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

Monday, July 16, 2018

The PARCC, Phil Murphy, and Some Common Sense

Miss me?

I'll tell you what I've been up to soon, I promise. I'm actually still in the middle of it... but I've been reading and hearing a lot of stuff about education policy lately, and I've decided I can't just sit back -- even if my time is really at a premium these days -- and let some of it pass.

For example:
Gov. Phil Murphy just announced that he will start phasing out the PARCC test, our state's most powerful diagnostic tool for student achievement.

Like an MRI scan, it can detect hidden problems, pinpointing a child's weaknesses, and identifying where a particular teacher's strategy isn't working. This made it both invaluable, and a political lighting rod.
That's from our old friends at the Star-Ledger op-ed page. And, of course, the NY Post never misses a chance to take down both a Democrat and the teachers unions:
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy is already making good on his promises to the teachers unions. Too bad it’s at the kids’ expense.
Officially, he wants the state to transition to a new testing system — one that’s less “high stakes and high stress.” It’s a safe bet that the future won’t hold anything like the PARCC exams, which are written by a multi-state consortium. Instead, they’ll be Jersey-only tests — far easier to water down into meaninglessness.

The sickest thing about this: A couple of years down the line, Murphy will be boasting about improved high-school graduation rates — without mentioning the fact that his “reforms” have made many of those diplomas worthless.
First of all -- and as I have pointed out in great detail -- it's the Chris Christie-appointed former superintendents of Camden and Newark, two districts under state control, who have done the most bragging about improved graduation rates. These "improvements" have taken place under PARCC; however, it's likely they are being driven by things like credit recovery programs, which have nothing to do with high school testing.

The Post wants us to believe that the worth of a high school diploma is somehow enhanced by implementing high school testing above and beyond what is required by federal law. But there's no evidence that's true.

In 2016-17, only 12 states required students to pass a test to graduate; the only other state requiring passing the PARCC is New Mexico. Further, as Stan Karp at ELC has pointed out, the PARCC passing rate on the Grade 10 English Language Test in 2017 was 46%; the passing rate on the Algebra I exam was 42%. That's three years after the test was first introduced into New Jersey.

Does the Post really want to withhold diplomas from more than half of New Jersey's students?

The PARCC was never designed to be a graduation exit exam. The proficiency rates -- which I'll talk about more below -- were explicitly set up to measure college readiness. It's no surprise that around 40 percent of students cleared the proficiency bar for the PARCC, and around 40 percent of adults in New Jersey have a bachelors degree.

I don't know when we decided everyone should go to a four-year college. If we really believe that, we'll have a lot of over-educated people doing necessary work, and we'll have to more than double the number of college seats available. Anyone think that's a good idea? NY Post, should New Jersey jack up taxes by an insane amount to open up its state colleges to more than twice as many students as they have now?

Let's move on to the S-L's editorial. The idea that the PARCC is somehow the "most powerful diagnostic tool" for identifying an individual child's weaknesses, and therefore the flaws in an individual teacher's practice, is simply wrong. The most obvious reason why the PARCC is not used for diagnosing individual students' learning progress is that by the time the school gets the score back, the student has already moved on to the next grade and another teacher.

There are, in fact, many other assessment tools available to teachers -- including plenty of tests that are not designed by the student's teacher -- that can give actionable feedback on a student's learning progress. This is the day-to-day business of teaching, taught to those of us in the field at the very beginning of our training: set objectives, instruct, assess, adjust objectives and/or instruction, assess, etc.

The PARCC, like any statewide test, might have some information useful to school staff as a child moves from grade-to-grade. But the notion that it is "invaluable" for its MRI-like qualities is just not accurate. How do I know?

Because the very officials at NJDOE during the Christie administration who pushed the PARCC so hard admitted it was not designed to inform instruction:

ERLICHSON: In terms of testing the full breadth and depth of the standards in every grade level, yes, these are going to be tests that in fact are reliable and valid at multiple cluster scores, which is not true today in our NJASK. But there’s absolutely a… the word "diagnostic" here is also very important. As Jean sort of spoke to earlier: these are not intended to be the kind of through-course — what we’re talking about here, the PARCC end-of-year/end-of-course assessments — are not intended to be sort of the through-course diagnostic form of assessments, the benchmark assessments, that most of us are used to, that would diagnose and be able to inform instruction in the middle of the year.
These are in fact summative test scores that have a different purpose than the one that we’re talking about here in terms of diagnosis.
That purpose is accountability. That's something I, and every other professional educator I know, is all for -- provided the tests are used correctly.

As I've written before, I am generally agnostic about the PARCC. From what I saw, the NJASK didn't seem to be a particularly great test... but I'll be the first to admit I am not a test designer, nor a content specialist in math or English language arts.

The sample questions I've seen from the PARCC look to me to be subject to something called construct-irrelevant variance, a fancy way of saying test scores can vary based on stuff you're trying not to measure. If a kid can't answer a math question because the question uses vocabulary the kid doesn't know, that question isn't a good assessor of the kid's mathematical ability; the scores on that item are going to vary based on something other than the things we really want to measure.

As I said, I'm not the best authority on the alleged merits of the PARCC over the NJASK (ask folks like this guy instead, who really knows what he's talking about when it comes to teaching kids how to read). I only wish the writers at the Star-Ledger had a similar understanding of their own limitations:
If this were truly for the sake of over-tested students, we wouldn't be starting with the PARCC. Unlike its predecessors, this test can tell educators exactly where kids struggle and how to better tailor their lessons. It's crucial for helping to close the achievement gap between black and white students; not just between cities and suburbs, but within racially mixed districts.
Again: the PARCC is a lousy tool for informing instruction, because that's not its job. The PARCC is an accountability measure -- and as such, there is very little reason to believe it is markedly better at identifying schools or teachers in need of remediation than any other standardized test.

