Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Quote of the Day

From today's Education Week piece, "NJ Funding Decision Leaves Few Satisfied:"
A sharply divided New Jersey Supreme Court ruling that the state must provide more funding only to its 31 poorest urban school districts has reinforced a controversial split in the way schools are funded in that state, and left lawmakers wrestling with how to meet their legal funding obligation to the rest of the public schools.

The May 24 ruling gave no one—except the poor urban districts—what they wanted.

Tweety-Bird

Over the long Memorial Day weekend, reports The Quick and the Ed, a tweet from twitter-fan Diane Ravitch went viral and misconstrued a 2007 paper from Education Sector called “Frozen Assets: Rethinking Teacher Contracts Could Free Billions for School Reform.”

Here’s the tweet:
@DianeRavitch Diane Ravitch
Saving school $$$ by cutting teacher salaries & pensions, spending instead on “reform.” Unbelievable: tinyurl.com/3eryd4o
The paper actually examines eight provisions common in teacher contracts that have little effect on student learning: teacher salary increases based on seniority, advanced degrees, back-loaded benefits, class size limitations, etc. Education Sector’s analysis says that 19% of every school district’s budget is “locked up” by these provisions, which nationwide comes to $77 billion each year.

Here’s the last section of the paper which, to be fair to Ms. Ravitch, is more than 140 characters:
Such steps [to redistribute school funding] would not reduce funding for teacher compensation; rather, they would distribute compensation differently, in ways that potentially would be of greater benefit to students. And given that redistributing teacher compensation and changing teacher working conditions would likely be controversial within the teaching profession, school administrators who implement such changes would have to take steps to honor commitments on compensation and working conditions that they’ve made to current teachers.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Quote of the Day


The system for funding and operating our public schools is hopelessly wasteful: a fractured, Byzantine system that allows good money to be wasted on redundant programs and unnecessary bureaucracies. The problem lies with New Jersey's overabundance of local government. With 566 municipalities and 616 school districts, we simply have too many administrative entities trying to do the same thing. New Jersey taxpayers elect mayors to govern towns with fewer than 25 residents and pay superintendants to oversee districts with fewer than 50 students.

The waste is remarkable. Consider Mendham, home of Gov. Chris Christie. It's a single community, but the town is split into two local governments: Mendham Borough and Mendham Township. Each municipality has its own K-8 school district, each with fewer than 1,000 enrolled students and each with a superintendant making more than $150,000 per year.
Andrew Bruck, author of “Overruled by Home Rule,” makes the case in the Courier-Post for state funding of school district and municipality consolidation proposals.

Sunday Leftovers

This morning's Courier-Post looks at the squabbling in the Statehouse over how to manage the additional $500 million in school aid to our Abbott districts just ordered by the State Supreme Court. Do we just use our handy-dandy $511 million surplus? Do we raise taxes to fully fund the $1.7 million deficit in state school aid and send money to suburban districts as well? Steve Sweeney wants to raise another $500 million for suburban districts and Sheila Oliver wants to fully fund the formula, plus another $300-$500 million for Medicaid.

The Wall St. Journal does some q and a on the latest Abbott ruling.

John Mooney examines the State’s new way of calculating per pupil expenditures, which factors in overhead and other school costs.

Four bills that would effect public charter schools passed through the Assembly Education Committee, reports NJ Spotlight. One of the four mandates community approval before a charter is granted; others expand authorizers and allow private and parochial schools to be converted to charters.

New Jersey Newsroom and NJ Spotlight explain Senator Teresa Ruiz’s teacher tenure reform bill.

State Senate wannabe Carl Lewis' first comments after a battle over residency eligibility were to criticize a South Jersey district for restricting homework on weekends. He also called for teacher tenure reform.

Trenton Public Schools is in the midst of a kerfuffle among school board members, unionized custodians, and the State Fiscal Monitor. The Monitor, Mark Cowell, overruled the school board’s decision to forgo privatization and maintain the employment of 128 public school custodians. School bus drivers are also in line for privatization and protested by calling in sick for the last two school days. Here's the school board minutes.

Sara Mead at Edweek explains the new early education-focused Race to the Top round and corrects some misconceptions.

Michelle Rhee in the Huffington Post says that its discriminatory to argue against testing kids with disabilities.

Friday, May 27, 2011

80% of Success is Showing Up

A 2010 dissertation by Rutgers researchers Jeffrey Backstrand, Andre Keeton and Alan Sadovnik looked at 9,725 Newark public school students during 2003-2008 and found that the district is relying increasingly on the Alternative High School Assessment. (Hat tip Star-Ledger.) In order to graduate high school in NJ students must pass a proficiency test. The standard assessment is the HSPA. Until last year students who failed the HSPA took the Special Review Assessment (SRA), which was widely regarded as impossible to fail. Now students take the Alternative High School Assessment (AHSA), which is slightly more rigorous. The results of this study, then, do not include NJ’s transition to the AHSA.

The authors of the study conclude that the majority of Newark public school students through 2008 used the SRA to graduate, especially black and Hispanic students. More girls relied on the SRA than boys. Magnet school students were more likely to take and pass the HSPA, the more rigorous of the two exams (although the HSPA is considered an 8th-grade level test).

Another finding: Students who were able to pass the HSPA were more likely to attend 4-year and 2-year colleges (there’s no data, apparently, on whether they graduate). Students who failed the HSPA three times and took the SRA were more likely to attend 2-year colleges or vocational schools.

The authors consider the impact of the elimination of the SRA (already done, of course, and replaced with the AHSA; slow news day for the Star-Ledger?)
Many educators and policy makers continue calls for elimination of the SRA. As a significant percentage of urban "Abbott Districts" graduates exit high school via the SRA, this study provides evidence against such a policy direction. This study suggests that eliminating the SRA might result in many students dropping out. Given that almost half of the SRA graduates studied here attended some form of postsecondary educational institution, sound policy dictates that the assessment be strengthened, not eliminated.
It’s a conundrum. The majority of Newark students who don’t attend magnet schools (or charters, probably) can’t pass the qualifying test for high school graduation. Is it in the best interests of the students to give them a diploma anyway? Yes, say the authors: "These attempts [to eliminate an alternative qualifying exam] would further penalize them for the social context in which they find themselves."

In other words, it’s not the students’ fault that they failed the test. It’s the “social context": poverty for sure, maybe an undisciplined home environment, or the lack of a father, or the lure of the streets. So we give them a diploma as a kind of compensation for their deprivation despite the fact that they can’t pass an 8th grade test.

Questions remain. Do the kids who graduate high school via alternative tests and “attend” post-secondary institutions actually get a college diploma? If they don’t, are their professional prospects better than if they hadn’t gone at all? Do we devalue the diplomas of the kids who pass the HSPA by handing out diplomas on the basis of “social context?” Should we get rid of high school graduation qualifying tests altogether instead of parading through the pretense of the process?

Is Woody Allen right and 80% of success is just showing up? That's the lesson these new professors of education glean from their study of Newark's public school students.

"I'm Not Dead Yet"

Quote of the Day for all you Monty Python fans:
ABBOTT is like that hapless character in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” who looks dead, but shouts while being carted away as a corpse, “I’m not dead.” On Tuesday, the state Supreme Court brought Abbott, that long-running series of court rulings on 31 special-needs school districts in New Jersey, back to life. In Monty Python-speak, talk about one, big honking albatross.
Alfred Doblin, The Record

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Abbott as Lazurus

"The suburbs are the big losers in this. It’s the worst of all worlds. We have no formula and the only addition funds they’ve ordered are going to the Abbotts."

That’s Senator Barbara Buono in today’s Star-Ledger on the peculiar State Supreme Court ruling issued Tuesday that reinstates the distinction between Abbott and non-Abbott districts which the new school funding formula (SFRA) attempted to erase.

Some good editorials out there: check out Gordon MacInness, Bob Braun, and The Trentonian Editorial Board. Bruce Baker has a good primer on his blog.

