Wednesday, March 30, 2011

DOE Note of the Day

The following is now posted on all DOE School Report Cards under the categories "School Drop-Out Rates" and "Post-Graduation Plans":
NOTE: The New Jersey Department of Education is well-aware of the possible inaccuracy in dropout rates and graduation rates that have traditionally been based over the years on districts’ self-reported numbers of their dropouts and graduates. With the development of the student-level data system called NJ SMART, in the 2011 report card to be published in February 2012, the state will use the student records of those students who entered high school in 2007 as the source of the numbers and percentages of dropouts and graduates. The graduation rate for the class of 2011 will meet the requirements of the new federally mandated adjusted cohort graduation rate to be used by all states.

Quote of the Day

Joseph DePierro, dean of the College of Education and Human Services at Seton Hall University, worries about the expansion of charter schools in NJ (today's Star-Ledger):
I think we have to be careful that in the future, that kind of separation doesn’t lead to a form of segregation.
Uh, okay. Careful: don't tip him off about the tooth fairy.

Yale SOM Conference Dilemma

I spent Thursday night and Friday at the Yale School of Management Ed Reform conference, “From Policy to Practice," although the emphasis seemed less on that transition than on the old bugaboo of education reform: Do we move incrementally, accepting slow progress as the price of effective collaboration? Or do we define the plight of kids stuck in bad schools as an emergency deserving of unequivocal action? This conundrum has been personified by two of its luminaries, Diane Ravitch, who wants to return to the golden yesterdays of the old public school system, and Chester Finn of Hoover and Fordham, who says, “Nah, it’s too broken. Blow it up and start over.”

In panel after panel, keynote after keynote, the same theme emerged. Do we move incrementally with school choice, with incorporating value-added models of teacher evaluations, with community outreach, as we build buy-in from all stakeholders? Or do we step boldly, inspired by the urgency of kids trapped in failing schools?

So, the incrementalists: conference attendees heard from Senator Mike Johnston of Colorado about coalition-building and long-term political change. We heard from Delaware Governor Jack Markell about his state’s successful Race To The Top application, which featured collaboration with teachers and, apparently, high levels of buy-in from staff and communities. At a session on forward-thinking teacher contracts, Asst. Superintendent of New Haven Schools Garth Harris and the AFT Director Joan Devlin agreed that contractual changes need to be “be fair to teachers and good for kids.”

And on the other side of the ring are the urgentists, best articulated at another panel called “Does the Ed Reform Movement Care about Community Involvement?” Said Ref Rodriguez of Partners for Developing Futures,
We keep saying that this is the civil rights battle of our generation. So why aren’t we acting like it is?
The practice of determining lay-offs by seniority (LIFO for “last in, first out”) can be seen as a barometer of a community’s approach. If local ed reformers cave on LIFO, they’re incrementalists. If they don’t, they’re urgentists.

Newsflash: most ed reformers are incrementalists, at least the ones showcased at the Yale conference.

For a New Jerseyan, suddenly the battle between NJEA and Christie is OUT THERE. Whoa. We’re outliers. We’re badass. Everyone’s sharing tea and crumpets while we’re throwing bombs.

Here’s a representative conversation (edited and paraphrased unless it's in quotes) at the panel called "The Teacher Contract - 2021," moderated by Andy Rotherham. Panelists were New Haven Asst. Superintendent Garth Harris, AFT Director Joan Devlin, Brad Jupp of the U.S. D.O.E., and Evan Stone, Exec. Director of Educators 4 Excellence, a group of NYC educators who are looking for a voice in the political hierarchy of their UFT chapter.

Jupp: there’s a “pent-up tension” as teachers seek a voice at the table and reformers seek a more rapid pace of change.
Stone: we’ve identified some factors that can increase student learning, and now the only way to bring these to scale is through teacher contracts.
Devlin: we have to “be fair to teachers and good to kids.” All contract changes have to “be really good for teachers and kids.” New Haven managed to negotiate a progressive teacher contract by having “a productive discussion on the most divisive issues. When we identified problems we fixed them.”
“Where did the negotiations not go far enough?”
Harris: LIFO.
Harris and Devlin nodding: “We’ll get there.”
We have to “establish the credibility of the system.” AFT won’t “go to LIFO on a promise. We agreed with them.”
Devlin: “If you don’t have something that’s dependable and reliable and transparent, it’s not fair.” Senior teachers could get laid off just to save money.
Stone: We have the data already “but we’re refusing to use it.”
Rotherham: “We already have age-discrimination laws.”
Harris: We’ve built an industrial system with “systemic failure.” In 2021, contracts should be standards-based and not rules-based.”
Rotherham: “What other industries operate like this?”
Stone: Let’s get back to LIFO. The argument against it is that some principals are unreliable [in evaluating teachers] and “it’s not fair to some teachers... But it’s not fair to huge numbers of students.” There are no perfect evaluation systems. We can’t wait for the perfect one.

Here's a bonus for those of you still reading:
Derrell Bradford's Education Reformers Drinking Game
Instructions: Assemble appropriate drinking materials. Anytime anyone says "high expectations," "capacity," "collaboration," "value-added models," or "best for kids," chug away. Feel free to extend the list.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Inadequacies of Adequacy Formulas

Check out today’s NJ Spotlight for an examination of the basis for Judge Peter Doyne’s ruling in the ongoing saga of NJ’s school funding: NJ’s adequacy formula.

When Gov. Christie’s 2010-2011 budget cut $1.1 billion from State school aid, it booted about 200 school districts into “spending less than what the state’s school funding formula deems as adequate" according to our adequacy formula. That deficit enabled Education Law Center to successfully depict the allocation of state aid as cheating a full third of all of NJ’s school districts. Here's Education Law Center's David Sciarra, long-time leader of Abbott litigation:
Assuming the court adopts [the fact-finding] report, we’ll be pushing for the prospective implementation of the formula in a manner that provides districts with the benefits that the formula calls for. And that means a heavy focus on those lower-spending, below-adequacy districts.
According to DOE data, our adequacy formula designates $11,289 as the number of dollars sufficient to annually provide a thorough and efficient education for a typical high-schooler. At-risk kids need $16,595 - $17,724 and kids eligible for special education need $22,186.

On average across the country, total cost per pupil spending is $9,666. New York State spends the most ($15,981) and NJ is next at $15,691. Other states in our region include Massachusetts at $12,738, Pennsylvania at $11,098, Delaware at $11,829, Maryland at $11,724, Connecticut at $12,979.

So we spend a lot because of our inefficiencies (shout-out to you, home rule), our challenging populations, our commitment to special education, our generous funding of teacher pension and benefits packages. No shame there. But what does it mean for a district to be below adequacy?

Let’s take a closer look. One district mentioned in the Spotlight piece as falling below adequate spending is Middletown in Monmouth County. Middletown’s District Factor Grouping is GH, which makes it a middle-class district, maybe veering towards upper-middle class in some areas. The schools there appear high-performing – here’s a link to High School North – and total comparative cost per pupil is $12,665. (Total cost per pupil is $14,510, which includes overhead. See bottom of link for DOE definitions.) If ELC wins in State Supreme Court then Middletown is declared under adequacy and the State is obliged to fill in the gap in the coffers.

Here’s another district under adequacy: Montgomery school district in Somerset County. Its DFG is “J,” the highest possible designation, i.e., it’s a very wealthy district. How high-perform ing is it? This high: in Montgomery High School they don’t count kids who are proficient in language arts and math, they count advanced proficiency: 39.8% and 54.5% respectively. While across the state 19% of high schoolers participate in A.P. courses, in Montgomery 43% do, and they can choose among 30 offerings, including Microeconomics, Vergil, Advanced Studio Art Design, and Electro-Magnetic Physics.

But Montgomery High School spends less than deemed necessary under the State’s adequacy formula: $12,578 comparative cost per pupil and $13,188 per pupil with overhead thrown in.

So does Montgomery provide a thorough and efficient education? Is its funding inadequate?

Perhaps we ought to take a step back and consider whether a dollar figure can nail the educational needs of a child. While the adequacy formula allows for increased budgeting for kids at-risk or English Language Learners or special needs, is it possible that we overspend on kids without any disabling conditions?

