Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Irony of the Day

The Paterson School Board split their vote last week, arriving at a 4-3 decision to spend $280K for board members to participate in a team-building program offered by the Center for the Reform of School Systems, a Texas-based organization with a “vision of a better America and built on a tradition of meaningful reforms designed to help school districts reach higher levels of performance.”

The organization is run by Don McAdams, a former Houston school board member, who recently coached members of the Plano, TX school board to “avoid split votes and to meet at a private home to get to know each other, and hope no citizens showed up.”

The Paterson school board vote split because some members complained that the resolution agreeing to the fee did not specify who would attend, for how long, where the sessions would be held, and whether the $280K includes travel to Texas, according to the Alternative Press. One board member noted that three members’ seats are up every year, so it’s unclear how the district will benefit. Another noted that New Jersey School Boards Association offers free board training.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Quote of the Day

Steven Brill's new book, "Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools," was "reviewed" yesterday by the New York Times education reporter Michael Winerip. Winerip's weekly crusade against education reform in the pages of the Grey Lady is a study of those who find satisfaction in fomenting the divide between hard-working teachers and those who support elements of education reform, which are not, by the way, mutually exclusive groups. Winerip's shrill jeremiads tolerate no critical thinking or nuanced perspectives: it's all angels and demons. In fact, at the end of the piece Winerip almost seems disappointed at Brill's conclusion that meaningful education will only come about by collaboration with teacher unions. Guess it doesn't fit into his black/white paradigm.

Anyway, here's Mr. Brill's reply to Mr. Winerip:
I appreciate that Mr. Winerip thinks I have “seen the light” at the end of the book. What he doesn’t realize, though not for lack of my trying to explain it to him, is that I was simply reporting what I found over two years. I was not trying to render, let alone reconcile, a verdict for or against his (anti-reform) point of view.

However, despite his distinguished prior career as an reporter, I am not surprised by the apparent anger in Mr. Winerip’s opinion column, let alone his decision to distort my book by ignoring all in it that describes teachers (and even teachers’ union leaders) in a positive light and strains to explain, and depict from the classroom, how difficult efffective teaching is. When he talked with me, it was almost as if he’d been waiting to unload on me for years. He freely cast epithets, some profane, at many of the men and women portrayed in the book, and refused to consider that his reporting about alleged “skimming” of the best students at the Harlem Success charter network might be based on faulty data. (Though he did, I guess in attempt to humor me, chuckle when I tweaked him for ignoring in a prior article that I was the product of Queens, New York elementary and middle public schools, before winning a full scholarship to go to a prep school – whereupon he repeated this revelation in this article.)

After he slammed a phone down on me on Friday when I tried to get him into the weeds of that Harlem Success data, I sent Mr. Winerip an email urging him to reconsider. I never received a reply. Whether my reading of the data on Harlem Success is right or wrong (and I believe it is correct), I think his approach to dealing with the issue, let alone the near-venom of his piece today, speaks for itself.

Back from a hurricane-related hiatus,

I'll jump right into the new Monmouth University Poll that shows that New Jersey support many of the tenets of education reform. The majority of the 802 adults who were surveyed earlier this month agreed with the following:
  • Tying teacher evaluations to student longitudinal growth: "About one-third (32%) say that performance-based metrics should weigh more heavily in determining teacher compensation. However, nearly half (47%) feel that performance and experience should be given equal weight in determining an individual teacher’s salary."
  • Merit pay: Patrick Murray of the Monmouth University Polling Institute explains, “Democratic leaders in the legislature have put the kibosh on merit pay, but the New Jersey public does not feel this is such a bad idea. The sticking point is how to measure teacher and student performance.” In fact, few have much faith in the state standardized tests; only 6% believe that the ASK tests do an "excellent" job of rating student ability.
  • Tenure Reform: 52% of those surveyed belief that teachers should not receive lifelong job security after three years and a day on the job. From Monmouth:
    New Jerseyans of every partisan stripe, would support changing it to a limited tenure system which would evaluate teachers on a regular basis. A teacher who fails an evaluation would be given up to three years to regain their tenure or they could be fired if they do not improve. Only 18% of Garden State residents oppose this proposed change.
  • Vouchers: "A majority of 55% support “tax funded vouchers” compared to just 34% who oppose it." That support is unchanged since 2004.
  • There's a far amount of confusion about the nature of charter schools, which should be a signal to charter school advocates that they need to do more to educate the public. Only 36% of those polled know that charters are public schools and only 41% know that charter school students have to take the same standardized tests as those in traditional public schools. 51% think that the existence of charter schools has no impact on the quality of NJ's traditional public schools.
  • Accountability: 63% of Garden Staters think that public schools need more accountability and only 29% say that adequate oversight is already in place.
The poll results should serve as a reminder to legislators and lobbyists that New Jersey has national leadership potential for implementing education reform principles.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Quote of the Day

“I can’t work under these conditions. Tomorrow, I will be resigning as interim superintendent.”

That's Middletown Interim Superintendent Patrick Huston, who “grabbed his briefcase and walked out of the room” during a Board meeting last night, “just minutes after the board rejected his recommendation for principal of Middletown High School South," according to the Asbury Park Press.

Middletown can get in line. According to the NJ School Boards Association (in a Courier-Post piece today) 170 of the 589 districts it tracks have hired new superintendents this year, which makes the turnover 85% higher than the average over the last nine years.

NJ's Special Ed Problem

The Trenton Times reported this week that Trenton Public School District will open an alternative schools for kids with behavioral problems. The program will be housed within the recently-shuttered Munoz-Rivera Elementary School. Prospective enrollment includes 28 students classified as eligible for special education services and 48 who aren't. Trenton School Board Minutes cite Interim Superintendent Raymond Broach, who noted that the district is being proactive by “providing an alternative education for students who may have difficulty navigating a regular school program. Additionally, this would provide relief for teachers who may otherwise make a recommendation for these students to be classified and sent out-of district [to private or public special education programs].

