Monday, January 31, 2011

Quote of the Day

Kevin Huffman of the Washington Post (and executive vice president of public affairs at Teach for America) considers the case of the Ohio mother who was released last week from jail after a felony conviction for sneaking her two daughters into a higher-performing school district so they wouldn’t have to attend the lousy Akron city schools. Substitute Akron for any low-performing district in New Jersey and read along:
In this country, if you are middle or upper class, you have school choice. You can, and probably do, choose your home based on the quality of local schools. Or you can opt out of the system by scraping together the funds for a parochial school.

But if you are poor, you're out of luck, subject to the generally anti-choice bureaucracy. Hoping to win the lottery into an open enrollment "choice" school in your district? Good luck. How about a high-performing charter school? Sure - if your state doesn't limit their numbers and funding like most states do. And vouchers? Hiss! You just touched a political third rail.

The intellectual argument against school choice is thin and generally propagated by people with myriad options. If we let the most astute families opt out of neighborhood schools, the thinking goes, those schools lose the best parents and the best students. The children stuck behind in failing schools really get hurt.

But kids are getting hurt right now, every day, in ways that take years to play out but limit their life prospects as surgically as many segregation-era laws. We can debate whether lying on school paperwork is the same as refusing to move to the back of the bus, but the harsh reality is this: We may have done away with Jim Crow laws, but we have a Jim Crow public education system.

Nepotism and Tenure

A new bill before the NJ State Assembly would prohibit all public schools, traditional and chartered, from hiring staff who are related to the superintendent, a board member, personnel director, business administrator, or the school district’s attorney, according to the Star-Ledger. Big gulps from some of the worst-offending districts, no doubt.

But here’s a question: standard arguments in favor of maintaining current teacher tenure laws are grounded in NJ’s nepotistic school culture (which is, perhaps, unavoidable when we’re fragmented into 591 school districts, some positively tiny. With such a small pool for Board members, someone’s Aunt Sadie is bound to apply for a job.)

Last month, when NJEA unveiled its vision for education reform, proposed changes to tenure laws were, uh, limited. Currently, when a district wants to remove a tenured teacher the case goes to an administrative law judge, and under NJEA’s reform the case would go to an arbiter with a quicker time line. When NJEA officials were questioned about the narrowness of this change, Executive Director Vince Giordano explained to PolitickerNJ that the union “would not entertain” other proposals that “changed the standards for dismissal.”
“I think we all know what happens then,” he said. “We turn it over to the politicians and the nepotism process and we are not going back there.”
So if the Legislature passes a bill that virtually eliminates any opportunities for nepotism, will NJEA’s executives entertain meaningful tenure reform? Arguments against incorporating teacher accountability into job security have been argued away on the grounds that tenure is “not a job for life,” but merely a protection against rampant nepotism. If nepotism goes away, do NJEA’s objections go away as well?

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Quote of the Day

New York City public schools are bracing for a $1 billion cut. The Wall St. Journal reports,
A seniority rule in state law requires that the teachers hired most recently be the first to face layoffs. As a result, city officials estimate that every teacher hired during the past five years would be let go if the state moves forward with a $1 billion cut in aid to city schools.

Mr. Bloomberg said this tenure rule means the city will "have to part company with some of the best teachers." And because new teachers are typically employed in communities that are struggling the most, these layoffs would "disproportionately hurt the schools with more minorities," he said.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Sunday Leftovers

Senate Republicans are pushing a proposal that would slash preschool funding in poor districts by $300 million and send that money back to suburban districts, according to the Star-Ledger. Some details from the Wall St. Journal:
The Senate Republicans would send $200 million to other districts that have hit funding caps, give $50 million to districts that spend the least per pupil to encourage "efficiency" and launch a $30 million program for data-based teacher evaluation and instruction in the state's poorer districts. Districts that bus students long distances would get extra help, and $3.3 million would go to a handful of towns with high senior citizen populations.
Christie went to DC and “delved into what has become the theme of his second year in office: dramatically changing the pension system, expanding charter schools, offering school choice to poor children, giving merit pay to good teachers, and forcing all unionized public workers, including police officers and firefighters, to contribute more to their benefits.”

Bob Braun in the Star-Ledger recounts an attempted desegregation of Plainfield, New Brunswick, and Englewood back in 1971. “But nothing happened…both the state and the courts backed off. School desegregation, and whatever it might have done for school achievement among our poorest children, faded as a solution—and as a reality.” He notes,
Public schools are more segregated than ever. In Essex County, East Orange schools are 99.8 black and Hispanic. Irvington, 98 percent. Newark, 92 percent. Millburn schools—a short bus ride from these cities—are 98 percent white. New Jersey tolerates racial isolation.
NJ Spotlight considers whether a newly-approved charter school for children with autism violates federal and state mandates for “least restrictive environment.”

Sam Passow in The Record
contends that a newly-approved Hebrew language immersion charter school for Englewood and Teaneck won’t help the mostly black and Hispanic kids there.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress released test scores in science for 4th, 8th, and 12th graders. Less than half of these students have reached proficiency and a “tiny fraction” show “advanced skills that could lead to careers in science and technology.”

The mom in Ohio jailed for enrolling her children in a higher-performing district is making headlines everywhere. (Common story in NJ: without the jail time but with the levying of tuition costs and suspension of student enrollment.)

Edweek looks at the Houston Independent School District, which has a progressive merit pay program but awards the money to 92% of employees.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Rethinking School Funding

We’ll take it on faith that the reporter for this Trenton Times story didn’t write the headline – “School Districts Sitting on Millions.” The bucks under the buttocks of Trenton Public Schools are $7.5 million in federal Edujobs money awarded last Fall, and frugally put aside (on the advise of Fiscal Monitor Mark Cowell and Interim Superintendent Ray Broach) for anticipated cuts in state aid for 2011-2012. Word is that Gov. Christie will sock it to the Abbotts more than the suburban districts that surround Trenton.

Hint: he told a crowd in Chesilhurst this week (maybe borrowing a phrase from NJ Left Behind) that the Abbott decisions, which attempt to balance educational inequity to poor districts through lots of extra cash, are a “failed experiment.” In fact, Christie doesn't distinguish between the much-assailed Abbott funding (money goes to poor districts) from former Gov. Corzine’s new and improved School Funding Reform Act (SFRA), where money goes to poor kids regardless of district of residence. Either way, says, Christie,
The state's funding formula has been rigged so nearly 60 percent of all the state aid goes to 31 school districts. It's crazy.
Here’s what’s still crazy after all these years: school funding in NJ is predicated on the presumption that cash alone will meet the constitutional test of a thorough and efficient school system for all, and that equalization of funding will ameliorate all (or most) educational ills. In fact, we know that while cash is important, there are other elements that are necessary to help bridge the achievement gap, like longer school days, longer school years, consistently effective teachers and administrators, small learning communities, and options for attendance in higher-performing districts. None of these are panaceas. But they contribute in ways more substantive (and sustainable) than cash alone, particularly for impoverished children.

Chock it up to legislative inertia, political lobbying on the part of local districts, school boards, and unions, or DOE dysfunction. Whatever the excuse, NJ continues to define educational inequity in terms of money. We might serve children (and taxpayers) more thoroughly and efficiently by creating a comprehensive school funding formula that incorporates more meaningful elements of school reform than just hard cash.

Let’s take an example (if a bit of an inflammatory one): Asbury Park School District. About 2,000 kids attend the traditional public schools in this impoverished Monmouth County town. Because of additional school funding intended to ameliorate academic achievement woes, Comparative Cost Per Pupil for the 2008-2009 school year was $24,428. How are we doing for $25K per kid? At Asbury Park Middle School, 60.9% of 8th graders fail the state test in language arts and 79.6% of 8th grades fail the state test in math. According to No Child Left Behind, Asbury Park Middle is in its 9th year of a School In Need of Improvement in language arts, which means it’s failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress every single year since NCLB’s implementation. The 6th-8th grade school is in its 7th year as a SINI in math.