Everyone knows that the Abbott distinction is anachronistic – these districts were designated as Abbotts back in 1990 when most poor children clustered in 31 urban areas, unlike two decades later when the population is far more diffuse. Heck, Education Law Center, stalwart advocates for poor children, fought passionately before the truncated Court (two Justices recused themselves for a final decision of 3-2) for erasing the distinction and directing supplemental funding by student, not zip code. (Okay, the advocacy group fought to maintain the distinction when SFRA was first litigated but that was two whole years ago.)

New Jersey is historically a state of fragmentation and segregation, especially in public education: poor districts press up against wealthy ones, dropout-factories abut suburban academies of stellar achievement. SFRA recognized that while these inequities still exist our neediest kids no longer reside in just 31 Abbott districts but elsewhere as well. Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling declared that this demographic reality is irrelevant.

It was a “gotcha, sucka” moment for the Christie Administration. The Court’s reprimand in the form of Abbott XXI went something like this: you fought (or at least former Gov. Corzine did) for SFRA. But you didn’t fully fund it and the economic recession is no excuse. Harrumph! We’ll just morph back to the increasingly meaningless dichotomy between Abbotts school districts and non-Abbott school districts. So there! You’ve only yourself to blame.

Here’s an example of the outdated distinction. One of the Abbott districts is Hoboken, which at one time was an impoverished urban area. According 2007 data, however, the median income for a household is $96,786 and the median income for a family is $107,375, hardly economic deprivation. 2010 census data will most likely increase the relative wealth of the city. The public schools there do okay. In 2006 NJ Jersey Monthly rated Hoboken High School 260th out of the state's 316; it jumped t0 139th in 2008. Yet Hoboken is in for a share of the additional $500 million in school funding ordered by the three Justices who signed the decision.

Everyone knows the need for supplemental educational funding is far more diverse than the antiquated list of 31 towns. The ruling may serve as a slap on the wrist to the Christie Administration but it inflicts far more damage on poor children in NJ who don’t happen to live in an Abbott district.

Diegnan Can't Have it Both Ways: Charter Schools and RTTT

Here’s an irony for this balmy Thursday. In today’s NJ Spotlight Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan derides the Christie Administration’s failed bid for federal Race To The Top funds in light of the announcement from the US DOE that another $200 million is up for grabs among runners-up, including New Jersey. Race to the Top is a school reform competition that awards grants to states with well-wrought strategies to address achievement gaps, enhance overall school performance, and implement initiatives intended to improve teacher quality and expand school choice. We lost out on the big money (not once, but twice) and now we have a shot at a comparably meager yet still significant $50 million.

So here’s Assembly Diegnan:
"Gov. Chris Christie’s administration completely mishandled their last application, costing New Jersey $400 million in school aid," said Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex). "Because of their follies, we are now limited to receiving $10 million to $50 million in this latest round of funding."

"The Christie administration needs to take advantage of this new opportunity and do it right this time," added Diegnan.
Uh, right. Except that the Assemblyman has taken on the mantle of anti-reformer by sponsoring a bill that would effectively kill off new charter schools. (See my analysis here and here.) And Race To The Top zeroes in on charter school expansion as a criterion for successful proposals. Here’s our application for the last round; charter school questions are in Section F. We generally received high marks because the reviewers considered NJ a friendly environment for autonomous public schools (charters).

In effect, the passage of Assemblyman Diegnan’s bill will undermine the competitiveness of our application for RTTT money. Enacting obstacles – like a public vote -- to charter school expansion is a sure-fire loser in this school funding arena.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Latest Abbott Case: Something to Offend Everyone

Earl Kim, Superintendent of Montgomery Public Schools (who testified for the plaintiffs and the State during the Doyne hearing):
It is one of those decisions that is not purely logical. It’s OK to violate the constitutional right to a thorough and efficient education for some students, meaning the districts like ours or other suburban districts, but not violate the rights of others.
David Sciarra, Director of Education Law Center:
We wanted this order to extend to everybody, We’ve got a lot of work to do.
Robert Copeland, Superintendent of Piscataway, (who also testified during the Doyne hearing):
There are districts like mine who will be devastated by this decision because we are neither wealthy nor Abbott.
And, in another source,
I just don’t get it. I can’t understand the logic that the court upholds SFRA and the concept that there are at-risk student who need help separate from the Abbotts, and then in the next breath they say, ‘It’s not our problem.’
Assembly Budget Chairman Lou Greenwald:
The Supreme Court has spelled out in plain language what the people of New Jersey are certainly starting to discover - Gov. Christie is failing the families of New Jersey and falling far short of his own campaign promises to fund education and cut taxes.
Bruce Baker, school finance expert:
It seems like a peculiar twist.
Paul Tractenberg, founder of Education Law Center:
It puts us back in the ‘them against us’ way of thinking about school funding.
Gov. Christie:
The idea that this $500 million is going to make any marked difference in a system where we are already spending $4.5 billion to the Abbott districts. Another half-billion will put them over the top? It just doesn’t make sense to me.
Michael Riccards, executive director of the Hall Institute:
The Supreme Court should totally get out of the practice of running state institutions. It violates the separation of powers, and in the case of schools, establishes an erroneous doctrine that more money will change Abbott schools. It has not and will not.
Josh McMann at New Jersey Newsroom:
What a mess...In its convoluted decision, the three-justice majority determined the state was obligated to live up to the 2008 law but then applied it only to the Abbott districts. It offered some confusing legal reasoning for taking this step.
Chris Tessone at Fordham's Flypaper:
So-called “Abbott districts,” which get more money under another NJ Supreme Court ruling that deemed education in those locales inadequate, are among the highest-spending districts in the country. Newark, which is one of them, tops out at $23,000 per student using the state’s new accounting method. Education in these districts is indeed inadequate and horribly shortchanges the youngsters who live there, but after 25 years of receiving extra resources, it seems clear that the problem goes deeper than money. Unfortunately, the question of what constitutes an “adequate” education in New Jersey has largely revolved around funding issues rather than processes and outcomes for children.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Supreme Court Releases School Funding Ruling

The NJ Supreme Court released its ruling today regarding whether the State violated the constitutional rights of children residing in our 31 poorest school districts by not fully funding the School Funding Reform Act. And the three concurring Justices – Albin, La Vecchia, and Stern – are irate.

Justices Rivera-Soto and Hoens dissented. Justices Rabner and Long recused themselves. The ruling says that the State must budget an additional $500 million in school funding to be divided exclusively among Abbott districts.

Here’s a few examples of the umbrage displayed by the Court, the shrill note of betrayal that echoes through the 59 pages. The State has “retreated from the hard-won progress that has state has made toward guaranteeing the children in Abbott districts the promise of educational opportunity.” It has “failed to honor its commitment.” The State’s defense of the aid cuts exemplifies “faulty logic;” its presentation was “simultaneously premature and laggard.”
To state the question is to present its answer: how is it that children of the plaintiff class of Abbott schoolchildren, who have been designated victims of constitutional deprivation and who have secured judicial orders granting them specific, definite, and certain relief, must now come begging to the Governor and Legislature for the full measure of their education funding? And, how can it be acceptable that we come to that state of affairs because the State abandoned its promise? The State’s position is simply untenable.
Here’s thorough coverage from PolitickerNJ, The Record, and NJEA’s response.

Despite speculation that Gov. Christie would ignore an unfavorable ruling, he said today, "I realize that regardless of my personal beliefs, I must comply with the constitutional requirement."

