Friday, February 27, 2015

We Raise New Jersey Announces New Coalition Members

We Raise New Jersey, an organization committed to help parents raise student achievement (and counter some of the distortions promulgated by anti-testing lobbyists) just announced that two new members have joined the coalition: The Garden State Coalition of Schools (an association of about 100 school districts) and the N.J. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, a group that supports N.J.’s students, teachers, and administrators.

Other members of the coalition include New Jersey PTA, N.J. Association of School Administrators, N.J. Council of County Colleges, N.J. Chamber of Commerce, JerseyCan, N.J. Principals and Supervisors Association, and N.J. School Boards Association.

From the press release:
"We want to create a real dialogue across the state about the role standardized testing should play in our schools,” said Debbie Tyrrell, president of the New Jersey PTA. “Schools and parents should talk about the ways they are helping children transition to the new assessments.”  
“New Jersey is a national leader in education,” said David C. Hespe, New Jersey’s Commissioner of Education. “I commend the education and community leaders of the coalition for reinforcing our commitment to providing students with the best possible education using the best available resources.” 
Earlier this week, We Raise NJ launched Best Foot Forward to address the growing number of questions from parents about the PARCC assessments and to help parents make informed decisions about how to best support their children during testing season.  In addition to the resources on the website, the initiative features weekly text messages, a blog and a brief video, which provide parents important information during testing season.

Here's additional coverage from NJ Spotlight.

Parent Empowerment Drives Camden Education Reform

(Note: a modified version of this post appears at WHYY Newsworks.)

On Tuesday evening, just before the start of the Camden City Public Schools board meeting, fifty Camden parents handed Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard a stack of petitions signed by over 1,000 families requesting an expansion of Mastery Charter Schools. Mary Jane Timbe, a Camden mother of four, declared, “we want more Mastery schools. We want our kids to be able to from kindergarten to 12th grade and then on to college.”  Sherell Sharp, parent of a 5th grade Mastery North Camden School student, explained to Rouhanifard that “for my daughter, Mastery means that she hops out of bed and is ready to go to school [and] that’s after years of her hating school. That’s a blessing.”

Last Wednesday, just across the river, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission (PSRC) voted to turn down thirty-four out of thirty-nine charter school applications, including some from highly-regarded charter operators like Mastery and KIPP that already have solid records of success in Philadelphia. One PSRC member, Marjorie Neff, voted “no” on every single application to resounding applause from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

What explains the collaborative public school environment in Camden, one that empowers parents to coalesce around efforts to expand educational options for their children? Chalk it up to a combination of fair school funding, well-conceived legislation, and synergetic leadership.

First things first: money. Camden Public Schools is a beneficiary of New Jersey’s historic Abbott decisions. By order of the State Supreme Court (and, later, through the School Funding Reform Act) N.J. has established a progressive school aid formula that provides compensatory funding for poor urban schoolchildren. This year Camden’s cost per pupil was about $25,000. Philadelphia’s public school students, equally needy, eke out instructional and supplemental services at about $15,000 per pupil; this austerity breeds acrimony and short-circuits collaborative efforts.

While Philadelphia parents’ desire for better schools are cramped by the politically-driven PSRC, Camden families (and, technically, those in Trenton and Newark) benefit from a 2012 state law called the Urban Hope Act (UHA), which NJEA described as “an innovative effort to improve educational outcomes for children in some of our most challenging educational settings” and “a creative expansion of public school choice that uses public funds to support public education.” (Full disclosure: NJEA reneged on their support for an amended version of the bill when Gov. Christie vetoed a line that would grant generous early retirement packages for Camden teachers.)

UHA permits the creation of hybrid charter/public schools known as “renaissance schools,” per approval of the Camden School Board. While Camden already had a charter school sector before the enactment of UHA, the bill has fostered more options for families desperate for high-quality seats. Mastery opened under the auspices of UHA, as did KIPP and Uncommon Schools. (Another disclosure: one of my kids used to teach at a Mastery school in Philly.)

Currently, Mastery’s North Camden Elementary serves 300 kindergarten-fifth graders, temporarily located at Pyne Poynt Middle School, and 100 kindergarten-second graders, temporarily located at Cramer Hill Elementary. (Mastery will break ground next week on its own building, as required under UHA.) Approximately 18% of students have disabilities, 10% are English Language Learners, and almost all are economically-disadvantaged. Next year, North Camden Elementary will add sixth grade and Cramer Hill Elementary will add third grade, but that’s it for the parents and children who treasure, as one parent put it, “great seats for every child.”

Thus, the petition presented to Superintendent Rouhanifard, which reads in part, “I want Mastery to create more schools so more children in Camden can go to high-quality, safe, neighborhood Renaissance schools from K-12.”

PSRC meetings are raucous events. Last week’s charter vote in Philadelphia, reports CBS News, “was frequently disrupted by protesters opposed to new charters, four of which were arrested.”

While Camden has certainly had some heated school board debates, the petition delivery on Tuesday was marked by collegiality. Rouhanifard warmly welcomed the parents (here’s a video clip), who comprise part of a new grassroots campaign called BEST, or “Building Excellent Schools Together.” Mastery’s expansion would require school board approval and, if necessary, an amendment to extend the Urban Hope Act’s summer deadline for new applications.

Ms. Sharpe said it best: “A Rutgers professor posed the question, ‘how much power do residents have in this process?’ Well, here we are. This is your answer. We have reached out, we have gone door to door in North Camden, East Camden, and Cramer Hill and more than 1,000 families and growing have stepped forward and said let’s do what it takes to have great schools for every child.”

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

QOD: N.J. School Boards Opposes Assembly's Anti-PARCC Bill

From NJSBA's Legislative Update, which cites the Association's testimony against A-4190 because the bill could "jeopardize federal funding," "frustrat[e]" tenure reform efforts, and "eliminate a tool to help students."
On Monday, Feb. 23, the state Assembly passed  A-4190, which would establish a three-year moratorium on the use of PARCC scores for students and educators.
The legislation eliminates the use of the PARCC test as a component of any evaluation rubric that the school district would use to assess the effectiveness of teachers and adminstrators for three years beginning in the 2015-2016 school year. It would also ban the use of the PARCC assessment for purposes of student placement in a gifted and talented program, placement in another program or intervention, grade promotion, as the state graduation proficiency test, any other school or district-level decision that affects students.     
NJSBA Testimony NJSBA opposed the bill, testifying at an Assembly Education Committee hearing on Feb. 12 that the bill could jeopardize federal funding for the state, that would eliminate a tool to help students and local decision-makers, and that it frustrates ongoing tenure reforms. 
“As written, the bill's language would immediately put the state and local districts out of compliance with the federal ESEA waiver, which could jeopardize over $300 million in federal funding,” noted the NJSBA testimony. “New Jersey’s ESEA waiver requires a statewide assessment as part of overall measurement of student groups for purposes of determining need for intervention and/or corrective action. The ESEA waiver, which the Legislature supported in 2010 through the passage of ACR-127 and SCR-102, specifically requires the state to provide an annual assessment that districts are permitted to use as a tool for determining the need for intervention and corrective action within student groups, or entire schools.  A-4190 frustrates those purposes.”

NJEA Staff Salaries Highest in the Nation

While we're on the topic of labor union benefits, Mike Antonucci at EIA is “in possession of” staff salary figures from NEA affiliates, which are usually closely-guarded secrets. As a public service, he’s released some information from the internal survey that NEA collects each year. The survey doesn’t include salary and benefits for union presidents, vice presidents, treasurers, union executives, or managers.  Antonucci notes that “the data are divided into two categories: professional staff (UniServ directors, communications, etc.) and support staff (secretaries, administrative assistants, etc.).”

