Wednesday, September 28, 2011

NJ's Poor Rural Districts Kvetch, "What Are We? Chopped Liver?"

The big educational story in New Jersey today is the suit filed in State Appeals Court on behalf of the so-called “Bacon” districts, the rural equivalent of poor urban districts, or “Abbotts.” Most everyone’s heard of NJ’s Abbott districts: Newark, Trenton, Camden, Paterson, 31 in all, battered emblems of our noble attempts to rectify educational inequities through cold hard cash.

But not too many have heard of our 16 Bacon districts: Buena Regional, Clayton, Commercial, Egg Harbor City, Fairfield, Hammonton Township, Lakehurst, Lakewood, Lawrence, Little Egg Harbor, Maurice River, Ocean Township, Quinton, Upper Deerfield, Wallington, and Woodbine. On the State socio-economic rating scale, DFG, they’re all A’s or B’s. (A is the poorest and J is the richest.)

The Bacon case was first litigated back in 1997 and charged that NJ’s school funding deprives poor rural children of a thorough and efficient education. (The history is covered nicely in this most recent filing.) There's been a series of rulings and reversals and orders of different sorts of remedies, though never any more money. After all, funding issues were supposed to be resolved the School Funding Reform Act. Which wasn’t fully funded after the economy tanked. Now lawyers for the plaintiffs are asking that the State ratchet up Bacon districts’ school aid by $30 million. Really just a drop in the bucket when you think about it. Newark Public Schools whips through that in about two weeks.

Here’s coverage from the Wall St. Journal and NJ Spotlight.

Just as lots of money hasn’t erased the achievement gaps in urban Abbott districts, another $30 mil isn’t likely to ameliorate the woes in, say, Anna Klein Elementary School in Guttenberg (Hudson County), an 1,000-kid K-8 one-school district where just about everyone is classified as economically-disadvantaged. Or Fairfield Township School, another one-school district with 600 kids in Cumberland County with lousy test scores and low comparative cost per pupil: only $10,786 each per year, well below adequacy levels.(DOE data base here.)

So, what to do? Actually, court-ordered needs assessments were done on all Bacon districts and released (after various delays) in 2009. According to those assessments (from the brief):

A regionalization study…would be key to the funding of the Bacon districts…Each district gave its full cooperation to the Executive County Superintendents who conducted these studies. Virtually every Bacon districts and its voters would be thrilled to consolidate with wealthier and more property rich districts that are close by. Clayton officials, for example, have tried numerous times to combine with Glassboro to its north or Delsea Regional (Franklin and Elk Townships) to its south, north, and east. These entreaties have been continuously rebuffed. As another example, Woodbine’s K-8 school is less than five (5) miles from Dennis Township’s K-8 school. Woodbine’s officials and voters would love to combine with Dennis Township. There is zero chance that Dennis Township voters would agree to combine with Woodbine, unless such regionalization becomes mandatory.

To use the example in the brief, Woodbine has an “A” DFG, the poorest possible ranking, on a par with Newark or Camden. According to the most recent DOE data, 11 out of 13 kids in the 8th grade are labeled as economically disadvantaged. (There’s only 220 kids in the whole one-building K-8 district.) Five miles away is Dennis School District with a DFG of DE: nothing to write home about, but not poor either. In Dennis's elementary/middle school, 13 out of 62 kids in the 8th grade are economically disadvantaged. If you live in Woodbine, the amount of cash allotted to your kid each year is $13,254 (comparative cost per pupil). If your live in Dennis, then the amount of money allotted to your child each year is $14,746.

Then again, if you live in Franklin Lakes (a J district) it’s $16,380.

Nothing raises the ire of a devoted New Jerseyan more than the threat of mandated consolidation, town or school district. It's antithetical to our code of honor, our omerta, our shtick, our sense of entitlement and identity. We love our home rule.

