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, March 31, 2014

For the LAST Time: Hoboken's Charters Enroll Very Few Poor Children!

As a special service to the parents, taxpayers, and citizens of Hoboken, I present to you a handy guide that will once and for all dispel the notion that Hoboken's charter schools have a "student body [that] matches the demographics of the city pretty closely."


Your Guide To Student Demographics in Hoboken, NJ!

According to the Census Bureau's American Community Survey (5-year estimate) for 2012, Hoboken, NJ has:

  • 1,729 children between the ages of 5 and 9
  • 912 between the ages of 10 and 14
  • 1,742 between the ages of 15 and 19
That's a grand total of 4,383 children of or near school age within the city's limits.

1,706 children attend the Hoboken Public Schools (all data from here forward comes from the NJDOE).

Of those, 1,220 qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. FL requires the child's household income to be at 130% or below the poverty line; RPL is set at 185%.

Hoboken's three charter schools -- HoLa, Elysian, and Hoboken CS -- have a total student population of 775 students. Only 89 of them qualify for FRPL.

If you total all of the children who qualify for FRPL in Hoboken together and divide that number by the total population of 5- to 19-year-olds (making the most certainly incorrect assumption that all of those children are of school age, and none of the ones attending schools other than HPS or the charters would qualify for FRPL), you will find a total FRPL percentage for all of Hoboken's children of 30%.

Keeping in mind that this 30% figure is the lowest possible FRPL estimate for the city, and the true figure is unquestionably higher...

May I now point out the obvious?

The parents who are the "best and the brightest" of Hoboken (and that includes the mayor) have every right to advocate for their children's charter schools. There is a legitimate argument to be made in favor of charters in urban centers like Hoboken -- I may disagree with it (and perhaps that makes me a bit of a hypocrite), but it's a legitimate argument.

What I will not do, however, is stand by while mistruths are being flung around casually. Hola, HCS, and Elysian do not serve a student population that is demographically similar to the total school-aged population -- public, charter, and private students combined -- of the City of Hoboken.


ADDING: Apparently, the argument that Hoboken's charters "match the demographics of the city pretty closely" comes from the mistaken belief that a school's FRPL percentage can be compared to the overall poverty rate for a city. That is just not an apt comparison.

As I explained above, FRPL eligibility is not the same as being below the poverty line: FL eligibility is 130% of the poverty line, and RPL is 185%. So the FRPL population of a school is inevitably larger than its population below the poverty line. You just can't compare the two.

Further, you can't compare the poverty rates of children and adults: populations of children (and the elderly) tend to have higher poverty rates in communities like Hoboken than the overall population.

According to the ACS, Hoboken's overall poverty rate is 10.9%. But the under-18 rate is 17.9%, and the rate for 5-to-17-year-olds is 28.7%. Again: you can't compare either of those to the FRPL rate of Hoboken's charters, but even if you did, Hoboken's charters do not demographically match the population of the city's school-aged children.


Sunday, March 30, 2014

What Is a "Bad" School?

My GI tract decided to get into a fight with a virus this week, which left me with some extra time to  read as I tried to keep down Gatorade and saltines. One item I found especially interesting was a series of reports in the Asbury Park Press about the Asbury Park school district. Reporter Nicquel Terry lays out a lot of facts, even if the conclusions aren't exactly obvious:
The soaring price of failure, abysmal test scores, constant turnover in administration and infighting among school board members in Asbury Park has left many students without a solid education and parents like Ling worried about their child’s future.
The state has spent the last decade trying to fix the district, funneling nearly $550 million in aid, investing in support programs and sending five different state monitors to oversee operations.
Still, nothing appears to be working.
The K-12 school district, of 1,926 students and five schools, consistently ranks lower than its counterparts and below state averages in standardized test scores. A recent state report card said Asbury Park’s academic performance “significantly lags” in comparison with schools across the state. [emphasis mine]
Let's be clear: the state's "report cards" aren't worth the paper they're printed on. But let's explore the question anyway: is Asbury Park "lagging" in relation to its "peers"? Do schools that serve students demographically similar to those in Asbury Park show better outcomes? Terry offers some proof:
Only 2 percent of the students who took the SAT achieved scores of 1550, according to the state’s school-by-school performance reports. The report indicated Asbury Park High School had a composite SAT score of 962, well below the state average of 1512.
SAT scores are not really the best indicator of a school's efficiency, for many reasons (#1: it's a voluntary test). And we know that SATs correlate to strongly to a student's economic circumstances... but what if we controlled for that? How does Asbury Park do when we take into account the number of students it serves that are living with economic disadvantage?

This is why I love scatterplots. Here we've got every high school in the state, with its position plotted based on two variables: the percentage of students eligible for free lunch (which puts their families' incomes at 130% of the poverty line or below), and the average total combined SAT score for each school's student population.

The "r-squared" is geek speak: nearly 70% of a school's SAT score can be statistically "explained" by its FL percentage, a very strong correlation. The line running through the plots is a trendline -- a "prediction" made based on kinda-sorta "averaging" all of the points on the graph, and figuring out a line that fits best between them all. Basically, if a school is on the line, its SAT score is what we would expect, given its FL population.

