Monday, August 31, 2015

Some (Unsolicited) Advice to NEA and AFT Leaders

Last week Chris Stewart, native of New Orleans and graduate of the its public school system (“My NOLA education sucked. Badly.) blogged about how “a dedicated syndicate of privileged individuals are set on disproving rather than lauding the progress of students, teachers, and schools.” He describes a bus tour that was part of anti-reform conference sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association:
[T]he purpose was to form an attack on a success story that threatens their “poverty prevents learning” narrative. When the black poor are learning outside of the traditional system, it isn’t good for business. There will be a business response. Like a bus tour to highlight everything bad.
Stewart pierces the heart of a major misstep by teacher union leaders: misrepresenting beneficial changes in non-traditional school systems in order to protect the old world order, whether that's fighting  parents’ rights to choose alternative public schools or spinning distressingly low academic standards, archaic adult-centric tenure laws, and data-free teacher evaluations. In doing so, unions undermine their own credibility and, increasingly, position themselves further and further apart from the American zeitgeist.

Example: a poll came out last week from Education Next soliciting opinions from the public about hot-button education issues like the higher academic standards. While the term "Common Core" garners disdain (google “Common Core” + “toxic” and you get 288,000 results), everyone wants to elevate standards for kids and more than half of voters think states should have common standards. The poll “reveals little public sympathy for the opt-out movement,” even among public school teachers whom the unions presume to represent.

If the hard right faction of the GOP is the Tea Party, then call the hard left (right? not sure anymore) of the Democratic unionist wing the Red Bull Party. It’s like a fraternity pledge drive: aspiring bros must attest to a catechismic reverence towards local control and the eradication of the merest whisper of accountability. We see this trend in the increasing presence of groups like the Badass Teachers Association and the increasing deference towards them by AFT President Randi Weingarten and NEA President Lily Eskelson-Garcia. We see it in the increasingly shady villainization of  Teach for America, which now has proportionately more teachers of color than traditional-route teacher training programs. We see it in the unions' demand that the U.S. Congress eliminate annual standardized testing in a newly-authorized ESEA.

We see it right in my own state of New Jersey, where parents in the two most troubled districts –Newark and Camden – plead for scant charter school seats and higher standards while local union leaders undermine reform efforts.

In Newark Public Schools, families plead for more charter schools seats -- ten thousand children are on waiting lists -- but NJEA leaders are lobbying for a three-year moratorium on charter school expansion.

In Camden last week a local paper reported on the reconfigured Camden public school system,  which now offers all parents choices among the city’s traditional schools and hybrid charter/traditional schools, the latter operated by Mastery, KIPP, and Uncommon. Mastery’s schools, which just opened the school year at 100% capacity, “held multiple cookouts, carnivals, and other events to strengthen ties with the community and Mastery CEO told the paper that “we are making a tremendous effort to engage parents as partners.” Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard has made community outreach a centerpiece of his strategic plan for the district.

NJEA’s response:
“Parents deserve to have a say before their children are transferred to a Renaissance School, and students and teachers have the right to be treated with fairness and dignity,” NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer said in April. “All of the people who are directly impacted by these decisions were left out of the conversation.”
Just how credible is Steinhauer’s response? Zero on the credibility meter. And, really, he’s far more moderate and statesmanlike than national union leaders.

Stewart opens his blog post with a description of how anti-reform rhetoric, specifically in NOLA, is giving him “the sick feeling that many opponents of school reform are actually rooting against kids.” That’s the dangerous dance that union leaders engage in: betting that the American public is unable to discern duplicity, unable to distinguish between that which is cynical and self-serving and that which is beneficial to schoolchildren, children, teachers, and communities.

We're a lot smarter than that.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Sunday Leftovers

Everyone is talking about the teacher in Roosevelt who was tardy more than a hundred times over the past two years. The arbitrator ordered that the district must lift his suspension in January and resume paying him his $90K per year because they it didn't provide  "progressive discipline." (Like an alarm clock?) See the Star-Ledger,  Education WeekCBS News, NY Daily News, Talking Points Memo,  Times Argus (in Vermont). (And file under "Why N.J. Still Needs Tenure Reform.")

The Press of Atlantic City reports that the A.C. school district, which had to lay off 225 teachers because of budget cuts, was able to rehire 29 teachers.

The Asbury Park Press reports on local districts' teacher evaluation results: "In Monmouth County, 2 percent, or 185 teachers, were deemed "partially effective" or "ineffective." In Ocean, 1 percent, or 54 teachers, earned the two bottom scores, according to the results."

Newark Superintendent Chris Cerf reported to the city's school board on this far more successful second year of allowing parents to choose among the city's public schools, both traditional and charter. Interesting, only 25% of incoming kindergarten parents prefer their neighborhood schools, in stark contrast to the anti-reform rhetoric coming from Chicago and NOLA.  Cerf, via the Star-Ledger: "Overall, parents are engaged and exercising their voice. They're demonstrating in huge numbers that they prefer choice. They're expressing greater satisfaction with process and how they've been treated throughout," he said.

Also from the Star-Ledger re: reform efforts in Camden:
 As parents prepare themselves for another nine months of textbooks, tests and trips, Camden City School District leaders are taking concerns to heart and folding them into practices for the coming school year.
The five promises that came from Superintendent Paymond Rouhanifard's 100-day listening tour continue to play a prominent role. However, having recently wrapped up his 55th public meeting, Rouhanifard said what's on the minds of parents, teachers and students is an ever-evolving issue requiring thought-out fixes.
"Our families want immediate results," said Rouhanifard, not something "esoteric."
Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-Somerville) proposed a pension reform plan for teachers (the fund will run dry in 12 years) but NJEA said no. And the blog called New Jersey Education Aid predicts that the state will be unable next year to fully fund either the School Funding Reform Act formula or teacher pensions because of continuing state job losses and general economic woes.

This week there's been some extraordinary writing about the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans public school system's transformation. See, for starters, U.S. Sec. of Ed. Arne Duncan, NOLA Superintendent John White, The 74, and Chris Stewart,

Friday, August 28, 2015

Camden Mom Explains Why Her Children Need School Choice; NJEA, ELC, and SOS-NJ Fight Back

Mastery’s three new Camden schools opened yesterday, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer, and here’s what one parent had to say:
Bri, a mother of three from Cramer Hill who brought her third-grade son and second-grade daughter to [Molina Elementary School], asked that her last name not be used because she did not wish to criticize the district's teachers publicly. But she said she was appalled by the education her children had received at Molina, and said she believed the charter school model would challenge them. 
"The way they teach seems more sophisticated," she said. "So I think it's changing for the better. I was going to take them out of this school before I heard it was turning into a charter."
No wonder. How did Molina Elementary School students do before New Jersey’s Urban Hope Act permitted non-profit charter schools to submit proposals to the School Board and open up to five  district/charter hybrid schools?

According to the N.J. Department of Education’s 2013-2014 School Performance Report, 86% of third graders failed the state’s basic skills test in language arts and 89% of fourth graders failed the state’s basic skills test in math. Much of the data on other student outcomes at Molina was“suppressed” because everyone failed.

So hopes are high for the advent of Mastery, as well as KIPP and Uncommon,  also approved through the Urban Hope Act, in a city where only one in five students can read, write, and do math at grade level.

Nonetheless, Camden City School District faces a bevy of legal challenges from the triumvirate of  NJEA, Education Law Center, and Save Our Schools-NJ.

