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

Friday, May 22, 2015

PARCC Comes Off the Rails

The PARCC cheerleaders' arguments for their beloved test are crumbling to dust:
Washington, DC (May 21, 2015) — The PARCC Governing Board, made up of the state education commissioners and superintendents, voted Wednesday to consolidate the two testing windows into one and to reduce total test time by about 90 minutes beginning in the 2015-16 school year.  The vote came in response to school district and teacher feedback during the first year of testing and a careful review of the test design.
The changes will improve and simplify test administration for schools, teachers and students, without diminishing the goal of the assessment—to ensure every student in every school is being taught what they need to know order to be successful in the next school year and, ultimately, in college or career. 
[Skipping Hanna Skandera's useless propaganda... -- JJ]
This year’s PARCC testing was done in two parts—the performance based testing conducted in early spring and the end-of-year testing conducted in late spring, closer to end of the school year. Five million students in 11 states and the District of Columbia completed the PARCC assessments this year.  
On May 20, 2015 the PARCC governing board voted to:
  • Reduce the testing time for students by about 90 minutes overall (60 minutes in mathematics; 30 minutes in English language arts) and create more uniformity of test unit times.
     
  • Consolidate the two testing windows in mathematics and English language arts/literacy (which includes reading and writing) into one.
    • ​The single testing window will simplify administration of the test for states and schools that experienced challenges with scheduling two testing windows.
    • The testing window will be up to 30 days and will extend from roughly the 75% mark to the 90% mark of the school year. Most schools will complete testing in one to two weeks during that window.
  • ​Reduce the number of test units by two or three for all students.
Yes, the PARCC is so much better than those awful, old, state-level standardized tests -- so much better that the PARCC Board is changing it after only one year!

It seems like only yesterday -- no wait, it really was only yesterday! -- that the PARCC folks were telling us that "PARCC assessments are designed to provide parents and teachers with a far greater level of informative and useful data to help improve student instruction."

NJDOE's head PARCC cheerleader, Assistant Education Commissioner Bari Erlichson, told us this last year:
Along with the more detailed reports for parents, teachers for the first time will have access to a database showing the specific skill students were tested on in each question and how many of their students answered the question correctly, Erlichson said. [emphasis mine]
Well, that database is going to be a lot smaller now, isn't it? Are there enough questions left to break down each "specific skill"? Or are some of these skills being dropped? Who knows? All that matters, apparently, is that hopefully the "hysterical" moms who dislike the PARCC and what it is doing to their children's schools will stop complaining and Pearson won't lose another contract...

The entire point of a standardized test is that it is standardized. Every time you change it, you not only introduce error when making a comparison from year-to-year; you also tamper with the comparative validity of the test. Can we truly say that a test that is considerably shorter and only given in one window of time is measuring the same things as the earlier, longer version of the PARCC?

I can't believe that anyone would accept the argument that two different versions of this test should be used concurrently for high-stakes accountability measures, like school interventions or teacher evaluations. If any state agency plows ahead with accountability systems based on two versions of PARCC (and maybe the old state test PARCC replaced), they are going to face a lawsuit the first time a teacher is fired based on test results. And that teacher will win.

The PARCC madness of the past couple of years reminds me of the push for charter schools in suburban areas. Here in New Jersey, our DOE pulled back from its plan to bring "choice" to the 'burbs when parents -- who were a large part of Chris Christie's political base -- decided they didn't much care for boutique charters coming into their school districts and draining funds.

But their push still allowed for charter expansion in the cities, no matter the damage that caused. Districts like Newark and Camden are seeing their systems decimated; Hoboken is facing an existential threat. Charter cheerleaders lost the 'burbs, but they've made it impossible to seriously consider a pull-back on the sector as a whole (at least in the short term).

The PARCC has followed a parallel course: overreaching, the original plan was to have three (and possibly four) administrations of the PARCC throughout the year, and even expand testing to other curricular areas. Now the PARCC cheerleaders are pulling back...

Except they've managed to introduce the test into the high schools, a radical change. Even though it was never required by No Child Left Behind, we're now testing kids in math and language arts from Grade 3 to Grade 11. The PARCC people can afford to beat a strategic retreat, because they've managed to introduce themselves into schools where mandatory statewide testing was previously limited to Grade 9 biology and a high school exit exam. If you're playing the long game, pulling back a few minutes of the current tests is an acceptable, temporary loss.

As I've said before, limited testing has its place if used appropriately. But the high school exams have struck me as the worst part of all this testing madness. No one has ever shown that standardized end-of-course testing improves instruction in high school, and states that have it, like Tennessee, trail far behind states like New Jersey that had, until recently, eschewed the practice.

So while it's good to see the tests pulled back to once a year, we still have a way to go to rein in testing overkill. There's no need, for either accountability or instructional purposes, to test every kid in every year in multiple subjects. And it's indefensible to continue using the tests to compel school or teacher interventions (as opposed to informing those actions).

The PARCC pullback lays bare an uncomfortable truth for the reformy: these tests are not objective measures of student learning, let alone measures of teacher or school effectiveness. Standardized tests are political instruments, subject to the varying fancies of popular opinion. Using them for high-stakes purposes denies this now undeniable reality.

No, this is the test that came after we changed the last test that came after we changed the test before that...

ADDING: By the way, teens: during that 30-day window, you'd better not discuss the test! Especially on social media, the primary way you communicate!

Because what's more reasonable than asking a high school student not to talk about what's happening at school...

