Friday, July 31, 2015

The Myth of the "Overstressed American Teen"

Remember that movie "Race to Nowhere" where students are bullwhipped by mountains of schoolwork, tests, and stress, while their teachers are burnt out from relentless curricular demands? We're overloading our kids with meaningless honors and AP courses, over-scheduling them to a fare-thee-well, and one of the symptoms, if not the crisis itself, is the Common Core State Standards and  aligned assessments, monstrous offspring of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.

This myth also figures into the opt-out impetus, which stems from a belief that public schools inflict meaningless tests onto fragile students.

Robert Pondiscio deconstructs this dogma today in U.S. News and World Report. He writes that this sort of slavish overindulgence in extracurricular activities and overly-rigorous coursework is limited to no more than 5% of schoolchildren. "Privileged outliers drive this narrative," he says, citing research that shows that there was "very limited empirical support for the over-scheduling hypothesis."
If American childhood has become a hothouse of overscheduling and stress, it's not showing up in the data. Mahoney and his colleagues calculated just how much time kids spend at sports games and practices, faith-based activities, doing volunteer work, and meeting the demands of afterschool programs and other obligations. The average was about five hours per week. Many teens – about 40 percent – spent no time at all in organized activities during the school week. 
Where are all the exhausted superkids? A mere 6 percent of U.S. teens participate in 20 hours or more of organized activities in a week, and even those who overdo it end up better off than the completely disengaged. "At a national level, over-scheduling in organized activities seems to be overstated," says Mahoney, a professor of psychology at Elizabethtown College. "Relatively few youth participate excessively in organized activities and even their adjustment is reliably more positive across broad array of outcomes, from childhood to young adulthood, than youth who are uninvolved," he observes. When they revisited the data in 2012, Mahoney and his colleagues found the benefits of participation in organized activities had persisted into young adulthood "in terms of lower psychological distress, and higher educational attainment and civic engagement."

Dissension in the Ranks and Files of Teacher Unions

The Wall St. Journal reported yesterday that the Wisconsin Education Association  has “lost more than half of its 40,000 members in four years" since the Legislature passed a law that makes membership and dues voluntary. That loss is just a harbinger of problems for teacher unions in the Badger State and beyond.

First, unsurprisingly, Wisconsin's new voluntary dues structure proves that teachers would rather keep their hard-earned money than blindly authorize deductions to political organizations.  Staying with the theme, this year the Supreme Court hears Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association and if the plaintiff wins all teachers will get that choice.

But there's another fracture that’s almost as threatening as voluntary dues structures: the split between old-time union politicians who want to play it safe  and new leaders who preach a more radical agenda, damn the torpedoes. We see this split most clearly in the current internecine dissension regarding national union endorsements of presidential candidates.

Yesterday the Washington Post described how AFL-CIO’s leaders’ grappled  with whether to endorse  Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton (different union, same verse):
Top political operatives inside organized labor – already reeling from long-term declines in membership – do not want to lose even more juice by backing the quixotic bid of a self-described democratic socialist from Vermont. But others lower in the ranks, and those who have worked closely with Sanders over his 25 years in Congress, are more concerned about ideological purity than anything else.
There’s always been a more radical constituency within unions who "are more concerned about ideological purity." What’s different now is that that constituency is growing in strength just as the traditional unionists’ power weakens.

Look at the  burgeoning membership of the Badass Teachers Association, who assailed Randi Weingarten for her early endorsement of Clinton. From an article called "Teachers Say No Freakin' Way to AFT Endorsement of Hillary Clinton":
 The Badass Teachers Association  (BAT) took matters into their own hands by conducting a poll on Face Book. So far 1240 teachers endorsed Bernie Sanders and only 84 endorsed Clinton. One teacher said "Weingarten has this thing about giving false information via polls... It's scary."
Activist teacher members and others lamented that the AFT endorsement of Clinton was a clear reminder of President Randi Weingarten's autocratic leadership style that treats teachers like passive herd-driven professionals rather than independent thinkers with a voice.
There's  other signs of internecine dissent within bargaining units between those who promote pragmatism and those who yearn for "ideological purity."  For example, the traditional leadership of Newark Teachers Union has been undermined by the growing strength of the more radical Newark Education Workers (NEW) Caucus, which took over the Executive Board last year (although it lost the contest for union president. See here for details.)

Also see Orange County, Florida, where Wednesday  NEA national officials ousted local officers. Deposed President Diana Moore told WFTV that
“As a dues-paying union member, I was not afforded the opportunity to have representation all throughout this matter. What I have tried to do is preserve the rights and due process of all members of Orange County Classroom Teachers Association. I’m shocked that the national union does not honor a paying union member’s rights to due process. Our members in Orange County are quite happy with their union. NEA has remained silent despite reaching out for support. This is all about members and money. They’re losing members and money in the national organization. It’s politics at its worst.”
Last Saturday at a BAT "Congress," members heard a keynote that included this doggerel:
For nearly eight years Mr. Duncan, the balls been in your court.
But it is obvious to all, leadership wasn’t your sport.
Your reign is now ending in thunderous despair.
You hear a crack from the heavens and you wonder “Whose there?”                                                        You reach for your binder and swing: 'swat swat'                                                                                                                                  
It’s a shame you didn’t play baseball, or you would know all about BATs.
BATs fly by radar; we see with mind, how you have left our children and schools in a bind.
When down in a block we descend from the sky, to show you the door and tell you “Bye Bye!”
Judging by recent events, BAT's would just as soon tell Randi Weingarten "bye bye" as well. This lack of support represents as big a challenge to union governance as Abood and Friedrichs.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Q'sOD: Why We Need to Increase Our Academic Expectations for Low and Middle-Class Students

Yesterday NJ Spotlight ran my column on why N.J. suburban, middle-class high schools need to raise academic expectations for students so that they enter college and/or careers prepared for this flat world. I could have (should have) cited two recent reports, one from Campus Technology and the second from Hechinger, that explores this lack of preparation in more detail. (Hat tips: Peter Cunningham.)

The Campus Technology piece explains that
Neither university faculty nor employers believe that American public high schools are preparing students for the expectations they'll face in college and career. In fact, compared to 2004, the assessment is even more dismal. More than a decade ago, for example, only 28 percent of college instructors stated that schools were doing an adequate job of readying students for what came next after high school. That count is down to 14 percent in 2015. Among employers, 49 percent in 2004 said that schools were adequately preparing students for what they would need for work; in 2015, the count was 29 percent. Part of the challenge, say students themselves, is that their high schools don't set academic expectations high enough. Fifty-four percent said that they were only "somewhat challenged"; 20 percent said it was "easy to slide by."
Hechinger pivots off ACT’s annual report. Based on questions answered by students taking the ACT, an assessment that measures student readiness for college, 96% of low-income students said they plan on attending college. But “half of all low-income test-takers failed to meet a single benchmark” on the ACT.

Yeah, yeah, poverty is a formidable obstacle to academic success. But it’s not insurmountable if high schools steer all kids, especially those from low-income and middle-income families, towards courses that teach the skills and academics that are prerequisites for college entrance and completion, as well as provide the supports they need to be successful.  This shift – and it is a shift, because we sure don’t do it now -- will require standards and assessments that, well,  look a lot like the Common Core and its aligned assessments.

From Hechinger:
It would seem, given this data, that we’d want to do a whole lot more to make sure more kids, especially poor kids, stay on the college track. And that means taking four year of English class and three years of social studies, laboratory science and a math sequence culminating in Algebra 2. It should be made very clear to district leaders that high schools in low-income neighborhoods that do not offer students real live laboratories in which to learn laboratory science are unacceptable. And it should be made very clear to parents, especially in low-income communities, that when their fourth grade slips behind grade level in math, it’s not a case on “not being good at math.” At 9 years old, that child is being steered toward a high school course sequence that is not likely to end with them ready for college.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Why We Need a Suburban Middle-Class Version of Education Reform

Here's my new NJ Spotlight piece:

Are we being over-optimistic when it comes to how well NJ’s middle-class students are being prepared for college?

