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

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Civil Conversations Are Honest Conversations

Via Peter Greene, I see that Andy Smarick, formerly of the New Jersey Department of Education, is quite vexed at the idea that someone's feelings may get hurt when discussing the expansion of charter schools:

I have two concerns with the way these things are trending. The first is that our field needs someone who consistently makes earnest, objective, sturdy philosophical arguments against chartering. With rare exceptions, when I go looking, I instead find mostly snark, ad hominem attacks, and condescension. The source I had hoped would evolve into the dispassionate voice of studied dissent has instead reliably produced invective.

My second concern is that, increasingly, what at first blush appears to be a category-one contribution (a discussion of policy and practice designed to improve chartering) is just strident philosophical opposition in disguise. This long magazine article on Newark, NJ, could’ve been an invaluable contribution to our understanding of one of the nation’s highest-profile initiatives. Instead, charter-friendly reformers are painted as villains. This piece about Camden could’ve shed important light on the role of charter operators in reimagining a system of schools. Instead, it hurls nasty accusations against just about everyone involved. Similarly, what could’ve been a terrific, extensive look into Michigan’s charter sector and its relation to district schooling gave the impression that its goal was uncovering scandal and intrigue.

Here’s my request. If you think chartering is, at root, a threat to public education and believe that it must be brought to an end, please make that case publicly and straightforwardly, with conviction and tact. You’ll find a more receptive audience than you might suspect.

If you aren’t obdurately anti-charter but think there are aspects of chartering that need serious improvement, marshal the data and make your case. You’ll find a long list of organizations willing to listen because they exist to improve policy and practice. (Excellent Schools Detroit modeled this good behavior after the charter-critical newspaper series.)

But when philosophical opposition takes the form of venom, the debate is poisoned and open-minded charter supporters tune out. And when unbending philosophical opposition masquerades as commentary on policy, the standing of practical critics is undercut because advocates have reason to distrust the motives of those writing in opposition.
Mercy! Andy is so very, very concerned about the nasty tone people are taking! Why, don't they know that pointing out the utter failure of State Superintendent Cami Anderson to gain the trust and respect of the Newark community with her ill-advised portfolio plan is little more than "poison"?! Can't they see that discussing the questionable behavior and disturbing history of charter operators in Camden is just "venom"?! Don't they realize pointing out the rampant corruption of the charter industry in Michigan -- and elsewhere -- only serves to put off the "open-minded"?!

Quickly! Someone get the smelling salts!

Andy Smarick (artists's conception)

Peter, thankfully, gives the rather obvious rebuttal, and gives it well:
If charters are tired of press about how they get sweetheart deals with politicians to strip resources from public schools in order to enrich themselvesif they're tired of stories about how some charter operator got caught in crooked deals, if they're tired of being raked over the coals for using politics to grease some moneyed wheels-- well, their best move would be to stop doing those things.

If charters are tired of being attacked, they could stop attacking public education, as in the recent charter gathering in which the recurring theme was "Charters are great because public schools suck." I'm not a fan of "they started it" as an argument, but it's also specious to declare "all I did was keep calling him names and stealing his lunch, and then he just hit me for no reason!"

I'm not a fan of Smarick's first posited conversation (let's just assume charters are great), I think the second one is valuable (let's talk about how and if charters can work), but I think both are being drowned out by the third conversation, which is a mass of local conversations about the damage being done and the attacks on local schools that people feel they are suffering through. That conversation is, I believe, a direct result of the injection of huge amounts of money into the process. It's hard to have the conversation because the stakes on all sides are so high (ROI vs. local concerns for children).

I'm actually a fan of old-school charters, and it makes me sad that their promise has been swept aside by the current wave of money-driven charter chains. But asking people to please be more polite and reasonable and please stop pointing out where we've screwed you over is not likely to get the conversation back on track or reclaim the benefits that charter schools could provide.
Amen. But let me add another point:

A civil conversation requires honesty. And the conversation these days about charter schools -- and, indeed, about tenure and test-based teacher evaluation and seniority and vouchers and standards and just about every other education policy on the table today -- is anything but honest.

Let me give an example of this: Andy Smarick himself.

Here's a video clip from 2013 of Smarick talking about his latest book, The Urban School System of the Future, in which he makes the case that the urban school district as it is currently construed is a failure, and should be replaced by a "portfolio" system that would greatly expand charter schools.

How does Smarick know this will work? Starting at 29:50, Smarick cites three instances of charterizing that he claims have produced results that are "pretty extraordinary": New York City, Newark, and New Orleans.
Andy Smarick: Overview, The Urban School System of the Future from Bellwether Education on Vimeo.

Let's leave aside the fact that Smarick cherry-picks his examples under the guise of claiming these are instances of chartering "done well," and instead test the validity of his claims. Are these results "pretty extraordinary"? Well, it would only make sense to make that point if the student populations the charters served were equivalent to the populations in the public schools to which they are compared.

Note that I wrote "student populations," not "students." I will concede that the CREDO studies have found some -- some -- instances where demographically matched students did better in charters (although I would argue CREDO ran their findings through the Mountain-Out-Of-A-Molehill-Inator to make the effects seems larger than they actually are). But segregating students demographically or academically so some students can enjoy a peer effect is not a strategy that can be scaled up: it's logically impossible for everyone to go to a school where the student population is above average.