New Jersey, once again, leads the pack:
The highest professional staff salaries belong to the New Jersey Education Association, which average$100,018. Connecticut professional staffers come in second at $93,115, and California is third with $92,010. Bringing up the rear is South Carolina at $42,091. At $50,764, NEA-Alaska had the highest paid support staffers. Professional staffers of the California Teachers Association are at the top in total compensation, thanks to a retirement plan that contributes almost $20,000 per employee per year. CTA’s UniServ directors average $135,434 in salary plus benefits, one of 18 state affiliates in which the professional staff compensation package reaches six figures. 
Average salaries can fluctuate wildly from year to year, especially in small affiliates, when highly paid experienced staffers retire and are replaced by lower-paid new employees. Fortunately, the NEA survey also provides average salary data for the last 10 years, which allows for some leveling out of these spikes. The highest average professional salary increase last year came from the Virginia Education Association. UniServ directors there made $68,660, an 18.5 percent increase from 1999. Professionals saw double-digit average pay hikes in Texas, North Carolina and Nevada. The Nevada State Education Association also had the largest average pay increase since 1991– 66.0 percent. Support staffers in North Carolina saw a 27.1 percent average pay raise last year, while Delaware, California and New Hampshire also saw double-digit increases. Since 1991, Nevada support staffers have seen their average pay more than double — a 100.4 percent increase to $35,328.

Christie Celebrates "Historic Agreement" with NJEA; NJEA says "Not"

Gov. Christie gave his budget address yesterday afternoon and the big news was what he described as a “historic agreement” with NJEA  intended to  alleviate New Jersey’s enormous pension system debt, which John Reitmeyer of NJ Spotlight estimates as “between $37 billion and $83 billion depending on which accounting method is used.”

With all the featured players – Christie and  NJEA leaders as well as gubernatorial hopefuls Steve Sweeney (Senate President) and Steve Fulop (Jersey City  mayor) -- currently jockeying for power positions, it’s hard to know exactly what transpired behind closed doors. But it’s pretty clear that NJEA did engage in discussions with a study commission tasked with coming up with solutions for N.J.’s pension crisis and that other labor unions were not notified of these negotiations. (Here's the study commission's report entitled "A Roadmap to Resolution.")

The “agreement" touted by Christie, which NJEA disputed yesterday after the speech, is based on a series of reforms that includes freezing all state pensions and  creating a new cash-balanced hybrid defined contribution plan. From PolitickerNJ: "Among the plan’s specifics are to freeze existing pension plans, aligning future public employee retirement benefits with private-sector levels, and transfer the assets, liabilities and risks of the existing pension and new retirement plans to employee entities willing and able to assume this obligation.”

The plan would also affect public employees’ generous health plan benefits. From the Star-Ledger:
Public employers pay, on average, 95 percent of an employee's health care expenses, while the average employee pays 18 percent of premium costs. Benefits would be reduced, with the employer paying 80 percent of expenses and the average employee contribution to their premium increasing to 25 percent. Retirees would receive the lower level of coverage without having to kick in more… 
The alternatives to its recommendations, the commission cautioned, are extreme tax increases: it would take raising the sales tax from 7 percent to 10 percent or increasing the income tax by 29 percent to generate $3.6 billion a year. 
Even with a "millionaire's tax" charging the state's 16,000 richest an extra $50,000, on average, the state would still need to raise income taxes 23 percent. Funding the $3.6 billion entirely on the backs of millionaires would cost each an additional $228,000 a year, according to the report.
The study commission also recommended that local school districts take responsibility for employee retirement benefits, which would presumably be rendered net-neutral (or close) by district savings on health care costs.

John Mooney at Spotlight sums up the other education proposals mentioned in Christie’s speech:
For schools, there was, indeed, not much else new to report in the governor’s proposed budget, which called for no overall change in direct state aid to school districts, making it the third year of nominal or no changes in so-called “formula aid” to schools. The actual aid numbers for each district are to be released later this week. 
Elsewhere in the budget, there were some small increases or decreases, including $3 million in additional aid to preschool program and a $3 million allocation for inter-district school choice. There was a $2 million cut in aid for charter school start-ups, and $4 reduction million to nonpublic schools. 
In his only real initiative, Christie did revive his proposal for a relatively modest, $2 million school-voucher program that would use tax credits to raise money for “scholarships” to enable low-income students to attend private schools or public schools outside their communities. 
It’s one of the most contentious and longest-running education issues in the state. And, with its long-shot odds for winning approval in the Democrat-controlled Legislature, it warranted just a line in the governor’s budget address.
But the real news, of course, was Christie’s celebration of the pact with NJEA. Charles Stile of The Record notes, "Despite the post-speech quibbling over semantics, the fact that these bitter foes are even talking — albeit through intermediaries — represents a seismic shift in Trenton. It reflects a new political reality. Christie needs the union. And the union needs Christie."

Other union leaders were appalled.  Spotlight reports  that “the leader of a firefighters union said the NJEA should be ‘ashamed for allowing Gov. Christie to slash the terms of retirement their members have earned'” and Hetty Rosenstein of the Communications Workers of America “said the state pension payments affirmed by the court on Monday need to be honored.”

NJEA  President Steinhauer battled back with this statement:
“We have not agreed to any changes to pensions or health benefits. We have only agreed to continue looking at all solutions that may provide our members with more stable pensions and affordable, high-quality health benefits. The solutions proposed by the commission are complex, and they will require a much greater commitment from the state than has been shown in recent years. For this process to succeed, all parties will have to conduct themselves with the utmost honesty and clarity in order to build trust and allow real solutions to emerge.” 
For further analyses, besides the ones linked above, see Samantha Marcus and Tom Moran of the Star-Ledger. A.P. at Newsworks, Michael Symons at Asbury Park Press, and Jill Colvin and Geoff Mulvihill at the Courier-Post.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Big Happenings in Camden This Evening

According to a press release from Mastery Schools of Camden, this evening at 5:15, just prior to the city School Board meeting, over 50 families will present a petition to Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard asking for more school choice – specifically, more Mastery seats – for Camden children. The petition currently has more than 850 names.

From the press release:
MASTERY SCHOOLS OF CAMDEN PARENTS AND STUDENTS TO DELIVER PETITION WITH OVER 850 SIGNATURES CALLING FOR MORE GREAT PUBLIC NEIGHBORHOOD SCHOOLS

Prior to the Camden City School District board meeting, more than 50 Camden families will present Camden Schools Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard with a stack of petitions signed by over 850 families - primarily from North Camden, East Camden and Cramer Hill - calling for more great public neighborhood schools.  The families signed the petition because they believe every child in Camden deserves a great education, and believe that part of what will make that possible is for Mastery to be afforded the opportunity to create more great public neighborhood schools. Mastery parents and students will also publicly testify about their experiences this year at Mastery's two Camden schools - how their children are learning, safe and excited about school as well as how teachers communicate with parents and support and challenge their children.

Over 850 Camden families have joined Mastery’s BEST (“Building Excellent Schools Together”) campaign calling for more high quality public school options for all kids.  These families represent a growing number of families from communities throughout Camden who are calling on the Superintendent and the School Board to move faster and more boldly to create more excellent public neighborhood schools, through the Renaissance initiative. 


Hope Springs Eternal,

at least regarding the N.J. Senate's ability to resist union-pandering and stand strong on the state's efforts to improve instruction and assessment. 

From today's NJ Spotlight:
As the new PARCC tests ramp up this week in New Jersey and go statewide next week, opponents of the new standardized testing won a victory yesterday in the Assembly with overwhelming and bipartisan approval of a bill to delay the use of the test results in evaluating schools, students and teachers. 
But whether the legislation will go much further is an open question, with state Senate leaders so far showing no inclination to move on the bill and the Christie administration moving ahead with PARCC implementation– at least for now.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Just How "Grassroots" is the Opt-Out Movement in New Jersey?

