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

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Perth Amboy: Center of the Reformy Universe?

UPDATE: Reports are Caffrey has been suspended with pay. Dr Vivian Rodriguez has been appointed acting super.

ADDING: It looks like Perth Amboy gave New Classrooms a $60K contract this past January. Well...

And the saga of Perth Amboy gets even stranger...

When we last checked in on the City By the (Raritan) Bay, a nasty fight was brewing between schools superintendent Dr. Janine Caffrey and the PABOE. The board has charged Caffrey - not even a year into her term - with several offenses, including "...failing to meet with school principals, misrepresenting the facts at board meetings, dividing contracts to sidestep the bidding process and bypassing the board to implement teacher-assistance and counseling programs."

Caffrey responds that she is the victim of a politically motivated witch hunt, and that the board is punishing her for refusing to hire board members' friends. Worse, she says she has been cooperating with a state Attorney General's investigation into school lunch fraud, allegedly perpetuated by the board's president, Samuel Lebreault.

It's worth noting here that nothing conclusive has yet come out regarding the charges against Caffrey or the PABOE; right now, it's all allegations, and I see no concrete evidence from either side.

The entire affair is complicated by Caffrey herself. An author and public speaker, Caffrey has been an outspoken opponent of teacher tenure, claiming she is unable to remove teachers under the influence of alcohol from her schools. As I pointed out before, the problem may well be her lack of experience: her only direct supervision of schools before coming to Perth Amboy was as the founder of a tiny private school in Florida, and two years working in the NYC education bureaucracy. 

No matter: Caffrey was a witness before the NJ Senate committee at a hearing on tenure reform despite the fact she hadn't even worked in New Jersey for a year. Twice, the Star-Ledger gave her a platform to decry teacher tenure, passing by literally hundreds of more experienced superintendents who may hold a differing view.

After the story broke, the reformy group B4K launched a public relations campaign in Caffrey's defense; obviously, her outspoken stance against tenure has endeared her to the reformy movement. But there are some other interesting twists to this story that have since emerged:

Perth Amboy is one of only three districts to pilot a new program called Teach To One: Math. It's a technology-heavy project of Classroom Innovations, a non-profit started by Joel Rose, formerly of the NYC schools.

Leonie Haimson picks up the story:
Rose devised and ran the “School of One” for DOE, a much-hyped online program to teach middle school math, starting in the summer of 2009.  Rose has had a pretty standard trajectoryfor a corporate reformer: he started as a TFA recruit, then worked for seven years at Edison charter schools under Chris Cerf, moved over to DOE as Cerf’s chief of staff in 2006, and started the “School of One” as a  program in a few NYC middle schools. [emphasis mine]
Um, excuse me? You mean ACTING NJ Education Commissioner Chris Cerf? The man who has been mediating between Caffrey and the PABOE?

Yep:
Caffrey and members of the board’s personnel committee met with representatives from the state Department of Education on Tuesday. Information on the meeting outcome was not available from the state Department of Education.
Caffrey declined comment about the Trenton session, other than to say the talks will continue at the special meeting.
 Well, what are the odds? Haimson continues:
Along the way he got a law degree and trained at the Broad Academy for ambitious educrats...
Um, I'm sorry - is that the same Broad Academy Chris Cerf attended?

