Monday, February 28, 2011

Paterson's Preschoolers

Education Law Center has just posted the Complaint Investigation report from the DOE in response to allegations that Paterson Public Schools withheld mandated special education and related services to hundreds of eligible preschoolers. In addition, ELC alleged, Paterson has been violating time frames for evaluating referred preschoolers, not providing summer programming, not providing resource rooms, and not staffing classrooms with certified special education teachers.

Paterson’s response has been that a state hiring freeze forced the district into non-compliance.

The DOE found that just about all of ELC’s allegations were true. (According to the State, Paterson has provided required occupational and physical therapy.) Corrective Action plans are now in place, although ELC regards them as “woefully inadequate” because “the DOE does not provide much guidance” and there is no news on whether or not the DOE plans to lift its hiring freeze.

The corrective action plans do seem a bit tepid. For example,
There is no dispute that do to staffing shortages the district did not meet the required timeframes for responding to referrals and conducting initial evaluations set forth…Therefore the district is determined noncompliant and corrective action is necessary. The district has already taken appropriate steps to hire appropriate staff and is working to address the backlog of new referrals/evaluations. The OSEP will continue to monitor the progress until all new referrals and evaluations are completed within the required timeframe.
Is the problem lack of money? Hard to say. According to DOE data, Paterson receives a total of $48 million in preschool aid plus another $14 million in Categorical Special Education Aid. There has been a big cut in Child Study Team services: appropriations for CST’s went from $12.7 million in 2009-2010 to $9.4 million in 2010-2011.

It's the same problem that the Judge Peter Doyle of State Superior Court is currently mulling over in regards to the constitutionality of the State Funding Reform Act: do high-needs districts suffer from underachievement because of lack of cash or lack of accountability? In the case of Paterson's preschoolers ELC maintains that the heart of the problem is the hiring freeze. From its press release:
The report and CAP [Corrective Action Plan] do not indicate whether the DOE plans to lift its September 14, 2010 freeze on all spending and hiring in the district, except in cases of health and safety. The State's fiscal review of the district has not yet been completed, and the spending freeze remains in effect. The CAP does not indicate whether the DOE will provide additional resources to ensure that Paterson can comply with the law.
The State's Complaint Investigation makes no mention of the need for more state aid, sticking firm to the argument that the problem is oversight. We await Judge Doyle's ruling, which has as much to do with SFRA as it does with the woes of Paterson's preschoolers.

Quote of the Day

"The thing that kind of makes me laugh about this whole conversation is you have union leaders now talking about the sanctity of collective bargaining,” said Mr. Christie, who said he had no plans to take away bargaining rights in New Jersey. “But the collective bargaining situation is not that way when they don’t get what they want. When they don’t get what they want, they go to the legislature. And then they legislate those benefits that they couldn’t get at the collective bargaining table.”
Gov. Christie in today's New York Times on the penchant of union leaders to go through the Legislature when they don't get what they want through collective bargaining.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sunday Leftovers

Isn't there something atonal about NJEA President Barbara Keshishian rallying teachers with the soundbite that Gov. Christie is trying to start a "middle-class civil war" between private workers and public workers? After all, she makes $263,000 a year plus benefits -- hardly middle-class -- and used the line while handing over a portion of other teachers' union dues to the Wisconsin AFL-CIO.

Bob Ingle
says that during the labor union rally Senate President State Sweeney told the editorial board from the Home News Tribune that he thinks that resolutions on health and pension benefits could be reached by April.

While Gov. Christie claimed in his budget address that he was increasing aid to charter schools by 50%, says NJ Spotlight, it’s not all sunny news. In fact, the extra $13 million is “less that 5 percent of the total funding for charter schools." To add insult to injury, most of that new money will go to new charter students, there is still no facilities funding, and there's no change in the formula that allows traditional public schools to keep at least 10% of the funding intended for students who transfer to public charter schools.

Newark Mess: Hoping-to-be-Commissioner Cerf is still getting nailed in the press for having founded Global Education Advisors, the company that performed a charter school study study on Newark that got leaked to the Star-Ledger. (Here's an interview he gave right afterwards.) Before operating Global, reports PolitickerNJ, Cerf ran a company called Sangari Education, which was founded by his brother Randy Cerf. Randy, however, has never heard of Global, even though the guy now running that company, Rajeev Bajaj, also serves as president of Sangari. Families!

Newark school board politics have always been a contact sport, and the tradition continues. South Ward Councilman Ras Baraka (who is principal of a failing Newark high school in his spare time) is backing one slate of candidates called Children’s First Team, and Steve Adubato is backing the For Our Kids slate. PolitickerNJ has the deets, including the awkward positioning required on the part of Newark Advisory School Board President Shavar Jeffries.

SFRA Update: we’re now two weeks into testimony on whether last year’s state school aid cuts violated the School Funding Reform Act by taking too much money away from poor districts. The Record reports that a former DOE staffer testified that 205 of our 560 regular districts are spending less money than that which is deemed “adequate,” though some are spending more. If the current funding level was distributed differently, then there would be enough to bring all districts up to adequacy.

Mike Kelly in The Record questions the relevance of teacher unions.

If the Parsippany-Troy Hills school board doesn’t rescind Superintendent LeRoy Seitz’s $225K salary – way above cap – the DOE will withhold the district’s school aid, reports the Star-Ledger. One member of the board has been trying to follow through, but the president of the board keeps blocking his motion.

Don't miss the new report out from The New Teacher Project, "The Case Against Quality-Blind Lay-offs."

Friday, February 25, 2011

Quote of the Day

The showdown in Wisconsin over fringe benefits for public employees boils down to one number: 74.2. That's how many cents the public pays Milwaukee public-school teachers and other employees for retirement and health benefits for every dollar they receive in salary. The corresponding rate for employees of private firms is 24.3 cents.
Robert Costrell, Professor of Education Reform and Economics at the University of Arkansas, in today's Wall Street Journal.

On NJEA's Credibility Problem

In this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Matt Bai looks at NJEA’s anachronistic hard line against changes to pay and benefits structures, and how Gov. Christie has successfully used the union leaders' recalcitrance to become on of the "most intriguing political figures in America."
“He is the governor!” [NJEA President Barbara] Keshishian said, her voice rising. “People listen to him! You know, he could be in a crowd of people, and they’re going to interview the governor! And people, I guess, believe that what the governor says is the truth.” Keshishian taught high-school math for 29 years, but her grasp on civics sounded a bit shaky. It doesn’t seem especially likely that Christie is breaking through because he is a politician and therefore people take to heart his every word.

What the union’s leadership seems not to have considered is that public sentiment around budgets and public employees has shifted in a fundamental way. For decades, as Keshishian and Giordano were rising up through the union, it probably made sense to adopt a strategy of “no surrender,” to dig in and outlast the occasional politician who might dare to threaten the union’s hard-earned gains. But over the last 10 years or so, most American workers have come to expect less by way of benefits and security from their employers. And with political consensus building toward some kind of public-school reform, teachers’ unions in particular have lost credibility with the public. Forty-­six percent of voters in a poll conducted by Stanford and the Associated Press last September said teachers’ unions deserved either “a great deal” or “a lot” of blame for the problems of public schools.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Lakewood's Voucher Program

Lakewood Public Schools’ inclusion in the Opportunity Scholarship Act is redundant. Lakewood Public Schools is already a voucher program.
This week the focus is back on the Opportunity Scholarship Act, fondly known as the voucher bill. Yesterday Rev. Douglas K. Batchelder and George V. Corwell argued in NJ Spotlight that “trapping children in failing schools ruins lives: theirs and those of the taxpayers. In spite of much time and money, these failing schools have been unable to reach children who live in poverty. Parents of these students and taxpayers are looking for a viable alternative that will educate the children and save money.” Today in the Star-Ledger former Governor Jim Florio slaps back, “Now, we have this voucher initiative to further divide us into those who will be ready for the knowledge-based economy and those who will be left to fester in failing schools from which we have siphoned off the most motivated students.”

(Is this what we’ve come to? How many kids “fester in failing schools?” Is the main deficit of the voucher bill, then, that it would rescue some children from rot and not all? Equitable putrification, please!)