Judging by NJEA and Save Our Schools-NJ websites and lobbying efforts, New Jersey parents are opting-out their children from PARCC tests in droves. Here's NJEA spokesman Steve Wollner, quoted by Bob Braun:
Nothing less than the future of public education is at stake here,’’ said one top NJEA staffer, Steven Wollmer, its communications director. He made the remarks after a press conference at which the union announced steps it would take with Save Our Schools-New Jersey (SOS-NJ), a parents’ group,  to pass legislation [A4165] limiting the impact of testing. Wollmer called over-reliance on testing “child abuse” and said he hoped anger about the exams would set off a “full-blown rebellion, ” particularly among parents.
And, from SOS-NJ's facebook page,
150 districts have PARCC refusal policies that accommodate parent/student wishes with an alternative venue or activities, and that number is continuing to grow!
The list now includes 51 districts with links confirming their humane refusal policies.
Please help make it possible for the entire state to refuse the PARCC test by contacting your Assembly members via this alert: Support A4165: Protect Right to Refuse High-Stakes Standardized Tests.
Let's get real. Parents of children who are privileged enough to live in high-achieving districts don't really care about standardized tests, at least until their kids are taking SAT's and AP's.  After all, the grade-level assessments that were first administered on Friday (no casualties reported) have no impact on kids. State aid to wealthy districts is de minimus so there's nothing on the line as far as supplemental funding. These parents have no concerns about district dysfunction or the special needs of impoverished children or the very real danger of overlooking pockets of failure among aggregated averages. Their schools are great! Who needs PARCC to tell them that?

Yet NJEA and SOS-NJ insist that the opt-out inclination among parents is "grassroots," i.e., common among all socio-economic groups, as widespread in Plainfield (an Abbott district) as it is in Princeton.

Today in the Wall Street Journal, reporter Leslie Brody gives us some data:
Spot checks with suburban school-district leaders found relatively low numbers of parents alerting them they were opting out so far. In Montclair, high school officials reported getting five or 10 opt-out notes daily since Feb. 9, when the school board told parents that they must notify principals in writing if they plan to refuse testing. About 70 parents of students in all grades in Ridgewood, 64 in Wayne, 75 in Millburn and 75 in Princeton had also done so. In urban Paterson and Camden, officials said it didn’t appear to be an issue for parents.
For those of you unfamiliar with N.J.'s zip-code school enrollment patterns, Montclair, Ridgewood, Millburn, and Princeton (the home base of S0S-NJ) are some of the state's wealthiest districts. According to the state's District Factor Groups rating, which assigns each district a socio-economic level of A (the poorest) to J (the richest), these four schools are either "I's" or "J's." Wayne has a DFG of GH, not as wealthy as Millburn or Princeton but relatively well-off.

Paterson and Camden, on the other hand, are "A's," among N.J.'s most impoverished districts. So much for "grassroots," unless we're talking manicured suburban lawns.

According to Brody's spot check, parents who opt-out children from standardized tests are clustered in N.J. richest districts. It's the whole vaccine:standardized test analogy. We'll spare our children from potential trauma, say wealthy families, no matter how insignificant or unproven that trauma, and put those "other" vulnerable children at risk by undermining the state's ability to collect data on student growth throughout the state..

After all, wealthy families have their own "herd immunity," safe in their enclaves of high-achieving schools. Poor families, if NJEA, SOS-NJ, and supporters of the opt-out bill before the Assembly today have their way, will be shunted aside and exposed to a state school system that would be incapable of quantifying need and providing treatment.

Brody quotes N.J. Education Commissioner David Hespe: "The NJEA is spending a lot of money to try to get students to opt out,” Mr. Hespe said in an interview. “We are worried.”
Mr. Hespe said parents who balk at the tests will miss out on data showing whether their children are on grade level and how they compare to peers. And he said that if many students in a school don’t participate, its results could be distorted in ways that hide achievement gaps among children from different genders, races and financial backgrounds—and make it harder to shape instruction to help those who struggle. 
“The opt-out movement is a suburban phenomenon that’s going to be counterproductive to helping disadvantaged kids,” he said. “In order to identify gaps between kids, in schools and in classrooms, you need this comparative information.”
Let's hope that the N.J. Assembly is paying attention to all of New Jersey schoolchildren, and not just those whose parents can afford to live in Princeton, Millburn, Ridgewood, and Montclair.



"First Vaccinations, Now it's the PARCC Test"

The Press of Atlantic City, hardly a reform-minded publication, comments on  New Jersey’s overblown “anxiety attacks” regarding PARCC assessments, a timely topic given that today the N.J. State Assembly will vote on a bill that guts the state's ability to identify low-achieving cohorts of children and breaks the newly-established link, no matter how minimal, between teacher evaluations and student outcomes. The bill is ardently promoted by NJEA, eager to turn back the clock against N.J.'s teacher tenure and evaluation reform legislation (which it once backed), through a "critical ad campaign." This lobbying effort has resulted in "several unnecessary bills in the Legislature and a growing opt-out movement among parents."

From the editorial:
We concede that the growth of standardized testing is a complicated issue. We agree that there can be such a thing as too much testing, which takes away from valuable instructional time both in the administration of the test and the time spent "teaching to the test." We don't think it is fair to base teacher evaluations entirely or even significantly on their students' scores on such tests. 
But we also think the current hoo-ha over PARCC, which will test math and English skills in grades three through eight and in high school, is more than a little overblown.
New Jersey already is proceeding slowly with PARCC. The test will not be used to evaluate students for placement or promotion in the 2014-15 school year. It will not be required for graduation until 2019. This year's scores will account for only 10 percent of a teacher's evaluation.
So considering all that, why not withhold judgment and give the test a try? 
Much of the opposition to Common Core and the PARCC test stems from the self-interest of various groups. The tea party objects to what it sees as a growing role of the federal government in education. The NJEA, of course, has long opposed linking standardized testing to teacher evaluations.
And the parents who say the test is making their children anxious are also overstating their case, in our opinion. Schools have been giving standardized tests — and students have been anxious about them — for decades. And if truth be told, parents and teachers have a lot to do with inducing that anxiety.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Sunday Leftovers

New Jersey students survived the first day of PARCC testing!  Here's a Bayonne ninth-grader: "It was really easy, actually," [Kion] Namjou said. "It was really smooth, our proctor was really nice. The test went well." There were surprisingly few opt-outs;  the Star-Ledger:  "Districts said the majority of students who were supposed to take the tests participated Friday, with very few refusing to taking it."

Dr.  Allen DeFina in Hopatcong (via Jersey Herald) also had good things to say about PARCC: “I'm not a fan of most tests,” said DeFina, who is the dean of education at New Jersey City University and a member of the NJ Educator Leader Cadre working on PARCC's development. “But if we ought to have a test, we ought to have a really good test, and I can tell you that this test is one of the best designed tests we've ever seen.”

At NJ Spotlight, "Laura Slover blames politics for growing ‘opt-out’ movement, says critics will ultimately see worth of new exams."

Meanwhile, NJEA is using members' dues to pay for a six-week advertising blitz against PARCC, timed to start as the NJ Assembly takes up Ass. Patrick Diegnan's bill that would gut teacher tenure and evaluation reform. Much of NJEA's campaign rhetoric focuses on presumed psychic damage to kids and teachers. From all evidence, the kids are alright. (ICYMI, here's my commentary, based on a PARCC simulation in Newark.)

Another N.J. superintendent (Penny MacCormarck of Montclair) bites the dust to take a NYC position without a salary cap. In Hamilton, Superintendent James Parla unexpectedly asked the school board to terminate his contract,

Atlantic City Public Schools are broke, says NJ Spotlight. Also see the Press of Atlantic City.

The Asbury Park Press features a lengthy analysis of the achievement gap between poor students and rich students, considers the impact of the Common Core, and looks at Keansburg, an Abbott district that is having success in closing the gap.

Today the N.Y. Times Editorial Board urges Congress to not give up the gains we've made in education in its pending ESEA reauthorization:
The state leaders call for more flexibility, but also for Congress to ensure that states design strong accountability systems that set out clear short-term and long-term goals for student improvement; that use multiple measures, including test performance; and that break down student test data by race, income and disability status. Most notably, they want Congress to require states to intervene in districts or schools that fail to meet state goals, fail to educate subgroups of students or have declining student performance over time.
Robert C. Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, describes teacher union resistance to proposed federal regulations on teacher prep programs:
I am embarrassed that professionals responsible for the preparation of teachers seem to oppose so adamantly efforts to evaluate the competence of the workforce they produce. As a scholar who works in areas related to the assessment and improvement of teaching, as an educator and as a dean of a school of education with a teacher preparation program, I worry that, rather than recognizing an opportunity for real leadership, my profession has reached a new low in the teacher wars. The response to the proposed regulations is a failure to recognize our responsibility to the public and to our own goals and values.

