Thursday, May 31, 2012

Parent Responds to Changes in U.S. DOE Special Ed Accountability

A parent of a child on the autistic spectrum responds to the U.S. DOE’s plans to “help close the achievement gap for students with disabilities by moving away from a one-size-fits-all, compliance-focused approach to a more balanced system that looks at how well students are being educated in addition to continued efforts to protect their rights.”
Dear [Director of the Office of Special Education Programs] Melody Musgrove, 
I’ve read with alarm plans to have the OSEP  change their approach to compliance with IDEA to emphasize test score monitoring, and cutting back on state compliance officers. As the parent of a child with an IEP, I have many concerns about this approach, and feel it would not meet my child’s needs and therefore would violate his rights… 
When you make a change in compliance policy, you send a signal about what counts, and what is a secondary concern. If you choose to focus on test scores, that will be all that counts. If you cut compliance officers at the state level, you will not see when these non-tested skills are not being met. My child’s social skills are not a secondary concern, they are necessity for him to be an independently functioning adult. That’s important to me, and it should be important to you and the education department as well. Please reassess your priorities and do the right thing for our children and for all of us.

"Wonder of Wonder, Miracles of Miracles"

Well, it's not quite a trip to the Promised Land but the New Jersey Department of Education did announce that today it will release the School Report Cards for each district for the year 2010-2011. That's right: today we'll get the results of the standardized tests that the kids took a year ago last March. Not to be snippy of anything. This Report Card promises to be more accurate, relying less on self-reports from districts on graduation rates, attendance, etc., and more on actual data. NJ SMART grows up!  Check back here later.

Asking the Right Questions About Class Size

My post today at WHYY Newsworks looks at the recent class size kerfuffle instigated by Mitt Romney's visit to a Philadelphia charter school:
Mitt Romney visited a charter school in West Philadelphia last Thursday and, either brazenly or cluelessly, addressed that third rail of education politics, class size.
"In schools that are the highest-performing in the world," he said, "their classroom sizes are about the same as in the United States. So it's not the classroom size that's driving the success of those school systems."
An opportunity for a rational discussion of the costs and benefits of small class size?
More like a greedy Democratic pounce on Romney's education street cred. President Obama's spokeswoman sneered, "What planet does he live on?"
Read the rest here.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Site of Worst Education Inequities: Between Districts, Not Within Them

Today’s New York Times op-ed page features a must-read by James E. Ryan, author of “Five Miles Away, a World Apart: One City, Two Schools, and the Story of Educational Opportunity in Modern America” (a familiar concept to NJLB readers).

Ryan points to a little-noticed section of Mitt Romney’s education speech to Latino leaders last week: when he said that  he “would give poor students and those with disabilities the right to attend any public or charter school in their state.” Not so meaningful for kids with disabilities (as I’ve explained elsewhere). But potentially powerful for poor kids, especially in a state like New Jersey where terrific schools abut terrible schools because of impassable district boundaries.

Ryan praises Romney for “bucking a powerful, 50-year trend” of education reform principles (including No Child Left Behind) that promise access but, in fact, locks kids into their home school districts. The result?

What these reforms have in common is that they have protected the exclusivity of suburban public schools and have ensured that city students would stay put in city schools.

Ryan continues,
Mr. Romney’s proposal, if put in place, could change that. Most directly, and perhaps most dramatically, Mr. Romney’s proposal would force — yes, force — suburban districts to accept city students, a step that the Supreme Court refused to take back in 1974. As Mr. Romney said in a white paper also released last week, he would require states to “adopt open-enrollment policies that permit eligible students to attend public schools outside of their school district.” 
In doing so, Mr. Romney’s proposal would target the real source of educational inequality in this country: school district boundaries, which wall off good school systems from failing ones. The grossest inequalities in educational opportunity today exist between school districts, not inside them.
If Mr. Romney’s proposal is sincere, it would place him far to the left of the Obama administration when it comes to educational opportunity. Mr. Obama has focused on improving teacher evaluations, promoting common academic standards, turning around failing schools and increasing charter schools. Fine and sensible? Maybe. Bold? Hardly. Bold is giving poor city kids the right to attend good suburban schools.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Damn Those Evil Hedge Fund Managers

Today’s Star-Ledger describes a program in Newark, the Law and Education Empowerment Project (NJ LEEP), that offers highly-motivated students an intensive remediation program in order to prepare them for college. The children undergo a rigorous admissions process in 8th grade and then commit to spending the next four years attending courses in grammar, writing, and life skills, two hours a day, five days a week (plus occasional Saturdays). This year all 24 graduates of NJ LEEP have been accepted to colleges, including Smith, Princeton, Mt. Holyoke, and College of New Jersey.

Each successful graduate receives $35,000 per year for college tuition.

Great, right? What’s not to like?

NJ LEEP is a good example of a public education program, albeit after school hours, that incorporates elements anathema to anti-school reformers. It’s very selective, and children can be suspended if not compliant with the high demands of the curriculum. It’s privately funded. And, worst of all, its Board of Directors includes the types of professional derided by Anti-Reformer Grande Dame Dr. Diane Ravitch.

NJ LEEP’s Board includes Dr. Jerry Webman, a Senior Investment Officer and Chief Economist for Oppenheimer Funds; Ed Bankole, the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Structured Risk Analytics LLC; Susan L. Blount, Senior Vice President and General Counsel of Prudential Financial, Inc.; Jeff Isaacs,  Managing Director and Chief Operations Officer of the Goldman Sachs & Co. There also law school professors and other academics on the Board, whom I assume are inoffensive.

