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

Thursday, July 2, 2020

How Schools Work: A Practical Guide for Policymakers During a Pandemic

This post, unlike most of the others on this blog, does not rely on data analysis or research reviews. It is, instead, the observations of someone who has spent decades working in PreK-12 schools.

I'm offering it because I've read and heard a lot of commentary from a lot of people who seem to think we can quickly prepare for reopening schools in the fall, as long as we have some flexibility and maybe some extra resources. I'll be the first to say (along with others) that more funding is absolutely required if we're going to have any chance of reopening schools.

But even if schools get all of the money they need, and staff show remarkable ingenuity and creativity, there are some basic, inconvenient truths we need to face about how schools work before we claim we can reopen safely this fall. So, in no particular order:

- Children, especially young children, cannot be expected to stay six feet away from everyone else during an entire school day. Sorry, even if a school has the room, it's just not going to happen. One adult can't keep eyes on a couple/few dozen children every second of every hour of every day to ensure they don't drift into each others' spaces. You certainly can't do that and teach. And you can't expect children to self-police. Young children are simply not developmentally able to remind themselves over seven hours not to get near each other.

- Children cannot be expected to wear masks of any kind for the duration of a school day. At some point, the mask has to come off; even adult medical professionals take breaks. And anyone who's worked with young children knows they will play with their masks and not even realize they're doing it. It's simply unrealistic to expect otherwise.

- The typical American school cannot accommodate social distancing of their student population for the duration of the school day. Schools were designed for efficiency, which means crowded hallways and tight classrooms. Schools are expected to foster student and teacher interactions, which means close quarters. Expecting every students and staff member to maintain a 3 foot bubble* around themselves is not realistic given the way most school buildings are laid out.

- School staff do not generally have isolated spaces in their workplaces where they can stay when not working with children. I don't have an office; I have a classroom. I'm only by myself when the kids leave... but everything they breathed on and touched and coughed on stays. I'm not an epidemiologist so I don't know exactly what the consequences of this are, but I suspect it matters.

- School buses cannot easily accommodate social distancing, nor can they easily adjust to accommodate staggered school sessions. School buses aren't as big as you remember (when's the last time you were on one?). Social distancing is the last thing school bus engineers had in mind when designing the things. In addition: school districts often stagger the times of bus routes, usually by grade level, to get all the kids to school (this is why high school often starts much earlier than elementary school). If you go to split shifts, you are conceivably expanding a bus's routes from, say, 6 to 12.** Unless you greatly expand the school day and pay a lot more for busing staff, it's not going to work.

- Like every other workforce, school staff have many people who have preconditions that make them susceptible to becoming critically ill when exposed to Covid-19. The big worry I keep reading about is age -- but that's just the start. Three-fourths of the school workforce are women, and many are in their childbearing years; are we prepared to have pregnant teachers working? What about teachers who think they might be pregnant? And then all the pre-existing conditions...

- Schools are only one part of the childcare system in this country. The big worry seems to be that if we don't get kids to school, parents can't get back to work. But for many (most?) parents, the school day only covers part of the work day. Before- and after-school programs are a big part of the childcare system. Are we going to be able to enforce all the same restrictions on children during these hours that we will during the school day?

- Unsupervised adolescents cannot be expected to socially distance outside of the school day if schools are reopened. If we've got adults showing up at bars without masks in the middle of a frightening peak in Covid-19 cases, what do you think teenagers are going to do when school's done for the day? Especially if we leave them at home, unsupervised, learning remotely while their parents work?

- Teachers are trained and experienced within an area of certification; moving them out of that area will lead to less effective instruction. When you become a teacher, you get a certification -- maybe even two or three -- in a particular area. Each certification requires coursework, and often a placement as a student teacher, in that area. A secondary math teacher, for example, has to study math at a certain level, and then learn how to teach it. You can't expect a kindergartner teacher who's been trained in early childhood education to do that job -- and vice versa.***

- Even within an area of certification, moving teachers on short notice to a new subject or grade will lead to less effective instruction. How hard can it be to move from teaching 4th Grade to 3rd? More than you'd think. Every grade has its own curriculum, materials, assessments, etc. Teachers spend years developing lessons that often can't be transferred to another grade level or subject; a choir teacher, for example, can't just take her lessons over to the school band, even if she is a great music teacher. Expecting teachers to move quickly between grades or within areas and not face a learning curve defies common sense.

- Moving a teacher to another school building is often difficult. First, there's the stuff: the materials, the equipment, and so on. Then there are the relationships, often built over years. These things matter; they are the foundation that builds a school into a community of learning. Breaking them apart has real consequences.

- Many schools had a hard time getting qualified people to become substitute teachers before the pandemic. It doesn't pay particularly well, has little to no job security, and requires at least some college credit (in many states). Now districts have to find workers who are willing to do the job in a school full of potential virus transmitters.

I'm leaving out a lot, but this should be enough to at least give everyone pause. Operating schools during a pandemic will not be easy. I'm not at the point yet where I'm saying we shouldn't try, but we have got to think carefully and challenge assumptions before we open the schoolhouse doors this fall.

And we shouldn't even consider opening without substantially more money. More on that in a bit.

* It's already become a source of confusion: if each kid has a 3 foot bubble, and two bubbles bump against each other, the kids are 6 feet away from each other. Right?

** Say a bus does an elementary, middle and high school route every day; that's 6 trips, because there's pick up and drop off. Now double that.

*** In fact -- and I say this as someone who has taught at all grade levels from Pre-K to 12 -- it is, in my opinion, more difficult for a secondary teacher to learn how to teach young children than the other way around.

Friday, June 26, 2020

What an Actual School Reopening Plan Looks Like

Several states, particularly in the Northeast, have begun releasing their plans to reopen K-12 schools. Connecticut, for example, just released a plan yesterday; New Jersey is scheduled to release one today.

I'm going to hold off commenting on any individual state's plans for now. Instead, I'm going to sketch out what I think a statewide plan for reopening schools should look like. I won't pretend this is comprehensive, and I'm happy to accept any comments or criticisms. But I do think we need to set some standards for what states need to do to help school districts get ready for reopening in the fall.