If you live in one of New Jersey’s many middle-class suburbs, you most likely take great pride in your public-school district, each one a reflection of distinctive township identities, our much-maligned “municipal madness” rendered benign. Ninety-seven percent of our teachers, the N.J. Department of Education just informed us, are effective instructors. NJEA celebrates that our state school system “is second in the nation in performance and improvement.” Our teachers are our neighbors. Our schools are our hearts and our second homes. 
It’s painful, then, to acknowledge that our cherished small-town public schools are not adequately preparing our children for college and careers. But that’s what both data and educational experts are telling us. Perhaps it’s time for a suburban version of education reform.
Read the rest here.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Look What Just Came Up on My Twitter Feed:

lana Dubin Spiegel @ilanadspiegel
@educationweek 175 civil rights groups oppose high-stakes, test-based accountability #ESEA… @J4J_USA @SavOurSchoolsNJ
Wow! 175 civil rights group oppose annual testing! I thought America’s major civil rights groups supported annual testing. Who knew? Oh…wait.

Here’s the list of “civil rights groups” on the bottom of their letter to Sens. Mitch McConnel and Harry Reid: AFT Local 2115, Alliance AFT Dallas, Alliance for Newark Public Schools, AFT National,  Baltimore Teachers Union, Camden Parent Union, Chicago Teachers Union, Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, Coalition for Newark Effective Schools, FairTest,  Houston Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO, Newark Students Union, Working Families Alliance, New York City Opt-Out, NYS United Teachers,  Parents Across America, Paterson Education Fund, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers,  Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, Save Our Schools, Save Our Schools-NJ,  United Opt-Out of New Jersey, UFT-NYC,  and something called “Stewards of Prophetic, Hopeful, Intentional Action.”

Civil rights groups? Hah!  They had me going there for a minute. My bad.

Sen. Teresa Ruiz Scotches Opt-Out Bill, Despite Pressure from NJEA and Save Our Schools

Props to Senator Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), who withstood pressure from NJEA and Save Our Schools-NJ and stood strong against an Assembly bill that would have required school districts to facilitate opting-out of state standardized tests.  Instead, last week, as reported today by NJ Spotlight, the Senate passed a non-binding resolution that “urges Commissioner of Education to develop guidelines on how students not participating in Statewide assessment will be supervised and what alternate arrangements may be provided.”

The original bill, A 4165, was sponsored by Assembly members Patrick Diegnan and Mila Jasey, both of whom support the equally ill-conceived charter moratorium bill. Both of these bills are ardently supported by NJEA and SOS-NJ and ardently opposed by civil rights leaders.

Why does anyone who cares about disenfranchised children oppose oppose efforts to weaken state ability to assess student growth? Let’s ask the old Diane Ravitch, before she underwent her conversion from education scholar to evangelical union hack:
"Absent standards, poor and minority children do not have equal access to challenging courses; absent assessments, no one can know the size of the gap between schools or groups of students or whether that gap is growing larger or smaller. Without valid standards and assessments, there is no way to identify low-performing schools or to determine whether all students are receiving equal educational opportunity."
Of course, A 4165 never had nothing to do with the well-being of children. The bill was always all about  NJEA and SOS-NJ's leaders’ militant stance against tying a fraction of student outcomes on tests to teacher evaluations, a view shared by NEA.  If we can’t validly identify low-performing schools without unified participation in standards and assessments, as Ravitch explains, we can’t validly identify low-performing teachers either. Problem solved.

A 4165 passed unanimously in the Assembly, although one wonders if that’s because Assembly members knew that it would never pass in the Senate. Here’s Sen. Ruiz:
“We wanted to give discretion to the department without being onerous,” she said yesterday. “The key here is we keep moving forward. This puts steps in place, without a binding statute where we can’t have some flexibility.”

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Sunday Leftovers

The state deadline for filing for school board candidacy is Monday. Here's the lowdown from New Jersey School Boards Association. Do it!

The rhetoric on N.J.'s broken pension system, $40 billion in debt, just keeps coming. Gov. Christie accused teacher union leaders (and state Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto) of refusing to come to the table. From the Star-Ledger:
"I know they thought they were going to win a court case," said Christie. "They lost. And so they need now to get serious about reducing it. ... When the pension goes bankrupt — and I've told this to teachers' union members — they'll have only their selfish and greedy leaders to blame for it."
Christie then accused collective bargaining leaders of fearing a backlash from members that would cost them their highly compensated jobs.
"You know why they're not talking about it?" Christie said.
"They're not talking about it because they're afraid they won't get reelected to the head of the teacher's union. And who'd want to give a $250,000 a year gig up in addition to your teaching salary?"
NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer responded in kind:
Chris Christie is very busy these days running for president, so I’ll keep this short: he doesn’t need to worry about wasting precious campaign time discussing changes to New Jersey’s pension system because we have no intention of negotiating anything with this governor.
Great analysis from John Reitmeyer, who points out that " for taxpayers. there are also enormous consequences because the court ruling reaffirmed that employees still have a right to receive their pensions, meaning the annual payouts will have to come out of the state budget if the pension system ultimately goes broke."

From The Record: "New Jersey received a three-year pass to continue education programs and reforms put in place by the Christie administration, including a new educator evaluation system despised by the teachers union." Also see NJ Spotlight, the Star-Ledger, and Education Week. Education Law Center is peeved.

NJ Spotlight examines how QSAC (Quality Single Accountability Continuum) the state's cumbersome metric for gauging school district effectiveness "may need to change if and when the Christie administration delivers on its high-profile promise to return Newark schools to local control."

The Press of Atlantic City looks at the 2015 Kids Count report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. N.J. "still ranks second in education, despite a slight increase in the percentage of children not attending preschool and fourth graders not proficient in reading."

Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer, Hunterdon) thinks that Trenton families, whom she represents, should wait at least three more years for school choice.

There'll Always be A Lakewood: "This past week, the district announced it was canceling courtesy bus service for nearly 11,000 public and private schoolchildren, starting in September. The district said it had run out of time to find a way to close an $8.3 million funding gap." The Asbury Park Press explains that the 100 or so private Orthodox schools in town had agreed to stagger their starting times to save transportation costs, which cover "courtesy bussing" for children who live within 2 miles. But the "the private school leaders later deemed the scheduling change too disruptive for school families and staff, and backed out of the deal" because "the schools’ uniform 9 a.m. is seen as a benefit for the many parents whose schedules revolve around the operating hours of Beth Medrash Govoha, the large yeshiva in Lakewood."

Friday, July 24, 2015

Does the New NCLB's Opt-Out Provisions Protect Kids with Disabilities? This Mom says "No"

Great read in The Atlantic about the alignment of disability advocates and civil rights leaders on the necessity of maintaining federal oversight, annual testing, and accountability in a newly-reauthorized ESEA, formerly known as No Child Left Behind. Author Carly Berwick interviewed Ricki Sabia, who has a son, Steve, with  Down Syndrome. When Steve was five years old he couldn’t read and teachers and administrators at her local school doubted his ability to ever read at all.

Sabia explains, “It wasn’t until he started taking state assessments and far exceeding expectations that they started to take my observations about his abilities seriously and stopped trying to get him into special-ed classes.”

NCLB required each district to test 95% of each subgroup of students, including those with disabilities. The current draft of ESEA, called “Every Child Achieves Act,” maintains annual state testing but an amendment sponsored by Senator Johnny Isakson (R-Ga) bars states from intervening in districts with low participation rates. We’re “opening the door for local control,” exulted Isakson; his amendment passed the Senate unanimously.

This amendment renders 95% participation rates flaccid. While it may indeed “open the door for local control" (that desideratum among another oft-noted alliance of unionists and Republicans) it also opens the door to the old-school habit of counseling students out of testing to protect aggregated test scores. Parents of special needs children, like Sabia (and me), know how quickly districts might go through that door.

From  the Atlantic article:
Now, disabilities advocates worry that the new proposals’ opt-out amendments—along with the ability of states to determine the consequences for schools that fail to comply with testing expectations—could allow schools to slide back into the ‘70s, when students with disabilities were often warehoused in special rooms and only one-fifth received a public education.  (Some might recall the reporter Geraldo Rivera’s famous 1972 expose of New York’s Willowbrook School, which reveals students naked, some in their own filth, with overwhelmed aides and no instruction.) In some states and districts, that era may have never come to a close: Last week, the Department of Justice issued a letter to Georgia [Isakson's state] alleging that the state was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by “unnecessarily segregating students with disabilities from their peers.”
No one wants too much testing. No one wants to overstress teachers, parents, and students. But there’s a proper balance here and the current draft of ECAA lacks that balance.

