Friday, May 31, 2013

QOD: Former NJ Guvs' Greatest Regret: Fixing Urban Education

From Mark Magyar on a Governors' Summit held yesterday in Newark:
The biggest regret for New Jersey’s former governors is their inability to fundamentally improve the quality of urban education during their time in office, despite spending more money per student than any other state… 
[Jim] McGreevey, who noted that he counsels incarcerated women who can’t read, said “Frankly, if education was failing so miserably for white affluent children, we would have had a revolution. There are best practices, and we know what works and what doesn’t work. The problem is we are tied to a system that is ossified and preserves the status quo at the expense of entrepreneurial efforts. And when you see what Mayor Bloomberg has done in New York City, you see that we need more experimentation.”

NJ State Legislature Likes Two Bills That Will Cost School Districts More Money

My post today at WHYY's Newsworks considers union-backed two bills coasting through the NJ State Legislature. One confers tenure-like protection on non-tenured employees like cafeteria aides, security guards, and bus drivers. The other hobbles school boards' abilities to save money by outsourcing non-instructional functions.
Here's the good news: New Jersey is lurching forward on issues that impede our public school system. Joining a growing number of other states in the country (including Pennsylvania and Delaware), we've reformed tenure, implemented a system of teacher evaluations partially based on student outcomes, and signed on to a more rigorous national curriculum called the Common Core. All these initiatives are intended to protect our best teachers and raise professional and scholastic standards. Ultimately, they're about providing academic excellence to all schoolchildren.

Here's the bad news: the New Jersey Legislature seems intent on spending its time proffering ill-conceived legislation that has nothing to do with academic excellence or schoolchildren.  One example is Assembly Patrick Diegnan's charter school proposal. (See last week's column.) And now two other bills, not new but garnering new momentum, are working their way through the Statehouse.
Read the rest here.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

NJ DOE Amends Race to the Top Application

Check out NJ Spotlight’s update on New Jersey’s progress towards implementing the promises made in our (third time’s the charm) winning application to the federal government for $38 million in Race to the Top funds. Among those promises is one that assures the Feds that the NJ DOE's data system, NJ SMART, will be brought up to snuff. (For background see this two-year old status report from Jun Choi.)

Progress on our improvement plan outlined in our RTTT application has been, well, a bit rocky.  The Spotlight article links to three confirmations from the U.S. DOE that allow us to amend our application, mostly be extending timelines and shifting money around. The most substantive, at least in terms of budgeting, is the third amendment. This one allows the DOE to shift about $1.2 million from a line item called "Funding for Involved LEA's" (or local districts) to addressing  weaknesses in NJ SMART, our "Instructional Improvement System:"
The State will shift a total of $1,229,803.75 from Years 2-4 of the Funding for Involved LEAs category to fund a team of employees and contractors who will manage the development and implementation of the IIS [Instructional Improvement System]. These funds were originally intended to provide sub-grants to involved LEAs for technology upgrades and incentives to support subscription to the IIS. However, based on lessons learned from the implementation of a smaller scale version of the IIS in Year 1, as well as best practice research on other States’ IIS implementation, the State determined it required significantly more capacity to complete the approved IIS projects on time and with high quality. The approach change does not preclude any Involved LEAs from subscribing to the IIS. The State will support involved LEAs with $270,196 that remains in the budget category in Years 2-4.
It’s no secret that the NJ DOE’s data processing capabilities – the backbone of a data-driven student and teacher evaluation system – has a history of inadequacy. Here, apparently, the DOE is making a bigger-than-expected investment in “development and implementation” of our Instruction Improvement System, or our technological tools that analyze student and teacher assessments.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

What's the Link Between School Choice and Segregation?

Do charter schools “cream off” higher-performing students from more motivated familiesand, thus, harm traditional public schools? A new analysis from Matthew M. Chingos at the Brookings Institute, “Does Expanding School Choice Increase Segregation?”  finds that the evidence is, at best, murky.
Charter critics point to reports showing differences in the demographic characteristics of charter school students and their counterparts in traditional public schools as evidence that choice leads to segregation…But any comparison of the demographics of students in charter and traditional public schools provides at best an incomplete picture of segregation because segregation resulting from school choice policies would occur primarily across schools, not within schools.
In fact, concludes Chingos, there is “little relationship between these two factors, and a regression analysis confirms that this is the case. There is actually a slight positive (and statistically significant) relationship between choice and diversity, but it is very weak and is not also found in the free-lunch data.”

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Are Wealthy White Kids Over-Diagnosed with Autism? Are We Cheating Poor Minority Children?

A new study out from the Journal of Special Education (hat tip, Christina Samuels) finds that there is a “disproportionate representation” of white children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. While fifteen years ago (1998-1999) black children were overrepresented as autistic in American classrooms,  that number has decreased every year. Now, black children are far less likely than any other race – Asian , white, American Indian, Hispanic – to be classified as eligible for autism services.

Less and less, race is a proxy for socio-economic levels. But there's still some correlation and that correlation appears to exist in this study, which also reports that Asian students are now almost as likely to be diagnosed with autism as white students. In other words, white and Asian children are now twice as likely to be labeled "autistic" as black, Hispanic, and American Indian children.

