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

Monday, December 31, 2012

Kids Pay For Christie's Incompetence

Like so many other denizens of the Garden State, it makes me nuts to watch Governor Chris Christie touted as a fearless leader and maker of tough decisions in the national press. Because the man is really, really bad at his job:
A report submitted this month by the state Department of Education to the Legislature is likely to set the stage for another school-funding debate next year. For many local districts, the outlook is not good. 
The Educational Adequacy Report repeats many of the proposals suggested last year by Education Commissioner Chris Cerf. If accepted by the Legislature, they would reduce extra funding districts receive for low-income, bilingual and special-education students. 
Advocates for those students already are gearing up to lobby the Legislature in January to reject the report. Lawmakers have 90 days to make a decision, or the proposals take effect. 
The report also again recommends eliminating so-called adjustment aid over five years, which would reduce aid to many districts in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Ocean counties. According to state data, adjustment aid for 2012-13 totaled $36 million in Vineland, almost $15 million in Pleasantville, nearly $14 million in Millville, $8 million in Atlantic City and $6.5 million in Lower Cape May Regional. [emphasis mine]
For the last three years, New Jersey has been on a rollercoaster ride when it comes to school financing. After immediately cutting taxes on the rich (yes, he did, stop trying to blame Corzine), Christie started his term by next promising to limit cuts in school aid to districts; he then proceeded to hack and slash at school budgets all across the state, including the suburban towns where his political base sends their kids to school.

Those suburbanites got in an uproar about cuts to favored programs in their beloved schools. And the courts ruled that cuts to the cities violated New Jersey's legal obligation to provide adequate funding to urban schools. So Christie had no choice but to reverse course and start funding schools again. Where did he get the money?

Give the man credit: he pulled the slickest trick you could possibly imagine. In the name of both "fiscal responsibility" and "bipartisanship," he got together with conservative Democrats and passed a public employee pension and benefits bill that allowed him to delay making a full payment to New Jersey's already woefully underfunded pensions for seven years. He ran around the state claiming he was the governor who was finally telling the truth to greedy public employees; what he really did was put off the state's legal obligations for another day.

The local punditocracy, however, loved it. And not just because Christie's bill also increased pension payments for teacher and cops, and froze benefits for current retirees; no, what gave the local wags a special thrill was the idea that public employee unions had suffered a defeat. Nothing is more important to the local New Jersey op-ed writer than humiliating unions, especially the teachers union. The plan was obviously fiscally irresponsible and a blatant broken promise on Christie's part, but no matter: it was screwing the NJEA, and that's all that counts.

Well, now Christie has to deal with the mess he made:

New Jersey’s pension contribution may consume almost one-fifth of its annual budget by 2018 under a law enacted by Republican Governor Chris Christie, according to a group led by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker and Richard Ravitch, the former New York lieutenant governor.

The contribution must rise by about $4.5 billion over the next five years, from $1.03 billion in 2013, to comply with the 2010 law, the State Budget Crisis Task Force said in a report. A $5.5 billion payment equals two-thirds of the school aid in Christie’s spending plan for the year that began July 1. [emphasis mine]
Forget 2018; how's Christie going to get enough money to make the payment in 2014? The payments are based on a ridiculous rate of return on current investments of 8.25%; there's no way that's going to happen. Worse, Christie has a bad habit of way overestimating tax revenue, and then calling more conservative projections "blatantly political."

So he's painted himself into a corner: revenues are down, pension payments are looming, he's promised not to raise taxes on the wealthy, growth in the state is anemic, his political base doesn't want him touching their schools, he's said conservative revenue projections are politically motivated, and he's already screwed over public employees once. What choices are left?

Well, the first thing to remember is this: Chris Christie studied at the feet of the master:

Whenever George W. Bush had to confront his horrible economic and fiscal record, he pulled out 9-11, the Iraq War, or Katrina as his excuse. Luckily for Christie, he had a big natural disaster plop right down in his lap this past fall:

Governor Chris Christie said he’s evaluating whether to cut New Jersey’s budget for the current fiscal year, while the state reported revenue trailed targets by 11 percent last month, citing the effect of Superstorm Sandy.

Receipts fell short of projections by $183.7 million in November, as Sandy’s floods and coastal destruction deterred shoppers and gamblers. Income-tax collections missed targets by 11 percent, the Treasury Department said in a statement. By Nov. 30, fiscal 2013 revenue was $451.2 million, or 5.6 percent, lower than estimated in the $31.7 billion budget.

Before the November revenue report, Christie, a 50-year-old Republican in his first term, said tax collections may rebound in a few months as Sandy rebuilding continues. Such an increase may offset the need for spending cuts, he told reporters in Newark, the state’s biggest city.

