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

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Special Education, Charter Schools, & Funding Disparities

I'll be the first to admit that I can be rough on charter school leaders when they take to the press. But this piece in today's NJ Spotlight by Misha Simmonds, executive director of University Heights Charter School in Newark, deserves a thoughtful response:
This year, for the first time in eight years, I cried because of my work. As many times before, I was called in to restrain a student whose physical tantrum, prompted by a family issue, threatened his own safety and the safety of others. 
His lone teacher was overwhelmed, with no co-teacher to support, because it was deemed too expensive. We no longer had the mental-health staff on site to support him in crisis, because it was not financially sustainable. The parent coordinator who could have intervened had to be laid off. 
He was only 5 years old. In his rage, he seemed as strong as a 20-year-old. 
With all my might I hugged him in a safety hold so he would stop punching the wall, hitting his head on the floor, and throwing furniture. After some time he calmed and a crisis team arrived. I released him and returned to my office and sobbed. 
As executive director at University Heights Charter School (UHCS) in Newark for the past eight years, I have seen firsthand the tough decisions that need to be made to fund our public schools in this fiscal climate. I am grateful that our per-pupil funding level has held steady this year, but like many other schools across the state we are still facing challenges to serve the students with the greatest needs. [emphasis min]
First of all, Simmonds doesn't say outright that this child was classified with a special education need. But the remainder of Simmonds' piece does frame the issue of charter school funding in those terms:
As a result of these circumstances, our young scholars have tremendous emotional, academic, and social needs that challenge our mission to develop in each of them the character, scholarship, and leadership necessary for success in college, community, and life.  
Anticipating this, we initially envisioned a classroom model that would put two full-time certified teachers in each classroom to enable more personalized instruction. As enrollment grew over time, we planned to provide a comprehensive education including deep learning in the arts and Spanish.  
We sought partnerships with mental health providers to provide onsite psychiatric and counseling services so that students could overcome trauma and be ready to learn. We hired a full-time parent and community coordinator to partner with families to support their children in achieving excellence. 
When I started in the 2008-2009 school year, this all seemed possible. Our government funding at the time from both federal and state sources amounted to $17,588 per pupil. Based on recently released state school aid figures, we expect to receive $16,015 per pupil for next school year. This difference in real per-pupil aid leaves us $1.3 million short of anticipated funding if government aid had kept up with inflation. 
I don't doubt Simmonds' sincerity here for second -- but this argument most certainly needs some scrutiny.

First of all, as I have reported multiple times, charter schools have been "held harmless" in their funding over the past couple of years, thanks to the Christie administration's policies. This has hit Newark Public Schools particularly hard, as they've had to transfer more and more money over to charters even as their own aid per pupil shrinks.

Second, while University Heights CS does have a large population of students in economic disadvantage, they are by no means enrolling the highest percentage of free lunch-eligible students in the city.

UHCS is right at the media for FL percentage; good for them. They're clearly serving more students in disadvantage than "successful" charters like Robert Treat or North Star. But what about all those public schools that are serving even more FL students than UHCS? Don't they need resources too? Don't they need support? If so, why have they not been "held harmless" in their funding like the Newark charter sector's schools?

This year, Christie has promised to help make up the "held harmless" penalty for NPS by giving more state aid to the district. The catch is that aid must pass through to the charters; NPS can't touch it. How can anyone say this is fair -- especially when so many charters (not all, but many) aren't pulling their weight in educating children in economic disadvantage?

In addition:

Here are the classification rates -- the percentages of children who have been identified with a special education need -- at NPS and all of the charters in Newark. In New Jersey, charters are essentially their own districts, so the comparison here is warranted. No charter school in Newark serves as large a proportion of special education students as the Newark Public Schools.

NPS's classification rate is 17.1 percent; UHCS's is 8.5 percent. I can certainly sympathize with Simmonds' plight here, but isn't the problem even greater at NPS?

Now, there is a caveat here: charters do get money from their host district based on the number of children enrolled with a special education need. A charter that enrolls a smaller proportion of special education students gets less per pupil than a charter that enrolls a greater proportion.

But the issue is actually even more complex than that, because not all children have the same special education need -- and the costs can vary significantly. According to the state's own consultants, Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD) and Speech/Language Impairments (SPL) are "low" cost disabilities compared to more expensive ones such as autism, emotional disturbance, traumatic brain injury, visual impairments, and so on.

We know that charters enroll fewer special education students overall; but what sort of disabilities do special education charter students have?

What I'm showing here are the breakdowns by disability for NPS and the Newark charters of the entire population of special needs students; that's why all charter and NPS percentages add up to 100. NPS's special education population has proportionally more students with "high cost" disabilities than the charter schools.

