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

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Charter Schools: The New Battle of Trenton

So you guys have all seen this:

On Christmas Day, 1775, George Washington and his troops crossed the Delaware River, starting at what is known now as Upper Makefield, PA. The general led his forces south along the banks of the river, eventually sneaking up on the Hessians, the German mercenary troops of the British who were occupying Trenton. The Germans had been partying to celebrate the season, and weren't quite in their best fighting shape when George attacked. It was an important victory.

The reason I know this is that Upper Makefield is my hometown. Every year I would get dragged out by my parents on December 25th to watch our neighbors dress up like Continental Army soldiers and reenact Washington's crossing at the very same spot. 

I always suspected that my parents' friends who volunteered for this duty were celebrating the season before the reenactment in much the same way as the Hessians did. I say this because, year after year, the Durham boats used in the pageant would wind up taking extremely circuitous routes to the New Jersey side of the river, betraying a lack of naval coordination and river-faring acumen that was likely precipitated by the consumption of copious amounts of distilled beverages.

I could be wrong, of course. But I'm not...

There's a way-too-narrow bridge now where the crossing occurred (famously described in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five) whose pylons make for a few small islands in the otherwise landless expanse between the two shores of the Delaware. In my memory, the few years when the reenactors managed to accurately recreate Emmanuel Leutze's famous painting are offset by the many years when the boats would run aground against these man-made islands as the current swept the boats downriver.

Why am I telling you this? Well, friends, sometimes I have to give you more background than you deserve before I spring my latest, desperate, reformy metaphor on you:
TRENTON Just as the city’s school board closed a $10.5 million budget gap last month by cutting administrative staff — a gap that some board members blamed in part on charter schools — two more charter applicants submitted proposals to enter the district in 2015. 
The state Department of Education announced last week that it received applications from Rising Star Preparatory Charter School and ASPIRE Academy Charter School to open schools that could eventually attract 900-plus students from Trenton. 
If approved, they would be in addition to four existing charter schools — Foundation Academy Charter School, International Charter School of Trenton; Paul Robeson Charter School for the Humanities and Village Charter School — and two that have been approved to open this fall, STEM-to-Civics and International Academy of Trenton. 
While officials at the charters said that they anticipate the new schools will have a positive effect in the area because they will provide what they believe will be quality options for parents and students, a number of school board members have shown resistance to the growing charter market in Trenton. 
During school board and city council meetings, members of the board and the superintendent of the district, Francisco Duran, have laid much of the blame for the district’s $10.5 million budget deficit at the feet of the city’s charters. 
School Board President Sasa Olessi-Montano has said the charter movement in Trenton has only created chaos for the district’s budget process and for students.
Yes, the charter wars have come to Trenton. Thanks to Former Acting Commissioner of Education Chris Cerf and his former boss, formerly viable presidential candidate Chris Christie, New Jersey has seen a proliferation of charter school applications. Which means the school districts which are forced to host these charters have to come up with more money to fund more of them, often at the expense of their own programs and with no say in their governance.

You'll often hear the charter cheerleaders cry poverty, claiming that they don't get the money they really deserve. Conveniently, they neglect to mention two things: first, the public school districts usually have expenses on their books that can't be shared with charters, so the comparisons of per student spending aren't really relevant. Related to this are issues of economies of scale: for example, if you pull one hundred kids out of a public school district, you still have to light and heat the buildings where they would have gone to school.

Second -- and this is the one that the mandarins of the local press keep ignoring -- charter schools do not serve the same students as the public schools.

I'm guessing, between Bruce Baker and myself, we've now got over two dozen variations on this same graph, featuring schools and districts from all over the state... but sure, let's add one more. Here are the traditional public schools (TPSs) and charters in the Trenton area; the charters are in red. Once again, the charters do not serve the same population of free lunch-eligible students (a proxy measure for poverty) as most of the Trenton public schools.

How about special education students?

Still on the low end. Both of these comparisons need a few caveats: first, I'm mixing grade levels, which is tricky for both free lunch-eligibility and special education percentages, which can have a tendency to shift as grade levels move from elementary to secondary. Second, those special education percentages lump together kids who have mild needs (like speech therapy) with those who have severe impairments (like low-functioning autism or emotional disabilities). The tendency is for New Jersey's charters to take fewer (if any) of the children with more serious, more costly needs, but I don't know if that is the case in Trenton (more later, hopefully).