The study is important on two levels. First, New Jersey has long had the reputation of disproportionately classifying poor and minority students – especially African-American boys -- as eligible for special education services. (Camden Central High School, for example, classifies a full third of their students as  meeting the qualifications for one of the dozen or so different disabilities that result in eligibility for special education services.) This trend of overclassifying black boys is  often ascribed to incentives like extra state and federal aid available for kids with disabilities,  the lack of other ways to provide  (necessary) extra services engendered by poverty, not disability, and NCLB-related concerns about lowering school-wide standardized test scores. (A small percentage of kids with disabilities are allowed to take alternative portfolio-like assessments.)

But the trendlines for autism are different than those for other disabilities.

There’s a sense, I: suppose, in which autism is a designer disorder. For reasons that escape me, a label of “autism” seems to have far more cachet than a label of “multiply-disabled” or “preschool handicapped.”*  The diagnosis process itself involves lots of tests and doctors and, sometimes, savvy advocacy from parents.  Standard treatments for autism (Applied Behavioral Analysis in particular) are expensive and hard to implement in a standard public school day. It's cheaper for a public school to provide services for kid with labels like "learning disabled" or "cognitively impaired" or "emotionally disturbed."  (Witness the thriving industry in NJ of private schools that serve kids with autism.)

There’s research on this.  A paper from the Department of Preventive Medicine and Community Health at New Jersey Medical School reports that in NJ, autism spectrum disorders are diagnosed in 17.2 cases per 1000 children in homes with median incomes above $90K and only in 7.1 cases per 1000 children in homes with median incomes less than $30K.  Also see “Socioeconomic Inequality in the Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder: Evidence from a US Cross-Sectional Study,” which notes that “as parental education and wealth increase, the chance that a child with autism will receive an accurate diagnosis also increases. A number of investigators and recent reviews of the epidemiology of autism have concluded that any association observed between autism risk and SES has been due to such bias.”

And, by the way, a  2003 study of Camden City found that Camden’s rate of autism among schoolchildren was half that of NJ’s average.

Are we accurately diagnosing wealthier children with autism (rates in NJ now stand at the really scary 1 in 49 kids) and underdiagnosing poorer children? Or are we overdiagnosing wealthier children and underdiagnosing poorer children? Is there something in the water in Short Hills that’s damaging young children’s neurology?  Or does navigating NJ’s special education labyrinth, especially the autism maze, require more resources and advocacy skill than those available to families in Trenton?

*Full disclosure: my youngest son has Fragile X Syndrome, which can cause behaviors similar to autism and, in a minority of cases, causes severe autism. We've been luckier than that,  but Caleb has “autistic-like” symptoms and is regarded as “on the spectrum.” It’s complicated. Technically he’s classified as “Other Health Impaired.”

Friday, May 24, 2013

Controversial Charter Bill Introduced in NJ Assembly, or, The Diegnan Trigger

My column today at WHYY's Newsworks looks at the new  Assembly bill which intends to update NJ's charter school laws. The bill includes a controversial element that would make charter school approval contingent on local votes. This mechanism serves as a sort of reverse "parent trigger," bestowing authorizing power on local lobbying efforts rather than educational authorities.

(Nice irony there: the Parent Trigger movement intends to empower parents to force closings of chronically failing traditional schools, usually in favor of a charter. The Diegnan Trigger intends to empower parents to shut down charter activity in New Jersey.)

As the New Jersey State Legislature stumbles through the politically-fraught process of rewriting our 1995 charter school law, one big piece of news broke this week. NJ Spotlight reports that State Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex), Chair of the Assembly Education Committee, has formally introduced his charter school bill, A-4177.

Everyone acknowledges that N.J.'s current charter school law is badly flawed. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, which ranks all states' charter school legislation, places us 31st out of the 42 states with charter school laws. If timing is everything, then Assemblyman Diegnan's bill is a winner. Except for this: he's insisting on including an element that NJ Spotlight yesterday called a "deal breaker."
Read the rest here.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

QOD: Diegnan Drops Charter School Law Requiring Local Community Vote

From today's NJ Spotlight, regarding news that Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex) has introduced his (flawed) charter school bill:
Diegnan chairs the Assembly’s education committee and is the lower chamber's most prominent voice on school policy, so his vision for overseeing charters carries a lot of weight with its Democratic leadership. His latest bill contains a few of the ideas he's been espousing for the better part of a year… It also pushes one of his more controversial positions: local voter approval of all new or expanded charters…[Senator Teresa] Ruiz [Chair of the Senate Education Committee and working herself on a highly-anticipated charter school law proposal] has shown no support for local approval of charters, and she has pressed for multiple authorizing organizations outside the state Department of Education.

Should the State Be Subsidizing Yeshivas and Seminaries?