If you look at a charter's aid notice, you'll see that special education students are sorted out by speech or non-speech; that's it. Given NPS's high classification rate of "high cost" disabilities, there's plenty of reason to believe the Newark school district is taking a major fiscal hit because it educates a greater proportion of students with the most profound special education needs compared to the charters.

And yes, there is extraordinary special education aid available from the state (scroll down), but it doesn't come anywhere close to covering the local share of costs for high-needs students.

Let me put this all together in one graph:

And so here it is:

1) NPS educates a greater proportion of special needs students than the Newark charter sector.

2) NPS educates a greater proportion of "high cost" special needs students than the Newark charter sector.

And yet, because of the "held harmless" provisions, and because of the way special education aid is distributed to the charters, NPS is bearing an even greater fiscal burden.

I don't doubt Misha Simmonds' sincerity. I don't hold it against him that he's advocating for his own students. But I think Newark's beautiful and deserving special education students -- the neediest of the needy -- aren't well served by a system that creates these inequities. And that's why I question this final paragraph:
As we are faced with this reality of limited resources, it is imperative that all schools -- traditional, charter, magnet, and private alike -- work together to come up with innovative ways to serve our most at-risk students and continue to share best practices throughout the state. Collaboration, not combativeness, is what will help ensure all children have the resources they need to thrive.
I'm sorry, but that is very, very difficult to swallow. "Best practices" should include putting resources where they are needed -- it's very hard to make the case that this is what's happening right now in Newark. Simmonds is absolutely right when he says that children in economic disadvantage and who have special education needs deserve more money so they can get more services.

But if resources are really that scarce, how does it make any sense to create a system of redundant school governance in the name of "choice"? Wouldn't a better "best practice" be to start consolidating a system that currently replicates administration at the cost of getting more resources to the children who need it the most?

If we're going to "work together," let's start by asking this basic question.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Friday, March 25, 2016

Our Idiotic Conversation About School Vouchers

Let's start with the obvious: St. Benedict's in Newark is a great private school:

This 60 Minutes report gained a lot of traction this past week. That's hardly surprising: St. Benedict's is a fine school, serving many boys in economic disadvantage well.

Unfortunately, because our current conversation about America's school system is completely idiotic, tripe like this gets published in Forbes:
“60 Minutes” did a great job Sunday night of telling the story of St. Benedict’s Prep, a boys’ Catholic high school in the heart of Newark, N.J., that year after year teaches students the skills to steer around crime and poverty and head to graduation and college. Misty eyed, I couldn’t help but wonder: Aren’t schools like this the way to fracture the “school-to-prison pipeline” that the Democrats love to invoke? Shouldn’t boys from low-income homes and lousy high schools get a voucher to attend a St. Benedict’s if that’s what they want and need? [emphasis mine]
Dear lord. It's the zombie idea that refuses to die: school vouchers. The premise, of course, is that a school like St. Benedict's can easily be scaled up, so more students can be saved from our horrible, failing, union-corrupted public schools:
Speaking of “quality standards,” in Newark’s 2012-13 faculty evaluations, 20% of the teachers were ranked as ineffective or partially effective. And that didn’t include the ones on the payroll who didn’t have a placement in a classroom. In 2013-14, according to a district report issued under former Superintendent Cami Anderson, 215 teachers and 17 principals and vice principals were in the Educators Without Placement Sites Pool, otherwise known as the “rubber room.” 
Newark reported that 601 students dropped out of its public high schools in 2013-14. The graduation rate was 68.63%. And a 2012 analysis of ACT scores revealed that 19% of testers were on track to be college ready in English, 17% in math, 12% in reading and 4% in science. 
At St. Benedict’s, 98% of students graduate and 87% go on to earn a four-year college degree within six years. 
Yes, Maureen Sullivan, who wrote this dreck, actually went there: comparing the graduation rates of St. Benedict's, a competitive admissions school, with the entire Newark Public School system. Had Sullivan taken about 30 seconds out of her day, she could have Googled St. Benedict's admissions office:
The admission committee looks for those candidates who daily demonstrate focused hard work in the classroom but also (just as importantly) in the studio,  on the playing field, the court or the stage, or the printed page. The students who are most successful here are active in school or community activities and have some strong academic, cultural, or personal quality with the demonstrated perseverance and courage to develop themselves in a demanding environment. The Admissions Committee gives preference to brothers and sons of active alumni, to brothers of current students, and to those who live in Newark and the immediately adjacent towns, although students come from more than thirty different towns. There is space for fewer than half of the students who apply for membership in St. Benedict's Prep

LOWER DIVISION We admit 40 new students in the seventh grade each year. We receive about 60 applications for these spaces. Since nearly all seventh grade students are promoted, we rarely accept applications for new eighth grade students. Please contact the Admissions Office for availability.

