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, April 23, 2015

Tests Don't Fund Schools

So let me get this straight: rich white kids not taking enough tests is the civil rights issue of our time?

John White, as reformy a guy as you'll ever find, seems to think so (all emphases in this post are mine):
John White, state superintendent of Louisiana, took that argument further, calling state testing "an absolutely essential element of assuring the civil rights of children in America." 
White said broad testing is the only way to know which students are learning and which are not. Testing, he said, is the only way to know the truth of the "serious injustice" to low-income, minority or handicapped children that do not received a good education.  
"We should examine how and how much testing we do," White said last week. 
"But we should always be conscious that we still have a country and a society that is rife with inequity and injustices, and until the time when we can assure every family of an equal opportunity to achieve an excellent education, we must commit to an annual measurement of our delivery of an education so that we can lay bare the honest truth as to whether or not we succeeded in educating every child." 
He added: "The value of testing, at its essence, is that it tells the truth and that is a civil rights issue first and foremost and should not be forgotten by anyone," he said.
So does New York's reformiest testing maven, Merryl Tisch:
It used to be easy to ignore the most vulnerable students. Without assessments, it was easy to ignore the achievement gap for African-American and Latino students. Without an objective measure of their progress, it was easy to deny special education students and English Language Learners the extra resources they need. Obviously we still need to do more for those students, but now is not the time to put blinders back on.
And, of course, here in New Jersey, our reliably reformy education commission, David Hespe, thinks opting out of tests hurts our "struggling" schools the most:
Hespe said the tests are vital to efforts to deliver quality education statewide, including in currently struggling school districts, and that meddling by lawmakers risks creating a “social justice crisis in New Jersey’’ if the program is derailed.
Golly, if these three august champions of America's students believe that an expansive, intrusive, and expensive regime of noisy, biased testing is absolutely vital for making sure we provide a high-quality education for our most deserving students, who are any of us to disagree?

I mean, all three of these warriors for impoverished children and children of color know that tests are critical in their fight to ensure that kids born in disadvantage are getting adequate resources for their schools...

Aren't they?

Let's see how much personal political capital White is willing to risk to get more funds to Louisiana's children:
Louisiana Education Superintendent John White is trying to split the difference between two camps in a rough budget year. He proposed an $80 million increase in public school funding Wednesday (March 4) -- less than what a task force of educators, analysts and lawmakers wanted but more than twice what Gov. Bobby Jindal proposed. 
The governor and superintendent already are at odds over the Common Core education standards, and White has accused Jindal of punishing his agency financially. 
White proposed a 1.4 percent increase in the amount the state will give local school systems for each elementary and secondary student in the fiscal year that starts July 1. On top of that, he would add $8 million for special education, vocational classes and college work undertaken by high schoolers. 
Yes, a group of actual educators and other stakeholders told White what Louisiana's schools needed... and he promptly proceeded to ignore them. He crows about a paltry 1.4%, as if he had a huge triumph and reversed Louisiana's chronic underfunding of education.

Keep in kind that Louisiana is already one of the worst school funding offenders in the nation: a large number of wealthy families send their children to private schools, and the state expends little effort to provide the necessary resources for those children who stay in the public system.

You'd think John White might spare a word or two about education underfunding in between telling poor people that more testing will save their kids' schools. 

What about Tisch? Well, she certainly talks a good game: in her famous letter responding to NY Governor Cuomo's staff, she called for another $2 billion in state education aid. The budget wound up increasing aid by $1.6 billion. Impressed?

You shouldn't be. From the Education Law Center:
The Maisto case made clear that the crucial question in this year’s budget was this: Did the State redress the failure to fulfill its constitutional obligation to fund New York schools adequately, so that all children can have the opportunity for a meaningful high school education? 
The answer, once again, is no. The FY16 budget provides a $428 million increase in Foundation Aid, against the backdrop of the cumulative $4.7 billion shortfall in Foundation Aid. The budget provides $603 million in GEA restoration, but that is still half a billion dollars short of the $1.1 billion owed the districts. Also absent was a commitment to put the Foundation Aid formula back on track to full funding. 
The overall aid increase of $1.3 billion exceeds last year’s figure, but it falls far short of what New York students are entitled to. It also fails to mitigate the severe resource cuts over the past six years. 
An analysis of the FY16 budget by noted school finance expert, Bruce Baker, a witness for the Maistostudents, shows that these eight Small City districts still face significant funding gaps. For example, Utica, which has drastically cut its budget is still facing a nearly $4,000 per pupil funding shortfall.  The bottom line for Utica schools is a continuing lack of essential resources to serve a student population in which 83% are poor, 16% are students with disabilities, and 16% are English language learners speaking over 42 different languages. As Dr. Baker notes, in the districts that are home to what Governor Cuomo considers to be “failing” schools, the funding gaps, after the 2015-16 budget increase, range from over $1600 per pupil to almost $8,000 per pupil.
Read Bruce's full post about Angry Andy's funding failures, then ask yourself this: why isn't Merryl Tisch's advocating hard for full funding of New York's school aid formula? Where is her outrage at Cuomo's failure to fund the schools which she is charged with maintaining?

You'd think Merryl Tisch might spare a word or two about education underfunding in between telling poor people that more testing will save their kids' schools. 

Let's see what's happening with school funding in New Jersey, David Hespe's domain. Again, the ELC:
If Governor Christie’s proposed FY16 State Budget is allowed to stand, 2015-16 will mark the eighth year since New Jersey’s School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) was enacted, and the seventh year in which it is not being properly funded. The law was passed with the promise of dramatically changing the way that state school aid is distributed to districts, using an “equitable and predictable” weighted student formula that links resources to the costs of achieving the state’s academic standards. The State has failed to follow through on that promise and has underfunded the formula by over $6 billion in six years, with another $1 billion shortfall proposed for FY16.
New Jersey was on its way toward becoming a leader in school funding fairness; now, it consistently fails to live up to its own laws. But where is Hespe in the fight to provide schools with the resources they need?

