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, May 31, 2015

Why the Common Core Debate Is (Mostly) Pointless

Since I've already dealt with the screaming hypocrisy of Chris Christie when it comes to his "concerns" about the Common Core State Standards, let's move on to a more substantive question:

Is the Common Core good for New Jersey? Or, for that matter, any state?

One thing that strikes me about Common Core defenders is how absolutely certain they are that these new standards are just so freakin' awesome. They'll tell you our students are behind the rest of the world (even though they're not), and that we have an "achievement gap" (which they should properly call a "testing gap"), and that 21st Century jobs require "critical thinking" (which is an absurdly oversimplified description of how our economy interacts with education).

They'll tell you that the Common Core will force schools to make their students "college and career ready" (a useless, phony phrase), and that they emphasize "authentic learning" (depending on how you define "authentic"), and that Common Core is great because teachers were closely involved in its development (rubbish).

To be fair: there are some very well-informed and intelligent people who are promoting the Common Core. They have a serious case to make for the standards. I am happy to listen to them and consider their arguments.

But most of the defenders of the Common Core in the media seem to live at the top of Mount Stupid:

The reason yours truly has not engaged much in much discussion of the Common Core is that I have been teaching long enough and have enough high-quality training to know that I'm not the guy to lead the discussion. 

Granted, I have my doubts. I think the single-year grade bands are a bad idea: they wouldn't work in arts education, and they probably won't work in math and language arts, particularly in the early years, when children vary wildly in their cognitive abilities (let alone their actual chronological ages).

I also question some specifics: why is pi introduced in Grade 7? Seems late to me: our school used to have "Pi Day" every March 14 (3/14 -- get it?), and Grade 5 seems like the perfect time to introduce the concepts of irrationality and infinity, which are closely tied to pi.

But again: if you want an expert opinion, I'm not the guy to ask. Unfortunately, we are surrounded by self-impressed ninnies who have planted their flags atop the summit of Mount Stupid. They appear to believe that just because Bill Gates gave them money to write a blog, or because they run the op-ed page of a newspaper, that somehow they are perfectly well qualified to tell the rest of us slobs that the Common Core is going to save America from certain doom at the hands of Singapore.

To be clear: this ignorance is not, by any means, confined to CCSS defenders. Core-spiracy nonsense has become an integral part of right-wing rhetoric leading into the next election. But only foolish editorial writers would think that the legitimate criticisms of the Common Core were similarly driven by left-wing politics. 

There are some very serious, very knowledgable people who think the CCSS is developmentally inappropriate. As a non-expert who still has a better-than-average understanding of math and language arts curriculum, I tend to side with these people. But I do not dismiss the serious proponents of CCSS out-of-turn as a bunch of whatever-wing hacks. I am ready and willing to listen to a meaningful, substantive debate...

And then remark -- as someone who does have considerable expertise in education policy -- that the debate about the Common Core is, at this time, largely pointless.

Folks, here's what I can tell you I know for sure:

- Poverty affects school outcomes, and we have a sickeningly large number of children in poverty.

- Our schools are highly segregated, by both race and socio-economic status. This negatively affects educational outcomes.

- Providing adequate funding to schools will likely not completely close the testing gap, but it can go a long way toward helping to equalize educational outcomes.

- And yet schools remain inadequately and inequitably funded.

I don't want to completely dismiss the debate about CCSS, or any learning standards, or the importance of curriculum development. The goals we set for students are important. How we teach makes a difference, and we can improve the quality of teaching.

But let's get real: if you had to make a list of the things that need to be done to improve the educational outcomes of students, rewriting the standards would be near the bottom.

Does anyone really believe that the most pressing need for a child living in food insecurity and attending an inadequately funded school is to make sure her state's standards are aligned with those in other states? That it's critically important to make sure her state's old standards are replaced with the CCSS, even if her school building is crumbling around her? That, if she has a special education need, the sequence of standards that may be developmentally inappropriate for her anyway is as urgent an issue as whether or not she gets critical services in a timely manner?

What does a new set of standards do to ameliorate the segregation that is growing worse in our urban schools, thanks to "choice" policies that are often promoted by the same folks who tout the CCSS? How does Common Core help to reduce the narrowing of the curriculum that has followed from a decade of high-stakes testing (and, likely, inadequate funding)? Where is any evidence that Common Core makes the teaching profession more attractive -- especially for young, talented people of color, who are desperately needed in our schools?

Again: I'm not saying standards aren't relevant. But the inordinate attention we've given to this debate is like worrying about tire pressure when the engine's on fire. Yes, the pressure's important... but there are more immediate concerns.

The mandarins of our media who are obsessed with Common Core clearly don't understand the serious debate over the standards. But even worse: they substitute a shallow focus on the CCSS for a meaningful exploration of the impacts of segregation, poverty, and inadequate funding on our nation's schools.

They need to get off of Mount Stupid and get their priorities straight.

"Poorly aligned standards" is not on one of the backpacks here.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Screaming Hypocrisy of @GovChristie On Education

Chris Christie has never made a serious education policy proposal in his career. 

So let's not pretend for a second he's started now:
And so, today, I am directing the Commissioner of Education, David Hespe, to begin immediately to assemble a group of parents and educators to consider developing New Jersey educational standards – New Jersey College and Career Readiness Standards. 
I want New Jersey parents and teachers to be the driving force behind the establishment of these new standards. I want New Jersey business partners, New Jersey school administrators, and New Jersey school boards to work together in this important effort. 
I have heard from far too many people – teachers and parents from across the state – that the Common Core standards were not developed by New Jersey educators and parents.  As a result, the buy-in from both communities has not been what we need for maximum achievement. I agree. It is time to have standards that are even higher and come directly from our communities. 
And, in my view, this new era can be even greater by adopting new standards right here in New Jersey – not 200 miles away on the banks of the Potomac River.
Where do I even begin?

- "Not developed by New Jersey educators..." When did Chris Christie ever care what teachers think about anything? When he put together his Educator Effectiveness Task Force, he included only one working teacher, and no members of the largest teachers union in the state, the New Jersey Education Association.

