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

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Fact-Checking Cami Anderson's Legacy

Look, I understand the news media has a tough job -- especially the local beat reporters, who have to know a little about everything in a city or a region. There are many excellent journalists out there who really try to get to the bottom of things; I admire and respect their work.


When someone as controversial as Cami Anderson, the high-profile state superintendent of Newark's schools, resigns from her position, it's certain she is going to spin her record in the most favorable light possible.

It is, therefore, incumbent on reporters to double-check her claims of success. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to have happened; Anderson and her supporters have made several statements that simply don't hold up when examined.

* * * * *

- "Ms. Anderson said she was proud of her accomplishments: stabilizing the number of students in public schools; improving the graduation rate by 14 percentage points, to 70 percent, even as she retained more high school students..." - Kate Zernike, New York Times.

Here are the official adjusted cohort graduation rates for the Newark Public Schools, according to the NJDOE, from 2011 to 2014:

New Jersey changed how it reports its graduation rates starting with the 2011 cohort. Anderson was appointed in June of 2011; if you want to think that 7.5 bump in percentage points was due to her policies after barely one year on the job, and not due to some reporting issue, then be my guest. In any case, the graduation rate has remained flat since then -- and it never went up 14 percentage points while Anderson was on the job.

Maybe Anderson has some other way of calculating grad rates. Maybe she has data from this year not released yet by the state. OK... then explain it to us. Because the official numbers don't line up with her story -- and the reporters who reprinted her words could have discovered that for themselves with less than 5 minutes of searching.

* * * * *

"She resisted the push by Mr. Booker, a Democrat who is now the state’s junior senator, and Mr. Christie, a Republican, to expand charter schools, fearing aloud that they drained motivated families and money from traditional schools." - Kate Zernike, New York Times.

This claim is simply ridiculous. Here are Anderson's own words, only from this past January:
Every high-performing school has a transformational school leader who is empowered to hire excellent teachers. They have 21st-century facilities, engaged families, and best-in- class tools and curricula. 
Many of these high-performing schools are charters. And, in many regards, they are playing with a much more favorable hand than traditional public schools. They don’t have to choose between balancing their budget and “force placing” teachers because of seniority rules that are not driven by quality. They can retain teachers who are excellent and exit those who are not growing. They can use tax credits and bonds to efficiently renovate buildings and buy air conditioners. They can drive money into the classroom without the attacks that come when a district attempts the same objectives. 
We can deny that charters have these advantages, or we can try to slow their growth, but that denies families’ access to high-quality schools now. The fact remains that many charters in Newark are outperforming traditional public schools. Instead of fighting against a charter system that is working for our kids, we must create a public policy agenda that gives traditional public schools the same pro-student advantages. [emphasis mine]
Yeah, that's some "resistance," huh?

The truth, as I have shown in my policy work, is that the school ratings created for Anderson's One Newark plan were wildly biased in favor of the charters. Anderson painted a false picture of charter school "success"; Bruce Baker's recent work makes this fact plain.

It's clear, however, that Anderson never thought deeply about what charter school expansion would actually mean for her district. After three years at the helm of NPS, it turned out that the schools under her control were underperforming. As I testified before the NJ Legislature's Joint Committee on the Public Schools, the evidence, including work done by Len Pugliese, showed that Anderson's "renew schools" were actually falling behind on test-based outcomes. Pugliese also showed that NPS schools were showing outrageously inflated attendance rates on state reports.

What was Anderson's excuse? That the charters were skimming the cream:
“We’re losing the higher-performing students to charters, and the needs [in district schools] have gotten larger,” Anderson said. 
At another point, Anderson specifically cited some of the district’s highest performing charter schools as clearly serving a different set of students than in some of her toughest schools, “where there are 35 percent if students with special needs.” 
“I’m not saying they are out there intentionally skimming, but all of these things are leading to a higher concentration of the neediest kids in fewer [district] schools,” she said. [emphasis mine]
Yes, Anderson had misgivings about charters -- but only when she needed an excuse for her own failings. The plain fact is that she never "resisted" charter expansion. Like Dr. Frankenstein, she only regretted her actions after she had brought the monster to life.

