I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Friday, December 30, 2011


Regrets... I've had a few...

Gov. Chris Christie on Thursday said that not getting his proposed public education overhaul through the Legislature is his biggest regret of 2011.

The governor wants to implement merit pay for teachers, take away some of the job protections provided by tenure and to use publicly funded scholarships to send children in failing public schools to private schools. None of those measures has picked up much traction in the Legislature.

“The biggest disappointment is that we didn’t get any education reform and we really need to,” he said in an interview on WOR-AM radio Thursday. “My parents moved me out ofNewark because they wanted me to have a better public education.”

Yeah, your folks moved your family out of Newark because of the "schools." Sure they did...

Governor, let me explain to you exactly why you are such a complete and abject failure on education reform:

You have no respect for teachers or the teaching profession. You and your acolytes have tried to hide behind the notion that you love teachers; that it's the merely union that you can't stand. That's garbage: you've called teachers drug mules said teachers have used their students like drug mules*, said there was "greed and excess" in the schools, told children their teachers didn't care about them, and mocked the work ethic of those in the profession. No self-respecting teacher wants to work with you because you've made it quite clear you have no respect for us.

Your attacks on teachers and unions have gone far beyond the normal bounds of tough political rhetoric. You have attacked the NJEA's commitment to children in a way that is embarrassing to the entire state. Your hand-picked ACTING Eduction Commissioner as much as called the NJEA racists. You have distorted statistics and denigrated our students' achievements to make New Jersey's high-performing schools appear to be worse than they are. You applaud the work of sleaze peddlers like James O'Keefe, who attacked a teacher who literally risked her life to save children.

You have blamed the ills of this state almost exclusively on public workers and teachers in particular. You lied to teachers in your campaign about protecting their pensions. You refused to tax millionaires even as you slashed benefits for teachers while mischaracterizing those benefits as "gold-plated," further fueling resentment against educators. You placed school budgets in jeopardy while foolishly calling for a freeze (it was really a cut) in teacher salaries - a freeze that would have done next to nothing to help the state's budget. You refused to acknowledge the long-standing fact that teachers are nowhere near overpaid.

You have consistently refused to work with teachers unions, to the point of actually jeopardizing your own stated policies. You lost a federal grant because you placed your personal vendetta with the NJEA above the state's educational and fiscal needs. You refuse to even acknowledge serious proposals for reform from the unions.

You do not listen to teachers and have excluded them from all important decisions. You appointed only one working teacher to a panel on teacher effectiveness. You have excluded teachers from secret charter school approval panels. Your DOE pushes teacher evaluation schemes that do not have adequate time for analysis.

You continue to push policies that show no evidence of achieving success. You overemphasize inaccurate and expensive standardized testing. You push merit pay, vouchers, charter schools, and tenure "reform" when there is no evidence any of those policies will help student achievement. And you push the policies in schools and districts that even you must acknowledge are doing a great job educating kids.

Governor, it has become painfully apparent to many that you are pushing an agenda, for whatever reason, that is simply not in the best interests of the children, the parents, the educators, or the taxpayers of this state. And, unfortunately for you, large numbers of these people - many of whom used to be part of your political base - have had enough.

You, sir, are a failure because you have neither the talent nor the temperament to run this state. It is obvious to many of us that you love the sound of your own voice more than you care to seriously solve the problems we face. It is obvious that you would rather bask in the self-manufactured glory of a stupid fight with teachers - teachers! - than actually get serious and make our schools better for our kids.

You should, indeed, regret your failures on education "reform," Governor, and you should blame no one for those failures but yourself. You are a terrible leader and it will take decades to undo the damage you have wrought in our schools and the teacher corps. In two years, we'll begin to clean up your mess; until then, we'll fight you every step of the way to keep you from making things wrose.

Every day, we are better organized, louder, and tougher. We're not going to be bullied or intimidated any more. We will continue to push back harder and harder until you're gone.

Count on it.

