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

Friday, November 25, 2016

What Can We Learn About Betsy DeVos From Her Husband's Charter School?

And so it begins:
It is hard to find anyone more passionate about the idea of steering public dollars away from traditional public schools than Betsy DeVos, Donald J. Trump’s pick as the cabinet secretary overseeing the nation’s education system. 
For nearly 30 years, as a philanthropist, activist and Republican fund-raiser, she has pushed to give families taxpayer money in the form of vouchers to attend private and parochial schools, pressed to expand publicly funded but privately run charter schools, and tried to strip teacher unions of their influence. 
A daughter of privilege, she also married into it; her husband, Dick, who ran unsuccessfully for governor of Michigan a decade ago, is heir to the Amway fortune. Like many education philanthropists, she argues that children’s ZIP codes should not confine them to failing schools. 
But Ms. DeVos’s efforts to expand educational opportunity in her home state of Michigan and across the country have focused little on existing public schools, and almost entirely on establishing newer, more entrepreneurial models to compete with traditional schools for students and money. Her donations and advocacy go almost entirely toward groups seeking to move students and money away from what Mr. Trump calls “failing government schools.”
Yes, elections do have consequences, and while I am much more fearful about what is going to happen to our foreign relations, our economy, and our planet under President Trump (can't get used to saying that...), DeVos's nomination makes clear that public schools will also get beat up but good over the next four years.

I'll let others take us through the history of Mrs. DeVos's war on public schools; instead, let me access some data I have immediately available to give us a little insight on what we can expect from the Education Department in the near future.

You see, Betsy and Dick Devos have money -- a lot of money. And while much of it goes into political activity, they do have a few pet projects worth looking at:
MRS. DEVOS: There are probably some funders who believe that charter schools are the be-all and end-all answer. To them, I would simply point out that charter schools take a while to start up and get operating. Meanwhile, there are very good non-public schools, hanging on by a shoestring, that can begin taking students today. Charter schools, on the other hand, take time and resources. Believe me. My husband started a charter high school.
MRS. DEVOS: Yes. Actually, it was my idea for him. He’s a pilot. He flies everything—jets, helicopters, you name it. And, of course, he’s been involved in educational choice for as long as I have. A few years ago, I asked him, “Why don’t you combine your love of flying and your love of education? You could start an aviation school!” And that’s exactly what he did. He started the West Michigan Aviation Academy, a charter high school located at the Gerald Ford Airport in Grand Rapids.
PHILANTHROPY: Talk about a niche.
MRS. DEVOS: It is! Of course, they have high academic standards, in order to prepare students for real-world careers in aviation, whether it’s as pilots, aeronautical engineers, or airport administrators. There are many opportunities in aviation, and if you can interest high-schoolers in those careers, you’ll find that they tend to focus more on their courses in math and science. This is the school’s third year, so we have 9th through 11th grades, adding another grade every year. Next year, they will see the first senior class. [emphasis mine]
It must be nice to be so rich you can just start a school, based on whatever theme you want, just for the hell of it...

West Michigan Aviation Academy is located in Kent County, Michigan; Grand Rapids is the county seat. The school's profile should be an excellent window into what DeVos sees as the ideal education system. In fact, DeVos herself would likely argue comparing WMAA to other schools within the county is more than fair:
PHILANTHROPY: Apart from increasing educational choice, what do you see as especially promising education-reform strategies?
MRS. DEVOS: I’m most focused on educational choice. But, thinking more broadly, what we are trying to do is tear down the mindset that assigns students to a school based solely on the zip code of their family’s home. We advocate instead for as much freedom as possible. One long-term trend that’s working in our favor is technology. It seems to me that, in the internet age, the tendency to equate “education” with “specific school buildings” is going to be greatly diminished. Within the right framework of legislation, that freedom will ultimately be healthy for the education of our kids. 
OK, then -- let's not confine ourselves to comparing WMAA to schools in its immediately neighborhood. Let's, instead, compare it to all of the high schools within its county. We'll start by looking at the school's student population relative to its peers (click to enlarge).

Dick DeVos's charter school has one of the lowest shares of special education students in its county.

Understand that Betsy DeVos is absolutely fine with this. In her opinion, we would be better off segregating children who "struggle" from those who do not:

50:50 "But there's also a contract that parents and students will sign that talks about what the expectations are for personal behavior and commitment to one's education and so forth. And some students self-disqualify, based on what expectations are communicated. 
"It is true that traditional public schools essentially have to take whomever comes through their doors. By the same token, I know that there are a lot of schools of choice in various forms -- whether they're private and parochial schools or charter schools -- that specifically look for students that have been troubled and struggling in another setting."
Let me be clear here: I don't have a problem with educational options for students who do not thrive within the traditional public school system. Nor do I necessarily have a problem with some students who have special needs attending schools specifically set up to address those needs.

But let's get a few things straight: schools that serve special student populations will almost certainly not perform as well on standardized tests as schools that don't serve those students. That does not mean they are "failures"; far from it. Further, schools that serve special education students need more resources to provide their students with an adequate education.