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Transparency & Accountability? Not For Charter Schools

Regular readers will remember a series of posts I did about LEAP Academy University Charter School in Camden back in 2013. Here's a recap that both recounts the many problems LEAP has had over the years, and gives us an example of the special brand of hubris that characterizes LEAP's founder, Gloria Bonilla-Santiago.

This is a woman whose school, according to the NJEA, "routinely violated state collective bargaining law." LEAP was caught up in an athletic recruiting scandal so egregious the NJSIAA rewrote its rules after finding the school in violation. The school has a history of not meeting Adequate Yearly Progress; even the state acknowledged its elementary and middle school was characterized by "low performance." LEAP failed to file its taxes for three years running, and lost (then regained) its tax-exempt status.

Bonilla-Santiago got quite a bit of attention in 2013, when the Philadelphia Inquirer broke the story that her live-in boyfriend, Michele Pastorello, was also LEAP's "chef," pulling down $95K a year for making such gourmet cuisine as "grilled cheese, tomato soup, and strawberry applesauce." It turns out that keeping Patorello on the payroll while the school switched vendors actually cost LEAP -- and the taxpayers -- a quarter of a million dollars.

That's quite a bit of scandal for just one charter school. But there was one other incident that hasn't been resolved -- until now:

In January of 2013, the Courier-Post published a story about a disgruntled LEAP employee who claimed Bonilla-Santiago made him do work at her home while on the school's time:
An employee of LEAP Academy University Charter School claims in a lawsuit that he was ordered to make repeated repairs to the home of the school’s founder, Gloria Bonilla-Santiago.
Mark Paoli, who was facilities manager at the Camden school for more than a decade, contends Bonilla-Santiago “routinely demanded that he perform work on her home while on LEAP Academy time and using LEAP Academy tools, equipment and supplies.”
The suit contends Paoli was demoted after complaining about his alleged treatment to a LEAP administrator. It also asserts that Paoli, who is white, was replaced by a less-qualified minority, said Alan Richardson, a Woodbury attorney for the LEAP worker.
[...]
Among other claims, the lawsuit asserts Bonilla-Santiago in June 2006 allegedly ordered Paoli to repair columns in front of her house, a job that required the hiring of a laborer. Bonilla-Santiago allegedly paid for the labor and supplies “with a check drawn on the Alfred Santiago Scholarship Endowment,” the suit alleges.
According to the suit, Paoli “knew it was unlawful” to make personal repairs while being paid by LEAP. The Audubon man allegedly complained about Bonilla-Santiago’s conduct “on several occasions but was told to keep his complaints to himself or Bonilla-Santiago would fire him,” the suit says. [emphasis mine]
Misusing public funds for private gain is a serious allegation. But no public agency, so far as I've been able to determine, ever followed up with an investigation; this civil lawsuit was the sole legal proceeding on this matter.

I'll bet you've already guessed what happened next: the case never went to trial, and no court ever determined the veracity of Paoli's charges, because the entire thing was settled out of court.

Luckily, New Jersey has a libertarian gadfly named John Paff whose mission is to OPRA (Open Public Records Act) the details of settlements with New Jersey governmental agencies. This week, Paff released the results of his request:
On August 25, 2014, a Camden County charter school agreed to pay $50,000 to its former facilities manager who claimed he was retaliated against for reporting his supervisor's alledged requirement that he make repairs to her personal residence on the school's time and using school resources. 
In his suit, Mark Paoli of Audubon said that Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, Ph.D., the chief operating officer of the LEAP Academy University Charter School, required him to perform maintenance on her Voorhees home over a ten year period while Paoli was supposed to be working for the school. Paoli's complaint listed several tasks, ranging from replacing light bulbs and fixing leaks to powerwashing her deck and picking up a picture frame and delivering it to her home. Paoli's lawsuit claims that a laborer he needed for one task was paid for with a check drawn on the Alfred Santiago Scholarship Endowment. 
Paoli claimed that his complaints to school administrators, including Business Administrator Pasquale Yacovelli, caused him to receive a poor evaluation, a cut in pay and ultimately replacement by a less-qualified person. 
The case is captioned Paoli v. LEAP Academy, Docket No. CAM-L-114-13 and Paoli's attorney was Allan E. Richardson of Woodbyry. Case documents are on-line here. 
The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause, which prevents the parties to the suit from publicly disclosing the settlement terms. Fortunately, however, these confidentiality clauses do not trump the public's right to obtain copies of settlement agreements that arise out of lawsuits in which a government agency or official is a defendant. 
None of Paoli's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $50,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by LEAP or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that LEAP or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Paoli $50,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants' decision to settle was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases settle before trial--it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened. [emphasis mine]
I'm hardly a libertarian, but Paff gets it exactly right here: now that Bonilla-Santiago has settled her case, taxpayers will never get the full story about whether or not she abused her position at LEAP, a taxpayer-funded school.

I will be the first to say that public school districts are too often beds of corruption and malfeasance; look only at the example of whistleblower-teacher Mike Mignone of Belleville if you need proof (and also a good reason why we need tenure for teachers). But imagine if Bonilla-Santiago had tried to get away with this as the superintendent of a public school district. Does anyone think the public would have been content with simply accepting an out-of-court settlement as the final word on this matter?