A few thoughts:
  • No one wins. Education Law Center sought the full $1.7 billion. The State was hoping for a ruling that recognized NJ's economic morass. The $500 million neatly syncs with NJ's recently announced surplus, an odd instance of serendipity given the Court's insistence that economic circumstances are unrelated to mandated school funding.
  • The extra $500 million to be divvied up among Abbots is less than a third of the total state aid cuts ($1.7 billion). To put it in context, it's only ½ of Newark Public Schools’ annual budget.
  • As many have already pointed out, a 3-2 decision is hardly a consensus and the author of the ruling struggles with the lack of a quorum.
  • The order ignores the majority of poor students who don’t happen to live in Abbott districts. The Court clearly struggles with this, parsing this restriction to a fare-thee-well and concluding that only the beneficiaries of the previous Abbott rulings have “the historic finding of constitutional deprivation.” In fact, the ruling that forms the basis of this decision – the report from Judge Peter Doyne – makes multiple references (5 that I counted) to the fact that over the decades of Abbott decisions, there’s been a major demographic shift among NJ’s poor families. While most of NJ’s high-needs students once lived in the 31 cities designated as Abbotts, now these children are all over the state and ELC is only representing a portion of them. As Judge Doyne points out, " [O]f the 1,366,271 students in the State – 282,417, or 20.67 percent, are students in former Abbott districts, leaving the remainder 79.33% of students residing in non-Abbott districts unrepresented. This is as troubling now as it was in the prior remand."
  • Judge Doyne was particularly struck by testimony for the plaintiff from superintendents from non-Abbott districts, particularly Superintendent Robert Copeland of Parsippany and Superintendent Earl Kim of Montgomery. Neither of those districts will see any extra money. They’re not Abbotts.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Quote of the Day

Why would we want a school system where essentially everyone over the age of thirty is a lifer, locked into a single district? It's bad for labor mobility; it's bad for the natural cross-fertilization of ideas that helps other professions advance; and it's not so great for teachers unless they're so incompetent that they couldn't get a job anywhere else. The whole system where we get people to work at artificially low pay in the early years, in exchange for an outsized payoff that they can only collect by staying in the same system for most of their life, doesn't seem destined to promote excellence...

I'm proposing repeal of the entire Faustian bargain where teachers get systemic bumps merely for aging in place: pay younger teachers more, and make the raises less generous, so everyone gets the same pay for doing the same job. (For the first five years, I think there's some argument for teachers working at a discount. But teacher effectiveness seems to plateau after five years*.) The system should neither punish longevity, nor reward it. And if that were true, principals would have no incentive to fire teachers by age group rather than performance.
Megan McArdle in The Atlantic

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Sunday Leftovers

The Christie Administration has released its “Taxpayers Guide to Education Spending,” a district-specific acount of per pupil spending. According to the Guide, NJ is spending $17,800 per pupil, which is more than previous calculations. David Sciarra of Education Law Center tells The Record that the State is distorting data for political purposes.

NJ will pilot a value-added model for teacher evaluations. The Record reports today that districts in North Jersey are getting stricter about denying teacher tenure. NJ Spotlight looks at the new tenure reform proposal developed by Senator Teresa Ruiz.

The Star-Ledger describes one of the obstacles to a reliable VAM run by NJ's DOE: "One major hurdle to getting the pilot program off the ground will be completion of a statewide data system that can match students’ scores on standardized tests to their teachers. The system, known as NJSMART, currently lacks this capability."

"[A] four-month investigation by The Star-Ledger, drawing on interviews, lawsuits and internal documents, shows that [the Elizabeth School Board] can also be a relentless political machine fueled by nepotism, patronage, money and favors, using its nearly 4,000 employees as a ready-made fundraising base."

A politically-connected teacher in Paterson is getting paid for two full-time positions: one as a teacher at Eastside High and the other as Technology Director for Mayor Jeffery Jones, reports The Record.

The Asbury Park Press
looks back at the reign of Toms River Superintendent Tom Ritacco, who was arrested last year for taking $2 million in bribes from the district’s insurance broker.

In the Press of Atlantic City, Pleasantville and Vineland schools districts are pressed for space and not on the list for renovation or construction by the School Development Authority.

Gov. Christie comments on the school funding formula to the Asbury Park Press: “The school funding formula in my mind is ridiculous,” he said. “This is a failed legal theory… we’re not getting any results.”

NJ continues to underfund special education.

Newark has chosen Gregory Taylor as CEO for the Foundation for Newark’s Future; he will decide how to spend the $100 million grant from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Cami Anderson, Newark’s new Superintendent, announced that the start date for some of the new small high schools will be delayed.

Bill Gates is funding a cadre of education reform advocates to influence the media, reports the New York Times.

“The Math of Heartbreak” in today’s New York Times profiles the blue-collar town of Levittown, where the school board president has been out of work for more than a year and the superintendent described the budget cuts as “not good for our kids,” he said as about 300 teachers, parents and students looked on. “We are heartbroken.”

As a public service Jay Greene has reprinted all the tweets sent out from the twitter account, “Old Diane Ravitch,” which was suspended at the new Diane Ravitch’s request. Old Diane Ravitch tweeted quotes from her earlier writings that contradict her current anti-charter/ed reform/accountability fervor. A new twitter account called NotDianeRavitch will continue the tradition.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Charter School Leftovers

On Monday the Assembly Education Committee will consider a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan that would require new charter schools to campaign for voter approval in order to receive authorization to proceed. The bill, if it passes through the Legislature, would effectively kill off the nascent charter school movement in New Jersey. (See yesterday’s posts for more background.)

Advocates for the bill include New Jersey School Boards Association, Save Our Schools-NJ, and Education Law Center, although ELC’s approach is more balanced and analytical.

Interestingly, the group that would reap the most benefits from the bill is silent. That’s NJEA, NJ’s teacher union. While the lobbying group cautiously offer support for a limited role for charter schools, these autonomous public schools are antithetical to much of NJEA's agenda. Non-unionized teachers mean less dues for coffers and more precedent for anathematic reforms like restrictions on tenure, elimination of LIFO (last in, first out), longer school days and years, and merit pay.

NJEA’s parent organization, NEA, is not so silent. An NEA Policy Brief lists as a condition that “local school boards should have the authority to grant or deny charter applications; the process should be open to the public.”

And, not irrelevantly, NJEA is one of Assemblyman Diegnan’s top campaign contributors.

Clearly the pro-charter forces are worried about Monday’s Education Committee session. Here’s a compelling editorial from Carlos Perez, CEO of the NJ Charter School Association. And NJCSA is asking supporters of charter schools to contact legislators. A sample letter notes,
Requiring a referendum on every charter school application will unnecessarily politicize what is already a very difficult, time-consuming, emotional, and expensive approval process. Charter school applicants would be forced to operate and fund a political campaign, expending scarce resources intended for children. The current process under which charter schools are authorized provides ample opportunity for public input and involvement. New Jersey would become the only state in the nation to utilize a referendum and would effectively be a step back.
One more item, and then I promise I'm off the charter beat, at least til Monday. One of Education Law Center's proposals for improvements to NJ's charter school law is that local traditional districts should be obliged to hand over the full amount of per pupil student funding:
Charters should receive the full 100% per pupil funding for the "base cost" set in the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA), rather than the 90% they currently receive, plus any additional funding generated by the SFRA "weights" for at-risk, ELL and special education students actually served by the charter.
I took ELC's proposal at face value yesterday. But I would be remiss to not note that the combination of a requirement for voter approval and the elimination of any cash for local districts is an effective deathknell for charter school expansion.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Charter School Envy, Part II

Education Law Center, which has put out a 10-part proposal for revising NJ’s charter school law, also supports voter approval for new charters, just like the Diegnan bill, the NJSBA resolution, and SOS-NJ’s agenda. (See post below.) But ELC’s emphasis is different because it represents poor urban schools, not suburban communities. ELC’s position is that charter schools need regulation because they don’t serve a representative cross-section of the community, “creaming off” not-as-poor kids, those without disabilities, and native speakers. DOE oversight of charters, says ELC, should be as unrelenting as that of traditional public schools. Failing charter schools should be closed more quickly. And, proposes ELC, charter schools should receive 100% of the cost per pupil allotted through NJ’s school funding formula instead of the 70%-90% they now receive. (The sending district keeps the rest.)

ELC’s proposal is more measured and balanced than the quick-and-dirty rag in the tailpipe strategy offered by Diegnan/NJSBA/SOS-NJ. But it’s worth unpacking a bit.

