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

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Correcting the Facts About NJ Charter Schools and My Research

I'm trying to keep this short because there are many other things that deserve my attention. But I feel compelled to respond to mischaracterizations of my work when they are directly affecting public policy, especially in my home state.

Last month, Newark Public Schools superintendent Roger León called for the NJ Education Commissioner, Lamont Repollet, to deny the renewals of four charter schools in the Newark city limits.

I'm going to hold off expressing any opinions about these specific renewals, or León's arguments about their impacts on the finances of NPS. Suffice to say that there is plenty of empirical evidence that small school districts -- which are, for all intents and purposes, what NJ charter schools are -- are not as efficient as larger ones. There is reason to believe, therefore, that small charter schools with redundant systems of administration can produce fiscal pressures on hosting public school districts, which have the obligation to fund charters. My own work in New Jersey shows how this pressure manifests, although the issue is complex. Again, we'll save a discussion of all this for later.

For now: León's letters to the commissioner refer to several pieces of research on charter schools, including a brief I wrote with Julia Sass Rubin: New Jersey Charter Schools: A Data-Driven View - 2018 Update, Part I (2018). Here's how León characterized our work:
Research conducted at the Rutgers Bloustein School of Planning & Policy shows that the proportion of special needs students has historically been far lower in charter schools than in district public schools. According to the Bloustein School's report, New Jersey Charter Schools: A Data-Driven View, the percentage of students with special needs in Newark's District schools is approximately 40% higher than in Newark's charter schools, and the percentage of Newark students with high-cost disabilities is approximately 17% higher in District schools than in the District's charter schools. Even more startling, according to the same report, the percentage of students identified as English language learners is approximately 11 times greater in Newark's District schools than in the District's charter schools.
With all due respect to Superintendent León, let me correct him: the percentage of classified students with high-cost disabilities is 17 percentage points higher than that percentage in the charters.

Why does this matter? Federal law delineates 12 classifications of learning disability types. Of these, empirical research commissioned by the State of New Jersey shows that at least two of these types -- Specific Learning Disability (SLD) and Speech/Language Impairment (SPL) -- are "low-cost."* 

Imagine two school districts, each enrolling the same overall proportion of special education students. But one of the district's population of these students has higher-cost needs; in other words, they have the same percentage of classified students, but more of those students are designated as "autism" or "emotional disturbance" or "traumatic brain injury" than the second district. That district is obviously going to have more fiscal pressure to educate its students, because the cost of educating their students is greater.

As Julia and I showed in our report, this is exactly what's happening in Newark (and other NJ school districts).

Obviously, this is going to be a concern for NPS, which has to bear the costs of educating these children with higher-cost needs. It's an obvious point and it should be no surprise that Superintendent León is making it. So what's the problem? 

Well, a couple of pro-charter advocacy groups have stepped in to object to León's letters to the commissioner. And one of their objections, from the New Jersey Children's Foundation, calls into question our report.
Second, the report by anti-charter activist Julia Sass-Rubin, has already been discredited as under-counting high-need special education students at charter schools due to data suppression rules, and is not a disinterested academic paper, but rather was funded by anti-charter foundations.
That's it; that's everything in the letter attempting to debunk our work. The sole objection -- aside from our funding, which has nothing to do with our analysis itself -- is that we are "under-countin​g​ high-need special education students at charter schools​ due to data suppression rules."

Is it true?

I invite everyone to go to the 2016 Special Education Data page at the NJDOE website. You will, indeed, find a notification that data cells of 10 or less are suppressed. What you won't find is any specific notice of how this rule is applied -- and that's important.

Because if you drop down and click the "By Disability" link under the "Ages 6-21" column, you will get a spreadsheet that clearly does not suppress any cells, no matter how small the number is in those cells.** This is the dataset Julia and I used for our paper. I see no reason to doubt the veracity of these data: they are figures published by the NJDOE, available to all. What NJCF is asserting in their letter is not true -- we did not under-count high-need special education students at charter schools​.

Let's step back a minute from this minutia and instead think carefully about the issue. NJCF is saying that Julia and I are incorrect in stating that NPS's special education population has more students with high-cost needs than the special education population enrolled in the charter schools. The logical conclusion, then, is that the Newark charters*** are enrolling just as many kids with high-cost needs as NPS.

Does that make any sense to you?

NPS has a school specifically set up to serve deaf children, the Bruce Street School. No Newark charter school has anything even close. The Camden Street School has a series of programs for  Newark students with high-cost special needs that allow them to be integrated as much as possible with general education students, while still maintaining class sizes of 5 to 6 for instruction delivery that can't be done in a mainstream setting. There's no way small charter schools that were designed to enroll a mostly general education population could deliver the same services.

This is a rational policy choice on behalf of NPS: when a large district like Newark has children who have special needs that can't be met within a mainstreaming situation, bringing them all together from across the district makes sense. School districts do this all the time. But it's impractical to think a relatively small charter school can provide the same sort of instruction geared toward special education students with profound learning disabilities.

Let me be clear: that's not a knock on the charters. Of course we don't expect charter schools to serve students with the higher-cost learning disabilities. Of course we wouldn't expect the parents of the students with those disabilities to enroll them in schools that can't serve their needs. Why would anyone dispute this? Why is NJCF wasting its time arguing this very obvious point?

The question in NJ charter school policy is not whether charter schools will ever enroll the same proportion of Limited English Proficient or special needs students as hosting public school districts -- of course they won't. The question is whether the state -- which has the sole authority to grant or deny charter school applications or renewals -- is imposing the fiscal burdens of charters on districts without fully accounting for those burdens.

When the state calculates the payment a district like Newark must make to a charter school, it makes that calculation based on a student's special education status. But the only type of disability that changes a payment amount is speech/language impairment. Which means the state demands a district pay the same amount for a charter student who has a mild reading disability (which may not even require an intervention in a smaller general education classroom) as they do for a student who has a traumatic brain injury.