You could ask Steve. He’s in community college now.

Why New Jersey (Still) Needs Tenure Reform

Today’s Wall St. Journal reports that Newark Public Schools currently has 453 staff members in the pool of  “educators without placement.” That’s 15% of Newark teachers who receive a total of $35 million per year in salary plus benefits (200 of them make more than $90K a year), certainly a drag on the district's annual $990 million budget.
Some are stuck in the pool due to poor ratings. Many are there because they balked at working longer hours in a school slated for an overhaul, or lost their positions when a school was revamped. 
But some school leaders say requiring principals to recruit from the pool can hurt children academically. [Superintendent Cami] Anderson reported in the spring that teachers in the pool were six times as likely to be rated ineffective as those with permanent spots.
Now, let’s not start beating up on Cami.  Principal Dominique Lee of BRICK Academy, a traditional Newark public school with more principal autonomy because of its status as a renewal school, told the Journal that “it takes unique skills to nurture children facing hunger, inadequate housing and fractured families.” He continued, “In terms of finding the right teachers for our buildings, that population has diminished from the pool. You want to give schools autonomy to find the right staff.”

According to the Journal, teachers in the pool are six times more likely to have "ineffective" ratings as teachers with placement. Also, "many teachers... are there because they balked at longer hours in schools slated for overhauls. Under a union-district agreement, teachers joined the pool if they didn’t agree to a stipend, typically $3,000, for working about an hour more daily, several Saturdays and two weeks in the summer. A union spokesman said some who kept to contract hours and left at 3:05 p.m. were derided by other staffers as 'Three-oh-fivers.'”

QOD: N.J.'s Pension Fix Requires Both Benefits Cuts and Tax Increases

The Star-Ledger Editorial Board does the math in the context of the "dangerous partisan stalemate" regarding strategies to resuscitate N.J.'s pension fund, currently operating with a $40 billion debt and a life expectancy of 12 years:
[T]he hard reality is that the problem can't be fixed without a new round of cuts in both pension and health benefits. Without a course correction, those exploding costs will absorb 23 percent of the budget within a few years -- roughly double the portion today, according to the reform commission. 
This math is unforgiving. We need both benefit cuts and tax increases to stop the bleeding.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Welcome to N.J.'s New School Funding blog, "New Jersey Education Aid"

Here’s an official welcome to the new education blog in town, "New Jersey Education Aid."The author, who goes by the moniker StateAidGuy, is a school finance whiz committed to unveiling inequities within N.J.’s state education aid, funneled through a hodgepodge of  the old Abbott formula and the 2008 School Funding Reform Act (SFRA).

Once upon a time N.J.'s state school aid was driven by a series of State Supreme Court rulings in Abbott v. Burke that led to the designation of 31 Abbott districts. Those 31 school districts once were the predominant residences of N.J.’s poorest families who were on their own raising school taxes. The Court, after a series of suits litigated by the Education Law Center, declared that basing school funding solely on a town’s ability to raise taxes was unconstitutional, violating our commitment to ensuring that every child has access to an “adequate and efficient education system.” The Court’s ruling  in Abbott v. Burke was fair and wise, and led to a new funding formula that raised state money (through N.J.’s first state income tax) to ensure that poor children in Trenton received as many resources as rich children in Princeton.  Other rulings led to free preschool and state-sponsored school construction.

N.J. changed, poor children now live all over the state, and once-poor school districts are richer. So in 2008 the State Legislature passed the School Funding Reform Act, which intended to overturn Abbott and have state school aid “follow the child” instead of those 31 school districts. However, much like N.J.’s pension system (and the NorthEast  corridor of NJ Transit), SFRA is too expensive to fund.  Corzine managed it the first year, but no governor has been able to fully fund SFRA so we've reverted, in part, to Abbott funding.

New Jersey Education Aid dissects SFRA’s unsustainability and points to some of the most egregious examples of inequity within N.J.’s state school funding , ridden by rigid formulas, archaic line items, and endless litigation by Education Law Center (desperate to preserve its Abbott turf). StateAidGuy says , “My hope is that this will lay the groundwork for a fairer distribution of state aid, where suburbs and low-resource non-Abbotts would be treated better.”

A few samples: “There are numerous problems with New Jersey’s Abbott funding system, but there is no facet of Abbott more problematic - nay, ridiculous, nay, morally obscene - than the fact that Hoboken, New Jersey’s second richest K-12 district, remains an Abbott…If Hoboken had just a 1.0 school tax rate it would raise $110 million a year, enough to send every Hoboken child to a Swiss boarding school.”

And, “since the recession hit in 2010 and state aid has be cut, numerous critics, especially Save Our Schools NJ and the Education Law Center, have slammed the state and Chris Christie for underfunding the state’s school aid law, the School Funding Reform Act of 2008 (SFRA).
Underaiding is a valid criticism (if one is oblivious to the pension crisis) but the problem with state aid in New Jersey isn’t only underfunding, it is the rigidity of the distribution."

So, welcome to the blogosphere, StateAidGuy!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

New Jersey D.O.E., Denies Proposal for Charter School to Serve Children with Autism

Speaking of charter schools and students with disabilities , a series of documents came through the transom last week regarding a charter school application to the New Jersey Department of Education. The applicants proposed a charter school called the Holistic Charter School for Behavior Therapy that would serve children with autism in Lakewood and Howell. The application was denied.

Happens all the time, right? More applications are denied than approved, and that’s appropriate. But in this particular case the D.O.E.’s process for charter review appears to have been undermined by a misunderstanding of charter school law, as well as best practices in special education.

There are no charter schools in New Jersey that exclusively serve students with disabilities, although other cities have had much success with this model.  Parents of children with high-cost disabilities like autism in this state choose either traditional district offerings, usually self-contained classrooms, or avail themselves of the many private special education schools, represented by ASAH, that provide specialized programs at district expense. (See my analysis here.)  Costs are very high: the D.O.E.’s tuition list of private special ed schools, just out last month, approved annual tuition costs of $111,080 at Princeton Child Development Institute and $129,678 at Somerset Hills Learning Institute. Both these schools restrict enrollment to children with severe autism disorders.

But a charter school for students with autistic spectrum disorders is an innovative and original idea, right in line with N.J.’s charter school law. The  Holistic Charter School for Behavior Therapy is modeled after successful special education charter schools in New York City and Phoenix, so educators know that this works. Holistic's application proposes to start off with three classes of six students each (considered best practices in the autism education community) in grades K-2 and prudently expand over four years to nine classes of six students, grades K-5.

But the D.O.E. denied the application on three grounds. They are summed up in this section of the D.O.E. denial letter:
The primary focus on serving a special needs population, specifically students on the Autism Disorder spectrum, raises serious concerns regarding the school’s ability to serve a representative cross section of the community’s school age population, which is a statutory requirement. This is not a feasible model under current charter school law in New Jersey. In addition, the proposed enrollment (6 students per classroom, total of 18 students) makes it extremely challenging to be a viable charter school. Furthermore, no one on the founding team has experience running an educational institution.
Let’s take these one objections one at a time. First of all, there is nothing in N.J.’s charter school law that bars charter schools that exclusively serve students with autism. In fact, students on the autism represent an increasing “cross section of the community’s school age population." (Currently, one in 48 New Jersey children receive an autism diagnosis.)  Also, the applicants took care to reach out to the Hispanic community, which is an increasing proportion of the proposed charter's catchment area.