Just how do Dr. Ravitch and her followers feel about these investment professionals? They “love to get public funding to manage schools that enroll minority children” because “it enables them to fantasize that they are part of the civil rights movement of our day.” They are “mean-spirited, ignorant, arrogant people.” And, in a speech posted at the national organization Parents Across America (Save Our Schools- NJ is an affiliate), she postulates,
Let’s be clear about what NCLB has really accomplished: It has convinced the media and major philanthropies and Wall Street hedge fund managers that American public education is a failure and that radical solutions are required. The philanthropists and Wall Street hedge fund managers and Republicans and the Obama administration and assorted rightwing billionaires have some ideas about how to change American education. They aren’t teachers but they think they know how to fix the schools.
NJ LEEP has successfully incorporated private funding and public education. Is that success a result of a cabal of diabolical financiers or people devoted to rescuing poor kids from failing schools?  I’d argue that it’s the latter.

That’s why it’s specious to pose an absolute dichotomy of private/public funding, or private/public management of American education. Sometimes the most creative programs meld the two. Demonizing private money may make great copy but it does nothing for getting kids into college.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Sunday Leftovers

An audit of the NJ DOE’s oversight of charter schools finds that there is, according to NJ Spotlight, “a host of problems,” including a lack of a system to identify successful and failing schools, as well as problems with the approval process. The DOE responds that it has corrected many of these issues over the last 18 months. Audit here.

The U.S. Department of Education has a new plan to ensure that children with disabilities are not educated within “a one-size-fits-all, compliance-focused approach” but instead are part of a “more balanced system that looks at how well students are being educated in addition to continued efforts to protect their rights.”

Charles Stile, columnist for The Record, considers Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s remarks criticizing President Obama’s campaign attacks on Bain Capital:
Booker has bucked the liberal establishment by embracing some conservative ideas on public-school reform. He extols the virtue of public-private partnerships, and in the age of state budget cuts he has tapped plutocrats eager to pump their new Gilded Age gold into charter schools, parks and even police equipment. This is Booker's base, not the public employee unions or the construction trades. So it comes as no surprise that Booker rushed to Bain's defense. Pragmatism trumps partisan imperatives. 
Also from The Record: Education Law Center “urged New Jersey lawmakers to reject Gov. Chris Christie's schools budget for the coming year, claiming that it changes the formula for funding public education without prior legislative approval and in ways that will shortchange districts with the largest percentages of poor and non-English-speaking students.” ELC press release here.

From the Courier-Post: “It costs New Jersey taxpayers up to $77 million a year to transport nearly 90,000 schoolchildren to religious and other private schools as cash-strapped districts struggle to fulfill a longtime state law that requires transportation funding for nonprofit schools.” The most striking case is Lakewood Public Schools:
The district, which has been beset by scandals of lost money, test coaching and a questionable grant application, will spend roughly three-quarters of its $20 million transportation budget this school year on busing the private school students. Although Lakewood spends millions on mandatory private school busing, it hasn’t been able to find the funds in its $133 million budget to fix a leaking roof in its middle school.
Aspiring teacher Hugh Jackman goes for an interview at the Harlem Village Academy.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Romney Needs an I.E.P.* on School Funding

The big education story today is Mitt Romney's “education platform,” which was unveiled, curiously, during a speech to the Latino Coalition (where he didn’t mention “self-deportation.”) He did say that education was the “civil rights issue of our time,” a phrase used by everyone from President Obama to George W. Bush to Arne Duncan to (more locally) Chris Christie and Chris Cerf.

 Response has been, well, mixed. Andy Rotherham says “it’s basically President George W. Bush’s education policy – but without the accountability.” Other commentary refers to a presumed pandering to the ebbing support of the Hispanic community given Romney's troglodytic attitude towards the Dream Act. Also see reactions from Politics K-12, NPR, New York Times, Wall Street JournalMike Petrelli, Politico, and NEA.

Reports the New York Times,
Mr. Romney’s biggest departure from existing policy was his call for poor students and those with disabilities to be able to attend any public school in their state — “or a private school where permitted by law” — and to have federal funds follow them, rather than the current system in which the money stays with a student’s local school.
Romney's proposed "policy" betrays a cavernous lack of understanding of the nuances of school funding, particularly in the realm of special education. Students with disabilities already can attend private schools at the district's expense, provided that the I.E.P. team decides that a private placement is the least restrictive environment for the student. In addition federal money comprises only about 10% of school costs, which won’t go far with private school tuition for both poor students and kids with special needs. Edweek’s Special Education blog comments,
But it appears Romney didn't consult with special education advocacy groups before making his pitch. While special education vouchers have grown in popularity in recent years, the number of programs is small, and the number of participants is also tiny.  
Many advocacy groups warn parents against using vouchers for students with disabilities because, in doing so, they give up their rights outlined in federal education and disability laws. And they may not know that. 
"We have to remember that a family with a child who has a disability never really has the same choice as others. By virtue of having a disability that qualifies them for an Individualized Education Program, a private school for instance, would never guarantee via a voucher that they would provide a free appropriate public education and the services outlined in the IEP," said Laura Kaloi of the National Center for Learning Disabilities.
* I.E.P.: Individualized Education Plan, a federally mandated contract between a child with disabilities and a school district that delineates services,  accommodations, and modifications to the curriculum in order to provide a free and appropriate public education.

What's More Important? Local Control or Student Outcomes?

