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

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Throwing Angels Under a Bus

Everyone working in schools knows the hardest job is teaching special education - especially to the most challenging children. Like all elementary music teachers, I work with special education teachers every day, and I have to tell you that they constantly amaze me with their sympathy, intelligence, insight, and patience. As far as I am concerned, anyone who devotes his or her career to teaching these deserving but demanding children is an angel on earth. And people who casually dismiss their work ought to be ashamed of themselves.

Which is why this next story bugs the hell out of me:

Advocates for Children of New Jersey has been working on child poverty issues for a good long while, but only recently started focusing on K-12 education. They recently released a report - Newark Kids Count 2011 - which bemoans the poor level of reading achievement for 3rd graders in the city. The Star-Ledger's Jessica Calefati picked up the story:
Two of every five Newark kids now live below the federal poverty line, a rate higher than it’s been in the past eight years. For a family of four, that means a median household income of less than $22,000 a year.
City officials, however, said the sobering child poverty level is no excuse for the district’s low performance on state tests, which is also detailed in the report, called Newark Kids Count.
"These figures show we are undermining the ability of our families to provide for their children," said Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who has made job-growth in the city a priority. "But we cannot let poverty be an excuse not to educate our children at the highest levels."
Big surprise hearing that from His Reforminess, but whatever. ACNJ and Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson decided to highlight this "no excuses" educational philosophy by releasing the report at the school that has the highest Grade 3 test scores in Newark; and they made a point of letting us know which school has the lowest-achieveing 3rd graders:
Newark schools superintendent Cami Anderson noted that the district includes some schools with abysmal academic performance and others that are beating the odds, considering the city’s child poverty rate.
At Branch Brook Elementary School, where authors released the findings of the Kids Count report, 85 percent of third graders are proficient. At Camden Street Elementary School, just 10 percent of third graders can read at grade level.
Anderson said one of the most important factors in boosting achievement in spite of poverty is strong school leadership. Before the start of this school year, Anderson replaced more than a dozen principals she felt were not qualified.
"While I am daunted by the challenge of increasing poverty on our families and our system ... it comes down to leadership," Anderson said. [emphasis mine]
It's worth noting that the comparison between Branch Brook and Camden Street schools can also be found on page 6 of the ACNJ report, so we know where both Anderson and Calefati got their information.

It's also important to point out that the way this excerpt is written strongly implies that Anderson has a problem with Camden Street's "leadership." Neither she, nor Calefati, nor the ACNJ report ever mentions any mitigating circumstances that may be responsible for Camden Street's poor showing.

Yeah, I'm not buying it either. Let's run the numbers:

Set aside the huge spike Camden Street had in 3rd Graders; it's painfully obvious that Camden Street is serving a very different population than Branch Brook. The school houses many children with autism, behavioral disabilities, mild and moderate cognitive disabilities... exactly the children we'd expect to see struggle on standardized tests.

Of course, anyone could have learned that serving these children is Camden Street's mission simply by visiting the school's website:
Camden's special needs program houses approximately two hundred students. These students live throughout the City of Newark, and are transported to Camden by bus. Opportunities for integrating classified students into a least restrictive environment are accomplished through inclusion and mainstreaming. Our goal is to meet the various needs of all. To accomplish this task, we provide students with whole group and individual learning experiences. 
Academic success is the mission of Camden Street Elementary School’s staff. The strategy used to achieve this goal is through high expectations and realistic goals. High expectations are communicated to the students by the teachers letting them know specifically what they are expected to learn, and that they can learn. [emphasis mine]
None of this is mentioned in ACNJ's report or Calefati's article. Maybe they didn't think it was important.

In Anderson's defense - and knowing how journalists work - Calefati may have made the juxtaposition between "leadership" and Camden Street on her own. But that juxtaposition leads us to believe that Anderson thinks the leadership is so weak there that it accounts for a 75% differential in third grade reading scores. Shouldn't ACNJ looked at this more closely before trashing the school's performance? Shouldn't Calefati have been more curious about the cause of the dichotomy? Shouldn't Anderson have defended her staff at Camden Street; a staff doing a tough but critically necessary job?