From the article:
“The New Jersey Education Association has sought to stop the conversions [from traditional to hybrid], arguing that they violate state laws and were implemented without adequate community input.”
That's the same argument promoted by ELC and SOS-NJ, despite Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard's comprehensive community outreach efforts. (Here's the most recent press release,, which details this summer's outreach activities; here's the new School Information Cards which provide families with detailed information about each school; here's the Camden Commitment, the district's strategic plan that includes multiple opportunities for community feedback.)

All students, at Molina and the other hybrid (also known as "renaissance") sites  were given the option of enrolling at the new charter hybrid or going to a traditional district schools. About 80% chose the charters. Sounds to me like the community is voting with their feet.

Here’s one irony among many: these three lobbying groups operate under the pretense of protecting the sanctity of the traditional public school district and its families. But their true motivation is hardly that altruistic. ELC is protecting  the $24K per pupil funding that, under the state’s Abbott rulings, flows to Camden and other poverty-stricken cities. NJEA is protecting adult jobs in traditional district schools. SOS-NJ is protecting its agenda of local control at the expense of school choice.

These agendas have nothing to do with Bri and her three children. Like any good parent, she's choosing the best school for her children. She could teach these lobbyists a thing or two.

Presidential Hopefuls Relatively Quiet on K-12 Policy, except for Chris Christie

Allyson Klein at Education Week reviews the education platforms of current contenders for U.S. President and finds, well, not much.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is a cipher on K-12 education issues, although she’s had quite a lot to say on college access. Lincoln Chaffee and Jim Webb are silent. However, notes Klein, "Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont's site talks about K-12... specifically mentioning lack of access to high quality education for black students.”

Republican candidates are equally taciturn ( even Jeb Bush has only a video on his website of his interview with Campbell Brown at The74 education summit). The GOP gang seems fixated on vouchers and the obligatory derision towards the Common Core.

But there’s one exception:
The GOP contender with the most substantial education section? Probably Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who talks about his plans to end teacher tenure, expand charter schools, improve college readiness, and increase school choice for kids in struggling schools. (He does not mention his wish to punch teachers' unions in their collective face.)

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Why New Jersey Still Needs Tenure Reform

Newark Superintendent Chris Cerf has trimmed the city’s school budget deficit from $40 million to somewhere between $15 million to $20 million, but not without a less fungible cost: the loss of great teachers, reports the Star-Ledger.

Under former school chief Cami Anderson, 450 teachers were placed in Newark’s version of a rubber room, a pool called “educators without placement.” The annual cost of keeping these teachers out of classrooms -- the cost of their salaries and benefits -- was estimated at $35 million. So Cerf made the hard call, one that he called “fiscally essential,” to shrink the rubber room to 179 teachers and place the rest back in front of kids.

Who did these once-displaced teachers replace?
[M]any would be taking the spots of higher-performing teachers, who were nonetheless placed on the chopping block due to union seniority rules, often referred to as LIFO – shorthand for "last in, first out." 
In some cases these are very respected, beloved teachers," [Cerf] said. "Someone in EWPS (educators without placement) had to fill those spots."
So Newark Public School District saves essential money (although it’s still operating at a deficit)  by firing some “very respected, beloved teachers.” This decision is dictated by widget-driven seniority rules that value educators with more time on the clock, despite numerous studies that show that classroom effectiveness plateaus after a few years of service.

Now, it’s possible that at least a few of the teachers in the rubber room were placed there unfairly, perhaps without due process. But why do their rights to employment trump those of students to effective classroom instruction?

It's time to get rid of LIFO.

QOD: NOLA Dad Responds to "Outside Attacks" of Post-Katrina Schools

From today's New York Times:
To the Editor:
As a newcomer to New Orleans, with school-age children, I would say to Andrea Gabor that the perfect can be the enemy of the good. Have charter schools in New Orleans solved all the problems of deep poverty in America? Absolutely not. But charter schools in New Orleans have reconnected the middle class in the city with public education options. 
My wife and I have been impressed by the Orleans Parish charter school options. The schools are academically rigorous but also racially and socioeconomically diverse. Also, the rate of change in New Orleans schools has attracted the kind of national excitement that public education deserves. 
We came from a public education situation in Chattanooga, Tenn., where the neighborhood you can afford determines the educational opportunities that are available to you — enforcing economic segregation and making school reform nearly impossible. That is not the case in New Orleans. 
Ms. Gabor’s point that there are too many new white teachers in this racially diverse city does not reflect what we have seen. 
I would like to see the charter school experiment in New Orleans continue — knowing full well that it is an experiment, and experiments are not perfect — without the attacks from outsiders. 
New Orleans

For context, see this companion letter, also in today's NYT,  from Louisiana State Superintendent John White. He notes that current graduation rates have increased to 73% (from 54% pre-Katrina), ACT scores for black students exceed the national average, and college attendance has shot up.

Superintendent White explains, "The most disadvantaged students have benefited from this progress. The percentage of students with disabilities performing at basic reading and math proficiency, for example, has tripled since Katrina, and the graduation rate for such students now exceeds the state average by 17 percentage points."

Also, "a peer-reviewed study by Tulane economists concluded, 'We are not aware of any other districts that have made such large improvements in such a short time.'”

Who's Your Daddy? Not A Single Teacher in 5 Bergen County School Districts Rated "Ineffective"

From today's Record:
The majority of teachers in five southern Bergen County districts are considered effective by the standards of AchieveNJ, the state's newest method of teacher evaluation, eliciting positive feedback from administrators.
The results, released on July 15, reflect teacher performance for the 2013-2014 school year for public schools.
According to the report, the majority of teachers in Englewood, Englewood Cliffs, Cresskill, Alpine and Tenafly school districts were evaluated as highly-effective or effective.
The evaluation places teachers into one of four categories: highly-effective, effective, partially-effective and ineffective.
Of 766 teachers, 177 were considered highly-effective and 549 were considered effective, according to visible evaluation results.
The results showed that 20 teachers were rated partially-effective. No ineffective teachers were reported in the results."

NJSBA Reports Status of N.J. School Districts' Teacher Contract Negotiations

New Jersey School Boards Association just issued a report on the status of teacher contract negotiations in the state’s 579 school districts. Of the 211 districts bargaining over contracts that expired this past June, 136 have yet to reach settlement; also, 47 districts have yet to resolve contracts that expired June 2014 or earlier.

N.J. school employees don’t work without contracts. The previous contract simply extends into the next school year and, upon contract resolution, teachers and other staff members receive retroactive salary increases.

NJSBA also reports that the average annual teacher salary increase for 2015-2016 is 2.5%. This is slightly higher than last year’s 2.47% “but well below the salary increases seen just a few years ago, NJSBA data indicate. For example, the average settlement rate for contracts covering the 2009-2010 school year was 4.23 percent.”

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Magnet Schools in New Jersey: Applauded Yet Segregated

Speaking of school choice, some parents in New Jersey can bypass their neighborhood school by enrolling their children in one of the state’s public magnet schools. How good are these schools, which are run under the umbrella of county vocational-technical schools? So good that U.S. News and World Report just placed six of them on the list of N.J.’s top ten public high schools. And so good that six of N.J.'s magnets (five of the six named in U.S. News) made Newsweek's  list of America’s top ten high schools.

N.J.’s magnets are shining examples of public school choice that suffer none of the scorn heaped on another form of public school choice, charter schools. Mysterious, isn’t it? After all, magnets siphon dollars from local districts, along with contributions from the county and state. Vo-tech districts are immune from N.J.’s suffocating superintendent salary caps and, unlike charters, spend more public dollars per pupil than traditional schools. You'd think their practice of creaming off students from motivated families, a common complaint about charters, would inspire similar resentment. But it doesn't, even though acceptance rates at these elite schools are about 15%, based on standardized tests, G.P.A.’s, references, and interviews.

