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

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Charter Schools and the De-Professionalization of Teaching

Hey, New Jersey -- and especially all of you "conservatives":

Did you know Chris Christie is using your tax dollars to make what essentially are commercials for charter schools that are linked to a Turkish, Muslim cleric?

Bergen Arts & Science Charter School and Thomas Edison EnergySmart Charter School, lauded by Christie in this taxpayer-financed video, have both been linked by the Gulen Charter Schools website to the Gulenist movement.

No, this isn't a conspiracy theory: the Gulenist charter school phenomenon has been reported by CBS News, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and The Wall St. Journal. These schools, all linked to Fethullah Gulen, have been popping up all over the country and are the subject of concerns expressed by the federal State Department due to their use of H1B visas to admit Turkish nationals into the US.

You'd think that someone in the NJ press would find it notable that Chris Christie, now Donald Trump's transition chair, was using taxpayer funds to promote charter schools tied to a Muslim cleric. But no, that's not news for them -- and neither, apparently, is what I'm going to document below:

Last week, I told the story of Thomas Edison EnergySmart, a school that enrolls far fewer special education and economically disadvantaged students than Franklin Township, its host public school district. Christie sings the charter's praises, even as it drains funds from Franklin's public schools, which educate the kids the Gulen-linked charter does not take in.

Let me quickly show that Bergen A&S is following the same playbook before I get to the heart of the matter. This charter gets most of its students from Garfield, but Hackensack and Lodi are also sending districts. How do these districts compare to the charters in enrolling students eligible for free lunch, a proxy measure of economic disadvantage?

Year after year, Bergen A&S does not enroll nearly as many students proportionally in economic disadvantage. How about students who have a special education need?

The charter school Chris Christie spends your money touting educates far fewer students, proportionally, who have a special need compared to its host districts. And not only that:

The special needs students Bergen A&S does enroll are far less likely to have a high-cost disability. Those include autism, visual impairments, multiple disabilities, traumatic brain injury, emotional disturbance, and so on. SLD (specific learning disabilities) and SPL (speech and language disabilities) are low-cost disabilities comparatively; these are the majority of the few special eduction students Bergen A&S allows into its school. 

Just to show how this plays out in practice, here are the raw counts of enrolled students:

Chris Christie spends your money making videos for schools that have abdicated their responsibility for educating the most challenging, most costly students -- schools that are, by all appearances, linked to a foreign religious and political movement that has been buying influence in the US government.

Everyone OK with this?

* * *

So here's the question I keep coming back to: why would Chris Christie go all in with a couple of Gulenist schools? We all know how his leash-holder feels about Muslims; why, then, is Christie risking the wrath of Trump's base by openly praising these schools? What's the attraction?

The answer, as always, comes back to Chris Christie's pathological hatred for the teaching profession:

Central Jersey College Prep CS is another Gulen-linked charter that draws from Franklin Township; I'm including it in the analyses that follow. What we see here is that the Gulen-linked charters in red have fewer teachers with standard certifications than Franklin's public school district -- in the case of TEESCS, far fewer. These charter schools rely on a teaching staff that does not have traditional training. That's also the case with Bergen A&S:

Again, the charter school has fewer teachers proportionally with a standard credential than the host public school districts. But here's the thing: certificates of eligibility and provisional certifications suggest inexperienced teachers. Stay in your position for a couple of years and you'll gain your license. Are the teachers in these charters less experienced?*

The charter schools Chris Christie loves employ many more inexperienced teachers than the public schools. Why does this matter? Three reasons immediately come to mind:

1) Experienced teachers are good for students. Teaching experience brings gains in student performance well into a teacher's second decade and perhaps beyond.

2) The USDOE has declared, rightly, that the distribution of inexperienced teachers is an issue of racial inequity. It is not fair to burden students with inordinate numbers of inexperienced teachers, even as a matter of "choice."

3) As in every other profession, teacher pay is tied to experience. If you want to cut teacher pay and de-professionalize teaching, the best way to do so is to get rid of experienced teachers.**

These two charts break down experience by years along the horizontal axis. The public schools have a mix of inexperienced, mid-career, and highly experienced teachers. Not so the charters: Overwhelmingly, charters employ a teaching corps with far less experience than their hosting districts.

How does this affect pay?

In North Jersey, teachers get a significant bump in pay around their second decade. But Bergen A&S doesn't have to worry about that: they don't have any teachers with that much experience. Unlike charter schools, the public district schools are bearing the cost of making teaching a true profession with true professional wages by employing teachers with experience and paying them for their years of service.

It's the same in Somerset County: The professional wage teachers earn at mid-career is borne exclusively by the public district schools, and not the charters.

This is one of the biggest problems with the proliferation of charter schools, and yet it is rarely discussed. Charters employ many more inexperienced teachers. In many cases, they pay those teachers a wage similar to inexperienced public school teachers (in some cases, it's even higher) -- but they then expect those teachers to move on after a few years. 

The charter model can't sustain a teacher corps that includes significant numbers of experienced teachers; charters rely on a constantly churning teaching corps.

No true profession consists solely of novices. And that is, I believe, why Chris Christie loves charter schools -- including charters linked to a Muslim cleric. So long as those schools pay teachers less, our boy Chris is happy. Doesn't matter if the charters don't enroll as many kids in poverty or with special needs. Doesn't matter if the charters churn their teaching staffs and perpetually employ teachers with less experience and alternative credentials. Doesn't matter how many scandals are linked to these charters.

All that matters to Chris Christie and others who share his view is that charter schools are de-professionalizing teaching.

Stop bringing up the Gulen thing!
And stop asking for professional wages for teachers!
Just shut up!
Shut up!