Think about it this way: if the PARCC was really that much better than the NJASK, we'd expect the two tests to yield very different results. A school that was "lying" to its parents about its scores on the NJASK would instead show how it was struggling on the PARCC. There would be little correlation between the two tests if one was so much better than the other, right?

Guess what?

These are the Grade 7 English Language Arts (ELA) test scores on the 2014 NJASK and 2015 PARCC, the year it was first used in New Jersey. Each dot is a school around the state. Look at the strong relationship: if a school has a low score on the NJASK in 2014, it had a low score on the PARCC in 2015. Similarly, if it was high in 2014 on the NJASK, it was high on the 2015 PARCC. 80 percent of the variation on the PARCC can be explained by last year's score on the NJASK; that is a very strong relationship.

I'll put some more of these below, but let me point out one more thing: the students who took the Grade 7 NJASK in 2014 were not the same students who took the Grade 7 PARCC in 2015, because most students moved up a grade. How did the test scores of the same cohort compare when they moved from Grade 7, when they took the NJASK, to Grade 8, when they took the PARCC?

Still an extremely strong relationship.

No one who knows anything about testing is going to be surprised by this. Standardized tests, by design, yield normal, bell-curve distributions of scores: a few kids score low, a few score high, and most score in the middle. There's just no evidence to think the NJASK was "lying" back then any more than the PARCC "lies" now.

And let me anticipate the argument about "proficiency":

Again, I've been over this more than a few times: "proficiency" rates are largely arbitrary. When you have a normal distribution of scores, you can set the rate pretty much wherever you want, depending on how you define "proficient." I know that makes some of you crazy, but it's true: there is no absolute definition of "proficient," any more than there's an absolute definition of "smart."

So, no, the NJASK wasn't "lying" about NJ students' proficiency; the state could have used the same distribution of scores from the older test* and set a different proficiency level. And no, the PARCC is not in any way important as a diagnostic tool, nor is there any evidence it is a much "better" test than the old NJASK.

Look, I know this bothers some of you, but I am for accountability testing. The S-L is correct in noting that these tests have played an important role in pointing out inequities within the education system. I am part of a team that works on these issues, and we've relied on standardized tests to show that there are serious problems with our nation's current school funding system.

But if that's the true purpose of these tests -- and it's clear that it is -- then we don't need to spend as much time or money on testing as we do now. If we choose to use test outcomes appropriately, we can cut back on testing and remove some of the corrupting pressures they can impose on the system.

ADDING: This is not the first time I've written about the PARCC fetishism.

ADDING MORE: Does it strike any of you as odd that both the NY Post and the Star-Ledger came out with similar editorials beating up Governor Murphy and the teachers unions over his new PARCC policy -- on the very same day?

As I've documented here: when it comes to education (and many other topics), editorial writers often rely on the professional "reformers" in their Rolodexes to feed them ideas. If there is a structural advantage these "reformers" have over folks like me, it's that they get paid to make the time to influence op-ed writers and other policy influencers. They are subsidized, usually by very wealthy interests, to cultivate relationships with the media, which in turn bends the media toward their point of view.

One would hope editorial boards could see this past this state of affairs. Alas...

ADDING MORE: From the NJDOE website:
a) What if my child is doing well in the classroom and on his or her report card, but it is not reflected in the test score?
  • PARCC is only one of several measures that illustrate a child’s progress in math and ELA. Report card grades can include multiple sources of information like participation, work habits, group projects, homework, etc., that are not reflected in the PARCC score, so there may be a discrepancy.
Report cards can also reflect outcomes on tests made by teachers, districts, or other vendors, administered multiple times. The PARCC, like any test, is subject to noise and bias. It is quite possible a report card grade is the better measure of an individual student's learning than a PARCC score.

If there is a disconnect between the PARCC and a report card, OK, parents and teachers and administrators should look into that. But I take the above statement from NJDOE as an acknowledgment that the PARCC, or any other test, is a sample of learning at a particular time, and it's outcomes are subject to error and bias like any other assessment.

Again: by all means, let's have accountability testing. But PARCC fetishism in the service of teachers union bashing is totally unwarranted. Stop the madness.

SCATTERPLOT FUN! Here are some other correlations between NJASK and PARCC scores at the school level. You'll see the same pattern in all grades and both exams (ELA and math) with the exception of Grade 8 math. Why? Because the PARCC introduced the Algebra 1 exam; Grade 8 students who take algebra take that exam, while those who don't take algebra take the Grade 8 Math exam.

The Algebra 1 results are some of the most interesting ones available, for a whole variety of reasons. I'll get into that in a bit...

* OK, I need to make this clear: there was an issue with the NJASK having a bit of a ceiling effect. I've always found it kind of funny when people got overly worried about this: like the worst thing for the state was that so many kids were finding the old test so easy, too many were getting perfect scores!

Whether the PARCC broke through the ceiling with construct-relevant variance is an open question. My guess is a lot of the "higher-level" items are really measuring something aside from mathematical ability. In any case, the NJASK wasn't "lying" just because more kids aced it than the PARCC.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

What Do We Teach In America's Schools? "Hey, Honey, Sit Down and Shut Up!"