Making excuses:
Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly is recreation coordinator for the Paterson schools. 
“Flat funding means less funding. Everything else goes up — program costs, teachers’ salaries, pensions and benefits,” he said. 
When Wimberly made that point to Hespe, the commissioner spun it this way: “I think flat funding was actually better than most people were expecting going into this budget for districts. The SFRA — the school funding formula — is underfunded by around $1.1 billion.” 
Yes, parents, David Hespe is fighting for your kids! Be happy that their schools are getting less money than the law says they should! After all, there's still so much fat to be cut:
Wimberly says his schools in Paterson will have to shed hundred of jobs in the coming year. 
“Obviously it’s well documented. Districts such as my largest district, they’re gonna have a layoff of 369 employees,” he said. 
“We are gonna see reductions in force in Newark, we’re going to see them in Camden,” Hespe said. 
Hespe said most districts can accommodate larger class sizes. 
“The research is actually supporting that class sizes can go a little higher than we have in a lot of our districts,” he said.
What an utter load of garbage: the "research" says no such thing. Hespe conveniently forgets that the state itself says it costs a certain amount of money to educate a child, and his boss, Chris Christie, refuses to provide that funding.

You'd think David Hespe might spare a word or two about education underfunding in between telling poor people that more testing will save their kids' schools. 

These education "leaders" go on and on about how critical testing is for helping poor children to get the education they deserve. They pretend that these tests only tell us something meaningful if they become so intrusive that they distort the curriculum and overwhelm the regular functioning of schools.

These reformy mandarins also pretend that they are courageous in the face of "special interests" -- you know, teachers and parents -- in their insistence that every child be subjected to hours upon hours of noisy, biased tests.

But their courage suddenly melts away when it comes time to stand up to moneyed interests and demand that taxes on the wealthy be raised to fully fund our nation's public schools.

Test do not fund schools. And it is both cowardly and illogical to demand that public schools meet certain test-based standards when politicians like White, Tisch, and Hespe are not prepared to fight to get the funding they themselves say is necessary to meet those standards.

Unless and until these fine, reformy folk are willing to stand up and demand that schools serving poor children get the funds they need, I don't want to hear any more of their tut-tutting at middle-class white people for opting their children out of standardized testing.

And their mouthpieces in the press and the bloggosphere and the think tanks -- those who consistently ignore the problem of inadequate and unfair school funding -- don't even deserve acknowledgment. Their indifference to the plight of impoverished children in underfunded schools, all while looking down their noses at those who opt their children out, speaks volumes.

I try not to think about school funding too much...

Me too.

But we still have enough to fund the tests, right?

Monday, April 13, 2015

Will The Charter School BS Ever Stop?

It never ends:
New Jersey's charter public schools are a lifeline -- we cannot continue to deplete resources from some of the highest performing schools in urban communities over the battle for funding equity and apolitical authorizing. The 1995 Charter Public School Authorization Act provided that charter public schools would receive 90 percent per pupil funding. Supplemental legislation in 2008, which established adjustment aid for districts in urban communities, conspicuously omitted charter public schools. The majority of our state's charter public schools are located in our more challenged urban communities. Considering the lack of adjustment aid, in reality, charters receive roughly 69% per pupil funding. The Ethical Community Charter School in Jersey City, for example, receives only 51 percent of the district per pupil funding ($9,047 compared to $17,859 for the district). Overall, Jersey City charters receive on average less than 55 percent of the district per pupil funding. [emphasis mine]
That's Timothy White, "advocacy chair" for the NJ Charter Schools Association. Because who better to opine on education policy than a public relations flack?

Let's start with the adjustment aid question first:

White chose Jersey City to make his case that charters receive less money than they should. I'm sure it's just a happy coincidence that Jersey City receives more adjustment aid than any other large school district that hosts charter schools.

Compare Jersey City to Newark, the state's largest city and home to more charter schools than any other. Newark's budget is only 1 percent adjustment aid. Statewide, adjustment aid is a little more than 2 percent of school budgets.

Using Jersey City to make the case that charters get screwed by not getting adjustment aid is like using Miami to make the case that the average US city temperature in January is 80 degrees: it's just not typical.

Further, the Jersey City public schools have to do all sorts of things the charters do not: provide transportation, support private schools, place extraordinary special education students out-of-district, maintain aging facilitates, etc. You can't expect charter schools to receive equivalent funds if they aren't doing equivalent jobs.

And that's especially true when you look at the demographics of Jersey City's charter student population compared to JCPS:

This is from the charter report I wrote with Julia Sass Rubin. There's ECCS, with the 4th lowest free-lunch eligible student population in Jersey City.

One of the great secrets of charter school funding in New Jersey is that districts pass funds on to schools using a formula similar to the School Funding Reform Act's formula. Students are "weighted" according to whether they qualify for free-lunch programs, have a special learning need, or are Limited English Proficient. The idea is obvious: these students need more funds because they are more expensive to educate. This is how we decide on state aid to schools in every New Jersey district.

Well, ECCS doesn't have many kids who qualify for the federal lunch program. And they don't have nearly as many kids as JCPS who have a special education need:

These are the reasons, then, that Ethical Community Charter School doesn't get as much per-pupil funding as the Jersey City district schools:
  • ECCS doesn't serve as many free-lunch, special education, or Limited English Proficient students as JCPS.
  • ECCS doesn't have the same responsibilities as JCPS.
White's argument is, therefore, utterly ridiculous.

People ask me why I'm against charter schools. Over and over, I say I'm not; I started my teaching career in a charter school. I think there may well be a place for some sort of "choice" system, particularly in large, urban areas.

