Friday, August 29, 2014

Braun Crosses the Line

During the Newark mayoral election, Bob Braun, former columnist for the Star-Ledger and currently N.J.’s most prominent anti-reform blogger, was candidate Ras Baraka’s biggest booster. But now Braun is outraged that Mayor Baraka is refusing to support a boycott of the city schools.

It’s hard to think of a less civic-minded stance: the leader of N.J.’s largest city urging parents to unlawfully keep their children home from school. To his credit, Baraka isn’t listening and says that he is monitoring the (rocky) implementation of Superintendent Cami Anderson’s One Newark plan, which creates a universal enrollment registration for Newark’s charter and traditional schools. In other words, Baraka is acting like a mayor.

But this week Braun wrote,
Hey, Ras–remember that video that Jeffries [Baraka's opponent in the mayoral campaign] thought would sink you? The one in which you faced down the gang leaders on a cold winter night? You looked like a leader then, big time. Angry but righteous.
That’s what you need to do and to be now. Righteous and angry.
Face down Christie’s gangbangers before they do even more harm to the children of Newark.
That video, by the way, was first picked up by the Daily Beast and described thus:
In it, Baraka indicates that whites are the “enemies” of blacks and suggests “We got to plan to remove them and then we got to seize power.” He was apparently addressing gang-affiliated teenagers and trying to impart a message of black empowerment, but even in context the language is extremely inflammatory.
Now Braun is the one who’s inflammatory (not to mention sexist: in a subsequent post called "Boycott the Cruel One Newark Plan" he labels Cami Anderson as “frigid,” surely not an adjective applied to men). More importantly, he exposes his true intentions, which have nothing to do with children and effective schools and everything to do with promoting a political agenda infused with paranoid Ravichy fantasies about "corporatization" and greedy hedge-fund managers.

Kids belong in school. Braun would rather that they stay home in order to boost his personal agenda. Talk about outrageous.

Ed Week on the Gender Gap on School Boards

From EdWeek: "School boards have more equitable representation of men and women than any other governing group in the United States, but new studies suggest women's voices still often aren't heard.

Women make up more than 40 percent of school board members nationally, more than double the average female participation in other governing groups in the United States. But unless they make up a supermajority of a board, women don't comment and endorse motions as often as men do, according to studies in a newly released book, The Silent Sex: Gender, Deliberation, and Institutions."

New Newsworks Post: Time for Teacher Unions To Ease Up On the Gas

Those who follow America's debate about the merits of education reform might liken this last decade's discourse to something like extreme motocross: verbal and political skids, set-ups, and crashes that end in fiery conflagration.

But over the few months, at least among reform advocates, there's been a shift in tone: suddenly, there's less emphasis on reckless speed and more emphasis on consensus.

Even when discussions reel towards hot-button issues like teacher tenure, standardized course standards, and the role of data in measuring student and teacher proficiency, many educators aligned with reform tenets are placing more value on avoiding combustion and, instead, talking about prudent implementation.  
Read the rest here.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

QOD: Why We (Still, New Jersey) Need Tenure Reform

From Bellwether's new report, "Teacher Evaluations in an Era of Rapid Change: From “Unsatisfactory" to “Needs Improvement":
Nationwide, it’s rare to find examples of districts dismissing teachers for poor performance. A recent analysis of New York City schools found that the district fired a total of 12 teachers, out of 75,000 citywide, from 1997 to 2007.36 This means that only 0.016 percent of teachers were dismissed over this 10-year period, a very low percentage given the numerous challenges within the NYC school system. The entire state of New Jersey dismissed 23 teachers for poor performance between 2012 and 2014 (out of more than 100,000 classroom teachers statewide, this represents less than .02 percent)…

Failure to differentiate high- and low-performers also hurts students. According to research from the University of Washington’s Center for Education Data & Research, using seniority as the sole factor in making layoff decisions forces districts to pink-slip more teachers. Because less-experienced teachers earn lower salaries, a district has to lay off about 10 percent more teachers to achieve the same cost reductions as an across-the-board cut.43 Because a policy that relies on seniority and ignores performance will force districts to lay off both high- and low-performing employees, rather than only low-performing ones, the overall result is a less effective teaching workforce. It seems ludicrous to purposely dismiss a great teacher while retaining poor ones, but some school policies on tenure and layoffs do just that.