Finally: having a free lunch-eligible percentage of over 60 means having a lot of kids in poverty, even if the public schools have more. To illustrate, let's pull things back a little and look at all of Mercer County, the home of Trenton and quite possibly one of the most economically unequal areas in the entire United States.

I know some of you let your eyes glaze over when you see these scatterplots, but they really are good at getting to the heart of the matter. Let me break it down:

The vertical axis shows the proportion of students who passed the cutoff for "proficiency" on the Grade 8 NJASK language arts test in 2013. Yes, all of Princeton Charter School's eighth graders passed the test, as did the vast majority in Princeton, East Windsor, Robbinsville, and the other "outer" school districts (more on that in a sec). Of the three Trenton area charters for which we have data, only Foundation Academy had a proficiency rate over 70 percent.

So, can we replicate Foundation on a larger scale? Clearly, the answer is "no," because Foundation (and Village) have a substantially lower percentage of students who qualify for free lunch than the public schools of Trenton. We just can't make every school in Trenton have a lower-than-average poverty rate

As I've pointed out many times on this blog, peer effect is real and undoubtedly contributes substantially to Foundation's success. That's not say the school isn't doing good work and may have developed some best practices that are worth emulating; I'm only stating that there is very little evidence here that Foundation can be scaled up across all of Trenton.

Some of you might look at the variation in Trenton's public schools and see that while they all have the highest poverty rates in Mercer County, they also vary widely in their outcomes. So why can't all of Trenton's schools score at least as well as Village? Well, there are likely differences between these schools' populations that can't be reflected in the data, but wind up influencing test scores. And I'm not saying school differences don't matter; they almost certainly do, although we'd have to study this situation a lot more closely to figure out what those differences are (falling back on reformy bromides like "no excuses!" or "more class time" is not helpful in this regard).

What I'm saying is this: even if every Trenton school could emulate the results of its best schools with equivalent rates of poverty, those schools still wouldn't "close the gap" with low-poverty schools in the same county.

Which brings me to my final point (and back to my tortured metaphor):

Growing up across the river, I know Mercer County pretty well. You can think of it as three concentric semicircular rings growing out from the intersection of Route 1 and the Delaware. The first ring is Trenton itself. The second is from roughly the city line to the loop made made I-95/295: the "inner" suburbs of Ewing, Hamilton, and Lawrence. The final ring extends to the county border: Hopewell, Princeton, the Windsors, Robbinsville, etc.

This is a pattern you see in cities of all sizes all over the country: a poor urban core (with maybe some gentrifying), surrounded by working-class inner suburbs, surrounded by relatively wealthy exurbs. If you look at the scatter plot above, you'll see the free-lunch eligible percentage slide closer to zero the further out you go from the core of Trenton. And you'll see the proficiency rate slide closer to 100 percent as that free-lunch rate decreases.

This is the most obvious thing in the world: standardized test outcomes correlate very tightly with economic measures. I know all the reformy types love to claim this is "making excuses," but their protestations don't change the fact that this correlation exists, and that there is little debate the cause is poverty's effect on test-based outcomes. In Mercer County, almost 90 percent of the variation in 8th Grade proficiency rates can be explained by free-lunch eligibility rates. As the poverty rate goes down, the proficiency rate goes up, with a nearly perfect relationship. Only the willingly obtuse or the outright mendacious would ever try to deny this truth or what it is telling us: poverty matters.

But Mercer County shows us something else:

Look at the gap in free-lunch eligibility between the highest inner suburban schools and the lowest Trenton public schools: it's over 50 percentage points. Like the cold water that runs between the shores of the Delaware, this poverty gap between the 'burbs and the city only has a few small islands in between: Trenton's charter schools. The only schools in Trenton that have free-lunch rates low enough to even approach the suburban schools are charters.

What are we to make of this? Well, if we start with the acknowledgment that charter schools are privately managed and do not have to grant students, those students' families, or their teachers the same rights and commitments to transparency as public schools, we have to conclude that charters are offering an exchange: students in poor areas can gain a peer effect if their families are willing to give up the governance structure of public schools.

You'll notice that there is no such deal being offered in the outer exurbs: those kids get to enjoy their peer effects while their families get self-determination and democratic representation in the running of their school system. You'll also notice that even the most economically segregated school in Trenton can only compete with the inner, working-class suburbs. The "gap" in proficiency with the outer exurbs still exists. Some may say this is a triumph, but we have to be honest about its cost, and we have to be honest about its cause.