In fact, the proposal does meet statutory requirements.  In a rebuttal to the D.O.E.’s denial, Holistic quotes state statute and then responds to the D.O.E.'s claim that a charter school devoted to autism violates state statute::
Pursuant to N.J.S.A.18A:36-7, (CHARTER SCHOOL PROGRAM ACT OF 1995, N.J.S.A. 18A:36A: Effective January 1996, Amended November 2000 – Herein known as “The Act”), a charter school may “limit admission to a particular grade level or to areas of concentrations of the school, such as mathematics, science, or the arts”. 
The Holistic Charter School for Behavior Therapy, in keeping with the school’s mission, has a concentrated specialized curriculum for the education of students with ASD. Thus, admission will be limited to students with ASD.  In view of the school’s mission, this is the necessary criterion to evaluate prospective students in alignment with the New Jersey Charter School Program Act.   Current NJ Charter Law allows for sufficient flexibility to allow for a school focused on high need students in various areas of disciplines. 
Second, the D.O.E. objects to Holistic’s model of six students in a classroom with one teacher. This ratio is considered best practices for providing educational services to children with autism.  Whoever read this application didn’t know anything about special education or chose to ignore his or her knowledge.

Thirdly, the D.O.E. objects to Holistic because “no one of the founding team has experience running an educational institution.” In fact, according to applicant Yakov Halberstam, one of the founders is Gitty Endzweig, who spent fifteen years running a private/public school for autism in Brooklyn. (N.J. doesn’t have that private/public designation). Also, numerous other people on the board have clinical experience with autism.

Just as inconsistent as the D.O.E.’s denial rationale is the fact that in 2011 the D.O.E. approved a charter school for children with autism in Newark.  In its acceptance letter to the founder of the Forest Hills Charter School, Michelle Adubato, Acting Commissioner Rochelle Hendricks writes, “It is my honor to inform you that the application for Forest Hills Charter School , serving the students of Newark, is approved with a planning year." The proposed school's  website (Ms. Adubato withdrew the application the following year) says that “Forest Hill is dedicated to serving children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and pervasive developmental delays (PDD). The school will provide a specialized supportive learning environment for students ranging from ages 5 to 21.”

For what it's worth, Sen. President Steve Sweeney wrote a letter supporting Forrest Hills. I know he knows charter school law, as well as the world of special education.

Why did the D.O.E. evaluators of the Holistic application base their denial on such shaky ground? Why would they approve a similar charter school in North Jersey but not one in South Jersey? More importantly, why would the D.O.E. stymie a potential recourse for parents who struggle every day with the hardships of raising and educating a child with severe autism?

Do Charter Schools "Counsel Out" Students with Disabilities?

Charter schools are often criticized for under-enrolling students with disabilities.  For example, a report last October from Mark Weber (Jersey Jazzman) and Julia Sass Rubin (founder of Save Our Schools-NJ), both of Rutgers University, claims that
 Charter schools across the state do not enroll as many students with special education needs as their host districts (9% vs.15%). The classified students who enroll in charter schools also tend to have less costly education disabilities. This leaves their host districts with the task of educating both higher percentages of classified students and of students with the most costly needs. 
However, Marcus Winters,  in a new report called “The Myth of the Special Education Gaps,” looks closely at data from New York City Public Schools and Denver Public Schools to dissect enrollment gaps among students with disabilities. Here he explains the statistical  variations between enrollment of students with severe disabilities in charter and traditional schools:
 The paucity of severely disabled students in charter schools is often highlighted in public commentary on the special education gap. It is true that district schools enroll significantly larger percentages of students with relatively severe disability classifications than do charters. As shown in Figure 1b, the share of students with autism is 0.2 percentage points smaller in charters than in district schools in Denver and 1 percentage point smaller in New York City. Results for traumatic brain injury are similar. These differences do not contribute substantially to the overall special-education gap, however, as the percentage of students with severe disabilities is very small in both sectors.
Regarding students classified as having speech and language disabilities (the bulk of classifications), the biggest gap, Winters finds, is in kindergarten. He writes,
I suspect that the kindergarten gap is driven primarily by the fact that school districts often provide speech and language services to students in need of them prior to entry into kindergarten, and the parents of such students are reluctant to switch to a charter school, thereby interrupting the continuation of these services. As a result, parental choices contribute to the creation of a special education gap at the very beginning of formal schooling.
After kindergarten, the gap shrinks, at least in NYC and Denver. In fact, “in both cities, students with existing IEPs are significantly and substantially more likely to remain in their kindergarten school if it is a charter than if it is a district school. In Denver, four years after entry in kindergarten, 65 percent of students with IEPs remain in their original charter school, compared to 37 percent of students who began in a district school. In New York City, four years after entry in kindergarten, 74 percent of students with IEPs remain in their original charter school, compared to 69 percent of students who began in a district school.”

Read Winters’ whole analysis. His conclusion is clear:
The conventional argument that charters enroll relatively few students with disabilities because they “counsel out” special needs students after they enroll is inconsistent with the enrollment data. In fact, students with disabilities are less likely to exit charter elementary schools than they are to exit district schools. More students with IEPs enter charter schools in non-gateway grades than exit them. Of course, I do not mean to imply that no student has been inappropriately removed by a charter school because of his disability. But the fact that students with special needs in charter schools are less mobile than those in district schools suggests that such incidences are not widespread. Policies meant to address the special education gap that focus on the movement of students with IEPs are unlikely to be productive.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

QOD: Sen. Rice Goes Off the Rails and Makes Stuff Up about Charter Schools

PolitickerNJ describes Senator Ronald Rice's (D-Newark) temper tantrum at the Statehouse during a presentation by the State Department of Education on charter school application processes:
“We start giving out applications for charters like they’re water,” said Rice, sitting on a subcommittee of the Joint Committee on the Public Schools. “Let’s slow this thing down. Even today when I move around urban communities people tell me ‘I’m going to open up a charter school.’ And they don’t have ten cents in their pocket. I say, ‘You are?'”
What the heck is he talking about? According to statistics presented during the meeting, there are 89 charter schools in the state, a tiny fraction of N.J.'s 2,505 public schools.  Charter schools currently serve 49,000 children, a rounding error on the total public school enrollment of 1.37 million. The state has substantially slowed down the approval process over the years, despite the fact that 20,000 children sit on charter school waiting lists, 10,000 alone in Newark, Rice's district.

A New ESEA without Civil Rights Groups' Support? Soulless and Spineless.

Lauren Camera  of PoliticsK-12 describes the state of play on the Every Child Achieves Act as the House and Senate try to reconcile philosophically-irreconcilable versions of this overhaul of NCLB:
Chief among those differences is how to beef up accountability in a way that appeases the concerns of Democrats and the civil rights communities that the end result must include stronger federal guardrails for the most disadvantaged students, while at the same time ensuring the small federal footprint that Republicans are adamant about.
I’m too harsh. There is certainly enough latitude to come up with a bill that contains mandates for state intervention in underperforming schools while backing off on NCLB’s Big Foot.  In other words, a bill that President Obama will sign and at least moderate Republicans can support.

But the most important element for the credibility of the bill is the support of America’s major civil rights groups.  Lest we forget, The Elementary and Secondary Education Act was signed into law in 1965 as a civil rights law that focused on education equity issues. A reauthorization of ESEA without the backing of civil rights groups is soulless: a spineless edifice, a soap bubble.

And, in order to have that solid imprimatur of credibility by civil rights groups, the final version handed to President Obama must include some degree of federal authority, something like the Murphy Amendment which, in spite of furious lobbying by NEA, garnered the support of forty-two gutsy Democratic senators.

(Talk about teacher union irrelevance. Or talk about the expanding bond between Republicans and NEA, mostly based on the seductive attraction of local control. Better, just see Jonathan Chait and Maggie Severns. Or read NEA's warning to Senators "to VOTE NO on amendment 2241 offered by Senators Murphy (D-CT)" because "votes associated with this amendment will be included in NEA’s Legislative Report Card for the 114th Congress.")

Last week a long and illustrious list of civil rights groups, under the umbrella of The Leadership Conference, wrote a letter to legislators explaining that "the bill falls short" because it fails to include mandates that "states  must be required to identify schools where all students or groups of students are not meeting goals and to intervene in ways that raise achievement for students not meeting state standards."  Without these interventions, "we do not have confidence that the law would be faithfully implemented or that the interests of our nation’s most vulnerable students would be protected.  The hard-learned lesson of the civil rights community over decades has shown that a strong federal role is crucial to protecting the interests of educationally underserved students."

Let's hope our legislators listen to the voices that count.

