Saturday, April 30, 2011

Sunday Leftovers

NJEA put out a press release that says that the 80% passage rate of local school budgets proves “that NJ voters put kids first” and “New Jersey residents love their public schools. That has never been in doubt. Our schools are among the very best in the nation because we have made the wise choice to invest in our future.” And at a speech at Harvard, Gov. Christie, when challenged about the "tough rhetoric" he uses in reference to NJEA, said "he would only stop if he is convinced the NJEA is willing to help change 'the failed system.'"

Speaking of elections, a slate of school board members in Lakewood was endorsed by the Orthodox community and won. A letter printed by The Lakewood Scoop reads, “It is heartening to see that, once again, the unity displayed by the Kehilla mechanchim brought us to victory in yesterday’s BOE election. In contrast, the seniors, who evenly split their vote between 2 senior candidates, nullified their voice. Both their candidates lost.”

In other zany school board news, the new majority of the Asbury Park Board of Education is fighting to keep the under-enrolled Barack Obama Elementary School open in spite of orders from State Fiscal Monitor Bruce Rodman that it close down. When the superintendent proposed an alternative that would keep it open they voted that down as well. It’s a “showdown, “ says the Asbury Park Press, that’s become more dramatic since the new board president appointed his godfather to fill an empty board slot. Rodman has announced his retirement.

Don't miss John Mooney's profile of Newark School Advisory Committee President Shavar Jeffries: "In trying to balance the Christie administration’s reform agenda and the community’s cry for local say, Jeffries has stepped on a few political toes, including those of his own board. Three seats on the board are up for vote today, and even Jeffries admits his days as president may be numbered." (As of today the vote on new school board members was split between two opposing slates, one endorsed by Steve Adubato and the other by Ras Baraka; one candidate won from each side and the votes for the third seat are still being tallied.)

NJ Spotlight reports that a bill sponsored by Sen. Shirley Turner that would move school board elections to November is stuck in committee.

The Press of Atlantic City
says that there's confusion among local school districts and parents regarding the rules of the expanded Interdistrict Public School Choice program.

Abbott Update: Paul Tractenberg, founder of Education Law Center, has an editorial in today's Record that eschews sound bites and explains in depth why the Supreme Court should order Gov. Christie to fully fund the School Funding Reform Act. Carl Golden in Asbury Park Press examines the ramifications of a ruling against Christie.

The Wall St. Journal analyzes the popularity of the film “Race to Nowhere” among New Jersey parents. It’s widely seen as a counterpoint to “Waiting for Superman,” the ed reform-minded movie that makes the argument that school kids are over-pressured and overworked because of the emphasis on standardized tests.

The charter school organization Knowledge is Power Program, or KIPP, released a study that examines the rate of college graduation among low-income students. Andrew Rotherham in Time reports,
The results show that while KIPP graduates—who are 95 percent African-American and Latino and overwhelmingly low-income—far outpace the national averages for similar students, they also fall short of the network's own goals: 33 percent of students who completed a KIPP middle school at least 10 years ago have a bachelor's degree today. Among similar students nationwide, just 8 percent have graduated college.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Location, Location, Location

Yesterday’s Wall St. Journal features an article about a proposal by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to make every open seat in every school in the state available to any student:
Many districts, especially around Detroit, already selectively open their doors to nonresidents to attract more students and the revenue that comes with them under Michigan's enrollment-based school-funding formula. Some districts allow only residents of the same county, or enroll nonresidents only in lower grades. Other districts are completely closed to nonresidents.

The governor's plan would supersede all those restrictions with a simple rule: Any school with space for a nonresident would have to accept that student, using a lottery system if there aren't enough spots for nonresident students who want them. The state would pay the per-pupil allowance allotted to each district, regardless of where its students reside.
In New Jersey we call such a system the Interdistrict Public School Choice program, recently expanded by the Legislature. Like in Michigan ours is purely voluntary and only snips away at the edges of a segregated infrastructure. The Journal piece quotes Michigan’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Mike Flanagan, who says in reference to the failing schools in Detroit, "I hate to think that there is a kid struggling in one district, and half a mile away over some artificial border is an opening in a proven public school and they don't have access. There are tensions that are racial often, and we need to move beyond that."

Michigan proposes to make the program mandatory. I’ve suggested (see examples here, here, and here) that we do the same in New Jersey. It’s the next logical step in the evolution of a system that strives to offer an equitable public education to kids, regardless of whether live in Trenton or Princeton. Sure, there’s that home rule thing (not to mention those racial tensions Mr. Flanagan refers to, if that’s any different).

Right now the NJ Supreme Court is toiling away on its decision regarding whether our school funding formula cheats needy kids. We know it’s not about money. If it was, then the kids in, say, Asbury Park would be academic superstars at $27K per student per year. But what if those kids had the opportunity to attend school with a culture of achievement?

It’s the old Willingboro/Moorestown dichotomy. Two school districts nine miles apart that might as well be in different countries. Can NJ follow Michigan’s lead and provide access to our great schools for kids who can’t afford the zip code?

Quote of the Day

Home rule aside, if taxpayers want to see savings, good schools and maintain manageable class sizes, creating 21 school districts to match 21 counties is the only way to go. There are already 21 county superintendents. Think about 21 teachers contracts. Think about fewer high-paid administrators in all those 600 school districts. In 2006, a few Democrats in the Legislature thought about it as well. Back then, the proposal went as far as light rail has in Bergen County. Nowhere.

It is a radical idea. This isn't merging of services, the catch-all phrase for buying paper supplies in bulk. This is rethinking what an efficient system of providing quality public education really is. County districts would be able to reflect communities' needs. There are ways of creating mechanisms for additional teacher pay for teaching in urban classrooms, of allowing communities to opt in for extra programs and services for additional fees. The much-pushed charter school movement would allow for the creation of public schools for specialized disciplines in communities that wanted them.
Alfred Doblin in today's Record.

Friday Irony

Diane Ravitch, the new and the old, is appearing everywhere, as omnipresent as her twitter feed. Yesterday she was the guest for the first half of NPR’s Fresh Air and made the case to Terry Gross about those conniving hedge fund managers intent on undermining the democratic bastions of public education. Andrew Rotherham got the last twenty minutes to rebut. (Too bad they weren’t interviewed together; maybe that’s too explosive for NPR.)

While back in 2005 Dr. Ravitch was a big fan of NCLB, charter school expansion, and measuring teacher effectiveness in the classroom, she's now an avowed opponent. From the interview:
"Regular public school parents are angry because they no longer have an art room, they no longer have a computer room — whatever space they had for extra activities gets given to the charters and then they have better facilities. They have a lot of philanthropic money behind them — Wall Street hedge fund managers have made this their favorite cause. So at least in [New York City] they are better-funded ... so they have better everything."
Fun fact: Dr. Ravitch is a Professor at the Steinhardt School for Culture, Education, and Human Development at New York University. Michael Steinhardt is a well-known philanthropist who endowed the school; in a letter in 2009, Dr. Ravitch criticized his support of a Hebrew language charter school in Brooklyn but wrote, “Steinhardt has given away hundreds of millions of dollars, much of it to promote Jewish cultural institutions and Jewish identity, as well as to endow the New York University School of Education, where I am a professor.” He’s also one of the founders of the hedge fund industry and had “a legendary career as Wall Street’s most successful money manager.”

So Dr. Ravitch's salary is funded by one of those rotten hedge fund managers.

Here's a sample of Andy Rotherham's follow-up:
"If I had been born just a few miles away, I would have had a very different public education experience," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "So that's the challenge. It's not about giving up on public schools but it is about acknowledging that right now, when you step back, [only] 8 percent of low-income kids can expect to get a bachelor's degree by the time they're 24. ... [And] when you have a system that produces 8 percent of the low-income kids getting out of college by the time they're 24, something is wrong."

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Charter School Stories

Here’s the scenario: 120 parents waited in line, some for twenty-four hours, to secure a spot for their children in a higher-achieving school in a failing school district. Sound like yet another story of a charter school lottery? No. That’s the tale of the traditional Newark public elementary school, Ann Street Elementary, according to the Star-Ledger, which only has slots for 85 kindergarteners. Said one parent, “every year it’s a nightmare to put your kid here.”

On another page of the Star-Ledger Bob Braun continues his assault on school choice. He profiles an aspiring charter school in Highland Park, Tikun Olam, which claims to be a non-Jewish school with Hebrew language immersion. Yet he conflates that particular charter school story arc – that of a specialized school in a generally high-performing neighborhood – with the far more pressing chronicle of the need for options in a place like Newark.