Because Foundation hasn't assembled its student population by mixing kids from the 'burbs with kids from Trenton; rather, it's culled a number of less-poor children with fewer special needs from Trenton's public schools and concentrated them. This is just not a scalable formula for achieving educational equity. There is no evidence here that we will be able to close the "achievement gap" by expanding charter schools when those schools have different populations than the public schools in poor urban areas.

One other thing: remember that lone charter in the upper left corner, with 100 percent proficiency and the smallest percentage of free lunch-eligible kids in the county? You can make a very good case that Princeton Charter School is, for all intents and purposes, a private school that is being subsidized by the taxpayers of Mercer County (Bruce Baker has, in fact, made just that case).

But imagine, instead, if PCS made a commitment to living in the Delaware Poverty Gap. Imagine a school -- maybe a network of schools -- that drew students from Trenton and the outer 'burbs, allowing students to enjoy peer effects without simply concentrating the less-poor Trenton students in a few stand alone schools. Imagine a series of schools that mixed affluent and less-affluent kids through Mercer County. What might happen?

I'd still argue that there was no need for a charter school structure to create schools like this. But there would at least be the justification that those charters had a possibility of being scalable. I don't see any way that continuing to expand charters in Trenton, populated only with Trenton's children, can ever get the district to a point where a significant number of students could be served in schools with low enough populations of less-affluent students such that they could really close the "achievement gap."

In other words: we can keep opening charters, or we can start trying to develop solutions that address the real problem. What's it going to be?

ADDING: Inter-district choice may be a good first step, but I still think it suffers from the same problem: it's just not scalable. I'll try to get to this at some point in the future.

ADDING MORE: Even more typos than usual. Thanks, Giuseppe. 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

New NJ Spotlight Piece: Why Teachers Need To Stand Up For Themselves

I've got a new piece in NJ Spotlight this week. An excerpt:
"All this raises a larger point: what sort of people do we want teaching in our schools? Educators who demand that they be respected and treated as the career professionals they are? Or employees who meekly accept frozen pay, diminished benefits, and degraded workplace protections? 
Who are the better role models for our students? Who are the people more likely to be able to command a classroom and lead their lessons with poise and confidence? Career educators who believe enough in their own abilities to insist on fair wages and tenure protections are employees who set a tone in their schools and their communities of respect, self-reliance, and integrity. 
The notion that teachers, alone among all professions, shouldn’t act in their own interests is simply absurd. Yes, there needs to be accountability; yes, there are limits on what we can pay teachers. 
But standing up for yourself isn’t a character flaw; it is a virtue. So if we want put an excellent teacher in front of every student, let’s start by acknowledging that teachers have every right to act in their own, enlightened self-interest."
As they say: read the whole thing.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Education Law Center Fundraiser, This Thursday

The Education Law Center is having their annual fundraiser, award ceremony, and wine/food tasting reception this Thursday, April 17. I'd like to encourage you all to attend.

ELC is the driving force behind equitable funding for schools in New Jersey and elsewhere in the nation. It's only through their tireless efforts that New Jersey has remained one of the most "fair" states in school funding. Their work in advocating for New Jersey's students and public schools has been invaluable.

If you can, consider attending; if not, consider donating to this worthy group. Thanks.

For more information or
to purchase tickets
please click here.

Full disclosure: I have done work for ELC.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Repost For Tax Day: The Teacher Supply Tax Credit & Why We Aren't Saints

I'm reposting this from December of last year in "celebration" of Tax Day tomorrow.

Via Fred Klonsky, here's yet another way to screw teachers out of money:

STATELINE (WIFR) -- Local teachers may be forced to spend more of their own money on school supplies next year, now that a federal tax break is about to expire.
Teachers are able to deduct up to $250 on what they spend on classrooms supplies including workbooks, pencils, and posters. Congress hasn't passed a measure that would extend that tax break into 2014. Teachers shopping at The Three R's in Rockford say if the benefits went away, they'd still buy supplies for their classrooms, but this could affect their personal spending.
"I teach with a passion and I want to provide different perks for my kids," said Joe Kowalski, an ESL teacher at Marsh Elementary. "I'm in this profession because I love it, I love working with the kids and making the world a better place. And if I lose the $250 deduction, it'll hurt me more on a personal level then on a professional level."
The National Education Association estimates that teachers spend an average of $400 annually on supplies.
So that kinda sucks; nobody wants to pay more taxes. But let's step back a bit from this and look for the unsaid messages within the tax deduction itself.