And so, here are the features at a minimum that I believe a real statewide school reopening plan must have:

- Minimal requirements for staff and student personal protective equipment (PPE), as provided by school districts (as a matter of equity, no plan should require staff and students to supply their own PPE).

- Clear guidelines and minimal standards for implementing social distancing, mask wearing, and other actions to mitigate Covid-19 spread. In other words, if there is social distancing in the plan, there has to be a minimal distance that must be maintained at all times. If masks are required, the plan should spell out the type of mask (N95, surgical, cloth, etc.).

- A separate set of guidelines and standards for students with disabilities, including medically fragile students and students with profound cognitive impairments. Obviously there has to be some flexibility here as there is great variation in student needs, but minimal standards have to be included.

- Clearly outlined PPE requirements and best practices for staff working with these students. Many times these staff have to deal with things like toileting; I would argue the standards for safety here should be on par with those for medical personnel.

- Guidelines and minimal standards for transportation to and from school.

- Guidelines and minimal standards for before- and after-school childcare providers that work on school grounds and/or in cooperation with districts.

- Same guidelines for extra-curriculars, including specific rules for various sports practices and competitions, and performing arts rehearsals & performances.

- A clear set of guidelines for when schools must close due to the threat of Covid-19 spread, including minimal standards to be met before schools can reopen. For example: must a school close if a case of non-symptomatic Covid-19 is confirmed? For how long?

- Standards for district plans for fully-online instruction in case of school closure; this must include minimal standards for student and staff access to devices and broadband internet.

- A plan to centralize procurement of PPE and other necessary materials so as to avoid bidding wars between states and school districts.

- An estimated per district budget for implementing all of the above.


Some might argue that school districts need flexibility to implement plans to reopen their schools. That may be, but that doesn't diminish the need for districts to adhere to standards for reopening. States require districts to meet certain standards when developing curriculum or hiring staff; they should also have to meet standards for student and staff safety during a pandemic. 

Further, setting standards for safely operating in a pandemic allows states and districts to develop budgets, and then develop plans to fund those budgets. This is precisely what should be happening now, during the summer months: states should be estimating the costs of reopening safely, and implementing plans to raise the funds to do so. 

This can't wait -- it has to happen now. Districts need to know what they are expected to do. They can't set different standards; if they do, they run the risk of fostering inequity in student safety across different districts. This will only make it more difficult to contain and manage the spread of the pandemic. And districts do not have the capacities to make public health decisions unilaterally; they need guidance and support from public health officials who are experienced and knowledgeable in these areas of public policy.

Setting standards and budgets in state plans now would also have the benefit of forcing the issue on to the national stage. As Bruce Baker, Drew Atchison and I have noted, only the federal government has the capacity to raise revenues on the scale needed to safely operate schools over the next several years. Congress should be addressing this issue right now -- not in a couple of months, when it's too late.

Again, this is preliminary; I'm happy to hear what I've missed. But we've got to start moving the policymaking on this issue now.

ADDING: Can't believe I forgot this: states have to make decisions now regarding statewide assessments and graduation requirements. I know there are federal requirements that have to be followed, but to the extent states can make changes they should do so. My vote would be to suspend all exit exams for at least the next year, and to apply for federal waivers for all mandated testing.

Speaking of testing: @JenAnsbach points out funding for Covid-19 testing should be included in budgets, and guidelines should be set for when districts test staff and students.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

On Comparing Education Spending Across Time

I’ve noticed a lot of back-and-forth recently on social media about education spending – specifically, on how spending has changed over the years in the United States.

The usual context is someone complaining about how spending in K-12 schooling has soared over the past few decades, but outcomes haven’t improved. I and others have repeatedly pointed out just how dumb such claims are, so no need to rehash it. Let’s instead set aside outcomes for the moment and focus instead on inputs: how much more has the U.S. spent on schools, across the years?

When I see people sling around the numbers, I find they tend to break down into measures that range from valid and useful to completely worthless (and probably deliberately deceptive). Let’s arrange these from worst to better, with the goal of producing the most reasonable estimation of how much K-12 school spending has changed.

-       Total spending per year. This is simply the total amount spent on schooling in any one year. Anyone who tries to use this measure is either hopelessly inept or a con artist. The most obvious flaw is that the number of students changes in any year; total spending makes no attempt to account for this. Any time you see this measure being used, ignore it.

-       Per pupil spending per year. This is barely an improvement on above, because there is no adjustment for changes in costs over time. The cost of a textbook or a gallon of gas or an hour of a teacher’s work is different in 1970 than it is in 2020. Again, ignore anyone who cites this figure.

-       Per pupil spending per year in “real” dollars. This is probably the figure you’ll see referred to most often by folks making the claim that we spend so much more than in the past but still suck. Spending is given in a per pupil figure, and the figure is adjusted over time for the changes in the price for goods, usually consumer goods. This means the figures are in “real” or “constant” dollars. Because this measure does account for changes in student populations and in the prices of goods across time, it seems to be a valid measure…

Until you start digging in.

First, and less important: while “real” dollars are calculated by estimating changes in costs across time, they rarely account for changes across space. A plate of pasta at a nice restaurant in New York City, for example, tends to cost a different amount than that same meal in Omaha. This problem is that populations can migrate, with proportionally more or fewer people living in less or more expensive areas of the country year-to-year. Constant dollars, in the aggregate, almost never account for these changes.

Second, and more important: changes in the prices of consumer goods, such as those reflected in the Consumer Price Index (CPI), do not necessarily reflect changes in the costs of schooling. K-12 education is a labor-intensive endeavor, and labor costs do not shift perfectly in sync with energy or food or other consumer costs. In other words: a big-screen TV may cost less this year than last, but that isn’t an accurate reflection of the change in cost of a well-qualified teacher, which may well cost more.

“Real” dollar spending per pupil is, therefore, highly problematic as a measure of K-12 spending. In general, education policy stakeholders should avoid using it.

-       Share of total or new spending. This measure has the advantage of having a built-in adjustment for inflation and population growth over time. We can measure the changes either for all spending, or just increases in spending from a designated starting point. The first question we need to address, however, is: Total spending on what? Total governmental spending? Total spending on all goods and services?