* Corrected: Sorry, Christie said the kids were the drug mules; which made the teachers drug pushers. That is, of course, far worse.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Bring Democracy To Jersey City

Hey, Jersey City! If you're good, maybe ACTING Lord High Executioner Cerf will give you a hint about who he will install to run your schools:
Some 40 people were stuck on the outside looking in for more than an hour on Dec. 22 when acting state education commissioner Christopher Cerf met with the school board in a closed session to discuss the ongoing superintendent search.
Cerf and board members conferred at a special meeting in the board’s central office on Claremont Avenue. The closed session received mostly negative reviews from the citizens present, a group made up of primarily parents and community activists. Some criticized the board for not allowing residents the chance to address the commissioner — the public-comment portion of the meeting was scheduled for after Cerf’s appearance.
And Cerf, accompanied by his chief of staff David Hespe, declined to stay to take comments from the public. He did address two questions from JCI before he and Hespe cut the session short and left.
I guess mayoral candidate Steve Fulop asked the ACTING Commissioner to come in for a personal pep talk to to get his guys and gals on the school board in line. Or maybe Cerf wanted to give a heads up to the BOE as to whom Eli Broad in Los Angeles has decided gets the job:

The article continues:
The focus of the meeting stemmed from a controversial Dec. 2 email Cerf sent Waterman in which he claimed the board was ignoring his efforts to offer input in helping find a successor to departing superintendent Charles Epps.
Cerf also wrote in his email that the board needs to act in a way which assures the next superintendent will bring “transformational change” to the state’s second largest school system. In an email sent before the meeting, Cerf’s spokesman Justin Barra declined to elaborate on what the acting commissioner meant specifically, telling JCI he would do so in the closed session.
“The commissioner is meeting with the board tonight to discuss his thoughts,” was all Barra would say.
Further, Cerf wrote in the email that it is his “obligation to explore all the options the law empowers me with” to defend the interests of city schoolchildren. This statement has caused some to fear the commissioner might be looking into trying to reassert the state’s authority by retaking full control of the school system. While the state retains its power over approving personnel and curriculum matters, the board has regained control of governance issues. The latter allows it to search for its own superintendent.
Listen JC - you have to prove to the ACTING Lord High Executioner that you are worthy to run your own schools. Newark hasn't quite lived up to his demanding standards, you see. And he may not have been able to place his good friend Cami Anderson into the job there if she had to answer to a locally run school system. And then who would be around to beat down on principals who run schools for kids with autism that can't pass bubble tests?

So wise up, JC, and get with the new, reformy program. Stop worrying about local control and just embrace the superintendent that will be selected for you. It's not as if Cerf cares what you think:
When he was told that some residents felt he deliberately wanted to avoid hearing them, the acting commissioner seemed unconcerned, saying, “If that’s their opinion, then go ahead and report it.”
Nice. Remember JC - you don't want to get on the ACTING Lord High Executioner's List:

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

"Teachers Under Attack," New Book About NJ Ed Wars

I just downloaded the ebook version of "Teachers Under Attack" by Mike Spina. So far, it's a very good analysis of the education wars we've endured here in New Jersey. Mike gives a nice summary of Christie's personal vendetta with the NJEA in Chapter One - well worth reading for any NJ teacher who wants to know why we are where we are.

And I'm grateful for the shout out he gives to this blog, especially my work on ACTING DOE Commissioner Chris Cerf's background.

I'll have a full review when I finish, but for right now: it's a good read. Check it out.

Great Miami Herald Series on Charters

The Miami Herald did a terrific series about charter schools this month; if you haven't read it, you really should.