On a newsier front, NJ Spotlight reports that the initial pool of 13 districts included in OSA is quickly shrinking due to political calculations. Orange is out, and Rev. Reginald Jackson, a major proponent of the bill, may pull his support. Here’s a suggestion from your friendly neighborhood blogger: pull Lakewood.

The Ocean County school district has attracted a fair amount of attention over the years. Orthodox Jews make up 79% of the population and, according to the New York Times, about ¾ of those children attend private Jewish schools. The public schools are 90% black and Hispanic, and struggle not just academically but financially. Every one of the seven schools in the district is labeled a School In Need of Improvement and the high school graduation rate is listed in the DOE data base as 37.6%.

While the comparative cost per pupil for Lakewood Public Schools is $12,320, the total cost per pupil is $19,652. For comparison’s sake, the state average for comparative cost is $13,383 and the average total cost is $15,538, a much smaller discrepancy.

Why the big difference? All districts are required to pay for private placements for children with disabilities if there is no suitable in-district or public county program. And it seems that Jewish kids with special needs mostly go to Lakewood’s private School For Children With Hidden Intelligence, or SCHI. According to the Asbury Park Press, 122 Lakewood students attended last year. SCHI’s tuition per child, not including mandated summer services, has been approved for next year at $91,952 per child. That's a tuition bill of $11,219,242, or about 10% of the district's total budget. While the school disavows any religious affiliation, “it’s known locally as a school for Orthodox families.” (See here for more detail.)

Lakewood Public Schools’ segregation of Orthodox children with disabilities from non-Jewish kids with disabilities has been criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, and the State DOE.

Why would the Lakewood Board of Education go along with such profligacy and discrimination? Why risk non-compliance with the federal mandate that children with disabilities be educated in the least restrictive environment? For answers, check out the minutes from a Lakewood school board meeting . Meetings are dominated by Michael Inzelbuch, who serves as both the Board attorney and, until recently, was listed as Supervisor of Nonpublic Special Education. (Base salary $122K; scroll to the bottom of the link.) He also has a private practice with the tagline, "Every child deserves an appropriate education at the school district's expense." Each billable hour for his services is $250.

The support for Inzelbuch’s continued dominance is not unanimous. At last year’s reorganization meeting the Board narrowly approved his continued contract as Attorney; some board members claimed “he used the board as a ‘rubber stamp." In addition, Lakewood Board of Education President Leonard Thomas resigned two weeks ago because “he had grown tired of demanding basic rights for public school students."

Here’s some other rubber-stamping on the part of the Lakewood School Board as revealed in the Minutes:
  • The Board regularly awards contracts to parents of children who attend SCHI for $74.92 per day for “a total not to exceed $15,733.20 to transport their child to/from School for Children with Hidden Intelligence.”
  • While districts are required to provide 4-5 weeks of ½ day summer programs for students eligible for Extended School Year, generous Lakewood Public Schools pays for residential summer camps for children who attend SCHI. Boys go to Camp Mogen Avraham at $6,500 per summer, which advertises itself as place for children to experience “unique kochos in a healthy, and positive, Torah atmosphere.” Girls go to Camp Miskon Sternberg which describes itself as “a setting for Orthodox girls” at taxpayer cost of $9,000 per summer.
(It’s unclear where the black and Hispanic kids with disabilities go to summer camp.)
  • The Lakewood School Board originally hired Inzelbuch because he was so successful in his private practice of suing the district for costs of SCHI. “According to civil rights advocate James Waters, Inzelbuch filed the lawsuits on behalf of Orthodox parents seeking to place their special education children at the school of their choice and not where the district assigned them. Waters said the parents wanted their special needs children to attend Lakewood's School for Children with Hidden Intelligence (SCHI), which enrolls a majority of Orthodox students. SCHI is a private school.”
  • Many Jewish parents chose to send their preschool children to a program called Tiny Tots. When the program was removed from the State DOE’s list of approved public preschools, an emergency meeting was held by the parents with Board members present. According to the Lakewood Scoop, a “parent said to the Frum board members, ‘We voted you in to represent us and this is what you do to our children? For five years the Tiny Tots program ran successfully and when we vote you in and you repay us by trying to force our children into the public school. You should all resign in disgrace.’”
Enough already.

Opportunity Scholarship Act advocates have their own opportunity: to keep their noses clean. The inclusion of Lakewood on the list of approved districts is a distraction from the program's promise to rescue those festering impoverished children from failing schools. The Talmud says, "whoever destroys a single life is as guilty as though he had destroyed the entire world; and whoever rescues a single life earns as much merit as though he had rescued the entire world." Don't undermine the rescue attempt by tainting its intentions. Leave Lakewood out.

(Correction: Lakewood Public School's bill from the School For Exceptional Children for 2010-2011 is not, as stated above, $11.2 million. It is actually $12.2 million.)

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Christie the Moderate

Pugnacious and boastful, bullying and bombastic, arrogant and contentious: these are some of the mainstream media descriptions of Gov. Christie’s performance yesterday afternoon during his Statehouse budget address. (Transcript here.) Not so much. With Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker as a convenient foil, Christie’s fiscal roadmap, at least in regards to education, comes across as practically pacifist. $250 million increase in local school aid. No cuts to Abbott preschool programs. No strictures on collective bargaining for public employee unions. School board members and administrators are in a fever of disbelief, even as they wait to get solid numbers: how’d we get so lucky?

Other educational references during the address included expanding the authorizing agencies of charter schools from one (the DOE) to 31 (all NJ’s public colleges and universities), increasing state aid to charter schools, and doubling the budget for the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program.

Now, a cynic might argue that the public school aid increase and the decision to maintain preschools (despite pleas from the GOP leadership) is merely a strategic sop to the State Supreme Court, which is currently pondering the constitutionality of last year’s substantial cuts to poor districts. (If the Court finds in favor of Education Law Center’s argument, then that money might end up in the pockets of the Abbott districts, inciting outrage from gipped suburbanites.) Also, as NJ Spotlight points out, the flat allocation to the State DOE leaves one wondering how exactly we’re going to upgrade our data systems to sustain the promised reforms that would link student growth to teacher performance.

Despite the adjectival agility displayed by today’s press, Chris Christie looks like a piker compared to the acrobatics in Wisconsin and Ohio, which are currently pressing for ending collective bargaining among public employees. If those states' governors are the radical fringe element, we're positively middle-of-the-road.

Meanwhile, NJEA’s leaders (along with the AFL-CIO) are urging school teachers to play hooky on Friday and come to a rally in Trenton from 11:30-1:30 to “show that we stand strong for collective bargaining rights in New Jersey.” What’s wrong with rallying at 4:00 when school is out? Why not the weekend? Jeesh. This isn't Wisconsin.

Quote of the Day

Ray Gustini at National Journal riffs on Chris Christie:
Loud, reasonable, union-busting New Jersey governor Chris Christie has emerged as a national figure since ousting Jon Corzine 15 months ago, and just might be the GOP 2012 presidential front runner if he was actually, you know, interested in running for president. This hasn't stopped Beltway journalists from speculating about the immense appeal a Christe candidacy would hold for a large bloc of voters who hate out-of-control Washington spending but also think the president is an OK guy who wasn't born in Kenya, Indonesia, or the Al Jazeera kitchenette.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Christie Budget Address Ed-Snippet

The need for reform, of course, is more urgent than ever. This is the third big challenge we must address this year. We need to reward excellent teachers, put an end to automatic tenure, and give parents trapped in failing schools a choice for a better future for their children. Once and for all, we must reward excellence and there must be consequences for failure. This is the way it is all across America – we must finally bring it to all of New Jersey’s classrooms.
And here's NJEA's response.

Newark Snafu

The Star-Ledger reports that Newark school officials are closing several traditional public schools to accommodate eleven charter schools in “a massive reshuffling.” The Ledger obtained a 39-page memo with the phrase “Strictly Confidential Draft Work Product" stamped on each page that specifies both the schools closing (Quitman Street, Camden Middle, et.al.) and the charter schools expanding (North Star, Lady Liberty, Spirit Prep and Vailsburg Prep). The memo was circulated to principals during a “hastily called meeting” on Friday and was prepared by outside consultants.

Deputy Commissioner Rochelle Hendricks said that the report “was never meant to be public.”