The task force issued a report so incoherent and so unworkable it has led to the current, disastrous teacher evaluation system I call Operation Hindenburg. Had Christie actually bothered to include us teachers in his plans, he may have developed something that could have helped schools and students. Instead, he has set the state up for a lawsuit the first time a teacher is fired, because the current system is innumerate.

No politician in the history of New Jersey has listened less to teachers than Chris Christie. It's absurd that he pretends that he wants educators to be involved in any aspect of education policy.

- "The buy-in from both communities has not been what we need..." Buy-in from teachers?! Is he insane?!

This is a man who compared us to drug dealers, told us we were greedy, told our students we didn't care about their learning, and said we only care about having summers off. Now he worries we haven't had "buy-in"?!

No politician in the history of New Jersey has done more to demonize and denigrate the teaching profession than Chris Christie. The thought that he is suddenly concerned that we haven't had enough "buy-in" is laughable.

- "...and come directly from our communities." Maybe Christie was on another one of his many, many, many, many out-of-state trips and he missed it, but the largest student protest this state has ever seen happened in Newark this week, literally shutting down access to and from the city. Why?

Because the good people of Newark -- as in Paterson, Jersey City, and Camden -- have been completely disenfranchised when it comes to the governance of their schools. Just today, Mayor Ras Baraka demanded the removal of the hugely unpopular State Superintendent in Newark, Cami Anderson, based on her incompetence, mismanagement, and record of failure.

This egregious disdain for democracy and self-rule is blatantly racist:

It's worth noting, however, that local districts across the state have had to deal with Christie's meddling for years. The imposition of the onerous PARCC exams this year was a huge unfunded mandate, as was the previously mentioned new teacher evaluation system. Now Christie wants to shirk his responsibility to fund teacher pensions and force local districts to make up for his own inability to balance New Jersey' books.

No politician in the history of New Jersey has done more to destroy local control of schools than Chris Christie. The man who personally appointed Cami Anderson and took over Camden's schools has no business pretending he cares about what "our communities" think.

- "It is time to have standards that are even higher..." But who cares about having higher standards if you aren't willing to pay what it costs to achieve them?

New Jersey's intensely segregated schools have thousands of students living in poverty, or who don't speak English at home, or who have special eduction disabilities. The state itself passed a law, after great debate, that dictates the costs of educating children with these special needs. Yet every year, Chris Christie has refused to fund this law, with profound consequences

As of now, New Jersey schools are a collective $7 billion behind what the law itself says they need to adequately educate our children.  But Christie refuses to collect the revenues necessary to fund this law, wasting funds instead on fruitless tax gifts for corporations that have done nothing to improve our state's economy.

No politician in the history of New Jersey has done as much damage to the finances of our schools as Chris Christie. It is sickening to watch him call for higher standards when he refuses to do his job and fund our schools properly.

I'll get to the Common Core stuff in a bit. For right now, though, take a minute and think about how utterly hollow Chris Christie's words are. Think back on his previously education proposals, and how they were nothing but naked political ploys, utterly devoid of substance.

America, take it from those of us living in Jersey: this man doesn't care one whit about the Common Core, or education standards, or anything having to do with school policies. Chris Christie's sole interest in education policy is in its worth as a political tool: a tool to diminish the strength of unions, demonize public workers, and shift the focus off of his own many, many failures as governor.

When the Bridgegate scandal blew open, Christie decided to unveil a useless initiative to lengthen the school day and year, hoping to get the press talking about anything other than his out-of-control staff. It never went anywhere -- and why would it? Once it had served its purpose as a distraction, it went away.

There is a serious debate to be had about the Common Core -- but Chris Christie really couldn't care less about the issue. So long as he harbors delusions of gaining of national office, this man will use New Jersey's education system in any way he thinks will gain him political points.

In a sane world, anything Chris Christie says about education policy would be ignored.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Standardized Tests: Symptoms, Not Causes

Let's talk about tests for a bit:

All Standardized tests, by design, yield "normal" or bell curve distributions:

You sometimes hear quanty folks say: "God loves the normal distribution." In this case, however, man is creating God in his own image, because the tests are designed to yield this distribution of scores.

In a normal distribution, most students get average scores: that's why the highest point in the curve is in the middle. As we move to the right from the middle, the test scores go up, but fewer and fewer students get those higher scores. Likewise, as we move to the left from the center, fewer students get the lowest scores.

How does this happen? Well, to start, and as testing expert Daniel Koretz has explained, we only test students on what we reasonably expect them to be able to do. We don't test fourth graders on trigonometry because we know most of them can't solve those kind of problems and wouldn't be able to even if we drilled them on it repeatedly. Similarly, we don't test high school juniors on adding one-digit numbers because we know that would be too easy.

Are there fourth graders that know the difference between a sine and a cosine? Are there juniors who can't add 5 and 4? Of course there are, but we know they are far away from the norm; we don't set our standards based on these outliers. Because we like to see ourselves as normally distributed, we create standards and tests that give us normal distributions. 

This can't be stressed enough in the testing debates: we design tests not based on objective criteria, but on socially constructed frameworks that assume some of us are above average, some of us are below, and most of us are in the middle.

Now, sometimes we design a test that is "too hard" or "too easy." What does that mean?

Here's a test where many students got high grades; it's skewed negative, meaning many students got grades close to the top of the test's scale. In fact, the "right tail" of the curve is cut off: a good number of students got the highest grade possible. This is a "ceiling effect," and many people, including the NJDOE and other authorities in education, do not like this distribution. They think the test is "too easy," because they assume that students must be normally distributed.

Hence the shift to tests like the PARCC, which reformy folk say is testing "higher order thinking" and "real world problem solving" and so on. Frankly, if you can find a real world situation where people use phrases like "constant of proportionality," I'd be surprised. What's really going on is that the questions are more difficult so the test can lose its skewness and return a normal distribution. 

The irony here is that the promoters of standardized testing are using an argument against inequity to insist on the continued use of these tests (if not their expansion), and to shame those who are opting their children out of these tests as perpetuators of race and class injustices. 

We'll leave aside the point for the moment that these same people also refuse to actually provide the funds the law -- based on a large and growing body of empirical research -- says are needed to equalize the test-based goals they've set out. 