Here's a little something for those of you who think the talk of Wall Street making money off of the charter movement is worthy of a tin-foil hat:
Despite the criticism, the Zuluetas have repeated this business strategy across Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Through similar arrangements, the Zuluetas control more than 20 land companies doing business with Academica schools. These companies received about $19 million in lease payments in 2010, records show. 
Zulueta said he and his brother hold a controlling interest in the land companies. The businesses also have minority investors, whom he declined to name. 
On average, schools leasing Zulueta-controlled properties in 2010 paid higher rents than Academica schools with independent landlords, according to a Miami Herald review of the schools’ financial audits. Academica schools renting from Zulueta companies paid an average rent of 16 percent of their income, while other Academica schools paid an average of 11 percent, records show. 
One reason for the disparity: The Zuluetas — former real-estate developers before going into the charter school business — bought and built many properties during the boom years of the mid-2000s, when land and construction costs were high. The lower-cost Academica schools are located in older, less-expensive facilities, including several schools leased from the Catholic archdiocese. 
Zulueta said he was forced to provide the land for the schools because the charters could not get land or financing on their own — a common problem for charter schools, which often lose money during their first few years, scaring off lenders. 
“If I didn’t do it, it couldn’t get done,” Zulueta said. 
Academica pays for the construction of its schools in part through bonds sold to Wall Street investors. An Academica subsidiary issued $54 million in bonds in 2004, using mortgages on the school campuses to secure the debt. In 2009 the Wall Street rating agency Standard & Poor’s rescinded its rating of the Academica bonds, citing a “lack of information” on the company. 
Zulueta said he could not recall if any school governing board had ever asked for details about the profits generated by the leases. “I don’t think they care,” he said.
Yeah, why would they? Everybody's fat and happy, taking junkets to the Bahamas (seriously - read the article).

There is no one more naive than a charter cheerleader who thinks there aren't people in the "reformy" movement looking to make a buck.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Poverty, Shmoverty: Part IV

This is a little wonky, but I think the payoff is worth it. Bear with me...

So I've been going on a bit about international comparisons of both student achievement and poverty (go here, here, and here to follow). The impetus for all this was Amanda Ripley's contention that low-poverty schools in the US do a lousy job compared to low-poverty schools around the world.

Twice, Ripley compares the 75th percentile in socio-economic status (What the PISA test calls ESCS) in the US to the 75th percentile in the rest of the world. I have said that:

  1. The top quarter are hardly what I'd call "rich kids," the term Ripley uses.
  2. The nature of income distribution in the US may make our top quarter a lot less homogenous than other countries' top quarter.
  3. That aside, ranking countries doesn't tell us much about how much further ahead or behind the US may be; we have to look at the scores themselves.
Now, Ripley does a whole schtick on how poorly we are doing in math and science, using 2003 results. To her credit, she includes a graph that at least shows more than rankings:

But if you look at the fine print, the problem remains the same: we are dealing with the top quarter, and NOT with the "rich kids." (And, again: what do 50 points actually mean in a comparison like this?) Let's instead look at the data disaggregated for the real "rich kids": the top 5%.

I don't have the data for the 2003 math exam, but I do have it for the 2009 reading exam: Table II.1.1 on p.152 of PISA 2009 Results: Overcoming Social Background: Equity in Learning Opportunities and Outcomes (Volume II). I showed this table before:

OK, our rich kids are #8; but only one point behind Belgium, and only 2 points behind Korea. Is this really a huge problem?

Now let's look again at the differential between the 95th percentile kids and the 75th percentile kids:

So the gap is further apart between 75th and 95th percentile kids in SES than any other country but Israel; in other words, kids in the US benefit more from being higher up the SES ladder than in most other countries. (And look who has the smallest differentials: envied Finland and Korea. Huh.)

Let me show this another way. Let's compare the US score for kids at different SES percentiles to the top scoring country in that percentile. How far behind do US kids fall?

In the 10th percentile for SES - the 10% of the poorest kids in each country - Korea's kids do the best in the world. And they beat the US's poorest kids by over 60 points.

But in the top 95th percentile for SES - the 5% of the richest kids in each country - New Zealand's richest kids do the best in the world. And they beat the US's richest kids by only 22 points.

In other words: wealth alone cuts the gap between our kids and the top performers in the world by two-thirds.

But hold on! This really isn't a good comparison; it doesn't account for outliers. Go up to my first graph: New Zealand beats the next best scorer in the 95th percentile by 10 points. This suggests there may be some anomaly that's creating statistical noise and giving NZ an unfair advantage; maybe the test had a bunch of hard questions about counting kiwis or something...

Let's do this: take the top eleven overall scorers for all kids (the US ties with Poland and Iceland at #12, but we'll keep it simple and exclude them). Average the scores for those top eleven at each percentile for SES. Then look at how the US compares; that should mitigate against outliers a bit. How are we doing?

And look at that: the 20-point differential at the 10th percentile disappears to next to nothing at the 95th percentile. What does this mean?