So if the charter is enrolling more students with lower-cost needs, there is an additional fiscal burden on the district. How much? No one knows... because the state came up with its charter funding formula on the basis of no empirical evidence. The 90 percent calculation in the charter funding formula is based on nothing, so far as I've been able to tell. So are the weights in the charter funding formula: instead, they assume the weights used in the state's district funding formula, SFRA, are relevant to charters. But we don't know if that's true (frankly, we don't even know if the SFRA formula is valid in this day and age of higher standards, more school security, more technology, etc.).

It's not "anti-charter" to point this stuff out. And you can agree or disagree with Superintendent León, or the charter advocates, or the charter skeptics, or whomever. But we are very much in need of a real conversation about charter school policy in this state, and that conversation has to be supported by the facts, and by logical, rational analysis.

I'm human, and I've made plenty of mistakes. If I get something wrong, I'll correct it. But the NJCF critique of my work with Julia is not accurate, nor is it logical. I'll be happy to accept their apology.

ADDING: There are a lot of other questionable assertions made in the NJCF letter, and the NJ Charter Schools Association letter, that I've discussed before.

ADDING MORE: Just remembered: the 2014 disability data are also not suppressed. So it's not like 2016 was unprecedented.

* I've recently come to the conclusion that Other Health Impairment (OHI) should be included in the bin of "lower-cost" disabilities. There's further evidence that educating an OHI student has costs that are closer to SLD and SPL students than the other classifications. OHI tends to include students who have asthma or ADHD, which is often treated at no cost to the district. I'm continuing to study the issue and, in formal reports, will back up any changes in my methods with an explanation.

** As of the writing of the post, Sunday, January 12, 10:00 AM. And let me add this:

I take the privacy rights of students, especially special needs students, very seriously, as both a researcher and an educator. But I have yet to hear a convincing argument that suppressing these data is necessary to protect those rights. If there has ever been a case of a student's or family's privacy rights being impacted by the release of these data, I have yet to hear it.

If the NJDOE insists on suppressing these data, however, there should be some mechanism where researchers can obtain them for limited use. Other education datasets are available to researchers under these terms -- these data should be available as well.

*** By the way: what does the aggregate charter school special education rate -- or, for that matter, the aggregate test outcomes, LEP rate, etc. -- have to do with the specific applications for renewal of the four charters in question? Why defend the renewals of these specific charters with aggregated data for the entire Newark charter sector?

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Hoboken, NJ Charter Schools: An Update for 2020

Long time readers know I have always thought one of the most interesting charter school sectors in New Jersey, if not the United States, is in Hoboken. A small city across the Hudson from Manhattan, Hoboken has undergone a period of extraordinary gentrification over the last several years. As detailed in a great book by Molly Vollman Makris --  Public Housing and School Choice in a Gentrified City; Youth Experiences of Uneven Opportunity -- Hoboken's charter schools have become an alternative system of schooling for affluent parents in a city that still has large numbers of children living in public housing and experiencing economic disadvantage.

I interviewed Molly back in 2015, and she made an important point: segregation is not an issue that can be laid entirely at the feet of Hoboken's charter schools. There are, in fact, many factors involved in why Hoboken's schools enroll the student populations they do. But the charters, as Molly put it, are part of the reason the city hasn't been able to adequately address the realities of segregation:"So I don’t think the charters and intra-district school choice are creating segregation so much as inhibiting desegregation. I think we all could do a better job."

Other than a few visits with family, I haven't been back to Hoboken much since I did that interview. But I've kept my eye on the city, if only because I think it's a unique case study in the annals of school choice. So my spider-sense buzzed a bit when I came across this (all bolded emphases in this post are mine):
At a Hoboken Board of Education meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 10, the board voted 8-0-1 in favor of a resolution opposing Elysian Charter School's request to the state to add 36 students in K through fifth grade. 
The resolution approved 8-0-1 states, "Imposing increased charter school costs on the Hoboken Public School District, in addition to the aforementioned loss of state aid and on top of normal and expected annual cost increases, will result in further budget reductions and program cuts in the district schools to the detriment of the district academic programs."
It also charges that the charter schools have an "increasing segregative" effect on students, saying that Elysian educates a "disproportionately low number of economically disadvantaged students."
I'm going to stay away from the funding issue now, although I promise I'll be coming back to the topic later this year (I've got a few things cooking on the NJ school funding front, and work on charters and school funding is later). But the issue of segregation on Hoboken's charter schools is worth looking at more closely.

Elysian CS says it is not having a segregative effect; here's their response from the school's website:
Charter schools in Hoboken do not have a segregative effect. Demographic trends in Hoboken have resulted in a 23% point decline in the proportion of economically disadvantaged students in traditional district schools, falling from 71.5%in 2013 to 47.8% in 2019. If public charter schools were causing a segregative effect on the district, the percentage of economically disadvantaged students would have increased, not decreased over the last six years. As Hoboken District was losing economically disadvantaged students, overall, Hoboken charter schools were increasing the proportion of economically disadvantaged students enrolled.
If you take a minute to think about this statement, you'll realize it makes no sense. The overall population of disadvantaged students -- as measured by eligibility for free or educe price lunch -- may be decreasing, but that doesn't mean the student populations couldn't still differ greatly between the Hoboken Public Schools and the city's three charter schools.

In addition, Elysian is making a bold claim: that the charters are enrolling proportionally more disadvantaged students. Is it true? Let's start by looking at eligibility for free lunch (FL), which means a student's family has an income at or below 130 percent of the poverty line.

The three charters are in red; HPS schools are in blue. I have Brandt School set aside as a dotted line because it is unlike the other HPS schools in that it only enrolls children up to Grade 3 (originally, the school was the district's early childhood center; there's talk it may return to that function).

What does the data tell us? Hoboken Charter School has, indeed, enrolled more FL students.* But Elysian's free lunch-eligible population has actually decreased since 2010. Hoboken Dual Language CS (also know as HOLA) has seen little change in its FL population.

What about free and reduced price lunch (FRPL) eligibility, which sets a higher family income bar of 185 percent?