I've been doing my own taxes for years. One thing I've noticed in reading how-to articles about tax preparation is that deductions and credits for middle-class folk are often sold to us as "gifts" or "breaks." The teacher tax credit is no different; here, for example, is Fox Business's take:
A Tax-Deduction Apple for Teachers
Teaching takes a toll on many educators' pocketbooks as they routinely buy supplies for their financially strapped schools. Over the past few years, they've enjoyed a tax break for such academic dedication. 
Teachers and other educators can deduct up to $250 they spent last year to buy classroom supplies. 
Even better, the deduction is claimed directly on Form 1040, meaning there's no need to itemize to get the break. Rather, it's an adjustment to your income, helping cut your tax bill by reducing your overall income. The less income to tax, the lower the tax bill. 
While every little bit helps, the educator expenses deduction is indeed relatively small. But because it's an adjustment to income and doesn't require itemizing expenses, more school employees should now be able to claim at least a portion of their class-related expenditures.
In this telling, it's an "apple" - a perk - for teachers to "enjoy" a tax break when they go out and spend their own money on supplies for their students. "Even better," the break isn't itemized: golly, aren't we lucky!

In Pennsylvania, the legislature is considering their own version of the law; look at the hidden assumptions, however, on which it is based:
Walk into any Pennsylvania classroom and you're bound to find students using items that were purchased by their teacher who paid for them out of pocket, said veteran Harrisburg School District teacher Rich Askey.
In these days of district belt-tightening, this practice has become an “essential fact of life” for students to have what they need to learn, said Rep. Jim Roebuck of Philadelphia, the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee.
See, it is, according to this Democratic politician, an “essential fact of life” that teachers must give up their own money to give their students the basics they need for school. Rep. Roebuck is from Philly; perhaps he's not yet heard, but another “essential fact of life” is that his home city has led the nation in  screwing teachers out of their wages and other compensation, all while undermining their right to collectively bargain.

Philadelphia is a school system that has been chronically underfunded for years. But this, apparently, is the best Harrisburg can do: give a little tax break to teachers in the hopes that they pick up the slack:
This sacrifice by teachers has not gone unnoticed by Democratic and Republican state lawmakers who want to give educators something back for this demonstration of their dedication to their profession.
Let's be clear: PA's lawmakers aren't "giving something back" to teachers: they are expecting them to dip into their already modest wages so they can make up for the failure of politicians to adequately fund public schools. So when a politician like Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Allegheny, says something stupid like this:
“There’s no more worthy cause for a tax credit than to help our educators provide for the bare necessities for our students,” Wheatley said.  
Understand that he is admitting that he has failed in his job to provide schools what they need. Of course, the truly awful Tom Corbett can't even commit to helping out teachers even this a little bit:
Gov. Tom Corbett's press secretary Jay Pagni said it would be premature to comment on this proposal until the Legislature has an opportunity to do a fiscal analysis.
I'm sure Corbett will do a "fiscal analysis" of this just as soon as he's finished with the "fiscal analysis" of how his good buddy and biggest political contributor, Vahan Gureghian, is making a fortune off of a charter school scheme that wound up further screwing the teachers of the Chester-Upland school district.

When those teachers offered to work without pay, many of our leaders - including the president himself - sang their praises. But think about what these elites were really saying: when governments fail to adequately tax corporations and the wealthy so they can provide basic public services, teachers and other public workers are expected to give back their pay to make up the difference.

This is an extremely useful construction for politicians and pundits who want to have it both ways. Chris Christie, as I've written before, is a master at telling this particular story:
I think for those people who are feeling discouraged right now, because they're going to have to pay a percentage of their health insurance premium, or they're going to have to pay one or two points more towards a lifetime pension, then I would suggest to you respectfully that those people have completely lost touch with reality, and probably didn't have the passion to begin with.
See how it works? If a teacher dares to say that maybe he shouldn't be the one to shoulder all of the financial problems of his state while billions of dollars are given away in tax expenditures and other giveaways that overwhelmingly benefit the wealthy, then that teacher isn't "passionate" enough. Christie makes out "good" teachers to be saints; but his test for canonization is whether those teachers are willing enough to take money out of their own bank accounts.


Chez Christie.

Yeah, times are tough for everyone.