Friday, February 20, 2015

What the Heck is Going on in Newark?

I’m trying to figure it out too. We know that eight students, members of the Newark Students Union, have been camped out at Newark Public Schools’ central office at 2 Cedar St. since 8:30 Tuesday night. This “occupation” is supported by Newark Mayor Ras Baraka.  The students are demanding Superintendent Cami Anderson’s resignation, a rollback of One Newark, a long-term district improvement plan that includes universal enrollment to the city’s traditional and charter schools, and a return to local control.

Civil disobedience is a proud American tradition and the students’ enthusiasm and commitment is terrific. But there are a few troubling elements to this “occupation:"

1) At least one of the eight students, Thais Marques, is not a high school student but a Rutgers college student.

2) At least three of the remaining seven (names derived from twitter feeds and media, but they’re kids: I don’t want to name them) are students at Newark Science Park High School. Science Park is one of N.J.’s most selective magnet high school with highly-coveted slots.  These students  were able to enroll in one of the best schools in the state through a public school choice program that operates a lot like One Newark, at least if you disregard the admissions requirements that students demonstrate “interest in science and have an overall excellent academic record, particularly in the areas of science, mathematics and computer literacy.”'

One of the students/adults' contentions is that One Newark "promotes segregation." But the high school students attend one of the most segregated schools in the city.

Science Park offers 15 A.P. courses and 6 I.B. courses. Everyone graduates and everyone goes to four-year colleges.

For comparison’s sake,  Barringer High School, a non-magnet open admissions Newark high school, offers no A.P. or I.B. courses.  According to the D.O.E., it “significantly lags” in achievement. 52% of students graduate and 25% enroll in four-year colleges.

3) The student’s organizer is Roberto Cabanas. He not only facilitates activities at Newark Students Union but also is “lead organizer” at New Jersey Communities United. (Thais Marques is employed at NJCU also.) NJCU works for all sorts of good causes (paid sick leave, police reform, etc.). It also works with Newark Teachers Union, Working Families Alliance, and NJEA to stop education reform initiatives. (Yesterday at a live-streamed press conference one of the students yelled out something like, “we want to get rid of Cami Anderson and stop PARCC!)

These kids are great and smart and articulate;their motives are pure. I’m just not that sure about the adults.

New Newsworks Post: Message to Anti-Testing Folks: It's Time to Listen to Kids

It starts here:
Last Friday in Newark Public Schools, 3,500 students in fifty-six buildings participated in a PARCC simulation, a forty-five minute dress rehearsal for the new computer-based standardized tests that will debut in two weeks.  A fourth grader at Miller Street School said, “it was fun.” 
Meanwhile, NJEA is launching a super-PAC funded ad campaign, against PARCC tests because the new assessments are causing “widespread misery.”  Some suburban parents wax indignant over “toxic tests” because, say their spokespeople at Save Our Schools-NJ, PARCC “punishes schools and destabilizes communities.” State legislators debate “opt-out” bills that gut data-infused teacher tenure reform. Suburban school boards pass anti-PARCC resolutions. 
But the kids are alright. It’s the adults who are apoplectic. This disparate response to computer-based tests reflects a generational divide that informs some of the animus towards PARCC, particularly fear of technology and data.
Read the rest here.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

One of N.J.'s Top Superintendents Explains What's Wrong with the Opt-Out Movement

James A. Crisfield, superintendent of one of New Jersey’s highest-performing districts, Millburn Public Schools, has an editorial today in NJ Spotlight that makes a  reasonable and nuanced argument against the anti-testing crowd. Says Crisfield,  “the opt-out movement has to stop. It is just not a practical or viable approach to public education.”

Here’s one section of Crisfield’s discussion:
I do understand the concerns people have with the PARCC tests, and I in fact share some of them. I feel the PARCC tests as currently configured take too much time to administer, and I strongly object to how they are used to compare districts (or schools) to one another. And worse yet, very few educators, anywhere, will agree with the notion that standardized test results are either a valid or a reliable way to evaluate teachers. 
Having said that, assessment is a natural and necessary component of the education process. Great teachers deploy assessment techniques all the time to help shed light on both their students' needs and the efficacy of their teaching. PARCC results, we are told and we hope, will provide us with valuable insights into our students' needs and how we can meet them, so I am willing to give PARCC the benefit of the doubt to see if that promise will be fulfilled. After all, it's not like we haven't had standardized testing for, well, decades (if by a different name -- Iowa, Early Warning Test, NJASK, and the like). 
What distinguishes PARCC from these prior versions, among other things, is the highly charged political climate of 2015. It seems as if everything now needs to be viewed (and acted upon) through a political lens. PARCC is linked to the Common Core, which in turn elicits angry, visceral reactions from several different quarters. And we then start down the road of letting politics interfere with the educational process. Politics, especially the partisan variety, has no place in the classroom and can in fact be quite distracting.
The comment section is as illuminating as the editorial itself. There, opt-out fans present the  tired and mythic charges against PARCC:  its link to Bill Gates (who, with his wife Melinda, ranks as the second-most generous philanthropist in America); its link to Pearson (which has sold tests and textbooks to American schools forever); potential infringement of local control (as if school districts haven’t administered state standardized tests for decades); ”distortions to the way we educate children” (which is fine if you can buy  your way into Millburn schools and not so fine if you can only afford housing in Camden, Newark, or Trenton); data-mining (not happening); and the perceived time-suck of PARCC compared to familiar tests like ASK and HSPA (which are widely-acknowledged to be inadequate and also created tension and time burdens when they debuted twelve years ago).

Remember, we're arguing about standards that have been in place for five years and assessments that haven't even been given yet. Can we wait two weeks before passing judgement?

Also in the comments section, Anne Clark, who never takes fools lightly, has her own responses to anti-testers. She notes that there was plenty of opportunity for public comment during the adoption of Common Core and PARCC, that instructional time devoted to PARCC tests is de minimus compared to traditional testing schedules, and that the movement towards uniform standards and assessments has always been bipartisan. She’s also not afraid to call out Save Our Schools-NJ, one of the primary instigators of N.J.’s hysteria:
That said, the anti-CCSS/PARCC arguments never seem to identify specifics. SOSNJ had a "supposed" PARCC sample math problem on their facebook page that had a bunch of typos. If they had only bothered to google the first sentence of the problem, they would have found the correctly worded, real sample problem - not one supplied by a teen from an unidentified school. But instead, they fostered outrage among parents for what our kids were going to have to deal with, until they finally relented and took down the whole thread.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

QOD: A Public School Mom on the Anti-Test Movement's Hostility Towards Data

Lynnell Mickelson, a "long-time progressive Democrat," at Education Post:
Can we be clear? When the sole responsibility for test outcomes was on the children, there was little to no organized test resistance. But as soon as some of the responsibility shifted to the adults, oh my God! Let the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth begin. Oh, the inhumanity! Oh, the stress of “high-stakes”! Oh, the loss of childhood! Oh, the corporate conspiracy of Pearson! And so forth. 
I’m not entirely unsympathetic to the anti-test movement. Some districts test too much. Endless rote test prep is dumb. Art, music and gym are all crucial and belong in the curriculum 
 But the organized movement to dump standardized testing and replace it with projects or individual teacher’s tests, also strikes me as blatant attempt to dump the evidence.
One more thing—this is a mostly white, Crunchy Mama, privileged-driven argument that overlaps a bit with the anti-vaccination rhetoric. Like the anti-vaccinators, Opt-Out parents seem confident that their children are not in danger. And if parents are confident their kid is brilliant and on-track to college, it’s easy to dismiss standardized tests as a drag on Little Dylan’s creativity.
But if these same parents find out Little Dylan can’t read in fourth-grade or is three years behind in math, even though the teacher keeps showing them his wonderful art work—well, that’s when I suspect standardized testing becomes more important as does the location of the nearest Kumon math school. Etc. 
Check your privilege, people. Just sayin’.

Newark Students "Occupy" Cami Anderson's Office

At this moment a small group of Newark Public School students have been “occupying” the district’s central office on Cedar Street since about 8:30 last night.  Blue Jersey says they were aided by several adults, including Mayor Ras Baraka’s Chief of Staff, who happens to be his brother Middy. (Welcome to Newark.) The students, according to Bob Braun ( not the most reliable narrator) are protesting Superintendent Cami Anderson’s reappointment.