A teacher in, say, Camden (or Newark or Trenton or Plainfield) may need a different set of skills than a teacher in Montgomery or another high-performing district. Shouldn't we pay more for that? Conversely, should we pay less in a district where kids learn without impediments? Do kids afflicted with poverty require more than 180 days of school per year? Probably -- but maybe the kids in Montgomery or Middletown don't. In other words, it may be that our adequacy formula paints such a wide swath as to be meaningless.

The Supreme Court might be wise to revisit our basis for equity in education.

Trenton Breaks, New Brunswick Takes

As the NJ Schools Development Authority reels from damning coverage of its profligacy in spending $5.7 billion to build 61 schools (see here for example from “In the Lobby”), Sen. Donald Norcross will hold a meeting of the School Facilities and Construction subcommittee at crumbling Trenton Central High School. Part of the agenda, according to Politicker NJ, is to examine how the SDA left TCHS off the list of schools designated for repair.

A recent article in the Trenton Times described a culinary arts classroom within the decaying Trenton landmark where “layer of ceiling had succumbed to rainwater from a leaky drain, spraying a wet mess of paint and plaster chips all over the floor.” (See here for pix.) For contrast, consider New Brunswick High School, funded by the SDA at $180 million, that houses (according to the Star Ledger) a “full, restaurant-style kitchen designed by a professional chef” with “deep rows of gleaming utensils and baking equipment filled with leftover cream puffs and eclairs.”

(In all fairness, part of the delay in repairing/replacing Trenton Central High is no doubt due to its status as a historic building. See here.)

It’s wonderful that aspiring Bobby Flays in New Brunswick have access to what the Star-Ledger describes as “bling.” Not so wonderful that kids in Trenton may need to wear masks to guard against asbestos leaking from pipes. Is there some middle ground amongst the wreckage? A little sharing of the wealth maybe?

Monday, March 28, 2011

How Do We Raise the Status of Teachers?

New York Times “Room for Debate” question of the week is “How to Raise the Status of Teachers?” First steps, according to most of the respondents: increase the rigor of teacher preparation programs and increase salaries. Here’s a sampling:

Kati Haycock of Education Trust on how we must “ratchet up the standards at teachers colleges and weed out weak candidates":
Every year, we hire talented summer interns who share our passion for improving America’s schools. Most had originally planned to pursue careers in teaching, but found their colleges’ teacher preparation programs to be so mindless that they couldn’t transfer out of them fast enough. Their experiences are confirmed by considerable research, which suggests that college teacher education programs do not, on average, produce graduates who are any more effective than teachers who have had only a few weeks of pre-service training...Teaching is difficult, intellectual work. Neither teacher educators nor school administrators can afford to shy away from making hard decisions about those who aren’t up to the challenges of a real live classroom.
Mike Petrelli of the Fordham Institute:
Today’s teacher compensation system is perfectly designed to repel ambitious individuals. We offer mediocre starting salaries, provide meager raises even after hard-earned skills have been gained on the job and backload the most generous benefits (in terms of pensions) toward the end of 30 years of service. More fundamentally, for decades we’ve prioritized smaller classes over higher teacher pay. If we had kept class sizes constant over the past 50 years, the average teacher today would be making $100,000.
Cynthia G. Brown of the Center for American Progress:
We must improve teacher preparation. Many of the highest performing education systems in the world are very selective about who gets into their teacher training programs. In the U.S., almost anyone can get into and complete a preparation program. Colleges should study the newer alternative training programs like Teach for America and the New Teacher Project, which have designed rigorous selection criteria and produce teachers ready for the classroom.

Charter, Shmarter

Michael Winerip in today’s New York Times
channels Diane Ravitch:
There is a quiet but fierce battle going on in education today, between the unions that represent the public school teachers and the hedge-fund managers who finance the big charter chains, between those who trust teachers to assess a child’s progress and those who trust standardized tests, and occasionally it flares out into the open over something as seemingly minor as the location of a school.
Ooh, those greedy hedge fund managers.

There are plenty of fierce battles in education today, some not so quiet, but I’m not sure the assignation of space in this Washington Heights neighborhood is one of them. Winerip describes two candidates for the space in question, one a traditional public school to be called Castle Bridge, which defines its mission as a non-reliance on standardized testing to gauge student learning, and the other a KIPP academy, with a well-proven track record of excellence.

(Here’s an example of a KIPP: Team Academy Charter School in Newark
, a KIPP school, has stellar test scores, a 9 and ½ hour day and extended school year, and 4,000 kids on the waiting list.)

So NYC decided to go with a sure thing rather than an interesting experiment. Sure, it sucks for the advocates for Castle Bridge and, as Winerip describes, they feel treated unfairly, like, he says, David and Goliath. “Everyone knows the D.O.E. favors charters,” says one of the interviewees. A DOE staffer explains, “KIPP has run some of the best schools in New York City for 15 years, and we think this school is going to be an excellent option for Upper Manhattan families.”

Suggestion to Mr. Winerip: get past the artificial dichotomy of public vs. charter. That’s not the “quiet but fierce battle” (more on that in a bit). Public schools are public schools, though some are autonomous and some are tied more closely to the gaping maw of NYC’s bureaucracy.

His piece twists the heartstrings over the disappointed adults advocating for Castle Bridge (who will get permanent space a year later, for the 2012 school year). As far as the children of Washington Heights, it’s hard to condemn a decision that provides them with a public school known for rigor, adequate resources, and a proven track record of success.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sunday Leftovers

The founder and chair of the LEAP Academy University Charter School in Camden explains how LEAP has successfully implemented a merit pay system among its teachers that is based on student outcomes.

A two-parter (one, two) in the Star-Ledger looks at wretched excess and incompetence among projects completed or underway by NJ’s Schools Development Authority. For example, spanking-new New Brunswick High School, built at a cost of $180 million, boasts a “full, restaurant-style kitchen designed by a professional chef.” International High School in Paterson, with a total enrollment of 386 kids, has a $53 million building, which includes “an expansive music wing.” It’s dark and locked, though because there’s actually no music teacher and no plans to hire one, especially since the state can’t get a Certificate of Occupancy due to major construction flaws.

Speaking of the SDA, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver has asked the State Auditor to “look into how $584 million in school construction projects in poor districts were selected.” Specific concern was cited regarding (unselected) Trenton High School, which has “corroding drain pipes, sagging and partially collapsed ceilings, warped floor boards, and damaged flashing on the roof.

Passing rates on NJ’s Alternative High School Assessment (the test high school seniors take after they’ve failed the traditional HSPA three times) look better than last year’s, when 3,000 kids failed and were denied diplomas. NJ Spotlight queries the DOE about last year’s problems, and finds that results were never “tabulated.” Stan Karp at Education Law Center says the problem is the DOE’s flawed data system.

A new 501C(3) that includes NJEA is called Working Families for New Jersey. An NJEA spokesperson told the Star-Ledger that it was formed because of the "national attack on labor unions and collective bargaining."

Gordon MacInnes of Education Law Center criticizes DOE staffers for manipulating data to show that poor kids do better in autonomous public schools (charters) rather than in traditional public schools.

Steve Adubato writes about Judge Doyne’s ruling regarding the constitutionality of Gov. Christie’s 2010-2011 budget cuts (see here for our coverage) Now that the ball gets tossed to the State Supreme Court, says Adubato, it must deal with two questions:
First, how much difference does money make when it comes to providing a quality education for a child in a so-called Abbott school district? Second, assuming money is a major factor and the court does say more must be spent in struggling school districts, where is that money supposed to come from? I know this is not the responsibility or the purview of the Supreme Court, but to ignore that question is lunacy. Even if we reinstate the so-called Millionaire’s Tax (which I support) it wouldn’t bring in nearly enough money to fund urban schools to the degree the court is likely to conclude or that Judge Doyne argues.

Jason Riley at the Wall Street Journal interviews AFT’s President Randi Weingarten:
And so it goes. Ms. Weingarten insists that teachers unions are agents of change, not defenders of the status quo. But in the next breath she shoots down suggestions for changes—vouchers, charter schools, differential teacher pay and so on—that have become important parts of the reform conversation. She seems to conceive of her job as the one William F. Buckley Jr. ascribed to conservatives in the 1950s: To stand athwart history yelling "Stop!"
The Aspen Institute has just published three new studies that examine value-added models for teacher evaluations and new strategies for merit pay.