America, it's time to play Spot The Pattern!™

First, Chicago (all emphases mine):
Earlier this month, we posted a story about discipline practices inside Noble Network of Charter Schools, which educates approximately one out of 10 high school students in Chicago. One former teacher quoted in the piece described some of the schools’ policies as “dehumanizing.” 
Through the teacher, several students also agreed to communicate by text message. 
One described an issue raised by others at some Noble campuses, regarding girls not having time to use the bathroom when they get their menstrual periods. 
“We have (bathroom) escorts, and they rarely come so we end up walking out (of class) and that gets us in trouble,” she texted. “But who wants to walk around knowing there’s blood on them? It can still stain the seats. They just need to be more understanding.” 
At certain campuses, teachers said administrators offer an accommodation: They allow girls to tie a Noble sweater around their waist, to hide the blood stains. The administrator then sends an email to staff announcing the name of the girl who has permission to wear her sweater tied around her waist, so that she doesn’t receive demerits for violating dress code. 
Last year, two teachers at Noble’s Pritzker College Prep helped female students persuade administrators to change the dress code from khaki bottoms to black dress pants. Although their initiative was based in part on a survey showing that 58 percent of Pritzker students lack in-home laundry facilities, it remains a pilot program available only at the Pritzker campus.
Next, New York City:
A veteran city educator who said officials botched her sexual harassment case is calling out Mayor de Blasio for shaming victims — and omitting dozens of sexual harassment complaints from recently published city statistics.

The educator, who asked to remain anonymous because she fears retaliation, said she was sickened to hear de Blasio say this week that the Education Department substantiated less than 2% of complaints because of a "hyper-complaint dynamic" in the city agency.

"I'm certainly offended that Mayor de Blasio would say that," said the educator, who sued the city over her harassment by a supervisor and won a settlement.

"With a wife and daughter of his own, I was in shock," she added.

She called the city Education Department's investigation into her claims "a long, complicated, ugly process," that ultimately failed to bring her justice.

"No one would go through this if it were not true," she said. "It is a horrific experience. It upends your entire life."

City officials are scrambling to contain a growing sex harassment scandal in the city schools.

A tally of sex harassment complaints published by the city Friday omitted 119 Education Department complaints erased from the record because officials deemed them "non-jurisdictional."  
Figures published by the de Blasio administration on April 20 showed 471 cases of sexual harassment complaints in city schools from 2013 to 2017. But internal records kept by Education Department officials showed 590 complaints during the same period — a figure 25% higher than the number reported by de Blasio. 
Observers said it looks like the Education Department is trying to hide the facts about sex harassment cases. 
"That's exactly what's happening here," said New York City Parents Union President Mona Davids. "They covered things up and they squashed the complaints."
NYC teacher Arthur Goldstein has more on this.

Let's go to Washington:
At a roundtable with the nation’s top educators on Monday afternoon, at least one teacher told Education Secretary Betsy DeVos that her favored policies are having a negative effect on public schools, HuffPost has learned. HuffPost has also obtained video of DeVos expressing disapproval of the teachers strikes currently roiling Arizona.

DeVos met privately with more than 50 teachers who had been named 2018 teachers of the year in their states. As part of the discussion, teachers were asked to describe some of the obstacles they face at their jobs and were given the opportunity to ask the education secretary questions. 
DeVos also expressed opposition to teachers going on strike for more education funding, per video of the meeting obtained by HuffPost. DeVos made her comments after Josh Meibos, Arizona’s teacher of the year, asked her about when striking teachers will be listened to. In response, DeVos told Meibos that she “cannot comment specifically to the Arizona situation,” but that she hopes “adults would take their disagreements and solve them not at the expense of kids and their opportunity to go to school and learn.”

“I’m very hopeful there will be a prompt resolution there,” DeVos can be heard saying in the video. “I hope that we can collectively stay focused on doing what’s right for individual students and supporting parents in that decision-making process as well. And there are many parents that want to have a say in how and where their kids pursue their education, too.”

She continued, “I just hope we’re going to be able to take a step back and look at what’s ultimately right for the kids in the long term.”
When reading this, keep in mind that about three-quarters of America's teachers are women. So when DeVos tells teachers they shouldn't protest against receiving low wages, she's very much telling women to stop complaining that their pay is low compared to other professions for college-educated workers -- professions more like to employ men.

It's also worth noting that DeVos is sticking to a set of talking points about the teachers strikes that she paid for.

Back to Washington:
We all know that black girls are disciplined more harshly for the same infractions as their white peers in schools (and life), but a new study shows that part of this disparity is linked to school-uniform policies.
The National Women’s Law Center recently looked at school dress codes in Washington, D.C., and found that black girls are unnecessarily and predominantly penalized under uniform rules.  
In fact, because humans in their unconscious and implicit biases are the ones who enforce rules around dress codes, it goes without saying that sexism, racism and traditional gender roles play a part.
According to the study, black girls were found to often be in violation of dress codes for so-called infractions like being “unladylike,” “inappropriate” or “distracting to the boys around them.”
Of course, no one should expect DeVos's Department of Education to investigate racial bias in school discipline anytime soon: her crew is too busy suppressing investigations. But while the intersection of sexism and racism makes these dress codes especially pernicious for girls of color, girls of all races are regularly made to feel ashamed of their bodies while in school.