Somehow in Braunworld we skate from the relatively privileged community of Highland Park with a District Factor Grouping of GH to one of the poorest towns in the state, Newark, with a DFG of A. Is the community dissension over charter schools in the former really equivalent to the latter? No matter. Braun writes,
Mostly, it’s about money. Newark spends $33 million a year on charter schools that, according to traditional-school proponents, attract some of the city’s best students, leaving behind those who are more expensive to educate and less likely to do well on statewide tests.

In Highland Park, Saiff says, $220,000 already spent on sending students to charter schools in East Brunswick and New Brunswick has resulted in program cutbacks in her town, and state approval of Tikun Olam could cost an additional $100,000 this year.

But money isn’t the only issue. In Newark, economic class becomes an issue as charter schools enroll a smaller percentage of the city’s poorest students than do regular schools, as measured by eligibility for the federal free-lunch program.
Let’s unpack this a bit. Braun brings out the tired argument that charters siphon off wealthier students who score better on tests. (Unpacking that truism is another blog.) At Ann Street School, the one with the parents waiting overnight for a slot, the kids perform admirably on standardized tests. On the ASK4 in language arts, for example, only 23.9% failed in 2010 compared with a district failure rate of 64.2%. In math, 4th grade only 4% of Ann Street kids fail the test; the district average is 45.3%. Among those 117 4th graders 104 are economically disadvantaged and all are either white or Hispanic. Cost per pupil, by the way, is $17,515.

Now let’s look at an elementary charter school in Newark, Discovery Charter School. There are 23 kids in the 4th grade. 52% of them fail the standardized test in language arts and 48% of them fail the math portion. Doesn't seem like Discovery is creaming off the top-performing students from traditional public schools in Newark. Twenty-one of those 4th graders, by the way, are black and 19 of them are economically-disadvantaged. (Cost per pupil is $14,403.)

So does Ann Street discriminate against black kids? Of course not: it’s a public school, just like Discovery, and they take whoever either lines up at the door first or wins the lottery. Does Discovery discriminate against Hispanic and white kids? You tell me. Both schools have proportionately equal numbers of kids who are economically disadvantaged (though the DOE doesn’t distinguish between those eligible for reduced lunch and those eligible for free lunch.)

The story of charter schools in Newark is not the same story as that of charter schools, religious or otherwise, in Highland Park. The kids in the former are desperate for choice, as their parents' fortitude demonstrates. The kids in Highland Park would be fine either way. Let’s keep our stories straight.

Quote of the Day

On the high percentage of school budgets passed yesterday by residents, NJ School Boards Association Frank Belluscio said,
It is a much calmer year than in 2010 and one of the critical factors is the new tax levy cap.
See The Record, NJ Spotlight, and Star-Ledger for more details.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Diane Ravitch has 12,154 Twitter Followers

Jay P. Greene comments on Diane Ravitch’s twitter-mania: in one hour she sent out 14 tweets. In fact, her ADTD (attention deficit twitter disorder?) has inspired a fan to send out tweets under the name “Old Diane Ravitch.” These are direct quotations from her earlier writings. Some samples for your amusement on this Election Day:
  • I object to the practice of assigning new teachers to troubled schools, often as a result of union seniority rules.
  • Every classroom should have a well-educated, knowledgeable teacher. We are far from that goal today.
  • @m_rhee The system we have serves adults, not children. Let’s reverse that formula.
  • The public school system would be strengthened by the ability to shut down bad schools.
  • It is unjust there is no realistic way to force the closure of schools that students and parents would abandon if they could.
  • Without testing, there is no consistent way to measure success or failure.
  • There is a tendency to rationalize poor performance by implying that poverty equals destiny and so no one is to blame for failure.

Pew Center on NJ's Underfunded Pensions

The Pew Center has issued a new report, “The Widening Gap: The Great Recession’s Impact on State Pension and Retiree Health Care Cost" (hat tip Eduwonk). The NJ section reviews the impact of the McGreevey and Corzine Administrations' failure to fund employee pensions:
Just as failing to meet a monthly payment on a personal loan can result in higher payments down the road, a state’s failure to pay the annual bill for retirement benefits can mean it will have to pay more in the future. A comparison of New York and New Jersey provides a good example. Both states had fully funded pension plans in 2002. In subsequent years, the Garden State failed to make more than 60 percent of its annual contribution in each year and its funding gap grew to $46 billion.

The Empire State, on the other hand, continued to be disciplined about funding its annual bill. Today, New York has a $147 billion liability, compared to New Jersey’s $135 billion obligation, but its annual required contribution is $1.6 billion less. To put this in context, consider that New York increased K-12 education spending by $1.7 billion from fiscal year 2008 to 2009. New Jersey, meanwhile, reduced state education spending by $557 million during the same period.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Grey Lady Needs a Make-Over

What’s up with the New York Times? First Michael Winerip apparently has been assigned some sort of anti-ed reform beat, reduced to compiling lists of where people like President Obama and Bill Gates went to high school. Yesterday he checked in by misconstruing a series of emails between Eve Moskowitz, who runs the Success Academy charters in Harlem and the Bronx, and former NYC Chancellor Joel Klein into a case of the big bad charter operator of beating out a virtuous teacher for scant facilities space.

And today, new op-ed columnist Joe Nocera, in "The Limits of School Reform," comes out with this whopper:
Going back to the famous Coleman report in the 1960s, social scientists have contended — and unquestionably proved — that students’ socioeconomic backgrounds vastly outweigh what goes on in the school as factors in determining how much they learn. Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute lists dozens of reasons why this is so, from the more frequent illness and stress poor students suffer, to the fact that they don’t hear the large vocabularies that middle-class children hear at home.

Yet the reformers act as if a student’s home life is irrelevant. “There is no question that family engagement can matter,” said Klein when I spoke to him. “But they seem to be saying that poverty is destiny, so let’s go home. We don’t yet know how much education can overcome poverty,” he insisted — notwithstanding the voluminous studies that have been done on the subject. “To let us off the hook prematurely seems, to me, to play into the hands of the other side.”
Really? I don’t know of any advocate of the ed reform persuasion who claims “a student’s home life is irrelevant.” Of course it’s relevant; there’s no greater challenge to academic achievement. But there’s a difference between saying that “we won’t fix education until we fix poverty,” a self-defeating truism spouted often by luminaries like Diane Ravitch, and “we can do better than we’re doing now, even with poor kids.”

Acting Senator Ron Rice

In today’s Record Albert Doblin slams Sen. Ron Rice for invoking senatorial courtesy over Chris Cerf’s nomination as NJ’s Education Commissioner. Since Cerf lives in Montclair, Sen. Rice’s district, Rice can hold up the nomination. Doblin explains,
Rice wants Cerf to address the Joint Committee on the Public Schools, but there's a dispute over whether that is appropriate before Cerf appears before the Judiciary Committee. But if Rice drops his hold on Cerf's nomination and he appears before the Judiciary Committee, it is likely he will be approved by the committee before Rice gets to make his thunder. You would have to catch a production of "West Side Story" to see a more choreographed turf war
Here’s a question: does anyone care? Sure, Cerf has to append that “Acting” qualifier to his title; a little wordy, maybe, but it doesn’t interfere with his job. For that matter, aren’t all Cabinet members and elected officials “acting” anyway until the next governor or successor comes along? Maybe Comm. Cerf should start addressing Rice as “Acting Senator.” Fits in with the choreography theme anyway.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Newark Superintendent Update

Negotiations with Newark’s two finalists for superintendent of the tumultuous school district continue. (Is masochism part of the job description?) Meanwhile the scuttlebutt behind Seattle Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson’s sudden departure last month from her post is still emerging.

According to King 5 TV, a report was commissioned by the Seattle School Board to investigate a “cover-up” at the district’s Regional Small Business Development Program. The director of the office, Silas Potter (paging Bedford Falls) engaged in fraud, eventually stealing $1.8 million for his private company. A couple of hundred thousand dollars are still missing.

It’s the old question: what did you know and when did you know it? According to King 5 (and other sources), Goodloe-Johnson knew about it at in 2008 and withheld the information from the School Board.

No doubt there’s another side to the story and we just don’t know it yet. For starters, here’s a defense of Goodloe-Johnson by Tom Payzant of Harvard.

Goodloe-Johnson was originally a special education teacher and, later, Superintendent of the Charleston County Public Schools in South Carolina.

