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, May 19, 2019

Stuff Journalists Should Know About Charter Schools

I can't say I'm surprised, but it looks like Bernie Sanders' latest policy speech on education – where, among other things, he calls for a ban on for-profit charter schools and other charter school reforms -- has generated a lot of fair to poor journalism that purports to explain what charters are and how they perform.

Predictably, the worst of the bunch is from Jon Chait, who cheerleads for charters often without adhering to basic standards of transparency. Chait's latest piece is so overblown that even a casual reader with no background in charter schools will recognize it for the screed that it is, so I won't waste time rebutting it.

There are, however, plenty of other pieces about Sanders' proposals that take a much more measured tone... and yet still get some charter school basics wrong. I'm going to hold off on citing specific examples and instead hope (against hope) that maybe I can get through to some of the journalists who want to get the story of charters right.

Here are some things a journalist should understand before attempting to write about charter schools:

1) The CREDO studies are severely limited, and their reporting of effect sizes in "days of learning" is not warranted.

It seems that the CREDO studies of charter school effects continue to stand as the go-to source for journalists looking to find if charters "work." It should go without saying that relying on one methodology to make sweeping statements about the efficacy of a particular policy is highly problematic -- especially when the methods used in the CREDO studies have been so poorly documented.

The 2015 urban charter study seems to be the one cited most often in the press -- and yet journalists often fail to understand that it is not a national study. It is, instead, a study of multiple regions, picked by the CREDO team for... reasons? Here in New Jersey, for example, the CREDO study of the state found that gains were confined to Newark -- the only city from New Jersey included in the 2015 report. Why omit Jersey City and other districts? They don't say.

The CREDO studies essentially match charter students to a "virtual" public school student. That match, as Andrew Maul and Bruce Baker point out, is only as good as the data -- and the data isn't good. Students are classified as "poor" or "not-poor"; "student with disability" or "student without disability." When you have data this crude, you need to approach the results with great caution.

But the CREDO team does exactly the opposite: they translate the effects into a "days of learning" measure that is unvalidated. Time and again, I've seen journalists write that these studies show charter students demonstrate X number of days of extra learning. When you follow the citations in the reports, however, you find there is no basis for ever making that claim.

Instead, the aggregate effects sizes in the CREDO studies show a small gain: statistically significant largely because the sample sizes in these studies are large, but of little practical significance. I made this chart a few years ago:

The CREDO effects are a tiny fraction of the effect of family income on student achievement (as Sean Reardon notes, that income gap is getting wider). So any notion that charters are "closing the opportunity gap" is just not held up by CREDO's evidence.

2) Charter schools are publicly funded, but that doesn't automatically make them "public" schools.

We keep having this argument, but getting charter school supporters to see the obvious differences between charters and public district schools has become an exercise in futility. Inevitably, they define "public" as whatever they think it should be: "This charter school is funded with public money, and it's regulated by the state, and it's open to all, so it must be public!"

On its face, that statement is way too facile. Charter schools are often not open to all: they pick their grade levels, cap their enrollments, and sometimes have admission requirements that are onerous. A charter school can close at any time; when they do, a public school district must provide seats for the charter's former students.

Aside from this obvious difference, however, we continue to see differences between charters and public school districts in student rights, taxpayer rights, transparency, and organization: see here, here, here, here, here, and here for starters.

The issue of whether charter schools are public is complex. The courts are, in many ways, just starting to address the issue. Simple blanket statements that charter schools are public schools overlooks this reality.

3) There is some evidence that charter school expansion affects public district school finances, although context matters a lot.

My own research shows that charter schools in New Jersey impose fiscal pressures on schools through enrollment declines. But context is critical: not all states see the same effects. A new paper by Paul Bruno, for example, shows markedly different effects in California.

I don't think we'll ever find a simple answer to the question: "Do charters drain money from traditional public schools?" My research suggests in some states charter expansion increases spending per pupil in public district schools. Whether that spending helps students or is simply an increase in inefficiency is an open question.

There is, however, reason to believe that many charter schools are inefficiently small. And in some cases it appears that charter schools do not make locational decisions that maximize system-wide efficiency. Again, this is a complex issue. The simple claim that "the money follows the child," and therefore fiscal consequences are irrelevant, ignores some important realities.

4) The "best" charter sectors get their gains through increased resources, peer effects, and a test prep curriculum -- and not through "charteriness."

Writers like Chait are certain that "good" charter schools get their effects because they are free from unions and bureaucracy, and because they've figured out some curricular and instructional magic tricks. But there is very little evidence to support the claim. What the data show instead is that higher-performing charter schools have a formula for "success" that is rather simple, but difficult to bring to scale.

I'll use Newark as an example because it is often lauded, along with Boston, as a city that is expanding charter schools the "right" way. I've spent a lot of time looking at the data, and the explanation for Newark's charter sector gains -- which, by the way, do not close the opportunity gap -- starts with this table, taken from my latest report on New Jersey's charter schools:

Newark's charter schools employ teachers who have far less experience than teachers in the public schools. Consequently, their costs for salaries are much lower. This allows them to pay their teachers more than comparably experienced teachers in the Newark Public Schools; for that extra pay, the charters offer a longer school day (and year).

In the absence of other learning opportunities for Newark's children, extra time in school is a good thing. The question, however, is whether this model can be sustained without the charters having the ability to free-ride on NPS's teacher wages; in other words, would the charters still be able to recruit their constantly churning staffs if the teacher candidates didn't know they could eventually transfer out into better paying jobs with shorter hours/years?

Next -- and we've gone over this repeatedly, but some remain in denial -- there is plenty of evidence students self-select to remain in charters with "no excuses" disciplinary policies:

And no, the students don't just leave when they transfer to private or competitive admission high schools; if they did, all the attrition would be between grades 8 and 9.

Finally, as Daniel Koretz notes, "no excuses" charters freely admit they engage in a curriculum heavy on test prep. Bruce Baker and I have found evidence that Newark's charters do not deploy nearly as many resources into non-tested subjects as the public district schools. Focusing on the test will inevitably raise test scores, but there's a question as to whether those gains reflect "real" learning.