Differing student population characteristics is the central issue in charter school expansion -- and it's an issue Smarick chooses to completely ignore. I'll let others who are better informed speak to New York City and New Orleans; let me, instead, concentrate on his example of Newark, which I know quite well. As a former Deputy Education Commissioner in New Jersey, it's hard for me to imagine that Smarick doesn't know the following facts:
  • Newark's "successful" charters do not serve equivalent populations of free-lunch eligible, special education, or Limited English Proficient students; they don't even serve equivalent populations of boys.
  • The certificated educators in the Newark charter sector have less experience than their counterparts in the Newark Public Schools.
  • North Star Academy, considered by many charter cheerleaders to be the highest-performing charter in the city, has a student attrition rate so high a black boy only has about a 1-in-3 chance of making it through the school from Grade 5 to Grade 12.
  • When accounting for student differences by using standard statistical techniques, many of the "successful" charters in Newark just aren't that impressive.
  • TEAM Academy, often cited as one of Newark's best charters, spends considerable amounts of money, much of which is used apparently to recruit its staff (this is a good thing -- but shouldn't NPS have the same opportunity before we label it a failure?).
  • Perhaps most disturbing, the district, which is run by the state, has not given an honest account of the effectiveness of charter schools compared to district schools, feeding a misperception that the charters get better results when accounting for student (and resource) differences.

Again: I just can't imagine that Andy Smarick isn't aware of all this (if he isn't, he never should have held a high position at NJDOE). And yet he chooses to ignore these realities; he chooses not to address the central issue in the expansion of charter schools.

I'll be the first to admit I have, in the past, been rough on Andy and his former boss and others who are on the reformy side of the education policy debate. But it's hard to have respect for these reformy folks when they refuse to even acknowledge these basic truths, let alone respond to them. And it's more than fair for folks like me to point out that reformers like Andy Smarick are being either ignorant or mendacious when they build their cases without taking into the account basic truths that are at the core of these debates about public education.

Look, I'm all for civility; but civility starts with good faith. As Peter says: if the charter sector doesn't want folks like him and me pointing out their corrupt practices, they ought not to engage in them. Likewise, if Smarick wants a more measured tone in the debates over charters, he would do well to raise his game and stop engaging in sophistry.

Andy, any time you want to debate charters, say the word. But don't expect me to or anyone else to simply sit back and let you make specious arguments without challenge. You and Chris Cerf made this a high-stakes debate during your tenure here in New Jersey; you are the guys who have put educators' careers, schools, districts, and, most importantly, children's futures at stake with your plans.

So if you really believe you are in the right, stand by your arguments and defend them; don't just take your ball and run home because the game isn't going your way.


ADDING: Smarick repeats the famous "Scarsdale-Harlem gap" meme that NYC charter cheerleaders love. I had forgotten that Matt DiCarlo did an excellent post about this:
Now, it bears mentioning Hoxby doesn’t actually follow any student or group of students from kindergarten through grade eight (nine years). Actually, since her data are only for 2000-01 to 2007-08, we know for a fact that she does not have data for a single student that attended a NYC charter for nine straight years (K-8). She doesn’t report how many students in her dataset attended for eight straight years, but does note, in the technical report (released months later – see below) that only 25 percent of her sample has 6-8 years of “charter treatment.” The majority of her sample is students with 3-5 years in a charter school (or less).
So, how did Hoxby come up with the “Scarsdale-Harlem” finding? Well, her models estimate an average single-year gain for charter students (most of whom have only a few years of “treatment”). Those one-year estimates are her primary results. She ignores them completely in the executive summary (and I mean that literally – she does not report the single-year gains until page 43 of the 85-page report).
Instead, she multiplies the single year gain (for math and reading separately) by nine years to produce a sensational talking point. It’s kind of like testing a new diet pill on a group of subjects, who take the pill for anywhere between one and 9-10 months, finding that they lose an average of ten pounds per month, and then launching an advertising campaign proclaiming that the pill will make people lose 120 pounds in a year.
In fairness, months after the report’s release, Hoxby and her co-authors replicated their analysis on students with different durations of charter treatment, and found that there are still large, cumulative effects among those students who have attended charters for 6-8 years. In other words, the annual effect of attending a charter schools does not necessarily depend on how long the student has been there. [emphasis mine]
Sorry to be so tactless and point this out...

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

@GovChristie's Executive Order Lays Bare the Fundamental Problems with AchieveNJ

Yesterday, Chris Christie tried to play the "reasonable" reformer with his executive order on testing:

First, he announced an executive order creating a new state task force -- entirely appointed by Christie – to study the effectiveness of state testing as a whole, including the upcoming PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) tests and the Common Core State Standards that drive them.

In a second announcement, the governor said the state will also lessen the weight given the new PARCC tests in teacher evaluations for the next two years. Instead of the current 30 percent weight for affected teachers, it will reduced to 10 percent next year and 20 percent in 2016 – largely inconsequential amounts in terms of the overall criteria for the evaluation.

The moves appeased some critics on both sides of the political aisle, most notably the state’s dominant teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association. The union put out a statement taking credit for getting the governor to compromise.
Christie’s moves are also sure to halt a push in the state Legislature to delay the use of scores from the PARCC exams in teacher and school ratings for up to two years. A bill was up for final vote in the Senate, but now is unlikely to be posted, as state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) was directly involved in the compromise talks.
There was, of course, no chance of Christie ever signing that bill into law. So we can debate the effectiveness of NJEA's strategy on this -- but here's what's not debatable:

Christie's executive order is all the evidence anyone needs that AchieveNJ -- the state's teacher evaluation system -- is built on a foundation of sand.