Again, since 2010, Hoboken Charter School has seen a rise in its FRPL population -- but not Elysian (or HOLA). Put simply: Since 2010, Elysian's student population has been more advantaged than all other comparable schools in the Hoboken Public Schools district.

Let's look at race:

Again, if we leave out Brandt, with its uniquely young student population, we find the charters have tended to enroll more white students than most HPS schools. That's changed a bit over the last several years... except for Elysian Charter School. If anything, Elysian's student population has become more white since 2010.

Here's the data for black student populations:

And here's Hispanic:

Let's be clear: when it comes to racial segregation and schools, there's much more going on in Hoboken than just the charters. The difference in the proportion of black students at Connors is striking when compared to the charters or the other K-6 schools in the HPS district. The decline in the Hispanic population in Wallace and Calabro is also remarkable. This said, it seems very odd for Elysian CS to deny the segregative effects of Hoboken's charter sector when viewing this data.

Let's look at one more important student characteristic: special education status. Here are the special education classification rates, which are reported at the district level, for the charters (which are de facto their own districts) and HPS (sorry about the color changes).
At first glance, it would appear that Elysian is actually pulling its weight when it comes to educating children with learning disabilities: their classification rate is nearly identical to HPS's and has been for several years.

The problem is that not all children have the same disabilities.

A bit of explanation is in order. NJDOE reports the number of students classified in one of 12 different types of disabilities. But if a district has fewer than 10 students in a particular type of disability, it suppresses the data.** It doesn't suppress a cell, however, if it has "0" students. Because of this data structure, and because we can get the total number of students from other data sources***, we can extrapolate the possible ranges of "high-cost" disability proportions.

What are "high-cost" disabilities? I basically count all disability types except for three: specific learning disabilities (SLD), speech and language (SPL), and other health impairments (OHI). SLDs and SPLs are generally learning disabilities that do not require the same level of intervention as things like autism, traumatic brain injuries, emotional disturbances, and so on. OHIs can range in severity, but often include things like asthma or ADHD, which, again, usually;y require less-costly interventions.

Of course, I'm not saying these disabilities can't be profound; as an educator, I will tell you first-hand they can be. But empirical studies have shown these three disability classifications tend to cost considerably less to address than the others.

By my calculations, only 9 percent of Elysian's special education population, at most, has been identified with any of the higher-cost disabilities. This contrasts sharply with the 35 percent figure for HPS.

Let me say what I always say when looking at the data for individual charter schools: I have no doubt Elysian Charter School has great teachers, wonderful children, and dedicated families. Like all schools, its stakeholders should be proud of their school's accomplishments and successes.

But good public policy is built on solid analysis of relevant data. And state data makes one thing very clear: the students in Hoboken's charter schools are fundamentally different from the students in its public district schools.  In the case of Elysian, that means fewer students proportionally who are in economic disadvantage, or who have a profound special education need.

Again, we'll get to the fiscal issues later. But for now: I don't know why anyone would be surprised that HPS's Board of Education has serious doubts about expanding the size of Elysian Charter School.

More to come later this year...

ADDING: Back in 2015, Elysian's senior staff was making a splash with their... unique theories on school funding.

 * Hoboken Charter School is the only one of the three charters with a high school. According to Molly's book, many affluent parents do not see this high school as an option for their children, even as they enroll them in the K-8 school. The high school is actually in a separate building, quite a ways away from the K-8 school. So it's very likely that many of the students who boost HCS's overall FL percentage are in the high school.

I can't tell how the 9-12 and K-8 population of HCS differs on FL or FRPL status, however, because NJDOE data does not disaggregate this data by grade level in charter schools -- even for different school buildings, like it does for district schools.

This is a major failing of the NJDOE data I've pointed out numerous times. It shouldn't be hard at all to fix, either. So let's do that. Please.

** Contrary to the reporting of some people who really have no damn idea what they are talking about, NJDOE has, in the past, released databases that do not suppress this data. They last did so in 2016. Unless and until they say otherwise, I will reasonably assume that data is correct.

*** Age 6-21 classified student counts can be derived from the gender files, or the LEP files. Just add males and females, or LEP and non-LEP, together.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

The Misleading Rhetoric of School "Choice" Advocates: Wealth and "Choice"

One of the functions of this blog over the years has been to deconstruct the rhetoric of education reformers as they advocate for their preferred policies. Foremost among these is the expansion of school "choice."

"Choice," in our current discourse, comes in two basic flavors: charter schools (often sold as "public charter schools," despite the many problems with the term) and vouchers (often sold as "scholarships," although the difference is practically meaningless).

The rhetoric used to push for either or both is largely similar. One of recurring themes for both charter and voucher proponents, for example, is that "choice" is giving disadvantaged families access to the same types of schooling that advantaged families enjoy.

"Choice," you see, is the reason privileged parents can send their children to "good" schools, while less-affluent parents must consign their children to "bad" schools. Because of "choice," privileged families can move to places with "better" public district schools, or enroll their children in "better" private schools. If we offer all families "choice," the argument goes, they will enjoy the same access to "good" schools that the wealthy enjoy.

Implicit in this argument is an assertion -- sometimes overtly stated, sometimes not -- that, under a school "choice" regime, disadvantaged families will enjoy access to choices that are equivalent to the school "choices" the wealthy currently enjoy. 

The logic of this entire line of argument is dependent on the idea that charter schools or vouchers schools are offering the same sort of education that affluent families enjoy in suburban public schools or well-resourced private schools. If the argument of the choicers is not that these options are equivalent, they're not really addressing the root problem: they are essentially admitting that education, even in a choice regime, will remain unequal between the rich and the poor. Because any conception of "good" and "bad" schools is relative, they would be saying that the advantaged would still send their kids to "better" schools under a "choice" system, and the disadvantaged would be consigned to schools that are "worse."

But the rhetoric of the choicers doesn't ever suggests the choices for the less-affluent will differ from the choices for the affluent under a school "choice" system. To the contrary, their arguments are designed to have us all believe that more charter schools and more vouchers will finally give everyone the same "choices" the wealthy have.