At the Spotlight roundtable on charter schools last week, references were made by panelists to the “mythology” that has blossomed amidst the charter school wars in NJ and elsewhere. Part of the mystery is due to lack of credibility of NJ’s Department of Education. Do charter schools really “cream off” students? Do they discriminate against kids with disabilities? Does the DOE turn a blind eye to financial indiscretions at charters yet grind its boots on the heads of innocent traditional schools? Do charter students perform better or worse than students in traditional schools? Answers to these questions should be readily available, but years of incompetence and understaffing in Trenton make one guess as good as another. Much of the charter mythology is anecdotal because data is scarce. NJ SMART, the DOE’s Sisyphean boulder of data management, is creaky as a mainframe computer.

(One note on the myth that charter schools “cream off” better-behaved and better-performing students. Last week at the NJ Spotlight roundtable, Karen Thomas, CEO of Marion P. Thomas Charter School in Newark told a sell-out crowd that one day she received a series of faxes from the traditional public school around the corner. Those faxes were applications to her school from students who were being urged out of the public into her charter. Sometimes it’s the traditional public schools that do the creaming. Happens in special ed all the time.)

ELC proposes that a new charter school’s population be reflective of the community. That's praiseworthy, and right in line, by the way, with NJEA’s reasonable position that “as a matter of principle and practice, public charter schools should strive serve student populations which reflect the student population of the host district.” Always nice to find common ground.

More controversial is ELC’s proposal that charter school law “should encourage charter schools that can help meet the needs of the state’s most vulnerable students. From the proposal:
Priorities should include multi-district charters that strive to serve a socioeconomically or racially diverse student body, charters that develop model programs for students at-risk of dropping out, charters that educate special education students in inclusive settings, and charters that pilot innovative programs for English language learners.
Oh boy. We’re devolving back to NJSBA/Diegnan/SOS-NJ. Take our tired, our poor, our kids at risk of dropping out, our students with disabilities, our kids who can’t speak English. We’ll just keep those kids to whom learning comes easily.

Here’s a slightly different proposal, one that validates the sentiments of the fear-based Diegnan bill and incorporates the best parts of ELC’s proposal:

1) Eliminate the public vote on school district budgets that come in below the 2% cap. Part of the anger incited by charter school expansion is in response to the reality that even the most fiscally-sound school boards face the wrath of tax-weary voters every April. Voters elect school board members to represent them. Let the members represent them. And don’t subject new charters to a public vote.

2) Reform the DOE (yeah, yeah, not as easy) so that the public trusts the system. The DOE’s stock is so low it’s like Enron. Comm. Cerf’s first priority must be to increase the public’s comfort level with a department that is famous for bungling paperwork, wasting money, and missing deadlines. As it stands, it's an ideal ecosystem for the growth of mythology and misconceptions.

3) Standardize oversight among our all our public schools, charter and non-charter. Mandate standardized tests all around (most charters do this already – check the DOE website for School Report Card info). Streamline the DOE monitoring rubric called QSAC and subject charter schools to the same oversight. Publish results. Transparency must be the DOE’s middle name.

4) Close dysfunctional or chronically failing charter schools, like the recent closure of Capital Preparatory Charter High School in Trenton, under investigation for financial mismanagement. But fair’s fair. Close (i.e., go to a turnaround model) financially mismanaged and/or chronically failing traditional public schools.

5) Consider a moratorium on “boutique” charter schools in high-performing school districts. It’s a waste of political capital and a distraction from the problems plaguing poorly-performing schools, charter and non-charter.

6) Expand the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program to give poor families more educational options. Consider mandating the opening of available seats and, as ELC Director David Sciarra told Star-Ledger columnist Bob Braun, “break down district barriers.”

7) Listen to ELC: "Charters should receive the full 100% per pupil funding for the "base cost" set in the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA), rather than the 90% they currently receive, plus any additional funding generated by the SFRA "weights" for at-risk, ELL and special education students actually served by the charter." Or at least stick to the 90%; the license to pocket 10% of the cost per pupil may pacify local districts if charter schools manage to survive the current political onslaught.

And let's remember that this groundswell of opposition to public school choice is not a New Jersey phenomenon. The Savannah Morning News reported that on Monday the Georgia Supreme Court struck down charter school laws and that this ruling "effectively abolishes Georgia’s state-chartered schools." The New York Times reports today that the UFT filed suit against New York City public schools for closing failing schools and giving charter schools empty space in traditional schools. Dennis Walcott, NY's new Chancellor remarked that "the litigation was about 'protecting jobs for adults at the expense of what is best for our children' and described it as an effort to 'keep failing schools in our midst.'”

No one said this was going to be easy, right? The indefatigable ELC's been fighting for improved educational opportunity for years, almost as long as NJ has failed to provide a thorough and efficient system of education to our neediest children. Charter schools are no magic bullet, but they are part of the landscape of a functional and effective menu of public school options.

When the Assembly Education Committee considers Assemblyman Diegnan's bill on Monday, they should remember that pacifying adults is less important than educating kids.

Charter School Envy, Part I

Just months ago the charter school movement in New Jersey had the wind at its sails. With a record number of DOE approvals (23!) this year, these autonomous public schools were on a roll. Gov. Christie and Acting Commissioner Chris Cerf were strong advocates. Highly-regarded charter school operators were cautiously exploring expansion. Newark was flush with Facebook dollars, many of them earmarked for charters.

Yet within a short period of time the winds have shifted and charter school advocates are under attack. Last Saturday the New Jersey School Board Association almost unanimously (93%) approved a resolution that would subject aspiring charter schools to a public vote which, Comm. Cerf predicted, will end new charters. Monday afternoon the Assembly Education Committee will consider a bill sponsored by Patrick Diegnan that does the same thing. Save Our Schools NJ has an agenda that includes “local community control over charter schools." And yesterday the renowned Education Law Center put out a 10-part “improvement” plan for NJ’s charter school law that would restrict development and approval.

Let's first look at the NJSBA/SOS/Diegnan agenda.

The legislation urged by this coalition is informed by an anti-charter sentiment rooted in suburban soil, a fearful posture that views “boutique” charter schools – like those with immersion Hebrew or Mandarin curricula – as a suck on money and high-performing students. But mostly money. At the NJSBA’s Delegate Assembly on Saturday (video here) the President of the Princeton School Board noted that her district budgets $5 million a year to Princeton Charter School; she warned, “you will have charter schools coming to your district very soon.”

It's a little sneaky, a little bit of a set-up. Sure, we love charter schools. Just put it to a public vote (during elections with tiny turn-out and dominated by traditional public school parents) and we'll all be happy.

Duplicity aside, the delegates' resentment is understandable. Suburban districts have seen their state aid eviscerated, their DOE oversight multiplied through gratuitous accountability regulations. In their eyes, charter schools are free of much of the regulatory mechanisms that hamstring traditional districts, free to function without union rules and state certification guidelines.

Suburban school districts have a bad case of charter envy.

To the delegates it’s not a level playing field. And the reiterated cry – “it’s taxation without representation!” – is personal. If a traditional district wants to build a new school, then it floats a second question to voters. If a charter wants to open a new school, it applies to the DOE. Where’s the justice?

Here's the thing. Princeton families mostly have school choice. Probably many of the parents of students in Princeton Regional School District moved there because the public schools are great. For higher-income people, school choice just means moving to the next town. But families in Camden and Willingboro are stuck with the schools in Camden and Willingboro. They can't afford to move to the better schools in Cherry Hill and Moorestown.

The Diegnan bill has some powerful advocates. But it’s a bad bill. Does our charter legislation need tweaking? You bet. Does it need such a wrench that it obliterates charter expansion? No. Yet that’s what the Assembly Education Committee will deliberate on next week.

This is all supposed to be about kids, right? Yet the Diegnan bill is all about adults, promising protection for school board members, administrators, and parents in well-off suburban communities. It’s great politics. It’s just lousy education policy.