If you set up schools that do not serve many students with special needs, you will inevitably concentrate those students into other schools which must accept those students. DeVos herself admits this -- and yet she still praises the schools, like her husband's charter school, that place a burden on the rest of the system. For example:

Dick DeVos's charter school enrolls relatively few Limited English Proficient students. Again, there may be good cause to set up a school like Newcomers Community (on the far right of the graph), which has a very high LEP percentage. But many of the other traditional public schools are taking at least some LEP students; WMAA is not.

Again, we can debate whether it's a good idea to isolate many of these students from the rest of the community. But we all have to agree -- unless we're totally ignorant of the realities of school finance -- that schools serving more students with special needs must have more resources. One would think, therefore, that a school like WMAA, with its relatively small special education and LEP populations, wouldn't be spending nearly as much as the other high schools in the area.

One would be wrong:

Dick DeVos's charter school spends more on salaries for all employees per pupil than almost every other high school in its county. Hmm... well, Betsy DeVos says she wants to pay "good" teachers more. Maybe all that extra money is going into instructional salaries...

Or not:

Despite its high spending on total salaries, Dick DeVos's charter school spending on instructional salaries is fairly typical. Which leads me to wonder: where is all that extra money going? You'd think Betsy DeVos would be looking into this, because she's simply shocked at how profligate our nation's schools have become (from the video above):
30:09 The reality is our country, as a nation, spends more than every other country in the world per child on education, with the exception of, I think it's Luxembourg, a major economic force in the world (smirks). 
First of all, that's a grossly misleading comparison, for all sorts of reasons. But even if we set that aside, Mrs. DeVos, let me ask you: If we're spending too much on our schools, shouldn't your husband's own charter be showing us how to "do more with less"?

I can tell you on thing for sure: WMAA is not spending its money on maintaining a highly-experienced teaching force.

Teachers gain the most in effectiveness over the first few years of their careers; yet nearly half of the teachers at Dick DeVos's charter school have less than three years of experience. To be fair: WMAA is quite typical for charter schools in Kent County, most of which employ relatively large numbers of inexperienced teachers.

What's the takeaway here?

- Betsy DeVos says American schools are "failing," yet her husband's charter school, which she holds up as an exemplar, educates far fewer special education and LEP students compared to the other schools in the region.

- Betsy DeVos believes America's schools are overspending, yet her husband's charter school spends more on total salary than almost any other school in the region.

- Betsy DeVos says "choice" will unleash innovation and efficiency, yet her husband's charter school doesn't appear to put much of its spending advantage into actual instruction.

- Betsy DeVos says she values good teachers, yet her husband's charter school has a staff where nearly half of the teachers are inexperienced.

High spending schools, enrolling proportionally fewer students with special needs, taught by inexperienced teachers. That's Betsy DeVos's vision for American education -- just ask her husband.

Everyone OK with this?

I am, bigly!

Sunday, November 20, 2016

(Some) Reformsters Normalize Trump: Part II

You can count on Eva Moskowitz to never miss an opportunity to do one of two things:

1) Promote her brand.
2) Hobnob with the wealthy.

So there was no way she was going to pass up this two-fer:
Charter leader Eva Moskowitz hosted Ivanka Trump for a personal tour of a Harlem Success Academy school on Friday.
The morning excursion came one day after Moskowitz removed herself from consideration for U.S. Education Secretary under President-elect Donald Trump, saying she wanted to focus on the burgeoning charter network.
Moskowitz ascended Trump Tower to meet with the president-elect Wednesday but wouldn’t reveal if he offered her the position.
After meeting the clan patriarch, Moskowitz kept it in the family Friday and gave Ivanka a guided tour of Success Academy’s inaugural location in Harlem. The network now boasts a total of 41 schools.
Flanked by security, Moskowitz strolled into the building alongside her freshly established ally as school staffers looked on.
While Trump was greeted warmly at Success Academy, the visit raised eyebrows with employees at the public school it shares space with.
“Yet another downside of co-location,” quipped one staffer. “You’re exposed to this.”
Heh -- I wonder if the president-elect will demand via twitter an apology for saying that...
Moskowitz, an avowed Democrat, said she had voted for Clinton Thursday and had opposed Trump’s election.
But she said his pro-charter stance helped to ease her discomfort and that she hoped to assist him in developing policy that would benefit the sector. (emphasis mine)
Well, thank goodness Moskowitz's "discomfort" with having a xenophobic, unqualified, maniac president -- surrounded by a contemptible cast of racists, homophobes, misogynists, and anti-Semites -- has been "eased."

And all it took was the promise of a few more charter schools!

I wonder if all of Eva's students and their families are as sanguine about the next four years as she is...

I and others have repeatedly gone over the tactics Moskowitz's charter chain, Success Academies, uses to game its scores: massive test prep, attrition without backfilling, a churn-and-burn faculty working very long hours, and tons of extra spending thanks to Eva's ties to Wall Street.

Those ties to big money had already established connections between Trumpworld and Moskowitz's burgeoning charter empire -- but I think there are actually some deeper connections worth noting.

Because as Moskowitz has shamelessly promoted herself, she's invited unwanted scrutiny. Which means that, unlike many other charter chains who carefully control their public image (for example...), we've been able to get a better sense of what actually goes on inside the Success Academies.