The one-school district usually brings warm thoughts of tiny enclaves of privilege. The Bacon districts are the other side of that image: tiny slums pitting a middle-class landscape. $30 million would, no doubt, be welcomed. But it's no substitute for access.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Quote of the Day

Powerful piece by Kati Haycock, “Look to Schools to Solve the Achievement Gap:”

It's “easy to blame low achievement among these students on uninvolved parents or the burdens of poverty and race...But while the achievement gap has roots outside of schools — serious ones that we must address — it has solutions inside the school walls."
The shameful truth about America’s public schools system is this: If you’re a young person of color or come from a poor or working-class family, you stand a pretty high chance of getting a second-rate education.

In fact, the latest national data show that more than half of all African-American and Latino fourth-graders are unable to read at even a basic level. And, math skills of low-income eighth-graders are more than twice as likely to be below basic as those of their more affluent classmates

Pension/Benefits Reform a Hit with New Jerseyans

A new Fairleigh Dickinson University poll shows that Gov. Christie’s blustery overhaul of public employee pension and health benefits contributions (which includes NJ’s public school teachers) is popular with voters (not to mention school boards). Poll Director Peter Woolley told the Star-Ledger, “he got a big win on pension and benefits reform in June, and weathered Hurricane Irene in August."

Evaluating and Retaining Effective Teachers

Speaking of white papers, here’s a new one from the Education Trust, entitled “Fair to Everyone: Building the Balanced Teacher Evaluations that Educators and Students Deserve.” Written by Sarah Almay, it is itself fair and balanced, informed by both a growing consensus that our current method for evaluating teachers is sloppy and inaccurate, and also that teachers are rightfully concerned that an overemphasis on raw student growth penalizes competent teachers.

It’s clear that America is moving towards value-added teacher evaluations, i.e., measuring a teacher’s impact on students by tracking student growth and weighting the formula for variables like poverty, learning differences, English language proficiency, parental support.

In fact, based on Almay’s research, teachers themselves support this direction. Only 42% of teachers believe that “current evaluation allows accurate assessment of performance.”Only 43% agree that "the current system helps teachers improve." 59% of teachers say that their district "is not doing enough to "identify, promote, and retain the best teachers," and 72% of teachers believe that “how much your students are learning compared to students in other schools is a good indication of success as a teacher.”

Of course, the devil’s in the details. Check out both NJEA’s concerns here, and NJ Spotlight’s interview with Charlotte Danielson, the eponymous creator of a widely-used teacher evaluation system (and one of the four systems currently piloted by the NJ DOE). Remember, a great deal of the kerfuffle over our Race To The Top application had to do with a heavy reliance on student test scores to assess teacher effectiveness (50% in the version actually submitted to the U.S. DOE), which won the rancor of teachers state-wide, or at their representatives.

But something must be done. 50% is too high. Is 40%, combined with rigorous professional development and support once pedagogical deficits appear? Do I hear 35%?

Just about everyone concurs that the current system for evaluating teachers is broken. Do we have the will to fix it? From Almay's paper:

What began as an effort to treat everyone in the system as equals has calcified into a system that is anything but fair to teachers. Teachers who are committed to their students’ achievement are forced to make up the ground students didn’t cover with previous teachers who are less committed – for the same amount of pay and little recognition. Teachers who want to get better and to develop their professional craft are provided little personalized guidance.

And these evaluation systems, developed decades ago to ensure that teachers are treated like professionals, have accomplished exactly the opposite. Not only is this unfair to teachers – it is profoundly unfair to students. Our failure to distinguish among teachers allows us to avoid confronting the fundamental fallacy of suggesting that one teacher is as good as the next. This particularly shortchanges the low-income students and students of color who, year after year, are saddled with less qualified and effective teachers.

NJ Charter School Aperitif

One tiny piece of charter legislation passed the Senate yesterday: Bill S1858, which allows parochial schools to convert to public charters, with the condition that applicants remove all religious references and instruction. Here’s a press release from Assembly Democrats and a Spotlight analysis. The NJ Catholic Conference has refused to support the bill, but one of the bill’s sponsors, Senator Ray Lesniak, says that some currently parochial schools in Camden may grab the lifeline, and that’s good enough.