According to the students’ live twitter feed, they are also protesting local school closings, charter school expansion (despite 10,000 children and their parents clamoring for more spots), Newark’s new universal school enrollment plan, and a lack of pizza.

(Some confusion there: the twitter feed says the students haven’t received food, but Braun says that “pizzas later arrived, delivered by none other than assistant superintendent Roger Leon, often thought to be the next superintendent if  Anderson can ever be pried loose from her hold on the $300,000 job.”)

I don’t mean to be snide. These young people have a cause they believe in and they have chosen action over what must appear to be ineffective verbal protests. To some in their community, they’re heroes, including Ras Baraka and his staff, the school board, and the Badass Teachers Association, all of whom are tweeting their support. The students are simply modeling behavior urged by adults like Braun, who railed furiously against Newark Teachers Union for “betraying the boycott movement,” by showing up for their jobs when school opened in September, and lambasted NJEA for focusing its annual convention on professional development instead of politics. (Steve Wollmer, spokesman for the union, replied that Braun was either “misinformed or deliberately misleading.”)

We'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Throw-Back Tuesday: N.J. Was Looking At Computer-Based Assessments Fifteen Years Ago

Fifteen years ago the N.J. School Boards Association reported on “new challenges” to the state’s public schools. The State had introduced its Core Curriculum Content Standards (CCCS) in 1996 and, five years later, followed up with “a new state testing program” that included the ESPA, the GEPA, and HSPA.

Then-NJSBA President Patti Pawling noted that “the standards will have a strong impact on what happens in the classroom during 2000-01 and “we are already seeing high school students taking 50% more coursework in science than in past years.”

  • (Flash-forward: the state introduced the Common Core State Standards in 2010 and now, five years later, is following up with a new testing program called PARCC.)

Pawling continued back in 2000,“[w]ith the curriculum standards has come a rigorous state testing program in the 4th and 5th grades, 8th grade and 11th grade.  New state-developed tests depart from traditional multiple-choice standardized tests, according to the state education department.  For example, students are expected to revise a letter to the editor or apply math principles to real-world scenarios.”

The article also notes that the 4th grade test, the ESPA, was considered “too long and stressful for young children” because it “was in fact longer than the SAT and even the State Bar Exam.” The D.O.E. agreed to shorten it.

  • (Flash-forward: the Common Core is more “rigorous,” or at least requires more critical thinking skills and depth of knowledge. New PARCC-developed tests depart from traditional multiple-choice standardized tests because they’re computer-based. Some school districts are lessening test-stress for students by eliminating in-district assessments.)

NJSBA continues its report on new standards and assessments: “In April 2000, Commissioner of Education David Hespe called for a study into other methods beyond a state-developed paper-and-pencil  test to assess student progress in the visual and performing arts, physical education and world languages.  This fall, an  assessment advisory panel  is scheduled to report to Hespe with recommendations on the best way to test student performance in these areas.  The panel consists of educators, educational organizations and representatives from the business community.”

  • (Flash forward: fifteen years later, N.J. finally seems on the verge of abandoning the paper-and-pencil tests in favor of computer-based tests called PARCC, an improvement suggested by then-and-now Comm. Hespe. Unless, of course, the  anti-testing crowd successfully convinces weak-kneed legislators to abandon new up-to-date assessments that rely on computers instead of pens and pencils.)

The critical difference this time, of course, is that NJEA has mounted a full-fledged assault against the new tests, not because they’re bad for children but because the union fears that they’re bad for teachers. Today NJEA’s super-PAC announced an ad campaign against  PARCC that relies on a much-maligned “poll” of parents/ (For analysis of this push poll, see Peter Cunningham, Bob Braun, and me.)

Ironically, Gov. Christie, NJEA’s enemy, is currently flip-flopping on support for both Common Core and PARCC in order to woo the conservative arm of the GOP while NJEA is ardently lobbying against the same set of standards and assessments by wooing nostalgia-riven and computer-phobic parents and legislators. They all share a very short memory regarding New Jersey’s unassailiable tradition of updating student standards and assessments in order to best serve kids.

Tom Moran on N.J. Resistance to PARCC

Tom Moran of the Star-Ledger nails the (il)logic that drives the mismatched pockets of New Jerseyans who deplore new standards and assessments, as well as the surging resentment among those who pine for the good old days when teachers were unfettered by the constraints of common standards (not: N.J. has had core curriculum standards for decades),  students were unscarred by the scourges of standardized testing (not: N.J. has had standardized tests for decades and the PARCC is but a few minutes longer than the old tests), and everyone was above-average:
An odd coalition has taken shape to oppose Common Core, or at least the testing that gives the standards their muscle, known as PARCC. 
Hard-core conservatives don't like national standards on anything -- whether it's coal plants, or civil rights, or schools. And Christie is dancing for them now. 
But hard-core liberals don't like it either. Those tests can be used to root out bad teachers, something the powerful New Jersey Education Association reflexively opposes. And the exhaustive testing regimen of PARCC has suburban parents riled up in pockets across the state...
I can't vouch for the quality of these tests. And I get the concern about testing overkill. Some districts have cancelled their home-grown exams to make room for the PARCC tests, a smart way to cope. 
But there's no question that America needs national standards. Our kids rank near the bottom in math, compared to other advanced countries, and are only average in reading. Leaving each state to wander on its own is just nuts.



Sunday, February 15, 2015

Sunday Leftovers

New Jersey education news this week is all PARCC all the time.  State Legislative committees debated Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan’s two education bills. One would  forbid districts from giving students in grades K-2 standardized tests unless required by law and the second  would place a three-year moratorium on using PARCC results for teacher evaluations and student placement. Both bills passed the Assembly Education Committee this week. Coverage from the Star-Ledger, NJ Spotlight, Philadelphia Inquirer, Asbury Park Press (and here’s a link to a video of a reporter interviewing “folks at the Freehold Raceway Mall about the PARCC tests”; can’t make this stuff up).

The Record says that the  "movement to get parents to keep their children from taking new state exams next month — fueled by protests on social media and encouragement from the teachers union — is gaining steam.” (The media is happy to help: this article from the Courier-Post describes "the PARCC's poorly worded, complicated and even misleading questions" and here's a video from the Asbury Park Press entitled "The Common Core's Greatest Pitfall although the the piece never mentions the Common Core and the link says the title is "PARCC Leaves Poor Students Behind.")

ICYMI, here's my (somewhat jaundiced) view of Ass. Diegnan's second bill.

NJ Spotlight looks at certain fiscal penalties that N.J. might incur by backpedalling on our Race to the Top application that swore we'd  use student outcomes for teacher evaluations. Also see Spotlight for this: “A month before New Jersey is to start controversial new state testing aligned to the Common Core State Standards, Gov. Chris Christie muddied the waters this week when he said he now has 'grave concerns' about the standards he previously endorsed and which his administration is busy promoting.” [Question: if Christie is now against the Common Core State Standards and  PARCC, will his change of heart provoke NJEA and Save Our Schools to respond by lobbying in favor of high quality standards and assessments?]

Local school districts continue to offer parents opportunities to take the PARCC and see what all the fuss is about. The Star-Ledger reported yesterday from Bloomfield on a simulated 6th grade language arts PARCC test:
Patrick Collins said he found the questions to be straight forward. But he ran into a few problems with the technology.
In answering one question, he thought he had correctly identified the conflict in the reading passage as well as three corresponding events that led to a resolution.
The question required him to click on the correct answers and drag them into sequential order at the bottom of the screen. But some of the answers he clicked on wouldn't seem to move.
"I'm sure my daughter is better at this that I am," Patrick Collins said.
The Press of Atlantic City reports that “The Atlantic City School District is undergoing a major upheaval that starts at the top and could trickle down to every employee. Superintendent Donna Haye has notified the district she will retire May 31. Her three-year contract expires June 30. Her retirement letter was submitted Friday, the the same day as a remedial plan was due to the state explaining how the district might handle a potential funding shortfall this year if the city is unable to make its required property tax payments. The plan was not publicly available Monday, but the district has already instituted a spending and hiring freeze.”