Yes, there have been superintendents who have had too cozy relationships with their boards. But those boards are subject to oversight from the state and political pressures from constituents. The fact that we know about the malfeasance that occurred in Toms River and Elizabeth and Wall and other places is testament to the fact that those school districts had checks and balances.

Where are those checks and balances for a charter school like LEAP? Who gets to demand that Bonilla-Santiago explain herself to the taxpayers who fund her school? Who gets to say: "No, a settlement is not good enough; we want the truth."

An incident like this underscores a reality that charter cheerleaders prefer to ignore: charter schools are not state actors, and are therefore not held to the same standards of transparency and accountability as public schools.

It's little wonder that Wall Street loves charter schools like LEAP: they simply can't do any wrong. So long as powerful politicians are there to protect them, these charters will continue to grow and thrive, no matter what their leaders may be up to.

And don't expect to know what exactly what that may be.

Can do no wrong, apparently.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Help Send @Edushyster to New Orleans!

Jennifer Berkshire, aka Edushyster, is one of the very best writers on education "reform" we have. She's done some extraordinary work over the years, and now she's ready to take on her biggest project yet:



The propaganda that the reformy types have pushed about the charterization of the New Orleans schools has been nothing less than shameless. Mercedes Schneider has pointed out repeatedly that the claims of superior results in NOLA are ridiculously overblown.

Drowned out in all the celebrating have been the voices of New Orleans families. We don't very often hear from them about how these radical changes in school governance have affected the lives of their children. We don't often see them as they make their way through this brave new world of education "choice." We almost never get to listen to those for whom the deconstruction of public education in NOLA has been less than ideal.

If there's anyone who could tell their story, it's Jennifer Berkshire. Throw a couple bucks her way; the more you do, the better she gets. I can prove it!


If it's on a scatterplot, it MUST be true! Laissez le bon temps rouler, ma chere edu-preneur!



Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sunday Night Music: B.B. King

B.B. King was one of our greatest artists. A genuine treasure of American music, up there with Copland and Ellington and Monk and Sondheim and Fitzgerald and Guthrie and Sinatra and scant few others.



I was always mesmerized by the left hand, pivoting around the point where the tip of his index finger met the fretboard. Even not understanding anything about the instrument, it was so obvious to me he was in complete control of the melodies he wrenched from Lucille.



Other guitarists were in awe of King. He was never a speed demon; he never needed to be. He never needed to be anything other than himself. That is increasingly rare in this world.

Thanks for the music, B.B.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Teaching At a Charter School Means Taking a Pay Cut

After this past Sunday's big, fat, wet kiss to the Newark charter school industry -- see here, here, here, and here -- you'd think the Star-Ledger, New Jersey's biggest newspaper, would make a little room in their op-ed section for someone to express a contrary view.

You'd be wrong.

On Tuesday, the S-L gave space to a charter school employee to tell us why teachers shouldn't fear charter school expansion:
I've been a teacher for four years. While I wasn't always sure what type of school I'd end up in, I've spent my career at BelovED Community Charter School, an independent, high-performing public charter school in Jersey City. It is in this innovative environment that I've been able to experience the flexibility and autonomy that I've always envisioned for my career. 
Despite serving millions of students and employing thousands of educators across the country, these laboratory-like schools are still misunderstood in many communities. Independent charter schools are unique public schools offered bureaucratic freedom in exchange for real results. Just like traditional public schools, they don't charge tuition, are publicly funded and open to anyone who applies—including students with special needs. 
Free from union contracts, my charter school has the freedom to adjust the school day, choose new and exciting curriculum resources and develop strong models for learning. Teachers like me are treated as equal partners with valuable experience and ideas. Personally, I feel empowered by school leadership to teach in a way that is unique to every student in my classroom. [emphasis mine]
Let me start, as I always do with these cases, by stating that I have no doubt the author of this piece, my colleague Jomayra I. Torres, is a dedicated professional and fine teacher. Her school, BelovED CCS, is actually far better than most Jersey City charter schools in serving children in economic disadvantage:


I applaud Ms. Torres for her dedication, and BelovED for its service to Jersey City's children. But let's get one thing straight:

On average, charter school teachers make considerably less than public school teachers -- and BelovED Community Charter School is no exception.

I've got some work coming out soon on this as it relates to all of New Jersey; for now, however, let's look at how BCSS stacks up against the Jersey City Public Schools in teacher pay. Keep in mind that, like almost every other profession, teachers get paid more as they gain experience. Here's how the two school systems compare in pay for various experience levels:*


A starting teacher at JCPS averages about $20,000 more in pay than a starting teacher at BCCS. A teacher with 15 to 19 years of experience will average almost $35,000 more in salary at JCPS than at BCCS.

Most charter schools have inexperienced staff relative to their hosting districts; this is one of the primary ways charter schools suppress their instructional costs. But even accounting for experience, charter teachers make, on average, quite a bit less than their public school colleagues.

I'm glad Ms. Torres enjoys her "flexibility and autonomy," but let's be clear: she is paying a steep financial price for it. She and her fellow BelovED CCS teachers are way underpaid compared to Jersey City's public district school teachers. Which makes me wonder how she can say this:
My message to stakeholders in New Jersey is simple. Charter schools are nothing to fear. My own son attends my school and is making huge gains. As a public charter school teacher, I'm directly benefitting from choices in education and I'm grateful. I wake up knowing that I am in an environment that challenges me professionally and allows me to work with kids that need me most.
Ms. Torres, I'm glad for your son, and I'm glad for your satisfaction with your workplace. But I can't afford to take a $35,000 pay cut, and I doubt many of my fellow public school teachers can afford it either.