“After Sandy, we very well may need to; we’re evaluating” possible budget cuts, Christie said. “If we need to, we will. Our state was essentially closed for the month of November.”
What a load of crap. First of all, Christie had an obligation to prepare for a natural disaster like Sandy and the fiscal chaos that would ensue - he didn't:
The state’s economic activity ground to a halt in the storm’s aftermath. As a result, revenue streams like sales, income, gas and casino taxes are expected to dip, placing additional stress on an already strained budget. Revenue grew modestly in the first three months of the fiscal year that began in July, but is still $175 million, or 4 percent, less than Christie projected. Revenue would have to grow more than 10 percent in the remaining months for the governor to hit his target.
Making matters more difficult, the budget allowed for a safety net of less than $500 million.
[emphasis mine] 
Nice work, Guv; way to plan ahead.

Second, it's all of his Republican buddies in Congress who are holding up federal aid that would help NJ with the financial mess. But what's really galling here is that Christie had already created a fiscal disaster long before Sandy hit the state. The revenue before Sandy was less than Christie was projecting. But like his mentor, don't expect Christie to acknowledge this sad fact; instead, expect him to flounder around with contradictory economic claims that betray his ignorance, all while using disaster as a political excuse:
“My view is that before the disaster, we had plenty of room to do a tax cut and that we should because it would be a stimulant to the economy and helpful to middle-class families in this state who need more money in their pocket,” Christie said at a briefing held at a new Federal Emergency Management Agency joint operations center in a vacant office building in Lincroft. “I don’t think that’s reduced the need for that. The question is what will the revenue picture be. I’ll wait to see the numbers as they come in.”  
“Unfortunately, I think we should have done it already,” Christie said. “If we had, people would have money in their pockets right now and be able to spend it. It would help the economy as well but the Legislature chose not to do it.” 
The tax cuts, however, were not scheduled to go into effect until Jan.1, which means residents would not have said [sic] any money yet.
So the tax cuts would have been good to have now, except we can't afford them now, so they wouldn't be good to have now. And they would have helped the economy, except we wouldn't have had them yet anyway.

That's logic worthy of Sarah Palin.

In any case, Christie never talks about raising taxes on the wealthiest people in this state, even though we have the second-highest income gap in the nation. And there's no way he's going to raise taxes on or cut school spending for his political base in the 'burbs. What to do, what to do...

And so we get back to school aid. The plan is to cut aid to schools, but to put the majority of the cuts on the backs of the poorest children in New Jersey - children whose parents weren't going to vote for Christie anyway. Thus, we trot out the old argument designed to salve the guilty consciences of conservatives everywhere: when it comes to schools, money doesn't matter:
Cerf’s report focuses on funding, saying the state’s efforts at education-finance reform have not generated academic results, and that the academic achievement gap between low-income students and those who are not economically disadvantaged is still wide. 
“New Jersey cannot spend its way to educational success,” Cerf states as the thesis of the report. He adds that the state has spent billions of dollars in the former (urban) Abbott districts only to see large portions of those districts’ students continue to fail. Cerf states that how well money is spent matters as much as, if not more, than how much is spent. 
The report has been criticized by Rutgers Graduate School of Education professor Bruce Baker, author of the schoolfinance101 blog, who notes that New Jersey’s achievement gap is in line with its income gap. In a lengthy blog post, complete with charts, he shows that New Jersey has the second-widest income gap in the nation, after Connecticut, and says it is reflected in student performance. He adds that while money is not everything, nothing can be achieved without it. [emphasis mine]
This is the last argument Christie wants to hear - and yet hear it he must. Baker's post makes clear that New Jersey's commitment to equitable school spending has substantially improved the educational outcomes of the state's poorest children. And he's not alone:
David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, which has represented children in the state’s poorest districts, said the organization’s first goal will be to convince the Legislature to reject the report.
The Legislature did reject the proposals last year, but the state aid proposed by the governor included the changes, and the final state budget did reflect a loss of aid to some districts.
Sciarra also disputed Cerf’s efforts to make the debate about money, saying the Abbott v. Burke Supreme Court decisions did not just allocate more money to urban districts, but required that they use it to develop specific programs, such as preschool. He said some achievement gaps have narrowed, and New Jersey schools overall do well.
To say simply that all we’ve done is spend money is absurd,” Sciarra said. “And the court was very clear that the state had the responsibility to make sure districts are using the money effectively.” [emphasis mine]
It is absurd - but we live in absurd times. Commissioner Cerf has been running around the state all year trying to make the case that New Jersey spends too much on its poorest students. He thinks focusing on "teacher effectiveness" and "turn around strategies" and "charter expansion" is the key to improving urban education.

I actually think Cerf believes this idiocy. But his real goal is to justify Christie's fiscal strategy of cutting school aid to the poor.

Make no mistake: this is yet another example of how corporate education "reform" is nothing more than a distraction. Promoting these failed policies is they way conservatives can justify our extreme income inequity and historically low taxes on the wealthy. Chris Christie may have learned at George W's feet, but he is hardly alone.

