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, December 3, 2020

New Jersey's School COVID-19 Operating Plans: Still Racially Biased, Still Inadequately Funded For Many Students

Earlier this year, I posted about the racial inequities in New Jersey's school reopening plans, which were all affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Following that blog post, I used some updated data, refined my analysis a bit, and wrote about it over at the NJPP website. In both of these analyses I relied on data published at NJ Spotlight (an invaluable source for news about education policy in the Garden State).

Turns out NJ Spotlight just updated their list of NJ school districts and their COVID-19 operating plans. Let's first give props to Spotlight's Colleen O'Dea for keeping on top of these data updates.

With a few tweaks of my statistical program's code, it's not too hard to see how things have changed over the last few months. But let's review what I found back in September:
  • About half of the state's students were in districts that only offered fully remote classes, while one-third were in districts that offered a hybrid of remote and in-person learning.
  • White students were more likely to have the option to receive in-person instruction than Black or Hispanic students.
  • The districts that offered only remote instruction were more likely to be underfunded -- according to the state's own law -- than districts offering hybrid instruction.
Before I get to the update, let me be clear about what I'm presenting. The analysis here is not what students are actually doing; it's what their districts offer. Governor Murphy has required all districts to offer fully remote instruction during the pandemic. But some districts also offer students the option of at least some in-person learning. What I'm presenting here are the options districts offer their students and their families -- it's not what those families actual decide to do.

That said, let's see what's changed:

Back in September, about one-half of New Jersey's students were in fully remote districts. That's changed a bit: somewhat fewer students are now in districts where remote is their only option. A bigger change is that the districts whose plans weren't in the data back in September are now being tracked. The upshot is that more students are now in hybrid districts than back in September: where 3 in 10 students had the hybrid option in September, now 4 in 10 do.

Let's see if that's changed the racial disparities in whether in-person schooling is offered:

So far as Black students are concerned, there's been little change. 7.3 percent of students in hybrid districts were Black back in September; now it's 7.8 percent. The remote districts were 20 percent Black; now they're 21 percent.

The graph above shows a distinct change in the percentage of Hispanic students in combination districts -- districts that offer hybrid in some grades and remote in others. But remember: these districts enroll less than ten percent of all students -- they're not a big factor. There's actually very little change for Hispanic students in their options. Like Black students, they are more likely to be enrolled in remote districts than hybrids.

In September, hybrid districts had more white students than remote districts. Again, little has changed: if you're a white student in New Jersey, you're more likely to be in a hybrid district than a remote one.

So there was a clear racial bias in COVID-19 school operating plans back in September... and that bias has not gone away. Why is that?

As I noted back in September, whether a district offered in-person learning was clearly correlated with whether that district is adequately funded:

New Jersey's school funding law, the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA), sets an "adequacy budget" per pupil. This is the amount the state's own law says a district needs to provide an adequate education for its students. SFRA recognizes that schools serving students in economic disadvantage, or who are limited English proficient, or who have a special education need, need more resources to equalize educational opportunity. 

Unfortunately, New Jersey has not followed the state's own law when it comes to school funding. There are many districts that are inadequately funded -- some by more than $5,000 per pupil. 

There are several different ways to calculate the adequacy gap. What I do here is slightly different than what Bruce Baker and I did for our latest report on SFRA, but by either method, there are about 130,000 students in these severely underfunded districts. In September, I found that just about all of these students were in school districts that only offered remote learning.

Well, in December we now have more children in hybrid programs. But guess what? Nearly all of the students in severely underfunded districts are still in schools that only offer remote learning.

Put another way: In September, nearly all of the students in underfunded districts were only offered remote learning. Today, in December, these students still can only access remote learning.

School districts that do not have adequate funding don't have the same access to revenues to maintain their facilities, including their HVAC systems. As Bruce and I show, these districts have fewer staff per pupil; it's much harder to offer both remote and in-person learning when you don't have enough staff to divide up the responsibilities for two modes of teaching. Underfunded districts are hard-pressed to provide their students and staff with PPE and other necessary supplies to make in-person schooling safe. They won't have the custodial staff necessary to increase work hours for extra cleaning, or the technology to implement instruction that allows for students who are in-person and on-line to learn together.

There is no question that funding adequacy is a major factor in determining whether a school district is able to offer in-person instruction. If funding didn't matter, why haven't at least some of the state's inadequately funded districts started offering in-person instruction? They've had the time to plan -- what they haven't had are the resources.

As I said back in September: the pandemic has surfaced the consequences of inadequate and inequitable school funding. More recent data confirms this basic truth. I know we're all waiting for the vaccine, and for a return to some semblance of normality -- but we can't go back to normal. The pandemic is a wake-up call. It is wrong to continue to deny schools what the state's own law says they need to do their jobs. 

Much more to come on what it will take to equalize educational opportunity here in New Jersey, and elsewhere. Stand by...

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Trump and Christie: Everything Teachers Stand Against

Most of what needs to be said about Donald Trump’s appalling performance last night has been said. But I want to quickly add two thoughts. 

First, as an educator, I want to make sure we acknowledge that the massive damage Trump has done to our country includes his corrupting influence on American children. Every day, teachers go into our schools and try to instill important values in our students: respect, honesty, integrity, civility, modesty, empathy. Donald Trump’s whole life, however, has been a wholesale rejection of every personal characteristic a citizen in a democracy should strive to embody.