* * * * *

- "Still, under Anderson the district has seen positive change. An innovative teachers' contract denies standard pay increases to low-performing teachers and grants bonuses to the best." - Reformy Tom Moran, Star-Ledger.

Now, unlike Reformy Tom, I actually talk -- and, more importantly, listen -- to the leaders of the Newark Teachers Union. And what they've said time and again to anyone who will listen is that Anderson has violated the terms of that contract:
Del Grosso contends that Anderson is not following the provisions of the controversial contract he negotiated with her back in 2012. "She is in absolute violation of the contract. There is supposed to be a peer oversight committee, but she refuses to put it in place." Has she outright refused, or has she just not followed through? "She'll say, 'We'll do it soon,' but she never follows through."

According to Del Grosso, Anderson hasn't spoken to him in "seven or eight months." She refuses to attend meetings with John Abignon, the NTU's director of organizing. Del Grosso says that he is scheduled to meet with her and Education Commissioner David Hespe next week; at that meeting, he will broach the subject of the district's legal bills.

"The district needs a full-fledged audit. They spend five or six times what has been budgeted for legal fees. There is a $50 million to $100 million deficit."
You really can't call a contract "innovative" if the parties involved aren't following its provisions. Further, there's no evidence the "best" teachers are getting bonuses. As I showed in my analysis of year one of the agreement, there was a higher percentage of teachers outside of the merit pay pool than within it.

It amazes me that neither NPS nor NJDOE has done a serious analysis of the outcomes of the contract. Considering how so many were lauding how awesome this merit pay scheme was, you'd think they would be the first to show how it boosted student achievement. Any evaluation, however, would likely show that the $20 million promised to Newark's teachers never actually made it into their hands

It would be nice if a reporter bothered to ask about any of this.

* * * * *

- "Under One Newark, the city's charter schools are forced to accept their fair share of at-risk kids, unlike in most cities where no such safeguards exist." - Reformy Tom Moran, Star-Ledger.

We don't have enrollment figures for special education in charter schools following the first year of One Newark. We do, however, have enrollment for free lunch-elegible and Limited English Proficient (LEP) students. What do they show us? (Charter schools are red bars.)

11 charters are below the median in free lunch-eligible percentage; 7 are above. But take away the early childhood centers and the specialized high schools, and the picture becomes even more clear: the regular admission K-12 schools serving the smallest percentage of economically disadvantaged children in Newark are almost all charter schools.

According to data released by NPS, North Star Academy was the most popular school under the One Newark application system. Yet of all schools that serve children under Grade 8, North Star serves one of the lowest percentages of free lunch-eligible students. How, then, can Moran make the claim that One Newark is forcing the charters to accept "their fair share of at-risk kids"? 

As for Limited English Proficient students:

Newark's charter schools are not educating any substantial number of LEP students. Period. 

Again, we'll see what the special education numbers turn out to be. But given the charters' track records, it's certain that the children with the most profound learning difficulties will not be educated in the charter schools. Moran simply has no evidence to back up his claim that One Newark has forced charters to take more at-risk students.

* * * * *

- "On Monday, Ms. Anderson said she was proud of her accomplishments, including negotiating a teacher contract with merit pay and improving student discipline to cut suspension rates." - Leslie Brody, Wall St. Journal.

I'll admit that this is a tough one to verify, because data is reported at the school level, and judging the entire district would require aggregating the data using weighted enrollments (don't ask). So I don't fault Brody or anyone else for not verifying this claim. I'll only point out this:

From my latest analysis of One Newark and its affect on the segregation of Newark's schools. The most "popular" charter schools under One Newark have high suspension rates and high percentages of black students; the most popular NPS schools have low suspension rates and low percentages of black students.

Does anyone else have a problem with this?

* * * * *

Again: we would certainly expect Cami Anderson to spin her claims of "success" on her way out the door. But that doesn't mean the press has to swallow them whole.

Too often, education writers credulously accept the claims of those in the "reform" industry who have the best PR staffs. But parroting propaganda is not very useful for creating good education policy. Anderson shouldn't be allowed to make her claims in the press without at least some basic fact-checking on the part of those who interview her.

Otherwise, it's not actual journalism, is it?

Reformy Tom Moran, doing what he does best.

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