What I am against are the transparently false arguments of people who, willingly or otherwise, do not understand the issues at play in charter school proliferation.

The charter school movement does itself no favors when it continues to publish foolishness like this. Stop the BS, guys. Please.

Jersey Jazzman reads yet another charter cheerleading op-ed in the Star-Ledger.
(Artist's conception)

Sunday, April 12, 2015

War On Teacher Pensions = War On Women

I've seen this meme going around on social media today:

Whoever made this isn't blowing smoke:

From NJ school staffing data. The pensions vest in 10 years in New Jersey, which is comparatively long and not particularly generous

By more than three-to-one, more women will suffer than men if pensions for teachers who are already vested are slashed.

Keep in mind that New Jersey public employees are under-compensated compared to similar employees in the private sector, and that New Jersey teachers' salaries have been falling behind relative to other similarly educated employees.

This is actually more than a war on women; it's a war on middle aged women, as the average age of a female teacher with 10 or more years experience is 46.

I know they're going after the cops and the firefighters and other public employees as well. But teachers have been bearing the brunt of this jihad against public employee compensation for a good long while. I remain convinced that all the crap teachers have been forced to take over the last few years -- including the attacks on our pensions -- is largely driven by an unspoken sexism.

But please, go ahead and try to tell me I'm wrong. 

Believe it.

May 25, 2010 - Christie and Kearney teacher Rita Wilson had words after Wilson tells the governor that teachers are not paid enough. 
"Your're not compensating me for my education and you're not compensating me for my experience," she told the governor during a town hall meeting in Rutherford.
Christie did not take the rebuke lying down, responding "You know what then? You don't have to do it." The governor received a round of applause for his remark. [emphasis mine]
Yeah, that's right, honey -- you don't have to work to feed your family. That's a man's job...

Oh, golly, am I reading too much into this?

Go ahead. Tell me I'm wrong. I dare you.

ADDING MORE: "You're not being bullied!"


Are Camden's Renaissance Schools Really Serving ALL the Children?

One of the big promises of the Camden "Renaissance Schools" was that they would be open to all of the children within a "catchment" area. This was a necessary precondition for the TEAM/KIPP charter chain to take over Lanning Square, which was supposed to be reserved for a district school. From the Philadelphia Inquirer of 2013:
Camden's first privately run and publicly financed Renaissance school project, the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, intends to build its first school at the site the state had reserved for the Lanning Square Elementary School and then expand from there.
KIPP plans to open in fall 2014 with prekindergarten and kindergarten, and add a grade each year, with about 100 students in each grade. A middle school is expected to open in the same building for fall 2017.
All students living within the catchment area would qualify for admission to the charterlike school.
Keep this in mind as we explore the latest controversy over the Renaissance Schools:

Last month, the Education Law Center released data -- obtained from the Camden City School District and well in advance of the regular release of enrollment data by the NJDOE -- that shows that the Renaissance Schools are not enrolling demographically similar populations of students compared to CCSD schools:
The main findings from ELC’s analysis include:
⦁ Mastery enrolled 368 students, 15% below projected enrollment.
⦁ Uncommon enrolled 71 students, 21% below projected enrollment.
⦁ KIPP enrolled 105 students, one above projected enrollment.
⦁ Mastery enrolled 37 English language learners (ELL), one above projected enrollment and comparable to the district’s ELL enrollment. 
⦁ Uncommon enrolled no ELLs, and KIPP enrolled five ELLs, well below the district’s 8% ELL enrollment.
⦁ Mastery enrolled 59 special education students, 20 below projection and 3% below the district’s 19% classification rate.
⦁ Uncommon enrolled six and KIPP enrolled seven special education students, below projections and far below the district’s enrollment of students with disabilities.
All of the charter schools’ enrollments exceed the district’s 92% rate of students who qualify for free and reduced priced lunch. However, data from the Camden district does not break out those students who qualify for free lunch, with household incomes below 130% of the federal poverty level, and those who qualify for reduced priced lunch, below 185% of the poverty level or a household income of $44,800 for a family of four. The data does not provide special education enrollment by disability classification, so it is not possible to determine the severity of the disability of those students enrolled in the new charters as compared to students enrolled in the district. [emphasis mine]
There's actually a fair response to this disparity in numbers. That response was released, as reformy talking points in New Jersey usually are these days, through the charters' reliable cheerleaders, Laura Waters and Janellen Duffy. Here's what Duffy, director of JerseyCAN, had to say:
Also, according to the latest data, the renaissance schools are serving rates of special education students that are comparable to the district. The overall district rate for students classified with special education needs is about 19 percent, and Mastery, which serves grades K-through-5, is nearly equal at 17.9 percent. KIPP and Uncommon currently only serve kindergarteners. The district's rate of special education classifications at the kindergarten level is about 9 percent, but KIPP and Uncommon have higher rates - both at 17 percent - and both schools say new classifications are likely before the end of this school year. [emphasis mine]
Now, as I said earlier this week, I don't much care for this recent trend of districts and charters releasing the data they like whenever they see fit to make the cases they want to make. We'd be much better off having one transparent, uniform source of data for stakeholders and policy analyists to go to when evaluating particular programs like the Renaissance Schools.

I know there are concerns about student privacy that come into play here; still, I wish we could get data that's more finely disaggregated so we can actually make relevant comparisons. But until that time comes, it's probably not a good idea to claim any of the Renaissance Schools are lagging (or surging) in their enrollments of special education students.

Still, I will be the first to say that this is a perfectly fair point: there's likely going to be a disparity between CCSD's and the Renaissance Schools' numbers of classified students based on the different grades levels served.

But if the charter school operators and their friends in the media want to make this case, they then have to acknowledge something else: those Renaissance Schools are not serving equivalent populations to the Camden City Public Schools, because they are only serving kindergarten students.