Also in the Star-Ledger, Joan Whitlow writes,
Now, however, we learn that school district and the state, which runs the Newark schools, has been working on a plan that involves a massive rearrangement of schools and students. It has come to fruition in secret without anyone asking or informing principals, teachers, parents,students or even Newark's elected school advisory board about the when, how and why of it all.
Whitlow also quotes Shavar Jeffries, President of Newark School Advisory Board, who said that the “board should have been told of the details and the implementation schedule before any such plan was presented to the principals as an order they had to carry out.”

Quote of the Day

The Gloucester County Times comes out in favor of Comm. Cerf's tenure reform proposal:
It's not going to be easy and it's not going to be pretty, but in the end it's worth doing... Robert Bumpus, executive school superintendent for Gloucester and Salem counties, has the right take on the reform proposal. Asked how he thought local teachers would respond, Bumpus said "If they really look at it and debate it, I think down deep inside they're going to say this makes sense." Indeed, management by objective always makes sense to true professionals.

NJEA to Members: "Wisconsin's Fight is OUR Fight"

Here's NJEA's most recent memo to its constituents relating how "members of the NJEA leadership are already in Wisconsin lending their assistance and support to this struggle, and NJEA is awaiting word from NEA for how we can amplify our involvement." Readers are also asked "to "'Wear Red for Ed' to support public education beginning Tuesday, February 22nd , and every Tuesday this spring."

The memo describes Gov. Christie’s support of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s “efforts to smash the rights of unionized teachers” and, in its urgency and outrage, summons up the spirit of the ‘60’s. Think Woody Guthrie and odes to union maids who never were afraid of goons and ginks and company finks or Mahalia Jackson urging that we shall overcome the shackles of racism in Jim Crow south.

NJEA seizes that glorious mantle of the civil rights movement for their own cause, playing the part of the valiant union maid and the persecuted minority; Govs. Walker and Christie are cast as Bull Connor, Police Chief of Birmingham Police Department, who notoriously turned high-pressure water hoses on children and college students during a particularly nasty Civil Rights battle. We shall overcome!

Of course, NJEA's memo-writers are in good company. The civil rights evocation is a constant trope of the education reform movement too. This past September, when Mark Zuckerberg gave $100 million to Newark, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan toasted this “Rosa Parks moment.” Education reform activists (guilty as charged) often channel that same zeitgeist: morals, music, righteousness, the rights of the disenfranchised and underserved.

But NJEA’s persecuted minorities are employed teachers whom, unlike their colleagues in Wisconsin, face no challenges to their rights to collective bargaining. Would it be rude to point out that the persecuted minorities addressed by ed reformers are impoverished children?

It’s worth noting that NJEA’s umbrage is incited by relatively mild attempts to insert a degree of accountability into job security. So forgive us if its evocation of the holy images of American civil rights archetypes seems a bit emotive, a trifle overdone, a tad histrionic. Let's have a little respect for Pete Seeger, please.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sunday Leftovers

How’d the week go for the School Funding Reform Act, now on trial before Judge Peter Doyne at State Superior Court? Depends upon whom you ask. Bob Braun says the state’s case has “exploded like a trick cigar in the faces of the state lawyers.” But the state, according to the Star-Ledger, had school finance expert Erik Hanushek testify that NJ public schools can still offer a thorough and efficient education in spite of state cuts. NJ Spotlight asks, “what’s ‘thorough and efficient’ anyway?"

Tom Moran of the Star-Ledger interviews Daniel DiSalvo, labor movement scholar, and asks how to measure the political power of public employee unions. Answer: “Where it’s most blatant is in small elections, like school boards. Most people don’t pay attention, whereas the unions have powerful incentive to get their people on those boards, so they turn out in large numbers.”

Rishawn Biddle at Drop Out Nation cautions that ending collective bargaining (all the buzz in Wisconsin) won’t lead to meaningful education reform.

The Wall Street Journal examines the impact of LIFO, or the policy of laying off teachers in order of “last in, first out.” Stany Leblanc, a second year teacher in NYC, has had enormous success with his poor black and Hispanic kids; after five months his sixth-graders are all reading and writing at grade-level. But he’ll be among the first to go when teachers are laid off in June, as will almost all (21 out of 25) of his colleagues at the South Bronx school.

NJ school board members are rejoicing because the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC), which tries to settle labor disputes, said that Bloomfield Board of Education didn’t have to pay the “cost of increment” after a contract with its union expired. Cost of increment is the expense associated with moving teachers one step up on the salary guide based on an additional year of experience.

The Parsippany School Board is risking its state aid, says Gov. Christie, if they continue to defy his orders to stop paying Superintendent Roy Seitz more than new salary caps allow. (How much state aid do they get anyway? Probably not much.)

The Schools Development Authority will take on only ten school projects, reports NJ Spotlight, at a cost of $585 million. Winners are Bridgeton, Elizabeth, Long Branch, Jersey City, New Brunswick, Newark, Paterson, and West New York.

Ray Pinney at NJSBA's BoardBlog
says that " it is a myth that the end of tenure would hurt education. If done right (a big if, I’ll admit) tenure reform, in conjunction with a fair and meaningful evaluation system, will enhance our educational system."

A small study out of Milwaukee
found that voucher programs save money for local districts.

Sharin’ the Christie Love: Peggy Noonan coos, “[h]is style—big, rumpled, garrulous, Jersey-blunt—has captured the imagination of the political class, and also normal people. They look at him and think, "I know that guy. I like that guy." And today’s New York Times kvells,
Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey argued that the country was headed toward financial ruin if leaders did not summon the courage to tackle the most politically charged aspects of the problem, saying: “You’re going to have to raise the retirement age for Social Security. Oh, I just said it, and I still am standing here. I did not vaporize into the carpet!”

Friday, February 18, 2011

Quote of the Day

New NJEA press release entitled "Now We Know the Real Chris Christie:"
Chris Christie has one objective: to destroy New Jersey’s public schools in order to pave the way for their privatization. Now, he’ll apparently stop at nothing to make teachers and school employees pay for the cost of his education cuts, which have already exceeded a billion dollars.

Tweaking NJ's Tenure Reform

All’s curiously quiet in the aftermath of Ed. Commissioner Christopher Cerf’s speech on Wednesday describing his five-part proposal for tenure reform. Sure, the leadership of NJEA hurled aspersions: “This proposal is an unproven step in the wrong direction. All reliable research suggests that evaluating teachers primarily on their ability to raise student test scores is bad policy, but that doesn’t deter Governor Christie.” Major editorialists, however, have generated little commentary.

Maybe they think Cerf’s not serious. Or maybe everything he said made sense. Or maybe they recognize that the public regards tenure reform as so inevitable as to be just a big yawn.

In fact, Cerf’s proposal for tenure reform is not so radical. There are plenty of studies out there that show that the essential ingredient to student growth is a series of effective teachers. Highly-regarded non-partisan research organizations like The New Teacher Project, the National Council on Teacher Quality, the Data Quality Campaign, Education Sector, Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance (just to name a few) all testify to the our growing ability to use data to judge teacher effectiveness. The man on the street knows that our pre-Cambrian tenure system serves adults, not children. (Factoid from Comm. Cerf’s speech: over the last ten years 17 NJ public school teachers have been fired for incompetence and 1% of teachers received unsatisfactory ratings.) That's old news.

Of course, it’s not all blue sky. There are legitimate questions about the NJ Department of Education’s ability to build and manage the complex data system necessary to support value-added models for teacher accountability. (See yesterday’s NJ Spotlight for more on this obstacle to reform and Cerf’s comment that there were "’some very serious mountains to climb’ on the data system that would make it possible to link individual teachers with student performance.”) Is the much-maligned DOE really up to the task of creating state-wide teacher evaluation forms typically negotiated between local unions and school boards? Would that delegation of responsibility from district to DOE start only when contracts expire? Is the Legislature really prepared to stand up to NJEA executives? (Might be a tough sell. See today’s Glenn Beck award below.) Will local school boards cotton to this unusual usurpation of local control?

Here’s a few initial thoughts on the proposal:

1) Given that the DOE is going to be extra busy, do a meaningful needs-analysis. Do you really need to spend copious amounts of time, money, and staffers to perform unnecessary oversight at high-performing/functional districts? Get rid of QSAC (the monitoring mechanism administered to every district every three years) except for struggling districts, or at least cut it back to once every ten years. Trash the gratuitous regulations that waste everyone’s time and contribute nothing to student growth. Think of it as a fair trade for asking local school boards to hand over authority for negotiating teacher evaluation rules and templates.