Instead, let's look at the logic of their argument. Somehow, everyone has to be "college and career ready" (as if that is an objective criterion), and we're going to insist that everyone perform at the highest possible levels. But we're going to use a test that forces a normal distribution; and if that test actually shows that many students are meeting a high standard, we'll declare the test "too easy," and redesign it so we get back the bell curve we crave.

Does everyone see the problem here? We're insisting that all children demonstrate high performance on a test that, by design, only allows a few children to demonstrate high performance.

This is where "proficiency rates" enter the conversation:* 

All a proficiency rate does is set the cut point along the normal distribution. Where the rate is set is entirely up to whomever has the power to set it; it can be as low or as high as they like.

But what usually happens is that proficiency is determined by another test that -- surprise! -- yields a normal distribution. And that test -- say, the SAT -- is tied to some other normalized standard, like college freshman GPA. Why do I say that's normalized? Because even the reformiest of the reformy admit not everyone can or should go to college, and college standards are determined, like those in K-12 schools, by what we reasonably expect the average college student do be able to do. It's all normalized.

This is a fundamental contradiction inherent in the arguments for standardized testing as necessary prerequisites for addressing inequitable outcomes in education. Standardized tests, by design, give us bell curves, and reformy types insist we change them if too many students are getting high scores. But then they moan that not enough students are above average!

Further: they fail to see what the tests are really measuring:

The correlation between socio-economic status and test scores is absolutely iron-clad. Does anyone think eliminating the ceiling effect is going to change this? Granted, there is likely a ceiling on how income effects test scores: a kid in a family making $300K a year probably isn't at much, if any, disadvantage compared to a kid in a family making $500K.

But the wealthy have always enjoyed an advantage in our false meritocracy. The biases in the tests themselves, coupled with the inequitable distribution of resources available for schools, all but guarantee the majority of the variation in test scores will be explained by class.

The neo-liberal view appears to be that this is inevitable and just, so long as we decouple these inequities from race. If we can get some more students of color into elite schools, and create a few more black and brown millionaires and billionaires, everything will be "fair." The owners of the country can then sleep soundly at night, content that they may be classists, but they aren't racists.

I'm all for social mobility, but increasing it isn't the same as decreasing inequity. There are millions of people in this country doing difficult, necessary jobs. It's wrong to consign people of color to these jobs through a system of social reproduction in our schools. But it's also wrong to pretend that we have a system where everybody can be above average, and in doing so can make a better life for themselves.

So long as we keep making bell curves, somebody has to be on the left side. Somebody has to do the work that needs to get done. But there's no reason those decent, hardworking people shouldn't have good wages and good medical care and good housing and disposable income and workplace rights and time to spend raising their children.

Yes, their children should have the same opportunities to move to the right side of the bell curve. But if they do, somebody is going to have to take their place. Maybe if the consequences for being on the left side of the bell curve weren't so dire, affluent people wouldn't be as obsessed with maintaining the advantages they enjoy in keeping their children on the right side. Maybe they would stop pushing their children to the breaking point just to stay ahead of the pack:

Maybe we'd allow children to become themselves and realize their full potentials, free of the fear that their "failure" will inevitably banish them to a life of toil and misery. Maybe we'd start to see schooling not as preparation for a life of stepping on our fellow citizens, and instead as a process by which we become a people who balance our own self-interest with caring for our fellow citizens.

And then maybe we wouldn't feel the need to make these bell curves at all.

* UPDATE: Hey, I got it to loop!

** UPDATE 2: Sometimes you can look at something a hundred times and you never really see it. Thanks to MFortun in the comments for pointing out my axis titles were backwards!

Friday, May 22, 2015

PARCC Comes Off the Rails

The PARCC cheerleaders' arguments for their beloved test are crumbling to dust:
Washington, DC (May 21, 2015) — The PARCC Governing Board, made up of the state education commissioners and superintendents, voted Wednesday to consolidate the two testing windows into one and to reduce total test time by about 90 minutes beginning in the 2015-16 school year.  The vote came in response to school district and teacher feedback during the first year of testing and a careful review of the test design.
The changes will improve and simplify test administration for schools, teachers and students, without diminishing the goal of the assessment—to ensure every student in every school is being taught what they need to know order to be successful in the next school year and, ultimately, in college or career. 
[Skipping Hanna Skandera's useless propaganda... -- JJ]
This year’s PARCC testing was done in two parts—the performance based testing conducted in early spring and the end-of-year testing conducted in late spring, closer to end of the school year. Five million students in 11 states and the District of Columbia completed the PARCC assessments this year.  
On May 20, 2015 the PARCC governing board voted to:
  • Reduce the testing time for students by about 90 minutes overall (60 minutes in mathematics; 30 minutes in English language arts) and create more uniformity of test unit times.
  • Consolidate the two testing windows in mathematics and English language arts/literacy (which includes reading and writing) into one.
    • ​The single testing window will simplify administration of the test for states and schools that experienced challenges with scheduling two testing windows.
    • The testing window will be up to 30 days and will extend from roughly the 75% mark to the 90% mark of the school year. Most schools will complete testing in one to two weeks during that window.
  • ​Reduce the number of test units by two or three for all students.
Yes, the PARCC is so much better than those awful, old, state-level standardized tests -- so much better that the PARCC Board is changing it after only one year!

It seems like only yesterday -- no wait, it really was only yesterday! -- that the PARCC folks were telling us that "PARCC assessments are designed to provide parents and teachers with a far greater level of informative and useful data to help improve student instruction."

NJDOE's head PARCC cheerleader, Assistant Education Commissioner Bari Erlichson, told us this last year:
Along with the more detailed reports for parents, teachers for the first time will have access to a database showing the specific skill students were tested on in each question and how many of their students answered the question correctly, Erlichson said. [emphasis mine]
Well, that database is going to be a lot smaller now, isn't it? Are there enough questions left to break down each "specific skill"? Or are some of these skills being dropped? Who knows? All that matters, apparently, is that hopefully the "hysterical" moms who dislike the PARCC and what it is doing to their children's schools will stop complaining and Pearson won't lose another contract...

The entire point of a standardized test is that it is standardized. Every time you change it, you not only introduce error when making a comparison from year-to-year; you also tamper with the comparative validity of the test. Can we truly say that a test that is considerably shorter and only given in one window of time is measuring the same things as the earlier, longer version of the PARCC?