And there's Asbury Park High in red, with a total SAT score of 962. Prediction, based just on the percentage of free lunch eligible students (81%), says Asbury Park should have scored about a 1093. Certainly, there are few high schools in New Jersey that score as low on the SATs as Asbury Park, no matter the amount of student poverty. And we have to acknowledge that FL percentage doesn't explain everything. But, when accounting for poverty, and when looking at prediction based on the results of other schools, Asbury Park is not getting the scores it should be.

But wait a minute...

Yes, there are schools, like Asbury Park, that are below prediction. But there are also schools that are above:

New Brunswick High has an 81% FL percentage, but its SAT scores average 1237. So...

(And here is where it always comes off the rails...)

So maybe there's something we should look at here -- maybe we should look at what New Brunswick is doing right, and get Asbury Park to do the same thing. Right? I mean, New Brunswick proves that poverty isn't destiny, and your zip code doesn't mean your status quo is left behind, and if certain unnamed parties (you know who you are!) would just start thinking about the kids first for once, and let's all be fiercely working hard and no more excuses! and blahblah, blah...

Would that life were this simple, folks.

Look, I'll be the first to say that there is probably something going on in Asbury Park's schools that needs addressing. The state monitor is at war with the school board, and that can't be helping. Maybe there are governance issues in Asbury Park; maybe they should be doing better.

And there are certainly demographic differences between Asbury Park and New Brunswick, so it's not as if the two districts are completely similar. But perhaps New Brunswick has programs worth imitating. I'm all for best practices -- bring them on.

But if you think the story of the graph above is the distance between the two red diamonds, you are missing the entire point:

The predicted SAT score for a school with no FL eligible students is 1650. That's better than Asbury Park, better than New Brunswick, and better than almost any school with more than 20 percent of its children living with that level of economic disadvantage.

That's the important point. That's what we ought to be talking about. That's what needs to be fixed.

Our reformy conversation about schools keeps centering on the "miracle" schools (they usually aren't) that "beat the odds" (they almost never really do) despite serving children in poverty. What no one seems to want to acknowledge, however, is the much greater and more blindingly obvious truth: poverty matters. If you want better student outcomes, you've got to fix poverty -- first, foremost, and yes, right away.

Does the difference between Asbury Park and New Brunswick matter? Yes, it does. Ought we try to find ways to make schools that underperform, based on student characteristics, get better results? Yes, we should. Are schools a critical part of an overall strategy of combating poverty? Unquestionably, yes.

But we continue to distract ourselves when we focus our energies on "fixing" public education -- especially when the answer to the problem of unequal student outcomes is right under our damn noses.

Monday, March 24, 2014

What Our Latest Analysis of One Newark Means

Step #1: Bruce Baker and I wrote a report this past January about the Newark Public Schools restructuring plan, One Newark. This controversial scheme calls for closing some schools, "renewing" others -- basically, firing the entire staff and making them reapply for their jobs -- and turning over others to charter management organizations like TEAM Academy (the Newark branch of KIPP), and North Star Academy (The Newark branch of Uncommon Schools). Other schools survive unscathed.

We found:

  • Black students were more likely to see their schools turned over to charters, potentially abrogating the rights of their families.
  • Academic outcomes didn't predict whether a school faces a consequence under One Newark when accounting for student body characteristics: in other words, we couldn't find a pattern to explain why some schools were being "renewed" or turned over to a charter, and some weren't.
  • There's no evidence the children who are in NPS schools right now will do any better when they move to charters (if they move at all).
Step #2: Earlier this month, Bruce and I were joined by Joseph Oluwole in a second brief on One Newark. This time, we looked at the consequences for staff.

We found:
  • Black staff members were far more likely to have to reapply for their jobs under One Newark than white staff members.
  • Largely, this is because black teachers are far more likely to teach black students.
  • Black teachers also take on the "toughest" assignments, as measured by the state's own classifications (remember, Newark's schools have been under state control for 19 years). But, on average, their students show comparable rates of growth to the students of white teachers.
  • There is a history of discrimination against teachers of color in "choice" plans, and NPS, if it goes through with One Newark, may be susceptible to a legal challenge under civil rights laws.
Step #3: At just about the same time we released our second brief, NPS responded to our first brief. In the interests of fairness, I won't try to summarize it here. Go read it -- it's not long.

Step #4: Today, Bruce and I responded to NPS's response. Let's me lay this out in layman's prose as best as I can:
  • NPS has not questioned one of our primary findings: the consequences of One Newark are racially unequal. The poorest students are more likely to see their schools "renewed": firing an entire staff could result in unwarranted disruption of their schooling and for no good reason. Black students are more likely to see their schools turned over to charter school managers, who are, according to recent court cases, not state actors and not under the same obligations for transparency as the district.
  • NPS used averaged scale scores for their analysis; supposedly, they think this is a better method than what we used, which was Grade 8 proficiency. I could get really technical here, but it all comes down to this: a 200 in Grade 4 is not a 200 in Grade 8, so averaging across grades distorts the measures. NPS's measures of schools performance are just not valid.
  • But even when we used this flawed metric, we still can't find a pattern as to how certain schools were classified as needing intervention and certain schools were not. There is no rhyme nor reason that we can find as to why particular schools are being turned over to charters or being "renewed."
  • There is still no evidence that charters will do a better job educating Newark's student population. That's because Newark's charters don't teach similar populations now; they have similar kids, but in peer groups with smaller numbers of children in poverty. Logically we can't have every school in Newark have a student population with a below-average free-lunch eligible percentage -- but there's very good reason to believe that is at least part of North Star's and TEAM's advantage.
  • NPS's statistical models are flawed. Again, I could get all technical (and we do in the brief), but here's the problem: you can't have two variables in a model that are redundant (for example, you can't have a model that has "percentage of males" and "percentage of females"). In Newark, where over 90% of the student population is either black or Hispanic, the two are nearly as tightly linked as male and female. NPS includes both in their rebuttal to us. Big no-no.
So that's where we are right now. Maybe NPS will respond; maybe we'll respond right back. But let me say the following before this goes any further:

Why should a couple of education researchers have to pry the secrets of One Newark from the state-run school district? Why hasn't State Superintendent Cami Anderson publicly released the models used to determine why specific schools were targeted under One Newark?

It seems to me that, at the very least, the staff, families, and students at the schools affected by One Newark deserve some transparency. If you're going to turn over a public school to a charter company, you at least owe the families of that school's students an explanation of the thinking that went into the decision. Not platitudes, not reverse-engineered rationalizations, but a straight-up accounting of how you came to the conclusion that you did.

If you're going to force a teacher of color, who has been working in one of the toughest assignments in the district, to reapply for her job while her white colleagues are safe, you at least owe that teacher an explanation as to why she is being targeted and others are not.

If you're going to "divest" a district asset in a nebulous deal with the defense that it will lead to better student outcomes, you at least owe the taxpayers an explanation as to why you think this particular school will do better under this particular charter operator, and why "divesting" the property is a good deal for Newark's citizens.

Bruce and I do this work because this is what we do; I am challenged by this sort of analysis and am grateful for the opportunity to present it publicly (I think I can speak safely for Bruce on this point).

But it seems to me that we could save ourselves and everybody else a whole lot of time and bother if NPS would just explain to us in a clear, concise way how they came up with this plan.

Assuming, of course, that's even possible...

Newark's students, looking for an answer. Will they find it?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

HoLa Hailers Have a Hard Haul Hatin' on Hoboken High


Not all charter schools are havens for "white flight." But the ones that are have honed their defensive arguments down to this:
  1. We're awesome!
  2. We educate the same kids as the public district where we get our funds (even if we don't).
  3. The local public schools suck. And the comparison to us is valid, because we educate the same kids as the public district where we get our funds (even if we don't).
  4. Did I mention we're awesome?
I really have no problem with #1 and #4: who isn't proud of their kids' school? But #2 and #3 are easily verifiable -- and, in my experience, it turns out in most cases the claims just aren't true.

For example: let's head over to Hoboken -- the charter school segregation capital of New Jersey -- and see what one of the more academically credentialed charter cheerleaders there has to say about the local high school:
It has become a popular strategy to have the public expect less from schools and districts that educate students from families with lower than average socio-economic status (SES). Indeed, there is research and data that support the fact the there is a high correlation between SES and national tests like the SATRecently, a report was released that outlined very specifically the correlation of SES and the SAT. And, as one might expect, as family income increases so too does SAT scores (reading, math, writing, total or composite-see diagram). Using these numbers and charts, we can find an "expected" SAT score for each of 10 socio-economic categories. If a district's scores are higher than expected, we can reasonably assume something good is going on. Students are performing at levels higher than expected by socio-economic status alone. Conversely, if a district's SAT scores are lower than expected by socioeconomic status, we can reasonably assume something(s) is flawed educationally within the district.

As an example, let us look at the Hoboken School District in Hoboken, New Jersey. According to latest figures, the free lunch percentage (as opposed to "free and reduced percentage") for the Hoboken School District is 47% (Researcher Bruce Baker has said that "free lunch" is a better indictor of poverty on academic performance than "free and reduced"). While 47% is certainly challenging, it is not the lowest in Hudson County. Here are some other numbers for comparison: Bayonne: 52%; East Newark: 76%; Guttenberg: 71%; Harrison: 63%; Hoboken: 47%; Jersey City: 67%; Kearney: 23%; North Bergen: 55%; Secaucus: 19%; Union City: 84%; Weehawken: 46%; West New York: 72%

If we look at the LOWEST income category ($0- $20,000) we notice that we would expect a school district with students from this category to receive a Total SAT score of 1326. If we look at the second lowest income category ($20,000-$40,000) we would expect students from this demographic to receive a Total SAT score of 1402. Hoboken scores a SAT Total score of 1192. The majority of students in the Hoboken School District who take the SAT certainly fall somewhere in the lowest and second lowest categories. So what do we find?

Finding 1 (red line): Hoboken scores on the composite SAT are lower than would be expected by students from families making between $0-$20,000 a year. Moreover, this difference is VERY STATISTICALLY SIGNIFICANT (not occurring by chance).

Finding 1 (blue line): Hoboken scores on the composite SAT are lower than would be expected by students from families making between $20,000-$40,000 a year. Moreover, this difference is EXTREMELY STATISTICALLY SIGNIFICANT (not occurring by chance).