In the spring of 2013, then-Former Acting Commissioner Chris Cerf and the state BOE decided, on a "feeling," to arbitrarily change the percentage of a teacher's evaluation based on test scores to 30 percent from 35 percent. There was no research basis for this whatsoever, but no matter: it's our "feelings," after all, that really count...

Now, I guess the governor "feels" 10 percent is good for this coming year, but 20 percent will be good afterward. Why? Because he says so, that's why!

My feelings about testing will change exactly 10 percent in 2016...

This is obviously absurd, but it's the inevitable result of a system that uses data not to inform decisions but to compel them. I really have no problem with an administrator using SGPs to help identify teachers in need of remediation, or to help build a case for a high-stakes decision. But when that decision is forced on an administrator, we are heading toward disaster. Just wait until a teacher who would have been deemed "effective" under a 10 percent system is rated "ineffective" under a 20 percent one. There's just no way a judge would ever allow a high-stakes decision based on this madness to stand.

But this is what happens when you insist on creating arbitrary cut points that have nothing more than "feelings" to back them up. Which is a policy driven by the ideological belief that an extensive regime of high-stakes testing will lay bare the "truth" about the effectiveness of our schools. Which is a policy driven by the ideological belief that hordes of "bad" teachers are the central problem in today's schools. Which is a policy driven by the ideological belief that schools are fully capable of completely ameliorating the effects of the chronic poverty, crushing inequality, and endemic racism that pervade our society.

All of these beliefs are nonsense, and the policies that are driven by them are nothing more than faith-based foolishness. But AchieveNJ -- conceived of by a poorly-qualified task force and a Department of Education that was run for years by a poorly-qualified commissioner -- is predicated on ideological beliefs. Which is why:
And all of these concerns are separate from the issue of whether the PARCC tests are developmentally appropriate, overly-intrusive, valid, and/or reliable themselves.

The decrease in the percentage of a teacher's evaluation attributed to SGPs is a victory of sorts for the unions. But in the larger scheme of things, those percentages are a tangential issue. AchieveNJ is fundamentally, fatally flawed: it is an innumerate, ill-conceived, faith-based initiative that cannot and will not stand up to even the mildest of scrutinies.

Monkey with the details all you want: the big problems will not disappear just because the people behind this scheme want them to.

Let's use 10 percent less hydrogen on the next flight...


ADDING: Ani's got a good point: this nonsense all started with the feds. I suppose NJ didn't have to sign on to Race To The Top, but that doesn't excuse SecEd Duncan and President Obama from their culpability in the spread of the use of high-stakes standardized testing to evaluate teachers.

As I've said before, Arne Duncan is the worst appointment Presdient Obama made in either of his terms. It speaks very poorly of Obama -- a man I will say has been the subject of unwarranted criticism on many things -- that he has stood behind Duncan, even though he promotes policies that are antithetical to Obama's own stated views on education.

I applaud the NEA, NJEA's affiliate national organization, for calling on Duncan to resign. No one is more responsible for the poorly-reasoned, faith-based education policies of the last few years than the current SecEd. AchieveNJ was conceived under his aegis, and he is, as far as I'm concerned, just as responsible as Chris Christie for the disaster it has become.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Christie's Last Teacher Evaluation Panel Was a Disaster

Big news today in the New Jersey education policy world:
Following several days of intensive discussion last week, agreement was reached on several key issues related to standardized testing and its ultimate role in teacher evaluation.  NJEA was at the center of conversations with legislators, the Christie administration and the Department of Education (DoE), which led to two key announcements today.
First, Governor Christie issued an executive order creating a special Study Commission to look into the entire standardized testing environment in New Jersey. Concurrently, the DoE announced major changes in the use of standardized tests over the next two years, reducing their influence over teacher evaluations while the Commission does its work.
NJEA and its members had been lobbying members of the Senate to support S-2154, which would have delayed the use of PARCC assessments in teacher evaluations for up to two years.  A Senate vote on the bill, which had already passed the Assembly by a large, bipartisan majority, was scheduled for this afternoon, but was postponed in order to let negotiations continue between the DoE, NJEA, and legislative leaders. [emphasis mine]
I'll get to the changes in teacher evaluations later this week: it's a long story and it needs to be told. But I think it's worth taking a minute to acknowledge the creation of this commission to study standardized tests.

Because the last time Chris Christie created a panel to study how standardized tests should be used in teacher evaluations, some of the people on that panel were woefully unqualified for the job.
In addition to [Brian] Zychowsky and [Derrell] Bradford, the others appointed yesterday were:
  • Jesse Rector, Clinton Hill Campus President of North Star Academy Charter School;
  • Ross Danis, Associate Dean of Education at Drew University;
  • Donna Chiera, an Executive of the American Federation of Teachers and Special Education Resource Teacher;
  • Rafael Fajardo, former President of the Elizabeth Board of Education;
  • Rev. Edwin Leahy, Headmaster of St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark;
  • Jane Cosco, retired teacher and Director of Operation Goody Bag;
  • Peggy Sue Juliano, Executive Board Member of the Lacy Township High School PTA.
As I wrote at the time, appointing any number* of these people (especially Bradford, who is embarrassingly inept when it comes to education policy) while skipping over any representative from the NJEA or any recognized research expert made the task force a bad joke. The facile and ill-conceived reports they produced are largely responsible for the mess of a system we used this last year for evaluations (code name: Operation Hindenburg).