* Inexperienced means less than three years total teaching experience in any jurisdiction.

** FTE is "full-time equivalent." I weight the salaries this way so part-timers don't drag down the average wage.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The True History of NJ Teachers Getting Shafted On Their Benefits (for @BillSpadea)

When Former NJ Education Commissioner Jim Gearhart* left NJ 101.5, I thought there might be a chance for some sanity to return to New Jersey's #1 teacher-bashing talk radio station. Gearhart, of course, reveled in beating up on the NJEA, all while making the laughable claim that teachers didn't really want their union to protect their workplace rights, health insurance, and pensions.

When Gearhart left the airwaves, I thought the station might moderate the tone of its drive-time show. It had before: the truly odious Casey Bartholomew had been axed in 2011 to make way for the much more reasonable Deminski & Doyle (I've heard they each have relatives who are teachers). Maybe Gearhart's replacement would be less likely to take pot shots at teachers and their unions.

Looks like I was wrong:

"For the governor to talk about a $250 million cost cutting effort -- which is truthfully a drop in the bucket but still you've got to start somewhere -- and the NJEA just puts their foot down and says: 'No, we're not even going to discuss it,' is, I think, outrageous. I think it's time for teachers to start pushing back."
Bill, I'm a teacher, and I'm happy to push back -- at you.

You see, Bill, I talk to a lot of teachers too. And those teachers have watched while their take home pay has eroded and their health care costs have skyrocketed and their pensions have been devalued, even as their jobs have become more demanding. And they've all come to the same conclusion that I have:

For years, we were forced to pay more and get less on our benefits and pensions with the promise that the state would finally start paying what it promised us for work we have already done. But the state has never followed through. So we're not going to make our families sacrifice any more until we see some sign that the state is going to follow through on its legally binding commitments.

Just in case anyone doubts what I'm saying, let's have a little history review. This timeline from the Communications Workers of America is a good place to start; with a few minor changes, it could describe the continued screwing of just about every public employee in the state.

- 1995: Governor Jim Florio begins the modern era of New Jersey pension underfunding.

- 1997: Governor Christie Todd Whitman essentially pays for tax cuts by underfunding the pensions.

- 2001: Yes, Governor Donald DiFrancesco does raise pension benefits, but he does so basically using the same sort of revaluation tactics that Florio and Whitman had used. I find it funny that so many of the state's conservatives are appalled at DiFrancesco's revaluations, which befitted workers, while they say nothing about Whitman's revaluations, which led to tax cuts.

- 2004: Teachers' mandatory contribution to the pension, which had been as low as 3 percent, is raised to 5 percent.

- 2007: By now, everyone (except Chris Christie) knew the pensions were in trouble and had to be fixed. Teachers and state workers now paid 5.5 percent into their pensions and saw the retirement age go up 5 years. State workers now paid 1.5 percent of their pay to health benefits. The deal everyone agrees to is that in exchange for these concessions the state will start funding the pensions.

Those payments lasted only about two years.

- 2008: The state raises the retirement age again.

- 2010: Governor Chris Christie makes significant changes to the pension for all new hires, and now requires all current employees to pay 1.5 percent of their salaries toward health benefits. At this time, a report is released from respected Labor and Employment Relations Professor Jeffrey Keefe of Rutgers University which shows: "...full-time state and local employees are under-compensated by 5.88% in New Jersey, in comparison to otherwise similar private-sector workers."

- 2011: After running a campaign in which he said explicitly: "Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor," Chris Christie, with the support of many Democrats in the Legislature, passes a sweeping pension and benefits overhaul law. As CWA explains:
The plan for increased worker contributions is phased in over four years. At the end, in 2015, workers pay 25% more to get 30% less pension. Workers are required to pay an increasing amount of the health care premium, with a top rate of 35% of premium for the highest earners. The state budget includes a 1/7th payment for FY12. Christie makes the payment on the final day of the fiscal year, in June 2012. In response to the 2010 Supreme Court ruling, the legislature creates a contractual right to the funding of the pension.
- 2013: During the gubernatorial election, no one in the press cares to ask either Chris Christie or his opponent, Barbara Buono, how they plan to raise the revenues for a full pension payment by 2017.

- 2014: To the surprise of no one sentient, Christie refuses to make the payments his own law requires. Meanwhile, reports begin to surface about inordinately high management fees paid to Wall Street firms linked to Christie. The unions file suit.

- 2015: Reports of malfeasance in the management of the pensions continue. The fourth year of the 2011 Ben-Pen law starts: a teacher making $65K now pays at least 19% of her premium for family medical coverage. As NJ Spotlight notes:
Today, however, while the cost of New Jersey public employee health insurance coverage remains the third-highest in the nation, most New Jersey public employees are paying more than the national average for state government workers toward their health insurance costs, an NJ Spotlight analysis shows. 
In fact, the average New Jersey government employee is paying more for individual health insurance coverage than government workers in any other state and the 10th-highest average premium for family coverage in the country. 
Further, state and local government workers are paying a much higher percentage of the cost of their individual health insurance policies than private-sector employees in New Jersey have been paying, and not much less than the percentage paid by the state’s private-sector workers for family coverage. [emphasis mine]
Meanwhile, New Jersey's public employee pensions have devolved into one of the least generous in  the nation, according to a New Jersey Policy Perspective analysis. And yet the state's highest court rules New Jersey doesn't have to fund the pensions, and can instead set the state up for a looming disaster.

Christie's only policy response to all of this is to appoint a commission to put out a plan that everyone with any sense knows can't possibly work.