The Christie Administration, reports the Star-Ledger, is “refusing to release copies of applications filed by two religious institutions set to receive public dollars for campus building projects.” Those two religious institutions are Beth Medrash Govoha, a men’s-only Jewish yeshiva in Lakewood that Jewish Week describes as “fervently Orthodox.” The other is Princeton Theological Seminary, a Christian coed school.

The schools are two of 176 that were awarded $1.3 billion in funds ($750 million from a taxpayer referendum) by the State Office of Higher Education. Beth Medrash Govoha received  $10.6 million to construct a library/research center and academic center. Princeton Theological Seminary received $645,313 for technology upgrades.

The yeshiva’s award is the second largest of all the awards. Seton Hall University, which has no discriminatory admissions criteria, will receive $11.7 million.

The Star-Ledger filed an Open Public Records Act request to the State Secretary of Higher Education to look at the applications. The request was denied. The awards have been challenged (unsuccessfully) by the ACLU. Ed Barocas, ACLU-NJ's Executive Director, said, "The public has the right to know how the determinations are made when you’re talking about spending $1.3 billion."

The $600K to Princeton Theological Seminary is a drop in the bucket. It’s the award to Beth Medrash Govoha that is inciting protest.  Should the State be subsidizing religious institutions?  How about schools that only accept men?  How about only Jewish men? How about only Orthodox Jewish men who have spent their lives studying Talmud?

And, of course, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the yeshiva is in Lakewood, home to a public school system that spends $20 million a year bussing yeshiva kids to private schools while providing a substandard education to public school kids, almost all of whom are Black and Hispanic.

Beth Medrash has no website. (Here's PTS's.) And here’s a few details from Wikipedia regarding admissions requirements:
Beth Medrash Govoha is a post-graduate institution and the general age of entry for new students is about 22. A level of analytic skill and comprehension in understanding the Talmud is required to the extent that a student is be able to study a subject from the starting point all the way to the most complex areas of that subject on his own. The yeshiva does not have a remedial program for weak or unprepared students, and reaching the level required to be a successful student at the yeshiva takes several years of intense, full-time study. As such, in general, only students that have already studied in an undergraduate level yeshiva geared for students aged 18–22, will be accepted.

Monday, May 20, 2013

NJ Legislature Update: Tenure Protection for all Public School Employees and Restrictions on Out-Sourcing

Today the NJ Assembly is scheduled to vote on A-3696, which would provide tenure-like protection to all public school employees, including teaching assistants, bus drivers, security guards, and food service staff. The bill has already passed the Senate. According to New Jersey School Boards Association,
The measure would give such non-teaching employees the right to submit to binding arbitration virtually any disciplinary action imposed on them, including reprimands, withholding of increments, lack of continuation of employment, or the termination or non-renewal of an employment contract. The bill includes language that grants employees the right to submit to binding arbitration, regardless of any negotiated or contractual provision to the contrary and irrespective of the reasoning behind a school district’s action.

NJSBA opposes the bill because it limits school districts' ability to “effectively manage employee conduct and performance.” Then again, NJSBA also opposes S-968, which the Senate also passed last week. This "union-backed bill" undermines "a public agency’s ability to subcontract services by imposing numerous restrictions and requirements on the process." It would require districts to bargain with unions over any subcontracting and disallow outsourcing during the life of a current contract.

New Jersey Education Association supports both these bills.The union rejoiced after the Senate Assembly Education Committee passed the proposed legislation:
Legislators were persuaded by the testimony they heard, as well as by the calls and emails from NJEA members.  “We keep hearing about savings as a reason to oppose the bill,” said Asm. Patrick Diegnan Chair the Assembly Education Committee. “Who knows better ways to find economies than the people who do the job? All this bill does is require the parties to negotiate.”

That sentiment was echoed by Asm. Herb Conaway, a primary sponsor of the bill.  “Those agreements are sacrosanct and should not be broken,” he said. “When privatization is considered, both sides should be able to sit down and negotiate.”

Asm. Ralph Caputo got right to the heart of the matter.  “Our kids have relationships with these people, and we have to understand that.  Safety and a quality education come from more people than the teacher.”

Charter School Models for NJ: Learning From Michigan

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Michael Van Beek from Michigan’s Mackinac Center for Public Policy looks at a recent study from Stanford University’s Center on Education Outcomes (CREDO), which analyzes charter school outcomes in Michigan. Writes Van Beek, “[o]nly 6% of charters are underperforming in math and only 2% in reading. Further, 82% of charters produced growth in average reading test scores and 72% did so in math.”

What’s different about Michigan’s model for charter schools?
Michigan allows a variety of public entities to authorize charter schools, the most common being universities and community colleges. This frees charter schools from needing school-district approval to operate, which is like requiring new businesses to ask existing competitors for permission to open. By allowing more charters than most states, Michigan has developed a functional charter-school market, so much so that lawmakers recently took the bold step of removing the charter-school cap altogether.
Van Beek also notes that some media have distorted this most recent CREDO study by claiming that the research doesn't include all charter schools in Michigan; "in fact, the study included 86% of all charter-school students in the state and remains the most comprehensive and rigorous study of Michigan charter schools.”