Donald Trump can't even lift himself to the level of behavior expected in an elementary school.  His preening, whining, blustering foolishness would never be tolerated in a second grader. His inability to accept responsibility for his actions would earn him a conference in the principal’s office with his parents. His casual disregard for the truth would result in a string of Ns ("Needs Improvement") on his report card.


We’ve had many bad presidents in my lifetime; not one, however, has been so craven, so boorish, so full of contempt for others that they didn't have some positive attribute that a teacher could point to. But not this man -- there isn’t a single quality in the leader of our nation that an American student should emulate. 

The fact that a man of such low character holds high office makes it that much more difficult for teachers to convince their students that the hard work of making yourself into a better person is worth the effort. Kids need role models; foremost among those role models should be the president. Yet every time he opens his mouth, he demonstrates to our children how not to behave.


Second: for eight long, exhausting years, I watched as Chris Christie drove my beloved state into the ground. He was nearly as repulsive as Trump: he mocked women, denigrated teachers, pushed policies that were demonstrably harmful, indulged himself while others suffered, and just generally acted like a horse’s ass.


Christie was the most unpopular governor in American when he finally left office. Amazingly, someone thought that was the perfect guy to put on TV. And, true to form, last night he came to Donald Trump’s defense.


Donald Trump could not speak out forcefully against racism and violence… and Chris Christie made excuses for him. Why? Who knows? Maybe it’s because, like all bullies, he’s intimidated by the bigger bully. 

Maybe it’s because he thinks getting a tax break is more important than saving democracy. Maybe he has deluded himself into thinking he has a chance at reentering politics at some point, and he doesn’t want to alienate Trump’s small but vocal base. 

Ultimately, all that matters is that we see Republicans like Chris Christie for what they are: Donald Trump’s enablers, devoid of any honor or sense of shame. They should be shunned and mocked by decent people everywhere -- as much as Trump is.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Correcting the Hacks on NJ Taxes

Nothing makes me crazier than hacky discussions of tax and fiscal policy. And if you want the hackiest hacking about New Jersey's taxes, there's only one place to go: the Star-Ledger's opinion pages, where you'll find conservative Mike DuHaime and "liberal" (snort) Julie Roginsky hacking out the hackiest fiscal hacking imaginable:

Mike: Trenton Democrats will never let a good crisis go to waste. They are using COVID to raise income taxes, raise business taxes, raise taxes on healthcare and borrow billions. I am surprised Sweeney and Coughlin are supporting an income tax increase. The top 1% of earners in New Jersey are paying 40% of New Jersey’s income taxes. The top 10% pay 70% of the taxes. Wealthy people are leaving New Jersey, and as they leave, it is the middle class who keep getting more and more of the tax burden.

Julie: This deal fell into place because Speaker Coughlin was committed to provide real relief to working middle-class families and was finally able to spearhead an agreement that does just that by providing families with children with the money to pay for back-to-school expenses and other bills next year.

Mike: This is less than one-half of 1% of a tax credit for the average New Jersey household. Taxpayers deserve structural reforms that lower the cost of government and lower our heavy tax burden.

Julie: I agree, Mike. But in all the years a Republican governor was at the helm, he never lowered the income tax rate for the middle class. This is the first real tax break middle class workers are getting in a generation.
Some debate: the Democrat agrees that New Jersey needs "...structural reforms that lower the cost of government and lower our heavy tax burden." The assumption by both, of course, is informed by received wisdom in Trenton: New Jersey is a heavily taxed state with out of control spending.

You'll also note Roginsky doesn't push back on DuHaime's claim that the state's top earners are paying an inordinately high share of the taxes. What a real debater would have noted is that simply focusing on income taxes is wrong when the state raises revenues through a mix of taxes, including gas, sales, transfer, corporate, and so on. Further, state taxes should be considered in combination with local taxes, as various states divide up responsibilities for providing services differently.

Since DuHaim is implying that New Jersey residents are leaving the state due to high taxes and high spending, let's take a moment to cut through the hackery and look at some basic facts.

1) New Jersey collects higher taxes than the US average, but is not a huge outlier in tax collections. We're number 8 in state and local taxes as a percentage of personal income, according to federal data collected from the Tax Policy Center

But remember that taxes are not the only sources of revenue for a state; across the nation, taxes only accounted for about one-half of all general state revenue in 2017.

2) When calculating own source state and local revenue as a percentage of personal income, New Jersey is below the national average. We're ranked number 31, well below the national average. 

3) New Jersey's state and local governments spend less of its citizens' personal income than most other states. On average state and local governments in the U.S. spend 18.3 percent of personal income on direct general expenditures; New Jersey, in contrast, spends 16.0 percent.

4) New Jersey is better than most of its neighboring states, and the U.S. as a whole, in tax progressiveness; however, the top 1 percent in the state still pay less in overall state and local taxes, as a percentage of income, than the middle class. In many states, the bottom 20 percent pay more of their income in state and local taxes than the top 1 percent. Thankfully, that isn't true in New Jersey; however, the top 1 percent still pay less overall than the middle 20 percent.

5) Tax flight of the wealthy from New Jersey is a myth that has been debunked for years. Let's have Sheila Reynertson of NJPP explain it:

As NJPP points out here, the number of wealthy taxpayers in the state has been growing, despite all the talk of this being a high-tax state.

To recap:
  • New Jersey isn't an inordinately high-tax state.
  • New Jersey is a relatively low spending state.
  • New Jersey's wealthiest residents pay less in state and local taxes than its least affluent residents.
  • The number of wealthy taxpayers has been steadily growing in New Jersey for years.