And so here we are, halfway through 2016 and not a serious plan in sight for how to deal with any of this. As I've shown here (again, thanks to CWA for their excellent timeline), the teachers and police officers and firefighters and state workers have been making sacrifices for years, each premised on the idea that if we just give up some more, the state will finally do the right thing and start paying its fair share.

Well, every time we've paid more, the state has screwed us over. Our pension payments were 3 percent not very long ago; now they're 7.5 percent, our COLA is under attack, and our benefits are worse. Our health care was a negotiated part of our total compensation; now the state has compelled us to pay up to 35 percent of our premiums, and the care we're getting is worse.

And this has all been during a period when our raises were shrinking -- and we were already behind the private sector to begin with.

Bill, I'm sure the NJEA would support all sorts of health care insurance reforms for its members if those reforms saved money without diminishing care. In fact, reports from your own radio station confirm this:
NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer said the unions would favor changes that lower premiums but that the union mistrusts Christie because the state didn’t follow through on promises under 2011 pension and health benefits reforms. 
“No, we’re not looking to make changes in it just because the governor says ‘I’m demanding $250 million.’ We don’t accept that,” Steinhauer said. “He’s just saying, ‘Find money,’ he’s not saying, ‘Find it in a win-win situation for members and for the state.’” 
Last year, the NJEA agreed to an earlier round of money-saving changes on things such as compound prescriptions and hepatitis C medicine. The State Health Benefits Plan, for workers other than school employees, also approved three additional smaller changes. 
Between the two health plans, those earlier changes are expected to save the state $197 million in the coming year – $135 million for the SHPB and $62 million for the SEHBP. Even with that, state healthcare costs are still projected to increase by $290 million in 2017.
Bill, when you say the NJEA won't even discuss changes to health benefits, you're dead wrong -- again, according to your own reporters. What NJEA won't do, what the teachers of this state won't do, and what every public employee won't do anymore is to continue getting the shaft by giving up more in compensation without the state paying its agreed upon fair share.

New Jersey public employees are the only ones who have made their full payments into the pension system. We and our families are the only ones who've made pension and health care sacrifices in an effort to fix a mess we didn't create. But now, we refuse to continue to be patsies. 

After all of our previous concessions, we're not going to give up one more damn thing until this state starts meeting its obligations once and for all.

One more thing, Bill: if you want to try to play the game where you separate teachers from the union leaders, good luck. I've never agreed with my union about everything; I don't think any public employee is ever 100 percent aligned with his union. But I damn sure trust my union way more than I'll ever trust Chris Christie or the Democrats who supported his repeated screwing of public employees.

If there is dissension in my union right now, it's largely because there are who members don't think NJEA has fought hard enough against the steady erosion of our pay, our benefits, and our workplace rights. Whether that's true or not remains an open question; what's not open to debate is whether teachers and other public employees think they have been treated fairly over the last few years. I guarantee you they have had enough of giving and giving and giving and getting nothing back in return.

These are decent, hardworking people who do important jobs. They teach our kids and protect our streets and put out our fires and build our bridges and provide social services to our neediest and work hard to keep vital governmental services available to the citizens of New Jersey. They have, perhaps grudgingly, made many sacrifices to try to keep this state afloat.

But they aren't suckers.

ADDING: Bill, it takes a lot for me to give up on a media figure. Want to hash this out? Drop me a line.

* It's a joke. Well, not really...

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Charter School Realities: Morris, NJ

I was fortunate to participate in a great academic conference at Rutgers this week: Education Reform, Communities and Social Justice: Exploring the Intersections. I'll try to get to some of my impressions later, but for now I want to thank Julia Sass Rubin for inviting me and congratulate her and her staff on doing such a wonderful job (looking forward to next year!).

One of the presenters was Paul Tractenberg of the Rutgers School of Law - Newark. Paul was a key player in the landmark Abbott v. Burke cases, which led to New Jersey's overhaul of its school financing system (sadly, the state has recently retreated from its commitment to funding equity). 

Paul Tractenberg, Rutgers Conference on Education Reform, 5/20/16
photo courtesy of Sarah Tepper Blaine

Paul's presentation was about the Morris, NJ school district, a textbook case of what happens when the courts order school desegregation. Paul wrote about Morris back in 2013:
If we could get beyond our fetishistic attachment to home rule, there are many ways to consolidate districts, either on an individual or statewide basis. Examples of both abound. The Morris School District was created in 1973 out of the adjacent Morristown and Morris Township districts, one increasingly black and lower-income, the other overwhelmingly white and middle to upper income. It was created primarily for racial balance and allied educational reasons. 
Despite initial start-up issues, 40 years later the Morris School District is an amazing success story. It may be the most racially and socioeconomically balanced district in the state, it sends 93 percent of its students on to higher education, and it is widely considered to have been primarily responsible for Morristown’s ability to flower as the state’s leading county seat.
Yet few New Jerseyans are even aware of the existence of the Morris School District, let alone its unique history. By the way, other urban districts sought to follow in Morris’ footsteps in the early to mid-1970s, and again in the mid-1980s, but they were denied that opportunity. 
The result is that today we have the Plainfield, New Brunswick, and Englewood districts standing in stark contrast to Morris as overwhelmingly minority and low-income districts with huge educational problems and in proximity to surrounding predominately white and upper-income districts that once sent their students to them when the urban districts were themselves more diverse.
One thing Paul pointed out during the panel is that Morristown has become one of the most desirable communities in the state, and its diversity is the primary reason. Walk down South Street on a Saturday night and you'll see that the place is hopping: new restaurants, a vibrant arts scene, lots of retail. People call it "Mo-Town" these days.*

During Q-&-A, someone Darcie Cimarusti, aka Mother Crusader, asked about the charter school in the area, and its impact on desegregation efforts. Paul expressed some concerns, but didn't go into details, saying he hadn't looked at the issue carefully yet.