FRESHMAN YEAR: We admit 100 new students into the ninth grade each year in addition to the 40 members of our eighth grade promoted from the Lower Division. In recent years, we have received about 180 applications for the 100 places.

UPPER DIVISION: Each year there are about 10 candidates admitted into each level (tenth and eleventh grade) of the Upper Division. It is most rare for anyone to be admitted into Senior Year. [emphasis mine]
This alone is enough to disqualify the rest of Sullivan's nonsense. I'll also note that conflating "partially effective" and "ineffective" masks the fact that it's only 4 percent of Newark's teachers that were found "ineffective."

But Sullivan's piece gets even worse:
The goal, he [President Obama] says, should be a new “focus on disrupting the pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails.
Underfunded? Financially strappedIn 2010, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million to Newark’s public schools. Newark spends about $17,000 per pupil on its 35,000 students. That’s an average of all grades so the spending on high schools is higher. The district notes, by the way, that 70% of its facilities are in “poor or very poor condition.”  
Tuition at St. Benedict’s is $12,500 plus fees. More than 80% of the 548 students in grades 7-12 receive some financial aid.
Did Sullivan actually watch the 60 Minutes piece? Because St. Benedict's headmaster states explicitly that the school relies heavily on corporate, private, and alumni donations. Comparing tuition at a private school to spending at a public school is inexcusably ignorant.

According to NCES, St. Benedict's enrolls 550 students. St. Benedict's reports its operating expenses at $9,266,000. That's a per pupil figure of $17,495 -- more than the figure Sullivan uses for NPS! In addition: the last time vouchers were being considered seriously in New Jersey, the per pupil amount given was about $9,000 for high school students. Where does Sullivan propose we get the extra $8,500 per pupil needed to send more kids to St. Benedict's?

Again: it took me less than a minute to Google these figures. But even they don't make a valid comparison. How much does St. Benedict's save in expenses by having faculty and staff who are in religious orders and therefore don't earn even modest salaries? How about their capital expenses? In-kind donations?

In addition: what expenses does NPS incur from educating students who would never be granted admission to St. Benedict's? Like students who have moderate to profound special education needs? Or who are early-stage English language learners? Or whose religion precludes them from even considering attendance at a Catholic school?

According to the report, St. Benedict's loses about a dozen students a year, and that's after the competitive admissions process. Are they prepared to expand and open their doors to more students like those who left?

The idea that private school vouchers can expand opportunities for students currently enrolled in urban public schools is transparently foolish. And yet, time and again, reformy types keep bringing it up, making comparisons to elite private schools that are utterly laughable -- especially when voucher funds will actually be going to schools that are nothing like St. Benedict's.

But as long as publications like Forbes shamelessly print this garbage, school vouchers are a zombie idea that refuses to die.

Vouchers... vouchers...

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Sunday Night Music: Animusic

How these guys didn't make a killing getting bought out by Pixar, I have no idea:

These guys are wicked smart - they even wrote their own software to make these. Buy their DVDs -- they deserve support.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Myth of the Heroic Charter School - Part V (Final)

Here's Part I of this series.

Here's Part II.

Here's Part III.

Here's Part IV.

And finally, Part V.

I've been taking a deep data dive, looking at this claim by Stephen Chiger, the "Director of Literacy" for Uncommon Schools, one of the best-known charter school operators in the country:
Take the most recent PARCC exams in New Jersey. About 41% of the state’s 11th graders met or exceeded expectations on the test. 
In Essex County, high-income Millburn High School (2.2% economically disadvantaged) saw 57% of students scoring proficient or advanced on the assessment. The juniors at Livingston High School (1.5 % economically disadvantaged) earned 56.5%. 
A few miles away, the juniors at Newark-based North Star Academy (83.7% economically disadvantaged) earned an 80.6% pass rate. 
The school achieved it through more systems and strategies than I could possibly recount here. The good news is that I don’t have to. 
Uncommon Schools, which manages North Star, publishes books — and books and books – to share its practices. It regularly films teachers to “show” and not just “tell.” It opens its doors to hundreds of visitors every year. It runs professional development for external audiences and sells trainings so they can turn-key them locally. 
And, there’s good evidence it’s working.[emphasis mine]
As I've shown, this claim is factually correct, but it masks a larger truth. The pass rate on the PARCC was no doubt affected by the high opt-out rates in suburban schools. Those students almost certainly knew the PARCC didn't mean diddly to their futures, so they blew it off.

We can confirm this by looking at the pass rates of high school tests that actually matter:

As I've further shown, the education a teen in an affluent suburban school gets is completely different from the education offered by "no excuses" schools such as Uncommon's North Star. AP course offerings are far more extensive. Teachers are much more likely to be college-trained and much less likely to be inexperienced. More staff in the arts, foreign languages, and counseling are available, all very useful for students striving to get into elite colleges. Suspension rates are much lower in the suburbs:

Remember: Uncommon is the former charter management organization (CMO) of our new Secretary of Education, John King. Even though the USDOE frowns upon suspension as a practice, Uncommon's schools in three different states have high suspension rates. Is this one of the "systems and strategies" Chiger credits for Uncommon's success?