"Ramping up" to a full compliment of grade levels was always part of the Renaissance Schools plan:
The new "renaissance" schools are to be privately run by KIPP, which manages the TEAM Academy schools in Newark, and operate with public funds, much like charters.
Under the new Urban Hope Act enacted last year, however, the proposal needed to be approved by the local school board. The schools will draw students from specific neighborhoods, somewhat like local public schools.
The act called for up to four projects each in Camden, Trenton, and Newark. But only Camden has so far seen any formal proposals -- and backed just this one -- with the new law setting a deadline of January 2014 for proposals to be submitted to the state.
The Camden contract approval had been all but certain for months, following a debate on the local board over whether to proceed. One main point in question in the contract was whether the district might share some of the space in the first new school in its initial years until the charter school grew into the 1,100-desk building.
The school will open as a preschool and kindergarten for 300 students, adding a grade each year until it becomes a K-8 school. The other schools planned for Camden will include another elementary school, a middle school and high school.
Both Waters and Duffy confirm this: KIPP/TEAM and Uncommon aren't serving any students other than those who are below Grade 1. That's not every child in the catchment.

In its application, KIPP/TEAM laid out its plan to grow a grade level a year, the rationale being (p. 2-2):
"We recognize that through knowing our students, we will know the staff members that we must hire."
That's very nice for them, but it's a luxury that CCSD, which must educate every child in every grade, can't afford. In fact, if any child for any reason in any grade at any time moves into Camden, the district's schools must find a space in a school for that child. That's just not true right now for the Renaissance Schools.

It's also worth noting the application says TEAM's school caps its enrollment at 110 students per grade level (I'm not sure if this changed in the final approval). CCSD cannot impose those sorts of caps on its schools.

Does this really matter? Unlike the Success Academies in New York City, which shed kids in middle school but don't replace them with others on a waiting list, TEAM Academy has stated they do "backfill" their students, and that they will fill slots that come open. Fair enough -- although I haven't heard Uncommon and Mastery, the other Renaissance operators, make such clear assurances.

But even if TEAM's plan goes exactly as they say it will, and they eventually admit every student in their catchment, it will be a long time before they can claim that they are serving equivalent student populations to those of CCSD. When a charter school gets to pick and choose which grade levels it gets to serve, it is doing a fundamentally different job than its hosting school district.

Given this fact, the Renaissance supporters ought to stop using the "failures" of CCSD as a rationale for expanding these schools. Here, for example, is Paymon Rouhanifard, State Superintendent of CCSD and the captain of the Renaissance cheerleader squad:
In addition, Rouhanifard said public hearings were held last year when the first charter projects were approved and again this winter as the new plan was being considered. 
“The misrepresentations and factual errors of interest groups will not distract us from the urgent cause of improving our schools,” he said in a statement. “With two out of five students not graduating from high school, it’s critical that we stay focused on improving the education of our children. We have remarkable students, but for far too long the system has come up short in providing them with the educational opportunities they deserve.” [emphasis mine]
No one would argue with that, which is why I say all of Camden's schools should have access to the financing and funding that flows to the Renaissance schools -- especially because CCSD has to educate all of the students the charters are not prepared, at least at this point, to enroll.

Again: even if things go exactly as the Renaissance boosters say they will, it will be many years before TEAM or Uncommon can claim that they assisted in increasing the graduation rate in Camden. If it's so urgent for us to expand "choice" in Camden to help some students, why are we waiting so long to help those students the Renaissance Schools have decided not to serve?

Sorry, you're too old for a Renaissance School...

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Camden's Reformy Data Wars

Our data-lovin' buddies at JerseyCAN are at it again:
The past seven months have been an incredible and even historic moment for all of Camden's kids. The success we have seen has helped to confront decades of stagnation. New schools in Camden are teaching five-year-olds how to read and fifth graders all about fractions. In this short amount of time, new renaissance schools have begun transforming the lives of young students and their families as they create a pathway to college. In fact, because of this progress and these new opportunities, the Camden Superintendent, Paymon Rouhanifard, announced last week that the school district is partnering with renaissance schools on five new transformations of traditional public schools. 
Instead of celebrating these new opportunities for Camden families, groups like Save Our Schools, the Education Law Center (ELC) and other bloggers and commentators continue to defend the status quo, the same status quo that has failed Camden families for generations. Rather than join the conversation to create further improvement, these groups continue to attack success. Save Our Schools, the ELC and others have been arguing that the renaissance schools are not serving the students with the greatest needs and attempting to discredit the success of these renaissance schools with these arguments. [emphasis mine]
"Success"?! What "success"? What is the reliably reformy Janellen Duffy saying: that not even one year into the Renaissance Schools experiment, we can claim they are a "success"?

Look, no one rational would ever claim the Renaissance charters in Camden are "failures" in terms of their academic achievements without first giving them time to prove what they can do. Who, then, would ever claim they are a "success" when they haven't even finished their first year? It's just silly.

Remember also that even the reformy State Superintendent of Camden, Paymon Rouhanifard, admits the Renaissance Schools have access to financing that district schools do not. If the Renaissance Schools do, indeed, turn out to be "successes," the cause might likely be that they were able to provide better facilities for their students than the CCSD. Will Janellen Duffy be demanding more funding for CCSD schools if that's the case?

School funding fairness, however, is one of those topics groups like JerseyCAN just can't find the time to address; they're too busy cheerleading for the PARCC or coming up with innumerate school rating systems.

