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

Friday, August 27, 2021

On Remote Teaching and Learning In an Ongoing Pandemic

Some recent stories I've been thinking about (all emphases mine). Tennessee:

Gov. Bill Lee’s administration is getting pushback in Memphis on new Tennessee restrictions that make it harder for district leaders to close school buildings and shift students to remote instruction as pediatric COVID cases climb.

Meanwhile, school board members with Shelby County Schools held a moment of silence Tuesday to remember two students, two teachers, and one young alum who recently died. School officials did not release the cause of death for any of the five.

“We must stand together during this difficult time,” Superintendent Joris Ray said.

A day earlier, district officials encouraged families to direct their complaints to the governor’s office as a petition circulated demanding a virtual option that allows students to stay with their teachers. More than 13,000 people had signed the petition by Tuesday afternoon, and a small group of parents also protested outside the district’s headquarters on Monday. 

“We hear your concerns and understand your frustrations regarding options for remote learning,” said a statement from the district. “Stand for safety with us by contacting Governor Lee and state legislators.”

The call to action reflects the ever-growing divide between the Republican governor and Tennessee’s largest school district over the best way to teach while protecting the health of children too young to be vaccinated. COVID’s delta variant has returned Tennessee’s case numbers to levels not seen since the pandemic’s wintertime peak.

Shelby County leaders said their hands are tied on remote learning options beyond enrolling in Memphis Virtual School. They cited new rules and criteria passed recently by the Tennessee State Board of Education for closing schools and remote learning. 

Those rules allow individual students to switch temporarily to remote instruction if they’re sidelined by the virus, either because of illness or exposure. But districts can’t toggle back and forth with remote learning without an executive order from the governor, according to state officials. School systems that have to close entire schools because of COVID outbreaks must use days usually stockpiled for inclement weather, flu outbreaks, or staffing problems.

New Jersey:

As students head back for a third school year impacted by the pandemic, COVID-19 continues to complicate the education landscape and the impact of remote learning has yet to be fully assessed. As achievement gaps have emerged, many districts are planning to return fully in person learning in hopes of restoring traditional learning, even as safety concerns mount around the highly contagious delta variant.

But remote learning will remain a part of students' lives for the foreseeable future, experts say, with tens of thousands of students in quarantine just weeks into the school year for some. How schools approach remote learning is varied: While some view it as a Zoom extension of the classroom, others are taking novel and holistic approaches to try to improve the quality of instruction.

For now, in-person learning is the only option for students like Cosby's daughter, a rising senior, as New Jersey's governor was among several leaders to require full-time, in-person K-12 instruction this school year. Other large school districts, like New York City, are starting the year without a remote option.

In recent days, however, the New Jersey state education department has issued guidance that "strongly encouraged" schools to provide remote instruction for students during quarantineNorthJersey.com reported.


(ATLANTA) — A few weeks into the new school year, growing numbers of U.S. districts have halted in-person learning or switched to hybrid models because of rapidly mounting coronavirus infections.

More than 80 school districts or charter networks have closed or delayed in-person classes for at least one entire school in more than a dozen states. Others have sent home whole grade levels or asked half their students to stay home on hybrid schedules.

The setbacks in mostly small, rural districts that were among the first to return dampen hopes for a sustained, widespread return to classrooms after two years of schooling disrupted by the pandemic.

When the school year ended last year, I was sure we were going to be going back to something relatively close to "normal." But then came Delta, with Lambda and who knows how many others on the horizon. Combined with vax resistance that is, infuriatingly, larger than I expected, and an anti-mask movement fueled largely by inanity on social media, it's clear this year will be anything but "normal."

Which means we've got to come to terms with remote learning; it's not going away any time soon, if ever. For all its faults -- and they are many -- remote learning is a schooling option that can and should be deployed if necessary as a public health measure. 

But the patchwork approach we're taking to remote learning isn't smart policy. We need to start delineating when and why we need remote learning, and then set standards for what it should be. We also need a clear-eyed acknowledgment of the challenges inherent in implementing remote learning, including an accounting of what resources will be necessary to make it work.

I propose we start by laying out some scenarios for when schools will need remote learning:

1) The all-out emergency. This is the Spring of 2020 scenario all over again: a new health threat emerges that is so grave and/or uncertain we have no choice but to fully close down all schools. I think most of us acknowledge the chances are quite good this will happen again sometime in the not-too-distant-future.

What was lacking in early 2020 when we tried this for the first time? Universal broadband connectivity for all students and staff. Devices of high enough quality that instruction could be delivered. Curricular materials suitable for remote learning. Staff training in remote instruction. Student training. Parent training. Support infrastructure. Time flexibility to meet parent/student needs.

I'm leaving out a host of other things that aren't under the control of schools: adequate space for students at home, time off for parents, social services, etc. Remote learning doesn't work without them, but these are issues outside of education policy. And, arguably, so is broadband connectivity. It's clear the internet is now as indispensable to modern life as electricity, and high-speed access should be seen as a necessity.

Getting students devices is probably the easiest challenge to overcome: it's a matter of money and will, although supporting all those devices will require adequate staff. Developing high-quality instruction is another matter. I can see teacher prep programs developing entire courses on the subject, and on-going professional development for teachers will inevitably be focused on improving remote instruction. 

You can probably guess my feelings on this: we already ask an awful lot of teachers. Now we want them to be able to turn their practice on a dime, always ready to jump to another mode of instruction immediately and seamlessly. This means teachers will not only have to add remote instruction planning to their already jam-packed days; they will need to develop skill sets similar to the ones already in demand in other parts of the economy.

If we're going to have a school system that is able to transition to remote learning in an emergency, we're going to have to pony up. We need more resources, we need more staff, and we need to pay teachers for their extra time and the skills they will develop. There's just no way we do this on the cheap.