NPR looks at charter schools for well-to-do suburbanites.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Union Matters

Here's Mike Antonucci at the Education Intelligence Agency on the national teacher union NEA's battle against threats to collective bargaining and other lesser offensives like tenure reform:
"We are at war," incoming NEA executive director John Stocks told the union's board of directors last month, outlining a plan to keep NEA from joining the private sector industrial unions in a slow, steady decline into irrelevancy to anyone outside the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. And like any good war plan for an army under siege, it allows for a defense-in-depth while preparing for a decisive counterattack.
Back in New Jersey, NEA affiliate-NJEA member dues to the national organization will double this year to pay for the assault. (Not so bad -- $20 from $10, but it will give the NEA an additional $40 million per election cycle.)

On other union battles, check out John Mooney’s piece today at NJ Spotlight as he examines the reasons behind Newark Teachers Union President Joseph Del Grosso’s increasingly inflammatory rhetoric. The NTU is part of the American Federation for Teachers, the “other teachers’ union,” which is led by the effective and progressive Randi Weingarten, who fearlessly takes on critics and is open to discussion on controversial issues like tenure reform and charter school expansion.

NTU has also been more moderate than NJEA – all affiliates (okay, all five of them) signed on to NJ’s application for Race To The Top, for example, while managing to outwit Newark administrators at the bargaining table. (Here’s a recent contract.) But now De Grosso is facing a challenge for the presidency from Jose Velazquez, who charges that De Grosso is too compliant and that the recent oratory is “too little, too late.”

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Christie's School Aid Cuts Take It On The Chin

While Judge Peter Doyne’s ruling on the constitutionality of Gov. Christie’s cuts to school aid may not be Shakespeare, it’s rich with the political subtexts that infiltrate even so narrow a decision. Doyne begins his ruling with a line from "King Henry V", when the King exhorts his soldiers to “disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage” as they defend England and “go once more unto the breach."

Here’s the local coverage: Wall St. Journal, Star-Ledger, NJ Spotlight, The Record. Most of the ledes gloss over the nuances and go for the hit: Christie lost and Education Law Center won. (Spotlight notes that the concurrent events of the ruling’s release and the 1,000 people arguing in Newark over whether (public) charter schools can use (public) school space shows that the education battles in Abbott districts aren’t so much about money anymore.( Is this endless court battle obsolete?)

Anyway, here’s what struck me:
  • Multiple (at least 5) references to the fact that over the decades of Abbott decisions, there’s been a major demographic shift among NJ’s poor families. While most of NJ’s high-needs students once lived in the 31 cities designated as Abbotts, now these children are all over the state and ELC is only representing a portion of them. From the ruling:
"[O]f the 1,366,271 students in the State – 282,417, or 20.67 percent, are students in former Abbott districts, leaving the remainder 79.33% of students residing in non-Abbott districts unrepresented. This is as troubling now as it was in the prior remand."
  • There are constant reminders from Justice Doyne that his marching orders are limited to “whether current levels of funding for FY11, through the SFRA [School Funding Reform Act] formula, can permit our school districts to provide a thorough and efficient education to the children of our State. "Given the proofs adduced as heretofore related, the answer to this limited inquiry can only be 'no.'” Yet his wise awareness of the complexities he’s been ordered to ignore trickle into his ruling. Example: he notes that the cuts in aid has rendered some districts incapable of meeting the Core Content Curriculum Standards, and then adds,
"Is there a concern teachers have failed to heed the request to freeze their salaries in an effort to assist their students, certainly. Are there concerns the various collective bargaining agreements curtail flexibility and available teaching time, certainly. The directive to this court, though, is clear and the superintendents’ testimony, collectively, did not allow this court to find the State had met its burden, at least with regard to these witnesses."
  • Judge Doyne voices his frustration with the State’s defense of the school aid cuts, which appear to have centered on the state of the economy and research showing that increasing education funding doesn’t directly correlate with increased student achievement. Here he remarks that he allowed the State to make economic arguments in spite of its irrelevance to his remand, merely because it would be faster than arguing over motions, and he was pressed for time. After all, his orders included a deadline of March 31st:
"Finding the Supreme Court reposed solely to itself the issue of economic realities and whether these realities should impact upon the required levels of SFRA funding, and further finding such issues were not before this court, the evidence was permitted solely to avoid further delays as the Court was obviously concerned about the FY 12 budget in establishing its remand time limit, and subsequent briefing schedule. Rather than have motions for a further remand or augmentation of the record, this court decided to permit the evidence subject to the Court’s limitations, only for purposes of completeness of record and not for the Master’s consideration."
  • The State’s star witness, Dr. Eric Hanushek, a scholar of education economics, flamed out:
"Although the Master was impressed with Hanushek’s thoughtful, if thought provoking analysis, it was problematic for this hearing for several reasons. First, the focus of Hanushek’s testimony was predominantly national, rather than focusing upon New Jersey. Second, there was a dearth of any meaningful review of the obstacles; e.g. collective bargaining agreements, union contracts, tenure and statutory provisions, may have on removal of the five to eight percent of our least capable teachers. Hanushek acknowledged he had not specifically studied any such agreements in New Jersey or the applicable statutory provisions."
  • And –- here it gets really interesting – Judge Doyne notes that the State’s argument that cuts to education funding are irrelevant to student achievement “runs in direct contravention of the accepted principles of the SFRA formula. To suggest, even if correctly, there is an insufficient correlation between expenditures and performance defies the underlying pillar of SFRA, and is beyond the purview of this Master.”
Judge Doyne points to the irony of these circumstances. Not two years ago, during Gov. Corzine’s administration (though Corzine’s name doesn’t come up in the ruling) the State fought hard for a new way of distributing education aid. Instead of the vast amount of money poured into the 31 Abbott districts, it argued that our poor kids are spread out all over the map and it would be more equitable to use the spanking-new School Funding Reform Act.

ELC fought hard against SFRA’s implementation (after all, they represent just the kids in the original 31 districts) but the Court ruled for the State, with the understanding that it would revisit the efficacy of SFRA within three years. Now the State is arguing that the hard-won SFRA needs to be ignored and ELC is fighting for its strict implementation. Crazy, right?

More highlights:
  • New Jersey lacks any “uniform standard” to determine if a district is meeting the Core Content Curriculum Standards. Sure, there’s the statewide assessments used for language arts and math, but we lack any tools to measure student proficiency in other areas. For Judge Doyne, this is "problematic.”
  • While this hearing was restricted to the limited question of whether or not the State budget met SFRA, the State ignored those constraints and presented irrelevant evidence. However, Judge Doyne “in no way suggest[s] the same arguments would not be proper before the Supreme Court or, even possibly, in another forum.” He means the Legislature.
  • Another irony: the State Budget could have met the requirements of SFRA by using the “adequacy formula” – the amount per pupil that is considered appropriate to provide a thorough and efficient education system – and cutting aid to every district above that number. This would have hurt poor districts even more
  • Finally, a "poignant" quote from Parsippany Superintendent Robert Copeland, who testified for ELC:
"I think that there are going to be teachers and students who are going to succeed no matter the hurdle. I don't know if I can give you the kids . . . there are some kids who . . . were born on third base. They walk in and they're able to do everything they're supposed to do. I have a bunch of kids having a hard time getting out of the dugout. I'm worried about the kids who it doesn't come easy for and what we're not able to do for them. And I don't know if I can categorize or codify who they are at this point."

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Doyne Rules Against Christie's Education Cuts

Judge Peter Doyne just issued his ruling on whether or not Christie’s 2010-2011 $1 billion cut in education aid violated NJ’s constitutional mandate to provide a thorough and efficient education system. Judge Doyne, appointed by the Court as a Special Master charged with reviewing evidence, ruled that, in fact, the cuts fell too heavily on poor urban districts. From the ruling:
Despite spending levels that meet or exceed virtually every state in the country, and that saw a significant increase in spending levels from 2000 to 2008, our 'at risk' children are now moving further from proficiency.
Here’s Education Law Center’s press release.

New Jersey Newsroom
quotes Assemblyman Lou Greenwald, who praised the ruling and noted, “[i]f the court accepts these findings, the governor’s budgeting philosophy will be further called into question.”

