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

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Five Years of Jersey Jazzman! Wednesday Throwback: How the NJ Press Failed Us on Christie & Pensions

One of the most important functions of bloggers is to keep the mainstream press on their toes. Unfortunately, while there are good reporters working the education beat, both in New Jersey and around the nation, too often the narrative about education policy features "experts" who have no idea what they are talking about.

I've been particularly frustrated over the years with the pundits, opinion makers, and news reporters who have given Chris Christie a free ride (and, for their efforts, managed to procure literal free rides for themselves). One of the most egregious examples -- and one that is particularly relevant today -- is how the press let Christie get away with claiming he "saved" New Jersey's public employee pensions.

Of course, he did no such thing. Some of us pointed this out in real time; however, during the last election, when it mattered, it was clear that the press had no interest whatsoever in holding Christie accountable on this critical issue.

This post from May of 2014 recalls the New Jersey news media's utter failure to serve the public by simply demanding to know how Chris Christie was going to pay for his pension plans. Ladies and gentlemen of the press, you have got to start doing better.

*****

If you are at all shocked by this, you just haven't been paying attention:
In a stunning reversal, Gov. Chris Christie today announced plans to grab, over two years, $2.43 billion meant for public workers' pensions to balance New Jersey's ailing state budget. 
The plan threatens to derail one of Christie's signature accomplishments in Trenton — a series of reforms to replenish New Jersey's strained pension fund over the long term — but it would solve an immediate crisis for the governor, who has to find $2 billion somewhere to cover budget shortfalls for the current and incoming fiscal years. 
At a Statehouse news conference today, the Republican governor said his plan is to take $2.43 billion budgeted for the pension fund during this fiscal year and the next one. He ruled out alternatives such as raising the state income tax or cutting funds for schools and Medicaid. 
A payment to the pension fund scheduled to be made before June 30 will be reduced — from $1.6 billion to $696 million — via executive order, Christie said. 
To all my fellow public employees who voted for Chris Christie: I hope you're happy. This clown broke an explicit promise to you, and now he wants to take money out of your pocket and put your pension at risk. But, hey, he was such a straight shooter back in 2013, dontchaknow! And you just loved his no-nonsense style! Plus, he was with you on marriage equity/guns/abortion/insert-your-favorite-conservative-social-wedge-issue-here...

Honest people can debate any of those social issues. But I've never understood how a public employee could think any of them are more important than being able to take care of yourself and your family.

Of course, back in 2011, when Christie - abetted by his Democratic allies in the legislature -- forced us to pay more into our pensions on the promise the state would start meeting its obligations, he told us that he was "fixing these systems in order to save them." Plenty of suckers appeared to believe this; only snarky teacher-bloggers, it seemed, bothered to point out that Christie had never put forth a plan to raise the revenue his legislation requiredOver and over, the warning signs were there: without additional revenue, the payments required by Christie's law -- the one he constantly touted across the country -- would not be made.

Flash forward to 2013 and the gubernatorial race: Christie still had not told us how he was going to come up with in excess of $5 billion by 2018. He refused to raise taxes on corporations or the wealthy, both of whom had making out like bandits under New Jersey's regressive tax regime:



This was Christie's signature legislation; his shining, bipartisan moment... but he still hadn't let us in on the plan. You would think someone -- anyone -- would ask him about this.

No one did.

Don't believe me? Here are the two debates from 2013 between Christie and his challenger, Barbara Buono. Number one:



And number two:



There were lots of serious questions about serious issues asked in the debates: marriage equity, minimum wage, gun control, property taxes, etc. There were also plenty of questions about issues that I think are far less important: Christie's political ambitions, the Christiecrats who endorsed the incumbent over Buono, Wawa vs. 7-11 (seriously), etc.

But pension underfunding cuts right to the heart of the fiscal health of New Jersey. If anyone cared one whit about whether New Jersey would weather its budget crisis, they had to be concerned about the pensions. Why didn't anyone bother to ask about the pension payments?

To be fair: Barbara Buono, who I like and respect, never bothered to ask Christie about this either. I suppose she avoided the question because she figured she'd have to admit that she would have to raise taxes to make the payments. From my perspective, she would have been better off doing just that... but that is, admittedly, Monday morning quarterbacking.

In any case, the press didn't need for Buono to bring up pensions; they could have addressed the issue themselves. Unfortunately, the editorial boards of the state's newspapers utterly failed in their obligation to get an answer from Christie on this most basic of questions.

For example: when Tom Moran, chief of the Star-Ledger's editorial board, famously published his mea culpa for the paper's endorsement of Christie, he couldn't bring himself to address the problem of the pension payments:
But there is more to it. Christie has made good progress on education with a focus on struggling cities, especially Newark and Camden. His pension and health reforms helped contain public costs that were spiraling out of control. [emphasis mine]
Dear lord, what an obtuse statement. There is no cost containment without the state making its payments -- and Christie never told us how he would make them. The S-L's original endorsement worried that Christie hadn't come up with the funds to pay for open space purchase and transit projects. But any worry about the pension payments? Nope: the pension bill was "important." Unfounded, but "important."

Let's be fair: the Ledger wasn't alone. The Philadelphia Inquirer said Christie put "pension funding on a better track." The Asbury Park Press editorial board said: "Public employee pension and health benefits have been reined in, with the largest impact on taxpayers still to be felt.The Bergen Record editorial board didn't even mention pension payments in their endorsement.

The Atlantic City Pressin their endorsement of Christie, proclaimed: "Whether those reforms succeed in shoring up the pension system will depend on the huge payments they require in future budgets, but this legislation, pushed strenuously by Christie, is a step in the right direction." But how could there be a "step" without a payment plan? Did it occur to the paper's editorial board to ask what the plan was?

Please.

Pension payments are the central fiscal issue in New Jersey, but not one editorial board in the state bothered to address it in the last gubernatorial election.

And so now here we are: Chris Christie has reneged on his promises, the state's bond rating is now in free fall, and we are no closer to pension"reform" than we were four years ago.

I want to be clear: there are some very good reporters in the state doing some very good work. But on pension payments, the punditocracy of New Jersey utterly failed their readers and viewers. What happens next is as much on their heads as anyone else's.

NJ's Editorial Boards take a stand on pension payments...

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Five Years of Jersey Jazzman! Tuesday's Throwback: "Won't Back Down II - The Sequel"

I'm celebrating five years of blogging this week with a look back at some favorite posts (here's Monday's). I'll admit: the "funny" pieces don't always work; however, this one remains one of the most popular I've ever published.

It's not an exaggeration to say that Won't Back Down, the fictional movie that lionized the charter school movement, had many of us in the "real" reform camp worried. The premise was clearly ridiculous, but films like this are truthy enough that they can change public perception. That it was backed by the deep-pocketed and homophobic Philip Anschutz didn't help.

Luckily, Won't Back Down went on to have arguably the worst opening of any major commercial film in history. But that didn't stop me from imagining a sequel...


*****


Won't Back Down II: The Sequel

After credits roll, fade up on school office. A worker is taking down a sign that says "Adams Elementary" and putting up one that says "KKIP Super Success Academy." In walk Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), smiling and chatting, clearly excited by changes in the school. 

They enter the principal's office, where they are greeted by the new school leader, Geoffrey Barth-Moskowitz (Anthony Hopkins). He stands and shakes their hands.

Geoffrey: Jamie, Nona, how good of you to come. Welcome to the KKIP Super Success Academy!

Jamie: Thank you so much, Mr. Barth-Moskowitz!

Geoffrey: Oh, please, no need to be formal; call me Geoff.

Jamie: The school looks wonderful, Geoff! I can't believe how many new computers you have!

Geoffrey: Well, that's all part of the generous funding we receive from the KKIP Foundation; we are able to spend more per pupil than Adams Elementary was.

