I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Republicans Must Own Trump; "Reformers" Must Own DeVos

One of the more amusing things to come out of the Trump presidency -- that is, as amusing as things can get during this horror show -- is watching "moderate" Republicans and other center-rightists try to distance themselves from The Donald. Here, for example, is Andrew Sullivan (the guy who tried to convince us racism could be part of a legitimate academic pursuit) now thoroughly vexed that a maniac like Trump is in the White House. And here's David Frum, scared that Trump will sail to an easy reelection because Reaganomics always works, and therefore people will be so happy with the booming economy that they will readily overlook Trump's fascist tendencies.

The problem with Sullivan's and Frum's arguments, of course, is that they desperately want to believe Trump is an anomaly; that this corrupt, intemperate, freak of a man just happened to be in the right place at the right time, up against the wrong opponent. It's only through some strange confluence of circumstances and some overlooked back door in America's political code that Trump was able to worm his way in and take power.

The hard truth, however, is that Donald Trump was inevitable. That he is a product of a political and media system in which Sullivan and Frum have held positions of influence for years. That the conservative/neo-liberal framing of the issues (what Atrios calls the "Free Republic to New Republic" range of acceptable discourse) set up the rise of a nationalist like Trump.

Plenty of others have taken down Frum and Sullivan from this angle (here, here, here), and I'm not about to dive into their complete bodies of work without a substantial paycheck and a gas mask. So I won't contribute any more to this debate; I only wish to point out this ongoing attempt by the "reasonable" right to distance themselves from Trump as a way to explain what is already happening in my little universe of education policy:

Some of the center-right is disavowing Trump, even though they were instrumental in creating him -- just like some of the neoliberal school "reformers" are disavowing Betsy DeVos, even though they were instrumental in creating her.

Here's a good example of this, courtesy of (you guessed it) The New Republic:
Perhaps the most nebulous term in these discussions—aside from “school reform” itself—is the simple phrase “school choice.” Sometimes it just means charters, which are strongly supported by the Obama administration and many mainstream Democrats. But it can also mean vouchers, which are generally opposed by the center-left for diverting taxpayer dollars to private schools that may be religious, virtual, or for-profit.

When DeVos appears before the Senate on Tuesday, part of the project for Democrats ought to be drawing distinctions—between charters and vouchers, but also between good charters and bad charters. They may have internal divisions on these issues, but Democrats should recognize that DeVos represents not just an unprecedented threat to public education but the worst of the “school choice” movement. 

Republicans will say Democrats are fear-mongering. The Wall Street Journal mocked DeVos’s critics in a weekend editorial, arguing that the nominee “committed the unpardonable sin of devoting much of her fortune to helping poor kids escape failing public schools.” But DeVos, a billionaire Republican donor and former GOP party chair in Michigan, has been a leading financial backer of the worst kind of “school choice” in her state and across America: vouchers, plus charters that are unregulated and unaccountable. [emphasis mine]
Here's another from Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform:

Mrs. DeVos articulated strong support for parental choice. When most people hear parental choice it sounds like a good thing. Why might it be a problem?
Choice is only as good as the quality of options available to our families. Choice without quality controls, particularly where profit-seeking entities are involved, often creates a menu where families are deciding among subpar options. 
DeVos who appears to have troubling conflicts of interest with multiple profit-seeking companies who could benefit from her confirmation as the Secretary of Education. 
There are places where you see non-profit charter schools saving lives, but in other cases, lax oversight means these schools barely out-perform poorly performing district schools. Just as we aggressively fight old-school traditionalists who seek to deny options to parents whose neighborhood schools have failed children, we also fight against folks who believe that government should have little role in regulating schools to ensure our kids are educated well. [emphasis mine]
Give Jeffries credit: the man knows how to stay on message -- he never turns down a chance to beat up public schools. He also brazenly tries to lump a fundamentalist free-marketer like DeVos in with "traditionalists," which we all know (at least, those of us up to our necks in education policy) is code for "teachers unions."

But what's remarkable here is the attempt to separate DeVos from the entire "reform" project -- just like the center-right is trying to separate itself from Trump. Sorry, my reformy friends, but you don't get away that easily. In the same way "moderate conservatives" have set up Trump, you've set up DeVos.


1) The "reform" movement has repeatedly -- and with very little evidence -- sold America on the idea that its schools are "failures."

The notion that schools in the United States are abject failures compared to the rest of the world is completely without merit. Given the economic inequities in our country, and what we are willing to spend on schooling, we are just about where we'd expect to be in our educational outcomes.

The "failure" of American schools is the bedrock on which all forms of school "choice" are built. DeVos's beloved school vouchers depend on the public believing that public schools are a mess -- but so do Jeffries' beloved charter schools. DFER's relentless beatdowns on public education have been enormously helpful to the vouchers pushers, and to the for-profit charter industry, which is taking money out of the classroom (more on this soon).

2) The "reform" movement has refused to acknowledge that the primary causes of the "opportunity gap" are the inequitable lives of children outside of school.

Over and over, reformy types keep saying: "Poverty can't be the excuse that stops reform!" Their argument is fundamentally flawed: when millions of Americans are doing difficult, necessary work but can't live dignified lives, sending a few more kids to college isn't going to change much. We need real social mobility, but that's not the same as social equity.

The millionaires and billionaires who donate to Eva Moskowitz's charter schools and DFER, the millionaires and billionaires who want vouchers to advance "kingdom gain," and the millionaires and billionaires who are making money off of for-profit charters all have a common interest in selling the public on the idea that economic inequity is the product of public school "failure."