So the secret of "no excuses" charters is no secret: more time in school, peer effects, and a focus on test prep. Can this be scaled up? Even the recent study about scaling up Boston's charter sector shows only 17 percent of middle schoolers are enrolled in charters after expansion; that's not a lot, at least compared to places like Newark. What happens if charters get up to 40 percent? 50? 70? Will qualified teacher candidates still be easy to find? Somehow, I doubt it.

5) "Non-profit" charter schools can and do engage in behaviors that are not in the public interest.

Sanders' proposal calls for abolishing for-profit charter schools. Many charter advocates are getting behind this idea, as the outrageous behaviors of some of these operators is hard to justify. But what's missing from the conversation is the fact that nonprofit charters are hardly squeaky clean in their operations.

In a stellar bit of investigative journalism, The North Jersey Record lays out the issue: charters can organize as nonprofit "shells," and then contract out large parts of their operations to for-profit charter management organizations (CMOs). Often these charters make deals for their facilities that are not in the taxpayers' best interests; essentially, the public pays for buildings -- which, in some cases, they used to own! -- to move them into private hands.

New Jersey is considered to be one of the better states when it comes to charter regulation. And yet, because of poor planning on the part of the legislators who wrote the original charter school law, charters have been forced into facilities deals that are highly questionable. Unfortunately, it appears at least some charter operators saw opportunity in this situation, and have enriched themselves at taxpayers' expense.

It's also worth noting that some executives in the largest nonprofit charters have done very well for themselves:

Do public district school officials engage in self-serving behaviors? Sure -- but that makes the point. Operating a nonprofit charter school does not automatically mean the government shouldn't be closely monitoring your actions.

Journalists, I know this stuff is complicated, and you're on a deadline, and your readers aren't going to wade through all this (although... are you really sure about that?). I'm just asking you to stop for a couple of minutes before you jump into charter school policy and consider a few things. You can do better than Jon Chait -- much better.

ADDING: Sweet Christmas, the comments on Chait's piece are a dumpster fire on top of a superfund site. There appear to be people whose only function in life is to defend Chait from not revealing his conflicts of interest.

And I thought nj.com's comments were the worst. Is it always this bad at New York?

Saturday, May 4, 2019

How NOT To Evaluate Education Policy: A Newark Example

One thing I've learned from years of writing on education policy: the more convoluted the talking point, the more likely it's twisting the facts.

For example [all emphases below are mine]:
Today, African-American students in Newark are four times more likely to go to a quality school than they were in 2006. 
That's from a piece by Kyle Rosenkrans, who is launching something called the New Jersey Children's Foundation (because what we really need around here is another education "advocacy" group...).

I've seen variations of this talking point in other places:
“There is not a city in America that has experienced a greater expansion of educational opportunity than Newark over the last decade,” said Ryan Hill, CEO of KIPP New Jersey charter schools. He points to test score results showing African American kids in Newark are now four times as likely to enroll in a school where students outperform the state average than they were in 2006.
At least Hill is specific, unlike Rosenkrans's use of the watery term "quality school." But where did this data nugget come from? I can't trace the source of the "four times" claim, but the same methodology was used back in 2015, when Andrew Martin, who also worked for KIPP-NJ, wrote a piece in The 74:
The percentage of black Newark students attending a school that beat the state proficiency average has tripled in the past 10 years, and this increase can be attributed almost entirely to the growth of the charter sector.
Martin's method was updated in 2017 by Jesse Margolis in a report on Newark's schools:
Since 2014, the share of Black students in grades 3-8 in Newark attending a school that beat the state proficiency average has risen dramatically, reaching 27% by 2017. Black students in Newark are now three times more likely to attend a school that performs at or above the state average then they were in 2009, prior to the reforms.
So this talking point has been passed around and updated for four years... but, so far as I know, no one has stopped and asked whether this is a valid way to assess improvements in Newark's schools.

In my view, it isn't.

Let's set aside the very real problem of making any comparison between two groups on proficiency, simply noting for now that proficiency is a binary measure (you're either proficient or you're not) that can mask student growth or decline that does not cross the proficiency threshold. We'll also set aside the problem of comparing two groups -- here, black students in Newark and all other students in the state -- without making adjustments for socioeconomic status, special education needs, limited English proficiency, prior test score achievement, resources, and a raft of other things that affect test scores.

Instead, let's ask a simple question: Can a district improve the likelihood of students attending a "good" school without actually improving student achievement?


Here's a hypothetical school district with 7 schools, each with 100 students (I am keeping the numbers simple to make this easy to follow). Let's say a school whose proficiency rate is 50 percent or higher is "successful." In our example, only one school meets this mark. The 100 students enrolled are in a "successful" school -- regardless of their own proficiency

The other schools are not "successful": only 20 students out of 100 are proficient. The probability of attending a "successful" school in this district is 14 percent.

Now a new school comes along and draws students from each "failing" school: 5 who are proficient, and 5 who aren't. Again, no individual students have changed their proficiency status. What happens?

60 more students are now in a "successful" school -- even though no individual student has moved from non-proficient to proficient. The district now has 160 students in "successful" school; the probability rises to 23 percent -- all without changing any individual student's proficiency!

But the district keeps hearing how great it's doing, so it keeps shuffling students around:

The new school draws another 10 students from each "failing" school: 5 proficient, 5 not. By now, the district realizes its schools are inefficiently small; so it closes one of the "failing" schools and distributes the students to the other "failures."

Again: no student has changed in their individual proficiency. But the probability of attending a "successful" school has shot up!

220 students are now in a "successful" school; the probability is now 31 percent, more than double.

Any district can easily raise the chance of attending a "successful" school simply by shuffling kids around.

This appears to be what happened in Newark. We know that charter school students tend to have higher prior achievement than NPS students; the Harvard report on Newark reforms said so. Simply clustering more "proficient" kids into charter schools will raise the probability of students being in a "successful" school.