This time around, NJEA says they will have a seat at the table, which is good. But if other seats are taken up by more lobbyists and private school leaders and political hacks, there's a good chance this commission will be as incapable of meeting its mandates as the last one.

At the very least, the commission has got to bring in some panelists to explain the basic flaws that are pervasive throughout AchieveNJ. In other words: this panel has to be able and willing to listen to informed critics of the current system.

If we can't have that bare minimum, there's no point in even convening the commission -- it will produce work as bad as the Task Force's report. And that is the last thing our students or our teachers need.

More to come...
Completely avoidable, with the right people investigating.


* To be clear: several members were qualified to be on the task force, and I certainly have no problem with non-experts representing the interests of parents, students, and school boards. But Bradford and Fajardo, who ran the ethically questionable Elizabeth BOE, had no business being anywhere near this group. That they were given space while NJEA members and researchers were excluded is simply unforgivable.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Karen Lewis, Ras Baraka, and "Worried" White People

Fellow white people, heed my advice, please:

Relax.

Take a stroll. Enjoy a decaf macchiato. Do some yoga. And stop reading the newspaper, which these days seems to be full of pieces by some more of our fellow worried white people -- in this case, the very reformy and very white Tom Moran -- designed to make us very, very... concerned:
Now Newark has a new mayor, Ras Baraka, a charismatic politician, a street activist, and until now a high school principal and city councilman. He just beat the dominant machine in Essex County through sheer force of will, on a shoestring budget. He is aggressive, populist, and he owes nothing to the machine. 
And now he’s promising to turn his convincing win at the polls into a movement.  
“Years from now when we look back on this day, let us say that this was the day that we all decided to fight back,” he said at his inauguration ceremony on a steamy Tuesday afternoon at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. “Yeah, we need a mayor that’s radical.” 
I want to believe in this man, and anyone with half a heart has to want him to succeed. The stakes, quite literally, are life and death. 
But I worry. Baraka is an admirer of former Mayor Sharpe James, and even lauded him during the inaugural address. “People love him,” Baraka said later. 
Okay, but James betrayed the people of this city and went to jail on corruption charges. He’s no role model. 
Oh, dear: it appears that a black man who actually won an election without sucking up to Wall Street and Silicon Valley hasn't met the standards of worried white people in condemning his predecessor. Because, after all, it's not like politicians endorsed by white pundits have a history of ignoring the despicable behavior of their previous political patrons...

Golly, this uppity behavior is so upsetting to us white people. I hope it doesn't spread west:
So Karen Lewis, the hard-nosed leader of Chicago's teachers union, now admits she's interested in running for mayor, backing off earlier declarations of "no way" and telling the Sun-Times that she's "seriously looking" at jumping in.

If she is serious — and even Mr. Emanuel finally has learned to take what Ms. Lewis says very seriously — I have some equally serious advice back to her: Be really, really careful, both for the city and for yourself. As Harold Washington would have said, this ain't beanbag.

I have no particular love or allegiance for Mr. Emanuel. He's handled a lot of things well but stumbled badly on others. Like all government leaders and, frankly all of us, he does best when he has to look over his back occasionally at snapping competitors. And to the extent you believe the polls, a lot of Chicagoans want to see some competition for him in the Feb. 25 election. His numbers are soft, especially among African-Americans, for whom Mr. Emanuel's former job as chief of staff to President Barack Obama is more and more irrelevant.
You can feel that "but..." coming, can't you?
I can understand why the president of the Chicago Teachers Union would want the opportunity to get on the big stage and draw attention to her take on why Chicago is headed in the wrong direction under Mr. Emanuel. If nothing else, her running would force aldermanic candidates to pick sides, and maybe result in the election of more independents to the City Council.

But Ms. Lewis, frankly, needs to dial down her public persona. She's a bright, sophisticated, erudite woman, with a side few voters have seen. But in a public showdown, she almost makes Mr. Emanuel seem tame and restrained, and that's quite a trick. He gets her Irish up, so to speak.

RACIAL TERMS 

I find her too quick to reduce every dispute to racial terms. That's dangerous ground. I also find her proposed solutions to the city's fiscal woes to be far too focused on squeezing the well-off and far too light on growing jobs and the economy.
Yes, Greg Hinz really did write, in a column about how Karen Lewis needs to moderate her words on race, that Rahm Emanuel "gets her Irish up." That's a special kind of cluelessness, folks.

And then Hinz admonished her for wanting to "squeeze the well-off," because, as we all know, it's a true fact that not taxing the rich creates tons o' jobs, except when it doesn't, which is pretty much all the time...

Mike Klonsky nails Hinz true and well:
Then Hinz tries to patronize Lewis, conceding that she is "a bright, sophisticated, erudite woman, with a side few voters have seen". Well, yeah, Hinz. I know this may shock you, but thousands have seen it. She is after all, a SCIENCE TEACHER. Hinz goes on to admit that Lewis, "has done a terrific job in uniting her union, getting a much better deal in the 2012 contract than business reformers wanted." I say admit, because it was just about a year ago when Hinz was dissing the CTU leader for being a poor negotiator and putting the onus on her, rather than on Rahm for the closing of 50 neighborhood schools and for the massive teacher lay-offs that have followed.