Let's look at more than a few examples (all emphases are mine).

* * *

Reason.com: "Wealthy families have long had school choice because they can afford to move to the districts with high-performing schools. Thanks to an antiquated government school funding system that closely ties zip code to education quality, low-income families have been at a disadvantage for decades. When they're implemented at the state level, school choice programs like Arizona's aim to give disadvantaged students a chance to break free from their circumstances and attend a school of higher quality than their neighborhood public school. They're meant to be a solution to the opportunity gap, not a way to make it worse."

Cato.org: "Under the status quo, wealthy families already have school choice while low-income families do not. Wealthy families can afford to live in districts with high-performing government schools or send their children to private schools. By contrast, low-income families generally only have one choice: the local assigned government school."

The Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions: "However, Beshear clearly articulates a view that limits access to alternatives to only those children fortunate enough to reside in wealthy families.

WFPL-FM reported that during this year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary campaign, Beshear said: “If you want to send your kids to private schools, that’s your right. That’s a choice that many people make and should be able to make.”

Yet by opposing a voluntary giving program which make such choices possible for many families, Beshear is really saying: You can have more choices for your children if you have the wealth which allows you to write big tuition checks to private schools. But it’s just tough luck for those families and their kids who don’t."

The Institute for Justice (Nevada): "And the fact is that wealthy families already have school choice,” House said. “This is a program to promote the choice of low-income families and the Nevada Legislature is taking away those choices with this bill."

Democracy Prep Charter Schools: "I am not only a CEO of a network of high-performing charter schools, I am a black mother. I sent one of my children to my school, Democracy Prep, for his high school education. Democracy Prep was not perfect for my son. More variety in course options and a robust coding program would have been good for him. But it was the best option for me and my family. It was a choice that we made. And I am so grateful that I was able to exercise that choice. I am grateful that we weren’t relegated to a zoned school, as so many families are. You know, where zip codes determine schooling options and children are treated as a public resource? Why should wealthy families be allowed to exercise choice, with their feet and their pocketbooks, but low-income families be told to support the traditional public school system, even when that system is failing their children?"

The Illinois Family Institute"In recent years, school choice has been a battle many parents have joined, because it should not be only wealthy parents who have the freedom to choose their children’s schools. All parents should have that freedom."

The Foundation for Economic Education: "Under the current status quo, the quality of students’ education is often determined by their parents’ income. This is because wealthy parents can afford to send their children to private schools and live in neighborhoods with the best public schools. Such options narrow as income declines, and the children of poor families—who are often people of color—have few choices. Hence, they typically attend schools with the poorest math and reading scores, the worst discipline problems, and the highest levels of violence.

A ticket out of these conditions is school choice, which financially allows parents to select the schools their children attend, regardless of whether they are public, private, or charter. Sanders is “strongly opposed“ to giving parents this option. He says this is because private and charter schools are led by 'unaccountable, private bodies, and their growth has drained funding from the public school system.'

The School Choice Movement"Opponents of school choice are loud, persistent and well funded.

But in Florida, they are not winning.

The reason is simple: the arguments for school choice are compelling.

Let’s begin with the issue of social justice. Affluent parents always have enjoyed the ability to pick their children’s schools. They can move into neighborhoods with high quality public schools. They can afford the tuition for top private schools."

The Foundation for Economic Education (again): "School choice offers a solution to this unfair reality where the rich are able to choose their school and the poor are stuck by law in a failing system. In 2016, the NAACP voted on a moratorium against charter schools, and over 160 black education reformers wrote an open letter in opposition to the declaration. They wrote: '[F]or many urban Black families, charter schools are making it possible to do what affluent families have long been able to to do: rescue their children from failing schools.'"

* * *

Now, some might argue that none of the school "choice" supporters here are outright stating that disadvantaged families will have the same choices as the wealthy. They've left open an escape hatch: they didn't explicitly say the choices would be the same for the rich and the not-rich -- only that both would have choices. So we can't really say that the "choice" advocates are claiming that the rich and the poor alike will have the same access to the same types of schooling under their plans; that would be so unfair...

Except words matter. The entire point of bringing the "choices" of the wealthy into the conversation is to make the case that vouchers will grant the less-affluent something the rich already have. And no one here explicitly acknowledges the choices won't be the same; to the contrary, the reader is guided to the logical conclusion that the advocates are calling for equality in choices between the rich and the poor. Otherwise, schooling would remain unequal -- and what's the point in changing the system if that problem remains?

If choicers really want to argue this point, however, let's look at some more examples of their rhetoric -- examples where the authors explicitly state that school choice will offer the same options for less-advantaged parents that more-advantaged parents enjoy.

* * *

Florida Parent Network"I support educational choice for all.

Educational options have existed for the wealthy for as long as anyone can remember. What’s controversial is when we suggest that those same options should be open to everyone."

Read more here: https://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/op-ed/article213232859.html?platform=hootsuite&utm_source=Unknown+List&utm_campaign=8f6ba64468-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_06_15_04_00&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_-8f6ba64468-#storylink=cpy

The Heritage Foundation: "For students who do face adversity, the best thing we can do to level the playing field is to fix our broken public school system. Students who lack rigorous school choice options in their state must attend their assigned district public school, no matter the quality.

Restricting schooling options for families reinforces the cycle of poverty for students from poor neighborhoods, and undoubtedly affects a student’s preparedness for college.

Wealthy parents have been exercising choice for their children for decades, and it is time for state lawmakers to afford that right to all families.

The Manhattan Institute: "In the American public education system, children’s educational prospects are determined by their families’ zip codes. This system reinforces a cycle of poverty as parents living in poor districts are left with no choice besides local public schools. By giving low-income families the option to send children to higher-quality schools, school choice extends to low-income families a choice that is already available to wealthy families."

The Thomas Fordham Institute: "Why vouchers? It’s no secret that wealthier parents enjoy a greater choice of schools for their children. They can afford to purchase homes in high-status suburban districts or cover the costs of private school education.