The Other Candidate, Cami Anderson, is Senior Superintendent at the NYC DOE. She was appointed to her NYC post in 2006, overseeing 300 alternative schools and programs for, according to her bio, “over-age, under-credited youth whose schooling has been interrupted.” Anderson was also Executive Director of Teach for America for five years and Chief Program Officer for New Leaders for New Schools, a principal-training program. Here's more detail from Gotham Schools.

Kudos To Ed Students at TCNJ

The Secondary Education Teacher’s Association at College of NJ is refurbishing the library at Trenton Central High School, reports the Trenton Times. Said Bridget McManus, a member of SETA,
Even though putting up curtains is a small task compared to fixing the plaster falling from the ceilings in classrooms and the asbestos in the auditorium, I'm so happy we were able to brighten up the library for the TCHS community.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Saturday Leftovers

One of the two finalists for the Newark superintendency, Maria Goodloe-Johnson, was fired by the Seattle School Board last month amidst allegations of financial misconduct in a district office. The Seattle Times called for her ouster. More details here.

Special Abbott Edition:

The Star-Ledger Editorial Board urges the Supreme Court to uphold the School Funding Reform Act (unfulfilled due to the Christie Administration's school aid cuts) and not bow to political pressure.

NJ Spotlight profiles the 5 justices who will decide this latest Abbott v. Burke case.

Paul Tractenberg, founder of Education Law Center, charges that Gov. Christie is acting hypocritically by inserting politics into Abbott litigation and urging the Court to behave in an activist manner.

Bob Braun of the Star-Ledger
argues that the State is asking the Justices to ignore a breach of the Constitution.

Senator Tom Kean
says that in a fiscal crisis there are “no sacred cows” and that fully funding the formula would mean cuts to hospitals, small businesses, and lack of infrastructure maintenance. “For my part, I believe we can do better than a system that only equates dollars with success.” He also makes the point that the Court's focus on the Millionaire's Tax is misguided because we'd still need another $1 billion to make up the shortfall to schools.

The Asbury Park Press
quotes lead attorney David Sciarra: "We need to stop talking about student achievement and money. It's about adequate funding and working hard collaboratively to achieve performance in our schools. It's both. And we need to reject anybody (that) tries to create a different world than that. We need an administration, frankly, committed to both."

Gov. Christie says
he can ignore the Court’s verdict anyway.

And in other news,

Confusing poll analysis from New Jersey Newsroom, or maybe just confusing results from the recent Quinnipiac University poll. Voters “favor spending more on schools.” But “(o)n the philosophical point – is more money the best way to improve education – voters give an emphatic ‘’no.’”

Lakewood, NJ, where the public school board is mostly controlled by parents who send their kids to private yeshivas, has a hotly-contested school board election, reports the Asbury Park Press: 11 candidates for 3 seats. One slate says it represents “the senior community and the Orthodox community,” while an incumbent has two children in the district.

NJEA claims that 4 out of 10 teachers don't get tenure (and the Press of Atlantic City prints it). Also, " NJEA compiled the data to show that ineffective teachers are removed and that allegations that teachers never leave or get fired are untrue."

Andy Rotherham writes in Time Magazine on America’s history of neglecting the role of teacher effectiveness in the classroom:
Last week, teachers unions and school reform groups in Illinois agreed on some policy changes there — including common sense reforms to teacher seniority rules. And the current emphasis on teacher evaluation because of Race to the Top will produce some new ideas and approaches, too. These are obvious and foundational steps that policymakers should take, but the reality is that because of years of inattention to teacher effectiveness, we still know relatively little about what makes a teacher great and how to build systems full of great teachers and high quality instruction. That frustrates policymakers — and it should terrify parents. But it's also an enormous opportunity for a field that is ostensibly about learning to perhaps learn something itself.

Quote of the Day

Ed Commish Chris Cerf on Gov. Christie’s comment to the Editorial Board of The Record that he'll compromise with the New Jersey Education Association as long as there’s agreement on the need to measure teacher effectiveness. In the context of other state teacher unions, said Cerf,
The NJEA is, I’m sorry to say, an outlier. They are trapped in another time. They have missed a great turn in the current of history here. In the last five or six years, there has been a really robust debate that many progressive unions have been a part of.
In response, NJEA Spokesman Steve Wollmer told The Record, “If the governor is reaching out across West State Street, we’ll be there to reach across… but he can’t reach across and precondition the conversation…It’s not ‘you listen while I talk.’”

Newark Superintendent Update

The search for a new superintendent for Newark is in its final stages as the pool has been winnowed down to two candidates: Cami Anderson, a NYC schools superintendent for alternative schools and Maria Goodloe-Johnson, a former superintendent for Seattle Public Schools. According to the Star-Ledger, Acting Comm. Chris Cerf said the politics that have infused the selection process led to a loss of at least one promising candidate, Jean Claude Brizard, who "just gave up."

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Trenton Schools: If We Build It They Will Come

The Fiscal Monitor appointed by the State to oversee Trenton Public Schools has proposed that the troubled district shut down Luis Munoz-Rivera Elementary School and convert it to “a home to special education students with behavioral disabilities,” according to the Trenton Times.

Here’s Mark Cowell, the Fiscal Monitor: "The child is assessed as special needs and sent out of the district. The problem is, the money goes with that child.” Last year Trenton Public Schools sent 558 kids to other programs and next year that will jump to 649, reports the Times. Cowell also suggested that other area school districts would send their behaviorally-challenged children to Luis Munoz-Rivera, thus providing much-needed revenue for Trenton’s bottom line.

Let’s unpack this a little bit. First, a closer look at Munoz-Rivera in its current incarnation as a regular ed elementary school. According to the DOE database, the 533-student preK-8 school struggles mightily to achieve student academic proficiency. Based on the standardized tests, 67.3% of 3d-graders failed the math portion of the ASK3 and 75.5% failed the language arts portion. Looking ahead, among 8th graders 89.9% failed the math portion and 56.5% failed language arts.

But Mr. Cowell’s motivation is not merely to shutter a chronically failing school in a city with dropping enrollment; in fact, student performance is not much worse there than in other K-8 schools in the district. (See Hedgepath Williams, for an example.)

Indeed, Trenton sends many students out of district at considerable expense. The number quoted in the Times piece – 558 – is a little deceptive because it includes kids who attend public charter and magnet regular-ed schools. According to Trenton’s budget data, while 475 students (out of a total enrollment of 11,510) are sent to “other districts,” 289 students are sent out of district to private special ed placements and another 39 are sent to other public districts. One-hundred fifty-one are in “state facilities” (Trenton bears the cost of the education component of their programs).

In all, Trenton pays $33,730,002 in out-of-district tuition, a whopping portion of its $238.4 million budget.

So it makes sense to keep as many kids in-district as possible, not merely from a fiscal standpoint, but also out of compliance with federal law that mandates that students with disabilities attend school in the “least restrictive environment.” And, apparently, the most efficient way to bring back some of that tuition money is to devote a whole building to a program for kids with behavioral challenges.

Question: is it statistically possible for a student body of 11,000 kids to include a cohort so clinically disabled by behavioral problems that they could fill up a school building? How carefully are these kids classified?

Second question: will other surrounding districts send their kids there, as predicted by Fiscal Monitor Cowell? Let’s try this scenario: a parent from one of the wealthy communities that border Trenton, like Princeton or West Windsor, has a kid with behavioral problems. The child study team says, “Why don’t we send your kid to Trenton?” Ri-ight. That’ll work.

Arne Duncan Comes to Princeton

Yesterday afternoon the U.S. Secretary of Education made a quick stop at Richardson Auditorium in Princeton University for some remarks and q and a. Here are some highlights:

On American public high schools’ high dropout rate: “We’re perpetuating social failure.”

It’s a national security issue: “Less than 25% of kids are fit to enter the military because they’re academically unprepared.”

When he first got to D.C.: “I thought it was a joke” that states had laws on their books that barred linking student growth to teacher evaluations. “All those laws are now gone.”

Elevating the teaching profession: we need to “recruit and retain the next generation of teachers” and demand excellence. One idea: Income-Based Repayment, which would repay all student loans for teachers who complete ten years of teaching.

“We’re beating down the profession…heated rhetoric isn’t helpful.” In South Korea teachers are known as “nation-builders.”