If Lewis happens to mention every once in a while that the mayor's mass school closings hit hardest on the city's black community, well, that's because they did. If she points out once in a while that the city's ruling elite is made up of mainly white, wealthy men, well, maybe that's because it is.

We should thank Greg Hinz and Crain's for tipping the hand of the 1%-ers. Now we know what their angry-black-woman line of attack will be, should Lewis dare to enter the lion's den of mayoral politics. Not bean bag to be sure. But knowing Karen Lewis, I don't think Hinz's dangerous grounds warning is going to intimidate her or dissuade her from taking on the Little Emperor who now sits unchallenged on the 5th floor of City Hall.
Amen. I'd only add that, as we've seen with Ras Baraka, the racial condescension will only get worse if Lewis manages to beat Emanuel. If she wins, Karen Lewis -- just like Ras Baraka -- is certain to endure an entire term of worried white people writing in newspapers and blogs that she needs to "tone it down" and think about "all of her constituents." And that is nothing more than code for saying: "Don't stand up for the people who put you in office because they are fed up with the status quo."

Thankfully, I'm sure that Lewis, like Baraka, won't be taking that particularly bad piece of advice.

Lewis, of course, has a double-whammy against her: she's also a woman. So if she gets into the race, we're sure to also hear all sorts of fretting that she's just too "hysterical," and we'll get lots of snarky comments about her looks, and most likely the worriers will throw in some of that special ageism leveled at women who dare not to know their place.

What we won't hear very much about is whether her message might actually resonate with voters:

If the mayoral election were held today, the lightning rod union leader who was the architect behind a 2012 teachers’ strike would beat Emanuel by 9 percentage points in a head-to-head contest, the survey found.

Lewis was leading Emanuel 45 percent to 36 percent with 18 percent of the likely voters undecided.
Why do I get the sense that this is what worries the worriers more than anything else?

H/t the always excellent Fred Klonsky. I wish I could draw...


ADDING: I try to go back to posts after they're out for a bit, because I'm my own editor and I find that I need to step away from the blog for a bit if I'm going to come back with fresh eyes so I can fix errors.

So this go 'round, I was clicking on links and noticed I messed up the "special ageism" link: I had it go to the Hillary Clinton-hysteria piece in Slate again, rather than this post about how the Boston Herald repeatedly calls Senator Elizabeth Warren "Granny." To fix the link, I had to do another search on Warren being called "Granny."

And that's when I saw this:


OK, look:

I'm not the most PC kinda guy you'll ever meet. I've seen every James Bond movie at least three times. I thought Howard Stern was usually pretty funny (haven't heard him since he moved to satellite). I think  It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is really funny.

But this isn't just sexist and ageist -- it's just plain old stupid. Elizabeth Warren, one of the most erudite senators we've had ever, "dresses like the 'before' woman in a beer ad"? She should dress...what? "Hotter"? Less like a senator? Is her fashion sense really that different from Barbara Boxer's? Does anyone care?

And then the "after" woman in a beer ad looks like Michelle Obama?! What does that even mean? What's the point? "Elizabeth Warren should be more like a beer spokesmodel... you know, like Michelle Obama"?! That's the joke?

Bill Maher got tenure completely wrong earlier this year, but I always thought -- even when I disagreed with him -- that he was a fairly smart guy. I don't watch HBO (no premium cable, no Sirius-XM -- you're quite the cheapskate, Jazzman), so I can't say I've got a particularly well-informed opinion about his comedy, but in interviews and YouTube clips he comes off as snarky but thoughtful.

But this is the sort of facile sexism and ageism that really makes my skin crawl. And no, it's not the same as making fun of John Boehner's tan, even though that's also a bit of a cheap shot. But at least his tan is anomalous; Warren's hair and clothing are exactly what we'd expect from a senator. For this, she's ridiculed. Seriously?

Fellow old, white guys: we have a lot to contribute to this country and this world. But we've got to start upping our game a little. A little introspection goes a long way. I'm not saying we should be humorless robots; I'm just suggesting we man up a little and think a bit before we speak.

It's perfectly fine to make jokes about Elizabeth Warren: she's a powerful person (yes, she is -- she's a United State Senator, for crying out loud), and authority needs to be questioned, and I am very much down with using satire to make hamburgers out of sacred cows. 

But mocking her for dressing like a mature and serious woman? Really? That's the best we can do?

Saturday, July 12, 2014

How White People Rationalize the Unequal Governance Of Schools

A caveat before I begin: you really shouldn't listen to anything that I or any other white, suburban, middle-class person has to say about Camden's schools until you've heard from the good people who work in those schools (like Keith Benson), send their children to those schools (like MoNeke Ragsdale), or actually attend those schools (like Nala Johnson).

Once you've heard from them, you can, if you wish, subject yourself to the opinions of white suburbanites like me -- or Laura Waters:
Every day in Camden, New Jersey, students wake up with just over a 50 percent chance of earning a high school diploma.
This is reality. It is negligence on the part of a school system that has failed families for decades. It has to change.
Yes, it does have to change. Perhaps we could start by addressing the fact that Camden has the lowest per capita income in the state. Or that it has the highest crime rate in the country, a direct result of its current status as an economic wasteland. Or that the economic development that has come into the city is controlled by outsiders and mostly benefits those outsiders, and not the citizens of the city.

You won't hear about this reality when listening to folks like Waters; no, it's the "negligence on the part of a school system that has failed families for decades" that is the problem. Of course, that school system has been, for all intents and purposes, run by the state for over a decade, and any dissent expressed against the South Jersey political machine is simply not tolerated.