Nona: Really? Why couldn't we get that money before when we were a public school?

Geoffrey: Oh, I think you'll find our funders are far more amenable to giving money if the schools match their ideological predilections. Now that you ladies have pulled the "parent trigger" and brought us in to take over this school, you'll find there are many changes coming.

Nona: Yes, well, that's one thing I wanted to ask you about. I figured that we would have a few computers in every classroom, but it looks like there are enough so that every child will have his or her own. Isn't that a little excessive?

Geofrey: Oh, not at all. You see, KSSA is now a "blended learning" school. We'll be delivering content to our customers... uh, sorry, "the children"... digitally, using software developed by K9 Inc. In fact, K9 Inc. will be running the entire school from now on.

Jamie: Wait a minute; this school is supposed to be non-profit. K9 is a for-profit company.

Geoffrey: True, but that was easy enough to get around. We merely set up a non-profit shell, with a board of directors sympathetic to our point of view. And the state and city politicians are all in our pocket... uh, I mean "on our side"... anyway.

Jamie: But that's not what we wanted at all! When we used the parent trigger, we thought we were getting a community-run school!

Geoffrey: Oh, Jamie, I'm sorry to tell you this, but all you did with the trigger was force a change. No one said you would have any say in what that change would be. No one made clear who would make the decisions about how the school would be structured or who would run it. No one had a procedure to appoint a board of directors. I'm sorry Jamie, but when you allowed this school to be converted to a charter, you gave up many of your rights as both a taxpayer and as a parent.

Jamie: Well, I'll go the local school board! They'll force this charter school to have parental involvement!

Geoffrey: My dear Jamie, you didn't think this through, did you? Charter schools offer you "choice"; they do NOT offer you "involvement." If you don't like the way we do things at KSSA, you can "choose" to leave; that's what school "choice" is all about. But your local district, even though it must give us money to run the school, has no say in how we run the school. We are, in effect, our own district now.

Jamie: Well, I don't like it, but it must be better than what we had before at Adams Elementary. So I'll just enroll my daughter and see how it goes...

Geoffrey: Ah, about that. I'm afraid I have some bad news: I've asked you here to help "counsel out" your daughter.

Jamie: WHAT?!

Geoffrey: Yes, unfortunately, your daughter has a learning disability, isn't that correct?

Jamie: Of course; she's dyslexic. That's the whole reason I organized the "Parenttroopers," because her needs weren't being served by those awful unionized teachers!

Geoffrey: Yes, it's funny that. Unions, like those in Chicago, have demanded that districts hire more special education teachers to serve students like your daughter. But they've been criticized for protecting those teachers from layoffs and evaluation systems that could penalize special education teachers. [Update: more here.] Ironic, no?

Jamie: Whatever. All I want to know is why you think my daughter won't do well here!

Geoffrey: Well, Jamie, we here at KSSA base our school on best practices. We look at the best charter schools: after all, Education Secretary Duncan himself has said we should close poor performing charters and emulate the best ones. New Jersey is leading the way with this line of thinking; look at this:


You see how the "successful" schools - the ones Governor Christie touts as exemplary - have fewer children with special needs? And fewer children who are in deep poverty? And fewer children who don't speak English at home? That's our plan as well; "counseling out" the children who keep our test scores low.

Jamie: But you can't keep my child out! The law says you have to accept every child!

Geoffrey: Every child who applies at the right time and right place, you mean. We've made that considerably more difficult.

Jamie: I don't care! I won't back down! I'll get her in this school, you'll see!

Geoffrey: And what then, Jamie? What happens if she doesn't fit in? If she isn't compliant with our strict disciplinary policies? If you can't contribute the significant "voluntary" parent contribution, or pay your child's discipline fines?

Jamie: But my child has an Individualized Education Program! You have to follow that!

Geoffrey: Yes - but we get to decide how to implement it. And if that means your child gets more suspensions than the other students, well...

Nona: Don't worry, Jamie, we'll work this out. After all, I'm the principal now...

Geoffrey: Yes, about that; I'm afraid there's been a change, Ms. Alberts. KSSA will not be requiring your services as an administrator.

Nona: WHAT?! 

Geoffrey: Yes, well, I'm afraid that when K9 Inc. was given the contract to become the school's charter management organization, all personnel matters fell to them. We have decided we need a truly transformational leader, so we are bringing in a young graduate of our KKIP Leadership Academy. Don't worry, he has nearly two years of experience in the classroom...

Nona: But I was going to run this school! The parents love me! I'm the best teacher at the school!

Geoffrey: That may be true, Ms. Albert, but I'm afraid their voices are irrelevant here. In any case, a blended learning environment keeps costs low by cutting staff; someone had to go. Now, if you'd like to reapply for your job as a teacher here, we'll see what we can do. Of course, you'll have to take a pay cut...

Nona: A pay cut?! I just got a divorce; I can't afford a pay cut!

Geoffrey: Ms. Albert, you're asking me to put your interests above the students; even worse, you're asking me to put your interests above the interests of K9 Inc.! If you're not prepared to work longer hours for less money, I don't see how you will fit in here.

Nona: But I have years of experience! You need people like me on the staff!

Geoffrey: Actually, experienced, overpaid teachers are the last thing we need. Churn-and-burn is now how we roll. We need teachers who can put in long days and longer school years.

Nona: But I have a son with a brain injury at home! I can't work longer hours than I already am!

Geoffrey: My word, what a selfish attitude. I can see you don't have the proper love of children it takes to work at this type of successful school.

Jamie: "Successful"?! You're counseling out students who are difficult to teach, burning out your staff, putting resources into corporate profits instead of the classroom, disempowering the community - and you dare to say you're "successful"?!

Geoffrey: I think our test scores will speak for themselves - especially after we have the students drill-and-kill on them...

Nona: Well, we're not standing for this! This isn't what we wanted when we pulled the trigger!

Geoffrey pushes red button on his desk.

Jamie: We won't back down! We're going to take back our school, again!

Two very large men enter.

Geoffrey: These ladies were just leaving; escort them off the premises. If they attempt to reenter the grounds, call the police.

Nona: You can't do this! This is our school!

Geoffrey: Not any more. 

Jamie and Nona are dragged out, yelling. Barth-Moskowitz turns and looks at camera...


Fade to black.

ADDING: Darcie reviews the original. It ain't pretty.

ADDING MORE: I was all excited to get my $19 million check for this script from anti-gayenvironment-rapingWon't Back Down producer Philip Anschutz. Then the box office figures started coming out for the weekend; it looks like WBD is on track to have one of the worst openings in Hollywood history.

Damn. I guess I better cancel that order at the Maserati dealer. Well, babe, that's showbiz...


Monday, March 30, 2015

Five Years of Jersey Jazzman: Throwback Monday

Today is the five year anniversary of Jersey Jazzman, America's premier source of education policy snark, Chris Christie invective, default-colored Excel graphs, and teacher-bashers bashing.

People ask why I started this thing. Aside from the vast power and riches that come to one from writing an education policy blog, it was a matter of sanity: I was literally yelling at the radio almost every day. I felt like my grasp on reality was slipping every time I read the Star-Ledger op-ed pages: how could the editorial board of the state's largest paper get education so consistently, embarrassingly wrong? It's actually possible this blog saved my marriage, as Mrs. Jazzman was growing increasingly sick of my dinner table ranting.

Jersey Jazzman, in the end, is an exercise in preserving my mental health. In an innumerate, illogical world that shuns critical thinking, I always know I have a place to throw opprobrium at the reformy folks who so richly deserve it.

This week, I thought I'd look back at a few highlights from the last five years. Let's start with the post that is likely the first statement of the entire thesis of this blog, from December of 2010. I think this is the first time I made the explicit connection between advocating for "reform" -- charter schools, test-based teacher evaluation, eliminating tenure, merit pay, vouchers, etc. -- and justifying the underfunding of schools. It's also one of the first times I cited Bruce Baker, intellectual godfather of this blog.