The Selling Out of Newark's Schools: Part II

Let's talk some more about Cory Booker's Christmas Eve email dump.

In Part I of this series, I detailed how Booker's secret emails reveal that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million donation to Newark's schools quickly became a vehicle for both pushing anti-teacher, anti-union "reforms," and for disenfranchising the local community from controlling their own schools. Both Team Booker and Zuckerberg's folks were very concerned with the optics of the donation, even as they hatched plans to use it to force merit pay on to Newark's teachers and expand charter schools against the will of the duly elected school board.

Let's get into a few more of the particulars, starting with this question: Who is Sheryl Sandberg?
In the days leading up to the announcement of a $100 million gift to Newark schools Facebook's COO Sheryl Sandberg and Newark officials identified three areas that could be hurdles to a smooth implementation: building community support, attracting other donors and hiring a new superintendent, according to newly released emails.

In fact, those three areas proved problematic in the months–and years–after Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said he would give money to New Jersey’s largest city, provided an equal amount of matching funds were raised.


A week before the September 2010 donation was public, Sandberg asked Booker in an email about spending plans for the first 100 days and details of how the mayor planned to obtain support from residents.

Booker wrote: “This is one of our biggest concerns right now as we must be ahead of the game on community organizing by next week.” A mayoral adviser outlined a rough plan to spend $315,000 on efforts such as polling, focus groups, mailing and consultants. The foundation has spent at least $2 million on such efforts since.

It was also clear early on that Zuckerberg’s donation largely would be invisible to parents, students and teachers. State officials have said they always envisioned that a bulk of the money would help pay for a new teachers contract.

“MZ’s money is not going in to classrooms,” Booker aide Sharon Macklin wrote on Sept. 19, 2010. Instead, aides discussed how to allow small donors to fund individual projects, and Macklin suggested they would “get a lot of local props” for that.

Newark residents who are critical of Booker at school board meetings often say they are wary of outsiders and would rather have a superintendent who has some connection to the city. Sandberg appears to have been concerned about how the gift would be viewed. In an email to Booker and other Newark officials, she wrote that a draft of a press release about the donation used “too much ‘national’ language.”

“I wonder if we should basically make this focused on Newark with just a touch of ‘and this will be a national model,’” she wrote.
[emphasis mine]
Now I find that curious for several reasons. First: why was Sandberg so intimately involved in a donation Mark Zuckerberg - not Facebook, but Zuckerberg - was making? Obviously, she felt that the optics of the donation were going to reflect on Facebook somehow; she was particularly concerned with making sure that Zuckerberg did not look like he was coming into Newark and usurping the will of the common folk.

Any COO wants her company to look good - but Sandberg had a special motivation. Remember: the donation was in September of 2010. Less than two years later, Facebook went public in the highest-profile IPO that Wall Street had seen since Google. And there was a lot of money on the table:
 3. Facebook left nothing for the common investor. The insider pig pile of PE firms and celebrity Silicon Valley angels took it all. This is a rather new, post-Sarbanes-Oxley fact and it should make Americans very, very angry. When Microsoft when public in 1986, its market value was $780 million. Microsoft’s market value would rise more than 700 times in the next 13 years.Bill Gates made millionaires of thousands of ordinary public investors. When Google went public in 2004 at a $23 billion valuation, it left less on the table for you and me. Still, if you had invested in Google then and held your stock, you would be sitting atop a 9x return. Zuckerberg and his Facebook friends took it all. [emphasis mine]
Time for my first caveat: I know less about high finance than probably anyone on the planet. Maybe the guy above from Forbes is full of beans; I wouldn't know. However, even I can see that an IPO must have been on the minds of Sandberg and Zuckerberg in 2010. And, given the Occupy-style populism that was sweeping the country at the time, it's hardly a stretch of the imagination to think that Sandberg was more than a little interested in making sure Zuck's bucks were not perceived as yet another attempt by the 1% to disenfranchise the unwashed masses.

After all, there was quite a bit at stake, and this was the first big post-recession IPO. Bad publicity surrounding the offer itself was always a danger; how much worse would it be if the Newark gift made it look like Zuckerberg was creating a national model for the privatization of public education?

So it's clear that Sandberg was concerned about the publicity the donation might garner if Facebook moved toward its eventual IPO. But still: why education? Did Sandberg have a concurrent interest in school "reform"?