And I can't help but wonder if you and your colleagues wouldn't benefit from being paid professional wages as well.

Because it's all about the kids...


* Update: fixed a dumb typo in the graph, and pointed out this excludes administrators.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Charter School Propaganda: A Case Study, Part II

All this week, I've been debunking the Star-Ledger's big, fat, wet kiss to TEAM Academy Charter School, the Newark branch of the national charter chain KIPP.

First, I showed how the author of this piece, Julie O'Connor, displayed what can only be described as willing ignorance about how "successful" charter schools get the gains that they do. Bruce Baker and I patiently (OK, not always patiently...) explained to O'Connor the realities of charter school demographics, funding and outcomes -- but O'Connor either wouldn't or couldn't understand.

Next, I showed how there are dozens of schools -- both public and charter -- that, by O'Connor's own criteria, should also be considered "jewels." Yet O'Connor and her boss, Tom Moran, have shown no interest in any of them; maybe because those schools don't have full-time communications directors, like TEAM/KIPP does, who can spoon feed newspaper op-ed writers the masticated pablum they crave.

I then explained how the "facts" TEAM/KIPP obviously fed O'Connor are, at best, completely lacking in context and, at worst, just flat-out wrong. Because O'Connor clearly didn't do any of her own research, she simply accepted TEAM/KIPP's spin as gospel truth, never challenging herself to think critically about what she was being told.

I don't want to beat this to death. But I also don't want a couple of other assertions in this piece to go unchallenged:

- One single study does not make or break an argument -- especially if that study is irrelevant. In her piece, O'Connor cites a study by the research group, Mathematica:
Traditionalists also don't like the idea of breaking off from the main public school system. They argue KIPP's success is too good to be true, a product of statistical quirks that can't be replicated with an entire district of students. 

But these critics seemed blinded by ideology, a misplaced loyalty to educational tradition. Mathematica, a respected non-partisan research institute, studied KIPP schools nationally and found they did better than traditional schools, even with similarly disadvantaged kids. 
When readers pushed back in the comments section at nj.com, O'Connor repeatedly cited this study as evidence of TEAM/KIPP's sparkle:
@Joseph Addison Repeating my comment on attrition below, in case you missed it: Here's how KIPP responds to the criticism that it has higher student attrition for black males: http://blog.kippnj.org/attrition. The national Mathematica study, by a nonpartisan institute, matched at the student level to control for demographics and also looked at student attrition. http://educationnext.org/student-attrition-explain-kipps-success/ 
@NJParents1 You're right that all charters aren't better than district schools - some are worse. It really depends on the charter. Here's how KIPP responds to the criticism that it has higher student attrition for black males: http://blog.kippnj.org/attrition. The national Mathematica study, by a nonpartisan institute, matched at the student level to control for demographics and also looked at student attrition. http://educationnext.org/student-attrition-explain-kipps-success/

@JuliaSassRubin I understand your position, Julia. But the two schools most requested by parents in Newark under universal enrollment were North Star and KIPP. When 10,000 parents line up on a charter school waiting list, it speaks volumes about their preferences. I don’t think anyone could argue that KIPP is an unwelcome interloper being imposed upon this community.
I think Professor Baker raises good questions in his research, but his model used school level data. The Mathematica study, by a nonpartisan institute, matched at the student level to control for demographics, and also looked at student attrition. http://educationnext.org/student-attrition-explain-kipps-success/Although it was a national study, I didn’t think Baker made the case for why his extrapolations are a better measurement. And KIPP sends 95 percent of its students to college. That in itself is impressive.
Now, I have some problems with the Mathematica study; or, more precisely, I have problems with how it has been interpreted. I'll leave it to Bruce Baker to spell out his concerns (I have some others that I will try to get to later). But there's an important bit of information O'Connor is withholding from her readers about this study:

The study group for the Mathematica reports on KIPP charter schools does not include TEAM Academy -- the very school O'Connor is hyping. 

This was confirmed on Twitter by TEAM/KIPP's own data analyst. Go to page xvi of Mathematica's 2013 report on KIPP and you'll see that New Jersey is excluded from their study. TEAM/KIPP's analyst confirms this is the same study group used in the report O'Connor cites. 

Why does this matter? The Mathematica report compared students at KIPP schools around the country to students in "feeder" district schools. But New Jersey is one of the top-performing state systems in the nation: what if the gap between Newark Public School's (NPS) students and TEAM's isn't as great as in other parts of the country because New Jersey's public school students perform relatively better?*

At the very least, O'Connor should have told her readers TEAM/KIPP was not part of the study she cites repeatedly. This, of course, assumes that she even knew.

- Anecdotes do not supersede data -- and the data says that TEAM/KIPP does not "do more with less."

O'Connor tells a story about air conditioners to "prove" that TEAM/KIPP knows how to spend a buck much better than NPS or the Camden City Public Schools (CCPS). She says the charter school is free from the "wasteful central bureaucracies of district schools," but she never bothers to look at universal, publicly reported data to back up her claim.

There is only one source of state-level data for comparing district and charter school spending: the Taxpayers' Guide to Education Spending, a product of the NJDOE. I have data from the 2014 guide (the 2015 guide was recently released, but I haven't had time yet to prepare it for analysis), and I use it here to show how TEAM/KIPP, NPS, and CCPS compare in per pupil spending.