Chiger notes that Uncommon's leaders have published plenty of books describing the "systems and strategies" they employ. One of his links is to Doug Lemov's Teach Like a Champion, 2.0. Lemov is the "Managing Director of Uncommon Schools’ Teach Like a Champion team" (whatever that means).

I haven't yet read Lemov's latest, but I did read the original Teach Like a Champion, published in 2010. Frankly, it comes across like it was written by a cookbook author who believes he's the first guy to ever think of putting cheese on top of a hamburger. For example:
In order to make engaged participation the expectation, call on students regardless of whether they have raised their hands. (p.112) 
Dude, seriously? You're writing this in 2010 -- please tell me you don't actually think you're saying something innovative. Teachers have been warned about only calling on kids who raise their hands for years. OK, sometimes it's good to be reminded of things that reek of common sense... but is this really one of the "systems and strategies" that sets Uncommon apart from other schools?

Other teacher training leftovers presented like nouvelle cuisine include "wait time," making students do things over and over again until they get it right, and framing things positively. There's really nothing innovative or unique in all this; it's all stuff I saw when I was a novice teacher going through my traditional, university-based training. Understand, it was only a small part of that training; developing a comprehensive teaching philosophy takes time, a variety of coursework, and intensive scrutiny of a developing teacher's practice.

But it actually makes sense that Lemov would write a book with such basics when you think about who teaches in an Uncommon charter school:

Unlike teaching staffs in affluent suburban schools, North Star's teachers are more likely to be provisionally certificated,* receiving training outside of colleges & universities, and surrounded by fewer experienced colleagues who could serve as mentors, official or unofficial. Teach Like a Champion, full of standard teaching tricks of the trade, is exactly the book you'd want to give to teachers who are thrown into classrooms with minimal preparation...

Except it isn't.

Let me first refer you to more extended reviews of the book by Ray Salazar, Sam Chaltain, and Peg Robertson before I give my take, which really comes down to two related things:

First, there's a disquieting thread that runs through Teach Like a Champion that is reflected in this passage (p. 53):
  1. Content is one of the places that teaching is most vulnerable to assumptions and stereotypes. What does it say, for example, if we assume that students won’t be inspired by books written by authors of other races? Or by protagonists of different backgrounds than their own? More specifically what does it say if we are more likely to assume those things about minority students? Do we think that great novels transcend boundaries only for some kids? Consider the novelist Earnest Gaines’s description of the authors who inspired him to write. Gaines, who wrote several of the most highly acclaimed novels of the twentieth century, including Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Lesson Before Dying, and A Gathering of Old Men, grew up poor in rural Louisiana on the same land his family had share-cropped for generations, He was the eldest of twelve children and was raised by his aunt—the kind of kid to whom some might ascribe a limited worldview, probably without asking, and to whom few would assign a diet of nineteenth-century Russian novelists. Yet Gaines recalls: “My early influences were . . . the Russian writers such as Tolstoy, Turgenev and Chekhov. I think I’ve also been influenced by Greek tragedy, but not by Ellison and any black writers. I knew very early what it was I wanted to write. I just had to find out a way to do it and the . . . writers whom I’ve mentioned showed me this way.” 
  1. Let me say that I love Ellison, just as I love Gaines, and am not suggesting we not teach his work (to all students incidentally). But imagine the loss not just to Gaines but to all of us if the teacher who first put Turgenev in his hands and inspired the spark of genius to grow into a flame had looked at the color of his skin, assumed that Gaines wouldn’t find interest in anything so foreign, and thought better of Turgenev. [emphasis mine] 
Let's knock down the straw literary critic first: no one I know has ever said that students of color should only read books by authors who share their backgrounds. Of course black kids should read Tolstoy and Euripides -- just like white kids should read Ellison.

I'm old enough to remember the debate over The Closing of the American Mind in real time. What critics of the "Great Books" curriculum were actually saying was that if the canon only includes white guys**, a lot of great work is going to be excluded, and students are going to rightly wonder why -- especially students whose own backgrounds are not represented.

Is this really such a critical place for Lemov to plant his flag? Would he really be so put out if a school taught Ellison and Baldwin and Morrison and Hughes as its base, with a bit of Milton and Melville added to mix things up? Would students' critical facilities really suffer under that sort of a curriculum?