So please don't listen to the political hacks when they tell you we desperately need massive spending cuts. What we need is smart, targeted revenue growth that asks the wealthiest residents to pay their fair share. The millionaire's tax is a meaningful step in the right direction.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Racial and Class Bias In New Jersey's School Reopening Plans

Most New Jersey school districts are starting the 2020-21 school year this week -- although the way they are starting varies quite a bit. This year, some districts are fully remote, while others are offering a limited form of in-person instruction known as a "hybrid" model. Many of the districts offering the hybrid are rotating students in cohorts that switch between in-person and remote instruction; this way, students get at least some time in their school buildings.

The Murphy administration initially wanted all districts to offer some form of in-person instruction; however, many pushed back, saying they were not prepared. A large part of the problem is staffing: many districts are having trouble finding replacements for the wave of teachers who retired early or took leaves of absence rather than return during a pandemic. Governor Murphy has since allowed districts to apply to start the year remotely.

NJ Spotlight published a list late last week of which school districts -- including charter schools and private schools approved for special education -- would be implementing which model to start the year. I thought it was worth taking some time to crunch the numbers, even if many plans are, as of this writing, still under review. The list I'm using omits almost 200 districts, including every one in Hudson County. Still, it's instructive to see where we are as of now.

I should note before I start that a hybrid program does not require a student to attend in person. Murphy made clear months ago that if a family wants their student to attend schools fully remotely, they can. A hybrid program, then, is actually the possibility of attending school part-time, if parents so choose.

Let's start by looking at how many students are enrolled in schools implementing different types of plans. I'm omitting students in private schools, but including charter school students.

About one-quarter of students are in schools where the data on their reopening is not yet available. Of the remaining districts and charter schools, only one percent are in fully in-person schools. "Combination" districts are those where some schools are remote and some are in-person or hybrid; only six percent of students are in these schools.

The remainder of students are split nearly in half: part going to fully remote schools, part going to hybrid schools. I'm going to leave out fully in-person and combination schools for clarity's sake in the rest of my charts because the numbers are relatively small. Let's take a look at what types of students are attending what types of schools.

Of all the students who are attending a hybrid program, 62 percent are white. Compare that to remote programs, where only 30 percent of students are white. That percentage is close to the percentage of unknown programs. 

When considering white and Asian students together, the differences are just as pronounced. New Jersey schools using a hybrid plan are more likely to enroll white and Asian students than schools that are fully remote. Here's the data in reverse: enrollment of Black and Hispanic students by plan type.

Hybrid schools have, in the aggregate, a 24 percent enrollment of Black and Hispanic students. In contrast, remote schools have a weighted average student population that is 56 percent Black and Hispanic.

Similar differences are found when comparing schools on the enrollments of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a proxy measure of student economic disadvantage.

Proportionally, hybrid schools enroll substantially fewer students who are in economic disadvantage compared to fully remote schools. 

Now, as Bruce Baker and I have pointed out before, school districts that enroll larger proportions of Black and Hispanic students are more likely to be underfunded, relative to the target set by the state's funding law, SFRA. These districts should be receiving more money, either through local revenues or state aid; however, their actual revenues are under what they should be to provide what the state says is an "adequate" education.

So how does school funding align with reopening plans?*

School districts going fully remote are more likely to be underfunded compared to districts that offer a hybrid model. About three-quarters of the students attending a school with a hybrid model also attend a school that is funded over its adequacy target. But that's true for only 40 percent of students attending a remote district. And over 10 percent of those students are in a district that is severely underfunded -- more than $5,000 per pupil.

There are several possibilities as to why this is. It could be that more underfunded districts are responding to parents' desires to keep their children home. Perhaps parents feel this way because they don't believe the schools have the resources needed to keep students safe. Or it could be that parents would like a hybrid option, but districts can't make it work because of space restrictions or a lack of resources.

It's also possible this is all a coincidence... but I doubt it. Schools need more funding than they normally would to open safely in a pandemic. What we are likely seeing now is the logical consequence of years of inequitable funding -- even in a state that used to be one of the leaders in school funding reform.

I'm keeping an eye on all this and will update the data as soon as it's available.

* I omitted charter school students from this graph. The issue is tricky: some charter students attend schools in districts different from where they live, so we can't know if their resident district, which sends revenues to their charter, is underfunded or not. If and when we get final numbers, I'll try to dig into the issue further.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

The School Reopening Gamble

In the next week or so, schools districts all over the country will reopen their buildings as their new year begins. During our pre-service training, a teacher colleague of mine described the process as a “grand experiment.”

But he’s wrong; it’s not an experiment. It’s a gamble.

An experiment, by definition, is a controlled, scientific procedure designed to gain knowledge. When a researcher conducts an experiment, they try, as much as possible, to control for outside factors that may affect an outcome. The goal is to see relationships between causes and effects, and better understand how the world works.

A gamble, on the other hand, is a risky action taken with the hopes of getting a favorable result. A gambler isn’t trying to learn anything – all they want is a win.

America’s school reopening plans aren’t experiments; we aren’t trying to learn more about how COVID-19 spreads, or its effects. We are, instead, making a huge bet: we’re hoping that we’ll get the benefits of sending children into school buildings without making the pandemic worse.

The problem, however, is that a good gambler always knows the odds. Before placing a bet, a gambler weighs the risks of losing against the rewards of winning. Las Vegas is full of stories of sad, self-deluded gamblers who never took the time to calculate exactly what they were putting at risk before they rolled the dice.