I can't believe that anyone would accept the argument that two different versions of this test should be used concurrently for high-stakes accountability measures, like school interventions or teacher evaluations. If any state agency plows ahead with accountability systems based on two versions of PARCC (and maybe the old state test PARCC replaced), they are going to face a lawsuit the first time a teacher is fired based on test results. And that teacher will win.

The PARCC madness of the past couple of years reminds me of the push for charter schools in suburban areas. Here in New Jersey, our DOE pulled back from its plan to bring "choice" to the 'burbs when parents -- who were a large part of Chris Christie's political base -- decided they didn't much care for boutique charters coming into their school districts and draining funds.

But their push still allowed for charter expansion in the cities, no matter the damage that caused. Districts like Newark and Camden are seeing their systems decimated; Hoboken is facing an existential threat. Charter cheerleaders lost the 'burbs, but they've made it impossible to seriously consider a pull-back on the sector as a whole (at least in the short term).

The PARCC has followed a parallel course: overreaching, the original plan was to have three (and possibly four) administrations of the PARCC throughout the year, and even expand testing to other curricular areas. Now the PARCC cheerleaders are pulling back...

Except they've managed to introduce the test into the high schools, a radical change. Even though it was never required by No Child Left Behind, we're now testing kids in math and language arts from Grade 3 to Grade 11. The PARCC people can afford to beat a strategic retreat, because they've managed to introduce themselves into schools where mandatory statewide testing was previously limited to Grade 9 biology and a high school exit exam. If you're playing the long game, pulling back a few minutes of the current tests is an acceptable, temporary loss.

As I've said before, limited testing has its place if used appropriately. But the high school exams have struck me as the worst part of all this testing madness. No one has ever shown that standardized end-of-course testing improves instruction in high school, and states that have it, like Tennessee, trail far behind states like New Jersey that had, until recently, eschewed the practice.

So while it's good to see the tests pulled back to once a year, we still have a way to go to rein in testing overkill. There's no need, for either accountability or instructional purposes, to test every kid in every year in multiple subjects. And it's indefensible to continue using the tests to compel school or teacher interventions (as opposed to informing those actions).

The PARCC pullback lays bare an uncomfortable truth for the reformy: these tests are not objective measures of student learning, let alone measures of teacher or school effectiveness. Standardized tests are political instruments, subject to the varying fancies of popular opinion. Using them for high-stakes purposes denies this now undeniable reality.

No, this is the test that came after we changed the last test that came after we changed the test before that...

ADDING: By the way, teens: during that 30-day window, you'd better not discuss the test! Especially on social media, the primary way you communicate!

Because what's more reasonable than asking a high school student not to talk about what's happening at school...

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Transparency & Accountability? Not For Charter Schools

Regular readers will remember a series of posts I did about LEAP Academy University Charter School in Camden back in 2013. Here's a recap that both recounts the many problems LEAP has had over the years, and gives us an example of the special brand of hubris that characterizes LEAP's founder, Gloria Bonilla-Santiago.

This is a woman whose school, according to the NJEA, "routinely violated state collective bargaining law." LEAP was caught up in an athletic recruiting scandal so egregious the NJSIAA rewrote its rules after finding the school in violation. The school has a history of not meeting Adequate Yearly Progress; even the state acknowledged its elementary and middle school was characterized by "low performance." LEAP failed to file its taxes for three years running, and lost (then regained) its tax-exempt status.

Bonilla-Santiago got quite a bit of attention in 2013, when the Philadelphia Inquirer broke the story that her live-in boyfriend, Michele Pastorello, was also LEAP's "chef," pulling down $95K a year for making such gourmet cuisine as "grilled cheese, tomato soup, and strawberry applesauce." It turns out that keeping Patorello on the payroll while the school switched vendors actually cost LEAP -- and the taxpayers -- a quarter of a million dollars.

That's quite a bit of scandal for just one charter school. But there was one other incident that hasn't been resolved -- until now:

In January of 2013, the Courier-Post published a story about a disgruntled LEAP employee who claimed Bonilla-Santiago made him do work at her home while on the school's time:
An employee of LEAP Academy University Charter School claims in a lawsuit that he was ordered to make repeated repairs to the home of the school’s founder, Gloria Bonilla-Santiago.
Mark Paoli, who was facilities manager at the Camden school for more than a decade, contends Bonilla-Santiago “routinely demanded that he perform work on her home while on LEAP Academy time and using LEAP Academy tools, equipment and supplies.”
The suit contends Paoli was demoted after complaining about his alleged treatment to a LEAP administrator. It also asserts that Paoli, who is white, was replaced by a less-qualified minority, said Alan Richardson, a Woodbury attorney for the LEAP worker.
Among other claims, the lawsuit asserts Bonilla-Santiago in June 2006 allegedly ordered Paoli to repair columns in front of her house, a job that required the hiring of a laborer. Bonilla-Santiago allegedly paid for the labor and supplies “with a check drawn on the Alfred Santiago Scholarship Endowment,” the suit alleges.
According to the suit, Paoli “knew it was unlawful” to make personal repairs while being paid by LEAP. The Audubon man allegedly complained about Bonilla-Santiago’s conduct “on several occasions but was told to keep his complaints to himself or Bonilla-Santiago would fire him,” the suit says. [emphasis mine]
Misusing public funds for private gain is a serious allegation. But no public agency, so far as I've been able to determine, ever followed up with an investigation; this civil lawsuit was the sole legal proceeding on this matter.

I'll bet you've already guessed what happened next: the case never went to trial, and no court ever determined the veracity of Paoli's charges, because the entire thing was settled out of court.