2) The local response. In this scenario, a local outbreak requires a temporary transition to remote learning for all students in a class, a school, or a district. In some ways, it's similar to the scenario above, except the participants are limited: other classrooms or schools carry on as usual.

The biggest difference I see between the local response and the all-out emergency is that totally going remote may not be the only option. A district or school may opt instead to implement a hybrid schedule, where students rotate their in-school and at-home days. Maybe all students attend in-school part of the day and learn remotely during another part. This was the case for many districts through the last school year, and I believe it's the most likely scenario for a local response to a pandemic.

The "good" news is that at least some of the preparation and planning for the all-out emergency can be transferred to the local response: broadband, devices, training, planning, etc. But, as I discuss below, there is a big difference between teaching everyone on-line and teaching some on-line, some in-person.

Again, adequate resources will be essential in providing accepted local responses. There is an obvious and clear connection between a school district's ability to provide hybrid instruction and its funding. Districts will not be able to provide acceptable remote learning models unless they have the resources to plan and implement them.

3) The individual response. Like everything else, America is divided on whether children should be back in school. Context matters a lot: people who might be comfortable sending their children to a school with mandatory masking may not want their child in a school without it. But even with strict mitigation in place, some families may see the risk to their child -- or other members of the family who are immunocompromised -- as too great.

In addition, a student who is exposed to the virus outside of school might need to quarantine for a while, even if they don't contract Covid. What sort of schooling should they be offered?

I see three possible responses. First, regular classrooms are set up to accommodate remote learners, essentially joining a regular class synchronously via Zoom or Google Meet or whatever. Second, separate schooling is provided to students that is entirely on-line and run by a teacher who only does on-line instruction. Third, some sort of combination of the two.

Each of these has its pros and cons. Teaching some students in-person and some on-line is really, really difficult. The classroom has to be set up to accommodate both sets of students. Lessons have to be planned so that everything students need at home is provided, and so delivery can take place simultaneously to remote and in-person kids. Some subjects -- PE, art, music, lab science -- are almost impossible to imagine being taught with both sets of students in sync. But in this model the students who are remote stay with their classmates and current teacher, which, if they return to live instruction, would make things easier.

Moving students to a separate class might work for those who make a long-term commitment to stay at home. One big advantage is that teachers who are immunocompromised, or who had family who were, would still have a place to teach. It's very difficult to imagine, however, a student who needed to quarantine for a short while benefitting from being temporarily placed into an entirely separate class with a teacher who had no prior experience with that student.

It's also worth noting the structure of school districts may make fully on-line classes harder or easier. Large districts may be able to set up and staff these classes more easily than smaller ones. Small districts may need to pool their resources to reach a critical mass where they can offer these classes.

Finally, it might make sense to have some sort of combination of the two. But no matter the mode of instruction, I believe there are several changes that would have to be made to make them work. Among them:

  • Class sizes will have to be lowered. You can't expect a teacher to give kids getting remote instruction the attention they need in a hybrid setting if the class is already too large. The cues teachers observe and react to during in-person instructions aren't available in remote learning. During hybrid instruction, their focus can't be distributed in the same way it is during in-person learning. Lowering class sizes is the best way to make sure teachers can respond to all of their students' needs in a mixed-mode setting.
  • Staff will need more planning time. If it's coordinating across classes or simply planning lessons with two modes of delivery, teachers can't be expected to add this to their plates without additional time to figure out how to make it work.

I'm not arguing here that remote instruction can't or shouldn't become a regular part of K12 schooling. I am laying out the challenges -- and I'm sure there are many more I haven't thought of -- to make the point that this will not be easy, more resources will be needed to make it happen, and this will take time

No one who knows how schools actually work could possibly think we can just rearrange a few schedules and buy a few more laptops and schools will be all set for remote instruction. But if this has to happen -- and I think it does -- we'd better start making plans for it now.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Lakewood, NJ: Where Public Schools Are Left To Whither, Part IV

In the decade I've been writing this blog, I've seen some really horrible behavior towards teachers (a prime example here). But I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like this:

This is from last September, when the Lakewood Education Association (LEA), the local teachers union, was, like all other local unions in the state, advocating for the health and safety of its members while districts made opening plans. 

Maybe you sympathize with the teachers; maybe you don't. But the truly obnoxious behavior of Michael Inzelbuch, the district's attorney, is remarkable. Inzelbuch wound up apologizing, as he should have, although as far as apologies go this one is awfully weak:

We'll talk later about how Lakewood's school district has responded to the pandemic. For now, let me restate that I believe at least three things will happen when public schools are left to wither, as they have been in Lakewood:
  1. When a large part of a community abandons its public schools, chaos ensues and accountability dissolves.
  2. Segregation is the inevitable consequence of school privatization.
  3. Educators will be disrespected in a community that does not support its public schools. 
#3 is precisely what's happening in Lakewood: a climate of disrespect for teachers working in public schools -- teachers who are educating only a small fraction of the community's children.

Again: Lakewood has highly segregated schools. The majority of residents send their children to private religious schools, mostly yeshivahs. 

The Hispanic minority in the community, however, sends their children to the public schools.

When your child attends a public school, and you actually see what teachers do for students, you're far more likely to appreciate their work and value it. But when the majority of a town's residents don't attend public school, they miss out on that perspective. It's not that they necessarily have disdain for public school teachers so much as they don't have a personal connection; they can't see the value of teachers through the eyes of someone whose own children were affected by them. Teachers might teach other people's kids, but they don't teach their own.

That manifests itself through things like Inzelbuch's embarrassing behavior. But it also may manifest itself in how well teachers are paid. Let's unpack this a bit:

When the majority of a town's children attend the public schools, there are at least two big reasons why residents will care about the quality of those schools. First, they care about the education their own children receive. They'll want good teachers, good facilities, and good administrators, and they'll be willing to pay for them, at least up to a point.