Trenton City Schools has a $19 million budget gap and U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman says it’s all the state’s fault. The Trentonian looks back to the original appointment of a state fiscal monitor last year:
“It almost appears that every time that it looks at though we are free of this that we’re no longer ‘12 Years a Slave,’” board attorney Kathleen Smallwood Johnson said at the time to applause from the crowd, referencing last year’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture. “I see nothing, sir, in all due respect within the law that mandates that this district has to stay under the bondage of a state monitor.” 
The state Department of Education never fully provided an explanation for the monitor, but hinted a reason was student achievement. Trenton’s graduation rate only recently hovered above 50 percent after years of falling below that number.
NJ Spotlight ranks the top ten public open admissions high schools (i.e., not magnet schools) based on SAT scores. 

The Washington Post looks “behind the curtain” of the Montgomery County Public Schools:
We live in a county where many deride free-breakfast programs but brag about million-dollar sports fields. We complain that our children are losing sleep but ignore children without a bed in which to sleep. We offer $100 yearbooks while some are struggling to read. We are a county with a wide divide — and a color line — between children who “have” and those who “have not.”

Friday, February 13, 2015

A Suburban Parent (and Journalist) Explains Why Suburban Parents Are Rallying Against PARCC Tests

Lauren McKenna, a white suburban New Jersey mom (and writer for the Atlantic Monthly), analyzes the backlash against the Common Core and aligned standardized tests in "Suburbia and Its Common Core Conspiracy Theories." The first cadre of haters were seemingly their antithesis:  GOP Tea Party-ers,  “politically motivated critics, who have rallied against a national system of learning standards for decades.  These conservatives have “ their own conspiracy theories about the Common Core, too. These include claims that the the standards will turn students gay, that it preaches an anti-American agenda, and that Muslim Brotherhood and communists shaped the content.”

But now, as we all know, the Tea Party crazies have joined arms with a group that McKenna describes as her own: “white, suburban moms.” In other words, people just like her (and me, for the record).

She explains,
My friends and neighbors post links almost daily on Facebook to articles claiming the Common Core "curriculum," as they perceive it, is destroying American youth. It has single-handedly taken recess away from kids, they argue. The upcoming tests demoralize kids and teachers. The new curricula and tests are an assault on an otherwise idyllic world where kids used to learn naturally—like those lucky children in Finland. Instead of actually instilling knowledge in students, teachers drill irrelevant facts into kids’ heads in order to game the testing results. And since the new exams will be taken on computers, hackers might even reveal the test results to colleges. 
While there may be elements of truth in some of those parents’ fears, these protests have developed an irrational, hysterical bent. And they often have very real implications when it comes to public policy; these theories and fears have already led to political action at the local level. Parents have formed groups that claim to disseminate "the facts" about the Common Core. They share tips for opting out of the tests. They read prepared speeches at school board meetings. One local debate on the Common Core hosted by the League of Women Voters was standing room only.  
Read the whole thing. McKenna incisively captures the distrust of bureaucracy shared by both cohorts, the analogy to anti-vaxxers,  flaws in implementation of the PARCC, and how the intensity of the blowback can be ascribed in part to suburban parents’ belief that the Common Core and attendant assessments represent a “ threat to their ability to keep their kids safe in a hostile world.”

Courier Post Editorial Post Corrects the Record

Yesterday WHYY Newsworks ran my column which responded to a badly-flawed Courier-Post piece, “Graduation Loophole Common in Camden” on Camden Public Schools’ use of “appeals,” an alternate graduation pathway for students who fail the High School Proficiency Assessments in language arts and math.

Today the Courier-Post Editorial Board corrected the misconceptions and mistakes in the original article. That’s a credit to their management and integrity.

Here are a few items from the editorial:

  • "Camden’s not the only district that relies on the appeal process, but it may be alone in being so transparent about the numbers."
  • "Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard deserves credit for being open about metrics that the state and other districts have chosen to obscure."
  • On the reporter’s comparison of Camden’s appeals percentage to that in nearby Haddonfield: “But affluent Haddonfield does not have the same challenges as Camden. It might have been more instructive to compare the city with neighboring Pennsauken, or to other urban districts like Newark and Trenton.”
  • :Furthermore, if so many are unable to pass state exams, where does the failure lie? Are students lacking basic skills they’ll need once they leave school? Or does the appeal process demonstrate that they are better at math and language arts than at passing standardized tests?"


Thursday, February 12, 2015

Trenton Public Schools Will Lay Off Forty-Seven Child Study Team Members

Trenton Public Schools announced this week that it will lay off 113 teaching positions in order to try to close a $19 million budget gap.. Some of those lay-offs will be members of Child Study Teams, the groups of social workers, psychologists, learning consultants, and educators who assess children with disabilities and work with parents to create Individualized Education Plans that lay out the type and quantity of therapies, services, accommodations, and modifications for each child.

Trenton Public Schools’ enrollment is  13,087, according to most recent D.O.E. reports. Among those children, 2,236 are classified as eligible for special education services, above the average for N.J. school districts but pretty much on par for needy districts.  But 32% of those special needs children are sent to out-of-district placements. The state target is 8%.

From yesterday’s Trenton Times:
By eliminating 47 positions from the 14 child study teams, the district stands to save $4.9 million, said [district spokesperson Kathy] Smallwood Johnson. The district would keep three child study teams staffed by district personnel - one for elementary, one for middle and high school and one for students who are sent to schools out of the district.
Three Child Study Teams for a district of Trenton’s size? That’s appallingly low, especially since one of them will be devoted solely to children served in out-of-district private education schools and other public districts. Although some of the positions will be out-sourced, Trenton is crying “uncle” to the admittedly difficult task of abiding by state and federal mandates, codified in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act,  to provide children with disabilities with a ”free appropriate public education” (FAPE) in the “least restrictive environment (LRE).”

Trenton has a long history of disregarding LRE.  In December Assistant Superintendent Alexa Ingram made a presentation to the School Board that addressed the high number of special needs students sent to out-of-district placements. The district estimates that tuition costs for the 505 children sent out-of-district (that’s 5% of total district enrollment) will be $31,782,545 for this school year.  During that presentation the district announced that administrators are trying to bring back more students in order to comply with LRE requirements and, of course, to lower tuition costs. The announcement of the Child Study Team lay-offs renders that plan implausible.

You can’t have it both ways. Either you invest in in-district programs that offer appropriate educational services to children with disabilities or you throw up your hands, disregard the law, and write checks to outside providers.

Nicole Whitfield, an advocate for parents of students with special needs, said she is still on the fence about the proposal, saying the in-district teams don't always yield good results for students.
"The system is broken because over the course of many years there has never been accountability," Whitfield said. "Maybe it will fix it. Maybe it won't."

A N.J. Education Professor Reflects on Parent and Teacher Anxiety about PARCC Tests

Audrey Fisch, an English professor and coordinator of Secondary English Education at New Jersey City University, attended the anti-PARCC meeting in Jersey City on Monday and reflects in today's Star-Ledger on parent and teacher concerns about the new test that will debut in March. The high school PARCC tests replace our low-bar and much-maligned High School Proficiency Assessment, where, she writes, it was “ possible to answer many of the multiple-choice questions without reading the passage” and “a raw score of approximately 50 percent was usually good enough to pass.”

This is what we want our kids to aspire to? These are the instructional expectations we want to instill in our teachers, parents, and schools?

Here’s Dr. Fisch:
Recently, I attended a meeting for parents at my local high school about the new regimen of standardized testing. While the administrators wanted to focus exclusively on how testing would affect individual students and how the district would administer the exam, what struck me was the general anxiety and lack of understanding about the Common Core, the new (and old) assessments, and the current climate of testing… 
The new PARCC language arts exams are different. The multiple-choice questions are more text-dependent. Pairs of questions ask students to select not just the main idea or the meaning of a word or phrase but to find evidence in the text for their answers. The tasks are more aligned with college and career skills, asking students to engage with a wider range of texts - Supreme Court decisions, historical documents, discussions of science, and even videos. Students will also be asked to compare and contrast texts and ideas. 
Will students struggle with PARCC? Undoubtedly. That's always the case with a new assessment. Will many students fail? That depends on where PARCC sets the passing score, which has yet to be determined. 
So, parents, don't freak out about PARCC. Your child's score won't matter much to his or her immediate future. But figuring out whether all students are learning what they need to matters a great deal. 
Parents should be much more worried about the many students in our nation who aren't learning to read, write, and think well. 
That's the larger story I wish more parents had heard in the auditorium.