It appears to this teacher that America, true to form, is acting like those reckless high-rollers: we’re putting all of our chips on schools reopening without ever stopping to calculate the odds. We should, instead, take a moment, before placing our bets, to weigh the rewards and the risks of reopening schools

The rewards are actually more meager than what many policymakers appear to think they will be. At best, reopening buildings means only a partial return to school for many students. While some school districts have gone all in and are opening five days a week for a full day, many are opting for a “hybrid” model, like the latest proposal for New York City.

In this model, students are divided into two, or even three, cohorts that rotate in-person schooling with remote instruction. At most, these students will attend school a dozen times a month; more likely it will be less, thanks to holidays.

Obviously, this does nothing to solve the child care crisis many pundits and politicians have cited as the reason to return to school buildings. And even if schools went back to full-time, in-person instruction, working parents would still need childcare solutions for the other hours when they are at work, because school hours almost never cover a parent’s work hours.

Some proponents of school reopening have argued that schools serve other functions besides education: they screen students for abuse, provide free meals to disadvantaged students, and deliver instruction to students with special needs. Unquestionably, that’s true – but must school buildings be open to provide these services? School districts were working to solve many of these issues last spring, when instruction was completely remote; for example, many districts started providing school meals through delivery or pickup.

Furthermore, states like New Jersey are allowing parents to opt their children out of in-person schooling altogether. So schools are going to have to check on students’ welfare and provide free meals remotely anyway.

The issue of special education is more difficult: some students have needs that are so profound they can’t be served by on-line learning. It is, admittedly, not always easy to determine which students fall into this category -- but it’s not all students. Why not open up the schools, then, just for those students with those needs? Why crowd students whose needs could be met on line into classrooms?

Which brings up what reopening proponents appear to believe is their strongest case for reopening: remote, on-line learning is never as good as in-person learning. As a teacher, I’d usually agree… except these proponents are making the wrong comparison. What we should be asking is whether remote learning now is better than part-time, in-person learning in a pandemic.

When teachers were thrown into on-line learning last spring, they were forced to make up remote-based lesson plans on the spot, with little training or preparation. Things are different now: many teachers (myself included) gained experience and feel more comfortable on a digital platform. Of course, internet access remains a serious problem, one that isn’t going away any time soon. And most teachers would agree that good in-person instruction could never be replaced by remote learning.

But in-person learning in a pandemic is also highly problematic. Forcing young children to wear masks for hours, policing social distancing guidelines, teaching some children in person while others are remote… this is hardly an ideal teaching environment. How much positive social development will children experience in conditions like these? How much real learning is going to get done?

Those are the rewards, such as they are. What about the risks?

We must start by acknowledging that we still have much to learn about COVID-19’s long-term effects. What we do know is troubling: in addition to the risk of death, some patients show a range of serious symptoms months after initial exposure. Children appear to be susceptible to these effects. It is true that the health risks for children appear smaller than those for the adult population; however, there is still substantial risk, especially for children of color.

Further, we know that children are carriers of the coronavirus, and have the potential to be spreaders. Which means that even if they do not suffer severe symptoms after exposure, their families and their teachers may.

Some have suggested the fears of American children spreading COVID-19 are overblown, as other countries have managed to open schools without seeing large outbreaks. I’d first point out that many of these other countries’ students spend less time in school than American children, which may decrease the chances of transmission.

In addition, American schools are not like those in other countries. Our chronic underinvestment in school facilities has left us with many schools that are crowded and have inadequate HVAC systems. One-fifth of our schools have no nursing care; another one-fifth only have part-time nurses. Neither of these issues are being addressed, as Washington has not allocated any additional funds to make schools safer or cleaner during the pandemic.

And again: many of the children who return to school buildings will do so only for a few days a week. If they spend the other days in childcare, they may be exposed to two different sets of peers and two different sets of adults overseeing them. The current plans for schooling are therefore likely increasing the number of possible vectors for transmission.

So that’s the gamble. If we win the bet, the payoff is, at best, a highly stunted in-school experience -- in many cases for only a few days a week -- with, perhaps, marginally better delivery of non-academic services. But if we lose, we’ll expose many more children and educational staff to the virus, with immediate and devastating consequences for many, and potentially severe repercussions in the future.

I know children need to get back to school as soon as possible. I know that, for many, school is the one safe place in their lives. I know this generation will suffer harm the longer they are out of school. I know parents have to get back to work -- and I know they really need a break.

But we have to be honest with ourselves: when we reopen schools, we are gambling with lives. Is it really worth it?

Monday, August 31, 2020

State Aid Is School Aid

Here in the Northeast, schools are getting ready to reopen in what can only be called a gigantic experiment in the middle of pandemic with a virus we barely understand. I'm going to say a few more things about this soon... but I first want to discuss something that's been pushed to the back burner over the last few weeks.

The Senate's complete abdication to do anything serious about the economy might lead you to believe that Republicans don't believe that public schools are facing a fiscal crisis. But that's not entirely true. Even though the GOP school aid proposal is incredibly weak, the very fact that Republicans are proposing aid to schools is a tacit acknowledgement that they are in financial trouble.

But, as usual, Republicans are proposing an inadequate solution to a very real problem. Part of this inadequacy is due to the insistence of ideologues on privileging private schools when coming up with an aid package. Part of it is simply the lowball amounts the Republicans seem set on sticking with, contrary to estimates about what's needed.

But a big part is due to a fundamental misunderstanding -- likely, a deliberate misunderstanding -- of how schools get their revenue. Schools rely heavily on their states for funding -- but the Republicans are refusing to provide fiscal relief for the states.