Like in Florida:
Lizzy Martinez, 17, a junior at Braden River High School in Bradenton, Fla., had been swimming and tanning all weekend at a water park in Orlando. But when Monday morning came and she had to get dressed for school, Lizzy’s bra felt painfully constricting on her burned skin. 
So she ditched the bra and purposely chose to wear something dark and loose — a long sleeve, oversize, crew neck gray T-shirt — so she wouldn’t draw attention to her chest.
But around 10 a.m., about 15 minutes into her veterinary assistance class, Lizzy was called out of the classroom for a meeting with two school officials, Dean Violeta Velazquez and Principal Sharon Scarbrough. They asked her why she wasn’t wearing a bra
She said she told her school administrators about the sunburn. They insisted that she was violating the school dress code. (The 2017-2018 Code of Student Conduct does not say bras must be worn by female students.) They told her to put on an undershirt because boys were “looking and laughing” at her, a detail she later challenged. “No one said a thing to me until I got to the dean’s office,” Lizzy said. 
She was crying and wanted to go home, so Lizzy’s mother, Kari Knop, a registered nurse, was called at work. “I said, ‘Lizzy, I’m working,’” Ms. Knop said in a phone interview. “I told her, ‘Can you just put the undershirt on and call it a day?’” 
Lizzy was embarrassed and angry but she relented. When she returned wearing the undershirt, the school principal had left. The dean, according to Lizzy, instructed her to “stand up and move around for her.” 
“I looked at her and said, ‘What do you mean?’” Lizzy said. “I was a little creeped out by that.” The school has a strict disciplinary policy and she didn’t want to appear defiant. (School officials refused to comment, except in a statement.) 
The dean told her that her nipples were still showing through her T-shirt and she should use bandages to cover them up. “She told me, ‘I’m thinking of ways I could fix this for you.’ She said, ‘I was a heavier girl and I have all the tricks up my sleeve,’” Lizzy said.  
Lizzy was given four adhesive bandages from the school clinic. “They had me ‘X’ out my nipples,” she said.
Even if you have a conservative point of view on what is and isn't appropriate for students to wear at school... you can't tell me this story isn't creepy. But this is how we tell girls to think about their bodies now.

Another story from Michigan*:
With prom season in full swing, many teens attending schools with harsh dress codes are taking to social media to call them out. This week, one school in Michigan has decided to take their policies a step further with items that they’re calling “modesty ponchos,” and the students are not having it. 
Prom night at Divine Child High School in Dearborn, Michigan is set for May 12, and the school has already announced that they would be handing a colorful poncho-like piece of fabric to all of the girls who show up wearing something that the school deems too revealing, reports Fox 2 Detroit. A student told the news source that “teachers will determine whether what they’re wearing is compliant or not when they walk in the door.” She added, “I do believe the school has gone too far with this. As we walk into prom, we are to shake hands with all the teachers and if you walk through and a teacher deems your dress is inappropriate you will be given a poncho at the door.”
To be clear: I am not against schools setting some reasonable restrictions on student dress. No student, for example, should be allow to wear clothing that has wording intended to denigrate others. Reasonable people can disagree about where the lines are. But there is, to my eye, a distinct odor of slut-shaming in many of these policies -- which goes a long way toward explaining the racist skew in how they're implemented.

So, what have we got going on in America's schools these days?

  • Girls can't use the bathroom when they have their periods.
  • Women teachers who file charges of sexual harassment are told they are "hyper-complainers."
  • Teachers -- again, most of whom are women -- are told their protests against making a pittance are "at the expense of kids."
  • Girls are told by school officials they need to cover up, because their bodies are too distracting.
America's schools are swimming in sexism. Both teachers and students suffer from the consequences of systemic misogyny.

Add to all this the hidden (and not so hidden) curricula in racism, homophobia, heteronormativity, Islamaphobia, and so on...

You know, I don't know why a social conservative like Betsy DeVos is against public schools. They seem to be transmitting exactly the values she and her ilk hold so dear.

“I think that putting a wife to work is a very dangerous thing.”- Donald Trump.

* OK, yes, Divine Child is a Catholic school. But it's not like the phenomenon of slut-shaming at the prom is restricted to private schools:

Prom is supposed to be the most magical night of your high school life — you get your hair and makeup done; you wear the gorgeous gown that makes your mom cry, "You're all grown up"; and you generally look flawless as you kiss good-bye to your awkward years. 
For these teens, prom was ruined when their outfits were banned. Check out their "inappropriate" and "immodest" choices to see for yourself that these girls look beautiful, no matter what their school says.
I don't have daughters, but if I did, I wouldn't have a problem with them wearing any of these outfits. Your mileage may vary, but that's the point: why is the school making these decisions? As one of the girls -- who is wearing what I would say is a very modest dress -- says:
"Maybe instead of teaching girls that they should cover themselves up, we should be teaching boys that we're not sex objects that they can look at."

By the way: #6 is infuriating. What is wrong with people?

Monday, April 30, 2018

Don't Blame Teachers For School Underfunding: A Data Tale From Jersey City

The animosity between NJ Senate President Steve Sweeney and the NJEA, New Jersey's largest teachers union, is already well-known. Add to that the rivalry between Sweeney and Jersey City mayor Steve Fulop, and Sweeney's desire to amend the state's school funding system... well, Sweeney's latest dig at Jersey City's teachers and board of education really shouldn't have surprised anyone:
In a statement issued Friday, state Senate President Stephen Sweeney blasted the Jersey City Board of Education for approving the agreement, which will increase district spending on teacher salaries by 3.31 percent during the current school year and 2.72 percent during 2018-19. The board approved the contract by a 5-1 vote Thursday night. 
Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said the Jersey City school district already receives more state funding than it should – district officials have dismissed this as untrue. Sweeney added that salary increases amid a $71 million shortfall in the district's proposed budget sends the wrong message to other schools.
"What makes it even worse is that the Jersey City Board of Education wrote a blank check that taxpayers in every other school district in New Jersey are going to have to reach into their pockets to pay," Sweeney said. "That's because Jersey City continues to get $151 million a year more in state aid than it would be receiving if the school funding formula was run fairly with the 10-year-old growth caps and Adjustment Aid eliminated." [emphasis mine]
Others have reported Sweeney claims Jersey City is over aided by $174 million; let's stick with the lower figure for now to be conservative (you'll see why in a minute). Sweeney arrives at this figure because Jersey City, and several other districts, benefit from a provision in the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) called "adjustment aid." This aid was included in the original 2008 law to mitigate against the shock school districts might face when transitioning to the new formula; it keeps districts from falling below the level of aid they received prior to the new law. However, it has also led to some districts currently receiving more state aid than they would get if the provision wasn't included.