Or maybe Duffy and her staff are too busy shifting through data the rest of us aren't allowed to see:
I have heard these arguments before and the stakes are high if we don't get this right for kids and families, so I took a look at the data for myself. The ELC's most recent data appears to have been collected from the Camden School District regarding enrollment patterns at the renaissance schools. However, those data were collected in October 2014 when the renaissance schools were only a few weeks old. Now, seven months into their first school year, these renaissance schools are proving that not only are they serving the neediest kids in Camden, they are also serving a higher percentage of needy kids than the Camden average. According to the latest data from the renaissance schools as of March 1...
Whoa, whoa, WHOA! What "latest data"? Where did it come from? The schools themselves? Who vetted it? Was it uniformly reported? More importantly: why does JerseyCAN have this data and the rest of us don't?

This is a trend I'm starting to see across the state, and I do not like it one bit. People advancing their own particular agendas within the state's education system come out with school-level data that they claim is "official," yet isn't released in a uniform, public manner where it can be properly evaluated.

In this post, Duffy claims the CCSD has a kindergarten special education classification rate of 9 percent. How does she know this? Public data on classification rates doesn't break down by grade level in New Jersey, and the latest public figures are from 2013. Why does Duffy have current figures? Or maybe a better question: why don't the rest of us have this data?

This is rigged game: mouthpieces like Duffy get to release data that isn't public, isn't uniform, and hasn't been subjected to careful scrutiny, all to advance a particular agenda. Sorry, but it's not credible to base your argument on numbers that have been released to you, and only you, by interested parties.

Some of us prefer the old-fashioned approach: using public data that is replicable. What do we find when we look at the latest numbers from Camden?

Pretty much what we find across the state: charter schools don't serve, proportionately, as many students in economic disadvantage, as many students who speak English as a second language, and as many students who have special education needs. Further, the students with those needs enrolled in charters tend to have lower-cost learning disabilities.

Now, I'll be the first to say we may see a different trend with the Renaissance schools, for a few reasons. First, the "catchments" that are part of the Renaissance system may increase enrollments of free lunch-eligible, special education, and LEP students. Whether those students stay at the Renaissance charters, however, is a question that will take years to answer. Given the attrition rates of schools like North Star Academy in Newark, however, there is reason to be watchful.

Second, there is good reason to believe the use of free lunch eligibility as a proxy measure of economic disadvantage is inadequate in Camden. This is one of the most impoverished cities in the United States; so many children live at the free lunch eligibility level that we probably can't use this metric to determine which children are, relatively, the worst off.

It turns my stomach to write those words. How can we, as a state and as a nation, sit back and allow this kind of suffering to occur in our own backyard? It's utterly shameful how we refuse to muster the resources we know we have to provide the beautiful, deserving children of Camden with lives of dignity.

Instead, the self-proclaimed advocates for these kids tell us turning over public schools to private operators, against the wishes of at least some in the community and abrogating the rights of their parents, will somehow magically make all these problems disappear:
We need to move beyond these arguments over who is really serving the poorest students and embrace the real opportunities we have for change in Camden. I for one will be curious to see if Save Our Schools, ELC and others can get past these data wars and take a real look at what's happening in these renaissance schools. We know that parents and families in Camden are looking to embrace these new school opportunities. We should be fighting to support them and the growth of high quality schools with a proven track record that are serving the students with the greatest needs.
Oh, please: you throw out a bunch of unverifiable, unavailable numbers and then scold skeptics for engaging in "data wars"?

We should, in fact, take a "real look" at these schools, rather than rely on yet another load of propaganda. I didn't like the way the Renaissance Schools were pushed on the Camden community. I don't like that the hard-working people of Camden don't have a say in the governance of their schools, a privilege enjoyed by suburban citizens:

But over the objections of many, the Renaissance Schools are here. Is it really too much to ask that we not celebrate their "successes" before we actually have some results we can all examine?

It's usually better to wait until all the numbers come in.

Economist Casually Insults New York's Principals

If you work in education these days, economists rule your world. And none more so than Harvard's Thomas Kane, (in)famously known as the director of the Gates Measure of Effective Teaching project. Kane -- admittedly a very smart researcher -- commands an outsized presence in the education policy world.

Unfortunately for you New York principals, this eminent professor doesn't think very highly of you:
Although the use of test scores has received all the attention, the most consequential change in the law has been overlooked: One of a teacher’s observers must now be drawn from outside his or her school — someone whose only role is to comment on teaching.
The fact that 96% of teachers were given the two highest ratings last year — being deemed either “effective” or “highly effective” — is a sure sign that principals have not been honest to date. An external perspective will make it easier for longtime colleagues to have a frank conversation about each other’s instruction. [emphasis mine]
Well, isn't that lovely: a casual smear of an entire profession, right in the pages of the New York Daily News. How do you feel about that, principals? You go about assembling the best possible staffs you can, given the constraints of your budgets, but Tom Kane thinks you're not "honest," because you deem your staff to be effective.

Let me go back to the latest NYS Technical Report for Growth Measures. Here's page 43:

According to the report, 5 percent of New York's "tested" teachers were found to be either "Developing" or "Ineffective" two years in a row on the state's growth rating. It seems to me that this is very reasonably aligned with a 4 percent of teachers getting an overall rating of lower than "Effective."

I mean, this is the whole point of Kane's vaunted "multiple measures," right? That we didn't want to hurt the profession by letting statistical noise dictate decisions? That we should have a pattern of poor performance before we make a high-stakes decision, and it should be corroborated by multiple assessments of a teacher's performance?

Well, then, what's the problem? 5 percent of growth-measured teachers get "Developing" or worse for two years in a row; 4 percent are rated overall "Developing" or worse. Seems to me the system is doing exactly what it was designed to do.

And when I say "designed," I mean exactly that. These measures are normative, meaning they yield roughly bell curve-like distributions. We call the bottom 5 percent "bad" because they are the bottom 5 percent. If we raised the overall effectiveness of the teaching corps in New York so that the average student passed Algebra II at age 9, we'd still say the bottom 5 percent of teachers were "bad" because their students weren't passing Calculus. It's all relative.