Luckily, New Jersey has a libertarian gadfly named John Paff whose mission is to OPRA (Open Public Records Act) the details of settlements with New Jersey governmental agencies. This week, Paff released the results of his request:
On August 25, 2014, a Camden County charter school agreed to pay $50,000 to its former facilities manager who claimed he was retaliated against for reporting his supervisor's alledged requirement that he make repairs to her personal residence on the school's time and using school resources. 
In his suit, Mark Paoli of Audubon said that Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, Ph.D., the chief operating officer of the LEAP Academy University Charter School, required him to perform maintenance on her Voorhees home over a ten year period while Paoli was supposed to be working for the school. Paoli's complaint listed several tasks, ranging from replacing light bulbs and fixing leaks to powerwashing her deck and picking up a picture frame and delivering it to her home. Paoli's lawsuit claims that a laborer he needed for one task was paid for with a check drawn on the Alfred Santiago Scholarship Endowment. 
Paoli claimed that his complaints to school administrators, including Business Administrator Pasquale Yacovelli, caused him to receive a poor evaluation, a cut in pay and ultimately replacement by a less-qualified person. 
The case is captioned Paoli v. LEAP Academy, Docket No. CAM-L-114-13 and Paoli's attorney was Allan E. Richardson of Woodbyry. Case documents are on-line here. 
The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause, which prevents the parties to the suit from publicly disclosing the settlement terms. Fortunately, however, these confidentiality clauses do not trump the public's right to obtain copies of settlement agreements that arise out of lawsuits in which a government agency or official is a defendant. 
None of Paoli's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $50,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by LEAP or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that LEAP or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Paoli $50,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants' decision to settle was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases settle before trial--it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened. [emphasis mine]
I'm hardly a libertarian, but Paff gets it exactly right here: now that Bonilla-Santiago has settled her case, taxpayers will never get the full story about whether or not she abused her position at LEAP, a taxpayer-funded school.

I will be the first to say that public school districts are too often beds of corruption and malfeasance; look only at the example of whistleblower-teacher Mike Mignone of Belleville if you need proof (and also a good reason why we need tenure for teachers). But imagine if Bonilla-Santiago had tried to get away with this as the superintendent of a public school district. Does anyone think the public would have been content with simply accepting an out-of-court settlement as the final word on this matter?

Yes, there have been superintendents who have had too cozy relationships with their boards. But those boards are subject to oversight from the state and political pressures from constituents. The fact that we know about the malfeasance that occurred in Toms River and Elizabeth and Wall and other places is testament to the fact that those school districts had checks and balances.

Where are those checks and balances for a charter school like LEAP? Who gets to demand that Bonilla-Santiago explain herself to the taxpayers who fund her school? Who gets to say: "No, a settlement is not good enough; we want the truth."

An incident like this underscores a reality that charter cheerleaders prefer to ignore: charter schools are not state actors, and are therefore not held to the same standards of transparency and accountability as public schools.

It's little wonder that Wall Street loves charter schools like LEAP: they simply can't do any wrong. So long as powerful politicians are there to protect them, these charters will continue to grow and thrive, no matter what their leaders may be up to.

And don't expect to know what exactly what that may be.

Can do no wrong, apparently.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Help Send @Edushyster to New Orleans!

Jennifer Berkshire, aka Edushyster, is one of the very best writers on education "reform" we have. She's done some extraordinary work over the years, and now she's ready to take on her biggest project yet:

The propaganda that the reformy types have pushed about the charterization of the New Orleans schools has been nothing less than shameless. Mercedes Schneider has pointed out repeatedly that the claims of superior results in NOLA are ridiculously overblown.

Drowned out in all the celebrating have been the voices of New Orleans families. We don't very often hear from them about how these radical changes in school governance have affected the lives of their children. We don't often see them as they make their way through this brave new world of education "choice." We almost never get to listen to those for whom the deconstruction of public education in NOLA has been less than ideal.

If there's anyone who could tell their story, it's Jennifer Berkshire. Throw a couple bucks her way; the more you do, the better she gets. I can prove it!

If it's on a scatterplot, it MUST be true! Laissez le bon temps rouler, ma chere edu-preneur!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sunday Night Music: B.B. King

B.B. King was one of our greatest artists. A genuine treasure of American music, up there with Copland and Ellington and Monk and Sondheim and Fitzgerald and Guthrie and Sinatra and scant few others.

I was always mesmerized by the left hand, pivoting around the point where the tip of his index finger met the fretboard. Even not understanding anything about the instrument, it was so obvious to me he was in complete control of the melodies he wrenched from Lucille.

Other guitarists were in awe of King. He was never a speed demon; he never needed to be. He never needed to be anything other than himself. That is increasingly rare in this world.

Thanks for the music, B.B.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Teaching At a Charter School Means Taking a Pay Cut

After this past Sunday's big, fat, wet kiss to the Newark charter school industry -- see here, here, here, and here -- you'd think the Star-Ledger, New Jersey's biggest newspaper, would make a little room in their op-ed section for someone to express a contrary view.

You'd be wrong.

On Tuesday, the S-L gave space to a charter school employee to tell us why teachers shouldn't fear charter school expansion:
I've been a teacher for four years. While I wasn't always sure what type of school I'd end up in, I've spent my career at BelovED Community Charter School, an independent, high-performing public charter school in Jersey City. It is in this innovative environment that I've been able to experience the flexibility and autonomy that I've always envisioned for my career. 
Despite serving millions of students and employing thousands of educators across the country, these laboratory-like schools are still misunderstood in many communities. Independent charter schools are unique public schools offered bureaucratic freedom in exchange for real results. Just like traditional public schools, they don't charge tuition, are publicly funded and open to anyone who applies—including students with special needs. 
Free from union contracts, my charter school has the freedom to adjust the school day, choose new and exciting curriculum resources and develop strong models for learning. Teachers like me are treated as equal partners with valuable experience and ideas. Personally, I feel empowered by school leadership to teach in a way that is unique to every student in my classroom. [emphasis mine]
Let me start, as I always do with these cases, by stating that I have no doubt the author of this piece, my colleague Jomayra I. Torres, is a dedicated professional and fine teacher. Her school, BelovED CCS, is actually far better than most Jersey City charter schools in serving children in economic disadvantage:

I applaud Ms. Torres for her dedication, and BelovED for its service to Jersey City's children. But let's get one thing straight:

On average, charter school teachers make considerably less than public school teachers -- and BelovED Community Charter School is no exception.

