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

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Correcting the Education Punditry of @jonathanalter

Jonathan Alter and Bob Braun went man-to-man a few weeks ago in the pages of NJ Monthly over the subject of education reform. From my perspective, Braun cleaned Alter's clock, and I said so on Twitter. The sad fact is Alter got many things wrong in his piece, but that's understandable: the conventional wisdom he traffics in is largely a fact-free zone when it comes to education (and what else, I wonder...).

Alter didn't take too kindly to my assessment of his work, and challenged me to correct him. Fair enough:

Alter: "Despite shockingly high per-pupil expenditures, the schools were mostly horrible, with pathetic graduation rates and students offered almost no chance to escape from poverty."

What exactly do you mean, Jon, by "shockingly high"?
As Bruce Baker has explained ad nauseum, claiming that education costs are "shockingly high" is an a-contextual claim that is devoid of meaning. If you want to argue that New Jersey spends relatively larger amounts of money than most other states on schools, that's fine -- we do. But we also get a lot for it: our overall metrics of educational success lead the nation, and we have seen substantial and sustained progress from students who are in economic disadvantage or who are part of traditionally disenfranchised racial groups.

What I hope you are not implying here, however, is that it is reasonable for a community like Newark, mired in poverty and racism, to expect its children to do as well on racially- and socioeconomically-biased tests as, say, Millburn. That would not only fly in the face of everything we know about education:

It would be stupid on its face.

Alter: "All the talk of “corporatizing” schools is baloney."

How is it possible to be a journalist and yet remain so credulous?
Sara Gubins - BofA Merrill Lynch, Research Division
And then last question, Ron, any comments on the new state pipeline, particularly now after the elections. You sounded relatively optimistic. I'm wondering if anything is looking more likely over the next 6 to 12 months.
Ronald J. Packard - Founder, Chief Executive Officer and Director [K12 Inc.]
Well, yes, as you know, I tried -- tend not to talk about prospective states but I will say just the following of the results of the elections in several of the states were very favorable for K12 with regard to potentially opening a new school and in other cases, increasing the enrollment cap. So we were actually quite pleased with the results in several of the states on Tuesday night.
It continually amazes me that pundits like Alter and Tom Moran can be so willing to think the worst of teachers unions' motivations, yet they remain absolutely convinced that Wall Street is backing reforminess simply out of the goodness of their wealthy little hearts.
In the venture capital world, transactions in the K-12 education sector soared to a record $389 million last year, up from $13 million in 2005. That includes major investments from some of the most respected venture capitalists in Silicon Valley, according to GSV Advisors, an investment firm in Chicago that specializes in education.

The goal: an education revolution in which public schools outsource to private vendors such critical tasks as teaching math, educating disabled students, even writing report cards, said Michael Moe, the founder of GSV.

"It's time," Moe said. "Everybody's excited about it." [emphasis mine]
I mean, how much more brazen do you want these people to be?
About the only thing charters do well is limit the influence of teachers’ unions. And fatten their investors’ portfolios.
In part, it’s the tax code that makes charter schools so lucrative: Under the federal “New Markets Tax Credit” program that became law toward the end of the Clinton presidency, firms that invest in charters and other projects located in “underserved” areas can collect a generous tax credit — up to 39% — to offset their costs.
So attractive is the math, according to a 2010 article by Juan Gonzalez in theNew York Daily News, “that a lender who uses it can almost double his money in seven years.”

It’s not only wealthy Americans making a killing on charter schools. So are foreigners, under a program critics call “green card via red carpet.”
“Wealthy individuals from as far away as China, Nigeria, Russia and Australia are spending tens of millions of dollars to build classrooms, libraries, basketball courts and science labs for American charter schools,” says a 2012 Reuters report.
The formal name of the program is EB-5, and it’s not only for charter schools. Foreigners who pony up $1 million in a wide variety of development projects — or as little as $500,000 in “targeted employment areas” — are entitled to buy immigration visas for themselves and family members.
It's a sign of how far American journalism has fallen that Alter appears to be not even the slightest bit bothered by any of this. I'd post another bunch of links (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), but what would be the point? If you're not ready to listen, all the facts in the world don't much matter.