Through our school funding formula we've sent generous amounts of cash every year, either through the Abbott formula (the money goes right to the district) or through SFRA (the money is directed to the district through the child’s level of poverty). It’s a distinction without a difference.

It’s as if we’re in a competition to demonstrate the longest learning curve in history. Ten years from now, barring inevitable (and welcome) changes in NCLB, Asbury Park Middle School will be in its 19th year as a School In Need of Improvement. Perhaps it’s time to try tying the cash to educational reforms that might pack more wallop. For example, we could make some portion of the money contingent on the district turning over the school to a reliable charter organization (Mastery, Green Dot, KIPP) or mandate that Asbury Park Middle School kids get first dibs on any seats available through the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program, which allows schools to offer open seats to kids in neighboring districts.

Or we could let parents vote on whether they'd like their kids to go to Asbury Park MS. Or Asbury Park High School, for that matter, where in 2009 34.9% of seniors were able to pass the High School Proficiency Assessment, a middle-school level test. But that's another can of worms.

[Note: there is a charter school in Asbury Park, Hope Charter School. Test scores are nothing to write home about, but better than the traditional public option: 33.3% of 8th graders fail the state language arts test and 53.3% of 8th graders fail the math test. Comparative cost per pupil is $14,531, though there’s very few kids with disabilities enrolled there. New applicants for the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program show a few volunteers from Monmouth County: Marlboro, Farmingdale, and Deal, in addition to veteran Allentown.]

We look at school aid for poor kids in a vacuum. Can we evolve our thinking about school reform and incorporate data-driven research on effective innovations? It's not just about money. It's about whether we have the will to legislate that knowledge.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Charter Schools and Parent-Triggers

At the Assembly Education Committee hearing on Monday, representatives of suburban school boards pleaded with legislators to deploy a mechanism within pending charter school laws that would require a public vote in favor of a proposed charter school before approval by the DOE (or other authorizing agency.) So, for example, the charter for Hatikvah International Academy Charter School in East Brunswick would be approved only after 51% of East Brunswick residents pressed the “yes” button in the voting booth. (See earlier post.)

How is that proposed approval process different from the "parent trigger bill" proposed by Republican Senator Joseph Kyrillos?

In the first scenario, as described at Monday’s hearing, residents of towns like Princeton and East Brunswick would have the right to veto the establishment of a charter school in order to stymie the flow of tax money away from their districts. Democratic Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan, who chaired the hearing, nodded approvingly, noting that there is “a difference between need and want” and that, for example, the Hebrew immersion charter school in East Brunswick has “absolutely divided the community.”

In the second scenario, Kyrillos has proposed the Parent Employment and Choice Act, which would allow parents and residents to vote to force overhauls of districts by changing traditional schools into charters, firing school administrators, or establishing a tuition voucher program.

The former lets parents vote yea or nay to expand local school choice by approving or not approving a new charter. The latter lets parents vote yea or nay to expand local school choice by approving or not approving a new form of governance. Both scenarios provide a vast increase in resident/parent power, beyond simply electing school board members and approving budgets.

So the two proposed legislative tweaks are not so different. What’s different is that one is largely backed by wealthy communities who have great school systems anyway. The second is backed (and had its genesis in Compton, California; see recent update here from Democrats For Education Reform) by activists whose kids are trapped in educational wastelands.

Prospects for the legislation advocated by suburban districts seem good. Assemblyman Diegnan all but promised compliance, and there are legitimate reasons for limiting charter expansion to areas that serve our neediest kids. After all, there's a difference between a charter that provides a further echelon of exclusion in an elite school district, and a charter that provides succor in a desert. Prospects for the parent-trigger bill, on the other hand, seem grim, in spite of the fact that it is directed at Saharan localities.

How does one square approval for parental power in wealthy communities and distaste for parental control in poor communities?

This is not an argument in favor of the parent-trigger bill, about which I remain agnostic. What troubles me amidst all the promising charter activity is the diversion of energy, political and otherwise, from kids without options to kids who have many.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

SOTU Quotes of the Day

From President Obama's State of the Union address last night:
Race to the Top is the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation. For less than one percent of what we spend on education each year, it has led over 40 states to raise their standards for teaching and learning. These standards were developed, not by Washington, but by Republican and Democratic governors throughout the country. And Race to the Top should be the approach we follow this year as we replace No Child Left Behind with a law that is more flexible and focused on what’s best for our kids.

And commentary from Andrew Rotherham in today's New York Times:
Even more interesting were two subtleties buried in the education passages. The president didn’t explicitly talk about national standards but clearly alluded to them while praising Race to the Top’s accomplishments. That’s an interesting choice (he could have praised changes in charter school laws or improved teacher evaluation for example) in front of an audience with many more local-control advocates than when he last addressed the chamber.

But he wasn’t just poking to the right. The president singled-out a Denver school that was turned around only after its teachers took on their own union to get out from under the standard collective bargaining agreement. Needless to say that’s a strategy the two national teachers’ unions don’t want to see replicated around the country. I wrote about that episode on The Times’s Op-Ed page a few years ago. Michael Bennet, now a senator from Colorado, was the superintendent in Denver at the time and the move was controversial then and the idea remains contentious today. Of all the schools the president could have chosen to highlight, it’s a fascinating choice.

NJ DOE Warns Districts of Potential State Aid Cuts

Yut’se Thomas, Acting Assistant Commissioner, writes in a memo to superintendents and business administrators,
For purposes of developing your preliminary budgets, districts should make allowances for the possibility of a reduction in state aid from your 2010-11 amounts. This guidance is for planning purposes only and is no indication of the final state aid allocation for 2011-12. The latter will be provided to districts following the Governor’s budget message.
(Courtesy of NJ Spotlight)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Do Charter Schools Serve a Purpose in Successful DIstricts?

Anyone listening to the Assembly Education Committee’s four-hour hearing yesterday on the future of NJ’s charter school regulations would conclude this: that our legislators have accepted charter schools as a necessity for neglected kids stuck in failing schools. (Someone forgot to send Bob Braun the memo.) Committee Chairman Patrick Diegnan summed up the zeitgeist neatly: "I don’t think anyone disagrees charter schools are a part of the solution," he said. "However, they are not a magic bullet."

Magic bullet or not, there was a serious amount of sturm and drang expressed by administrators and residents in successful districts. Indeed, much of the hearing was devoted not to the primary beneficiaries of charter schools – poor kids in low-performing districts – but to the financial drag on well-performing districts who are side-swiped by, say, a school that offers Mandarin immersion. There was sort of an “Upstairs Downstairs” feel to it, advocates from wealthy towns like Princeton and Glen Ridge protesting the cash drain by tuition payments to superfluous alternatives while the “Waiting for Superman” crowd was down in the cellar.

So, what to do with aspiring charter operators in districts that provide a fine education to their generally well-to-do students? (See here for a recent New York Times piece on a growing interest in charter schools from wealthy families.) From The Record:
Rebecca Cox, the school board president in Princeton, argued the regulations should require charter applicants to prove there was a true educational need for their new school, rather than just a desire for it among a select group of parents. She cautioned against the spread of “boutique” charters for studying Hebrew, Mandarin and “the extensive recycling of plastics.”
From the corniced parlors of wealthy New Jerseyans, a charter school within their realm is an affront. After all, Princeton Public Schools provides stellar educational opportunities to its children. How exclusive can you get? Almost all the kids pass state standardized tests, and that’s with a special education population of 15.7% and an English Language Learners rate of 2.6%. At Princeton Charter School, all kids pass the tests, though nobody is considered an ELL, and the special ed rate is 2.8%. (Comparative cost per pupil is $17,290 at the traditional public and $12,007 at the charter.)

If there was a consensus at the hearing, it was a strong interest in requiring a district-wide referendum before any approval of a charter school, an effective death knell for aspiring charter operators targeting high-income areas. If Rutgers was a charter authorizer, for example, would NJ’s students be best served by a charter school in East Brunswick or a charter school in Camden?