Yep. Continuing:
He also benefited from the huge publicity machine of DOE, when the School of One was cited by Time Magazine as one of the best inventions of 2009, and the program subsequently won a $5 million Innovation grant from the federal government, without any evidence that it actually worked.
When in March 2011, Rose left the DOE to start his own company and spread his idea nationwide,  there was much speculation as to what his relationship with DOE and the existing School of One program would be. At the same time, a  NY Post article revealed that the DOE’ was “slamming the brakes on the planned expansion of their high-profile School of One program -- even though the move puts a $5 million federal grant in jeopardy” because of doubts whether they had the funding or the capability to expand it .
Well now we know that the experiment will continue.  Rose’s new company is called “New Classrooms” and he will run it along with Chris Rush, who worked alongside him at DOE at the School of One.  When the Panel for Educational Policy approved the contract with New Classrooms on Jan. 18, Rose’s company won an exclusive three year right to run his program at DOE and expand it to 50 schools across the city.
According to the document submitted to the PEP, DOE claims that this contract will benefit the city, as Rose’s company will not be paid, though they acknowledge that he will be granted a “license to the DOE’s existing software and related intellectual property for the School of One,” which was presumably generated while he worked at Tweed. In addition, as the system is further refined to include a “recommended technology platform, suggested learning content, and algorithms for personalizing the learning system,” the company will be granted a new “license,” while DOE will be able to use it in NYC schools for free;thanks guys! 

The company will also no doubt gain huge promotional value, as evidenced by the numerous press releases and puff pieces that have run since the contract was granted, including this, somewhat more critical piece in Education Week,  which will help Rose acquire new contracts and further colonize public schools across the United States.  
Well, it looks like we know where the expansion starts: Perth Amboy. The system that was developed on the NYC taxpayers' dime is coming across the Hudson... and that's where this story really gets interesting. Haimson again:
Unmentioned in the Daily News article is the likely involvement of yet another controversial company in this project. Wireless Gen, now part of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, ran the software operation for School of One when it was headquartered at Tweed and continues to be listed as its “lead technology partner” by DOE. Of course, Wireless, which was bought by Murdoch for his new education technology division at the same time he hired Joel Klein to run the division, has had its own numerous ethical and conflict of interest problems.
One advantage of this deal for Murdoch, Klein and perhaps Rose as well, is that as subcontractors to New Classrooms, Wireless Gen will likely no longer be subject to oversight or critical audits by the NYC Comptroller, who has tried to block previous multi-million dollar, no-bid Wireless contracts on the grounds of conflict of interest (as well as wasteful spending.) [emphasis mine]
Wait a minute: Wireless Generation had an interest in the project that became Classroom Innovations? The same Wireless Generation that's run by Rupert Murdoch? The same Rupert Murdoch that funds Michelle Rhee's reformy group, Students First? The same Students First that has partnered with B4K? The same B4K that is paying for a public relations campaign defending Caffrey from the allegations of the Perth Amboy BOE? The same Perth Amboy that is a pilot program for Classroom Innovations? The same firm that came from School of One? The same project that Wireless Generation had an interest in? The same...

My head's about to explode. Let's diagram it:
Let's start by saying what we don't know: we don't know if Wireless Generation is still working with New Classrooms, although they did work with their progenitor, School of One. We don't know the financial relationship between Students First and B4K, although Rhee serves on B4K's board, and they launched their "partnership" with great fanfare. We don't know what Caffrey's involvement with the New Classroom's project is. We don't know if Perth Amboy has any financial obligation towards New Classrooms, or vice versaADDING: It looks like Perth Amboy gave New Classrooms a $60K contract this past January. There's a lot we don't know.

But that's kind of the point, isn't it? The reformy world has many tentacles. Once a public servant like Caffrey is tied to one of their groups, it pretty much colors everything she does. Can Perth Amboy ever enter into one of these partnerships against without looking first to see if Caffrey has to worry about a conflict of interest arising from B4K's defense of her?