Here's the truth: school spending is still down years after the Great Recession. There's evidence teachers are spending more of their own money on supplies. I'll miss the teacher supply tax credit, but let's also acknowledge that it has normalized the notion that public school teachers ought to be making greater and greater personal sacrifices in response to the failure of politicians to adequately fund our schools.

I'd gladly give up my small tax "break" if it gets people thinking that teachers buying their own chalk is not an acceptable state of affairs.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sunday Music: Hugh Masekela

I caught Hugh Masekela last Sunday at NJPAC. The younger Jazzboy plays the trumpet (his first instrument is the computer, actually, and the music he makes on it is really quite good), so Mrs. Jazzman and I thought this would be good family outing. It was.

Masekela is 75 and is really amazing; he's a ball of energy on stage, playing, singing, dancing, telling stories, and just generally being great. His band is tight, tight, tight. I don't know what it is about African musicians, but the best have this ability to play with the time while keeping the groove in the pocket that's just remarkable. Masekela had this kid playing guitar with him who was phenomenal - the whole band was great.

As I told the Jazzboy on the way out: there are few things better in this life than watching and listening to a group of musicians who can really play. On this point, we agreed, there is no generation gap.

Data Wars, Episode I

Bruce Baker wrote a post yesterday about the appropriate use of data that really should be read by all engaged in education policy debates:
My next few blog posts will return to a common theme on this blog – appropriate use of publicly available data sources. I figure it’s time to put some positive, instructive stuff out there. Some guidance for more casual users (and more reckless ones) of public data sources and for those must making their way into the game. In this post, I provide a few tips on using publicly available New Jersey schools data. The guidance provided herein is largely in response to repeated errors I’ve seen over time in using and reporting New Jersey school data, where some of those errors are simple oversight and lack of deep understanding of the data, and others of those errors seem a bit more suspect. Most of these recommendations apply to using other states’ data as well. Notably, most of these are tips that a thoughtful data analyst would arrive at on his/her own, by engaging in the appropriate preliminary evaluations of the data. But sadly these days, it doesn’t seem to work that way.
I'll be the first to confess that I am still relatively new to "the game," and I'm as prone to mistakes as anyone. The data and analysis I've been putting out on this blog and elsewhere is, undoubtedly, open to scrutiny and critique. There may well be things I haven't thought of when making a criticism, and I'm more than willing to listen to a contrary point of view and debate it.

But here's the thing...

I'm not in charge of anything. I'm not the guy making policies: I'm the guy who, along with my fellow teachers across this state and the nation, has to live with them. So when I see a snake oil salesman like Joel Klein put out a blatantly deceptive graph, that just bugs the hell out of me. Klein ran the largest schools system in the US; arguably, it is also the most-studied, as many education researchers are headquartered in NYC. Yet here he is, using data in an utterly fraudulent way.

Or take his latest hire, Former Acting NJ Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, whose magic graph "proved" poverty just doesn't matter. Click through to see how totally disingenuous this "data-based" thinking really is. Yet, in spite of his persistent abuse of data, Cerf has had more influence on New Jersey's schools than any other commissioner in a generation. 

And then there's Michelle Rhee, who can't read even the most basic research on education. Rhee gets the amount of time spent preparing for standardized tests wrong in this piece, which was originally published in the Washington Post. I wrote about it last Monday; and yet, incredibly, the Star-Ledger reprinted her inaccuracies just today. 

(A message for Tom Moran, editor of the op-ed page at the S-L: you've admitted you read me, buddy. Do you do these things just to give me more fodder for my blog?)

I could go on: Arne Duncan, Rahm Emanuel, Bill Gates... all have enormous power over school policy. All claim to drive their decisions with research. But all turn out to be either woefully misinformed or outright mendacious when using data to justify their policy preferences.

Again: it would be one thing if these people were just voicing their opinions. But what they say and what they do matters. There are consequences to their actions. Their misuse of data has serious ramifications for students, teachers, and families.

Which brings me to our latest episode of data abuse:

The Newark Public Schools have been under state control for 19 years, ostensibly because this district was so poorly run when under local control. Ironically, however, NPS was years late in producing a Long-Range Facilitates Plan (LRFP), as was required by state law. But that changed last month, when the district finally "amended" its 2005 LRFP.

I'm not qualified to say whether this amended plan meets the requirements of the law. I can tell you, after having seen it, that it comes across as a mish-mosh of disparate reports and policy briefs and graphs and powerpoints, slapped together without any overarching organization. I'd tell you to go look and judge for yourself, but -- so far as I can tell -- the plan hasn't been released to the public.