You bet she did:
What do Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Skype CFO Jonathan Chadwick, Benchmark Capital general partner Bill Gurley and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings have in common, besides the filthy rich tech rockstar thing?
They’re among a dozen or so Silicon Valley personalities who’ve put money into Rocketship Education this year. Rocketship is a network of “hybrid” charter schools that put kids in front of computers for a large amount of the school day. Many in the education industry hope Rocketship’s model will prove Silicon Valley can disrupt (and make money in) the k-12 school system.
That’s a tall order, given more than a decade of poor returns in k-12 ventures. In fact, in 2009, Bill Gurley told me he wouldn’t invest in education anymore because there’s no market for it in the U.S.  That hasn’t yet changed. Regarding the Rocketship money, he clarifies that “this is a donation—not a VC investment.”
But Rocketship CEO John Danner is hoping he can convince investors to make bets, and not just gifts. “K-12 technology in particular has been one of the worst outcomes for venture capital,” Danner admits. “It’s really been miserable for startups to get any traction. One thing we need to do is learn how to make the distribution system a lot more frictionless. You can imagine a Netflix-like app store. I have a fair amount of hope that the distribution systems will decrease friction and make it easy.”
Danner hopes to demonstrate that the evolution of technology is transforming education into an industry where venture capitalists “can both do good and do well. Once we get there we will unleash an enormous amount of capital on the problem.”
Danner, who has roots in venture-backed tech as the founder of NetGravity, says that about half of the Silicon Valley personalities that put money into Rocketship were connections he made prior to starting the school. Netflix CEO Reed Hoffman, Benchmark managing partner Bill Gurley, and Skype CFO Jonathan Chadwick all fall into that category. Others, like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, came later.
“She had a friend who had a child at a school, and it just wasn’t working out well for them. She found out about Rocketship … and was impressed.” Danner says there were openings for the grade-level and location of the child in question. Sheryl’s friend won a placement, “and from there, it was just an ask. Sheryl and her husband Dave are extremely generous people.”
“We need more models like Rocketship to demonstrate that current public funding can close the achievement gap nationwide for all students,” she said in a statement. “At the end of the day, all that matters is that all children can go to great schools — regardless of whether they are charters or district schools.”
Danner says the donations come with a lot of pressure. “It’s up to us to convert that… Otherwise, Silicon Valley will kind of say ‘yeah, well Rocketship didn’t really work out.’ They’re going to be looking at this long-term. Does it work or doesn’t it?” [emphasis mine]
This article from VentureBeat highlights a strange trend I've noticed in stories about Rocketship: even though they are a non-profit, they often refer to their donors as "investors" (see here, here, and here for examples). In this case, Danner is pretty clearly saying that he sees the current non-profit Rocketship as a potential for-profit enterprise. That, of course, doesn't mean that Sandberg sees her "investment" as anything more than a donation; she may well have no financial interest whatsoever in seeing the Rocketship model come to New Jersey. And I don't know the exact timeline of events: did the Facebook donation come before or after Sandberg's "investment" in Rocketship?

I'd like for someone to go back and ask Danner and Sandberg about all this; wouldn't you?

In any case, it's telling that Danner speaks of Rocketship as if it were an eventual profit-making scheme for investors. It's also telling the Sandberg's husband, even though he lives in California, has involved himself in local, urban school-board politics in New Jersey:
Why would California multi-millionaires be interested in a school board race in the small city of Perth Amboy, NJ?

It seems absurd, and yet it's true: four wealthy Californians and one wealthy Coloradan - heavy hitters in the tech, financial, and health care sectors - have contributed tens of thousands of dollars to a slate of candidates running for the school board in Perth Amboy, a city of 50,000 with a majority Hispanic population.

A look at the contributors provides us with clues:

- Greg Penner, Atherton CA; $8,000 donation. Penner is the Founder of Madrone Capital Partners and a well-known conservative activist. Married to Walton fortune heiress Carrie Walton Penner, Greg Penner sits on the boards of Teach For America and The Charter School Growth FundCSGF invests in charter management organizations around the country, including the KIPP network and Nobel charter schools. As I've written previously, both KIPP and Nobel have reputations for managing schools that serve substantially different student populations than their neighboring public schools.

CSGF is also an investor in Rocketship Education; see below.

Arthur Rock, San Francisco CA; $8,000 donation. Rock is a well-known venture capitalist who also serves on the board of TFA and is an active funder of KIPP. Rock has invested in the Rocketship Education, a "hybrid" school that features extensive use of computerized instruction and, consequently, has a smaller faculty than regular public schools. Larry Miller found that Rocketship had large student attrition rates and smaller percentages of special needs students than its neighboring public schools (Rocketship responds to Miller here).

- David Goldberg, Atherton, CA; $8,000 donation. Goldberg is CEO of SurveyMonkey; his wife is Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. Both are partners, along with Rock, in Rocketship Education.
So three Rocketshippers gave money in a school board race in Perth Amboy, and one was married to Sandberg, another Rocketshipper. Remember, the district had (and maybe still has - I'll look into it) a large contract up for approval with School of One, a provider of on-line instruction. Regular readers will also remember that K-12, another on-line provider, was chaired by Andrew Tisch, one of Mayor Cory Booker's biggest supporters, and is expanding into the city this year.

Is it possible that we're seeing a turf war going on between folks who want to get in on the ground floor for providing on-line instruction to New Jersey's students? Right across the Delaware, Pennsylvania has seen a proliferation of these educational, fiscal, and legal disasters posing as schools. But the money's been good: are all these corporate titans simply staking their claims in the cyber charter gold rush?