From my post today at WHYY Newsworks,"What's More Important: Local Control or Student Outcomes?"
In New Jersey, nothing gets our blood boiling faster than the threat of state intervention in the affairs of local schools. Every time the Department of Education starts lurching around provincial borders, we summon our inner Ron Pauls and start mewling about the virtues of home rule and the clumsy overreach of governmental power-hungry dunderheads.

But when is a school district dysfunctional enough to warrant that interference?
Read the rest here.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Quote of the Day

Chester Finn comments on “a fascinating tidbit” from Arne Duncan’s new Race To The Top heat, which is directed at individual school districts rather than states. 
"Just to be eligible, districts by the 2014-15 school year will have to promise to implement evaluation systems that take student outcomes into account—not just for teacher and principal performance, but for district superintendents and school boards. That's a big departure from the state-level Race to the Top competitions, which just looked at educators who actually work in schools, not district-level leaders." [Emphasis added]
How very refreshing, even exhilarating, the inclusion of superintendents and boards in a results-based accountability system, rather than the customary focus only on schools and their principals and teachers (and sometimes the kids themselves). Will the NSBA and AASA react angrily to this goring of their own members' oxen? Or will they—as they should—welcome this logical and potentially powerful widening of the theory and practice of accountability?

Irony Alert: Closing Down Segregated Schools Reinforces Segregation

Education Law Center, standard bearer for poor minority students in New Jersey, issued a press release yesterday charging that Gov. Christie and Ed. Comm. Cerf, “under the guise of accountability,” have created “a perverse system of school punishment and reward” that will “single out public schools” serving minority kids “for disparate treatment in its most extreme form – closing the schools altogether.”

What’s this racist cabal, which ELC Exec. Dir. David Sciarra derides as a “throwback to the days when State policies worked to reinforce the intense racial and socio-economic segregation in New Jersey's public schools”? It’s contained in our No Child Left Behind waiver application, which shields Jersey schools from the punitive measures of the federal legislation and, instead, directs extra resources, intervention, and, yes, potential school closures (if there’s no improvement) for our 75 worst schools, those that rank in the bottom 5% of student achievement.

Here's an excerpt from that new "perverse system":
While in the aggregate New Jersey’s students perform at nation-leading levels, the State has a number of troubling deficiencies. On the 2011 NAEP exam, New Jersey ranked 50 out of 51 states (including DC) in the size of the achievement gap between low and high-income students in 8th grade reading. Tens of thousands of children attend schools where only a minority of students meets basic levels of proficiency in reading and math. Across the State, over 40 percent of third graders are not reading on grade level. And perhaps most alarmingly, a distressingly high percentage of those who do graduate from high school are unprepared for success.
Tweets of the ELC press release are thrumming through cyberspace from Save Our Schools-NJ and Defeat NJ Bullies,  some sort of anti-charter/Christie/accountability organization.

So let’s unpack this a bit. ELC is irate because the NJ DOE has created a process with teeth that intends to address decades of inequity and substandard education slung at poor minority kids in our worst 75 schools. Those 75 drop-out factories include 23 of Camden’s 26 schools and 10 of Trenton’s 20 schools, plus assorted other chronically failing public schools, including some charters. (Here’s the list.)

For decades now we’ve shoveled money at these schools, at least the ones in Abbott districts. That has had little impact, none in some cases. The kids who live in Camden or Trenton (or other districts in the list) have no access to higher-performing schools, precisely because of NJ’s “intense racial and socio-economic segregation,” a product of various historical factors like our affinity for home rule, the uneven enforcement of the Mt. Laurel housing decisions, our school funding structure, the limitations of our Interdistrict Public School Choice Program.

ELC charges that the DOE’s classification of our worst schools as “Priority Schools” will “do nothing to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for the most at-risk students in our state.”  Fine. What should we do then? More money to Abbotts, in spite of the poor track record of providing money without reform? (Yes: here’s Monday’s press release.) Leave the kids where they are?  (That's worked out so well.) What is ELC's solution other than a failed status quo that, ironically, "reinforces intense racial and socio-economic segregation in New Jersey's public schools”?

Monday, May 21, 2012

How to Reconcile Education Reform and the Democratic Party Base?

Patrick McQuinn of Drew University has an important article in EducationNext that asks, “are advocacy organizations” – like Democrats for Education Reform, 50Can, Students First, Foundation for Excellence in Education – “changing the politics of education?” The short answer, is “yes,” in spite of historical and overwhelming opposition from teacher unions and other organizations committed to maintaining the education establishment.

McQuinn notes that the ERAO’s (education reform advocacy organizations) tend to be bipartisan, but integration with the Democratic Party is particularly complicated.
First, the Democratic Party is divided over school reform—particularly on school choice, test-based accountability, and teacher quality. One of the most important and unresolved issues is how the groups will navigate their complicated relationship with civil rights organizations and teachers unions. Teachers unions are a crucial part of the Democratic Party’s base and yet have long been resistant to the kinds of reforms the ERAOs are advocating. But the unions themselves are also in flux. Harvard’s Susan Moore Johnson has noted the rise of “reform unionism”: support for reform is increasing inside the unions, particularly in the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and among younger teachers. This trend has spawned such pro-reform teacher organizations as Teach Plus and Educators 4 Excellence.
Civil rights groups also have complex relationships with ERAO's. The NAACP,  for example, has "historically been closely aligned politically with the teachers unions and continue to find common ground given the large number of minority teachers, particularly in urban areas.”  In Jersey, think of the umbrella group called the Coalition for Effective Newark Public Schools, which includes the Newark Teachers Union, the Newark Supervisors and Administrators union, Abbott Leadership Institute, the NAACP-Newark Chapter, and the Education Law Center.