And it ain't pretty.

"Got-to-go" lists. High suspension rates, even for the youngest children. Vindictive actions against families who challenge the schools' public image. A learning environment so disturbing staff felt it needed to be recorded surreptitiously. Pressure on staff and families to participate in political rallies.

Sound like anyone you know?

Earlier this year, Gary Rubinstein reviewed several videos SA has since retracted; see herehere, and here. I watched some of the videos before SA scrubbed them, and had a similar reaction as Gary:
This last video is long, but I was most struck by the first two minutes where the teacher (A TFA teacher, actually) is giving a pep talk before the activity, reading some non-fiction passages and answering 7 questions.  In the first two minutes the word “score” is said ten times.  At 4:43 a student mentions the state tests as a reason for learning about reading.  At 5:00 a second student chimes in and mentions the state tests.  These students have been trained well indeed! 
I notice that any time a teacher poses a question to the class, the students seem to have to respond by first rephrasing the question.  So the teacher asks “Why is it important to have a deep understanding of the passage before answering the question?” and the student answers by first saying “It is important to have a deep understanding of the passage before answering the question because …”  It seems very ‘conformist’ to me. 
The students do get opportunity to talk and answer questions and express ideas but this lesson is extremely ‘teacher-driven.’  Also, these are 6th graders doing a reading passage with 7 questions after they’ve already been through the Success Academy program for 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade test prep so this lesson seems a bit unnecessary to me.
As a teacher in a relatively affluent district, I find this emphasis on "teacher-driven" instruction to be quite foreign. Our evaluation rubrics are set up in a way that promotes student-driven instruction: we get good reviews when our kids are more active participants in their own schooling. SA, however, seems to put a heavy premium on authority: the teacher is to be given unquestioning, unconditional deference while the student gives up almost all agency in her own learning.

I find this comports perfectly with Donald Trump's worldview. Why wouldn't a guy whose catchphrase is "You're fired!" love a school with a got-to-go list? Why wouldn't a guy who thinks it's fine to threaten journalists love a school that releases student records when parents publicly complain? Why wouldn't a guy who is already leveraging his future office to drum up business love a school that uses its students as political props to gain advantages?

Eva Moskowitz doesn't seem bothered by any of this, or the many other troubling aspects of a Trump administration; in fact, it appears that she and Trump are largely on the same page. She's already normalized an authoritarian style of education for students of color; why wouldn't she also normalize the president-elect's behaviors by going over to Trump Tower and kissing his ring?

Trump is going to be a powerful ally in Moskowitz's ongoing war with Mayor Bill de Blasio. This "longtime Democrat" need only avert her gaze away from all of the further outrages The Donald will foist upon this country and, specifically, her students in the days ahead.

Normalizing deplorable conduct is, for some, a small price to pay to get everything you want...

Eva says: "I stand ready to support his efforts in any way I can."

Saturday, November 19, 2016

(Some) Reformsters Normalize Trump: Part I

There's nothing we teachers love more than a good hectoring by think-tank types who believe we have magical powers over our students' feelings:
We’re no fans of the president-elect, whose behavior has frequently been appalling, whose policy ignorance is vast, and who appears to lack any coherent philosophy of government. That said, we are astonished that so many educators, schools and colleges chose to treat his election as reason to alarm their students and to suggest that only a Democratic victory would have aligned with the nation’s values. 
We understand that the country is divided and that some kids share their parents’ fears of potentially being deported or losing their health insurance. We’ve surely no objection to teachers comforting fearful children. That’s a responsibility of all adults who care for them. But we don’t believe that educators are supposed to make kids scared or teach that there is a right outcome and a wrong one to a presidential election. And we’re puzzled to see so many educators – and even education journalists – imagine that Trump’s election can only be understood through the prism of racism and xenophobia.
Clearly, the kids are only upset because their teachers are riling them up! It's not like the president-elect has called for mass deportations, or a Muslim registry, or sent his surrogates out to discuss the precedent of WWII Japanese internment camps, or appointed an unrepentant misogynist and racist as his senior advisor, or an unrepentant racist as Attorney General, or a homophobe as vice president, or a religious bigot as national security advisor...

Of course, Checker Finn and Rick Hess are "no fans" of Trump; they have a difference of opinion with Trumpworld, dontcha know! I mean, sure, there might be some racism and xenophobia at work here, but teachers need to understand that you have to get over that in a classroom. Teach the kids about the electoral college instead! That'll make them feel better...

At the risk of repeating what Larry Ferlazzo and Valerie Strauss and Kevin Carey have already written, the notion that somehow teachers are complicit in stirring up children's unwarranted anxieties is ridiculous. Some very ugly forces in the country are feeling validated and acting on what they perceive as an electoral vindication (considering Trump lost the popular vote, that trick takes a special kind of self-delusion).

We've already had plenty of disturbing incidents in schools (including, sadly, my old high school) in the wake of Trump's election. Countering this outflow of hate with a snappy lecture about electoral upsets since 1800 isn't a serious response; in fact, all it does is normalize Trumpworld's anti-American values and behaviors.