2) Reevaluate the role of Executive County Superintendents and County offices. What role do they play in this rejiggered governance? If you back off on monitoring of high-performing districts, what should the county offices do with their free time?

3) No doubt you anticipate the outrage from home-rulists who will despise the suggestion that responsibilities historically delegated to local school boards (like negotiating and designing teacher evaluations) be transferred to the DOE. Instead of apportioning out superficial assurances, embrace the antipathy. Indeed, perhaps the next logical step is a state-wide salary schedule adjusted for regional variations in cost-of-living that imbeds extra pay for teaching in high-needs districts and hard-to-fill disciplines like math and science. How much tax money would we save in administrative time and legal fees if local districts out-sourced negotiations? Not to mention a giant step towards school district consolidation. Am I dreaming? Maybe. But if you make the unspeakable speakable, then centralization of a function or two, like teaching evaluations, will seem like a farthing’s worth of trivia.

4) Take a tip from the National Center on Teacher Quality and get rid of the extra money awarded to teachers with masters’ degrees. How many studies do we need to prove that this extra coursework is irrelevant to student growth? Instead, use that money for bonuses for high-performing schools or teachers.

5) As long as we’re dreaming about salary schedules, end the practice of back-loading significant salary increases to late in a teacher’s career. Shouldn’t big jumps in compensation come when a teacher earns tenure after those three consecutive years of effective teaching? Wouldn’t that encourage great young teachers to hang around longer?

6) Remind the public that we are one of only 14 states that mandate that lay-offs have to be calculated by seniority, or “last in, first out.” (The other thirteen are Alaska, California, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, West Virginia and Wisconsin.)

One more tip: maintain that even-handed, measured tone so ably demonstrated by Comm. Cerf at Princeton on Wednesday. Sometimes less is more, especially with this crowd. The fight's not about whether or not New Jersey will reform its tenure statutes. We will. The challenge is to do it thoroughly, thoughtfully, and competently.

Glenn Beck Award*

Today’s award is shared by Assembly members Nelson Albano, Ruben J. Ramos, Jr., Patrick J. Diegnan, Jr., and Celeste M. Riley, who just put out a press release celebrating the approval of Assembly bill A-2772. This legislation would require that whenever local unions agree to a wage or benefit concession then that money must be used to hire back any laid-off staff. The vote wasn’t even close: 67-9. (Perhaps the magnanimous gesture would have been to award this honor to the entire Assembly.)

In other words, if a school district decides that its students would benefit more from an investment in, say, technology for the classroom and therefore reduces a staff member or two, and if the local association agrees to take a lower salary or contribute more to benefits (does that include state-mandated contributions?) then the district must use any economies realized by that agreement to hire back those staff members deemed unnecessary by the district.

Way to go, guys!

*Award from NJ Left Behind in honor of Mr. Glenn Beck of Fox News whom Jon Stewart describes as "a guy who says what people who aren't thinking are thinking."

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Don't Know Much About History...

The Thomas Fordham Foundation has just released its State of State U.S. History 2011. New Jersey curriculum standards for U.S. History only get a “C," or 5 points out of 10 (4 out of 7 for content and rigor, and 1 out of 3 for content and specificity). But that’s not too shabby – the average grade among states was a “D” and 18 states got a big fat "F." High scorer was South Carolina, and six other states – Alabama, California, Indiana, Massachusetts, New York, and D.C.—got A-minuses. While the Garden State, say the reviewers, has "a deeply flawed and often marginally coherent historical overview,” our standards are “not devoid of content” and “cumulative progress indicators mention many important issues and some important specific events.”

Hey -- at least we’re not Alaska, which earned 0 out of 10 points because its history content standards “are confined solely to local Alaskan history… indeed, there is no historical curriculum beyond Alaskan history itself.” Solipsism, USA.

Quote of the Day

Absent meaningful accountability for student achievement, there has been little or no political or economic cost to the adult actors who have permitted dysfunctional teacher evaluation and tenure systems to persist. This has made teacher tenure reform for the most part a nonstarter in the United States until quite recently. Yet the educational cost to children stuck with ineffective teachers has been enormous...

Intensifying public and federal pressure around educational accountability and the development of new systems for measuring student achievement and teacher effectiveness have created a ripe moment for K-12 teacher tenure reform in the United States. State policymakers must seize this moment as part of a broader push to improve teacher quality; absent such changes, the tremendous energy currently being invested in school reform is likely to yield only limited gains in educational achievement.
Patrick McQuinn, "Ringing the Bell for K-12 Teacher Reform"

Here's some Highlights

from Comm. Christopher Cerf's speech on tenure reform, plus some comments from the panel comprising Senator Teresa Ruiz, Dan Weisberg of The New Teacher Project, Joe Williams of Democrats for Education Reform, and Brian Osbourne, Superintendent of South Orange/Maplewood Public Schools.

Commissioner Cerf acknowledges Senator Teresa Ruiz who, “like me, is a Democrat for education reform.”

Cerf’s Vamp: “Are we serious or we nothing but slogans?” “Are we serious or are we politically too timid” to do what’s best for kids? “Are we serious about putting kids first?”

How do we get serious?: we recruit the very best, maximize effectiveness, assess fairly, retain the best staff, and deploy them effectively.

The work of the Governor’s Task Force (which will release recommendations on March 1st) “substantially informed” this approach.

Tenure is the “third rail” of education reform, the “last frontier,” the “people part.”

In NJ we have “many of the best teachers. They’re saints and work too hard for too little pay.”

“It is pro-teacher to say that excellence in the classroom should be recognized.” It is not “anti-union.” We are not here to “bash” or “victimize” teachers.

The education gap, in Jersey and elsewhere, is “morally reprehensible.”

“Everyone understands” that there are “multiple forces” at work when teaching children with hard socio-economic problems. But we still do a “spectacularly lousy job” in evaluating teachers.

This proposal is a “multiple measures approach” that will give “struggling teachers” opportunities to improve.

Tenure is "a sound idea that has morphed into something no one could defend.” While it’s reasonable to offer protection from arbitrary dismissal, “we can’t guarantee them lifetime employment," and it's an “irrationality to paying these people until the end of time.”

Tenure cases, under this proposal, would be resolved in 30-45 days. Teachers retain the right to appeal decisions.

On Mutual Consent: “How do we hold a principal accountable if he doesn’t choose how is in his building?

Compensation: “It’s impossible to defend a system of lock-step pay.”

This proposal is “completely non-partisan” and has been endorsed by President Obama.

Panel Discussion:

Joe Williams: measuring teacher quality is an issue in “the fast lane.” Democrats and Republicans are simply catching up with public opinion.

Senator Ruiz: “It’s going to get heated, but I’m ready for the fight.”

Brian Osbourn: this proposal puts lots of responsibilities on districts, especially principals, “to get the details right.” Teacher evaluations are “an incredibly undervalued area.”

Dan Weisberg: this sort of tenure reform will make it easier, not harder, to attract effective teachers. Over the decades we’re “deprofessionalized” teaching through low pay, poor working conditions, low prestige, great benefits and job security. “It sounds like an entry-level job at the DMV.” We’re talking about “dramatically changing the system” and this will result in “litigation, yelling, and screaming.”

Comm. Cerf on local power: We need to decentralize many facets of the DOE, but we must centralize teacher evaluations.

Comm. Cerf on NJ’s standardized tests, specifically the HSPA: It’s an eighth-grade level test where students have to get 50% of questions right. “It’s a floor, not a ceiling. If kids can’t pass these tests…”

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

NJEA Responds

to the Christie Administration's tenure reform proposal:
[I]ndividual merit pay based on student test score improvement will not reward the best teachers...No one wants to create 125,000 new patronage jobs in New Jersey, but that’s the risk we run under the governor’s proposal. What makes him think teachers will do their best work in a climate of fear and uncertainty? And what happened to the governor’s nine-member task force, which is supposed to recommend an evaluation system on March 1? Obviously, that was a sham, because this administration doesn’t listen to anyone – even its own hand-picked appointees. (Link here.)