Jersey City gets a lot of adjustment aid, which likely helps it keep its local taxes lower than they would be otherwise. To illustrate, I took this chart from the Education Law Center's website†:

There really is little doubt Jersey City should be contributing more local tax revenues toward its schools; whether it can at the moment, given the state's property tax cap, is an open question.* That said, and as ELC** points out in this brief, the district is still not getting all the funding it needs, from either the state or local sources, to provide an adequate education for its students.

Which makes Sweeney's statement even more interesting. Because his clear implication is that Jersey City is giving its teachers a big raise*** on the backs of other school districts, who don't get nearly as much state aid. But he's also claiming property taxes in Jersey City are artificially low, again because of an excess amount of state aid.

Is this possible? Is Jersey City so "over-aided" that can afford big teacher salaries and low property taxes?

Again, I'll leave aside the question of taxes and instead focus on teacher salaries. Because I happen to have data available to take a reasonable stab at answering this question: Are Jersey City's teachers significantly overpaid compared to their colleagues in neighboring school districts? If not, is it really fair of Sweeney to call this recent contract irresponsible?

Let's start by looking at how much JC's teachers make compared to their colleagues in the other school districts in Hudson County (click to enlarge).

At first glance, when we look just at the average Jersey City salary compared to the rest of the county, it appears JC teachers are doing relatively well -- not spectacularly well, but well. Bayonne, Gutenberg, Weehawken and East Newark**** teachers seem to pay a serious wage penalty for not working in JC...

Or do they? One of the problems with simply comparing average (or even median) salaries is that it doesn't account for how teachers are paid in the real world. For example:

Like all public school teachers (and like many, many others in both the public and private sector), Hudson County teachers are paid more when they have more experience; this explains the upward slope of these lines, showing pays raises when teachers gain seniority. Jersey City (the dashed red line) has a slightly earlier bump up in experience than most other Hudson County districts.

However, when JC teachers reach their 30th year, their pay is rather average. In fact, the best-paying district in Hudson County, accounting for experience, appears to be Hudson County Vo-Tech. Which, again, is interesting, given Sweeney's full-throated support for vo-tech schools.****

Now, whether Jersey City is paying relatively more than other districts for its teachers also depends on how experience is distributed. So let's look at that next:

Jersey City does have a somewhat larger concentration of teachers with 15 to 19 years of experience; that might help explain a somewhat higher average salary for all JC teachers than other Hudson County districts.

But teacher pay doesn't just vary with experience. Earning an advanced degree leads to higher pay; living in a labor market that's more expensive, or pays more for teachers relative to other professions, changes pay. Keep in mind: these factors are out of control of both the Jersey City Board of Education and the Jersey City Education Association, the local union that negotiated the contract. It's ridiculous to think either party could buck trends and norms followed across the state.

So how can we determine whether Jersey City teachers are really "overpaid"? I've approached the problem using a regression model: a statistical technique that allows us to "hold things constant." Using seven years of data on every teacher in the state, I've tried to model how experience, full-time/part-time status, labor market, job description, highest degree earned, and other factors affect teacher pay (nerds, I give the details on the regression model below).

The model allows us to predict how much a teacher might earn, given all these factors. The amount above or below prediction (the residual) can't be explained by the variables in the model; we will assume, therefore, that this amount is how much each teacher is "over-" or "under-" paid, relative to other teachers in the state.

So: are Jersey City teachers way overpaid? Put simply: no, not really.
This is expressed as a ratio of actual salary over predicted salary; a ratio of "1" means the salary is exactly what the model predicts, so the teacher isn't "over-" or "under-" paid, given their experience, degree, labor market, etc.

In Jersey City in 2016-17, teachers (as a group) were paid about 3.7 percent more than prediction. That hardly makes them the most "overpaid" teachers in Hudson County: Harrison, Hoboken, Secaucus, and Hudson Vo-Tech teachers were all "overpaid" more Jersey City school staff (again, this doesn't account for administrators, nor for staff without certificates).

Let me stop here and clarify something: I am deliberately putting "under-" and "over-" paid in quotes, because this model cannot account for many other factors that would affect teacher pay. It may be that Jersey City has to pay more to attract the same quality of teacher candidate for a variety of reasons that can't be measured. Maybe teacher candidates didn't want to teach in a district that was under state control for a quarter of a century. Maybe they've heard, as I have, that the state monitors have made staff feel unappreciated. Maybe the traffic sucks.

All I'm trying to do here is provide some sort of empirical analysis to determine whether there's evidence that Jersey City teachers are the beneficiaries of the "over-aiding" of the district. To that end: let's see what the "overpayment"****** of Jersey City teachers costs the district.

I could choose all sorts of denominators to use, but let's keep this simple: how much of the total appropriations of the Jersey City Public Schools can be attributed to the "overpayment" of teachers? About 1.3 percent.

But let's get back to Senator Sweeney's complaint: how much of the "over-aiding" of Jersey City gets gobbled up by the "overpayment" of Jersey City's teachers? About 6 percent -- that's barely a blip.

The idea that Jersey City's teachers substantially benefit from of the "over-aiding" of the district is not supported by a reasonable analysis of the available data.

I'm going to run the risk of pissing off a few friends here, but let me put this on the table:

Senator Sweeney and I have a lot of disagreements. I was, like almost every other teacher in the state, extremely disappointed by his support of Chris Christie's attack on our pensions and health benefits. I think Senator Sweeney is dead wrong about the benefits -- and largely blind to the harms -- of the expansion of charter schools in Camden (call them whatever you want, they're charter schools). I also think Senator Sweeney is dead wrong on taxation.

That said: Steve Sweeney has valid concerns about New Jersey's state school aid formula. He is right to note that the growth caps have got to be addressed. He is right to state that communities like Jersey City ought to be contributing more toward the funding of their schools. He is right to champion the districts in this state that are often overlooked in the debate over school funding, yet whose students are suffering real harm due to inadequate funding.