In any case, as I was skimming through, this page stood out (click to enlarge):

So what's going on here? Well, NPS is trying to use test outcomes to identify its "struggling" schools in this amended LRFP (which is weird in and of itself, as the old LRFP concentrated on facilities and didn't have anything to do with test scores). There are two measures in use:
  1. "LAL % Prof +": Language arts proficiency, as defined by whether a student is deemed "proficient" or "advanced proficient" on the NJASK. I can't be sure, but it looks like the proficiency rates were averaged from Grade 3 to 8, which, according to Bruce's post, is a no-no. But we'll set that aside for right now.
  2. "LAL SGP": The infamous Student Growth Percentiles, which have a host of problems of their own -- again, we'll put those aside. Here we have the median SGP in language arts for the entire school population, the state's measure for how a school's students "grow."
To identify which schools are "struggling," NPS has averaged the LAL proficiency rate with the SGP score. Supposedly, they thought they could do this because SGPs and proficiency rates both use a 0-to-100 (or close enough: 1-99) scale. So they've got to be equivalent measures, right?


This is a little tricky, but it makes sense if you break it down a bit. What we have here are the distributions of SGPs and LAL proficiency rates by schools for the Newark area, both public schools and charters. The green bars show the number of schools that got SGP scores within a certain "bin": in other words, there are 16 schools that got SGPs between 35 and 40, the largest bin (and, therefore, the largest bar) in the graph. Notice how the distribution is such that the most schools are in a bin that is roughly at the mean (or average) score, which is about 41. The number of schools in neighboring bins roughly falls off in each direction: this is, very crudely, a normal distribution, aka a "bell curve."

The clear bars show the distribution for proficiency rates in Grade 8 LAL; the mean rate is about 61 percent. Notice that the bars don't follow that bell curve shape: the distribution isn't normal.

Why does this matter? Well, NPS's simple formula -- averaging the two measures -- makes an assumption: that a difference in these two measures is equivalent. In other words, if your schools is ten points higher in SGPs than another school, but that school is ten points higher than you in proficiency, then your two schools are equal on the "struggling" index. Compared to other schools, your school and the other you are comparing yourself to are "struggling" (or not "struggling") the same amount.

Except this graph shows the comparisons are not equivalent. Being ten points above the mean on SGP is a much bigger deal than being ten points above the mean on proficiency. You beat out many more schools when you shift those ten points on SGPs than you do when you shift the same amount on proficiency.

In addition: the means for both measures aren't equivalent. So if you have a proficiency rate of 70, you're barely above the middle of the pack. But if you have an SGP of 70, you're at the top in growth. Of course, there's no way to know that being at the bottom in SGPs is just as good of an indicator that your school is "struggling" as being at the bottom in proficiency. NPS is averaging two measures that have different means, different distributions, and different educational meanings.

And yet high-stakes decisions are being made -- whether schools should be closed, whether the buildings should be turned over to charter management organizations, whether staffs should be fired across the board -- on this misuse of data. Again, it wouldn't matter so much if this was just someone's opinion, but it's not: the people who did this are in charge of making policy for Newark's schools.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with identifying which schools are "struggling" within a system and require intervention. But misusing data to come up with a simplified quantitative measure is a cop-out. This stuff may be complex, but Anderson and her staff signed up for the job on the premise that they were qualified to handle it. Stuff like this suggests they aren't up to the task.

More data wars to come...

Averaging non-equivalent measures: to the Dark Side it leads, young one...

Monday, April 7, 2014

Why Is Michelle Rhee Wrong About Everything?

Michelle Rhee is consistently wrong about everything.

She was wrong about teaching to the test. She was wrong about her grading of state education policies. She was wrong about truancy. She was wrong about student surveys and VAM. She was wrong about the effectiveness of her "reforms" while leading the Washington, D.C. schools.

Michelle Rhee was even wrong about her own record as a teacher.

And now America's #1 corporate reformer is wrong about the amount of classroom time taken up by standardized testing:
Those test-crazed districts need to be reeled in. But a new study by Teach Plus, an organization that advocates for students in urban schools, found that on average, in grades three and seven, just 1.7 percent of classroom time is devoted to preparing for and taking standardized tests. That’s not outrageous at all. Most people spend a larger percentage of their waking day choosing an outfit to wear or watching TV. [emphasis mine] 
Diane Ravitch and Peter Greene deal with the rest of Rhee's useless article very well; I, however, want to concentrate on this one paragraph, because it shows, once again, how Rhee is incapable of reading and understanding even the most basic pieces of education research.