I'm sorry to tell the beltway boys this, but if educators occasionally have to cross some imaginary line of Checker and Rick's choosing to enter the "political" realm so they can help their students, so be it. Like most teachers, I try very hard to respect my students' and their families' political, religious, and personal beliefs, even if they are diametrically opposed to mine.

What I won't do, and what any teacher worth her salt would never do, is stand silent while children feel threatened -- especially when they have a rational basis for their fears.

I'm not going to tell a gay student he shouldn't be concerned that the vice president-elect thinks we should spend taxpayer funds to pray-the-gay-away. I'm not going to tell a student she really shouldn't worry that the president-elect is a hot mess of contradictions when it comes to whether he believes she should control her own body. I'm not going to say to parents that their fears about whether their family's religious practices will haunt their child are without merit.

And I'm certainly not going to pretend Hess and Finn's false equivalencies are anything other than absurd:
Well. While progressives may not believe it, here are some of the students who might have had cause to fear a Clinton victory:
  • Evangelicals and Catholics whose religious schools and colleges are threatened by federal authorities for non-compliance with directives related to gender and sexual identity.
  • College students muzzled by progressive speech codes or sanctioned by “bias response teams” for posting Trump signs or celebrating America as a “melting pot,” and well aware that a Clinton administration would embrace such restrictions.
  • Kids bullied or in schools made chaotic by miscreants who would have been suspended if not for directives issued by the Obama Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights.
  • The children of police, who watched Clinton campaign alongside individuals who had called for acts of violence against uniformed officers.
  • Children in charter schools who understood that a Clinton win would be bad news for their school and might lead to its closure.
  • College students fearful of being falsely convicted by kangaroo campus courts and publicly pilloried or expelled under the Obama administration’s Star Chamber approach to sexual harassment, which has compelled universities to abandon the basic tenets of due process.
The anxieties of those young people would most certainly have been ignored had Clinton won. Indeed, imagine the Bill Maher gibes that would have followed had a single religious college canceled classes so students could mourn a Clinton victory.
Yeah, last I checked, Clinton wasn't seriously considering a registry for evangelical immigrants, and Bill Maher was a guy who said occasionally funny stuff on TV...

The idea that discomfort with Clinton's policies on charter schools and campus hate speech is somehow equivalent to fears of installing an anti-Semite in the highest levels of the White House is exactly the sort of normalizing of Trumpworld that we can expect from the likes of Hess and Finn in the days ahead. They sense they are finally going to get everything they want: "market-based" education, the end of compulsory teachers union dues, unrestrained charter school expansion, and so on.

If the price to be paid for all these ideological goodies is having a maniac in the White House, surrounded by a bunch of homophobic, xenophobic, racist misogynists... well, sometimes you just gotta suck it up.

Just ask Eva Moskowitz. More in a bit...

Hess & Finn: "We're no fans..."

Thursday, November 10, 2016

My Speech at the NJEA Convention

I had an entire set of slides ready to go for today. I was going to talk about things that I believe are important: school funding, teacher evaluation, testing, charter schools, unions, tenure, seniority, local control, identity, race, class, gender, sexual orientation…

I still think these things are important, maybe now more than ever. I still want to take a few minutes to talk about some of them.

But I would be seriously remiss if I stood before you here today – the first one of your colleagues to address you as the keynote speaker in a long, long time – and pretended that what happened on Tuesday isn’t the first and foremost topic we need to discuss.

Those of you who’ve heard me speak know I hate using prepared remarks. I’m a jazz musician, and I like to play off of lead sheets, not prepared scores. I like riffing on ideas and playing around with motifs. But I decided I needed to write this part of my speech out, because I want to be very clear in what I think needs to be said.

Let’s get the least important stuff out of the way first. Last year, the Supreme Court, in a 4-4 decision, decided not to hear an appeal of Friedrichs v CTA, the California court case that challenged the notion of compulsory dues for public employee unions.

The vote was only 4-4 because earlier in the year, Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the most conservative justices to sit on the court in the modern era, died suddenly, leaving the court deadlocked. Tied decisions uphold lower court rulings, so even if Friedrichs had gone to trial and the vote was 4-4, it would have upheld compulsory dues.

Friedrichs sought to overturn decades of precedent. Abood v. Detroit Board of Education was the decision that originally conceived of mandatory union dues. The concept is simple: if employees don’t have to pay dues, and a union bargains on their behalf, “free-riders” can enjoy all the benefits of higher wages and other gains due to collective bargaining without pitching in to cover the costs.

Abood said, however, that employees can opt-out of paying for activities that don’t directly have to do with bargaining. That’s the system we have here in New Jersey; you can opt-out of paying that non-negotiation share of your NJEA dues if you wish.

There is no question about what is going to happen over the next year or so regarding compulsory dues. The Republican Senate has held up the nomination of Merrick Garland, an extremely well-qualified and moderate candidate to replace Scalia, for an unprecedented months-long period. He will not be a Supreme Court justice – at least, not any time soon. Donald Trump will very quickly nominate a new candidate, and he will fly through the Senate nomination process. The Democrats will try to filibuster; they will not succeed, even if that means the Republicans throw out years of Senate rules and precedence.