Outcomes were similarly positive in Detroit, where 47% of the adult population is functionally illiterate: “Of the 100 or so charters in Detroit, 47% did significantly better than conventional schools in reading and 49% did significantly better in math. Only one charter school in Detroit did worse in reading compared with the city's district-run schools.”

No doubt it’s helpful that Michigan’s charter schools aren’t subject to traditional tenure laws, like  the policy of retaining teachers during lay-offs based solely on seniority.

This piece is relevant to New Jersey, specifically the current debate about our charter school law reform. I wrote recently in NJ Spotlight about the (leaked) draft of new charter school legislation proposed by Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan. Assemblyman Diegnan would subject all aspiring charter schools to a community referendum, a model that doesn’t exist in any other state in the country. As Michigan shows us (and research confirms), a system of multiple authorizers provides students, particularly those in poor urban communities, with a shot at equitable educational opportunities.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Sunday Leftovers

NJEA has formed a super-PAC called Garden State Forward. The PAC will raise money for gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono and other politicians of like minds. The union also just elected new officers.

Politi-Fact's verdict on the veracity of  Gov. Christie new campaign ad is mixed;  Christie is correct to say that education spending is higher than ever, say the judges, but it's only half-true that he’s managed to implement merit pay.

The Courier-Post: “Mayor Dana Redd has filled the last two remaining seats on the Camden Board of Education.Jose Brito Bueno will serve a three-year expired term held by Raymond Lamboy and Taisha Minier will serve a one-year unexpired term held by former board member Kathryn Ribay.”

NJ Spotlight reports that Commissioner Cerf has, for the first time, reversed a district’s decision that student misbehavior violated NJ’s anti-bullying act: “In a decision handed down in late April and posted last week, Cerf found that the Pittsgrove school district’s charge against an eighth-grade student identified as C.H. ran counter to the new law. The student had been accused of bullying after a February 2012 incident in which he shoved a piece of crumpled paper down a classmate’s shirt.”

Mike Lilley, Chief of Better Education for Kids,comments on Jersey City’s next mayor, Steve Fulop, who ran against the old Democratic machine (which includes the JC Teachers Union) and won:
“The voters have said yes to the positive change that Mayor-elect Steve Fulop will bring; yes to better schools; and yes to a brighter future for Jersey City,” the group’s executive director, Mike Lilley, said in a statement. “As mayor, we are confident Fulop will continue to work to improve the Jersey City public school system and make sure that every schoolchild has access to a great school and a great education.”
Here's some of the dirt from the Star-Ledger.

Laura C. Morana,  superintendent of Red Bank Borough schools, reflects on her district’s experience during the pilot of AchieveNJ, NJ’s new data-informed teacher evaluation system:
It is easy to say, “there is so much to do, there is so much to be learned,” and to simply throw our hands in the air. Recently I put myself in our teachers’ shoes in order to understand their perspective. I dug in with some of our best teachers and challenged myself to learn about how they would set the growth objectives for their students. While this forced me out of my comfort zone, I found the process to be meaningful, rewarding, and invigorating.
A new report out from Rutgers considers the effort involved in training administrators to implement the new evaluation rubrics. “The report's lead author, William Firestone, said in an interview yesterday that the report details the extensive amount of time needed to get all parties up to speed, both on the new procedures and on the broader concept of pinpointing the qualities of good teaching.”

A physically-handicapped student from Perth Amboy says she’s being deprived of opportunities to take honors classes at the district’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Academy because there are no elevators available.

Andy Rotherham at Eduwonk lists seven barriers to the Common Core actually providing equally rigorous course content across all the geographic regions of the U.S..

Thursday, May 16, 2013

QOD: NJSBA Ex. Dir. on NJ's Special Education Costs

Dr. Larry Feinsod:
 In January, NJSBA formed a task force to review our state’s current process for funding and providing special education services. The study group will recommend changes to state and federal statute and regulation.  The goal is to reduce special education costs to local school districts without diminishing the quality of needed services. In addition, the task force will identify best practices.

As I’ve previously stated in this column, I began my career in education as a special education teacher.  The education of children with special needs will always be close to my heart.  However, there is a dire need to develop strategies that will maintain quality services, without negatively affecting resources for general education programming.

Trenton Hostage Follow-Up

On Monday I asked whether the horrible hostage situation in Trenton last weekend (mother and son murdered; four children held hostage) could have been resolved more quickly if Trenton Public Schools had more aggressively enforced its attendance policy.

Apparently I’m not the only one asking that question. Today’s Trenton Times reports that, indeed, the district did call the house where the family was imprisoned. Here’s what happened:
A female voice, believed to be one of the girls operating on instructions from Murphy [the criminal], took the phone and answered the questions about where she and her siblings were, Superintendent Francisco Duran said yesterday. 
She told the school representative that the children were sick, and could not come to school, Duran said. Truancy officers visited the home twice, but it was not until a relative sounded the alarm two weeks after Stevens’ death that police discovered the carnage that led to a 37-hour standoff with Murphy last weekend. 
Yesterday, Duran defended the educators’ actions. 
“We have a policy that we follow when the students are not coming to school,” Duran said.