Notice that she claims here that "... just 1.7 percent of classroom time is devoted to preparing for and taking standardized tests." Is that what the Teach Plus report measures? Here's page 4:
For this research, we compare publicly available district and state test calendars to teacher reports of test administration time. District and state calendars are an important baseline in the test-time dialogue in that they are a primary way officials communicate the amount of time spent on testing to parents and the public. While most state and district officials would acknowledge that testing takes longer than the amount of time reflected in the district calendar, ours is the first piece of research to measure the gap between the minimum time allocated for tests by administrators and the real time costs experienced by teachers. 
In addition to the time it takes for students to complete an assessment and for teachers and staff to administer it, teachers also experience an impact on instructional time when they have to prepare students for the assessment or when they put other instructional plans on hold for the administration of required assessments. Our research examines this impact on instructional time through survey data from over 300 classroom teachers. [emphasis mine]
So the report has two parts: an examination of the time it takes to administer tests, and a look at the preparation time involved. The 1.7 percent figure is specifically referenced on page 7:
According to a 2013 Education Commission of the States (ECS) report on the minimum amount of instructional time per year, the average time for a kindergarten student in the 12 states featured in this report is approximately 885.9 hours, assuming a full-day kindergarten program. With an average of 3.1 hours of testing per year, the typical kindergarten student is tested for less than one percent of the year. In third grade, the amount of required state instructional time across the 12 urban districts in this study is 953.7 hours, meaning 1.7 percent of the typical third grader’s year is spent on state- and district-mandated testing. Likewise, in seventh grade, the average number of instructional hours is 1,016.8, and the average time spent on testing is also 1.7 percent. These 1.7 percent figures do not reflect the many time demands that may be associated with testing such as preparing students or analyzing data. However, it is an important baseline figure. It reflects the cumulative time impact that districts currently use to communicate with parents and the general public about the time students are being tested. [emphasis mine]
Let's be very clear: in direct contradiction to Rhee, the Teach Plus report specifically says the 1.7 percent figure does not include test preparation time. 

So what does the study say about the amount of time spent in schools on test prep? The methodology doesn't allow for precise answers, but there are some qualitative findings (p. 15-16):
In addition to the time it takes to administer them, a refrain heard among teachers was that they often set aside time to provide students with test-taking skills. This test preparation seemed to vary between setting a few days aside before the state test to being a regular part of the school day or week in other cases. 
“It takes a lot of time to prepare for the tests. We usually spend time making sure students review what they learned during the year to ensure they are ready.” – Third grade teacher 
“Yes, with daily test prep and standards review sessions. More than 35 percent of instructional time is spent on these assessments per year. That includes initial instruction, review, scoring, planning, preparation of additional assessment materials, and reassessments.” – Third grade teacher 
“The prepping for the test takes a lot of time. Instead of possibly doing projects or more hands-on learning, we really focused on the testing format and preparing our students to be comfortable taking the test. The prepping starts at the beginning of the year and ends in April. We also have to do the practice tests for the [state test] and [district test]. These practice tests can take up to an hour to do.” – Third grade teacher 
“We spend time practicing getting into our testing groups, taking practice tests, etc. We also typically take time from our usual instruction to focus on test prep in the week or two leading to the test. For example, I stop teaching the novel we are reading for a week to do multiple choice test prep. Also, during the week of the test, we have literally no instruction. I would say overall we lose about 15-20 days of instruction to testing to statewide testing. Another 20 days we are instructing, but it is focused on test prep.” – Seventh grade teacher [emphasis mine]
A critique I would make about this report is that it is difficult to tell at times whether the teachers' comments about test prep are always related to state- or district-level tests. But there's enough here for us to say that there is evidence that preparing for state-level tests consumes a significant amount of instructional time.

So the report Rhee herself cites contradicts her main point: standardized testing does, in fact, gobble up lots of classroom time. Her statement above, according to the source she herself cites, is just dead wrong.

I must tell you, I continue to be astonished that the people who fund Rhee's jihad against teachers, their unions, and public schools in general seem to care so little about her incompetence. Aren't they concerned that they are giving their money to someone who can't even read a simple report correctly? I mean, even if they want to destroy public schools and teachers unions, don't they want to have someone leading the charge who isn't a constant embarrassment?