For counterpoint, here’s Senator Tom Kean:
Judge Doyne's report proves that money is not the problem for chronically failing school districts in New Jersey. His assertion that the former Abbott (the 31 poor) districts are moving 'further from proficiency' despite spending more per pupil than almost every other state in America is a condemnation of education policies that favor money over accountability and innovation.
The case now goes before the Supreme Court.

Quote of the Day

There isn't going to be any way that there will be co-existence with charter schools while I'm breathing.
That’s the temperate words of Newark Teachers Union Joseph Del Grosso, who spoke to the Wall Street Journal in anticipation of a “raucous meeting” tonight of the Newark Advisory School Board over whether or not charter schools would be able to share available space with charter schools.

Other cities make this a regular practice, including right across the river in NYC.

The Journal also reports that an email went out to all 4,800 NUT teachers asking them to appear tonight to protest.

Nothing like a little lesson in civic engagement and collaboration of facilities for the 11,000 kids in Newark, where 10% of its third graders are proficient in English with 33% proficient in math. One of the proposed shared schools is Camden Street Elementary School, which fills 40% of the space available in its building.

What Happened to our Interdistrict Choice?

In today’s New York Times Bob Herbert looks at the impact of taking kids from segregated, low-performing schools and placing them in neighboring high-performing districts:
If you really want to improve the education of poor children, you have to get them away from learning environments that are smothered by poverty. This is being done in some places, with impressive results. An important study conducted by the Century Foundation in Montgomery County, Md., showed that low-income students who happened to be enrolled in affluent elementary schools did much better than similarly low-income students in higher-poverty schools in the county.
NJ’s public school system is one of the most segregated in the country. Over 50% of our black kids are in “extremely segregated schools” (those with a 90-100% minority population), which puts us fifth among the 50 states. For Hispanic kids we’re 4th, with 41.8% kids in extremely segregated schools.

One innovative way to address this inequity is our Interdistrict Public School Choice Program, which lets schools volunteer to take in kids from neighboring districts. The home district supplies the tuition and transportation, the choice district gets the tuition and diversity, and the kid and his or her family get a choice.

This solution is particularly compelling in a state like ours with almost 600 school districts. Every one of our poor urban districts is next door to one or more higher-performing suburban schools, many with open seats and budgetary problems. Win-win, right?

So our pilot Interdistrict Public School Choice program was made permanent last Fall with an anticipated high enrollment of school districts eager to volunteer. It’s almost April; kids and parents should be filling out applications, right? And this past November 70 districts applied to be choice districts. Valarie Smith, director of the DOE program told NJ Spotlight, "We knew this would be popular, but I underestimated how popular it would be. The number of calls we received was stupendous, from Abbott districts up to places like Alpine."

Yet from the DOE website,
The department will start to list the participating schools for the 2011-2012 school year on our Web site under the link for “Approved Choice Districts” about mid-January 2011.
Click on the link and it’s the same 15 schools that have been participants for years.

Maybe it’s just an oversight. But what happened to those 70 districts? Time’s a wastin’, DOE. Those kids can’t wait.

Update: a reader sent this article from the Gloucester County Times, about two districts, Pitman and Glassboro, that applied to be choice districts but are still waiting to hear back from the DOE regarding their status. NJ DOE Spokeman Allison Kobus told the paper that "They are still processing applications. When all applications are processed, more information will be forthcoming."

Dialogue of the Day

Governors Brendon Byrne and Tom Kean discuss the pending State Supreme Court decision on the Abbott funding case:
Star-Ledger: Has the state Supreme Court gone too far in its education opinions?

GOV. BYRNE: In these times, determining what the state should spend is not what the court is apt to do, and it would be a mistake for it to try, because it tried before and failed.

GOV. KEAN: The original decision was a mistake because it simply equated education improvement with money and that doesn’t work. That meant New Jersey invested more money in poor schools over a period of time than any state in the country, and during those times, schools got worse because simply putting more money into a failing system produced more expensive failure. Recent court decisions, which have included some education reform elements like early childhood education, have been more helpful. But overall, the court decisions have resulted in an awful lot of waste.

Monday, March 21, 2011

What Was the Historical Purpose of Teacher Tenure?

Tenure emerged in response to the spoils system in public schooling, under which teachers were hired (and fired) as a consequence of the political process rather than their competence or fit. Advocates intended it to be part of teachers’ total compensation, helping to attract and retain teachers by making up for relatively low starting salaries and back-loaded pension benefits through long-term job stability. Tenure also has strong roots in the women’s rights movement, with the specific aim of protecting female teachers.
From the new report “Teacher Tenure Reform: Applying Lessons from the Civil Service and Higher Education” by Public Impact.

Quote of the Day

There is this ‘bless your heart’ problem in the teaching profession. It’s, ‘This is so hard, so bless your heart for trying.’ That’s not how you become a real profession. We need to be honest about that conversation.
Jason Kamras, the key architect of IMPACT, D.C. Public Schools new teacher evaluation system, in The Washington Post.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sunday Leftovers

“I am afraid that doing more with less is the new model in New Jersey.” That’s Jennifer Keyes-Maloney, an assistant director with the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, in Montclair to protest school aid cuts to the NJ Assembly.

“Let’s show some respect for teachers,” says Joseph DePierro in The Record: "In speaking with teachers around the state, it’s pretty obvious that they are upset. Many are feeling unappreciated and undervalued. Some believe that they are being made the scapegoats for the state’s fiscal woes…a few even suggest that the current attacks on teachers are motivated by gender bias."

Gov. Christie says he’ll announce Newark’s next superintendent in May and defends Mayor Cory Booker’s role in the process. (Star-Ledger, NJ Spotlight ) Acting Comm. Chris Cerf explains his strategy for improving Newark’s public school system.

Bob Braun
of the Star Ledger says that the Gates Foundation’s funding of a value-added teacher evaluation model in Newark is suspect.

NJ Spotlight analyzes the list of schools approved by the School Development Authority for construction and/or renovation. Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman says the list is “an embarrassment” for the Christie Administration.

The Communication Workers of America, NJ’s largest public union, unveiled a plan that would, according to the Star-Ledger, “increase employees’ share of insurance premiums to about 14 percent and save taxpayers more than $200 million by 2013.”

Senate President Steve Sweeney says he opposes the Opportunity Scholarship Act (the voucher bill) but may allow a vote on it.

Retired Toms River Superintendent Michael Ritacco, who has been indicted on federal bribery charges, is due money from his unused sick days, vacation days, and state pension, according to the Asbury Park Press.

From the NY Times on raising student achievement: The director of the international group PISA recommended, “to improve its public schools, the United States should raise the status of the teaching profession by recruiting more qualified candidates, training them better and paying them more, according to a new report on comparative educational systems.”

Here's more PISA analysis from Mike Petrelli.

Great Washington Post depiction of applying value-added metrics to teacher evaluations.

EdWeek examines the conflict in Baltimore over paying teachers the union rate for teaching longer days. KIPP charter schools has a 9½ hour day, which is one-third longer than the contractual school day in Baltimore. The Baltimore Teachers Union may agree to a compromise that allows the charters to remain solvent while maintaining longer school days, a factor at the heart of its successful program.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Asbury Park Follow-Up

The State Monitor who oversees Asbury Park Public Schools has decided to close Barak Obama Elementary School. According to the Asbury Park Press, students there will attend one of the other two K-5 schools in the district.

Currently 383 kids attend Barak Obama. As we reported last week, standardized test scores there are so poor that the state redacts the third grade numbers on the School Report Card as well as 4th grade language arts scores. 77.4% of fourth-graders failed the ASK test in math. In 5th grade 85.4% of students failed the language arts tests and 65.9% failed the math portion.

Not so fun fact: Total comparative cost per pupil in Asbury Park last year was $24,306. Cost for a year at Barak Obama for those children: $9.3 million.

Public Unions Go Postal

NJEA President Barbara Keshishian has a piece in the Star-Ledger today lambasting the Jersey paper for a general lack of support and for “ridicul[ing] NJEA’s spending $6.6 million on advertising that challenged Christie’s priorities and misinformation.” (Apparently the union’s lapdog, Star-Ledger columnist Bob Braun, doesn’t compensate for negative coverage.) Writes Keshishian,
As the recent story in Wisconsin proved, Christie’s attack is part of an overall rightwing extremist strategy to demonize public employee unions — and teacher unions in particular.
In a related story, the head of the police union in Camden, John Williamson, told a Courier-Post reporter that Christie’s attack on public unions makes the Governor akin to a genocidal maniac, specifically Adolph Hitler:
Williamson did not say it directly, but quoted a historical figure to imply the countywide plan is part of a larger plot to dismantle public employee unions in New Jersey.