This analysis brings objectivity to the discussion of quality of education, especially in the Hoboken Public Schools. While its easy to have articulate, well intentioned parents to speak of the "wonderful" experiences their children are having in the schools and to hear the "good news" that often takes place at Board meetings, this analysis examines objective data in an unemotional context.

What does this mean? In common language it means that students attending the Hoboken Public Schools are performing at levels MUCH LOWER than would be expected based on their socio-economic status. 

Yeah, uh...

No. Even when using red fonts -- no.

Listen, I enjoy a good (?) t-test as the next guy, but let's be clear: you can't compare the average outcomes for a single high school against the average outcomes for an entire national income group. It's false and it's wrong and it's irrelevant and it's wrong and just no and wrong and don't do it, please.

We just don't know how Hoboken High's -- or any school's -- income is distributed through its population of kids who take the SAT (which is a voluntary test). If you want to see how a particular high school does against other high schools -- when controlling for student population socio-economic status -- then that's what you need to look at. Compare a high school against others by some metric that can control for all of their students' poverty status -- that makes sense.

But saying a high school doesn't do as well as a particular family income group of students nationwide is like saying your lawnmower sucks because it doesn't go as fast as your bicycle. Why would you ever think to compare the two?

There's also the little problem of using the SAT to judge a high school's performance -- something it was never designed to do -- but let's set that aside for the moment...

Instead of comparing Hoboken High to an entire class of students across the nation at a particular family income level, why don't we look at every high school in New Jersey -- including Hoboken High -- and judge their SAT total scores against the proportion if kids they have in poverty. That might make more sense, dontcha you think?

Me too:

I'm sorry - what was that you said again, professor?
If a district's scores are higher than expected, we can reasonably assume something good is going on.
Yeah, OK, sure: after all, the correlation between SAT scores and percentage of free lunch students is very tight. Nearly 70 percent of the difference between schools in their SAT scores can be explained by those schools' Free Lunch-eligible percentage (look at the r-squared).

The trendline shows the prediction of where a school should be when accounting for free lunch eligibility among the student populations. Hoboken High is actually above prediction: Hoboken High is above where we would expect to find it on SAT scores, even when controlling for student poverty.

Must be "something good is going on," right?

Folks, we can and should have an honest conversation about education and poverty and urban demographics and the role of charter schools and testing. Let's have that.

But beating up on your local high school with dubious comparisons? Yeah, not really helping...

ADDING: Darcie points out that Anthony Petrosino, the author of the post above, is a trustee for HoLa.

ADDING MORE: One of the most disappointing aspects of the Hoboken charter wars is how easily bad data has spread on this issue. Case in point:

Petrosino gives these figures for Hudson County school districts' percentages of free lunch eligible students:
While 47% [Hoboken] is certainly challenging, it is not the lowest in Hudson County. Here are some other numbers for comparison: Bayonne: 52%; East Newark: 76%; Guttenberg: 71%; Harrison: 63%; Hoboken: 47%; Jersey City: 67%; Kearney: 23%; North Bergen: 55%; Secaucus: 19%; Union City: 84%; Weehawken: 46%; West New York: 72%
Except these figures are NOT the FL percentages for the school districts. How do I know? I wrote the brief Petrosino cites.

These figures are what I termed in the brief the "actual" FL% for the district: the FL% when including any of the charter schools within the district's borders. I did this to calculate a "disparity ratio" for schools in Hoboken and Jersey City, showing how much they differed from their surrounding district. Charters, unsurprisingly, did very poorly on this measure -- they just don't serve the same percentage of children in economic disadvantage as their public school neighbors. HoLa is particularly bad.

Look, I make mistakes all the time, so I'm not going to bust on anyone for misreading my brief. But if you're going to use data to lash out at a school that serves the economically deprived children your school does not serve...

Well, maybe you'd better double check your "facts" before you start taking shots:
Recently, Hoboken Superintendent Toback has discussed the so called "segregating" impact of charter schools on the school district. Board President Leon Gold has been quoted discussing the "white flight" occurring in the Hoboken School District because of charter schools. Perhaps these two gentlemen should concentrate on providing a better educational experience for the students already attending their schools and be less concerned with baseless statements of segregation, "white flight",  and a climate of lowered expectations for the students and families they are already underserving. -Dr. Petrosino
I'd say Dr. Petrosino owes both Toback and Gold an apology.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

This Is Your Brain On TFA

I often get the sense that something happens to the brains of people who do their two years or less at Teach For America and then, rather than continue to teach, go on to "stay in education" as "leaders." Maybe their self-granted halos are a little too tight.