Look, I don't know either of these schools. I definitely think someone should take a look at Branch Brook and figure out why they are having the success they have. And it may well be that there is a problem over at Camden Street that needs addressing.

But platitudes about "leadership" don't tell us a thing, and the deserving children of Camden Street School deserve better from their superintendent, their advocates, and the press. Further, the staff of Camden Street are doing the work of the angels; unless and until someone can show a specific problem with their work, no one should throw these teachers under a bus.

ADDING: Laura Waters swallowed it whole without asking a single question. Of course.


Anonymous said...

And the demographic differences go beyond special education. Branch Brook has much lower % free lunch & much lower % black. They are completely different schools in terms of demography.

Here are the scatterplots of % free lunch & 3rd grade scores & % black and 3rd grad scores:





Anonymous said...

They bus these children from Newark to Camden every day?? That is one heckuva commute for anyone, never mind small children with autism etc.,


rob g said...

nope - it's called "Camden Street School".

Ken Houghton said...

The cesspool of horseshit that is the comments section of the S-L article makes it rather clear that Calefati is pandering to her audience, not interested in reality.

And her audience is proud of their ignorance, judging by their comments and page 13 of the report, where it is noted that births to unmarried women in Newark are growing at a lower rate than the State of New Jersey.

Looking for reality and perspective in Star-Ledger reporting is getting to be a mug's game.

Duke said...

Anon, Rob is right - yeah, a little confusing. Probably should have spelled that out better.

Ken, as Atrios says: comments sections of newspapers are the worst places on the interwebs.

Dr. B: I started to look at the demographics and then decided the spec ed story was more important to tell right now. But I'd be very curious to see how your "zip code method" works for Branch Brook. How do their students compare to students in the area?

And the stability of their grade level enrollment across the school is curious, especially compared to Camden. And less than 30 per grade for the entire school?

I noticed that the size of the grade level matched exactly the class size in the NJDOE data (I assume you were using that and CCD to make those scatterplots). Something's going on over there - the whole grade is considered a class? May be something good, but it just doesn't seem to be a typical neighborhood school set up.

Curious to see what you find.

Teacher Mom said...

I only read the first sentence and already I want to say thank you!

Teacher Mom said...
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Teacher Mom said...

As a special education teacher in the inner city I feeling overwhelmingly demoralized. My previous school, for I was recently transferred, ranked at the very bottom in a district of 40 schools. We had the highest poverty rate, the highest percentage of special needs students, AND the worst leadership. How can that school ever hope to raise test scores under those circumstances and where every student who has the ability AND the family support to be successful transfers out.

I've always felt that for our more impaired students, these standardized tests are abusive. Also, they do not show any growth in the development or academic ability of our students. Until they start testing our students on their FUNCTIONAL level as opposed to the chronological age, I will NEVER support the testing of our special needs population. You can not see growth in a student who is functionally 2 or more years behind on a grade level assessment. Even if that student DOES grow by 1 grade level, it will not be evident on the assessment.

Teacher Mom said...

PS I was told to see the transfer as a reward. Go figure.


Aren't 'special needs' and 'standardized tests' somewhat of an oxymoron?

Let's punish those teachers who don't work on the important stuff: the numbers.

Let's ostracize those schools who host special needs students and classrooms. They are too busy focusing on the needs of the students to care about the appearance of the school's percentages.

Thank you TeacherMom, for teaching our special needs kids. You know better than most how much they need you...

Teacher Mom said...

Aww Shucks! Thanks that really does mean a lot to me.

sixsigmaHyderabad said...
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Unknown said...

I work and live in Newark, there is a huge discrepancy between school resources in the North ward (Branch Brook school) and the South ward (Camden street). I find it interesting how the demographics are practically identical in Irvington and East Orange yet no state take over.