New Jersey has a reputation for segregating students with disabilities in out-of-district placements. A 2003 report from the NJ Council of Developmental Disabilities, “Where Are We Now? Still Segregated in New Jersey,” juxtaposed the national average for kids placed in separate facilities – 2.9% -- with Jersey’s average of 8.8%. It’s likely that we’ve improved a bit – more and more districts are creating in-district programming, especially for children on the autism spectrum – but Trenton is a good case study for where we are now.

There’s 11,500 kids enrolled in Trenton Public Schools. According to State DOE data, 16.47% are classified as eligible for special education services. That’s just about in line about the state average, and impressive for an Abbott district, which tend to have higher percentages of classified students. (Example, though an outlier: 33.6% of students at Camden Central High School are classified.) Of those 11,500 kids in Trenton, 748 are out-sourced to either private special education schools or other public special education programs.

Trenton Public Schools has a total operating budget of $238,427,956. Of that total, $33,730,002 is allocated for out-of-district tuition. So 14.2% of the total budget is spent on out-of-district placements.

The Trenton Times piece says that tuition per child ranges from $14,000 to $70,000. That’s actually incorrect. According to Board minutes some placements are as high as $98,000 per year, and bussing typically adds another $5 - $10K. Any district in NJ would confirm that. To give you a sense of the scope of this, on June 28th the Trenton School Board approved $945,575.10 in out-of-district placements. On July 21st they approved $8,211.653.68 in out-of-district placements.

Do some kids need to be educated in segregated settings? Absolutely. Do 748 kids in Trenton need to be out-sourced? Probably not.

Cynics could argue that an Abbott district has little incentive to create adequate in-district programs. After all, it’s not their money; of Trenton’s $238 million budget only $21 million comes from local tax levies. But the Trenton School Board seems genuinely concerned about the need to rein in special education costs and, certainly, would be aware of the ethical dimensions of segregating children with disabilities from their typical peers.

So is it savvy parents who push for out-of-district placements in order to extricate their kids from academically troubled districts? Is it a lack of resources or therapists in-house? Is it a facilities issue? Is there some lack of administrative leadership to create in-district programming? Is it just the way we’ve always done business?

The Trenton Times article ends with a wish from interim special education director Pearl Charatz: Trenton will start accepting tuition students from neighboring districts in their new alternative school for kids with behavioral problems. That enterprising approach might be best applied to figuring out how to include more children with disabilities within their home district.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Newark and Ed Reform

For an example of the strange alliances begot by education reform, check this out: the hoary American Civil Liberties Union and the Newark-based Secondary Parent Council (SPC) are suing the City of Newark because Mayor Cory Booker won’t hand over personal email related to Facebook Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation to Newark Public Schools. Here's coverage from the Wall St. Journal.

Laura Baker, a member of a the Secondary Parent Council, requested Booker's emails under the Open Public Records Act. Here’s the State’s denial of the request on the grounds of it being “overly broad.

Trying to be a man of the people, Mayor Booker, an irrepressible tweeter, then broadcast, "All grants of Zuckerberg $ have been made public. New grant announcements coming in September."In response, a reporter who doubles as a writer for Blue Jersey as well as a publicity person for the ACLU, started a twitter campaign. Readers are urged to "Contact Mayor Cory Booker in a medium you know he'll listen. Tweet@CoryBooker right now with this message: Update the public on Zuckerberg's gift. Please release all records on the Facebook emails; the public has a right to know."

Let's unpack this a bit. Why, after all, would the Secondary Parent Council, dedicated to the improvement of Newark public schools, peck away at a mayor whom, by all accounts, shares the same goal? It can’t be about the $100 million: that’s a mere 12% of Newark’s annual school budget.

In fact, the SPC is a spoke of an umbrella group called the Coalition for Effective Newark Public Schools, which includes the Newark Teachers Union, the Newark Supervisors and Administrators union, Abbott Leadership Institute, the NAACP-Newark Chapter, and the Education Law Center. The group has produced a five-point plan to improve Newark schools that incorporates a couple of reformy elements like teacher accountability while blowing raspberries at the "top down" initiatives like continued State control and the failed attempt to place experimental schools within the dismal Barringer High School. (At Barringer in 2010 only 26% of juniors and seniors were able to pass the high school standardized test, which is an 8th grade level assessment.)

So here's what's weird: you'd think that parent groups like SPC would be big fans of elements of ed reform like school choice and charter schools and vouchers. But this group in particular is so tied to teacher union politics that its absorbed the patina of anti-reform fervor, the fear that expanded school choice leave even more kids in the lurch. That parent power gets linked to teacher union power, and then conflated again with stalwart champions of justice like the ACLU and the NAACP.

It's as if school choice, specifically charter school expansion, has become the whipping boy for all things threatening to advocates of traditional public schools. (Here's the Newark Teacher Union President Joseph Del Grosso back in 2008 in EdWeek: "The mayor [Booker] is interested in charter schools because he doesn't have a clue how to fix education.") And until that resistance weakens we'll spend time and resources on frivolous law suits."

Joel Klein, former Chancellor for the NYC schools, has a great piece this week in Reuters (actually a book review) that gets to the heart of this conundrum:

The unions know that parents are the only force they can’t beat and, as a result, they’ve done an incredible job over the past couple of decades cultivating them as allies. But, increasingly, parents — especially those in high-poverty communities — are coming to understand that it’s their kids who are bearing the brunt of the current union-driven, adults-first focus of public education.

If Newark's parents are represented by SPC then we've got a long way to go.