Sunday, September 30, 2012

Sunday Leftovers

The Courier Times Editorial Board hopes that the Camden School Board’s rejection of all four proposals for charter schools (see post below) isn’t “a case of a group of Camden leaders misguidedly thinking they’re doing right solely because they’re fighting against outside forces and for control over what they view as “their” money.” The editorial continues,
In reality, it will be leaders ignoring the stark reality that doing best for Camden’s children means breaking sharply from the status quo. It means really, truly admitting (not just mouthing the words without believing it) that decades of extra Abbott funding pumped into the city’s schools hasn’t markedly fixed the schools or improved the education most of Camden’s children are getting.
 Also see this story from Philly Burbs, which surveys reactions from parents and board members. While some feel empowered by the Board’s rejection of all four proposals, a parent commented, "It's not fair,” adding that the school board should tell the neighborhood's parents "why their kids are not going to have a school in five or six years."

From NJ Spotlight: “As New Jersey moves toward a whole new battery of online testing, starting in 2014, a big obstacle stands in the way: At least half of its public school districts don’t yet have the necessary technology.” Also in Spotlight: a new bill sponsored by Sen. Teresa Ruiz would pilot a program in 25 districts to extend the school year and the school day.

The Hunterdon County Democrat notes that of the 107 New Jersey districts who volunteer to accept students from outside district boundaries through the state’s Interdistrict Public School Choice Program, 20% of them are in Hunterdon County. A Stockton school administrator says that the parents of choice students are “involved and dedicated…The choice students may benefit from a school that better fits their needs, but she thinks the districts also benefit from greater diversity and more state aid — $161,473 here — that allows the choice school to expand programs.”

A new federal grant will fund a merit pay program for teachers in four NJ districts: Asbury Park, Lakewood, Hillside, and North Plainfield.  (Star-Ledger)

The Burlington County Times looks at the costs of educating special needs students and some efficiencies realized by the Special Services School District.  (Here's my post this week at WHYY Newsworks on the more general topic of NJ's special education costs.)

The Hamilton School Board, says The Trentonian, is striving to move beyond the corruption scandal involving Mayor John Bencivengo and the district’s former insurance broker.

From Central Jersey: "The Perth Amboy Board of Education met Saturday afternoon in a special session to again take action concerning Superintendent of Schools Dr. Janine Walker Caffrey, whom they had originally put on administrative leave last April."

In case you missed it: here's my column in NJ Spotlight on the three reports issued over the last three years from Christie Administration's Education Task Force.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Camden School Board Shoots Down All Urban Hope Act Proposals

In what the local media are calling a “surprise move,” the Camden School Board rejected all applicants who proposed building and running new schools under the recently-legislated Urban Hope Act.

Here’s coverage from NJ Spotlight, the Courier-Post, and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The Urban Hope Act, passed early this year, allows non-profits to build up to four new schools in Camden, Trenton, and Newark. The schools will essentially function as charter schools. Interestingly, the Act was supported by NJEA but virulently opposed by Education Law Center and Save our Schools-NJ, creating one of the first (if not the first) wedge issue among the three typically-allied organizations.

Four groups applied to the Camden School Board. This week, three were voted down by all members in a closed session: Ben Franklin Academy, Camden Center for Youth Development, and Universal Company. No surprises there: the most promising application was from KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy. Here’s what I wrote about it in August:
The proposed school, the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, will be run by the highly-regarded KIPP TEAM group in Newark and will feature extended school days and "a vigorous college prep program." There's guaranteed enrollment for all children in the catchment area, including those with disabilities. Doctors and nurses from Cooper University Hospital and med students from the Medical School of Rowan University Hospital will act as mentors to the school's students.
Here's the surprise: The Camden School Board members (all appointed by Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd, an ardent supporter of the Urban Hope Act), split into two factions on the highly-regarded KIPP proposal, four in favor, four against. And then, reports the Inquirer,
The tipping ‘no’ vote came from city attorney Brian Turner, a rookie board member who often sits quiet at meetings. Turner arrived to the board just before the vote-- almost six hours after the meeting had started -- and voted down all proposals. As he walked out, I asked him why he voted the way he did but he declined to comment. 
Cooper University Chief of Staff Louis S. Bezich sat through the entire meeting and was shocked to hear the board’s decision. 
The board’s vote “was not consistent with the process,” Bezich said, referring to Kipp’s scoring on the rubric. 
“It seems like a rejection of the Urban Hope Act and not just our proposal,” Bezich said. Asked what the group’s plan is now, he said: “We’re going to have to talk to the state and school board officials.”
Clearly this was about politics, not about what’s best for Camden’s students, currently relegated to drop-out factories and dysfunction. Stay tuned for reaction from the DOE.