Why the disdain from the Catholic Conference? Because some regard this legislation as a milquetoast version of the Opportunity Scholarship Act (which would give corporate-sponsored scholarships to poor kids to use for private or parochial schools), a way for legislators to bray, “I care about kids! I get the urgency! I feel your pain!” (cue Clintonesque lower lip under front teeth) without pissing off the lobbyists invested in the demise of OSA.

I’m with the senior senator from Union County: if this conversion bill rescues a few kids in Camden, then it’s well worth the passage. Nice job, legislators. (It only passed 25-13. What’s up with that?) While it's not enough, it's a nice start.

Now, please, can we talk about multiple authorizers for charter schools? That’s a major impediment to a functional charter school environment – both in terms of authorization and accountability. Also worth noting: NJ's practice of relegating all charter authorizing authority to the DOE renders our state charter laws inferior to other states and is the reason we keep losing out on federal aid for charter schools, including $15 million just this past summer. Let’s get to the red meat.

Need convincing? Check out this white paper from Education Sector (written by Sara Mead and Andrew Rotherham) on best practices in charter school legislation. The first one listed is
High quality “professional” authorizers that are committed to charter school quality, have authorizing as a core mission, have sufficient resources to carry out that mission, and oversee a significant number of schools.
In NJ, that’s Assembly Bill 3083. Let’s hope our Legislature gets it done.

Ed Reform Idol?

From NJ BIZ which asks, “how should education be reformed in New Jersey?” Cast your own vote (though no vote-tweeting allowed). Most recent faves:
Allow private businesses to operate schools: 18%
End teacher tenure: 70%
Do nothing. The school system is fine how it is: 9%
Get Mark Zuckerberg to donate more money: 3%

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sunday Leftovers

The Trenton Times ran a two-part series this week (one, two) that describes some of the failings of local charter schools. For counterpoint, see this editorial by Carlos Perez, president of the NJ Charter School Association, who headlines the number of federal grants we’ve lost because of the NJ State Legislature’s failure to pass adequate charter school laws.

Also from the Trenton Times (and a rarely-discussed explanation of why some parents would choose even faltering charter schools): “Two teens were assaulted and stabbed when they were accosted by a group of other teens while walking back home from Trenton Central High School Tuesday afternoon, police said.”

Paterson Public Schools hoped to prove itself ready to shed the cuffs of State control, but failed multiple parts of the accountability metric called QSAC. Reports The Record,

Schools got failing grades in fiscal management, operations, personnel and instruction — which received just 33 percent when 80 percent is a passing grade. The review found just 50 percent of students were graduating and "even this number is overstated," Cerf wrote, with only 30 percent of those graduates passing the state's standard High School Assessment test. More than 60 percent of Paterson's students are deficient in subjects like English and writing, and more than half don't meet standards in math. The district's only passing grade was in governance.

NJ Spotlight reports that 2011 is the second year in a row that the School Development Authority, which handles construction projects for schools in need of brick-and-mortar reform, will not break ground on any new projects.

Colts Neck Update: teachers boycotted Back-To-School nights after the school board and the local union reached an impasse on contract negotiations. More from the Asbury Park Press, including the last offer by the board, which was rejected by the union: 1.5% annual salary increases with an increase of instructional time at the middle school.

The non-profit that manages Newark Public Schools’ Facebook grant of $100 million announced that $600K will go towards funding grants submitted by teachers for innovative classroom programs. (Star-Ledger)

New Jersey will join Next Generation Science Standards, which aims to develop a more rigorous science curriculum for American students. 19 other states are also part of the development team.

More on those No Child Left Behind waivers (unless states think that local students will be 100% proficient in reading and math in 2014) : here’s the Wall St. Journal, the New York Times, the Courier-Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer. Also, here's the U.S. DOE's official press release and EdWeek's "Politics K-12" report.

Andy Rotherham grades the GOP presidential candidates on their education records.

Stephen Sawchuk reports on a new data analysis from the U.S. DOE that the attrition rate for first-year teachers “may approach 10%.”

The Fordham Foundation has a new report:"Do High Flyers Maintain Their Altitude? Performance Trends of Top Students."