More throwbacks to come...

*****


Bruce Baker Twitter-points (hey, I invented a verb!) to this article from the LA Times questioning the reasons behind seniority-based layoffs.

Bruce neatly dispenses with the notion that the LAT's vaunted Value Added Modeling (VAM)-based approach is appropriate for high-stakes decision making like who gets laid off. So I need not comment on that.

I'll also skip past the disturbing bias that pervades this sorry excuse for journalism. I've dealt before with the complete lack of ethics the LAT has shown in this entire affair - an affair of their own creation.

Instead, let's focus on how the LAT completely refuses to question the premise of the entire article:
The issue has gained momentum as tens of thousands of teachers nationally have been dismissed without regard to their abilities and research has established that veteran instructors on average are no better or worse than their less experienced colleagues.

From Washington state to Arizona to Rhode Island, seniority-based cuts have turned some young teachers against their own unions and fueled efforts — mostly unsuccessful thus far — to revise seniority rules. In California, two bills failed this year in part because of opposition from the California Teachers Assn.

At L.A. Unified, outgoing Supt. Ramon C. Cortines said he believes it is time to consider other factors besides seniority during cutbacks, including performance measures such as attendance and parental feedback. He said he favors capping the number of layoffs at a single campus — an approach similar to that proposed in a pending legal settlement involving Liechty and other schools. [emphasis mine]
Um, excuse me for pointing this out, but:

SHOULDN'T WE BE ASKING WHY WE ARE LAYING OFF SO MANY TEACHERS IN THE FIRST PLACE!?!? 

Where in this article is there any questioning of why the students of LA should have to suffer from fewer dollars allocated to their education just because they happen to be going to school during the Great Recession?

What does it say about us as a society that we can continue to find plenty of money to fight wars of choice that have no clear end in sight while simultaneously accepting cuts in education with a yawn?

What does it say about our commitment to democracy when the very wealthiest are richer than they've ever been while teachers are laid off by the thousands?

Talk like this is normalizing the defunding of education, and it should not go unchallenged. In fact, I would argue that any discussion of VAM or merit pay or charter schools or unionization or pension reform or whatever should always start by challenging the notion that we have to cut that amount of money available to our schools.

Because, as I've pointed out before, the 'formers keep giving away the endgame. The LAT makes quite clear where they want this to head:
Far fewer teachers would be laid off if the district were to base the cuts on performance rather than seniority. The least experienced teachers also are the lowest-paid, so more must be laid off to meet budgetary targets. An estimated 25% more teachers would have kept their jobs if L.A. Unified had based its cuts on teachers' records in improving test scores.
Translation: Keep the CHEAPER teachers. They're just as good as the more expensive ones.

Well, what happens when the word gets out that you will never make more teaching in your first few years than you will in your last few? Does that sound like a career for the best and the brightest?

Oh, you want to keep paying them more as long as they're good? Great! But you want a great teacher in every classroom, right?

So where are you going to get the money for that?

Folks, when it comes to the 'formers, we're really down to two choices:

A) They haven't thought this through.

B) They are willing to throw up incoherent arguments to mask their real agenda: cutting funding for education.

If anyone has an alternative theory, let's hear it.


Sunday, March 22, 2015

Once Again, It's the Poverty, Not the Stupid

Ani McHugh put down the baby for a few minutes and put a couple more corporate education reformers in their place:
I’m not sure whether Dana Egreczky and Melanie Willoughby–co-authors of a pro-PARCC opinion piece published yesterday on nj.com–are parents of children in New Jersey’s public schools, but I do know that they’re not educators: the bio at the end of their piece lists Egreczky as a Senior VP of Workforce Development at the NJ Chamber of Commerce and Willoughby as a Senior VP at the New Jersey Business & Industry Association.
The bio fails to mention, however, that Egreczky is also a member of the Governor’s Study Commission on the Use of Student Assessment in New Jersey.  (How’s that for objectivity? I wonder what Egreczky will contribute to the Commission’s final report–and whether her staunch support of PARCC, including her organization’s membership in We Raise NJ–should preclude her from having input into it. Let’s not forget that David Hespe, Chair of the Study Commission, published a similar defense of PARCC on February 24th. But I digress.)
According to Egreczky and Willoughby, New Jersey employers have been increasingly plagued–specifically in the past decade–by high school and college graduates who are “underprepared for the workplace.” The solution, according to Egreczky and Willoughby, is clear: Common Core and PARCC.
But even a cursory reading of this piece exposes the many problems that arise when people who have no understanding of the intricacies of K-12 education drive reforms that reshape it–particularly when such reforms are met with overwhelming opposition from parents and educators. Some specific issues:
Ani dispatches our PARCC cheerleaders with her usual aplomb, so I'll leave you to read the rest. I did, however, want to make an additional point:

From Egreczky and Willoughby's piece:
We tend to think that millennials, who currently make up the youngest generation in the workforce, are highly advanced because they grew up immersed in transformative technology. However, this is not the case. According to a new report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), millennials in the United States rank near the bottom of all workers around the world in skills employers want most: literacy, practical math and even a category called "problem-solving in technology-rich environments." The report is based on a test designed to measure the job skills of adults, aged 16 to 65, in 23 countries.
Wow -- sounds serious. We can't even compete in "problem solving in technology rich environments"! Never mind that we actually have an overabundance of qualified candidates for many jobs in technology... clearly, Poland is on the march! Bring on the PARCC!

Except...

No one has actually shown that the PARCC measures any marketable job skills in students; frankly, we have no idea what predictive validity the PARCC may have.

But we do know that the children in the countries that are "beating" us on tests like the OECD's PIAAC -- the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (as reported here by ETS) -- are far less likely to live in poverty than children in the United States:


Here are the average scores on the PIAAC's PS-TRE -- the "technology rich environment" test -- plotted on the Y-axis against the percentage of relative childhood poverty for each country, which is on the X-axis.

Look at the red line: see the tilt downward? As a county's childhood poverty rate increases, its test scores decrease.

Finland doesn't give its students tons of standardized tests; instead, according to Pasi Salhberg, the country strives for economic justice, a strong program of human services, and equality of access to education. Finland also treats its teachers like professionals, paying them well, holding them accountable, and allowing them the freedom to teach.

If Egreczky and Willoughby really wanted to bring the USA to educational prominence, they wouldn't waste their time cheerleading for a test no one has ever shown to have any positive benefits for students. Instead, they'd be demanding that the United States lower its disgusting childhood poverty rate, which is clearly having a debilitating effect on our ability to provide equitable education opportunities.

Why don't the mouthpieces for America's business community demand an end to child poverty, rather than the expansion a failed regime of standardized testing?

Why don't these people insist that the United States properly fund programs to end childhood hunger and give all children access to great medical and dental care? Why don't they advocate for living wages? Why don't they insist on a surge of investment in our cities' infrastructures, creating both good-paying jobs and sustainable communities?

The evidence from the rest of the world is clear: poverty matters. Why don't these spokespeople for corporate America acknowledge this simple truth?

Thinking...



"Nice work, Egreczky and Willoughby!"

NJDOE, Hespe Turn Blind Eye to Segregating Charter Schools

I've said before that Hoboken, NJ is one of the most interesting case studies of charter school expansion in the country. Charter school parents have amassed significant amounts of social, political, and financial capital for their children's schools, making them equivalent, in my view, to New Jersey's high-performing yet segregated suburban schools.

Keep this in mind as we look at the latest charter school news from Hoboken:
HOBOKEN -- The Hoboken Board of Education’s legal fight to block the expansion of a local charter school hit a new snag last week. After resolving to reconsider its approval of Hoboken Dual Language Charter School’s expansion to seventh and eighth grade in November, the state Department of Education issued a letter on March 20 upholding the school's expansion.