Like teacher unions, civil rights groups are committed to protecting the interests of their own (adult) members, and sometimes that clashes with child-centered education goals. McQuinn notes,
This helps to explain why the NAACP sided with the unions against school closures and charter school expansion in New York City and Newark, for example, even as the group supports the ERAOs’ call for closing achievement gaps. There is also a major generational and racial gap between the leaders of groups like the NAACP and ERAO leaders, who are an overwhelmingly young, elite-schooled, and “white” bunch and as such are often viewed skeptically by people of color. Figuring out how to create state-level alliances with civil rights groups and mobilize urban communities—which are disproportionately minority and poor—remains an ongoing challenge.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Quote of the Day

From today's New York Times editorial by David Kirp on the resegregation of America's schools and the burden that places on poor minority children:
A generation later, public schools that had been ordered to integrate in the 1960s and 1970s became segregated once again, this time with the blessing of a new generation of justices. And five years ago, a splintered court delivered the coup de grâce when it decreed that a school district couldn’t voluntarily opt for the most modest kind of integration — giving parents a choice of which school their children would attend and treating race as a tiebreaker in deciding which children would go to the most popular schools. In the perverse logic of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., this amounted to “discriminating among individual students based on race.” That’s bad history, which, as Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote in an impassioned dissent, “threaten[s] the promise of Brown.”

Sunday Leftovers

Charter School Update: The Star-Ledger, in an article today, refers to "the Christie administration’s increasingly firm stance against low-performing charters." In that context,

the trustees of the Paul Robeson Charter School in Trenton have agreed to resign their posts and turn over the low-performing school to Scholar Academies, a non-profit based in Philadelphia.  Scholar Academies, reports the Star-Ledger, runs other successful charters and will also open the Trenton Scholars Charter School in September.

The DOE has announced that it will shut down Schomburg Charter School in Jersey City, which has been “beset in recent years by budget woes, declining enrollment, and dismal academic performance."

The Press of Atlantic City reports that the DOE has also decided to not renew the charter for PleasanTech Charter School, which will close at the end of June. PleasanTech officials are appealing the decision. “Some parents have said they do not want to place their child in the regular public schools and are looking at other charter schools in the area. But those schools are not likely to have enough room for all of the more than 500 PleasanTech children.”

NJ Spotlight reports on the status of competing Senate and Assembly tenure reform bills after education committee meetings in both houses were postponed on Monday. Senator Teresa Ruiz, architect of the more aggressive bill, says that her committee will meet this week and that tenure reform is “going to happen this year, at least in my committee it will.” Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan, proponent of the weaker bill, said that he hopes for consensus between the two bills.

The Courier-Post has a follow-up to the case of the special education teacher who called one of his students a “’tard” and told him that he will “kick your ass from here to kingdom come.” While Administrative Law Judge Jeff Masin said that “dismissal would be too severe a penalty,” the Bankbridge Regional School in Deptford is appealing its case to Ed. Comm. Chris Cerf.  See NJLB coverage here.

See NJ Spotlight for the dearth of superintendents in NJ’s poor urban districts: searches are on in Camden,  Jersey City, and Trenton (who just chose a superintendent, to Mayor Tony Mack’s chagrin).  In addition, “Paterson superintendent Donnie Evans is working under a one-year contract with the state, while Perth Amboy superintendent Janine Caffrey is in open warfare with her board.”

Wayne Public Schools will start charging community groups for use of athletic fields to raise some cash. The Record gives the decision a thumbs-up.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Why We Need Tenure Reform

1) New Jersey Administrative Law Judge Jeff Masin has ruled that even though a special education teacher  mocked one of his students, called him a "'tard," and told him that he will “kick your ass from here to kingdom come,” that’s not enough to revoke tenure. According to the Star-Ledger, the Bankbridge Regional  Board of Ed “voted to certify tenure charges against [Steven] Roth in December, and in March he appeared before Masin. The charges included unbecoming conduct, neglect of duty and verbal abuse in violation of the Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying Policy of the board.”  Judge Masin ruled that Roth is "not a person who cannot be expected to provide special education students with much important instruction and guidance in the future while learning from his mistakes and avoiding such improper conduct.”The Board released the following statement:
The board and the superintendent believe that the only appropriate penalty for the shocking conduct perpetrated by Mr. Roth in this incident is termination," the statement reads. "The district is committed to the dignity and protection of its students. As such, we are in the process of filing exceptions to the judge’s decision with Chris Cerf, Acting Commissioner of Education, seeking the termination of Mr. Roth.
2) The New York Times reports today on the status of New York City’s rubber room, which houses 830 teachers who don’t have jobs but are still salaried because they have tenure and cost the city millions of dollars per year:
Nearly a quarter of the teachers in the pool have been without regular teaching assignments for at least two years and 44 percent have never submitted a job application online or attended a city recruitment event. The teachers’ union has claimed that the stigma of being in the pool has prevented good teachers from being offered permanent assignments, but city officials and some principals have said that many of the teachers are mediocre.

They are used as substitutes throughout the system wherever they are needed.
On Thursday, Mr. Walcott said the $100 million or so the city spends on these teachers and other school employees’ salaries amounted to “wasting it on teachers who probably chose the wrong profession.”