Tenure Reform: “Tenure should never be a life-time guarantee.” Technology is changing the world, but education isn’t moving. Agrarian calendar vs. 24/7 learning. His strategy is “tough-minded collaboration.” On value-added models of teacher evaluations: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” We’ll have a couple of choppy years, and then we’ll get it right.

On great schools: “I’ve yet to visit a good school that didn’t have a good principal.”

On No Child Left Behind: It’s “far too punitive and prescriptive.” It inspires a “dumbed-down curriculum” as states try to game standardized tests. We need to reward excellence, get Washington out of the way/give local educators more room, and look at student growth. NCLB should give successful schools more flexibility with resources and raise standards across all schools.

“We have to invest in early education.” We should make preschool part of a newly-authorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

On school boards and management: “Adult dysfunction hurts kids.” We need to use collective bargaining to drive student achievement.

On Newark: “you can’t have a great city without a great school system.”

On community support: “How do we awaken the community?” “I wish we had more parents with a sense of urgency instead of supporting the status quo.”

Quote of the Day

Newark Public Schools teacher Kariema Muhammed reacts to proposed tenure reform, merit pay, and linking student growth to teacher evaluations:
Teachers are committed to what we’re doing — we’re not afraid of the change. We are ready. We are excited about it.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Abbott Remedy

Today the State of New Jersey and the Education Law Center presented arguments before the State Supreme Court in the never-ending battle otherwise known as Abbott. (Update here from Star-Ledger.) The question before the Court is whether Gov. Christie’s 2010-2011 school aid cuts of $1.6 billion violated the constitutional mandate to provide a thorough and efficient educations system, regardless of place of residence.

So NJ returns to the timeless question of whether extra money spent on education for poor kids compensates for the deprivations of poverty. More specifically, can a diverse and segregated school system equalize educational opportunity by mandating that cost per pupil for poor kids be equal to the cost per pupil for rich kids?

In other news, the State Fiscal Monitor for one of our Abbott districts, Asbury Park, has just released a report. See NJ Spotlight for full details. This troubled Monmouth County district is plagued by crime and poverty. Per capita income is $13,511 and about 29.3% of families live below poverty level. Enrollment in the public school system has dropped by 35% over the last 10 years. In one of its findings, the Fiscal Monitor reports that cost per pupil in this 2,100-pupil district is $27,000 per kid, which it deems "unreasonably high." Other details from the report:
  • While over the last 12 years student enrollment has declined by 38.8%, over the same period teacher staffing levels declined by 13% and administrative levels by 10%.
  • Asbury Park’s student/teacher ration is 8.7 to 1; average for Abbotts is 12 to 1. Student/administrator ratio is 78.3 to 1; average for Abbotts is 141 to 1.
  • Asbury Park has a “legal cost per pupil” of $174. No other district comes close to this, averaging about $33 per pupil.
  • Three and 4-year old children in Abbott districts qualify for free preschool, managed by the home district. Asbury Park failed to keep accurate attendance records and overpaid providers, one by more that $25K.
  • Title 1 school students qualify for after-school services. Asbury Park overpaid providers; the Fiscal Monitor concluded that students were gypped out of 1,900 hours of tutoring from one vendor because of poor oversight of funds.
  • Staff members in Asbury Park get 12 paid sick days per year. They also get 3 “critical illness days,” which is for unspecified illnesses of either the employee or a family member and no doctor’s note is required.
  • The district pays $400K for telephone services. The Fiscal Monitor found that those costs included 149 phone lines that the district does not use.
Anyway, you get the idea.

How do the kids perform under conditions that strive to compensate for poverty by infusions of money? At Bradley Elementary School 78.6% of 3d graders failed the language arts portion of the state standardized tests. Math is a bright spot: only 38% failed. At Asbury Park Middle School 78.1% of 6th graders failed the language arts portion of the state standardized tests. 67% failed the math portion.

In 2009-2010 at Asbury Park High School 49.5% of kids failed the language arts portion of the High School Proficiency Assessment, an 8th grade level test (though that’s a big improvement from the previous year when 72% failed). 79.6% failed the math portion. 31% of high school seniors graduated by passing the HSPA and 60% had to take an alternative test, given to students who fail the HSPA three times. 50% of white students dropped out. (The stats are better for black and Hispanic students.)

That's the Abbott remedy. Now the Supreme Court will decide whether it works. Odds are it'll find for the plaintiffs, ruling that Christie's statewide budget cuts violated the constitutional rights of the students who attend schools like Asbury Park.

Would those kids have a more equitable education if that $27K per child per year, or annual $61.6 million budget, was spent differently, like as tuition for another school? Our new Interdistrict Public School Choice program is great, but only two districts out of the 57 in Monmouth have applied and both those districts are K-8. There's one charter school in Asbury Park, Academy Park High School, that limits enrollment to less than 50 kids per grade and has a substantial waiting list.

Most of the kids in Asbury Park are stuck. That's been true for years, longer than the decades-long Abbott battle that dates back thirty years to 1981. NJ has failed to solve educational inequity through money, though that's not a fact that is likely to find itself before the Supreme Court justices today.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Quote of the Day

The Star-Ledger describes circumstances in Newark as the search for a superintendent grows more convoluted and contentious:
The search for a superintendent has been marked with confusion. A community council was convened to interview potential finalists. None of the council members is authorized to speak on the record, but several have said that the interview process has been haphazard.

Committee members were initially told they would be interviewing four candidates. Then three of the candidates dropped out. Three new ones have been added, two of whom have yet to be interviewed, several of the committee members said.

Who Stole Michael Winerip's Brain?

And what to make of his column today in the New York Times, which begins by complaining that there’s consensus among Democrats and Republicans regarding the need for public education reform? He follows with a whine about how we’re moving in the direction of using statistical models to measure teacher effectiveness and student growth and then the rest of the column comprises a list of education reform advocates who happened to go to private secondary schools. Huh? Aha – got it. If you went to private school then you’re a clandestine Hedge Fund Manager, the scourge of pure-of-heart-ed-reactionaries who deride the use of value-added models to evaluate anything.

(Isn’t this dismissal of VAM’s a sort of Luddistic innumeracy? It’s like the 1920’s skeptics of automobiles standing on the curb and shouting, “get a horse!” Value-added models are in their infancy – the Tin Lizzies of the car industry – but we’ll get to Honda Civics eventually.)

Anyway, back to Mr. Winerip’s catalogue. He asks his readers, "Do [ed reformers' attendance at private schools] make them distrust public schools — or even worse — poison their perception of them? Your call." His list includes the high schools attended by Bill Gates, President Obama, and Steven Brill (writer of the brilliant Rubber Room piece in the New Yorker, which exposed NYC’s practice of paying teachers to sit around all day because tenure laws made them impossible to fire).

How about private college? Does attendance at, say, Princeton instead of Rutgers poison one’s perception of public higher education? Better ask Diane Ravitch, graduate of Wellsley, or the New York Times auteur himself, Mr. Winerip, who went to Harvard. That disqualification is as silly as his.

Correction: I spelled "Wellesley" incorrectly. Oops! (I went to public el-hi and college.)

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Another Quote of the Day

"This is proof education employee unions can and should be leaders in reform," read a joint statement by the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the Illinois Education Association and the Chicago Teachers Union, all of which participated in the dealmaking.
From the Chicago Tribune regarding a consensus reached in Illinois on an education reform package that eliminates "last in, first out" lay-off policies, ties teacher evaluations to student growth, and makes tenure conditional on continued effectiveness in the classroom.

Quote of the Day

Following Diane Ravitch on Twitter is sort of like giving a six-year-old a kazoo on a long car trip. You know that by doing so, there’s a very strong probability that it will result in near constant aggravation or annoyance. But you do it anyway, because somewhere deep in your troubled psyche you thrive on provocation.
Jamie Davies O'Leary in Flypaper

Sunday Leftovers

Superintendent Charles T. Epps Jr. of Jersey City explains it all: “Our worst enemy is the young ladies.The young girls are bad. I don’t know what they’re drinking today, but they’re bad.”

Here's the Christie Administration's new tenure reform draft bills and coverage from NJ Spotlight, The Record, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Star-Ledger.

Jim O'Neill, Superintendent of Chathams Public Schools slams Christie's new tenure reform proposal and says it has nothing to do with improving education: "The governor, instead, is clearly pursuing a political agenda that is blatantly anti-intellectual and appeals to the worst aspects of human nature while we all endure a prolonged economic downturn."