Here's An Example of Seniority-Based Bumping Rights

In Trenton Public Schools, reports the Trenton Times, Monica Carmichael has directed the early childhood development program since 2008, apparently to great acclaim. (About 2,000 kids attend public preschools in Trenton.) But Carmichael will no longer head the program because another director in the district has more seniority than she does.

Everene Downing was  the district’s Director of Affirmative Action and Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying. But that position was eliminated.  Downing has more time served as a director in the district, so she gets Carmichael's job. Carmichael  will remain employed by Trenton, but will report to Downing.

From the Times:
Carmichael has been the assistant director since 2008, and co-workers and private child care providers showered her with praise Monday night, saying she brought leadership and stability to a program that accounts for more than 2,070 pre-kindergarten students who attend preschools across district schools and in privately run day care facilities.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

QOD: The Injustice of Local Control

Matt Miller, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, examines the school funding inequities between wealthy suburban districts and neighboring inner cities:
Lost in the clash between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis is an injustice whose remedy would do more to improve schools in the Windy City than anything to which the two sides just agreed.

I’m talking about the uniquely American local system of school finance -- one that dooms millions of poor children to the least-qualified teachers and most run-down facilities in the country. No other wealthy nation tolerates the funding disparities between rich and poor districts that the U.S. does. Even conservatives in other countries agree that poor kids need greater investment to overcome disadvantage. Yet calling attention to this scandal is taboo in American politics because it hides behind the mask of “local control.”

Confronting the High Costs of Special Education in NJ

My WHYY Newsworks post this week looks at New Jersey's high costs associated with special education, specifically our habit of sending children with disabilities to out-of-district placements. This month's release of the Christie Administration's Education Transformation Task Force Report adds a sense of urgency to finding ways to mitigate costs while adhering to special education law:
In fact, the last Report takes on the complex issue of special education. Here, instead of recommending diminution of the DOE's oversight, the Task Force recommends that the DOE take a much stronger role, particularly with regulating the tuition increases charged by N.J.'s healthy industry of private special education schools.
Read the whole thing here.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Education Reform as a Healthy Ecosystem

In today’s New York Times, David Brooks reminisces about the good old days when the Republican Party was a fusion of two different types of conservatives. Brooks describes the first type as an “economic conservative:” “They spent a lot of time worrying about the way government intrudes upon economic liberty. They upheld freedom as their highest political value. They admired risk-takers. They worried that excessive government would create a sclerotic nation with a dependent populace.”

But the GOP tent embraced a differently-minded conservative as well,  the “traditional conservative" who  “didn’t see society as a battleground between government and the private sector. Instead, the traditionalist wanted to preserve a society that functioned as a harmonious ecosystem, in which the different layers were nestled upon each other: individual, family, company, neighborhood, religion, city government and national government.”

In those halcyon days the Republican Party represented a robust and well-rounded set of values. Now, says Brooks, GOP leaders are composed only of economic conservatives, deriding the second “traditional” type for encouraging (inter)dependence.  That loss of perspective has reduced the GOP to a party that has nothing to say about social order, nothing to offer groups that value a more complex world, particularly those who place great importance on family (like Hispanics) or “the less educated half of this country.” Ergo, you get a presidential nominee like Mitt Romney, who stakes his platform on stripping down government services and slashing aid to those in need.