Or is there maybe another agenda at play here? (p. 54)
This offers a reminder not to assume there’s a “they” who won’t really “get” something, say sonnets and other traditional forms of poetry, and that it’s therefore better to teach them poetry through hip-hop lyrics instead. What happens when they take Introduction to Literature in their freshman year in college and have never read a poem written before 1900? Kids respond to challenges; they require pandering only if people pander to them. 
Again: no one is saying that all students shouldn't read poems by white guys written before 1900. But what happens when students go to Harvard and major in English and find they are expected to take core courses like Migrations: Fictions of America but have only read white, male novelists?

It seems to me that the world has passed Doug Lemov by. The tired debates about "multiculturalism" have become pointless, because the canon has changed, and largely for the better. Why does he feel the need, then, to bring all this up? What's the mindset here?

Which brings me to my second critique: there is no room in Teach Like a Champion for agency -- and that's agency of both the student and the teacher. Lemov's pedagogy, to my reading, is best described by Wayne Au as a form of "New Taylorism":
Additionally, in teaching to the tests in content and curricular form, teachers in the US are also adopting pedagogical strategies that more closely align to the forms of knowledge and content contained on the high-stakes tests. In US classrooms this translates into teachers adopting more teacher- centred pedagogies, such as lectures, to meet the content and form demands of the tests. (p. 31) 
If there was ever a "teacher-centered pedagogy," it's Teach Like a Champion. In Lemov's world, the teacher is a technocrat, gathering up a bunch of tricks and tips so she can fill up her students' heads with the stuff that gets them to pass PARCC tests. Individualizing instruction isn't a concern of a "champion" teacher; to the contrary, Lemov believes that teachers should be "strategically impersonal."

There's little in the book about making personal connections to students. There's little about project-based learning, or other forms of constructivist instruction. There's little about building a learning community, or fostering an environment of healthy debate and respectful dissent.

I've been posting Jean Anyon's picture at the end of this series all week to make a point: the pedagogy that Lemov espouses would never, ever fly in affluent suburban schools. Anyon's classic 1980 study made the compelling case that schools structure their curricula and cultures around societal expectations based on class and race.

Aren't we seeing this in both Teach Like a Champion, and in the data dive I took comparing North Star to Livingston and Millburn High Schools? Let's break it down again:

The 'Burbs:
  • Experienced teachers with university-based training.
  • A broad, rich curriculum with many opportunities for college-level courses.
  • Student-centered learning (at least as a goal).
  • A literary canon that largely reflects students' backgrounds.
  • Shorter class days, but many opportunities for extracurricular activities.
  • Low suspension rates.
  • Access to cultural, economic, and social capital that aids in preparing students to be accepted into and thrive at elite colleges.
"No Excuses" Charters:
  • Inexperienced teachers with "alternative" training.
  • A less broad curriculum, focused on standardized test outcomes, with fewer college-level opportunities.
  • Teacher-centered learning (at least as reflected in their training).
  • A literary canon that largely reflects other students' backgrounds.
  • Longer class days, and fewer extracurricular, artistic, foreign language and other offerings.
  • High suspension rates, part of a strict disciplinary environment.
  • Less access to that same capital -- in many cases, far less.
Do I blame Uncommon and Doug Lemov and Stephen Chiger for this last reality? Absolutely not: I do blame them, however, from distracting us from having the conversation we should be having.

There is a fundamental, structural difference between the lives and the schooling of disadvantaged urban and affluent suburban students. This difference will not be rectified by "choice," nor by a "no excuses" pedagogy; it can only be addressed by making education "reform" part of a larger program of societal reform.

Do I think our schools can improve absent a renewed assault on poverty and inequity and racism? Unquestionably, yes -- starting with a policy of adequately and equitably funding our schools. In New Jersey, fully funding the state's own law when it comes to providing state aid would be a good start (but it would only be a start - more to come). And if we are going to have "choice," we'd better make sure it isn't negatively affecting the finances of public, district schools, as it too often does.

And let's be clear about something else: we have far too many incidents, both large and small, of teachers and administrators behaving badly toward students of color and students in economic disadvantage in public, district schools.*** This is a serious problem, and it can't be simply be dismissed by pointing fingers at "no excuses" charters.

But these conversations keep getting delayed by the promises of "reformers" who sell stories about their beloved charters "...giving lie to the implication that school improvement needs to wait for the country to heal poverty." It is clear to me that these schools are demonstrating exactly the opposite: despite all their "successes," high-flying charter schools continue to show that "choice" and "reform" will not overcome the structural inequities inherent in our education system.

It is time to move beyond the reform industry's focus on "choice" and start having an honest conversation about the state of America' schools. I understand Chiger and Lemov's desire to justify their work, but a-contextual data points in the service of promoting the myth of the heroic charter school are little more than distractions. We can do better.

No excuses.

Educational reforms cannot compensate for the ravages of society.
Jean Anyon (1941-2013)

* I swear, it's a word.

** Ever notice how these arguments in favor of the traditional canon always seem to exclude women authors? Again: about three-quarters of teachers are women. Hmm...