Soon after this new justice is confirmed, a new court case will be filed along the lines of Friedrichs.  I’m not a lawyer so I’m not sure of the technicalities, but the people who bring the suit, backed by a group of extremely wealthy, anti-union backers, will find a way to push the suit through the lower courts and directly to the Supreme Court.

The ruling will abolish mandatory dues for public unions. This will happen well before the midterm elections.

This will be an existential threat for public employee unions; however, it will NOT be their certain death. Public employee unions – and especially teachers unions, who have historically been at the front lines of protecting worker rights, particularly those of women – must, however, change how they do business.

This union here, the New Jersey Education Association, will be one of the prime targets in the new anti-teachers union era. This union has stood strong for teachers and proudly used its political and other capital to advocate for the best interests of its members, which also – and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise – happens to be the best interests of this state’s students and their families.

I am constantly amazed and appalled when people try to make the argument that somehow teacher work conditions and student learning conditions aren’t the same thing. Middle-class wages with decent benefits are necessary if we are to draw talented young people into the profession.

Job protections, including tenure, are necessary to protect the interests of taxpayers and students, who count on teachers to serve as their advocates within the school system. Safe, clean, well-resourced schools make teaching an attractive profession, but they also lead to better learning outcomes for children.

Teachers unions are the advocates for these necessary pre-conditions for student learning. Teachers unions are the political force that compels politicians to put necessary funds into public schools. Teachers unions are the groups who make the conditions of teaching better, ensuring that this nation will have a stable supply of educators for years to come.

It is not an exaggeration to say that right now, public education hangs in the balance. Teacher workplace rights are in serious jeopardy. The ability of NJEA to protect the future of New Jersey’s outstanding public education system – by any measure, one of the finest in the world, in spite of this state’s recent abdication of its role to fully fund its schools – is under dire threat.

There is only one course to take: we must organize. We must stand strong, we must stand together, and we must refuse to give into desperation. Our families, our colleagues, and our students have always counted on us when they needed us the most – we must not now, nor ever, stop fighting for them or yes, that’s right, for ourselves.

I want every county EA president to raise your hand. I want you to tell these dedicated people right now: “I’ve got your back!’ Say it: “I’ve got your back!”

I want every local EA president to raise your hand. I want you to tell these people, who are the spine of this great organization: “I’ve got your back!”

We will not stop organizing. We will not stop fighting for our public schools. We will not give in to the nihilism and cynicism that sadly defined our country on Tuesday. We will stand strong, we will stand proud, and we will band together to fight for each other and our kids. That’s the only way to win. It’s always been the only way to win.

I told you this was the least important thing I need to talk about right now. Don’t get me wrong: this is very, very important. But we need to talk about something even more important, and that’s our students.

This was, by far, the ugliest election of my lifetime. It’s undoubtedly one of the ugliest America has ever seen. The violence, the racism, the sexism, the homophobia, the class warfare, the xenophobia, the outright lying, the contempt of science, the contempt of decency, the contempt of civility, were at a level I never thought I would have seen in this great country as it journeys through the 21st Century.

By the way – and I say this knowing this is a room full of teachers -- anyone who tells you this ugliness was happening equally on both sides is not accessing higher-order thinking skills.

No one should think for one second that our children have not been deeply, deeply affected by this outpouring of hatred. It is worst of all for any child who has been transformed into an “other” by the rhetoric that had infected this campaign.

I fear for any child who shows up to school after the election wearing a hijab. I fear for any child who wears a hoodie and walks to school through a neighborhood that doesn’t include people who look like him. I fear for any child who is not conforming with our society’s preconceptions about gender. I fear for any child who was not born within our borders, yet who loves the promise of America as much as any of her native sons and daughters.

The only thing that can ever hope to protect these children is the love of the adults in their lives who know better. If you know better, you can no longer sit on the sidelines. If you know better, but you stay silent, your silence will become violence.

I pray that I am wrong about Donald Trump. I pray he will grow into his position. I pray he will find some measure of conscience, some level of decency, within himself and rise to the enormous task ahead of him.

But even if he does, his campaign has emboldened dark forces within our democracy. We saw them in those ugly, violent rallies. We saw them when the so-called “alt-right” said and wrote unspeakably horrible words, spewed across our media and the Internet.

Those forces will have absolutely no qualms about taking out all their anger and all their hatred on our children. We, my fellow teachers, are an integral part of those children’s defense.

We can no longer tolerate racially biased classroom and disciplinary practices within our schools: the stakes have just become too high. We can no longer tolerate racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic language that, yes, sometimes, sadly, comes from our less-enlightened colleagues: the stakes are now too high. We cannot stand by and allow one kind of schooling to be foisted on one kind of student while another enjoys all the benefits of a truly meaningful education: the stakes are now too high.

And we can not, we will not, we will refuse to allow politicians to use the alleged “failures” of our urban students to deprive them of adequate funding; to deprive them of a broad, rich curriculum; to deprive them of experienced teachers who look like their students; to deprive them of beautiful, healthy, well-resourced school facilities; and to deprive them of lives outside of school that are free of economic injustice and racial hatred.