Quote of the Day

By any measure, New Jersey has one of the most segregated school systems in the country. We have to reopen that front. We have to start to talk about what we need to do to break down district boundaries.
That's David Sciarra, director of the Education Law Center, quoted in an excellent column today by Bob Braun. Also quoted is Paul Tractenberg, founder of ELC, who notes, "There always has been a sort of subterranean message working here — intended or not — that, maybe, if the state gives minority kids and their schools more money, they won’t press for solutions that end up with black kids in suburban schools and white kids in city schools."

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Albert Shanker is Always Right

A study hot off the press on the influence of special interest groups on school board elections cites the late AFT President Shanker, who wrote in 1979, “If teachers control both sides of the bargaining table in a substantial number of school districts, we should find many teachers with huge salaries, greatly reduced class sizes, longer holidays and vacations than ever before – you name it.”

And that’s pretty much the conclusion of Stanford political scientist Sarah Anzia in “Election Timing and the Electoral Influence of Interest Groups” (hat tip to Flypaper). Anzia found that in school board elections held “off cycle,” i.e., not on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, the primary special interest group, teacher unions, reap large benefits. From the paper:
I have tested the theory using data on school district elections and teacher salaries in the U.S., and the results are remarkably consistent with the theory: School districts that hold off-cycle elections pay beginning teachers 1.5 percent more and their experienced teachers over 3 percent more per year in base salary than districts that hold on-cycle elections. The fact that the off-cycle district salary premium is greater for senior teachers is consistent with the literature on teacher unions, which finds that teacher union leadership tends to be more responsive to the needs of senior teachers than beginning teachers, Moreover, this salary advantage is related to the decrease in voter turnout that accompanies the separation of school district elections from state and national elections.
Anzia does considers whether other factors could account for the correlation between higher settlements, particularly for teachers with more seniority, and off-cycle elections. She concludes,
It is possible that something other than teacher union influence explains these results, although it is highly unlikely. Teachers are the most active interest group in school board elections and have strong pecuniary incentives to participate, and therefore it makes sense that they fare better when school board elections are off-cycle and turnout is low. One Michigan school board member explained the effect of election timing as follows: “The November election keeps unions from controlling the vote. If you have 3,000 people voting in June, teachers can get 1,600 people there; if you have 16,000 people voting, teachers are a minor factor” (Allen and Plank 2005, 519).
Yet another argument for moving NJ school board elections to November. Too bad that a bill that does just that, sponsored by Senator Shirley Turner, has been stuck in State Legislative limbo for years. In a recent NJ Spotlight piece, Sen. Turner blamed the lack of will among legislators to the "intractability" of the "status quo." She said, ""I think some people are worried that sometimes when you increase turnout, you lose control. But when it’s this kind of money, we should have more people weighing in."

April Fools

A new legislative projection says New Jersey will rake in $914 million more than expected in taxes through June 2012, which will likely set off a fierce partisan fight over how to spend the money and could affect a high-stakes state Supreme Court decision.
That’s the first line of the Wall St. Journal article today on the NJ legislative budget prediction, the usual "April surprise" as income taxes roar in. And that “high-stakes state Supreme Court decision,” of course, is the latest litigation over whether Gov. Christie violated both the State Constitution and the School Funding Reform Act by underfunding school aid this year by $820 million.

This latest Abbott case was first sent to Judge Peter Doyne, whose ruling was restricted to whether or not the State violated its own school funding formula in addition to the Constitution's promise of access to a "thorough and efficient system of education." (Okay, it's really former Gov. Corzine's formula, though the that's a distinction without a difference.) Judge Doyne ruled that Gov. Christie's budget did indeed violate both the Constitution and SFRA.

In spite of the fact that, as Judge Doyne repeatedly explained to the State, fiscal solvency had no bearing on his tightly limited remand, that didn’t stop the State lawyers from bringing it up over and over again. From the ruling:
In support of its motion to clarify, the State argued [i]n enacting the Fiscal Year 2011 Appropriations Act, the Legislature confronted the perfect storm of declining revenues in each of the State’s major taxes and a persistent and substantial structural deficit. To of that reality by the Special Master in the fulfillment of its charge is to divorce constitutional analysis under Article VIII, § 4, 1 from both the pertinent facts, as well as other,co-equal constitutional provisions.
Wrong venue, defense team; only the Supreme Court can weigh fiscal solvency as a factor. Writes Judge Doyne, “the Court “retained for its future consideration the question of what effect, if any, the State’s fiscal condition may have on plaintiffs’ entitlement to relief.”

Ironically, this unexpected windfall of just under a billion dollars (though the final number may be smaller) undermines the State’s argument that SFRA wasn’t fully funded because we are broke. And Gov. Christie’s sideswipe, oft repeated, that he could ignore the Court’s decision suddenly seems far more flippant in the face of a surplus. Timing is everything, right?

The Journal also quotes a cautious David Sciarra, Executive Director of Education Law Center, the lawyers for the plaintiff: "To the extent that this new information makes the job of the legislature and the governor a bit easier to respond to any court decree, that's good news."

Monday, May 16, 2011

Four Degrees of NEA

Question: how many degrees of separation are there between the broadening coalition opposing the expansion of charter schools in New Jersey and the National Education Association?

First, a news hook and a bit of back story. On Saturday morning New Jersey School Boards Association’s Delegate Assembly overwhelming approved an emergency resolution put forth by the Princeton Board of Education that would require voter approval for the authorization of any new public charter school. The approval implicitly supports a pending bill sponsored by Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (and, as NJ Spotlight reports, complicates prospects for a more carefully crafted bill that would expand authorizers beyond the DOE, sponsored by Assemblywoman Mila Jasey).

NJSBA’s disapprobation of charter school expansion is right in line with the political agendae of other education groups like Education Law Center, Garden State Coalition of Schools, and a new group called Save Our Schools NJ (SOS NJ). Their well-coordinated message is simple: taxpayers cough up the dough for public education so taxpayers should have veto power within their communities regarding the opening of any taxpayer-supported charter school. Anything else is taxation without representation, right? If a potential charter school wants to open, then it can put the question to a vote during election season.

And, depending, on your wont, it's either a plus or a minus that Diegnan's bill and the attendant sentiments would kill off charter school expansion, certainly in suburban neighborhoods and most likely in poor urban areas. For local unions it's a plus because most charter schools employ non-unionized teachers and administrators.

It’s all about money, of course, not that there’s anything wrong with that. SOS NJ was started in 2010 by Princeton parents concerned that the local school budget wouldn’t pass, so they successfully mobilized residents. Empowered by that victory, enraged by the local success of Princeton Charter School, and determined to stop a Mandarin immersion school in nearby South Brunswick (which will open in September), it’s expanded its agenda to fighting anything that threatens suburban district budgets. (Here’s SOS NJ’s agenda.)

Back to our Kevin Bacon game. SOS NJ is a new member of a national organization called Parents Across America, which battles Race To the Top, charter schools, and other education reform initiatives. The other two NJ groups listed as affiliates are Parents Unified for Local Education (PULSE), a Newark-based anti-reform group, and New Jersey Parents Against Governor Christie’s Budget Cut.

Parents Across America is funded by NEA. SOS-PAA-NEA-NJEA. Got it in four!

Fun aside, it’s bigger than that. Earlier today a divided Georgia court struck down a law that allowed the Georgia Charter Schools Commission to authorize charter schools in spite of community opposition. From Education Week:
[T]he state commission was created in 2008 by frustrated lawmakers who said they were upset that local school boards were rejecting charter petitions because they didn't like the competition.

The legislation sparked a revolt by school districts which filed a lawsuit a year later claiming the commission violated state law by unfairly taking funding away from the districts and giving it to charter schools. They claimed the commission was actually taking local tax dollars without the approval of local taxpayers.
Sound familiar?

Here's a end-of-game puzzler. Parents Across America professes that "parents must have a significant voice in policies at the school, district, state and national levels." Yet the group fought mightily against the Parent Trigger bill in Compton, CA, which would allow a parent vote on whether or not to close a chronically failing school. From the press release: "The Parent Trigger gives parents 'no opportunity to choose among more positive reforms, and fails to promote the best practices for parent involvement from the ground up.'" Hey -- either you trust the judgement of parents or you don't. Unless, maybe, they're poor urban parents who crave educational alternatives.