"We must close union offices, confiscate their money and put their leaders in prison. We must reduce workers' salaries and take away their right to strike,'" he read aloud.
Really? “Overall rightwing extremist strategy?” Hitler? So one supposes that in this scenario Assemblyman Alex DeCroce is, say, Rudolph Hoess and the Senate Republicans are the Gestapo. I guess Mary Pat is Eva Braun. Oh, wait: non-extremists and others who don’t count themselves Third Reich aficionados also support limits on collective bargaining and changes in unsustainable pension and health care benefits.

Offensive? Totally. Stupid strategy? That too.

Keshishian (whom, to her credit, does not quote from Hitler) then goes on to demand that Fuhrer Christie sign a piece of legislation (S1940/A2773) which would require school districts that negotiate lower salary increases or benefits concessions to use the savings to hire back teachers who might have been laid off. So let’s say a district decides that student educational needs can be met more efficiently through purchases of technology or other instructional materials or programs and, therefore, lays off some teachers. That district also manages to win some concessions through collective bargaining. According to S1940, that district would be required to shelve the innovations and hire back teachers instead. (Question: do any concessions mandated by the State also require districts to hire back teachers?)

New Jersey School Boards Association’s statement against the bill.

Keshishian closes indignantly,
NJEA and its members are not going to be demonized, demoralized or unfairly criticized by a governor who is carrying out a national attack strategy on public sector unions, and whose stated goal is the privatization of public education.
Hey – at least Christie didn’t call you Hitler.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Is Democrat/Republican a False Dichotomy? (It is in Education Reform)

Kevin P. Chavous, Chairman of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, has a piece in the Daily Caller that advocates for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Act and other voucher programs. (Our local version is the Opportunity Scholarship Act, currently stuck in committee purgatory.) These state-funded programs provide vouchers to poor families to opt out of failing schools and use the money as tuition to private and parochial schools.

Says Chavous,
What was once an issue with predominantly Republican support has officially entered the political mainstream, with Democrats and Republicans working to forge legislation that will help children in states across the country…. As you read this, Democratic state legislators across the country are doing something that, 20 years ago, would have been considered politically taboo.
Chavous alludes to a sea change in the politics of education reform. While no one raises an eyebrow at Republican support for public school choice and the infusion of private managers into the governmental arena, some Democrats have been unable to navigate around the demarcation between the public and the private sector. Other factors, of course, play a role, like public union leaders’ opposition to any movement that would dilute their power and black and Hispanic leaders' long-time allegiance to the Democratic party.

That traditional alignment is history.

Witness the strength of groups like Democrats for Education Reform. Or Democratic President Obama’s and U.S. Education Sec. Arne Duncan’s stance on school choice and the progressive federal program Race To The Top. Closer to home there's the fact that Chris Cerf, Acting Commissioner and current whipping boy of the NJEA, is a card-carrying Democrat. Another sign of the shift is that public union members have been stalking NJ Congressional Democrats demanding that they sign “The Pledge” that commits them to supporting collective bargaining rights, but those typically reliable Democrats are proving elusive. Democratic Senate Leader Steve Sweeney has proposed that public workers dramatically increase their health benefit premium and pension contributions, a plan that differs from the one backed by union-nemesis Chris Christie only in its timeline.

One of the primary supporters for Jersey’s voucher bill is Rev. Reginald Jackson, Executive Director of the Black Ministers Council of NJ. Another is Martin Perez, President of the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey. The Education Law Center, NJ’s stalwart advocates for poor students in urban districts, finds itself in the odd predicament of opposing the educational politics of leaders of minority communities as it struggles to reconcile the cognitive dissonance inherent in the smudging of lines between public and private school funding. (See NJEA's objections here.)

In the wake of the realignment, a kind of paranoia is emerging, mostly directed towards private charter school operators and donors to educational causes. For example, Bob Braun, the Star-Ledger columnist who has devoted most of his recent pieces to raging against education reform, manages to take a great charter school like Robert Treat Academy in Newark and spew vitriol towards its educators.

Of course, on the national scene there’s renowned education historian Diane Ravitch, who spits out tweets like “Picture becomes ever clearer: Full frontal assault on public education and on teachers. Profit? Power? Control? Private sector no better.” And “NCLB= No Consultant Left Behind. No Corporate/Reformer Left Behind. No Cheater Left Behind.” And “With unions out of way, legislatures can fire teachers, increase class sizes, replace teachers with virtual studies, privatize at will.”

Any paradigm shift takes time. Opposition to education reform tenets like school choice and changes in tenure laws age will moderate; strident objections and paranoia will abate. (Example: unfounded charges that the OSA will drain public coffers was disproved yesterday when the Office of Legislative Services showed that the bill would be budget-neutral.)

In the meantime, we all might want to tone down the rhetoric and keep the focus less on the grown-ups and more on the kids.

Teacher Incentives Bill

Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, a Democrat in Union, has introduced a two-bill package that would pay teachers more to work in low-performing school districts. From the press release:
Skilled teachers are the fundamental building blocks of ensuring a quality education, but the unfortunate reality is that low-performing schools are unable to attract new qualified teachers into its workforce.
The first bill, labeled the WIN Act, would give new teachers an annual $5,000 income tax credit to teach in chronically failing schools. The second bill would require the teachers to sign a five-year contract, which would also benefit them by requiring the State to pay back 10% of their student loans in each of those five years.

The bills are right in step with Acting Comm. Cerf’s tenure proposal, which includes monetary incentives for teachers willing to teach in high-poverty school districts. In the draft bill, schools are deemed eligible for the new teacher incentives by having 40% of students fail the math and language arts portion of state assessments, or if 65% of students fail one of the two standardized tests.

How will NJEA execs respond to this form of merit pay? Adamantly opposed to tying student test scores to teaching evaluations, their resistance to this sort of incentive is far softer: NJEA President Barbara Keshishian notes that “NJEA believes in rewarding teachers for taking on additional roles and responsibilities, and for showing educational leadership." However, look for high dudgeon at the restriction of incentives to new teachers instead of any teacher willing to tackle more difficult populations than those commonly found in suburban districts.

Perhaps this is a rare instance of a potential compromise: retain the $5K incentive, open it to all teachers, and maintain the college debt relief.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Quote of the Day

[T]eaching to the test is not necessarily a bad thing if the content on the test is a representative sample of the broad array of skills and competencies it is intended to measure.
Aaron Pallas, Professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

We're Off-Balance

The head of PISA, the international achievement test, says that the U.S. needs to “raise the status of the teaching profession by recruiting more qualified candidates, training them better and paying them more, according to a new report on comparative educational systems."

According to the New York Times, PISA Director Andreas Schleicher explained that high-achieving countries, like Korea, Singapore, and Finland, “recruit only high-performing college graduates for teaching positions, support them with mentoring and other help in the classroom, and take steps to raise respect for the profession.” In contrast, U.S. education schools draw from the bottom third of high school and college graduates.

Americans also have different expectations for their school systems; we presume cultural and sports opportunities as well as academic ones. Is our balance off? Or is everyone else overly-focused on achievement?
In an interview, Mr. Schleicher said the point was not that the United States spends too little on public education — only Luxembourg among the O.E.C.D. countries spends more per elementary student — but rather that American schools spend disproportionately on other areas, like bus transportation and sports facilities.

Bleeding in Asbury Park

The Asbury Park Public Schools’ struggle to improve student performance continues unabated. Today the Asbury Park Press reports that the Asbury Park School Board rejected Superintendent Denise Lowe’s reorganization plan of the lower grades but is considering her “back-up plan,” which would close the lowest-performing elementary schools. Here’s Lowe:
"I can tell you right now that what we're doing is not working," Lowe said at the meeting. "As far as addressing the needs of students, we have a great curriculum. . . . These are problems that started 15 years ago. I have to be given the chance to implement a plan. We have to work together."
Certainly, test scores are dicey. Among the three elementary schools, Thurgood Marshall is the jewel in the crown: 74% of 3d graders failed the ASK3 in language arts but only 50% failed the math portion of the standardized test. At Bradley Elementary School, language arts scores are dreadful (80.6% of 4th graders failed the test) but math scores are all over the place, bouncing from only 31% of 3d graders getting failing scores to 73.2% of 5th grade students failing to achieve proficiency. Barack Obama Elementary’s scores are so bad that the number of kids failing gets replaced on the state data base with an asterisk.