Second, the value of their homes will depend on the quality of the schools. The perceived quality of schools is a major driver of property values, so homeowners have an incentive to make sure that perceived quality remains high. To be sure, there are many negative consequences to this reality, especially because education is a "positional good," but there's little doubt concern about property values is a driver of concern about school quality.

In Lakewood, however, both of these drivers are switched off. The majority of parents in the town don't have a personal stake in the public schools; consequently, home buyers won't pay more for property in Lakewood if the quality of the public schools improve. I'm sure people in Lakewood who have opted out of the public schools don't want them to be "bad," but they have little personal incentive to make sure the those schools are "good" either.

A community like Lakewood, therefore, isn't going to have the same incentive to recruit and retain teachers for its public schools. And teacher salaries will reflect that lack of incentive.

This is a salary model I've used before. Basically, I take every full-time teacher in the state and predict their salary based on things like experience, labor market, job category, and so on. I then compare what the model says they should make to what they actually make; in this way, I can compare Lakewood teachers' salaries "apples-to-apples" with teacher salaries in the rest of the state.

Consistently, year after year, Lakewood teachers make less than what the average teacher makes in New Jersey, holding other factors constant. This is consistent with recent testimony in a trial about Lakewood school funding, which found Lakewood salaries were the lowest in the state compared to similar districts.

I'll write more about this trial in a bit. For now, let me conclude with this: in both their interactions with district officials and in their pay, Lakewood's public school educators are being disrespected. But this is an inevitable consequence of what happens when a community largely abandons its public schools.

More to come.

ADDING: A recent and telling story from this past March:

Most recently, eight Clarke teachers and staff were infected with the virus, including four who were hospitalized, according to Kimberlee Shaw, president of the Lakewood Education Association (LEA), which represents nearly 900 employees. 

But instead of closing the school and switching to all-virtual classes, the district chose to suspend Assistant Principal Madaly Rodriguez-Jones and moved an administrator from another school to temporarily take her place. 

“They should have closed it for two weeks and given everyone the 14-day quarantine,” said Shaw. “They claimed they did put in purifiers, but that was after.”

The Rodriguez-Jones paid suspension, originally set to end March 30, was extended this week to April 30, according to Shaw and the board agenda. District officials did not respond to requests for comment or explain why the move was made. 


“I don’t know what the district thinks they know, but this is an ever-changing situation and I felt like my staff members were being blamed for getting COVID,” Shaw said. “And they felt that way, they were upset that it was looking like the district was blaming the teachers.

But the Clarke situation is just the latest concern for teachers in the 6,000-student district, which is among the few that have remained open for all students since the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year. 

Shaw said that has resulted in 371 positive tests, 214 students and 157 staff, since July 2020, but no school closings or even partial shutdowns.

“It is taking its toll, our staff is tired, they are covering classes because they are short of staff, they are worried about the virus,” Shaw said. “Right now staff is doing their job and trying to stay safe and we are hoping that if another outbreak occurs that the district will reconsider and shut that building, it worries the staff, they feel they are not being notified.” [emphasis mine]

I ask you: does this sound like a district where teachers feel respected? 

ADDING MORE: This should come as no surprise:

LAKEWOOD - More than 30 school district teachers are being let go at the end of the school year without clear explanation or cause, according to teachers’ union leaders who say the move is occurring at a time when the district faces a teaching shortage.

“We had staffing shortages before the pandemic and the pandemic only exacerbated it,” said Lakewood Education Association President Kimberlee Shaw, whose local represents more than 700 teachers and staff in the 6,700-student district. 


“It’s chaos for our students,” added Shaw. “They crave routine and stability. They never know who their teachers are going to be from one month to the next. It’s stressful for all of us and makes me worry about our students’ safety and continuity of instruction.”

In a release, the LEA stated that more than 100 staff members had left the district since June 30, 2020. “The district has a history of firing non-tenured teachers without cause,” the union release added. “Most of these teachers and staff members report being ‘blindsided’ by their non-renewals since they had positive evaluations and no history of disciplinary issues.”

“Meanwhile, they’ve had little to no support from the district through mentoring or professional development. The district also lost nearly its entire guidance department and Child Study Team at the high school at a time when student mental health is at crisis level and the district is implementing a new Social-Emotional Learning initiative.”

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

COVID and "Learning Loss": Test Scores Should Not Be Our Immediate Concern

I'll get back to Lakewood in a bit, but I want to take a minute and talk about a new report out yesterday from JerseyCAN and others about learning loss and COVID-19.

Regular readers know I've had my issues with JerseyCAN over the years: too many times, their analyses have missed the mark, often because of a lack of understanding about things like what test scores actually represent and how they should be used to direct K-12 education policy. 

I might make similar complaints about this latest report. Using a convenience sample's outcomes on one test to extrapolate outcomes on another for an entire population is inherently problematic. Further, changes in proficiency rates on the same test are often artifacts of the process of setting those rates, and not indications of any changes in actual student learning. There's also a whole problem of equating "proficiency" across grade levels that tends to get pushed aside in these discussions. Plus the easy way we accept "grade level" as some sort of absolute when it's really a social construct...

But in the end, none of that really matters, because what the report is showing is almost certainly correct: student learning has suffered during the pandemic, and the losses are almost certainly greater for students of color and those in economic disadvantage. 

How could this be otherwise? There is a clear digital divide along racial and ethnic lines in this country; when learning moves on-line, the effects will reflect that divide. And, as I've shown repeated, access to in-person schooling has also been racially unequal, a reflection of the inequalities in New Jersey's school funding system. These factors are undoubtedly combining to disadvantage students of color and students in economic disadvantage. 

I suppose there may be some value in presenting these losses as changes in test outcomes, as there are plenty of policymakers in the state who act as if test scores are the only measure by which we can evaluate the quality of schooling. But in all honesty, the report is telling us something we already knew: the pandemic has been bad for students, and worse for some than others.

