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

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Where Is The NJ Charter Report?

Matt DiCarlo asked a question on the Twitter machine a couple of days ago:
In March, C. Cerf promised an "independent analysis" of NJ charters "as soon as humanly possible." Any progress? 
Ah, yes - the old charter data war. Let's revisit the battlefield:

Matt has an excellent post from back in March that recaps the early skirmishes. Everyone knows both ACTING Ed Commissioner Chris Cerf and Governor Christie are big backers of charter school expansion.  So it was no surprise when the NJDOE released a report that purported to show the superior performance of charter schools compared to their home districts. Cerf and Christie both crowed long and hard about the results.

Problem is, the report did not take student characteristics into account. "Cream skimming" - taking the easiest and cheapest kids to educate into charters, while leaving the most difficult and most expensive kids in public schools - is at the heart of the charter debate. Matt objected. Bruce Baker objected. I objected. And Bob Braun, God bless him, did what real journalists are supposed to do; here's Matt's description:
But for the efforts of one columnist – Bob Braun of the New Jersey Star Ledger – this issue would have gone largely unnoticed in the mainstream press. In a series of stories (also herehere and here), Braun pressed the state on its unfounded conclusions, and repeatedly asked that they release more detailed data, finally resorting to filing a public records request. The state delayed for weeks, and then refused to release data linking testing performance to school poverty and other student characteristics, arguing that it is under no legal obligation to produce analyses of student achievement by income (they also claimed that some of the data do not exist). For his part, Cerf called Braun’s request for an interview “transparently silly,” and claimed that his “anger and bias” compromised his objectivity. 
Yesterday, Cerf and the state responded a bit more productively. He spoke at a state board of education meeting, acknowledging that the data “…are not what you might call nuanced,” and that the issue requires “deeper analysis.” He also announced that the state, in an effort to “increase transparency,” would release more data online and commission an independent study of NJ charter performance “as soon as humanly possible.” [emphasis mine]
Let's first take a moment to appreciate how ACTING Commissioner Cerf deals with criticism. Above, Cerf lays into Braun. Here's what he had to say about Bruce after this fiasco:
6:00: "Dr. [Bruce] Baker has never seen a reform he likes, so at least he's consistent on that point. He's against charter schools, against using data in any way, shape or form to evaluate teachers. I don't think he's been for any kind of accountability system when it comes to differentiating between excellence and mediocrity."
Nice. I don't recall that he said anything about Matt; he didn't have to, however, because Gov. Christie took care of it:
This whole affair may be relatively unimportant in the grand scope of things, but it is still instructive. I am reminded how, back in January, Governor Christie was sent my original post on Twitter, and he responded as follows: “Just read it. Same old, warmed over union attacks sponsored by an institute named after union leader. Oh so objective! Thx” 
Putting aside how strange it is to be accused of being non-objective by Chris Christie, of all people, he is of course partially correct – I do work for an institute named after a former union president. In my post, however, I specifically stated that I did not know how New Jersey charters performed this year. They may actually have done better than comparable district schools. Or they may have done worse. Or there may be no difference at all. My only point was that the analysis did not prove anything one way or the other. The name of the organization I work for doesn’t change these basic facts.
The guy/gal who sent that to Christie, by the way, is the invaluable @stopthefreezeNJ.

Now, I know ad hominems are all fun and games for the NJDOE, but let's not lose sight of the real point here, which Matt articulates so well:
If the analysis ends up concluding that charters did indeed outperform regular public schools in NJ, I suspect (but am not certain) that Cerf will imply that he has been vindicated. But, at least to me, this is not about whether charters got higher test scores. It’s about how a state agency released a fourth-grade analysis on the same day its governor announced a policy “supported” by the results of that analysis. It’s about their standing by their study, even now, when everyone who has even a passing familiarity with research methodology knows that it proves nothing.
This is exactly right. Something is very, very wrong with a society that continues to misuse research methods even as our elite overlords sing the praises of data-driven policy. The trend has become alarmingly ubiquitous: in the debate about the financial crisis, Freddie and Fannie are blamed for things that were not their fault. Social Security is trashed by ignorant and intellectually lazy presidential candidates. And the dangerous and willful stupidity about global warming is, to me, infuriating (I try to keep it in check).

And so it goes with education "reform": major policy changes are implemented on the basis of no evidence. Except here, the charter cheerleaders have made a promise: that they would go back and analyze the data "as quickly as is humanly possible." ACTING Commissioner Cerf made that promise on March 7, 2011 - 292 days ago. I've asked around to a lot of folks who follow this stuff, just in case I missed it; no one has seen the report.

I think we've waited long enough.

And thus, I introduce the Cerf Report on Charter Schools Countup Clock!

This clock will live over on the left side of the blog until ACTING Commissioner Cerf releases a report on charter schools that measures student achievement in a way that takes race, poverty, primary language, and other student characteristics into account. A report that will compare the student populations of charter schools to the populations of the public schools in the same district and, ideally, same neighborhood.

In a rational world, I would think the ACTING Commissioner and the Governor would wait for the results of this report before pursuing their expansion of charter schools. Let's see just how much they allow research to drive their decisions.

ADDING: I just came across this, a September, 2011 letter from Cerf's office:
On the whole, charter schools in New Jersey are achieving at high levels. In a presentation to the State Board of Education earlier this year, we shared results from the 2009-10 school year which showed not only that charter schools are outperforming districts in the aggregate in cities like Newark, Camden, and Jersey City, but that charter schools in those districts are performing higher when students are broken out by grade level and both socioeconomic status and race. Preliminary results from the 2010-11 school year show continued growth in student achievement for charter schools overall.
That is one hell of an audacious claim to make. If there is new information available to back this up, I haven't seen it. Where is the report?


Anonymous said...

If Cerf or this administration cared about students, they would want to promote the best possibble educational model available. If they cared, they would be interested in including and harnessing the power of every stakeholder.

Moreover, if they cared about winning support for. Charter school growth, they would be flaunting the results of rigorous, academic research on the existing charters in NJ.

Either the studies been done and the results contradict the outcome they want to demonstrate. Or, the research hasn't been done because they just don't care at all what the impacted communities think.

Also, why is Senator Weinberg saying we need to slow down and do some research, if the data aready exists? Why is she so pro-charter school growth, if she hasn't even seen the research? We have 14 years of charter school existance in NJ. What, or who, is she really supporting?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps Senator Weinberg is so pro-charter because George Norcross wants more charter schools in Camden and, as the incoming majority leader, she is now part of the Democratic Senate leadership that he controls? There's also the push for charter schools from north Jersey party bosses, like Steve Adubado Sr., who runs a charter school and whose daughter was given another charter school to run by Christie.

What a great combination -- charter schools, Christie administration, corrupt democratic party machines, and patronage -- it's the NJ way!

Duke said...

Anon, I don't see how Weinberg can be called pro-charter. But I do believe she ought to be asking, loud and clear, "Where is that report?"

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