What we've got here is yet another example of someone -- again, a very smart someone -- looking at the performance of children on academic measures from the outside in and not seeing how the entire system may affect outcomes. For example:

I’ve carefully studied the best systems for rating teachers — and I can tell you the governor picked the right fight. The deal in Albany last week will finally give schools the tools they need to manage and improve teaching. Let’s hope they use them wisely.
The tenure process is the place to start. It’s the most important decision a principal makes. One poor decision can burden thousands of future students, parents, colleagues and supervisors.
Traditionally, principals have used much too low a standard, promoting everyone but the very worst teachers. An NFL coach would never forego 25 years of future draft picks in order to sign a mediocre player to a long-term contract. Yet principals in New York do so every year.
First of all, the analogy is ridiculous if only because the jobs are so different. Depending on who you ask, the career of an NFL player is between 3 and 6 years. Of course, if we keep making teachers' lives miserable by imposing noisy growth measures on them, we might get their career length down to that level as well...

NFL teams sign contracts with mediocre players all the time. Why? Because they need to fill out their rosters, and they have to get what they can get with the money they have. It is reasonable to think a team would extend a contract on a bench warmer if they looked out at the player market and saw that they couldn't do any better given their budgets. There isn't an unlimited supply of Richard Shermans available to every team.

And it's reasonable to think they would offer a player extended time on that contract in lieu of money over a shorter time. Why? Because the length of a contract has a value to a player -- just like tenure has value to a teacher.

I am always amused at how quickly reformy folks come to the conclusion that tenure doesn't have a value to teachers; as if you could just take it away, and the teacher labor market wouldn't have a response. Of course tenure has a value, and I would think an economist would be the first person to point this out.

Tenure, like an extended NFL contract, is part of an overall compensation package. Make it harder to earn, and you will almost certainly affect the supply of people willing to do the job for the same amount of the rest of the compensation package.

Think of it this way: suppose you're an average NFL defensive lineman. You look out at the labor market for huge, muscular guys who like to hit people. You could go to the WWE, or throw the shot, or work as a bouncer, or whatever. You will or will not decide to enter the NFL based on your overall compensation: salary, benefits, work rights, contractual guarantees, etc. You will weigh all of that against what other parts of the economy are willing to offer you, given your talents and, yes, your love of playing football.

The NFL will attract people like you into the profession based on how they compensate you relative to other professions. If rugby suddenly takes off in the USA, the NFL is going to have a harder time getting the best athletes to take up football. They wouldn't be able to just let "mediocre" players go, because there won't be as many elite athletes ready to take those places.

The teaching corps that we have is the teaching corps we are willing to pay for. 

It makes no sense for even the laziest, least motivated, least competent principal to hang on to "bad" teachers if he knows there are better ones available. What Kane doesn't seem to want to acknowledge is the possibility that principals know the staffs they assemble are as good as they can get given the compensation they can offer.

Which, once again, gets us back to school funding. New York has one of the most inequitable and inadequate school funding systems in the nation. How can its schools possibly compete with the rest of the labor market to recruit and retain the best people as teachers when they don't have the money to pay teachers competitive wages?

Further, how will imposing noisy evaluation systems that impede the freedom of teachers to use their own professional judgment and practice their craft make the profession less attractive? How will withholding tenure protections, which help protect both teachers and taxpayers from political interference, for another year make teaching less desirable? How will bringing in outsiders, who have no sense of a school's culture, for commando raid-style observations enhance the atmosphere in which teachers work?

These are the questions that Thomas Kane, prominent economist, appears to avoid. Instead, he casually besmirches New York principals and blames them for the state education system's alleged failings.

Frankly, I think he owes you all of you Empire State school leaders an apology.

Honest until proven dishonest.

ADDING: Peter Greene has more:
On the one hand, there is some value in watching yourself work on camera. It takes roughly thirty seconds to spot whatever annoying tic you had carefully blocked from your own consciousness, but which your students use to mock you when you're not around. 
On the other hand, handing that video over to a stranger as a means of evaluation is just stupid. 
First, the camera can only cover so much of the classroom. So the video observer will only see a portion of what was going on and catch only a fraction of the teaching environment. 
Because of that, and because of time lag (shoot video, send video, find time to watch video), the feedback will be less useful to the teacher. And how about that, anyway-- if the observer is going to make the trip to have a post-viewing feedback session with the teacher, how much time and hassle have we actually saved, anyway? Of course, we could save more time and hassle if the "feedback" just came in the form of written comments on a form, or a swift e-mail. 
That sort of feedback would be considerably less useful. And you know what else it would do? 
It would remove the need for the outside observer to look a teacher in the eye when he's scuttling her career. As an outsider, the observer already has zero skin in this game, absolutely no stake on the line at all. Add the video, and the observer doesn't even have the minimal human stake involved in talking to someone face to face. [emphasis mine]
This is a very good point. And it reminds me of a post of Bruce Baker's from 2013:
Certainly the economists’ policy response – how to employ crude economic assumptions of human behavior to fix this dreadful perverse incentive – implies that cutting off this financial benefit for malpractice would improve hospital and physician behavior [meanwhile conflating the hospital and physician incentives & roles in the various related processes]. Here is the policy solution recommended by the economists cited in the WaPo article:
If hospitals receive a set amount for every heart surgery they perform, for example, they suddenly have an incentive to reduce complications — they know the extra medical spending will come out of their own budget.
Lost in the economists’ reasoning here are a) the potential longer term financial and career implications to the physician repeatedly entangled in litigation over post-surgical complications, b) and the stress/mental toll on the physician arising from managing complications in tense moments in the OR.
Indeed this is anecdotal, but I’ve not met a physician – surgeon or anesthesiologist – who prefers a day when things go bad in the OR – or would be likely to see dollar signs in those moments of stress. What kind of sick bastard even thinks that way? Well, perhaps the average economist does.
Economists rarely – uh… NEVER face comparable professional stress to managing a patient’s life on the edge – even when they make a massively stupid spreadsheet error stimulating economic turmoil across the globe. Nor do they pay hefty malpractice premiums to shield themselves from such egregious malpractice (despite measurable financial damages). I would assert that the economist never faces the stress of having to care for a classroom of 20 to 40, 5 to 15 year old kids, whose immediate safety and well-being, as well as their long term futures is on the line.  This is in part, why they get away with such ludicrous thinking.
It’s all freakin’ game (Freakin’ used here in a technical freakonomics sense)… a game of playing with big data – several layers removed from reality – from people – from real human consequences.
Perhaps that’s the central issue… even more so than economists’ financial self-interests?