Alter: "If you don’t believe me, visit Newark charter public schools like North Star Academy or TEAM Academy, where the student population is almost all non-white and the waiting lists are long. There is magic in their classrooms. With more than three-quarters of their students in grades three through eight scoring “advanced” or “proficient” on yearly assessments, they not only outperform neighboring traditional public schools by more than 30 points, they beat white suburban schools."

Not quite, Jon:

Here are all New Jersey schools' Grade 8 NJASK scores on English Language Arts for 2013, plotted against the proportion of students enrolled in each school who qualify for free lunch. Look at how closely all the dots follow the line: nearly three-quarters of the variation in these schools' test scores can be statistically explained by how many students at the school are in economic disadvantage.

Yes, there are charters that "beat the odds." North Star & TEAM are both above the trend line, beating prediction -- good for them. But there are also loads of public schools who do as well, if not better.

And many of these "successful" charters you brag on don't hang on to their students for very long:

We further know that the few special education students these schools serve have the least expensive and intense disabilities, and that these charters serve far fewer children who speak English as a second language. 

There is no "magic" at North Star or TEAM. They may serve the students who stay on their rolls well, but it's absurd to paint them in such fawning terms. In fact, members of the TEAM staff, well aware that they do not serve they same students as NPS, have confessed to me that they are becoming increasingly embarrassed at the gushing of pundits like you who refuse to acknowledge obvious differences in student population characteristics.

So stop it.

Alter: "More than 90 percent of North Star and TEAM students graduate and go to four-year colleges (including Princeton, MIT and Penn), compared to district-wide graduation rates of under 30 percent."

Once again: you can't talk about graduation rates without talking about attrition:

Jon, when you can come up with an explanation that squares North Star's huge attrition rate for black boys with its graduation rates, I'll be ready to listen (to be fair: TEAM's graduation rate lines up much more realistically with its attrition rate).

Oh, and as for those Ivy League graduates...
In the largest high school in Trenton - New Jersey's capitol - the beautiful, brilliant children of this state are forced to learn in a building that is unsafe and disgusting. This terrific piece of citizen journalism, courtesy of Rebecca Burr, details what is happening in a school that is almost literally under Chris Christie's nose.


According to State Senator Reed Gusciora, Trenton Central sent a kid to every Ivy League school last year with the exception of Harvard. Think about that: there is someone right now attending Yale, or Dartmouth, or Princeton, or Columbia, who went to a high school that looks like this:

Trenton Central's infamous "Waterfall" staircase.

Chris Christie, of course, likes to call schools like Trenton Central "failure factories." In truth, they are hero factories. Because any school that can produce Ivy League scholars in such deplorable conditions is full of heroic teachers and staff, educating heroic students, loved by their heroic parents.

The only "failure" at Trenton High is the failure of Chris Christie and his cronies to step up and do their damn jobs.
Jon, if pundits like you spent half as much time pointing out the failure of Chris Christie to adequately fund our schools as you do beating up teachers unions, maybe people would demand change.

Alter: "Rock-solid tenure and last-in-first-out layoff policies backed by teachers unions? Bad for kids, because it makes it nearly impossible to fire bad teachers and forces the layoff of good young ones while weak teachers with seniority stay on."

Tenure also protects good teachers like Mike Mignone from the witch hunts that are currently taking place within Newark. And the myth of the burned out senior teacher who isn't as effective as the good young one is simply that: a myth. There is no evidence neophytes outperform veterans in the classroom -- quite the contrary.

Why do you spend so much time, Jon, writing about mythical burned out teachers protected by tenure when you could write about actual teachers who were saved by it?

Alter: "Charters are also public schools and thus by definition cannot be draining resources."

By any reasonable definition, charters are not public schools, because they are not state actors. But if you don't believe me, ask the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Census Bureau, and the National Labor Relations Board.

Alter: "According to an authoritative Stanford University study, New Jersey charter public schools performed significantly better than traditional public schools."

That's simply not true. The NJ CREDO study matched students through a "virtual" matching process (a highly suspect one); it did not match schools. So while the study did find "matched" charter students did better than their public school counterparts, it did not find matched charter schools performed better.