Maybe I can help.

Last year, Unity Charter School applied for an expansion -- its third such application in five years. As is the case for all charters in NJ, expansions are granted solely at the discretion of the Commissioner of Education, David Hespe. The commissioner was clearly influenced by community opposition to Unity's expansion, led by a grassroots local organization, Morris Cares About Schools, and rejected the expansion.

I was following this saga and had planned to do an analysis similar to the ones I did for Red Bank and East Brunswick/Highland Park's charter school expansion applications. But when Unity's application was rejected, I figured I'd just move on.

Paul's presentation made me rethink my decision. Given Unity's tenacity, it's almost certain they will try yet again to get an approval for expansion. So let's get the data, courtesy of the NJDOE, on the record.

- Unity Charter School enrolls fewer free lunch-eligible students proportionally than the Morris School District.

Over the past five years, Unity has consistently served fewer students in economic disadvantage than its hosting public school district.

- Unity CS enrolls more white students and fewer Hispanic students proportionally than the Morris School District.

Year after year, Unity enrolls more white students and fewer Hispanic students than the Morris public schools.

-Unity CS enrolls a similar percentage of special needs students as the Morris School District; however, Unity's special need students have learning disabilities that are significantly less costly than Morris's special needs students.

In 2014, Unity CS has a district special education classification rate of 16.9 percent; Morris's rate was 18.8 percent. That difference is better than most comparisons between charters and their host districts in New Jersey. However:

According to a report commissioned by the NJDOE, Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD) and speech disabilities (SPL) are "low-cost" disabilities. Others -- including autism, emotional disturbance, visual impairment/blindness, mental retardation, etc. - are "moderate" to "high-cost" disabilities.

More than 70 percent of Unity's students have low-cost disabilities; the percentage is significantly less for Morris SD. Keep in mind that when funds are distributed to charters, they get more funding when taking more special needs students; however, the type of disability is only disaggregated by speech/non-speech. In other words, a charter gets as much for a student with an SLD as they get for a student with a traumatic brain injury. But charters don't generally enroll the students with higher-cost needs. Morris SD is likely paying a stiff fiscal penalty for enrolling the special needs students Unity does not enroll.

- When accounting for student population differences, Unity CS does no better than Morris SD on test-based outcomes. In fact, in many cases, Unity does worse than its host district.

As this article notes, Morris flat out beats Unity on several measures of proficiency. But let me take this further. What I've done here is use a simple regression model to adjust average school-wide scale scores on the 2015 PARCC exams:

ScaleScore = f(pctFreeReducedPriceLunch, pctSpecEd, pctLEP)**

This is just saying that I've taken every school's score in New Jersey and compared them all to find out how a school's percentage of free or reduced price lunch, special education, and limited English proficient students affects its average test scores in math and English language arts (ELA) at each grade. I then plotted these adjusted scores against the school free lunch percentage.

Here, for example, is how Unity stacks up against Morris's elementary schools in Grade 3 ELA when adjustments are made for student characteristics.

There's really no difference. But look at Grade 5 ELA:

In this model, a 10 point increase in a school's free or reduced-price lunch rate leads to a 4 point drop in its average scale score on the PARCC. Adjusting for that and other student characteristics: Unity is faring considerably worse than any of Morris's schools that report this test score.

Here's the same grade in math:

The differences in adjusted scores differ by grade and test, so I've put them all below. What's clear is that Unity Charter School can't make any case that it is getting results any better than Morris's public schools; to the contrary, their performance on many measures is considerably worse.

The state also measures "growth" in the form of Student Growth Percentiles (SGPs). I have my issues with SGPs, but it's worth looking at the adjusted scores (I use the 2014 SGPs here, as I haven't yet brought the 2015 SGPs into my databases).

Morris SD is subsidizing Unity to the tune of $1.3 million, an increase of $300K just this past year. That seems very hard to justify given these results.

Test scores, of course, are not the only measure of a school's effectiveness. I would, in fact, argue there are many other things we should look at when judging a school's worth. There may be things Unity Charter School is doing that benefit their students but have nothing to do with tests. Good for them -- but let's also be clear that the "choice" Unity's families enjoy comes at a heavy price.

Morris has worked hard as a community to integrate its school district; charters that enroll different student populations threaten that work. The fiscal consequences of having redundant systems of school management can keep necessary resources from reaching students. So when a charter school isn't really providing a "better" education for a community's children after paying this price... what's the point?

Unity's charter is up for its five-year renewal in 2017. Commissioner Hespe should ask himself some hard questions when considering whether Unity is really bringing value to the good people of Morristown and Morris Township. I don't doubt Unity is full of dedicated, hard-working educators who care about their students. I applaud Unity's students for their effort and success.

But is the cost of "choice" really worth it?

See you on the green.

Here are the other adjusted scores:

*A couple of years ago, I saw the great jazz guitarist Pat Metheny play at Mayo Center, and he said it was one of his favorite places to perform: "When you come here, you get all the New York City hipness without the New York City attitude."

** Robust standard errors (N is between 1312 (Grade 3) and 713 (Grade 7)) with typical colinearity checks (VIFs). Free lunch and LEP are from that same year (2015); special education is a three-year average from 2012 to 2014. FL and SpecEd are significant at the p < 0.01 level. LEP significance varies; I decided to keep it in all models for consistency's sake.