But there is no resentment. New Jerseyans not only accept but cherish their public magnets. So does NJEA (perhaps because public magnet staff are unionized, unlike most charter school staff). Save Our Schools-NJ, indefatigable opponent of school choice, is silent on magnet schools.

So with no political obstacles, magnets are on safe ground. And we can make them even better by taking a cue from charter schools and striving to reflect the demographics of catchment areas.

Right now we don't even come close.

Here’s two examples. The top N.J. high school on U.S. News’s list and the second best American high school on Newsweek’s list is High Technology High School, part of the Monmouth County Vo-Tech School District. According to its website, the school offers “a pre-engineering career academy that emphasizes the interconnections among mathematics, science, technology, and the humanities.” The site also claims that “its  students “represent a cross-section of students from 45+ school districts in Monmouth County, generating a culturally diverse, as well as gender and racially balanced environment. “

Just how diverse? According to the N.J. Department of Education’s School Performance Report, 0% of students there qualify for special education services, 2.6% are economically-disadvantaged, and 0% are English Language Learners. African-American students comprise 1.6% of the total enrollment; Hispanic students comprise 3.2%.

Now, Monmouth County is mostly white and wealthy. Indeed, N.J.’s top magnets are in mostly white and wealthy counties. But in the high school closest to High Tech HS, Middletown North, 17.5% of students are economically-disadvantaged.

Next, let’s look at Bergen County Academies, where students have access to a Nano-Structural Imaging Lab, an scanning electron microscope, a transmissions electron microscope, and a laser scanning electron microscope. At this magnet, part of Bergen County Vo-Tech District, 1% of students have disabilities, 4.2% are economically-disadvantaged, and 0.4% are English Language Learners. One percent of students are African-American and 6.4% are Hispanic.

Hackensack High School is  the closest high school to Bergen Academies. There, 29 percent of students are black, 22.9 percent are white, and 43.6 percent are Hispanic. Forty-two percent are economically-disadvantaged. Now, most of Bergen County is whiter and wealthier than that. But not as white and wealthy as the enrollment at Bergen Academies.

So here's a challenge and an opportunity: let's borrow a principle from our charter schools and create policies and/or legislation that mandate meaningful enrollment diversity at our wonderful magnet schools. Surely that's a goal that both school choice advocates and detractors can support.

When Parents Say "No" to Neighborhood Schools

When I was an elementary school student in Queens, New York City, I attended my local public school, P.S. 115. (NYC schools are often numbered and the P.S. just means “Public School.”)  From kindergarten through sixth grade my younger sisters and I would troop seven blocks from our house to our familiar and friendly neighborhood school. It was our second home.

When I reached seventh grade I started P.S. 172, our local junior high school. Things weren’t quite so homey.  There were safety issues – another seventh-grade girl was sexually attacked in a stairwell – and the academics were middling.  My parents were well aware of these issues because they both worked for the New York City Board of Education in other schools in Queens, my father as a high school social studies teacher and my mom as a social worker. They also knew that the high school I was slotted to attend, Martin Luther King, was more crowded and less safe than 172. So these two devout union members made a choice. Just before the start of my 8th grade year we moved to a better public school system in Nassau County.

So when I read about the passion families have for their local neighborhood schools, whether in Newark or in Chicago (where Randi Weingarten is helping lead a hunger strike to protest the phasing out of Dyett High School), I think about my parents’ quandary.  How did they square their loyalty to traditional neighborhood schools with their concerns about their daughters’ safety and academic growth?

The same way parents do in Newark.

Today the Wall St. Journal reports  on the second year of One Newark, the universal enrollment plan that allows parents to choose among all charter and traditional schools, regardless of neighborhood of residence. Now, the rhetoric among parent choice is fierce. (Example from Diane Ravitch:  It’s “the end of neighborhood schools. All district schools and charter schools will be part of a pool. Or something.”)

But parents there are making the same choice that my parents made: quality over proximity.
Just 25% of kindergartners listed the school closest to home as their top pick—a statistic officials used to bolster their argument that families want options beyond their neighborhoods.
And from today’s Star-Ledger, which reports on Cerf’s appearance before the Newark Advisory Board: “"Overall, parents are engaged and exercising their voice. They're demonstrating in huge numbers that they prefer choice. They're expressing greater satisfaction with process and how they've been treated throughout," he said.”

Neighborhood schools are cherished parts of communities. But when those schools fail to adequately nurture students, they lose their value. And when other options are available – in Newark,  those options are often charters (this year 42% of  kindergarten parents listed charters as their first choice) and for my family it was relocation – then parents do what’s best for their kids. This is  not politics. This is parenting.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

QOD: "How NOLA Proved Urban Education Reform Can Work"

Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine considers the impact of school reform in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina, “a disaster that paradoxically gave the city the chance to redesign its failing school system”:
Rather than re-create the neighborhood-based schools that had recapitulated generations of poverty, the city created a network of public charter schools. The charters, which have open admission and public accountability, have produced spectacular results. Before the reforms, New Orleans students — like overwhelmingly poor students in most places — lagged far behind more affluent students. Since the reforms, the achievement gap has nearly closed. The proportion of New Orleans students performing at grade level, once half the rate of the rest of the state, now trails by just 6 percent.
Chait also discusses one of the most frantic arguments against school reform: in a newly-conceived system where families choose schools based on preference, rather than the traditional system where “wealthy families literally buy access to the best schools,” the hallowed concept of “neighborhood schools” breaks down. Also in the break-down lane, however, are “inflexible” teacher union contracts:
[C]harters also break the traditional union model of teacher compensation. That model gives teachers high, and virtually absolute, levels of job security, and pays them based on years of tenure. There is no empirical basis to believe that this is an optimal method to recruit and retain quality teachers. Evidence shows that experience improves performance only after the first few years, after which longer tenure does not produce better outcomes. American teachers are much more likely than the teachers in other, higher-performing countries to graduate from the bottom tier of their college class, and the hiring process for teaching is far less competitive than for other fields. But teacher unions and their allies have lionized the old neighborhood-based model and its inflexible contracts.
Also check out the CREDO study, linked to in the piece, that found that “urban charters on the whole produce an extra 40 days of classroom learning — eight weeks — in math, and 28 days of extra classroom learning in reading per student per year.”

Monday, August 24, 2015

Camden City Public Schools Releases Data from Community Survey; Residents Cite Progress

The Camden City School District just announced the conclusion of a one-month community engagement campaign which gathered feedback on the views of students, parents, teachers, and residents about the district’s progress.  Five community meetings were held this summer, hosted by Advisory Board members; participants were surveyed on how the district can improve technological support, vocational opportunities, parent involvement, and Central Office responsiveness, as well as simplify the enrollment process. District personnel will now revise the district's strategic plan, called the  Camden Commitment, to include this updated information.

Vanessa Serrano, a lifelong Camden resident and mother of three, remarked, “I can’t remember the last time a Superintendent’s gone out of his way to meet with parents, or to take an interest in all of Camden’s public school students – including kids at charter, District, and the new renaissance schools. After attending the North Camden community meeting, I am excited about the District’s plan to get all types of Camden schools working together on behalf of our children.”

