Monday, April 30, 2012

Jersey City School Choice Conference

American Federation for Children is sponsoring a two-day conference, this Thursday and Friday in Jersey City. Speakers include Gov. Chris Christie, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, and Juan Williams. More info here.

Quote of the Day

Steve Wollmer, spokesman for NJEA, explains that why school employees who work in the field of special education shouldn’t mock, curse at, or threaten their students:
We live in a brave new world and the reality is people have access to technology on a massive scale. Teachers are susceptible to audio- and video-recording, and you should know that what you say can be captured and replayed.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Sunday Leftovers

Tom Moran today on the firing of Perth Amboy Superintendent Janine Caffrey:
No one questions her integrity or her intelligence. But none of that matters much. Because Caffrey is not a great politician. Her first sin was to tell the truth about tenure — that it protects horrendously bad teachers in her district and hurts kids. Then she refused to make the patronage hires she says board members pressed on her. And then she bucked the all-powerful teachers union by trying to change ancient customs on evaluations, job placements and student suspensions.
Mike Yaples of NJ School Boards Association on teacher tenure in NJ:
The process takes about a year. It can cost in the six-digits because that includes attorneys' fees, paying for a substitute teacher and paying the teacher because after 120 days, by law the teachers’ salaries are restored." [And then] it’s up to the state education officials to decide whether or not that teacher would lose their job…..Because of the time and the cost and the unpredictability, you really only see the worst of the worst cases being brought forth.
Akien Chaifetz, a  Cherry Hill student with autism, was reported to be acting out at school. His father, unbeknownst to the teachers and aides in the classroom, rigged Akien up with a wire.. Now excerpts are on  youtube, and the clip has more than 4 million hits. The story is featured at USA Today, and Huffington Post, specifically the part where a staffer tells Akien he's a "bastard" and teases him about whether he'll ever see his father again. The aides have been fired and the teacher, who said Akien was never abused, is on paid leave.  NJEA says she has been "exonerated."

NJ Spotlight reports on a new trend: parents keeping their kids home on ASK days to protest the overemphasis on  standardized tests.

The mayor of Hamilton, John Bencivengo, surrendered to FBI agents this week on charges of extortion: pressuring school board members in the large Mercer County district to not bid out insurance contracts and then taking bribes from the broker in exchange for the Board's complaince. (Trenton Times)

In a victory for the status quo, the Newark School Advisory Board chose Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson as its Chair, who was the candidate backed by Ras Baraka.

The Asbury Park Press tells it like it is:
There are 603 school districts in New Jersey. Only the most shortsighted champions of local control see the continuation of this incredibly inefficient system as worth perpetuating. It is time to move ahead with consolidation, not only to provide tax relief, but to give students in smaller districts the resources and curricular advantages larger districts make possible.

The Courier Post reports that the Camden School Board is slated to review the performance of Superintendent Superintendent Bessie LeFra Young, who earns $244,083 annually, who has a history of absenteeism and is leaving this year anyway.

If you missed my column at NJ Spotlight this week on the politics behind the expansion of charter schools in Philadelphia and Camden, here's the link.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Lakewood Update

From the Lakewood View:
Though Michael Inzelbuch was replaced as Board of Education attorney at Monday’s board meeting, he continues to collect a salary of $122,655 for his position as a special education consultant...The contract period ends June 30, said Carl Fink, the newly appointed board president.
In 2011, Inzelbuch was paid $387,965 for legal services billed at $250 per hour in addition to his $122,655 consultant salary.

Quote of the Day

Tom Moran of the Star-Ledger on Perth Amboy School Board's latest antics:
Congratulations to the Perth Amboy school board for the double-whammy last night when it voted to place Superintendent Janine Caffrey on administrative leave.

This move will waste money and hurt kids. Nice going.

Caffrey did nothing to deserve this. The charge against her was led by the board president, Samuel Lebreault, who is under investigation for trying to get free lunch for his kids even though he acknowledges he doesn't qualify. Caffrey has been cooperating with that investigation, which may be the reason Lebreault is aiming at her.