The message from the testifiers was clear: we don’t need any charters. (Princeton Public Schools pointed to the $4.8 million in annual tuition paid to Princeton Charter School.) Maybe they’re right. As Chairman Diegnan pointed out (paraphrase here) to the representative of Princeton Charter School, my constituents would kill to go to Princeton Public Schools.

So do we limit new charters to failing districts, either directly through legislation or indirectly by requiring a public vote? (Translation: rich districts will vote charters down and poor ones will most likely vote them up.) How does that mesh with the dynamics of public school choice? Do we have one set of rules for poor kids and another set for rich ones? Does such an approach amplify the insulation of wealthy districts from poor ones? Or is the standardizing of charter school legislation across all districts, regardless of wealth or school performance, at best a pretense and at worst another nail in the coffin for our kids in the cellar?

In some ways this is a choice between philosophical inconsistency -- limiting school choice for some and not for others -- or the targeting of ed reform resources to those truly in need. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

Trenton's Lofton Out

Trenton Public Schools officially announced the departure of Superintendent Rodney Lofton, who had 18 months left on his contract, reports the Trenton Times. Interim Superintendent Raymond Broach, late of Ewing Public Schools, will stay on, possibly in a permanent position.

The troubled district has been much in the news after a state-appointed fiscal monitor discovered $3.2 million in unpaid bills to private special education schools, another $6.7 million in other unpaid out-of-district tuition costs and employee health benefits, and a scandal in which 80 teachers billed the district for $2 million in homebound instruction for kids who either weren’t eligible or didn’t exist. (See earlier coverage here.)

However, financial oversight is looking better, even if education isn’t. (A recent ranking placed Trenton Central High at No. 317 out of 322 high schools.) A new audit gave the district high marks.

Said The Times,
Instead of ending with a $1.9 million deficit, as it did in 2009, the district ended the 2010 fiscal year with a $3.5 million surplus, thanks in large part to the privatization of the district's money-losing cafeterias and a clampdown on out-of-district schools that had been charging for special education students who were not attending classes.
You can look at Trenton Public Schools' $238.4 million budget here.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Quote of the Day

Rev. Reginald Jackson, head of the Black Minister’s Council, responds to those who oppose school vouchers because not every child in a failing district could avail themselves of a potentially superior educational opportunity:
I’m glad they weren’t around when Harriet Tubman was running the underground railroad. They’d tell her that if she can’t free all the slaves, she shouldn’t free any of them.
From Tom Moran's column in yesterday's Star-Ledger.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sunday Leftovers

Carl Golden at New Jersey Newsroom depicts the "epic struggle" between Gov. Christie and NJEA leadership: "The rancor between Christie and the NJEA which defined so much of 2010 will repeat itself this year as both do combat on behalf of their agendas. Just as the Governor made it clear last week he intends to "stay the course", so does the NJEA. There's little doubt it will turn out to be a collision course."

The Assembly Education Committee just announced that it will hold a special hearing tomorrow “to discuss issues surrounding the development and authorization of charter schools in New Jersey.” It’s at 1 p.m. at the State House Annex or you can stream it live here. “Invited guests” include reps from Education Law Center, Save Our Schools, NJSBA, NJ Charter Schools Association, and others.

One of NJ's 23 newly-approved charters schools is Forest Hill Charter School in Newark, which will enroll 50 children with autism in September. The founder is Michele Adubato, daughter of Steve, Democratic party macher and founder of the highly-regarded Robert Treat Academy.

The Star-Ledger looks at the process reviewers used to approve (or not) the new authorized charter schools.

NJ Spotlight co-sponsored a conference on teacher evaluation and value-added models at ETS this week. Here's the Press of Atlantic City's take on the proceedings.

The New York Times reports on new research that shows that "taking a test is not just a passive mechanism for assessing how much people know.. It actually helps people learn, and it works better than a number of other studying techniques."

Clifford Janey,
Newark’s superintendent, is leaving next month and Toms River is replacing Superintendent Michael Ritacco, recently arrested on bribery charges, with Frank Roselli.

Higher Education Dept.: Peter Thiel, interviewed in the National Review, says that education is in a “bubble” – much like the recent housing market and last decade’s tech stocks.
It’s basically extremely overpriced. People are not getting their money’s worth, objectively, when you do the math. And at the same time it is something that is incredibly intensively believed; there’s this sort of psycho-social component to people taking on these enormous debts when they go to college simply because that’s what everybody’s doing.
And USA Today reports that “Nearly half of the nation's undergraduates show almost no gains in learning in their first two years of college, in large part because colleges don't make academics a priority, a new report shows.”

Friday, January 21, 2011

School Choice Choice

Yesterday the Senate Education Committee approved the Opportunity Scholarship Act, setting the stage for yet another iteration of the same philosophical dispute incited by any school choice program. Does the State have responsibility for upholding a traditional public school system that serves all children, regardless of parent advocacy, special needs, religious affiliation, etc., even when part of that system is failing? Or is the State responsible for providing potentially better choices, even if not all under-served kids have access to those alternatives?

See here for coverage by The Record, PolitickerNJ, Courier-Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, and NJ Spotlight. In a nutshell, the bill provides up to an annual $8,000 per elementary student and $11,000 per secondary student in scholarships funded by corporations (encouraged by state tax credits) in 13 low-performing districts. (Asbury Park, Camden, East Orange, Elizabeth, Jersey City, Lakewood, Newark, Orange, Passaic, Paterson, Perth Amboy, Plainfield, and Trenton.) Students must meet income thresholds. It’s a five-year program that would offer 3,900 vouchers the first year and up to 40,000 by the fifth year.

Predictably, reactions fall into one of those two camps. NJEA President Barbara Keshishian says that the bill, S 1872, is an “educational travesty,” adding that giving “hundreds of millions of tax dollars to students already attending private schools” won’t “help children in public schools.” Senator Barbara Buono, who voted against the bill, said at a town meeting in Edison, adds her voice to those who advocate the good of the entire system over the good of current students: “it would hurt the public schools that are left behind," which is “an abandonment of public education.”
"I believe it is not about choice, it is not about reform, it is about turning our backs to public education," Buono said.
Taking the side of the individual student, Senator Ray Lesniak, a primary sponsor of the bill, said,
You don’t fail to save one (student) because you can’t save them all.
Part of this moral dilemma rests on NJ's reputation as a system that generally performs well, at least for students in relatively well-to-do districts. So some of the rhetoric probes whether NJ’s significant cadre of great schools compensates for the presence of a smaller cohort of failing ones. Again, Senator Buono:
"We have 2,485 schools and the governor talks about 200 failing schools," Buono said. "I don't think that's such a bad percentage."
Taking the opposite view, here’s Martin Perez of the Latino Leadership Alliance, as quoted in The Record:
We have two education systems. One of them is excellent and we are proud of it. … But we have also some of the worst schools in the nation.
Proponents of the greater good are offended by the prospect of redirected student aid, loss of higher-achieving kids with empowered parents, and the lack of accountability to the State on the part of religious and private schools. Proponents of vouchers (or, in a different context, public charters) point to the opportunity to immediately improve the education of poor children trapped in chronically failing schools, arguing that we’re better off saving who we can. (It’s unclear how the money works out for taxpayers. Parochial schools spend far less per pupil and public districts would get to pocket the difference, though the tax credits carry their own burden. Depends upon whom you ask.)

A bit of perspective. A recent study from the Fordham Foundation, “Are Bad Schools Immortal: The Scarcity of Turnarounds and Shutdowns in Both Charter and District Sectors,” finds that in both the traditional public and charter sector we do a terrible job of either improving or eliminating bad schools. The authors followed 2,025 low-performing schools and report that
Seventy-two percent of the original low-performing charter schools remained in operation, and remained low-performing, five years later, compared with 80 percent of district schools.