From the press release:
“The Camden Commitment was created with the goal of ensuring that every child has access to a high-quality education,” said Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard. “While we have made progress over the past 18 months, we still have a lot of work to do. The feedback we’ve received from the community will inform our approach for the next 18 months to make sure we’re meeting the unique needs of Camden students, educators, and parents. By working together every step of the way, we will make our schools and our communities safer and stronger.
From the survey:
-          The majority of respondents believe that the District has made progress since January 2014 in school safety, modernizing school buildings, student support, teaching and learning, serving parents, and Central Office effectiveness;
-          Nearly 70 percent of respondents indicated that the District had made progress on the Camden Commitment’s Promise 3b, Great Teaching and Learning, which strives to provide excellent teachers and quality-learning environments to children from pre-K onward.
-          Respondents cited Promise 2, 21st Century School Buildings, which aims to modernize schools and equip them with top-of-the-line technology, as making the least amount of progress since January 2014.
-          Nearly half of respondents want to see enhanced communication with parents through different means, such as text alerts.
-          Over 50 percent of respondents believe that creating a positive school culture is the key to safer City schools.

Deconstructing the "Narrative" of Newark Public Schools

There’s a new kind of fairy tale in the annals of those who denigrate efforts at education reform. It goes something like this:
1) Beleaguered city school system, beset by poverty and low achievement, is sucked into the education reform machine that issues empty promises about academic gains and efficiency. 
2) Beleaguered system is co-opted by politicians, consultants, and edu-entrepreneurs who fire hard-working local teachers and administrators, close beloved neighborhood schools, and turn blind eyes to discriminatory policies of new-fangled charter schools that cream off higher-achievers and abandon kids with special needs and English Language Learners. 
3). Enriched politicians and hedge-fund managers trot off to new opportunities, leaving the beleaguered school system in worse shape than it started.
This neat narrative is the basis of Alex Kotlowitz's  new book review about "The Prize"by Dale Russakoff.  Full disclosure: I haven’t read the book yet (although I will)  -- just  the review, which creates its own narrative about school reform. Let’s get a few things straight.

Indeed, former Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Gov. (and soon to be erstwhile presidential candidate) Chris Christie, along with callow Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, announced five years ago -- on Oprah, no less! -- that Zuckerberg would give Newark Public Schools a $100 million grant to rebuild its long-suffering school system.

How suffering? Kotlowitz doesn’t bother with details so much -- and, in fairness, it was just a book review -- but Newark Public Schools’ failure to educate students goes back almost one hundred years. A 1927 report to the Newark schools remarks that “[t]here is no community in our country, or perhaps in any other country, that has a more complex school problem to solve than has the City of Newark.” Robert Curvin, civil rights leader and author of “Inside Newark” describes a century of school district corruption and patronage that has “shortchange[d] the overwhelming majority of children who enter its classrooms.” In 1993, a state report issued just before the state took over the district, concluded that ‘the Newark Public School system has been at best flagrantly delinquent and at worst deceptive in discharging its obligations to the children enrolled.

Every Newark mayor since 1962, except for Cory Booker and current mayor Ras Baraka, has been indicted for crimes committed while in office. Until last year, four in ten Newark public school students never graduated from high school.  According to the New Jersey Department of Education, 84.1% of students newly-enrolled in Essex County Community College (the closest two-year college to Newark) have to take remedial courses and the three-year graduation rate is 11.8%.

So in struts  the mighty trio of Christie, Booker, and Zuckerberg and, according to the ed reform fairy tale formula, chaos ensues. “Their plan gets off to a rocky start,” writes Kotlowitz, as  “their moneyed backers” exercise “their ideological furor to create more charter schools.” They hire “white...consultants” and bring on “ideologue” Cami Anderson as superintendent. Hence, “this bold effort in Newark falls far short of success” and Newark residents live unhappily ever after.

But what really happened? First of all, let’s talk money. Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation (matched by another $100 million raised by Booker) is only 11%% of Newark’s annual budget, and almost the entire donation went to a new teacher contract, championed by AFT President Randi Weingarten, that financed retro pay and gave teachers the choice of accepting annual raises through the traditional salary guide process or through merit bonuses. To be fair, money was also spent on an ill-conceived community outreach program too.  But money was never the problem: the annual cost per pupil in Newark is $16,403.

Superintendent Anderson (she’s just been replaced by former N.J. Education Commissioner Chris Cerf) was no idealogue but she was politically tone-deaf and thin-skinned. She was also flummoxed by budgetary problems, as well as achieving the proper balance between community demand for more charter school seats and prudent growth of alternatives.  (Currently, among Newark Public Schools’ 46,000 students, about 30% have chosen charter schools and another 10,000 students are on waiting lists. )

And it’s no wonder that parents choose alternatives. According to the 2015 edition of Newark Kids Count, published by Advocates for the Children of New Jersey,
 A substantial and persistent achievement gap exists in pass rates among students in Newark traditional public schools and charter schools. For example, while 71 percent of charter school students in Newark passed 3rd grade language arts tests in 2013–14 — higher than the state average of 66 percent — only 41 percent of students in Newark traditional public schools passed those tests. Similarly, just 42 percent of traditionals school students passed 8th grade math tests, compared to 75 percent for charter school students. Comparable trends can be seen throughout other grades and tests.
While Anderson was never anyone’s best buddy -- in fact, current mayor Ras Baraka, Booker’s replacement, ran his campaign as a referendum against Anderson -- traditional schools did improve under her watch. In 2014, four years into her tenure, the graduation rate was up to 68%, from 54% in 2009.

Newark, in Kotlowitz's narrative construct, is a national “compass for school reform." But maybe that's the wrong compass.

A better choice might be Camden, where Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard is successfully. albeit quietly, implementing many of the reforms attempted in Newark: universal enrollment in charter and district schools, an innovative collaboration between charters and traditional schools,  comprehensive and ongoing community outreach, and a much-praised and widely-shared  strategic plan called the Camden Commitment.

Rouhanifard is listening to parents, and what he’s hearing is not very different from what Anderson heard from Newark parents: we want great schools for our kids, and we don’t really care what they’re called. For example, this past February fifty Camden parents handed Superintendent 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.”

That’s a different narrative, isn’t it? And it has the virtue of being true.

The fairy tale presented by Kotlowitz would be less concerning if it was limited to Newark. But this neat little fiction is practically becoming a franchise, a kind of  anti-reform McDonald’s.  Just this past week Louisiana Superintendent John White deconstructed a Grimm Brothers-inspired fairytale of New Orleans schools’ story (also in a NY Times article) that follows the same formula as that presented in Kotlowitz's narrative: public schools in trouble (with the dramatic extra element of Katrina); reformers come in and pad their pockets; community ignored; kids suffer. (Also see Peter Cook here and Chris Stewart here.)

This compelling narrative has one fatal flaw: it ignores the facts. So does Kotlowitz's “book review” of Russakoff’s book. It makes for great copy if you’re comforted by familiar tall tales by the campfire. But it's less satisfactory if you're concerned with the actual academic hopes and dreams of underserved children.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Sunday Leftovers

There is no teacher shortage in New Jersey.

Speaking of teachers, the Asbury Park Press reports on N.J. teachers' "diversity gap":
In public school classrooms across New Jersey, students and their teachers are looking less and less alike.
The state’s teaching force remains mostly white despite a growing number of minority students, an Asbury Park Press analysis found. Minorities made up more than half of the student body last year, up from 45 percent six years ago. Even still, only 15.6 percent of certified teachers were nonwhite — a slight uptick from 14.4 percent six years ago, state data showed.
The diversity gap between students and their teachers is only widening in some communities: Counties are seeing significant surges of minority students while hiring levels for diverse teachers remain largely stagnant.
The Record interviews Montclair Interim Superintendent Roland Bolandi, specifically about the fact that every one of the 506 teachers in the districts was ranked either "highly effective" or "effective."