Let me put this as clearly as I can: Fiscal relief for states is fiscal relief for schools. Any plan to get fiscal relief to schools is not serious if it does not also include fiscal relief for states. And right now, they need relief badly.

Let's start getting into this a bit more by charting out the flow of revenues to schools.

Let me point out something I think sometimes gets lost: the school district is the fundamental unit of school finance, not the school. How districts allocate finances to their schools can be important, especially in very large districts. But generally, districts are the ones who strike collective bargaining agreements, design and operate special education programs, allocate staff, receive revenues from higher levels of government, and so on.

There are three main sources of revenues for schools: the federal government, the states, and local schools districts. Most federal funding comes from the Title I program, designed to provide funds to higher-poverty schools, or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This funding does not, in general*, go directly to school districts; instead, it passes through states on to districts. The calculations for how these funds are to be distributed are complex, and states actually have some wiggle room to change how they allocate funds.

But while federal funding is important, especially for higher-poverty districts, it is not, in total, the largest part of funding for the K-12 system.

Historically, federal revenues accounted for between 7 to 13 percent of total K-12 funding over the past couple of decades. The percentage rose during the last recession due to the federal stimulus in 2009, but has gone down since. 

The biggest sources of funding for K-12 schools have been state and local revenue. In the aggregate, each accounts for about half of the remainder after separating out federal funding. Of course, that varies considerably from state to state.

States like Vermont and Hawaii rely heavily of state funding (Hawaii only has one school district, though, so the distinction is largely meaningless). But even in the states where districts rely the least on state funding -- Missouri, Nebraska and New Hampshire -- state funding still counts for a third of revenues. In the majority of states, half or more of all revenues for schools come from the states themselves.

Funding schools is actually one of the primary fiscal activities of the states.

This pie chart is from the National Assn. of State Budget Officers latest report on state expenditures. Again, there's considerable variation from state to state, but on average elementary and secondary education takes up one-fifth of the states' budgets. Only Medicaid consumes more of the spending total.

States spent north of about $300 billion out of their general funds last year (estimated by NASBO) on K-12 schooling. It's an enormous amount of the total spending on schools. Given this reality, it's pointless to talk about school aid at the federal level unless you also talk about state aid. No one seriously believes the federal government could step in and provide direct aid to districts. Again, the vast majority of federal aid already flows through the states to districts; what possible benefit would there be to bypassing a system already in place?

If the federal government wants to help schools, it has to help states. Any Republican who tells you they want to help schools, but state aid is not on the table, is ignorant, disingenuous, or both.

* In fact, I'm unaware of any major federal government source of education aid that goes directly to school districts and bypasses states, exempting Department of Defense, tribal, or similar districts. If I'm wrong, let me know, I'd be curious to find out.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

How To Stop Magical Thinking In School Reopening Plans

In the past few weeks, a new literary genre has emerged in America's media outlets: the school reopening op-ed. Almost always written by someone who has little to no experience in actually working in a school, these op-eds tend to follow the same form:
  1. Why it's so important to reopen schools. 
  2. Evidence in support of the idea that COVID-19 prevalence is low in children, as is transmission attributable to children.
  3. Grudging admission that adults work in schools and this may be a problem.
  4. Finger-wagging at said adults, telling them that life is full of risk and they shouldn't indulge in fear mongering. 
  5. A set of ideas to reopen schools. Many times, the tone of the presentation suggests the author believes no one who leads or works in schools actually could have thought of any of their plans before they did.
  6. An optimistic call for "creativity" in school reopening plans.
It's always interesting to look at the comments section following these pieces, or to see them debated on Twitter. Skeptics -- often actual educators, but also parents, students, and other stakeholders -- will point out many factors that the authors did not address in their op-ed that make it difficult, if not impossible, to implement their ideas.

Given the severity of this pandemic and the importance of reopening schools, it is not at all appropriate to dismiss these objections out of hand. If some of the most prominent spaces in the media are being reserved for "experts" to offer their ideas for school reopening, the least they should have to endure is a thorough critique of their ideas from the people who will be the most affected by them. 

A serious assessment of school reopening plans isn't simply negative thinking; it's a brake on magical thinking. It's an acknowledgement that yes, we do have to get schools reopened as quickly as possible, but we must do so in a way that respects the safety of students and educators. Setting policies for school reopening isn't an intellectual exercise; it's serious business that literally puts people's lives at risk. We must think carefully about the proposals that are being floated before we decide to use them and go back to school.

To that end, I offer here a framework for assessing the viability of school reopening policies. If you really believe you have figured out how to get schools up and running again, you shouldn't mind having to answer these questions:

- Is your plan practical? One popular idea out now is to repurpose spaces that are currently empty and reuse them for instruction; that way, we can reduce class sizes and/or spread students out so they can maintain distancing guidelines. On the surface, it seems like a good idea, until you begin to ask questions like...

Are these spaces secure? Can teachers monitor students in them? Do they have adequate bathroom facilities? Are they accessible to disabled children and staff? Will the property owners be liable for student/staff injuries? If not, how will they be protected? How will we transport students to these spaces? What supplies and equipment are needed so instruction can be delivered? Will those be transported from schools? Will we have to get more? Will they be secure after hours? What emergency response plans are needed in the new facility? Will the facilitates be used after school hours? If so, what precautions will be taken to clean them? 

Questions like these aren't negative thinking, and they aren't nit-picking. They are the everyday work of educators; they are the same questions school leaders and teachers ask constantly when working within their own buildings. People who propose repurposing buildings, or any other school reopening policy, should not be allowed dismiss them.