The core of the school board’s legal argument was that HoLa’s admission policy has a segregative effect by drawing white students out of the district at large. The DOE said it took up the case in order to “more closely inspect the demographic statistics surrounding the relevant community in this matter and how HoLa’s admissions policy may involve that community.”

But on Friday, education commissioner David Hespe said the data showed no segregative effect caused by HoLa and Hoboken’s two additional charter schools. Though HoLa has a much lower percentage of black and Hispanic students than the traditional schools in the district, the percentage of black students in the district hasn’t changed since HoLa opened in 2010, and the percentage of Hispanic students has actually fallen.

“The data points towards an overall population shift in the last 10 years in the City of Hoboken,” wrote Hespe, in an apparent reference to the trend of gentrification and rising rents. (emphasis mine)
You know, up until the last few months, I had been giving David Hespe the benefit of the doubt. I'd heard he was a rational, reasonable guy. I'd understood that he knew how politics worked, and that while he would always have to represent the interests of his boss, Chris Christie, first and foremost, he wasn't an ideologue who would ignore the evidence right in front of his face.

But it's clear now the NJDOE is as off the rails under Hespe as it was under Chris Cerf, a true believer if there ever was one. And if the reappointment of the disastrous Cami Anderson as State Superintendent of Newark, or the department's failure to monitor her One Newark plan, or the department's absurd claims about the PARCC, or their response to the #PeepingPearson controversy doesn't convince you that Hespe does not much care about reasonably weighing the evidence...

The approval of HoLa's expansion should.

Let's start by laying out the facts, which are not in dispute: Hoboken's charter schools, and HoLa in particular, serve a very different population of students than the district schools. The charters, proportionally, have far more white students than HPS schools:


They also have far fewer students who qualify for the federal school lunch program, a proxy measure of economic disadvantage:


The charters also have very few Limited English Proficient students (LEP). The special education percentages are actually close -- with the exception of HoLa, the Hoboken Dual Language Charter School:


HoLa serves a very small population of special needs students.

All of this by itself ought to be enough to show how absurd Hespe's claim is. Of course HoLa has a segregative effect: just look at the numbers!

However, the Hoboken charter school community, along with Hespe himself, continue to spin this data in some really shameless ways. In the statement above, Hespe claims the historical trend backs up the notion that the charters don't have a segregative effect. But, when comparing all the publicly financed schools over the last decade, it's clear that's just not true:


Here are the historical percentages of white students at all publicly-financed schools in Hoboken over the last fifteen years; the charters are the red lines. Only one HPS school comes close to meeting the percentage of white students at the charters: Brandt, a Pre-K/K school that is clearly not representative of the older student population.

Here is the historical record for free-lunch eligibility:


Look at the downward trend for the charters over the last fifteen years. These are the children who are in deep poverty: less than 130% of the federal poverty line. Any implication that Hoboken's charters are simply following citywide demographic trends is just not reflected in this data.

"But wait!" say the charter cheerleaders! "You have to consider the entire city! Including the private school population! That's the only fair way to compare us!"

This argument is utterly bogus on its face: the charters, who insist that they are "public" schools, want to be held accountable for their diversity through a comparison with private schools? The segregation of Hoboken's private schools justifies the segregation of the charters?

This is so ridiculous that it doesn't deserve a serious response. Nonetheless, I did respond regarding socio-economic segregation a while ago, and proved that even under the most generous scenario, the charters absolutely do not serve the same population of students as the city as a whole:


In the face of this, however, Hespe offers one bit of data. I've received a copy of his March 20 letter to HoLa: here's pretty much the entirety of his argument that HoLa reflects the demographics of the city as a whole:


Since nearly 6 in 10 children under 18 in Hoboken are white, the charter schools must reflect the city as a whole. Right?

No. 

Understand: this would bolster Hespe's claim that HoLa reflects the community if it actually reflected the school-aged population of Hoboken. But Hespe's figure includes children too young to attend school. Look at the title of the graph: "17 & Under," which includes the Hoboken pre-school population.

Why does this matter? Here's a graph I posted before, breaking down the ages of Hoboken's citizens:


9 percent of Hoboken's total population are between 5 and 19 years old. But 7 percent are under 5 years old. Hespe's number includes all these children. And the under-5 population is disproportionately large compared to the total population of children: the tots are 44 percent of the total under-19 population.

I can't find census data to explore this further, but I think there is good reason to suspect the under-5 population of Hoboken does not reflect the rest of the city's children. Unless there has been a huge demographic bubble, what's likely happening is that a significant number of young couples are getting married, having young children, then leaving the city as they approach school age. There is at least some evidence this is a trend in American cities.

This is how much Hespe is willing to strain and twist and bend the facts to give the politically connected Hoboken charter school parents what they want: a charter school with a student population that does not reflect the public schools, paid for with taxpayer funds. Clearly, the charters don't reflect the demographics of the district. Clearly, the charters don't reflect the socio-economic profile of the entire city. And there is no good evidence the charters reflect the racial profile of the city's school-aged children.

But Hespe, apparently, does not care. In his letter, he conflates the district's total student population -- private, district, charter, and home-schooled -- with the district's public school population. Here's the administrative code relevant to Hespe's role of overseeing the effects of charter schools on districts:
On an annual basis, the Commissioner shall assess the student composition of a charter school and the segregative effect that the loss of the students may have on its district of residence. The assessment shall be based on the enrollment from the initial recruitment period pursuant to N.J.A.C. 6A:11-4.4(b). The charter school shall submit data for the assessment: 1. In a format prescribed by the Commissioner; and 2. No later than 4:15 P.M. on June 1.
How can David Hespe possibly read this and think his charge is to allow the proliferation of segregated charter schools? How can he possibly believe there is no effect on the "district of residence" when the charters clearly don't serve the same population as HPS?

I've said it before and I'll say it again: if Hoboken's charter school cheerleaders were upfront about what is happening in their schools and their city, they'd have every right to point their fingers at suburbanites like me and call us out. The truth is that many of these parents could afford to move to the 'burbs and send their kids to schools that are even more segregated than Hoboken's charters. But they choose to stay in the city; that, arguably, makes the city more diverse.

I'll even concede there is an argument to be made that the charters deserve some -- some -- of the Adjustment Aid that is denied to them through the charter school funding process. Of course, these schools make up for this loss in private fundraising; are the charter school cheerleaders willing to share this pot of money with the district if they get more aid?

In any case, the charter school community's claims to the moral high ground are null and void when Hoboken's charter school expansion is based on the distortions found in Hespe's letter. He and his department have turned a blind eye to the real and serious effects of the charters on the city's school district.

In doing so, Hespe and his top brass at the NJDOE show they are ideologues, uninterested in a rational assessment of the consequences of their policies. And, again, it's not just charter schools: PARCC, One Newark, the state superintendents, and all the other issues before this department are not being evaluated with rigorous, evidence-based methods.

I had high hopes for David Hespe; they have now been dashed. Hunker down, New Jersey: when it comes to the NJDOE, things won't get better before they get worse.

The NJDOE evaluating Hoboken's charter schools: twisted.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

BREAKING: Feds Monitor State-Run Jersey City Schools for Civil Rights Violations

Last night, the president of the Jersey City Education Association, Ronnie Greco, posted this on Facebook:


JCEA is the local union and the largest affiliate of the NJEA.

A knowledgable source in the Jersey City community tells me this is in regards to dual language programs in the district. Apparently, the charge is that these programs are available to some demographic groups within the city, but not others.