Yet few low- and middle-income families have similar opportunities. They typically send their kids to a public school that is assigned to them based on residential address. Many times, this works out fine. But when it doesn’t, students with limited means are stuck in schools that don’t meet their educational needs.

School choice, including private-school scholarships, opens opportunities and levels the playing field for less-privileged families. In Ohio, more than 35,000 youngsters already use publicly funded scholarships to attend private schools of their choosing. The overwhelming majority come from low-income and/or minority households or have a special need such as autism."

K12 Insight"To help, my colleagues and I have put together a practical guide to succeeding in a world of school choice.

[Read the guide: The School Leader’s Definitive Guide to Capturing Market Share]

In it, we attempt to shine a light on the changes taking place—and help school leaders embrace a new mindset, one that levels the playing field and keeps students coming back."

Method Modern Schools: "Granting parents the freedom to send their children to the school of their choice, regardless of address, levels the education playing field. Charter schools achieve this by offering unique educational options for all families, regardless of neighborhood or income level."

* * *

The explicit message here is that the choices offered through vouchers and charters will lead to everyone having the same choices. "Leveling the playing field" is a construction that sends a clear message: everyone's choices will be equivalent; otherwise, the field wouldn't be level. 

But let's be frank: the difference between these arguments and the ones further up is, in reality, tiny. The point of all of these statements is to get the readers to believe school "choice" will give to the less wealthy what the wealthy already have. The rhetoric of school "choice" advocates is clearly designed to make the case that charter schools and school vouchers offer everyone the same "choices" as advantaged families.

Which leads us to an obvious question: is it true? Are charter schools -- particularly the no-excuses charters in urban areas, enrolling large proportions of students of color -- at all equivalent to the public district schools found in the leafy 'burbs? Are voucher schools at all similar to suburban district schools, or the elite private schools down the street?

I've spent a lot of time on this blog over the years addressing the first question, and the answer is clearly: no, in no way are "no excuses" charters like suburban district schools. I haven't spent as much time on the second question; given the pumping up of the school voucher movement since the installation of Betsy DeVos as the SecEd, it's a point that's worth exploring. 

But the fact is that school voucher amounts are generally quite small compared to the costs of educating a student in a well-resourced private school. So it's clear that no, these programs are not offering an education that is equivalent to that enjoyed by affluent families. Again: I'm planning to get more into this question over the next year.

For now, it's enough to say this: the rhetoric of those who promote school "choice" clearly attempts to make the case that charters and vouchers grant less-affluent families choices that are equivalent to those of more affluent families. If these advocates are going to continue to make their arguments in this way, they then have an obligation to show that no-excuses charter schools and voucher-accepting private schools are equivalent to suburban public schools and well-resourced private schools.

Running away from this obligation is tantamount to admitting their rhetoric is misleading. And I know they would never want to do that... 

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Blogging Resumes

It's been a while...

I won't get into the details, but suffice to say I had to take some time off from blogging. Too much stuff on my plate, and I was running the risk of doing it all badly. Something had to give.

During the time off, I thought about shutting the blog down. I've got a place to do my Jersey-specific work, another place to do descriptive analysis and other similar research, another place to preach the gospel of equitable and adequate school funding, and a bunch of other things in the works for 2020 -- including a few partners some of you will probably be shocked to see me working with (heh, heh)...

So why keep blogging? It's way more time-intensive than you probably think, it doesn't get me any accolades, it certainly doesn't make me new friends (usually it's quite the opposite). Many times blogging has distracted me from doing paid work, or work that would up my cred in academic circles, or work around the house that keeps my marriage happy.

So why keep blogging?

The simplest answer is that I think there are analyses to be conducted or data to be crunched or points to be made that aren't appropriate for an academic journal, or a formal policy brief, or an op-ed in a news site. A blog is a junk drawer for a policy nerd like me: a place to throw all the stuff that doesn't really go anywhere else.

But it's also a place to shoot down bad faith arguments, poor analysis, and general nonsense. And we have plenty of that in the K-12 space these days. It's also a place to break down needless complexity, which is pervasive within the education policy world, especially since the economists took over... Kidding! (Sort of...)

And I've found that this blog has been a good place to explain my own work, in a voice that some may find more accessible. I was right in the middle of that when I stopped; I'm going to pick up where I left off next.

After that... who knows? As Booker T says, time is tight. So let's make the most of it. See you in a bit, and Happy New Year.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

The State of New Jersey's Teachers, Part 2: A Failure To Achieve Diversity

I'm breaking down my new report for the New Jersey Policy Perspective on New Jersey's teachers in a series of blog posts:

Part 1: Teachers, Aging, & Pensions

* * *

This graph is from the "short" version of my new report on New Jersey's teachers:

About 1 in 5 students in New Jersey is a white female -- but two-thirds of NJ's teachers are white females. Our teaching corps looks nothing like our student population.

Before I dive deeper into the data, let me first answer the obvious question: Why should we care? Does it matter that our teachers are overwhelmingly white women? 

In fact, we have more and more evidence that it does, and I share a short summary of this evidence in my report. Among the studies I cite:

Colette N. Cann, 2013: This article has an excellent review of the research on teacher-student racial alignment:
In the area of race matching, Dee (2004) examined how the racial background of teachers contributes to the academic performance of students— particularly Black students. He found that Black and White students both performed better with teachers of the same race possibly because same-race-matching of students and teachers provided positive role models for students and reduced racist teacher practices that adversely affected student performance. 
Eddy and Easton-Brooks (2011) looked at whether having an African American teacher increased the mathematics performance of Black students from kindergarten through fifth grade. Using data from 1,200 students in the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, kindergarten through fifth grades (ECLS-K-5), they found that racial matching mattered to mathematics scores for Black youth (although they didn’t find any differences by gender, socio-economic status, or racial composition of the school). 
Other studies have shown that there is a statistically significant and important relationship among the race of the teacher, the race of the student, and academic performance. Easton-Brooks et al. (2010), as cited in Eddy and Easton-Brooks (2011), found that the performance of Black youth in reading was higher if students had at least one Black teacher between kindergarten and fifth grade.
Egalite, Kisida, and Winter, 2015:We find small but significant positive effects when black and white students are assigned to teachers of their own race/ethnicity in reading and when black, white, and Asian/Pacific Islander students are assigned to teachers of their own race/ethnicity in math.

