Jersey Newsroom.)

Lots of dismay among ed reformers about cuts to the Race To The Top program. Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, just cut $500 million from Race to the Top, $100 million from the charter-schools expansion, and $200 million from the teacher incentive fund. Read Jonathan Alter in Newsweek, who says that Obey, retiring this year, “is in danger of going out as a water carrier for the teachers’ unions.”

Friday, July 2, 2010

Live From Asbury Park

Here’s a timeline for Asbury Park Schools Superintendent Antonio Lewis, recently in the news after an Administrative Law Judge ruled that tenure laws mandate that the district must give him a job as a principal:

1999: Hired as Superintendent after serving as Principal of Asbury Park Middle School from 1992-1999.
2003: Suspended by School Board for inefficiency because he failed to exercise leadership, supervision, or management. Board presses tenure charges.
2004: Charges dismissed by Education Commissioner William Librera because, while he agreed with the Board’s judgment, it failed to provide Lewis with “written notice of the inefficiency and according him 90 days to improve his performance.” Superior Court Judge Lawrence Lawson also rules that the school board showed “a blatant disregard” for the Open Public Meetings Act while they tried to oust Lewis.
2004: Lewis reinstated at salary of $188,000. School Board (mostly new members) signs a multi-year contract with Superintendent Lewis.
2006: School Board tries to buy out Lewis’s contract for $600,000. State stops buy-out and Board again suspends Lewis at full pay. NJ DOE sends in “intervention team” to determine the cause for Asbury Park’s continued low student performance. DOE Director of Communications Katherine Forsyth explains, “They have not been able to make simple decisions.”
2007: State DOE begins investigation of Lewis’ “central office operations.”
2008: Board pays Lewis $169,500 to settle his suit against it for the 2003 suspension. A performing arts teacher at Asbury Park High School is fined $50,000 after she makes a personal call to Lewis while covering for another teacher in a classroom and the students make a video of their dance party, conducted in full view of the teacher. The students post the video on youtube. (Here's the video.)
2008: Acting School Superintendent James T. Parham admits that he paid $3,000 to receive an M.A. in special education from Alameda University in Idaho. His scholarship consisted of composing a resume and writing a 2-3 page paper. Seven months after receiving the degree he was appointed Acting Superintendent at a salary of $110,620.
2009: Lewis' contract expires. He sues the district to get his principal’s job back since he had been awarded tenure in that position.
June 21, 2010: Administrative Law Judge Ronald W. Reba rules Asbury Park “must give him a job for which he is qualified along with pay and benefits dating back to July 1 of last year when his superintendent's contract ran out.”

Quick overview of Asbury Park School District: 2,202 students in 5 schools. Comparative Cost per pupil: $24,428. High School academic achievement: 66.4% of juniors and senior fail the High School Performance Assessment (HSPA). 79.1% fail the Math HSPA.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Ah, Willingboro

The Burlington County Times reports that in Willingboro School District in Burlington County,
[m]uch of the staff is still not in place for next school year, turmoil exists between the board and administration, leadership is in question, some teachers are worried and angry, others have lost their jobs, and a union president took to airing conflicts at Garfield East Elementary School in a public forum.

Morale seems to be going downhill and board meetings have turned into all-night affairs, with agenda items sometimes not even considered until the clock has neared a new day.
And that’s just the grown-ups. How are the kids doing? According to the 2009 NJ Report Card Willingboro High, now in its 7th year of a School In Need of Improvement, 41.7 percent of 11th and 12th graders failed the Language Arts section of the High School Proficiency Assessment and 63.3% failed the Math portion.

Thank goodness for the Legislature’s actions this week that made permanent our Interdistrict School Choice Program. Now students can cross district boundaries and Willingboro’s students have an out from their chronically failing, dysfunctional school district where Board President Tony John mourns, “It’s chaos. We need leadership.”

Reality check: While Willingboro Township (here’s a map) is cradled by multiple abutting municipalities, the only “choice district” in Burlington is Green Bank Elementary School in Washington Township, about as far away from Willingboro as you can get and still be in the same county. Not to mention that it only serves kids in grades K-8 and is more than 20 miles from Willingboro, the cut-off for transportation. However S1073, the bill passed this week, expands the Interdistrict School Choice Program, permitting more than one district per county to nominate itself as a “choice district.”

We often use the Moorestown/Willingboro model to demonstrate the segregation and inequities among our public school districts. After all, Moorestown shares borders with Willingboro and boasts stellar test scores. Delran is another example: right next door to Willingboro, makes AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress, according to NCLB) every year, 100% graduation rate. Only 15.37% of kids there fail the Language Arts HSPA and 30.5% fail the Math.

Did we mention that Willingboro is mostly African-American, and Delran and Moorestown are mostly White?

Here's a powerpoint slide to chew on, courtesy of David Sciarra of the Education Law Center: regarding racial isolation in New Jersey's public schools, 77% of Black students and 75% of Latino students attend majority minority schools. 47% of Black students and 40% of Latino students attend schools that are 90-100% minority. What are the odds of Moorestown or Delran stepping up to the plate? Ah, Humanity.

Quote of the Day

Gov. Christie talks to Politico (hat tip: In The Lobby) about NJEA:
On the union front, he said, “I think what you see now is that our teachers union is growingly unpopular because they’re inflexible and they believe that they’re entitled to be shielded completely from the recession.” (The union, meanwhile, argues that he’s unfairly targeting some of the lowest-paid workers around and singling them out for budgetary pain).

But he also suggested he’s seeing a “schism,” not just within the Democratic Party over this issue, but between public sector and private sector labor groups.

“I think what you see is a divide in the union movement,” he said, adding that groups like the New Jersey building trades are struggling with high unemployment rates for their members and equally high property taxes “and they know that the driver for that is the 4 or 5 percent salary (hikes)” for public workers.

“I know it’s been a third rail before,” he said, but added that if he didn’t fight it, the other battles wouldn’t be very meaningful.

Like other Republicans nation.ally, Christie said he views Obama as an “ally” on education reform and in the push to force the teachers’ union to make changes. The idea of Christie, a rising GOP star who won despite the White House’s best efforts to defeat him in 2009, and Obama as collaborators isn’t as incongruous as it seems—many Democrats privately acknowledge that Obama’s push for “Race to the Top” funding created a climate in which unions are no longer a protected political class.

“What I’ve said to folks is, we’re at a unique moment in history where you have conservative Republican governors …who’s never been able to get traction against the teachers union, but now you’ve got a Democratic president and (his) Secretary of Education” talking the same talk, he said