Monday, April 6, 2015

Camden State Superintendent Confirms: There's ALWAYS Money for Charter Schools

Earlier this week, Stephen Danley posted a remarkable piece of video. Camden's State Superintendent, Paymon Rouhanifard, met with parents to discuss the fate of McGraw Elementary School, one of five schools scheduled to be either closed or turned over to charter school operators under Rouhanifard's plan.

For nearly 40 minutes, Rouhanifard is intensely cross-examined by parents who are against the conversion of McGraw into a charter school run by the Philadelphia-based charter chain, Mastery. Understand that these parents had absolutely no say whatsoever in the takeover of their neighborhood school: Rouhanifard is free to do whatever he wants in Camden, including abdicating his responsibility to the district's schools.

Rouhanifard, like the superintendents in Newark, Jersey City, and Paterson, serves entirely at the pleasure of Governor Chris Christie. He has no need to answer to the parents, students, and taxpayers of Camden, as they have no ability to remove him through the political process if he ignores their wishes. In New Jersey, local accountability through democratic action is reserved for the suburbs; people of color in the large cities do not enjoy the same privileges:

As you can imagine, the parents in this video are clearly fed up with this state of affairs. What follows is a passionate yet ultimately unsurprising confrontation between people who are frustrated with their continuing disenfranchisement, and a man who apparently couldn't care less.

Before I get to the substance of Rouhanifard's answers, let's acknowledge something quite important: Governor Chris Christie said he chose Paymon Rouhanifard to run Camden's schools because of his "track record." It's clear, after watching this video, that this record has nothing to do with Rouhandifard's very limited experienced in education; no, the "track record" that so impressed Christie is Rouhanifard's uncanny ability to stoically ignore the complaints of parents.

Of course, Rouhanifard was trained to do just this under the tutelage of the master of parental disdain, New York City's former Chancellor of Schools, Joel Klein.

That's Paymon back in 2012 when he worked in New York City, passively taking a verbal beatdown from the intrepid Leonie Haimson, NYC's foremost parent advocate. When I found out Rouhanifard was coming to Camden, I asked Leonie about his tenure in Gotham; she told me his job was to basically push through charter school colocations over the objections of local parents, all while barely pretending to heed their concerns.

What's interesting is that even as Paymon was thickening up his skin in Brooklyn, the NJDOE, with the generous support of the Broad Foundation, was already hatching "secret" plans to take over Camden's schools and dismantle the local district. Given that then-ACTING Education Commissioner Chris Cerf had just come from Klein's NYCDOE, it's no surprise Rouhanifard got the job. The last thing Cerf and Christie ever wanted for Camden was an experienced educator; all they required was someone who would follow orders and wouldn't mind being yelled at.

Give Rouhanifard credit: he may not know anything about actually running schools, but he is a master of phony solicitude. Dig a little deeper into his words, however, and you'll find he can't help but give away the real game:
(3:50) Guys, I want to respond to your questions and concerns; it's hard to do that when everyone's shouting over me. And I'm happy to let you all shout over me for 90 minutes straight if that's what you want to do.  
What I'm trying to communicate to you is that these are not easy decisions to make. And we're doing this because the district and their finances can't renovate this building the same way one of our partners can. And that's a financial decision.  
Now that is very interesting. And it's not a fluke, because Rouhanifard says the same thing just a few minutes later:
(7:52) I'd love to be able to properly address some of the parents' questions here. I want to be helpful. Look, I get that there are anxieties. Guys, for the last three decades, our buildings in this city are falling apart. We haven't had the money to fix them. We don't have the district finances to fix them. Through this partnership, this is our opportunity to do it.  
And academic performance has been falling every year for the last 30 years. So this is our opportunity to do something different. To do something different that we believe will fundamentally improve the quality of education in Camden, and I want to have a conversation about that.  
If you all want to throw rocks at me, by all means. By all means. Not literally. By all means.
A little background is in order:

When Chris Christie fully took over the administration of the Camden City School District in 2013, there was a misperception in some quarters that the district had autonomous up until that point. Nothing could be further from the truth: since 2006, CCSD had been overseen by a state-appointed monitor, who had broad discretion over all aspects of the district's management. The governor actually had veto power over the school board as early as 2002, and several seats on the board were appointees of the governor.

So if there hasn't been any money to renovate CCSD schools, let alone properly maintain them, that's due at least in part to the management of the state itself -- the same state that now employs Rouhanifard. 

The same state that sets the funding for schools, then refuses to follow through on providing money for its own formula. The same state that promised the parents and students of Camden a new district school at Lanning Square, then reneged on that promise and turned over the property to a charter operator that had already failed in Camden.

Of course, there always seems to be enough money for the charter schools in Camden. LEAP Academy, for example opened a brand new facility in 2012, financed with bonds that were never available to the district. Chris Cerf proudly cut the ribbon at the dedication of the building.

That's Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, founder of LEAP, to Cerf's left. I wonder if her overpriced boyfriend took time off from making the students lunch to provide all the dignitaries with refreshments...