The stakes are too damn high.

I’m not an economist, I’m not climate scientist, I’m not a civil rights lawyer, and I’m not a foreign policy expert. But I don’t have to be one to know that we may be in for very dark times. The economic plans that are likely to become our national policy have been widely derided by even the most conservative economists. Climate change is real and we may already be past the point where we can reverse the heating of our planet.

Our civil liberties have been under assault since 9-11; now, they are in even greater peril. And on Tuesday our world may well have become far more dangerous. If there is another leader of a democratic country who has said that he is fine with the use of nuclear weapons, I don’t know who he is.

I pray I am wrong, but when I rationally consider the future, everything tells me that our students may well soon be living in a world that is less prosperous, less healthy, less free, and less safe.

They will need us more than ever. They will be hungry and scared and stressed. They will be confused, because, even as we preach to them the importance of self-sacrifice and modesty, this country rewards too many who have lived lives of gluttony and arrogance.

We must be there for them. We must never stop fighting for them. We must never stop believing in them.

There is no group better suited to the task of standing up for these beautiful, deserving children than you. You are New Jersey teachers. You are the smartest of the smart and the toughest of the tough. You grade 120 essays in a weekend. You make a close loss for a 1-and-15 team seem like the greatest victory in sports history. You wipe noses when others cower in fear. You make first graders beam with pride like Picasso himself when they see their art displayed on the walls of your school. You find the right words for a scared 12-year-old who can’t understand the world around her.

And, for the last seven years, you have continued to do your jobs – and do them well – even as you were denied the resources to do them, and as explicit promises made to you were broken.

There is no one capable of greater commitment, capable of greater achievement, and capable of greater love than a New Jersey teacher.

I am proud to stand with you. I am proud to call you my colleagues. I am proud to call you my friends. I am proud of this great union, and I will proudly work beside you in our struggle to defend our schools, our profession, and our beautiful, deserving students.

Thank you.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Thoughts On Question 2 and Charter School Expansion


As we enter the final days of the election, the debates have intensified -- and not just over whether we should give the nuclear codes to an unqualified, misogynistic, racist maniac...

In Massachusetts, a battle is being waged over Question 2, a proposal to lift a statewide cap on the expansion of charter schools. Like many of the debates over charter expansion and educational "choice," much of the rhetoric revolves around the ostensible "gains" that charter students make compared to students who are in public district schools.

But the Q2 debate is unique: a group of academics, many affiliated with MIT, have been following the expansion of charter schools in and around Boston for years. I can't think of another region where charter schools have been studied so closely using econometric methods. This work has been at the heart of the policy discussion of Q2; it's cited repeatedly in reports about the ballot initiative.

And the economists who conducted this research have been happy to help make the case that their studies support lifting the cap:
As policies are debated, we often have to rely on research that is ill-suited to the task. Its methodology is frequently too weak to form a firm foundation for policy. Or, the population, design, and setting of the research study are so different from the policy in question that the findings cannot be easily extrapolated.
This is not one of those times. We have exactly the research we need to judge whether charter schools should be permitted to expand in Massachusetts. This research exploits random assignment and student-level, longitudinal data to examine the effect of charter schools in Massachusetts. [emphasis]
Do we? Do these studies tell us exactly what we need to know about whether Massachusetts should lift its cap on charter expansion?

Because simply showing that charter school students in Boston get better test scores than similar students in the Boston Public Schools is not, I'm afraid, nearly enough evidence to support lifting the cap. In fact, the more time I spend looking at this research, the more questions I have about whether Massachusetts can reasonably expect charter expansion to improve its schools:

- Are the students who enter charter lotteries equivalent to the students who don't? This is a critical limitation of these studies that is often ignored by those who cite them. The plain fact is that the very act of entering your child into a charter school lottery marks you as different from the rest of the population; you are taking an affirmative step the majority of public school parents are not taking in an attempt to improve your child's education. There's a real likelihood your family is not equivalent to a family that doesn't enter the lottery.

Here's a diagram from a report I coauthored with University of Wisconsin professor Julie Mead:

If the target population is all Boston students, we have to acknowledge the samples from the lottery studies are missing many of them. And it's not just students who don't enter the lottery; what about students who enter, don't earn a seat, and subsequently move to, say, a private school?*

Here's another look at the issue. This is quick and dirty but it makes my point:

It's not always clear how to calculate the overall target population in these studies; I used the Ns that made the most sense to me.** But even if we're not quite sure about the exact numbers, the scope of the issue is clear: the study sample is only a fraction of the total population. Which would be fine -- if the sample was randomly drawn from the target population.

But clearly, that's not the case: The sample is self-selected, because families have to choose to enter the lottery. Which means the results of the study can only be generalized to that population, because there may be characteristics of the students in the sample that are different from the entire Boston population and affect test scores.

Now, there is one thing researchers can do to mitigate this problem: compare the measurable student characteristics of the study sample and the target population. But there's an issue with doing this, because the metrics used to measure things like economic disadvantage aren't really up to the task.