Let's not pretend for a second they aren't all aligned on this. And let's not pretend for a second that an entire industry of selling school "reform" to the masses isn't being bankrolled by very wealthy people who have a vested interest in the real status quo.

3) The "reform" movement has repeatedly blamed teachers and their unions for the "failure" of America's schools, ignoring the lack of adequate educational resources, especially for schools serving at-risk children.

Almost all of those who regularly bash America's public schools have convinced themselves these schools have plenty of money. That's nonsense; many are lacking what they need, especially since the Great Recession. And we have plenty of evidence that school funding matters and can positively impact school performance. If we want to improve schools -- and I, like nearly all of my fellow public school teachers, want nothing more -- we should start there.

What the "reformers" have tried to argue, instead, is that we can "fire our way to Finland." On its face, that argument makes no sense. And yet, again, it is a bedrock assumption that "good" and "bad" choice advocates make in promoting their vision of reform: that teachers unions have protected hordes of "bad" teachers, and that scads of potentially "good" teachers are waiting anxiously to take their place for less money and fewer job protections.

4) The "reform" movement has worked to de-professionalize education by repeatedly suggesting experience is an impediment, and not a virtue.

The Teach For America types -- who have been implanted within the political mainstream to make arguments like this in the halls of power -- keep telling us that traditional teacher prep programs are a failure. American schools really need the "right" kinds of elite young people as teachers, constantly churning through urban schools. No need to bother with all that tedious coursework -- we'll just create some "alternate" prep programs.

This emphasis on "talent" in lieu of training and experience has given us, among others, Michelle Rhee, Cami Anderson, Chris Cerf, Joel Klein, Arne Duncan, John White, Merryl TischHanna Skandera...

And now, Betsy DeVos. A woman so unqualified to be the Secretary of Education she embarrassed herself beyond belief at her own confirmation hearing. Over and over, neoliberal "reformers" told us experience wasn't as important as talent. Look where that thinking got us.

Betsy DeVos is the inevitable result of the "reform" movement: a movement that has denigrated public schools, ignored the structural causes of the "opportunity gap," downplayed the need for adequate and equitable education resources, blamed teachers and their unions for "failure," and pretended a few elites with minimal to no experience could change the system for the better.

Reformies, you now own Betsy DeVos -- just like the center-right owns Donald Trump. She is in office because of you.

Deal with it.

"Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God." - Matthew, 19:24.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Jersey Jazzman Spring 2017 Tour

Turns out I'm doing a lot of speaking and panels over the next few months. Not all events are open to the public, but I thought it would still be useful to give a schedule. Scroll down for details on each event. If you attend any of these, make sure to come up and say, "Hi!"

- Panel: Franklin C.A.R.E.S.
Wednesday, February 22 at 7 PM - 9 PM
Open to the public
Franklin High School; FHS Cafeteria
500 Elizabeth Ave, Somerset, New Jersey 08873

- Panel: Pride in Public Schools Listening Tour
Thursday, February 23, 2017, 5:00 PM—7:00 PM
Open to the public
Trenton Board of Education in Ellis Auditorium
108 North Clinton Avenue Trenton, NJ 08609 

- Keynote: Morris County Council of Education Associations
Friday, February 24, 2017
Private event

- Keynote: Burlington County Education Association Leadership Workshop
March 31, 2017

Private event

- Keynote: Ocean County Education Association
May 5, 2017
Private event

- Conference: Education Reform, Communities, And Social Justice: Exploring The Intersections
Friday, May 19, 2017
Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy
Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
Details on conference registration to follow.

* * *

Event Details:

- Panel: Franklin C.A.R.E.S.
Wednesday, February 22 at 7 PM - 9 PM
Open to the public Franklin High School; FHS Cafeteria
500 Elizabeth Ave, Somerset, New Jersey 08873
Refreshments will be served.

Moderator: John Felix – Co-Founder

Panelists: Dr. John Ravally, Nishita Desai, Kim Gordon, Mark Weber (Jersey Jazzman), Darcie Cimarusti (Mother Crusader)

"The Ailanthus Charter School has recently been granted conditional approval to begin operation in 2018. If final approval is given, approximately 7,000 Franklin Township students will be affected by a reduction of services and increase of class sizes due to potential layoffs.

Our community currently has the highest number of charter schools operating within a non-urban district in the state of New Jersey. If we do not stop charter growth now, 20 million of our tax dollars will be allotted to these schools in 5 to 6 years.

- Panel: Pride in Public Schools Listening Tour
Thursday, February 23, 2017, 5:00 PM—7:00 PM
Open to the public
Trenton Board of Education in Ellis Auditorium
108 North Clinton Avenue Trenton, NJ 08609 
Light dinner served at 4 PM

Panelists: Jitu Brown Journey For Justice; Mark Weber (Jersey Jazzman); Paul Perez Partnerships For Trenton

To reserve your seat(s) email: teaoffice@verizon.net or call 609-396-0016
Childcare will be provided for children ages 3 and up. Please let us know in advance if you will need childcare.

"Institutional racism is present in our communities of color in all aspects of life, whether it be in education, criminal justice, employment, housing, healthcare or politics. The evening will begin with a panel discussion. Participants will then take part in a powerful discussion of ways that we can address systemic barriers as we work to advance social justice."