Letter of the Day

From the President of the New York State Council for the Social Studies to the Vice Chancellor of the Board of Regents:
It has come to our attention that the elimination of the mandatory Regents examination in Global History and Geography is on the agenda of the April 23-24 meeting of the Board of Regents… The argument that it is the Global History and Geography Regents Examination that is pulling the graduation rates in New York State down and preventing a large percentage of students from not graduating is not valid…
Trying to raise graduation rates by lowering the requirements is counterproductive.  New York State has an educational standard that other states continually try to emulate.  To maintain this status in this critical time of globalization we need to emphasize global awareness and living in a global economy.  We achieve this goal by continuing to educate our students about global cultures and global governments.  To ensure that this expectation is achieved NYSED must continue to test Global History and Geography and continue to improve the testing process.

A Tale of Two Cities: Charter School Expansion in Philly and Camden

Check out my new column at NJ Spotlight on the some similarities and differences between the radical public school overhaul in Philadelphia and the muted (and NJEA-sanctioned) approach of the Urban Hope Act in Camden. Did Jersey do something right?

Thursday, April 26, 2012

NJ's School Funding "Modifications" and Camden's Public Schools

There's much fuss in Trenton over the Office of Legislative Service's report that Abbott schools are being short-changed by Gov. Christie's modifications to the school funding formula. What does this mean for a school district like Camden? Check out my new blog post at WHYY's Newsworks to find out.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Quote of the Day

Andy Rotherham in The Atlantic:
Last year, Adam Gray was named the Massachusetts Teacher of the Year. Despite the honor, Gray, who is in his twenties, was dismissed from his South Boston high school shortly thereafter because of rules that make seniority more important than performance when deciding layoffs. He now teaches at the prestigious Boston Latin… 
So while the crazy anecdotes and examples are amusing, the bigger issue is that we've created an environment in which our schools can't really respond to the demands for improved student performance, or think creatively about productivity-enhancing reforms. In other words, at the very time we need our schools to become more effective and more agile for the job we need them to do tomorrow they are still saddled with yesterday's constraints. That's no laughing matter.

NJ's Not-So-Fair Education Funding Task Force

Gov. Christie is taking a lot of heat for proposed reforms in school funding, including revising the way we tally up kids eligible for free/reduced lunch (think the corruption in Elizabeth where board members illicitly signed up their own ineligible kids and the general lack of oversight) not to mention the way we measure enrollment (see today’s Spotlight for details).

Some of these changes are common sense. Some are overkill.  But there’s overheated rhetoric on both sides. (See Education Law Center’s press release for an example: “GOVERNOR PROPOSES USING DISCREDITED METHOD TO COUNT STUDENTS FOR STATE SCHOOL AID”). And some of this melodrama could have been avoided if the Governor had chosen the members of his Education Funding Task Force just a little more wisely.

I don’t usually agree with Bob Braun, but his column this week slamming the  composition of the Task Force is fair. There’s only 7 members – its saving grace of prudence is its chair, Rochelle Hendricks – but her six underlings are a handful. I mean, Father Ed Leahy seems like a great guy, but according to Braun he knows nothing about school finance. And Tea Partier Jerry Cantrell? Really?  Cantrell’s Common Sense Institute alleges that Sea Isle City School District  pays $40,000 per kid per year. That’s just a wee bit inflammatory (and not true).

Another member of the Task Force is Charles Urban, an acolyte of “Fair Tax” Senator Mike Doherty, who would have us ignore every piece of research that shows that poor kids need more resources to learn and garners its energy from Conservative suburban resentment of New Jersey’s admittedly profligate school spending.

Wouldn’t it have been a simple matter to appoint a few moderates to the panel? Or to not choose the really extreme ones?  The result is a Task Force already discredited, so deeply politicized, that its conclusions, wise or not, will be undermined. That’s too bad. New Jersey could use a fresh look at public school funding. Remember also that changes may very well end up in Court. Imagine what David Sciarra could to Charles Urban in a debate about funding that’s really fair.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Breaking News: Lakewood Board Fires Attorney

From the Asbury Park Press:
The Lakewood Board of Education swore in newly elected members Monday, and one of its first official actions was to oust longtime attorney Michael Inzelbuch, whose forte is special education. Inzelbuch’s critics repeatedly claimed he dominated the board and orchestrated how the majority of the board voted. Inzelbuch served as board attorney and was a district employee as the special education consultant…
Janice Boski, president of the Lakewood Education Association, said she was “in shock” with the positive direction of the board.
The union has been without a contract for two years and there has been a mass exodus of staff leaving for other districts with higher pay and fewer problems. The union and the school board are currently working with a mediator on the negotiations.