Take Newark State Superintendent Cami Anderson:

So, as a college student, I organized a group of female athletes to challenge the university on the basis of gender inequity. We had amazing mentors -- my aunt who was a university employee and is a sports enthusiast, the Title IX officer for the University of California, a free-lance journalist who knew a lot about the Title IX law and movement. After a thoroughly-researched, public letter threatening a lawsuit was distributed far and wide, dozens of meetings, and several news stories -- the university agreed to massive changes. Female and male sports budgets merged, across all sports, and head coaches were mandated to ensure equity. Literally, overnight, we bought three new boats, moved in to share the men's boat house, gained access to the best weight rooms at the university, and began to fly -- instead of driving 15 hours -- to races.
As Superintendent of Newark Public Schools (NPS), I am no stranger to controversy and feel many of the dynamics I experienced in my Title IX days -- and throughout my life as an activist -- are at play in the fight for educational equity (in Newark and nationally). Vilifying the leader is a way of discrediting them and preventing them from earning the trust they need to lead. Fear, intimidation, and gender politics are alive and well. More people benefit from a broken public education system than may otherwise be obvious including people who should be "natural allies" for change. In the face of abject failure, even mediocrity is celebrated and challenging that is difficult. It is wildly unpopular to say what we have been doing is failing and even more controversial to make bold proposals that challenge sacred cows -- and adult interests embedded in the status quo.
Folks, there's no bigger fan of Title IX than yours truly. I say that as the uncle and brother of some outstanding college athletes who happen to be women. Women deserve all the protections and entitlements and privileges that have been traditionally reserved for men.

But let's recap:

Apparently, the following acts are exemplars of moral courage:

All of these acts are so selfless, so noble, so righteous indeed that they deserve a public self-lauding -- one where the author can tell us all about her lonely, arduous crusade at her extremely elite college to get more money for her crew team so she could fly to her meets rather than drive.

Take a sec to let that sink in...

Anderson really should be more careful: she just might re-injure herself, what with all the contorting she's doing to pat herself on the back.

Two peas in a pod.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Field Trip Report: Mr. Jazzman Goes to Trenton

If you are ever asked to testify before a legislative committee for your state, you should go.

Not just because, as I found out this week, it's a singular experience - which it is. No, you should go because... well, because these are the elected representatives of your state, and they want to hear your opinion, and that's not only a great honor but a great responsibility.

Others, apparently, have a different view on this matter...

I got up even earlier than usual this past Tuesday and schleped down to Trenton to give my testimony to the Joint Committee on the Public Schools, based on the two reports on Newark school restructuring I coauthored with Bruce Baker. The first, An Empirical Critique of One Newark, looks at the plan with a focus on students. The second, One Newark's Racially Disparate Impact on Teachers, concentrates on the consequences of the plan for Newark's teachers. I'm obviously quite proud to coauthor anything with Bruce, arguably the foremost expert in the country on school finance.

But I was doubly proud that Joseph Oluwole, from Montclair State University, agreed to coauthor our second brief; Dr. Oluwole is one of the nation's most eminent scholars of education law. His contribution to the brief, which outlines in great detail the historic context of racial discrimination against teachers of color, is worthy of its own publication.

Bruce, Joseph, and I had released the last brief the day before I was schedule to testify, so I presented evidence from both briefs. NJEA, my union, was there to capture the testimony of Vice-President Marie Blistan, but they recorded me as well:

Yeah, 50 is approaching fast, and it shows. Rub it in...

Let me add a few personal observations about the day:

- First and foremost: I will admit, to my mother's chagrin, that I am a lifelong Democrat. I've crossed the line a few times to vote for Republicans who I thought were good leaders and deserving of my vote; overall, however, I vote in the "D" column.

That said: I was extremely impressed by the bipartisan and serious tone of this committee. I know it's fashionable to universally beat up politicians as hacks and self-servers; I have to admit, I've engaged in that a bit myself from time to time...

Well, there are undoubtedly politicians who are disingenuous or obtuse at best -- on both sides of the aisle. But the statements I heard and the questions I and others received were uniformly insightful and well-versed -- on both sides of the aisle. For the Republicans, I have to particularly commend Assemblyman David Wolfe, who was exceptionally perceptive and asked me and others excellent questions.

- I was really happy I went first, so I didn't have to follow Marie Blistan, VP of NJEA:

(Uh-oh - looks like a problem with the embedding code. Here's a link to Marie's testimony - go ahead and watch it. I'll wait...)

Zing. Marie is pretty much the proverbial ball of fire; I was happy to spend a little time with her afterward over at NJEA's office building, which is right across the street from the Statehouse. The friendly folks who run my union gave me a quick tour, which I thought was only fair; it is, after all, a building paid for with my dues and the dues of teachers all around the state.

I know that our blustering governor loves to say that the NJEA headquarters is a "palace on State Street" -- but you know what the office building really is? An office building. People there work in cubicles and decorate their desks with pictures of their kids and grandkids and they eat lunch at their desks and make copies in the copy room and do all the stuff you do in an office. The notion that it's a "palace" is absurd. In any case, everyone was quite friendly and took the time to stop and say hi.

I've disagreed with NJEA on occasion in the past, and will probably disagree again in the future. But the cartoonishly evil and profligate characterization of the group, as exemplified by folks like Tom Moran of the Star-Ledger and Jim Gearhart of NJ 101.5, is just plain silly. Stop it.

- The other three witnesses were Liz Athos from the Education Law Center, who gave an excellent presentation on Newark and SFRA, the state's school financing law that Chris Christie is illegally ignoring; John Avignon of the Newark Teacher's Union, who had the best line of the day: "Cami Anderson says she needs to close schools because they're empty. But she created all these empty schools by emptying them!"; and Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, Chairperson of the Newark School Advisory Board.