Thursday, February 2, 2017

School Choice Week's Alternative Facts

Hey, look who it is: Rebecca Friedrichs, the anti-labor right's favorite teacher! Last time we saw Friedrichs she was merrily leading the fight to destroy teachers unions by overturning almost four decades of judicial precedent and insisting on her right to freeload off of dues-paying teachers union members.

Fredrichs' arguments against agency fees never made any sense, but she never, at least as far as I read, made up statistics to bolster her point of view. Alas, she's now spending her time promoting school vouchers, likely in anticipation of the DeVos privatization parade that's marching into Washington.*

And she's engaging in statistical malpractice of the worst order to sell school voucher schemes.

Here's a slick little video from the folks at PragerU featuring Friedrichs, where she explains that students who use school vouchers -- which allow families to use taxpayer monies to pay private school tuition, including religious schools -- get better academic results than if they attended their local public school.
According to researchers at the University of Arkansas – in the most comprehensive study done to date -- students in school choice programs saw their reading and math scores improve by 27 percent and 15 percent, respectively.

Sounds like something we should get behind, doesn’t it? But for millions of families in my home state of California and in many others, school choice is not a choice. [emphasis mine]

These numbers are alternative facts -- Friedrichs and the people who made this video got this completely wrong.

How do I know? Simple: The UArk researchers admit their work was misrepresented.

I never got an answer back. Let me explain what's going on here:

When someone says "Test scores improved by X percent!" you have to understand that doesn't mean a thing unless you know the range of scores and where the starting points were.

Think about a test with scores from 0 to 100. If you got a 10 on our first try, and your score improves by 15%, you now get an 11.5, an improvement of 1.5 points. If you start with a 50, however, a 15% improvement raises you to a 57.5; that's an improvement of 7.5 points. Is that "more" improvement? Not necessarily; maybe it's really hard to break through a score of 10, and really easy to get more points higher on the scale.

The point is that a "15% improvement" doesn't mean anything without context. So what researchers usually do is state their effect sizes in standard deviations. This is exactly what the UArk folks did in their study: .27 SD in reading and .15 SD in math. So how do we interpret this?

One way is to think about a normal, "bell curve" distribution of scores and how it would be divided up into percentiles:

This graphic is a little complex (but it's free, so...). See the second row from the top that says "Standard Deviations"? That's what we're talking about here. If you started right at the middle of the curve and improved by a quarter of a standard deviation, you'd move like this:

Using one of the many handy SD-percentile calculators on the web, that .27 is like moving from the 50th to the 61st percentile. The .15 is from the 50th to the 56th percentile. That's an improvement -- but to a layperson, I'm guessing it's a lot less impressive than Friedrichs' figures. Friedrich's video completely misstates the effect sizes of school vouchers, arguably in a way that makes them appear larger than they are.

Before I go any further, let me point out a big limitation of this study. You see, the UArk folks did what's called a "meta-study," which basically gathers up the results from a bunch of other studies and kinda-sorta averages them out to get one result. Their formal working paper goes into all the details.

I won't re-litigate all the methodological concerns here, as Christopher Lubienski has already reviewed the report and found some rather serious concerns. But I will point out this:

The effects the UArk study found mostly disappear when only considering voucher programs in the United States. From page 31 of the report:
Figure 1 presents the global ITT reading impacts. The offer of a voucher has a statistically significant and positive impact of about 0.17 standard deviations [95% CI: 0.15, 0.20]. This overall effect is driven by four programs that had positive effects with 95% confidence (one in the US and three outside of the US). Comparing the six US and three non-US programs that we had reading impacts for, we see that the US programs had an overall effect that was barely a null effect, but tended towards a positive effect [95% CI: -0.00, 0.08]. On the other hand, the programs outside of the US had a more definitive positive impact on reading scores of 0.24 standard deviations [95% CI: 0.21, 0.27]. [emphasis mine]
The effect of 0.04 given in the figure moves you from the 50th to the 52 percentile. In math, the US effect size drops to 0.07: from the 50th to the 53rd percentile.

Of course, what you can't determine in a study like this -- even when taking about these small practical effects -- is why you got the gains. Is it peer effects, which are real? Hard to replicate those: this isn't Lake Wobegon where all the children are above average (see Bruce Baker for more on this).

But does it really matter? Even in a meta-analysis with some really questionable biases, the practical effects of voucher programs on test scores in the United States are very, very small.

Look, I'm willing to have a conversation about school vouchers. There might be some positive effects from private school enrollment that aren't found in test scores. But we have to weigh those against the harm vouchers programs might do to public schools, particularly since there's at least some evidence that voucher students would have attended private schools even without taxpayer funds -- which means vouchers create an extra financial burden on the system. And that money's got to come from somewhere...

But we're never going to have a serious conversation about this so long as the voucher industry is willing to put folks like Rebecca Friedrichs in front of the public to spout a bunch of alternative facts. Instead, we'll get a lot of blather about "choice" from people who appear to have no idea what they are talking about.

Let's ask a little better of ourselves, shall we?

"Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God." - Matthew, 19:24.

ADDING: Hunt around a little on the PragerU site. Among other things, you can watch a piece that asks: "Is Islam a religion of peace?" 


Are all of you "social justice reformers" OK with working with these kind of folks?

* Assuming, of course, that DeVos actually gets confirmed. At this point, we've seen enough cowardice from Republicans in the face of Donald Trump's screaming incompetence and bigotry to assume she'll squeak in. I'd love to be wrong, though...

