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, March 13, 2012

No Shame at the NJDOE

After all of the debunking that's taken place over the last several months, I cannot believe that ACTING NJDOE Commissioner Cerf would say this:
Acting Education commissioner Chris Cerf says, “According to data over the past several years, charter schools on average across the state are outperforming other district options for students in high-need communities. However, we must also be honest that just as some district schools are failing students, some charter schools in New Jersey are also not performing at the level their students deserve. In exchange for greater autonomy to innovate and meet the specific needs of their students, charters have been held to strict account for the results they achieve in the classroom for students. We will not accept failure for our state’s children and will continue to hold all of our schools, both district and charter, accountable for their results.” [emphasis mine]
This is an astonishing statement, and it has been debunked by many people many times:

Matt Dicarlo:
Isolating the effect of charter schools versus regular public schools is an exceedingly complicated endeavor. One must account for a huge array of observable and unobservable factors, including student characteristicsattrition,selection bias, and resources. It is, of course, impossible to control for everything, and that is why the research literature on charter effects is highly complex. The better analyses rely on sophisticated statistical models, longitudinal student-level datasets, and, when possible, experimental research designs using random assignment. 
The state’s analysis consisted entirely of subtraction. The conclusions drawn from it offend the most basic principles of empirical research. Christopher Cerf is a smart guy, and I’m guessing that he knows this. [mphasis mine]
Bob Braun:
Nearly a month ago, Cerf issued a report saying charter schools “outperformed” regular schools but rejected a dozen repeated requests by this newspaper to compare students on the basis of income — a key performance factor — as well as disability and language problems. He denied a request filed under the Open Public Records Act on the grounds it was under no obligation to generate a report comparing students on the basis of income.
Now Cerf says statistics tracking the scores of the poorest students — those eligible for free lunches — can’t be provided for one simple reason.
“You are asking for some data that simply does not exist,” he said in an e-mail Sunday.
The newspaper asked because charter schools in New Jersey cities enroll far fewer of the poorest students than regular public schools. Cerf called this writer’s insistence on having all the statistics before comparing charter and regular schools “transparently silly.”
He also declined to say how he could be so sure charters outperformed regular schools without controlling for the vast differences in income levels. Nor would he explain how teachers might be evaluated — under his tenure proposals last week — by using statistics that are either unreliable or don’t exist.
In fact, the acting commissioner declined in the e-mail to be interviewed, contending this writer’s “anger and bias” compromised his “objectivity.” Cerf also said he was reluctant to sit for an interview before his nomination is confirmed by the state Senate. More than anything, though, this signals that Cerf is camping with those trying to bully aside anyone who dares to question the governor’s agenda by suggesting that we’re howling at the moon. But this newspaper and a growing legion of others will continue to seek commonsense data that present an accurate picture of the state of education in New Jersey — no matter how hard Christie and his employees try to shout down those who question them. [emphasis mine]
Bruce Baker:
Some will say, why should I care if charters are producing higher outcomes with similar kids? What matters to me is that they are producing higher outcomes! Anyone who produces higher outcomes in Newark or Trenton should be applauded, no matter how they do it. It’s one more high performing school where there wasn’t one previously.
It is important to understand that comparisons of student outcomes that ignore differences in student populations reward – in the public eye – those schools that manage to find a way to serve more advantaged populations, either by achieving non-representative initial lottery pool or by selective attrition. As a result, there is a disincentive for charter operators to actually make greater effort to serve higher need populations – the ones who really need it! And there are many out there who see this as their real mission.  Those charter operators who do try to serve more ELL children, more children in severe multi-generational poverty, and children with disabilities often find themselves answering tough questions from their boards of directors and the media regarding why they can’t produce the same test scores as the high-flying charter on the other side of town. These are not good incentives from a public policy perspective. They are good for the few, not the whole.
Further, one’s perspective on this point varies whether one is a parent looking for options for his/her own child, or a policymaker looking for “scalable” policy options for improving educational opportunities for children statewide. From a parent (or child) perspective, one is relatively unconcerned whether the positive school effect is function of selectivity of peer group and attrition, so long as there is a positive effect. But, from a public policy perspective, the “charter model” is only useful if the majority of positive effects are notdue to peer group selectivity and attrition, but rather to the efficacy and transferability of the educational models, programs and strategies. Given the uncommon student populations served by many Newark charters and even more uncommon attrition patterns among some… not to mention the grossly insufficient data… we simply have no way of knowing whether these schools can provide insights for scalable reforms.
As they presently operate, however, many of the standout schools do not represent scalable reforms. And on average, New Jersey charters are still… just… average. [emphasis mine]

Bruce Baker tells us that "% Free Lunch" is the better metric, as it shows a deeper level of poverty, but both metrics show that Elysian has far fewer kids in need than the rest of the district.

I'll say what I've said about other charters: Elysian is undoubtedly a fine school with a dedicated staff, committed parents, and wonderful, deserving children. I congratulate them on their successes.

But let's not kid ourselves: what they are doing is not replicable. No matter the reason, the student population at Elysian is simply different from the population in the rest of the district. It is foolish and/or mendacious to pretend otherwise.
The ACTING Commissioner is undoubtedly aware of at least some of these objections - certainly he's aware of Braun's. It is, therefore, logical to conclude that he is deliberately ignoring the critical problem with his assertion about charters: you can't compare them to other schools if they have different student populations.

It's one thing to have a bad response to this objection, but Cerf has no response. That is simply shameless. And it's indicative of how decisions are being made in the Christie administration.


Mother Crusader said...

I wanted to rip my face off when I read that press release today.

No shame is exactly right. But also no moral compass, no compassion and most of all, no integrity.

When I saw chatter today that Senator Buono may run for Governor it gave me hope that perhaps this can all be turned around before irreparable harm is done. The question is, will the rest of New Jersey wake up in time and get Christie out of office so that we can get an Education Commissioner in place that wants to protect public education, not dismantle it.

Deb said...

Dear Jazzman,

As usual, great piece - you tie things together superbly. My only comment is that - really you couldn't believe Cerf would say what he did? I guess perhaps I am more jaded but it seems completely consistent with the other large piles of, um, malarky that he has shoveled out (sorry if malarky is not shoveled) over the past year....he does not seem bothered with data or facts, as he certainly cannot cite them, and does not like to collect them, and he lives in a la-la land (actually two if you go by his residences) where charter schools that cream the best students are an example of everything the district schools are doing wrong....nothing much surprises me from him anymore....

Duke said...

You know, Deb, I use that phrase a lot without literally meaning it. Maybe I should retire it, because nothing coming out of the NJDOE surprises me anymore either.

That said: Cerf does like to keep a wonkish air about him. I guess it still stuns me that anyone with these pretensions would say something so utterly disprovable.

Thank you both!

Deb said...

Please do not let me influence your prose! I was just making sure that I was not becoming too cynical!

Anonymous said...

If Cerf thinks charters are the way to go, let a charter operator take over one of the worst performing schools in Newark (NOT Camden St School, which is a special education school), not expel any students, and see how well they do.

Julia said...

Emily Fisher charter school is doing exactly what it should, educating the most challenging students and working in partnership with the host district. So what's Commissioner Cerf's response? Closing the school, of course. How else can he look tough on charter schools?


Lisa said...

YEAH! Step 1: Assembly approves bill to establish local vote on new charter schools!