New WHYY Post: The Impact of NJ's New Superintendent Salary Caps

My post today at WHYY's Newsworks looks at a draft Resolution that will be considered today at New Jersey School Boards Delegate Assembly. The Resolution, proposed by Ridgewood Board of Education, is intended to direct NJSBA lobbyists to work at overturning NJ's superintendent salary. It also directs data specialists at NJSBA to continue to examine the impact of the cap on superintendent turnover.

From the Resolution (linked to at WHYY): “Superintendent turnover rates have increased significantly since the superintendent salary cap went into effect.  For 2010-2011 – the first full school year following the imposition of the cap – nearly 29 percent of New Jersey school districts and educational services commissions changed superintendents.  This was the highest turnover rate in the ten years since the NJSBA began monitoring superintendent employment.  The rapid pace in turnover continued in the 2011-2012 school year, with 31.4 percent of the districts in this State losing their superintendent. While it may not be the only reason, the relatively new cap on CSA salaries has likely been a predominant factor in the spike in superintendent turnover in New Jersey.”

Anyway, here's how my post starts:
Today at its annual Delegate Assembly, New Jersey School Boards Association will most likely adopt a resolution that attacks Gov. Christie's mandated state superintendent salary caps as intrusive and untenable.

According to the draft resolution, proposed by the Ridgewood Board of Education (Bergen), local boards of education should have "the flexibility to adjust the CSA's [Chief School Administrator or Superintendent's] compensation commensurate with his or her experience knowing the current employment market conditions and other factors that may influence the ability to recruit, hire, and retain a competent and highly qualified CSA."

Local control, right? Very Jersey. School board members resent state intrusion into the local business of setting superintendent salaries, especially in North Jersey, a stone's throw away from New York State's greener, uncapped pastures. And NJSBA data shows that superintendent turnover has spiked sharply since the salary cap was enacted: in 2011-2012, 31.4% of N.J. school districts lost their superintendents (a boon for the burgeoning interim superintendent industry).

Read the rest here.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

FBI Subpoenas Lakewood Board of Education

The Asbury Park Press is reporting  new developments in Lakewood, home to a beleaguered school district that struggles to balance the transportation and special education needs of the 25,000 resident kids who attend Orthodox Jewish day schools with the needs of the 4,600 kids who actually attend public school, almost all Hispanic and Black.

Things were looking up. Over the last two years new Board members elevated the previously-raucous tone of public sessions, and achieved the necessary backing to fire Attorney Michael Inzelbuch. Inzelbuch had served offically for many years as  board attorney and out-of-district special education facilitator, and unofficially as district Svengali. He ran all board meetings and was well-compensated for his time. A new attorney, Steven Edelstein, was hired last year.

(Side note: the Lakewood Board is now suing Inzelbuch for "actively recruiting clients to sue the district.")

But here was the scene at this week's Board meeting:
The standing-room-only board meeting began with the unexpected announcement and ended with four board members, Zecharia Greenspan, Jonathan Silver, Yizeriel Friedman and vice president Yechezkel Seitler, all trying to make a motion to remove Edelstein as the current board attorney, citing what they said were high legal fees.
The motion, however, failed, after Edelstein and Board President Carl Fink said it was out of order and inappropriate. Seitler, meanwhile, resigned as vice president, but said he will remain on the board.
Today's article cites this chaotic regression of the board to previous practices as the “latest indicator that years of dysfunction may be returning to haunt the township’s troubled school district.”  But here's the main indicator:  the FBI just “ordered the district to turn over all records and correspondence related to two of its vendors, Catapult Learning or Catapult Services, and Ocean Health Initiatives Inc.”  Edelstein, most likely, is cooperating. Maybe that's why board members are panicking.

Catapult Learning provides remedial and special education services to kids. Lots of districts in NJ hire them. Lakewood is no exception, although it uses the company specifically to provide services to kids in yeshivas, or private Jewish day schools. This is from the Lakewood School Board agenda from this past February 12th:
22. Approval of addendum to the IDEA Catapult Contract from $4,300,700.00 to $4,350,700.00 to add an additional class for Bnos Devorah from February 1, 2013 to June 30, 2013 in the amount of $30,000 and Social Skills at NPSSP at $73.80 per hour not to exceed $20,000.00.
That’s one item from one board agenda for a contract addendum that increases that year’s payout to Catapult to almost $4.5 million dollars. That's almost 5% of Lakewood's total operating budget.

The Board has freely admitted that there has been a history of desultory accounting of Catapult services. But there’s more to this story than sloppy filing.

One other note, which points to some of the financial disarray in the district and was in the same agenda and the complex politics that infuse Lakewood schools. On the same agenda there’s this item:
Bais Rivka Rochel-
Student 313A- Placed at Bais Rivka Rochel- 1/2 -6/30/13 at a cost not to exceed $30,000.00.
Bais Rivka Rochel is an Orthodox Jewish day school just for girls, one of many yeshivas in the city. (There's no website so I don't have a link.) I don’t how much tuition Lakewood Public Schools shells out to private religious schools that don’t accept any non-Jewish kids (or any boys, in this instance).  This placement might have been justified by classifying Bais Rivka as a special education school, but that's a guess. According to a local Jewish paper, however, this particular yeshiva is involved in one of the ways that some Lakewood residents work with the School Board to separate their kids from the riff-raff.