The Star-Ledger reports that " New Jersey last year was one of 18 states awarded a federal Preschool Development Grant, which it says it used to expand preschool offerings for more than 2,300 children in 19 communities.But the $250 million grant program, including $17.5 million annually to New Jersey, could be eliminated as part of spending reductions proposed in the House and Senate, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said."

The N.J. Legislature voted to count American Sign Language as a world language for the purpose of high school graduation requirements.

The blogger at New Jersey Education Aid uses Jersey City as an example of how N.J.'s school funding formula is broken:
Life is good for Mayor Steve Fulop of Jersey City.  Not only is his city doing so well that he can pull off that miraculous trick of governance of expanding services AND cutting taxes, but his own personal life is going great too, purchasing a townhouse in the Heights for $739,000 with his girlfriend.
The house has old-fashioned charm, three bedrooms, and a fantastic view of Jersey City and the NYC skyline.  Maybe best of all, it's total tax bill is only $7,700 a year!  Sweet!  Steve Fulop does not have children, but if he did they would get "free" Pre-K just for living in Jersey City too.  Sweet!
ICYMI, here's NJSBA's reading of the recent PERC decision on what it means for Chapter 78, the health and pension benefits reform law, to "sunset."

Friday, August 21, 2015

Hillary Clinton on Charters and School Choice

Via Mike Antonucci
July 5, 1999 speech of Hillary Clinton to the NEA Representative Assembly:
“I also hope you will continue to stand behind the charter school public school movement,” Mrs. Clinton began, “because I believe that parents do deserve greater choice within the public school system to meet the needs of their children.”
She described how positively impressed she was by the high standards she saw at a Washington, DC charter school that required children to master Latin. She told the audience that despite the rigorous requirements, the school had a large waiting list. She wondered why we couldn’t have more schools like it.
“Well, slowly but surely we’re beginning to create schooling opportunities through the public school charter system that are providing those kinds of options for parents and students,” Mrs. Clinton continued, “raising academic standards and empowering educators, and I invite educators to be at the forefront of this. Because I know that the NEA has already helped to create a number of charter schools. And I’m very pleased that you have done this, because I think when we look back on the 1990s, we will see that the charter school movement, led by committed, experienced, expert educators, will be one of the ways we will have turned around the entire public school system.”
We all live in hope that the likely Democratic presidential nominee remains immune from Ravitch-itis and maintains her firm stance on the promise of school choice for parents and children.

N.J.'s Magnet Schools Top Newsweek List: Our Brand of School Choice Teflon

Newsweek ranked New Jersey's best public high schools and the top five are High Technology High School, Academy for Mathematics Science and Engineering, Union County Magnet High School, Bergen County Academics, Middlesex County Academy for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Technologies, and Academy of Allied Health and Science.

Any theme here? Yup: they are all county-run magnet schools that require admissions tests, high GPA's, references, and the like. No lotteries here, no socio-economic diversity Call it N.J.'s preferred version of school choice, one that avoids the shrapnel aimed at charters and interdistrict school choice, and one  that happens to be restricted to high-flying students.

ICYMI, here's a link to a NJ Spotlight piece I wrote a while back on school choice and N.J. magnet schools, which looks at how,
Interestingly, magnets draw little of the political vitriol often directed at other public school options that depend on parental motivation, resources, and application processes. After all, the angry objections to charter schools -- “creaming off" high-performing children from traditional schools and burdening local districts with tuition and transportation costs -- could be made about magnets too.

But they’re not. In New Jersey, magnets are school-choice Teflon.

Via NJ School Boards Association, Big PERC Decision on Maintenance of School Employee Health Benefit Premium Contributions


NJSBA Applauds PERC Decision on Employee Health Insurance Contributions

TRENTON, August 20, 2015—The New Jersey School Boards Association today commended a recent New Jersey Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) decision on employee contributions to health benefit premiums under the 2011 pension and health benefit reform act (“Chapter 78”). 
Provisions of Chapter 78 that require a certain level of employee health benefit contributions will “sunset” this year in approximately one-third of the state’s school districts. At issue have been two points, according to NJSBA: the status of those contribution levels in school districts with multi-year collective bargaining agreements that began prior to the sunset date for these provisions; and the negotiability of employee health benefit contributions in future contracts. 
“By ensuring that public 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,” explained Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod, NJSBA executive director. “PERC has clarified the fact that these contribution levels are not automatically eliminated and must remain in effect for the duration of any contract that began prior to the sunset of Chapter 78.

QOD: NYC Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina Values Adults Over Kids

In an interview with the New York Observer, Fariña says, “To me the most important thing is, what do my constituents think of my work? Are teachers happy? Are principals happy? Are parents happy?”
Today the New York Post comments, "[t]eachers first, principals second — then come parents. And she thinks of them all as her constituents — as if she were elected to look after their interests.
Sorry, Madam Chancellor: It’s not about the adults at all. You’re supposed to put the kids’ needs above all else."

Now, in all fairness, The Post is neither a fan of Farina nor her boss Mayor Bill de Blasio. The editorial gleefully references a report of a eleventh-grade NYC English class reading aloud "The Three Little Pigs," typically kindergarten-first grade fare, and then links to a new report from Students First that showed that "more than half of the city’s schools can’t get even a quarter of students in grades 3-8 to pass the English exam."

But, whatever you think of the Post's political bent,  the Editorial Board's commentary gets to the heart of much of the current kerfuffle about school accountability.

Most of us parents agree that students should be held to higher standards and that we need some sort of mechanism -- probably standardized tests -- to have an annual "check-up" of their progress.  Most of us parents think that seventeen year-olds should be studying something more substantive than nursery tales (that wasn't a special ed class, by the way): we want our children to be challenged, not babied; we want their high school diplomas to signify proficiency and readiness. Most of us parents don't care about the governance of their children's public school or whether it's traditional or charter; Farina's well-known animosity towards charters* is gratuitously obtuse. And most of us parents value the academic growth of our children over the "happiness" of teachers, principals, and constituents.

Of course we want our teachers to be happy. But not at the expense of our children's academic growth.

And that's where Farina gets her priorities wrong.

When she was first hired as NYC's school chancellor, Diane Ravitch joyfully tweeted,

Carmen Farina is excellent choice for NYC chancellor. Rejects cult of testing and data. De Blasio kept his word.

De Blasio kept his word to AFT lobbyists. He broke his word to parents and children.

*Example from RealClearEducation: "Apparently frustrated by scores of charter schools succeeding far better with low-income and minority students, Fariña recently blurted out that they must be cheating. They must be shoving out their lower performing students. Except she couldn’t prove it, and had to back away from her own words."

Thursday, August 20, 2015

In the (Hot) Light of Day, Another Thought on Yesterday's GOP Education Summit

Yesterday we heard a substantive and reasonable discussions of hot-button education issues at  the The74/American Federation for Children education summit for GOP candidates in New Hampshire, but that’s because:

1) The crazies didn’t show up.
2) We didn’t hear deal-breaking mummeries on  immigration reform, abortion rights, same-sex marriage, or even way-out statements like eliminating the Department of Education.  Moderator Campbell Brown insisted on serious dialogue, not soundbites.

So maybe that’s why I found the discussions so invigorating and refreshing. But reality intrudes.

Yesterday the New York Times reported that Donald Trump is continuing to push the Republican presidential field further right on with immigration (something along the lines of #AryanLivesMatter) but you can’t blame British Rail for that. And, of course, it’s awfully hard in the light of day to take Chris Christie, Scott Walker, and Bobby Jindal seriously when they insist they’re for higher standards yet disparage the higher-standards, state-sponsored package called Common Core.