So if JerseyCAN had stopped there, I'd really have very little problem with their report -- at least, the problems I'd have would be confined to technical details. But they took upon themselves to tell the state what it must do given their findings:

JerseyCAN recommends that stakeholders and policymakers consider the following solutions to help accelerate student learning for our students.
  • Urgently prioritize the adoption and statewide implementation of extensive summer programming so that we can stem the COVID slide now and further stop more students from falling behind;
  • Adopt and implement personalized, research-based solutions for accelerating student learning like high-dosage tutoring;
  • Allow parents to exercise their choice to retain or hold back their child, if desired, to provide additional time to students for learning and the provision of social and emotional supports;
  • Incentivize all districts to adopt high-quality instructional materials that are aligned to statewide assessments, which canprovide teachers and parents with ongoing information about student academic growth and that can project proficiency on NJSLA; and
  • Administer statewide assessments in Spring 2022 that are comparable to those administered in Spring 2019 to establish a new baseline from which to measure student growth moving forward and to also enable comparisons to pre-pandemic statewide proficiency.
Let's take these one at a time.
  • I am all for high-quality summer programming. Summer slide is a real issue, especially for economically disadvantaged children. But if our metric for determining that "loss" is test scores, we're running the risk of creating programs that sit students in front of screens all summer long doing test prep. As an educator, it is my opinion that this is the last thing kids need after this very difficult year. How about a lot of physical activity and socialization, music, art, free reading, exploratory learning -- what those of us in the education research field refer to technically as "fun"! In fact, we could do that, and add access to counseling and health services, family engagement programs, early childhood education... golly, if only there was a model of schooling that did this...
  • Tutoring can be good -- but you have to remember a few things. Tutors need training. Good tutoring is not cheap. Tutoring is a supplement for high-quality curriculum and instruction, not a replacement. Again, if all we're doing is getting lower-paid workers to sit in classrooms with kids while they drill on test-prep instruction, we're missing an opportunity to help kids address the trauma they've experienced this past year.
  • Expanded grade retention is probably one of the most overhyped policies that has been pushed over the past couple of decades. There is good evidence that the games Florida has played with retaining kids was behind its unearned status as an educational "miracle." While I am certainly sympathetic to the idea of giving parents more of a say in the decision to retain their child, and while I do believe there are times when it is warranted, pushing retention immediately after a cohort has shown learning losses doesn't make a lot of sense: if everybody suffered, why hold only some kids back? Besides, are our schools really ready for a mass mixing of age groups? 
  • Everyone is for high-quality materials. But if the primary goal of those materials is to increase test scores, they will run the risk of emphasizing only those skills needed to pass the test, which can narrow the curriculum and constrain instruction. I am not against using test scores judiciously as a data point in helping to assess a child's learning, but state tests are simply not a practical, nor particularly useful, way to inform student instruction -- especially when teachers can't see the exam.
  • There are always items put in different administrations of standardized tests to help equate scores. And, to the extent possible, proficiency rates should be equivalent between different years. So, sure, we can use test outcomes to help determine where we stand. But what really matters is this: What are we going to do with those results?
This gets to the heart of my concerns about the premise behind JerseyCAN's report, which I see manifesting in the statements of other education policy stakeholders. We are coming through an unprecedented crisis in modern American history. Children are hurting. Families have been traumatized. Schools have suffered losses in their staffs. We haven't faced this kind of trauma since World War II. So what are these folks proposing to help kids?

Testing. Analyzing test scores. Instruction based on test outcomes in two areas of the curriculum. Tutoring in support of that test-centered instruction. Then... more testing.

Look, I like a good run at the data as much as the next guy. I've said consistently testing has its place. But our kids are hurting, and the last thing we should be doing is trying to recreate the test-obsessed pedagogy we were using before the pandemic. Further, we shouldn't be going back to the test-and-punish systems we used to hold schools and educators "accountable," which was doing nothing to address the root causes of unequal educational opportunity, like inequitable school funding.

We should instead be focused on getting kids to love school -- especially if they weren't loving it before the virus hit. We should get kids and families access to the health and emotional supports they need so students can arrive at the schoolhouse door ready to learn. We should be investing in our school infrastructure to make our buildings safe and healthy. We should be expanding things like arts education, a proven strategy for boosting student engagement and learning.

A less stunted, more comprehensive view of schooling is required at this time. Testing can be part of it, but students, not test scores, should be the focus.

Now, back to Lakewood...

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Lakewood, NJ: Where Public Schools Are Left To Wither, Part III

 Here are the other parts of this series:

- Part I

- Part II

What happens when a majority of citizens rejects its own public schools? We need look no further than Lakewood, NJ -- a town that I contend is an object lesson in the consequences of school privatization. Again, I believe at least three things will happen when public schools are left to wither, as they have been in Lakewood:

  1. When a large part of a community abandons its public schools, chaos ensues and accountability dissolves.
  2. Segregation is the inevitable consequence of school privatization.
  3. Educators will be disrespected in a community that does not support its public schools. 
Regarding point #2: in the last post I showed definitively that Lakewood's public and private school populations are highly segregated. In this post, let's spend some time discussing point #1.

I'll note first that, as I've written before, there are plenty of examples of corruption and malfeasance in districts where the majority of children attend the public schools. And the problems with private schools enrolling special needs students in New Jersey have been well documented

But one of Lakewood's private schools had, according to the verdict of a jury, taken things to a new level (all emphases mine):

2/27/19: NEW BRUNSWICK - The founder of a Lakewood special education school is guilty of money laundering and misconduct by a corporate official, but not guilty of corruption involving public funds, a jury said Wednesday after deliberating for about 20 hours over four days.

The jury's mixed slate of verdicts expose Rabbi Osher Eisemann, founder of the School for Children with Hidden Intelligence, to possible prison time of five to 10 years, according to prosecutors. He was acquitted of three charges, including the most serious count brought against him: First-degree corruption of public resources, which carried a prison term of at least a decade. 