All this for $22,495 annual cost per pupil.

But, then again, trouble seems to haunt the school district, where there’s been a 25% drop in public school enrollment over the last decade; it's down to 1,900 kids as of this month. Five years ago Kathryn Forsyth of the DOE told the New York Times that the goal of an intervention team sent there was “to get things back on track. They have not been able to make simple decisions. When a district can't function properly, it can affect the classroom.''

In other news, the Board last month appointed Antonio Lewis as principal of the middle school. (Board minutes here.) Lewis was superintendent of the district from 1992-1999, but was suspended for incompetence. When the Board filed tenure charges so he would be ineligible for continued employment in the district, he sued them and won. (Here’s the back story.) The board tried to buy out his contract for $600K but the DOE nixed the deal.

Here’s one way to look at it: Asbury Park’s annual operating budget is about $61 million. With only 1,900 kids left in-district, the state could pay, say, $23K per child to go somewhere else, for a total cost of about $43 million.

Just saying…

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Quote of the Day

If there is one dominant trend during the past decade in terms of school elections, it is the growing clout of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA). For decades, NJEA, a statewide union that represents nearly 204,000 active and retired school employees, has been a potent political force in the state capitol. The union participates in state campaigns primarily through its NJEA PAC. In 2009, for instance, the PAC spent $1.13 million on gubernatorial and legislative elections, according to quarterly reports filed with ELEC. Only one other group, the NJ State Laborers PAC, spent more.
From School Election Campaign Financing: An Update. (Hat tip: NJ Spotlight.)

Trenton Trap

Trenton Community Charter School is in big trouble, according to the Trenton Times. The 13-year-old K-8 school with 173 students has failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress for years and Acting Comm. Chris Cerf has given the school 15 days to come up with an improvement plan and 90 days to implement it. If it’s unable to make any progress the State will not renew its charter.

No wonder. Test scores are dismal. According to DOE data, 60.9% of third graders failed the language arts ASK test and 50% failed the math portion. Numbers are just as bad for 8th graders.

Luckily Trenton Public Schools has lots of traditional public elementary schools. For instance, the kids at Trenton Community Charter can go to the K-8 Luis Monoz-Rivera Elementary School where 75.5% of students failed the ASK3 in language arts and 67.3% failed the math portion. Or they might go to P.J. Hill Elementary, where 81% of students failed the language arts ASK3 and 60.3% failed the math portion. Or they could go to Gregory Elementary School, where 88% of students failed the ASK3 and 82.7% failed the math portion.

A plethora of options for the children of Trenton, all worse than Trenton Community Charter.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Quote of the Day

[Pennsylvania Democratic State Senator Anthony] Williams, who is black, has taken some heat for his pro-voucher stance from local civil rights groups. "The NAACP nationally is opposed to this and locally is opposed to this, and they call me all sorts of funny names," he tells us. "But the truth is that a lot of the people in the NAACP don't acknowledge that they send their own kids to private schools. They've left. They've moved away."

Several local labor groups in Philadelphia have also broken with the teachers union and endorsed vouchers. "We believe that children from all economic backgrounds deserve a chance for a bright future," said John Dougherty of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98. "School choice programs will give them that chance."

Opponents turned vouchers into a devil word a decade ago, and no doubt they'll try to do it again. But another decade of public schools failure has made more Americans open to change. The best solution would be for education money to follow every child to whatever school, home school or Internet classroom he wants to attend. But the Pennsylvania and D.C. proposals would liberate kids in the worst schools, and that's a start.
From today's Wall Street Journal.


Dr. Bruce Baker, in his column in yesterday’s Record, makes the case that the use of any sort of value-added models (VAM’s) to assess teacher effectiveness is dangerous and unfair because of the possibility of identifying good teachers as ineffective. Using student test data to evaluate teacher proficiency, he says, is a non-starter because there’s a risk that a good teacher might be labeled as a bad teacher. VAM’s are a crapshoot, no better than a flip of a coin, and do no more than offer “new opportunities to sabotage a teacher’s career.” All that will result from an attempt to measure teacher effectiveness, he warns, will be a “flood of lawsuits like none ever previously experienced.”

Dr. Baker’s concerns circle around the odds of a teacher receiving what’s often referred to as a “false positive.” It’s like cancer biopsies. Let’s say someone has lump and goes to the doctor. The doctor then orders some blood work and the results show that the lump is malignant. Only later, after more tests, does our story turn out happily: the patient is cancer-free and that original blood test was a false positive.

In the context of VAM’s, there’s a risk that tying student test scores to teaching effectiveness could yield false positives. While the current proposal would make that false positive only 45% of a teacher’s evaluation, it’s possible that a good teacher could be deemed ineffective.

Yet compare that to our current system of teacher evaluations. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2007-2008 2% of public school teachers in New Jersey were either dismissed or didn’t have their contract renewed. Over a ten year period, 47 out of 100,000 teachers were terminated.

Either our current system of teacher evaluation has a stunningly high rate of false negatives or teaching public school students is a cakewalk.

Nah, it’s the former. If we go back to our cancer patient, those blood tests on her lump showed no malignancy, but she really had cancer. In other words, our current method of evaluating teachers is worse than a roll of the dice: it’s a recipe for keeping ineffective teachers in the classroom and increasing the odds that children, especially needy ones, will fall further and further behind.

Even the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, has this to say on our current non-metrics: “With rare exceptions, teacher evaluation procedures are broken—cursory, perfunctory, superficial and inconsistent.”

But Dr. Baker is more concerned with the chances of firing a good teacher than he is with the impact of ineffective teachers on children. He’s all about the teacher’s rights; student rights to an effective education are entirely absent from his article. False negatives? No big deal. False positives? Your lawsuit is in the mail.

Are VAM’s as unreliable as he makes them out to be? Here’s Dan Goldhaber, the director of the Center for Education Data & Research:
When it comes to VAM estimates of performance, we actually know quite a bit. Researchers find that the year-to-year correlations of teacher value-added job performance estimates are in the range of 0.3 to 0.5. These correlations are generally characterized as modest, but are also comparable to those found in fields like insurance sales or professional baseball where performance is certainly used for high-stakes personnel decisions.
So VAM’s for teachers aren’t perfect, not by a long shot, though they’re comparable to other industries. But they’re far better than our current non-system, which awards tenure to just about anyone with a pulse. Will we lose some good teachers? No doubt. Will that loss be mitigated by the overall increase in teacher quality?

That depends on whether you look at VAM’s as an instrument intended to protect teachers or as an instrument intended to protect students. Dr. Baker’s analysis is all about the former. For a statistician, he makes a pretty good labor lawyer.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Quote of the Day

Nicholas Kristof explains that paying teachers more is essential to confronting America's educational challenges and that higher pay must be matched by accountability and rigorous evaluations.
If we want to compete with other countries, and chip away at poverty across America, then we need to pay teachers more so as to attract better people into the profession….47 percent of America’s kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers come from the bottom one-third of their college classes (as measured by SAT scores).

One Los Angeles study found that having a teacher from the 25 percent most effective group of teachers for four years in a row would be enough to eliminate the black-white achievement gap.

Consider three other countries renowned for their educational performance: Singapore, South Korea and Finland. In each country, teachers are drawn from the top third of their cohort, are hugely respected and are paid well (although that’s less true in Finland). In South Korea and Singapore, teachers on average earn more than lawyers and engineers, the McKinsey study found.

“We’re not going to get better teachers unless we pay them more,” notes Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust, an education reform organization. Likewise, Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform says, “We’re the first people to say, throw them $100,000, throw them whatever it takes.”

Both Ms. Wilkins and Ms. Allen add in the next breath that pay should be for performance, with more rigorous evaluation. That makes sense to me.