We also examine the effects of race matching by students' prior performance level, finding that lower-performing black and white students appear to particularly benefit from being assigned to a race-congruent teacher.

Lindsay and Hart, 2017: “We find consistent evidence that exposure to same-race teachers is associated with reduced rates of exclusionary discipline for Black students. This relationship holds for elementary, middle, and high school grade ranges for male and female students, and for students who do and do not use free and reduced-price lunch. Although we find reductions in referrals for a number of different types of offenses, we find particularly consistent evidence that exposure to same-race teachers lowers office referrals for willful defiance across all grade levels, suggesting that teacher discretion plays a role in driving our results."

Look, I don't think it's a good idea for black students to only have black teachers, and white students only have white teachers, and girls only have women teachers, and so on. But I do think we've got to have a teaching workforce that looks like our student body. Even if we didn't have all this evidence that teacher diversity helps student achievement, it's enough to say that teacher diversity is important because we want our schools to reflect the best values of our society -- and that includes prizing people of all different backgrounds.

But in New Jersey, we're not doing a very good job at creating a diverse workforce for our schools. Let's start with gender:

4 out of 5 New Jersey teachers are women. To those who still contend teaching is a well-paid profession (we'll get to this topic next), let me ask you this: why aren't men flocking to the profession? I mean, if it pays so well, and has such awesome job security, you'd expect the teaching corps to be getting more male, not less. But exactly the opposite is happening.

And, again: it's not just women who dominate teaching, it's white women.

There's been a very small decline in the percentage of teachers who are white; still, over 4 in 5 teachers are white as of 2017. How the other races are represented in the teaching corps is interesting:

Let me first note that race and ethnicity in the teacher workforce is defined by seven categories: White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, Pacific Islander/Native Alaskan, and Two or More Races. The number of teachers in these last three categories is so small I didn't include them in this analysis.

Over the last two decade, the percentage of Asian teachers has gone up very slightly. The proportion of Hispanic teachers has grown a bit more substantially. But the percentage of Black teachers, which was only 9 percent anyway in 1997, has gone actually down

This is discouraging, and we need to figure out why. Is the barrier to entry too great? Are there increasingly better opportunities than teaching for black college graduates? Are school districts just not hiring as many black teachers? We probably can't get to the answers through data analysis; we're going have to start doing some qualitative research into this question (and I'm going to have to start digging more through the literature to see what we already know).

Let's finish by looking at the entire student population of New Jersey, and compare it to the teacher population. Here are the students as of 2017:

And here are the teachers:

Notice how very few men of color are teachers; it's really remarkable, considering how many Black and Hispanic male students we have. 

A reporter asked me the other day whether I thought the outreach programs at teacher training institutes, especially universities, could help. I said it couldn't hurt... but let's be honest: not many talented young people of color will seriously consider a teaching career if they have other, more lucrative prospects in the labor market. 

Why would we expect graduates of color to react to economic forces differently than white college graduates? Don't they have the same student loans to pay off? Don't they have the same ambitions to lead happy, prosperous lives? Attracting more people of color and men to teaching starts with making the profession itself more attractive -- and that includes good compensation.

So let's talk about teacher pay in New Jersey next...

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The State of New Jersey's Teachers, Part 1: Teachers, Aging, & Pensions

I've been blogging for a long time, and teaching for even longer than that. One thing I've picked up from doing both is that people learning differently. Some students like learning in groups with their peers; some like one-on-one time with their teachers; some like working things out for themselves.

In the same way, when I write about education policy, I've noted that some folks like to read a long, academic policy brief, some like a short burst of tweets, and some -- believe it or not -- like to read to read the informal prose of a blog.

So, in the same way I provide multiple ways to learn for my students, I'm going to start blogging and tweeting more about my research work. Which means, this week, we're going to talk about New Jersey teachers.

* * *

I have a new report out today published by the New Jersey Policy Perspective: New Jersey's Teacher Workforce, 2019. This is actually the second in a series of pieces on Jersey education policy, the first being Bruce Baker's report on school funding from earlier this year (which I synopsized for NJPP).

One of the reasons I wanted to do this report is that so much focus has been on the plight of teachers over the last year, especially in states like West Virginia or Oklahoma or Arizona, where school funding is wholly inadequate. But there's been less focus on teachers in states like New Jersey, which has been a leader both in school funding equity and in student achievement.

When I started this, I was actually surprised about how little we really know about the Garden State's teachers. Who are they? What is their educational and racial/ethnic background? How have the demographics of the teacher corps changed?

So the report starts there -- but I also wanted to take a good hard look at how teachers are paid. For years, when Chris Christie was governor, we heard over and over again that teachers had a sweet deal: hefty raises for a job where the hours and days at work are less than other workers. But is that really true? What does the evidence show? Are New Jersey's teachers making big bucks compared to similar workers?

Further: how do salaries vary across the state? Do less advantaged districts have the ability to recruit and retain good teachers by offering competitive salaries? And what about the vaunted teacher retirement and health care benefits we're always hearing about? Are they really that lucrative?

Reasonable people can differ about how to approach the data to shed some light on these questions -- but I think I've come up with some defensible answers. Let's start by looking first at the age of the folks who sit behind the big desk...

Like all the graphs I'm going to show, this comes directly from the report, although formatting may be a little different. This shows the mean (aka average) age of teachers in NJ. It's a small but fairly steady decline. Why?

This might be my favorite graph in the whole report... but it does take a bit of explaining. What I did here was take all the teachers in 1997, and put them into "bins," based on their age. The bins are 5 years "wide": all the teachers in 1997 who were between age 20 and 24 go in one bin, then all the teachers who are age 25 to 29 in the next, and so on.