It's worth pointing out that Waters is the vice-president of the Lawrence Township Board of Education out in the leafy 'burbs of Mercer County. Had the taxpayers in Waters's town been told that they would have no say in the governance of their schools, there would undoubtedly be an uproar.

But let's save those comparisons for a bit longer, and get back to Waters's prescriptions for what ails Camden:
But over the past year—for the first time in decades—there is real cause for hope for Camden's students. The State of New Jersey has finally lived up to its moral obligation to take action and appointed a new district leader in Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard. A child of Iranian immigrants who fled to this country to escape religious persecution, Rouhanifard has unveiled and begun to deliver on a bold and aggressive plan—The Camden Commitment—to dramatically improve the quality of education for all students in Camden.
That is a rather selective history of Rouhanifard's childhood: Waters apparently doesn't know (or doesn't care to share) that Camden's superintendent, once his family emigrated to America, attended one of the most elite and high-spending prep schools in Tennessee -- a school that spends over $40,000 per pupil.

I must have missed the part of the Camden Commitment that called for funding Camden's schools at an equivalent rate. Of course, the good people of Camden have been promised more resources -- like a new school at Lanning Square -- for years. That school was supposed to serve all of the children of Camden, but the powers-that-be decided funding for such things are reserved only for the suburbs.

What Camden got instead are Renaissance Schools, which will be run by private charter school operators who have no obligation to hold to the same standards of transparency and parental rights as public schools.

Those same operators, by the way, have a history of segregation and high rates of student attrition in New Jersey. And they engage in a pedagogy of compliance that simply wouldn't be tolerated by the more affluent parents out in the 'burbs:
Between classes, teachers stand in the hallways ushering students along. Tardiness is not tolerated. Students wear lanyards with cards recording their demerits, including those for lateness. Too many demerits result in a one-hour detention after school. [emphasis mine]
Hey, if shaming students is good enough for Camden and Philadelphia, why not bring it to suburbs like Lawrence? How about it, Laura? Or do you think the schools where parents of color send their children should be fundamentally different from suburban schools?
Education advocates who recognize the urgency of need in Camden typically don't get bogged down talking about bureaucratic processes. In fact, by even taking the time to address these ridiculous claims, we're ceding the higher ground to defenders of a failed bureaucracy, those like Julia Sass Rubin. We're talking about whether x person did y thing in order to comply with z regulation. We're not talking about the reality that Camden students face every day or that next fall several hundred Camden children will get to attend better schools.
Oh, I see: standards of transparency and engaging in democratic processes are privileges enjoyed by some parents and citizens. Following the law, according to reformy folks like Waters, is a luxury the good people of Camden simply can't afford.

Instead, Camden's families have to settle for a phony market system of schools, run by unaccountable operators who have questionable records and political connections, who have never demonstrated they can achieve results any better than the public schools when accounting for differences in student characteristics.

I will let Julia Sass Rubin answer Waters's specific rebuttals of her piece. Let me, instead, end with this observation:

In Camden, and Paterson, and Newark, and Jersey City -- and, for that matter, in New York City and Detroit and New Orleans and Los Angeles and Chicago and in cities all over the country -- the school privatizers, like Waters, have argued that school "choice" is somehow equivalent to democratic control of schools. It is not.

The hard-working citizens of Camden have not had control of their schools or their city for years. The critical decisions that affect their children's lives have been made by political and economic powers that have little to no connection to their city. They didn't make the decision to charterize their school district -- that decision was made for them.

And anyone who pretends they don't know why is lying to themselves.




If the people of Camden want to debate whether that they should have a "choice" system of schools that leeches resources from its public schools and segregates their children by special education need (among other ways), let them have that debate. But let's not pretend that "voting with your feet" is the same thing as democracy. 

The people of Lawrence wouldn't put up with that -- why should the people of Camden?

Democracy for me, not for thee...

Thursday, July 10, 2014

New Report on the Consequences of Inadequately Funded Schools

Yesterday, the Education Law Center released a report they commissioned from yours truly about the consequences of inadequately funding school districts.

"Shortchanging New Jersey Students: How Inadequate Funding Has Led to Reduced Staff and Growing Disparities in the State’s Public Schools" is a look at how students are affected when the state refuses to meet its obligations and give schools the resources they need to succeed. As usual, I'll try to explain here, in layman's terms, what's going on in this report.

But first: many thanks to Dr. Danielle Farrie, Research Director at ELC, who was my collaborator on this report. Danielle was the one who calculated the adequacy rates for the districts we looked at, guided my thinking, and contributed much to the final text. And thanks also to Dr. Bruce Baker, who, as always, was an invaluable resource.

If there's a central issue in education funding today, it's "adequacy." A common mistake of those not deeply engaged in issues of education financing is to substitute "equity" for "adequacy" -- but they are not the same. Here's Bruce and Preston Green's explanation of the difference:
"Equity conceptions deal primarily with variations or relative differences in educational resources, processes, and outcomes across children, whereas adequacy conceptions attempt to address in more absolute terms, how much funding, how many resources, or what quality of educational outcomes are sufficient to meet state constitutional mandates."
This is a big, complicated topic, but maybe we can boil it down to this -- a famous cartoon I've edited:


Again, I'm way oversimplifying here ("equity" above should probably really be "horizontal equity," but that's a long discussion...), but the main point is this: adequacy has to do with whether or not a school district has what it needs to get the job done. In New Jersey, as in other states, there is a formula that the state uses to determine whether a district has enough funding: the School Funding Reform Act, or SFRA.