I love Brooks’ description of the archetypal conservative who is driven by the concept of society as “a harmonious ecosystem” nestled with the layers of personal and governmental support. In contrast,  the current Republican Party is monotonic, anorexic in perspective.
This is also a way of describing the argument between education traditionalists and education reformers.  Many traditionalists campaign for a singular and uniform public school system, all children served by one entity. But, say reform advocates, a mature and high-functioning public school ecosystem should comprise various interacting layers that integrate governmental oversight and support along with independently-minded alternatives, all bound together in service to student growth.

One good example of this would be school choice, which  has a particular resonance in New Jersey because of the rhetoric that characterizes non-traditional schools as a detriment to suburban districts. But if we follow along with Brooks, our  school system should offer a variety of elements – traditional schools, charter schools, blended online schools – all linked together in service to students. In this utopia there’s no “battle between government and private sector,” no anti-choicers shrieking about corrupt hedge fund managers or drained school funds or intrusive governmental oversight. Just a healthy, harmonious ecosystem that respects its various layers.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Quote of the Day

The New York Times looks at “the ruptured relationship between teachers’ unions and Democrats like Rahm Emanuel” and the consequential shift in where the unions are putting their campaign contribution. While Democratic politicians still get a big share of the money, this year the proportion of money going to Republicans, including Tea Partiers, increased by a fair margin:
Over the past few years, lawmakers who have previously been considered solid supporters of teachers’ unions have tangled with them over a national education agenda that includes new performance evaluations based partly on test scores, the overhaul of tenure and the expansion of charter schools. 
As these traditional political alliances have shifted, teachers’ unions have pursued some strange bedfellows among lawmakers who would not appear to be natural allies.

Mapping the Christie Education Agenda (plus, special ed)

Check out my column today at NJ Spotlight, which reviews the Christie Administration's education agenda in light of the three reports (the last one just issued) from the Education Transformation Task Force. Which initiatives can be checked off the list, which are unresolved, and which have been conceded? And what to make of the last report's preoccupation with NJ's  special education system?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Sunday Leftovers

Lakewood Public Schools falsified graduation rate data in order to secure a $6 million SIG grant. Now, according to the Asbury Park Press, Acting Schools Superintendent Laura A. Winters said she learned from a state Department of Education official on Aug. 31, right before the opening of school, that “we were ineligible for the grant.” In the signed and notarized grant and application, which required a graduation rate of less than 60%, Lakewood administrators listed the graduation rate of Lakewood High as 37.6%. Lakewood's graduation rate is actually slightly over 70%. (NJ Monthly ranks it as the 5th worst high school in the state, although still not eligible for that SIG grant.)

The Record reports that Morris County now has 10 school districts participating in the NJ Interdistrict Public School Choice Program, which allows children in neighboring districts to attend other public schools. Those districts are Boonton, Butler, Mine Hill, Morris Hills Regional, Morris Plains, Morris, Mount Olive, Netcong, Pequannock, and Wharton. Mine Hill has participated since the program’s inception. The superintendent there, Dennis Mack, said, "We've had no disciplinary issues, the children have a chance to interact with children from other areas and the financial aspect has kept the school solid."

The Star-Ledger reports on the NJ DOE’s renewed focus on early childhood education.

An Asbury Park Press editorial critiques Ed. Comm. Chris Cerf’s education plans, lauding his focus on charter school expansion and increased accountability in failing districts and lambasting Gov. Christie for having “waged war against the teachers union and school spending” and portraying  “an educational system failing its students, a system in need of a dramatic overhaul featuring a fresh landscape of charter schools, vouchers and a statewide teaching population receiving lower salaries and cleansed of large numbers of its worst performers.” That, says the Press, was “a lie.”