So, no, this is not a valid way to judge whether Newark's schools have improved. Any measure of school effectiveness that can be increased without improving student outcomes isn't something we should be talking about.

So let's not.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Jersey Jazzman: Year 9

I keep of list of stuff I'm supposed to blog about, and right now that list is long. I've yet to give my thoughts on Bruce Baker's excellent report on New Jersey school funding, which you really need to read. There's also the tax incentive nonsense happening here in Jersey, which is a cautionary tale for the rest of the country. There are the great reports about charter school abuses in New Jersey and California we need to examine.

I still haven't discussed my own work on how charter school growth negatively affects the finances of public school districts. I want to talk about my field trip to Kansas City to party/parry with labor economists. And it's time to go back and look again at all the problems with measuring student growth and attributing that growth to teachers and schools.

But before I get to all that, let me take a minute and talk about this blog on its ninth anniversary.

When I told Mrs. Jazzman last night I've been at this for nine years, she didn't believe it. But in my mind, it makes perfect sense: I started this thing in response to the nonsense coming from the Chris Christie administration way back in the spring of 2010. Now Christie's gone, after wreaking havoc on the state for two terms. Nine years seems just right.

At the time, Christie was running around the state demanding teachers take a pay freeze and pay more toward their health care. He claimed this would make up for a $800 million shortfall, which was largely caused because he refused to renew a millionaire's tax that had been in place for years. Of course, his claim wasn't true, and he forgot that freezing teacher pay would bring down income tax revenues for the state.

What frustrated me at the time was that no one in the press appeared interested in asking about the specifics of Christie's plan -- and yet the specifics were what made the plan viable or not. If there's a running theme for this blog over the last nine years, it's exactly that: In public policy, the details matter, because that's how we determine whether policies will be effective and whether they will have unintended consequences.

Take merit pay for teachers, which is getting a new look thanks to Kamala Harris's recent proposal to increase educator's pay. It sounds like a good idea... until you get to the details. How are you going to determine who gets merit pay? Through biased, noisy "growth" measures? What about the majority of teachers who don't teach tested subjects? Will you assess their availability for merit pay based on observation rubrics that have scant evidence to support them and are used in innumerate ways? Or will you use measures of growth not linked to tests -- measures for which we have absolutely no evidence of validity or reliability?

How will you distribute the teachers who do get merit pay? Will you force them to take more "difficult" assignments? What will you say to the parents of students who don't get a merit pay teacher? Will you be taking away money for merit pay from less "meritorious" teachers (the answer is inevitably: "Yes")? What happens to the pool of teacher candidates when you do that?

Or take school choice. It sounds like a good idea... but as we've seen, there are all kinds of unintended consequences that come from injecting market forces into public institutions. Same with high-stakes testing, or implementing new standards, or changing how school revenues are allocated, or any number of other education policies.

Questioning policies like these isn't nit-picking; it's doing the work. And if this little blog has helped inform the discussion, and put bad policies under the microscope, it's been worth the effort.

One of the nicest outcomes of writing this blog has been meeting so many dedicated stakeholders: parents, students, teachers, policymakers, analysts, and others who care enough about education to enter the conversation and defend their positions publicly. My blogroll on the left (which I try to keep current, but isn't always) has links to many of these folks. If you care about education, get to know them -- it'll be worth your time.

If you'll indulge me, a few more personal notes:

- I just finished a PhD in Education Theory, Organization, and Policy this fall. This has led me to become involved in several different education policy projects, even as I continue teaching in the classroom. I do think it's important to have working teachers -- or, at least, people who have significant prior experience working in schools -- involved in the education policy world.

But I still intend to keep this blog active, no matter what else I have going on. Sometimes education policy issues are best addressed through an objective policy brief or academic paper; other times, however, call for a little snark.

- The laziest critique of any analyst is to claim that they are not "objective." I'm all for being clear about positionality, but if the best you can lob at someone is where they get their funding or who they hang with, you're not doing the work.

A good analyst comes at an issue with an open mind, but not an empty one. I arrive at my positions based on study and practice. I'll have a good-faith debate with anyone, and I'll change my mind if you've got a good point -- I've done it plenty of times before. But I've largely given up sparring with the indolent. Life is short.

- Over the years, I've spent a lot of time writing blog posts. I don't know if my family considers that a sacrifice -- it has kept me out of their hair -- but Mrs. Jazzman and the Jazzboys have been very patient and supportive. Thanks, guys.

And so on to Year 10...

The Merit Pay Fairy says: "After nine years, dat Jazzman still ain't objective!"

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Only You Can Prevent Bad Tax Policy Discussions

When I started this blog up again earlier this year, I told myself I wasn't going to waste a lot of time debunking nonsense in the local media. Life is short and there's a lot to write about.

But some stuff I come across is so bad, I just can't let it go:
Q. Gov. Phil Murphy wants to raise the tax on incomes over $1 million, but Legislative leaders say they oppose that. Polls show overwhelming support among voters, so what gives on the politics? 
DuHaime: New Jersey families are overtaxed, and everyone knows if Trenton is talking about higher taxes, they’re eventually coming for you, too. Our elected leaders are supposed to do what’s right, not just what works in class warfare polling. From a policy perspective, New Jersey is too heavily reliant on our top earners. 1% of the taxpayers pay nearly 40% of the income taxes; 10% of the taxpayers pay nearly 70% of the income taxes. Look what happened when the financial markets nosedived a decade ago. The treasury of New Jersey took a huge hit because we rely so heavily on the highest earners. Finally, those with means can and do move to states, and they take their jobs, their spending, their philanthropy and their families with them. [emphasis mine]
We'll leave aside the myth of wealth migration and focus instead on the claim that the state is too reliant on the wealthy for tax revenue. There are at least three major problems with the statement above:

1) You must account for local taxes as well as state taxes in any meaningful analysis of tax burdens.

States vary significantly in what revenues for governmental services are provided by the state or by localities. That's why nearly every credible analysis of tax burdens by state combines local and state taxes.