Ironically, we know this thanks to the work of Sue Dynarski, one of the authors of the lottery studies and the coauthor of the paragraph above. According to Dynarski, crude dichotomous measures like free lunch-eligibility mask significant differences in socio-economic status. So we can't truly determine whether the family characteristics of students in charters are equivalent to those in BPS.

But even if we could, I would still say it wouldn't tell us what we really need to know. It's the unobserved characteristics that probably count here, especially parental involvement and support. Charters often require things like family contracts and time commitments that not all parents can adhere to. The only practical way to account for this is random assignment to treatment: not after entering the lottery, but before.

- Are the effects of charter schools due to their "charteriness"? All of the above said, I still think it's clear that something is going on in Boston's charters. If, however, they are going to be scaled up, it's important to ask not just who gets the gains, but why.

Many of the MIT lottery studies cite Thernstrom and Thernstrom's No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning for a qualitative description of the inner workings of charters. The truth, I'm sorry to say, is that this book is not a serious piece of research; it's a political document whose methods would be questionable if they were actually documented.

In the most recent lottery study (Cohodes, Setren & Walters, 2016), the authors describe Boston's charters this way:
The potential for sustained success at scale is of particular interest for “No Excuses” charter schools, a recent educational innovation that has demonstrated promise for low-income urban students. These schools share a set of practices that includes high expectations, strict discipline, frequent teacher feedback, high-intensity tutoring, and data-driven instruction.
First of all, how do we know the charters are any different than the traditional public schools regarding these school practices? Angrist, Pathak & Walters (2012) surveyed charters for their practices, which is fine... except we don't really know how they compare to the public district schools. If we're going to ascribe effects to these practices, we should know how they differ across our treatment and control schools.

We can say, however, that the charters have longer school days and years. This is probably a significant contributor to any effects the charters show. But is it necessary to expand charters to lengthen instructional time? Can't Boston just do that in its district schools?

Probably not easily, because the charters have another big difference with BPS schools:

From Cohodes, Setren & Walters (2016). The teachers at the charters studied have far less experience than BPS teachers. In fact, the charters don't have even one teacher over the age of 49. As I've noted in my studies of New Jersey charters, a staff with less experience means less expense; that, in turn, means you can pay staff more to have more instructional time, but still keep your overall costs low.

There's a good argument to be made that it's unrealistic to expect public schools, subject to collective bargaining agreements, to deploy this staffing strategy. Which brings up my third question...

- Can the strategies that make charters "successful" be brought up to scale? Here's a graph based on the table above.

The study only looks at middle schools, and the BPS number above appears to be for all grades within the district. Still, the scope of the issue is apparent: as the charters take more market share, they are going to have to hire a lot more teachers. Will they still be able to attract young, educated people to work in their schools? And will they retain their current teachers, or will they churn-and-burn their staffs? If there's going to be a lot of turnover, the demand for new staff will be even greater than expansion by itself would require.

Boston is renowned for its colleges, so there are plenty of well-educated young people in its workforce. But can the city really continue to supply what the charters need for their staffs if the cap is lifted?

Furthermore, is this good for the teaching profession, and students in urban schools, in the long run? Does Boston really want to be known as a place that hires many inexperienced teachers that leave after a few years? We know teachers gain in effectiveness as they gain more experience; is churn-and-burn really a good model that deserves replication on a wide scale?

In addition: as I pointed out before, there are patterns of significant cohort attrition within Boston's charter high schools:

There are two possibilities for this pattern. First, the charters may be shedding students, which calls into question the viability of expanding their enrollment. However, as a reader of mine recently argued, maybe the charters are retaining students, giving them an extra year of enrollment to catch them up. OK...

Is Boston ready to spend much more on its schools so it can retain even more students? How much more will this cost? Has anyone looked into this?

This last question is yet another reason I can't agree with Dynarski when she says we have exactly the research we need to be confident Q2 will lead to better education for all of Boston's students. Yes, I agree that the charters are working for many, if not most, of the students they enroll -- at least so far as we can measure based on test scores and other quantifiable outcomes. But there are serious questions as to whether lifting the cap will bring gains that are worth the costs -- questions that cannot be answered by lottery studies.

And, yes, there are costs. As this clever model developed by a couple of public school parents shows, districts can't easily absorb the costs of charter expansion, which is why the state offers extra funds. Unfortunately, the state has not fully funded this program in recent years; if they can't find the money now, how will they find even more funding in the future?

We know that charters place fiscal burdens on hosting districts, largely because they educate students who would otherwise go to private school and they replicate administrative and other costs by creating multiple systems of school governance. We know that charters are not held to the same standards of transparency and accountability as public district schools, because they are not state actors. This has created major problems in other states, incentivizing behaviors that are not in the public's interest.

Is it not possible, given all this, that Boston's charters are getting good results because of the cap? That limiting their expansion has increased quality and stopped the abuses that have plagued states like Michigan, Ohio, and Florida, which have let charter expansion run wild?

I've seen plenty of folks on social media cite Cohodes, Setren and Walters (2016) as proof that charter expansion will work in Massachusetts. I'd point out that the study is only measuring effects in middle schools, and, again, the enrollments are only a fraction of what they will be if the cap is removed.