David Tepper, Eli Broad, John Arnold, Rupert Murdoch, I'm asking all of you: why do you continue to give money to someone who is consistently wrong about everything?

Sorry, fellas -- I'll do better next time, I promise...

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Uncommon Comes To Camden: Let The Segregation Begin!

Camden's State Superintendent, Paymon Rouhanifard, shares much in common with his friend form the good old days in NYC, Newark State Superintendent Cami Anderson. Anderson, for example, believes she can simply ignore the law whenever she wants, as she does not answer to the citizens of Newark, with whom she has lost all credibility.

So, apparently, does Rouhanifard:
Two more Renaissance schools enrolling up to 700 students will open in the fall in addition to the one previously approved, the Camden School District said Friday.
Mastery and Uncommon Schools will use temporary facilities beginning in the 2014-15 school year while constructing buildings, the district's state-appointed superintendent, Paymon Rouhanifard, said Friday.
Neither operator has received state Department of Education approval, as required by law, to operate the district-charter hybrid schools, and plans for permanent facilities are vague, but the district made the announcement anyway to allow the operators to get a jump on enrollment, spokesman Brendan Lowe said. The two applications will be submitted to the state Monday, when they will become public.
"It's a way to support these schools . . . to begin getting the word out, making sure they have students for the fall," Lowe said. [emphasis mine]
Listen, when you're bringing awesome transformational change with urgency and excellence, you can't be bothered by pesky little things like actually following the law, amiright? I mean, what's the point of disenfranchising poor black people and installing an inexperienced and unqualified school leader if you're going to get bogged down in details like whether your actions are illegal?

At some point I'll get to Mastery and the trail of destruction left by Philadelphia's charter school industry. But let's take a moment to review the track record of Uncommon Schools in New Jersey as exemplified by their Newark branch, North Star Academy. Bruce Baker has written a particularly readable post about just how awesomely refromy North Star is:


A true miracle it was… is… and shall be. One that must be proliferated and shared widely.
But alas, the more they shared, the more they touted their awesomeness, the more it started to become apparent that all might not be quite so rosy in North Star land.
As it turned out, those kids in North Star really didn’t look so much like those others they were apparently so handily blowing out on state tests….
And there was complete freakin’ silence!
Somehow, this rapidly growing miracle school was managing to serve far fewer poor children than others (except a few other charter schools also claiming miracle status) around them.
And, they were serving hardly any children with disabilities and few or none with more severe disabilities.
And again there was complete freakin’ silence!
And if that was the case, was it really reasonable to attribute their awesomeness to the awesomeness of their own teachers – their innovative strategies… and the nuanced, deep understanding of being driven by data?
Actually, it is perhaps most befuddling if not outright damning that such non-trivial data could be so persistently ignored in a school that is so driven by data?
And there was complete freakin’ silence!
But alas, these were mere minor signals that all might not be as awesome as originally assumed.
It also turned out that of all the 5th graders who entered the halls of awesomeness, only about half ever made it to senior year – year after year after year after year… after year.
And for black boys in the school, far fewer than that:
And there was complete freakin’ silence!
And in any given year, children were being suspended from the school at an alarming rate.
Again… raising the question of how a school driven by data could rely so heavily on a single metric – test scores and pass rates derived from them – to proclaim their awesomeness, when in fact, things were looking somewhat less than awesome.

Thanks, Bruce* -- read the entire thing, everyone, then hope that Camden's current charter schools don't discriminate on the basis of special education needs. Because, if they did, we'd see the charter schools in these graphs in the upper left corner: smaller SpecEd populations with relatively high test outcomes.

Oh dear...

This really is outrageous. North Star Academy has a proven record of segregation and student attrition in Newark, yet it is being pushed illegally into Camden with no acknowledgment from the state administration of its past or current practices.

When the Camden school district is finally left in shambles, and these segregating charter schools have been shown to be failures at educating all types of students, and the children who need well-resoucred schools the most -- the poorest children, the children with special needs, the children who are Limited English Proficient -- are consigned to crumbling, inadequately funded public schools...

What will we do then? How will we salve our guilty consciences? To what lengths will we go to convince ourselves that this course of destruction was really putting the interests of our most needy and deserving children first?

New Jersey reflects on Camden school "reform"

* Bruce Baker is my advisor in the PhD program at Rutgers.