Simply asking the question reveals the problem: we’re still not accounting for differences in the relative costs of things across whatever total spending we’re measuring. If we limit the measure to governmental spending, we have to assume the relative costs of different services of the government never change. This is a very big assumption: information technology advances, for example, have made some parts of the government more efficient than others. So education spending may rise relative to, say, administrative costs for Social Security, simply because computers can replace clerical workers but not teachers.

-       Share of the economy/GDP. In my work with Bruce Baker and others on school finance, we refer to this as effort. It’s a useful way to compare different jurisdictions, although it has its limits. States with wealthier economies don’t have to put forth as much effort as states with less wealthy economies to generate the same amount of revenue for schools. So a state may look to be making less effort than another, but the amounts raised for schools are equivalent.

This measure also has the same problem as measuring shares of spending across time: differences in costs across different sectors of the economy can’t be accounted for. There’s also the issue of how the overall economy can shrink and grow, but spending on education could remain the same. This would mean that effort would also rise and fall without any change in how much is actually spent on schools.

-       Wage adjusted per pupil spending. Somewhat complex, this measure is one of the better ways to deal with the problem of differences in education costs across time and space. The premise is this: because education is labor intensive, we should try to determine how labor costs vary over time. However, we don’t want to simply look at educator wages: if we do, we won’t see how changes in the relative compensation of educators might vary in ways that also change the quality of people entering the profession. In other words: spending on teachers may go down compared to other workers, but so might the quality of people who choose to become teachers.

The solution is to look at the changes in wages of other workers who are similarly educated (and have other similarities, such as age). If it costs less to employ a college-educated worker in one place and/or year than another, we can fairly assume it will cost just as much less to employ an educator, without having to expect their quality will be different.

There are, of course, many assumptions and limitations built into this type of measure. Educators wages may fall or rise relative to other wages due to things like job satisfaction, which means relative wages might change but teacher quality does not. And while about four-fifths of K-12 spending is on staff salaries and benefits, that still leaves one-fifth of expenditures that will not necessarily track with labor costs. I would argue, however, that this is still better than trying to adjust costs through the CPI or some other consumer price adjustment.

All of this highlights an important point: the cost of an education is not the same as the spending on education. Spending is simply the funding shelled out for schooling. Cost, however, is how much must be shelled out to meet a certain standard. We can easily cut spending for schools, but we can’t then expect schools to meet the standards they were meeting before (unless we think they were inefficient to begin with – we’ll save that discussion for later…).

Over the past several decades, we’ve expected schools to do more – much more. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, passed in 1975, requires a “free appropriate public education” for students with disabilities. State and federal laws passed in the last several decades have required schools to set more stringent curricular standards, accompanied by tests that have grown more rigorous over the years. School shootings have raised the bar for school safety. Parents have demanded more programs and a wider curriculum. Now the pandemic puts new demands on schools for health and safety.

Is it any wonder school spending has increased? And the spending would not necessarily lead to commensurate gains in things like test scores; the outcome measures we use aren’t going to pick up things like expanded arts programming or more inclusive environments for children with special learning needs.

When it comes to changes in school spending, we have to take all of these things into account. Simple spending measures with inflation adjustments are not going to cut it. If people are interested in a serious conversation about public school finance – and they should be – they’re going to have to do better than throwing out flawed measures of school spending with no discussion of their inherent limitations.

ADDING: The economist Richard Rothstein has a nice explanation of the problems with using CPI in school spending measures here: https://www.epi.org/publication/books_wheremoneygone/ (p.9) Included is a discussion of “Baumol’s disease,” the phenomenon of uneven productivity gains across the economy.


Sunday, April 5, 2020

Can NJ Afford To Continue Subsidizing Private Schools?

Regardless of what happens next with Covid-19, it's clear that the budgets of states like New Jersey are in for a very, very tough time over the next few years. Governors and legislatures are going to have to make some hard choices about what states can and cannot afford in the days ahead.

Given this reality, New Jersey has to ask itself: Can we afford to continue to give large sums of money to private K-12 schools?

"Wait," some of you are saying: "I thought New Jersey didn't have a school voucher program." You're correct, we don't -- but the state still gives a lot of money to private schools.

According to New Jersey law, nonpublic schools are eligible for all kinds of services that must be paid for by resident public school districts. In 2017-18, the payments to New Jersey's nonpublic schools for these services, excluding transportation, added up to more than $115 million. 

New Jersey is actually the nation's historical leader in subsidizing nonpublic schools. Everson v. Board of Education of the Township of Ewing is the landmark 1947 case that established the constitutionality of "non-instructional" support for private schools (notably, and like many other cases regarding public support for religious schools, the ruling in Everson was a split decision). Later, in 1968, the Supreme Court ruled that these subsidies could be expanded to instructional items. 

Maybe you agree with the jurisprudence behind these decisions; maybe you don't. Regardless, the result has been a larger and larger share of New Jersey's school spending has gone toward supporting private schools.

Excluding transportation, nonpublic school support now takes up 0.4 percent of the total school spending in New Jersey. I can hear the rebuttal now: "That's a tiny amount!" Notice, however, the amount has been increasing over the past several years -- not only in absolute dollars, but as a proportion of the total. As the old joke says: a few hundred million here and there... pretty soon, you're talking about real money.

And we're not including transportation. I'm unaware of data that breaks down how transportation expenses are divided between public and nonpublic students, but common sense suggests the amount must be significant.

How do the expenses other than transportation break down?

You can visit the NJDOE's website for a description of each of these. Let me be the first to say that services for students with special needs or who are English language learners -- listed under Auxiliary and Handicapped Services -- are critically important.* The question, however, is whether these services are best provided under the direct supervision of a school district or through a nonpublic school, which is subject to much less strict oversight

As for other services: obviously, nurses, technology, security and textbooks are necessary for any school. But the state constitution calls for the "...maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of free public schools..." It does not require the state to provide private schools with the funds they need to operate. Why, then, is the state requiring districts to fund services that nonpublic schools could be paying for through tuition increases?

Again, I can hear the rebuttal: "You want to keep students in failing public schools!" No, I want all public schools to succeed -- but they can't do that without adequate funding. When you take funds that could be going toward constitutionally mandated "free public schools" and give them to private schools, you decrease the chances of those public schools meeting the needs of their students. In addition: many of the districts that send money to private schools would not be considered "failing" under any reasonable standard.