NJ Spotlight listens in on the subject of superintendent salary caps:a "lawyers for the three superintendents and the New Jersey Association of School Administrators argued that while the Legislature empowered the administration to review and approve superintendent contracts to save money, it never intended the stark limits imposed by regulation in February 2011.”

The Press of Atlantic City reports on the “complete transformation of school cultures” at Pleasantville Public Schools because of the benefits of the anti-bullying law.

NJ Spotlight and the Star-Ledger report on a new bill, sponsored by Sen. Loretta Weinberg, that would tighten up the waivers given to parents who don’t want their children vaccinated.
NJ Charter School Association is teaming up with VIVA Teachers to give teachers a voice in education policy. Go here for details.

Eugene Robinson (here in the Daily Journal) protests society’s penchant for blaming all of its “manifold sins and wickedness on ‘teachers unions,’ as if it were possible to separate these supposedly evil organizations from the dedicated public servants who belong to them.” He continues, “Sorry to be so gauche, but when teachers point out the relationship between income and achievement, they’re not shirking responsibility. They’re just stating an inconvenient truth.”

The Washington Post examines Pres. Obama’s education record: "In 3 1 / 2 years in office, President Obama has set in motion a broad overhaul of public education from kindergarten through high school, largely bypassing Congress and inducing states to adopt landmark changes that none of his predecessors attempted.”

Ed Money Watch examines Gov. Romney’s education proposal to fungify (is that a word?) Title 1 and IDEA funding so families could use it for vouchers at private schools.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Cost Per Pupil in 6 NJ Poor Urban School Districts

One slide from Comm. Cerf’s powerpoint at yesterday's Convocation (see post below) is titled “Education spending in high-need districts exceeds statewide average.” I don’t know if that’s a salvo aimed critics of NJ's school funding who argue that we don’t spend enough on poor urban school districts or if the slide is meant to be  purely informational. Take your pick. Anyway, here’s what the DOE considers to be “Total Per Pupil Spending for 2010-2011” in 6 high-needs districts:

Newark:                 $21,706
Camden:                $22,306
Paterson:               $19,042
Trenton:                $20,340
Elizabeth:               $19,170
Jersey City:            $22,397
State Average:       $17,352

Cerf Convocation: NJ's Latest Test Scores

The big NJ education story today is yesterday’s Convocation at Jackson Liberty High School, featuring Ed. Comm. Chris Cerf, his management team, and 400 members of the NJ Association of School Administrators. Here’s coverage from NJ Spotlight, the Courier Post (which ran on the AP wire), and two stories from the Star-Ledger (here and here). NJ Spotlight also has Cerf’s powerpoint.

I wasn’t there, but judging by the coverage, Comm. Cerf’s team appeared hard-working and intact (although current Asst. Comm. nd Chief Performance Officer Penny MacCormack is leaving next month to be superintendent of Montclair Public Schools). NJ’s new seven Regional Achievement Centers, created to offer intense support for our 253 Focus and Priority schools, are up and running. NJ SMART, the DOE’s data base, is upgraded and pretty close to being able to link individual student growth to teachers. And the DOE has set state benchmarks for student achievement, an opportunity engendered by our waiver from the Feds from the (impossible) benchmarks of No Child Left Behind.

From the Courier Post:
The state now wants every school district to cut the percentage of students failing standardized tests in half by 2017. Each school has annual goals to increase their passage rates for each test to reach the larger target. But schools where at least 90 percent of students pass will not be docked for not having their scores rise.
Maybe that’s not impossible. But it’s going to be a stretch. At the Convocation, Comm. Cerf also announced the state’s most recent test scores. Elementary and middle school students scored 65.9 percent proficient in language arts – slightly down from 2009 -- , and 75.3 percent proficient in math, on the NJ-ASK test, pretty much the same from 2009. On the high school assessment, the HSPA, 91% of students were proficient in language arts; in math, 75.3% were proficient, slightly better than 2009.  Not bad, and encouraging in elementary and middle school language arts. But that achievement gap? From the Star-Ledger:
Regarding the achievement gap, the difference between wealthy and poor students narrowed slightly at the high school level, according to the data. On the NJ-ASK the gap remained about the same or widened slightly, however, between both poor and more well-off students, and between white students and either African-American or Hispanic students.
For both Comm. Cerf and Gov. Christie, there's much  credibility riding on those Regional Achievement Centers, which will pour resources into the 11% of NJ's schools labeled Focus or Priority, all in an effort to address chronically low student achievement. Of course, in turn there will be plenty of pressure on those schools to make academic progress: for some, Title 1 funding and local control is on the line.  In the end, it will come down to numbers, to output, to value-added data. I'm not sure if that's a good or bad thing.