I've got some work coming out soon on this as it relates to all of New Jersey; for now, however, let's look at how BCSS stacks up against the Jersey City Public Schools in teacher pay. Keep in mind that, like almost every other profession, teachers get paid more as they gain experience. Here's how the two school systems compare in pay for various experience levels:*

A starting teacher at JCPS averages about $20,000 more in pay than a starting teacher at BCCS. A teacher with 15 to 19 years of experience will average almost $35,000 more in salary at JCPS than at BCCS.

Most charter schools have inexperienced staff relative to their hosting districts; this is one of the primary ways charter schools suppress their instructional costs. But even accounting for experience, charter teachers make, on average, quite a bit less than their public school colleagues.

I'm glad Ms. Torres enjoys her "flexibility and autonomy," but let's be clear: she is paying a steep financial price for it. She and her fellow BelovED CCS teachers are way underpaid compared to Jersey City's public district school teachers. Which makes me wonder how she can say this:
My message to stakeholders in New Jersey is simple. Charter schools are nothing to fear. My own son attends my school and is making huge gains. As a public charter school teacher, I'm directly benefitting from choices in education and I'm grateful. I wake up knowing that I am in an environment that challenges me professionally and allows me to work with kids that need me most.
Ms. Torres, I'm glad for your son, and I'm glad for your satisfaction with your workplace. But I can't afford to take a $35,000 pay cut, and I doubt many of my fellow public school teachers can afford it either.

And I can't help but wonder if you and your colleagues wouldn't benefit from being paid professional wages as well.

Because it's all about the kids...

* Update: fixed a dumb typo in the graph, and pointed out this excludes administrators.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Charter School Propaganda: A Case Study, Part II

All this week, I've been debunking the Star-Ledger's big, fat, wet kiss to TEAM Academy Charter School, the Newark branch of the national charter chain KIPP.

First, I showed how the author of this piece, Julie O'Connor, displayed what can only be described as willing ignorance about how "successful" charter schools get the gains that they do. Bruce Baker and I patiently (OK, not always patiently...) explained to O'Connor the realities of charter school demographics, funding and outcomes -- but O'Connor either wouldn't or couldn't understand.

Next, I showed how there are dozens of schools -- both public and charter -- that, by O'Connor's own criteria, should also be considered "jewels." Yet O'Connor and her boss, Tom Moran, have shown no interest in any of them; maybe because those schools don't have full-time communications directors, like TEAM/KIPP does, who can spoon feed newspaper op-ed writers the masticated pablum they crave.

I then explained how the "facts" TEAM/KIPP obviously fed O'Connor are, at best, completely lacking in context and, at worst, just flat-out wrong. Because O'Connor clearly didn't do any of her own research, she simply accepted TEAM/KIPP's spin as gospel truth, never challenging herself to think critically about what she was being told.

I don't want to beat this to death. But I also don't want a couple of other assertions in this piece to go unchallenged:

- One single study does not make or break an argument -- especially if that study is irrelevant. In her piece, O'Connor cites a study by the research group, Mathematica:
Traditionalists also don't like the idea of breaking off from the main public school system. They argue KIPP's success is too good to be true, a product of statistical quirks that can't be replicated with an entire district of students. 

But these critics seemed blinded by ideology, a misplaced loyalty to educational tradition. Mathematica, a respected non-partisan research institute, studied KIPP schools nationally and found they did better than traditional schools, even with similarly disadvantaged kids. 
When readers pushed back in the comments section at nj.com, O'Connor repeatedly cited this study as evidence of TEAM/KIPP's sparkle:
@Joseph Addison Repeating my comment on attrition below, in case you missed it: Here's how KIPP responds to the criticism that it has higher student attrition for black males: http://blog.kippnj.org/attrition. The national Mathematica study, by a nonpartisan institute, matched at the student level to control for demographics and also looked at student attrition. http://educationnext.org/student-attrition-explain-kipps-success/ 
@NJParents1 You're right that all charters aren't better than district schools - some are worse. It really depends on the charter. Here's how KIPP responds to the criticism that it has higher student attrition for black males: http://blog.kippnj.org/attrition. The national Mathematica study, by a nonpartisan institute, matched at the student level to control for demographics and also looked at student attrition. http://educationnext.org/student-attrition-explain-kipps-success/

@JuliaSassRubin I understand your position, Julia. But the two schools most requested by parents in Newark under universal enrollment were North Star and KIPP. When 10,000 parents line up on a charter school waiting list, it speaks volumes about their preferences. I don’t think anyone could argue that KIPP is an unwelcome interloper being imposed upon this community.
I think Professor Baker raises good questions in his research, but his model used school level data. The Mathematica study, by a nonpartisan institute, matched at the student level to control for demographics, and also looked at student attrition. http://educationnext.org/student-attrition-explain-kipps-success/Although it was a national study, I didn’t think Baker made the case for why his extrapolations are a better measurement. And KIPP sends 95 percent of its students to college. That in itself is impressive.
Now, I have some problems with the Mathematica study; or, more precisely, I have problems with how it has been interpreted. I'll leave it to Bruce Baker to spell out his concerns (I have some others that I will try to get to later). But there's an important bit of information O'Connor is withholding from her readers about this study:

The study group for the Mathematica reports on KIPP charter schools does not include TEAM Academy -- the very school O'Connor is hyping. 

This was confirmed on Twitter by TEAM/KIPP's own data analyst. Go to page xvi of Mathematica's 2013 report on KIPP and you'll see that New Jersey is excluded from their study. TEAM/KIPP's analyst confirms this is the same study group used in the report O'Connor cites. 

Why does this matter? The Mathematica report compared students at KIPP schools around the country to students in "feeder" district schools. But New Jersey is one of the top-performing state systems in the nation: what if the gap between Newark Public School's (NPS) students and TEAM's isn't as great as in other parts of the country because New Jersey's public school students perform relatively better?*

At the very least, O'Connor should have told her readers TEAM/KIPP was not part of the study she cites repeatedly. This, of course, assumes that she even knew.

- Anecdotes do not supersede data -- and the data says that TEAM/KIPP does not "do more with less."

O'Connor tells a story about air conditioners to "prove" that TEAM/KIPP knows how to spend a buck much better than NPS or the Camden City Public Schools (CCPS). She says the charter school is free from the "wasteful central bureaucracies of district schools," but she never bothers to look at universal, publicly reported data to back up her claim.

