Wednesday, November 30, 2011

NJ's "Socially Inequitable" School Choice

The highly-regarded Brookings Institute has a new study out today which grades 13 cities on the “critical role of school choice.” NJ’s cities aren’t on the list, though there’s no shortage of Garden State passion on the issue.

This week, in fact, NJ hosts two dueling rallies on issues of school choice. The first, this afternoon in Jersey City, is sponsored by a bevy of opponents to the Opportunity Scholarship Act, which would give corporate-funded scholarships to poor kids in cities with rotten schools. (The original version of the bill included 13 cities. Now there’s only 3-5 cities on the list, depending upon whom you ask.)

Participants in the anti-choice rally include Save Our Schools-NJ (the no-charters-in-rich-suburbs organization), Gordon MacInnes (former “Abbott Czar” at the DOE and chief cook and bottle washer for the NJ poverty-is-destiny groupies), and the Coalition for Effective Newark Public Schools (whose members include the Newark Teachers Union and Education Law Center).

The second rally, in support of OSA, is tomorrow morning in Trenton and is sponsored by Excellent Education for Everyone (E3). There’s no list of sponsors available.

Anyway, back to Brookings. According to the report, a quarter of parents of school age children among the cities studied “report that they moved to their current neighborhood for the school. Another 11 percent of families choose to pay for their children to attend private schools.” In fact,
more than 50 percent of parents of school-aged children have engaged in some form of school choice, albeit primarily in the form of residential choice and private school tuition: two socially inequitable means of determining where a child attends school. There is little doubt based on the long waiting lists for popular public schools of choice that many more parents wish to exercise choice than are currently able to do so, and schools of choice consistently generate more positive evaluations from parents than assigned schools.

So part of Brookings’ rubric for assessing socially equitable school choice measures whether students are assigned schools based on parent preferences and not on zip code. Conversely, the study measures whether “assignment to schools out of the students’ geographical attendance zone is difficult, unclear, or substantially disadvantages parents.”

In NJ, of course, students are assigned schools based on zip code which, according to Brookings, is a “socially inequitable means of determining where a child attends school.” Well-to-do families exercise school choice all the time by moving to better districts or paying private school tuition, poor families are trapped by district boundaries. The only way out is our embattled charter school environment or through the Interdistrict Public School Choice program, which serves a few thousand kids.

Take Trenton residents for an example. While there are four charter schools in the area serving about 1,000 kids, everyone else goes to the Trenton Public Schools. At Trenton Central High School 71.5% of students failed the 2010 HSPA, the 8th grade-level assessment given to juniors. 39% failed the HSPA in language arts. If families could afford to move to, say, Princeton (hey – it’s only 10 miles down Rte. 206, not to mention the birthplace of Save Our Schools-NJ), their kids would be educated in an environment where only 11% of kids failed the math portion of the 2010 HSPA and a mere 5% failed language arts.

The problem is that you have to have money to move. Any system that bases school attendance on zip code is socially inequitable. New Jersey, according to Brookings’ rubric, gets a big fat F in school choice. From the report:
Our framework places considerable emphasis on the processes by which students are assigned to schools, treating it as a major category for evaluating choice and competition. The antithesis of choice is an assignment mechanism based on residence, with little or no chance of parents being able to enroll their child in a school other than the one in their neighborhood.

New CEO for E3

Excellent Education for Everyone (E3), which has been devoting itself to the passage of the Opportunity Scholarship Act, has just announced that it has a new President and CEO: Christy Davis Jackson, Esq. Ms. Davis Jackson will fill the shoes of the late Dan Gaby, E3’s much beloved chief executive.

Ms. Davis Jackson served as Chief of Staff to Wynona Lipman (a former Essex County Senator), was Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s State Director, and managed Jon Corzine’s senatorial campaign. She is married to Reverend Reginald Jackson, who served on E3’s Board. Rev. Jackson has resigned to avoid any conflict with his wife’s new role.