Cerf Gets Serious

This afternoon Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf gave a briefing on the Christie Administration’s five-part tenure reform proposal. Legislative language will be released in two weeks. Here’s the skinny; I’ll fill in the details tomorrow.

1) Teacher Evaluations: currently teacher evaluations are subject to collective bargaining in local districts. According to the proposal, the Department of Education will craft a state-wide evaluation form that bases 50% of a teacher’s rating on student growth (measured by standardized tests) and 50% on best practices. This new instrument will not be subject to negotiations between local unions and school districts. Other tenured employees – principals, child study team members, custodians, secretaries – will be unaffected by this legislation.

2) Tenure: teachers will be judged to be highly effective, effective, partially effective, or ineffective. These measurements will be wholly based on student learning. A teacher will be awarded tenure after three consecutive years of effective teaching. If a previously-tenured teacher amasses two consecutive years of ineffective ratings, he or she will revert to non-tenure status.

3) Mutual Consent: currently teachers can be placed in a school regardless of whether the building principal considers that teacher to be effective. The proposed legislation eliminates that practice. If a school within a district closes or is replaced, both the teacher and principals must mutually agree on a teacher’s placement within that school. If either party rejects the placement, then the teacher retains employment rights within the district for a full year and the district must assist the teacher in placement. If, however, the teacher is still not placed within a year then he or she will go on unpaid leave.

4) “Last In, First Out” (LIFO): under current law, when a district lays off teachers due to shrinking enrollment or funds then seniority dictates the order of job loss and it is illegal to consider teacher effectiveness. This proposal mandates that districts take into account teacher effectiveness when deciding on lay-offs.

5) Compensation: all districts base teacher compensation on years served and degrees earned. This new proposal dictates that the primary factor in salary is student growth. Teachers would also receive higher salaries by teaching in high-needs districts, teaching in hard-to-staff disciplines (math, science, special education), and by graduating from a teaching college with proven methods that advance student learning.

Cerf Tackles Tenure

This afternoon at 2:00 Acting Commissioner Christopher Cerf will give what’s being billed as a “major address” on education reform. According to the Star-Ledger, a “source” says that that speech will outline an agenda that includes “the linking of teacher evaluations to student performance, eliminating teacher tenure and replacing it with five-year contracts, and offering bonuses to the state’s most talented teachers.”

Steve Wollmer, spokesman for NJEA says the forthcoming proposals will "ruin teaching and education in New Jersey" and derided the governor’s teacher evaluations task force as a "total sham."

Here’s New Jersey School Boards Association’s reaction:
The proposed legislation would be a significant step for education reform, said spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards’ Association Frank Belluscio…"I think we’re looking at the concept of renewable tenure, where retaining teachers will be based on performance. That’s a concept we strongly support."
Cerf’s remarks will be followed by a panel discussion that includes Senator Teresa Ruiz, a supporter of efforts to change tenure laws, and Daniel Weisberg, VP of The New Teacher Project, which published a widely-circulated study called “The Widget Effect: Our National Failure to Acknowledge and Act on Differences in Teacher Effectiveness."

Stayed tuned for details.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Trenton Breaks

Trenton Public Schools has announced that it will restructure its four K-8 schools: Columbus, Joyce Kilmer, PJ Hill, and Gregory. According to today's Trenton Times, the DOE has ordered the Mercer County district to make “major changes” to Columbus and Kilmer because Columbus is in its 4th year as a School In Need of Improvement (SINI) under NCLB and Kilmer is in its 5th year as a SINI. PJ Hill is in its 6th year as a SINI and Gregory is in its 4th year; both will undergo changes as part of Trenton’s application for a federal School Improvement Grant.

Under NCLB sanctions, if a school is labeled consistently failing then the School Board can elect to convert to a charter, replace all the principals, or replace most of the staff. Trenton will take the last option, though all tenured employees are still guaranteed jobs within the district.

So how bad are these elementary schools? Everything’s relative. At Columbus 53% of 3d graders failed the language arts portion of the state assessment (ASK3) and 26.7% failed the math portion, a big improvement over last year’s math failure rate of 52%. By 8th grade 52.9% of students failed the language arts portion and 81.8% failed the math portion. At Kilmer exactly the same percentage of kids (hmm…) failed both portions of ASK3: 73.2%. By 8th grade 52% failed language arts and 76.8% failed math.

At PJ Hill, 81% of 3d graders fail the state assessment (ASK3) in language arts and 60.3% fail the math portion. By 8th grade only 60% fail language arts but 80% fail math. At Gregory, 88% of 3d graders fail the language arts portion and 82.7% fail the math portion. Eighth-grade scores are slightly better: 56.4% fail language arts and 79.5% fail math.

Just how bleak is the education scene in Trenton? It only gets worse after 8th grade. Trenton Central High’s freshman class started out in 2006 with 600 freshmen. By senior year there were 347 left. Why the shrinkage? 37% of white students, 12% of black students, 8.6% of Hispanic students, 9.7% of Asian students, and 14.8% of students with disabilities dropped out. According to the DOE data base 100% of graduating seniors have no plans for college or employment, though that's no doubt an error on the part of either the district or the DOE. (Does no one proof these things?)

Of the 200 9th graders at Trenton Central High West, a little more than half are there by senior year, but many are college-bound. At Daylight/Twilight High, Trenton’s alternative school, 83% of students fail the 11th grade language arts assessment and everyone fails the math portion. 100% of white students drop out; black and Hispanic students have a much better completion rate.

Will a game of musical chairs with the staff boost achievement? Hard to say. And perhaps interim superintendent Raymond Broach has more substantive plans that address some of the concerns expressed by the Education Transition Team appointed by Tony Mack. Here’s three recommendations from that report:
  • Immediate action must be taken to restructure the district’s central office to guarantee an overriding focus on students’ learning, growth, and achievement, one that adds value to the work of the schools. At present, such a focus is completely absent.
  • The District must take urgent action to establish: a) a core curriculum that reflects the standards adopted by the State (as well as being readily accessible to, and understandable and usable on a daily basis by teachers and principals); b) a coherent assessment program that supports all students in their learning, growth and achievement; and c) an inclusive systemic professional development initiative that focuses sharply on leadership, curriculum, instruction, and assessment.
  • The District must take urgent action to establish a systemic database that clearly informs the day-to-day work of teachers and principals.
School choice, anyone?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Quote of the Day

Currently, the majority of students served by the Trenton Public Schools do not have access to a “thorough and efficient” education. Despite the efforts of their teachers and principals, the school district fails to provide them with the opportunities essential to their learning, educational growth, and academic achievement. The failure is a systemic one, not one limited to a subset of the schools, and one that has intensified greatly over the course of the past five years.
From Trenton Mayor Tony Mack’s Transition Team Report on Education, dated September 23, 2010 and posted today by a non-partisan grassroots organization called The Committee to Fix Trenton’s Budget.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sunday Leftovers

Lakewood School Board President Leonard Thomas resigned last week because, according to the Asbury Park Press, he “has grown tired of demanding basic rights for public school students while the school board allocates money for courtesy and hazardous busing to private school students.”

The CEO of the School Development Authority, Marc Larkins, declined to appear before the Assembly Education Committee, which wanted to interview him about the slow pace of construction for long-planned projects, says the Star-Ledger. Here's the Assembly Democrats' irate press release.

Winner of the contest for school district with the lowest SAT scores? Asbury Park High School, according to the Asbury Park Press. On a scale of 200-800, the average math score was 340, the average reading score was 339, and the average essay score was 332. If you want to check your district's scores, go here.

If you're tired of looking at the DOE's database for School Report Cards information, you can use NJSpotlight's.

The Record
looks at the connection between requiring school uniforms and rates of bullying.

U.S. News & World Report, reports the New York Times, will publish an assessment of teachers’ colleges, assigning grades of A to F. If the schools don’t supply data, US News will attempt to obtain them through open records law and if that doesn’t work the schools will get an F.

EducationNext examines how Teach for America, the organization that puts new college graduates into poor urban schools, has "succeeded in producing dynamic, impassioned, and entrepreneurial education leaders." Also, Andrew Rotherham in Time Magazine looks at 5 myths about TFA, the organization that the education establishment loves to hate.