Meanwhile, there's 18,000 schoolchildren on waiting lists for charter schools in New Jersey.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sunday Leftovers

Not Your Mother's DOE: NJ Spotlight looks at recent job postings and restructuring plans.

How meaningless are school budget elections: This meaningless: Trenton Times reports that in spite of voters' thumbs-down verdict on Bordentown Public Schools' budget, the municipality decided to leave it intact. And the Township Committee representing voters in West Windsor-Plainsboro cut $500K from the $162.7 million budget after it went down last month. In Lakewood, voters also defeated the budget; the Town Council urged the school board to find a way to cut $108K from health care benefits; instead the board cut the same amount from a program that serves English Language Learners and those preparing to take the test for a GED.

Joan Whitlow is “aghast” at the lack of information available to students and parents about the six new high schools in Newark set to open in September.

Results from a new survey
conducted by Rutgers and NYU show that the “vast majority” (88%) of Newark residents want the State to cede control of their school district but they don’t want Mayor Cory Booker to run it either. Residents also want to give principals more authority, award merit pay to deserving teachers, lengthen the school day, and open more charter schools.

Does the Asbury Park Press have a new education writer? Two good editorials this week: today's discusses the backlash from suburban school districts about all the money going to Abbotts, then links that to the lack of respect for the supplements -- money and otherwise -- that special education students deserve. And another one defends Acting Ed Commish Cerf's suggestions to overhaul the teacher certification process particularly in charter schools (those laboratories of innovation) in spite of pushback from NJEA:
“When you start with the premise that you want to eliminate the certification process in charter schools — then that’s absurd,” NJEA spokesman Steve Baker said. “If you were starting a hospital, would you staff it with architects and lawyers and not surgeons?”

Thing is, gifted, results-driven teachers don’t have to be brain surgeons. They have to inspire their students, some of whom may one day be brain surgeons.

Cerf should be given the leeway to revamp the outdated, outmoded teacher certification process, especially in the case of charter schools.
On the other hand, New Jersey Newsroom's latest ed editorials...well, judge for yourself. One, by Salvatore Pizzuro, takes up the argument that no charter schools should be authorized in NJ without a public vote; anyway, charter schools don’t really work. The other defends teacher tenure because it’s “fair and equitable;” other industries would be wise to emulate the same model.

Mayor-Elect Rahm Emanuel of Chicago is pushing for legislation that would tie teacher evaluations to student growth, limit tenure, and lengthen the school day, reports the Wall St. Journal.

And is the NEA tiptoeing up
to approval of of value-added models for teacher evaluations?

Friday, May 13, 2011

A Crititique of Student Value-Added Models

Has Bob Bowdon (of The Cartel fame) been reading too much Bruce Baker?

It can hardly be denied that there are factors outside a student’s control that might affect his grades. How smart he is, how much his parents support education, how nutritious the food in his home is, and how much his older brother distracts him with PlayStation 3.

Some parents might put on SportsCenter at 11pm Eastern time. Others don’t. It’s hardly a level playing field.

Since a student has no control over these kinds of things, and since some students face a lot more of these obstacles than others, grading simply isn’t fair. Why should I get a better grade than you just because my home life makes it easier for me to perform? And as we’ve learned from teachers’ unions, it’s better to have no evaluation system than one that could be unfair.


Thursday, May 12, 2011

Quote of the Day

Gov. Christie at a CNN panel yesterday, "A Pathway to Excellence: The Future of Education in America," on why Republicans should focus energy on urban school systems:
Folks in Newark generally aren't going to vote for me anyway. But the point is if Republicans are willing to go to urban areas where they don't get votes and say these kids are every bit as important as the suburban kids ... and the future of our state's economy and our country's economy are dependent upon those kids becoming productive members of our economy not in prison, not on assistance, not standing on a street corner selling drugs but becoming productive members of our society.

Bad Idea Of the Day,

Courtesy of Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Warren), who proposed that we should shelve our current school funding system, allocate $7,481 per student, regardless of need, and send lots more money to the suburbs. Example from the Star-Ledger story: Clinton Township, part of Doherty’s legislative district, currently receives $583K in state school aid. Doherty’s proposal would net it $11.9 million.

(It's unclear whether he regards children with special needs (from either disabilities, poverty, new English learners, etc.) as eligible for more that the $7K. [Shout out to Special Education Week!])

Doherty’s, er, logic derives from a section of the State Constitution that says the Legislature is required to allot money to public schools “for the equal benefit of all the people in the State.” The next step, I suppose, is to claim that since the majority of NJ residents are not school children it is to the people's benefit to not fund school at all.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Quote of the Day

The key is that unless there is accountability, we will never get the right system. As long as there are no consequences if kids or adults don’t perform, as long as the discussion is not about education and student outcomes, then we’re playing a game as to who has the power.
That's Albert Shanker, leader of the American Federation of Teachers and quoted in Joel Klein's excellent essay in The Atlantic. Shanker, speaking in 1993 at the Pew Forum on Education Reform, continues,
We are at the point that the auto industry was at a few years ago. They could see they were losing market share every year and still not believe that it really had anything to do with the quality of the product I think we will get—and deserve—the end of public education through some sort of privatization scheme if we don’t behave differently. Unfortunately, very few people really believe that yet. They talk about it, and they don’t like it, but they’re not ready to change and stop doing the things that brought us to this point.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Trenton School Board Changes

Trenton Mayor Tony Mack is replacing three members of the city school board. According to the Trenton Times, Mayor Mack’s spokesperson said,
When you have a new administration and a new mayor, it's very beneficial for him to have an opportunity to make his own appointments, and we're very, very excited about the enthusiasm that the candidates have all displayed thus far.
Maybe practice makes perfect. The Mayor had the opportunity to make an appointment of his Chief of Staff. He chose Paul Sigmund, who was arrested last week for possession of heroin and aggravated assault on a police officer.

Anyway, the new members are Sasa Olessi Montano, Jason Redd and Mary Taylor-Hayes. They’ll replace Harry Luna, Elizabeth Johnson and L. Diane Campbell.

There's No Armanis in Camden

Today’s NJ Spotlight, Star-Ledger, and the Asbury Park Press highlight a veritable groundswell of wealthy parents and school district officials fighting the influx of charter schools into their neighborhoods. This movement seems to have dominated yesterday's Senate budget hearing where, according to Spotlight,
Education Commissioner Chris Cerf testified as to the growing tensions that have surfaced -- especially in suburban communities -- over the new schools.

To him, it was unequivocal that local districts and their voters not have a direct say in the alternative schools, which operate under state charter.

"If it were up to local municipalities, it would essentially kill charter schools," Cerf said.
Anti-charter school advocates who spoke at the hearing came from Millburn, East Brunswick, and Princeton. In NJ we rate a community’s wealth by its DFG, a socio-economic ranking. A is the poorest and J is the richest. Milburn is a J; Princeton and East Brunswick are I’s.

It’s no wonder that these residents of districts with high-performing traditional public schools express adamant resistance to autonomous charters, which in these neighborhoods tend to be sort of boutique schools, like Mandarin or Hebrew immersion programs. Neiman Marcus is right in the neighborhood but some people would rather shop at Armani. De gustibus non disputandum est.

It’s not a matter of taste in poor urban districts, those A’s and B’s, where the traditional public schools are like dingy flea markets and there’s nary a Sears or Kohls nearby. In these neighborhoods, public charters are general education programs that accept all comers and provide a vital education option.

Once again: perhaps we should put our energy into expansion of charter schools in the neighborhoods that need them. It’s not worth the fight in Millburn or Princeton – the kids will be fine either way, and the political costs are high. It is worth the fight in Camden, Plainfield, Paterson, Trenton, however, where the presence of a high-quality autonomous public school (i.e., a charter) is a lifeline for a lot more than fashion.