From the press release:
Ms. Davis Jackson said she views the CEO position at E3 as “… a unique opportunity to bring broad-based support to E3’s education reform proposals, including parental school choice, high academic standards, a revised and improved school funding formula, and proper treatment of teachers - - including tenure reform, performance based pay, and protection from political pressures.” She went on to say that she looked forward to the challenge of getting all stakeholders in New Jersey public education to focus on the needs of children as their first priority.

Correction: E3's press release refers to “E3’s long time CEO, Dan Gaby.” In fact, Dan Gaby was E3’s Executive Director (see this tribute in PolitickerNJ). After Gaby’s death two years ago, Derrell Bradford succeeded him as E3’s Executive Director. Bradford is now Executive Director of B4K.

Sweeney on Teacher Tenure

N.J. State Senate President Stephen Sweeney considers the prospects of tenure reform during the Senate's lame duck session (The Record):
It is no accident that [New Jersey] students outperform their peers from across the country. It is a combination of several factors, not the least of which is that our schools are filled with exceptional teachers.

But that does not mean that we can’t find areas of improvement. Most people, educators included, agree that the way teacher tenure works now is simply not tenable.

We must devise a new method for which teachers receive tenure, but we must do so in a way that is fair, productive and that leaves politics out of it. Tenure reform will certainly be a key issue during this lame-duck session, and the Senate looks forward to working with teachers on this issue, not vilifying them.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Quote of the Day (Completely Off-Topic)

Representative Barney Frank (D-MA) has announced his retirement, in large part because of the inability of Congress to do, well, anything. In an interview with Talking Points Memo he describes the state of the House of Representatives under Republican rule:
“It consists half of people who think like Michele Bachmann and half of people who are afraid of losing a primary to people who think like Michele Bachmann,” he said, “and that leaves very little room to work things out.”

Has Teacher Quality Declined?

As New Jerseyans await the State Legislature’s promised debate on reforming teacher tenure, there’s two pieces today that address the impact of lifelong job security and union power on classroom effectiveness.

First, Lee E. Ohanian, a Professor of Economics at UCLA, explains how teacher unions affect the quality of teachers in American schools “by protecting teachers who do not perform well.” In "America's Public Sector Dilemma" he cites research by Caroline Hoxby, a labor economist at Stanford, that shows that, in spite of higher spending per pupil since the 1960’s, “teacher unions are responsible for increasing the resources devoted to public education by using their market power in bargaining with school districts, and that, despite higher spending, unions depress the quality of education by reducing the productivity of teaching.”

Ohanian continues,
Caroline Hoxby and Andrew Leigh find that the share of teachers who are among the top aptitude individuals, as measured by SAT scores, has declined over time from about 5 percent of teachers in 1963 to only 1 percent in 2000, and that much of this decline is due to the fact that teacher unions, like most other unions, compress compensation, which means that the spread in compensation between the highest quality and lowest quality teachers is reduced. And it is not only the very top aptitude individuals that are entering teaching at a lower rate. Wage compression benefits lower ability teachers, but reduces compensation of the best teachers, and this decline in compensation at the top end leads to fewer top aptitude individuals pursuing a teaching career.
In a related article today, Matthew Di Carlo in The Shanker Blog notes that the “cognitive ability” among female students who choose teaching as a career has declined over time:
An important 2004 longitudinal analysis of the trend in teachers’ cognitive ability (as measured by math/reading tests) suggests that the proportion of female students who both chose teaching and scored in the top ten percent on these tests was around 15-17 percent in the late 1950s, compared with roughly 7-8 percent in the early 1990s (also see here). There were similar, though less pronounced, patterns among female students scoring in the top 70-90 percent. This suggests, in other words, that the highest-achieving (at least as measured by these aptitude tests) young women are more likely to choose other professions than they used to be.
Di Carlo also notes that part of the decline of teacher cognitive ability, at least among females, is due to the expanding opportunities for women in the work force. (The choices aren’t just social workers, teachers, or nurses anymore.) Ohanian, however, attributes much of the decline to the lack of competition for higher salaries, since compensation for teachers is frozen into salary guides that disregard effectiveness in the classroom. He points out the much-publicized case of Megan Sampson, “a public school teacher in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, [who] was laid off because of lack of seniority, even though she received Wisconsin’s outstanding first-year teacher award.”