No one is saying parents can't send their kids to a private school if that's what they want. But in a time of looming fiscal crisis, policymakers have to think carefully about this state can afford. Public schools are open to everyone, do not require adherence to any particular religious dogma, and are required by law to adhere to federal guidelines for students with special needs. Private schools, in contrast, are only open to those students they wish to admit, and who agree to adhere to the tenets of that school's creed.

Every dollar that goes to nonpublic schools is a dollar that could be put back into public schools. Can we afford to keep giving those dollars away when students in constitutionally mandated public schools need them?

* There are private schools in New Jersey that are specifically set up to enroll students with special education needs. But tuition paid to these schools is reported separately from the figures above. 

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Ten Years of Jersey Jazzman

I'll keep this short, I promise...

Ten years ago, I found myself increasingly frustrated by the nonsense I kept reading and hearing about schools, teaching, and public finance.

Here in New Jersey, a newly elected Republican governor began what was to become an eight year war against my profession, the union that represented me, and public education in general. This governor had run on an explicit promise he made to the state's teachers: "I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor."

That, of course, turned out to be the first in a string of betrayals against public workers -- and, specifically, teachers -- by Chris Christie, a governor who would go on to become, at the end of his term, the least popular in America.

Ten years ago, Christie was just beginning his crusade against those of us who chose to pursue a career that would never make us rich, but would at least command some level of respect among the public and politicians. A few months into his first term, it was increasingly obvious that Christie's casual relationship with the truth, massive self-regard, and belligerent rhetoric (remind you of anyone else these days?) would plunge teacher morale to uncharted depths in the Garden State.

And so, this angry teacher started a blog. At first, I thought its only purpose was to save my marriage ("Would you please stop yelling about editorials in the Star-Ledger?!"). I honestly didn't expect anyone would read anything I had to say about how badly public schools and public school teachers were getting shafted. To this day, it still surprises me a little when I meet someone and they say: "Oh, you're that Jazzman guy..."

Chris Christie was eventually exposed as the fraud he is. A few years ago, as he sunk into decline, I decided the state didn't need an angry teacher-blogger like it once did. More useful was someone who had a decent command of statistics and first-hand knowledge of how schools actually work. That's been the focus of this blog over the past few years: it's a place where I can debunk myths, present facts, and unashamedly advocate for well-resourced public schools for all children, in New Jersey and across the county.

I've had a lot of support and encouragement over the years, and if I tried to name you all, I would inevitably omit and offend someone. I don't want to do that, but I do want to give thanks to a few folks and organizations who have been especially encouraging:
  • Bruce Baker
  • Julie Borst
  • Darcie Cimarusti
  • Marie Corfield 
  • Diane Ravitch
  • Save Our Schools New Jersey, especially Julia Sass Rubin
  • The National Education Policy Center
  • The Shanker Institute, especially Matt DiCarlo
  • The New Jersey Policy Perspective
  • The Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey
I also want to thank the NJEA, my union, which always let me know that they would defend my right to express myself about important policy issues affected this state.

Most of all, thanks to Mrs. Jazzman, who decided to stick with me through all the ranting, and the Jazzboys, proud products of New Jersey public schools.

Every blog anniversary, I take stock and try to figure out what I'll be writing about over the coming year. But I never quite know what to expect -- that's obviously more true than ever. I can only tell you I remain proud to be a New Jersey public school teacher, a union member, and an action researcher who works to improve public education.  

Stand by...

More to come!

Monday, March 23, 2020

Education Policies We Should Stop Right Now: An Incomplete List

ADDING: Here's another one for the list: I am against school vouchers, especially the way they are (not) regulated these days. However, in a time of crisis, children need stability. If a family has received a voucher in the past and the school is legitimate, OK, continue the voucher (unless they didn't need it in the first place). We can revisit this after the crisis is over -- and we're going to need to, because given the upcoming recession (or worse), we're not going to be able to waste money on "choice" policies that are inefficienct and ineffective.

But as for the immediate future: no voucher program should be expanded this year, and no voucher should be used at a school that does not meet basic educational standards or discriminates against students based on race, gender, or sexual orientation.

I mentioned last time that there are no good reasons to have annual, standardized state tests this year, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But that got me thinking... there are a whole bunch of things in the K-12 sphere we ought to stop immediately. In some cases, they are pointless in the wake of massive school closures; in others, keeping them going this year may cause actual harm to our schools.

In no particular order, and with the understanding that this list is far from complete:

- Statewide Standardized Tests. Again, they're just pointless right now: it's impossible to get even a minimal level of "standardization" in the tests' administration, and students' opportunity to learn, already inequitable, is now even worse. Plus, putting pressure on teachers, students, administrators, and families is the last thing we need to be doing. We're not going to learn anything useful from this year's tests -- scrap 'em.

- Graduation Exams. Most states don't have a graduation exam exit requirement, but some do. I've never understood what good could come of denying a kid a diploma when they've done all the work and passed all their courses but can't pass some noisy standardized test that has dubious validity to begin with. But it makes even less sense now: are policymakers really prepared to make a student jump through all kinds of alternative assessment hoops when they get back to school -- if they get back this year at all? Or do they think it's a good idea, with a looming recession (at least), to make those students pay extra for alternative tests, or to pursue a GED?

If a kid didn't do the work, no diploma: most people will agree on that. But skip the test, at least this year.

- Student Growth Percentiles/Value-Added Model Outcomes. I've spent a lot of time on this blog over the years explaining why SGPs and VAMs are poor measures of teacher or school quality. In many cases, these measures have inherent properties that penalize schools or teachers whose students may show growth but remain low-achieving. And the premise that a teacher or school is solely responsible for a students' growth is wrong to begin with.

But even if you set all that aside: growth measures require a valid and reliable measure of student achievement both before and after the period when growth is being measured. Even if you think the pre-test is valid for use in a growth measure, there's no way the post-test is during a pandemic, given the wild differences in opportunity to learn and test administration -- even within the same classroom-- that are due to our response to Covid-19.