And more importantly: what is any of this doing for students? Haimson again:
If all this worked to help kids learn it wouldn’t be so offensive.  What will this contract actually accomplish?  The website of “New Classrooms” claims that
 “Our model provides instructional experiences designed to bring meaning and context to the skills students learn. At the core of each of New Classrooms’ instructional model is a robust academic framework that includes a research-based learning progression, integrated units of study, and the opportunity for students across the academic spectrum to be challenged and inspired.”
Yet when I toured a School of One classroom about a year and a half ago, at a school in Chinatown, I found the opposite to be true.  First, Joel Rose explained to the assorted visitors that because of the large class sizes in NYC schools, individualized learning was impossible to achieve without the use of technology: “No human being can meet all the needs of students in a class of 25, so something else has to be done to personalize instruction.”  (No mention of the fact that the DOE has been legally obligated to reduce class size below those levels, and has refused to do so on the grounds that it doesn't help kids learn, and has been rapidly increasing class size instead, but never mind.)
We then entered a large room, converted from the school's library, with about one hundred 7th and 8th graders seated at tables, most of them staring at computers and doing multiple choice math problems. I watched as one girl, seemingly in a trance, looked at the screen, and hit A, B, C, D keys in turn, until she got the right answer to a multiple choice question and moved onto the next one. Sadly, no adult but me seemed to be paying any attention to this student to make sure she was trying to think the problem through.
There were also two or three small groups of students, sitting at smaller tables, with rather harassed looking teachers who were trying to teach math, but allowed to spend only about ten to 15 minutes together before time ran out and a signal was made for the students to move back to computers, or to another group led by a different teacher. 
Rose explained that in the room, there were four certified teachers, two college students, and three high school students staffing the room, though it was hard to discern this.  He said that each teacher specialized in teaching 25% of math skills, and every student was assigned to particular groups or math problems by means of an algorithm, calculated the night before, based on his or her performance from  the day before.
But what I saw was not personalized instruction and engagement, but many confused and somewhat dazed students, and much disruption, with kids bumping into each other during abrupt scheduling changes, as they moved around the crowded room at the same time.
Rose also explained how the students also had access to “virtual” tutors through their computers; but I didn’t see any sign of this.  When I asked him where these virtual tutors were located and what their credentials were, he said he didn’t know, but they lived somewhere in the United States and had been provided by contractors.
Perth Amboy: is this what you want for your kids?

Even if Caffrey keeps her job, this story is not going away - stay tuned.

ADDING: I can't close this out without pointing out yet again the irony - or is it hypocrisy? - of an anti-tenure advocate like Caffrey calling for due process in her own firing. All tenure does is guarantee a teacher a hearing before an impartial third party before he is dismissed, which is exactly what Tom Moran of the Star-Ledger and B4K want for Caffrey. Yet none of them want to keep that same protection for teachers.

It would be funny if the consequences weren't so dire.

ADDING MORE: As if to make my last point:
“We like Janine Caffrey. We think she’s a good superintendent. She’s there to bring transformational change to the district. She’s not getting a fair shake right now,” said Shelley Skinner, Better Education for Kids’ deputy director. 
Skinner said Caffrey has been on the cutting edge of educational reform, and the organization believes she is doing what is best for Perth Amboy students. 
“We want to help empower the community to be part of the discussion. We want to make people aware and stand up for what’s right,” said Skinner, who added that Caffrey wants to put the interests of students before nepotism and patronism. [emphasis mine]
It's all about being "fair" - expect when you're a teacher, and you're given a review that takes away your tenure, and you can't appeal, just like TEACHNJ stipulates. Or when a bad principal won't take you and the central office can't force them to, like TEACHNJ stipulates, so you lose your job.

The trick here is whether B4K believes in "fairness" for folks who may not share their views.

6 comments:

tg said...

This stinks on ice. Shameless profiteering and condescension wrapped in self-righteousness . . . Can we get 60 Minutes on these perpetrators of fraud?

Keep up the good work.

Leonie Haimson said...

Does Joel Rose get to keep his contract?

Deb said...

I guess in some weird way I am delighted b4k decided to get involved with the Caffrey mess. Their decision highlighted their hypocrisy and insincerity. And Duke, thanks for continuing to point it out!

Duke said...

Thx everyone. Leonie, we'll keep an eye on this. It's an afterschool program, but it may be a toehold to something larger. Your report on the NYC version is a real eye opener.

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