Di Carlo is no anti-unionist. His blog is funded by AFT and he describes his mission (on the blog's homepage) as advocating for “teacher unions as advocates for quality;" understandably, he posits no link between the decline in teacher quality and the lack of differentiation between great teachers and lousy ones. But he and Ohanian (who hails not only from UCLA but also from the Conservative American Enterprise Institute) dovetail in their agreement on national problems in attracting smart and ambitious candidates to the teaching profession.

It’s not too hard a stretch to see that the unions’ trade-offs – sacrificing competitive salaries for job security and back-loaded compensation systems like pensions – are less appealing to smart young people, particularly (according to DiCarlo) women. Whom do we serve by maintaining the anachronistic system of rewarding fidelity instead of quality? We know it's not the kids. Apparently it's not our new promising teachers either.

Lame Duck Alert: Moving School Board Elections to November

The Daily Record is reporting a sudden upswing in interest among legislators regarding two bills that have existed in Statehouse Purgatory for several years, either buried in committee or relegated to someone’s back burner. One bill would require school districts and municipalities to participate in county purchasing programs. The second would move school board elections to November and eliminate school budget elections for districts that strike budgets under the 2% cap.

Who can argue with the first bill? Anyway, many districts already participate in joint purchasing agreements for various commodities, sometimes in consortia with other districts and sometimes with municipalities. It’s a no-brainer. Just don't get bogged down on the local control angle among home rulists. Please don't encourage them.

Moving school board elections to April is more controversial, or at least it was the last time it was seriously considered in 2009. Then, its sponsor, Sen. Shirley Turner, couldn’t even get it to a vote within the Education Committee – but its time is nigh.

November elections are opposed by NJEA and NJ School Boards Association, or at least they shared that stance a couple of years ago, and for pretty much the same reasons. (A moment of silence, please, for the era when NJEA and NJSBA were more often than not reading from the same talking points.)

At the time both lobbying groups posited, “This move would politicize what is currently a non-partisan election process.”

[Cue kerfaws of hysterical laughter. Can anyone say that with a straight face anymore? Note that not all partisan politics is defined by major political parties; for illustration, see latest from Hamilton School Board.)]

But it’s a good and proper bill, compliant with the sense of man and God that voting is a November activity. Compartmentalizing school board member and school budget elections to an arbitrary date in April (last year it was a Wednesday, not a Tuesday) encourages low turnout (typically about 10%) and accommodates special interest groups. From a Record editorial on this bill in a previous incarnation:
[C]urrently, the teachers union appears to have more financial involvement than political parties do in school board elections, according to a report by the state Election Law Enforcement Commission. Statewide, about 9 percent of school board campaign contributions were from political parties, compared to 40 percent from donors with ties to the NJEA, the commission found in 2002.
The other portion of the bill that eliminates votes on budgets that come in under cap is a lovely carrot to the stick of state legislation, and a boon to school districts that no longer will have to spend months marketing their finances. And eliminating a special election in April will save money!

Dear Legislators: you are faced with some complex education bills this session that deserve your full attention and analyses. These two regarding school board and budget elections are easy as pie. Pass them.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Plumbing Diane Ravitch's Heart

Check out Kevin Carey’s article today in The New Republic, “The Dissenter,” which analyzes Diane Ravitch’s switch from fierce advocate for standards-based education reform to the nation’s stalwart defender of the status quo. Carey attributes at least part of Ravitch’s change of heart to a long-running feud with former NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. Klein’s predecessor, Harold Levy, had been looking for an educator to lead a principals’ training program. Ravitch recommended her long-time partner Mary Butz, and Butz got the job. When Klein came to NYC he revamped the program and dumped Butz.