School District Consolidation and Tightwad Chris Christie

NJ Assemblyman John Burzichelli is all hot under the collar because Gov. Christie didn’t follow through on legislation passed during the Corzine Administration that would require local school districts to consider consolidation. Mr. Burzichelli fulminates in a press release issued today, "[a] 2007 law required the executive county superintendents to present by March 2010 a plan to regionalize and consolidate schools within their districts. Despite this being law, we have seen no progress on this plan, much to the detriment of taxpayers. The Christie administration needs to do better. "

He adds, "After all, the governor claims his proposed budget increasing school aid by $1.12 billion, but this is merely spin. Direct aid to districts is nearly $112 million less compared to before Gov. Christie took office."

Let’s take a closer look, first at the consolidation section of the Assemblyman's complaint (and you can also check out my piece two weeks ago for WHYY’s Newsworks. Plus the Asbury Park Press has an article today regarding the same issue).

Back in 2006 the Statehouse, in a fruitless exercise of hope over experience, passed legislation called 18A that created a new position called Executive County Superintendent, one for each county. The mission of these newly-enthroned ECS’s was this:
No later than three years following the effective date of sections 42 to 58 of P.L.2007, c.63 (C.18A:7-11 et al.), (the Executive County Superintendent will) recommend to the commissioner a school district consolidation plan to eliminate all districts, other than county-based districts and other than preschool or kindergarten through grade 12 districts in the county, through the establishment or enlargement of regional school districts.
In other words, each newly-appointed ECS must create a proposal to eliminate all non-K-12 districts by merging them with others. Deadline: March 10th, 2010.

So how’d that work? It didn’t. Certainly the opposition of both NJEA and NJSBA was a factor, but the obstacles ran deeper. The law had no teeth: it couldn’t order consolidation but only recommend it, even for tiny and inefficient districts.

The legislation was flawed in other ways: districts had to shell out their own money for required feasibility studies; the proposed consolidation (it never got that far) would go before voters of all involved districts and one town could veto the whole megillah (which it would, since at least one district’s taxes would go up).

March 2010 came and went, and at the end of May 2010 then-Education Commissioner Bret Schundler announced that the initiative was on hold until the Legislature was willing to fund studies about the financial and education implications of the (not so) new law.

So why has Assemblyman Burzichelli got his panties in a twist when he knows the sad history of this well-intentioned bill? It’s a nifty, if ironic, segue into his real concern, the newly-released report from the Office of Legislative Services mellifluously entitled, “How Proposed Changes to the School Funding Reform Act of 2008 Will Change the Allocation of State Aid,” or “The Rationale for Shifting Money Away from Abbott Districts.” The 2006 legislation to consolidate school districts was offered in the spirit of finding economies of scale. The OLS report is offered in the spirit of explaining how the State is going to allocate its 2013 state school aid of $11.743 billion. Sometimes we don't seem to getting very far at all.

Newark Sup Cami Anderson's Contract

NJ Spotlight has a scoop today: the online paper filed an Open Public Records Request with the State and received Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson’s contract. Here’s the contract and here’s the accompanying story.

Dr. Anderson gets $247,000 for three years, plus merit pay. For example, the contract specifies that she will receive a 3.3% bonus (about $6K) if, through her leadership, the district attains any of the following benchmarks:
• The percent of Newark high school students scoring proficient or better on either the math or language sections of the High School Proficiency Assessment rises 3 percent.

• The percent of all students grades 3-8 who are not proficient in language arts drops 2 percent and/or the average language arts score increases.

• The percent of all students grades 3-8 who are not proficient in math drops 2 percent and/or the average math score increases.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Connecticut Copycats NJ Charter School Law

Adam Emerson over at Fordham’s Education Gadfly analyzes a new charter school bill proposed in the Connecticut Legislature that would impose an “opt-out” lottery, requiring all charters to offer enrollment to every student in the district, regardless of whether a parent or child has expressed interest. Why do we care? Because it’s the same template used by some of New Jersey’s anti-charter school legislators in proposing Assembly Bill 3356, which was euthanized in the Statehouse last year.