They’ll pay the cost, both in campaign contributions and credibility. For example, yesterday’s Wall St. Journal describes Christie’s loss of financial support from Mike Lilley, head of the New Jersey-based B4K and a former Goldman Sachs bond trader, who said that Christie’s “denunciation of Common Core was one of a number of reasons he is now backing Mr. Bush.”

Speaking [full disclosure] as a Democrat, the GOP leadership’s demand for fealty to this fossilized ideal of states’ rights, damn the kids, is inconsistent with any realistic strategy for winning next November.  Talk about a Pyrrhic victory! Win the support of the Eagle Forum and the Badass Teachers Association (and other rebel outposts of NEA and AFT) but lose the election.

The only way presidential candidates on either side of the aisle can swear allegiance to this misbegotten cult of local control is by disregarding the fact that only 9% of low income students graduate from college and disregarding  America’s major civil rights organizations, which gather strength as the country’s demographics variegate. These organizations steadfastly call for keeping the Common Core (or the Common Core by another name), issuing annual aligned standardized assessments, and maintaining federal oversight.

In fact, the Democratic presidential candidates, who will have their own education summit in October (co-sponsored by The74 and the Des Moines Register), will grapple with the same problem. Do they kowtow to special interests (Tea Party-ists, union hacks) on education issues or do they plan to represent the  plurality of Americans?

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Two Thoughts on Today's Education Summit

Today the American Federation for Children and The 74 held an education summit in New Hampshire for GOP candidates. I haven’t read any commentary yet that’s longer than 140 characters, but my sense is that the  six participating Republican candidates spoke knowledgeably and passionately about pertinent issues. Oh, there were a few face-plant moments -- John Kasich suggesting the elimination of teacher lounges; Chris Christie claiming that the Common Core “didn’t work” and that’s why he flip-flopped (um, it’s working just fine); Carly Fiorina stumbling over state spending numbers -- but it was thrilling to listen to such substantive and granular discussion (even, in my case, remotely). These six candidates -- the others were Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, and Bobby Jindal -- are more moderate Republicans so maybe it’s not surprising that there was civil consensus on the need for higher student standards (whether those are state-mandated or locally-mandated is a matter of debate), school choice, and accountability.

Two thoughts:

First, it’s stunning how much the presence of The Donald dumbs down conversation. Certainly, this was a different venue and structure than the recent FOX debate. Candidates sat one-on-one for forty-five minutes with tough, tireless, and smart Campbell Brown, instead of lining up side by side for thirty-second soundbites with the likes of Mike Huckabee and Rand Paul. This was a seminar, not a sideshow.

Second, let’s try  a thought experiment. Maintain the line-up of today’s candidates and add in the most likely Democrats: Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, and, oh heck, why not, Joe Biden. What would happen?

I think you’d still have consensus on higher standards, school choice, and accountability.

Think about it. Clinton is on record supporting No Child Left Behind (albeit with concerns about micromanagement), the Common Core State Standards, and charter schools. Joe Biden also supports all three issues.  Bernie Sanders is a cipher but he’ll flame out in N.H. and Iowa. O’Malley supports school choice, common standards, and accountability.

In other words, these six Republican and four Democratic presidential hopefuls mostly agree on  hot-button education issues. Sure, there’s discord on vouchers and, more crucially, the role of the federal government in state and local matters, but the large provinces of agreement swamp the small wedges of dissent.

And that’s as it should be. The EducationNext poll that came out this week found that 67% of the public supports annual testing, 59% oppose the opt-out movement, 65% support the Common Core, and 51% support charter schools. Our leaders represent us! How refreshing.

The elephant(s) in the room, of course, is teacher union leaders, who came under sharp attack today, often positioned as the primary impediment to change.  One of the challenges for candidates during the Democratic education  summit in October will be to honor our teachers while also acknowledging the needs and desires  of public school children and their families.

It will  take a strong Democratic candidate  to suggest the AFT and NEA leaders’ positions on school choice and accountability (the Common Core is a moving target) diverge from public consensus. I hope that Democrat shows up in October and talks to Campbell Brown.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

New Poll: Most Parents and Educators Oppose the "Opt-Out Movement"

Here’s a new poll out from Education Next which, among other things, confirms the lack of parent and teacher support for the “opt-out movement.”
Only a quarter of the public supports the opt-out movement, the survey found. Among parents, 52 percent dislike the idea of letting parents decide whether their children are tested, while 57 percent of teachers are opposed.
The majority of those polled also support a federal requirement for annual standardized testing. For a summary of poll results, see Ed Week.

For more analysis, Andy Rotherham describes the political awkwardness around the opt-out movement’s lack of diversity. Most opt-outers are white and well-off, more “Whole Foods than community empowerment.” Nonetheless, the movement is a threat unless educators and policy folk work hard on more transparent communication about the purpose of annual standardized testing,

He concludes,
The opt-out "movement" is a hodgepodge of interests including genuinely concerned parents, professional activists, chronic malcontents, teachers union lackeys, and the teachers unions themselves. The teachers union motivation here – and by extension their so far instrumental support for opt-outs – is a remarkable abdication of professional responsibility, especially given the challenges and opportunities facing the education sector today. Until more education leaders and officials are willing to talk forthrightly about that, and the constellation of difficult issues that flow from assessments, they're part of a charade and are getting the opt-out movement they deserve.

QOD: Fighting the "Poisoning" of the Common Core Brand

Today’s Washington Post editorial describes  the bizarre toxicity of the name “Common Core,” which has been poisoned by both those on the "right" -- the Mike Huckabees and Rand Pauls of the country  -- as well as those on the "left," like post-makeover Diane Ravitch and the radical arms of teacher unions.This politically-driven contamination of a simple two-word phrase is absurd, of course, because any educator, parent, or public school supporter is committed to the tenet that American students should be exposed to higher standards and a more challenging curriculum.

The editorial sets the scene at this year's Iowa County Fair, long known for its devotion to red-meat (fried and on a stick, of course):
THE IDEOLOGUES have so disfigured Common Core that supporters of the educational reform now dare not speak its name. “The term ‘Common Core’ is so darned poisonous, I don’t even know what it means,” Jeb Bush said in response to a question at the Iowa State Fair on Friday. The former Florida governor then described what he does favor: “I’m for higher standards, state-created, locally implemented, where the federal government has no role in the creation of standards, content or curriculum.” In other words, he’s for Common Core. 
Perhaps unaware that what they were hearing was practically identical to the policy that’s now reviled on the tea-party right, the audience members clapped and cheered.
And on the left (whatever that means anymore)
Liberal opposition to Common Core, meanwhile, is proving at least as harmful. Teachers unions have resisted the accountability that consistent and meaningful testing might bring, and they have used their own form ofCommon Core sabotage: Along with misguided anti-test activists, they have encouraged parents to refuse to let their children take exams meant to assess how well students are meeting Common Core expectations. They have succeeded in undermining educational standards in New York: Parents pulled an astonishing 20 percent of students grades 3 through 8 out of the tests last school year, upsetting efforts to track student progress.
What we've got here is not a problem of substance but of semantics. So where do we go from here? Just this: those who remain committed to the needs of students, especially disadvantaged ones, will continue to look for leaders unbowed by transient marketing issues and political posturing, those willing to stay the course on higher standards.