Or is this really all about the children? As NJDOE Commissioner Chris Cerf says, is it "palpable, ridiculous nonsense" to even address this subject?

You tell me.

Dave, I can't wait to get to Newark...

ADDING: A little more about how Zuckerberg came up with the big bucks to fund his excellent adventure into Newark.

ADDING MORE: Jim Horn has some special insight into Rocketship. More in a bit.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Donate to CAP? Are You Serious?

I'm on the email solicitation list for the Center for American Progress, a "progressive" think-tank in Washington. And, apparently, they want my money - badly:
We need the Center for American Progress.

During my time in Congress, CAP provided the fuel that powered our hard-fought victories on issues like health care, the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, and women’s health. Their side had money, and our side fought back with facts—and those facts came from CAP. Progressive champions at the local, state, and federal levels rely on CAP’s expertise, analysis, and communications reach. Every single day.

We all need CAP. But right now, CAP urgently needs our support.

[Instructions for donating]
We can’t do it without you. 
Thanks for all your support. 
Tom Perriello  
Counselor for Policy, Center for American Progress 
President and CEO, Center for American Progress Action Fund 

Dear Tom:

I actually do give to several "progressive" causes. But as a working teacher, I will not give one damn dime to the Center for American Progress. Because you people are as responsible for pushing anti-union, anti-teacher, poorly-researched, reformy nonsense as any right-wing group in Washington.

Why would I, as a working public school teacher and union member, support an organization that:

- Wants to implement test-based teacher evaluations, even as they acknowledge that the statistical models those evaluations are built on have high rates of error?

- Engages, in the words of John Thompson, in the "'Sister Souljah' tactic of demonstrating its independence from Democratic constituencies by beating up on educators"?

- Issues reports with policy recommendations in which "Very little in the way of supporting data is presented to justify [the report’s] claims"?

- Downplays the serious problems with the between-district inequitable distribution of resources?

- Advocates for increased class sizes on the basis of cost without comparing it to the cost of other policies?

It's bad enough we have to deal with education reforminess on the right; we really don't need it from the left as well. If you need money, go ask for more from Bill Gates or Eli Broad; they love the sort of stuff you're selling.


CAP? Those are our kind of "progressives"!

Rocketship: Poor Kids Don't Deserve Music & Art!

UPDATE: Apparently, some are vexed at the thought that I used quotes in the title of this post. I thought the hyperbole was fairly clear, and I thought paraphrases are used in quotes in headlines; however, I don't want an argument about journalistic conventions to get in the way of the message here. I'm a citizen-journalist and learning as I go along; I do make mistakes. Maybe I made one here; if I did, I apologize.

So, no, Rocketship doesn't literally say "Poor kids don't deserve music and art"; they just act like poor kids don't. Hence, I'm removing the quotes. I am under no delusion this will satiate the folks who don't want to confront what I'm saying, but it's the best I can do to get people to address my central point.

As a lifelong music educator, this is one of the most despicable education stories I've ever heard:
JEFFREY BROWN: Now we look to a California education experiment called the Rocketship Model that involves teachers, kids and parents and aims to expand one day to serve a million students.
NewsHour's special correspondent for education, John Merrow, has our report.
JOHN MERROW: For about one hour every day, students practice math and literacy skills. They work independently at their own pace. The computer is able to track and guide the progress of each student. 
It's something educators call differentiated learning. Some students work on basic skills, while others advance to more challenging lessons. 
The learning lab allows a school to hire six fewer teachers, which Rocketship says results in savings of up to half a million dollars. That money is used to pay teachers higher salaries, fund academic deans who help teachers get better, and train principals for future Rocketship schools. 
But one thing the savings are not used for, art and music classes. 
VERONICA BARBOSA: I wish we could have art and music in the school, but at the same time if you want your child to have that in their life, you can make the effort to try and get it, like, after school or on the weekends. [emphasis mine]
Understand that Rocketship explicitly states that its mission is "...to become a national network to eliminate the achievement gap in low-income neighborhoods." They are a school for poor kids - and, according to Rocketship, poor kids don't need art and music education.

Apparently, poor kids also don't need a computerized curriculum that actually works:

JOHN MERROW: A problem we saw is that some students in the lab do not appear to be engaged. They sit at their computers for long periods of time, seemingly just guessing.

JUDY LAVI: That's definitely not the ideal situation. The ideal situation would be that they'd get help from somebody in the learning lab who would explain the concept to them. Then they would go back and practice it.

JOHN MERROW: Rocketship says it's about to make a big change to its model.

ADAM NADEAU: If I had to guess, I would say you come back in a year, you won't see a learning lab.

ANDREW ELLIOTT-CHANDLER: Next year, we're -- we're thinking of bringing the computers back to the classrooms and the kids back to the classrooms.