2) Income taxes are only one source of revenue for the state.

States and localities have a variety of ways to collect revenues: income taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, gas taxes, fees, tolls, etc. Isolating income taxes, which tend to be less regressive, will give a false picture of the overall tax burden in a state. (Having a broad mix of taxes, by the way, is a strategy to address the issue of revenue instability due to economic changes.)

The good folks at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy have what I believe is the most credible way of comparing total tax burdens across income distributions. Here's their analysis of New Jersey:

The top 1 percent actually have a lower overall tax burden than middle income taxpayers.

3) The top 1 percent pay a big slice of the total income tax revenues because they earn a big slice of the total income!

This one really drives me bananas. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the top 1 percent of earners in New Jersey took 19.7 percent of the total income in 2015. Of course they paid more in taxes -- they made more of the money!

And again: it isn't meaningful to compare the 1-percenters' tax rate on one state tax to taxpayers at other income levels. You have to compare the total state and local tax burden to get to an analysis that's useful.

Here's a crazy idea: instead of giving valuable media space to "political insiders," why don't media outlets instead give the space to people who actually study this stuff carefully and can help citizens understand public policy issues?

Crazy thought, I know...

Jersey Jazzman (artist's conception)

ADDING: Sweet mercy, just make it stop:
Fewer still mention that the top 20 percent of households will pay 87 percent of the 2018 taxes — up from 84 percent in 2017. The bottom 60 percent of households will also pay no net federal income tax for 2018.
Say it with me: the wealthy pay more in income taxes because they make more of the money! And again, income tax is just one part of the total tax burden for an individual.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

The Case For Stable, Adequate, and Predictable School Funding

Here in New Jersey, we're entering budget season -- and that means the beginning of the annual ritual of declaring "winners and losers" in state aid to school districts. Governor Phil Murphy just released his budgetary plan for schools, showing which districts will get more or less aid from the state this year.

In a $38.6 billion budget, PreK-12 school aid in all its forms totals $15.5 billion -- that's 40 percent of the total budget (and includes payments into the school staff pensions). But in the past several years, the total amount of aid has not been as controversial as where the aid goes.

A particular sore spot has been adjustment aid, a category of state aid that has kept some districts' total aid higher than it would otherwise be, even as those districts have seen declines in enrollment or rises in the ability to collect local taxes.

There will, undoubtedly, be plenty of analysis about whether the winners and losers are being treated fairly. I'm sure I'll have a few things to say in the coming weeks and months.

But right now, I want to take a step back and see the larger picture, both here in New Jersey and in other states. Because focusing on winners and losers can keep us from thinking about why we have state school aid programs, what we want from them, and how we can make them better.

That's not to say the effects of particular policies on individual districts isn't important, and isn't worthy of our time. But if we don't have a clear vision of what we want in a school funding system, we can get caught up in who's up and who's down, rather than whether the entire system is being served well.

So, in no particular order, here are some principles I believe should be applied to any analysis of a statewide school funding plan:

- State funding programs should pursue (at least) two major goals: getting more funding to the students who need it, and making taxes more fair for local residents.

In the wonky world of school finance research, we've started to establish a new normal: money does matter. Taking the opposite position has become akin to being a climate change denier: you are simply no longer credible if you insist that more funding can't improve student outcomes (even if how to apply those funds is still subject to debate).

Further, nearly everyone now understands that students with special needs require more revenues to equalize their educational opportunities. Even Chris Christie, when pushing his insane "Fairness Formula," acknowledged that special education students, for example, need more funding so their learning disabilities can be addressed.

So a state aid system should drive more funding toward districts with greater numbers of students in economic disadvantage, or who don't speak English as their first language, or who have special education needs.* But the system also needs to acknowledge that communities with different levels of wealth have different abilities to raise revenues locally.

As I've explained previously, towns and cities that have low property values must tax themselves at higher rates just to raise equivalent revenues. In other words: if Newark wanted to raise the same amount of property tax revenue per house on average as Chatham, its tax rate would have to be much higher, because its houses are worth much less. School aid funding formulas should acknowledge this and drive aid toward districts whose capacity to tax themselves is lower than others.

To the extent that state aid programs meet both of these goals -- getting more funds to students who need them, and making local taxes more fair -- we should consider them successful.

- School leaders can't be expected to make effective plans if their districts' revenues are always subject to political winds.

District superintendents and their staffs should be able to set goals and make plans in a reasonably long time frame. But that's impossible when budgets depend on state aid that is determined year-to-year, with little time between the announcement of the aid and the start of school.

One of the responses I hear to school districts that have lost aid is: "Well, you should have made plans." That's simply not reasonable: you can't go to your community and make a case to raise more local taxes, or make cuts in your own budget, without having at least some idea of how state aid to your district will change in the future.

State revenues are subject to larger economic forces, so there are times when aid may be less than expected because of a serious economic downturn. But aid formulas ought to be stable, and districts should have time to respond to concrete changes. That's just good public policy.

- "Stealth inequities" in school funding should be avoided.

A few years ago, Bruce Baker and Sean Corcoran wrote a weighty policy brief about the school funding systems in several different states. One of their key points is that these states often put provisions into their school aid formulas that undermine the goal of making funding more equitable. In New York, for example, the state gives every district $500 per pupil in state aid, no matter that district's level of student need or ability to raise its own revenues locally. That diverts money away from districts who need it more, but have less capacity to raise it.

In New Jersey, adjustment aid is, arguably, a stealth inequity: it privileges some districts over others arbitrarily. Tax abatements** are another: they can artificially decrease the calculation of how much a district can raise locally for its schools.

I don't necessarily have a problem with localities using tax incentives in some -- some -- cases to spur investment and growth, although the ensuing race to the bottom remains a big problem. But rewarding a city or town that doesn't tax itself properly with increased state aid at another town's expense isn't right. Again: state aid is supposed to help those districts that don't have the capacity to raise more funds, not the districts that have the capacity but just won't do it.