How to Level the Playing Field Between Newark's Charters and Traditionals? Start with Empowering Principals and Teachers

Dominique D. Lee, the founder and chief executive officer of Newark’s BRICK (Building Responsible Intelligent Creative Kids), has a great editorial in today’s NJ Spotlight that highlights the fiscal and regulatory advantages of charter schools.

Nothing  here about corrupt tithings from hedge-fund managers or sweet deals with real estate moguls or greedy siphoning from traditional school district coffers.

Just the benefits inherent in  charter schools' freedom to sidestep the drains of bureaucracies, hiring rules, and seniority protections that burden Newark Public Schools’ ability to focus resources on kids and attract talented teachers.

For Newark parents and children, Lee explains,  “it does not matter whether they attend a public traditional or charter school. What they and their parents want are excellent teachers, academic and social emotional supports, technology in the classroom, exposure to the arts, extracurricular programs that extend learning, and a world-class facility that matches the importance of this great undertaking.”

But they won’t find that combination of essential supports within a system that is encumbered by “structural budget gaps, hiring rules that make it impossible to attract the best and brightest talent, decision-making power taken away from building principals, and funding flowing directly to the central office instead of classrooms and kids.”

In fact, while traditional Newark schools receive about $18K per pupil,  about a thousand dollars more than BRICK or the city’s other charter schools receive per student, “the charter school principal controls significantly more money to hire teachers, fund innovations in the classroom, or order supplies -- $14,000 -- compared to the $8,000 per child the traditional district public-school principal controls.

Writes Lee,
This fact alone should spark public outcry: a public charter school has enough funding to pay for extra resources such as two teachers in the classroom while a traditional public school’s $6,000, that does not hit their budget, is going to pay for a downtown bureaucracy.
Now BRICK isn’t a traditional charter school but a teacher-led turnaround. Back in 2010, Lee and five other Newark teachers, all Teach for America alumni, developed a plan for a student-centered, teacher-run school. At the time, the New York Times reported that “Dominique D. Lee grew disgusted with a system that produced ninth graders who could not name the seven continents or the governor of their state. He started wondering: What if I were in charge?”

Over time, NPS turned over Avon Avenue School and, later, and Peshine Avenue School to BRICK. Since the turnaround, students there – the same students who attended Avon and Peshine under traditional district management –outperform counterparts in traditional district schools in both math and language arts. Lee attributes student success to both teacher ownership and principals’ freedom from archaic staffing rules.

Next year 40% of Newark Public School students will attend charter schools; more would if there were seats to be had. So how do you create an equitable system when about half the schools are burdened by traditional rules and budget gaps while the other half isn’t?

 That, says Lee, is new Superintendent Chris Cerf’s primary challenge as he leads the transition from state to local control. He concludes,
The answer is not to put roadblocks up against parent choice; instead, we must focus our efforts on giving traditional public schools the tools to meet the needs of their students by improving the system. If we want a city of schools where it matters not whether a child wins the luck of a draw and ends up in a good charter school, then we need to level the playing field so that every child has access to a great neighborhood school. We have a decision to make as a community: Do we want to have children going to school in a separate and unequal environment? Or do we want a thriving system of excellent schools where the needs of children trump the needs of a broken bureaucracy? Let the first step toward local control be a collective commitment to forge ahead for the betterment of our children and ensure financial and human capital equity in all of our schools.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Camden Charter School Alum and Current Law School Student Decries Charter School Moratorium Bill

Rob Ransom, a graduate of LEAP Academy University Charter School in Camden and currently a third year student at the Rutgers University School of Law, has this to say about the New Jersey's proposed charter school moratorium bill:
I don't understand why Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex) has introduced legislation calling for a moratorium on charter school expansion—even after releasing a statement stating she supports charter schools.
The legislation that Assemblywoman Jasey introduced would, if passed, curtail the growth of quality public charter schools like Camden's LEAP Academy University Charter School, my alma mater. 
It was at LEAP Academy that I first began to consider the possibility of attending college. At LEAP, college became an expectation rather than a dream for me and all of my peers.
A few weeks ago, I started a summer associate program at one of New Jersey's preeminent law firms – the next step on a career path to becoming an attorney. This never would have been possible had it not been for the education I received at LEAP.
At a time where the achievement gap seems to widen, charter schools restore the American dream that you can make something of yourself with high-expectations and hard work. Please don't let politics get in the way of future generations of students who could get the breaks in life that they need from the education they can receive at a charter school.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Sunday Leftovers

John Mooney asks, "All the stir about the state’s plans to relinquish control of Newark’s schools has raised a collateral question: What does all this mean for the other three school districts [Paterson, Jersey City, Camden] under at least partial state operation?"

NJ Spotlight reports that four new charter schools will open in September: College Achieve Central Charter School, Plainfield and North Plainfield, K-2nd grade, 5-6th grades, 346 students; Bridgeton Public Charter School, K-1st grade, 108 students; Empowerment Academy Charter School, Jersey City, K-1st grade, 198 students; International Academy of Atlantic City Charter School, Pleasantville and Atlantic City, K-3rd grade, 354 students. Here's additional coverage at the Star-Ledger,  CentralJersey, the Daily Journal, and Press of Atlantic City.

N.J. School Boards Association reports on a new bill, A-4608, that would “increase the number of arbitrators serving on the panel that determines contested cases involving tenured employees in school districts, and give the education commissioner discretion on setting arbitrator fees.“  The number of arbitrators would increase from 25 to 50 in order to accommodate “the widespread expectation that the number of tenure arbitration cases will increase in the near future,” due to N.J.’s new tenure laws that require superintendents to press tenure charges after a staff member has two consecutive years of “partially effective” and “ineffective” ratings.

And here's NJSBA's Frank Belluscio on last month's sunsetting of Chapter 78, the state law that  has required public employees to contribute substantially more than they've been accustomed to for health benefits premiums: “By ensuring that employees pay their fair share toward health benefits, Chapter 78 has saved boards of education millions of dollars, which can be applied toward educational programming and controlling property taxes,” he said. “NJSBA has called for statute to make permanent the cost-sharing provisions of Chapter 78."

According to the U.S. Department of Education, New Jersey is one of only nineteen states that “meets requirements” for its obligations towards special education students. The other eighteen states are Connecticut, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming. (See Disability Scoop.) But Education Law Center issued a press release this week claiming that a special education student in Newark was deprived of services for a full year.

The Asbury Park Press reports on nepotism in Howell Public Schools.

I've been preoccupied this week with the reauthorization of NCLB/ESEA, ICYMI, see here,  here, and here.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Why the "Every Child Achieves Act" Needs a Little More Tweaking

Marianne Lombardo at Education Reform Now looks at the recent report on NAEP scores from the National Center for Education Statistics. Results show that many states have standards that are less ambitious than the concepts tested, especially in 4th grade reading.  While, she says, “NAEP frameworks and benchmarks are established by the National Assessment Governing Board and are based on the collaborative input of a wide range of experts and participants in the United States government, education, business, and public sectors,” states set their own standards when creating course objectives.

These standards range across a spectrum from “Basic” to “Proficient.” Remember, most, if not all, of the data derives from pre-Common Core days. So, for instance, while New York State consistently sets its standards on the high end of proficient for all areas – 4th grade reading and math; 8th grade reading and math – “most states set standards equivalent to the “Basic” range in the national assessment. “

For example,  only 21 states set their standards at “Proficient “ for fourth grade reading while the rest of the states lower expectations to “Basic.” New Jersey sets all its standards at “Basic” and is no outlier in that regard. The three most ambitious states are N.Y., Wisconsin, and North Carolina. States tend to get more ambitious in 4th grade math, where ten states  (but not N.J.) set standards at “Proficient.”

Part of the Common Core initiative was to urge each state to hold its students to higher proficiency levels. Now we’re dealing with the backlash, which stems, certainly, from a sense of federal overreach through NCLB-exhaustion but also from deep wells of denial. If we objectively measure student growth on common standards and assessments, then we’re faced with a reality that we've been  veiling lack of proficiency through fragmented and ultimately incomparable data. (That's why everyone is so freaked out about getting back first results from PARCC and Smarter Balanced.)