It means kids in the US are penalized MORE for being poor or even middle class than kids in other high-scoring countries.

Now, you can conjecture this is due to a lot of things. Maybe the schools get a lot worse the lower you go on the SES ladder in the US than in other countries. Maybe the real difference in the life a poor child and a rich child is greater in the US than in other places. This is a big, serious topic and it deserves real debate.

What you can't say is that schools for rich kids in the US aren't pulling their weight. Because the richer a US school's population is, the more it's like the schools in the rest of the world. In fact, it's tempting to want to disaggregate the data even further: how would our top 1% fare compared to the rest of the world's top 1%? I'm not sure it would tell us anything, but I'd be curious.

In any case, this PISA data shows two things:
  1. Socio-economic status matters, and it matters more in the US than in other countries.
  2. Our "rich kids" do pretty well compared to the rest of the world.
Last point: I've given up a lot of premises making this argument. I'm giving up that the PISA is a valid international comparison. I'm giving up it's measuring real learning in 15-year-olds, just as they are on the cusp of true abstract thinking. I'm giving up that the PISA measure of socio-economic status is valid and reliable across countries. 

I think my point here is valid, but I'm not prepared to keep operating on premises for which I have real doubts. I have big reservations about whether standardized tests do a very good job measuring how well-educated a child is - particularly an older child. I don't know enough about PISA to say it allows for good international comparisons, and I really don't know anything about the validity of the PISA SES measures.

I just don't care to continue argue this on others' terms. So this will be my last post on this for a while.

Unless someone says something really stupid....

ADDING: The spell checker changed "disaggregated" to "desegregated." Funny in a weird, wonky way.

Cerf: Facts Have A Racial Bias

There is no other way to read this latest pronouncement from ACTING NJ Education Commissioner Cerf:
AP: What's the state of public education in New Jersey? How do we compare to other states?
Cerf: We compare very well from an aggregate perspective if you take the NAEP, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. New Jersey typically ranks within the top two to four in each of the four major categories.
It's a reflection of a very evolved, very developed, very successful education system in the main. The dissonance in that is if you get beneath the numbers, beneath the aggregates, you'll see that we have one of the largest achievement gaps in the nation.
One of the things that just gets my blood boiling a little bit on this is our achievement gaps in the schools, measured pretty any way you want to measure it, racially, ethnically or by poverty ... they're really jarring. The NJEA just put out a press release which I will tell you I find as offensive as anything I have seen in my long career in education, basically going, 'What's the big deal? It's not that bad.'
AP: Their argument was essentially that the gap is so large because the best-performing kids do so well.
Cerf: They had two arguments. The other one is: Our black kids are doing better than their black kids. ... Both of those are not helpful and indeed, I think, quite destructive arguments. To say that we have a large achievement gap because the top of the state is so high basically assumes that the poor black kids don't belong at the same strata. That seems to me to be really offensive to me to say we shouldn't actually expect the kids in Newark and Camden to be performing at the same level as the kids in Bergenfield.
The second argument is, again, the African-American kids here are doing better than the African-American kids in New Orleans. ... Does that mean that as a class, poor kids or kids of color, we want to see who wins the contest in that class? No. It's not that all. It's about: Can we give every kid an equal opportunity in education regardless of birth circumstances? [emphasis mine]
First of all, here's the NJEA press release. I dare the ACTING Commissioner or anyone else to find anything here, or anywhere else at the NJEA website, that says or even implies that poor black kids can't achieve at a high level. To the contrary, the press release explicitly says:
“There is a clear correlation between wealth and test scores,” Keshishian said, “and it’s not unique to New Jersey.  What is unique about New Jersey is the success we’ve had in closing the gap, thanks to the reforms we’ve instituted in our most economically challenged districts.
“Ironically, as the wealth gap in America widens every day, our achievement gap is narrowing,” Keshishian said.  “We must be doing a lot of things right, and the goal is to do even more, so that all students can reach their potential.” [emphasis mine]
Cerf's statement is nasty, obnoxious, and a great example of race-baiting. He should be ashamed of himself for painting the NJEA as an organization of racists; he owes them an immediate apology.