The whole point of using SGPs/VAMs in teacher evaluation was that teachers are so important to student learning that we need multiple sources of evidence about their effectiveness. Again, growth measures really aren't good sources of evidence -- but even if they were, why would we employ them at a time when student learning is less impacted by teachers than if schools were open?

- Student Growth Objectives/Student Learning Objectives. These are the "non-tested" growth measures, generally thought up by districts or individual teachers. There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that these are valid and reliable measures of teacher effectiveness. It's clear to me the only reason states use them is to make teacher evaluations that employ growth measures in tested subjects seem more "fair": if the gym teacher has to do an SGO, maybe the math teacher won't complain as much about their SGP...

We should have ended these a long time ago. Now, they are just a waste of limited time and resources at precisely the time we should be judicious about both.

- edTPA. Another education policy based mostly on nothing. edTPA is a series of hurdles put in front of student teachers that is supposed to measure their abilities in the classroom. But the program's reliability and validity is highly questionable (Pearson, of course, denies this). And it's onerous; I say this having watched, first-hand, student teachers struggle with its detailed requirements.

Are we really going to insist that student teachers spend their time trying to meet edTPA's demands while simultaneously figuring our how to implement distance learning? Are we going to delay allowing these prospective teachers the opportunity to go into the job market when the need for qualified teachers is growing? (More on this later in the year...)

Pearson, the company behind edTPA, seems to think it's perfectly reasonable to force student teachers to wait up to 18 months to submit their portfolios. When will those prospective teachers know if they passed? Pearson isn't saying...

This is a no-brainer: suspend edTPA requirements, at least for this year. Afterward, states should take a hard look at whether forcing student teachers to go through this program, even without a pandemic, is worth it.

- Mandatory Grade-Level Retentions. I know I'm opening up a can of worms here, because there are plenty of folks completely entrenched on either side of this. For what it's worth: in my opinion, there is little evidence supporting mandatory retention policies in K-12 schools, and recent limited evidence from one state is not enough to change my mind.

That said, I've been working in schools long enough to know that some students may benefit from retention. But the decision has to be made on a case-by-case basis, with plenty of evidence collected and analyzed. I'd argue no single year's test outcomes are enough evidence to trigger a mandatory retention -- but that's especially true this year, when there isn't time to create student portfolios or pursue alternative pathways to promotion.

Individual student retention decisions, with parental consultation and based on multiple sources of evidence -- OK. Mandatory retention based on state test outcomes? Bad idea, especially now.

- Charter School Expansions/New Charters. Look, I know there are schools that were looking forward to opening and expanding -- but this is the wrong time. The state-level DOEs are going to have their hands full this fall, assuming schools are open; if they aren't, those DOEs will probably be even more busy. Charters should not be opening and/or expanding without adequate oversight, and the last thing host districts need is the uncertainty charters bring to their budgeting process.

You can wait a year.

- AP/IB Exams. This one is tough and I am very much open to being persuaded I'm wrong. But the inequities in how schooling is being delivered make it very likely some students will be at a relative disadvantage to others when it comes to preparing for and taking these exams. It just strikes me as fundamentally unfair to many students who were studying hard before Covid-19 hit to force them to take these exams when the most important preparation time for these courses has been stripped away.

I don't know what the answer is here. It's a big hit to a student to have to pay for a college course they could have received AP/IB credit for. Some sort of alternative testing schedule over the summer? Portfolio submissions directly to the colleges that would accept the credits?

This is a chaotic time for K-12 schools, the students who attend them, and the staff who work in them. Policymakers need to ramp down requirements, especially if those requirements were of questionable value to begin with. Let's make things easier for schools and do away with policies and programs that make things more difficult, at least for the remainder of the school year. It's the least we can do.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Why Scrapping School Testing This Year Is a Good Idea

During yesterday's (insane) news conference, Donald Tump made some news on the K-12 education front:
It’s official: U.S. students won't have to take annual state tests this year.
The Education Department will waive federal requirements for state testing for K-12 students, due to unprecedented school shutdowns to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced Friday.
Normally, federal law requires schools to administer exams in English and math to students in third through eighth grade, and once in high school. The results are used to examine how students are progressing and how well schools are performing.
Students usually take state tests in the spring – and school closures are likely to continue through the testing window.

Now, I've got some serious reservations about giving the SecEd broad powers -- especially when that SecEd is Betsy DeVos, who has repeatedly shown she is not up to the job. But the crisis we're now facing has obviously created a huge problem for the nation's K-12 schools, and we ought to be looking at whether current federal policies are helping or hurting. That starts, to my mind, with canceling our regular springtime battery of state tests.

It's useful to step back and think about why annual testing was implemented in the first place. No Child Left Behind, George W. Bush's signature education law, was designed under the premise that testing would hold schools accountable for educating students. If a school was not showing, through test outcomes, that its students were learning, it would face consequences that included closure.

The problems with NCLB have been well documented over the years. Making schools the unit of accountability -- as opposed to districts or states -- assumes that schools alone can change their policies and practices and improve student outcomes. On its face, that just isn't true: if a school doesn't have the resources it needs to educate its students, for example, it can't unilaterally change its condition.

In addition, holding schools accountable for the academic progress of their "subgroups" when many schools, due to class and race segregation, don't even have the same subgroups also makes little sense. And using standardized tests in two subjects (math and English Language Arts) to measure student achievement was always going to be troublesome, given the nature of the tests themselves and the pressures they put on schools to narrow the curriculum and "teach to the tests."

NCLB has been revised over the years, but the testing provisions have remained. In my opinion, there is a place for testing in our schools. The problem with federal policy was never the tests themselves*, but how we use them, and the extent to which we administer them.

The truth is that many of the school funding lawsuits that have led to meaningful reform could not have occurred if we didn't have some evidence that disadvantaged students were being denied equal educational opportunities compared to their more advantaged peers. This alone is reason enough for the nation to continue to administer tests, even if we should decouple school- and classroom-level consequences from them and administer them less frequently.

But tests are only able to provide meaningful information to policymakers if they are administered in ways that yield valid outcomes. And there's just no way we can do that now.

Start with the obvious: a "standardized" test has to be administered in a standard way. If some students receive the test in different platforms, or in different environments, the test is no longer standardized. Of course, there were already huge differences between students in these factors... but Covid-19 has made things far worse. There's just no way to even come close to standardizing the conditions for testing in the current environment. Will the students be at home, in school but "social distancing," in regular school, somewhere else... we just can't say.