Restricting Tenure to "Master Teachers"

A NJ educator, Dr. Michael Hoban, proposes a merit pay system in today’s NJ Spotlight in which only “Master Teachers” get tenure and, then, are compensated at the same level as principals:
Some thoughts on the master teacher (MT):
•    One can become an MT only after seven years of outstanding teaching (at any grade level) plus a suitable master’s degree.
•    A teacher must apply for MT status -- it is not automatic. A good teacher may choose to continue to teach in a district for many years and never apply for MT status. And that is acceptable.
•    If a teacher is promoted to MT status, he/she receives tenure and is paid on a scale comparable to that of a school principal.
•    Only master teachers earn tenure in a district -- no other teachers or administrators.

New Newsworks Post

My post today at WHYY Newsworks looks at this month's  release of a report from the Christie Administration's Education Transformation Task Force and, more specifically, two issues that pervade NJ's conversation about how to improve our public school system: LIFO and DOE oversight. Read it here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Chicago and Newark; Emmanuel and Booker

The similarities between Chicago and Newark are eerie. Both cities have outspoken Democratic, reform-minded mayors at the helm (Rahm Emmanuel and Cory Booker respectively) who ardently advocate for educational equity. Both Emmanuel and Booker support merit pay (see yesterday’s great piece by Lisa Fleisher in the Wall St. Journal and today’s Star-Ledger), in addition to supporting the linkage of  teacher evaluations to student growth, charter school expansion, and eliminating seniority-based lay-offs. Both mayors are “rising stars” within the party. Booker got a slot at the DNC Convention earlier this month and is reportedly eying a U.S. Senate seat.  Emmanuel would have also spoken at the DNC if he hadn’t been heading an Obama PAC (a position he no longer holds). Both mayors consistently echo President Obama’s education agenda.

There are big differences too, of course. Chicago’s school system enrolls over 350,000 kids,  almost ten times as many as Newark’s. Newark has an extra $100 million to work with from Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook donation, not to mention the momentum and media garnered by that grant. And Newark is an affiliate of AFT while the Chicago Education Association is part of NEA. Chicago's cost per pupil is $13,078; Newark's is (depending upon whom you ask) about $18,000.

Speaking of merit pay and mayoral support, Joseph Del Grosso, president of the Newark Teachers Union, just aligned himself with Cory Booker and appears to have the support of his membership. Del Grosso told the Wall St. Journal,
"It's been used in the private sector effectively, and it's something that we should try to use effectively here," Mr. Del Grosso said of merit pay. "I see no reason for a union to not want pay for their members."
On the other hand, NJEA Spokesman Steve Wollner told the Star-Ledger that merit pay "subjective" and "disruptive to an inherently collaborative profession.” The Wall St. Journal quotes Wollner on merit pay systems:
"they’re destructive of morale, they create a competitive and confrontational and negative environment within schools. And there's never enough money, and it's usually administered unfairly. Other than that, it's a great idea."
In Chicago, the School Board and Mayor Emmanuel had initially tried to negotiate merit pay, but their most recent offer conceded  the issue. Then the delegates rejected the offer anyway;  CEA President Karen Lewis is approaching Romney-esque levels of obfuscation; she effectively received a vote of no-confidence after recommending a settlement rejected by her membership.