This is part of a pattern within the state-run urban districts of New Jersey. Back in July of 2014, the feds confirmed they were investigating a civil rights complaint about One Newark, State Superintendent Cami Anderson's school reorganization plan. As Bruce Baker, Joseph Oluwole, and I showed, there is reason to believe One Newark has a racially disparate impact on both students and staff in Newark.

And so, once again, we are confronted with the question: why do Newark, Jersey City, and Paterson remain under state control after decades? What benefit has there been to taxpayers or students for schools that serve many economically disadvantaged children to be governed by undemocratic, unresponsive, and often incapable leadership?



More to come...

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Is the PARCC Really Worth All This Bother?

There's a good discussion of PARCCgate, based on my post from Saturday, going on at Blue Jersey (which regularly reposts my stuff --thanks Rosi!). Bob Braun also expands on his original post, the one that started all this, with a new story from East Hanover. Turns out Pearson Education, the  company that makes the PARCC, is at work across the state, monitoring and reporting on student social media activity that they believe compromised the security of their test.

One thing that's been left out of the discussion is just how big a change PARCC is for New Jersey High Schools. Prior to this year, students only had two state tests to take between their freshman and senior years: a Grade 9 biology exam, and the HSPA (High School Proficiency Assessment), a Grade 11 general test of knowledge.

It's safe to say that for college-bound New Jersey students, the HSPA was considered to be a bit of a joke. I've heard stories over the years of kids playing games with the tests, like trying to get as many flavors of ice cream as possible into your writing example ("Life may have many rocky roads..."). But there are so many other measures of high school performance -- graduation rates, SAT/ACT participation rates and scores, AP rates, etc. -- that HSPA performance was not a big worry for suburban schools.

PARCC, however, is now a required test for students in high school algebra, geometry, and English language arts. Some districts have stopped giving their own final and midterm assessments in place of the PARCC; however, I'm hearing some schools aren't using the test scores as part of the grade for the student. So it's likely that the motivation for students to do well is all over the map, making meaningful comparisons between schools impossible.

I don't see how PARCC at the high school level can be considered a valid assessment of school or teacher or even student performance given these realties. Which gets us back to the core question in all this: is PARCC worth all this bother?

We're now at the point where a private, foreign-owned corporation is actively monitoring students and colluding with a governmental agency to prompt school districts into punishing students if they discuss test items or post picture of them on line. This is going to require an active, on-going system of monitoring students' social media use, plus the acquiescence of parents in suppressing the free speech rights of their children.

Schools are now going to have to mete out punishments for activities that were largely considered innocuous just a few years ago when they took place away from social media. I always used to ask older kids about the finals for classes they took the previous year: "No, he won't test you on that, but you have to know this." Teachers themselves often use last year's tests as practice exams, or give examples of exemplars for homework assignments.

Isn't this what we want? Don't we want the kids talking about their learning? Obviously we don't want them Instagramming pictures of tests before everyone has taken them, but what is wrong with doing so afterward? Why wouldn't we encourage this?

If you're Pearson, the answer is obvious: it affects your bottom line. You can't reuse questions after they've been published, so you have to spend more money to create more items. But where is the evidence that their tests are any better than local assessments anyway? I haven't seen it; in fact, even the PARCC people admit they don't know if the results of their tests vary with the quality of instruction students receive.

We know that high school grades do as good a job in predicting college success as any standardized test. So why do we need the PARCC to be given 12 times during a high school student's career (and that number will probably go up), accompanied by an intrusive security protocol? Why not use standardized tests appropriately as accountability measures, with correct sampling techniques and as measures that inform, as opposed to mandate, decisions?

Why are we making life so complicated for our schools and our students when it has never been shown that there are any benefits from administering the PARCC?

Thinking...


Pearson stock price, one-year span.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

When Pearson Monitors Students, They Prove the Inferiority of Their Product

UPDATE I: Watching Hills Regional High School has released a statement about the incident below.

Full disclosure: my K-8 district "feeds" into WHRHS, but I am not employed there as it is a separate district. I do not know who the student is but it is possible he is a former student.

UPDATE II: Looks like Bob's post is back up for now, but it's loading slowly -- possibly because this is such a big story and he's getting tons of traffic.

Also: here's a report about what Pearson -- again, a foreign corporation -- expects from students regarding test security and social media. But I can't find any equivalent information at the PARCC website or from NJDOE. Were parents and students expected to seek this out themselves?



Most of you probably know by now that Bob Braun, veteran education journalist and a personal friend, published a blockbuster of a story yesterday: Pearson Education, Inc., creator of the PARCC standardized test, has been monitoring students' social media use and, in at least one case, reported what they considered to be a violation of their test security.

Even worse: Bob's site has been under a "denial of service" attack since shortly after he published the report. As of this morning, I'm still not able to access Bob's story at his blog, but not to worry: Bob published his story on Facebook, where it appears to be immune from DOS attacks. Here's an excerpt:
Pearson, the multinational testing and publishing company, is spying on the social media posts of students--including those from New Jersey--while the children are taking their PARCC, statewide tests, this site has learned exclusively. The state education department is cooperating with this spying and has asked at least one school district to discipline students who may have said something inappropriate about the tests. This website discovered the unauthorized and hidden spying thanks to educators who informed it of the practice--a practice happening throughout the state and apparently throughout the country.
The spying--or "monitoring," to use Pearson's word--was confirmed at one school district--the Watchung Hills Regional High School district in Warren by its superintendent, Elizabeth Jewett. Jewett sent out an e-mail--posted here-- to her colleagues expressing concern about the unauthorized spying on students.
She said parents are upset and added that she thought Pearson's behavior would contribute to the growing "opt out" movement. So far, thousands of parents have kept their children away from the tests--and one of the reasons is the fear that Pearson might abuse its access to student data, something it has denied it would do.
In her email, Jewett said the district's testing coordinator received a late night call from the state education department saying that Pearson had "initiated a Priority 1 Alert for an item breach within our school."
The unnamed state education department employee contended a student took a picture of a test item and tweeted it. That was not true. It turned out the student had posted--at 3:18 pm, well after testing was over--a tweet about one of the items with no picture. Jewett does not say the student revealed a question. There is no evidence of any attempt at cheating.
Jewett continues: "The student deleted the tweet and we spoke with the parent--who was obviously highly concerned as to her child's tweets being monitored by the DOE (state education department).
"The DOE informed us that Pearson is monitoring all social media during the PARCC testing."
Jewett continued: "I have to say that I find that a bit disturbing--and if our parents were concerned before about a conspiracy with all of the student data, I am sure I will be receiving more letters of refusal once this gets out."
The school superintendent also expressed concern about "the fact that the DOE wanted us to also issue discipline to the student." Clearly, if Pearson insists on claiming test security as a justification for its spying on young people, that reasoning is vitiated by its cooperation with the state education department in trying to punish students who are merely expressing their First Amendment right to comment on the tests. [emphasis mine]
Here's a copy of the email Bob published:


I normally wouldn't put this on my site, or take such a long excerpt of Bob's work. But given the fact his blog is under a DOS attack, and given the gravity of this story, I believe it's important to get this information out by as many channels as possible.

Obviously, we have no idea who is launching the attack on Bob's site. But we all need to demand that law enforcement conduct an investigation immediately and prosecute the perpetrator to the fullest extent of the law. This is a clear attempt to silence a veteran journalist who is reporting on a very important issue.

Think about what has happened here: at least one student exercised his right to free expression about important social issues -- education and testing -- after the administration of his test. But a private, foreign corporation decided their property rights trump his First Amendment rights, and they have used their relationship with a governmental agency to demand he be punished.

By all appearances, there was no attempt by the NJDOE to conduct an investigation as to what exactly the student tweeted, because, according to the WHRHS superintendent, the report the student tweeted a picture of the test was incorrect. NJDOE apparently just assumed Pearson's report of the child's tweet was accurate; I guess we all know now who's holding the leash down in Trenton...