Few low-performing schools in either sector—barely 1 percent—managed to dramatically improve their academic performance over this five-year period, and fewer than 10 percent made even moderate gains. Charter schools were not statistically more or less likely to turn around than their district peers.
If the Fordham study is correct, families in Camden and Plainfield and Trenton would be unwise to count on the state coming up with better schools. Minus a couple of bright spots, we haven’t managed to improve those districts for decades despite wads of extra cash. So do we give some children a ticket out right now and leave the rest behind, with a wispy hope that competition provides the jolt needed for meaningful improvement among failing schools? Or do we sentence all children in those 13 districts to continued attendance in bad schools because it’s unfair to save some without saving all?

Your philosophical conundrum for the weekend.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

What's Trenton? Chopped Liver?

Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Mercer) released a statement today complaining that Gov. Christie is ignoring Trenton Public Schools by targeting Paterson for a new Harlem Children's Zone initiative:
I'm pleased that the governor finally seems to understand that public school education cannot be an afterthought, as he treated it last year. We need a robust discussion about New Jersey's schools and how we can ensure a brighter future for our children, including maintaining New Jersey's significant and constitutional obligation to support and strengthen public schools. But this effort must be all encompassing and not focused on select areas.

The governor announced no new charter schools for Trenton on Tuesday, and I see no reason why the Harlem Children's Zone initiative didn't involve children from our capital city, which has a compact school district the perfect size for innovative approaches to take hold. Why is the governor ignoring Trenton and its children? We cannot have true reform unless everyone benefits.

New Report Out Rates School District Productivity

A new report out from the Center for American Progress calculates the return on investment (ROI) for most districts within each state based on the percentage of students achieving proficiency in reading and math for every $1,000 spend on core operations. Data is adjusted for kids who receive free or reduced lunch and kids eligible for special education services. You can click on the interactive map for New Jersey and check out the scattergram for a sense of how your district stacks up.

The worst of the worst is Asbury Park, according to CAP, which spends over $18K per student and has a state achievement index of 33. Coming in close behind are Camden City, Trenton, Orange, Irvington, Plainfield, East Orange, Passaic, and Paterson. At the other end of the spectrum are districts like New Providence, Berkeley Heights, Millburn, Ramsey, Ridgewood, and Montgomery.

No surprise that districts with the lowest ROI’s are all Abbott districts with extremely low socio-economic levels (DFG’s) and districts with the highest ROI’s are all rich (DFG’s of I and J on a scale of A-J). Duh moment: it’s cheaper to educate kids from wealthy households.

Worth noting, however, are some of CAP’s conclusions: that we can increase the efficiency of school funding (“low productivity costs the nation’s school system as much as $175 billion a year); that more spending will not necessarily increase student outcomes; that high-spending districts are “often inefficient." Say the authors,
* Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to be enrolled in highly inefficient districts. Students who participated in subsidized lunch programs were 12 percentage points more likely to be enrolled in the nation’s least-productive districts, even after making allowances for the higher cost of educating lower-income students.

Quote of the Day

Our nation’s school system has for too long failed to ensure that education funding consistently promotes strong student achievement. After adjusting for inflation, education spending per student has nearly tripled over the past four decades. But while some states and districts have spent their additional dollars wisely—and thus shown significant increases in student outcomes—overall student achievement has largely remained flat. And besides Luxembourg, the United States spends more per student than any of the 65 countries that participated in a recent international reading assessment, and while Estonia and Poland scored at the same level as the United States on the exam, the United States spent roughly $60,000 more to educate each student to age 15 than either nation.
From the just-released report from the Center for American Progress, "Return on Educational Investment: Methodology and Data."

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Wrath of NJ's Anti-Charter Movement

"The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few."
Mr. Spock, "The Wrath of Khan."
Charter school news is making the rounds today in light of news from the Governor’s Office that 23 new charters were approved earlier this week, bringing the potential grand total to 97 alternative public schools serving 25,000 students.

Some salute the increase as a victory for school choice, especially for poor kids trapped in chronically failing districts. Others condemn the increase as a politically-motivated ploy that will further entrap the kids who don’t win entry. Opponents also argue that the sound bite issued from the State – that the 2010 standardized test scores indicate that charters outperform traditional public schools – is erroneous because charters don’t accept the same number of kids eligible for special education services or children who are English Language Learners.

For example, the Trenton Times reports on charter schools in the vicinity of the state capital. At Princeton Charter School 100% of fifth graders are proficient in language arts, though Princeton Public Schools boasts 92.5%. (The state average is 78%.) Results at charter schools in Trenton, thirteen miles down the road from Princeton, are mixed. In traditional district schools 25.2% of fifth-graders are proficient in language arts, and the charter scores are all over the place.

Hard to draw conclusions, except that those thirteen miles to Princeton might as well be a million miles for kids in Trenton. And this: there’s only 2.8% of kids with special needs at Princeton Charter School and no ELL kids. For comparison’s sake Princeton’s traditional middle school has 15.7% of kids classified (this is 2009 data – the DOE hasn’t put up 2010’s) and 2.6% labeled as ELL.

On the other hand, Trenton’s charters show a much smaller discrepancy. Trenton Community Charter School labels 13.2% of kids as eligible for special education services and Joyce Kilmer (a K-8 traditional public) in Trenton labels 15.6%.

Opponents of charters – mainly the teacher unions and Education Law Center – cite the inability of the State DOE to effectively regulate charters schools and the unreliability of data. They peg the increase as a politically-motivated ploy that cheats the kids who don’t get in.

(For concerns regarding the DOE, see today's NJ Spotlight and the Wall Street Journal.)

Regarding the latter argument, David Sciarra of ELC tells the Star-Ledger, "[o]pening up more charter schools in that environment is not the solution. All it’s likely to do is exacerbate further inequity in educational opportunities and outcomes for Newark public schools students, regardless of who operates the schools."

That’s a troubling stand. Kids trapped in Newark’s public schools (or other poorly-performing districts), according to Sciarra, shouldn’t have the opportunity to attend better public schools because other kids might suffer. Parents shouldn’t get in line for lotteries because their own kids’ scholastic achievement is less important than the greater good. Social philosophy trumps an individual child's chance for an adequate education.

What parent in an affluent district has to make that choice?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Question of the Day

What gets people so angry at the idea of incorporating a degree of professional accountability into teaching and administrating? My column Friday at NJ Spotlight on teacher merit pay has generated a fair amount of hate mail. So what incites the outrage? I mean beyond the obvious, like those who see accountability measures as an assault on job security, or those who have a knee-jerk reaction to all things NCLB (No Child Left Behind), or spokespeople for NJEA, who are paid to say that stuff.

Let’s try to find some common ground. Here are three things we can agree on.

1) The most important element in a child’s education experience is the classroom teacher. Nothing matters more – not facilities or technology or programming or funding. A great teacher is irreplaceable.

2) Once a great teacher receives tenure he or she is not differentiated from a bad teacher (unless there’s some criminal activity, which seems like a pretty low bar). Nationally, more than 99% of teachers are rated “satisfactory.” Either it’s really easy to teach or there's no difference in student performance between those placed with a good teacher and those placed with a bad teacher. a bad teacher. Since those things aren't true, differentiation matters.

3) Salary guides in NJ (and most other places) ignore typical market forces like supply and demand. Example: a chemistry teacher is hard to find, but elementary school teachers are a dime a dozen (no offense). Salary guides are immune to this discrepancy. Another example: in general, teachers (and who can blame them?) would rather teach in a high-performing, wealthy, safe school district than a low-performing, poor, dangerous one. Yet there’s no incentive for teaching in a Plainfield (DFG of B or socio-economic rating of I on a scale of A-J) instead of Park Ridge (DFG of I).

Recap: We need great teachers, but our current evaluative mechanisms don’t let us identify the best ones or fire the worst. The rigidity of our compensation plans preclude the ability of districts to pay teachers based on performance or limited supply or willingness to teach in more challenging school districts. This lack of differentiation may be linked to the fact that the majority of public school teachers leave the field within five years and turnover is highest in poor districts.