There is only one source of state-level data for comparing district and charter school spending: the Taxpayers' Guide to Education Spending, a product of the NJDOE. I have data from the 2014 guide (the 2015 guide was recently released, but I haven't had time yet to prepare it for analysis), and I use it here to show how TEAM/KIPP, NPS, and CCPS compare in per pupil spending.

On the advice of the NJDOE itself, let's look at the differences in Budgetary Costs Per Pupil. As the state says:
The Budgetary Per Pupil Cost (BPP Cost) section contains the Budgetary Per Pupil Cost and its subcomponents as they are reported for districts’ User Friendly Budgets (required by N.J.S.A.18A:22-8.a). While these costs do not provide an exhaustive picture of the cost for educating all students, they do allow school administrators and citizens to compare specific measures of school district spending. Generally, the BPP measures the annual costs incurred for students educated within district schools, using local taxes and state aid. These costs are considered to be more comparable among districts, and may be useful for budget considerations. Examples of costs that are not included in the BPP are: expenditures funded by restricted grants, Teachers’ Pension and Annuity Fund (TPAF), tuition payments to other districts and private schools, debt service expenditures, and principal and interest payments for the lease purchase of land and buildings. Consistent with the exclusion of tuition expenditures, the measure excludes the enrollment for students sent out of district (Indicators 1 through 13, and 15). It should also be noted that budgetary costs for non-operating districts, Educational Services Commissions, Regional Day Schools, and Jointures are not included in this document. [emphasis mine]
This is an important point that must be understood if we're going to compare TEAM/KIPP to district school systems. NPS and CCPS have expenses they have to cover that TEAM/KIPP does not. For example, the schools have to transport all students in their borders, including the charter students. TEAM/KIPP relies on NPS and CCPS to pay those transportation costs for their students; it makes no sense, then to simply compare the overall budgets of district schools and charter schools.

In addition:

NPS educates far more children with a special education need proportionately than TEAM/KIPP. It costs more to educate these students, and NPS has more of them. Did O'Connor ever think about this?

All that said, let's see how TEAM/KIPP, NPS, and CCPS stack up in their spending:

Click to enlarge. Let's start with the leftmost columns: yes, KIPP/TEAM does spend less overall per pupil than either NPS or CCPS. But how does this break down?

The next set of columns shows instructional spending: the amount of money that goes into the classroom, largely to the salaries of staff. Again, NPS and CCPS clearly spend more per pupil than TEAM/KIPP. The next set of bars shows that the charter spends less on those teacher salaries. Of course, their staffs are less experienced, so that makes sense...

But the next set of bars tells the real story. Here's how NJDOE describes "Student Support Services":
This indicator includes expenditures considered student support services under the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) definition - services supplemental to the teaching process that are designed to assess and improve students’ well-being. It also includes expenditures for activities associated with assisting the instructional staff with the content and process of providing learning experiences. Attendance, social work, health and guidance services, educational media/school library services and child study team services are student support services under the NCES definition. This area also includes the costs associated with physical and mental health services that are not direct instruction, but are nevertheless provided to students, such as supervision of health services, health appraisal (including screening for vision, communicable diseases, and hearing deficiencies), screening for psychiatric services, periodic health examinations, emergency injury and illness care, dental services, nursing services and communications with parents and medical officials. The expenditures of the guidance office includes counseling, record maintenance, and placement services. The costs for the child study team include salaries and benefits for members related to the development and evaluation of student individualized education programs (IEPs). Services provided as a result of IEPs are considered instructional costs and are included in the appropriate classroom instruction indicators. The school library services include books repairs, audiovisual services, educational television services, and computer assisted instruction services. The actual provision of computer assisted instruction is considered classroom instruction. [emphasis mine]
So this category is much of the spending needed for children with special education needs: guidance counselors, child study teams, health services, and so on. Not that these aren't important for general education students as well; however, it's reasonable to expect a district with more special needs children will spend more on these services.

Camden's and Newark's district schools far outspend TEAM/KIPP on student support services.  It's possible that TEAM/KIPP reports these expenditures under different lines, and that's fine... except they spend less on instruction as well. If they're spending on support services, where are they reporting it?

One more thing: O'Connor told her readers TEAM/KIPP doesn't have a "wasteful central bureaucracy" like CCPS and NPS. But the fifth and sixth sets of columns above show the opposite: TEAM/KIPP spends far more on administration than Camden's and Newark's district schools, and much of that additional spending is on administrator salaries. 

Notice, also, that TEAM/KIPP spends far more on its physical plant than NPS or CCPS -- but not on plant salaries.

So who, exactly, is being "wasteful" here?

It's time to move on to other topics, but I think I've made my point: when it comes to education policy, the Star-Ledger's editorial board -- like much of our punditocracy -- is in the tank. It's quite clear to me that O'Connor didn't do her own research, relying instead on pre-chewed talking points from an interested party that was happy to use her to pump itself up.

May I make a confession? I find this work to be both exasperating and exhausting. Is it really too much to ask the op-ed page of the state's largest newspaper to be a little less credulous and a little more demanding? Is it too much to ask they check things out for themselves, rather than simply dictating whatever they're being fed by whomever happens currently to be in favor? Doesn't the Star-Ledger's editorial staff have any pride in their work anymore?

I know regular readers will think I'm being sarcastic here, but I'm really not -- I still hold out hope for O'Connor and Moran. I hope that they are so chastened by this episode that, even if they hold on to their reformy opinions, at least they won't ever again blindly accept whatever fluff is found in the latest press release from the big national charter chains. I hope they care half as much about the credibility of their profession as the hard-working, dedicated public school teachers of New Jersey care about theirs -- if they do, they'll never be such pawns of the charter industry again.

And I hope they learn that it's always better to chew your own data.

* This is one of the methodological flaws in the Mathematica report, by the way: they should have broken down the differences by state, rather than mashing them all together. There is reporting on the variation across the study sample, but nothing to indicate as to whether the variation may have something to do with differences within the entire comparison group.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Charter School Propaganda: A Case Study

I really don't want to keep debunking this past Sunday's big, fat, wet kiss from the Star-Ledger's Julie O'Connor to the TEAM/KIPP charter school in Newark -- see here and here. But O'Connor has given us such a perfect example of reformy propaganda that it really does merit further deconstruction.