SFRA is predicated on the idea that you need to get more resources to students who need them more, in order to make sure all students have an "adequate" education (Don't get thrown by the word "adequate" -- it doesn't mean, in this context, "so-so" or "mediocre." A better synonym might be "sufficient.").

The state gives more aid to districts that need it based on the numbers of children who are "at-risk" (which we measure by whether they qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a proxy measure for economic disadvantage), are Limited English Proficient, or have special education needs (emotional disabilities, cognitive disabilities, physical disabilities, speech impairments, autism, etc.). The premise -- supported by a ton of research -- is that these children cost more to educate because they need more individualized instruction and specialized programs. Makes sense, right?

Well, not to many politicians -- including Chris Christie. Under his reign, the number of districts that have not received adequate funding (and remember: the funding level is written into law) has skyrocketed. School districts across the state have been shortchanged about $4.5 billion since Christie took office. Here's a look at how many students have been affected:


Just about half of the public school students in New Jersey are in an inadequately funded school district. The "deeply inadequate" districts are those that are more than 20% under their adequacy targets, set by SFRA.

Now, the "money doesn't matter" crowd likes to pretend that this really isn't important. Somehow, all that extra money is being wasted and there's all this abuse and the schools that serve more of the children who need more resources have more than enough to get by. Never mind that many of the inadequately funded schools are in school districts that are relatively more affluent: if you look above, you'll see many "non-Abbott" districts -- the ones that have District Factor Group (DFG) of CD or higher -- actually don't get the funding that they need.

No, the argument goes, adequacy isn't nearly as important as things like teacher tenure. This is, of course, transparently absurd, but never mind: it has become the pseudo-intellectual cover under which politicians like Christie have ignored the law and underfunded schools.

Now, what we really haven't been able to do much until now (at least in New Jersey) is use data to see if there are specific consequences to underfunding schools. Yes, we can look at per pupil spending figures -- but what are the classroom-level consequences when you underfund a school district? What exactly changes in a child's school experience that can be traced back to inadequate funding?

This report is one attempt to find an answer. Here's what we did:

New Jersey tracks every certificated educator in the state in a yearly file that is based on data submitted by the individual schools districts. These staffing files give the name, salary, education, experience, race, and gender of everyone who works in a school and holds a New Jersey education certification.

These files also have a really important bit of info attached to each name: a job code, which tells us exactly what that person's function is within their school. I, for example, am listed as a "2100": "Music Comprehensive." This is very valuable, because we can get a good sense of the programs that are offered and the depth of those programs by comparing the "student load"-- the number of students per teacher -- for teachers in each department within a school district.

Imagine, for example, a district that had one music teacher for every 350 students, versus one for every 500 students. We'd be right to think that the district with more music teachers per student would have a richer music program with more course offerings, because the music teachers would be spread less thinly than the district with fewer music teachers per student. In other words: if I only have to teach 350 students, rather than 500, I'm going to be able to offer more music classroom time, a deeper music curriculum, and more course options.

So let's see how this works out. We'll start just by looking at the overall student-teacher ratios for districts that are adequately, inadequately, and deeply inadequately funded.


There are three things to notice here: first, the teachers in the inadequately funded districts had a greater student load than teachers in the adequately funded districts going back to just before Christie took office. In other words, the students in inadequately funded districts had fewer teachers working with them even before the cuts in state aid started.

Second: all students -- even those in adequately funded districts -- had fewer teachers by the time we got to the end of Christie's first term. The teacher load has increased across the board as the state has pulled back from full funding of SFRA.

Third, and perhaps most important: the student-teacher ratio gap between adequately and inadequately funded districts has increased during the Christie administration. As much as kids in adequately funded districts were getting left behind before Christie took office, things have become even worse.

(One caution: don't read this thinking it represents class sizes. We're talking all certificated staff here: principals, guidance counselors, nurses, speech therapists, etc. Many important people who work in schools aren't classroom teachers.)

So, how does this affect specific programs and course offerings? Well, using the job codes, we can break out different types of educators, and see how their teaching loads have changed based on whether or not they are in an adequately or inadequately funded district. I have several examples in the report, but here's one I think is particularly instructive:



Everyone these days talks about STEM -- Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics -- education. According to the powers-that-be, it's the key to retaining our competitive edge over the rest of the world. But look at what's happened: New Jersey's inadequately funded districts were already behind on deploying more STEM teachers into their schools -- and the gap between them and adequately funded districts has grown worse. If you teach STEM in an adequately funded district, your student load has barely changed; not so if you teach in a deeply inadequately funded district.

And it doesn't stop at STEM. Here's a look at the differences in student loads in curricular areas that are outside of the "core" subjects:


Art, music, and PE teachers in inadequately funded districts have significantly higher student loads than teachers in adequately funded districts. Think about that a bit as it relates to college admissions: don't the elite colleges look for well-rounded students who have significant experiences in the arts and athletics? Doesn't the kid who has an extensive sculpture portfolio stand a better chance of getting into an Ivy League school as a pre-med major than the one who doesn't, all other factors being equal? Don't more PE teachers likely translate into more coaches of interscholastic sports, which means more teams, more choices, and more chances to build up a college resume?