New Newsworks Post: Contrary to Recent Reports, Camden Isn't Using a "Graduation Loophole"

It starts here:
On Monday the Courier-Post asserted that Camden Public Schools conceals an “eye-popping” and “unique” percentage of high school seniors who graduate through an appeals process, rather than through passing a state standardized test. The Post alleges, in an article entitled “Graduation Loophole Common in Camden,” that “finding another example to compare Camden's appeals percentage against is impossible” and “this revelation is a “wrinkle in the graduation statistics that appears unique to Camden — and troubling to the state.” 
Question: What’s really going on in Camden? 
Answer: Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard is being honest about a practice common to many of N.J.’s poorest school districts.
Read the rest here.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

New Jersey PARCC Update

The Garden State’s anti-testing crowd continues to intensify its opposition to the PARCC assessments and the media is responding  this week with a plethora of articles that depict this angst.

A little context for those just tuning in: In 1975 the N.J. State Legislature passed the Public School Education Act in order "to provide to all children of New Jersey, regardless of socioeconomic status or geographic location, the educational opportunity which will prepare them to function politically, economically and socially in a democratic society." A year later the Legislature amended the law to include uniform standards of “minimum achievement in basic communication and computational skills,” as well as standardized testing.

So, the Common Core State Standards are simply an update to those “uniform standards” and the PARCC is an update to the state’s ASK and HSPA tests, given annually to students in 3d-8th grade and in 11th grade.

This forty-year tradition was non-controversial. Students took standardized tests, teachers spent time preparing them, and schools worried about scores. So, what’s changed?
  • Some parents are expressing concern about whether or not meaningful assessments are too stressful for students and whether beloved teachers should be subject to objective metrics.  (Amidst the fervor, it’s easy to forget that the PARCC tests, like N.J.’s previous standardized tests, are no-stakes for students and very low-stakes for teachers.)
  • Some teachers are concerned that anxiety about the tests is interrupting classroom instruction and whether their youngest students can manage computer-based assessments instead of the old fill-in-the-bubble tests.
  • Most importantly, the leaders of NJEA, N.J.’s primary teacher union, are intent on overturning part of N.J.’s 2012  teacher tenure and evaluation reform legislation that for the first time ties a very small portion of  teacher evaluations to student outcomes on standardized tests. See here for details.
Initially, NJEA leaders supported the law. Indeed, the final bill mostly duplicates NJEA’s model tenure reform proposal. But now union leaders, aided by other lobbyists and national union leaders, are fighting back against these accountability measures.  They've even got a sponsor for a new bill (see my coverage here) that would force all school districts to help parents "opt-out" of almost  all standardized tests.

Now, the news:

From CBS:
The New Jersey Education Association is opposed to the PARCC test, saying it will also be used to evaluate English and math teachers and expressing concern that it could be used to punish them. 
“Teachers should be evaluated, but it should be used to improve instruction, not be used as punitive gotchas,” said New Jersey Education Association Wendell Steinhauer… 
Even so, the teachers’ union said it plans on flooding the airwaves with commercials in hopes of stopping the PARCC exams. 
The union said as many as 70 percent of school districts are giving notice to parents that their children may refuse the test. Hespe said for now, the tests will not be used as a requirement for high school graduation, but that could change after 2019.
From the Daily Record:
“Adults who have taken the practice test online are pretty shocked by the way the questions are designed and worded,” said Steve Baker, a spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, the largest teachers union in the state. “They find them to be confusing, misleading.” 
Bari Erlichson, an assistant education commissioner, said the PARCC test will be useful to show teachers, schools and parents exactly where their students are performing well and where they need more work. 
“We’re really excited about the way PARCC improves upon the assessment programs we’ve had in the past,” Erlichson said. 
And for those considering boycotting? “They ought to give it a chance,” she said.
From the Star-Ledger, reporting from Jersey City:
Lisa Rodrick, an educator for 21 years who teaches reading to grades 3, 4 and 5, wears a button to work every day. So do the other 80 teachers at Alexander D. Sullivan School Number 30 Elementary School, she said. "Children should be chasing bubbles, not filling them in," Rodrick's button reads. 
From a  Jersey City teacher,  described as an “outspoken opponent of PARCC”:  “her fear is that PARCC is 'developmentally inappropriate,' and 'beyond' challenging in a district where about 70 percent of students are on free or reduced lunch.” Also,  “teachers are starting to talk about opting out their own children from testing.” 
From Jersey City’s Chief of Staff Maryann Dickar: "We believe our students can meet these higher standards," she said. "We know we are in a transition to the new, more rigorous standards, but we know our students can meet that higher bar and we will support them all along the way."
From NJ Spotlight, which reports that  Governor Christie, desperately trying to regain his momentum in the GOP nomination race, told Iowans that,
 "he has doubts about the state’s involvement in the face of what he was said was pressure to adopt the standards as a condition of federal funding.
"I have grave concerns about the way this has been done, especially the way the Obama administration has tried to implement it through tying federal funding to these things,” he said. “And that changes the entire nature of it, from what was initially supposed to be a voluntary type system and states could decide on their own to now having federal money tied to it in ways that really, really give me grave concerns.”
Back home, the governor’s comments raise new questions about the administration’s commitment to the Common Core standards at a time when the state is about to begin the student PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readines s for College and Careers) testing aligned to those standards, despite rising protests. 
Nevertheless, the governor’s latest sentiments flew in the face of his own comments just two years ago, when he stood fast for the Common Core. 
"We are doing Common Core in New Jersey and we're going to continue,” Christie said at a 2013 conference. “And this is one of those areas where I have agreed more with the President than not.
From the Asbury Park Press regarding a new Monmouth University Poll:
While New Jersey residents want accountability for all the money that goes into schools, they don't believe standardized testing is an accurate gauge of teachers or student productivity. “New Jerseyans like their public schools, but they still want more accountability. They are not quite convinced, though, that standardized tests provide an accurate picture of educational outcomes,” said Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute in West Long Branch, N.J.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

QOD: Annual Standardized Testing and Doctor’s Visits: Doing Right by Kids

Speaking of annual standardized testing, Derrell Bradford, Executive Director NYCAN,  describes the bad old days when "states had testing regimens that amounted to spot checking student progress in gateway grades such as 4th and 8th grade. And since there was no requirement to report the results by subgroup (African American students as an example) many cities and states homogenized away the failure of these smaller populations of students in their results for white and affluent students."

He continues,
With annual testing we now know, every year, how are kids are doing. We know when they succeed and, more importantly, we know when they struggle. And the knowing has facilitated a tectonic shift in how we organize our efforts around making sure every child, including those who struggle, gets a fair shot at an excellent education.

Some in D.C., and elsewhere, don’t like the results we’ve been getting. So instead of attacking the problem, they instead want to shoot the messenger and eliminate the testing provision. Dropping this provision would be like getting a physical three times in your whole life—as a kid, an adult, and as a senior—instead of once each year. Sure going to the doctor can be nerve wracking, but wouldn’t you rather know about your health—or what you could do to be healthier—while you have a chance to do something about it instead of just hoping that you’re ok?

The testing provision is a checkup for our student’s education and mastery just like a physical is a checkup for your health. And we, and our kids, are indeed better off knowing where we are instead of just hoping that we’re ok or, or in this case, hoping we know how to read, write, and do math at grade level.
(No link yet.)

Civil Rights Leaders Plead with Congress to Maintain Annual Standardized Testing

In a letter addressed to U.S. Congressmen John Kline and Robert Scott of the Education and Workforce Committee, a group of civil rights leaders and education advocates argue that a newly-authorized ESEA must maintain annual standardized testing in order to provide all children with equitable access to education.