The editorial concludes,
Those worried about disadvantaged students should be particularly upset. Until the advent of testing, school districts were able to hide their failure to educate poor and minority students and those with learning challenges. Sabotaging standards will allow a return to that era of abdication. The left-right movement of activists, ideologues and unions that is “poisoning” the Common Core brand is willing to sacrifice transparency and accountability for the sake of ideology, job security or some combination. Credit to Mr. Bush, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and other leaders who are fighting the poison.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Dear readers:

I'm taking a week off and will be back a week from Monday.

Best regards,

GOP Debate: What the Clown Car Gets Wrong about ESEA, Common Core, and Moms on the Ground

For us edu-centric folks,  the primary disappointment of the primetime FOX GOP debate last night was that education issues came up exactly once.   PoliticsK-12 describes how “moderator Bret Baier asked former Florida governor Jeb Bush whether he agreed with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that most of the criticism of common core is due to "a fringe group of critics,” and Bush gave, I think, a reasoned and articulate answer: "I'm for higher standards measured in an intellectually honest way with abundant school choice” but each state should set its own standards.

Then Marco Rubio jumped in:
Rubio: I too believe in curriculum reform. It's critically important in the 21st century. We do need curriculum reform and it should happen in the state and local level. That's where education policy belongs. Because if a parent isn't happy with what their child is being taught in school, they can go to that local school board, their state legislature, or their governor and get it changed. Here's the problem with the common core. The Department to Education, like every federal agency, will never be satisfied. They will not stop with it being a suggestion. They will turn it into a mandate. In fact, what they will begin to say to local communities is: "You will not get federal money unless you do things the way we want you to do it." And they will use common core or any other requirement that exists nationally to force it down the throats of our people and our states.
Hang on a sec. If a parent “isn’t happy isn't happy with what their child is being taught in school, they can go to that local school board, their state legislature, or their governor and get it changed”? Really? On what planet?

Let’s say that you’re a mom with a kid assigned to a struggling school that gives short shrift to state core content standards. Your kid is really good at math and you know that he or she  needs to start algebra in 8th grade in order to progress to calculus by 12th grade in order to be ready for college math courses. But that’s a course sequence not available at your school because  ambitious math standards have not been “forced down" its "throat."

Let's take it a step further. You're a proactive, empowered mom with a math-whiz kid so  maybe you’ve written letter to the school board president or met with the superintendent or even wrangled some parents together for a petition drive.  During your research you found out that the school was written up during a state monitoring exercise for not offering pre-algebra in 7th grade in order to have math-oriented kids on track for college-level math courses.  Maybe the school even has a Corrective Action Plan and the state will check its progress in two years.

But that's too late for your kid.

Oh, hey, that’s no problem,  says Rubio (and just about everyone else during the debate carnival, although John Kasich gets points for supporting Common Core). Just  go knock on the Statehouse door to chat with your local legislator. Just pick up the phone and call the governor.

Oh, yeah, that’ll work.

(I already miss Jon Stewart.)

Now, the debate last night existed within a reality-free zone where a  celebrity clown attacked women and people cheered; where no candidate was pro-choice, immigrants were criminals, and only Kasich displayed a veneer of respect for the LGTBQ community;  where references to Jesus Christ were so frequent that anyone using that mention as a marker for a drinking game would have been blitzed. (Seriously, GOP, you think there are no Jews or Muslims or Buddhists watching the debate? How narrow is your world?)

So it may be a lost cause to suggest that Rubio’s blithe assumption of parental control is at best ignorant and at worse delusive.  The only bright spot is that this exchange between Bush and Rubio is that it provides a great example of why the U.S. Congress needs to approve an ESEA bill that, yes, forces college and career-aligned course standards – not federal ones, but state ones – down the throats of local districts and requires states to intervene in schools that disregard that mandate or fail to implement it properly.

That's this hypothetical mother's only shot.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Chris Cerf Goes to Newark

From today's Wall St. Journal:
Newark’s new schools chief, Chris Cerf, said Wednesday he wants to keep an open door to city leaders.
In some cases, quite literally: He encouraged the local Schools Advisory Board to set up an office in district headquarters. 
The previous superintendent, Cami Anderson, who left the troubled system a month ago, had stopped attending the board’s monthly public meetings, saying they had devolved into dysfunction and personal attacks from the audience. 
In his first public appearance talking about his job running the state-controlled district, Mr. Cerf said the biggest challenge ahead is “to restore a sense of civility and openness and transparency around a shared vision” for helping students succeed... 
From today's NJ Spotlight:
Board member Joseph Fisicaro asked Cerf what would happen in the next year or two to prepare the district for local operation that didn’t happen in the last 21 years of state control.
“We are going to return local control,” Cerf replied. “The timeline for that is not cast in stone, but I’m sure of at least that.”
Board President Mark Biedron ended the meeting by asking Cerf what he views as his biggest challenge.
“The single biggest challenge here is to restore a sense of civility and openness and transparency around a shared vision that every child deserves a quality education,” Cerf responded.
“There is a lot of healing that needs to happen,” he continued. “But I also know that there are also a lot of good, smart things that are happening, too.”
From today's Star-Ledger:
"There is a really tremendously legitimate hunger for being listened to, for being heard, being engaged, and I am very committed to that process," Cerf said. "I understand that there is a difference between listening and agreeing, but I know that I am very open and very flexible to hearing not only things that are working but things that aren't."

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

TNTP's Major Findings in new report, "Confronting the Hard Truth About our Quest for Teacher Development"

  • Districts are making a massive investment in teacher improvement—far larger than most people realize. We estimate that the districts we studied spend an average of nearly $18,000 per teacher, per year on development efforts.
  • Despite these efforts, most teachers do not appear to improve substantially from year to year—even though many have not yet mastered critical skills.
  • Even when teachers do improve, we were unable to link their growth to any particular development strategy. 
  • School systems are not helping teachers understand how to improve—or even that they have room to improve at all.

Read the full report here.

Education Law Center's Flawed Plan for Newark Schools' Transition to Local Control

Last week Theresa Luhm, managing director of the Education Law Center proposed a timeline for a transition to local control for Newark Public Schools. But her impetuous timeline is generated by politics, not what's best for Newark's 40,000 schoolchildren.

Luhm’s proposal is based on outdated numbers from the State’s accountability metric for school districts, called QSAC. (Board members and administrators have converted the acronym to a verb, e.g., “we’re being QSAC-ed,” profanity optional.)  Every three years, more often depending on degree of district dysfunction, each school district in N.J. prepares documentation to prove proficiency in five areas: Instructional & Program, Fiscal Management, Governance, Operations, and Personnel. A district “passes QSAC” if it gets at least 80 points on each section, earning the designation of “highly-performing district.”

But the state just released its most recent QSAC report on Newark and the district’s scores don’t inspire much confidence. With the exception of Operations, every category is down since 2011 (when Cami Anderson took over), except for Instruction and Program, which started high (although not high enough), dipped sharply down, and then recovered  a bit this past year. Specifically, the district earned 82% in Fiscal Management, 72% in Governance, 95% in Operations, 60% in Personnel, and 58% in Instruction and Program.

From today’s NJ Spotlight: “the Newark district fell short in three of five measured areas. Included was the critical area of governance, which would allow the local board to take binding votes and appoint its own superintendent.”

 In case you’re wondering, this is not all Cami Anderson’s fault, especially the low Governance score which is all on the Board and, frankly, not brain surgery. Passing grades in this category require methodical review of policies and procedures, thoughtful goal-setting, adoption of curricula, and  annual superintendent evaluations (probably not required in this case). NJ School Boards Association also strongly recommends that boards annually perform self-evaluations.