In fact, Emerson notes that the NJ bill had the support of Save Our Schools NJ, “a vocal advocacy group that sees school choice as a threat to students who remain in public schools. Mercifully, the bill sponsor agreed to table the legislation this year after charter operators convinced him that the lottery would tax their operations.”

The Connecticut bill, SB 24, emerged, says Emerson, “from a closed-door meeting with union leaders and Democratic chairs of the state’s joint education committee and follows attempts in at least one other state [that’s the Jersey segue] to get around the issue of ‘creaming’ in school choice.”

Indeed, NJ’s version of the bill was sponsored by Assemblyman Albert Coutinho and Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, who both list NJEA as one of their top campaign contributors. In a harbinger of Connecticut’s wrangling, charter school advocates in NJ argued that the bill would unfairly force charter school to canvas every family in town, augment costs and complexities, and ultimately undermine the concept of school choice.

Concludes Emerson, “[b]ut this may be what the Connecticut teacher unions had in mind: burden charters with a taxing mandate that mutes the concept of parental choice. “If you can’t beat them,” said Lisa Grover, state advocacy director for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, “then at least you can make their lives difficult.”

That's One Expensive Charter School

Today’s Trenton Times reports on a long-proposed charter for a Mandarin-immersion school, Princeton International Academy Charter School. PIACS's application sparked the creation of a coalition of outraged suburban parents from the sending districts of Princeton, West Windsor-Plainsboro, and South Brunswick, along with litigation on both sides. From the Times:

[West Windsor-Plainsboro School Board President] Hermant] Marathe said the West Windsor-Plainsboro district budgeted $1 million for the 2012-2013 school year — roughly $100,000 per student for 100 students to attend PIACS, and that amount didn’t include transportation, which the district would be responsible for providing.

Maranthe (or the reporter) meant $10K per student, considerably less than, say, Princeton Public Schools’ annual cost per pupil of $18,677. But whose counting?

Deja Vu for Michael Winerip

Michael Winerip, the New York Times education writer, strikes another blow for Luddites everywhere with today’s article on the use of “an automated reader developed by the Educational Testing Service, e-Rater, [which] can grade 16,000 essays in 20 seconds.” The “robo-reader” is hardly flawless, of course: as Winerip points out, it gives higher grades for longer essays on the SAT writing section, and also awards points for longer words and longer sentences and more complex sentence structure. Logic and facts are ungraded .

Writes, Winerip, “The possibilities are limitless. If E-Rater edited newspapers, Roger Clemens could say, “Remember the Maine,” Adele could say, “Give me liberty or give me death,” Patrick Henry could sing “Someone Like You.”

Message: computer applications like E-Rater render arbitrary and inaccurate judgements on students' writing ability. We've left out the human factor! And, as Winerip notes, he's got "a weakness for humans."

He didn't have such a weakness seven years ago when he wrote an article, also in the New York Times, about the flawed way in which ETS was grading the (then) new writing section of the SAT's. In that 2005 piece he profiled Dr. Les Perelman, a writing professor at MIT, who was critical of the way human graders rated student essays. Writes Winerip,

He [Dr. Perelman] was stunned by how complete the correlation was between length and score. "I have never found a quantifiable predictor in 25 years of grading that was anywhere near as strong as this one," he said. "If you just graded them based on length without ever reading them, you'd be right over 90 percent of the time." The shortest essays, typically 100 words, got the lowest grade of one. The longest, about 400 words, got the top grade of six. In between, there was virtually a direct match between length and grade.

Dr. Perelman also found that the teachers grading the essay test disregarded inaccurate facts and logic.

Sounds to me like it's just plain hard to fairly evaluate student writing in an artificially short window of time, and that the use of both computers and trained people evince shortcomings. That's a different conclusion than "technology is evil" and we're out to replace teachers with robots. Winerip asks in today's piece, "Is this the end? Are Robo-Readers destined to inherit the earth?" Dr. Perelman says "no," but Winerip doesn't sound as sure.