Carl Golden looks at the history of the Abbott cases as the State Supreme Court prepares their ruling on the 2010-2011 school aids; he notes "that early speculation that a compromise is a likely outcome, that the court would grant the administration additional time to bring funding up to the formula standards or to permit a phase in which the state commits to a specific level of additional aid for a set number of years."

Senator Barbara Buono says “the new normal is inadequate,” because our School Funding Reform Act works: "If followed properly, the new school funding formula, which is based on meeting individual children’s needs regardless of where they reside, will continue to mitigate achievement disparities between school districts."

Assemblyman Patrick J. Diegnan Jr. is “sponsoring legislation that would require charter schools to be approved by the voters of the district at the annual school election before they are authorized to operate.”

Lots of hoopla over the discovery that the Broad Foundation paid for a consultant to help restructure the NJ DOE to the tune of $60K. People are outraged, mainly because Acting Commissioner Chris Cerf is an alumnus of the Broad Foundation's Superintendent Academy. But $60K is chump change for such a task. Why not celebrate the bargain?

The Courier Post calls for tenure reform:
The tens of thousands of great teachers we have in New Jersey don't need tenure because they're excelling in their jobs. But there's no job field on Earth where every worker in that field is excellent and none are lousy and worth getting rid of. It's time to take away that crutch of lifetime tenure for those few teachers who aren't performing as they should.
The Wall St. Journal looks at how the $100 million Facebook donation to Newark is “dividing the residents of this city into two camps: those who are excited about what the money can do and those who are suspicious of the donors' motives.”

Kevin Carey in The New Republic
warns that the Republican Party is regressing back to pre-Reagan rhetoric in assailing teacher unions. At the same time the GOP is “embracing the worst elements of the teacher unions’ national education agenda, by insisting that the federal government should have a limited, possibly nonexistent, role in school policy.” Mike Petrelli at Fordham says he's wrong.

Christie-ism of the Week: upon finding out from the Comptroller's Office that New Jersey is contractually required to pay $700 per year in clothing allowances to 27,000 state employees, most of whom don't wear uniforms, the Governor told the Star-Ledger and The Record, "I’m telling you this whole collecting bargaining stuff has been such a great education for me,” he said. “You should see all the crap they’ve got in there. It’s unbelievable. Unbelievable.”

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Jersey School Choice!

The DOE has just announced that 56 new school districts have received approval to become part of the Interdistrict Public School Choice program for the school year 2011-2012. This expands the list of participating districts from 15 to 71. Here's the list.

Why Do Charters Have Fewer Special Ed Kids Than Traditional Schools?

The Newark Council Education Committee met last night with group of stakeholders, including Theresa Adubato of the Robert Treat Academy, Junius Williams of the Abbott Leadership Institute, ELC founder Paul Tractenberg, and School Board Chair Shavar Jeffries. According to the Star-Ledger, the debate was noteworthy for its lack of contention, especially in light of recent fireworks. The meeting was chaired by South Ward Councilman Ras Baraka, who moonlights as Principal of Newark Central High School.

The conversation veered toward the disparity between the number of special needs kids in charter schools (like Robert Treat) and the number of special needs kids in traditional public schools. Here’s Michael Pallante, who is the former principal of Camden Street School, a district K-4 school. He's now is at Robert Treat:
"Camden housed very large special needs populations," Pallante said, adding that he did not believe it should be shut down. He added that often times students in district schools are mislabeled as "special needs" rather than brought up to speed with their fellow students.

Robert Treat, he said, eliminated layers of unnecessary bureaucracy and allowed him to work with at-risk students to avoid labeling them as special needs.

"The question shouldn't be why do charter schools have so few special needs (students) but why do other schools have so many?" he said.
Good question.

For a bit of context I looked at Principal Baraka’s school, Central High. Central High has 861 kids (according to most recent DOE data) in grades 9-12. A full 21.5% of its kids are classified for disabilities. Across the country the average is about 10%. NJ runs about 16%.

How do the kids do? Maybe Councilman Baraka should stick to his day job. A whopping 59.3% of graduates are unable to pass the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) , an 8th grade level test, and have to resort to the Alternative High School Assessment. Among its non-disabled population, 30.2% pass the HSPA in both subjects.

Do one in five kids in Central really have disabilities? Or is Pallante right and we’re overclassifying kids?

A thought experiment. I took ten districts in NJ with DFG’s (a measure of socio-economics) of either I or J, a sampling of our wealthiest communities: Ramapo, Mahwah, Saddle River, Moorestown, Cherry Hill, Glen Ridge, Millburn, West Essex, Montogomery, and Bernards. I stuck to districts with high schools. The average rate of classification for special education for high schoolers was 11.69%.

Then I took eight districts in NJ with DFG’s of A: Buena Regional, Camden, Bridgeton, Newark, New Brunswick, Asbury Park, Keansburg, and Elizabeth. The average rate of classificiation for high schoolers was 22.15%.

Now one can wax philosophical on the question of whether poverty itself is a disability. I think it is. But there’s a difference between needing extra resources because of deprivation and needing to be classified as a special education student. The former is just the cost of doing business in a diverse state. In the latter case, for a kid who is cognitively unimpaired but maybe difficult to manage, the classification serves administrators (who have more cash for the bottom line) but straitjackets the child into a set of unnecessarily lowered expectations.

Pallante's point is that there's added incentives for traditional public schools to classify students as disabled (at least in neighborhoods like Newark's Central Ward) and added incentives for autonomous public schools (charters) to not classify students as disabled.

Maybe this is a case where traditional public schools can truly learn from experimental charters.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Let's Spend More on Schools

Lots of chatter today about the Assembly Budget Committee hearing yesterday where a report was released from the Office of Legislative Services that compares state school aid in the Christie Administration budget to state school aid if we’d adhered to the formula in the School Funding Reform Act. (Representative samples: Star-Ledger and NJ Spotlight.)

According to the report, a fully funded SFRA “would decrease the share of total aid that would be allocated to the 31 former Abbott districts.” Ironic, considering that a suit against the Christie Administration's budget cuts was filed by Education Law Center, primary advocates for Abbotts. On the other hand, it explains the testimony against the Christie budget by superintendents of wealthy districts (e.g., Montgomery, with a DFG of J, the wealthiest socio-economic category) because “if SFRA were fully funded, districts classified in district factor group (DFG) I3 would have State aid more than double, while DFG J districts would experience a more than seven-fold increase.”

So Assemblyman Lou Greenwald, for instance, is apoplectic that two of the districts he represents, Voorhees and Cherry Hill (both DFG’s of “I”) got gypped out of cash, the former by $1.8 million or about 4%, and the latter by $10.3 million, more than a 100% decrease. (Under SFRA, Cherry Hill would have received over $19 million.)

The message seems to be that nobody got enough money, poor and rich districts alike. A win in State Supreme Court next Wednesday for ELC, which would compel the State to fully fund SFRA, will either cut services in other areas or raise taxes. (See earlier coverage here.)

Here’s the disconnect: with all the talk and testimony about fair school funding, no one, at least at the Assembly Budget Committee hearing, was talking about value or accountability. Shouldn’t that be on the table during any responsible and substantive fiscal discussion?

Special Master Peter Doyne’s report
to the Supreme Court was widely seen as a repudiation of Christie’s 2010-2011 school aid cuts. In it Judge Doyne concludes that the $1.7 billion decrease in statewide aid indeed violated the school funding formula. But over and over he reminds the plaintiffs (and the public) that his conclusions are seriously circumscribed by his mandate to exclude economic constraints or accountability considerations. The Supreme Court is unbound by those strictures (though the gestalt seems to be that the Court will rule for ELC)

From Judge Doyne’s report:
Despite the court’s efforts to confine the hearing within the remand’s parameters, the State’s presentation appeared more oriented to the Supreme Court. Accordingly, one of the central tenets of the State’s experts’ testimony, lack of correlation between spending and performance, can have little or no bearing on this hearing. The sole purpose of this hearing was to determine whether the reductions in State aid, resulting in less than full funding of SFRA, can pass constitutional muster. The limited nature of the remand was to ascertain whether there was sufficient latitude in the SFRA formula such that the reduced funding would not affect the delivery of a thorough and efficient education.
Is it possible to talk about a thorough and efficient system of public education without talking about the correlation between spending and performance? The Assembly votes "yes."

Christie Releases 7-Part Ed Reform Package

Gov. Christie has just sent the State Legislature a seven-part education reform package. Included are a tenure reform proposal that would require four consecutive years of effective teaching based on “multiple measures,” ending the practice during lay-offs of “last in, first out” (LIFO), mutual consent between teacher and principal when assigning teachers to buildings, and eliminating salary increases based on graduate degrees or credits earned.