On the advice of the NJDOE itself, let's look at the differences in Budgetary Costs Per Pupil. As the state says:
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]
This is an important point that must be understood if we're going to compare TEAM/KIPP to district school systems. NPS and CCPS have expenses they have to cover that TEAM/KIPP does not. For example, the schools have to transport all students in their borders, including the charter students. TEAM/KIPP relies on NPS and CCPS to pay those transportation costs for their students; it makes no sense, then to simply compare the overall budgets of district schools and charter schools.

In addition:


NPS educates far more children with a special education need proportionately than TEAM/KIPP. It costs more to educate these students, and NPS has more of them. Did O'Connor ever think about this?

All that said, let's see how TEAM/KIPP, NPS, and CCPS stack up in their spending:


Click to enlarge. Let's start with the leftmost columns: yes, KIPP/TEAM does spend less overall per pupil than either NPS or CCPS. But how does this break down?

The next set of columns shows instructional spending: the amount of money that goes into the classroom, largely to the salaries of staff. Again, NPS and CCPS clearly spend more per pupil than TEAM/KIPP. The next set of bars shows that the charter spends less on those teacher salaries. Of course, their staffs are less experienced, so that makes sense...

But the next set of bars tells the real story. Here's how NJDOE describes "Student Support Services":
This indicator includes expenditures considered student support services under the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) definition - services supplemental to the teaching process that are designed to assess and improve students’ well-being. It also includes expenditures for activities associated with assisting the instructional staff with the content and process of providing learning experiences. Attendance, social work, health and guidance services, educational media/school library services and child study team services are student support services under the NCES definition. This area also includes the costs associated with physical and mental health services that are not direct instruction, but are nevertheless provided to students, such as supervision of health services, health appraisal (including screening for vision, communicable diseases, and hearing deficiencies), screening for psychiatric services, periodic health examinations, emergency injury and illness care, dental services, nursing services and communications with parents and medical officials. The expenditures of the guidance office includes counseling, record maintenance, and placement services. The costs for the child study team include salaries and benefits for members related to the development and evaluation of student individualized education programs (IEPs). Services provided as a result of IEPs are considered instructional costs and are included in the appropriate classroom instruction indicators. The school library services include books repairs, audiovisual services, educational television services, and computer assisted instruction services. The actual provision of computer assisted instruction is considered classroom instruction. [emphasis mine]
So this category is much of the spending needed for children with special education needs: guidance counselors, child study teams, health services, and so on. Not that these aren't important for general education students as well; however, it's reasonable to expect a district with more special needs children will spend more on these services.

Camden's and Newark's district schools far outspend TEAM/KIPP on student support services.  It's possible that TEAM/KIPP reports these expenditures under different lines, and that's fine... except they spend less on instruction as well. If they're spending on support services, where are they reporting it?

One more thing: O'Connor told her readers TEAM/KIPP doesn't have a "wasteful central bureaucracy" like CCPS and NPS. But the fifth and sixth sets of columns above show the opposite: TEAM/KIPP spends far more on administration than Camden's and Newark's district schools, and much of that additional spending is on administrator salaries. 

Notice, also, that TEAM/KIPP spends far more on its physical plant than NPS or CCPS -- but not on plant salaries.

So who, exactly, is being "wasteful" here?


It's time to move on to other topics, but I think I've made my point: when it comes to education policy, the Star-Ledger's editorial board -- like much of our punditocracy -- is in the tank. It's quite clear to me that O'Connor didn't do her own research, relying instead on pre-chewed talking points from an interested party that was happy to use her to pump itself up.

May I make a confession? I find this work to be both exasperating and exhausting. Is it really too much to ask the op-ed page of the state's largest newspaper to be a little less credulous and a little more demanding? Is it too much to ask they check things out for themselves, rather than simply dictating whatever they're being fed by whomever happens currently to be in favor? Doesn't the Star-Ledger's editorial staff have any pride in their work anymore?

I know regular readers will think I'm being sarcastic here, but I'm really not -- I still hold out hope for O'Connor and Moran. I hope that they are so chastened by this episode that, even if they hold on to their reformy opinions, at least they won't ever again blindly accept whatever fluff is found in the latest press release from the big national charter chains. I hope they care half as much about the credibility of their profession as the hard-working, dedicated public school teachers of New Jersey care about theirs -- if they do, they'll never be such pawns of the charter industry again.

And I hope they learn that it's always better to chew your own data.



* This is one of the methodological flaws in the Mathematica report, by the way: they should have broken down the differences by state, rather than mashing them all together. There is reporting on the variation across the study sample, but nothing to indicate as to whether the variation may have something to do with differences within the entire comparison group.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Charter School Propaganda: A Case Study

I really don't want to keep debunking this past Sunday's big, fat, wet kiss from the Star-Ledger's Julie O'Connor to the TEAM/KIPP charter school in Newark -- see here and here. But O'Connor has given us such a perfect example of reformy propaganda that it really does merit further deconstruction.

O'Connor's love letter to TEAM/KIPP is based on a collection of received truths: 
  • Urban public schools suck (and suburban schools aren't that great, either).
  • We've spent too much already on district schools.
  • Charter schools are awesome because they "prove" that poverty can be overcome in our schools; they are also "doing more with less."
To make her case, O'Connor gives us several talking points, clearly pre-digested by TEAM/KIPP for her easy consumption. Among them:
"One KIPP elementary school even outscored Montclair kids in 2013, a much higher income group."
"In a city where almost half the students don't graduate, nearly all its kids finish, and a remarkable 95 percent of them go on to college."
"At last count, nearly 10,000 families were on a waiting list to get their children in."
There are others, and I'll get to them in due course. But let's take these three for right now. Are these points of data factually correct? Yes, absolutely.