Carey’s information is based on a series of Freedom of Information Act requests for emails between Klein and Ravitch.

Regarding Ravitch’s body of work, Carey interviewed a historian, James Fraser, a colleague of Ravitch’s at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at New York University. Carey asked him if he could detect any consistent intellectual point of view in her work. Fraser replied,
“No. And that’s an interesting ‘No.’ I can’t really think of anything at this state, beyond her ability to use historical narrative in illustrating various points—sometimes hugely contradictory points!—about current debates in education.”

Do NJ's Legislators Have the Will to Confront Teacher Tenure's Obsolescence?

As we enter the lame duck session of NJ’s Legislature, the word on the street is that tenure reform may play a starring role. Senator Teresa Ruiz’s tenure and teacher evaluation bill is ready for prime time and legislative review. Anticipating the discussion, NJEA, NJ’s primary teacher union, recently released its own version of tenure reform.

A recent article by Ben Velderman at EAG Communications criticizes New Jersey’s current teacher tenure laws as “so deeply flawed that 77 percent of state residents support tenure reform.” The news pivot for the article is the case of the Gloucester County Special Services teacher caught on camera calling a 15-year old special education student a "'tard" and telling him that he would "kick his ass from her to kingdom come." ABC News story here. The teacher is now on paid administrative leave because current tenure law precludes the district from simply firing him.

Velderman notes that the arcane process that school districts must follow to fire a tenured teacher costs several hundred thousand dollars and takes three to five years. He quotes the President of NJ’s primary teacher union, NJEA’s Barbara Keshishian, who agrees that “[t]he current system, which involves hearings in the courts, is too expensive and too time-consuming. NJEA proposes putting tenure cases before arbitrators, whose judgment would be final. Cases would be heard quickly and at a much lower cost.”

The poll Velderman refers to is probably the recent Rutgers-Eagleton poll, which found this:
After being briefed on the current K-12 teacher tenure system, 58 percent of registered voters disapprove of the tenure policies while only 40 percent approve. In a Rutgers-Eagleton Poll last October, just 28 percent approved tenure when told some believe it prevents bad teachers from being removed, rejecting the idea that it is necessary for academic freedom.
In addition the poll found that 6 out of 10 voters think that teacher evaluations should be tied to student achievement as measured on standardized tests and “nearly two-thirds want tenure linked directly to positive or negative teacher evaluations.” Also, “Garden Staters strongly believe teachers’ pay should be tied to new standards.” Support for tenure reform was lower for union households: only a third supported changes to the status quo.

Velderman spoke to NJ School Boards Association’s Michael Vrancik, who said that NJEA’s proposed plan merely “substitutes one unwieldy process, in my opinion, for one that is slightly less unwieldy.” Vrancik adds, “If it cuts the process in half, is that still acceptable? We need to find out the amount of time tenure review should take, and build a system to meet that.”

NJEA’s leadership should be applauded for taking a proactive stance; no doubt its 200,000 members are delighted to have a chance to play offense after a series of strategic missteps that saw the union mired in defensive posture. NJSBA’s Vrancik is right – NJEA’s reforms don’t go far enough, but this is all a negotiation, right? Everything now rests on the will of NJ’s State Legislature to take a tough look at hard questions and grapple with sensible changes to a system that doesn’t make sense to almost everyone.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Why We Need Tenure Reform

Janine Walker Caffrey, Superintendent in Perth Amboy, explains:
There has been much discussion about teacher evaluation and its potential to improve learning in our classrooms. This issue focuses on things like linking teacher tenure and pay to student test scores, and so-called value-added data. There are many disagreements about these measures, but I believe we can agree on the fact that there are certain teachers who just should not be working with children. We don’t want teachers in our classrooms who talk explicitly about sexual acts, or who hit children, put soap in their mouths or curse at them. We certainly don’t want teachers who make repeated sexual advances to other teachers, do drugs at school or fly into rages for no apparent reason. I have active cases like these, and have returned almost all of these teachers to their positions.

