I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Tuesday, 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.