Here's another:


As I say in the report, elite colleges often require the study of a foreign languages as a pre-requiste for admission. Who has a better chance of studying a variety of languages and taking AP-level courses: a student in a district where each foreign language teacher averages a load of 425 students, or a load of 288?

As for the nurses and counselors: while inadequately funded districts are in all DFGs, the deeply inadequately funded districts tend to be the less-affluent ones. So we're stretching our counselors and school nurses thinner in the districts that have more students in economic disadvantage -- and those are the students who actually need those services the most.

As they say: read the whole thing. The takeaway is this: money really does matter. When you do not provide a school district with adequate resources, there are real and meaningful deficits in the education of that districts's students.

I understand that we have many priorities in this state, including the pensions, our infrastructure, property tax relief for the middle-class, and overall tax relief for the working poor. But adequate school funding has got to be a priority as well. Despite the denials of some, we can't give kids an adequate and equitable education until we start giving their schools the resources they need to get the job done.

Again, thanks to ELC for the opportunity to do this report. Undoubtedly, there will be more to come on this topic over the next year - stay tuned.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Teacher Evaluation and the Illusion of Precision

I testified before the NJ State Board of Education today about our year-old teacher evaluation system, AchieveNJ -- aka Operation Hindenburg. Time was limited to five minutes, so I focused on something I hope to be exploring more fully this month: the illusion of precision found in teacher evaluations.

For now, here's today's testimony.

* * *

AchieveNJ, as currently constituted, is fundamentally flawed. It is critical for this board and the Department of Education to understand that AchieveNJ violates the most basic laws of measurement and statistical practice; consequently, it is simply not viable.

AchieveNJ consists of three basic parts: a score based on teacher practice, a score based on Student Growth Objectives (SGOs), and, for teachers in tested grades and areas, a score based on Student Growth Percentiles (SGPs). These scores are weighted and combined to create a summative rating, which determines the final effectiveness rating of a teacher.

No doubt you are aware of the work of Dr. Bruce Baker, who has shown that the SGPs have inherent biases at the school level against schools with larger proportions of at-risk students.[1] If these measures are biased at the school level, there is every reason to believe they are biased at the teacher level as well. No teacher should be punished in his or her ratings simply because they choose to work with the neediest students.

You may also aware that there is no evidence that SGOs are either valid or reliable, particularly in the many untested subjects in which they were used this past year.[2] The NJDOE has released research about SGOs on its website; my review of that literature, however, confirms that we have next to no evidence of any predictive validity for SGOs that would read us to conclude that they are viable measures of student achievement, let alone teacher effectiveness.

These are serious concerns. But as my time is limited, I’d like to focus on one particular part of AchieveNJ that has received little attention, yet is probably its greatest flaw: the illusion of precision.

In both the creation of scores for each of its three components, and in the combination of those scores to create a summative rating, AchieveNJ creates scores that are more precise than they should be. Even though it is impossible under the laws of mathematics to create finely-grained scores for teacher evaluations, AchieveNJ violates those laws and does just that; consequently, the ratings teachers receive under this system are ultimately arbitrary and capricious.

To understand this phenomenon, it is necessary to understand the idea of “significant figures.” As any high school student will tell you, you can’t average measures without rounding up or down to the nearest significant figure. The reason is that a measure with many digits implies that the measuring instrument can make distinctions as fine as the resulting average.

Unfortunately, AchieveNJ’s teacher practice scores violate this most basic of mathematical concepts. Take, for example, the Danielson instrument: in every component of this model, teachers receive a score of 1, 2, 3 or 4. Yet in the Teachscape system used by many districts, and in materials published by the NJDOE, the scores of each Danielson component are averaged to numbers in between these integers.

In an example on the NJDOE’s website[3], a hypothetical teacher is given a rating of 3.15 in their teacher practice score. This is, to put it bluntly, innumerate. Any student in a high school science class who averaged this way would fail. I know this because, ironically, the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics specifically require students to demonstrate the ability to “Choose a level of accuracy appropriate to limitations on measurement when reporting quantities.”[4] (CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.HSN.Q.A.3)

Even Charlotte Danielson herself would tell you her instrument is incapable of distinguishing between a teacher who gets a score of 3.15 and a teacher who gets a score of 3.25. AchieveNJ is perpetuating an illusion of precision.

This is critically important because the cut scores set by the NJDOE are based on this illusion. AchieveNJ actually pretends that the teacher practice instruments can distinguish between a teacher who gets either below or above a 2.65, the cut score that determines “effectiveness.” Not only is there absolutely no research base to support this arbitrary cut score: the cut score itself is in violation of a mathematical concept we expect our high school students to comprehend.

Why did NJDOE decide to perpetuate this illusion? I can only guess, but I suspect it is because they had a problem with combining SGPs, which are on a 1-to-99 scale, with teacher practice scores, which should be on a 1-to-4 integer scale. But adding phony precision to teacher observations is not a solution to this problem.

An evaluation system that ignores the basics of measurement cannot and should not be trusted. I am afraid, looking at both the membership of and the list of witnesses brought before the Educator Effectiveness Task Force, this basic concept slipped the grasp of those who were charged with developing AchieveNJ.

I would urge this board to avail itself of the many excellent scholars and researchers in New Jersey who have expertise in this area, and give them extended time to explain to you these and the many other many flaws found in AchieveNJ. And I would urge you to put a moratorium on any high-stakes decision based on AchieveNJ until such time as its many problems can be corrected.

Thank you for your time.




AchieveNJ, aka: Operation Hindenburg