So I'm willing to take Steve Sweeney at his word. I do believe he is concerned that there are students in New Jersey school districts who are suffering right now because they can't get adequate funding for their schools.


The idea that the students of Bayonne are being denied an adequate education because of the greed of the teachers of Jersey City is just plain wrong.

There is no evidence Jersey City teachers are wildly overpaid. There is no evidence the small bump JCEA members enjoy in their wages is a major part of the "over-aiding" of the district. I understand NJEA gave Sweeney a few bruises. But making arguments that pin the blame for the underfunding of New Jersey schools on Jersey City's teachers is not helpful in the slightest.

Look, schools cost what they cost. If you want certain outcomes, you have to pay for them (we need to have a good long talk about this idea soon...). By the state's own formula, Jersey City's schools are not over-funded.

In addition: if you want good teachers, you need to pay good wages. New Jersey actually underpays its teachers relative to the rest of the labor market. If Jersey City is paying its teachers a bit more, that's a good thing. Why come down on the district for trying to get good people to come into the profession?

Senator Sweeney, instead of slamming Jersey City's teachers for standing up for themselves and demanding decent pay...

Why don't we instead work to get all districts the funding they need to bring the best and the brightest into New Jersey's classrooms?

For the record: I am a proud NJEA member, and I am proud to stand with my fellow public school teachers in Jersey City, and everywhere else in the state.

* I really don't want to wade into this on this post, because, to be honest, I just haven't had time to look at it carefully. But some, like Jeff Bennett, argue Jersey City could increase its revenues without the state raising its property tax cap. Bennett (who, despite our policy differences, I genuinely respect) has told me Jersey City hasn't even raised its tax rates as high as it could under the current cap. I have no reason to doubt Jeff, but I haven't looked into the topic myself. 

** For the record: I have done work as a contractor for ELC in the past.

*** Something worth noting: when you see a report that teachers are getting a "... 3.31 percent during the current school year and 2.72 percent during 2018-19," understand that doesn't mean all of the teachers are getting more money. Public schools operate on salary guides, which provide a raise for every year of service up until a final "step." You need to add money into guide like that just to maintain it. So those at the "top of the guide" might actually be getting no raise, depending on how the guide is structured.

Teacher salary guides is a really complex topic; maybe I'll try to get to it at some point...

**** Actually, the East Newark data for 2016-17 looks off because a lot of the teachers who should be 1.0 full-time equivalents are listed as 0.1 FTEs. I tried as best as I could to clean up this rather obvious mistake.

***** To be clear: I join with Senator Sweeney in supporting vo-tech programs and schools. More Vo-Tech!

I just don't understand why the senator is complaining about Jersey City teachers getting a raise when they make less than the county's vo-tech school. Why isn't he blaming them for underfunding elsewhere? (OK, he shouldn't, but you get my point, right?)

****** Yes, these quotes are stupid. You have a better idea?

The Regression Model:

I have a panel of certificated staff data from 2010 to 2017. 2013 is excluded because some of the teacher characteristics data weren't included. The model I use is:
salary = f(prior_exp_years FTE i.highest_ed_comp i.metajobcode i.lmencode i.data_year i.charter charter#data_year logEnroll)

  • prior_exp_years: Total years of experience, in and out of NJ or the district.
  • FTE: Full-time equivalency.
  • highest_ed_comp: Highest degree earned.
  • metajobcode: Job description, divided into larger categories (i.e., all science teachers bundled)
  • lmencode: Labor market; I used counties. 
  • data_year: The year. 
  • charter: Whether the school is a charter. I know some of you might push back a bit, but the fact is a teacher suffers a wage penalty for working in a charter. Given that reality, it's not rational to expect Jersey City teachers to make charter school wages; in fact, there is a very good case to be made that JCPS teachers are propping up the city's burgeoning charter sector through wage free-riding
  • charter#data_year: Given the volatility of the state's charter sector, interacting it over time seemed reasonable. 
  • logEnroll: OK, so this one had me thinking. We know for a fact that school districts enjoy economies of scale. It may well be those districts then use the savings to recruit more desirable teacher candidates, or make up for recruitment hardships that can't be measured. It may also, however, be that larger districts create larger teachers unions, which leverage more bargaining power. But do districts really have much control over how big they are? Hmm... Ultimately, I kept this in the model because it matters -- but I'm open to debate. In any case, removing it does up the "overpayment" ratio for Jersey City, but only to about 1.06. That's not enough to make a serious dent in the amount JC is "over-aided."
Bad mistake in the original post: I inadvertently put Newark's LFS v. Levy chart up, not Jersey City's. Sorry about that -- correction made.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Facts About NJ Charter Schools, Part III: Segregation By English Proficiency

This week, I'm going into detail about a new report on New Jersey's charter schools I wrote with Julia Sass Rubin. In the last post, I showed conclusively that the charters enroll proportionally fewer special education students. In addition, the classified students charters do enroll tend to have less costly learning disabilities. This puts both fiscal and educational pressure on public district schools, which are forced to subsidize charters at the same time they must provide an education to students with special needs.

One of my more tenacious commenters keeps trying to make the case that the reason charters don't enroll as many special needs students is that they declassify special education students at higher rates than public schools. But there is no empirical evidence I am aware of to support this claim. Further, as I've showed before, NJ public district schools spend much more on the support services special education students need than charters. In addition, there are more support staff per pupil in the public schools than in the charters. All the evidence suggests the student populations of charters and public district schools are different.

I don't know why anyone would be surprised by this. The entire theory of charter schools is that they will enroll students who are a good "fit." Why, then, would we be surprised that the charter student populations aren't like the public school populations? Isn't that the entire point?