This chart uses data from the same year as the last year of their study. The high school market share is still quite small, and a significant portion is in Horace Mann charters, which are controlled by the hosting district. It may well be that the cap has kept Boston from reaching a tipping point where the damages wrought by rampant charter expansion can no longer be contained.

I want to be clear about something: I think these lottery studies are well worth considering. I have great respect for the economists who have been doing this research. Josh Angrist's books sit on my shelf (well, OK, my Kindle).

But the work they've done is limited, so no -- we don't have exactly the research we need to state confidently that lifting the cap will be worth the costs. You wouldn't know that to read the popular press accounts of these studies, but it's true nonetheless.

I understand Boston's children can't wait any longer for real improvement in their schools and their lives. But lifting the cap largely on the basis of these limited studies is not, in my opinion, smart public policy. The good people of Massachusetts have every right to question whether voting yes on Q2 is in the best interests of students both in and out of charters, and to consider the limits of the evidence presented to them as they make their decision.

See you in the Infinite Corridor...

ADDING: I can always count on a group of reformy types to criticize my stuff without apparently reading it. Just to be clear:

According to the NCES Private School Survey, there are 4,558 students enrolled in private schools with a Boston address. It is, of course, impossible to know how many of those had applied to charter schools and then, after not being offered a seat, enrolled in a private school. But, as Bifulco and Reback (2012) note (p.2):
Charter schools can generate excess costs for a number of reasons. First, charter schools can be expected to attract some number of students from private schools (Buddin, 2012; Toma, Zimmer, & Jones, 2006; Ludner, 2007). The additional resources that charter schools use to educate these students are not necessarily new resources from the point of view of society. Nonetheless, transfers from private to charter schools do shift educational costs from the private schools and their parents to the public sector and taxpayers, and thus, create fiscal impacts for public education systems. [emphasis mine]
You can, of course, dispute the scale of this. But there is a sizable population of private school students in Boston. It's hardly unreasonable to bring this up.


I see I've kicked up quite a bees nest among economists and others who are inclined to support Q2. Let me add a few thoughts from some other folks on the utility of charter school lottery studies.

McEwan and Olsen (2010), from Taking measure of charter schools: Better assessments, better policymaking, better schools. R&L Education. (p.103).

Here's Bruce Baker:
The other type of study is often referred to as meeting the gold standard – as being a randomized study – or lottery-based study. It is assumed, since these studies are declared golden, that they therefore necessarily resolve both above concerns. And it is possible, that if these studies truly were randomized (or even could be) that they could resolve the above concerns. But they don’t (resolve these concerns), because they aren’t (really randomized).
First, what would a randomized study look like? Well, it would have to look something like this – where we randomly take a group of kids – with consent or even against their will – and assign them to either the charter or traditional school option. The mix of kids in each group is truly random and checked to ensure that the two groups are statistically representative (using better than the usual measures) of the population.  Then, we have to make sure that all other “non-treatment” factors are equivalent, including access to facilities, resources, etc. That is, anything that we don’t consider to be a feature of the treatment itself. This is especially important if we want to know whether expanding elements of the treatment are likely to work for a representative population.  This is a randomized, controlled trial.
So then, what’s randomized in a randomized charter school study? Or lottery-based study?  One might sketch out a lottery-based study as follows:

Here, the study is really only randomized at one point in a long complicated sequence – the lottery itself. Students and families have to decide they want to enter the lottery – that they are interested in attending a charter school, which will ultimately affect the composition of the charter school enrollments. Then, among those selecting into the pool, students are randomly chosen to attend the charters along side others randomly chosen to attend (from a non-random pool of lottery participants), and the others randomly selected, to go, well, somewhere else… with a group of peers non-randomly chosen to end up in that same somewhere else.
So, while the studies compare the achievement of kids randomly chosen to those randomly un-chosen (thus comparing only those who tried to get a charter slot), the kids are shuffled into settings that are anything but randomly assigned, containing potentially vastly different peer groups and a variety of other differences in setting. Add to this the likelihood of non-random student attrition, further altering peer group over time.
As such, I very much prefer these studies to be referred to as “lottery-based” rather than randomized or experimental. These studies are randomized at only one step in this process, potentially conflating setting/peer effects with treatment effects, thus substantially compromising policy implications.
As with those matching studies, the types of variables used to check and/or correct for peer composition and non-randomness of attrition are often too imprecise to be useful.

Diane Ravitch posted about this post, as she often does with my stuff. Dave Leonhard of the NY Times, who I link to above, tweets back:
The entire start of this blog post is based on a falsehood: The study compares lottery winners to lottery losers, not to full population.
Yes, that is exactly what I say above, and that's the problem: you can't generalize to the full population when you have a self-selected sample, because self-selection may correlate with an unobserved variable that biases your estimates. The best you can do is compare the sample to the population on observed variables -- but if those are crude or don't correlate with the unobserved variable, they aren't going to be up to the job.

* There's also the matter of compliance with treatment and the use of instrumental variables in these studies' regressions. It's a complex issue that I'll have more to say about later.

** The studies will give "BPS students" as a number for comparison, but it isn't always clear whether charter enrollments are included. I tried to get this as accurate as I could, but, as always, caveat regressor.