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Trenton Mayor Tony Mack: Vengence is Mine

When school boards choose superintendents  there’s typically consensus among members. Lengthy sifting of resumes, multiple interviews, collaboration, and a shared vision of educational needs usually results in unanimous votes. There may be disputes behind closed doors, but in most cases public votes are the culmination of a long process of analysis and compromise.

Then there’s Trenton, a long-struggling Abbott district with the lowest graduation rate in the state. Monday night around midnight the Trenton Board of Education, having narrowed its pool to three candidates, voted 5-3 to hire Francisco Duran, an assistant superintendent from Philadelphia.

Okay. Sometimes democracy is messy.  And the V.P. of the Board, Sasa Olessi Montano, explained the decision, if not the lack of consensus:
The overriding reason Mr. Duran stood out was that the majority of us felt that he demonstrates a perfect balance between the leadership skills and an in-depth knowledge of curriculum and classroom needs that is crucial for an urban district such as ours. We have a district with many moving parts. We are asking almost the impossible of someone to be an expert in so many areas. However, we feel that Mr. Duran’s experience and vision, as well as training and education is well matched to what we need here in Trenton.
Reasonable, right? Not according to Trenton Mayor Tony Mack, who appoints board members. According to the Trentonian, shortly after the board meeting two new members, Marisol Ovalles and Denise Millington, who had voted for Duran, were informed by a former board member, Joyce Kersey, that Mack was firing them because they failed to follow his instructions to vote for Dale Caldwell. Said Kersey,
“The mayor asked me as a member of the committee if I could call (Millington and Ovalles) to let them know that he was going to rescind their appointments. I said I would and I did,” Kersey said. “Mayor Mack is the appointing authority of all members on the board. If he has made this decision then he has made this decision. I acted on behalf of the mayor, that’s it. The person you need to talk to is the mayor.”
Asked about the issue, Mack said: “I can’t comment on that. ... I don’t want to discuss your questions.”  Millington said she met recently with Mack, who expressed his support for Dale Caldwell, one of three finalists for the superintendent’s position.
“He didn’t tell me that I should vote for Caldwell but...... I’m not anybody’s puppet. I accepted this position because I wanted to help children and the City of Trenton. I didn’t sign on to do anybody else’s bidding,” she said.
Of course, if Ovalles and Millington had voted for Caldwell, the vote would have been 5-3 in Caldwell’s favor.

According to L.A. Parker at the Trentonian, Mack wanted an African-American superintendent. Caldwell is African-American and Duran is Hispanic. Parker concludes,
Only emergency room physicians wash their hands with such efficiency. Millington and Ovalles ended up as collateral damage for a Mack administration that frequently values minority hires over qualified applicants.  
 An opinion here doubts that one man can change the course of a Trenton educational system mired in mediocrity.  
While the political education of Mayor Tony F. Mack grinds toward his junior year, the Trenton leader appears no smarter in maneuvering through political channels.

NJ's Arts Education: Community Wealth and Access

In today's post at WHYY's Newsworks I examine the correlation between the the affluence of a NJ school district and its students access to and participation in arts education:
Most educators – in N.J. and elsewhere — agree that the study of art and music is a boon to children's intellectual and creative development. However, in the last few years school boards and administrators hear not the full-bodied tones of Mozart but the siren song of testing and accountability. There are, after all, no current accountability measures in place for a student's mastery of art history, no statewide assessments of music appreciation.
Read the rest here.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Quote of the Day

Today’s NJ Spotlight quotes Gov. Christie on prospects for approval of the dueling bills for tenure reform, especially in light of unexpected postponements of education committee meetings in both the Assembly and the Senate. Senator Teresa’s bill has some real teeth, although it’s decayed a bit over the last months. Assembly Diegnan’s bill is a regurgitation of the proposal issued by NJEA, i.e., afflicted with cavities and gingivitis. Anyway, here’s our fair Governor
“I will tell you one thing, a lot of discussion is going on in Trenton,” Christie said at a town hall meeting in Freehold. “And I want to make one thing very clear to the legislature: Do not send me watered-down, BS tenure reform. If you send me weak tenure reform, I will veto it and send it right back to you.”
For background, see my post last week at WHYY's Newsworks.

Would You Drive Your Kid to School for $15K Per Year?

With all the dirty laundry airing out at Lakewood Public Schools, one item seems to be getting more than its share of sunlight: the amount of money the district – comprised of 5,000 public school students and 22,000 more who attend private Jewish day schools – spends on transportation. 

In turn, this has provoked a rash of newspaper articles on school districts’ legal and moral obligations to provide  transportation for all kids who reside within district boundaries, regardless of whether they attend public schools, or “aid in lieu of transportation,” a payment of $884 per year.

As always, Lakewood is its own special case, primarily because it currently spends about $20,000,000 per year busing its Yeshiva kids, presumably less than it would spend by paying each family its 884 bucks. However, it pays a lot more for busing special needs children to one specific private school, SCHI, or the School for Children with Hidden Intelligence.