*** And LGTBQ students, something I haven't written nearly enough about. I will try to get to that more this year.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Sunday Night Music: RIP Keith Emerson (1944-2016)

This is so very, very sad:
Rock star Keith Emerson killed himself because he feared he was no longer good enough as a musician, his girlfriend exclusively told The Mail on Sunday last night. 
The 71-year-old founder and keyboard player of Emerson, Lake and Palmer was 'tormented with worry' about upcoming concerts in Japan because nerve damage to a hand had affected his playing, said Mari Kawaguchi. 
She found Emerson's body when she returned to the apartment the couple shared in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, early on Friday morning.  
He had shot himself with a gun he kept for protection. 
As a music teacher, this hits me in the gut so hard I nearly can't stand it. First: lord knows I've been there. You almost never play as well as you think you could have, and it's very easy to get into a mindset where that doubt eats you up and spits you out. Some performers find that place where they are so supremely confident that they revel in their imperfections. Most of us, I believe, do not.

Next: it was well know for some time that Emerson had issues with nerve damage (I had heard that it was Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, but who knows). You have to understand this guy was a technical monster at his instrument. There was a part of his career where he was considered the Jimi Hendrix of the organ.

But if you got past that, he was capable of amazing feats:

I can't tell you how many hours I played that ostinato in my left hand while trying to improvise in my right when I was in my mid-teens. Was it the most tasteful playing? I hadn't met Bill Evans or Thelonious Monk yet (two more technical geniuses -- only pianists get that, maybe), so these days, I'd say no. I'll confess I haven't pulled out an ELP album in some time.

But this music meant the world to me back in the day, and I know I'm not alone. It obviously shattered Emerson to think he wasn't going to be capable of playing this way anymore.

Music should be a joy, but like so many things in life, it can bring pain to those who love it the most. I only hope that Keith Emerson is finally at peace, and I am glad that his music is here for those of us who still cherish it.

The Myth of the Heroic Charter School - Part IV

Here's Part I of this series.

Here's Part II.

Here's Part III.

Here's Part IV.

And finally, Part V.

Our story so far:

Uncommon Schools, a "successful" charter school chain, claims that its Newark school outperforms the best schools in the state, based on the scores of juniors on the PARCC test. Here, again, is Stephen Chiger, the "Director of Literacy" for Uncommon:
Take the most recent PARCC exams in New Jersey. About 41% of the state’s 11th graders met or exceeded expectations on the test. 
In Essex County, high-income Millburn High School (2.2% economically disadvantaged) saw 57% of students scoring proficient or advanced on the assessment. The juniors at Livingston High School (1.5 % economically disadvantaged) earned 56.5%. 
A few miles away, the juniors at Newark-based North Star Academy (83.7% economically disadvantaged) earned an 80.6% pass rate. 
The school achieved it through more systems and strategies than I could possibly recount here. The good news is that I don’t have to. 
Uncommon Schools, which manages North Star, publishes books — and books and books – to share its practices. It regularly films teachers to “show” and not just “tell.” It opens its doors to hundreds of visitors every year. It runs professional development for external audiences and sells trainings so they can turn-key them locally. 
And, there’s good evidence it’s working.[emphasis mine]
Here's the thing: yes, North Star beat Livingston and Millburn on the PARCC -- but that's because the suburban students blew off the tests:

There are uncorroborated reports that North Star students were punished for refusing to sit for the PARCC. I've asked, via social media, for Uncommon officials to confirm or deny this. Until then, I think it's safe to say the suburban students who did sit for the PARCC likely had a nonchalant attitude toward scoring well. I say that because when it comes to tests that do matter to students' futures, like APs or SATs, the scores tell a very different story:

Again: I think this reflects the structural advantages of affluence far more than school quality. But this is why I find Chiger's argument so pernicious: he is making a clear implication that "choice" is going to overcome the effects of economic disadvantage on schooling outcomes when that's just not the case.

Chiger, to be fair, is not alone. TEAM/KIPP schools fed taking points to The Star-Ledger that their schools "beat" a suburban school district, even though the one score they cited was clearly an outlier. Eva Moskowitz has proudly compared the test scores of her students to the affluent 'burbs of New York, neglecting to mention those scores did nothing to help her students gain admission to the most elite NYC high schools

In Moskowitz's case, the more disturbing part of the comparison between her schools and affluent suburban public schools is that Success engages in practices no parent in Scarsdale or Millburn or Livingston would ever tolerate. Does North Star do the same? Well...