I can hear the objections now: "You're not allowed to talk about any tests until everyone takes them! This is no different than if a kid discussed an AP test question and had his score canceled, or if he talked about a local chemistry test he took during period 2 with a kid who was going to take the same test in period 5!"

Actually, it is different. Quite different.

Regarding AP and SAT and ACT and other exams: these are all voluntary. You don't have to take an AP exam; in fact, students can take AP courses without taking the exam, or take the exam without taking a course. No student is forced to take the SAT; if she chooses to do so, she then enters into a contract and agrees to the terms and conditions of the test.

It is unreasonable to force a child to take a test and then demand she remain silent about its contents in perpetuity. Pearson and the NJDOE, however, appear to be demanding exactly that. By insisting that all students must take the PARCC, NJDOE is, in effect, forcing students to give up their rights to free expression with no provision to opt out of the test and retain those rights.

I've been looking around the PARCC website this morning for a clear set of guidelines as to what the PARCC consortium expects from students regarding the public discussion of test items; so far, I can't find it. I certainly have never seen any indication parents have to agree to the security conditions imposed by Pearson on the test. So what did Pearson, PARCC, and NJDOE do to inform students they can't discuss test times after the administration of the exam? Where is any guidance for students, or their parents, as to what they were getting themselves into when they sat down to take the PARCC?

The comparison to local exams is, to my mind, a more critical question. Yes, every school and every district maintains and enforces a code of academic conduct, and that code would obviously preclude a student from revealing test items until every student had taken a test.

But local exams are structured so that the constraints on students discussing tests are reasonable. A teacher doesn't give two different sections the same exam two days apart; if she did, she'd be hauled into the principal's office and dressed down for not doing her job. A good teacher and a good school do not entrap their students into cheating by setting unreasonable expectations for assessment security.

But even more than that: a good teacher gives assessments that are largely cheat-proof. So if the PARCC people really think their exam can be gamed by students over social media, they are admitting they have created an inferior product.

Stephen Danley of Rutgers-Camden, another great New Jersey blogger, puts it very well (on Twitter, of all places):
. story has me thinking abt what is good assessment. I'm proud when my students talk abt my tests. Means my material matters
That is exactly right. Students should be talking about their tests. They should be talking about what they got right and what they got wrong. They should be talking about whether the test was "fair," or what we in edu-nerd world call "valid and reliable."

All learning is socially constructed, and these days children live a large part of their lives on social media. If a test means anything to a student, he will likely discuss it on Twitter or Facebook (do kids use that anymore?) or Reddit or through texts. It's simply unreasonable to think a kid will not tweet out his thoughts about a test, especially when they have such high-stakes attached to them.

Further: if the assessment is any good, and is really measuring higher-order thinking, it likely can't be gamed. It's easy to cheat on a multiple choice exam; it's much harder to cheat on a chemistry lab. And it's nearly impossible to cheat on a choir concert, or a personal response to a novel, or number line manipulative.

I know the PARCC cheerleaders have told us over and over that their test is "better." They seem to think that writing short answers explaining how you solved 26 divided by 5 that are then graded by low-wage non-educators is an acceptable substitute for a well-trained teacher with enough time and resources to properly assess her students. It isn't, and this incident shows us why.

Again: I am all for the appropriate use of standardized tests, employing smart sampling strategies, as accountability measures. There is a good case to be made that we will never get students -- particularly students in economic disadvantage -- the adequate resources necessary for their educations without these measures.

But if the PARCC is so vulnerable that a tweet by a student after the test compromises the entire exam, it must be useless -- particularly as a measure of student learning.*

Pearson's product is inferior to the best assessment system we have: well-trained teachers with the freedom to do their jobs who are held accountable. We don't worry about tweets after exams, because we don't have to.

A far superior method of assessment than anything made by Pearson.


* Edited for clarity. We have no idea what exactly this student tweeted out, and I don't want to in any way imply it was improper. We just don't know right now if it was.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

My Testimony on "One Newark" Before the NJ Legislature


This morning at 10 AM, I will present this testimony about One Newark. More to come.

Mark Weber
Testimony before the Joint Committee on the Public Schools
New Jersey Legislature
Tuesday, March 10, 2015

INTRODUCTION

Good morning. My name is Mark Weber; I am a New Jersey public school teacher, a public school parent, a member of the New Jersey Education Association, and a doctoral student in Education Theory, Organization, and Policy at Rutgers University’s Graduate School of Education.

Last year, I was honored to testify before this committee regarding research I and others had conducted on One Newark, the school reorganization plan for the Newark Public Schools. Dr. Bruce Baker, my advisor at Rutgers and one of the nation’s foremost experts on school finance and policy, joined me in writing three briefs in 2014 questioning the premises of One Newark. Dr. Joseph Oluwole, a professor of education law at Montclair State University, provided a legal analysis of the plan in our second brief.

I would like to state for the record that neither myself, Dr. Baker, nor Dr. Oluwole received any compensation for our efforts, and our conclusions are solely our own and do not reflect the views of our employers or any other organization.

Our research a year ago led us to conclude that there was little reason to believe One Newark would lead to better educational outcomes for students. There was little empirical evidence to support the contention that closing or reconstituting schools under One Newark’s “Renew School” plan would improve student performance. There was little reason to believe converting district schools into charter schools would help students enrolled in the Newark Public Schools (NPS). And we were concerned that the plan would have a racially disparate impact on both staff and students.

In the year since my testimony, we have seen a great public outcry against One Newark. We’ve also heard repeated claims made by State Superintendent Cami Anderson and her staff that Newark’s schools have improved under her leadership, and that One Newark will improve that city’s system of schools.

To be clear: it is far too early to make any claims, pro or con, about the effect of One Newark on academic outcomes; the plan was only implemented this past fall. Nevertheless, after an additional year of research and analysis, it remains my conclusion that there is no evidence One Newark will improve student outcomes.

Further, after having studied the effects of “renewal” on the eight schools selected by State Superintendent Anderson for interventions in 2012, it is my conclusion that the evidence suggests the reforms she and her staff have implemented have not only failed to improve student achievement in Newark; they have had a racially disparate impact on the NPS certificated teaching and support staff.

Before I begin, I’d like to make a point that will be reiterated throughout my testimony: my analysis and the analyses of others actually raise more questions than they answer. But it shouldn’t fall to independent researchers such as me or the scholars I work with to provide this committee or other stakeholders with actionable information about Newark’s schools.

Certainly, we as scholars stand ready to provide assistance and technical advice; but the organization that should be testing the claims of NPS and State Superintendent Anderson is the New Jersey Department Of Education. The students and families of Newark deserve nothing less than a robust set of checks and balances to ensure that their schools are being properly managed.


One Newark can be thought of as containing four components: the expansion of charter schools; a “renewal” program for schools deemed to be underperforming; a system of consumer “choice,” where families select schools from a menu of public and charter options; and continuing state control of the district.

This last component is clearly a necessary precondition for the first three. Given the community outcry against State Superintendent Anderson and One Newark, it’s safe to say that none of the other three components would have been implemented were it not for continuing state control.

The critical questions I ask about these components are simple: do they work, are there unintended consequences from their implementation, and is One Newark being properly monitored and evaluated? Let me start by addressing the expansion of charter schools in Newark.

CHARTER SCHOOLS



This past fall, I authored a report on New Jersey charter school demographics with Dr. Julia Sass Rubin of the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. This report was commissioned by the Daniel Tanner Foundation.[1] Using publicly available data, we found that Newark’s charter schools, like charter schools throughout the state, serve a different population of students on average than their host districts.


This slide, from my first report with Dr. Rubin, shows that Newark’s charter sector serves fewer students eligible for free lunch, a proxy measure for economic disadvantage. Charters serve very few Limited English Proficient (LEP) students, fewer boys, and a substantially different racial profile of students than NPS’s schools.