While the district’s published Board of Education meeting minutes are way late (the law is that you have to post them within one month of the meeting), throw a dart at the minutes that are available on the district website and the odds are that you’ll find this action item, often repeated over and over. From last June's minutes, for example:
Approval to award a parental contract to the parents of Lakewood student, (ID #2775729035) in the amount of $75.84 per diem (210 days) for a total amount not to exceed $15,926.40. Effective July 1, 2011 through June 30, 2012, to transport their child to/from School for Children with Hidden Intelligence, Lakewood, NJ, in accordance with NJAC 6A:27-1.5 and NJAC 6A:27-7.7 Additional information from “contracting student transportation services, page 19) RT: SCHIGC : Subject in receipt of NJAC 6A:27-1.5 and NJAC 6A:27-7.7
In other words, Lakewood pays parents of kids with special needs who go to SCHI up to $15,926.40 per year as compensation for transporting one child to school and back each day. According to the Asbury Park Press, 130 children from Lakewood go to SCHI. If the district pays each parent $15,926.40, that’s over $2 million per year. Can the district buy  specially equipped vans to take care of the SCHI runs? Are individual payments of $15K really the most-efficient options?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Quote of the Day

As campaigning for the general election begins in earnest, Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) believes it is crucial that reformers nationwide take an all-hands-on-deck approach to making sure President Obama is re-elected. The sweeping reforms that have propelled unprecedented change under the President’s leadership represent crucial first steps toward repairing and restoring confidence in our nation’s public schools – but ultimate success requires that we stay the course.
From "Why Ed Reformers Must Make Sure That President Obama Is Reelected," by Joe Williams and Charles Barone

Monday, May 14, 2012

Glenn Beck Award,*

shared today by Dr. Diane Ravitch and New Jersey Newsroom. Dr. Ravitch gave a speech last Thursday in New Brunswick sponsored by Education Law Center and Rutgers, and NJ Newsroom offered this journalistic depiction:
Ravitch — now research professor of education at NYU and author most recently of "The Death and Life of the Great American School System" — brought her audience to its feet more than once as she quietly, but with deadly force, demolished the cause and case of “education reform” in America...
Before beginning her low-key evisceration of education “reform,” Ravitch rejected its first premise, that American public education is failing, as “nonsense.” She detailed how the current graduation rate is now the highest in history, and achievement rates are going up, even given mainstreaming of special needs students and growing numbers of pupils who speak English as a second language.
*Award from NJ Left Behind in honor of Mr. Glenn Beck, formerly of Fox News, whom Jon Stewart describes as "a guy who says what people who aren't thinking are thinking."

Inconvenient Fact #1: "In most American cities, dropout rates for African-American and Latino males are well above 50%, and they’re less likely to enroll or graduate from college than any other group." (Edweek)

Inconvenient Fact #2: "Each year, approximately 1.3 million students fail to graduate from high school; more than half are students of color. The graduation rate among students of color is as much as twenty-five percentage points below their white peers." (Alliance for Excellent Education)

Inconvenient Fact #3: In Trenton Public Schools, for a local example, "according to new figures released by the state Department of Education yesterday... nearly one in two students who started high school in 2007 did not receiv[e] a degree last year." (Trenton Times)

Why Can't We Talk About Differentiating Teacher Salaries?

Here’s a striking synchronicity: on May 10th (last Thursday) in a Wall St. Journal  article about the recent release of U.S. students’ “deeply disappointing” science scores on the NAEP national assessment, NJ Ed. Comm. Chris Cerf is quoted in the context of differentiating salaries for hard-to-fill positions like science and math:
The Obama administration and some state leaders, including the Republican governors of New Jersey and Iowa, in recent years have pushed districts to alter union contracts to allow higher salaries for teachers in sciences and other hard-to-staff subjects. Christopher Cerf, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's education commissioner, said the "market" for science teachers is highly competitive so schools should "use compensation creatively to maximize outcomes for kids." Teachers have insisted that pay changes be made only as part of broader contract negotiations, giving them more input into the process.
On the same day the Journal article ran, NJ Assembly Democrats Mila Jasey, Albert Coutinho, Dan Benson, and Ralph Caputo issued a press release on the passage of a new bill intended “to address teacher shortages in math and science.”

Great. We’re all on the same page. There’s a correlation between our kids' low performance on science tests and the shallow pool of qualified teachers available to teach advanced science and math.  Let's get busy addressing the shortage in order to raise student achievement.

Well, maybe not completely on the same page. While Comm. Cerf suggests that we pay higher salaries for, say, chemistry teachers – where there’s great demand and little supply – and, perhaps, lower salaries for, say, elementary or gym or music teachers – where there’s little demand and lots of supply – the NJ Assembly bill isn’t willing to approach that third rail of teacher compensation politics.

Instead, according to the Assembly press release,
The new law (A-2311) will permit already certificated New Jersey teachers to participate in an expedited program to become credentialed to teach science and mathematics subjects on the secondary level, or any subject area in which there is a shortage of teachers in the state as determined by the United States Department of Education.

"When we talk about equipping our students with the tools to succeed in the increasingly competitive global economy, this is exactly the type of program we need," said Coutinho (D-Essex). "It's no secret that we tend to lag behind other developed nations in the areas of math and science. Addressing the teacher shortage in these subject areas will hopefully inspire a new generation of students to excel in these fields."
In other words, A 2311 takes teachers who are already part of the industry and simply retrains them in science and math. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But it’s a sharp departure from what the press release describes as the genesis of the bill, a Jasey-sponsored pilot program called “Traders to Teachers,” (see this description from Reuters) which took people recently laid-off in in the finance sector – with no teaching background or NJEA affiliation – and offered them a fast-track to teaching certification. A key difference between the pilot and the new bill is that this new pool of science teachers must be already certified to be eligible for the program. 

The Assembly bill is fine. Offering to retrain current teachers in order to increase our pool of hard-to-fill positions is a worthwhile endeavor.  But the program is hardly a logical outgrowth of the original pilot. Instead, it is enveloped in the teacher-as-widgets gestalt – not only is one kindergarten teacher interchangeable with another but, in fact, one kindergarten teacher is interchangeable with a teacher capable of teaching high school chemistry or BC Calculus.