LEAP recently got yet another round of funding for capital improvements, no doubt taking advantage of all kinds of tax goodies that, again, are not available to the district schools. The leaders of Camden's charter schools are good at working out these kinds of deals for themselves; Vahan Gureghian, founder of Camden Community Charter School, has had a great deal in Chester, PA for years.

And now here come the so-called "Renaissance Schools," charter schools by another name. TEAM Academy gets to take over the land at Lanning Square and set its own pace in serving the district's students; object, and you will be promptly removed from your office by the South Jersey Democratic machine. Uncommon Schools gets similar support from this same machine, despite its atrocious record on student attrition in Newark. And Mastery gets to take over McGraw, where it will undoubtedly install its controversial discipline practices.

As Rouhanifard says: there's plenty of financing available to help set up these charter operators. But somehow, he can't convince the state to step up and provide funds for renovating Camden's own district schools. And that's hardly the district's fault, as it has been under varying forms of state control for the last 13 years.

Rouhanifard digs his hands in his pockets and shrugs his shoulders: what can he do? He is convinced that he has no choice but to turn over the schools for which he is responsible to outside forces. It's not his place, apparently, to point out that the gobs of money and land available to the charter operators ought to also be made available to the district.

No, Paymon's sad task is to instead tell you "guys"* in Camden that the only way he can come up with the money to fix things is to force you to give up your rights and put your children into privately managed schools. Hey, you can always "vote with your feet" -- just don't expect to vote with your vote, and don't expect to get the same sources of financing for your kids' schools if you choose to keep them in the district.

Strangely, Rouhanifard didn't always feel this way:
"We don't have a lack of resources here. We have an improper allocation of those resources," the district's state-appointed superintendent, Paymon Rouhanifard, has said.
The most divisive expenditure in the district's budget - and one of the most costly - is the $72 million it would transfer to charter and renaissance (district-charter hybrid) schools next year, contributing to per-pupil costs.
The transfer funds increased $17 million to make way for three additional renaissance schools expected to open in the fall. Two are still waiting for state approval.
"There is this perception we're taking resources out of district schools, and it couldn't be further from the truth," Rouhanifard said. "Our per-pupil goes up when families go to charter schools. We think of it as an investment. It's a very fair formula here." [emphasis mine]
That was almost exactly a year ago; back then, Rouhanifard said the shifting of funds to charters was "very fair." Now, he cries poverty as an excuse for charter school expansion. Funny how things changed so quickly...

Again: this is all going according to a plan that was drawn up by the proteges of a California billionaire years ago. Camden, like New Orleans, Newark, and other struggling cities, is an experiment in urban school privatization: an experiment conducted on other people's children.

And Paymon Rouhanifard's job is to conduct this experiment while telling parents, teachers, and students that he has no choice but to do so. That's no surprise: Rouhanifard was never qualified to actually run a school system. If, however, you want to dismantle a district, Paymon is clearly your guy.

ADDING: Owen Davis reminds us that ALL of the federal money disbursed so far for school construction financing in New Jersey has gone to charter schools:
When a charter school moves into a new building, it's not unusual to see millions of dollars poured into renovations ranging from structural repairs to slick paint jobs. In the case of a school like Hawthorne [Newark Public Schools], plugging the leaky ceilings and safeguarding against mold would likely be top priorities.
The 2009 federal stimulus authorized states to allocate $22 billion in qualified school construction bonds (QSCBs), which allow cash-strapped schools to secure interest-free bond financing. Banks that finance school construction receive subsidies from the feds equivalent to some benchmark interest rate around 5 percent. Banks can pull in a tidy profit, as can the motley cast of counsels and intermediaries who ink the deals.
Of the $440 million in QSCBs New Jersey received, nearly three-quarters have been approved - and so far, every penny has gone to charters. TEAM Academy alone gobbled up $138 million. This exclusive allocation of QSCBs to charter schools is highly unusual. California and Texas, for comparison, each allocated less than one-fifth of their QSCBs to charter schools. 
To be sure, QSCBs aren't free money. Moreover, New Jersey charters "receive no facilities aid whatsoever," says Rick Pressler of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association. Accordingly, they have to be "very creative about how they're going to finance their facilities."
And creative they've been. Newark charters have become "infamous for being able to leverage their bonds to flip buildings," says Wyatt, and some of the city's most contested charter projects have been buoyed by QSCBs. When NPS sold 18th Avenue School, a district school it had just closed, to TEAM Academy, the charter used $40 million in QSCBs to finance it. [emphasis mine]
Rouhanifard is right: CCSD can't finance school reconstruction the way charters can -- because the game is rigged in the charters' favor.

ADDING MORE: One more note from the past:
The intervention proposal, which was obtained by the Courier-Post, was written by Department of Education employee Bing Howell. 
He did not respond to a phone call and email seeking comment. 
Howell serves as a liaison to Camden for the creation of four Urban Hope Act charter schools. He reports directly to the deputy commissioner of education, Andy Smerick [sic].
Howell’s proposal suggests that he oversee the intervention through portfolio management — providing a range of school options with the state, not the district, overseeing the options. He would be assisted by Rochelle Sinclair, another DOE employee. Both Howell and Sinclair are fellows of the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation. [emphasis mine]
Andy is a big proponent of "relinquishment," a fancy word meaning "destroying local school systems run by democratically elected school boards."

He's also one of the few people to ever block me on Twitter. Golly, wonder why...

* Maybe I'm just an old fart, but it really bugs me that the state-appointed superintendent of one of the largest districts in New Jersey thinks it's perfectly fine to address the parents of his city like he's a waiter at Applebee's. Calling parents "guys" is exactly the sort of amateurish and unintentionally (?) disrespectful language that makes me think Rouhanifard is way out of his depth.