Comic Relief: A Texas Representative has introduced a bill that would allow school board members and superintendents to carry concealed weapons to school board meetings.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Data Riddle

Earlier this week Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf urged caution in regards to news that cost per pupil in our poorest districts was lower than last year according to the newly-released 2010 New Jersey School Report Cards. “The data are not completely accurate,” he told the Star-Ledger. “These data need to improve.”

Old news. Griping about the NJ Department of Education’s ability to manage data is a popular sport, including right here. And fair game too: one of the reasons we lost Race To The Top was a low score on “Data Systems.” Out of a potential 47 points we got 27. Out of 41 states that applied, only 8 scored lower than us.

So I was trolling the state data base for the annual description of two Burlington County towns nine miles apart in distance and light years apart in achievement: Moorestown and Willingboro. Nothing new, sad to say, at least if you’re a family in Willingboro. Moorestown High, for example, boast stellar HSPA (High School Proficiency Assessment) scores, which is the qualifying test for graduation. Almost all kids passed it in 2010 (5% failed in language arts and 9.5% failed in math) and, in a salient indicator of success, 98.2% of high school seniors graduated through successful completion of the HSPA. (Kids with significant disabilities can substitute a sort of portfolio review. Students who fail the HSPA three times can take the AHSA, though that’s another story.)

On down the road to Willingboro High. Test scores for 2010 are grim. 41% of aspiring high school graduates failed the language arts portion of the HSPA. A stunning 75.1% failed the math portion.

But here’s where it gets confusing: according to the state data base, 87.4% of those aspiring seniors graduated by passing the HSPA.

Question: how can 75% of the class fail the test but 87% pass the test?

It’s not exactly a trend in Willingboro. According to the historical data, in 2009 41.7% of Willingboro High’s students failed the language arts portion of the HSPA and 63.3% failed the math portion. 55.2% of students graduated by passing the HSPA, which seems far more proportionate than this year’s 87%.

A little more snooping around reveals that most struggling districts’ numbers make sense. At Camden City High 80.7% of students failed the language arts portion of the HSPA. (The math portion is left blank because so many students failed that disclosure might risk student identification.) According to the Report Card, 21.2% of students graduated by passing the HSPA. Another example: at Plainfield High, 43.5% failed the language arts portion, 66.2% failed the math, and 57.6% graduated via the HSPA. Similar logic prevails in Paterson, Pleasantville, Newark, East Orange.

But Trenton Central High’s number are wonky too. According to the just-released data, 39.8% of high school students failed the language arts portion of the HSPA and 71.5% failed the math portion. Yet 91.9% of students graduated by successfully completing the HSPA exams.

Any ideas on how to reconcile these numbers? Maybe it's just a missed key stroke. Or maybe diplomas were awarded based on this data. Anyway, please jump right in.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Spinning the A.P.

Here's dueling perception of NJ high school students' performance on Advanced Placement exams. From the Record and Trevor Packer, vice president of the AP program, the article entitled "NJ Students Score Resounding Success":
Members of New Jersey's Class of 2010 who took Advanced Placement tests can be proud: 72 percent of their exams had scores of 3 or above, the highest passing rate in the nation.
From the Governor's Office, a press release entitled "NJ Students Most Prepared for College, Yet Achievement Gap Remains for Minorities":
Wealthier New Jersey students are among the best prepared in the nation to succeed in college, according to the College Board’s 7th Annual Report to the Nation released today. But low-income and minority students don’t take as many advanced-level courses and are not as ready for higher education, further demonstrating the need to implement Governor Christie’s education reform agenda.

Quote of the Day

But what if these were not Catholics? What if they were, oh, say, Muslims? What if, every time a nun extolled the virtues of Catholic schools, it was, instead, an imam promoting the values of the Quran in madrassas? What if, instead of helping Catholic schools convey the message of Christ, the bill — which it surely could — helped Islamists convey the message of Muhammad?
Bob Braun of the Star-Ledger hallucinates about the dire consequences of using public school money for religious schools.

NJEA is Not My Public School Teacher, Says N.J.

While the majority of New Jerseyans love public school teachers, more than half believe that the NJ Education Association (NJEA) is “playing a negative role in improving public education,” according to a Quinnipiac poll released yesterday.

In addition, reports New Jersey Newsroom, 68% of residents favor implementation of a merit pay system and 62% support tenure reform. We’re more split on school choice; the poll found that by a small margin we oppose school vouchers and charter school expansion. From Maurice Carroll of Quinnipiac:
"They like their kids' teachers, but don't like the teachers' union," Carroll added. "And they favor two items that the union hates — merit pay and some limits on teacher tenure. But voters are unenthusiastic on two school items that Governor. Christie likes — vouchers and charter schools. More than two-thirds of voters agree with Christie's move to curb school superintendent salaries. One-quarter think it's meddling in local affairs."
Seems like Gov. Christie comes out ahead on this one, despite ongoing and passionate dissent among those opposed to the voucher bill. (See another installment in the series from Bob Braun.)

In other local and related news, the credit rating firm Standard and Poors cut our grade from AA to AA- because of our “growing pension and health-care obligations,” according to Bloomberg News. Only two other states in the country have lower investment grades than us – California and Illinois.

NJ residents understand the connection: according to the Quinnipiac poll 56% of respondents support lay-offs for state workers, 77% support wage freezes, and 66% support reducing pensions for new state workers. Regarding wage freezes and reducing pensions, even households with union members answered "yes," reflecting NJEA's lack of sync with its own members.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Quote of the Day

David Leonhardt, business writer for the New York Times, muses about governmental programs that fail to make a difference yet endure indefinitely:
Jon Baron, the president of the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy in Washington, points out that the social problems addressed by antipoverty programs have not gotten much better in years. School test scores have barely changed. College graduation rates for low-income students have stagnated. The poverty rate is as high as it was in 1981. Median household income is lower than it was in 1998.

“If we just keep funding social programs the way we have been,” Mr. Baron says, “there’s not a lot of reason to think we’ll have much success.”

Voucher Flag-Waving

"I am shocked - shocked! - to find that gambling is going on in here!"
"Your winnings, sir."
Check out today’s NJ Spotlight for a discussion of the wheeling and dealing behind the evolving list of school districts where children would be eligible for vouchers to attend private and parochial schools. Example: Atlantic City Public Schools, with a DFG of A, isn’t on the list and “[Senator Ray] Lesniak conceded that the decision had something to do with it being represented by state Sen. Jim Whelan (D-Atlantic), an outspoken opponent of OSA.” East Orange is on the list, but “may not be for long” because it’s represented by Sheila Oliver, a foe of the voucher bill.

Happens all the time, right? Shameful nonetheless. Here’s an idea: keep the list to our poorest districts, those with DFG’s of A's (our poorest communities). Keep East Orange and boot Lakewood, which waves its own flag of special interests due to the plethora of private Jewish day schools there.

Meanwhile the politicking over the controversial voucher bill continues in the form of a pair of shrill editorials that have appeared over the last couple of days. Gordon MacInnes in NJ Spotlight sees a conspiracy theory among OSA advocates to trick the public into “drain[ing] our treasury” by rushing the bill through the Legislature. While MacInnes makes some fair points, he could use a fact-checker. For example, he alleges that the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee increased the maximum payment to private schools -- $8K for elementary students and $11K for secondary students – to “increase the cost to taxpayers.” In fact, the difference between the voucher value and actual tuition costs go right back to the local public district, which alleviates the tax burden (though cynics may regard it as a sop to local districts panicking over lost revenue).

Another example from the editorial:
Eligible schools must give the state tests to their voucher students, but that information will not be available if there are fewer than 10 voucher students in any grade. In short, there will be no information about how well voucher students are performing. Why not require that any eligible school demonstrate that its instruction is consistent with the New Jersey core curriculum standards and that all of its students take the state tests?
In fact, information is withheld for any cohort of that size in public schools in order to protect the identity of the students. All voucher students, according to the current draft bill, will take the regular standardized tests administered to public school students.

And then there’s Bob Braun of the Star-Ledger, apoplectic at this “slap at public education…another gimmick masquerading as school reform.” He dismisses “the obligatory, irresistible schoolgirl who tugged at everyone’s hearts as she talked about how her parents worked hard to send her to a Catholic school so she could escape a terrible public school – Newark’s East Side, not a bad school at all.”