Okay; enough with the common ground. How about this: maybe we should consider state-wide salary guides that pay more for teachers in hard-to-staff areas (math, science, special ed) and more for effective teachers who are willing to teach in poor districts? (Imagine how many tax dollars we'd save by consolidating 591 separate negotiation dramas, one per school district, into one ball-buster?) Or if that's too excessive, how about state-wide bonuses for our best teachers or those who teach our most challenging kids?

Mad yet? How about if we take the money directed at special needs districts -- that Abbott money now being litigated in State Supreme Court -- and funnel some large percentage of it to salaries for our top professionals? Great teachers deserve to be compensated accordingly. Let's use the money where it matters.

The point is that we cheat our kids, especially our neediest children, by failing to recognize quality (or lack thereof) among our teaching staff. Are we ready to change?

Dueling Charter School Ledes

Here’s the opening of today’s Star-Ledger story on performance in NJ’s charter schools:
As Gov. Chris Christie prepares to announce new charter schools approved to open in New Jersey, data obtained by The Star-Ledger shows well over half of the state’s charter school classes outperformed their local school district counterparts on standardized tests.
Here’s the opening of today’s Record story on performance in NJ’s charter schools:
With the Christie administration poised to announce approvals for a new wave of charter schools today, some educators say the state needs to be more vigilant in making sure charters keep their promises to be models of reform. While some charters, like North Star Academy in Newark, winner of a national Blue Ribbon for excellence, are shining successes, others underperform even in the most troubled districts.
Both articles are based on newly-released standardized test scores for 2010 in Abbott districts. The Star-Ledger does the numbers and concludes that 76% of charter school eighth-graders outperformed kids in traditional schools in language arts and 69% did so in eighth-grade math. The Record comes up with 79% for language arts and 54% in math. (One of them is right.)

The Star-Ledger’s analysis is that public charter schools in poor neighborhoods are outperforming traditional public schools. The Record’s analysis is that some charter schools are still performing poorly (the piece profiles the troubled Community Charter School of Paterson, where parents acknowledge the struggles but feel their kids are safer there than in the district schools) and that the NJ DOE is incapable of competent oversight.

Maybe they'e both right. Or maybe The Record is just trying to be consistent. After all, yesterday's Albert Doblin editorial attacked NJ's charter schools and the Christie Administration's advocacy of school choice. Here Doblin makes the argument that the educational woes in poor districts are due to poor parenting and lack of motivation on the part of students.
The governor can close every poor performing school in New Jersey tomorrow and replace them with a charter school and there will still be failing schools because if those schools are required to teach everybody, they will have some students who will not get with the program. And if these charter schools toss out the students who do not meet their schools’ criteria, where do these students land?

There is a reason – a reason more complex than tenure – for failing schools. Schools don’t fail in Glen Rock, Ridgewood and Mendham for a reason and it has nothing to do with tenure. It’s stability. It’s parents. It’s safety. It’s many, many things.
In addition to attacking children trapped in failing districts, Doblin also attacks tenure reform, merit pay, Robert Treat Academy, and Gov. Christie. That's actually sort of interesting, a nifty illustration of how charter schools have become a lightening rod for the anti-ed reform community. It's everything you love to hate rolled up in one neat package, inciting a repetitive loop of rhetoric that ends up blaming the victim.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Sunday Leftovers

Confidence Booster of the Day: A new member of the NJ State Board of Education, reports the Star-Ledger, knows nothing about the Abbott rulings, which drive NJ’s school funding formula. At Claire Chamberlain Eckert's hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Nia Gill asked the nominee if she had ever heard of Abbott v. Burke.
“Sorry?” Chamberlain Eckert responded.

“Abbott v. Burke?” Gill asked again.

“No,” Chamberlain Eckert said.

“I have no further questions, thank you,” Gill said.
Chamerlain Eckert was confirmed by the full Senate. Gill was the only "no" vote.

Charles Barone, Director of Democrats for Education Reform, writes in Politico, “Despite all the talk about how to fix education, reform is likely to fall far short of expectations if we don’t fundamentally change the way we recruit, prepare and retain good teachers.”

The Wall Street Journal hearts Chris Christie. And here's the Journal's take on this week's Supreme Court Abbott decision, which notes, "[t]he Supreme Court's decision could force the state to spend more money, upending the highly political budget process midstream."

Three hundred rising kindergarten students applied for 31 open slots at Jersey City’s Learning Community Charter School. According to Shelley Skinner, the school’s development of development and outreach, "The number of applicants has increased dramatically over the past few years.”

John Mooney at NJ Spotlight
looks at reactions to Michelle Rhee’s guest appearance at Gov. Christie’s State of the State speech.

Willingboro Public Schools’ seventh superintendent in five years just resigned to take a position at Liberty Science Center, according to the Burlington County Times.

The New Jersey Association of School Administrators is suing the DOE over the superintendent salary caps.

A new Rasmussen poll shows a drop in number of Americans who favor unions for public employees.

The State Department of Children and Families has decided to cut off home therapeutic services to 3,000 kids with behavioral problems. A group of parents, therapists, and special education advocates are fighting the decision, reports the Star-Ledger.

The Washington Post reports that when a parent in Prince George’s County School District received a robo-call at 4:33 a.m. informing him that there was a snow day on Wednesday, he was so incensed that he arranged robo-calls at 4:30 the following morning to the district’s school board members, superintendent, and general counsel. The early risers heard:
This is a Prince George's County School District parent, calling to thank you for the robocall yesterday at 4:30 in the morning. I decided to return the favor. While I know the school district wanted to ensure I drop my child off two hours late on a snow day, I already knew that before I went to bed. I hope this call demonstrates why a 4:30 a.m. call does more to annoy than to inform.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Quote of the Day

We shouldn’t be afraid of teacher quality metrics just because they have flaws. Instead, we should continually refine those metrics, expect superintendents to articulate local standards of teacher quality for instructional leaders, and give principals the tools and responsibility to apply them in place of the quality-blind personnel policies we have in so many districts around the country. With fiscal pain likely to continue for years to come, we need to get better quality for the same buck if we want to see student outcomes improve.
Chris Tessone responding to the view that value-added models for evaluating teachers aren't perfect, and therefore we should continue the practice of quality-blind lay-offs.

Primer on Christie's Ed Reform Proposals

Gov. Christie's State of the State speech was widely praised as diplomatic if short on specifics regarding education reform. Here comes the specifics, gleaned from reports from a Town Hall meeting in Paramus last night:

1) Replace lifetime tenure for teachers with renewable five-year contracts. (Here's NJEA's response, courtesy of spokesman Steve Wollmer, who warned teachers, "This is not reform, it’s patronage. We do not need 125,000 more patronage jobs in New Jersey, we already have enough corruption. Your job security under the Christie proposal would be at the whim of a principal who may or may not be acting in the best interest.")

2) Raise contributions to health benefits premiums. Specifically, replace the newly-legislated benefits contributions for teachers of 1.5% of base pay with a plan through with all public employees would pay 1/3 of benefits plans. (According to the Courier-Post, a teacher earning $60,000 a year now contributes about $900 in benefits contributions. Under the new proposal, that teacher would contribute $7,333 for the same plan.)

3) Raise the retirement age, now 62, to age 65.

4) Roll back the 9% pension increase granted in 2000 and require all teachers to contribute 8.5% of salaries toward retirement.

5) Expand the number of charter schools.

6) Designate one district per county as a “center for excellence for students with autism” to consolidate special education services. (More on this in The Record.)

7) Close up to 200 failing schools.

Check Out...

my column today at NJ Spotlight on merit pay: "Our problem in New Jersey is not the lack of a merit system. Our problem is how we've chosen to measure merit."

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Abbott Update

New Jersey Newsroom is reporting that the NJ State Supreme Court has just appointed Superior Court Judge Peter Doyne as a “special master” to determine if last year’s billion dollar school aid cuts violated the state constitution’s mandate for “a thorough and efficient education system.”

Judge Doyne's report is due on March 31st.