It is not racist to point out the facts. And the fact is - as Cerf himself acknowledges - all categories of students in New Jersey have shown improvement. This improvement came at a time of renewed emphasis on equitable school funding, and it came without the aid of charter schools, test-based evaluations of teachers, vouchers, merit pay, deunionization, or any of the other "reforms" Cerf and his merry band love to push.

One other thing: if Chris Cerf really, truly believes that poor black children can achieve the levels of success as wealthier white kids, why doesn't he let the communities of these poor black children run their own schools? Why does he bring outsiders - in some cases, all the way from Los Angeles - into these communities to push charters without the input of the citizens and parents who live there? Why does he insist on secret charter approval panels? Why does he stick his nose into the hunt for superintendents to run these school districts?

It's as if he doesn't trust these communities to run their own schools. But somehow, those celebrating the achievements of the children in those communities are the real racists.


A couple other beauties from this Q&A:
AP: There have been some studies that suggest that standardized tests not only have trouble sorting out teachers in the middle, but also teachers who don't consistently score at the top and the bottom; they don't help you figure out who are your very best and very worst educators. Are they wrong?
Cerf: Every accountability system is flawed and problematic. That is certainly true in education. If the standard is, can we build an accountability system that is better than the one we have today and keep working as a society to improve it? That takes you down one path. If the other path is, 'Wow, this is potentially unfair because it may yield a result that we may not trust; therefore, let's not do it at all.'
It's a pretty fundamental divide. I think that there is so much trepidation and propaganda in this area. It's really hard to have a reasoned conversation about this. My own view is that the data is potentially one component of a satisfactory assessment system, but it had to be used in a very limited and very responsible way.
We need to build confidence in our teacher corps that we are doing this almost completely in order to enable them to get better as opposed to just trying to identify the low performers and quote exit them.
Listen, ACTING Commissioner: you're the one who's pushing a system to delineate teachers in far more categories than the research says is warranted. You're the one who has a teacher evaluation task force with only one working teacher on it. You're the one who basically wants to roll the dice with a teacher's career.

Don't be surprised if you don't get a lot of buy-in from us. Especially given the tone your boss has taken from the very start of this.
Cerf: I've got so many competing for the top it takes my breath away. I would be much more honest and much more impatient about schools that are failing kids. We tend to have a habit in public education of saying when a school fails it's because we haven't tried hard enough or put enough money into it or given it enough time or somehow we have failed to enable a school to be good.
The evidence is pretty clear that if we are incredibly honest and fact-based, we need to be much more patient and give schools an opportunity to get better and give them the supports they need. But if that doesn't work, we have to take dramatic action.
So we need to be more impatient, and we need to be more patient. Makes sense...
I would impose much higher standards so that graduating from high school actually means something, not that you have a degree but that you are actually ready to be launched into life prepared for the next phase of life. That involves changing a lot of what we do in terms of the curriculum we have, the assessments.
I would focus intensely on third-grade literacy because once again, the statistics are really unsettling. We have 40,000 kids today in New Jersey who are not reading at the proficient level and it's very, very, very hard for kids who go into the fourth grade not reading to catch up and keep up.
I think we need to have a much greater focus on identifying, promoting and retaining talent at all levels of the system.
I'm sorry, but I just start to tune out at this point. It all becomes bromides and platitudes and nonsense, and it's in direct contradiction to the actual actions of the folks who are running the show in Trenton.

How does it help to "retain talent" when you slash benefits and break promises on pensions? How does having "higher standards" do anything to help the achievement gap? Everyone agrees third graders should read; what exactly should we do about that?

So it goes in the reformy land of the NJDOE: lots of talk about how important schools are while slashing state aid. Lots of talk about how important teachers are while slashing compensation. Lots of talk about "accountability" while secret charter panels and back room privatization deals run amuck.

Just freakin' awesome...

Still Not Getting It On Charters

Oh, Star-Ledger: what do I have to do to get you to start understanding the charter school debate?
As charter schools begin to spread beyond the urban districts where they first took root, they are provoking a political backlash in the suburbs that could weaken support for the overall movement. We've seen the brush fires in Cherry Hill, East Brunswick, Millburn, Montclair and Princeton.
In our view, the opposition in the suburbs is mostly misplaced. Every district has the right to open a charter, an alternative public school that educates kids differently. And the financial burden to host districts is way overblown. [emphasis mine]
Except in the cities above, it is NOT the district that is trying to open a charter; it's an outsider, looking to come into the district and take their funds. If it were the local district attempting to open the charter, there wouldn't be an issue; the district would still be controlling their own purse strings. In the cases above, they aren't.