Really? Would you send your kids there? East Side is in its 7th year as a School in Need of Improvement under the strictures of No Child Left Behind and half the graduating seniors can’t pass either the math or language arts portion of the high school standardized tests, which top out at an 8th or 9th grade level.

Braun quotes Assembly Education Chair Patrick Diegnan, who claims that the voucher bill is “un-American” and, later in the piece remarks that on the urban education front
Progress has been too slow. That frustration has been fueled by those who embrace a right-wing market ideology that blames unions, public employees, and government generally. In New Jersey, it coincides with an extraordinary political détente between a conservative Republican governor and urban Democrats.
But he’s got it wrong. The education reform movement -- school choice, accountability, tenure reform -- isn’t a right-wing ideology, and there’s nothing extraordinary about the détente between our “conservative Republican governor” and NJ’s urban Democrats. It's happening all over the country as recognition grows that we fail our most vulnerable students. Doesn't sound very "right-wing," does it? How much more American can you get than a civil rights movement challenging a failing status quo, a post/bi-partisan alliance of grassroots activists and entrepreneurs, of minority leaders and educators, of urban parents and public policy makers. Now that's something to salute.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

New DOE Data Out

The NJ Department of Education has posted the 2009-2010 School Report Cards, and just about everyone’s covering the release. See here for Star-Ledger , NJ Spotlight, The Record, Asbury Park Press, Courier Post, and Press of Atlantic City. The general consensus is that test scores are uneven and costs are up, though less so in poor urban districts. If you’re a glass-half-full person, then revel in the information that our high school kids improved slightly in language arts and cost per pupil dipped in Newark and other urban districts. If you’re a glass-half-empty person, mourn that middle school scores are down, one out of six high school seniors failed the qualifying math test, and most districts spend more than $15,000 per pupil.

Or maybe you should put down the glass. Both NJ Spotlight and the Star-Ledger suggest that the data is “suspect” in the context of national spending because most states include pricey but non-instructional items like transportation, food services, pension payments, health benefits in publicly-accessible databases, and NJ doesn’t. From the Star-Ledger:
"The data are not completely accurate," said [Education Commissioner Chris] Cerf, who was appointed in December and is awaiting Senate confirmation. "They under-represent and drastically understate the per-pupil cost, and I’m committed to doing a better job on this in the future. These data need to improve."
Example: the DOE Report Card database lists Newark’s average comparative-cost-per-pupil as dropping from $19,058 in 2008-2009 to $13,833 in 2010. But the Newark Business Administrator says that “actual spending was $18,894.”

As long as we’re dealing with educational absurdities, take a look at At Avalon Elementary School, pointed to by the Star-Ledger as the most expensive school district in the state. According to the DOE, there are 77 kids in the grade 1-8 school (maybe there weren’t any kindergarteners last year?), with a high of 13 kids in eighth grade and a low of 5 kids in sixth grade. Comparative cost per pupil is $35,882.

The Star-Ledger quotes chief school administrator David Rauenzahn, who defends the cost because “student achievement in Avalon... is very good and residents support their schools.”

Damn straight they do.

Charter Funding Inequity

Bellweather Education Partners has a new report out today called “Location, Location, Location: How would a high-performing charter school network fare in different states?” Authors Andrew Rotherham (of Eduwonk fame) and Chris Lozier (CFO of Civitas Schools) have conducted a "thought experiment" focusing on a highly-regarded charter school network in California – Aspire Public Schools -- that faces a problem endemic to charters: how can these schools scale up and achieve sustainability? And, given California’s general underfunding of public education, how would Aspire fare in a more generous state?

Read the report to find out for yourself. But here’s a few New Jersey tidbits:
  • Aspire would have benefited by operating in NJ, because we fund charters at per-pupil revenue (PPR) of $12,442 (based on 2009-2010 data), which compares favorably with California’s $9,987. D.C., NY, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Minnesota are the only states that outspend us on charter schools pupils.
  • However, when compared to our expenditures on non-charter public school students, we’re skinflints. The PPR for non-charter NJ kids is $19,614 (the report uses a geographic normalizing index to balance out differences in cost of living, rentals, wage differences, etc.). For context’s sake, the U.S. average is $11,052 PPR.
  • NJ’s disparity in PPR for public charter students and public non-charter students lofts us way high on the inequity scale. Our funding disparity is 36.4%, which ranks us above only California, NY, and D.C. for that category.

Quote of the Day

There are a variety of educational and operational challenges facing charter networks that want to achieve scale and sustainability. A key aspect of those challenges—the overall education finance picture and, in particular, the funding shortfalls facing charter schools—has received insufficient attention as a cause of the slower-than-expected growth of some charter school networks. In many places this is a prime culprit. Accordingly, until states overhaul both their education and charter school finance policies, no one should be surprised that, absent help from philanthropy, many schools, even the very best ones, will operate on tight margins and struggle with growth and scale.
From Bellweather Education Partners new report, “Location, Location, Location: How would a high-performing charter school network fare in different states"

Monday, February 7, 2011

Dialogue of the Day

Former New Jersey governors Brendan T. Byrne and Tom Kean discuss potential cuts to preschool programs for poor kids and NJ's school funding formula):
Star-Ledger: Some legislators are talking about restoring money to suburban school districts by cutting back on state-funded preschool programs? Is this a good idea?

BYRNE: I’m not crazy about it. What we have found out about education is that the earlier you can get to kids — especially those in inner-city schools — the better off they are. This proposal seems to be flying in the face of that concept.

KEAN: You’re right about the education research. On other hand, we’ve had a school aid formula that’s been fouled up for a number of years, and some towns with economically deprived students aren’t getting much aid at all. We should look beyond the so-called Abbott districts and develop a formula that’s fair to all.

BYRNE: I still hear from educators that a lot money is being wasted. I think we ought to maintain constant vigilance, examining where the money is going and how effectively it’s being used, because there is well-justified skepticism.

KEAN: Unfortunately, we have wasted more money on education over the last 20 years than on anything else. That’s money that hasn’t benefited children. After all the spending, test scores have gone down instead of up. We should look at the whole program and use the latest research and figure out how to do it right. If we’re going to spend all this money, the kids have to benefit.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Sunday Leftovers

NJ Ed Commissioner Chris Cerf and Newark Mayor Cory Booker presented a privately-funded audit of the Newark Public Schools on Friday. According to the Star-Ledger, key findings include
• The school district has almost twice as many administrators per student than the state average.

• Only 22 percent of students entering high school in Newark graduate after four years, having passed the High School Proficiency Assessment.

• Principals have very little authority over staff and budgets in their own schools.
The Star-Ledger Editorial Board says that we’ve lost focus on “putting the brakes on teacher salaries” because Gov. Christie “hasn’t managed to break the stranglehold that the teachers union has over the Democratic Legislature. He wins the battle on YouTube every time, but the New Jersey Education Association is still winning in the Statehouse.” The editorial also argues for bringing back “last, best offer,” which allows local school districts to impose final settlements after months good faith mediation, fact-finding, and arbitration. New Jersey School Boards Association likes the piece so much they sent out a press release.

John Mooney at NJ Spotlight has “three key questions” regarding the Opportunity Scholarship Act. Senator Barbara Buono tells Politicker NJ that "I'm not convinced this bill will pass" and "I will fight with every fiber of my being to make sure it doesn't."

Two Republican Assemblymen and a Senator from Burlington County want to “abolish the state's 21 executive county superintendent of schools positions and turn over their responsibilities to the New Jersey Department of Education,” according to the Burlington County Times.

The Record reviews uncertainties regarding implementation of the new caps on superintendent salaries, which are supposed to go in effect tomorrow.

U.S. Senator Bob Menendez spoke to a group of NJEA members at a legislative conference and got standing ovations for his full-throated support, telling them that teachers belong "in the classroom, not in the unemployment line." (The Star-Ledger.)

Harvard Graduate School of Education has just released a report, the Pathways to Prosperity Project, that suggests that America’s single-minded emphasis on universal college graduation is narrowly focused, unrealistic, and poorly serves the 70% of students who don’t achieve this goal.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Voucher Bill Fact-Check

NJ’s voucher bill, the Opportunity Scholarship Act, is the big education news story today. Assembly Bill 2810 will be the subject of a hearing today before the Assembly Commerce and Economic Development Committee and proponents and opponents are going to the mattresses. Excellent Education for Everyone (E3) is running print ads that begin, “My school is failing me! I go to one of the worst schools in New Jersey. There are 80,000 kids just like me. The New Jersey Education Association wants to me to stay here. Will you help me get out?" New Jersey Teachers Association is running its own ad campaign, and has put out this set of talking points for parent leaders to use to lobby against the bill, which passed through the Senate Education Committee last month. (Here’s coverage from The Wall Street Journal and NJ Spotlight.)