Clearly local control is on the horizon, but Education Law Center’s timeline is too much, too soon. Luhm proposes to complete the process by next June. Here’s how she says it would work: the just-appointed  Newark Educational Success Board would ignore student achievement, fix Governance, and finalize a plan by early 2016. The plan would be approved by whoever has to approve it. Then the community would  hold a referendum in May 2016 on whether residents prefer an elected or mayor-appointed school board. School board elections, if that’s what residents want, would be scheduled for June, and “new, fully-empowered board” would be seated right away.

I’m all for aggressive planning and I understand the urgency.  But this timeline has less to do with the well-being of schoolchildren and more to do with ELC’s animosity towards Anderson, Cerf, and Christie.

What’s fast but realistic? Two to three years, not ten months from now. Let’s do this fast, but do it right.

New Newark Superintendent Cerf said in a statement, “While the report shows that there is still work to do, I want to make clear that it will not impede either our commitment to restore the District to local control, or the progress we are making towards fulfilling that commitment."

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

From the Lips of High School Graduates: "Challenge Us!"

Much of the sturm und drang over higher-level standards and assessments has been provoked by a theme, often evoked by teacher unions and wealthier parents, that students suffer from undue stress created by overwork, especially in high schools.  For example, in the film “Race to Nowhere” students are portrayed as depleted by the “pressure-cooker” of high school academics: sleep-deprived afflicted by anxiety and depression, even suicidal.  We work them too hard!  The director of the film, Vicki Abeles, wrote last September in USA Today that school should be a place to explore “personal passions, participate in [the] wider community, and connect with friends.”

 The logical extension of this analysis is that responsible parents should opt their kids out of standardized tests and oppose more challenging course standards.

However, this sentiment is disconnected from the reality of high school graduates who are, oftentimes, ill-prepared for college and careers. Hart Research Associates  (sponsored by Achieve) surveyed 767 college instructors and 407 employers who either taught or interviewed 1,347 recent high school graduates.

 Here are some of the results:
In two year colleges, only 4% of faculty members found students “generally able to do what is expected.” In four-year schools, the number was 12%. Fifty-three percent of college students said they were “extremely” or “very” well prepared. Eighteen percent of employers found high school graduates extremely or very well prepared for work. But 17% found graduates “not at all prepared.” 
Students’ preparedness in specific areas of learning was rated and resulted in dismal findings: 82% of instructors found fewer than half of students or none of their students ready to use critical thinking skills; comprehension of complicated materials – 80%; work and study habits – 78%; writing and written communication – 77% and 76%, respectively; problem solving – 76%; conducting research – 74%; math – 59%; science – 53%. 
In 2004, employers said that four out of 10 new employees required more education or training in reading and math. In 2015, the number had risen to six in 10.
And how do the students feel about their high school preparation, pre-Common Core and aligned assessments? “Almost nine in 10 high school graduates said they would have worked harder if expectations for earning a diploma had been higher.” When instructors, employers, and students were asked if they approved or disapproved of requiring students to pass math and writing exams to graduate, 68% instructors approved, 56% of employers approved, and 64% of students approved.

In other words, with the exception of parents portrayed in “Race to Nowhere” and opt-out/teacher union propaganda, all other stakeholders -- including our children -- support higher expectations in high school and aligned testing as a condition of graduation. Maybe it's time that we listen. As Robert Pondiscio wrote last week,
While I have no doubt that for some families, the pressure on kids to achieve and perform are real and a legitimate source of anxiety, the far greater concern is almost certainly the undertaxed American child, who lacks access to rigorous academic coursework, the incentive and opportunities to participate in organized activities, or both. It would be a shame if the concerns of the privileged few—however valid—became the new conventional wisdom. The data speak clearly: Most kids need more enrichment and challenge, not less. 

NEA Rosters Shrink, but NJEA remains "Reliably Strong"

Mike Antonucci at EIA reports that 22 NEA state affiliates have fewer members than they did in 1994. However, New Jersey Education Association is one of seven state affiliates that he considers “reliably strong.” The other six are California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Washington. Mike adds, “absent a remarkable change in fortunes, NEA will start to resemble AFT in that it will have  well-defined strongholds (as AFT has in major city school systems) and be virtually invisible elsewhere.”

This diminution in strength can be seen, by the way, in the way that Congressional Democrats, even those typically regarded as progressive and liberal, disregarded NEA’s demand for “nay” votes on the Murphy Amendment (see here).

Monday, August 3, 2015

Elizabeth Warren Brooks No Bullies as She Fights for Progressive Accountability in Federal Education Laws

One of the most powerful, progressive, and popular leaders in national politics is  U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), whom many regard as Teddy Kennedy’s heir in terms of social justice, civil rights, consumer protection,  and education. She was endorsed by NEA’s PAC in 2012, a hero at this year's Netroots Nation conference (and next year's keynoter), and  lionized by Randi Weingarten who described Warren as “ahead of the curve in proposing real solutions to help millions of aspiring students reclaim access to the American dream—access to higher education.”

Warren is also a proud sponsor of the Murphy Amendment,, which would require states to not only assess school performance and report out data on historically disenfranchised subgroups (African-American, Hispanic, economically-disadvantaged, students with disabilities, ELL)  but also require states to intervene in schools where these subgroups consistently fail to meet state benchmarks.
The Murphy Amendment was narrowly defeated in the Senate on party lines but, like the peasant in Monty Python’s Holy Grail, isn’t quite dead yet because it could still be resuscitated in conference.

But for both conservative Republicans and teacher union leaders, this amendment is the hill to die on, the former because of resentment towards federal intrusion into state autonomy and the latter because of resentment towards accountability.  Here’s an excerpt of a letter from NEA to the U.S. Senate:
On behalf of the three million members of the National Education Association and the students they serve, and as a follow-up to our letter on the underlying bill, the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015 (S. 1177), we urge you to VOTE NO on amendment 2241 offered by Senators Murphy (D-CT), Durbin (D-IL), Warren (D-MA), Booker (D-NJ) and Coons (D-DE) expected to be voted on this week. Votes associated with this amendment will be included in NEA’s Legislative Report Card for the 114th Congress.
Despite NEA’s threat that they’ll withhold campaign funding from advocates of accountability and a small degree of federal oversight, Warren and the tiny group of brave Democrats remain committed to educational equity. On Friday CommonWealth, which describes Warren as the “the new face of an unapologetically liberal wing of the Democratic Party,” reported that
Most Democrats then supported the final Senate bill, which passed overwhelmingly, 81-17, without the Murphy amendment. Warren was one of just three Democrats to vote against it, joining with Murphy and Cory Booker of New Jersey. 
In a statement released after the July 16 vote, Warren called the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act a “landmark civil rights law.” Through it, she said, the country “committed to improving educational opportunity for children living in poverty, children of color, children with disabilities, and other groups of kids who had been underserved, mistreated, or outright ignored by public schools. Today’s bill does not live up to that powerful legacy.”
Warren, thus, aligns herself with President Obama and the nation’s major civil rights groups and against NEA and AFT leaders. Kati Haycock explains in the CommonWealth piece that “the dangerously unholy alliance” between teacher union leaders and statist Republicans, is “born out of a bizarre romanticism for what happens when locals get freed to run everything.” Haycock continues,
 There’s this kind of romantic idea that folks at the local level and state level know best. But these are the very same people who have systematically underfunded poor kids and kids of color. The need to not have the pendulum swing back there is evidenced from years and decades of states and communities running these kids over.
Sen. Warren  remains unfettered by romanticism, Tea Party politics,  or blind union fealty.  Her education platform is founded on what's best for kids, especially those who historically have been "underserved, mistreated, or outright ignored by public schools." She's the antidote for cynicism, at least in the context of national education policy.