(From Intercepts: “We believe this is a good contract, however, no contract will solve all of the inequities in our District.” – Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, in a September 15th news release.

“This is not a good deal by any stretch of the imagination.” – Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, during a September 16th news conference.)

Meanwhile, Chicago’s kids are still out of school, the union president looks weak, and the delegates look greedy. In Newark, the teachers' union looks proactive and open to reasonable reforms,, advocating for both increased compensation for its members and a better teachers for kids. On top of that, Del Grosso appears willing to buck the much larger and stronger NJEA.

How will Emmanuel's prospects be affected by the Chicago strike? Hard to say, although as the days go on the CTU, or at least its delegates, appear more craven and opportunistic. In contrast, the Newark Teachers Union president's support for merit pay makes the union and the city's mayor look good.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Sunday Leftovers

The Times of Trenton profiles Morris Plains School District, which is participating in the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program. This program allows children to cross district boundaries to attend other neighboring public schools, if their neighbors are willing.  From the article: "'It’s a tremendous way to improve local programs and generate revenue,' said Morris Plains Superintendent Ernest Palestis, who said the district hopes to enroll 36 choice students in 2013, which could bring in $450,000 a year. “'It’s very difficult for a school in an environment that’s (budget) capped. Choice gives us a welcome revenue source.'”

The Asbury Park Press reports that legal bills for the Freehold Regional High School District are now up to $247,446 as the Board attempts to wrest tenure away from Manalapan High School Principal Jeff Simon. Simon allegedly misused funds and compromised student safety.

Leslie Brody has a great piece in The Record on the Chicago teachers’ strike and the implications for New Jersey.
The Joint Committee for the Public Schools held a special session to study online education, reports NJ Spotlight, and reacted skeptically, citing concerns about socialization, funding, teacher training, and cheating. Also see Spotlight for analysis of the new teacher evaluation pilot.

The Courier Post applauds NJ's anti-bullying bill, but says the State should fund it adequately: "For most school districts, the state aid allotted for implementation of the program isn’t nearly enough to cover the costs of doing it right. With few exceptions, the aid is a pittance. But the costs, which a school boards association survey said ranged from $64 to $70,000, are relatively modest given the return on the investment. Many school districts have found low-impact ways of shifting resources to anti-bullying measures."

Steven Fulop, Jersey City Councilman and mayor-hopeful, writes in this op-ed in  the Star-Ledger that he’s feeling hopeful about the troubled school system because of “alliances that haven’t been seen anywhere else in the state”: “The teachers’ union partnered with reform-minded voting blocks to elect, with record numbers, an almost entirely new board of education that the governor has felt comfortable to work with on urban education issues. The dynamics have not always been perfect, but we can certainly say that parents, teachers and the governor have played crucial and productive roles in changing the course of the city’s educational system.”

Here’s a provocative piece in the Wall St. Journal by Joseph Epstein about the Chicago strike, which includes this analysis: “Nobody likes to mention it, but grammar and high-school teaching took a terrific hit from feminism. So many of the superior grammar and high-school teachers of the past were women—women, to be sure, who had little else open to them in the way of occupational choice. Now, with feminism having led the way, women are free to join the wider workforce and try to avoid becoming second-rate lawyers, otiose psychotherapists and real-estate salesmen. Ah, the old choreography of progress: one step forward, two steps back.”

New Jersey School Boards Association has a thorough overview of the new report from the Christie Administration's Education Transformation Task Force. Education Law Center says that the recommendations in the report eliminate critical safeguards for NJ's students.

The Fordham Foundation issued a report called “Boosting the Quality and Efficiency of Special Education,” an object of considerable interest in the education community. Here’s one of the “bottom lines” cited in the report: “School districts across the country spend and staff at markedly different levels to serve students with special needs—a level of variation that is nearly twice as large as that of general education staffing. Furthermore, the variation is not explained by differences in student demographics or total per-pupil spending.” Also see this piece in the Wall St. Journal.

Today's New York Times Magazine is devoted to education.