Caveat regressor.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Chris Christie LOVES Segregated Charter Schools

Chris Christie is back in Jersey doing what he does best: talking up charter schools.
Charter schools are growing rapidly in New Jersey, and one charter school is among the top in the state. Governor Chris Christie is meeting with students at the Thomas Edison Energy Smart School, a school where robots and high-tech are part of the everyday curriculum. 
Governor Christie is commending the school that ranks third out of ten in the state for high math and science test scores. 
"Every child has extraordinary God-given potential. It is our job to maximize that God-given potential. When we settle for traditional public schools, we settle for less for families. To me, that's immoral," said Governor Christie. [emphasis mine]
Oh, really? You know what I think is immoral, Governor? Setting up charter schools that don't enroll children with special education needs yet are held harmless in their funding -- all while leaving those children in underfunded public district schools.

Here are the special education percentages for TE EnergySmart and its host districts. According to news sources, most of the charter's students come from Franklin Township, which has a classification rate of 16.4 percent. Compare that to TE EnergySmart's paltry 2.7 percent rate.

Hold on - it gets worse*:

The very few special needs students TE EnergySmart takes have low-cost disabilities: SLDs and speech impairments. The kids who are autistic, or have emotional disturbances, or are blind, or have multiple disabilities are educated by the district public schools.

It is immoral that Chris Christie refuses to acknowledge that the charter school he praises does not educate any significant share of special needs students.

And, yes, it does get worse:

TE EnergySmart's students are far less likely to live in economic disadvantage than the students in the charter's host districts. Keep in mind, most of the students at the charter come from Franklin Township, where the district schools have many more free lunch students proportionally.

Yes, it does get worse:

Franklin has many black students -- but they don't go to Christie's beloved charter school. So who does enroll at TE EnergySmart?

Over 70 percent of TE EnergySmart's student population is Asian, compared to less than 20 percent of Franklin's population. This is a stunningly segregated school: by class, by race, and by special education need.

But while TE EnergySmart, like all New Jersey charters, is "held harmless" in its funding, Franklin Township's public schools have had to suffer consistent underfunding for years.

From our friends at the invaluable Education Law Center. The state has failed to come through with adequate aid year after year, which has driven the local levy share up and up. Meanwhile, TE EnergySmart skims off the students who are cheapest to educate, leaving the most expensive students behind.

And yet here stands Chris Christie, mocking the local public schools for doing a job that the charters he praises can not and will not do. It's outrageous. 

One more thing: TE EnergySmart has been identified by people who track these things as a Gulen charter school. These schools are linked to a Turkish imam named Fethullah Gulen, who was profiled in this report on 60 Minutes:

The schools have been criticized for their employment practices, including exploiting H1-B visas to allow Turkish nationals to enter the United States and teach in charter schools.

I have to wonder: does Chris Christie know any of this? I wonder what Donald Trump would say if he found out...

Fethullah who?

* Graph edited 5/17/16 for clarity.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Dismantling Of Camden's School District Continues According To Plan

The way things are going, public schools in Camden will soon be extinct:
The Camden School District announced another round of layoffs and personnel moves Thursday, affecting 154 teachers and support staff.
The state-run district said it was laying off 22 teachers; 27 school staff, including custodians, security guards, and clerks; and 29 members of the central office staff.
A spokesman for Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard said the cuts were needed to help plug a projected $39 million budget gap for the 2016-17 school year.
The cuts were announced Thursday night at the advisory school board's meeting at Dudley School. The district is required by the state to notify staff of any personnel changes by May 15. 
The district began the process of notifying those affected on Wednesday by distributing letters, spokesman Brendan Lowe said.
An additional 20 teachers and 56 student services staff will be fired for performance-related reasons, district officials said. These employees were also notified by letter of their dismissal.
Lowe said the changes were part of an "effort here to bring our staffing levels in line to where we need to be." In addition to the 154 affected employees, about two dozen other staff vacancies will not be filled.
"Our schools will still be well-supported, but we do need to make some reductions," Lowe said. "The superintendent made a lot of hard decisions." [emphasis mine]
Don't you just love how all these people are going to lose their jobs, but we're really supposed to feel bad for the guy who's firing them?

There's also grim humor to be found in Rouhanifard's excuse for gutting the district's staff:
Camden, with about 15,000 students, has a proposed $372 million budget for the coming school year. The state took over the district in 2013 because of the city's chronically failing schools, among the worst in New Jersey.
Rouhanifard, appointed by Gov. Christie to lead the struggling district, has said the district must cut spending to offset years of declining enrollment and financial mismanagement.
Despite the cuts announced Thursday, Rouhanifard said that because the district will have fewer students, most classrooms will have a 9-1 student-teacher ratio in the coming year, compared with 10-1 now.
"At the end of the day, we had to make these reductions," he said. "Not only were [the positions] not necessary instructionally, they are not sustainable financially."
Oh, please -- let's not pretend for one second that what's happening in Camden is inevitable. The dismantling of Camden's public school system was planned years ago, and that plan was funded by a California billionaire with an ideological agenda.

In many ways, the takeover and impending dissolution of Camden's public schools is a textbook case of how to privatize a district:

2006: The state appoints a fiscal monitor for the Camden district after members of the Legislature are shocked -- shocked, I tell you! -- that a city that has been under the thumb of a political machine for years might have some corruption.

2007: The board appoints a new superintendent with the monitor's blessing.

2008: The district cuts staff as part of a budgetary freeze.

2009: The district faces more staffing cuts.

2010: The city faces more layoffs.

2011: The district makes further cuts while simultaneously increasing the police presence at its schools. The district felt it had no choice but to pay for the police itself as half of the police force had been laid off in the previous year.

2013: The state takes over the district. Gov. Christie installs a very young superintendent, Paymon Rouhanifard, who has never run a school, let alone a school system.