From the press release (still searching for a working link; wait: here it is):
Governor Chris Christie has outlined a package of education reforms designed to challenge the status quo by finally prioritizing the needs of New Jersey’s children above all else. The Christie Education Reform Agenda is a series of proposals that demands the most effective education workforce, creates career ready graduates by imposing higher standards, and provides room for innovation and human connections in teaching. While each element of the Governor’s reform plan is critically important to ensure failure no longer runs rampant in too many public schools across New Jersey, the largest piece focuses on developing, evaluating and rewarding New Jersey’s teachers. Teachers are vital to the success of every child and deserve a system that gives them the ability and the environment with which to do their best job.

Governor Christie’s proposals tackle the system from the top-down to reform a system that has been failing too many of our children for too long.
CBS Philly has an early comment from Steve Wollmer, NJEA Spokesman: “Teachers can’t control a lot of the factors that go into student test scores,” he notes by way of example, “and really, the research says don’t proceed with a system that says you’re gonna make high stakes personnel decisions based on student test scores.”

Quote of the Day

Abbott districts are sort of like the Hotel California. Once you check in you apparently can never leave.
Bob Ingle for the Courier Post in a column on the State Supreme Court’s pending decision on whether Gov. Christie’s 2010-2011 school aid cuts violated the School Funding Reform Act. Ingle notes that in Hoboken the average property value per student is $3,494,398 while the average in NJ is $907,954. Hoboken is, of course, an Abbott district.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

School Funding FIsticuffs

There’s a bit of grenade-throwing going on between Murray Sabrin and Paul Tractenberg on the pages of New Jersey Newsroom. Sabrin, a regular columnist, is a dyed-in-the-wool Libertarian, and sometimes his commentary veers into the wacky lane.

Example: in a recent column Sabrin called for the elimination of the clause in NJ’s State Constitution that mandates a “thorough and efficient system of free public school.” He also suggested that we “phase out state aid and the income tax over three to five years.” How do we fund public education? Simple. Parents are responsible for their own kids. Then he goes over the rails:
If opponents of this proposal cry foul, let them answer the following questions: Should people of color be responsible for educating their children? Are people of color capable of self government? Why should suburban taxpayers pay for their local schools and urban schools? Why do we think that big, expensive schools in urban districts, contrary evidence notwithstanding, are the magic bullet to educate children?
I’m not sure if that’s implicit or explicit racism; take your pick. So Tractenberg, founder of the Education Law Center, has earned his umbrage and responds appropriately, citing NJ’s history of applying the “equality principle to school funding.” He ponders,
To what end does Sabrin advance this proposal, which he himself characterizes as “radical?” Frankly, it’s hard to tell. Clearly, it’s about letting suburban taxpayers off the hook. They no longer would have to contribute to the support of “big expensive schools in urban districts.” At some level it’s ideological -- getting us off “the collectivist road.”
Too bad that Trachtenberg succumbs to the Ravitchy paranoia of “hedge fund managers and venture capital billionaires” who support “educational entrepreneurship.” It’s that same trite response of old-timey unionists who dismiss education reform because it has some ties to rich people who want to spend money on poor kids. But otherwise his take-down of Sabrin is spot-on, especially later on in the piece when he looks more closely at NJ’s educational inefficiencies:
That we have persisted in maintaining more than 600 independent school districts, many of them too small to be educationally or fiscally efficient and some of them too small to operate even a single school. Over the past 60 years, the number of school districts in the United States has shrunk from more than 75,000 to about 15,000; in New Jersey we actually have significantly more school districts now than we did then.
Of course, Tractenberg's larger point is the necessity of fully funding the School Funding Reform Act in light of Gov. Christie's school aid cuts, currently before the State Supreme Court. NJ's unsustainably school infrastructure is just a side note.

But maybe it shouldn't be. Maybe one of the keys to an equitable education system is not dissolving income tax or State oversight, but reconfiguring our fragmented and segregated school districts. Both Sabrin and Tractenberg buy into the artificial division of "people of color" and "suburban schools" and "big expensive schools in urban districts." What if school districts encompassed all categories? Wouldn't that be more effective in providing a thorough and efficient education system than either radical revisions to state education equality mandates or fiscally impossible school aid formulas?

Score One for NJEA

Everyone’s covering Gov. Christie’s conditional veto of Senate Bill 1940, which posits that if a collective bargaining unit (i.e., local arm of a teachers union) agrees to wage or benefits concessions then “the amount of money which would have been required to fund those wages and benefits shall be applied to the maintenance of bargaining unit stall member positions.” (See coverage from New Jersey Newsroom, The Record, Courier Post.)

The bill was approved by the Assembly on a vote of 69-11, and is sponsored by a bevy of 13 senators. It was apparently written by the NJEA executive office. From an editorial by NJEA President Barbara Keshishian that ran last month in the Star-Ledger:
That is why NJEA filed legislation requiring any savings from salary concessions be used to restore laid-off staff. The bills, S1940/A2773, passed both the state Assembly and Senate by overwhelming bipartisan margins and await Christie’s signature.
New Jersey School Boards Association lobbied against the bill, and put out a position statement:
In a better economy, the legislation will serve only to interfere with the basic responsibility of local boards of education to provide educational services in the most cost-efficient manner possible. It would severely undermine their ability to carry out this responsibility by eliminating the managerial prerogative to allocate money saved through wage concessions for any purpose that would serve the interests of students and taxpayers.
Forget the mystery of why the bill, which directly undermines local district ability to control costs, passed both Houses by an overwhelming margin. (Okay, maybe not so mysterious. Look at the filer.) The greater mystery is why Gov. Christie's conditional veto is so weak. He limits his concern to a possible reading of the bill text that could require districts to negotiate with local unions any time they want to lay off staff, even when enrollment drops or when other financial needs present themselves. Here's Christie the Diplomat:
While I commend the sponsors for attempting to facilitate the preservation of school employee positions during this difficult economic time, I am concerned that this bill, as currently written, goes well beyond the situation which the sponsors were attempting to address.
As public education catches up with technology, data-driven curricula, and divergent educational needs of different groups, the last thing school districts need is a tightening of the handcuffs on highly-regulated fiscal plans. It's great when employees recognize that current wages or benefits are unsustainable and dip into their own pocketbooks to save the jobs of other staffers. But S1940 is all about protecting the jobs of adults, not the educational needs of the kids.

The union did its job; it protected its own. The Legislature didn't. Neither did Christie's conditional veto.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Quote of the Day

There is now a compelling need for prompt judicial relief. Accordingly, this Court should immediately enter a prospective order directing the State to fully implement the SFRA formula, as enacted and approved in Abbott XX, by providing full funding for the 2011-12 school year and two years thereafter, and by then conducting the three-year statutory review of the formula's efficacy, as previously mandated by this Court. Only then can the promise of the SFRA, anticipated by this Court in Abbott XX, be fulfilled through the provision of adequate funding to ensure a thorough and efficient education to all New Jersey school children, and particularly at-risk children, wherever they may reside.
From Education Law Center's Final Brief in response to Judge Peter Doyne's conclusion that Gov. Christie public school aid cuts in 2010-2011 violated the School Funding Reform Act and were, thus, unconstitutional.

New Poll Shows the Majority of Black Voters Support School Choice

Here’s an interesting tidbit from the new Rutgers-Eagleton poll on how New Jerseyans feel about the expansion of charter schools and school choice. According to New Jersey Newsroom, 44% of voters approve of charter school growth, while 42% oppose adding more. But when the data is broken down, black voters are far more enthusiastic than white voters. Here’s Prof. David Redlawsk, the poll director:
These data show an interesting split in traditional Democratic constituencies on this issue. As Governor Christie pushes for more charter schools as a lynchpin in his education plan, public employee union members resist, but African-Americans appear to be on his side.
The rift is also apparent in reactions to vouchers. 54% of black voters are in favor of them, while only 36% of whites back them.

No surprises, really. More black families live in neighborhoods with lousy schools and more white families live in neighborhoods with good ones. All politics is local.

Probing Superintendent Caps

Tom Moran’s piece in the Star-Ledger yesterday derides the new salary cap on school superintendents and mourns the loss of high-quality administrators to New York. (The Empire State has no superintendent caps at the moment, although Gov. Cuomo has proposed ones similar to NJ's.)
The cap will save just under $10 million a year, according to the governor’s office. That compares to $24 billion in school costs. With luck, your property taxes might drop by a dime.