- Can your plan be brought to scale? Another popular idea is moving classes outside, as it's generally believed the virus does not fare well in the open air. To shelter students and staff, proponents suggest we set up tents, which would offer some protection from the elements.

Again, we have to ask whether, and to what extent, this is practical: who's setting up the tents? Do schools have enough level, accessible space to set them up? How are we moving and securing furniture and supplies? What happens when it gets really cold/hot? And so on...

But even if we could address all of these concerns, what would it take to set up an adequate number of outdoor spaces with shelters across the US? There are nearly 100,000 K-12 public schools in America, enrolling more than 50 million students. Let's be extremely conservative and say we need one large tent for every 25 students; that's about 2 million tents.

Do we have the capacity to procure these shelters, set them up, maintain them in all kinds of weather, secure them when not being used, and store them when needed?

Yes, it's conceivable that we wouldn't need so many. But unless you can tell me how many we need, you're making my point: you haven't thought this all the way through. Any viable reopening plan must consider the scale on which it operates.

- Is your plan affordable? It's generally agreed that adequate air exchange is necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19. Some op-ed writers have suggested that we need to invest in air purifiers and HVAC upgrades to make classrooms more safe. You'll certainly get no argument from me... but where are we going to get the money?

Even before the pandemic -- and this is just an estimate, the problem could be much worse -- around 40 percent of US school districts needed to upgrade or replace the HVAC systems on at least half of their schools. Which means simply buying better air filters and installing them in current systems isn't going to solve the problem. 

In the op-ed above, the authors suggests getting portable air purifiers for every classroom. They way lowball the estimate of how many we'd need -- but even their estimated number is, they admit, greater than the entire annual production of purifiers for the United States. But let's say their conservative estimate of $1 billion is correct; again, where is the money going to come from?

This country has been living penny-wise and pound-foolish for years when it comes to its school facilities. Upgrading them to acceptable standards in a pandemic is going to cost a lot of money. If you propose a school reopening plan, you have an obligation to explain how you're going to fund it.

- Is your plan developmentally appropriate for children? I taught primary school children for decades, and I can tell you with absolute certainty that they cannot and will not wear masks for seven or more hours a day, even with breaks. I can also tell you they will not adhere to social distancing guidelines without constant intervention. That is just the way it is.

I've also taught adolescents. Many of them (like many adults in the US) believe in their own invincibility and will downplay the risks of transmitting the virus to others. Yet some of the best evidence we have on COVID-19 suggests teenagers transmit the virus just as well as adults.

We can't assume that children -- even older children -- will follow all the protocols we expect from adults to stop viral transmission. Because they're children. 

- Does your plan make unreasonable demands on educators? Because of the South Korea study and other evidence, some have begun floating the idea of reopening elementary schools, but keeping secondary schools closed. I think there's merit in this (and I say this as an elementary schoolteacher). But asking some teachers to take a risk with their lives while others do not without making big changes in work conditions is unreasonable.

Take personal protective equipment (PPE). If a school district is going to demand an elementary teacher show up to work, but not provide adequate PPE, that's simply unfair. And the PPE should be protective of the teachers, not just the students. Cloth masks may keep teachers from spreading the virus, but N95s and surgical masks are better at keeping them from getting it. Where, then, is the plan to provide these better masks to teachers who are forced to come to school?

It's also unreasonable to ask a teacher to develop two sets of instructional plans: one for students whose families opt to go fully on-line, and another for students who come to school in person. These are not the same modes of instruction; delivering them both requires considerably more preparation. How will schools deal with this?

And will teachers who contract COVID-19 at school have to drain their sick day banks during their recovery? How is that fair to a teacher who was forced to show up at school while a colleague under the same collective bargaining agreement was not?

Again, I'm not dismissing the idea of opening only elementary schools out of hand. But the teachers who are subject to working with students in person deserve much more than facile assurances that they will be protected, and their workload will remain manageable. 

- Are the examples you use to support your plan relevant? Pundits who support reopening schools often cite other countries' experiences as evidence that we can reopen schools safely. At this point, I will dismiss anyone's argument outright if they talk about Scandinavian countries but neglect to mention South Korea, Israel, or others places that have had problems with reopening schools.

In addition: any comparison to the United States must account for differences in how schooling is delivered in different countries. There is evidence, for example, that elementary students in the US spend more time in school than in other countries (admittedly, it's difficult to make these comparisons). Certainly, the case rates outside of school are vastly different in countries that have reopened school "successfully."

Education varies widely across different countries, as does the scope of the pandemic; therefore, the lessons learned from them are, at best, limited when applied to the United States. If you're going to tell us your school reopening plan will work because another nation did the same thing, you have an obligation to acknowledge the differences between that country and ours.

- Will your plan work given the current state of American politics? We have to face a few uncomfortable truths in the United States: there isn't going to be a lot of additional money available for school reopening, schools are going to take a huge fiscal hit regardless, COVID-19 prevention has become hopelessly politicized, and many Americans have been duped into thinking the pandemic is a hoax.

It's clear we need more resources to operate schools safely in a pandemic. It's clear people should be wearing masks and social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus. But what happens to all these carefully laid plans for school reopening when politicians refuse to fund them, and some parents and students refuse to follow them? Are the authors of these plans prepared to abandon them if it becomes clear they cannot be implemented in the current political environment?  