2014: Rouhanifard announces another round of layoffs.

2015: Rouhanifard announces yet another round of layoffs.

2016: Rouhanifard announces yet another round of layoffs.

Understand: Rouhanifard's job at the NYCDOE was to go around New York and close neighborhood schools so they could be replaced with charters. Obviously, this is why then-Education Commissioner Chris Cerf and Christie picked him for the job: he knows how to dismantle a public school system and turn it over to privatizers.

Which has been exactly what has happened in Camden. Even as the state monitor, and then Rouhanifard, oversaw the systematic defunding of Camden's schools, the state allowed charter schools to grow with little to no oversight.

The state gave a charter to a school operator who pretty much destroyed the Chester, PA public school system while engaging in some highly questionable practices that resulted in sanctions against the school's officials.

The state allowed a charter to expand that also engaged in several highly questionable practices, yet always seemed able to draw more financing for its expansion. The lack of transparency about this school's operations is, in a word, stunning.

The state gave a plot of land that was supposed to be used for a new district public school to a charter operator that has dictated the terms of its enrollment, refusing to serve students in grade levels it doesn't want to enroll. This operator, incidentally, already tried and failed to run a successful charter school in Camden. It's also worth noting that when members of the Camden school board tried to stand up to this plan, they were summarily punished and removed.

The state allowed district buildings to be used to colocate charters, then stood by as the charters renovated only the parts of the buildings they occupied. Which meant the children enrolled in the charter had air-conditioning, while the children enrolled in the district school were stuck in dangerously hot classrooms.

Rouhanifard sadly lamented that there was nothing he could do:
(3:50) Guys, I want to respond to your questions and concerns; it's hard to do that when everyone's shouting over me. And I'm happy to let you all shout over me for 90 minutes straight if that's what you want to do.  
What I'm trying to communicate to you is that these are not easy decisions to make. And we're doing this because the district and their finances can't renovate this building the same way one of our partners can. And that's a financial decision.
Yes, it is: the people who actually run Camden decided that charter schools get financing and aid and support, while the public district schools go begging. Those who live in the city and object to this state of affairs are patted on the head and then promptly ignored.

So here we are in 2016: the parents of Camden can "choose" to send their child to an unsafe school with lead in the water, or they can "choose" a charter school that is not under democratic control, not subject to the same standards of transparency as public district schools, more likely to hire inexperienced teachers who are of a different race than their students, and abrogates the rights of students and families.

This did not happen by accident. Let's pull this post of mine from 2012 out of the memory hole:
A couple of bombshells dropped out of the NJ DOE yesterday. First, from Kevin Shelley at the Courier-Post:
CAMDEN — A secret Department of Education proposal called for the state to intervene in the city’s school district by July 1, closing up to 13 city and charter schools. 
The intervention proposal, which was obtained by the Courier-Post, was written by Department of Education employee Bing Howell. 
He did not respond to a phone call and email seeking comment. 
Howell serves as a liaison to Camden for the creation of four Urban Hope Act charter schools. He reports directly to the deputy commissioner of education, Andy Smerick.
Howell’s proposal suggests that he oversee the intervention through portfolio management — providing a range of school options with the state, not the district, overseeing the options. He would be assisted by Rochelle Sinclair, another DOE employee. Both Howell and Sinclair are fellows of the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation. [emphasis mine]
Kinda like Old Faithful at this point. The proposal calls for the usual round of school closings, because instability is just so freaking great for kids living in difficult conditions. But here's the part that's going to raise eyebrows:
• Control the school board by taking away members’ ability to vote for at least six months, plus adding three state-appointed members. Place all hiring and firing decisions in the hands of the state Board of Education
• If a superintendent vacancy happens during state intervention, the commissioner would recommend a replacement with confirmation by state board. 
• Increase charter schools and attract charter management organizations such as those run by the KIPP chain. Send Camden students out of district to choice and vocational schools. 
The proposal also calls for passage of the Opportunity Scholarship Act, a proposed corporate tax credit scholarship bill. This would be used to send children to religious schools and private schools, including boarding schools.

Howell also said the state should partner with Teach for America, Knowledge is Power Program and The New Teacher Project . The three programs have or had links to Broad Foundation board members Wendy Kopp (TFA), Richard Barth (KIPP) and Michelle Rhee (formerly of TNTP and a TFA alumna). [emphasis mine]
Let's reiterate this because it's important:

Years ago, the NJDOE, with funding from California billionaire Eli Broad, developed a detailed plan to privatize Camden schools. That plan has been methodically implemented. Nothing that is occurring in Camden's schools is happening by accident -- it was all planned.

And none of these plans were ever approved in a democratic process by the people of Camden.

Why is that, do you think?

In New Jersey, democratic control of schools is reserved for affluent, white communities. All others will have their "choices" made for them.

This is a brazenly racist state of affairs -- can anyone honestly say otherwise?

What worries me is that after this grand experiment in replacing democracy with market "choice" fails, someone is going to have to clean up the mess. Someone is going to have to provide all of Camden's children with an education. But the trail of destruction left behind is going to be so great that fixing Camden's public schools will be an even more massive challenge than it is right now.

Of course, by then Chris Christie will be gone, Eli Broad will have moved on, and Paymon Rouhanifard will be off to his next gig. They may by then have returned control of the district to the people of Camden...