Mike Antonucci on NYC's "Opt-Out" Movement

From Intercepts:
Chalkbeat reports that 1,925 New York City students opted out of the state’s standardized tests in protest. That’s a 450% increase from last year. 
On the other hand, 410,000 city students took the tests, which means the opt-out students constitute less than one-half of one percent of the total. 
I hope they realize this, but we won’t know for sure because they didn’t take the math test.

School Board Members: "Frogs at the Bottom of a Deep Well"


Late Sunday night yet another Trenton Board of Education  member resigned, leaving only four members of the nine-member, mayor-appointed group, one less than a quorum and, thus, unable to approve any district appointments, allocations, contracts, or programming initiatives. According to the Trenton Times, Roslyn Council sent in her formal letter of resignation to Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson, following the lead of Sasa Olessi-Montano and Mary Taylor Hayes, who both resigned earlier this summer. Another member resigned earlier in the year.

But not to worry: While the Times notes that “[i]n the meantime the school board will be unable to take action on any school district items with the start of the school year two weeks away,” the district attorney, Kathleen Smallwood Johnson said “there is nothing that is essential to the start of the school year that would require board approval.” Mayor Jackson will, accordingly, take his time and appoint new members  in “another week or so.”

Actually, at the meeting on Monday that was cancelled due to lack of a quorum, the published Agenda has 91 pages of recommendations,  including  approval of annual contracts with preschool providers,  a “Proposal for Bilingual/English as a Second Language Department for the 2014-2015 school year at a cost not to exceed $272,812.00,”  updated math curricula, and new supervision and intervention programs at various city schools intended to "provide students...with a safe environment before and after the regular school day.”

Reality check for Mayor Jackson and Ms. Johnson: school boards typically approve lots of agenda items during  the summer that “are essential to the start of the school year.” In fact, many boards schedule special meetings towards the end of the summer in order to assure smooth school openings.

Many of these items tend to be related to last-minute changes in personnel as unanticipated needs crop up.  Students with disabilities may suddenly need one-on-one assistants  (and there are 15 such appointments on Trenton’s Monday agenda that were never approved). Or there's an enrollment surge or unexpected retirements  or building maintenance issues or new programming  that requires additional staff members and allocations. In all fairness, Trenton has a Fiscal Monitor and the long list of personnel changes listed on the Agenda are annotated with the phrase “administratively approved.” So maybe the school board in Trenton is otiose, which would reasonably  dissuade long-term board membership. Who wants to be a rubber stamp?

There’s a wonderful facebook page run by Jim Carlucci, otherwise known as “Trenton’s Irresponsible Blogger” (his own term of endearment).  Yesterday Carlucci posted the Trenton Times article and a former Trenton Board member, Bernard McMullen, commented,
Individuals join the board hoping to improve schools for all children. Instead, they get swept up in an unrelenting tidal wave of bureaucratic trivia until they can't take any more and resign.

Seven board members are charged with being the community's voice on the use of more than $300M annually by meeting twice monthly. That's almost times the size of the municipal budget. The actual physical organization of the budget has little to do with education but everything to do with state reporting. It is virtually impossible to trace out whether or not a board policy has been implemented as expected.

If you look at the 'organization hierarchy' chart, the school board is always at the top -- supposedly setting policy, assessing quality of implementation and benefits to students. However, the reality is that you feel like a frog at the bottom of a deep well trying to guess what is going on above based on leaves and birds flying by.
Many board members will read that final phrase – “a frog at the bottom of a deep well trying to guess what is going on above based on leaves and birds flying by” – and almost weep in commiseration. It doesn’t have to be that way, of course. In well-functioning districts, or at least those without powerful fiscal monitors, board members can learn over time to evolve from feckless amphibians to warm-blooded overseers.  Clearly, Trenton has a long way to go.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sunday Leftovers

Tweet of The Week: Ryan Hill, founder and executive director of TEAM Charter Schools in Newark, responding to "data" on student mobility from Jersey Jazzman: "You're making that up." For more detail, see TEAM's graphing of "attrition" data, which comes in at 7%. The actual twitter exchange (you have to follow both) illuminates some of the problems with reducing statistical analyses to 140-character soundbites.