Signatories r include heads of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, the Education Trust, National Council of La Raza, Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates,  and Democrats for Education Reform.

As the anti-testing movement heats up in New Jersey and elsewhere and PARCC becomes synonymous with “evil empire,” civil rights leaders are pleading with Congress to not pander to the hard-court press of teacher union lobbyists (more concerned with new teacher evaluations tied to student growth) and Tea Party activists (more concerned with philosophical conceits about federal intervention)  and  gut the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  While there’s much to dislike about the current law, and multiple areas of potential improvement,  these leaders explain that “the  essential backbone of the law — assessment, public reporting and accountability for student outcomes” must remain strong.

ESEA’s  singular achievement, after all,  is its mandate that schools report academic growth broken down by subgroups: economically-disadvantaged children, those with disabilities, those new to English, members of minority groups. Without disaggregation of test score data, these children are rendered invisible. We know this, because that’s how it was before ESEA’s standardized testing mandate.

Certainly, there’s great value in evaluating whether schools are over-testing students. But eliminating annual standardized testing, which comprises a small fraction of the tests that children take each year, merely returns us to an era when our neediest kids were lost in aggregated averages.

From the list of recommendations from the civil rights leaders:

  • All students must be assessed by the states in reading and math on a statewide assessment annually in grades 3-8, as well as at least once in high school, so they and their parents know where they are on state standards; 
  •  The results of those assessments must be reported publicly, both overall and for all groups of students, so parents and taxpayers have honest, consistent information on how their schools are performing; 
  • States must establish accountability systems that expect faster improvement for the groups of children who have lagged behind, and prompt action when any group of students underperforms, so parents can have confidence that their children matter and that schools will partner with them in getting them to state standards and graduating with a regular diploma.

We'll see if the U.S. Congress is willing to write off our neediest kids who, say the  signatories, are "imperiled" by "the uneven quality and grossly disparate results of our education system"  or whether our representatives can  find the backbone to withstand political pressure from self-interested lobbyists. 

Monday, February 9, 2015

Eva Moskowitz, Union Leaders, and Special Education

Today's  Wall Street Journal features an fiery editorial by Eva Moskowitz, founder of the widely-acclaimed Success Academy Charter Schools, about the “big lie” that NYC charter schools “cream off” high-performing students and shun those with special needs. Ms. Moscowitz, no pal of anti-charter Mayor Bill de Blasio, takes aim at the  “outrageous assertion by Chancellor [Carmen] FariƱa at the Crain’s Future of New York City conference last November that the city’s charter schools—which admit students by random lottery—game the system by sending ‘postcards”’ to top performers on state exams inviting them to apply.”

Here’s Ms. Moskowitz on the “myth” and “slander” directed at charter schools retention rate of regular ed and special ed students:
The IBO report, released in January, found that—contrary to what some people have come to believe—“students at charter schools stay at their schools at a higher rate than students at nearby traditional public schools.” The IBO reported that charter schools in the city retain 64% of their students, compared with 56% of students retained by district schools. Among special-education students, the IBO found that 53% stay at their charter schools, versus 49% at district schools. 
This means that no matter how many times UFT President Michael Mulgrew repeats the slander in press releases, in letters to his members and in newspaper columns that charter schools unfairly “counsel out,” i.e., expel, struggling students just before state exams—it simply isn’t true.
It’s a little more complicated than that, at least in the world of special education.  While children with mild learning differences are easily integrated into general education classes, children with moderate to severe cognitive handicaps require a bevy of extra resources and accommodations. Often, those sorts of programs are found at large schools that have the scale to put together an appropriately-outfitted and staffed classroom of children with, for example, autism, or a private special education school targeted to that diagnosis. Parents of children with special needs are generally pretty savvy about individual school offerings and would be less likely to want their child at a small regular ed school without the necessary scale, charter or traditional.

This doesn’t mean that charter schools shouldn’t serve children with special needs. In fact, this NYC dispute points to a missed opportunity for charter school advocates: charter schools specifically for children with disabilities. Other states do this successfully: this Ed Week article kvells about the 90-student Arizona Autism Charter School and the “Potentials Charter School in Palm Beach County, Fla., which specializes in serving students with cerebral palsy and offers speech and occupational therapy for students who are unable to walk or talk.”

Such schools run up against federal and state mandates that children with disabilities be served in the LRE, or “least restricted environment,” i.e., integrated into classrooms with typical peers. In New Jersey that’s not so much an issue since we historically have a sky-high proportion of disabled students sent out of district: about 9% of all children eligible for special education services. (See here for more detail.) Aspiring special education charter school applicants would no doubt be discouraged by N.J.’s outdated charter school law, which allows no facilities aid. (Facilities for children with special needs are far more expensive than facilities for typical kids.)

Parents of children with significant disabilities should have access to an array of school choices: typical schools that carefully craft programming and facilities to adapt to a spectrum of special needs, special education schools that serve specific disabilities, and charter schools too. But such a venture will require less brawling and more cooperation among politicians, school chancellors,  lobbyists. and charter school leaders.


Sunday, February 8, 2015

Sunday Leftovers

Mashea Ashton, a former special education teacher and head of the Newark Charter School Fund, writes in today’s Star-Ledger that “public charter school sector must continue to find ways to increase services for special-needs students while doing what they often do best - serving as incubators for innovative approaches - to better serve these students while maintaining high expectations for all children.”

The Star-Ledger also reports on the Brookings Institute's glowing report on the way that Newark Public Schools has integrated parental choice into school enrollment processes. See my coverage here.

See NJ Spotlight and the Star-Ledger for coverage of this week’s presentation by Asst. Comm. Bari Erlichson about what PARCC results will look like and what information they will provide to teachers, administrators, and parents. N.J.’s previous tests, the ASK and the HSPA, says Erlichson,
"were not assessments that informed student learning. It was ultimately not meaningful as a teacher tool or to help parents engage in student learning.” The PARCC, however,  will “change that by furnishing detailed, user-friendly data about a student’s specific capabilities, such as vocabulary or reading and comprehending different kinds of texts. She said different reports available to schools would let them look at how students performed on individual questions.”

In The Record, Parsippany Superintendent Scott Rixford explains to the public that "For years all students in grades three to eight have taken NJASK, and students in grades 11 have taken the HESPA. PARCC tests are a replacement to both these tests. The difficulty is significantly greater, and I support that. What we know is that the HESPA taken in grade 11 was by all measures, an eighth-grade proficiency test. I believe students in my District deserve to have a higher bar.”

He added, "We are not going to have an opt-out policy; there is no such thing,I know parents are saying ‘opt-out’ but there is no state policy for opting out, and the District doesn’t have a policy on opt-out. Frankly, I think it will be the best thing for the kids. I will do my best to dispel the myths for anyone who asks."

Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson lost yet another tenure case.

Jersey City Superintendent Marcia Lyles gave an overview of district challenges, which include deteriorating buildings, a stubborn achievement gap, and a 67% graduation rate. 

Trenton Public Schools faces a $19 million budget gap. Monument Elementary Schools has a 650-student capacity and an enrollment of 291 kids. Superintendent Francisco Duran wants to close the old building, and parents are angry that they weren't consulted first. (Times of Trenton)

Former Governor Jim Florio makes the case against school vouchers and, in particular, the Opportunity Scholarship Act.

Fact of the week, via NJ Spotlight: "As many as 50 percent of students in some urban schools miss classes at least 10 days out of 180-day school year."

The Star Ledger Editorial Board opines that parents who opt-out their children from measles vaccines should home-school them.

In yesterday's New York Times, Chad Alderman considers "today's eagerness to jettison our commitment to leave 'no child behind'" in the context of eliminating annual standardized assessments. It's a shame," he says, "not just because better tests are on the horizon, but also because it worked. Fourth and eighth grade achievement scores of black, Hispanic and low-income students have never been higher. High school graduation rates are at an all-time high. And researchers repeatedly link No Child Left Behind’s emphasis on traditionally underperforming groups to real improvements in schools around the country. The conversations that No Child Left Behind sparked are not easy, but they are essential.

Alderman concludes,"That’s why it’s exactly the wrong time to accept political solutions leaving too many of our most vulnerable children hidden from view."