We’ve had an inelegant display of  this fear of reality during the last two weeks of Congressional debate over reauthorization of ESEA. On one side there’s the “let us set our own damn standards and assessments” group, championed by unionists, state rightists, and anti-reformers. On the other there’s the “let’s have a little oversight, please,” group, primarily comprising the  nation’s major civil rights groups, those who know too well the damage done to children’s educational trajectories without uniformly high expectations and the teeth of mandated intervention.

Lombardo continues,
Gary Phillips, of American Institute for Research, statistically linked state NAEP scores to TIMMS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) scores and found that states with higher standards tend to score higher on international assessments. Data from 2007 found: 
By combining these two sets of results, we know that even the best-performing American states do not score nearly as high as Chinese Taipei (Taiwan) or Korea, that the average-performing American states are about on par with England, the Russian Federation, and Lithuania, and that the District of Columbia’s performance is more comparable to those of Thailand and Turkey.
We know this already, right? Our standards are too low, our students are too slow, and our children’s global competitiveness is slip-sliding-away. (What was Anne Hyslop’s piece? “Fifty Ways in Which the Every Child Ready for College or Career Act Discussion Draft Limits Federal Oversight of State Implementation.” Guess I’m in a Paul Simon mood. Slow down, Congress, you move too fast.)

But damn the torpedoes and forswear accountability, at least if President Obama signs off on this latest draft of  the Every Child Achieves Act. Based on his heartful and mindful display of social justice and moral compass during the last month, the President may demand a little more heart, mind, and justice than Congress has yet to give him.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

How Do Teachers Feel About Being Forced to Pay Dues to Unions?

We asked a representative sample of 3,300 members of the general public and approximately 700 teachers the following question: “In some states, all teachers must pay fees for union representation even if they choose not to join the union. Some say that all teachers should have to contribute to the union because they all get the pay and benefits the union negotiates with the school board. Others say teachers should have the freedom to choose whether or not to pay the union. Do you support or oppose requiring all teachers to pay these fees even if they do not join the union?” (To avoid stacking the deck, the order of the arguments for and against the policy were randomized.) 
Only 34% of the public support agency fees, while 43% oppose them. The remaining 23% declined to take a position. If this latter group are put to one side, a clear majority, 56%, favor ending the union shop. That finding is consistent with the public’s overall opinion of teachers unions, we found—as only 30% say they have had a positive effect on schools and 39% say they have a negative effect. 
The more startling results came from the teachers. Only 38% of teachers favor the agency fee, while 50% oppose it, with the remaining 13% expressing no opinion. In other words, 57% of teachers with an opinion on agency fees disagree with the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

QOD: Sen. Cory Booker on Accountability Provision in ESEA

I'm distressed today that this body will put into place a piece of educational legislation that ignores those children who this original legislation years ago was dedicated to serving. We cannot be a great nation if we have parts of our country, be they neighborhoods or schools, that fail to experience what should be the bedrock of our country: equal opportunity, a great education, the opportunity through your grit, sweat and hard work that will result in success.
Sen. Booker sponsored the accountability amendment to the Every Child Achieves Act,  along with  Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., Cory Booker, D-N.J., Chris Coons, D-Del., and Elizabeth Warren.  According to 74,  the amendment would require "states to identify and intervene in the 5 percent of lowest-performing schools; schools where less than two-thirds of students graduate; and schools where minority, English language learners, poor and disabled students fail to meet state achievement targets."

This is an amendment ardently advocated for by the nation's major civil rights groups. It's also an amendment that is ardently opposed by AFT and NEA.  The final vote was 43-54, which is interesting all in itself: 35 Democrats found the courage to vote "yes" on a bill that NEA particularly has set as a litmus test for BFF status.

The unions' position provoked this fiery blog post, called "Lies, Lies, Damn Lies: Enough With NEA’s Lies About 'Test and Punish'” from the always excellent Kati Haycock of Education Trust. She writes,
Clearly, NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia wants to claim the mantle of civil rights and social justice — words that are sprinkled throughout her speeches — while simultaneously freeing her members of the responsibilities of improving outcomes for the most vulnerable children. 
All hope is not lost. Civil rights advocates -- and anyone who believes that states should be required to intervene in low-performing schools -- will be watching when the Senate convenes its final conference today. As Lauren Camera of PoliticsK-12 notes, Democrats didn't think the accountability amendment would pass anyway,  "[but] they are trying to cobble together a strong showing of support with 35 or more Democrats voting in favor to make it clear that strengthening accountability is a top priority going into conference with the House on its bill."

N.J. D.O.E. Releases First Results of Teacher Evaluations under New Tenure Law

Yesterday the New Jersey Department of Education released its first ever publication of the results of N.J.'s new teacher evaluation system, which rates teachers on a four-point scale: ineffective, partially effective, effective, and highly effective.

Ninety-seven percent of NJ's teachers were rated either effective or highly effective, about two points less than evaluations pre-TEACHNJ.  The highest totals for teachers rated "ineffective" were in Newark, Paterson, and Camden. It's often noted that high-needs district have a disproportionate number of ineffective teachers.

From NJ Spotlight:
 There were limits to the information the state released, starting with the fact the numbers are a year old and information is not yet available for the school year that just ended. 
There was also extensive redaction of data, as the state did not release the numbers where the rankings applied to 10 or less teachers – leaving a vast majority of schools without full disclosure. The state claimed the privacy and confidentiality rules under the new law required suppression of such information.
Both NJ Spotlight and the Star-Ledger have widgets that let you view each district's ratings.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

New Jersey Loses under Proposed Redistribution of Title I Money

EdBuild, which describes itself as a “non-profit bringing common sense to our school funding system,” has come out strongly against an amendment to the reauthorization of ESEA proffered by Senator Richard Burr (R-NC). The Burr Amendment has been advertised as simplifying the distribution of federal state aid to economically-disadvantaged students, referred to as Title I funding.  It would do so, according to reports, by sending less to states that spend lots per pupil and more to states that send less per pupil.

But, says EdBuild, the new formula doesn’t work out that way. In fact, “Alaska, Vermont, and Washington, DC, all towards the top of the list in per-pupil spending, are slated to receive even more money under the Burr amendment.”

 And, “this means that, for this portion of Title I, it is specifically the high-spending states with an especially high number of students enrolled in poverty-dense districts that would lose the most money.”

In fact, says Edubuild, the states that would lose money under the Burr amendment share these characteristics:

  • They spend, on a per-pupil basis, more than the national median.
  • They serve a higher absolute number of students in poverty than national median.
  • They serve an above-median percentage of children who are living and learning in dense-poverty districts (defined as those whose students are 80% FRL-eligible or higher, compared to those whose rate is 40% or greater).

So Sen. Burr’s simplification of Title I funding is, well, not so simple.

New Jersey note: according to the data here (and elsewhere) N.J. is the fourth-highest per-pupil spending state. N.Y. is first at $19,552, and then D.C., Alaska, and N.J. are all between $17.2K and $17.5K per pupil per year.  Under the Burr Amendment, N.J. falls under EdBuild’s category of “top ten spenders who lose.”

Why the Current ESEA Draft Will Hurt Vulnerable Children

Last Wednesday the U.S. House of Representatives passed an emasculated rewrite of NCLB called the Every Child Achieves Act (ECAA).  To be fair,  consensus is a hard slog because NCLB has become the scapegoat for everything everyone loves to hate about K-12 education: rigid rules, unrealistic expectations, fill-in-the-bubble tests, data-mania. So it’s understandable, if educationally-unsound, that the GOP-dominated House choose to go all laissez-faire on us and whittle the teeth of federal oversight down to nubs.

But let me tell you this: ECAA is way wrong for my kid, as well as other children with disabilities.

I’m an informed parent with strong lungs but, pre-NCLB, my school district was under no pressure to have reasonably ambitious goals for my special needs son. Trust me on this: you don’t know from the “soft bigotry of low expectations” until you’ve read an Individualized Education Plan that substitutes vague platitudes for measurable benchmarks. Call me a cynic, but “trust but don’t verify,” the essence of the House bill that requires data collection but  leaves it to a state’s druthers to take action or not, is a sure trajectory to inadequate educational services.

And, if the Senate’s draft is as ball-less as the House’s version, then we’re all taking a ride in my personal wayback machine.