Baskerville-Richardson's testimony was a show-stopper. She described a school system where the superintendent has lost not only the trust of the elected school board, but most of the community. Most of the members appeared stunned at her claim that Anderson hadn't returned any of her emails for weeks. Senator Wolfe asked whether she had a staff or an office or a phone; Baskerville-Richardson replied: "Senator, we don't have a shelf. We don't have a pencil. We did get some Blackberries."

Baskerville-Richardson, as a former teacher herself, is a historian of the Newark Public Schools. And what she describes is a system that, at one time, at least tried to work with the elected board even as the schools were under state control. That era is over, and Baskerville-Richardson knows exactly how it happened: testing, she said, has become the mechanism through which the state justifies its continuing control over the pursestrings and policies of Newark's schools.

I asked this at my ALI talk, and I'll ask it again: couldn't we have taken a tiny fraction of the Facebook money for Newark's schools and studied these tests? Figure out if they're really measuring what they are supposed to measure? I know, crazy talk...

- Probably the biggest bombshell of the hearing was when Senator Ronald Rice, the co-chair with Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, disputed Newark State Superintendent Cami Anderson's charge that she wasn't invited to testify. You could tell that everyone on the committee, Republican and Democrat alike, was having none of that. The committee was actually ready to vote on asking the Legislature for subpoena powers before Assemblyman Wolfe fairly pointed out that all of the committee members should be there to debate before a vote of that importance.

Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver was particularly incensed. I will always disagree with Assemblywoman Oliver on the pen-ben bill, but there's no doubt she cares about the children of Newark and wants them to have a public school system that needs their needs as well as Millburn's district meets their children's. The same with Senator Teresa Ruiz: I was not happy with some of the assumptions she made during the crafting of the tenure bill, and I stand by my criticisms. But she is clearly someone who has thought a lot about education and she made some insightful comments. And she was more than a little annoyed that Anderson had not deigned to show up before this committee.

But it turns out that Anderson does, indeed, have an answer for some of her critics...

- After chatting with people for a while, I made my way down to the Statehouse cafeteria (it's clean and nice and the food's good, but your senators and assemblypersons sure aren't living la vita loca, NJ - it's a cafeteria) and met John Mooney of NJSpotlight, who is my editor there (new column this week!). John asked me, "So, did you see the response to you and Bruce?"

"Response? What response?" Turns out that NPS had released, that very day, a rebuttal to our first brief on One Newark. Hmm...

Folks, believe me: we'll get to this response in due time. But there's one thing I'd like to correct immediately:

NPS claims our data source for building utilization rates is "unknown." Well, look right in Appendix A of the brief and you'll see we state our data source explicitly: the Education Law Center. Perhaps NPS has better data and ELC gave us the incorrect numbers... but it's not because ELC didn't try, over and over again, to get good data from the district.

In fact, NPS is long overdue in filing its Long Range Facilities Plan (LRFP), as required by state law. Just before I went up to testify, Liz told me ELC had received an amendment to the 2005 LRFP. We're trying to get a copy and will happily correct any errors when we do.

Until then, you can be confident we'll have a few things to say in response to NPS. More to come...

- One last thing: the nicest part of the day was meeting a terrific young woman named Melissa Katz. Melissa is studying to be a teacher at TCNJ, one of this state's outstanding institutions of higher learning and great teacher training centers. This brilliant young woman couldn't have been nicer, and we had a great talk (albeit too short) about education policy and her career plans.

I don't think New Jersey understands how lucky it is that young people like Melissa, in spite of the stupid and unproductive War On Teachers being waged across this state and across this country, still want to enter the profession and educate kids. I hope she sticks with it - but I wouldn't blame her at all if she didn't. Someone like Melissa could do whatever she wanted with her life, including many jobs where she'd make a lot more money.

It heartens me to meet young people who want to serve in our public schools. Instead of vilifying the profession and its professional organizations, why don't we instead raise the prestige of being a teacher? Why not honor her commitment by keeping the commitments to teachers and providing them with decent salaries, good benefits, and a dignified retirement? No one goes into teaching expecting to make any more than a comfortable middle-class wage; why can't we at least meet that reasonable bar?

And why not give young people like Melissa the chance to earn the autonomy that comes with every other profession? Why should she spend her time and her money getting a degree in education when others who won't make that demand on themselves can use political connections and force policies on the schools that will undermine her ability to do her job?

I think Melissa would join with me in saying she and I and all the other teachers of this nation have absolutely no problem with being held accountable for our work. But let us hold each other accountable, with appropriate oversight from officials who have been trained in our field, our elected representatives, and the citizens we serve. It's what every other profession does; why should we be any different?

Let's make teaching, once again, a profession worthy of people like Melissa Katz.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Who Will Clean Up the Reformy Messes?

I really wanted to let this story die the death it so richly deserves. But I just can't let this pass without comment:

I wrote a lot about Perth Amboy, a small city on the Raritan Bay here in New Jersey, over the past few years.

I wrote about how Janine Caffrey, a lightly experienced administrator who took over the district's schools, was turned into a folk hero by Tom Moran of the Star-Ledger on the issue of tenure, even though her arguments were weak and her evidence was anecdotal at best.

I wrote about the ongoing fights Caffrey had with her board, abetted by interference from B4K, New Jersey's richest and reformiest lobbying shop.