I did that for 1997 because that was the earliest year for which I had good data. Then I did it for five years later, in 2002. And again in 2007, and so on, all the way to 2017. What you get at the end is a graph that shows how the distribution of teachers by age has changed over the last two decades.

Here's the takeaway: Two decades ago there were a lot of teacher in their 50's who have since retired. We now have many teachers who won't retire for another couple of decades, at least. Which means that we don't have as many teachers entering the pension system as we will 20 years from now...

Which means that now is the time to strengthen our pension system, before the next wave of teacher retirees arrives.

We'll talk more about pension and their importance as this series continues. For now, let's see how teachers' ages vary across different types of NJ schools:

Again, some explanation is in order. New Jersey's schools districts are classified into different "District Factor Groups" (DFGs). DFG-A and DFG-B are the most disadvantaged communities: high levels of poverty, low property values, etc. Some of these districts were party to the Abbott lawsuits, which led to additional funding for them. But some were not; they haven't always had the same access to resources as the Abbotts.

DFG-CD/DE/FG districts are less disadvantaged; for lack of a better term, let's call them "working class" communities. The most affluent districts are DFG-GH/I/J. Then there are the charters schools, which, in NJ, are de facto autonomous school districts, accountable only to the state. "Special Services" districts serve children with profound special education needs. Finally, Vo-Tech districts, which generally fall along county lines, provide vocational and technical training for high school students.

The most obvious thing to notice in this graph is how young the charter school teachers are compared to all the other publicly funded schools. As I've noted many times, this creates a serious problem: charter schools may well be "free riding" on the other schools' wages. Charters can offer lower wages because they know their teachers won't stay long, bolting to better-paying districts as soon as they can.

But the charters can only get away with this because their young teachers know that, if they can stick it out a few years, better paying jobs in district schools will be available. The more I study this, the more indisputable the evidence becomes.

But the other thing here that stands out is how much older the vo-tech teachers are than everyone else. I really don't know why that may be... but considering how much emphasis state legislators have been putting on vo-tech lately, we probably should take a closer look at this. Because...

The vo-tech teachers are older, but they're less a little less experienced, on average. That suggests to me these schools are may be drawing from a pool of folks who worked into private sector for a while, then entered teaching. What does it take to recruit these people into vo-tech schools? We'll see in a bit.

But the big story is still the charters: the teachers there have far less experience than all the other schools. Again: do we have a free riding problem?

Let's talk about race, gender, and New Jersey's teachers next...

Friday, August 23, 2019

Clapping Harder For the Merit Pay Fairy


Earlier this week, I wrote about the death of the Merit Pay Fairy in Newark, New Jersey.

Hey, Jazzman, you bum -- I ain't dead yet!

Back in 2012, Newark began an experiment in teacher merit pay, fueled by funds from Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg. Teachers were promised up to $20 million over three years in extra incentive pay -- but in the first year, only $1.4 million was disbursed, and most of that appears to have comes from other teachers, who had their pay docked because they were deemed "ineffective."

Merit pay, in other words, was little more than a broken promise to the teachers of Newark right from the start. A survey of Newark teachers in the first year found a large majority did not see the compensation system as "reasonable, fair, and appropriate." (p. 24) It's not a surprise, therefore, that this past month both the teachers union in Newark, the NTU, and the district's administration decided that the program was not worth continuing. 

But some reformy folks believe in merit pay the same way some children believe in fairies: they don't want to acknowledge the evidence that shows, even in the most generous reading, that the benefits of merit pay are very small and likely are not indicative of true increases in student learning. Like Peter Pan, these true believers hope against hope that fairies can be brought back to life simply by clapping harder:
In 2012, Newark Public Schools did something remarkable. The district reached an agreement with the Newark Teachers Union that would fundamentally shift how teachers are not just evaluated but paid. 
Then-Gov. Chris Christie and Randi Weingarten, the President of the American Federation of Teachers, announced the groundbreaking deal together on national television. At the time, my organization, the National Council on Teacher Quality, called the contract “a model to which other districts should aspire.”
That's from Kate Walsh, president of NCTQ, an organization that has previously held up Newark Public Schools (NPS) as an exemplar of teacher evaluation, claiming the district was "getting results" from its system:
The district gave the evaluation system a chance to work. While Newark saw students’ achievement decline initially after the new evaluation system was implemented, the district persevered and student achievement rose to the level it had been before and, in English, exceeded previous levels. (p.12)
It's hard to be more vague than that -- how was student achievement measured? What was the improvement? Most importantly: how do we know if the teacher evaluation system was affecting results?

As Bruce Baker and I pointed out in our review of NPS "reforms," plenty of other districts with similar demographics were showing similar growth in student achievement, without things like merit pay. In addition, Newark has not seen the same demographic shifts over time many comparison districts have.

You must account for this stuff if you're going to make a causal claim about merit pay in Newark. Alas, Walsh still seems wholly uninterested in digging into these details; for example:
The district would also start to use their dollars in the same way that other employers do. Pay would become a strategic tool to attract the best teachers to where they were most needed. Teachers who were ineffective would no longer receive an annual raise. Teachers who were rated as highly effective earned a healthy $5,000 bonus. Even better, high performing teachers who were either able to teach subjects that were hard for the district to staff, particularly in the lowest performing schools, could earn even more, up to $12,500 a year.
In the first year of the contract, Newark had about 3,200 teachers. How many qualified for the highest bonus, $12,500? Only eleven. Is Walsh really trying to make the case this small disbursal made a significant difference in teacher quality in Newark? She continues:
The results spoke for themselves. After five years of implementation, 96 percent of highly effective teachers chose to stay in Newark and 49 percent of ineffective teachers were voluntarily leaving the district—exactly the sort of pattern schools need to see but rarely do. Accordingly, the district has higher student enrollment now than at any other time in recent history, suggesting parents gained a renewed confidence in the district.
First of all, we have no way of knowing whether these teacher attrition and retention rates are significantly better than they would be in the absence of the merit pay scheme. We don't know how they compare to similar districts' rates. We don't even know how they compare to rates before merit pay in Newark. Again, it's completely unwarranted to make any sort of causal claim without at least some attempt to compare these rates to a counterfactual.