Eisemann left a courtroom Wednesday afternoon surrounded by supporters and family members, who have occupied courtroom benches throughout the trial. He smiled as he thanked his defense team, which declared victory shortly after the verdicts were announced.

"The reason you saw the defense team is enthusiastic overall about the verdict is this case is not about money laundering or misconduct by a corporate official," said Eisemann's lawyer, Lee Vartan. "This was about theft of public funds. The state made that clear in its multiple press releases, at every court appearance, in their opening statement, in their closing statement. And on theft of public funds, he was completely vindicated."

It turns out the defense team had reason to be optimistic

4/29/19: NEW BRUNSWICK - The founder of a Lakewood special education school will not go to prison, but will serve 60 days in jail and two years on probation for laundering $200,000 from the school, a judge here ruled Monday afternoon.

Rabbi Osher Eisemann, who founded the School for Children with Hidden Intelligence, must also pay a $250,000 fine, according to the sentence handed down by state Superior Court Judge Benjamin Bucca, sitting in Middlesex County. Eisemann will begin the jail term on July 1. 


"The defendant is many things," Deputy Attorney General Anthony Robinson said. "He is a builder, a nurturer and an educator. But he is not a victim. ... The defendant has led a great life but that does not exempt you from the law.”

But Bucca found even the minimum prison term, six years, would be a "serious injustice" in part based on Eisemann's work in special education. More than three dozen letters were sent to the judge in support of Eisemann, many of them outlining Eisemann's dedication to students at the school he started to help his own son. 

The prosecution was not happy with this ruling, however, and appealed the original sentence. The appellate judges, according to the Asbury Park Press, "...issued a scathing opinion saying the judge who sentenced him to probation for money laundering and misconduct ignored the law and a jury’s verdict." At last report, Eisemann's sentence is on hold as his attorneys appeal the latest ruling.

It's worth noting that this would not be the only time SCHI found itself in trouble:
4/19/19: LAKEWOOD — A high-cost school for special-needs children, whose founder and director was recently indicted on charges he stole hundreds of thousands of dollars in public money, overcharged the township's impoverished public school district and other schools by at least $340,000 in one year, the Asbury Park Press found.

The School for Children with Hidden Intelligence overbilled the districts by paying uncertified teachers; paying certain employees more than permitted by state law; and buying items deemed unnecessary for the school, according to an audit by the state Department of Education of the 2011-2012 school year. Some of those items were purchased at Costco, Staples and from merchants on eBay and mailed to the home of an employee not named in the audit. A large-ticket item, a power generator, was ostensibly purchased for the school's summer camp, but it could not be located by auditors. 

The school also failed to do background checks on 71 of the 77 employees it hired that year, the audit found. 
Rabbi Osher Eisemann, the school's founder and current director, was indicted earlier this month for allegedly stealing more than $630,000 in public funds and laundering much of the money. He was not blamed for the overbilling in the state's audit.

Now, I will confess that when I started following this story, my first reaction was: "Where was the oversight? Why wasn't the Lakewood Board of Education aware of this?" But the more I've thought about it, the more obvious it became to me that it's unreasonable for a board of education to oversee the proper use of monies when so much of those monies are spent by entities that are not regulated by that board.

Look at these figures again:

The rest of New Jersey has to keep watch over less than one percent of its students who are placed into private schools. Lakewood, however, has to oversee the placements of nearly six percent of its students.

The amount of spending on private schools is, on average, six percent of a New Jersey district's budget. But nearly sixteen percent of Lakewood's budget is spent on private schools. How can a local board of education keep track of this much money if it is given to entities out of their control? Local districts have enough to do keeping track of their own finances, let alone audit the accounts of private schools.

Eisemann's jury found he engaged in a complex financial scheme to evade the law. It took years for prosecutors to develop the case and win a conviction. It's not reasonable at all for any school board to be  expected to catch a private entity in this kind of act. But if that's true, it stands to reason that bad faith actors will see an opportunity and try to game the system. And when there is a lack of accountability, bad things inevitably happen.

Should New Jersey completely eliminate private schools for special education students? That's a question on which reasonable people can disagree. In my own career I've worked with people who run these schools, and they were all decent, committed professionals who had the best interests of their students at heart. There are much easier ways to make a living than running a school for kids with the most profound special needs, so I give anyone who enters the field the benefit of the doubt.

But public policy can't be run on faith. And the more public revenue that is doled out to nongovernmental entities, the more oversight is required. Lakewood gives out a lot of money to private interests, but it clearly hasn't figured out how to hold all of those entities fully accountable. How could it? Boards of education were never designed to be overseers of private schools... but, in this case, it's precisely what the situation requires.

But now imagine if we expanded the subsidies so all students, not just those with special needs, could attend private schools. Who would provide the necessary accountability? Boards of education clearly aren't up to the job. Who instead would protect the public's interest? Who would be in place to make sure public monies were being spent responsibly? For that matter, given how much support Lakewood provides to private schools right now...

... who's making sure that those private schools are spending it properly?

Point #3 on my list mentions disrespect for teachers. Let's talk about that next...

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Lakewood, NJ: Where Public Schools Are Left To Wither, Part II

Here's Part I of this series.

In this series, I'm taking a look at Lakewood, NJ, with an eye toward what might happen if more communities abandon their public schools and, instead, embrace the idea of school "choice." Lakewood, in a state by some accounts with the highest ranked public schools in the nation, is a town where the vast majority of families choose to send their children to private schools.

The Star-Ledger explained what's driving this phenomenon back in 2017:
Lakewood has more than 6,300 students registered in its public schools and another 30,000 mostly Orthodox Jewish students enrolled in the town's 130 private schools. Under state law, towns must fund buses for students attending private schools more than two miles from their houses.

In the upcoming school year, Lakewood expects to spend $27 million on busing alone, more than it spends on classroom instruction, according to the school budget.