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Chris Christie Bashes Teachers, But Now No One Cares

Chris Christie, like all bullies, is a pathetic figure.

Christie has approval ratings so low -- 19 percent! -- they are even worse than Donald Trump's. The current leading Republican candidate for governor, Kim Guadagno, has completely disavowed Christie, going so far as to openly mock him -- and she's his lieutenant governor. He was fired from his job of leading Trump's transition team, reportedly because he wasn't doing any work. He then couldn't get a position within his own party at the national level, going so far as to blame his wife for being left out of the biggest power grab the Republicans have had in decades. 

So what does Chris Christie do when his own failings as a politician, and as a human being, catch up with him? What he always does -- beat up teachers:
Denzel Davis, a sophomore at Trenton High’s STEM school who is ranked first in his class, asked Gov. Chris Christie if he has a plan to improve education. 
The response the student received Thursday afternoon during the governor’s visit to the 9th Grade Academy in Trenton was spent mostly on bashing teacher unions. 
“I often say that we want a system that plays to the potential of our children, not to the comfort of our adults,” Christie said. “All too often this system is built for the comfort of adults: how much money they want to make, what kind of benefits they want, how much they want to work or don’t work.” [emphasis mine]
Again, this insulting nonsense is from a guy who was fired from Trump's transition team for not showing up to work:
However, in addition to the three Trump campaign sources who spoke to Yahoo News, two junior staffers also described specific instances of alleged mismanagement by Christie that got the transition off to a slow start. The two staffers said Christie did alarmingly little work on the transition and was largely absent from the campaign during the weeks leading up to the election, when Trump was widely expected to lose. According to one account, campaign staffers had been so accustomed to Christie’s absence that they were surprised to see him appear at campaign headquarters in Trump Tower — on Election Day.
“Where was Christie? Where was he? He certainly wasn’t planning the transition. We [didn’t] have nearly as much planning as we should have,” one of the staffers said.
On election night, the high-level source and the two staffers said many members of Trump’s team did not know where they were supposed to go the next morning. The high-level campaign source described this as one of many examples of a lack of transition planning from Christie.
“There wasn’t any coordination,” the source said. “There were just like a lot of things where people were like, ‘Oh yeah, we never really called about that or we never took care of this.’ There’s a lot of basic, basic things that now are getting discovered where it’s just like how did that never get done?” [emphasis mine]
Of course, Christie's people denied this. But how could it not be true, given Christie's work record over the past couple of years? In July of 2015, The Asbury Park Press reported Christie had been absent from the state 230 days since the beginning of 2014, when he started his run for president. The  Wall Street Journal reported Christie was gone 72 percent of the year in all of 2015. Not only was this bad for the governance of the state; it cost New Jersey taxpayers millions for Christie's security.

But Christie's poor attendance record hasn't only suffered from his campaign work; he's been a regular on sports radio* over the past year, hinting he'd like to get a permanent gig after he leaves the Statehouse (why any station in this market would hire a Cowboys fan is beyond me). And yet here he is knocking teachers yet again about "how much they want to work or don't work" -- in front of a group of students, no less.

For the hundredth time: Teachers do not get paid during the summer. Every year, teachers are forced to take an unpaid furlough in July and August. Chris Christie seems to think teachers should work during these months for no additional pay; if he thought otherwise, he'd have come up with a serious proposal to compensate teachers for their increased hours. He'd also have a serious proposal to upgrade every classroom in the state so teachers and students wouldn't be working in dangerously hot schools under conditions he would never, ever tolerate himself.

We know the teacher pay gap nationally is wide and growing. New Jersey pensions are among the stingiest in the nation, and New Jersey teachers' health benefits are not any great bargain compared to the private sector.

And yet Christie clings to his alternative facts -- because he has nothing else left in his bag of tricks:
Christie even provided the dozen Trenton students in attendance an example of why he favors a merit-based system.
“There might be a teacher in the school who’s been here for 15 years and maybe he’s not as good as he used to be, maybe he doesn’t care as much anymore, maybe he’s disinterested, maybe he’s bored,” the governor explained. “And there may be a teacher who’s been here two years, who’s knocking the ball out of the park, who everybody loves, and who is creating great results in her classroom.”
If there are cuts, Christie said the principal has “to get rid of the two-year teacher.”
“She can’t get rid of the 15-year teacher,” the governor said. “If we ran any other business that way, they’d be out of business.”
You'll note that Christie gives no actual example of this happening. Nor does he acknowledge that teacher layoffs may be occurring because, for his entire term, he has refused to fund schools at the level the state's own law says he should. Nor does he tell these students he wants to slash funding to their own school district, even though its local citizens make just as much effort, if not more, to contribute to the funding of its schools as do the wealthiest districts in the state.

Chris Christie pretends he understands business. But every business owner knows that if you want to attract the best people to join your workforce, you have to pay them competitive wages and give them good working conditions. And yet, for years, Trenton's students and teachers had to endure a disgusting, unsafe environment.

Trenton Central's infamous "Waterfall" staircase.

Now he swoops in to take credit for a new high school in Trenton, even though he ignored the problem for years. And even though the new school will almost certainly not be built if his insane "Fairness Formula" ever passes (it won't).