And, in fact, only in Newark did the study find that charter students got better test scores (p. 16):
When we investigate the learning impacts of Newark charter schools separately, we find that their results are larger in reading and math than the overall state results. Grouping the other four major cities in New Jersey (Camden, Trenton, Jersey City, and Paterson) shows that charter students in these areas learn significantly less than their TPS peers in reading. There are no differences in learning gains between charter students in the four other major cities and their virtual counterparts in math. [emphasis mine]
Why did Newark charters do better? Simple -- more even than their counterparts in the other cities included in the study, Newark's charters don't serve the same types of students:

This is a critical difference that your neighbor Moran just doesn't get: you can't compare Newark charters to NPS schools, because there are no NPS schools that serve so few students in economic disadvantage, who have special needs, or who don't speak English at home. Peer effect is real and it is a large part of the success of the Newark charter sector; logically, however, it is impossible for all schools to have a free lunch population that's lower than average.

Alter: "Charter students are almost entirely poor, black and Latino. It is ridiculous to claim they are hurting the population they are serving."

The "Big 7" are the seven largest charter-feeding districts, responsible for over three-quarters of the charter population: Newark, Jersey City, Paterson, Camden, Trenton, Plainfield, and Hoboken. These charters serve a racially different profile than their sending districts, fewer children in economic disadvantage, and far fewer Limited English Proficient (LEP) children.

But even that's not the largest difference:

New Jersey's charter schools are turning back the clock on the integration of special needs students with the general education population. But don't feel bad Jon: aside from me and scant few others, no one ever talks about this.

Alter: "Principals in New Jersey and across the country are eager to hire TFA teachers, who mostly remain in education after their two-year commitment."

The phrase "mostly in education" is a slick way of avoiding the truth: more than 80 percent of TFA's corps members leave their assignments after three years (which makes the program ineffective and expensive for school districts). "Stay in education" does not mean stay teaching in schools with significant levels of student poverty; increasingly, the phrase means find a job away from those kids in the burgeoning education-industrial complex.

Alter: "In most New Jersey districts, the total number of assessments hasn’t changed, though the tests are getting harder, which upsets defenders of mediocrity."

Completely false. Under your other neighbor, Chris Cerf, New Jersey has moved toward a testing regime that will be unnecessarily onerous for high school students. The PARCC has already forced districts to spend large sums of money upgrading their technology, not for curricular uses, but for testing. This unfunded mandate has already earned the scorn of our state's school leaders.

And we don't know if the tests are measuring more complex skills; all we know is that, once again, politicians are monkeying with the passing rates.

Jon, you've got a choice: continue down this path, like your reformy neighbors, or read people like me and the others on my blogroll to the left and learn a little something. When you're ready to pull your head out of the sand, let me know -- contrary to my prose, I am a surprisingly likable guy.

Not a good position for a journalist.

ADDING: I forgot something important:

Alter: "Contrary to popular assumption, charter schools generally offer lots of art and music, subjects that are critical."

This is a big topic I am working on currently. But let me share a few preliminary ideas:

One of the ways you could measure the commitment of a school/district to the arts and physical education is to look at the "student load" for teachers of these subjects. If your specials teachers work in schools where they are responsible for more students, they are taking on a larger student load; that art or music or PE teacher is responsible for more kids, and is spread further, possibly impeding their effectiveness.

This isn't a clear-cut thing: music teachers, for instance, might be able to take on many more kids in a school that has big bands or choirs and have a better music program as the result. So we have to approach this with some cautions; still...

Throughout the state, district elementary/middle art teachers have greater student loads than charter art teachers, with the exception of Newark, where TEAM and North Star reside.

Music is much more mixed; however, Newark lags in student load. But here's the kicker:

The last year for which I have staffing data (that I trust) is 2011-12; in that file, TEAM is listed with only one PE teacher, 2 art teachers, and no music teachers. North Star had one art teacher, two theater/stage teachers, 3 PE teachers, and two music teachers. North Star enrolled 1687 students in 2011-12; TEAM had 1504.5.

I'll certainly entertain the possibility the files I have from NJDOE are not complete; absent that, however, we're left with some doubts about Alter's claims. One art teacher for nearly 1700 kids doesn't inspire confidence. No music teachers is even worse. And one Health/PE teacher for over 1500 kids? No one can believe that's adequate.

This data is a few years old; let's hope things have improved.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I read Alter's "piece" and was shocked at how facile it was. He could have done the whole thing by phoning up Michelle Rhee or Derrell Bradford and getting some canned talking points to toss out. The Northstar was especially galling -- ignore their deliberately disgusting attrition?

I honestly have to conclude that people like Alter and Chait have decided that since the Obama administration is for these things that they don't need to bother with, you know, journalism.