In March of 2009 Judge Doyne also served as a special master to determine if former Gov. Corzine’s School Funding Reform Act was constitutional. He ruled that it was, but ordered the State to maintain current funding levels for three years. Counsel for Gov. Christie argues that NJ’s fiscal emergency necessitated cutting school aid anyway, and funding levels were still sufficient to meet the constitutional mandate. Education Law Center, long-time Abbott advocates, is arguing that, in fact, that the lowered funding levels were insufficient and violated Judge Doyne's original ruling.

Quote of the Day

Liam Julian at Fordham's Flypaper blog considers Gov. Christie's comment during his State of the State speech that "teaching can no longer be the only profession where you have no rewards for excellence and no consequences for failure to perform." Says Julian,
I get it. Christie is a politician, and making broad, charged statements is what politicians do (when they aren’t making narrow, vapid ones). But obviously teaching isn’t the only profession in which workers are promoted and receive salary raises based on time served rather than excellence demonstrated, in which laggards are perennially tolerated. Are the bureaucrats at the New Jersey Department of Education judged by their performance?

The Rhee Coterie, of which Christie is a seminal part, is unsettling—education reform zealots on parade. One wishes this crew would be less abrasive, less Manichean. They are currently the best public-relations tool the teachers’ unions have.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Sustaining Pre-School Gains

An article in yesterday’s Trenton Times discusses the “huge achievement gap” in newly-released standardized test scores between black, Hispanic, and low-income kids, and white and Asian kids, particularly in Trenton. Writer Meir Rinde interviews State Board of Education member Arcelio Aponte, who questions the value of state-funded pre-schools which were supposed to ameliorate the gap. The latest set of scores, says Aponte, “sort of throws that theory out the window.”

Not so fast, says Sarah Kern, chair of the Department of Elementary and Early Childhood Education at The College of New Jersey.
“You have to have superior teachers in the classroom,” she said. “You have to have a way of making up the deficit with children in kindergarten, first, second, and third grades. One year of a bad teacher undoes two years with a good teacher. That is a fact.”
In other words, we can fund the finest pre-schools in Trenton, but it's futile until we address teacher quality, especially for our neediest kids.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Ed Reform Highlights from Christie's State of the State

Surprise Guest: Michelle Rhee, "who is sitting next to Mary Pat...Michelle, I want you to count NJ among those who are finally putting students first." (Cute plug!)

Abbott Allusion: "We must end the myth that more money equals better education. It is a failed legal theory."

Biggest applause line: "In NJ over 100,000 students are stuck in over 200 chronically failing schools... This is an unacceptable situation and we must change it now."

Tenure Reform: "We must reward the best teachers based on merit...We must have lay-offs based on performance, not seniority... Give schools more power to remove under-performing teachers. Teaching must not be the only profession where you have no rewards for excellence and no consequences for failure. The time to end tenure is now."

NJ Has Three Big Challenges:
1) We must stick to the force of fiscal discipline.
2) We must reform our pension and benefits system.
3) We must reform our schools to make them the best in America.

But The Biggest Challenge Is: "We cannot ask students and families stuck in chronically failing schools to wait any longer. We must give children and parents a choice to attend a better school. "

NJEA Swipe: "You know the debate has changed when the teacher union starts talking about tenure reform.”

Update: Here's Gov. Christie's full remarks, here's NJ School Boards' response, and here's NJEA's response.

School Finance Fisticuffs

There’s a bit of a contretemps boomeranging around cyberspace between Mike Petrelli of the Fordham Institute and Flypaper and Bruce Baker of Rutgers and SchoolFinance101. Petrelli co-authored with Marguerite Roza (senior data and economics advisor at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) a policy paper called “Stretching the School Dollar,” which gives 15 recommendations on ways that state policymakers can save money on education:

1. End “last hired, first fired” practices.
2. Remove class-size mandates.
3. Eliminate mandatory salary schedules.
4. Eliminate state mandates regarding work rules and terms of employment.
5. Remove “seat time” requirements.
6. Merge categorical programs and ease onerous reporting requirements.
7. Create a rigorous teacher evaluation system.
8. Pool health-care benefits.
9. Tackle the fiscal viability of teacher pensions.
10. Move toward weighted student funding.
11. Eliminate excess spending on small schools and small districts.
12. Allocate spending for learning-disabled students as a percent of population.
13. Limit the length of time that students can be identified as English Language Learners.
14. Offer waivers of non-productive state requirements.
15. Create bankruptcy-like loan provisions.

Prof. Baker then responded with a lengthy blogpost (categorized under "Dumbest Stuff I've Ever Read! Reformy") that excoriates the authors and rebuts their recommendations one by one:
I encourage you to explore the utter lack of support (or analysis) that the policy brief provides for any/all of its recommendations. It won’t take much time or effort. Read the footnotes. They are downright embarrassing, and in some cases infuriating. At the very least, they border on THINK TANKY MALPRACTICE. [Emphases his own.]
Whew. Not only that, but Petrelli and Roza’s paper is “the kind of stuff you’d be likely to read in a personal finance column in magazine in a dentist’s office,” amounting to no more than “[r]egurgitation of 'reformy' ideology for which there exists absolutely no evidence that the “reforms” in question lead to any improvement in schooling efficiency."

Mike Petrelli responds to Baker’s attacks in today’s Flypaper, concluding that “for all [Baker’s] spilled ink, he fails to offer a single alternative to the budget cuts we recommend. And as he later admitted via Twitter, that’s because he doesn’t believe states should cut education spending to close their massive budget gaps–they should raise taxes instead."

Dr. Baker’s reaction may be at least partially explained by the Fordham paper’s inclusion of an item that excites his vitriol: tying teacher evaluations to student academic growth. In fact. Baker has written extensively on how the such practices will lead to “a flood of litigation like none that has ever been witnessed.” If longitudinal data shows that a teacher is ineffective and a district tries to either revoke tenure or withhold a salary increase, the district would be denying a teacher’s “property interest” without adequate due process. And, he says, there are multiple variables that would render test data an unfair metric of teacher performance, including “temporal instability of value-added measures,” non-random assignment of students to teachers, parental support, student motivation, and (this objection he credits to Diane Ravitch) “the students could actually choose to bomb the state assessments to get a teacher fired, whether it’s a good teacher or a bad one. This would most certainly raise due process concerns.”

And that's only the beginning of the scourge unleashed through teacher accountability. Tying teacher evaluations to student achievement, in fact, will lead to legal claims that will “flood the courts as…dismissals begin:
Claims of racially disparate teacher dismissal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Given that students are not randomly assigned and that poor and minority – specifically black – students are densely clustered in certain schools and districts and that black teachers are much more likely to be working in schools with classrooms of low-income black students, it is highly likely that teacher dismissals will occur in a racially disparate pattern. Black teachers of low-income black students will be several times more likely to be dismissed on the basis of poor value-added test scores. This is especially true where a statewide fixed, rigid requirement is adopted and where a teacher must be de-tenured and/or dismissed if he/she shows value-added below some fixed value-added threshold on state assessments.
Somehow Dr. Baker links the inarguable clustering of less effective teachers in low-performing districts to some sort of racist conspiracy to fire minority teachers. Such a conclusion overlooks the point of value-added measures, which are weighted for economic status and present levels of performance.

He's not alone in fearing that America's movement toward education accountability will unduly punish terrific teachers who happen to teach in chronically failing schools. But the irony is that one of the tenets of education reform -- rewarding the best teachers and eliminating the worst -- could level the playing field for teachers as well as students. If salary guides were based on teacher effectiveness, if professional performance determined lay-offs rather than seniority, then our finest educators would be compensated at comparable levels, regardless of district location. That's something that parents, schoolchildren, teachers, think tanks, and school finance experts can all get behind.

Monday, January 10, 2011

We'd Rather Be in Philadelphia

The Press of Atlantic City
has an expose on a construction project at Egg Harbor High School in Atlantic County, which one contractor has called “the project from hell.” The original referendum was approved for $12.9 million with the State picking up the rest of the cost, estimated in 2005 as a total of $30 million. Current projections put it at $53.2 million. The project is being “managed” by the Schools Development Authority.