O'Connor's love letter to TEAM/KIPP is based on a collection of received truths: 
  • Urban public schools suck (and suburban schools aren't that great, either).
  • We've spent too much already on district schools.
  • Charter schools are awesome because they "prove" that poverty can be overcome in our schools; they are also "doing more with less."
To make her case, O'Connor gives us several talking points, clearly pre-digested by TEAM/KIPP for her easy consumption. Among them:
"One KIPP elementary school even outscored Montclair kids in 2013, a much higher income group."
"In a city where almost half the students don't graduate, nearly all its kids finish, and a remarkable 95 percent of them go on to college."
"At last count, nearly 10,000 families were on a waiting list to get their children in."
There are others, and I'll get to them in due course. But let's take these three for right now. Are these points of data factually correct? Yes, absolutely.

But are they true? That's an entirely different question.

The master propagandist never puts a piece of data before the public that isn't factually correct. Why would she? Facts are not malleable in and of themselves, but their application certainly is. And what O'Connor has managed to do here is tell a story that is certainly "factual," but leaves out so much critical information that it can hardly be called "true."

Let's take these "facts" one at a time:

- Did TEAM/KIPP's grade 3 students outscore Montclair's in 2013, and does that tell us something? In O'Connor's construction, it would tell us that TEAM/KIPP has "proved" that charter schools can, indeed, close the testing gap, because Montclair's students come from more affluent homes.

Let's go to the data:

There is no doubt that O'Connor is right: in 2013, TEAM/KIPP's students beat Montclair's district Grade 3 English Language Arts (ELA) average score. OK, it's only 0.2 points, and TEAM/KIPP's Grade 5 students were well behind Montclair's Grade 5 students, and it's only in ELA, not math:

TEAM/KIPP wasn't keeping up with most of Montclair in math on 2013. Still, O'Connor is factually correct. But it's curious that she chose 2013 as her year for comparison; what happened in 2014?

Uh-oh: those Grade 3 students at TEAM/KIPP are now well behind Montclair's students in Grade 4. And the new crop of Grade 3 students is behind Montclair as well.

Let me stop and say what I always say (and what I sincerely mean) at this point in these discussions: this data does not prove TEAM/KIPP is a "bad" school any more than it proves Montclair's schools are "good." Test scores are not particularly good measures of school quality to begin with, even if I do endorse using them to inform decisions as to whether or not schools need interventions.

No, my point is this: Julie O'Connor's comparison between Montclair and TEAM/KIPP is idiotic on its face. These school systems have completely different populations of students: for example, TEAM/KIPP's rate of students classified with a special education need is 12.32% (2013 data), compared to Montclair's classification rate of 17.20%. Given the difference in student socio-economic status and special education needs, why would anyone try to make a comparison between these two school systems?

The answer, I'm afraid, is all too simple: O'Connor had her story, and she was only going to allow those facts into her brain that affirmed her beliefs. All other relevant data is to be ignored, and all context not reinforcing her predetermined beliefs be damned.

- Do 95 percent of TEAM/KIPP's students go on to college, and does that tell us something? Once again, let's look at the data:

Hey, you don't have to take my word for this: look it up yourself. TEAM/KIPP's rate of Postsecondary Enrollment according to official sources is 82%. That is lower than three other high schools in Newark*, and not much better than several others.

So where did O'Connor get this "95 percent" rate from? Scroll to the bottom of her piece and you'll find this [emphasis mine]:
More about KIPP kids: 
- 95 percent of seniors went to college last year


Sources: KIPP New Jersey, NWEA MAP assessment
Two takeaways here: first, just like O'Connor cherry-picked her comparison in one grade and one test to one district when she came up her Montclair spiel, she now picks one class of TEAM/KIPP's seniors to make her point about the school's jewel-like shine.

Worse: O'Connor ignores standard, universally reported, public data and instead relies on TEAM/KIPP itself to give her the data points she needs to make her case. 

I'm not a professional journalist, and I've never pretended not to have a point of view. But this crosses a line even I know shouldn't be crossed. Relying on data that only comes from a self-interested party -- especially when data that is at least somewhat more objective is available -- is either unacceptably naive or unacceptably biased. Possibly both.

- Are there really 10,000 families on a waiting list waiting to get into TEAM/KIPP, and does that tell us something? It's hard to tell if O'Connor means 10,000 students are waiting to get into TEAM/KIPP, or all Newark charter schools. But it really doesn't matter...

The mythical New Jersey charter school "waiting list" is one of the great inventions of this state's charter advocacy industry. As I have explained previously, the only data we have that comes close to describing any wait list is from back in 2011. That data was all self-reported, and there is no indication that NJDOE did anything to check how many of the names on a particular charter school's wait list were duplicated on another.

Further, now that the One Newark universal enrollment system is in place, any talk of wait lists is superfluous. We should be talking about the results of that application system; unfortunately, media outlets like O'Connor's Star-Ledger don't seem interested in pursuing this story.

Luckily, NJ Spotlight, for whom I write, is interested. They published the results of the last One Newark application round, and I wrote a brief examining the data. Here's one of several things I found:

TEAM/KIPP is indeed popular. But it also enrolls a relatively low proportion of free-lunch eligible students compared to the rest of Newark. Julie O'Connor, however, doesn't much seem to care about this particular data point.

Once again: TEAM/KIPP gets solid results given its student population (and its advantage in funding -- more in a bit). It is a fine school; I'll even concede they may engage in practices that are worth considering. 

But the outsized attention Julie O'Connor, her boss Tom Moran, and the Star-Ledger have showered on TEAM/KIPP is completely unwarranted. There are many other "jewels" in the New Jersey public school system -- jewels that don't have a relentless public relations machine behind them.

O'Connor and Moran should be asking better of themselves. If they are determined to regurgitate the "data" they are being fed by charter chains like KIPP, the very least they should do is verify those claims and put them into their proper context.

In other words: let's take a little bit of pride in our work, shall we?

We left our pride around here somewhere...

* Of course, it's easy for North Star to claim such a high post-secondary rate when they lose so many kids between Grade 5 and Grade 12 in the first place.