This disparity in student populations has been acknowledged by State Superintendent Anderson herself, who said last fall: “I’m not saying they [the charter schools] are out there intentionally skimming, but all of these things are leading to a higher concentration of the neediest kids in fewer [district] schools.”[2] The data does, indeed, back up the State Superintendent’s claim.


Another important difference between charter and district schools is the proportion of special education students they serve. Overall, no charter school serves as large a proportion of special needs students as NPS. Yes, there is variation between the district schools, but this is to be expected: some NPS schools specialize in serving students with particular learning disabilities.


In 2011, the NJDOE commissioned a report that outlined the costs of serving students with a variety of learning disabilities.[3] The costs of Specific Learning Disabilities (SLDs) and Speech/Language Impairments (SPL) were found to be low compared to other impairments. As this graph shows, Newark’s charter schools serve proportionately more students with low-cost disabilities compared to NPS.[4]

This is both a cost and logistical burden on NPS that the charter schools do not share. As we shall see, this difference likely has a profound effect on school finances in Newark.


The following graphs come from analyses that will be presented in an upcoming report on New Jersey charter school finances, authored by myself and Dr. Sass Rubin, to be released later this year. According to NJDOE data, Newark charter schools do, on average, spend less per pupil than NPS schools. However, charters spend less on student support services, and far more on administration. We must ask, at a time when New Jersey is under great budgetary stress, whether it is prudent to replicate independently managed schools within the same city, particularly when their administrative costs are so high.


Data from NJDOE’s “Taxpayers Guide to Education Spending” (TGES) shows that the budgetary costs per pupil – the Department’s preferred metric for comparing education spending across districts[5] – are greater at NPS than the Newark charter sector as a whole. This trend is seen in cities across the state.


However, we must once again remember that district schools serve a different population of students than charter schools. These special education figures comes from the TGES; again, in Newark there is a substantial gap between the percentage of special needs students in the charters and in NPS schools. Undoubtedly, this affects per pupil spending costs.


This slide shows the differences in spending on student support services between charter schools and district schools. Support services include attendance, social work, health, guidance, educational media/school library, child study team, and so on. These are precisely the sorts of services we would expect to be provided more extensively by schools that serve larger populations of at-risk, special needs, and LEP students.

As in every other city, NPS far outspends its city’s charter sector on these services. NPS spends $3,963 more per pupil on support services than the charter sector as a whole. Clearly, the responsibility NPS has to educate more students with more costly disabilities relative to the charter schools is affecting school finances in Newark.

This begs a question: where else do Newark’s charter schools spend their money?


This slide gives us a clue. Newark’s charter sector spends, on average, $1,795 more per pupil on administrative costs. Again, it is possible that Newark’s charters simply can’t leverage the economies of scale NPS schools can. But there is another possible explanation:


Newark’s charters spend, on average, $1,098 more per pupil on administrative salaries than NPS. Again, this is typical of the trend across the state.


This raises the question of efficiency: are charters actually more efficient than district schools? In other words: given differences in student characteristics and available resources, which schools achieve the best test-based outcomes? Which schools really “do more with less”?


Dr. Bruce Baker has created a model, using a standard statistical technique called a linear regression, that allows for the comparison of efficiencies between Newark charter schools and NPS schools. Dr. Baker explains this model in a series of briefs; you can find links in my written testimony.[6]

Basically, this method of comparison uses several inputs – special education percentages, free-lunch eligibility, staffing costs per pupil, and school size – to “hold all things constant.” In other words, Dr. Baker’s model attempts balance the scales for schools that serve more special need students, or more at-risk students, or spend less on staff, so that these schools aren’t disadvantaged in a comparison of test-based outputs. This, then, is a statistical model that makes comparisons fair.


With Dr. Baker’s permission, I have annotated his work here. The red bars represent Newark charter schools; the blue bars are NPS schools. I’ve further modified the graph so the “Renew Schools,” which I will discuss shortly, are in light blue.

The schools with bars that point upward are schools that are “more efficient”: given their student populations, their spending on staff, and their size, they produce better growth on student test scores than we would predict.

The schools with bars that point downward are schools that are “less efficient”: given their student populations, their spending on staff, and their size, they produce lower growth on student test scores than we would predict.

How does the charter sector fare overall? Certainly, some charters do well. But Robert Treat Academy, often touted in news reports as one of the highest performing charter schools in the city, is a relatively poor performer in this efficiency model. TEAM Academy, affiliated with the national charter management organization KIPP and often cited as another high-performing school, is quite average in this comparison.

Let me be clear: neither Dr. Baker nor I would ever claim that this analysis should be used as the final word on which schools perform well and which do not. As we shall see next, there are many other factors, not included in this model, which can affect test score growth.

What is evident here, however, is that the simplistic claim that charter schools “do more with less” is a gross mischaracterization of a highly complex interaction between student characteristics, resources, and test-based results. Simple claims that allowing charter schools to expand will lead to more great schools in Newark are just not warranted.


I mentioned that Dr. Baker’s model does not account for many factors that may explain the relative successes of certain Newark charter schools. One of those factors is attrition. There has been quite a bit written about this issue, so I’d like to make sure we get our terms straight before we look at this factor.

“Cohort attrition” is the year-over-year loss of students at a school within the same grade level. If, for example, a school enrolls 100 fifth grade students in 2014, and then 90 sixth grade students in 2015, that is a cohort attrition rate of 10 percent.

The role of student attrition in explaining charter school outcomes has been a source of national debate.[7] Admittedly, it is impossible to get precise estimations of the effects of cohort attrition without student level data.


Even though we have incomplete data, however, we can look at it to discern whether there is enough evidence to warrant an investigation. Here is the cohort attrition for the Class of 2014 at NPS schools, TEAM Academy Charter School, and North Star Academy Charter School. The graph shows how the number of students declines each year for the grade level that was on track to graduate in the spring of 2014, starting in Grade 5. Each year shows the number of enrolled students in that class as a percentage of students enrolled in Grade 5 back in 2006-07.

NPS’s Class of 2014 was 76 percent of the size it was back when it was enrolled in Grade 5 in 2006-07. In contrast, TEAM’s Class of 2014 was only 59 percent of its size by it senior year; North Star’s was only 56 percent of its Grade 5 size.


To be fair, this class was somewhat unusual for TEAM. While its cohort attrition for the Class of 2013 was still greater than NPS’s, the gap between the two systems was not as great as with the Class of 2014. North Star, however, only retained 43 percent of its original class size.


The question we should ask is whether this attrition affects test score outcomes: are low performers leaving charter schools, helping to boost their average test scores? Again, we need student-level data to answer this question; however, we can look at publicly available data for some interesting clues.


This graph superimposes cohort attrition for the Class of 2018 – the last class for which we have NJASK Grade 8 data – with average scale scores for each year’s NJASK English Language Arts (ELA) test. Note that North Star starts with higher scale scores for this class in Grade 5 than NPS; however, the gap increases as the size of North Star’s cohort shrinks. The NPS Class of 2018 cohort, in contrast, barely changes during this time.

The critical question then is this: were students who left North Star a drag on the school’s average test scores? Does the school retain high performers while lower performers leave? Again, there is no way to know without individual student data; however, there is, in my opinion, more than enough evidence for the NJDOE to begin a serious investigation into the role of cohort attrition on test score outcomes.

RENEW SCHOOLS



I’d like to turn my attention now to the next component of the One Newark plan: “Renew” schools. In March of 2012, State Superintendent Anderson announced a plan that would, among other reforms, require all staff members at eight NPS schools to reapply for their jobs.[8]

The wholesale turnover of a teaching staff is known as “reconstitution.” While not all teachers were necessarily replaced in the plan, our analysis indicates there was a significant change in the staff of the eight Renew schools.