Next, we have always had big differences in students' opportunity to learn -- but now the differences are greater than ever. Again, there are huge variations among students in their access to qualified educators, high-quality facilities, adequate instructional materials, well-designed curricula, and so on. The best use of test results was to make the case that the variation in these things was creating unequal educational opportunities, and that public policy should focus on getting resources where they were needed the most.

But in a quarantine, we now have to add all sorts of other inequalities into the mix: access to broadband, parents who have the ability to oversee students' instruction, schools' ability to implement distance learning, etc. Why implement these tests when inequities within the same classroom -- let alone between schools -- have grown so large?

Which gets to the best reason to cancel the tests: we aren't going to learn anything new from them, so why burden students, families, and staff with them during a crisis? As Rick Hess (yes, we do occasionally agree) puts it:
The best reason to scratch the tests? Complying with federal guidelines regarding mandated assessments is the very last thing educational leaders should be thinking about right now. They should be focused on the safety of students, educators, and communities; developing alternative instruction; supporting parents; feeding and aiding kids in need; and thinking about what it'll take to reopen schools.
Testing is going to be a big burden in the middle of a pandemic; focusing on it takes away from focus on things like student well-being. That trade off could conceivably be worth it if we were going to gain new knowledge...

But we aren't going to learn anything from this round of testing we didn't already know: primarily, that students in disadvantage and with learning needs will score lower, on average, than other students. Why, then, would we shift the focus away from meeting students' and families' needs and towards a test that isn't going to give us any new information?

Again: I think there's a place for standardized testing -- even if we're currently using test results in irresponsible and invalid ways. But there's no good reason to administer tests this year. Just scrap it.

* To be clear: that doesn't mean these tests haven't had their own problems -- many times, they've been crappy.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Edu-Blogging In the Age of COVID-19

Just a quick note:

At first, it seems kind of ridiculous to be blogging about education policy at a moment like this. I don't think we've had a national crisis of this magnitude since WWII. Why would we debate school policy now?

But the more I think about it, the more it seems we should be engaging on K-12 policy at exactly this moment. We have, for all intents and purposes, shut down our nation's schools. That's not the same as shutting down schooling, of course. But we are still being presented with a moment where we can step back and think carefully about what we should expect from our schools, whether we've set them up for success, and what "success" might really mean.

So I'm going to continue blogging about education, and not always through the lens of COVID-19's consequences. Because this crisis will pass at some point, and we ought to be ready then to go back to school with the goal not of returning to normal, but returning to something better.

Stand by...

Sunday, March 8, 2020

NJ School Nurses: A Data-Driven View

UPDATE: I forgot to include this: I left "special services" districts out of the analysis. These districts, which have specialized needs due to their student populations, shouldn't be compared to others, and I have reason to suspect the data isn't set up to make comparisons anyway.

In my last post, I note that one in five U.S. public schools has no nursing coverage.

Given the COVID-19 outbreak, this is disturbing. School nurses are on the front lines of pediatric care, and a critical part of any response this nation will have to a pandemic. Every American child deserves access to a qualified, well-trained school nurse.

Ed Fuller at Penn State (as big an edu-data geek as yours truly) has tweeted out some graphs showing the distribution of nurses in Pennsylvania schools.

What do we see? In PA, nursing coverage decreases when poverty rises, in elementary, middle, and high schools. In other words, at a time when the coronavirus threat is looming, Pennsylvania's neediest children are less likely to get the medical care they need at school.

Given all this, I thought it would be useful to take a look at how New Jersey's school nursing situation stands. I've got the particulars about the data below, but for now: I used two different data sources from the NJ Department of Education, and got very similar results from each.

My unit of analysis is a school district, rather than a school. New Jersey has a lot of small districts with only two or three buildings, often feeding into a regional high school with several other small districts. It's possible these buildings share a nurse, but the time between buildings isn't correctly divided in the records. With my method, a nurse assigned to any building in the district counts for the entire district.

My measure for these graphs is "students per nurse": in other words, how many students, on average, are there in a district for every nurse in the records? Let's start by looking at how districts with different levels of student economic disadvantage compare.

I've divided all NJ districts into five groups, ranging from those with the fewest students who qualify for free lunch (a proxy measure of economic disadvantage) to those with the most. I was, to be honest, surprised to see this: in New Jersey, school nursing care is distributed quite equally. The student load for nurses in the most disadvantaged districts is, on average, close to the load for nurses in the least disadvantaged districts.

Of course, an equal distribution isn't necessarily "fair." We can safely assume many of the students in high-FRPL districts don't have adequate medical outside of school. If we want children to have an equal chance for school success, we'd want to see a lower student load in the most disadvantaged districts.

That said: at least the coverage isn't flipped, like in PA. And the average load is under the recommended ratio of 750:1, as suggested by the American Academy of Pediatrics. So, a good start from New Jersey... but we probably can and should do better.

Let's look at distribution by race next:

Here I'm combining Black and Hispanic students, but I did run the numbers separately for each group, and the results are similar. The distribution of nurses is quite equal across race and ethnicity in New Jersey; there's really no evidence of meaningful bias. Given the correlation of race and income, however, we would like to see smaller student loads for nurses in districts with higher concentrations of students of color if we want to achieve equal educational opportunity. But, again, we're not Pennsylvania, and the student loads, on average, are below recommended guidelines.

New Jersey has many different types of districts: smaller, larger, some only K through 8, some K through 12, some regional high schools, etc. Vocational-technical districts and charter schools are also considered their own districts. So how does nurse coverage vary across these different district types?

Now we're getting some variation. As I said, NJ has a many small K-8 only districts: these districts, it appears, hire nurses for their schools, even if the student populations are small. K-8 districts with under 400 students have a student:nurse ration of 238-1; but K-8 districts with more than 750 students have a ratio of 435-1.

A perpetual topic of conversation in New Jersey education policy is how we have too many undersized districts that are inefficiently small. I think the fiscal pressure this creates has often been exaggerated; nonetheless, there are some real inefficiencies that come from having undersized school districts, and this may be one of them.