Why can't we pay chemistry and physics teachers more than teachers who work in low-demand areas? Every other profession differentiates pay based on skill set, effectiveness, and the market forces of supply and demand. The insistence on undifferentiated salary schedules diminishes the teaching professions -- whether one's specialty is differential calculus or phys ed -- and explains the unfortunate pairing of the words "teaching" and "industry."

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Sunday Leftovers

NJ's third-graders took their standardized tests this week, and one language arts question asked children to reveal a secret that was hard to keep. DOE Spokesman Justin Barra said the question was being field-tested and that "it is clear that this is not an appropriate question for a state test." (Courier Post, Star Ledger, Press of Atlantic City)

NJ Spotlight reports on Gov. Christie’s plans to eliminate the HSPA, NJ’s standardized high school assessment, without relying on legislative approval: “When asked whether it would need approval of the legislature, Christie said Monday that most could be done through state code and the State Board of Education, of which he will have appointed its majority by the end of his term. 'I think most of it we can do regulatory,' Christie said on Monday. 'If it needs some clean up, we can talk to [the legislature] about it, but nothing that will be a foundation of the policy.'”

Education Law Center has a great explanation of NJ's new method for calculating high school graduation rates.

Camden’s former Human Resources Director Monise Princilus was fired last year because she refused to falsify Superintendent Bessie LeFra Young’s attendance records. Young has been absent for 186 days over the last 18 months. Princilus is suing the Camden Board of Education.

Check out the state of your district’s art education programs through the New Jersey Arts Education Census Project. NJ Spotlight coverage here, Census here, school-specific data base here.

NJ’s CWA released the results of its latest contract: annual pay increases for 2011-2014 are, respectively, 0%, 0%, 1%, and 1.75%. Clothing maintenance allowance is reduced to $550 and only applies to workers who make less than $100,000 per year and have to wear uniforms. In The Lobby compares this settlement to the Corzine era when CWA members received  "3% raises the first two years, 3.5% the final two -- all this happening at the same time the private sector enacting wage freezes and layoffs."

Speaking of unions, the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation released its report that investigated how union officers, including those from NJEA, receive millions of tax payer money for doing union work. NJEA President Barbara Keshishian said, "The purpose of such agreements is to promote labor harmony within districts by making it possible for problems to be addressed and resolved cooperatively rather than through adversarial processes. Also see The Chicago Tribune.

From the Star-Ledger: "More than 60 percent of the school administrators in New Jersey have failed to disclose the value of their unused sick and vacation time as required by a state law intended to make their compensation plans more transparent."

Friday, May 11, 2012

Quote of the Day

From the Star-Ledger Editorial Board regarding the Perth Amboy School Board's firing of Superintendent Janine Caffrey:
The school board was way out of line in removing Caffrey in the first place. To get the flavor of this fight, know that the man leading the charge against her, board president Samuel Lebreault, is under investigation because he applied to get free lunches for his kids in school, even though he knew he didn’t qualify. Caffrey says he also repeatedly pressed her to make patronage hires and was furious when she refused.
One more snippet: One of the board’s complaints against Caffrey is that she wrote an op-ed that appeared in The Star-Ledger outlining how the state’s antiquated tenure law hurts students. So it seems that speaking your mind on a public issue is, for this school board, a firing offense.
Also see Central Jersey on a separate matter regarding the Perth Amboy School Board:
Board member Kurt Rebovich Jr. is considering his legal options in response to alleged threatening remarks made to him during the board’s private meeting on Monday.
Rebovich said that board member Israel Varela said: “I will go after you just the way I went after Joseph Vas, and I will not let you live and breathe.”
Rebovich, who took the comment as a threat, said he is working with his personal attorneys to explore his legal options, such as ethics or criminal charges.
Vas is the former Perth Amboy mayor serving federal prison time on corruption charges.

NAEP Science Test Scores Released

The National Assessment of Educational Progress released its scores on science exams given to 8th graders. Overall, reports the Wall St. Journal, “32% of students were proficient in science, compared with 30% the first time the new version of the science exam was administered, in 2009.” Gerry Wheeler, Executive Director of the National Science Teachers Association, finds the results “deeply disappointing.”
From the Journal:
The Obama administration and some state leaders, including the Republican governors of New Jersey and Iowa, in recent years have pushed districts to alter union contracts to allow higher salaries for teachers in sciences and other hard-to-staff subjects. Christopher Cerf, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's education commissioner, said the "market" for science teachers is highly competitive so schools should "use compensation creatively to maximize outcomes for kids." Teachers have insisted that pay changes be made only as part of broader contract negotiations, giving them more input into the process.

According to the Star-Ledger, New Jersey’s scores show us to be “in the middle of the pack nationally in science,” with 34% of NJ 8th graders proficient or advanced proficient…Twenty-one states had higher average scores than New Jersey.”