Thankfully, the teachers in Trenton aren't going to let him get away with this nonsense:
Trenton Education Association (TEA) President Naomi Johnson-Lafleur questioned why the governor did not bring up his “Fairness Formula” proposal to the students, which would significantly cripple urban education.
What he should have done was gone inside and said, ‘My name is Chris Christie and I’m a racist because I do not want dollars from the affluent areas to come to help you poor children,’” the union boss said. “He should have said, ‘I’m going to shortchange you. I’m going to have this photo op with you now so I can put it in the paper and I can boost my 17 percent popularity rating to maybe 25 percent.’” In June, Christie rolled out his plan to equally spend $6,599 on each student to lower property taxes in suburban areas. During the announcement, the governor repeatedly targeted the capital city’s “failing” school district as to why a formula change is needed. 
Christie intends to take his fight to the state’s Supreme Court.
Good for Johnson-Lafleur; I, for one, am tired of tiptoeing around people like Christie, who act all aggrieved if anyone dares to call them out on their crap. Christie's own actions betray his empty words about how much he cares for New Jersey's students. And his open contempt for my profession needs to be called out -- loudly:
Janice Williams, TEA’s grievance chair took issue with Christie criticizing teachers in front of the students. 
“Those same kids hold our teachers in high esteem,” she said. “How dare he denigrate the teaching profession in front of our brown and black children. How dare he put that perception out there in front of our students. And how dare the leadership of this district allow him to come in and denigrate their teaching staff. He’s already closing our doors.”
Williams said the district should have not invited the governor and told him, “We’re not going to allow you to come and pimp off of our children. They are not for sale.”
 Amen. Throughout his entire governorship, Chris Christie has used children as political props...

... while ignoring his responsibilities toward funding their education. And he has repeatedly blamed teachers for his own miserable failings. It took a while, but New Jersey has now seen through his mendacity and ignorance, and has thoroughly rejected him.

Just go away, Chris. We're done with you.

I'm not going away -- I have no where else to go!

*Link fixed. You really should listen to it: Christie gets testy during one of his many appearances on sports radio station WFAN when a caller notes he's been MIA for years:

Yes, he's on the radio until 10:00 AM -- when all of New Jersey's teachers are in their classrooms doing their jobs. And it's not like he's talking with his constituents about the issues facing the state; he's making fun of Ben McAdoo's hair and denigrating Eagles fans, many of whom live in South Jersey.

No wonder so many people in the state think he's doing a terrible job -- he doesn't even understand he's expected not to live out his childish little fantasies when serving as the governor. Thanks so much, NJ newspaper editorial boards, for giving us two terms with this guy...

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Reformy In the Age of Trump

Here's one of the very, very few positive things to come out of the Trump presidency: the neoliberal education "reformers" finally have to take good, long look at the conservatives they've made common cause with.

For those who've clung tight to their moral superiority while defending the "reform" agenda, it's a cold slap in the face:
At her Senate confirmation hearing this week, Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. education secretary Betsy DeVos failed to answer basic questions about civil rights, measuring student growth, and children with disabilities. 
Her answers also validated what left-leaning education reformers have suspected for months: DeVos embraces school choice as an education panacea, while grasping little else about federal education policy. That philosophy will likely lead her to prioritize some of the least promising, and most divisive, components of the education reform agenda.

When that happens, she and Donald Trump will kill the bipartisan education reform coalition.
Having participated in that coalition for 15 years, as a nonprofit president and member of President Obama’s 2008 education policy committee, I will be disappointed, though not surprised, to see it dissolve.
That's Justin C. Cohen, as reformy a centrist Democrat as you will find, telling us he will be  disappointed -- that's right, disappointed -- to no longer be able to work with the conservatives who are currently moving to install DeVos into the federal Education Department.

Because, up until now, it was all working out so well:
The coalition was surprisingly durable. By the early 1990s it was attracting centrists frustrated with their political parties and enthusiastic about results. At the time, the right blamed weak school performance on things like “family values” and resisted sweeping changes on the basis of respecting local control. The left blamed poverty and was similarly resistant to change, based on an allergy to holding schools accountable for their results. For most of the years since I entered the workforce, the reform coalition was an ideal home for a technocratic public school graduate who realized that the system had worked for him, but not for kids with less privilege. [emphasis mine]
Sorry, but I'm not buying this.

Because the notion that neoliberal "reform" advocates are in reality "technocrats" is completely contradicted by their record. Many of the "reformers" on both the right and the left are driven by ideology, not evidence.

Sure, there is some evidence some charter schools in some cities with special conditions (Boston and New Orleans are on that list) get marginal practical gains in test scores. But only an ideologue would ignore the large and growing body of evidence that charter proliferation has incentivized bad behavior, abrogates the rights of students and families, segregates students by special education need and other factors, and has pernicious effects on public schools. Only an ideologue would blithely claim we should just "charter better" while problematic charter chains become the norm in the sector.

Sure, there is some evidence that test-based accountability led to marginal practical gains in test scores. But only an ideologue would argue that mandating employment consequences for teachers with these tests is warranted by the evidence, or that our current testing regime hasn't had the effect of narrowing the curriculum, especially in schools serving many disadvantaged students.

Sure, there is a case to be made that we should do a better job training teachers. But only an ideologue would argue that expanding teacher prep programs to include the Relay "Graduate" "School" of "Education" or TFA, while imposing test-based accountability on university-based programs, was a serious solution.

But this is where the reformy center-left has been for a good long while now. They applauded while Arne Duncan expanded charters and threatened to punish schools whose parents opt their children out of testing, all while school funding stagnated. They cheered when John King, one of their own, took over at USED, even as they ignored the glaring problems with his own brand of educational "reform."