Education Transformation Task Force Named

Gov. Christie has announced his appointments to his Education Transformation Task Force. There's a wee bit of pomposity to the title, but the intentions are good: to eliminate some of the convoluted and redundant DOE regulations that occupy central offices of school districts. The task force will be chaired by former NJ Commissioner of Education David Hespe. Members are Angel Cordero, Angela R. Davis, Frank Digesere, Donald Edwards Goncalves, Bruce Litinger, and Michael J. Osnato. See here for more details.

Check Out My Column Today

in New Jersey Spotlight: with the next Abbott v. Burke ruling pending, what do we do when years of evidence prove that money doesn't solve educational inequities?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Quote of the Day

Robert Curvin, a visiting scholar at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, reflects on the recent superintendent search in Newark which ended with the choice of “a white girl from Harlem”:
As much of the history of education in Newark reveals, blacks had to fight through protests and the courts to win opportunity. Pioneers such as Alma Flagg, Marion Bolden, Fred Means and many others know firsthand some of the most brazen and horrific examples blacks had to face in public education in Newark. We won the battles for representation, and clearly established the right of blacks to lead our schools. Since 1970, there have been seven black superintendents.

The battle we have not won is against mediocrity and failure.

Sunday Leftovers

Gov. Christie says that Newark School Advisory Committee shouldn’t hold its breath about regaining local control. Star-Ledger: "I won’t turn it back over until there is success and excellence," Christie said at a Newark news conference in which he named Cami Anderson, a New York City senior superintendent, as the city’s next schools chief. "That’s why it was taken over in the first place — a lack of success and a lack of excellence." NJ Spotlight examines the process.

Here’s a “Conversation with Cami Anderson,” Newark's new superintendent.

Peter Meyer at Fordham’s Flypaper
advises Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson to restrain herself from posing on the cover of Time holding a broom (a Michelle Rhee reference). He says she has “her work cut out for her,” including a $75 million gap in the Newark schools’ annual $970 million budget and the lukewarm community reaction to reforms.

Governor Christie will be in “uncharted territory” if he ignores the upcoming ruling of the State Supreme Court on whether his budget violated the School Funding Reform Act, reports the Star-Ledger. Paging constitutional crisis.

Assemblyman Dave Rible writes in the Asbury Park Press (in a nod to Special Education Week) that “there are significant inconsistencies in the quality of special education in NJ and that millions of dollars are being wasted on on inefficient and ineffective special education programs.”

Speaking of special education, Paterson Public Schools is still denying speech and language services to eligible elementary students. Here's more info from Education Law Center.

The Press of Atlantic City
reports on remarks from Carlos Lejnieks of the NJ Charter Schools Association, who told an audience that finances and facilities are major hurdles for aspiring charters. "It's both an efficiency issue, and a moral issue," he said. "Those public schools were paid for with public tax dollars. Why shouldn't public charter schools use them, as they do in New York City?"

Today's New York Times
profiles an 8th grader and his parents trying to navigate the "school choice maze" in New York City.

Donald Boudreaux in the Wall St. Journal says we should reexamine the presumption that “market forces can’t supply quality education.” What if grocery shopping was a politicized and monopolistic service?

Friday, May 6, 2011

No Grant for Paterson

Speaking of remedies to school failure besides more funding, The Record reports that Paterson Public Schools was about to get a DOE grant to turn around three of their worst schools but the teachers' union, Paterson Education Association, refused to sign on.

The district has been readying the paperwork for a Special Improvement Grant from the State that would award several million dollars to “radically restructure” Schools 4, 6, and 10. The grant proposal would “extend the instruction time and remove up to 50 percent of the teachers at each of the woefully underperforming schools.” PEA President Peter Tirri said, however, that the changes would violate the current teacher contract. The proposal was further muddled by the company hired (for $34K) to write the grant, Millenium Strategies LLC, which is linked to the Democratic Party and sympathetic to the union.

"Really Bad Learning Outcomes"

Megan McCardle at The Atlantic wonders about the cries of woe from middle-class parents, teacher unions, and other foes of high-stakes testing. She concludes that they ignore the salient fact of “the poor quality of the education that many kids receive.” She quotes Matt Yglesias, who writes,
Something that I think drives at least some of my disagreements with other liberals about education policy is that I think a lot of middle class liberals implicitly underestimate the extent of really bad learning outcomes. Take this report (PDF) from the Detroit Regional Workforce Fund which notes "that 47% of adults (more than 200,000 individuals) in the City of Detroit are functionally illiterate, referring to the inability of an individual to use reading, speaking, writing, and computational skills in everyday life situations" and also that "within the tricounty region, there are a number of municipalities with illiteracy rates rivaling Detroit: Southfield at 24%, Warren at 17%, Inkster at 34%, Pontiac at 34%."
One could just as easily cite Newark, where half the kids graduate and 98% of those who go to college require remedial courses. Or Camden Central High, where the district labels 33.6% of students as disabled, 38% were suspended in 2009-2010, and no one passes the math portion of the High School Proficiency Assessment, an 8th grade level test. Or John F. Kennedy High in Paterson, where all of 20% of students passed the HSPA, nearly half the high school was suspended last year, and the average score on the verbal portion of the SAT (for the students who took it) was 363.

It’s that old Jersey story of two separate and segregated school systems: the suburban one where kids get a great education and the one down the road where kids don’t attain functional literacy. Somehow amidst all the rhetoric about school choice and school funding formulas and Supreme Court decisions and state control we’re missing the reality that children graduate from our schools without basic skills.

Here’s an example of even the best intentions going awry. Yesterday in the Huffington Post (of all places) Education Law Center Executive Director David Sciarra found himself in the decidedly odd position of rebutting a column on Newark’s superintendent selection process which described the city as "one of the country's most troubled school systems.” So Sciarra writes,
While the district continues to face tough challenges, Newark has also created successful reforms in recent years that need to be sustained and strengthened.

Through much hard work by local educators, parents and community leaders, Newark public schools have made concrete progress in recent years. According to an Education Law Center Report, nearly six thousand 3- and 4-year-olds are now enrolled in high-quality preschool, a program considered the best in the nation. Academic performance has improved in elementary schools and, as the Schott Foundation reports, black male graduation rates have risen.
Really? Here’s East Side High in Newark, where HSPA scores stink, SAT scores are static, and graduation rates are slightly down. Here’s Maple Ave. Elementary, where 53% of 6th graders failed the standardized language arts test in 2009 and 82% failed it in 2010. And so on.

No doubt there are bright spots and some genuinely wonderful things happening in NJ’s failing districts like Newark. But “concrete progress” may be a tad euphemistic.

Of course, Mr. Sciarra has to say that. He’s arguing before the NJ Supreme Court that Gov. Christie’s failure to fully fund the school funding formula was unconstitutional and an unduly severe blow to that “concrete progress.” What – he’s going to say that all that extra money isn’t working anyway? But that’s the point. “Really bad learning outcomes” like those in Detroit (or Newark or Camden) can’t be solved by money alone. (See here, by the way, for ELC’s new press release that states we’re actually only spending $10,178 per kid in Newark per its weighted funding formula.)

How can we arrive at a politically palatable place where we can acknowledge the ineffectiveness of a money-centric panacea to improve failing urban schools?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Do Poor Kids Need A Different Pedagogy Than Wealthy Kids?

Alfie Kohn has really pushed the buttons of ed reformers in his Education Week commentary, “How Education Reform Traps Poor Children.” He bemoans the educational techniques of charter school teachers whom, he says, perseverate on mechanical drills and rote learning. This results in a pedagogy that is “noticeably different from the questioning, discovering, arguing, and collaborating that is more common (though by no means universal) among students in suburban and private schools.” In low-income schools, he charges, “not only is the teaching scripted, but a system of almost militaristic behavior control is common, with public humiliation for noncompliance and an array of rewards for obedience that calls to mind the token-economy programs developed in prisons and psychiatric hospitals.”