But are they true? That's an entirely different question.

The master propagandist never puts a piece of data before the public that isn't factually correct. Why would she? Facts are not malleable in and of themselves, but their application certainly is. And what O'Connor has managed to do here is tell a story that is certainly "factual," but leaves out so much critical information that it can hardly be called "true."

Let's take these "facts" one at a time:

- Did TEAM/KIPP's grade 3 students outscore Montclair's in 2013, and does that tell us something? In O'Connor's construction, it would tell us that TEAM/KIPP has "proved" that charter schools can, indeed, close the testing gap, because Montclair's students come from more affluent homes.

Let's go to the data:


There is no doubt that O'Connor is right: in 2013, TEAM/KIPP's students beat Montclair's district Grade 3 English Language Arts (ELA) average score. OK, it's only 0.2 points, and TEAM/KIPP's Grade 5 students were well behind Montclair's Grade 5 students, and it's only in ELA, not math:


TEAM/KIPP wasn't keeping up with most of Montclair in math on 2013. Still, O'Connor is factually correct. But it's curious that she chose 2013 as her year for comparison; what happened in 2014?


Uh-oh: those Grade 3 students at TEAM/KIPP are now well behind Montclair's students in Grade 4. And the new crop of Grade 3 students is behind Montclair as well.

Let me stop and say what I always say (and what I sincerely mean) at this point in these discussions: this data does not prove TEAM/KIPP is a "bad" school any more than it proves Montclair's schools are "good." Test scores are not particularly good measures of school quality to begin with, even if I do endorse using them to inform decisions as to whether or not schools need interventions.

No, my point is this: Julie O'Connor's comparison between Montclair and TEAM/KIPP is idiotic on its face. These school systems have completely different populations of students: for example, TEAM/KIPP's rate of students classified with a special education need is 12.32% (2013 data), compared to Montclair's classification rate of 17.20%. Given the difference in student socio-economic status and special education needs, why would anyone try to make a comparison between these two school systems?

The answer, I'm afraid, is all too simple: O'Connor had her story, and she was only going to allow those facts into her brain that affirmed her beliefs. All other relevant data is to be ignored, and all context not reinforcing her predetermined beliefs be damned.

- Do 95 percent of TEAM/KIPP's students go on to college, and does that tell us something? Once again, let's look at the data:


Hey, you don't have to take my word for this: look it up yourself. TEAM/KIPP's rate of Postsecondary Enrollment according to official sources is 82%. That is lower than three other high schools in Newark*, and not much better than several others.

So where did O'Connor get this "95 percent" rate from? Scroll to the bottom of her piece and you'll find this [emphasis mine]:
More about KIPP kids: 
[...]
- 95 percent of seniors went to college last year

[...]

Sources: KIPP New Jersey, NWEA MAP assessment
Two takeaways here: first, just like O'Connor cherry-picked her comparison in one grade and one test to one district when she came up her Montclair spiel, she now picks one class of TEAM/KIPP's seniors to make her point about the school's jewel-like shine.

Worse: O'Connor ignores standard, universally reported, public data and instead relies on TEAM/KIPP itself to give her the data points she needs to make her case. 

I'm not a professional journalist, and I've never pretended not to have a point of view. But this crosses a line even I know shouldn't be crossed. Relying on data that only comes from a self-interested party -- especially when data that is at least somewhat more objective is available -- is either unacceptably naive or unacceptably biased. Possibly both.

- Are there really 10,000 families on a waiting list waiting to get into TEAM/KIPP, and does that tell us something? It's hard to tell if O'Connor means 10,000 students are waiting to get into TEAM/KIPP, or all Newark charter schools. But it really doesn't matter...

The mythical New Jersey charter school "waiting list" is one of the great inventions of this state's charter advocacy industry. As I have explained previously, the only data we have that comes close to describing any wait list is from back in 2011. That data was all self-reported, and there is no indication that NJDOE did anything to check how many of the names on a particular charter school's wait list were duplicated on another.

Further, now that the One Newark universal enrollment system is in place, any talk of wait lists is superfluous. We should be talking about the results of that application system; unfortunately, media outlets like O'Connor's Star-Ledger don't seem interested in pursuing this story.

Luckily, NJ Spotlight, for whom I write, is interested. They published the results of the last One Newark application round, and I wrote a brief examining the data. Here's one of several things I found:


TEAM/KIPP is indeed popular. But it also enrolls a relatively low proportion of free-lunch eligible students compared to the rest of Newark. Julie O'Connor, however, doesn't much seem to care about this particular data point.

Once again: TEAM/KIPP gets solid results given its student population (and its advantage in funding -- more in a bit). It is a fine school; I'll even concede they may engage in practices that are worth considering. 

But the outsized attention Julie O'Connor, her boss Tom Moran, and the Star-Ledger have showered on TEAM/KIPP is completely unwarranted. There are many other "jewels" in the New Jersey public school system -- jewels that don't have a relentless public relations machine behind them.

O'Connor and Moran should be asking better of themselves. If they are determined to regurgitate the "data" they are being fed by charter chains like KIPP, the very least they should do is verify those claims and put them into their proper context.