I wrote about how Former Acting Commissioner of Education Chris Cerf did a disservice to both Perth Amboy and Caffrey herself as he allowed her case to be unnecessarily dragged out.

I wrote about the byzantine deals involving Cerf's former underlings and their contracts with Perth Amboy's schools, which left a bad taste in my mouth.

I wrote about the national Reformy Campaign Finance Machine, apparently a project of folks connected to Teach For America (although we'll never really know because our campaign finance laws are such a disaster), and how it poured a ridiculous amount of money into the Perth Amboy school board race.

I wrote about how B4K skipped out on its commitment to help a literacy program in Perth Amboy when Caffrey's contract was bought out, one of the most cynical things I've witnessed in my four years of blogging about New Jersey and education.

And so now, after years of unnecessary strife and turmoil, after all that angst, after hours of public relations jockeying and political maneuvering, the time has finally come...

Someone's got to run the schools:
Acting Superintendent of Schools Vivian Rodriguez takes a calm approach in making sure the district focuses on getting work done. 
The calmness she displays in her management and personal approach may be one of the reasons she was asked back to the district after being on sabbatical for several months. 
And her calmness appears to be a welcome change from the upheaval the district has been through over the last three years during disputes between the board and the school superintendent, who was put on paid administrative leave last fall. 
“She’s sincere in how she goes about things. She’s not reactive. She thinks about what she says and she’s very organized and very diligent in how she follows through,” Board of Education President Obdulia Gonzalez said. 
“Dr. Rodriguez is fair in her assessment. She’s not quick or slow to make a decision,” said Diane Crawford, president of the Perth Amboy Federation/American Federation of Teachers. “She has had a very open door.” 
Rodriguez, who has worked in Perth Amboy for nine years, came back to the district in December as assistant superintendent, two months after Superintendent of Schools Janine Walker Caffrey was placed on administrative leave. It was the third time the school board had placed Caffrey on leave, and the first time the board’s decision was not reversed by a judge. 
Prior to the sabbatical, disputes between Rodriguez and Caffrey led to Caffrey relocating Rodriguez's office to the basement of one of the district elementary schools. 
Rodriguez previously served as interim superintendent when Caffrey was originally placed on paid administrative leave by the school board in April 2012.
Rodriguez was made acting superintendent in January.
“I wanted to come back because I really care about this city and I wanted to help,” said Rodriguez, who has a doctorate in curriculum and instruction from Fordham University, has taught Holocaust and bilingual education, worked as a school principal, and run a model bilingual program. She has previously served as an associate dean of the Kean University College of Education and still teaches graduate courses at the college.
Is Vivian Rodriguez the best person to take Perth Amboy's schools into the future? I have no idea; however, I wish her the very best, as I wish for all the staff and students and parents and citizens of Perth Amboy.

But let's take the moment to ask a simple question: what happens when reformy interlopers move on? What happens when they grow bored with interfering in local school districts, and shift their attention to the next, new, shiny toy? What happens when they go cash out into the private sector? When their old lobbying shops fold? When they decide to spend their political lucre on other, more interesting political races?

I'll tell you what happens: dedicated, lifelong educators, like the outstanding professionals of the Perth Amboy Federation, step in and do what B4K and Chris Cerf and Alan Fournier and Arthur Rock and Tom Moran and all the other reformy buttinskies could never do:

They teach. They lead. They inspire. 

From now on, Perth Amboy (and all other local school districts), do yourselves a favor: work with your teachers and your principals and your school leaders and your elected school board and your town leaders and your parents and your citizens and run your own schools.

The last thing you need ever again are bureaucrats and billionaires and bloviators telling you what to do.

Good luck, Perth Amboy!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

NJ Charter School Segregation Scoreboard: 1-1

Let's start by acknowledging the insanity of New Jersey charter school approval process. For all intents and purposes, one unelected official -- the Commissioner of Education -- gets to decide which charters survive and which fall. It doesn't matter what the elected school board members of the local community, which has to pay for the charters, may think about the applications: all that has counted for the last three years is whether Former Acting Commissioner Chris Cerf thought your charter was worthy of a seal embossed by his signet ring.

Bruce Baker has long documented the patterns of segregation and student attrition at many of the state's "successful" charters; yours truly has contributed a bit to the discussion as well. No matter: here in the Garden State, we have established a regular ritual where charter applicants, both new charters and expansions, wait with baited breath while Lord High Executioner Cerf hands down his decrees.

The latest round was just this past week, featuring two decisions that really couldn't be any different, demonstrating the arbitrary nature of the entire process. First, let's head out to East Brunswick and get the latest chartery news:
Hatikvah International Academy plans to appeal the state’s denial of its expansion, the controversial charter school’s board President Laurie Newell said.
A letter on Wednesday from Department of Education Chief Innovation Officer Evo Popoff renewed the elementary school’s charter for five years but denied a middle-school expansion into eighth grade over the next three years. Popoff cited “a decline in the school’s academic performance in the 2012-13 school year.” 
The Hebrew language immersion program already had accepted sixth graders and had advertised an expansion to eighth grade, which it planned to accommodate with a furiously protested move into a warehouse in an industrial zone off Cranbury Road. Last summer, Superior Court overruled the township council’s block of the move.
That "decline in the school's academic performance" is a very interesting claim that I'll try to explore later. For now, let's acknowledge the obvious: a Hebrew immersion program is not exactly the best way to foster an integrated school. Darcie Cimarusti, who's been following this story closely since the beginning, tells us more:

Can A Hebrew Charter Truly Be Secular?