Sunday Leftovers

The Star-Ledger Editorial Board fulminates,
If NJEA members believe [$6.8 million in lobbying efforts] is an effective use of their money, they don’t know the value of a buck. It’s amazing there hasn’t been a coup. Already teachers are paying [NJEA President Barbara] Keshishian, executive director Vincent Giordano and [Spokeman Steve] Wollmer way too much. That’s a million a year in salaries deciding how to blow another seven million in lobbying — all because they gave teachers bad advice in the first place.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker explains in The Record how our current teacher tenure system “values the jobs of adults over the education of children and Alfred Doblin argues that, based on NJEA’s enormous spending power, “in New Jersey, education is not a constitutional mandate. It is big business.” Joe Williams, head of Democrats for Education Reform, tells NJ Spotlight NJEA's lobbying cost this year " is a staggering figure."

Here’s the 2-5 year process for firing a tenured teacher in NJ, courtesy of James Smith, the head of security at Paterson Public Schools.

In the Lobby says that NJEA’s claim that public employees are bearing the brunt of financial sacrifices is horse pucky.

NJ Spotlight
examines Acting Comm. Chris Cerf’s reorganization of the DOE.

Today’s Star-Ledger examines how Chris Cerf, “the man who represents perhaps the most important nomination of Gov. Chris Christie’s tenure is again facing questions about his openness, imperiling his confirmation as education commissioner at a time when the governor has made education reform one of his top priorities.” Senator Ron Rice is invoking senatorial courtesy to stymie Cerf’s confirmation because he says that the nominee is a liar. Says Rice, “the Governor will have to find someone else.”

NJ Spotlight and the Star-Ledger look at some of the backstory to Cerf's nomination woes.

In Franklin Township, there are three open school board seats and no candidates.

USA Today analyzes standardized state test score inflation.

The New York Times
reports that the NYC comptroller rejected a contract by the New York City Teaching Fellows to train and recruit teachers. Andrew Rotherham at Eduwonk says the decision is politics as usual; the idea that Comptroller Liu “is at all independent is ridiculous. He held his victory party at UFT (the city’s teacher’s union) headquarters for God’s sake.”

Friday, March 11, 2011

Did You Get Your $6.8 Million Worth?

Lots of press on NJEA’s bill for lobbying last year: $6.8 million, far more than any other lobbying group in NJ. At about 200,000 members who pay an average of $730 in annual dues, that’s about 5% of each teacher’s contribution. Pennies in the grand scheme of things. And's NJEA Spokesman Steve Wollmer sounding a tad defensive in the Star-Ledger: "We spent that money. We felt we had to. The governor was putting out a lot of what we feel was misinformation on education and our members demanded we set the record straight"

and in NJ Spotlight: "It was unprecedented, but so is the severity of the attacks by this governor. Our membership insisted on it, and our leadership did, too."

and in the Asbury Park Press, "It's like a fight between two heavyweights; you land some punches, and everyone gets hurt. Our And we acknowledge that numbers for NJEA are down. But that's not going to stop us from telling the truth."

and in the Gloucester County Times: "We spent that money. We felt we had to. The governor was putting out a lot of what we feel was misinformation on education and our members demanded we set the record straight."

So, was the $6.8 million expenditure on negative ads against Chris Christie a successful venture that enabled the front office to "tell the truth" and "set the record straight?" How'd that work for your members? Was there a better use of $7 million dollars, like putting together a substantive tenure reform proposal that amounted to more than a sneer and outlandish suggestions to expand the power of collective bargaining? (That proposal was silly then; it's sillier now.)

NJEA has an opportunity to set an example for national public employee unions. This is not Wisconsin or Indiana or Ohio, where collective bargaining itself is under attack. This is New Jersey, where certain benefits -- defined pension contributions, unassailable seniority rights during lay-offs, uninterrupted and unconditional annual bumps up on a salary guide -- are on the table. NJEA's members might be better served by more thoughtful consideration to creative compromises and a little less bombastic bluster.

"NJEA Sucks,"

says none other than Jay Lassiter at Blue Jersey.

Barbara Keshishian is an ineffective leader who is doing infinitely more damage to public school students and teachers by staying on the job than her poorly-evolved self-awareness gene allows her to acknowledge. So I'll say it for her.

I'm sick of defending her and I am sick of defending the lousy job she's doing (not) advocating for kids, teachers and taxpayers.

The NJEA is a bloated, outdated mess that spends way too much money making teachers look bad and tax payers feel like chumps. Barbara Keshishian and her Union represent a major obstacle to progress in this state and as long as Barbara Keshishian is at the helm, I'll be here to bitch about it.

This Is How Ann Arbor, Michigan Decides Which Teacher To Lay Off if Both Have Identical Years of Experience:

4.813.3 Experience shall mean months, days and years of certificated employment in the Ann Arbor Public Schools. If two or more teachers have the same seniority and the Board must decide on laying off one of the teachers, the last four digits of the teachers social security number will be used as a tie breaker. The lower number will have the most seniority.

Source: Sara Mead's Policy Notebook at EdWeek. She continues,
On LIFO more generally, the point isn't (or at least shouldn't be) that seniority has no place in layoff decisions. Lots of employers take seniority account, along with other factors, in making all sorts of personnel decisions, for perfectly good reasons, and it would be dumb to prohibit schools from doing so altogether. The issue is whether seniority should be the FIRST and in many cases ONLY factor in these decisions. Neither extreme--mandating consideration of seniority on its own, or banning consideration of seniority at all--is optimal; something more in the middle would be better, but that requires policy change.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Quote of the Day

Education Secretary Arne Duncan told Congress today that his department estimates that 82 percent of America's schools could fail to meet education goals set by No Child Left Behind this year. Duncan urged Congress to fix the law before the next school year begins so that the schools and students most at risk get the help they need.

“No Child Left Behind is broken and we need to fix it now,” said Duncan during testimony before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

“This law has created dozens of ways for schools to fail and very few ways to help them succeed. We should get out of the business of labeling schools as failures and create a new law that is fair and flexible, and focused on the schools and students most at risk,” Duncan continued.

From a U.S. DOE press release issued today.

Education Reform Battles in a Nutshell

"The problem is poverty, not bad teachers.” Diane Ravitch, education historian

“Teachers want what’s best for children. The teachers union is an institution built to protect the interests of itself and adults." Tony Bennett, Indiana’s superintendent of public instruction

I don’t think we can continue to have processes and procedures in place that allow an ineffective teacher to stay in the classroom for years and years.” Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of D.C. schools

“Voters, especially voters with kids in public school, want to keep the best teachers on the job, and to heck with seniority.” Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute

From The New Yorker

News Story of the Day

MADISON, Wis.—The Milwaukee teachers union has dropped a lawsuit seeking to get its taxpayer-funded Viagra back.

The union sued in July 2010 to force the school board to again include the erectile dysfunction drug and similar pills in its health insurance plans.

The union has argued the board's policy of excluding such drugs from the plans discriminates against male employees; the board has countered the 2005 move was meant to save money.

Court records indicate attorneys for the union, the school board and the state Labor and Industry Review Commission agreed to dismiss the lawsuit on March 1. Messages for all three groups' attorneys weren't immediately returned.
From the Boston Globe (hat tip to Flypaper).

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Do Charters Discriminate Against Kids with Disabilities?

Acting Comm. Christopher Cerf directly rebutted “myths” about charter schools at a State Board of Education meeting, according to The Record. Contrary to claims by anti-charter proponents, says Cerf, NJ’s charter school admit very poor kids and children with disabilities, and perform better than traditional public schools in Abbott districts.

Here’s the powerpoint.

For example, in NJ 15.87% of kids are classified as eligible for special education services. (We rank second in the nation in this category. First is Massachusetts. Then again, the classification rate at Wildwood High is 24.6%, Asbury Park High is 20.2%, John F. Kennedy in Paterson is 24.1%, and Camden Central High is a stunning 33.6%. But back to charters.)

According to Cerf’s data, charter schools count 8% of their enrollment as eligible for special education. So are these non-traditional public schools “creaming off” non-disabled kids and discriminating against cognitively needier students, thus inflating their aggregate performance? (See here for Bruce Baker’s argument.)