Phew. Strong stuff. This “pedagogy of poverty” (the phrase comes from a 1991 paper by Wisconsin professor Martin Haberman) is racist, charges Kohn, stemming from an over-emphasis on standardized tests. In the end it “serves to simultaneously narrow the test-score gap and widen the learning gap.”

Kohn’s article has elicited a number of rebuttals. Robert Condisco at Core Knowledge questions his facts, adding, "frankly, I see a lot more damage being done to low-income urban kids in the name of 'authentic learning' and a refusal to acknowledge the cognitive benefits of an information-rich curriculum." Kathleen Porter-McGee says Kohn has created a “pedagogical strawman” by arguing that that a well-managed classroom is somehow “antithetical” to authentic learning, and that he’s ignoring the fact that impoverished districts have a higher percentage of ineffective teachers than wealthier districts. Mike Petrelli notes that the question of whether poor children need a different educational setting in order to be successful deserves serious scrutiny.
But it’s not racist to say that poor kids—who generally come to school with much less vocabulary, exposure to print, and much else—might need something different—more intense, more structured—than their well-off, better-prepared peers.
Petrelli then references an article by Lisa Delpit in Harvard Education Review where she describes her experiences as a teacher in a racially and economically diverse public school in Philadelphia. Delpit, who's black, writes that she created an open classroom with learning stations, games, and manipulatives to encourage independent learning. She continues,
My white students zoomed ahead. They worked hard at the learning stations. They did amazing things with books and writing. My black students played the games; they learned how to weave; and they threw the books around the learning stations. They practiced karate moves on the new carpets. Some of them even learned how to read, but none of them as quickly as my white students.
In New Jersey we recognize that kids from impoverished backgrounds need more resources to be educationally successful than kids from wealthier backgrounds: free preschool, wrap-around services, special programs. It’s the basis of the Abbott Supreme Court decisions and codified in the School Funding Reform Act, which funnels extra state educational aid to poor children. Is it such a stretch to say that poor kids benefit not only from extra money but also from extra structure? Is the focus on academic content, even in the form of drills, such a bad thing?

In fact, successful educational pedagogies aimed at poor urban students, like those employed by KIPP, incorporate content-based learning with strict classroom management. The acquisition of critical thinking skills and the acquisition of knowledge is not a zero-sum game. Or at least it shouldn't be, whether you live in Newark or Short Hills.

Quote of the Day

If selling [education] reform is like selling a car, you can’t get people to buy it by showing them a list of features. They have to get in the car and drive it. And right now, reform for many people in Newark is still a car on the lot with the doors closed.
Derrell Bradford on the Newark community's distrust of outsiders and top-down educational initiatives in today's New York Times. Also see today's Wall St. Journal's discussion of how the "deep narrative in Newark is that government and decision-making is closed, no matter how hard Mr. Booker tries to change perceptions."

For more on Cami Anderson's appointment as Newark Superintendent, see PolitickerNJ, which recaps the challenges of leading a district where 55% of the kids actually graduate from high school and 98% of those who proceed to college require remedial courses. NJ Spotlight quotes Newark Teachers Union President Joseph Del Grosso on collaboration with the new superintendent: “There will be no honeymoon or time to acclimate," he said. "And there will be no neutrality from us, either. It will be either war or peace."

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Get Rid of School Budget Elections

Last week nearly 80% of school district budgets passed voters’ scrutiny, the highest percentage in years. Contrast that with last year’s passage rate of 41% which, according to NJ School Boards Association, was the lowest rate since 1976.

What’s changed? Just about everything. In the pre-recession world, districts simply raised taxes to support increased salaries, benefits, small class sizes, extra administrators. Superintendents’ salaries marched upward. Teacher union contracts were settled at annual 4% increases in salaries, sometimes higher.

Suddenly there’s a new austerity, a genuine cultural shift among school boards. We’re reexamining third rail items like courtesy busing, small class size, extra administrators, fees for extra-curricular activities, summer schools. And the public knows it.

That pesky 2% cap on tax increases, once a soft 4%, functions as a checks and balances among boards and raises the comfort level of the voters. (Of 14 districts that developed budgets above that cap this year, 12 went down in flames.) And it’s no coincidence that collective bargaining agreements with local teacher unions were averaging about 4-4.5% in annual salary increases under the 4% cap. Now those agreements those have trended downward to a bit over 2%,

The next logical step in this shift is to eliminate school board budget votes for districts that comply with caps. The 2% ceiling protects voters and counters any remnants of school board profligacy. We’ll save money by eliminating the costly process of an election in every one of our 591 districts, not to mention the considerable distraction from educational duties engendered in the marketing of district budgets.

In other Newark News,

Final votes for candidates for the Newark School Board Advisory Committee have been tallied. Of the three available seats, two were won by candidates backed by Ras Baraka (Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson and Alturick Kenney) and one was won by a candidate backed by Steve Adubato (Eliana Pintor Marin). On the other hand, the newly constituted board elected Marin as Chair, ousting Shavar Jeffries. Another of Adubato’s candidates, Shanique Davis Speight, was elected as vice-chair. Both votes were 5-4, hardly a mandate. Kenney, former deputy mayor to Sharpe James, lost out on both Chair and Vice-Chair.

According to PolitickerNJ, “Baskerville-Richardson and Kenney ran on a pro-labor platform, advocating that more attention be focused on fixing district schools rather than replacing them with charters. Along with board member Marques Lewis, they represent three votes on the nine-member board that are expected to support more traditional public school models.”

The Star-Ledger
quotes Newark Teachers Union leader Joseph Del Grosso: "In the future, I hope we can elect board members with brains, not strings.”

Translation: the anti-education-reform coalition on the Advisory Board is stronger than it was with former Chair Shavar Jeffries at the helm. Look for pushback on Facebook-related initiatives and a lackluster welcome to new Superintendent Cami Anderson, who served as Senior Superintendent for Alternative Schools in NYC, Executive Director of Teach for America, and Chief Program Officer for New Leaders for New Schools.

Quote of the Day

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has selected Cami Anderson, a top New York City schools official, to lead the state-run Newark Public School system, according to several people with knowledge of the selection.

Ms. Anderson, 39 years old, will attempt to reform the largest and one of the most troubled public school systems in the state, a district that is the focal point for Mr. Christie's education policy. Newark has about 38,000 students, and only half of them graduate from high school in four years.

From today's Wall St. Journal.

Also, for more praise for the Anderson pick, check out Andrew Rotherham's column from US News and World Report (he links to it today on Eduwonk) and Whitney Tilson's blog, which has more links to Anderson's educational leadership.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Value-Added Model that Works

A new report out from Education Next asks whether “classroom observations—when performed by trained professionals external to the school, using an extensive set of standards—could identify teaching practices likely to raise achievement.” The authors, Thomas J. Kane, Eric S. Taylor, John H. Tyler and Amy L. Wooten (from Harvard, Stanford, and Brown) examined data from Cincinnati Public Schools. The school system, they say, offers “a rare example of a high-quality evaluation program based on classroom observations.” It’s used for first-year teachers, in the year leading up to tenure approval, and every fifth year after that.

The rubric for the Teacher Evaluation System (TES) includes four domains: Creating an Environment for Student Learning, Teaching for Student Learning, Teacher Planning, and Professional Contributions Outside the Classroom. This value-added model uses multiple measures – i.e., not just student test scores – and includes a portfolio assembled by the teacher. The authors conclude that “teachers’ classroom practices, as measured by TES scores, do predict differences in student achievement growth.” See the full report here.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Abbottabad?

Pending NJ Supreme Court decision?

Diane Ravitch Debates Her Former Self

Check it out here.

Quote of the Day

Gov. Chris Christie, frustrated that the Democrats apparently have abandoned the final pieces of his 33-bill reform package, has labeled them the “Do Nothing Legislature.” Ironically, the guy who has criticized teachers is now handing out his own legislative grade: incomplete.

We think he’s being generous.
We’d flunk ‘em.
Star-Ledger Editorial Board