Town leaders say Lakewood is severely underfunded by the state, which does not consider the busing of large numbers of private school students when calculating how much state aid the district receives. A permanent source of school funding for busing and special ed would ease many of the town's problems, said Rabbi Aaron Kotler, one of the leaders of the Orthodox Jewish community.

"It would also make Lakewood a place where you wouldn't have people feeling that your children's future is at risk due to a budget problem," Kotler said.
As we'll see throughout this series, the argument that Lakewood is "severely underfunded by the state" is open to debate. For now, let's do what regular readers know always comes next: take a data dive into Lakewood's schools. 

Remember: the data I'm using above, given a very conservative estimate, suggest private schools students outnumber public school students by at least 4-to-1; the Star-Ledger's report suggests the real ratio is even higher. Let's start by looking at the population in the public schools.

Overwhelmingly, Hispanic students make up the population of the Lakewood Public School District -- far more than the rest of Ocean County, and far more than the rest of the state. It's worth noting that, as Bruce Baker and I point out, one of the best predictors of whether a school district in New Jersey is underfunded according to the state's own law is whether that district enrolls an inordinately high number of Hispanic students.

Lakewood's public schools students are also overwhelmingly in economic disadvantage, as measured by eligibility for free or reduced-price lunches. 

Given this population, it's not surprising that Lakewood Public School District's Limited English Proficiency (LEP) rate is very high: over five times the state average.

To recap: the public schools in Lakewood enroll students who are overwhelmingly Hispanic and disadvantaged, with many who do not speak English as their first language. 

Now, we don't have the same data for the private school students. But looking as the religious affiliations of those schools gives us much of the information we need.

The vast majority of private schools students in Lakewood go to Jewish schools. As I said in the previous post, the religious denomination of the private schools students isn't important: what's important is that the majority of the town's families have opted out of sending their children to the public schools. This is, for many in the school "choice" movement, exactly what they'd like to see: a large number of a community's families choosing not to send their children to local public district schools.

There are at least two consequences to the majority of Lakewood's families rejecting public education. First, the student population of the public schools is very different from the private schools. Second, the majority of the town's families do not have a personal interest in the public schools' success. Let me be clear: I'm not saying they want the public schools to fail; rather, whether those schools fail or succeed does not impact them personally.

This has profound effect on the Lakewood Public School District's budget. The local school board is elected by a citizenry that is not invested in the public schools in the same way as is found in most other towns and cities. Whose interests, then, will the district's budgetary decisions serve?

As I've written before, New Jersey must, by law, provide funds for all sorts of supports to private schools attended by local resident children: technology aid, security, nursing, textbooks, handicapped services, and so on. In general, it's a very small amount of the overall K-12 school budget – except in Lakewood. A huge part of the Lakewood school district's budget is spent supporting the needs of students who do not attend its schools.

The Star-Ledger also points out the district spends a lot of money on transporting private school students. The state data doesn't allow us to separate out that cost from the cost of bussing public school kids, but clearly there is an effect: Lakewood's transportation budget is very large.

There's another expense Lakewood incurs far in excess of other New Jersey school districts: private school tuition for special education students. Back to the Star-Ledger:
Lakewood expects to spend nearly $32 million on tuition this year to send special education students -- including hundreds of members of the growing Orthodox Jewish community -- to private and out-of-district schools. The bill is among the highest in the state and one of the reasons the booming Ocean County town is facing a school funding crisis. 
Why do taxpayers pay private school bills?

Under federal law, all children with disabilities are entitled to a "free appropriate public education." So, if a school district does not have the staff, programs or facilities to accommodate a child's specific disability, parents can request that the district pay for a more appropriate private school.

Many parents turn to lawyers and education consultants for help. Their cases often end up before a state Office of Administrative Law judge, who rules where a student should be placed.

In Lakewood, an estimated 361 current and new special education students will be placed in private schools at the district's expense during the upcoming school year, according to the school district's budget. Another 17 students will be sent to other school districts.

Lakewood sends more than a quarter of its special education students to private or out-of-district schools, according to the data.

If you look at the percentage of all students on-roll who attend private schools, the figure is, once again, far in excess of the rest of the state.

Lakewood's private school placement rate is nearly ten times that of the rest of Ocean County. Again, this has a powerful effect on the public school district budget.

Lakewood spends more than twice what the rest of New Jersey's districts spend on tuition to other schools.

So, given the data, what can we surmise about Lakewood?
  • The majority of the population has opted out of sending their children to the public schools.
  • That majority is ethnically separate from the minority that sends their children to the public schools.
  • The budget of the public school allocates inordinately large sums in support of the private school population.
Let's be clear before we continue: these are facts. We can debate the cause, but the data are unambiguous on what is happening right now in Lakewood, NJ's schools.

The question we must address next, however, has greater consequences for the larger conversation on education policy: What happens when a community abandons its public schools? Again, I contend there are at least three consequences:
  1. When a large part of a community abandons its public schools, chaos ensues and accountability dissolves.
  2. Segregation is the inevitable consequence of school privatization.
  3. Educators will be disrespected in a community that does not support its public schools. 
The data clearly support point #2. In the next post, we'll further explore point #1.

ADDING: I'm using 2017-18 data as that is the last year for which we have audited, actual figures for the Lakewood Public School District, as opposed to projected or revised data. Lakewood is not included in the latest NJDOE fiscal dataset (User Friendly Budgets) for 2020-21. 

Monday, March 8, 2021

Lakewood, NJ: Where Public Schools Are Left To Wither, Part I

If you follow K12 policy, you've probably noticed that the school privatization crowd has recently become reenergized. The folks from right-wing think tanks and the professional school "choice" promoters have been pushing the idea of school vouchers hard, certain that the pandemic has created widespread dissatisfaction with our current system of public school districts.