In the press there are constant denials that there is any religious intent behind Hatikvah, and that the charter is completely secular. 
The New York-based Hebrew Charter School Center helped establish the Hatikvah Hebrew charter school in East Brunswick, New Jersey, whose principal, Marcia Grayson, says that she tries to maintain a nonsectarian identity for the school. “We are hypervigilant about church and state,” Grayson says. “We go so far out of our way to make sure that we are not perceived as a Jewish school.”
While Hatikvah may indeed "go out of their way" to avoid the "perception" that Hatikvah is a "Jewish school", there is often a large gulf between perception and reality.

The Hebrew Charter School Center (HCSC), which provides the start up funding for Hebrew charters like Hatikvah, similarly distances itself from the Ben Gamla chain of Hebrew Charters which has no problem whatsoever identifying their schools as Jewish.
“A lot of Jewish education goes on in the schools, absolutely,” said Deutsch, a former Florida congressman who serves as Ben Gamla’s legal counsel. 
“It’s a very Jewish school, just not a Jewish religious school,” he said. “The definition of Judaism is not just a religion, it’s peoplehood — the same way the Irish or Chinese are a people." 
Ben Gamla and HCSC represent two radically different approaches to the rapidly growing Hebrew charter movement.(emphasis mine)
But, I don't buy that there's much difference at all between the HCSC charters and the Ben Gamla charters. And I'll tell you why. 

It's possible I suppose to argue that the education provided at the charter during school hours is indeed secular. But since all Hebrew charters also have religious afterschool programs, protestations like Grayson's that Hatikvah is "hypervigilant about church and state" need to be closely evaluated and not just taken at face value.
Read the whole thing, and then remember this: NJDOE thinks it makes perfect sense for the state to pay to immerse children in Hebrew in grades K through 5 (and not expect there to be any cultural, ethnic, or religious segregation as a result), and then return these same children back to their sending districts where there is little if any instruction in the same language. This is, I suppose, the department's idea of a rational curriculum.

And then there's the little issue of how Hatikvah's plans would have impacted the sending districts:
The DOE letter stated that public correspondence and comment contributed to the decision to deny the Hatikvah expansion. Opponents included school superintendents from the township, Highland Park, Edison, North Brunswick, New Brunswick and South River, as well as the three representatives from the 18th legislative district.
The school district had estimated that Hativah’s expansion would increase its next allotment of public school funds about $1 million to nearly $3.3 million, more than 46 percent of the 2 percent state cap on municipal budgets.
As a result, the district would not have been able to meet its incremental costs, never mind 11 additional needs identified as the 2014-15 budget is developed, said Bernardo Giuliana, the district’s business administrator for 20 years. According to a board of education resolution, they include eight security guards, one for each elementary school; replacements for 10-year-old, out-of-print textbooks, four additional elementary school teachers to address increased enrollment, several addition teachers for students with special needs, an additional school psychologist, and technology that meets the requirements of the Partnership for Assessment for Readiness for College and Careers. [emphasis mine]
Your NJDOE, ladies and gentlemen: imposing unfunded mandates on schools, then taking the money away by approving charters. At least it won't get worse in East Brunswick and these other districts; the same can't be said for Hoboken:   
The state Department of Education this week approved the addition of two middle school grades at a bilingual Hoboken charter school, despite urgings from the superintendent to reject the expansion.

HoLa Hoboken Dual Language Charter School can add seventh and eighth grade classes, an expansion that is expected to bring nearly 100 more students to the school, said Barbara Martinez, president of the school board and one of the school's founders. The school currently has 254 students enrolled in kindergarten through fifth grade classes, and already received approval to add sixth grade classes. The state Department of Education has also renewed the school's charter for the next five years, according to the department's renewal letter.
“It’s a great thing for HoLa, and it’s a great thing for Hoboken,” she said.
“Overnight, families have more options then they did a week ago, and that’s an important step for keeping families in Hoboken.”
Superintendent Mark Toback opposed the expansion, and urged the state in November to conduct a study of charter school effectiveness in the city before greenlighting additional grades. In a letter to the state, Toback said that expansion could exacerbate an already tenuous budgetary situation: The district foots the bill for 90 percent of each student's enrollment costs at the city's three charter schools. [emphasis mine]
Let's be clear about HoLa: it does not serve the same student population as Hoboken's public schools:

By this measure, HoLa is the most economically segregated school in New Jersey. And, as I wrote in this brief, that segregation has little to show for it:

There are plenty of public schools in Hudson County that get results just as good, if not better, than HoLa but serve many more students who are economically disadvantaged. And, as I wrote the other day, the notion that HoLa's demographics reflect the entire Hoboken population of public and private school students is simply not borne out by the facts, no matter what credulous newspaper editors may want to believe.

Two charters, both causing economic distress to their sending districts, both contributing to the ongoing segregation of New Jersey's schools. Yet one is approved while another is not. If you can explain how any of this makes sense, Chris Christie has a job for you at the Port Authority.

Another way to screw Hoboken? Sounds great!