In 2010  Bais Rivka  put a bid in to the School Board to use its building to host a publicly-funded preschool program called Tiny Tots. From the Lakewood Scoop, a local Jewish paper:
Last night, the BOE turned down the bid from Bais Rivka Rochel to facilitate the former Tiny Tots program. Bais Rivka Rochel, owned by R’ Shlomo Chaim Kanarek, was the single entity to place a host the former program, in hopes of leasing the space to the State in an effort to keep the former TT children at the same location, only now under the State’s program. 
After the close of the Tiny Tots program days before the new school year, many parents refused to send their children to the Linden Avenue school, which would include children from other communities. 

How do you balance the rights of parents to segregate their kids from "other communities" with the rights of those "others" to receive their fair share of state and federal money? Maybe the FBI can figure it out.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


New Jersey Assemblywoman Betty Lou DeCroce, (R-Morris) on the importance of full-day kindergarten:
“(Kindergarteners) are so smart today, they need to be in school all day. Electronically, their minds are way above some of us.”

Monday, May 13, 2013

QOD: Cami Anderson Confronts a Mulish Newark School Advisory Board

Tom Moran considers the prospects of Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson, who is struggling to improve a district where half the kids drop out before finishing high school:
In her second year as superintendent of schools in Newark, Cami Anderson is watching her political support in the city collapse.  
The school advisory committee recently cast a vote of no confidence. Not to be outdone, the city council passed a resolution opposing all reforms during the next school year.
You read that right: Not a single change through the 2013-2014 school year. A complete freeze. 
This council has a long history of crazy behavior. It pays itself the highest council salaries in the state, and each member is entitled to a free car, as well. One councilman compared the charter school movement to the Tuskegee experiments when black men were secretly infected with syphilis to study the progress of the disease. When a council meeting last year broke down in chaos, police had to spray mace to restore order.
But this should be remembered as its craziest moment of all. And it underscores what a tragedy it would be for students if the state yields control anytime soon.

Should NJ Hand Over $10 Million to a Lakewood Yeshiva?

The Star-Ledger Editorial Board responds to the news the ACLU has filed objections with the NJ State Legislature because the state just awarded over $10 million in taxpayer funds to a  private school in Lakewood, Beth Medrash Govoha, that only accepts Orthodox Jewish young men:

When it comes to schools, church-and-state separation isn’t the clear line we like to think it is. New Jersey gives money to parochial schools for busing, textbooks, nurses and special education. Students get government aid to attend religious schools. And many people support vouchers, which would pay private-school tuition for kids leaving failing public schools.
Similarly, the current debate over state grants to church-run schools isn’t clear-cut. But this is a good starting point: Tax dollars shouldn’t go to schools that discriminate on religious grounds.

Trenton Children Held Hostage: Whither the Schools?

By now everyone’s heard about the horrific story of the Trenton mother and her five children held hostage by the mother’s boyfriend for two weeks.  After a 37-hour stand-off this past weekend, the SWAT team burst into the home and killed Gerald Murphy, who had imprisoned 3 of the children in a 10’ by 11’ room that also held their mother’s decomposing body. Two were teenage girls, who had been physically and sexually assaulted. The other was a 4-year-old boy.  Another sibling, 13-year old Quavon, was found dead of gunshot wounds. The oldest sibling, a 19-year-old boy diagnosed with autism, had been shuttered in the basement for the duration and found eating garbage scraps.

Two weeks is a long time for five children to go missing. There’s been no published information on where the children went to school, although all should have been enrolled, the middle three most likely in public school, and the 4-year old in full-day preschool (Trenton is an Abbott district, one of NJ's 31 poorest, and offers free full-day preschool to 3 and 4-year-olds.) The oldest boy should also have been enrolled in school because children with multiple disabilities typically stay in high school through age 21.

So where were the schools in this? No word, but Trenton Public School has clear attendance policies. Just showing up late three days in a row should have triggered, according to the Board of Education Policy 5240, phone calls, letters, and meetings with parents. Trenton’s attendance policy (5200) refers to New Jersey State Code, N.J.A.C. 6A:16-7.8(a)4.  In part, the code mandates that all NJ public schools respond to student absences in the following manner:
 For up to four cumulative unexcused absences, the school district shall:
(1) Make a reasonable attempt to notify the student’s parents of each unexcused absence prior to the start of the following school day;
(2) Conduct an investigation to determine the cause of each unexcused absence, including contact with the student’s parents;
(3) Develop an action plan in consultation with the student’s parents designed to address patterns of unexcused absences, if any, and to have the child return to school and maintain regular attendance;
(4) Proceed in accordance with the provisions of N.J.S.A. 9:6-1 et seq. and N.J.A.C 6A:16-11, if a potential missing or abused child situation is detected; and
(5) Cooperate with law enforcement and other authorities and agencies, as appropriate;
Maybe the school district did all of this, to no avail, and maybe this all takes longer than two weeks. Could the children have been spared some of the trauma if the public district had been  more proactive? Should districts be more aggressive in responding to unexcused and lengthy absences? Maybe the State DOE needs to insert some teeth into these regulations.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Forty-Five NJ School Superintendents are Double-Dipping

Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-Essex) is pushing a bill introduced this past December that would stop retired NJ school superintendents from “double-dipping,” or collecting pensions while hiring themselves out as interim superintendents.  An investigation by NJ Watchdog and NBC found that 45 superintendents engage in this practice (which is hardly restricted to school administrators).
“As the New Jersey Watchdog and NBC 4 New York investigation revealed, these individuals are taking advantage and profiting from an opportunity that the state created,” said Caputo. “The state is no financial shape to allow this to continue. Sorry folks, but you can’t have your cake and eat it too.” 
Caputo’s bill, A-3523, would require retired administrators to quit collecting retirement pay when they return to public school jobs, plus resume contributions to the state Teachers’ Pension and Annuity Fund.
The NJ Watchdog article includes a chart that shows how much each of the 45 "double-dippers" made this year in both pensions and interim salary payments. For example, Joseph Abate Jr. of Hackensack City is making $270K this year, or about $167K in salary and $103K in pension payments.

The bill doesn’t address the reasons for the spike in  the use of interim superintendents by NJ school districts.  According to the article, 45 school districts are relying on interims this year, about 8% of all districts in the state. Many would argue that this unprecedented reliance on temporary school leaders is a result of Gov. Christie’s superintendent salary cap, which inadvertently (or not) encourages attrition and mobility by artificially restricting salary increases.

Maybe Civility Isn't All It's Cracked Up To Be

A month ago, in an essay at WHYY’s Newsworks, I waxed rhapsodic over Connecticut’s mature, patient approach to education reform, as opposed to New Jersey’s high-octane, childish bluster. I spoke too soon. According to an article in today's Wall Street Journal, Connecticut’s education reform package, which includes elements similar to NJ’s, is on the ropes because of a $1.5 million state budget  shortfall.

The Connecticut State Legislature passed tenure reform and teacher evaluation bills last year after gaining buy-in from teacher union leaders. But the carefully-negotiated reforms may be moot. Says Jennifer Alexander of Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now,  "[e]ssentially the budget is being used as a way to renegotiate last year's legislative package.”  So much for civil discourse.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

How Do We Balance the Urgency of Education Reform with Resistance to Change?

My post today at WHYY's Newsworks notes the 30th anniversary of "A Nation at Risk" and how it continues to inform our education reform debate:
To give you a taste of the document, here's a line from the introduction: "If an unfriendly power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war."

Not much nuance there, but a lot of clout. Over the last 30 years Americans have gradually accepted the premise of "A Nation at Risk" and many agree that our system of public education needs to be reformed. That's a huge change in perception, especially for a system so resistant to change: remember, schools in America still follow an agrarian calendar and most classrooms look no different than school houses in the 19th century, 25 kids or so with a teacher in the front, modeled after schools that Horace Mann saw in Prussia in 1843.

But how much change is too much? When does the urgency of reform undermine the principles of sound educational practice? Is this brave new system becoming too focused on student test data at the expense of critical thinking skills?
Read the rest here.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Lakewood: Bad for the Jews

Jeff Dosna at BlueJersey nails it today in his post, "Embarrassed to be an Observant Jew." He begins by referencing a Star-Ledger story about how an all-boys, all Orthodox-Jewish private school in Lakewood, NJ was just awarded over $10 million in taxpayer funds:
Awoke this morning (Monday) to read about the latest in Chris Christie's pandering to the Lakewood ultra-Orthodox community:  
When the final list was released last week, one of the biggest - and perhaps most surprising - winners was Beth Medrash Govoha, a 70-year-old, all-male, orthodox Jewish rabbinical school in Lakewood. It was awarded $10.6 million in taxpayer funds for a new library and academic center, among the highest designated for a private institution. 
This comes on the heels of the same Lakewood community showing up in droves to support the Governor's 'school choice' agenda of siphoning public money to private schools. He received their endorsement back in March:
At Yeshiva Toras Aron, a religious school for boys, Christie said his proposal for private school vouchers would ensure it is "the education of the parents' choice, regardless of their economic situation, that governs how their children are educated."
The fact is, I am embarrassed to be an observant Jew living in New Jersey today.
I so get that. My grandmother, may her memory be a blessing, used to divide every issue on the planet into two categories: Good For The Jews and Bad For The Jews. Rainstorms, political exposes, wars, bad haircuts. Nothing was too trivial or too momentous to fall into one category or the other.

And so every time I read about board and administrative mischief at Lakewood Public Schools, where almost all the kids in attendance are Hispanic and Black and almost all the School Board  members are Orthodox Jews, or I read about Yeshiva Toras Aron’s $10 million gulp of taxpayer funds solely to benefit yeshiva boys, I think of my grandma. “Bad for the Jews,” she would say, because it makes us all look like gonifs.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

How Do We Make NJ's Charter Laws Worse?