Duncan and King were better Secretaries of Education than DeVos will ever be -- but if we're setting the bar that low, we've got problems. Obama's SecEds were just as enamored with the "Poverty is no excuse!" arguments we now hear coming from the voucher pushers on the right. They were just as willing to sell the soft privatization of charters as DeVos is the hard privatization of vouchers. They were just as willing to gratuitously beat up on teachers unions and university-based teacher prep programs and suburban testing skeptics as the pseudo-intellectual pseudo-libertarians are now.

Once again: it is absurd to think that schools by themselves can overcome the ravages of poverty, segregation, racism, and inequality (among other woes). But no one I know of in the "reform"-skeptic camp has ever made the case that schools can't and shouldn't improve, or that teaching isn't important, or that bad teachers should be forced to get better and, if that's not possible, be removed from their jobs.

What we have said repeatedly, however -- and it's insane that we have to make these arguments as if they are at all controversial -- is that there is no way to equalize educational opportunity without:

1) Adequate and equitable funding for our schools.

2) Equalizing the lives of children outside of the K-12 system.

Funding matters. Segregation matters. Poverty matters. It's not "blaming" poverty to point this out; it's simply stating a non-alternative fact.

Which is why it's especially galling to watch Cohen and his ilk try to claim the mantle of "technocrat," because no true policy wonk would ever try to downplay the reality I'm describing -- let alone think the appropriate policy response is a few more charters, a few more tests, a few more VAMs & Danielson rubrics, a few more alt-route teacher prep programs, and a few more changes in curricular standards without the funds to enact them.

Look, I'm willing to have a good-faith argument about all this stuff with anyone. I do think there are folks out there making the case for charters and VAMs and all the rest of the "reform" agenda who make good points, even if I believe they draw the wrong conclusions.

But to characterize the "reformers," as a whole, as technocrats requires ignoring too much of the ideological babbling far too many of them have been spouting for far too long. Is anyone really going to try to convince us that Michelle Rhee and Peter Cunningham and Eva Moskowitz and Chris Cerf and Andy Smarick and Campbell Brown and Steve Perry and Rahm Emanuel and their fellow travelers are "technocrats"?


The sad truth is their rhetoric has been full of alternative facts for years. Some -- OK, many -- of their hearts may be in the right place, but their arguments have been facile and dismissive of pointed critique. In that sense, they have been no better than Betsy DeVos: they've made their cases on the same flawed premises and faulty logic.

Now someone who uses that same logic, but is willing to go several steps further, is coming into power, under the aegis of a racist, misogynist madman who agrees that public education is a "failure" -- and not that it has been failed.

You've got a choice, folks: do what Moskowitz appears to be doing and embrace all this, or disavow it and begin participating in a dialog about the future of education that eschews alternative facts and acknowledges that those of us who are skeptical of "reform" might have a point.

What's it going to be?

"Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God." - Matthew, 19:24.

Monday, January 16, 2017

How To Correctly Compare Charter and Public District Schools

Why do states collect education data if they won't use it properly?

I found myself asking this question once again this week as I read through a "Comment/Response Form" put together by the New Jersey Department of Education and released earlier this month. The form was in response to the state Board of Education, which is evaluating a series of changes in charter school regulations. Those changes, as I wrote in my last post, include loosening certification requirements for charter teachers. 

The rationale for this, according to the state's charter cheerleaders, is that charters "do more with less"; in other words, they get better results and spend less money than public district schools. Chris Christie has repeatedly made this case in his push for the disastrous "Fairness Formula," which would rob urban districts, serving many more disadvantaged children, of necessary state aid. Christie points to the alleged efficiency of charter schools to justify these cuts: if they can "do more with less," why can't the district schools?

In their form, the NJDOE included this argument in response to a question from a member of the state BOE (p. 8):
12. COMMENT: The commenter asked for the per pupil cost for charter school students based on a random sampling of 10 percent of charter schools and their districts of residence. The commenter also asked if the proposed amendments to N.J.A.C. 6A:26-7.5 will affect the per pupil cost. (C) 
RESPONSE: The proposed amendments to N.J.A.C. 6A:26-7.5 will not affect per pupil costs for students attending charter schools. 
The 2014-2015 Taxpayers’ Guide to Education Spending was used to determine per pupil costs in charter schools and in districts of residence. The table below provides information on per pupil spending for eight charter schools that were selected randomly. Charter schools are ordered by the size of the difference in per pupil spending between the main sending district and the charter school. Per pupil spending in 2014-2015 in the eight charter schools ranged from $12,845 (compared to $23,466 in the main sending district) to $18,541 (compared to $22,013 in the main sending district). (emphasis mine)
This response is immediately followed by this chart:

Wow, look at that -- see how lean and mean the charter schools are compared to their hosting public district schools? Chris Christie must be right; the charters "do more with less"! We should be letting them open up all over the state!


Jersey Jazzman (artist's conception)

NJDOE analysts, please get out your pencils and take notes, as I present...


1) When comparing the spending of two school authorities, do not include services one provides for the other, or for the community at large.