Here’s Sam Girlya, CEO of Sambe Construction Co., the contractor for the second phase of the project:
This project was designed very poorly. There are a lot of mistakes. It was a fast design. Nobody reviewed the design, and as a result, there are many mistakes, and that’s why there are so many changes and requests for information. We’re going to lose an enormous amount of money, and so are the subcontractors.
The SDA says it’s the district’s fault for underestimating the total cost of the project. Meanwhile, Egg Harbor's high school kids have spend years jammed into a portion of the building and barred from entering the cafeteria and the theater. The library is open, but only to 50 kids at a time.

What Happens When Joel Klein Has Time on His Hands?

He writes must-read editorials like this one in yesterday's Wall Street Journal on how public sector pension plans are a lot like a Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme. These defined-benefits plans "hollow out public education," because they guarantee implausible pay-outs. (NYC's pension plan for teachers guarantees an 8.25% return regardless of actual earnings and NJ's is just as bad.) However,
While irresponsible, this kind of behavior makes good political sense. After all, people run for office in the short run, and money spent now—rather than put aside in a pension reserve—is more likely to garner votes. As one legislator recently told me, "When budgets are tight, as they often are, we simply kick the can down the road by underfunding pension obligations." But as with Madoff, inevitably a day of reckoning arrives. For many states and municipalities, that day is now.

Weighing Small Scale V. Large

Andrew Rotherham (see post below) was actually responding to a piece by Rishawn Biddle at Dropout Nation on our national fetish with scale. Biddle just responded to Rotherham, gently reproving him for falling into the trap of assuming that small-scale is somehow inferior to large-scale, whether one is discussing clothing, supermarkets, software or education providers. (Diane Ravitch alert!) Specifically in education, Biddle writes, large-scale organization works effectively in “back-office activities” like information technology, school data systems, transportation, school construction, and property management.

But other areas like teacher evaluations and value-added analysis of student test scores could profit from either small consortiums or out-sourcing the functions entirely.

Not to be Jersey-centric or anything, but this discussion of the value of “scaling up” – that hoary stalwart of anti-reformers resistant to charter schools or virtual learning – appears in today’s NJ Spotlight piece. John Mooney discusses the progress of Gov. Christie’s much-maligned task force charged with recommending ways to use student growth to evaluate teachers. Scaling up, in other words, what some (okay, a few) districts do on a small scale. The main bugaboo in the ointment of a statewide teacher evaluation system is NJ SMART, the DOE’s data analysis system years in the works, way over budget, and at least, according to Bari Erlichson, director of the department’s Office of Research and Evaluation, 16 months away from having the capacity to tie student growth to teacher performance.

Maybe NJ should overcome its fetish with scaling up and give districts the flexibility to go small-scale (with appropriate oversight, of course!). Listen up, Task Force.

On Scaling Up Successful Educational Models

Here's Eduwonk's Andrew Rotherham who ponders
how consistently wrong education’s wise men and women generally are about scale. I can remember meetings just a few years ago where the “experts” solemnly informed us that KIPP (the high-performing network of public charter middle schools) was nice but would never get past a dozen or maybe two dozen schools. Now there are 100. Will there be 10,000? Probably not. More than 100? Certainly. Or consider Teach For America, still widely derided as marginal. And sure, it will never replace other methods of teacher preparation but it is the largest teacher preparation program in the country (5K a year coming up) – and gets the best results overall. The list goes on. The point is that a lot of ideas that haven’t been tried are now being tried and we have a lot to learn about scale and scaling. In addition, there are a lot of policies and barriers. On charter schools, for instance, it’s sort of ridiculous to talk about scaling them when they get 20 percent less funding than other public schools.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Sunday Leftovers

Yesterday's New York Times lead editorial, "A New Jersey Reckoning," weighs in on the Education Law Center's suit against the State, which attempts to enforce the original pre-recession funding formula:
The right decision is clear. The shortfall in money and other defaults amount to “deficiencies of a constitutional dimension,” which the court had warned would lead it to step in again. The justices should order the state to fully finance education as it committed to do.
Two Jersey City politicians, Mayor Jerramiah Healy and Councilman Steven Fulop, are fighting for equitable funding for public charter schools. Charters are supposed to receive 90% of cost per pupil (the local district keeps 10% for shipping and handling) but, reports The Star-Ledger, “in Jersey City for example, the school district spends $17,200 per student while charter schools received less than $10,000 per student.”

Gov. Christie’s State of the State speech is Tuesday. The Record interviews the Governor, who tells them that “there’s a bunch of things I want to get done this year. Pension and benefit reform — at the top of the list — continued fiscal discipline, and education reform are the three most important things in my view for this year.” He also spoke to the Asbury Park Press, and lists his education reform priorities as tenure reform and accountability:
To send over $900 million to the Newark school system and get less than a 50 percent graduation rate is an obscenity for those kids and their families, and it's an obscenity for the taxpayers. We have to change that. The only way to change that is through accountability — for people to be accountable for their results.
Paterson Public Schools confessed a while ago that it has deprived 225 preschoolers with disabilities of legally-mandated services like speech therapy. Now the Education Law Center says that “dozens of elementary students” have also not received services, according to The Record, and has filed suit. The district says it’s the State DOE’s fault: as an Abbott district it has to get approval for hiring staff; it applied to hire 30 additional speech therapists, but the paperwork got lost in Trenton. The DOE begs to differ.

A NJ special education activist, Alicia Grimaldi Brzycki, makes the case in The Alternative Press for special education vouchers.

Albert Doblin, Record columnist, compares Gov. Christie’s “assault on education” and the NJEA to “a very long professional hockey match.” His editorial itself ricochets from Race to the Top to criticism of superintendent salary caps to non-renewal of 7 Executive County Superintendents to Christie’s Mike Bloomberg fetish to Disney World. Not to mention home rule:
Personally, I would do away with much, if not all, of county government. Home rule is so entrenched in the culture of New Jersey that it is impossible to eliminate local municipalities. But there is little lasting love for county government from anyone other than the local political power brokers who control much of state government and ensure that their sycophants have appointed and/or elected offices…The governor is not planning to dismantle county government. He is intent on creating chaos in public schools.
Diane D’Amico of The Press of Atlantic City explains how “the academic performance of New Jersey students living in poverty continues to lag far behind that of their nondisadvantaged peers, preliminary results of state tests given to public school students in 2010 show.”

The Wall Street Journal looks at “this new awakening” of blue-collar union workers to the fact that they are funding the pensions and health benefits of state and local government white-collar union workers:
These days the two types of worker inhabit two very different worlds. In the private sector, union workers increasingly pay for more of their own health care, and they have defined contribution pension plans such as 401(k)s. In this they have something fundamental in common even with the fat cats on Wall Street: Both need their companies to succeed.

By contrast, government unions use their political clout to elect those who set their pay: the politicians. In exchange, these unions are rewarded with contracts whose pension and health-care provisions now threaten many municipalities and states with bankruptcy. In response to the crisis, government unions demand more and higher taxes. Which of course makes people who have money less inclined to look to those states to make the investments that create jobs for, say, iron workers, electricians and construction workers.