But what will they leave behind? I'll leave the last word to Stephen Danley, who has come to know Camden as well as any researcher:
And this gets to the fundamental question. The choice that “No Excuses” schools, and that the Camden School District and wider political forces here in the city has made is this: it believes that schools which use disproportionate discipline upon poor and minority students are ok so long as their test scores improve. One injustice, that of mistreating students, is allowable being it serves a broader justice, that of increasing their scores. So even though many involved in this system of schools will profess privately that they are uncomfortable with the strict discipline enforced upon minority children, they are willing to use it if it increases scores at those schools. 
There are plenty of reasons to think it does not. But I want to point to my bigger issue with this strategy. It assumes that outsiders can create justice by mistreating a community. On issues of cultural competency and school discipline, we’re seeing progress in Camden. But that progress comes from a self-inflicted starting point. If progressive discipline was a priority from the start, these are not the schools that should have been chosen. If progressive discipline was a priority in schools, they would not be using a “No Excuses” ideology. It’s like Malcolm X says, “If you stick a knife nine inches into my back and pull it out three inches, that is not progress.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Beating Up Schools With The College Remediation Club

Count on the NY Times Editorial Board to credulously accept any piece of education policy propaganda shoved into their hands:
The idea that schools in privileged communities are failing to prepare significant numbers of students is borne out in a striking new study showing that nearly half of the students who begin their college careers taking remedial courses come from middle- and upper-income families. Not only do remedial courses add more than $1 billion each year to students’ bills for tuition, but students who start out in these classes take longer to graduate and are far more likely to drop out. 
The study, by Education Reform Now, a nonprofit think tank...
OK, stop right there.

As Diane Ravitch correctly points out, ERN is in no way, shape or form a "think tank":
The editorial referred to Education Reform Now as a “nonprofit think tank.” ERN is nonprofit but it is certainly not a think tank. ERN is the nonprofit (c3) arm of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), the organization of hedge fund managers that loves charter schools, high-stakes testing, and Common Core. It has a vested interest in saying that American public schools are failing, failing, failing so as to spur its campaign to privatize public education.

ERN sponsors “Camp Philos,” an annual affair where important political figures meet in the woods with hedge fund managers to figure out how to reform public schools that none of them ever sent their own children to. In 2014, its star education reformer was Governor Cuomo. At its 2015 meeting on Martha’s Vineyard, Mayor Rahm Emanuel was a keynote speaker, sharing his knowledge of how to reform public education by closing public schools en masse.

The staff director of ERN is Shavar Jeffries, who ran for mayor of Newark and lost to Ras Baraka. Jeffries was supported by DFER, which hired him after his loss.

Consider the board of directors. Every one of them is from Wall Street.

The authors of the report are staff members at ERN who come from public policy backgrounds.

Curiously, the editorial has a link to the words “Education Department,” but no link to the ERN policy brief.
Now, I'm not one to discount a piece of research solely on the basis of who funds it. But if this were a report funded by, say, a teachers union, there is absolutely no way the Times would simply say it came from a "think tank." It's absurd for the Times to pretend this report was not prepared in the service of a particular agenda.

But, again, I'm not prepared to discount it solely on the basis of who put up the scratch. So what does the report itself say?
Hundreds of thousands of American families across all income levels are spending billions each year in extra college costs because our high schools are graduating too many students unprepared for college.  That’s a fact most may not realize, because current discussions around postsecondary remedial education – prerequisite courses that carry zero credit toward a college degree and represent content and skills students should have learned in high school already – are often segregated to low-income students and community colleges. But in truth, many middle-class and upper-income families bear the brunt of extra costs that come with required remedial classes in all college sectors for students from all income levels. In fact, at private nonprofit four-year colleges and universities, the children of upper-income families are taking more remedial classes than students from low-income families.
I must say that the graphic arts department at ERN is quite good: they've decorated the cover with a winsome young undergrad, mouth slightly agape, staring straight at the camera as if to say: "I can't believe my high school failed me so badly!"

These days, college remediation is the reformster 5 iron: the club they seem to want to pull out of the bag first. Except this club is being used to beat up America's K-12 school system -- particularly suburban schools. Read the thing yourself, then see if you wind up thinking the same things I did:

- When did we decide that the K-12 system was solely responsible for our current college remediation rates? Don't the colleges themselves have some culpability here? Why are they accepting so many students if those students aren't up to their standards?

From the report (p.6):
There is a stark difference, however, at private nonprofit four-year colleges: there, remedial students from the top 20 percent of national family incomes report taking nearly three remedial courses, one more class than students from the bottom 20 percent of national family incomes: 2.7 vs. 1.6 classes. In other words, in the most expensive colleges and universities, the wealthiest students need more remedial education than the poorest ones.
Well, OK -- what's the point? Is ERN arguing that students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds get a better high school education than students at wealthier schools? Somehow, I doubt it.

Perhaps something else is going on that is a bit embarrassing for private colleges: maybe they aren't basing their admissions decisions entirely on merit. Maybe they're allowing more affluent students to trade in on social and cultural capital to gain access to their colleges. Maybe they're using things like SAT scores, which are highly correlated to income, as ways to convert class advantages into a phony notion of "talent." Maybe they're more in the business of credentialing than educating.


In any case: how is any of this the fault of the K-12 public school system? Are affluent suburban schools supposed to be preparing all of their students for admission into elite private colleges? Doesn't that directly contradict the notion of a true meritocracy? Or is everyone supposed to be above average?

In addition: don't students themselves have some degree of responsibility for whether or not they are prepared for college?

Are we ever going to allow for the possibility that students themselves should have to own their academic records?

- When did we decide that "ready for college work" was some sort of objective standard? Is it not possible that MIT has different standards for mathematics facility than some less well-known liberal arts colleges? Is it not possible some schools set the bar differently for writing than others?

There is no single, objective standard that constitutes "ready for college work." It's ridiculous to pretend otherwise -- and yet that's exactly what this report does.