The regional high schools (7-12/9-12) have, on average, much higher student loads for their nurses. Is this a problem? I don't know... intuitively, it makes sense to me that we'd want more nursing services for younger children, who are less able to participate in monitoring their own health care. But we should note the vo-techs, which are basically high schools, have a considerably lower nurse-student ratio than the regional high schools. If it's good for those kids, why not others?

Which brings us to the charter schools, with much higher student loads for their nurses. The majority of the charter population in New Jersey consists of K-8 students, but there are a significant number of high school students in the charters. Still, even if we accept the premise that older students don't need as much nursing coverage as younger ones, the high student load for charter nurses stands out.

What's driving the difference? According to state records, there are many charter school students who have no nursing care available.

29 percent of New Jersey charter school students do not have a school nurse in state records listed as on staff for their school. Now, we shouldn't immediately jump to a conclusion that they don't have access to nursing care. Maybe the charter contracts out its nurses and doesn't list them as staff. It's worth noting, however, that the "preparedness review" process for charters doesn't explicitly call for a review of nursing services.

As Bruce Baker has noted, charter schools are usually small and, therefore, more likely to induce inefficiencies. We can actually see this here: very small K-6 & K-8 districts are more likely to not have a school nurse in the records than larger districts. Is the size of these districts, and the charters, precluding students from receiving nursing care in their schools?

Also: two-thirds of NJ's charters are located in the boundaries of the least-affluent school districts. It could be that the lack of charter school nurses is inflating the average student-nurse ratios for schools with larger concentrations of disadvantaged students (more on this later).

We should know all this for sure: part of the oversight process for charter schools (and all schools) should include documenting access to school nurses. All students deserve nursing care in their schools, and school boards -- whether for districts, vo-techs, or charters -- must be held accountable for whether nurses are available for their students.


I used the NJDOE staffing files for these graphs, linked to enrollment and other files, for this analysis. I checked my results against the NJDOE's School Performance Reports, which also track student-nurse ratios at the district level. The results from the two analyses were very similar.

If there was no record of a nurse on staff, I assumed any students in that district/charter had no nursing care. The averages across race/ethnicity, FRPL, and district type reflect this assumption.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Many U.S. Schools Have No Nursing Coverage; How Will They Handle a Pandemic?

As the coronavirus threat increases in the United States, policymakers are assessing our nation's capacity to handle a pandemic. One of our first lines of defense -- and one I've yet to see discussed -- is our school nursing workforce.

Ask anyone who has worked for a while in a school, and they will tell you how valuable it is to have a good nurse on staff. This is because school nurses do a lot more than put bandaids on boo-boos. They are, in many cases, a primary healthcare provider for school-aged children. They disseminate information to staff, students, and families. They monitor the health of school buildings and ensure employees and students follow good sanitary practices. They administer medicines to younger students who need supervision. They provide vision, hearing, and dental screenings. They are first responders in emergencies, and the liaison between trauma care providers and the school.

And, as I've seen time and again in my career, they are often the first adult a child trusts when that child is in crisis. Countless tragedies have been avoided because a school nurse was there to hear a student's cries for help.

In the face of the looming coronavirus threat, I think we need to take a minute and ask about the current state of our school nurse workforce. Luckily, there is a very good paper from 2018 that conducted a survey on school nurses. Surveys like these are tough for a variety of reasons, but my read of the paper is that this is a high-quality piece of research that aligns with previous work on the topic.

I made these charts based on tables in the survey.

One in five American schools has no nursing coverage. And another one in five has less than full-time coverage. The breakdown by region suggests to me that part of the issue is that we've got a lot of rural schools in the West that are probably too small to be able to sustain a full-time nurse. That said, you'd think these schools would find a way to share nurses so they'd get at least part-time coverage. But the data suggest a lot of schools can't make this work.

The breakdown by urban/rural supports this idea: 17 percent of urban schools have no nursing coverage, while 30 percent of rural schools have no coverage. Still: how did we get to a place where one in six urban schools have no nurses?

You might think that districts, facing budgetary constraints, would choose to put more nursing staff into elementary schools. But there's really no evidence of that.

So, is our school nursing coverage adequate to deal with a pandemic? I'm completely unqualified to say... but it seems to me that if 63 percent of schools have a full-time nurse equivalent, there must be some consensus that school nurses are important.

As of now, I can't say whether nursing coverage correlates with class and/or race. But given how often we've seen funding adequacy tied to student demographics, it wouldn't surprise me at all if many of the children in schools without nurses were students of color or in economic disadvantage. 

The time to have been thinking about all this, of course, was before the coronavirus threat. We're going to have to hope we've got enough school nurses who are up to the task this time... but we should take this opportunity to think carefully about whether our current school nursing coverage is adequate to meet our students' needs.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Sorry, NJ Charter Schools -- You Can't Have It Both Ways

Some news on the NJ charter school front this week*:
The state Supreme Court yesterday agreed to hear a lawsuit that had challenged the expansion of charter schools in Newark, arguably the state’s nexus for the alternative schools with more than a third of its students enrolled in them.
By apparent coincidence, a group of charter school parents and the sector’s association on the same day filed to become “friends of the court” in a separate case before the high court regarding the state’s epic Abbott v. Burke school equity rulings. 
In that case, the charter schools are trying to get in on a challenge seeking what would surely be billions of dollars in new school construction aid for 31 needy districts statewide. 
The confluence before the court of the two cases comes at a time when charter schools face increasing fire from traditional school districts, largely over the public money that charter schools draw from the other districts. But while those battles have been fierce in several communities, including in Newark, they have largely stayed out of the courts in recent years.

This was a long time coming: the Christie administration happily encouraged the expansion of charter schools without seriously thinking about appropriate oversight, regulation, and funding of the sector. Now the state has to contend with a system that imposes fiscal burdens on school districts that host charter schools, even as those districts have no meaningful say on charter school proliferation.

The fact – which I have validated empirically – is that charter school expansion is not a revenue-neutral policy. As school districts lose students to charters, they are unable to adjust immediately to enrollment declines, because districts have fixed costs like buildings and personnel that can’t be quickly scaled back. 