This isn’t about money; it’s about politics. The governor is a wedge politician who needs a steady stream of enemies to kick around and demonize. Superintendents had to take their turn, even if that disrupts some of the state’s best school systems.
But is that really the point?

NJ’s public school system has 591 school districts that serve 1.38 million kids. That’s an average of 2,335 kids per district.

New York State has 814 public school districts that serve 2.7 million kids. That’s an average of 3,317 kids per district.

Pennsylvania has 1,787,351 public school students in 500 districts. That’s an average of 3,575 kids per district.

Maryland has 869,113 kids in 24 public school districts. That’s an average of 36,213 kids per district.

Connecticut has 574,012 kids in 195 districts. That’s an average of 2,944 kids per district.

Delaware has 117,668 kids in 33 school districts. That’s an average of 3,566 kids per district.

While there are plenty of states with small school systems, we top them all. That’s expensive and inefficient. Bergen County in particular, which was the focus of Mr. Moran’s piece because the commute to NY is so short, has 75 superintendents for 70 districts. (Figure that one out.)

There’s a lot to dislike about the superintendent salary cap; our Republican governor’s attempt to thwart market forces is its own brand of cognitive dissonance. But maybe one of the impulses behind it is to jog New Jerseyans into a reevaluation of our devotion to home rule and its attendant inefficiencies.

Anyway, the superintendent interviewed in the piece, who makes $232,000 in his current gig in Paramus (4,200 kids), is moving to Nyack, where, Mr. Moran reports, he'll make even more.

Imagine how much we could pay our best superintendents if we had 250 school districts (not to mention other top-rate administrators). It’s not about the poor fellow in Paramus commuting across the Thruway every day for his cool quarter mil per year. It’s about the inefficiencies of our public school infrastructure. It really is about money, or at least the economics of scale.

Check out...

my new column at NJ Spotlight: what happens when a state like NJ eschews an safe, incrementalist approach to education reform in favor of grand transformation? I use LIFO (last in, first out) as a barometer of a state's strategy and, well, read it.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sunday Leftovers

Newark Update: The Newark Advisory School Board mysteriously voted against the opening of six new high schools, but the schools will open anyway. Some already have hundreds of applications. The Star-Ledger quotes one mother understandably flummoxed by the Board's decision. She sends her four kids to Robert Treat Academy, a high-performing charter, and had this to say about the vote: "My kids are supposed to go to Barringer," she said, referring to the troubled North Ward high school. "I would home school or foreclose on my house before I let my kids go to Barringer."’

Also, Board Chair Shavar Jeffries “accused some of his fellow board members of being manipulated by North Ward power broker Steve Adubato into voting against the schools.” The Star Ledger Editorial Board called the vote “dumbfounding,” referred to the School Board as “a craven group,” and noted that “this vote still does tangible damage to the reform movement by undercutting Newark’s reputation at a critical time.”

New Jersey School Boards Association responds to Gov. Christie’s plan for tenure reform, which includes changes that the group has sought for decades: "'Teachers should not fear tenure reform,' [NJSBA Exec. Director Marie] Bilik said. 'The majority of our teachers are dedicated professionals, and state-to-state comparisons of overall student performance illustrate the high level of achievement in New Jersey.'"

However, Assembly Education Chair Patrick Diegnan is outraged.

Central Jersey
looks at the reasons why Highland Park in Middlesex County is applying for the DOE’s expanded Interdistrict School Choice Program.

The Opportunity Scholarship has passed through the Assembly Education Committee, but now Democrats say that it may not make it through either the Assembly or the Senate. Budget Chair Lou Greenwald told the Star-Ledger, “There is no support for the bill in the caucus at its current size. Thirteen towns is not a pilot program, it’s a cultural shift."

The Feds have awarded NJ $11 million for turn-around schools.

NJ Spotligh
t looks at the recent geyser of red tape in the form of new anti-bullying regulations despite the DOE's professed devotion to diminishing red tape.

Tom Moran mourns the loss of capable superintendents in NJ public schools, who are wooed across state lines where there are no salary caps.

The Asbury Park Press asks, “does it pay for school districts to outsource support staff?”

The Courier Post
looks at NJ’s culture of nepotism.

Don't miss the NY Times Magazine profile of Principal Ramón González, who leads a non-charter public middle school in the South Bronx that seems a lot like a charter.

The Daily News
analyzes the repercussions of NYC School Chancellor Cathie Black's departure.

OT: my son, a TFA corps member in Philadelphia, is looking for paid or unpaid work this summer in the area of education reform/policy. Please contact me directly with any tips.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Plea for Help for Trenton Central High

It’s painfully obvious that Trenton Central High School is in need of immediate help. A weakening roof and broken pipes routinely spill water throughout the building. There are rooms where the sodden ceiling routinely dissolves, leaving divots above and a mess below. Warped floors trip students, doors cannot be secured and windows must be propped open with sticks. Rotting drainpipes, embedded in the school's interior walls and swathed in asbestos, are difficult to reach and repair.
The Trenton Times Editorial Board also notes that SDA Chief Mark Larkins' promise to repair the leaking roof is a hopeful beginning to $24 million worth of urgent repairs.

Quote of the Day

[Cathie] Black, appointed by a billionaire businessman, reeked of dilettante perfume. Preposterously, she pleaded for "patience" in her introductory news conference. "Patience" so she could get up to speed on all the issues facing urban schools. As I wrote then, "The game was up with one word." Imagine a defense secretary asking for patience while he or she got up to speed on all the dangers facing America, or a police commissioner asking for patience while he or she got up to speed on the nature of gun crime. More to the point, imagine an under-the-gun principal or teacher - who we increasingly judge on results - asking for patience for a few months; the school system would say, flatly, no...

Now, Black is out, and Dennis Walcott - a far more competent reformer who genuinely seems to care about the schools - is taking her place. But to a large extent, the damage is done. In the eyes of the naysayers, Bloomberg hasn't just demonstrated a healthy belief in reform; he's demonstrated total contempt for professional educators, and he will no longer be trusted.

The school reformers deserve to win this long war. But to do that, they'll have to stop shooting themselves in every appendage.
Joshua Greenman in the Daily News (hat tip: Eduwonk).

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Cathie Black Out

Just out: NYC's new wildly unpopular School Chancellor is history.

Great Public Servants or Political Thugs?

Here we go again.

Gov. Christie tells Diane Sawyer that NJ’s teachers are “wonderful public servants who care deeply.” However, he remarks, NJEA executives are “a group of political thugs.”

Cue yet another NJEA press release: “Governor Christie's name-calling is a tired attempt to draw attention away from the fact that he chose to cut taxes for millionaires, rather than fund the state's public schools…Once again, Christie is resorting to name-calling because he’s ducking responsibility for his own misguided priorities.”

Question of the day: is the distinction often made (guilty as charged) between NJ’s teachers and the NJEA leadership meaningful? Is a difference without a difference, a political sleight-of-hand?

Some argue that teachers themselves elect their leaders and that, therefore, NJEA President Barbara Keshishian, Executive Director Vince Giordano, or Press Spokesman Steve Wollmer are simply proxies for NJ’s 200,000 teachers. Attacking the union representatives while sporting an “I Love Teachers” bumper sticker, they argue, is at best ill-informed and at worst specious.

But criticizing a teaching force is like criticizing Santa Claus. How can you attack a member of the cadre of highly-educated professionals who choose to devote themselves to our kids? In a recent piece in the Washington Post, Jason Kamras, who put together a teacher evaluation system for D.C. public schools called IMPACT, called this the “bless your heart” problem in the teaching profession. He explained, “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.”

Gov. Christie tries to have it both ways. All NJ teachers are “wonderful public servants.” All NJEA representatives are “political thugs.”

Of course it’s not that simple. There are probably some NJ teachers who aren’t wonderful public servants. There are probably some NJEA reps who aren’t political thugs. But the dichotomy works for him. He can rail about the union’s recalcitrance in accepting reform-minded changes to evaluative tools and tenure while upholding the hagiography of teachers. And NJEA’s executives fall into the same trap every time by refusing to address what everyone else knows is common sense: some tenured teachers are great and some tenured teachers aren’t.

Gov. Christie is set to introduce his tenure reform proposal today in NYC. No doubt it will be harsher than the union wants. Instead of dismissing it whole cloth, what if NJEA produces a blueprint for reform that (unlike the empty package introduced this past winter) doesn’t insist
that NJ schools are uniformly great, doesn’t insist that we don’t spend enough money on education, and doesn’t insist that every tenured teacher is, bless his heart, at the top of his profession.