Throughout NCLB, children with disabilities have been tested on proficiency levels, just like everyone else. (Two percent of those with the most severe disabilities are exempt from standardized testing.) If my district’s subgroup of special needs kids falls below proficiency levels, then there are consequences. My child’s academic growth counts because the district has to count him as part of a cohort of children with disabilities. And if this cohort fails to make adequate progress, then the district is subject to corrective action plans.

So you can understand why it’s scary for a special needs mom to contemplate an educational environment where federal law requires states to publish disaggregated student outcomes – a great first step and encoded in ECAA – but fails to mandate intervention. Spreadsheets and a metrocard will get you a ride on the subway.

(The  National Center for Learning Disabilities explains that a "needed change" in ECAA is that "states must identify and ensure that evidence-based intervention occurs in both low-performing schools and low performing subgroups in any school: States must be required to identify, in a timely fashion, and support the lowest performing schools – both schools where all students are underachieving and schools where particular subgroups of students are not meeting proficiency goals and then take steps to close the gap between the lowest performing schools and the highest performing schools and between all subgroups. ")

Equally scary is the amendment to ECAA, offered by Arizona Republican Matt Salmon,  which would allow parents to opt their kids out of annual standardized testing and forbid the feds from intervention. The amendment passed the House, even though statistically-significant numbers of test refusals undermines district and state analyses of student proficiency. Curiously, this facilitation of opting out echoes a resolution just passed overwhelmingly by the National Education Association during its recent Delegate Assembly: “The NEA will work within existing infrastructure to engage and leverage our current partnerships with parents and families to support a national opt out/test refusal movement.”

If parents are urged by unions and other anti-accountability groups to opt their kids out of standardized tests (and New Jersey is a perfect example of this phenomenon) then districts will be unable to accurately gauge student growth. Parents like me, whose children are part of historically-underserved subgroups, will no longer be able to tell whether local districts are adequately educating their children.

Two more thoughts. First, there’s a sense in which a state’s cohort of students with disabilities serves as a proxy for economically-disadvantaged children. Poverty is a kind of educational disability, although it’s a disability that is not developmental -- i.e., a result of permanent neurological differences -- but one that is remediable. In other words, poor children often come to school underprepared to learn but fully capable of flourishing. In this sense their failure to make adequate progress is more tragic. My son will always be disabled but poor children can overcome their challenges through various interventions and supplemental services.

That's why major civil rights groups wrote a letter to the U.S. Senate explaining that they couldn't back a bill that relied on the paper tiger of "assurances" by states that they were meeting their students' needs. "While there are fewer limitations on the authority of the Secretary of Education than were included in the Chairman’s discussion draft," these civil rights leaders say, "there remains insufficient federal oversight to ensure that the law is faithfully executed as Congress intends. The Secretary must have sufficient authority to ensure the law is appropriately implemented and the most vulnerable students are protected."

Second, I get the outrage of parents who feel put upon because their children have to sit through standardized tests. This is the rallying cry of the opt-out sensibility: how dare a school/district/state waste my child’s instructional time on much-maligned PARCC tests! (And, more to the point and the genesis of the teacher union conflagration, how dare a district gauge teacher effectiveness on student outcomes.) But these parents, typically suburban and  upper-class, are choosing  to undermine the ability of schools and states to accurately gauge the performance of children with disabilities and children with economic hardships.

So here’s hoping that the Senate manages to pass an ESEA rewrite that maintains the moral center of federal education law. Defang the excesses of NCLB all you want, but leave the the teeth of federal authority. Otherwise, our most vulnerable children will suffer the consequences.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Why We Need a New Education Law with Federal Oversight

From The Hill:
Billions of federal dollars are spent on education each year, and no taxpayer wants to see this investment wasted.  When federal dollars are being spent, it’s entirely appropriate to demand results for the investment. There must be a real focus on the bottom line, which in this case, is directing limited dollars to improve academic results for children whose states are identified as falling behind. This is a federal role that all conservatives and liberals should be able to get behind. 
The government can also exercise accountability without the federal mandates of NCLB that were disliked by many school systems—and those mandates must go. But it remains in the national interest for progress to be measured for all students. The results should be released, and parents and taxpayers should be told the truth about our education system. Finally, schools must take action to help students and groups of students that are falling behind the academic goals set by states.

AFT Endorsement of HRC Sparks Allegations of Toxic Testing and Plans for Charter Union

On Saturday, after AFT President Weingarten announced that the union was endorsing Hillary Clinton, the blogosphere  exploded. While Randi issued tweet after tweet extolling the union’s lovefest with the Democratic frontrunner, disenfranchised AFT members excoriated the AFT Executive Council’s lack of transparency and manipulation of survey data that distorted statistical outcomes.

For example, Steven Singer at Gadfly, cross-linked at Badass Teachers Association, condemned the AFT’s press release claiming that survey data indicated that two-thirds of members support HRC over Bernie Sanders. Singer writes,
Where exactly are the polls, surveys, etc. that show the Clinton support AFT leadership claims?
For instance, which polls produced which results? The press release says AFT members prefer Clinton 3-1. But even if Clinton came out on top consistently, surely the results weren’t identical on every poll. Maybe she got 75% on one and 65% on another. 
The AFT hasn’t released everything, but the organization’s website gives us a memo about ONE of these phone surveys. This national survey of membership planning to vote in Democratic primaries found 67% picked Clinton. However, only 1,150 members participated! That’s a far cry from the more than 1 million cited in the press release.
Where is the rest of the data? Where is the raw information from this survey? Where is the data from all these other outreach attempts and on-line activities? How many took phone surveys? How many took on-line surveys? And what were the results in each case? If union members really did endorse Clinton, that’s fine. But many of us would like to see the proof.
Singer raises serious questions about the AFT’s  misleading data aggregation. He notes that “a lot of my friends are AFT members, but none of them recall any survey." He bemoans the overwhelming numbers of members who unwittingly opted out of the assessment survey and the subsequent lack of accountability and proportionality in AFT’s purported outcomes. At least one large cohort of members prefers Bernie Sanders (I'm not sure what the “n” number is for that subgroup) but, claims Singer, they were uncounted because AFT’s failed to test the preferences of the full membership.

Singer: “I asked Randi about this on Twitter. She said there were 2 polls of AFT members, the latest of which was in June. The results were 79% of union members said endorse; and 67% of those dem primary voters said endorse Hillary. However, I can’t find these polls anywhere. Has anyone seen one or the results? So we have members voting for Hillary on polls that no one has seen or has not been made public.”

The Badass Teachers Organization, which represents disenfranchised members, is accusing AFT of lack of transparency in their data collection and is currently conducting its own survey. Word on the street is that this effort to fight back against the monopolistic AFT empire will evolve into a union choice movement, with BATS serving as an incubator of ideas that challenge the status quo. Plans are afoot to siphon operating funds from AFT's coffers in order to support thus burgeoning cry for alternative representation in the form of a charter union. Suggested names for the new union include Uncommon Teachers, Mastery Union, Teacher Success Academy, and Crusaders in Progressive Professions (CIPP).

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Sunday Leftovers

The N.J. Department of Education, to no one's surprise, confirmed that the state will not make any substantive changes in the Common Core,, despite the disavowal by Christie. See NJ Spotlight, Star Ledger (also here), the Asbury Park Press, and CentralJersey,

The Courier Post Editorial Board says that the D.O.E.'s timeline for revamping the Common Core "will tell you all you need to know about whether this represents a legitimate reconsideration of Common Core, or if it's little more than a politically motivated sham to stick a new label on the same standards so they're more palatable to conservatives resentful of the federal government's role in establishing Common Core." (Need we say more?)

The Record considers the newest draft of ESEA and quotes federal officials who explain that the proposed bills "lack the accountability needed to make sure struggling students get the help and investments they need, especially in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools. The officials released a report showing that wide gaps still exist across states, despite improvements in graduation rates and achievement gaps.
 “We have to make sure every state develops a structure to identify and help the lowest-performing schools,” Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said in a phone call with reporters.
The gaps in New Jersey are especially wide:  "44 percentage points in math and 45 percentage points in reading, according to the report."