Actually, any small general education school – charter or otherwise –- would be hard-pressed to come up with a good model for kids with significant special needs. That’s why NJ tops the nation in the number of kids sent out-of-district to private special education schools. In a land of small, sometimes tiny, districts, there’s not enough kids to make up a classroom within a specific disability. (It’s also a reason why our cost per pupil is so high. Tuition at private special ed schools is not cheap!)

In special education, scale is important. How do you put together a cohort of kids who learn best from a specific model among a small enrollment? Kids with autism, for instance, often require a fairly rigid kind of environment, structure, and instruction to progress educationally. If your charter school enrollment tops out at a few hundred kids (often less), then it’s unlikely you can put together adequate numbers to create a good program.

If the challenge to charter schools is to increase enrollment of kids with significant disabilities, then they need larger facilities and greater reach across neighborhoods in order to attain scale. Otherwise the social and educational needs of those children can't be met effectively or efficiently in a small charter setting. Parents of kids with special needs know this. Which may be why they are opting out of general education charter schools.

Why Fire Teachers?

asks Megan McArdle of the Atlantic. Looking through her lens of economics, business, and systems management, McArdle makes a trenchant argument that the typical union/tenure/civil service legislation that protect teachers from getting fired is frivolous when juxtaposed with the educational needs of poor and underprivileged students. And while “high turnover is not desired in any profession, including teaching,”
I doubt that the lowest possible turnover rate is compatible with the best possible education. Turnover has costs, but it also has benefits: fresh blood, lower burnout rates, and an incentive for teachers to keep performing. The whole idea of hiring someone in their early twenties and employing them forever seems like an unhealthy organizational structure to me--in the military and old-school law firms as well as teaching, though the military and law firms do more to weed out the number along the way. It breeds an organization that is insular--resistant to new ideas, suspicious of outsiders, resentful of its nominal clients. We should be looking for ways to make teaching more open to part-timers and people in second, third, or eighth career cycles, and to make it easier for teachers to move around between schools and districts, and between teaching and other industries.
McArdle’s argument that a higher turnover rate for teachers is not such a bad bargain for kids and our educational system in general is interesting in light of the assault by union stakeholders on proposed reforms in NJ like conditional tenure or merit pay. Much of the wattage expends itself on worry beads devoted to the tragedy inherent in sacking a high-performing teacher or the current state of value-added models not being precise enough so a great teacher ends up with a mediocre evaluation or not giving seniority its due deference.

For example, one of the great concerns of those in the anti-reform camp is that making tenure a “what have you done lately for me?” kind of thing (i.e., two years of ineffective teaching means a teacher loses job security, according to Comm. Cerf's proposal) will drive districts to fire senior teachers so that they can save money by hiring junior and cheaper staff members. McArdle’s argument brings us to “so what?” All the research shows that after two or three or five years (depending on your report) teacher proficiency plateaus. However, salary goes up. Isn’t it better for kids, especially needy ones, to replace an expensive teachers with an equally proficient but less expensive model (sorry) so that more funds are available for other educationally sound programs?

The social or moral implications of firing someone who may or may not be proficient pales besides the consequences of keeping an ineffective teacher. Will we lose some good teachers? Sure. But, says McArdle,
I just can't prioritize making teachers' work environments fair, interesting, or pleasant for them--not if there's any potential conflict with the goal of providing the best possible education for kids. Particularly disadvantaged kids, since I basically assume that educated and competent parents are going to ensure that their offspring are educated and competent. But where there are needy kids, my entire focus is on them. I want to make teachers' lives pleasant only insofar as this advances the goal of helping kids who need a lot of help.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Dueling Models of Teacher Accountability

A little cognitive dissonance with your coffee this morning? Here’s two sentences from the same article in today’s Star-Ledger:
Only 22 percent of students in Newark’s high schools graduate. In Camden, less than 20 percent of black and Hispanic elementary school students are proficient in language arts.
New Jersey is the second-highest-achieving state in the nation in terms of education.
That perceptual clash gets to the heart of some of the politics behind NJ’s heated debate on education reform. Those who argue for fundamental changes in accountability and school choice focus on issues like inequity, fiscal unsustainability, and the lack of accountability that plague our school system. Those who distrust the prospect of substantive change, the reliability of value-added models of accountability, and the motives of reformers focus on our many high-performing students.

Here’s an example: the second sentence cited above from the Star-Ledger piece is attributed to Montgomery Superintendent Earl Kim, who is one of the authors of a new report (also referred to in the article) from a group that calls themselves “EQuATE.” The report is itself a response to Acting. Comm. Christopher Cerf’s tenure reform proposal and a preemptive retort to last week’s report from the Task Force on Educational Effectiveness, which excluded NJEA members. (The authors of the EQuATE report include NJEA members and Education Law Center staffers; the report itself is hosted on the ELC website.)

While Comm. Cerf’s tenure reform proposal and the Task Force recommendations emphasize quantifying teacher effectiveness and basing some benefits – tenure, compensation – on student outcomes, EQuATE comes to the opposite conclusion. In its section on teacher evaluations, for instance, it come up with a system that “empowers teachers,” allows functional districts to opt out altogether, and “reduces the weight given to standardized test-based measures of student achievement.”

In other words, it’s the antithesis of Cerf’s proposal. There’s no middle ground between focusing more on student growth as measured on standardized tests and focusing less on student growth as measured on standardized tests. It’s a zero sum game.

Is there a middle way? Can both camps find common ground? Can the leadership of both sides craft a compromise that acknowledges our failures yet preserves our strengths and that incorporates new accountability measures yet elevates the teaching profession?

The only item that both sides concur on is the inadequacy of the DOE data-crunching system, NJ SMART, which must be rendered capable of linking student longitudinal information to individual teacher evaluations. Estimates to bring it up to speed come in at about the $50 million mark. Well, at least that shared goal is a start to collaboration.

Side Note: the Ledger piece quotes a former teacher in the Carteret school district (Joseph DePierro, now Dean of Seton Hall’s College of Education) who says that linking teacher evaluations to student growth would have penalized him for educating students who “lacked the intellectual capacity to do the work” or “had severe emotional problems” or “could barely read.” In fact, Comm. Cerf’s proposal would award teachers willing to work in poor districts (Carteret is a “B” District Factor Grouping). In addition, all value-added models adjust for disabilities.

Check Out

my column today at NJ Spotlight on tenure reform.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Sunday Leftovers

A new poll from Rutgers-Eagleton says that “[m]ost New Jerseyans oppose tenure and support making student test performance a factor in teacher evaluations and pay.”

“The amount that local governments and school districts will have to pay in 2012 for pension benefits will increase by 8.9 percent, to $1.858 billion, according to the state Department of Treasury, the head of which warned that without comprehensive reform costs will continue to spike," says the Courier Post.

Parsippany plays chicken
with Christie over superintendent salary caps and In The Lobby says that the school board members there “have forgotten that the focus is supposed to be on the students, while at the same time, respecting the taxpayers who support the district through their hard-earned tax dollars.”

NJ Spotlight
examines the School Development Authority’s decision-making process of choosing which schools get the go-ahead for construction and renovation.

The Star Ledger
reviews Senator Ronald Rice’s decision to stymie Acting Comm. Chris Cerf’s nomination.

The NJ branch of the ACLU filed suit on behalf of the Education Law Center alleging that the DOE has violated the Open Public Records law by not releasing the names and backgrounds of the volunteers who reviewed applications for charter schools.

Over 400 people came to a raucous community forum in Newark to hear more about the leaked plan to close some schools and expand charters. The Star Ledger notes that the confidential report is driving parents apart; Public Schools Advisory Board Chairman Shavar Jeffries called the tumult a "gangster approach" to school reform. Joan Whitlow says the plan is “Takeover II.”

Five 14-16 year-olds in Newark attacked their math teacher and have been charged with aggravated assault.

The Washington Post says that layoffs by seniority – “last in, first out” or LIFO – is “an indefensible policy.”

NY Governor Andrew Cuomo caves on LIFO.

It takes 5 years and 27 steps to dismiss an ineffective teacher in the Chicago public school system.

“Teachers Wonder, Why the Scorn?” asks the New York Times.

Rick Ungar at Forbes says that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has aided Democratic prospects by getting tough on public employees.

"Chris Christie Hearts Collective Bargaining," says Yglesias, and speculates on his strategy.