I'll get to the financial burden in a second.
But without doubt, charter schools are needed most urgently in districts where conventional public schools have failed, and parents can't afford to send their kids elsewhere. In cities like Newark and Camden, crowds routinely flood charter admission lotteries, and waiting lists run hundreds deep. The demand for escape routes from the failing traditional schools is overwhelming. [emphasis mine]
That would be all well and good, if there were any evidence that charter schools do any better. There isn't. Even putting aside the fact that so many charters fail, there is a great deal of evidence that "successful" charters do not teach the same kids that the public schools do. There is simply no reason to think charters are any sort of solution to our urban education woes.

In fact, there is a growing body of evidence that the charter schools that do "succeed" are promoting a return to segregation. New Jersey already has a problem with segregated schools; do we want to make it worse?

The S-L goes on to point out the folly of installing a Hebrew language charter in New Brunswick. All well and good, although some focus on the poorly designed process for review would help (thx, Darcie). And pointing out that ACTING Commissioner Cerf's report on charter schools is way overdue would be useful as well.

But here's where the S-L really drops the ball:
Critics accuse charters of draining money from traditional schools. And yes, money is diverted from the districts to the charter when a child moves. But that’s because the money rightfully follows the child, allowing parents to make the best choice for their children. And because the host district keeps a portion of the state aid earmarked for students in charters, a district may actually save money once a critical mass of kids leave.
It’s true that when a district is very small, or just a handful of students leave for a charter, the overall budget may be hurt. And not all charters are effective; some are terrible.
But that’s no argument against the idea of charter schools. It’s an argument for the state to be very picky about which schools are approved. This Hebrew charter doesn’t meet the test. The state was right to say no. [emphasis mine]
What the S-L fails to apprehend - yet again - is that it doesn't cost the same amount to educate every child. Kids who have special needs require more funds, but these are precisely the kids who will not be going to boutique charter schools. So it's more than just economies of scale (although the S-L's dismissal of that issue is far to casual); it's about the characteristics of the kids who go to charters vs. the ones who stay in public schools.

If the S-L really wants to get to the bottom of this, they should join with me and others in calling for a moratorium on charter school approvals until after the report Cerf promised is released and fully vetted. Even then, there needs to be a local braking system on charter approvals. The state should not usurp the fiduciary responsibility local school boards have to police how their school funds are spent. It's hypocritical to laud this idea of "parental choice" when the duly elected representatives of a community have no choice in how their funds are spent.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Poverty Matters

A conversation about poverty and international test score comparisons from the comments:

Stuart Buck said...

"But for a woman who is so worried about defining poverty, it seems like quite a stretch to claim so assuredly that this is a "more valid" comparison than Ravitch's."

The reason it's more valid is that even if it's a flawed way to measure poverty, at least different countries aren't having poverty measured in completely different ways. If we could use FRL status for all the countries in the world, that would be great.

But the one thing we can't do is what Ravitch does: compare the supposed performance of "low poverty" kids in different countries when poverty is being defined in completely different ways.

Duke said...

First of all, Stuart, it wouldn't be great to use FRPL across countries. As I've said, any metric has problems: $40K may go a lot further in one country than another. Again, there is no accounting for all the free stuff other OEDC countries give their people - health care, college education, housing subsidies - that Americans must either pay for or do without. Let alone differences in taxation.

But let's put all that aside and follow your argument - and Ripley's - to its conclusion:

Ravitch points to a government study that says that kids in districts with less than 10% poverty do better than countries with less than 10% poverty.

Ripley says, "Oh, no, you can't do that! The US has a different measure of poverty than the rest of the world!"

By that logic, the US is so very generous in its estimation of poverty that it classifies loads of children as being poor that other countries would say were not poor. So that 21%, or 15%, or whatever poverty rate in the US is WAY inflated.