Second, the notion that there's any evidence that shows student enrollment has increased because of "renewed confidence" due to merit pay is absurd on its face: "I was going to move my family, but now that Newark has teacher merit pay, we're staying!" Maybe the city's child population is simply increasing. Is Walsh so enamored with merit pay she's willing to make wild stretches like this?

Apparently, she is:
Where once compensation was used as a strategic deployment of resources to ensure the district can fill its vacancies, keep its best teachers, and ensure the most vulnerable students have access to them, soon there will be nothing but raises based on years of experience, and requiring teachers to spend precious time and money earning another degree they more than likely do not need. 
Research shows over and over again that advanced degrees do not make teachers more effective with the exception of math and science. 

First of all, there is a large body of evidence that shows teacher experience correlates with effectiveness. And while gains in effectiveness are strongest in the first few years, gains do persist up through the third decade of a teacher's career. Tying compensation to experience is hardly a policy without evidence to support it.

Next: "the exception of math and science" is a very big exception. Is Walsh prepared to offer a bonus only to math and science teachers with advanced degrees? And is she really sure French teachers don't benefit from degrees in French, or music teachers don't benefit from degrees in conducting, or that teachers in many other subjects don't benefit from gaining expertise through earning an advanced degree in that subject?

I've been looking at the research on advanced degrees and teaching for some time now, and the conclusion I've come to is that it is highly limited. Most studies don't account for alignment of teaching subject and degree concentration; in other words, the results are likely skewed because they don't separate getting a degree in what you teach from getting any degree.

These studies also usually don't account for variations in the quality of the degree-granting programs: crappy on-line programs are lumped in with rigorous degrees from research universities. In addition, the student outcomes are almost always measured by test scores, which limits the teachers studied to tested grades (3-8) and only two subjects (math and English).

Walsh's sweeping statement is simply not justified. Further, she ignores the reality that NPS must compete with other districts that offer masters pay bumps to attract qualified teaching candidates. Is the district suppose to ignore this reality? Especially because there is no evidence whatsoever that NPS has attracted better candidates to its teaching staff than other districts?

As I said in the last post: there was supposed to be an ongoing study of merit pay in NPS. But that study ended after a single year. We have no evidence whatsoever that Newark attracted better teaching candidates, improved student outcomes, or raised teacher effectiveness by using merit pay.

But this lack of evidence isn't stopping Walsh from clapping harder:
In 2012, Newark Public Schools took bold steps to create a compensation system that would help to attract and keep the best teachers. The district used resources strategically to ensure the most vulnerable students had access to the best teachers, an accomplishment that many districts struggle to achieve. With this new contract, instead of being a leader in strategic compensation, Newark becomes a district that takes a one-size-fits-all approach to its teachers, to the detriment of its students and teachers alike.
Even by current reformy standards, this statement is way over the top. We have no evidence the best teachers in Newark went to the neediest students. We have no evidence Newark was better at teacher allocation than districts that didn't implement merit pay. We have no evidence Newark is now a "one-size-fits-all" district. We have no evidence merit pay was a benefit to Newark's teachers and students.

What we do know is that the majority of Newark teachers didn't think the system was fair. That, by itself, is enough to declare Newark's merit pay experiment dead -- even if some folks keep clapping for it.

UPDATE: After I posted this blog, I went back and looked at the teacher survey again, which is part of a report commissioned by the American Institutes for Research. AIR is an excellent research organization, and they produce high-quality work. That said, there are a few oddities in their Newark report:
In response to a set of questions about their knowledge of the current evaluation process, 83 percent of teachers and 99 percent of school leaders reported that they have a clear understanding of the evaluation process. In addition, in response to a set of questions about the fairness of the evaluation process, 72 percent of teachers and 92 percent of school leaders reported that the evaluation process is fair, which is larger than the 30 percent reported fairness by teachers in an evaluation of 25 districts in New Jersey (Firestone, Nordin, Shcherbakov, Kirova, & Blitz, 2014) and the 39 percent reported fairness by teachers in 10 districts in Arizona (Ruffini, Makkonen, Tejwani, & Diaz, 2014). [p.20]
Let's set aside the Arizona survey, which I haven't yet read, and just focus on the New Jersey one. That report, which I'm well-acquainted with as it came out of Rutgers (where I got my PhD and current teach part-time), did not have a sample of representative districts. It was, instead, an evaluation of a pilot program of teacher evaluation conducted in 25 districts across the state. It had a low response rate (39 percent), but more important, it was conducting a survey after the state had imposed a new law on districts, TEACHNJ, forcing them to rework their evaluation systems.

I can tell you as a teacher who lived through that time: TEACHNJ was not popular with many working teachers in the state. So it shouldn't be surprising the popularity of the new system was so low. Unlike Newark in its first year, there wasn't a whole bunch of money promised from an outside source going to these districts.

My point here is that the comparison is, at best, strained. And AIR really should have spelled out more clearly the limits of the comparison of the two reports.

Here's another oddity from the AIR report:
Figure 2 shows that the retention rates among teachers rated “effective” and “highly effective” exceed 90 percent, whereas retention rates among teachers rated “partially effective” and “ineffective” are 72 percent and 63 percent, respectively. In contrast, the most recent results from the national 2012–13 Teacher Follow-Up Survey indicate that 84 percent of public school teachers are retained, on average (Goldring, Taie, & Riddles, 2014).
Golding et al. does find 84.3 percent of teachers stayed in their positions -- but that's all teachers, not "effective" ones. There's simply no way to know, based on this report, whether Newark did any better in retaining its better teachers thanks to merit pay.

Again, it's fine to include this data point, but a little more context is probably in order.