JOHN MERROW: What this new model might look like and how it may affect the school's bottom line is unknown, but the leaders are not worried.

ANDREW ELLIOTT-CHANDLER: Innovation, I think, is one of the most exciting reasons to be at Rocketship. It's exhausting, but it's also exhilarating. Things change dramatically every year.
Yes, because it's so "exhilarating" to deny poor children the opportunity to have a comprehensive education...

California has well-defined standards in the visual and performing arts. Rocketship, if it wants to be known as a group of "public" schools, has an obligation to follow those standards. That they don't even make an attempt to do so speaks volumes about the low standards they set for themselves in the name of educating poor children.

Because this garbage would never fly in affluent areas. Arts education in California is highly inequitable, as affluent white students are far more likely to get music and art than their poor and/or minority peers. Of course, California isn't alone in this:

One would think a school like Rocketship, which aims to "eliminate the achievement gap in low-income neighborhoods," would care about this achievement gap.

One would be wrong.

There's lots more to say about Rocketship, and I'll try to get to it at some point. Larry Miller has done some preliminary work on the chain's student demographics and attrition rates that ought to give everyone pause. Rocketship has responded to Miller here: one thing I've noticed right away about Rocketship's claims is that they don't disaggregate their data for student poverty as well as they could.

But let's suppose that Rocketship's rebuttal actually holds up under scrutiny. What they would be telling us is that the key to increasing the test scores of poor and minority children is to take away music and art (and maybe some other curricular areas as well) and use the time and money saved to plop the kids in front of a computer screen for hours on end.

This is exactly the sort of thing the Chicago Teachers Union fought against this past year. CTU won concessions from the school board to hire hundreds of arts teachers so that Chicago's children would receive a broad-based education, just like children in the affluent suburbs. It was a unionized teaching force that brought the arts to their deserving students.

Maybe that's why Rocketship doesn't like the idea of their staff becoming unionized:
JOHN MERROW: If the unions came to you and said, John, we'd like to unionize Rocketship, what would you say?
JOHN DANNER: I would say absolutely not. We're a startup. You know, in startups, you basically do something different every day. Any major school district has a 450-page kind of contract that literally says minute by minute what teachers are supposed to do. So the fit between how that's evolved and what Rocketship is like is just a bad fit. 
Yes, it's certainly a "bad fit": a unionized Rocketship staff might start demanding the schools do the right thing for their poor students and give them the same educational opportunities as affluent students.

Can't have that, can we?

Sorry, Mr. Holland, but we're a startup...

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Blog Recommendation: NYC Educator

I have to apologize to a great edu-blogger: NYC Educator. I've been linking to his stuff for a good while now, but I stupidly left him off my blogroll.

If you care about education, this blog is well worth your time. Here's an example:

Hi, I'm Michelle Rhee. At a time like this, I think it's only fit we redouble my efforts to ensure our reforms reach every student in these United States. After all, people as wealthy as Broad, Gates, and the Walmarts are paying good money for these reforms, and if they weren't very, very smart, why would they have all that money?

Of course every student deserves a good teacher, and the only way to determine whether or not the teacher is good is by the test scores of students. Here at Students First, we don't believe in all that touchy-feely nonsense about role models and self-image. We believe in good teachers, and we have absolute faith in them, except that no matter how good they are, they can't be trusted to write tests themselves. That's just one reason we ignore everything they say or do that isn't related to test scores.

In New York City, where we've just opened up a chapter of Students First, we're pushing heavily for an evaluation system that will get teachers fired if their test scores don't measure up. In fact, rather than spending money on wasteful nonsense like reducing class sizes or paying teachers, we're spending hundreds of thousands in corporate cash to ensure that we have a system that will get teachers fired when they need to be, and that is as soon as possible.
Heh. Another good one:
I've been following a thread on Diane Ravitch's blog about the Common Core standards. This is written by a teacher who was "leary" of the standards. Perhaps this refers to Timothy Leary, who urged us all to turn on, tune in, and drop out. I myself am somewhat leery of this practice, as I fear the use of hallucinogenics might detract from my teaching. But I digress.

Apparently, it is vital that high school students read 70% non-fiction. This, of course, is because 69% is not enough and 71% is too much. David Coleman has reached into his extraordinarily gifted hind quarters and pulled out the perfect number. This is because students must be prepared to read things like train schedules and quarterly reports, and can't possibly do so unless we give them overt training.
Good stuff - read them all. Again, sorry to take so long to add this blog to the list at the left. If I've left you off, let me know.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Selling Out of Newark's Schools: Part I

If you're really interested in transparency, what better time is there to release secret emails than Christmas Eve?
The City of Newark released dozens of emails to The Star-Ledger late on Christmas Eve to comply with a Superior Court order.
Among the behind-the-scenes details never disclosed, the emails showed the Newark philanthropist Ray Chambers wanted to arrange a million-dollar donation, but a top aide to Mayor Cory Booker dismissed it as too small.
Indeed, the heavily redacted emails provide a window into how Booker’s aides and others courted wealthy donors days before Zuckerberg pledged the historic gift intended to revamp the troubled school district in front of a national audience on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." [emphasis mine]
I've been through the batch, and what I see is a mayor and his staff - along with the then-ACTING Education Commissioner, Chris Cerf - courting wealthy donors outside of Newark so they can remake the schools the way they want them.