- School funding policy should acknowledge that building and maintaining a high-quality teaching corps is a worthy goal that requires adequate funding.

No one has done more to cast doubt on the relationship between school funding and student achievement than economist Eric Hanushek. But even he has provided evidence that building a high-quality teacher workforce requires paying teachers competitive wages.

Back in the Great Recession, there was plenty of resentment toward teachers, who supposedly had stable jobs and better benefits than other workers. But even then, it was clear teachers are paid considerably less than other comparably educated workers. There's no evidence this "wage penalty" has gone away -- quite the opposite, in fact.

If we want good candidates to consider becoming teachers, we need to make sure school districts have enough money to pay them well and give them decent working conditions -- which, fortunately, just happen to be the same as student learning conditions. Paying teachers well is a good policy choice, and state aid formulas should be set up to support that choice.

- The calculations and data used in any plan that distributes state aid to school districts should be completely transparent and easily accessible to the public.

One of the complaints about the recent Murphy plan from "loser" districts is that they have no way of knowing why their state aid is being cut. Here, for example, is the superintendent of Freehold Regional High School on Twitter:
Unbelievable state will not release multipliers so can see how aid determined. equalized value up 4% income down.5% BUT ability to pay up 8.3%?? Public deserves transparency. Formula flawed.
It's a fair point: if a district is going to take a hit, it should at least know why. And yet getting the particulars of state aid plans in New Jersey requires putting in Open Public Records Act requests to get even the most basic information, such as property tax valuations. And this state is actually better than many others in releasing school finance data.

Of course, it's not just the governor who needs to be held accountable. In the past, NJ legislators have put out their own proposals -- but often without any explanation as to how they arrived at their aid distributions to districts.

When aid plans aren't transparent, stakeholders will inevitably assume decisions are being driven solely by politics. Better to release a plan with all the details spelled out.

- States have an obligation to look carefully at the costs of school "choice."

Charter schools in New Jersey are solely approved by the state -- yet hosting districts are required to raise revenues to support them. It's increasingly clear that this places a fiscal burden on districts, because charters are redundant systems of school organization that cannot access the same economies of scale as public school districts. In addition, school districts are restricted in how they can respond to enrollment decline.

If you believe that there is an inherent value in school "choice," that's fine. But it makes little sense to insist on district consolidation as a way to save money, yet also promote charter school growth, which is the exact opposite of consolidation.

New Jersey has done little to assess the additional costs imposed by charters on school districts, and the state is not alone. We need to be much more clear about how "choice" is affecting the entire school funding system.

As I said, in the coming weeks I'm sure I'll have more to say about this years round of New Jersey school funding aid. Plus, there's some major work coming soon on the state's funding formula -- stand by...

* Aid formulas should also make reasonable attempts to correct for differences in population density, labor market pressures, district size (so far as that is not under the control of the district), and so on. These are the wonky, technical details that can make a big difference in how the program works.

** Let's save the details on this for another day, as it's a big, complex topic. I'm just trying to get to some overall principles here.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Thoughts on the Graduation Exam Mess in New Jersey

Let me recap where we are first -- skip down if you know the background.

Way back in 1979, New Jersey passed a law which required high school students to take an exam before graduating (the Education Law Center has some background on that law here and here). The law says the exam must "...measure those basic skills all students must possess to function politically, economically and socially in a democratic society." (N.J.S.A. 18A:7C-6.1.) Keep in mind that New Jersey is only one of only 12 states to require require an exit exam for high school graduates.

In 2014, the NJ Department of Education, under then-Governor Chris Christie, decided to replace the exam, known as the HSPA, with two tests from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC): the Grade 10 English Language Arts and multi-grade Algebra I exams.

In 2016, ELC, the American Civil Liberties Union, and several other groups filed suit against the state, challenging the use of the PARCC tests as exit exams. Late last year, the state appellate court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and struck down the regulations that led to the change in tests. The court found several problems with the change: the law calls for a single exam, not multiple ones, and the exam has to be in Grade 11, not in multiple grades like the Algebra I exam. 

The ruling left New Jersey's current juniors and seniors without a clear path to graduation. Some advocates suggested the exams should be scrapped altogether. But the plaintiffs and the state reached a settlement that allowed these students to take multiple testing pathways to graduation, including getting a passing score on the SAT, ACT, or military placement exams. The agreement would give the NJDOE time to develop new regulations on exit exams for current sophomores and freshman.

At the same time, however, State Senator Teresa Ruiz introduced a bill that changes the original statute to align with the current regulations -- the same regulations the court declared illegal. As I wrote previously, I find it highly problematic that the law is being changed to meet the regulations, and not vice versa.

But the NJ Senate apparently has no such qualms: they passed the bill 21 to 7, even after the settlement had been reached. The bill will now move on to the Assembly, where it will be voted on this Monday.

* * *

So that's where we are. Now let me add, in no particular order, my thoughts on all this:

- There is no evidence exit exams, by themselves, improve learning outcomes for students.

Again: only 12 states require exit exams. There is no evidence I've seen that these states have improved their outcomes as a result of having a graduation test.

There is some limited evidence accountability testing improves student outcomes; however, that evidence has been challenged in recent years. But that type of testing is not the same as testing which imposes a high-stakes consequence -- such as not receiving a diploma -- on students. We simply do not have evidence that imposing this requirement will lead to better student outcomes.

- A core principle of testing is that you cannot use an assessment for a specific purpose unless you make an argument it is valid for that purpose -- and no one has made that validity argument for using the PARCC tests as a graduation exam.

I keep a copy of Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing within reach when I'm writing about this stuff. Standard 1.0 -- the very first one -- states:
Clear articulation of each intended test score interpretation for a specific use should be set forth, and appropriate validity evidence in support of each intended interpretation should be provided. (p. 23)
The PARCC Algebra I exam purports to be an assessment of a student's ability in algebra. We can argue all day about whether it is... but no one has yet put forward that it is an appropriate assessment of "...those basic skills all students must possess to function politically, economically and socially in a democratic society" -- the clear language of the law.