Can Barbara Keshishian and her associates acknowledge that there may be a something a wee bit goofy about our current teacher evaluation system, which uniformly awards “satisfactory” ratings to just about every employee? If they can take that step, then NJEA can offer to partner with the State (yeah, hard one to swallow, that) to develop a meaningful evaluative system that distinguishes effective teachers from ineffective ones using a metric that combines student growth, principal evaluation, and seniority.

It would be a lot more proactive than trading insults, and a lot more productive for NJEA's 200,000 members.

SDA Saga Continues

As if there wasn’t enough bad news regarding the School Development Authority’s profligacy and inefficiency, NJ Spotlight reports today that it requested a list of the real estate holdings of the government agency. Turns out that SDA owns 160 properties that it purchased for $50 million for schools it will no longer be constructing. (Here’s the list.)

SDA Head Marc Larkins called the properties “an embarrassment” and said just plowing the lots this past winter cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

"The Widget Effect" Hits the Big Time

The New York Times hosts “Schott’s Vocab,” where Ben Schott canonizes “unconsidered lexicographical trifles” for shedding light on our times. His latest entry for a new word or phrase of particular import is none other than “The Widget Effect,” which Schott defines as “the detrimental effect of treating teachers as homogeneous and easily interchangeable.” For documentation he cites an excerpt from the NYT “Room for Debate” blog written by Timothy Daly of The New Teachers Project, which coined this phrase:
The biggest obstacle is that teaching is still based on a set of factory-era policies that treat teachers like interchangeable parts. In a 2009 study, my organization labeled this phenomenon the “widget effect.” Most school districts can’t distinguish their highest-performing teachers from their lowest; wrongly, they act as though all teachers are the same.

The widget effect degrades the teaching profession. If you do a fantastic job in your classroom, you can’t expect a fast track up the career ladder or even a pat on the back. You’ll get the same formulaic, seniority-based raise each year as the lower-performing teacher down the hall. During these hard economic times, you might even get a pink slip, since it’s illegal in 14 states to consider job performance in layoff decisions.

Quote of the Day

Stephen Moore, senior economics editor for the Wall St. Journal, looks at “negative productivity” in public education:
Where are the productivity gains in government? Consider a core function of state and local governments: schools. Over the period 1970-2005, school spending per pupil, adjusted for inflation, doubled, while standardized achievement test scores were flat. Over roughly that same time period, public-school employment doubled per student, according to a study by researchers at the University of Washington. That is what economists call negative productivity.

But education is an industry where we measure performance backwards: We gauge school performance not by outputs, but by inputs. If quality falls, we say we didn't pay teachers enough or we need smaller class sizes or newer schools. If education had undergone the same productivity revolution that manufacturing has, we would have half as many educators, smaller school budgets, and higher graduation rates and test scores.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Drinking the Water at Trenton Central High

Here’s a Trenton blogger on facility conditions at Trenton Central High:
The school officials and students said that the roof leaks, half the bathrooms are closed because they are no longer functional, the auditorium is closed because of loose asbestos, and that the drinking water from the fountains is contaminated by lead from the pipes. Basically, the school is a health hazard, and it provides a poor environment for learning. At the very least, kids are sent a message by being put into that facility and it is this. "The building is a piece of garbage, so we must be garbage too. Suburban kids get decent schools, but the let us sit in this thing. Why bother trying."
Yet when the School Development Authority (SDA) chose its 10 construction projects, Trenton High was left off the list. Today’s Star-Ledger recaps the Assembly Education Committee’s interrogation of SDA Chief Mark Larkins, who provided no documentation for the decision-making process that led to the choice of winning districts. Total tab for the construction of ten schools is estimated at $584 million, a fraction of $5.7 billion spend so far to build and/or renovate 61 schools.

School construction is expensive. In New Jersey the process may be more burdensome due to the infiltration of both profligacy and politics into such mundane items as drywall and phone systems. A recent profile (also from the Star-Ledger) on the 386-student International High School in Paterson, newly constructed by SDA, illustrates the problem:
Yet its new 113,000-square-foot facility, built by the state for $53 million, features an expansive wing for music classes. There are four permanently locked, darkened practice rooms with acoustic walls. There’s a large choral music room, now used only for in-school suspensions. There’s a second big, empty music room, where caged shelves built to store instruments are instead stuffed with extra school uniforms. And there’s an almost-empty office.

“It would be for the instructor, if we had one,” said the school’s principal, Robina Puryear-Castro, who arrived after the building was designed. “Right now, we have a piano in there, because we have a teacher who enjoys playing the piano.”
The public school system in Paterson, with a total operating annual budget of about $421 million for its 20,000 kids, has been under the aegis of the state since 1991. A decade of state control seems to have had little impact on corruption, particularly in the arena of school construction. In 2004 Paterson misspent $50 million for construction costs and in 2005 a maintenance supervisor pleaded guilty to accepting bribes in exchange for forgoing construction inspections.

How do the kids do? Student performance is grim, though not so bad at International School: 68.7% of students can pass the High School Proficiency Assessment; 44% fail the language arts portion and 64.6% fail the math portion.

How about that suite of music rooms in the ritzy new digs? Any aspiring Toscaninis? Hard to say, though the school doesn’t offer any A.P. music classes; in fact, the only A.P. class available is English Composition, and not one of the 7 takers got a 3 or higher on the exam.

Meanwhile the 1,726 kids at Trenton Central High (where only 39% fail the language arts portion of the HSPA but 71.5% fail the math portion) while away the hours in the ruins of a building unfit for learning. What if that $53 million spent on International High had been spent refurbishing Trenton Central? The students and teachers there probably would be thrilled to trade in a new music wing for lead-free water fountains.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Sunday Leftovers

There’ll Always Be A Newark: the Star-Ledger sits in on a rowdy school board candidate debate as 11 hopefuls vie for 4 slots. (Update here.)
An ugly showdown erupted at the end of the meeting, when Bishop Timothy Pernell began yelling at city Councilwoman Mildred Crump and Rutgers professor Junius Williams, insisting they were wrong in insinuating his sister Chris Pernell was not a Newark resident.

"If you are a black man with dignity then you need to learn the facts!" he shouted to Williams, a long-respected voice in Newark education and head of the Abbot Leadership Institute.
Pernell had to be restrained by members of his own team. He then accused Crump of being a liar.
The Record reports that the DOE received 58 applications for new charter schools.

The State Supreme Court has accelerated the schedule for deciding the constitutionality of Gov. Christie’s 2010-2011 school aid cuts.

Assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande takes the State to task for sticking with an obsolete list of 31 high-needs districts (also known as “Abbotts) in spite of the fact that other districts are now poorer and some, like Hoboken, no longer belong on the list.

The Courier-Post says that regardless of Special Master Peter Doyne’s conclusion that the school aid cuts were unconstitutional, NJ doesn’t have the $1.6 billion lying around to square accounts. At any rate, it’s not about money:
With these long-struggling urban schools, it's about making the radical changes that value children over entrenched institutions and unions; real changes and options that will lead to underprivileged kids actually getting the "thorough and efficient" education they deserve.
But the Philadelphia Inquirer chastises Gov. Christie for not fully funding the school funding formula.

And The Press of Atlantic City wonders whether a decision in favor of ELC would send more money to non-Abbott districts.

Assemblywoman Connie Wagner suggests that Bergen County, with 70 municipalities, could get by with fewer than the current 75 superintendents.

NJ School Boards Association
compares Gov. Christie’s and Senator Sweeney’s plans for pension and health care benefit contributions.

Rishawn Biddle over at Dropout Nation has some stats particular to New Jersey:
$38,437.63: the average annual annuity of a New Jersey teacher in 2009.
$36,000,000,000: The unfunded retired teacher healthcare liability for New Jersey in 2009.
124,983: Number of eighth-graders who originally made up California’s and New Jersey’s Class of 2009 who dropped out and fell into prison and poverty.
Speaking of state money, Rutgers is paying “New Jersey Shore” reality show star Snookie $32K to speak at Commencement (and, no, it’s not April 1st anymore).

Intercepts reports that “the average retired teacher in California made more than the average working teacher in 28 states, according to the salary rankings published by NEA.”

Mike Petrelli and Fordham Institute colleagues reconsider their ed reform priorities.