My review of the research shows that there is no evidence that reconstitution is a consistently successful strategy for improving schools. In fact, reconstitution can often be risky, leading to students enrolling in schools that underperform compared to where they were previously enrolled.


In December of 2014, the Alliance for Newark Public Schools published a report[9] by Dr. Leonard Pugliese, regional vice-president of the American Federation of School Administrators and a faculty member at Montclair State University. This table is from that report.

Dr. Pugliese found that, in most cases, the passing rates on NJASK tests for the Renew schools actually decreased over the two years of their renewal.


Extending this work, I examined the Renew schools through several other lenses. Revisiting Dr. Baker’s efficiency model, I changed the parameters to only look at school outputs over the last two school years. Obviously, it is too early to make definitive conclusions about the efficacy of the Renew strategy; however, this early look shows that there is no consistent pattern of Renew schools demonstrating any more efficiency, as a group, than the rest of Newark’s schools.


Further: in their first year of “renewal.” the eight schools showed, on average, a sharp drop in their median Student Growth Percentile (mSGP) scores compared to the rest of NPS’s schools. This slide shows the drop in ELA mSGP scores for the Renew schools. It is worth noting that SGPs compare students – and, consequently, schools – to other students with similar test score histories. In other words, the bounce back up in mSGP in year two of renewal does not likely indicate a return to where the schools were before renewal, because the schools are now being compared to lower-performing schools. It is, likely, easier for the Renew schools to show growth, because their growth was low in year one of renewal.


Here we see the same pattern for Math mSGP scores. Again, the bounce in year 2 likely indicates that it is easier for Renew schools to now show growth as their new comparison schools are lower performing.


Test-based outcomes were not the only changes at the Renew schools. My analysis of NJDOE staffing data shows several remarkable trends after renewal. The average experience of the staff at these schools, following reconstitution, declined significantly, and the percentage of staff with less than three years of experience increased.


The average of teacher experience before renewal was 14.8 years; after renewal, average experience dropped to 11.1 years, and stayed roughly the same in the next year.


Before renewal, 11% of teachers had less than three years of experience; after renewal, 26% of teachers were similarly inexperienced. The research consensus is clear: teachers gain most in effectiveness during their first few years of teaching.[10] The large increase in novice teachers likely made the overall teaching corps for the Renew schools less effective.


Experience, however, was not the only change in staff characteristics following renewal.  In the program’s first year, the percentage of black teachers at these schools dropped substantially. Keep in mind that most of the Renew schools serve a majority black student population.

A recent article in the peer-reviewed journal Urban Education reviews the literature and concludes that black students benefit from having teachers of their own race.[11] While there is no indication that the change in the racial composition of the Renew schools’ staffs was deliberate, there may still have been unintended consequences.


This graph shows the student populations for the eight Renew schools; all but one have majority black student populations. In those seven, at least 75% of the student body is black.


And yet, in the first year of renewal, the proportion of black teachers declined by seven percentage points.

What did “renewal” ultimately mean for these schools? Intentionally or not, it meant fewer black teachers with experience – this in schools with large proportions of black students. It also meant a significant drop in growth scores, and a decline in proficiency on state tests.

Again: it is too early to come to a definitive conclusion about the efficacy of the Renew schools program. All early indications, however, are not promising.

ONE NEWARK and “CHOICE”



I turn now to the third component of One Newark: school “choice.” The One Newark plan called for students and families to choose their schools from a menu of charter and district schools, using a single application. I won’t recount the many problems with this application system – nor the subsequent staffing, transportation, and logistical problems – as those have been well reported in the press.

I will, however, refer to a classic economics paper from George Akerlof titled “The Market for ‘Lemons’: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism.” Akerlof used the used car market to explain that a consumer model only works when there is adequate and impartial information available to consumers. Without this information, consumers are not only likely to fall victim to unscrupulous providers; providers of quality goods are less likely to enter the market.


A market system of choice for schools, then, requires that families have high-quality information about the schools they are choosing. NPS attempted to provide that information on the One Newark application, labeling schools at three different tiers. “Falling Behind” schools are those that allegedly lag in student outcomes. “On the Move” schools are supposedly improving in their performance; “Great” schools supposedly serve their student well.

It is reasonable to think that Newark’s families leaned heavily on this application when making their school choices. But what was NPS actually measuring? Were they taking into account the differences in student populations when judging test score outcomes?


To judge this, I conducted an analysis using a linear regression model, and published the results in a brief this past spring.[12] By using a statistics tool to “hold all things equal,” I’m able to show which schools performed above or below where we would predict them to be, given their student populations.

Logically, we would expect the “Falling Behind” schools to perform below prediction, and the “Great” schools to perform above. In fact, however, the ratings are all over the map: there are “great” schools that under-perform, and “Falling Behind” schools that over-perform.

This question, then, is how NPS was judging whether schools were “Great,” “On the Move,” or “Falling Behind”?


This graph gives us a clue. “Great” schools have fewer free lunch eligible students, fewer boys, fewer black students, and fewer students with special needs. The One Newark application, arguably, wasn’t evaluating the effectiveness of a school; it was, instead, judging the characteristics of its student population.

I would argue this is not the sort of information that a family needs when making a school choice. No school should be penalized simply because it serves a different student population.

CONCLUSION



Today, I will admit that I have raised more questions than I could answer. The truth is that the body that should be bringing you the information you need is the New Jersey Department of Education. The appropriate role of the Department is to provide the data and analysis that you, the policy makers of this state, need to inform your decisions.

To that end, the Department must be an impartial overseer of Newark’s, and every district’s, schools. There needs to be a system of checks and balances put in place to ensure that NPS and State Superintendent Anderson are pursuing programs that have a good chance of succeeding.

I know I speak for many education researchers in New Jersey in stating that we are ready and willing to assist all of the policy makers responsible for Newark’s schools in formulating programs that can be successful.


One resource for you, your staffs, the NJDOE, and NPS to use is the New Jersey Education Policy Forum, a collaborative effort of education policy scholars throughout the state.[13] Dr. Baker established this resource because he believes, as do I, that scholars and researchers should make our work available to policy makers and other stakeholders.

We will continue to monitor Newark’s progress as best we can, and we stand ready to assist you and all other policy makers in serving the children of Newark.

Thank you for your time.




[1] Weber, M., Sass Rubin, J. (2014). New Jersey Charter Schools:  A Data Driven View, Part I — Enrollments and Student Demographics. http://www.saveourschoolsnj.org/nj-charter-school-data/
[4] For a complete discussion of this methodology and the issues with suppressed data, see Appendix B here: http://www.saveourschoolsnj.org/save/corefiles/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/NJ-Charter-School-Report_10.29.2014.pdf
[6] Research Note: On Student Growth & the Productivity of New Jersey Charter Schools https://njedpolicy.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/bbaker-njcharters-20151.pdf
Research Note: On Student Growth & the Productivity of New Jersey Charter Schools https://njedpolicy.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/research-note-on-productive-efficiency.pdf
[9] An Analysis Of The Effectiveness Of The Conversion Of Eight Newark, New Jersey Public Elementary Schools Into Renew Schools As Measured By School-Wide Student Pass Rates On The LAL And Math Sections Of The New Jersey Assessment Of Skills And Knowledge (NJASK) Test http://afsaadmin.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Renew-Newark-Report.pdf
[11] Cann, C.N. (2015). “What School Movies and TFA Teach Us About Who Should Teach Urban Youth: Dominant Narratives as Public Pedagogy.” Urban Education, 50(3) 288–315.
[12] Weber, M. (2014). “Buyer Beware: One Newark and the Market For Lemons.” NJ Education Policy Forum. https://njedpolicy.wordpress.com/2014/05/23/buyer-beware-one-newark-and-the-market-for-lemons/