Many times I've seen these people make the argument that private schools are fully open, and the only reason public schools are not is the intransigence of teachers unions and fecklessness of school boards. Of course, it's hardly that simple: consider that many "no excuses" charter schools -- free of both unions and BOEs -- remain closed. We also really don't know how many private schools are open, or to what extent, or with what consequences.

Nonetheless, the privatizers see an opening. And considering the number of wingnuts out there who think COVID isn't a serious threat that requires extraordinary actions to secure schools, they may be right. School privatization was, to my mind, always a secondary part of the overall conservative agenda, but that may have changed, if only in the short term.

Given the renewed focus on vouchers, I think we're justified in taking some time to really think about what it would look like if we embraced the idea of privatized schools in a "choice" system. What would it look like? If they still existed, what would the public schools do? Which students would go where? How would it affect the community? How would it affect the taxpayers? 

In the upcoming series of posts, I'm going to argue that we don't need to speculate; we already have at least one example, right here in New Jersey, of what will happen if a community largely abandons its public schools. 

Welcome to Lakewood*:

An administrative law judge has determined the public school district cannot fulfill its constitutional mandate to provide students a "thorough and efficient education," but stopped short of determining that the state funding formula is unconstitutional. 

In a non-binding decision Judge Susan Scarola recommended that the New Jersey Commissioner of Education conduct a needs assessment of the school district's ability to meet its obligations and make "appropriate recommendations to the district."

The decision scarcely binds the Acting Education Commissioner Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillan to do anything; the recommendation may be adopted, modified or rejected by Allen-McMillan. But the harsh assessment — that the school district cannot meet its constitutional mandate — puts fresh focus on the troubled school district and pressure on the state's top education official to intervene.

The 6,000-student district faces chronic budget gaps, owing in part to a state school-funding formula that fails to account for the fact the district must also pay transportation costs for 37,000 Lakewood students attending private schools.

Yes, that's right: only a small fraction of Lakewood's students attend the public schools. And, yes, that is very unusual -- especially for a state like New Jersey.

Private school data in the United States is at the mercy of survey methodology; in other words, it's very easy to make an incomplete count of private schools students in a community, because it's hard to get to every school, especially the small ones. The Private School Survey from the National Center for Education Statistics is, however, the best data source we have on private schools. When combined with state data, it shows a remarkable story about private schooling in Lakewood. Across the state, a little under 10 percent of students attend private schools. But four in five Lakewood students are in a private school, way more than the state and way, way more than any other town in Ocean County.

A few years ago, the Star-Ledger did an extensive series of reports on Lakewood, dubbing it "N.J.'s most controversial town." The first report gives some background:

Lakewood is booming. Thanks to an influx of Orthodox Jews, it has been New Jersey's fastest-growing town over the last 20 years. It has one of the highest birth rates in the world. Housing is going up at an unprecedented pace.

Why are there so many Orthodox Jews in Lakewood?

Lakewood had long been a popular resort for Jewish vacationers when a refugee rabbi fleeing Nazis in Lithuania arrived in the 1940s to start Beth Medrash Govoha, a higher education institution where men could study the Talmud, one of the religion's sacred text.

The yeshiva, known as BMG, grew over the years into one of the largest schools of its kind in the nation, with more than 6,500 students. A thriving Orthodox Jewish community grew around the yeshiva, which included many Jews from Brooklyn's Orthodox community looking for less costly housing and a more suburban setting to raise their families.

Who else lives in Lakewood?

The population exploded from 45,000 in 1990 to more than 100,000 now, making it New Jersey's fifth-largest city.

The town is 84 percent white, 17 percent Hispanic and 4 percent black, according to the U.S. Census. There is a growing Mexican immigrant community and a large community of seniors in sprawling retirement communities, including Leisure Village. The African-American community has been shrinking in recent years.

This last paragraph is perhaps the key to understanding Lakewood's schools: while there is a large and growing Orthodox Jewish community in Lakewood, it is not the entirety of the town's population. The Hispanic and Black students in Lakewood are not being served by the town's large network of yeshivas; instead, they are enrolled in the public school district.

Now, it's clear that very few communities in the United States are exactly like Lakewood. But that doesn't mean there aren't lessons about school privatization to be learned. I have three:

  1. When a large part of a community abandons its public schools, chaos ensues and accountability dissolves.
  2. Segregation is the inevitable consequence of school privatization.
  3. Educators will be disrespected in a community that does not support its public schools. 
It's going to take several posts to tell this story, because it's big and complex. Fortunately, there has been some excellent reporting on Lakewood's schools, particularly from the Asbury Park Press; I'm going to lean heavily on them as I work through this series.

But in spite of the story's many twists and turns, I think it's an important one to tell it. Lakewood is a cautionary tale, and the ethnicity of the characters in it really doesn't matter much. What's important is that we understand what happens when public schools are left to whither in a community that has largely abandoned them.

I'll dig into the data next.

* All emphases in this post are mine. 

Monday, February 22, 2021

We Don't Need Standardized Testing In a Pandemic

UPDATE: Just as I was finishing this post, I caught a glimpse of this news:

The U.S. Department of Education extended flexibility to states today in how and when they administer mandated end-of-the-year assessments, including allowing shorter tests that can be given remotely and, in the summer, or even in the fall. The federal agency advised states to blunt the impact of the tests, suggesting the scores not be used in final grades and grade promotion decisions.

However, despite the disruption to schools from the pandemic, the federal agency did not liberate states from administering standardized tests; it will continue to require statewide assessments. Some states, including Georgia, requested waivers that would allow them to forgo standardized testing altogether this year.
As I argue below, this is a bad idea. I really hope the Biden administration can be persuaded to reconsider.

* * *

A notable bit of education policy news in New Jersey last week:

New Jersey will apply to the federal government to waive standardized testing for the current school year as districts across the state continue to cope with the constraints of the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Friday.

Murphy said the state has not yet received word from President Joe Biden’s administration as to whether it will accept its application to waive the federal testing requirements.