A quick recap: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was coming off of some bad press when The Social Network was released in 2010 and made him out to be a bit of a schlub. Looking for an image makeover, Zuckerberg pledged to give Newark's schools $100 million - if his donation could be matched. Apparently, Zuck's original idea was to get a bunch of micro-donations rolling in from the little people; Booker's team quickly explained that this is not how the real world works:
A few days later, Sarah Ross — a close adviser to Booker and a co-founder with him of a social media venture — described a "community donation mechanism" of small, individual donations as "super important to Mark and Facebook." 
"They believe it’s bad positioning for Mark if only higher end donors are able to contribute to the matching funds in large chunks," Ross wrote on Sept. 18, 2010, even though that’s exactly what happened. In another message, she noted: "Consumer donations is a hot button for them right now." 
Mattes pushed back on the approach the next day, explaining that donations of $50 or $100 in a "$250M fund will strike most as irrelevant and not worth it." She noted that the mayor’s tweets about his re-election efforts only netted about $2,000.
And there you go: "positioning" was what this entire thing was about, wasn't it? Except the problem with the big-money strategy was that it was going to fly in the face of the goal of getting Newark's schools back under local control after years of living under the thumb of the state. And Booker's people knew the good folks of Newark would have a problem with that:
In the days leading up to the announcement of a $100 million gift to Newark schoolsFacebook's COO Sheryl Sandberg and Newark officials identified three areas that could be hurdles to a smooth implementation: building community support, attracting other donors and hiring a new superintendent, according to newly released emails.
In fact, those three areas proved problematic in the months–and years–after Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said he would give money to New Jersey’s largest city, provided an equal amount of matching funds were raised.

Booker wrote: “This is one of our biggest concerns right now as we must be ahead of the game on community organizing by next week.” A mayoral adviser outlined a rough plan to spend $315,000 on efforts such as polling, focus groups, mailing and consultants. The foundation has spent at least $2 million on such efforts since.
It was also clear early on that Zuckerberg’s donation largely would be invisible to parents, students and teachers. State officials have said they always envisioned that a bulk of the money would help pay for a new teachers contract.
“MZ’s money is not going in to classrooms,” Booker aide Sharon Macklin wrote on Sept. 19, 2010. Instead, aides discussed how to allow small donors to fund individual projects, and Macklin suggested they would “get a lot of local props” for that.
Newark residents who are critical of Booker at school board meetings often say they are wary of outsiders and would rather have a superintendent who has some connection to the city. Sandberg appears to have been concerned about how the gift would be viewed. In an email to Booker and other Newark officials, she wrote that a draft of a press release about the donation used “too much ‘national’ language.”
“I wonder if we should basically make this focused on Newark with just a touch of ‘and this will be a national model,’” she wrote.
In fact, the mayor and the gift drew immediate criticism from Newark residents because it was announced by Booker, Zuckerberg and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on The Oprah Winfrey Show, which is taped in Chicago.
Don't worry, Oprah - we would never ask you to come to Newark!

That's from an article in the Wall Street Journal by Lisa Fleisher, who covered New Jersey politics for years at the Star-Ledger. She knows as well as anyone that Newark has always felt like it's being controlled by outside forces - particularly its schools. Only a few months after Zuckerberg made his announcement, the S-L reported that the foundation of California billionaire Eli Broad had paid for a secret plan to close down large numbers of Newark's schools and convert them into charters. Cerf, a Broad crony, wound up changing his story about all this in the press (another example of his fast and loose standards).

I can't say for sure, but the worry Booker's people had for the local reaction to the Zuckerberg gift seems to suggest that they knew school closings were in the works, and the community was not going to like them, as they were yet another example of the state imposing its will on Newark's schools. It turns out that the state did, in fact, everything in its power to retain control, including altering the district's oversight evaluation.

Further, we now we know, from the very beginning, that the plan was never to take Zuck's bucks and use them to improve the Newark schools. No, they always had something else in mind:
The donation has been managed by the Foundation for Newark’s Future, and about $50 million of the gift has been spent to pay for a new contract with Newark’s teachers that introduces merit pay. Millions more are expected to help fund an expansion of the city’s charter schools, which educate about 20% of Newark’s students.

A week before the September 2010 donation was public, Sandberg asked Booker in an email about spending plans for the first 100 days and details of how the mayor planned to obtain support from residents.