Stepping back, see New Jersey Monthly's crossfire edition of education reform with Bob Braun and Jonathan Alter. A sample from Braun:
Don’t call it reform, call it hijacking. A radical, top-down change in governance based on a business model championed by billionaires like Eli Broad, the entrepreneur whose foundation underwrites training programs for school leaders, including superintendents—among them, Christopher Cerf, New Jersey’s education commissioner from late 2010 until this past February. The Broad Foundation seeks to apply to public institutions, like schools, the notion of “creative destruction” popularized for businesses by economists Joseph Schumpeter and Clayton Christensen.
Um, right. Here's Alter:
All the talk of “corporatizing” schools is baloney. The benefactors are simply after better student and teacher performance—and they’re getting it. If you don’t believe me, visit Newark charter public schools like North Star Academy or TEAM Academy, where the student population is almost all non-white and the waiting lists are long. There is magic in their classrooms. With more than three-quarters of their students in grades three through eight scoring “advanced” or “proficient” on yearly assessments, they not only outperform neighboring traditional public schools by more than 30 points, they beat white suburban schools…
Yes, there are several first-rate non-charter schools in Newark that don’t get enough attention. But more than 10 percent of Newark’s 75,000 students now attend charters. Do the critics really want those parents and children to give up their dreams? Do they really mean to argue that if you can’t help all Newark students, you shouldn’t help any?

Speaking of Newark, the district's universal enrollment plan, whereby parents can choose among traditional and charter public schools, got off to a rocky start. On the second day, a parent told the Star Ledger that “It’s definitely more under control. It moved pretty fast. Yesterday, it was chaos out here.”

In Paterson, however, according to The Record, there's a growing sense of partnership among all public schools:
In many cities, including Newark, charter and traditional schools coexist uneasily, with critics complaining that charter schools siphon resources from the school district. But in Paterson on Saturday, the city’s school board president and mayor came out to celebrate the opening.
“It’s not us versus them,” said Keisha Smith, a school board employee whose daughter attends the charter school. “There are a lot of detractors of charter schools but what people have to understand is that we all have to be proponents of educations.”

See  NJ Spotlight for review of a new contract in Paterson that includes merit pay.

In Camden, another hotbed of anti-charter school rhetoric, new renaissance schools run by Mastery and Uncommon will open on time even though Gov. Christie vetoed  a piece of a bill that would have allotted generous early retirement packages to laid-off traditional school teachers.  The Legislature had passed a change to the Urban Hope Act which included those retirement packages, as well as permission for  new schools to temporarily use empty space in district buildings.  Christie vetoed the early pensions (pennywise and pound foolish, if you ask me) but Senate Pres. Steve Sweeney says he’ll allow the bill to move forward. See the Philadelphia Inquirer for details.


Also, NJ Spotlight visited Camden as Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard led new principals in professional development.

New Jersey School Boards Association thanked Christie for "his absolute veto of legislation that would have restricted school district and local government efforts to save taxpayer funds by subcontracting services." Christie also vetoed a bill, sponsored by Ron Rice, that would have allowed school board input into school closings, reports the Star Ledger. Analysis here from NJ Spotlight.

The Press of Atlantic City looks at the increase in interim superintendents due to salary caps and notes that “the job of superintendent has become increasingly short-term.”

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Note to readers

I'm taking the next two weeks off. Thanks, as always, to my wonderful readers! Also, in case you missed it, I was interviewed yesterday by NJTV's Mary Alice Williams about N.J.'s Abbott decisions and school funding formulas. You can watch it here or here.


Friday, August 8, 2014

From Abbott to Vergara: Irony in Camden

This week I had a column in NJ Spotlight about  the upcoming anniversary of the Abbott v. Burke cases, specifically Abbott II, in which the State Supreme Court ordered fair funding of N.J.’s poorest school districts. The Court noted in its ruling in 1990 that “without educational reform, the money may accomplish nothing.” I noted the irony of the Education Law Center’s recent crusade against educational reform in Camden, despite the fact that this organization litigated the Abbott cases.