“We also recognize the importance of statewide assessments to gauge where our students’ learning,” the governor said during his latest COVID-19 briefing in Trenton. “But given the need to ensure our students’ instructional time is maximized and the levels of stress on them, our educators, our school administrators, and our families are minimized, we are putting forward this waiver request.”

The state is hardly alone, as several others have also applied for waivers from the federal mandate for testing. But there's plenty of pushback, as it's become an article of faith among certain education reformers that we must have tests, and that in a time of crisis testing is more important than ever. In Florida, for example, students will be required to show up to take their tests in person, even if their parents have been keeping them home during the pandemic. Why?

State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran signed an order this week requiring the tests. The order said the tests are more important than ever because many struggling students are learning at home and falling behind.

Test results will “ensure that each student is given the services and supports they need to succeed in life,” the order says.

If you take Commissioner Corcoran at his word, he's going to use the tests to make sure students get what they need. But that's coming from a state that chronically underfunds its schools. If students weren't getting the supports they needed before the pandemic, what would make anyone think they'll get them now -- but only if they take a test?

Corcoran is engaging in the typically facile thinking that has become the hallmark of many who espouse the virtues of standardized testing. I have a set of questions I like to ask whenever anyone says students must take a standardized test:

- What are you going to do with the test results? 

A core concept of assessment is that tests must be shown to be valid for the purposes in which they will be used. In other words: you should make a separate argument for every proposed use of a test. A test that may be valid to use for, say, determining whether there are enough overall resources in the education system isn't necessarily valid for the purpose of determining whether a student should pass to the next grade.

Psyshometricians often speak of making a validity argument in favor of the use of a test for a particular purpose. That argument should touch upon the relevancy of the outcomes to a specific use, the consequences of making decisions based on these outcomes, the opportunity to learn the content in the test, and other factors.

One of the biggest failings in our current testing system is that we use statewide standardized tests for many purposes -- even if no one has presented an argument for those uses. Some lawmakers have argued that these tests should be used as a graduation exam or to determine grade promotion, even though most have never put forward an argument that the test is valid for that purpose. Some say test outcomes run through a statistical model should be used to evaluate teachers, again without making an argument against the many reasons that's a bad idea.

That's especially true this year. The fact is that too much of what is happening in schools is out of the control of teachers, administrators, or students. Students have had wildly uneven opportunities to learn during the pandemic, and it's not fair to visit consequences on them or their teachers based on outcomes in this year's tests.

One implication those who argue for standardized testing make is that teachers need the data to help students make up for the learning they've lost over the past year. But these tests provide little meaningful information for teachers. First, the results take a long time to come back, so they aren't useful in real time. Second, teachers aren't allowed to see the questions, which makes them mostly useless in informing instruction. Third, there usually aren't enough items in each area of content knowledge to provide reliable data. Teachers need to assess their students and get to work quickly; these tests weren't designed to help with that task.

So, if the tests aren't going to be used for teacher evaluation, or promotion/graduation, or allocating resources, or informing instruction... why do we need to give them? For what purpose, exactly, should they be used? No one should advocate for administering tests unless they can give a specific answer to this question.

- What is the cost of administering the tests?

I'm not just talking about dollar costs, although those can be significant. But the truth is that we have known for a good long while that administering standardized tests in math and English has extracted a price on students, educators, and the K-12 education system aside from mere dollars. 

Testing has narrowed the curriculum, especially in districts with high levels of student poverty and, consequently, relatively low average test scores. The pressure on students to perform on these tests has been well documented. Several major cheating scandals highlight the pressure adults also feel, leading to moral compromises that would likely be absent in an environment without such high-stakes attached to the tests.  

Add this to the current worries about contracting COVID-19 in school and it becomes clear that the cost of administering these tests this spring will be very, very high. Which leads me to ask...

- Is the cost of testing worth it?

What, exactly, will statewide standardized test outcomes tell us that we didn't already know, or that we couldn't find out some other way? That students didn't gain as much learning as they would have without the pandemic? We already know this; and again, it's not like the tests will give educators data they couldn't get other ways that are much faster and more detailed.

Will we learn that students who are economically disadvantaged need more resources to equalize their educational opportunity? We already knew that before the pandemic. And does anyone really think that otherwise reluctant politicians will be persuaded to dole out more funds when they see this year's test scores? Really?

It's worth noting that all tests are subject to construct irrelevant variation, a fancy term that means the outcomes can vary based on things other than a student's knowledge. Students who take tests in less-than-optimal conditions, for example, are more likely to do poorly than they would if they were in better circumstances. 

This year, the differences in the testing environments will be more stark than ever. Students in districts that remain fully remote will take their tests in widely-ranging home environments. Students who take their tests in school may be in smaller cohorts, or crammed together in full classes. The COVID mitigations they face during the tests varies widely, as does the technology available to take the tests. 

Variations in test-taking conditions has always been great, but now those conditions will very even more than before. How, then, can we trust that the test is measuring what it's supposed to actually measure?

Normally, I believe that test data can be useful for research and policymaking purposes -- although I think we could get data just as good as we have now for a lot less cost and bother by cutting back the amount of testing and removing unvalidated attachments to high-stakes decisions. 

But the more I think about it, I the more I come to the conclusion that the data this year isn't going to be of much use. Why, then, go through the bother of testing kids when the cost is so high and the value of the results is so low?

The tests can wait a year. Give everyone a break.

ADDING: Honestly, this makes no sense to me:

“To be successful once schools have re-opened, we need to understand the impact COVID-19 has had on learning and identify what resources and supports students need,” Ian Rosenblum, acting assistant education secretary, wrote in a letter to state education leaders.

What decisions exactly are you going to make based on those scores? If you can't answer that, you don't need the data.

Identifying the resources and supports students need is the job of schools. The government's job is to get schools the extra money they're going to need so schools can provide resources and supports. Go work on that and leave the educational decisions to educators.