Booker wrote: “This is one of our biggest concerns right now as we must be ahead of the game on community organizing by next week.” A mayoral adviser outlined a rough plan to spend $315,000 on efforts such as polling, focus groups, mailing and consultants. The foundation has spent at least $2 million on such efforts since.
It was also clear early on that Zuckerberg’s donation largely would be invisible to parents, students and teachers. State officials have said they always envisioned that a bulk of the money would help pay for a new teachers contract.
Those state officials are, of course, pretty much the bought and paid for servants of Eli Broad, who has had his eye on breaking the teachers unions for quite some time. The NTU and the AFT played right into their hands; Zuck's bucks have brought merit pay to Newark, and the reformies think it's a template for the rest of the state, if not the nation.

And so the fears of Newark's citizens, as so eloquently expressed by this woman - and so casually dismissed by the NJ punditocracy - have finally come true:
Back at Science High, even the Facebook gift was regarded with suspicion.
“The foundations are interfering with public education and dividing our community,” says Cassandra Dock, a local resident. “Leave us alone. We don’t want white people coming in here and doing what they do — taking over. Destroy and leave.” [emphasis mine]
There's more to say on the emails, but I'll save that for the weekend.

Great Scott! You mean there's MORE?!

A Vested Interest In Selling Our Kids As Failures

Some people just can't deal with the idea that our kids may not be failures:
Yes, America has the strongest military and the biggest economy by far. We remain the most innovative people on Earth, measured by the number of new patents, and our strong position in cutting-edge industries, from computers and genetic engineering to popular movies and music. More than any nation, we peacefully blend a huge range of ethnicities and religions in a tolerant democracy.
But we are slipping. Our high school students rank 17th in the world in science and 25th in math, while the gap between rich and poor students is among the widest in the world. Median household income has been dropping for more than a decade. Our infrastructure is crumbling and now ranks 16th in the world, according to ratings of the World Economic Forum. [emphasis mine]
First of all: if we're the most innovative people on the planet, and our test scores are so low, doesn't that say the tests are at bad judging our intellectual capital? As a nation, the United States has astonishing success in real-world measurements of innovation:
Historically, from 1901 through 2012, 555 awards have been granted to 863 people, of which 246 are US nationals. From a total of 620 university-related laureates 321 are affiliated to US universities. And if one looks at the top ten universities with Nobel laureates nine of them are American.
China, whose Shanghai province and the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong, obtained outstanding results in PISA 2009, has a total of 10 Nobel winners in history. Finland, South Korea and Singapore, the top countries in basic and high school education, have earned three, one and zero Nobel Prizes.
So it's not like scoring high on international tests guarantees success in scientific achievement. But let's look at those oft-repeated figures: "17th in science and 25th in math." Is it true? Do we really suck so badly?

Not according to the latest results:
American students' average scores on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) in math were above the international average in both fourth and eighth grade, the findings show.
Among the 45 countries that participated in fourth grade, the average U.S. math score was among the top eight. In eighth grade, the USA was among the top 11 of 38 countries.
In reading, U.S. students scored 56 points higher than the international average, putting them in the top 13 on the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). Only five nations or education systems had higher average scores -- and one of those was Florida, which asked that its scores be compared with those of other nations.
Also hidden in the data: Finland, long considered to have one of the best education systems in the world, is slipping in math, at least in these results. Finland doesn't generally participate in TIMSS, but last year, for the first time since 1999, it took part. Today's results show that Finland's eighth-graders have dropped 6 points from 520 to 514 since 1999. Meanwhile, U.S. scores have risen from 502 to 509, making the two nations statistically even.
If you think it matters that Finland's eighth-graders dropped 6 points in math, I'd like to discuss with you how you can make hundreds of thousands of dollars in your spare time from the comfort of your own home...

Bob Somerby, who has been on this for a long time, points out the cloud of doom that the nation's media loves to conjure up over the heads of our public school students. The Star-Ledger is but one example of an outlet that revels in saying how much our kids suck: they're willing to ignore the latest results that say otherwise just to wallow in misery.

The frustrating thing is that the S-L editorial page is very good when it comes to pointing out income inequity. What they refuse to see is that, when adjusting for socio-economic status, the US actually does very well on international tests: Stephen Krashen pointed this out recently. Last year, I did a series of posts on how American kids are penalized more for being lower on the socio-economic ladder than kids in other countries.

So the S-L is correct in pointing out the penalty paid for being poor in America. But they refuse to give credit where it's due: in spite of our economic challenges, our students are doing quite well when compared to the rest of the world. This would suggest, if we dare to open ourselves to the possibility, that our problems do not lie at the feet of our public school system. Maybe the best thing we can do to help kids raise their educational outcomes is to raise their standard of living.

Unfortunately, the Star-Ledger - like many in the media - has shown time and again they are not interested in exploring this idea. They almost seem to have a vested interest in selling the meme that our kids are failures, no matter their economic status, all evidence to the contrary.

Why is that, I wonder?