Ruiz's bill, by the way, pulls off neat trick: it pulls the word "basic" from the original statute. This strikes me as a way of avoiding what should be at the core of any debate about the law: what exactly are these "skills," basic or otherwise?

Here, for example, is a sample question from the PARCC Algebra I exam:

Would you say that someone who can't answer this question cannot "function politically, economically and socially in a democratic society"? How many members of the NJ Legislature, for example, do you think could answer this question? How many of the senators who voted in favor of Ruiz's bill could? If they can't, does that mean they are unable to "function"?

- When you use a test to make a high-stakes decision, your validity argument must be especially strong.

Denying a young person a high school diploma is a serious matter -- especially if they've been attending school and doing their required work. You are closing off all sorts of opportunities to them to participate meaningfully in the workforce and in civic life. 

If you are going to deny them those opportunities based on a couple of tests, you'd better be sure the consequences of that denial are justified. You better spend time listening to experts about the validity of the test for the purposes stated in the law. You'd better be sure the law itself is a good idea.

Nothing even remotely like this happened in the NJ Senate. This bill was quickly rammed through without any real discussion, informed by expert opinion, of whether the PARCC is a valid instrument for the purposes of the law.

- The "passing score" for the PARCC is completely arbitrary -- it can be set anywhere the state wants.

As I pointed out previously, only 46 percent of test takers last year passed the PARCC Algebra I exam. There is simply no way that the public is going to put up with a graduation rate that aligns with that passing rate. Which means there will be enormous political pressure to change the proficiency rate on the exam.

And, contrary to the opinions of the ill-informed, changing proficiency levels is a rather simple matter.

As I've noted previously, tests like the PARCC are designed to yield normal, bell-curved distributions of scores. Within that distribution, anyone with the power to do so can set a passing or proficiency rate wherever they like.

The notion that "proficiency" is some objective standard, therefore, is simply not true. Proficiency is a social construct and, in my opinion, an artifact of political struggles; look at the history of New York's proficiency rates if you doubt me.

As Anne Hyslop points out, one of the consequences of using the PARCC as an exit exam is that there will be great pressure put on the state to set the standard for "proficiency" much lower than it currently is. That likely will affect the rates on the other exams throughout the various grade levels where PARCC is administered. Ironically, the push to set a high proficiency level for graduation may, in fact, lead to lower proficiency levels on all the PARCC exams.*

It really comes down to this: either the proficiency rate on the PARCC is going to come down, or lots of students are going to be denied diplomas. Which do you think is more likely to occur?

- The argument that community college remediation rates are so bad that we need graduation exams is weak.

In a truly awful editorial, the reliably reformy Star-Ledger makes this claim:
At Essex County College in Newark, 85 percent of incoming freshmen need to take remedial math. In 2017, only 13 percent graduated. While social promotion also happens in wealthier districts, those kids have a deeper safety net.
This is why we need an objective test. Yet because the PARCC is such a powerful diagnostic tool that can trace a student’s learning problem right down to a particular teacher’s lesson, it ran afoul of the union.
I posted that last paragraph on Twitter, and howls of derision from educators and testing experts ensued. It is, of course, impossible for any standardized test to pinpoint a teacher's particular lesson as the cause of a learning deficit; in fact, standardized test results, by themselves, cannot attribute the cause of any student learning outcome. If the S-L editorial board ever bothered to listen to experts in the field, maybe they wouldn't make such embarrassing claims.

Again: testing, by itself, cannot improve instruction. But the S-L appears to believe that if the PARCC was implemented as an exit exam, the remediation rates for math at Essex County College would improve. As I've pointed out in the past, however, the majority of community college students are older than 22, which means they haven't had a high school math course in years.

Further, if you click through on the link the S-L gives, you'll find that ECC is struggling mightily to provide remedial instruction, which of course raises the question: if better math instruction is simply the result of more testing, why are the community colleges having such a hard time teaching self-selected students the same material?

Maybe it's because, as Sara Goldrick-Rab has been finding in her invaluable work, many college students are suffering from food and housing insecurity. Of course, so are many high school students. Is denying them a diploma because they can't pass the PARCC really the best solution to this crisis?

College remediation rates are a club that reformy types regularly use to beat up on public education and public school teachers. But "ready for college work" is not an objective standard, and the research around this topic has many limitations. In addition: if legislators are going to insist that all students must show they are ready to meet the high standard of being ready for college work, then...

- No legislator should vote for this bill unless they are prepared to spend a lot more money to give students a real opportunity to pass the exam.

Standard 12.8 : When test results contribute substantially to decisions about student promotion or graduation, evidence should be provided that students have had an opportunity to learn the content and skills measured by the test.
"Opportunity to learn" is a core concept in educational testing. The Standards define it as:
The extent to which test takers have been exposed to the tested constructs through their educational program and/or have had exposure to or experience with the language or the majority culture required to understand the test. (p. 221)
I actually have a bit of a problem with this definition, because "exposed" comes across as a passive conception: leave an algebra textbook in front of a kid and arguably you've "exposed" them to the material covered by the PARCC. But that's clearly not what we're talking about here; the student needs to be given an opportunity to be meaningfully engaged with the material.

That means a qualified teacher, in a well-resourced school with a well-constructed curriculum, with all the support necessary -- both in and out of school -- for the student to be able to thrive.

All the way back in 2008, the NJ Legislature passed a bill, the School Funding Reform Act, which codified the amount of money necessary for students to achieve a minimally adequate education. But then the Legislature repeatedly refused to fully fund what the state's own law says schools need to educate students.

Worse, as Bruce Baker pointed out in real time, there's plenty of reason to believe the amount set was not enough. And the standards back in 2008 were lower than what the PARCC sets today. There is no doubt that sufficient funding is the necessary pre-condition to achieve desired educational outcomes. There is also no doubt the state has not come close to providing that funding.