 In a press release, Ed. Comm. Chris Cerf said that the results of the NAEP science test show that “New Jersey students continue to do well by nearly every objective measure compared to the rest of the country, but we still have more work to do to ensure that every student in New Jersey has the knowledge and skills necessary to be ready for the demands of the 21st century.” He added,
 In spite of these overall trends, there exists a 29 point achievement gap between high- and low-income students, which gives New Jersey the 9th highest achievement gap in the country in 8th grade science on the NAEP exam.
Here's the official NAEP report.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Christie: From Norman Rockwell to Edvard Munch

My column today at Newsworks WHYY asks why Gov. Christie, after a relatively peaceful interlude with NJEA top brass, has gone pugilistic again:
To those who follow New Jersey's education politics — particularly the fraught relationship between Gov. Chris Christie and NJEA, NJ's primary teacher union — the past six months have been as bucolic as a Norman Rockwell painting... Now suddenly, after months of apparent entente, Gov. Christie appeared last week in Jersey City at a school choice summit and had nothing but disdain for his erstwhile comrades.
Did our Governor have a temper tantrum? Did he go off-script? Did he forget his happy pills? How'd we go from Norman Rockwell to Edvard Munch's "Scream?" Why did he revert back to the bad old days of deriding union officials?
Find out why here.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Perth Amboy Superintendent Reinstated

Education Commissioner Chris Cerf has intervened in the dispute between the Perth Amboy School Board and Superintendent Janine Caffrey. Last month the Board there dismissed her but failed to garner a majority: the vote was 4-0.

Caffrey has been an outspoken advocate for tenure reform. In an editorial published in the Star-Ledger she explained,
We are fortunate to have the dedication of hundreds of committed and talented teachers and administrators who focus on education every day. But for 15 to 20 percent of each week, I shift focus from our students, who should be at the center of all we do, to certain adults who no longer have a place in our education system, yet simply can’t be dismissed.
She’s also been unwilling to follow the culture of the Perth Amboy board, which includes hiring board members' relatives and friends. And she’s cooperating in a DOE investigation of School Board President Samuel Lebreault, who tried to get free lunch for his kids even though his income disqualifies his family from this benefit.

Here’s coverage from NJ Spotlight and the Star-Ledger.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

NJ's Alternative High School Assessments Dilemma

John Mooney has an important piece today in NJ Spotlight on the decision by Ed. Comm. Cerf and the DOE to wean NJ public high schools away from dependence on the Alternative High School Assessment. Right now, the requirement for a NJ high school diploma is passing the HSPA in math and language arts (which is widely regarded as an 8th grade level test). But in 2016 students will no longer take the HSPA but instead earn diplomas by passing subject-specific tests in 9th, 10th, and 11th grade.

But here’s the rub: the implementation of the new testing system will eliminate an alternative test – the AHSA – currently used by 14.5% of students don’t pass the HSPA. (The appeals process will remain in place.)

It’s an old problem in New Jersey, one with both educational and political aspects. If we mandate grade-appropriate assessments for high school graduation, then lots of kids in our poorest districts won’t earn diplomas unless there’s an alternative, non-grade-appropriate route. Consequently, our highly-touted graduation rate will drop.  (I’m not including kids who are English Language Learners or kids with disabilities.) If we maintain our alternate routes, like AHSA, then we devalue NJ high school diplomas but let kids from stark circumstances move along. In addition, we maintain our high graduation rates.

The Spotlight article has two charts: one of the districts with the lowest rates of students relying on the AHSA as an alternative route to graduation, and another of the districts with the highest rates. If you take out vocational schools and charters, the top 10 districts with the lowest rates of AHSA reliance all have District Factor Groups (a measure of a district’s socio-economic profile) of “I” and “J,” the wealthiest designations. The one exception is Middlesex Borough School District, which has a DFG of “FG.” The top 10 districts with the highest rates of reliance on the AHSA all have DFG’s of “A” and “B,” the most impoverished designations.  The one exception is Willingboro High School in Burlington County, with a DFG of “DE.”

So, while only 1.3% of kids at wealthy Northern Highlands Regional in Bergen County used the AHSA to graduate, 57.6% at high-poverty Irvington High did.

If you’re feeling a touch of déjà vu, it’s well justified. Remember that about two years ago the AHSA replaced the Special Review Assessment (SRA), our former alternative assessment which was widely derided as an unaccountable exercise in folly. During fiery debates educators and politicians volleyed around the same ethical and educational conundrum: do we help kids by lowering expectations for high school proficiency and awarding diplomas through alternative means so that they can go to college or put graduation on their resumes? Or do we hurt kids by propagating the pretense that they're proficient in high school studies?

Back in the SRA days (only two years ago), Education Law Center (see "SRA: Loophole or Lifeline") and NJEA lined up to protect the SRA, which was described by a Record columnist this way:
If a student fails a mini-quiz, the teacher does not accept defeat. Instead, she coaches him on the mini-content of the lesson and gives him a makeup quiz on it. The procedure can be repeated until finally (hooray!), he regurgitates the material satisfactorily.
Then it is on to the next bite-size lesson. Practically everybody who takes the SRA passes. Last year, more than 11,000 students did, 12 percent of all New Jersey seniors.
No doubt advocates for SRA were thinking of the children's best interests. (NJEA President Barbara Keshishian testified before the State Board of Education that "the SRA has served New Jersey's students well. It is based upon educationally sound practices and offers students who cannot pass standardized tests a legitimate alternative to receive a diploma.”) But they were also invested in protecting NJ's artificially inflated graduation rate, one of the best arguments for maintaining status quo practices.

Likewise, those interested in changing the status quo lined up to push for elimination of the SRA. No doubt they were thinking of the children's best interests. (Then-Newark School Superintendent Clifford Janey said the SRA "has morphed into a culture of low expectations.) But they were also invested in debunking NJ's artificially inflated graduation rate and, thus, making strong arguments for changes in the status quo.

So here we go again. No doubt there will be further debate about the ethical and political dimensions of restricting the AHSA. And maybe we'll get a little further along this time.