- Does your plan address class and race inequities? This pandemic has exposed -- or rather, further exposed -- some hard realities about inequity in America. Some people have jobs that allow them to work from home; some don't. Some parents can get paid time off to care for their sick child; some can't. Some communities can raise enough local funds to retrofit their HVAC systems or expand transportation so students can socially distance; some can't.

It makes sense to declare that symptomatic children shouldn't be admitted to school during a pandemic. But what do we say to a parent who works a job with no paid leave for time off to care for an ill child?

If you propose a school reopening idea, you should have to acknowledge how that idea may be subject to limits because of systemic inequities. And you should demand those inequities be addressed.

- Can your plan be implemented in time to reopen school? Many agree that having more personnel in schools would help; we could potentially cut down class sizes, have more personnel available in case staff fall ill, excuse staff who are medically at risk, etc. Some say we should be tapping retirees or recent graduates to work in schools. I think, given the pay for current teachers and substitutes, and the risk now involved, that the availability of suitable workers is highly overstated.

But let's suppose it's not; what then? School starts in a few weeks. Can we really recruit, conduct background checks on, train, and deploy these folks by then? Will we have the necessary administration in place to properly oversee an influx of new staff? Will we have enough PPE to protect them? Will they be subject to current bargaining agreements? Will they receive health insurance? And, as always: where's the money?

It would be nice to believe that somehow we could snap our fingers and reopening plans -- even ones that are feasible -- will be implemented at warp speed. But that's not how actual life works. This stuff takes time -- and we are woefully short on it. If your school reopening plan doesn't come with a reasonable timetable, it's not useful.

- Have you clearly defined the alternative to your plan, and is it actually worse than what you propose? No one likes on-line learning. But no one is going to like in-person schooling under a pandemic. I've seen enough first days of Kindergarten to know school can already be intimidating to a young child, let alone an awkward teen. Now let's add masks, and social distancing, and limited activities, and potential classes in the freezing cold or blazing heat. Let's take away choir and sports and lunchrooms with friends. Let's include a higher risk of beloved teachers and staff succumbing to COVID-19.

Let's also take a moment to acknowledge that  schools were building the plane as they were flying it this past spring. On-line learning will never be as good as in-person learning without a pandemic -- but that doesn't mean we couldn't improve it greatly, and in a relatively short time. Personally, I can honestly say I got much better at teaching remotely the more I did it.

The question before us now is not whether in-person schooling before the pandemic is better than remote learning was this spring: that answer is obvious. The question is whether in-person schooling this fall -- not an idealized version, but what it will actually be -- is better than what remote learning will be. And if it is better, will it be by much? And is that worth the risk?

I can only speak for myself: I am not yet ready to abandon the idea that we can go back to school safely this year. I think it's going to take a lot of work and more resources than we're currently talking about at the national level. I also think we are going to be very hard pressed to make this work by Labor Day. But if we can get the virus under control outside of school, get together the necessary resources, and make an honest assessment of the risks and rewards... OK.

But we're not going to get that honest assessment unless and until we stop thinking that magical plans will allow us to reopen schools in a few weeks. I know this will come as a shock to many pundits, but people who actually work in schools have almost certainly already thought of your "creative" solution to the problem. The likely reason they aren't implementing it is because they don't have the luxury of not questioning the very real issues you didn't address in your op-ed.

If that sounds harsh, I'm sorry -- but lives are literally at stake. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

A Response To Critics Of My Research On NJ Teachers

Earlier this week, the Sunshine Sunlight Policy Center put out a critique of my report, published by the New Jersey Policy Perspective, on the shrinking numbers of teacher candidates in preparation programs in New Jersey. That report references an earlier report I wrote for NJPP on the NJ teacher workforce; that report looked at, among many other things, teacher compensation. SPC has also criticized that report, focusing on the sections on teacher wages. 

There's a small echo chamber for this sort of stuff here in New Jersey: a couple of bloggers will pump it up and add their thoughts, "reform" groups will pass it around social media, etc. What's curious about this last round of criticism, however, is that several people contacted me to say they had received news of SPC's report through email, even though they never signed up to receive messages. People receiving unsolicited copies of criticisms of my work is a new one for me -- I can only assume I really touched a nerve.

I don't have a problem with anyone critiquing my work; in fact, I regularly write reviews of research from think tanks for the National Education Policy Center. But it's a rigorous process, with a clear format and several layers of editorial review. That keeps a reviewer from just flinging anything they think of on the wall and hoping something sticks.

I'm not going to go through and do a point-by-point rebuttal of SPC's criticisms. Many are, to be frank, silly: arguing, for example, that I made a point about a limitation of the data in an appendix as opposed to the main text is nit-picking of the highest order.

But let me quickly get to the main issues:

- Teacher wage modeling. SPC makes no objection to the functional form or the covariates included in my wage models. They do object that my data does not disaggregate private and public school teachers -- a fact I point out and write about in my report. I have to wonder if SPC would have even made its objection on this point had I not brought it up.

SPC tries to use a graph I included, which shows the difference in reported teacher wages between two different data sources, to determine the gap between private and public school teacher wages. But the graph is not showing this; it's showing the difference between two data sources: the NJ Department of Education's salary data, and the IPUMS data I used for the report.

SPC suggests substituting the NJDOE salary data for the IPUMS data would narrow the wage gap I show for teachers. But substituting one data source for another, just for teachers, is wholly invalid. The IPUMS data are survey data; the NJDOE data are salaries reported from all school districts. The reported salaries from a survey could be easily biased downward for all respondents (some people reporting take-home pay instead of before-tax earnings, for example). And there is no way to know just how many private school teachers are included the survey.