Much of the rhetoric swirls around the bill's use of corporate scholarships so that children in thirteen chronically failing school districts can elect to attend private and parochial schools. (In exchange, the corporations would get matching tax credit and the schools have to accept the vouchers as full payment for tuition. ) Here’s NJEA President Barbara Keshishian in a recent press release:
“This legislation would take New Jersey down a road no one ever thought it would travel,” she added. “At a time when our public schools have suffered more than a billion dollars in cuts by the state, S1872 would send up to another billion tax dollars to unaccountable private and religious schools. That’s an educational travesty.”
Actually, we’re already down that road, and have been for some time. New Jersey runs a highly-regarded preschool voucher program. The program uses public funds to pay private preschool operators to provide a six and one-half hour daily program to poor three and four-year-olds in Abbott districts. Our commitment to educationally-disadvantaged young children has been heralded by scholars like Linda Darling-Hammond, whose scholarship is cited by both NJEA and the Education Law Center. (Tip to GOP leadership: leave the program alone.)

How does it work? Take Paterson Public Schools as an example, a district where only 28.5% of high school seniors can pass the standard assessment test.

The district publishes a list called “Participating State Mandated Preschool Centers.” Parents can choose any of the thirty-three programs listed and enroll their three and four-year old children for a full-day program. The preschools are reimbursed directly by the district.

Here’s
Paterson’s 2010 school budget. For the year 2010-2011, 3,308 youngsters attended these schools and the district received $48,000,339 in preschool aid. So each of the preschools, both private and public, received vouchers of about $14,500 per child.

One of the widely-circulated objections to the Assembly Bill is that at least some percentage of the vouchers would go to religious schools. We do that already too. For example, one of the Participating State Mandated Preschool Centers on Paterson's list is Bethel Childcare, no doubt a fine operation. According to the Paterson Public Schools, the Director of the preschool is Pastor Allen Boyer, who runs Bethel Childcare as an arm of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. (Both the church and the preschool share a street address.) Here’s Pastor Boyer's Facebook page, where he lists his favorite activity as “calling sinners from the darkness to the marvelous” and his favorite music as “Jesus peace music.” (Heading the list of his “likes” column is Senator Bob Menendez. Gotta love Facebook.)

The point is not whether a religiously-centered outfit can run a decent preschool program. (Clearly it can.) The point is not whether non-Christian families would feel welcome at Bethel Childcare. (Let’s assume they do.) The point is that New Jersey has a well-established and successful voucher program which receives accolades from opponents of the Opportunity Scholarship Act.

There may be logical reasons to oppose the Opportunity Scholarship Act. But the opposition's argument -- that using government funds to pay "unaccountable private and religious schools" (to use President Keshishian's phrase) is an unprecedented and dangerous undertaking -- is an historically inaccurate one.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

School Funding Myopia

Yesterday the NJ State Supreme Court announced that the State cannot use evidence of the current fiscal crisis to justify cuts in education aid to Abbott districts during the February 14th fact-finding hearing before Judge Peter Doyne. Education Law Center, primary advocates of poor urban districts, has sued the State on the grounds that last year’s budget cuts violated the new School Funding Reform Act.When the Court declared the SFRA constitutional in 2008, it ruled that the State must maintain current funding for three years until the Court can determine if SFRA adheres to the constitutional mandate that all students, regardless of place of residence, have access to a “thorough and efficient education system.” Of course, the State didn’t comply last year due to lack of cash. Hence, the lawsuit.

Here’s coverage from The Record and NJ Spotlight. The Court also denied the State’s request to delay arguments. (As it is, Judge Doyne will give his recommendation at the end of March, too late for school districts to make adjustments to proposed budgets before residents give a thumbs up or down in April.)

This whole dispute is predictable enough (did the State really think that ELC wouldn’t notice its lack of compliance with SFRA?) but so-o-o-o last century. It’s been a while since even the most ardent stalwarts of obsolete school funding dogma have claimed that cost per pupil achieves educational equity. Does money matter? Sure. Does it fix the inequity? Big N-O.

Example (and a must-read): yesterday’s PolitickerNJ reported on a meeting of parents, educators, and community organizers in Jersey City regarding the Opportunity Scholarship Act (more commonly referred to as the “voucher bill”). Newark Mayor Cory Booker was there and a parent asked him to expound on the difference between Newark’s successful schools and failing schools. Replied Booker,
In the failing schools, he said, “Time is an obsession and achievement is a variable.” In the successful schools, the opposite is true: “Time is the variable and achievement is the constant.” What that means is longer school days, weeks, and years, Booker said.

“Newark is getting out of the business of being time-obsessed,” he said, and in three years they hope to lengthen the aforementioned school periods.
In other words, an efficient and thorough education system for educationally-disadvantaged kids is not achieved through money alone. It takes other elements: longer school days and years, consistently great teachers, integrated data systems that can track student growth and offer guidance in differentiating instruction, school choice, shutting down chronically failing schools. These elements cost money. They also require more commitment and leadership than writing a check, like cooperation from teacher unions, tenure reform, teacher, administrative accountability, and a functional DOE.

The current argument in court on the part of both the State and ELC is reductive and myopic. If we really want to offer Jersey City’s kids, among others, a thorough and efficient education, then the Court must widen its lens to include other factors that impede that constitutional mandate. Show me the money? Sure. But also show how we integrate proven methods of increasing educational achievement.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Quote of the Day

Timothy Nogueira, founder of the New Jersey Virtual Charter School, tells NJ Spotlight how he plans to adhere to charter school regulations that require a description of a proposed school's physical facility:
We have a site visit planned for July 1 of our physical plant. I guess I’ll show them our server room.

ELC Joins the Education Reform Movement?

David Sciarra, Executive Director of Education Law Center, has just put out an“educational blueprint for 2011 driven by the needs of our students.” Dismissing derogatory descriptions of NJ’s underachieving poor districts as “divisive rhetoric and reckless proposals that will undermine our public schools,” he proposes "real reform," which includes:
  • Expanding high-quality preschool for all at-risk kids
  • Piloting “appropriate and fair methods of evaluations” for “great teachers and principals.”
  • Implementing a “Teacher Equity Initiative” to attract effective teachers to “high-needs schools.”
  • Piloting “Children’s Promise Zones” with wrap-around services birth-grade 12.
  • “Fixing serious deficiencies” within the NJ DOE.
  • Increasing “multi-district magnet and charter schools” that serve a socio-economically diverse population.
  • Consolidating all NJ school districts to K-12 districts within five years.
A few thoughts: Sciarra’s first recommendation is that the Legislature disregard the GOP leadership’s recent proposal that NJ cut full-day preschools in impoverished districts to half-day programs. He’s right: while data is mixed on sustainable academic growth, full-day preschool is still a good investment, especially if linked to wrap around services like those at Geoffrey Canada’s Children Zone. (Sciarra points to a program in Kalamazoo.)

However, later in the piece he exclaims, “We must take private school vouchers off the table.” In fact, our preschool programs in Abbott districts are run just like a voucher program, using public funds to pay for private services. Maybe there’s some room for compromise there. Or maybe we just need to find a different word for “vouchers.”

The reference to new methods of evaluations for “great teachers and principals” cleverly borrows terminology from the federal Race To The Top program. Very hip.

The criticism of the DOE is fair, especially the derision towards NJ’s decrepit NJ SMART data system, years behind and millions of dollars over budget. The caveat – that the DOE should ensure that “charter schools operate effectively, equitably and contribute to improving educational opportunities for all students in host districts” – is a tacit acknowledgment of the momentum to the school choice movement in NJ, once anathema to ELC.

The proposal for school district consolidation is under the banner of “Advancing Public School Diversity” and is, indeed, essential to lessening NJ’s segregated school system. Kudos to ELC for having the guts to take on that third rail of the Garden State, our worship of home rule.