On international comparisons, these other countries are under an unfair burden: they have to include a lot of kids we would consider "poor" in their "not poor" group of students.

And the difference in the way the US defines poverty is so great, it not only makes up for the difference in mean scores: it REVERSES the trend! When you exclude the same kids the US excludes, the rest of the world trashes us!

And the difference in the definition of poverty is so great that the US may overstate poverty 6 TIMES more than Finland does!

That's how I read your argument. And I find it absurd on its face. We overstate poverty to such a large extent it not only closes, but REVERSES the gap in achievement? Come on, man.

More soon on "rich kids."

Stuart Buck said...

I'm not sure what "trend" or "gap in achievement" you're talking about. The point, which you partially seem to understand, is that other countries count a lot of kids as "not poor" merely because their family income is over half of what the median income is in that country, whereas those same children would be considered "poor" here.

To take one striking example, Slovakia. Median income: $9,071. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Median_household_income) Poverty rate by the measure that Ravitch is using: 2.1%, lower than Finland. See http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/eco_pop_bel_med_inc-economy-population-below-median-income

So Slovakia is beating us on poverty, right? Well, 50% of their population is below $9,071 in income, because that's the median, so it's not really all that comforting that only 2.2% are below $4,536 (or half the median).

The point is this: if it turned out that Slovakia was beating the US on PISA scores (it's not, but this is just an example), it would be completely absurd to pull Ravitch's trick of saying, "Look, their poverty rate is only 2.1%, and if we look only at US districts with really low poverty rates (using a completely different US standard), then we're doing just as good as Slovakia!!!!"

Duke said...

Stuart, I think you know full well I understand Amanda's point completely. Here's the argument so far:

Ravitch contends that poverty is primarily responsible for the gap between the mean scores of the US and other countries. She cites a government study that shows low-poverty school districts do better than low-poverty countries on PISA scores.

Ripley says: "You can't do that! We don't measure poverty the same way!"

I say: "Are you telling me that we so overestimate poverty in this country that if we counted poverty the same as other countries, our low-poverty districts would be getting beat by these other countries? And beat as badly as Ripley says?"

You: "You only partially understand."

No, I understand perfectly. I am simply taking your argument to its logical conclusion:

You - or, more correctly, Ripley - contend the US includes so many "affluent" kids in its measures of poverty it skews the data so much that the US is actually way BEHIND other countries in educating its most affluent.

Again: I find that absurd on its face. It reminds me of the nonsense I hear on Fox News when wingnuts say "Well, the poor in the US have it so much better than the poor in other countries!" Really? The poor in Finland - which Ripley uses as an example - have it so much worse than our poor? Even with the strong social safety net there? Yet they suck it up and deal with it much better than we do? And that accounts for the gap between Ripley's contention that the US sucks at educating all kids and Ravitch's contention that poverty accounts for most of our sucking?


You cite the low income in Sovakia. From p.152 of the PISA Vol II report, here are the mean indices of ESCS for three countries:

Finland - 0.37
US - 0.17
Slovakia - -0.09

So the difference in mean socio-economic status is nearly as great between Finland and the US as between the US and Slovakia. Well, this is the measure Ripley prefers. If we're going assert the poverty difference between Finland and the US is over-exaggerated, shouldn't we say the same about the US and Slovakia? Why are they whining?

My point is that the income differences can't tell the entire story. $9,000 may go a lot further in Slovakia than it does in the US. I don't know, but neither does Ripley.

And, as I will show tomorrow, if you want to compare truly "affluent" students - using Ripley's preferred measure - the US does not come up short. And, by the way - Slovakia is NOT beating us on test scores, so your hypothetical tests credulity.

Again, we're in an Occam's razor situation. You and Ripley keep trying to convince us that the relatively high performance of students in our low-poverty districts is due to the fact that the US has so fewer poor kids in those districts than low-poverty countries have in their entire nations (Ripley misstates this in her first post to assert that the US has NO poor kids in these districts, which isn't true).

But we know child poverty and income inequity are a major problem in this country. Isn't the simpler explanation that we haven't dealt with these as well as the nations we know have a strong safety net?