When you do an analysis like this, you go with the best data you've got, use it uniformly, and note the limitations and possible biases. I've done that. Trying to ding me for it is petty.

- Other research. SPC makes a big deal about how other research comes to conclusions that are different than mine. Again: I'm the one who brought up all the other research and compared it to my own. I admit in my report that the latest iteration of the Economic Policy Institute's teacher wage gap model shows a significant change for New Jersey teachers, with a much smaller wage gap than they found the year before. How can I be "burying" it when I'm the one who brings it up?

It is odd to see such a large swing in one year, so, yes, I consider the latest EPI report an "outlier." We'll see what their future research shows. This is what social science is: looking at a problem from various angles with different data and comparing the results. What is not valid is what SPC does when it tries to prove a teacher wage advantage: pulling out results from various reports that align closest with its predilections, then combining them even though they use different methods and different data. That's an undergraduate mistake and a bad indulgence in confirmation bias.

- Teacher benefits. Central to the issue of teacher compensation are whether and to what extent benefits, such a health insurance and pensions, make up for the wage gap. I am very clear in my report: I make no attempt to determine whether this is the case. I cite other work that has made the attempt, and I cite research on the generosity of NJ teacher pensions and benefits relative to other states. SPC says: "Citing irrelevant research obfuscates rather than illuminates." I choose not to underestimate the intelligence of my readers and include these citations; I have faith that they are perfectly capable of putting these references into the proper context.

- "Underpaid" teachers. The issue of estimating the worth of benefits brings up a larger point: how can we model all of the aspects of teaching as a career -- pay, benefits, personal satisfaction, etc. -- to determine whether teachers are underpaid? The answer is that we can't. I have known teachers who have told me they would work for free if they had to because they love the job so much. If New Jersey could find enough of these people, it could slash taxes and our schools would still thrive.

Obviously, however, that's not how the real world works. The relevant policy question is whether teacher compensation is high enough to continue to attract enough qualified workers into the profession. It is wholly germane to that discussion to note that teachers make less in wages, on average*, than similarly educated workers, even when holding other factors constant. It's especially relevant when some NJ policymakers constantly talk about reducing teacher benefits, as those benefits are helping to close this wage gap.

- Teacher candidates. SPC admits there is "...a real and worrisome decline in the number of teacher candidates, and that New Jersey’s education system needs a large pool of qualified teacher candidates." Yet that is the primary conclusion of my report.

I'll say it again: SPC agrees with the primary conclusion of my report.

Their objection, then, isn't with my data or analysis-- it's with my contention that this decline is likely linked to teacher compensation and working conditions. Is it so far fetched to assume that compensation might be involved here? I include several citations in my first report that show that compensation does, in fact, influence workers' decisions to go into teaching. Is SPC really trying to deny this? Are they arguing that compensation doesn't affect people's career choices?

SPC argues that I have not shown a direct causal link between teacher policies in New Jersey and the decline in candidates. It's an odd argument to make when SPC also contends that millennials' attitudes toward work are affecting teacher recruitment, but offers no causal evidence to support their contention; apparently, only my arguments have to withstand their dictated level of scrutiny.

Here is what we know: we have fewer teacher prep enrollees and candidates per 1000 students than in the last ten years. During that time, teacher benefits degraded (thanks to Chapter 78). There's strong evidence teachers were already behind on wages compared to similarly educated workers. Research shows teacher compensation affects decisions to enter the profession.

SPC can dance around all they want, but those are the facts; if they find them inconvenient, that's on them.

- What about the rest of it? If you only read SPC's criticisms you would think all I've reported on was teacher compensation and the decline in teacher candidates. In fact, that was only a part of these reports. I actually consider other sections to be more important.

  • The teaching workforce does not look like the student population. The majority of teachers are white females, yet that's not the case for NJ's student population. We've got to get more people of color into teaching, and yet the number of Black and Latinx teacher candidates is falling.
  • Teacher wages are not similar across districts of different socio-economic status. It appears that the most affluent districts are willing to pay a wage premium to experienced teachers with advanced degrees. This is a question of equity that needs to be addressed.
  • SPC says I don't talk about barriers to entry into the teaching profession. In fact, I discuss it specifically with regards to racial bias, which is a serious problem. I also reference recent work by Drew Gitomer on EdTPA, a problematic hurdle for student teachers.
SPC doesn't address these issues of race and class as related to teacher compensation and recruitment. I would urge them to leverage some of what appear to be their substantial resources toward these topics; perhaps SPC's staff could convince their funders that they are important.

* One of the bloggers who joined in on criticizing my work has made a big deal about comparing "mean" and "median" wages between teachers and other workers. If anyone wants to get into a whole discussion of the validity of using a quantile regression method in teacher wage modeling, be my guest. I'd just note the data is censored at $250K, so it's really not that big of a deal. (Yes, I should have noted that in the report.)

UPDATE: This is incorrect: the data is censured in the aggregate when reported, but not the micro data I use. So yes, non-teacher data skews upward; I regret the error. However, my point in the next paragraph stands. (Also, after checking again, I can report there are no 7-figure income figures in the data; highest observation is $720K.)

It's also odd to argue that I'm overestimating the teacher wage gap because the top of the pay distribution for other workers is much higher than it is for teachers. The fact that a teacher in the highest pay quantile will never make what a similarly positioned lawyer makes doesn't much help the argument that teachers don't suffer from a wage gap.

Key and Peele explain it better than I can:

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.