Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Asbury Park Press Editorial Board Shoots the Messenger and Denies the Message

The Asbury Park Press Editorial Board is in denial. While they gleefully -- and expertly -- dissect the dysfunction in low-income urban schools like  Lakewood the Board is aghast at a new report  called “Not As Good as You Think Why Middle-Class Parents in New Jersey Should be Concerned About Their Local Public Schools.” After all, it’s one thing to slam a poor minority districts. It’s another to unveil the distressing reality that our middle-class suburban districts are not adequately preparing our children for college and careers.

Therefore, the Editorial Board ignores the indisputable facts of the report and slams Pacific Research Institute, the organization that produced the research. “Teacher unions beware!,” they fearfully enjoin.  PRI is a “libertarian, free-market think tank devoted to public policies emphasizing private initiatives” and is secretly conspiring, at the behest of the Walton Foundation, to “weaken public schools and break teacher unions.”

Let’s get real. No one I work with in the educational reform camp has any such agenda. (And, for full disclosure, I’m quoted in the report and will speak at the launch event on March 14th in Trenton.) We all know that the vast majority of children will always be educated in traditional public school districts. The PRI report, contrary to the APP's accusations, doesn't “cherry-pick” numbers (in fact, it’s quite inclusive) and it is not “targeting states it feels may be ripe for school-choice expansion.” Remember that New Jersey’s D.O.E. just announced new charter school authorizations: a grand total of three, despite many more applications, and the Opportunity Scholarship Act is dead.

So let’s get past easy swipes at the  provenance of the report and look at the facts. From the report:
In 2014, there were 194 public high schools in New Jersey that had predominantly non-low-income student populations. Of these 194 schools, 114 met the state target of 80 percent or more of seniors taking the SAT. Out of these 114 schools, 32 schools -- 28 percent or nearly three out of 10 -- had half or more of their SAT takers fail to score at or above the college readiness benchmark score of 1550. Thus, according to the SAT data, a significant proportion of predominantly non-low-income New Jersey high schools were not preparing at least half or more of their students for likely success in higher education. 
Many schools with more than 50 percent of their SAT test takers failing to score at or above the college-readiness benchmark are in middle-class or more affluent neighborhoods across New Jersey. 
These are documented facts. While we middle-class N.J. residents blithely acknowledge dismal college and career readiness in districts like Newark, Camden, and Trenton, we cringe when confronted with problems within our suburban school districts.

A more fruitful reaction is not denial, as exemplified by the APP's Editorial Board, but determination to improve. And we really shouldn’t take this personally. The PRI report isn’t new news. Over the last several years, many organizations with a variety of funders have documented systemic failures in public education.

For example, The Atlantic just published an article that begins,
 A majority of students with A and B grade point averages in high school still require developmental education at the community-college level, raising new questions about the skill level of incoming college students and the ways institutions measure their abilities.
This article draws, in part, on research from a new report called “Expectations Meet Reality: The Underprepared Student and Community Colleges.” The authors thank an organization called “Achieving the Dream,” the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and Columbia University. Hardly anti-union crusaders.

Let’s not shoot the messenger. Let’s listen to the message. Many of our  public schools are all ears, smoothly implementing higher-level course standards and (little more bumpily) administering our first year of aligned PARCC assessments. These tests tell us what we need to know about college and career readiness. Isn’t it better to face facts now rather  than allow our children to flounder once they leave the bubble of suburbia?

On the other hand, perhaps we should thank the Asbury Park Editorial Board for so concisely eliciting the engine driving the opt-out “movement”: fingers in the ears, la, la, la, I can’t hear you!

Parents have a choice. They can absorb these disconcerting revelations about needed improvement in our public education system which are  confirmed by a host of factors (percentages of students enrolled in college remedial courses, mediocre SAT, ACT, NAEP, and PARCC scores) and commit to public education reform, Or they can opt-out of reality. I choose the former.

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