- Does an analysis based on a dataset with student-reported survey responses and low response rates really justify the sweeping conclusions found here? The dataset used for the report comes from the National Center for Education Statistics' National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS). Which is fine... so long as you acknowledge the limits of the data (p. 57):
4.4.2 Interview Response Rates
Some 85,000 students, approximately 69 percent of the eligible sample of 123,600, completed the NPSAS: 12 interview (table 21). Across institution level and control, response rates ranged from 55 percent for private for-profit less-than 2-year institutions to 82 percent for private nonprofit 4-year doctorate-granting institutions. Potential FTBs [first time beginners] were significantly less likely to respond than other undergraduates (60 percent compared with 73 percent) (χ2 (1, N = 105,931) = 2075.23, p < .0001). Graduate and professional students (83 percent) completed at a higher rate than undergraduate students (66 percent) (χ2 (1, N = 123,601) = 2013.63, p < .0001). [emphasis mine]
In other words: the first time beginners that this study relies on had a response rate of only 60 percent.  That alone ought to merit a few cautionary words in the report, don't you think?

- How many of the students enrolled in "remedial" courses are actually taking them for credit? From the data file documentation (p. G-34):
Taken any remedial courses since high school
Since you completed high school [{if TB4JULY = 0} and through June 30, 2012, did you take {else} have you taken] any remedial or developmental courses to improve your basic skills in English, math, reading, or writing? (Remedial or developmental courses are used to strengthen your skills before you take your first college- level course in math, reading, or other subjects. Students are usually assigned to these courses on the basis of a placement test taken before the school year begins. Often, these courses do not count for credit toward graduation.) [emphasis mine]
In other words: maybe your remedial courses didn't count for credit... but maybe they did. The fact is that we just don't know, given the way this survey is worded. Is it really the worst thing in the world for an undergrad to take a "developmental" course and get credit for it?

- How many of the students enrolled in remedial courses speak English as a second language? This was actually one of my first thoughts as I started the report... and yet, nothing about English language learners is ever mentioned.

Here's a quick table I made at the NCES PowerStats website:

Of the students who speak English at home, 21.3 percent took at least one remedial course. 28.1 percent of Spanish speakers, however, took a remedial course; in other words, there is a significant percentage of students taking college remedial courses who are likely taking them because English isn't their first language. 

English language learners can take 4 to 7 years to achieve academic English proficiency. Did the authors of this report even consider this?

- If we're going to add up the cost of remedial courses (with a highly dubious method), shouldn't we also add up the savings of all the AP and IB courses for which colleges give students credit? Courses paid for by the taxpayers?

In 2014, 2.3 million students sat for 4.2 million AP exams; many more were in the International Baccalaureate program. I can't find (yet) statistics on how this translates into college credits, but it clearly must count for something.

I think it's ridiculous to count room and board toward the cost of remedial education -- people gotta eat, right? But if we're going to go all in, we'd also have to go in the other direction. According to the College Board, taking AP courses increases the chances of getting a degree on time. So how much money has the American K-12 public school system saved undergrads because they got credit for their AP and IB courses, which were paid for by the taxpayers?

Again: did the authors of this report even consider this?

 - Where is any evidence that the Common Core or its aligned tests will better prepare students for college? This part of the report is utterly laughable:
In fact, little noticed is that the price of opposition – and perhaps willful ignorance by some – to Common Core implementation includes how much more students and families across all socioeconomic backgrounds must pay for college due to inadequate high school preparation. At least among those students going directly to college, we find that rising college freshmen and their families are paying extremely high out-of-pocket expenses for prerequisite, zero-credit, remedial coursework that covers content and skills that students should have already learned in high school. [emphasis mine]
Oh, please. How do we know that implementing the Common Core leads to better college preparation? Show me any empirical evidence this is the case. Anything. I dare you.

You can't. As I've shown before, "high standards," by themselves, are not at all predictors of a state's academic outcomes. The so-called "honesty gap" is a fiction. Further: show me any evidence that a state's academic outcomes improve when they use standards-aligned, statewide end-of-course tests. Tennessee has had them for years, yet their college attainment rate is dwarfed by states like New Jersey.

Even if we accept the notion that college remediation rates are too high, the idea that simply implementing the Common Core and administering aligned standardized tests will solve the "problem" is not supported by the slightest shred of evidence.

There's one other thing that comes to my mind when I read a report like this: just how much money is currently being spent to find new and exciting ways to convince the American public our school systems suck -- especially in the suburbs? This report sports the Education Post logo, and we all know Peter Cunningham was given millions and millions of dollars to promote the notion that America's schools stink. How much of that money flowed to this report?

I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm getting sick and tired of this. Those of us who actually show up every day and do the job are being blamed for problems we didn't create and can't be expected to solve on our own. Then we're beat over the head with "research" that is regurgitated to the public via media outlets like the NY Times, which seems to have no interest whatsoever in thinking critically about what its reprints.

ERN's report implies that if we simply "raise" standards and make all students take more standardized tests, our college remediation "problem" will be solved. That argument is so stupid on its face I can't believe anyone would make it. Would you tell a pole vaulter he'll get better if we just raise the bar another few feet? Don't you have to come up with a plan to train him to improve?

Our schools are underfunded and segregated. We all agree that teachers are important, but those who choose to enter the profession pay a compensation penalty. We refuse to seriously address the consequences of our nation's economic inequity on the lives of our children outside of school. We allow the nation's conversation about education to be dominated by those who push for more "choice," when the evidence suggests "choice" creates, at best, extremely small positive effects and, at worst, causes real damage.

Maybe ERN can get their Wall Street patrons to pay for a report about that.

Yeah, that's not really our thing...