But charter operators appear to be unconcerned with this reality; repeatedly, they have demanded they get everything they think they are owed, even when school districts are facing serious financial pressures. During Christie’s time, this meant charter budgets weren’t touched, even as host districts’ were slashed.

It’s also meant that charter advocates have continually complained that they should be receiving additional funding for their facilities:
Separately, the Abbott v. Burke case is arguably a bigger one for the state, given the money that would be spread across nearly three-dozen districts if the court agreed with the argument that the state is obligated to spend significantly on new school construction in needy districts.

And now the charters want to get in on that case, saying that one in five students in Abbott communities go to a charter or hybrid “renaissance” school.

“It is really important that the court look to funding all the public schools, not just district schools,” said Harold Lee, executive director of the New Jersey Charter School Association. “Just because a family decided on a charter or renaissance school, it doesn’t mean that their safety and security go away.”

School building needs have long been the bane of charters in New Jersey, as they are not permitted under law to use public funds toward the costs of facilities. “It’s the biggest challenge to operating a charter,” Lee said, explaining it can represent 10% to 15% of their costs.

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard New Jersey charter school operators and advocates make this point: we should get facilities funding just like any other “public” school.

Unfortunately, they always seem to leave out a critical point: In New Jersey, charter school buildings – paid for with public funds -- are almost always NOT owned by the public.

As Bruce Baker and Gary Miron pointed out years ago, charter school regulations like New Jersey’s lead to an absurd situation: the public pays for school buildings that many times used to be owned by a school district – in other words, the public – but wind up in private hands. Sometimes those hands are nonprofits aligned with the charter school; sometimes they are for-profit companies, paying off their mortgages with funds the charters receive in per pupil payments from hosting school districts.

In either case, the public is paying for a building that the public will never own. And in most cases, these are buildings that are paid for, at least in part, with local funds, even though the state is the entity that gets to decide whether charters will be granted or renewed.

This lunacy is at the heart of the serious conflicts of interest, lack of transparency, and just generally bad policymaking that surrounds New Jersey's charter school facilities. If you haven’t yet read northjersey.com’s outstanding series on these problems, you really should. That series has led to, among other things, a grand jury investigation of the Marion P. Thomas Charter School in Newark for financial shenanigans involving charter school facilities:
Amid scrutiny by a federal grand jury, the state is holding up critical financing for the non-profit support group of one of Newark’s oldest and largest charter schools — cash needed to pay off $21 million in loans coming due on its high school. 
Officials at the New Jersey Economic Development Authority have so far refused to issue bonds to cover that debt on the Marion P. Thomas Charter School’s Sussex Avenue location. 
In addition, the EDA recently confirmed that two “prior bond financings" it issued to the school "are under review.” 
One involves the purchase of two former Newark public school buildings that were flipped at a markup of close to $10 million. That transaction has been the focus of a federal grand jury, which issued subpoenas first to the 1,500-student Marion P. Thomas Charter School in July and then to the Newark Housing Authority in October. 
The other bond issue, from 2014, is related to the construction of the high school. It, too, features an unusual land deal: The private, non-profit Friends of Marion P. Thomas Charter School sold property it purchased to one of its subsidiaries at a $1.8 million markup. 
In both cases, the price hikes are being covered by taxpayers.

ven if the grand jury finds no criminal activity, transactions like these are just bad policy. Why should real estate markups for charter schools be covered by the taxpayers? What possible justification is there for these policies?

And then there’s this, from the same story:
The IRS had been looking into discounts on similar bonds issued on behalf of TEAM Academy in Newark, according to financial records. In one case, a TEAM support group received a notice of proposed issue from the IRS, indicating that tax rules may have been broken. 
TEAM Academy officials denied a public records request by NorthJersey.com for documents related to the IRS review last year, saying they are part of an “investigation in progress by a government agency” and that “disclosure of such records would be detrimental to the public interest.”

Steve Small, the chief financial officer of KIPP New Jersey, which runs TEAM Academy, said Wednesday night in an email that he could not "provide any specifics related to the review in progress."
Again, how does this make any sense? How can it possibly be “detrimental to the public interest” for the public not to know how its money is being spent?

The legal status of charter schools has always been open to debate, but it’s clear at this point that they are not government actors. As such, they can claim immunity from oversight regulations that other governmental entities, such as school boards, must abide by. Why, then, should the taxpayers simply turn over revenues for charter facilities when they won’t even know who, if anyone, is profiting off of this system?

There are a lot of aspects of charter school policy we can debate, but this one if clear: If the public pays for a school building -- including a charter school building -- the public should own the building. If New Jersey’s charter schools want more funding for their facilities, the price to be paid is that those facilities stay in public hands, with public oversight and complete transparency.

If you think I’m wrong, I’d love to hear your argument. But it seems clear to me that New Jersey's charter schools can't have it both ways: if you want public funding, you can't have privately owned buildings.

ADDING: If we're going to get into NJ charter schools and their misconduct around real estate, let's take a moment to remember Bob Braun's excellent reporting from 2018:
The New Jersey state education department has refused to release public documents that might  shed light on former Gov. Chris Christie’s loan of $10 million in state funds to a failing Newark charter school and its partner, a private, for-profit real estate developer that was receiving more than $800,000 in public funds as annual rent from the school.
The state’s  action, in response to a demand filed under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), contributes to a stifling veil of silence covering up the details of the unusual $10 million loan—a loan granted by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA) despite the lack of any collateral that could be used to repay the loan if the school defaulted.
The school, Lady Liberty Academy Charter School, did close and no longer receives the state aid it needs  to pay its rent to the developer, BWP School Partners, LLC.  Under the unusual terms of the loan agreement between the NJEDA and BWP,  the state has limited its ability to recoup the loan from the developer  to finding a new charter school to take the place of Lady Liberty. The school is now boarded up and so, this year at least, that won’t happen.
The existence of the unusual $10 million loan was first disclosed by this site last month but the continued refusal by the NJEDA, the state education department, the Newark school district and private sources to discuss details has added to the mystery of why the state would loan $10 million to a charter school that faced problems since 2003, when it was opened as part of Newark’s New Community Corporation’s social outreach efforts. Lady Liberty was placed on probation by the state three times and finally closed this year after  Christie left office

* All emphases in this post are mine.