Keep this in mind as we now look at the differences in English language proficiency between public and charter school students.

Year after year, New Jersey's public district schools enroll many more Limited English Proficient (LEP) students proportionally than the charter schools.

Again, you can try to make the case that this is because the charters remove LEP classification more than public, district schools. But there's no evidence to back up that claim. Further, there is a significant incentive for charters to have students retain their LEP classification, as charter schools receive more funding if they have more LEP students.

The idea that charters are so much better than public district schools at teaching LEP students that they can immediately remove their status, even at a financial disincentive, flies in the face of logic. It's also contradicted by one of the other arguments charter cheerleaders often try to advance: that the difference in LEP classification in some cities is due to the location of the charters.

It is certainly true that the charters often tend to cluster in neighborhoods with smaller Hispanic populations  -- that is likely the explanation for the difference in LEP populations in Newark. But so what? The charters chose to locate in those neighborhoods -- now the district has to pay the costs of educating a concentrated LEP population. Considering that a district like Newark has been underfunded for years while the charters are "held harmless," this remains a serious problem.

Finally, let's consider individual communities, and how their charter sectors differ from public school districts:

As I've noted before, the racial profile of Red Bank Boro -- where the disparity in LEP percentage is the greatest in the state -- is very different than the profile of the area's charter schools:

The idea that the huge disparity in LEP rates between Red Bank Boro and the students attending charters* can be explained by either LEP declassification or location of the school is very hard to defend when it's clear that far more white students proportionally attend the local charter school. The much more plausible explanation is that "choice" has led similar families to "choose" the same schools. This lines up with a growing body of evidence that shows that parents rely on their social networks to make navigate a "choice" system.

All this said, look at some of the districts at the bottom of the table. In North Plainfield and New Brunswick -- communities with large rates of LEP classification -- the charter schools, as a group, actually enroll more LEP students.

As with special education classification rates, the data here show that the charter sector could be enrolling more LEP students. But why doesn't it? If charters are serving more LEP students in New Brunswick and North Plainfield, why aren't they serving at least a similar rate of LEP students in Jersey City or Morris or Passaic or Trenton?

I would suggest the data here shows that it's at least possible that charters could enroll more LEP students. Where then, has the state been during the last decade? Why aren't they demanding better from the entire sector? 

I'll talk about disparities between NJ charters and public district schools in socio-economic status next.

* To be clear: the disparity chart does not only include students who attend the local charter school; it counts all students who reside in the district but attend a charter anywhere in the state. So the "Charter LEP %" figure will not be the same as the local charter school(s) percentage.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Facts About NJ Charter Schools, Part II: Segregation By Special Education Need

In this series of posts, I'm breaking down a new report by myself and Julia Sass Rubin on New Jersey's charter schools. State data shows one incontrovertible truth:

New Jersey's charter schools enroll far fewer students proportionally who have learning disabilities, or who are Limited English Proficient, when compared to their hosting districts.

Here's a graph that shows this quite clearly:

Oh, sorry -- this graph isn't from our research. This graph is from a report published by the New Jersey Charter Schools Association, the state's biggest charter advocacy group.

Let me clean it up a bit for you...

It is, of course, completely inappropriate to use the same scale for measures that are as different as racial composition and special education classification. I would make my grad students resubmit their work if they ever tried to pull a stunt like this.

Still, you can clearly see that, according to the state's biggest charter cheerleaders, NJ charter schools enroll far fewer students proportionally who are classified with a learning disability, or who are English Language Learners.

Let's look at this in a more appropriate way. This graph is from our report (for real this time):

In our report, we compare all of the charter school students residing in a school district to the resident students who attend the public district schools. This method allows us to compare a community's charter students to its district students -- no matter where the charter students attend school. (I'll discuss this method in more detail later in this series.)

These findings are beyond question -- and they raise some serious issues. Even Chris Christie acknowledged that it costs more to educate a child with a learning disability; this particular fiscal burden falls hard on public district schools when charterization concentrates their proportion of classified children. It also makes comparisons between the academic outcomes of charters and district schools meaningless unless this disparity is accounted for.

The problem with most attempts to do this -- like the NJ CREDO study, which was commissioned by the state -- is that the statistical models employed use data wholly inadequate to the task. These data divide students into two groups: those with a learning disability, and those without. The problem is that classified students can have very different disabilities, and, consequently, very different educational needs.

As I've noted before, some disabilities, such as speech or "specific learning disabilities" (SLDs), are relatively low-cost. Others have a much higher cost. Guess which students are more likely to enroll in the charters?

The special needs students who are enrolled in NJ charters tend to have lower-cost disabilities the those in district schools. This analysis differs somewhat from above (see the report for details), but it matches our previous work. We're using 2016 data here; in that year, the state did not suppress data as they have done before.*

For a long time, charter cheerleaders have claimed -- with no empirical evidence -- that the reason their special education rates are lower is because their superior instruction and organization make special education classification necessary. The chart above directly refutes this. It's much less difficult to change the classification of a student with a speech or SLD disability than one with a traumatic brain injury, or blindness, or autism. If charters dissolve classified students' individualized education programs (IEPs) at higher rates than public district schools, it's only because the classified charter students have, on average, less profound disabilities than district students.

I've heard some make the case that school districts often place special needs students in specialized, out-of-district private schools, and that this is functionally no different than allowing students to enroll in charters. But that's a ridiculous argument on its face. When a school board makes a decision about an out-of-district placement, they make the decision, and they figure out how to pay for it. Charter school enrollments, on the other hand, are foisted upon school districts by the state with no ability for the district to approve or regulate the enrollment.

In other words: the state makes the decision to approve a charter school, but the district has to pay for it. Worse, if the district isn't where the charter is located, they don't even have the right to appeal the decision. If students in your town want to enroll in a charter school 20 miles away, you don't get any say in the matter -- your town has to pay for it, no matter the fiscal or educational harm.