In other words: let's take a little bit of pride in our work, shall we?

We left our pride around here somewhere...

* Of course, it's easy for North Star to claim such a high post-secondary rate when they lose so many kids between Grade 5 and Grade 12 in the first place.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Public School "Jewels" The Media Ignores

On Sunday, the Star-Ledger gave a big, fat, wet kiss to TEAM Academy Charter School, the Newark branch of the national KIPP charter chain. Before she even wrote the piece, Bruce Baker and I, in a series of emails, explained repeatedly to Julie O'Connor , the author of this piece, that KIPP/TEAM is a decent school but hardly a "jewel" worthy of the outsized praise she was heaping on them.

It didn't matter: O'Connor had it set in her head that KIPP/TEAM was freaking awesome, and pesky facts and data and logic were not going to keep her from writing her love sonnet.  In our exchange with O'Connor, it became abundantly clear that she was already in the tank, blithely regurgitating the talking points that KIPP/TEAM was feeding to her and ignoring everything we had to say.

But did it ever occur to O'Connor that there may be other schools in New Jersey -- both district schools and charters -- that shine just as brightly as KIPP/TEAM? 

In a sidebar to her piece, O'Connor presents some pre-digested evidence that KIPP/TEAM is so very special:
- Their elementary and high schools equal or outperform the average for the state of New Jersey, even though the students are much poorer. 
- They close the achievement gap and surpass national averages in reading and math by 8th grade.

- 88 percent receive free or reduced meals, a measure of poverty. In Newark district schools, it's 85 percent.
Is it true? Does KIPP/TEAM "outperform" the state average? Well...


Yes, KIPP/TEAM does beat the state average -- but only in two grades. Once we get to Grade 5, the advantage starts to go away, particularly in math. And as for its high school:


For all sorts of reasons, the SAT is a terrible assessment of school quality. But O'Connor keeps going on and on in her piece about KIPP/TEAM's high college attendance rate, so I say it's fair game for our purposes. And, no, KIPP/TEAM does not beat the state's average SAT score*, either combined or in any subcomponent. 

Does that mean KIPP/TEAM is a "bad" school? Far from it: meeting, let alone beating, the state average on any test when you enroll many students in economic disadvantage is a notable accomplishment. Of course, the real question is how KIPP/TEAM gets its scores, and whether high test scores by themselves are a worthy goal...

But let's save that debate for another time and instead ask a different question. Here's O'Connor:
Many people in New Jersey have no clue about this jewel in their midst. After decades of pouring huge sums of money into traditional urban schools, with mixed results, their skepticism is understandable. 
See, we're pouring "huge sums of money" (more on this later) into urban schools. But KIPP/TEAM -- and only KIPP/TEAM -- is getting the results that make it worthy of a big spread in the Sunday S-L.

But is KIPP/TEAM really that special?

By O'Connor's standard, a "jewel" need not get test scores above the state average in all grades and subjects; one or two grades should suffice. For our purposes, we'll say that a school has to beat the state average on at least one test: the NJASK (math or English language arts (ELA), Grades 3 to 8; science, Grade 4 or 8), the HSPA (High School Proficiency Assessment), or the SAT.*

KIPP/TEAM's free or reduced-price lunch rate is 86 percent. That can vary a bit from year to year, however, so let's say this: any school where at least 75 percent of the students qualify for FRPL is in KIPP/TEAM's peer group for our comparison.

Here's the question: how many schools in New Jersey have at least three-quarters of their children in economic disadvantage, but still manage to beat the state average on at least one test?

Apparently, more than Julie O'Connor or the Star-Ledger have ever bothered to find:


District
School
FRPL Pct
Tested Over State Average (may be others)
ATLANTIC CITY
Chelsea Heights School
89%
Science_8
ATLANTIC CITY
Richmond Avenue School
92%
Math_6
CLIFFSIDE PARK BORO
School #3
79%
Math_5
CLIFFSIDE PARK BORO
School #5
75%
Math_3
GARFIELD CITY
ROOSEVELT SCHOOL #7
78%
Science_4
LODI BOROUGH
Roosevelt School
76%
Science_4
VINELAND CITY
Dane Barse Elementary School
79%
Science_4
VINELAND CITY
Max Leuchter
80%
Math_4
EAST ORANGE
Benjamin Banneker Academy
83%
Science_4
ESSEX CO VOC-TECH
Bloomfield Tech
83%
Math_HSPA
NEWARK CITY
SCIENCE PARK HIGH SCHOOL
80%
SAT_1550
NEWARK CITY
Technology High School
91%
Math_HSPA
NEWARK CITY
ANN STREET SCHOOL
80%
Science_8
NEWARK CITY
Newark Early College High School
78%
Science_8
NEWARK CITY
FIRST AVENUE SCHOOL
86%
Math_5
NEWARK CITY
LAFAYETTE STREET SCHOOL
86%
Math_8
NEWARK CITY
MT VERNON PLACE SCHOOL
79%
Math_6
NEWARK CITY
OLIVER STREET SCHOOL
87%
Math_3
NEWARK CITY
WILSON AVENUE SCHOOL
86%
Math_8
CITY OF ORANGE TWP
CLEVELAND STREET ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
86%
Math_3
WEST ORANGE TOWN
WASHINGTON ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
78%
Math_5
HOBOKEN CITY
Thomas G. Connors
88%
Math_3
JERSEY CITY
Infinity Institute
76%
SAT_1550
JERSEY CITY
Joseph H. Brensinger School
77%
Math_5
KEARNY TOWN
Washington Elementary School
81%
Math_3
NORTH BERGEN TWP
John F Kennedy Elementary School
79%
ELA_5
UNION CITY
Jefferson Elementary School
97%
Math_4
UNION CITY
Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School
98%
Math_3
UNION CITY
Veterans' Memorial Elementary School
93%
Math_3
UNION CITY
George Washington Elementary School
98%
Math_6
WEST NEW YORK TOWN
Public School Number One
86%
Math_6
WEST NEW YORK TOWN
Public School Number Two
80%
Math_6
WEST NEW YORK TOWN
Robert Menendez Elementary School
88%
Science_4
WEST NEW YORK TOWN
Albio Sires Elementary School
85%
Math_4
FREEHOLD BORO
Freehold Learning Center
78%
Math_3
DOVER TOWN
East Dover Elementary School
77%
Math_5
PASSAIC CITY
Mario Drago School # 3
84%
Math_3
PASSAIC CITY
Theodore Roosevelt School # 10
97%
Math_4
PASSAIC CITY
Daniel F. Ryan Elementary School # 19
93%
Math_5
PATERSON CITY
Alexander Hamilton Academy
92%
Math_3
PATERSON CITY
SCHOOL 1
82%
Science_4
PATERSON CITY
URBAN LEADERSHIP ACADEMY
85%
Math_4
PATERSON CITY
SCHOOL 5
95%
Math_4
PATERSON CITY
CHARLES J RILEY SCHOOL 9
95%
Math_6
PATERSON CITY
SCHOOL 19
93%
Math_3
PATERSON CITY
SCHOOL 28
84%
Science_8
PATERSON CITY
ROBERTO CLEMENTE
97%
Science_4
PATERSON CITY
NORMAN S WEIR
82%
Science_4
ELIZABETH CITY
Elizabeth High School
76%
SAT_1550
ELIZABETH CITY
Terence C. Reilly School # 7
79%
Science_8
ELIZABETH CITY
Abraham Lincoln School No. 14
86%
Math_8
ELIZABETH CITY
Dr. Orlando Edreira Academy School No. 26
76%
Math_8
ELIZABETH CITY
Dr. Albert Einstein Academy School No. 29
84%
Math_6
ELIZABETH CITY
Ronald Reagan Academy School No. 30
87%
Math_7
ELIZABETH CITY
Dr. Antonia Pantoja School No. 27
84%
Math_8
PLAINFIELD CITY
Woodland Elementary School
87%
ELA_4
PHILLIPSBURG TOWN
ANDOVER MORRIS ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
78%
Math_4
Foundation Academy CS
Foundation Academy Charter School
85%
Math_8
Camden's Pride Charter Schhol
Camden's Pride Charter School
91%
Math_3
Newark Legacy CS
Newark Legacy Charter School
86%
Science_4
Passaic Arts and Science CS
Passaic Arts and Science Charter School
84%
Math_5
Discovery CS
Discovery Charter School
97%
Science_8
International CS of Trenton
International Charter School of Trenton
92%
Math_4
New Horizons Comm. CS
New Horizons Community Charter School
96%
Math_4
North Star Acad. CS of Newark
North Star Academy Charter Schools of Newark
84%
SAT_1550
TEAM Academy Charter School
TEAM Academy Charter School
86%
Math_4
Queen City Academy CS
The Queen City Academy Charter School
80%
Science_8
Maria L. Varisco-Rogers CS
Maria Varisco Rogers Charter School
83%
Science_8
Village CS
The Village Charter School
81%
Math_6



69 schools in New Jersey tested above the state average on at least one assessment, even though at least 75% of their students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. And yet only KIPP/TEAM Academy was singled out by the Star-Ledger as a "jewel."

Now, I'm puzzled: there are plenty of other schools, both district and charter, that perform at least as well as TEAM/KIPP while serving many children in poverty. Why, then, does TEAM/KIPP get all this attention, while the others labor in obscurity?
KIPP New Jersey
Newark, NJ
Director of Marketing and Communications
Relevant Work Experience: 5+ years

Description: KIPP New Jersey is looking for a marketing and communications expert to help our network achieve its ultimate goals: hire the best teachers, run great schools and serve more students. The director of marketing and communication will develop the organization's marketing and communications strategy, plan and oversee marketing and communications projects and work to change the narrative about charters in our communities. The director of marketing and communication will develop, plan and deliver marketing content to meet the needs of all external facing departments - development, recruitment, enrollment and community relations - to improve and support KIPP NJ's marketing objectives. An ideal candidate will be skilled at understanding and accessing all of KIPP NJ's various audiences including public, parents, teachers, decision makers and other stakeholders.
Click to Apply [emphasis mine]
Thinking...

Julie, you and your boss at the Star-Ledger, Tom Moran, may consider this my gift to you. I have given you nearly 70 leads on schools that "beat the odds," even if they don't have full-time "Directors of Marketing & Communications."

Will you dare to follow up?

If there isn't a PR department, we aren't interested in your school...


* My SAT state averages are different than those reported by the state: the state's are higher, which disadvantages TEAM/KIPP even more. It may be a weighting issue, except the state doesn't weight its NJASK averages, so I don't know why they would weight SAT scores. In any case, by either measure, TEAM/KIPP does not beat the state average on the SAT.