Some of these folks are beginning to notice.
NJEA President Barbara Keshishian and Executive Director Vince Giordano discuss their commitment to maintaining pension benefits in a memo to members (sorry, no link available):
You may have seen recent news reports regarding New Jersey’s public employee pension system...Gov. Christie is expected to roll out yet another set of pension proposals in his State of the State address on Tuesday...We have met with attorneys to make sure we know what our members’ legal rights are with regard to their pensions and any proposed changes to the system...We have also met with legislators and discussed our concerns about the pension system. We have not come to any agreements with legislators or final conclusions about the best way to resolve the problems caused by both the economy and the state’s irresponsible funding practices. However, we will continue to pursue meetings with legislators in order to be part of the discussion and to advocate for solutions that protect both the stability of the pension system and your long-term security. We believe those solutions should come only from cooperation and mutual effort, and should not be simply imposed.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Newark's Education Politics

Dana Goldstein’s overview in The Nation of the politics of the Mark Zuckerberg donation to Newark Public Schools is a good read, if a bit defensive. Then again, her interviewees include anti-reformer Gordon MacInnes, Education Law Center’s Stan Karp, and Junius Williams, Director of the Abbott Leadership Institute. In order to make the case that Cory Booker’s solicitation for funds is politically rather than educationally oriented, Goldstein needs to show that Newark’s schools are, well, really pretty good, at least as long as the State fully funded the Abbott formula. Check. And that Booker's entire impetus is mayoral control. Check. And that the Facebook donation is fiscally insignificant. Check. And that PENewark, the group that did the $1 million survey of Newark families, screwed up. (Uh, well, that one may be true. Here’s an interesting update from Goldstein.)

Here’s one outright quibble. Goldstein refers to a new group called Coalition for Effective Newark Public Schools, describing it as “a newly formed coalition of parents, teachers and civil rights activists.” Actually, this Coalition (irony alert: it’s on Facebook!) is funded by a group calling itself “NJ against Chris Christie” with a mission to “be an open forum to discuss any issues related to NJ politics, in particular, alternatives to the policies of Governor Chris Christie.” Its “favorite page” on Facebook is that old chestnut, “New Jersey Teachers United Against Governor Chris Christie's Pay Freeze.” Not to mix politics with education or anything, but really?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

It's Not The Money

There’s two big education stories circling today: the NJ Supreme Court’s hearing on whether Gov. Christie’s school aid cuts violated the Constitution, and the most recent standardized test scores released by the State DOE.

On the former, the Education Law Center is arguing that, according to the Star-Ledger, “cuts in school funding made by Gov. Chris Christie and the Legislature last year violate the state’s constitutional obligations." It wants the state ordered to fully bankroll the court-approved school funding formula.” (Also see the Wall Street Journal.)

On the latter, DOE data shows that, according to The Record, “in third-grade language arts, roughly 60 percent of black students and 56 percent of Hispanic students failed to meet proficiency standards last spring, compared with 31 percent for whites and 21 percent for Asian students.” According to Arcelio Aponte of the State Board of Education, “This is really an alarm for us…We’re still stuck in the realm of having an enormous achievement gap between African-Americans and Hispanics, and Asians and whites. It’s very troubling." (DOE news release and data here.)

This two stories are, of course, one story. The Abbott cases aspire to correct achievement gaps among ethnic and economic groups through infusions of money. The DOE data shows that the additional money isn’t working.

NJ Spotlight alludes to the link: “at the same time, the passing rates for low-income and disadvantaged students at every grade level -- many of the very students that the Abbott case has sought to help -- remained troubling, as much as 30 points lower than their peers.”

In other words, decades of increased funding to special-needs districts (and, through Corzine’s School Funding Reform Act, increased funding to disadvantaged students) hasn’t ameliorated the achievement gap.

While equitable funding is important, it’s no panacea. A one-tooled strategy can’t repair a complex problem, and ELC's fixation on one fix is troubling. (Remember Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.) We need a sane, multi-pronged approach. We need, if you’ll excuse the expression a tool-kit that includes closing down schools that consistently fail students, expanding charter schools in our lowest-achieving neighborhoods, methods of gauging teacher effectiveness, tenure reform so that ineffective teachers leave the classroom, proven models that increase achievement, like expanded school years and days.

If only it were as simple as more money. ELC Executive Director David Sciarra was correct in his argument before the State Supreme Court yesterday when he spoke about the State Constitution’s mandate that all NJ children have access to a thorough and efficient school system. "This is a fundamental constitutional right," he said. "This court has the authority to indicate to the state what it’s [sic] responsibilities are." Yet we know – don’t we? – that the ability of NJ school schoolchildren to exercise that fundamental right is not facilitated merely by more money.

(The Star-Ledger piece quotes Rutgers Professor Bruce Baker, blogger at SchoolFinance101 and stalwart opponent of school reform.While he acknowledges that our achievement gap remains unameliorated, he claims that test scores are of “limited value for estimating school effectiveness, no less teacher effectiveness.” We’re eager to hear other ideas for measuring student achievement besides, like, data.)

In many ways, NJ’s most recent test results and the on-going Abbott Battles point to fundamental issues of school district segregation and school funding that have long stymied a state governed by home rule. In other ways, especially now that our funding is more equitable, this news make a cogent case for reforming a school system that fails our most needy students in ways that are far more complex than a lack of cash.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Quote of the Day

Despite an influx of new funding to New Jersey's poorest urban school districts following the state Supreme Court's Abbott rulings, student achievement levels remain mostly flat at the lower end of the spectrum.

The percentage of black eighth-graders who scored above "basic" in reading actually declined, from 62 percent in 2005 to 60 percent in 2009 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Overall, there was virtually no difference in the average scores for eighth-graders over this period, with more than 80 percent of black eighth-graders scoring below "proficient" in reading.

This is a very different picture from the one described by reform opponents, like the current leaders of the New Jersey Education Association, whose persistent claims of progress in inner-city schools are as harmful as they are inaccurate.
Don Soifer in the Asbury Park Press

Christie Fires Seven Executive County Superintendents

According to both The Record and NJ Spotlight, seven executive county superintendents received a six-sentence pink slip last week telling them not to report for their $120,000/year jobs effective immediately. The counties now lacking ECS’s are Burlington, Cape May, Hunterdon, Ocean, Middlesex, Monmouth and Somerset. Technically they were not fired, just not renewed. Given that they are political appointments, insiders expect new nominees any time now.

The responsibilities of Executive County Superintendents are ever-evolving. Once not much more than figureheads, former Gov. Corzine expanded their responsibilities to include line item vetoes over school district contracts and budgets and, more significantly, authority to recommend district consolidation. That never panned out -- regulations are such that even sensible mergers are non-starters -- and the Christie Administration tossed all recommendations into the circular file.

Here's a question: would we even need ECS's if we had a functional and fully-staffed DOE?

Proposed Changes to Superintendent Prerequisites

The Record reports today that the NJ DOE has drawn up changes to credential requirements for superintendents of “struggling school districts.” Taking a page, perhaps, from Mike Bloomberg, some districts would have the ability to hire superintendents who lack specific educational certification or degrees from teaching colleges.

Richard Bozza, head of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, says that the proposed change in employment requirements give some applicants a “free pass” and “our view is clear: you need to have an educational background to lead a district.”

(Of course,, such changes offer a solution to the problem of traditionally-credentialed superintendents fleeing the state for greener pastures because of the newly-imposed salary caps, but that’s another matter.)

So that’s the question: do you need an educational background to lead a district, or at least an educational background to lead a chronically failing district? (According to The Record, the changes would affect 50 districts out of our 591.) Are superintendents of struggling districts rendered more qualified through advanced education degrees and years of teaching experience? Or do the best candidates possess a set of leadership and management skills transferable from a non-education sector of the economy?

The same sort of query surrounds much of the debate about what makes a qualified teacher. Is it years of experience in the classroom? (Not according to recent data, or the relative success of programs like Teach for America.) Is it advanced degrees? (Nope, not that either.) Here’s U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in an editorial today on the need to rewrite No Child Left Behind:
Finally, almost no one believes the teacher quality provisions of NCLB are helping elevate the teaching profession, or ensuring that the most challenged students get their fair share of the best teachers. More and more, teachers, parents, and union and business leaders want a real definition of teacher effectiveness based on multiple measures, including student growth, principal observation and peer review.
Part of the education reform movement is rethinking traditional models for delivering instruction, including who does the delivering and who manages the deliverers. It's worth a shot for the Christie Administration to target fifty failing districts and let them bypass the traditional model of superintendency. Leadership is leadership. Who says the best candidates happened to start their careers in teaching colleges?