North Star has a far greater suspension rate than either Millburn or Livignston High School. Keep in mind this is a comparison between high schools and a K-12 schools; the 9-12 suspension rate may even be higher at North Star. Also:

The instructional day is much longer at North Star... but this is a bit misleading. Because when the final bell rings at Livingston or Millburn High, the day is far from over for students. Many go to sports practice, or clubs, or music lessons, or tutoring, or community service, or a variety of other activities, both in and out of school, designed to pad their college resumes and help build their social and cultural capital

These fundamental differences in schooling are reflected in other data points. For example, I showed this chart last time:

The curricular offerings in Advanced Placement courses at these different schools are obviously far different. This is reflected in the staff deployment of the different schools:

Again, we need to approach this with a bit of caution: Millburn and Livingston are high schools, while North Star is a K-12 school. But I still find this instructive. "Student loads" are the number of students per staff member for different job assignments; a lower student load means more staff per students are assigned to a particular job. What do we see here?

North Star has many more social workers per student than Livingston or Millburn. This is no surprise, nor is it a poor decision on North Star's part: their students are much more likely to be in economic disadvantage, so it makes sense that more staff would work with the students and families to overcome these disadvantages. This is a good thing -- but there is a price to be paid.

Because affluent high schools don't have to deploy staff to deal with issues of economic disadvantage, they can offer learning opportunities and other supports that even the most "successful" urban charter schools can't.

Livingston and Millburn have many more foreign language staff, arts staff, PE staff, librarians, school counselors, and other types of staff than North Star could possibly offer their students. This is a structural advantage that will not be overcome by choice. 

In fact, there's a very good argument that "choice" makes the situation worse because redundant systems of school governance are inefficient -- they replicate administrative and other costs rather than putting resources into student instruction and support.

From the NJDOE's Taxpayers' Guide to Education Spending. "Budgetary Per Pupil Spending" is a metric that allows for comparison between districts while acknowledging that different districts have different fixed costs. It's hardly a perfect measure, but it is interesting that North Star's BPP figure is slightly higher than Millburn's or Livingston.

Where the money is spent, however, is far more telling. North Star spends less on classroom instruction than the suburban schools. The Support Services figure for North Star is clearly faulty... but even if North Star has moved that budget line into Administration, it doesn't explain why their Plant costs are so high, or why they spend nothing on Extra-Curriculars.

We can look at the staffing files again to delve further into this:

How might North Star bring down its instructional costs? Start by hiring a staff that has fewer standard certificates, and more provisional ones. A certificate of eligibility is for a new teacher who hasn't completed formal training. More than half of North Star's staff is provisional or holds a CE. 

This aligns with the staff training of the different schools: suburban schools are much more likely to hire staff with traditional teacher training. And this aligns with experience:

North Star has many more staff who are inexperienced compared to suburban schools. We know that teachers gain the most in effectiveness within their first few years of teaching; this is why the USDOE has made it a priority to address the unequal distribution of inexperienced teachers by race in America's schools.

We're back to the same question: is the schooling experience of North Star students really equivalent to that of students in the leafy 'burbs? The answer, once again, is: no. Despite all of North Star's advantages over its hosting district, the Newark Public Schools, the data tells us the following:
- North Star's students don't get equivalent scores on college entrance exams or AP tests, likely because suburban students have more access to college counseling, engage in test shopping, and access economic, social, and cultural capital not available to urban students.
- North Star's students don't get nearly the breadth or depth of curricular offerings, particularly in AP courses.
- North Star's students are far more likely to be suspended and spend more time in instructional settings, while less is spent on their extra-curricular offerings. 
- North Star's students don't have the same access to the same well-trained, experienced staff as suburban students.
I'll be the first to say these inequities are also visited upon Newark's public, district students -- in fact, they are, in many cases, even worse. I don't pretend for a second that North Star's student population is at all equivalent to Millburn's or Livingston's in terms of the realities of their lives outside of school. I don't at all justify this inequality -- far from it. 

My point here is to show that even North Star's students, who are in much better school facilities than NPS students and who are less likely to be in the deepest level of economic disadvantage, are still not being given access to an education that compares to the schooling found in the affluent suburbs. Is this Uncommon's fault? Well, no... but yes.

Because every time a charter school cheerleader implies that their school uses "systems and strategies" to "...giv[e] lie to the implication that school improvement needs to wait for the country to heal poverty," he is diverting us from acknowledging that school choice can't and won't solve the structural inequities that vex America's disadvantaged students.

I'll wrap this up next time.

Educational reforms cannot compensate for the ravages of society.
Jean Anyon (1941-2013)

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Myth of the Heroic Charter School - Part III

Here's Part I of this series.

Here's Part II.

Here's Part III.

Here's Part IV.

And finally, Part V.