The figures in the table above come from the NJDOE's Taxpayers' Guide to Education Spending. Yes, that's right, this is the state's own data. The figure used in this comparison is "Total Spending per Pupil, 2014-15." How does this state define this figure?
Total Spending Per Pupil was first developed in FY 2011 to provide a more comprehensive representation of district expenditures, since the former per pupil measures excluded some significant cost categories. This variable uses a larger enrollment number, including all students for which the district is financially responsible. The Total Spending measure adds the following items to the costs already included in the Budgetary Cost (Indicator 1):  
  1. pensions and social security payments made by the state on behalf of districts;
  2. transportation costs (including students transported to nonpublic and charter schools);
  3. judgments against the school district;
  4. all food services expenditures (including those covered by school lunch fees);
  5. capital outlay budgeted in the general fund (facilities and equipment);
  6. special revenues supported by local, state, and federal revenues (such as preschool, IDEA, and Title I);
  7. payments by the district to other private and public school districts for the provision of regular, special, and preschool education services (charter school students and their associated costs are only included in the charter school in which they are being educated).
  8. debt service for school debt; and
  9. an estimate of the district's share of the debt service that the state is paying for school construction bonds issued for school construction grants and School Development Authority projects.
The number of students sent to other entities (except charter schools) is added to the district's average daily enrollment in order to calculate the per pupil expenditure.  It should be noted that sent students and their associated costs are included in the per pupil cost of both the sending district as well as the school where the student is actually being educated.  Therefore, it is not appropriate to sum all districts' total expenditures, as this would overstate the aggregate cost.  This variable is calculated using audited (actual) data since some of the additional categories are not available in districts' budgets.  Two years of data are provided for comparison. (Emphasis mine)
This simple explanation makes clear that school districts provide many services that charter schools do not; it is, therefore, inappropriate to compare their costs. Take transportation: the total spending figure NJDOE uses for host districts includes the transportation costs for students attending charter schools. But why should a district have that counted in their comparative budget, but not the charter school whose students use that service?

The district pays certain costs to students who attend private schools; again, charter schools don't have to worry about that cost. The school has to pay legacy debt costs, meaning its budget includes students who have already graduated and left the district. Why should that be included in a comparison of current expenses? For that matter: if the community uses school buildings for a variety of reasons outside of school, why should the cost of maintaining that building only be put on the host district?

Charter schools also tend to enroll students in the lower grades, and many don't enroll pre-K students. How can we then compare the spending patterns of charter and district schools when grade level expenses aren't necessarily the same?

The thing that's really incredible about this comparison is that the NJDOE knows there is another figure -- Budgetary Per Pupil Costs -- that the department itself says is better for this purpose:
The Budgetary Per Pupil Cost(BPP Cost) section contains the Budgetary Per Pupil Cost and its subcomponents as they are reported for districts' User Friendly Budgets (required by N.J.S.A.18A:22-8.a).  While these costs do not provide an exhaustive picture of the cost for educating all students, they do allow school administrators and citizens to compare specific measures of school district spending.  Generally, the BPP measures the annual costs incurred for students educated within district schools, using local taxes and state aid. These costs are considered to be more comparable among districts, and may be useful for budget considerations. Examples of costs that are not included in the BPP are: expenditures funded by restricted grants, Teachers' Pension and Annuity Fund (TPAF), tuition payments to other districts and private schools, debt service expenditures, and principal and interest payments for the lease purchase of land and buildings.  Consistent with the exclusion of tuition expenditures, the measure excludes the enrollment for students sent out of district (Indicators 1 through 13, and 15). It should also be noted that budgetary costs for non-operating districts, Educational Services Commissions, Regional Day Schools, and Jointures are not included in this document. (emphasis mine)
BPP isn't perfect (for example, it doesn't address the grade level issue), but it's much better than Total Spending per Pupil. How do the charters and the districts compare on this measure?

Yes, the districts are still spending more, but it's much closer than the figures NJDOE gave in its memo. Still, why would the charter be sending less? Could it be...

2) When comparing the spending of two school authorities, you must take into account differences between their student populations.

I can't believe I still have to explain this to anybody, let alone the NJDOE, which should know better. Take, for example, special education:

As I've pointed out literally dozens of times: Charter schools, on average, do not serve nearly as many special education students as public district schools. Everyone acknowledges it costs more to educate a child with a learning disability; even Chris Christie doesn't argue that point! And yet NJDOE made their little table without even acknowledging this glaring problem with their comparison. Of course, the special education gap varies from city to city.

The data for Freedom Academy in Camden are clearly very noisy, but the overall trend is clear: charters don't serve nearly as many special education students as public district schools. In Hudson County, however, the story is more complex.

At first glance, you would assume some of the charters, like Elysian in Hoboken and University Academy in Jersey City, were picking up their fair shares of classified students. But there's a caveat...

3) Always acknowledge the limitations of crude data.

In this case, the problem is that special education classification is binary in the data; in other words, a students is either classified or isn't. But not all classifications are the same:

A "specific learning disability" is a lower-cost classification, unlike, say, autism or a visual impairment or a traumatic brain injury. For both Elysian and University Academy, the majority of their special education students are SLD; that's not true for their host districts.* So the public district schools are enrolling more of the students with costly disabilities compared to the charters. That explains a good part of the cost differential, as we'll see below.

Here's another difference that shows up in the data on charters in Hudson County:

To be fair: Jersey City Public Schools has a free lunch-eligible (FL) rate equivalent to University Academy; Soaring Heights' rate, however, is much lower. FL is a crude proxy measure for economic disadvantage, but it's the best one we've got. In Hoboken, the difference between the public district schools and Elysian is very large.