My column today at NJ Spotlight  examines Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan's rewrite of New Jersey's charter school laws. While there's much to like about it, including a focus on development of charters in high-needs districts and attention to kids with disabilities, the draft declines to address one of the primary weaknesses of our charter school laws: only one entity is authorized to approve new charters.  Now it's the Commissioner of Education. Mr. Diegnan, contrary to model charter school law, would transfer that mantle to a thumbs up or down community referendum.

No other state in the country has a system like the one proposed by Assemblyman Diegnan. But read on.
Here’s a rarity within New Jersey’s education reform community: consensus. The NJ Education Association, Gov. Chris Christie, Commissioner Chris Cerf, Education Law Center, and NJ Charter Association concur that the state's charter school law is broken. In response, several members of the state Legislature are working on overhauls, and last week a draft of the bill Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex) is putting together was leaked to NJ Spotlight.

Critics of our 14-year-old charter school law are buttressed by various national research organizations that evaluate state charter school legislation and find ours lacking. The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), for example, ranks New Jersey 31st out of 42 states with charter school laws.

Read the rest here.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Virtue of LIFO: It's Arbitrary

Social science writer Eric Horowitz has been reading Richard Kahlenberg’s biography of Albert Shanker ("Tough Liberal") and comments on Shanker’s view of the primary benefit of  last in, first out, or LIFO: it’s arbitrary.  Thirty years ago, there was so much discrimination towards Blacks and Jews that LIFO imposed a system of job security that left no room for racism or anti-Semitism.  It's virtue was its arbitrariness. Horowitz:
What better way to protect against racial discrimination than to mandate that everybody be discriminated against based on experience? The problem is that even if it was a smart thing to do at the time, the policy seems to have outlived its use. Nowadays the threat of a teacher being dismissed strictly because they are Black or Jewish is much less severe, and even if somebody were to attempt to pull it off, it’s unlikely they would get past the existing union protections. Meanwhile, Shanker’s final justification of maintaining unity plays right into the hands of critics who claim the unions put their own interests ahead of those of students. Shanker is effectively saying that allowing a superior teacher to be fired is a price worth paying for union solidarity. 
One interesting takeaway from all this is that if attempts to do away with LIFO had begun earlier, so that there was less overlap with the push to utilize value-added measures, reformers may have been more successful in their efforts to eliminate it. But once teacher concerns about value-added measures began to grow, the fear of unknown arbitrariness rekindled the desire for an arbitrariness that was well-known. Just as Shanker felt LIFO was necessary to prevent dismissals due to racial discrimination, many teachers now feel LIFO is necessary to prevent dismissals due to what they perceive to be unfair VAM scores.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Sunday Leftovers

Don’t miss Jessica Calefeti’s expose in this morning’s Star-Ledger on Adelaide L. Sanford Charter School in Newark, which “reveals a faltering institution that provides bare-bones learning facilities while using millions of dollars in state and federal aid, bolstering a real estate fiefdom controlled by the school’s founder, Fredrica Bey.”  Bey is described as “a powerful figure in New Jersey’s largest city, with friends in political, cultural and activist circles, along with a direct line to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.” She’s also, apparently, a crook.

For a happier view of educational options for parents in Newark, see this description of a Daddy-Daughter dance at Peshine Avenue School, one of Superintendent Cami Anderson’s “Renew Schools.” There’s 8 of them and all have “new leaders who were free to pick much of their staff and who were given a mandate to reorganize the school around principles of education reform.”

In today's Record, Charles Stile reviews the status of Barbara Buono's gubernatorial campaign:

With only four weeks left before she becomes its nominee in the June 4 primary, Buono has yet to mobilize the fractured party behind her campaign. She hasn’t made the transition from being the “default” candidate — the person who got the job because nobody else wanted to waste his time, money and reputation running against Christie — to a “viable” candidate who has convinced a broad cross section of her party that she can beat Christie in November. 
Stile also covers the “heresy” committed by Buono when she voted against pension and benefits reform package for public workers,  alienating leaders in her party but winning fealty from public unions, including NJEA.

Larry Feinsod, head of NJ School Boards Association, expresses concern about the state’s creative way of gutting local district increases in educational aid by levying School Development Authority “assessments.” He urges local school boards to pass resolutions protesting these unanticipated costs. A sample resolution is provided.
Lakewood Public Schools is well-known for its unusual student configuration where the public district enrolls 5,600 kids but the district provides transportation (and special education services, when appropriate) for 24,000 additional kids who attend Orthodox Jewish day schools. This creates bizarre budget contortions, and, reports the Asbury Park Press, the Board there just approved a $108 million budget, up $8 million from last year. The district is currently undergoing three state audits.

Mike Petrelli has a really bad idea. 

The New York Times asks, "is cursive dead?"
Stephen Sawchuk reports on a new study that shows that "within schools, less experienced and minority teachers are more frequently assigned classes with lower-achieving students than their more experienced or white colleagues."