Once again, here's what Stephen Chiger, the "Director of Literacy" for Uncommon Charter Schools, says about the performance of North Star Academy (Uncommon's Newark school) compared to affluent suburban schools nearby:
Take the most recent PARCC exams in New Jersey. About 41% of the state’s 11th graders met or exceeded expectations on the test. 
In Essex County, high-income Millburn High School (2.2% economically disadvantaged) saw 57% of students scoring proficient or advanced on the assessment. The juniors at Livingston High School (1.5 % economically disadvantaged) earned 56.5%. 
A few miles away, the juniors at Newark-based North Star Academy (83.7% economically disadvantaged) earned an 80.6% pass rate. 
The school achieved it through more systems and strategies than I could possibly recount here. The good news is that I don’t have to. 
Uncommon Schools, which manages North Star, publishes books — and books and books – to share its practices. It regularly films teachers to “show” and not just “tell.” It opens its doors to hundreds of visitors every year. It runs professional development for external audiences and sells trainings so they can turn-key them locally. 
And, there’s good evidence it’s working.
So here are my questions in this series: is there an equivalence between the schooling students in Livingtson and Millburn receive and the schooling North Star provides? And is North Star really using innovative "systems and strategies" to overcome the advantages of affluence so prevalent in suburban schools?

Let's take a deep dive in to the publicly available data to find out. After all, as Doug Lemov, the Managing Director of Uncommon, says in his book Teach Like a Champion: "Aficionados of data know self-report to be chronically unreliable." (p. 101) I'll buy that; let's move behind what Chiger self-reports and see what's really going on.

We'll start with Chiger's central claim about the PARCC scores of North Star's juniors: do they really beat the affluent 'burbs?

No question, North Star wins. Except...

Half of the juniors in Millburn "opted-out" of the PARCC; 90 percent of the juniors in Livingston did as well. Is opting-out a sign of affluence? Well, about half of the juniors in Newark opted-out, so, as Bruce Baker has pointed out, there isn't much evidence that class correlates strongly with not taking the test.

The juniors in the 'burbs (and in Newark's public schools) understood that the Grade 11 PARCC didn't mean very much to them; that's why there were reports of kids both blowing off the test and deliberately tanking it if they did take it. But what happens when students take a test that does matter -- like the SAT or ACT college admittance tests?

Uh-oh: the juniors who missed the PARCC somehow managed to show up for their college entrance exams. But notice how the suburban students chose between the SAT and the ACT. Undoubtedly, there is some "test shopping" going on here: kids are taking the ACTs as well as the SATs, and seeing which test works out better for them. No such luck at North Star: you take the SAT there, and that's that.

Test shopping requires affluence: you have to pay for each test administration, and you need the social and cultural capital to be able to play the game well so you can maximize your chances of getting into the best college. How do the suburban kids acquire this knowledge?

We'll return to this in a bit, but for right now: look at the number of school counselors in the 'burbs compared to North Star. A core function of the large guidance office staffs at affluent high schools is to counsel students on how to gain admission to their "reach" colleges and universities. If you go to Millburn or Livingston High, you have your choice of counselors to help you play the college admissions game. At North Star, one counselor (according to NJDOE staffing files) helps you on your college admission journey.

How does this manifest itself in SAT scores?

Millburn scores a standard deviation higher on the SAT than North Star. Livingston isn't far behind. Does this show that the suburban schools are superior? No -- SAT correlates strongly to family income. What we're really seeing here is the advantage of affluence; a structural advantage the suburban kids enjoy that has not, and will not, be overcome by "choice" systems in the cities. 

And that advantage manifests itself in many other ways:

These are the enrollments for a variety of Advanced Placement (AP) courses in all three schools. North Star students get to choose from only six courses; Millburn students can choose from 25 courses. The 'burbs offer APs in multiple language courses; North Star, where you can only study Spanish (more in a bit), doesn't offer an AP level course. You can take APs in the arts and multiple sciences in the 'burbs; North Star only offers Biology.

And the outcomes?

Look: it's actually very impressive that North Star gets the results it gets when its percentage of student in disadvantage is so much higher than Millburn's or Livingston's. But no one should pretend for a second that North Star has somehow managed, through its "systems and strategies," to achieve parity with affluent suburban schools. 

I don't blame them for "failing"; I am, instead, pointing out that the rigged game of social replication in our schools cannot be outplayed through "choice." Outscoring a suburban school on a test that doesn't matter is not enough to overcome the structural differences in the schooling and the lives of suburban and urban students.

In addition: this doesn't imply that I believe, as Chiger says, that "...school improvement needs to wait for the country to heal poverty." To the contrary: I think the data shows quite clearly that there is a inequity in resources between urban and suburban schools, and that "choice" does little to nothing to address this inequity.

More on this next.*

Educational reforms cannot compensate for the ravages of society.
Jean Anyon (1941-2013)

* I'll get more in this in the next post, but I do think it's important to point something out about this graph right away: North Star is a K-12 school, but Livingston and Millburn are high schools. I still think we can learn a lot from studying this data, but it has to have that caveat attached.

More soon...