And again: those students who enroll are less likely to have special education needs... most of the time:

This table shows the disparity between the charter population and the district population in the proportion of classified students for each population.** In North Plainfield, for example, 18.5 percent of the district's students are classified -- but none of the resident students who attend charters are listed as having a special education need. That disparity is the largest in the state.

But here's what's interesting: there are, in fact, districts where the charter and district student populations have similar proportions of special needs students. In fact, in New Brunswick, more classified students attend the charters, proportionally, than the public district schools. Keep in mind that, as we show above, the charter students in New Brunswick have less costly disabilities. This is a problem because the charter school funding formula treats all classified students, with the exception of students with a speech disability, the same in terms of the funds transferred to charters.

Still, New Brunswick shows that many of the other local charter school sectors could be enrolling more special needs students. So why don't they? Why are so many charter schools not stepping up and enrolling more special needs students -- even those with the least costly learning disabilities?

The charter sector has been promising for some time that it will start educating more children with special needs. Some charters do -- but many clearly do not. And why would they, when the state has refused for years to hold them to account? Why would they, when they could count on renewals and approvals for expansions even though it was obvious they were engaging in segregation by special education need?

During the Christie administration, the state turned a blind eye toward the segregation by special need that accompanies charter school expansion. Yet the data on this are so clear that not even the NJCSA doesn't dispute the truth. The Murphy administration, the NJ Legislature, and the NJDOE have got to start acknowledging this and come up with a plan to address it.

There's another student population NJ's charters have underserved, even more than special needs children: English language learners. We'll discuss that next.

* The data was suppressed in 2015 but not in 2014. I have no idea why. You can tell the data is not suppressed because there are many cells that have values between 1 and 9, even though in other years the cells were suppressed when less than 10.

** In the report, we limit the districts studied to those enrolling at least 50 students.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Facts About NJ Charter Schools, Part I: Prelude

This is long overdue:
New Jersey's new governor will consider changes to the state's charter school law, potentially slowing the expansion of controversial, yet in-demand schools championed by former Gov. Chris Christie
The state on Friday announced a "comprehensive review" of its charter school law, fulfilling one of Gov. Phil Murphy's campaign promises after an era of rapid school choice growth.
The next week, Murphy clarified his position:
Gov. Phil Murphy's administration is about to scrutinize charter school law, but that doesn't mean he has it out for charter schools, Murphy said Monday. 
"I have never been nor will I be 'hell no' on charters," the Democratic governor said during a radio appearance on New Jersey 101.5-FM. "I just don't like the way we've done it." 
"If a school is high performing and kids are doing really well based on an objective set of facts, count me as all in," Murphy said. [emphasis mine]
So we need "an objective set of facts," huh? Well, Governor, I've got just the thing with which to start...

This week, Julia Sass Rubin, Professor at Rutgers University in the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, and yours truly released a new report: New Jersey Charter Schools: a Data-Driven View, 2018 Update. The report was funded by The Daniel Tanner Foundation, which funded our 2014/2015 series of reports on New Jersey charter schools.

If the reaction to this latest report is anything like the reaction to the previous series, you're probably going to see some serious pushback to our work over the next few weeks. So I want to spend the next few posts here going over exactly what Julia and I did in this report, and why we both believe Governor Murphy is correct in wanting to give serious thought to overhauling New Jersey's charter school laws and regulations.

But let me start with an overview:

- New Jersey charter schools are transferred a lot of money away from the public district schools.

This graph didn't make it into the final report, but it's still instructive. Year after year, charter schools are taking a larger share of the state's total school funding. This is highly problematic, as charter schools create redundant systems of school administration. Yet the state has not bothered to take a serious look at what this means for the overall fiscal health of NJ's public school system.

- The effects of charter proliferation in New Jersey are much more widespread than commonly reported.

The discussions around New Jersey charter schools mostly focus on their impacts in places like Newark and Camden. Unquestionably, these are the communities that feel the effects of charter schools growth the most -- but they aren't the only ones. There are charter schools in New Jersey that draw from over 40 different districts, which means the fiscal effects of charter growth are felt in public school districts all over the state.

- NJ charter schools do not enroll as many students with special education needs as public, district schools.

This data actually mirrors similar data presented by the New Jersey Charter School Association. It's a simple fact: the students in the charters are much less likely to be classified as having a learning disability compared to those in the public district schools. It amazes me that anyone would try to argue this point.

- NJ charter schools do not enroll as many students who are Limited English Proficient (LEP) as public, district schools.

Again, it's pointless to argue about this. This is the state's own data, and the pattern is very clear.

- There is wide variation in the differences in student socio-economic status between NJ's charter and district schools.

There are communities where the charter student population has close to the same proportion of free lunch-eligible students as the public school district. But there are many places where the charter population is very different compared to the district school population. In some places, the charters enroll many more FL students; in some places, the charters enroll far fewer FL students. Both of these situations are cause for concern.

It's also worth noting that free lunch-eligibility may be increasingly unreliable of a measure of student socio-economic status. If we care about the segregative effects of charter schools, we need to start collecting better data.

Again, I'll get into these individual points over the next few posts. But let me conclude this introductory post with this thought:

In New Jersey, a local community has no say in whether it has to pay for resident students to attend charter schools. This includes many towns where charters are not located. If a resident family in your school district wants their child to attend a charter miles away in a town that isn't close to yours, your town's taxpayers must still come up with the money to subsidize that "choice."

In other words: The power to approve, regulate, and expand charter schools is not aligned with the fiscal burdens of paying for those charters.  This is a serious problem that must be addressed in any future legislative overhaul.

Much more to come -- stand by...