Again: schools are supposed to get more state aid when they enroll more FL students, because everyone acknowledges it costs more to equalize educational opportunity for disadvantaged children. Of course, if the charter cheerleaders don't agree, their beloved charters should stop taking more money for enrolling more FL students. Think that'll happen?

One more difference that matters:

Across the state, the education of children who do not speak English at home has been left to the public district schools; the charters have taken a pass. Once again: schools are supposed to get more state aid when they enroll LEP students, because it costs more to educate them. Ignoring this reality when comparing charter and public district school spending leads to a flawed analysis.

4) Remember that education is a human capital-intensive enterprise.

Think about those differences in special education rates while pondering this:

Support services include many functions, like child study teams, that are necessary for schools with special education students. It's obviously a significant part of a public school district's budget -- but not a charter school's. Those zeroed out column above aren't missing data; they're showing charter schools who simply don't report any spending on support services. I've always urged caution when interpreting these figures, because there may be reporting differences and data error.


At this point, given year after year of data, there is just no question about it: Charter schools spend, on average, much more on administration than public district schools. It just makes sense: as Bruce Baker points out in his latest report (which, sadly, has been completely misinterpreted by the usual suspects), small charter schools can't leverage economies of scale, and that manifests, to a large extent, in administrative costs.

And yet charter spending, overall, is still less. Again, part of that is the low amount charters spend on support services, a function of enrolling fewer classified and LEP students. But there's another factor...

5) Remember: it's easier to keep costs low when you have an inexperienced teaching staff.

One of the truly foolish things I hear from charter cheerleaders is that charters are taking advantage of  millennials' alleged desire for temporary careers. First of all: we know experience matters, especially in the first few years of a teacher's career. Why, then, would it be a good thing to have charter schools where the average teacher's experience is less than 2 years, like Bergen A & S and Newark Legacy?

Second, do millennials really want to start at the bottom of the pay scale every time they change jobs? Because that seems to be what's happening with many charters:

On average, charter school teachers make considerably less than their public district school counterparts. As I've noted before, this difference holds even when accounting for differences in experience.

Look, if charter cheerleaders want to brag on "doing more with less," then fine: acknowledge you're doing that, in part, by paying your teachers less. Then explain to the rest of us how that's a good thing for the profession.

6) Remember: it's easier to keep costs low when you offer less expansive educational programs. As a music teacher, I think all students should have the opportunity to make music. But that's hard to do if you don't have the personnel to make a program:

This is a technique I've used before: looking at the staffing files to determine the extent of programs in areas like music. The first thing to look for is whether schools actually have teachers in these specialist areas: in the case of Newark Legacy, Soaring Heights, and Freedom Academy, the staffing files suggest music just isn't a part of those charters' curricula.

The next thing to watch is how many students each specialist teacher has for their "load." At North Star -- which compares itself to the most affluent suburban districts in the state -- the music teacher has a much greater student load than music faculty in the Newark Public Schools. That means it's much less likely North Star has the bands and choruses and orchestras NPS can offer their students -- they just don't have enough teachers to make it happen.

That said, it's a mixed bag. Some of the charters do quite well on music; how do they do in other areas?

According to the staffing files, Barack Obama CS in Plainfield had a music teacher, but not a health/PE teacher. And that's understandable, if not acceptable; it's hard for a small charter school to offer everything a public district school can. And maybe that's the takeaway here...

As I have said, many, many times on this blog: I really don't have a problem with charter schools per se. I started my career in a charter. I have seen first-hand that some kids just don't thrive in a "regular" public school, and might do better if given a "choice." We can and we should try to innovate in our schools.

But let's not fool ourselves about how and why charter schools "do more with less." Advantages in student populations; advantages in staffing costs; unequal curricular programming and support services: these are the reasons for the differences in costs between charters and district public schools.

Keeping this in mind, let's step back a bit and think about how I did this analysis. This is all based on data collected by the NJDOE. The reason they collect the data, supposedly, is that they can then analyze it to present to policy makers -- like the state BOE -- so they can make good decisions.

But that is most certainly not what happened here. Instead, when a member of the board asked a reasonable question,** the NJDOE gave a facile, cursory answer that matched Christie's ideological predilections.

That is a very bad way to make policy. It's a disservice to the many students and families in this state who are looking for better education and better schools. It's an abdication of the duty a state department of education has to the citizens of its state.

There are some really good people at NJDOE, as there are at all the state departments of education. But too many ideologues are at the top, and they are failing in their jobs. 

Step up, folks. Do the work.

ADDING: One thing I didn't get to -- and I will get to this one day in a comprehensive way, I promise -- is how charters like Elysian benefit from substantial philanthropic giving.

This is Elysian's campus, in just about the most affluent section of Hoboken. Public money is in no way the only revenue that drives programming and provides facilities at this school. More to come...

* There's a lot of suppression in the special education data, ostensibly to protect the privacy rights of classified students. It's so prevalent that I really couldn't make useable graphs for speech disabilities, another lower-cost classification. SLD is more important for this discussion, however, because charter schools get more funds for enrolling non-SPL classified students -- but there isn't a distinction between SLD and other higher-costs classifications when the aid calculations are made. This is a  complicated topic I get into more here.

** Well, somewhat reasonable: why ask for just a sample of charters? Why not analyze all of them? It's not impossible -- I did it. In fact, why not ask someone like me, who's already done the research, to answer the question?

Unless you don't really want to hear the answer...