NJ Spotlight looks at the State Board of Education meeting where Chris Cerf was confirmed as the new superintendent of Newark and the district's budget was discussed in the context of deficits (about $50 million) and pending lay-offs. For more Cerf coverage see the Asbury Park Press and this background analysis from Spotlight.

Here's the latest bad news on N.J.'s fiscal (in)solvency from John Reitmeyer: “High deficits and debt obligations in the forms of unfunded pensions and healthcare benefits continue to drive each state  [N.J., N.Y., Illinois, Massachusetts, Connecticut] into fiscal peril,” the study said. “Each holds tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars in unfunded liabilities -- constituting a significant risk to taxpayers in both the short and the long term.”

The Press of Atlantic City looks at how seniority rules can affect school budgets: "Southern Regional School District physical education teacher Darcy Kolodziej is entitled to more than $137,000 in back pay because 30 days of her unpaid maternity leave were not counted toward her seniority when she lost her job in 2007 due to a reduction in force, or RIF."

The Record looks at how two Bergen County school districts are preparing for changes in next year's PARCC exams and, also, the impact of the Common Core on high school English classes: "On the last day of English teacher Sara Belgiovine's class, her students sat at desks arranged in a square. They reviewed the sense of media literacy they had gained in class, exploring everything from how colors are used by advertisers and marketers to the approach used by Ernest Hemingway in his inscrutable short story 'Hills Like White Elephants.'"

ICYMI: Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard and Mayor Dana Redd have a great editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Here's a sample, but read the whole thing:
When we think of "Black Lives Matter" - the catchphrase that has followed this class of graduates during their time in high school - we, of course, think of the tragedies involving Trayvon Martin and the other African American males. 
But we also think of Rasool and the dozens of other African American male students who graduated last month in Camden and across the country. If that phrase is going to persist - and we think it is an unfortunately necessary reminder - then Black Lives Matter should conjure a broader understanding of African American males, a more multifaceted portrayal than the one presented on cable news whenever a tragedy takes place. After all, tragedies affect us, but they do not define us.

Friday, July 10, 2015

N.J. D.O.E. Will Release Teacher Evaluation Database Next Week

The New Jersey Department of Education received a bit of flack after its announcement of the first year’s results of using Student Growth Percentiles, as well as Teacher Practice rubrics and Student Growth Objectives, to gauge teacher effectiveness: 97% of N.J. teachers were deemed either effective or highly effective. Can any profession boast such proficiency?

But the results are more granular than that, and next week, on July 15th,  the D.O.E. will release a database comprising performance ratings for specific teachers. No names are published, but parents will be able to see how many teachers in each school received ratings of either ineffective, partially effective, effective, and highly effective. They’ll also be able to see principal ratings (by district, not school, to preserve anonymity).

Under our old binary system – satisfactory or unsatisfactory ratings based on subjective classroom observations – almost all teachers were rated satisfactory. In 2012-2013, for example, 99.2% of teachers were deemed satisfactory.

Here are a few preliminary conclusions from Peter Shulman, chief talent officer for the Department of Education, by way of the Star Ledger’s article on the D.O.E.’s presentation Wednesday to the State Board of Education:

  • The online database is an effort to be transparent about the state's findings from the first year of a new teacher evaluation system.
  • “We are not going to jump to any conclusions off the first year.”
  • “The new system creates more distinction between performance levels and allows the state to further analyze the data for useful trends.”
  • “Teachers in their first or second year were twice as likely to receive a ‘partially effective’  review as more experienced teachers” (which tracks with studies that show that instructional improvement occurs in the first 3-5 years). 

N.J. D.O.E. Approves Eight New Charter Applications in First Round

NJ Spotlight looks today at this latest round of charter reviews. The state rejected six applications and approved eight in this first phase of charter review. With the exception of one in Englewood, all approved applications are in  high-poverty districts. In fact, all fourteen applications, with the exception of one in Princeton, included low-performing districts in their proposed catchment areas, although some also would have opened seats to students in neighboring districts. This is a tacit acknowledgement of the current D.O.E.'s charter authorizing philosophy: focus expansion of choice where families need it most.

Here's the list of  Phase I approved schools:
Camden Innovations Charter High School -- serving Camden, grades 9-12 (240 students)
Elizabeth Prep Charter School -- Elizabeth, grades 6-10 (500)
First Ocean Charter School -- Lakewood, grades K- 5 (340)
International Academy of Greater Irvington -- Hillside and Irvington, grades K-8 (698)
Liberty Community Charter School -- Trenton, grades K-6 (950)
NPC Charter School -- Newark, grades K-4 (375)
Philip’s Academy Charter School of Paterson -- Paterson, grades PK-3 (270)
Regional Pneuma Academy CS for Science, Health and Tech -- Asbury Park and Neptune Township, grades K-5 (240)
Universal Business Academy -- Englewood, grades 6-8 (195)

QOD: Chris Cerf is Committed to Returning Local Control to Newark

The new state-appointed superintendent of Newark Public Schools says he's committed to returning New Jersey's largest school district to local control and confident he can do so.  
Chris Cerf, a former state education commissioner, told NJ Advance Media on Wednesday that he believes the district has already made a great deal of progress. 
"But I also believe there is an enormous amount of work left to do," Cerf said. (Star Ledger)

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

NEA Approves New Anti-Accountability Items at the Expense of Disadvantaged Kids

The U.S. Congress is seemingly close to reauthorizing ESEA, now called the “Every Child Achieves Act.” But the current proposal is overly deferential towards Tea Party-ish members who resent the teeth of federal oversight not only in same-sex marriage but also in education policy. And, in its current people-pleasing mode, this draft of ESEA panders to teacher union loyalists whose determination to undermine any federal role in education policy was on full-frontal display at the recent NEA annual meeting. Delegates there approved three new business items that sacrifice the ability of states to accurately measure student achievement in order to protect teachers’ jobs.

But let’s not be too negative. There’s plenty to like about the Every Child Achieves Act, primarily its retention of annual state testing and disaggregation of data. However, as the Washington Post Editorial Board opines today,  its passage “would mark a defeat for the nation’s neediest students”:
There would be no consequences whatsoever. No Child Left Behind was too rigid in prescribing interventions, but the proper response is not to remove any and all requirements to improve. The Senate bill would allow schools to turn their backs on minority, disadvantaged or special needs students with no impact on the federal largesse. Dozens of civil rights groups, including the NAACP and the National Council of La Raza, have criticized the bill for that reason; so do business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which know it is foolish as well as immoral to let talent go to waste. 
And then there’s NEA’s delegates, led by President Lily Eskelson-Garcia, blithely approving measures to undermine state testing. Last week Garcia explained to Stephen Sawchuk why her representatives, with their long and distinguished partnership with civil rights leaders, are suddenly turning their backs: “We are working on so many things with our friends in the civil rights communities. We are going to keep sending them teachers that they trust, people in their own ethnic groups.”

Right. Anyway, here’s the three new business items approved by NEA delegates:
NBI 32: The NEA will conduct a campaign to end the high-stakes use of standardized tests created by Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), as long as those tests are being used on teacher evaluations and to rate schools.

NBI 48: NEA, through existing online media, will highlight the work that locals throughout the country are doing to inform parents and their communities of the negative effects of high stakes testing and the right to opt out their children. Such informational items will include resources available from state affiliates as well as resolutions adopted by local associations and schools boards.   
NBI 115: The NEA will work within existing infrastructure to engage and leverage our current partnerships with parents and families to support a national opt out/test refusal movement. (Emphases added).
So NEA will encourage local unions, made up of local teachers, to undermine the entire standardized testing regime with parents in their local communities, and will actively support a national opt-out movement.

But not because NEA is against standardized testing per se but because student test results are used in teacher and school accountability measures.  So regardless of the purpose of standardized testing or the benefits it provides to students, NEA is willing to take the whole structure down to support its own narrow, member-centric agenda.

Sure, it’s a labor union and its job is to protect jobs. But at the expense of our neediest children? I don’t know how NEA elects/appoints delegates, but I know many teachers who will take umbrage at this blatant display of self-interest.

I'm sure the U.S. Congress is under undue pressure to satisfy lobbyists as it works to improve our federal education laws. But here's hoping that our representatives can see through cynical subterfuge, regardless of its source, and maintain their focus on children.