Dare To Compare

A big part of the reformy agenda is predicated on the notion that even affluent American kids suck at learning; this must mean our schools stink and we need to ___ (fill in your particular reformy "solution" here).

Thus, we have pieces by Amanda Ripley bemoaning our awful, awful schools:
The most respected international tests of teenagers around the world (PISA) has consistently shown that our most-affluent kids do not perform as well as the most-affluent kids in the highest-performing countries around the world (even though our rich kids are richer than their rich kids). PISA measures students’ economic, social and cultural status to get a sense of their socio-economic background. In reading, American kids’ best subject, our most affluent students still rank behind the most affluent kids in six other countries. (Even though we spend far more money per student than all of those countries.)
Rich Kids Ranking (PISA Reading 2009)
1. New Zealand
2. Korea
3. Belgium
4. Finland
5. Canada
6.  Australia
Now, I've already dealt with the many flaws in Ripley's presentation here, here, and here. But let's put aside the fact that she mischaracterized and/or misunderstood Diane Ravitch's claims, or presented the 75th percentile in socio-economic status as "rich kids," or missed the curvilinearity of the relationship between SES and test scores, or her lack of accounting for differences between countries even when using the same SES measurement tool, or her attempt to throw out Ravitch's simple point - found in a standard source - based on nit-picking about how to define poverty, or the dubiousness of her claim that we spend so more more on schools than the rest of the world...

Let's instead focus on the list above, which comes from Table II.3.1 on p. 165 of PISA 2009 Results: Overcoming Social Background: Equity in Learning Opportunities and Outcomes (Volume II). These are not "rich kids"; they are the top 75th percentile. And there's no excuse to characterize them that way when you can go right to Table II.1.1 on p.152 of the same report and get the scores for kids in the 95th percentile of SES - the real "rich kids." Let's look at them instead.

Wow, it's even worse for the US: we're #8!!! Man the lifeboats!

  1. New Zealand 
  2. Australia 
  3. Japan 
  4. Finland 
  5. Canada 
  6. Korea 
  7. Belgium 
  8. United States 
I mean, how could we let little Belgium beat us! And those damn Koreans again! Those who defend the status quo stand by idly while these other countries thrash us so badly!

Oh, wait - a ranking list doesn't tell us how badly, does it? No, and Ripley doesn't include the raw scores on her list either. Well, let's see just how badly the Belgians are rubbing our noses in their waffles:

Belgium's "rich kids" beat our Ritchie Riches by one point. The Koreans - two points. Should we rush to emulate the Koreans based on this?

But let me show you another neat trick; this is exactly the same data:

All of a sudden, the US doesn't look so bad compared to the folks who are "beating" us. Why? All I did was change the y-axis of the graph. Is this more accurate? I have no idea.

And that is precisely the point: if we are so concerned about the Belgians beating us by one point, or the Finns beating us by ten, we need to have some clue as to what one point means. Think of it this way: if you lose by four in basketball, it was a close game; if you lose by four in baseball, you were soundly defeated; if you lose by four in soccer, you got trashed. The point differentials depend entirely on the context; ranking countries accounts for none of this.

I am not expert on the PISA, and I'm not prepared to dive into the meaning of the score differences without compensation or graduate credits (I much prefer the first over the second). I will say this: for all OEDC students, kids in the 95th percentile performed 138 points higher than kids in the 50th percentile. So should we worry too much about a differential of 2 points? 5 points? 10?

I'll also point out the 95th percentile kids in the US did better than every other country's kids at the 90th percentile.

To sum up: there is no reason, based on these scores, to believe that America's "rich kids" are getting trashed by the rest of the world. Unless and until someone goes into the weeds and really looks at what these point differentials mean, the fact that Finland's richest kids beat our richest kids by 10 points is hardly cause for sounding the alarm.

I'll have one more post on this topic tomorrow.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Taking Five For Christmas

Going to sit out a bit for Yuletide. But I have a lot in the pipeline, including:

- More PISA fun at Amanda Ripley's expense

- The new ACTING NJDOE Commissioner Cerf Charter Report Clock

- More on reforminess and special education

Now to the gingerbread - have a great holiday, and be proud to teach!

Some baking music:

And NBA is back tomorrow! Top 10 Kobe Christmas plays:

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?