If the New Jersey Legislature is prepared to set a much higher bar for graduation, they have a moral and legal obligation to provide the extra resources needed to clear that bar. If they can't or won't, they have no business imposing an onerous testing regime on students who came to school, did their work, and passed their classes.

One final thought:

New Jersey is home to some of the nation's foremost experts on psychometrics. I can't claim to know every conversation every legislator has had regarding this issue, but from the news reports I've seen, it seems these experts have largely been left out of the debate over the use of PARCC that's been going for the last year.


I understand lots of people have a stake in this issue, and we should hear from parents, educators, and other interested parties. But expertise has got to count for something. The Assembly would be well-advised to withdraw this bill from a vote on Monday and, instead, convene a panel of experts in testing and its uses to study the issue.

Time is no longer an issue: the settlement ensures that current upperclass high school students have a clear path to graduation. The state should take its time and get this right. As Senator Ruiz herself said:
“Even though the agreement came through, there has to be a statute change,” Ruiz said. “Either you do this today or we do it in two years when we come to this crossroads again.”
That's exactly right: we have two years to study this and get it right. Why wouldn't we take advantage of that?

More to come...

* One aspect of setting proficiency rates I rarely see discussed is whether it helps or hurts a child to hear that they didn't "pass" an exam. Some doctors have suggested ADHD rates have risen in the era of testing accountability. High-stakes testing has been shown to induce negative feelings in children and stress in students and teachers. Undoubtedly the fear of failure is the primary cause.

Is the push to raise standards worth this cost? Shouldn't we at least have a conversation about it?

Monday, February 18, 2019

The True History of New Jersey Teachers' (and Other Public Workers') Sacrifices on Pensions And Benefits

I want to talk about a report that emerged a couple of weeks ago about New Jersey public employees' pensions and health care. But let me set the table first...

Because every time I come across a story like this, it's as if the Ministry of Information has decided, once again, to disappear history. But I'm not about to let that happen -- and if it means I have to keep coming back and repeating the timeline below, I will.

I posted the first version of this back in 2016. And I will keep updating it so that no one can make the claim that teachers and other public employees haven't already made large sacrifices in an effort to bring New Jersey back to fiscal health.

 * * *


1995: Governor Jim Florio begins the modern era of New Jersey pension underfunding.

1997: Governor Christie Todd Whitman essentially pays for tax cuts by underfunding the pensions.

2001: Governor Donald DiFrancesco raises pension benefits, but he does so by using the same sort of revaluation tactics that Florio and Whitman had used.

2004: Teachers' mandatory contribution to the pension, which had been as low as 3 percent, is raised to 5 percent.

2007: By now, everyone (except Chris Christie) knows the pensions are in trouble and have to be fixed. Under Governor Jon Corzine, teachers and state workers now pay 5.5 percent into their pensions and see the retirement age go up 5 years. In addition, state workers now pay 1.5 percent of their income for health benefits.

These increases are part of an explicit deal: in exchange for these concessions the state will start making payments into the pension system. Those payments, however, last for only two years.

2008: The state raises the retirement age again.

2010: Governor Chris Christie makes significant changes to the pension for all new hires, and now requires all current school district employees to pay 1.5 percent of their salaries toward health benefits. At this time, a report is released from Labor and Employment Relations Professor Jeffrey Keefe of Rutgers University that shows: "... full-time state and local employees are under-compensated by 5.88% in New Jersey, in comparison to otherwise similar private-sector workers."

2011: After running a campaign in which he said explicitly: "Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor," Chris Christie, with the support of many Democrats in the Legislature, passes a sweeping pension and benefits overhaul law, known as Chapter 78. As the Communications Workers of America explains:
The plan for increased worker contributions is phased in over four years. At the end, in 2015, workers pay 25% more to get 30% less pension. Workers are required to pay an increasing amount of the health care premium, with a top rate of 35% of premium for the highest earners. The state budget includes a 1/7th payment for FY12. Christie makes the payment on the final day of the fiscal year, in June 2012. In response to the 2010 Supreme Court ruling, the legislature creates a contractual right to the funding of the pension.
In addition, cost of living adjustments (COLAs) are frozen under the new law.

2013: During the gubernatorial election, no one in the press cares to ask either Chris Christie or his opponent, Barbara Buono, how they plan to raise the revenues for a full pension payment by 2017.

2014: To the surprise of no one sentient, Christie refuses to make the payments his own law requires. Meanwhile, reports begin to surface about inordinately high management fees paid to Wall Street firms linked to Christie. The unions file suit.

2015: Reports of malfeasance in the management of the pensions continue. The fourth year of the 2011 Chapter 78 law starts: a teacher making $65K now pays at least 19% of her premium for family medical coverage. As NJ Spotlight notes:
Today, however, while the cost of New Jersey public employee health insurance coverage remains the third-highest in the nation, most New Jersey public employees are paying more than the national average for state government workers toward their health insurance costs, an NJ Spotlight analysis shows. 
In fact, the average New Jersey government employee is paying more for individual health insurance coverage than government workers in any other state and the 10th-highest average premium for family coverage in the country. 
Further, state and local government workers are paying a much higher percentage of the cost of their individual health insurance policies than private-sector employees in New Jersey have been paying, and not much less than the percentage paid by the state’s private-sector workers for family coverage. [emphasis mine]
Meanwhile, New Jersey's public employee pensions have devolved into one of the least generous in the nation, according to a New Jersey Policy Perspective analysis. And yet the state's highest court rules New Jersey doesn't have to fund the pensions, and can instead set the state up for a looming fiscal disaster.

2016: The Chapter 78 law sunsets; however, the NJ School Boards Association declares to its members that the much higher employee payments for health insurance have become the new normal:
As the sun sets on Chapter 78, boards need to remember three important points.
  • The fully phased in employee contributions are the status quo for negotiations purposes – in order for the employee contributions to be reduced, the board must agree to do so;
  • A reduction in employee health care contributions is not negotiable until the next contract executed after Chapter 78 is fully implemented; and
  • Once, employee contributions become negotiable, boards need to carefully consider the long term implications of moving away from the cost structure dictated by Chapter 78.
At the same time, Chris Christie's pension commission releases a report calling for public workers to be moved into less generous health care plans, requiring much greater out-of-pocket expenses. 