How can this be? New Jersey’s tenure law, enacted more than 100 years ago, effectively confers lifetime employment to teachers. And the process to remove tenure is so onerous, it is essentially impossible to do so.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Trenton Update

From today's Trenton Times:

[Mayor Tony] Mack’s plan [for capital projects at Trenton Public Schools] would have funded $1.4 million worth of improvements to the track and football field at Trenton Central High School, including the installation of artificial turf. While the projects were at the bottom of the district’s list of priorities, officials said that Mack personally requested the items be included in the city’s bond ordinance.

Mack’s brother, Raphiel Mack, is head coach of the high school’s football team.

How Much Do We Spend Per Pupil?

The Common Sense Institute of New Jersey, a libertarian organization that opposes current levels of government spending, has just put out a new report called “Misleading the Taxpayer: the Per-Pupil Expenditure Dilemma.” The author, Mark Jay Williams, compares various ways that New Jersey estimates education costs and concludes that the variability among different formulas amounts to systemic underestimation by local school districts and a veritable sleight-of-hand for taxpayers.

If you can compartmentalize the political bent there’s some interesting stuff. For example, New Jersey spends 54.9% more per pupil than the national average ($16,271 vs. $10,499) . Also, the three ways residents can view per pupil costs -- the DOE’s User-Friendly Budgets (the “primary tool responsible for misleading taxpayers”), costs-per-pupil in the NJ State Report Cards, and The Taxpayer’s Guide to Education Spending – have a surprisingly wide range. The author writes, “[d]epending on the reporting source utilized, Asbury Park‘s per-pupil expenditures ranged from $22,090 to $39,149, a difference of $17,059.

For a sense of the political angle, Abbott district funding is described as “the egregious example where mostly urban poorer districts are mandated to receive additional state taxpayer aid." Here's the author's thoughts on NJ’s tradition of home rule:

New Jersey‘s home rule has created a system whereby each of 43 districts serves fewer than 200 students, each of 125 districts serves fewer than 500 students, and each of 232 districts serves fewer than 1,000 students. Each of 389 districts serves fewer than 2,500 students, and each of 477 districts serves fewer than 5,000 students, leaving 72 districts serving more than 5,000 students.45 The median enrollment for the 549 districts in this report is 1,276 students, which is much lower than the research-supported optimal district size of 2,000 students.

There’s also attacks on school boards, particularly the fact that although very few districts estimated reductions in per pupil spending in 2009 and 2010, “an astonishing 82 percent of the districts have projected expenditure reductions for 2011.” The author implies some sort of duplicitous malfeasance. But remember that school budget expenses are mostly payroll and benefits. While in 2009 average staff salary increases were something like 4.5%, now they’re in the 2% range, which might account for the projected reductions. Also, school staff, like all public employees, are starting to ante up for more of the contributions to pension and health benefits premiums, another source for lower costs to districts.

Another example of the rush to judgment is what Williams calls the “astounding” difference between estimated cost per pupil in the Taxpayer’s Guide and the user-friendly budgets in Lakewood Public Schools: $10,566. There’s nothing nefarious there, merely a reflection of the fact that the Taxpayer’s Guide includes the costs of out-of-district special education placements and the user-friendly budgets don’t include those costs. Out-of-district special ed placements are practically a hobby in Lakewood. It’s not the district’s fault that the DOE budgets fail to integrate that factor.

But check it out. There's certainly something to be said for consistency in governmental reporting.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Asininity of the Day

Newt Gingrich solves public school funding problems during his Harvard address on Friday: “Most of these [low-income] schools ought to get rid of the unionized janitors, have one master janitor and pay local students to take care of the school. The kids would actually do work, they would have cash, they would have pride in the schools, they’d begin the process of rising.” (Talking Points Memo)