Today Blue Jersey has a post about a meeting last night in Camden featuring David Sciarra, executive director of Education Law Center (ELC), and Julia Sass Rubin, founder of Save Our Schools-NJ, who are working together to stymy public education reform efforts in Camden, NJ’s worst district.

Under the auspices of the Urban Hope Act, a bipartisan piece of legislation supported by NJEA, Camden Public Schools is creating hybrid “renaissance schools” in collaboration with highly-regarded charters Mastery, KIPP, and Uncommon. Parents can sign their kids up for seats or stick with traditional district schools and SOS and ELC, according to Blue Jersey, are “now trying to rally parents to share information that will discourage families from signing up… This is potentially a bridge strategy until education politics at the state level dramatically change… The strategy is to keep students out of Renaissance school seats.”

In other words, ELC, which fought for the educational rights of Camden’s students for decades, is now fighting to keep them in the very schools they disparaged during the Abbott litigation.

But the irony is bigger than this. You can draw a direct line from the nation’s civil rights movement (which barred racial discrimination) to Brown v. Board of Education (which barred separate schools for black and white students) to Abbott v. Burke (which barred inequitable funding between poor and rich districts). More recently, that line extends to Vergara v. California, which bars instructional inequity (poor students have the same rights as wealthy students to instructional effectiveness) and to the similar case in New York State.

ELC’s vigorous battle against educational improvements in Camden is both political and fiscal. As parents choose to move their kids to superior district schools – and the Urban Hope Act schools are, indeed, district schools – the traditional publics wills suffer from loss of enrollment and revenue, which ELC appears to perceive as a direct threat to its legacy.

If this were all about kids, then you’d think ELC and SOS would applaud the implementation of a system that provides better choices for families. But it’s not: it’s about money and power and preservation of a system that ELC railed against twenty-five years ago. Now that’s irony.

Why We Need Tenure Reform



Leslie Brody at the Wall St. Journal reports today that the New York City Department of Education will “pay $1.8 million in buyout packages for 115 teachers and other staff who had stayed on the payroll even though they had no permanent jobs."

These teachers, all tenured and all without placements, have been in the “Rubber Room,” technically called the Absent Teacher Reserve, "often for years, after school closures or disciplinary proceedings made it hard for them to get lasting assignments.” Those 115 teachers would cost the city $15 million this year. On average they earn $93K each.  The entire Absent Teacher Reserve of  of 1,200 teachers cost the city $105 million during the 2012-2013 school year.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

New Newsworks Column: Teacher Unions v. David Boies; the Democratic Rift

Liberals and labor unions go together like wine and cheese. Thus, it was with an ironic flair that the newly-formed Partnership for Educational Justice, which seeks to reverse union-friendly teacher tenure laws, announced this week that its new Chair is David Boies, a nationally-known lawyer closely associated with liberal causes.

Boies, the son of two schoolteachers, is the star litigator who led the fight against California's Proposition 8 that denied marriage rights to same-sex couples. A dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, he also represented almost-president Al Gore during the tumultuous vote-counting scandal in Florida and prosecuted Microsoft on anti-trust charges during the Clinton Administration.

When asked why he was chairing the Partnership, Boies replied, "liberals always want equal opportunity." Left unsaid: not only for grown-ups, but also for children.

With this statement, Boies reframes the debate around teacher job security policies, particularly seniority-based lay-offs, or "LIFO" for "last in, first out. He also points to a growing rift within the Democratic Party.
Read the rest here.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Special Education School Files for Bankruptcy

The Star-Ledger reports today that Somerset Hills School has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. In response, the Department of Children and Families announced that it “would cut ties” with the special education school. Somerset Hills, a private for-profit school In Warren County that serves about 97 boys, ages 7-14, with behavioral disabilities, including histories of violent behavior, drug use, crime, and suicide attempts,

For more on this school’s tawdry history, see here and here.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