In June, the NJ Supreme Court upholds the frozen COLAs on pensions.

2017: A new report from Rutgers professor Jeffrey Keefe finds: 
New Jersey public school teachers are in fact undercompensated, not overcompensated. Using regression analysis to control for level of education and other factors that affect pay, we find that public school teachers earn 16.8 percent less in weekly wages and 12.5 percent less in weekly total compensation (wages and benefits) than other full-time workers in New Jersey. The percent by which teacher pay is less than pay of comparable workers is called the teacher pay penalty. An analysis of hourly compensation shows the teacher pay penalty at 13.7 percent for wages and 9.4 percent for total compensation.
Late in the year, NJEA, the state's largest teachers union, reports the teachers pension has a funding level of 47 percent. The level must be 80 percent to reinstate the COLA.

2018: NJEA agrees to changes in health coverage that reduce costs by raising the prices for out-of-network coverage. Meanwhile, reports continue to surface about high health care costs for New Jersey's teachers.

On July 1, the final pension rate hike under Chapter 78 is implemented: teachers now pay 7.5 percent of their salaries toward their pensions.

2019: In a report, The Office of the State Comptroller finds that New Jersey's program of tax incentives for businesses, tagged at a price of $11 billion, operated with little oversight:
The Office of the State Comptroller reviewed several of the state’s tax-break programs aimed at rewarding companies for either creating or retaining jobs in New Jersey over the last decade. 
The agency gave closest scrutiny to a sample group of a few dozen companies that were awarded incentives, and it found nearly 3,000 reported jobs were not substantiated as having been created or retained even though the companies in that group redeemed their incentives.
 * * *

Let's recap what's happened over the last 15 years or so:
  • Pensions: Payments have gone up from 5 to 7.5 percent, the COLA is still frozen, and the pension is judged to be one of the least generous in the nation.
  • Health insurance: Both the premium and the percentage employees pay has skyrocketed. Again, public employees are paying more than private employees for individual coverage, and not much less for family coverage.
  • Wages: By all indications, teachers continue to suffer from a wage penalty. In addition, while teacher salaries are growing slightly in the state, the growth appears to be nowhere near enough to make up for the losses from pension and health care contributions.
By any reasonable measure, New Jersey teachers -- and other public employees -- pay more for their retirement and health care benefits, get less back for those pay hikes, and still lag behind the private sector in total compensation.

This is beyond debate. Even as the state gave away billions in tax incentives that haven't been shown to do anything, teachers and other public employees have sacrificed -- over and over again -- to get New Jersey back to fiscal health.

Are we all clear on this? OK...

Then why is this even a thing?
A top aide to Gov. Phil Murphy, in a conference call with liberal activists, suggested ways to push back against state Senate President Stephen Sweeney’s big plan to fix New Jersey’s long-term fiscal problems, NJ Advance Media has learned.
The aide — Deborah Cornavaca, Murphy’s deputy chief of staff for outreach — said during the call Wednesday that Sweeney, a fellow Democrat but frequent Murphy rival, is pushing “a false narrative” against public-worker unions.
Sweeney, D-Gloucester, told NJ Advance Media he’s bothered by Cornavaca’s appearance on the call.
“You can imagine how disappointed I am that a deputy chief of staff is calling groups to basically attack,” Sweeney said Thursday.
No. No, no, no.

A disclaimer first: I've known Deb Cornavaca for a good long while. I wouldn't say we were close friends, but we've shared a few meals over the years and I like her a lot. She's smart and tough and doesn't back down from a fight.

Yes, there is a lot of bad blood between Sweeney and the NJEA. But I listened to this town hall and I didn't hear Deb tell anyone to go after Sweeney personally. Instead, I heard her tell activists -- people who work to protect the interests of middle-class public workers like me and many of my readers -- to push back on the story that it is up to teachers and cops and firefighters and state workers to fix New Jersey's fiscal mess.

Look at my timeline above again. Can anyone really make an argument that New Jersey's public workers haven't been doing their fair share -- in fact, way more than that -- to solve the state's budget crisis? Is it wrong to say to those who keep demanding more and more from public workers that it's past time for other interests to start pitching in as well?

The sacrifices of New Jersey's teachers are laid out above. Where, however, are the sacrifices of the wealthiest people in the state? The small hike on income over $5 million imposed last year? The temporary corporate surcharge? Is anyone prepared to argue that those are at all comparable to what I've outlined above? Especially since New Jersey corporations have been enjoying huge tax incentives with no accountability?

I will admit that New Jersey is better than most states when it comes to tax fairness, but we're hardly progressive.

The top 1 percent in New Jersey make family incomes of over $900,000 a year, and they pay less in taxes than people who have incomes in the middle -- people like teachers and the vast majority of public employees. Is anyone seriously suggesting the state's wealthiest folks can't put in some more to help New Jersey out of this mess, especially since public workers have been putting in more and more for years.

And what has been done to rein in the excessive fees collected by Wall Street to manage the pension funds under Christie? What has been done to bring the cost of public employee health care down? Where are the tough negotiations with the pharmaceutical companies and big health insurers?

What Deb was talking about in that meeting wasn't just about pushing back on a narrative -- it was about telling the truth. New Jersey's teachers and public employees have already made significant sacrifices to help the state out of its fiscal crunch.

It can't always fall to us to be the ones to fix a mess we didn't create. We can't be the only ones who are expected to ask our families once again to make even more sacrifices while plenty of others in the state enjoy tax giveaways.

I'm sorry that Senator Sweeney's feelings are bruised, but there's no way he should expect, given the history I've outlined above, that public employees are just going to keep taking it and taking it and taking it. Unless and until New Jersey starts demanding more from its wealthiest residents and corporations, public employees have every right to point at everything they've already given up and say: "Enough."