New Spotlight column: What we forget about Abbott v. Burke

 It start here:
Next month marks the 25th anniversary of the oral arguments over New Jersey’s most important public education lawsuit, Abbott v. Burke. 
On Sept. 25, 1989, the Education Law Center (ELC) argued on behalf of students attending schools in Camden, East Orange, Jersey City and Irvington that New Jersey’s method of school funding, which left districts almost entirely dependent on local tax levies, violated the state Constitution’s promise of access to a “thorough and efficient education system.” 
This Abbott II ruling, presaged by the 1972 Robinson v. Cahill school equity case, was issued the following June and is celebrated nationally as a touchstone for educational funding equity. 
But the Robinson and Abbott decisions are also remarkable for their prophetic call for education reform tenets currently making the rounds, from Common Core politics to “The Colbert Report.”
Continue here.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Pension Politics

Today’s New York Times reports on a widening gap between the money accrued in the city’s pension system and the amount owed to retirees. (Sound familiar?)  One problem is that each of the five pension systems (most cities have just one) has its own board of trustees which vet investment firms, and decisions are made not on potential returns but on politics. 
From the Times:
The boards are fond of personally vetting investment firms — something experts in model boardrooms say they should not be doing. Politics can often intrude. The teachers’ union, for example, keeps a list of investment firms it sees as unacceptable because of their connections to groups that, say, favor charter schools.  
Ranji Nagaswami, who served as Mr. Bloomberg’s first chief investment adviser, said that changes in the governing structure — consolidating, professionalizing and depoliticizing the pension boards — could result in “vastly improving outcomes.”
In more local pension news, PolitickerNJ reports that Gov. Christie plans to set up an independent commissioner to study N.J.'s pension crisis: "Christie's order to put together a group to come up with an action plan, which he will argue will be composed by individuals outside the hothouse of NJ politics, comes on the same week that Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) said Democrats won't cut a deal with the governor for more public worker pension cuts."

QOD: Boies Leads NYS Tenure Fight; "Emblematic" of Fracture between Dems and Teacher Unions

From yesterday's New York Times:
David Boies, the star trial lawyer who helped lead the legal charge that overturned California’s same-sex marriage ban, is becoming chairman of the Partnership for Educational Justice, a group that former CNN anchor Campbell Brown founded in part to pursue lawsuits challenging teacher tenure.
Mr. Boies, the son of two public schoolteachers, is a lifelong liberal who represented Al Gore in Bush v. Gore and prosecuted Microsoft in the Clinton Administration’s antitrust suit. In aligning himself with a cause that is bitterly opposed by teachers’ unions, he is emblematic of an increasingly fractured relationship between the Democrats and the teachers’ unions.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Sunday Leftovers

The Courier Post explains why the 2% cap on municipal and school district tax increases isn’t exactly 2%.

NJ Spotlight looks at the new Farleigh Dickinson poll regarding the Common Core and data-driven teacher evaluations.

EdWeek looks at states that have dropped out from the Common Core due to political pressure:  “the early pattern suggests that the common standards could undergo some relatively minor changes but still persist in states where opposition has led to high-profile bills and big headlines…there is little sign and not a great deal of precedent that the states backing away from the common core, or considering doing so, will ultimately produce anything that is truly different from those standards.”

Robert A. Kull of PlanSmartNJ opines on ways to improve the state’s school funding formula.

In Lakewood Public Schools, according to the Asbury Park Press, “most township children will continue to ride buses to school in the fall, thanks to a last-minute deal to preserve courtesy busing that was struck Tuesday by school district and private school leaders.”

Press of Atlantic City: "The state Board of Examiners has revoked the licenses of four area teachers, including the 2001 Teacher of the Year at the Cumberland County Technical Education Center who had an inappropriate relationship with a student."

ICYMI, here’s the link to Campbell Brown’s appearance on the Colbert Report.

Chester Finn steps down from the top slot at Fordham Foundation and reviews the education landscape in 2014.

Friday, August 1, 2014

New column: NJ Family

I have an update on proposed education legislation in NJ Family, available here or in hard copy at libraries, schools, and stores. Deadlines are way early (remember, it's hard copy) so here's an update on one of the bills I discuss, S2154, which proposed to delay the use of PARCC test results in teacher evaluations.