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

Monday, July 6, 2015

School Choice and Segregation in Hoboken; An Interview with Molly Vollman Makris

Last week, I interviewed Molly Vollman Makris, the author of Public Housing and School Choice in a Gentrified City: Youth Experiences of Uneven Opportunity, for NJ Spotlight. Makris's book is one of the most compelling explorations of how segregation and school choice go hand-in-hand; I think it's well worth considering in any conversation about charter schools.

The NJ Spotlight article could only fit part of our entire conversation. Here's the full transcript, edited for clarity.

* * * 

Molly Vollman Makris in Hoboken
Weber: One thing that struck me right away is that your book isn’t at all a takedown of charter schools.

Makris: It’s not. It’s a larger analysis of the direction of education policy. The book does take a critical look at school choice and what’s happening in Hoboken, but it’s not about the individual actors. There aren’t heroes or villains per se; it’s about these larger systems of inequality that are happening in many places.

Weber: You take the charter school people at their word when they say they are genuinely interested in the inequality of their student populations and they want to do something about it.

Makris: I do. I think their intention was to create some level of socio-economic and racial diversity. But, given the demographic makeup of the founders, that was going to be a challenge. And part of that is charter school policies. It takes a lot of work to start a charter school. Many of these were stay-at-home parents and parents with flexible careers where they can spend hours and hours starting a charter school. So when you have them at the helm, it’s going to be harder to create a school that represents the entire community. There also are no policies in place that allow charter schools to easily “manipulate” their lotteries to create socio-economic and racial diversity.

Weber: Is it fair to say that starting and sustaining a charter school, by the nature of its structure, is going to attract a different sort of family than a traditional public school?

Makris: Yes; we see that everywhere. We see that in Newark and Harlem and other neighborhoods that don’t look anything like Hoboken. I think your research has shown this, in the difference between free and reduced-price lunch students, this level of creaming.

I call it charter confusion which is something we found in Hoboken and when I was working with the Newark Schools Research Collaborative. People are just confused about what a charter school is, who can attend a charter school, whether they were in Newark or Hoboken, whether they’re low-income or advantaged.

Weber: So you’re saying there is some global misunderstanding about charter schools.

Makris: I think it’s a bit of a global misunderstanding, but when it comes time to figure it out for your own children, you tap into your own networks. And if your network all goes to the local neighborhood school, and you went to the local neighborhood school, and you don’t really have the resources to do a thorough investigation of all your school options, you’re going to go to the local neighborhood school.

Weber: But if you cleared up that confusion, do you believe public housing residents would see the so-called “advantages” of a charter school trumping what they see as the advantages of their neighborhood school?

Makris: That’s a great question. It’s hard to predict; I do think there are enough families in public housing who would be interested in the opportunity – if they see that as an opportunity. I think there are some who still wouldn’t, which of course would still mean there would remain issues with the kind of creaming we see in Newark and elsewhere.

Weber: Is what you found here regarding school choice transferrable to Newark or Paterson or Camden, where the level of gentrification isn’t nearly what you would find in Hoboken? In other words, how generalizable is your research?

Makris: Well, that’s always the issue with any qualitative research: how generalizable is it? Obviously other researchers would have to go out and confirm that. Hoboken is a unique situation. But I think we’re going to see more and more of it; in neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Manhattan and other cities as well.

The main thing that pushed people out of a gentrifying community was: “I’m having children. I want the house in the suburbs, and the schools.” I think now we see those people are more willing to stay in cities and raise their children, but the schooling is still the issue. And these parents have realized they can come together and create a school in their own interests.

I think school choice policy in general is not intended to create socio-economically and racially diverse schools.

Weber: What did you think about the commissioner’s decision?

Makris: I was not surprised. I’m not a quantitative researcher, so I don’t dive deep into the numbers. But right away when I looked at it, I thought: “He’s looking at the under age 18 population in Hoboken.” And a huge part of that population is under five. To use that to compare to the school-aged population is, to me, flawed to begin with.

But as I write in the book, I don’t think the whole problem is the charter schools. I also think it’s important to note that in some way these urban schools have always been segregated. So I don’t think the charters and intra-district school choice are creating segregation so much as inhibiting desegregation. I think we all could do a better job.

Gentrification creates this moment where we could have schools that have a huge population of people with social and cultural and economic capital. Because of our numbers, if we just threw everyone up in the air and shuffled them we could have these diverse middle-class schools. But these kind of school choice policies are preventing that from happening.

Weber: You spent a lot of time talking with Hoboken’s affluent parents. It seems that putting their kids into a school with a significant number of students who are in economic disadvantage is not an option for them, particularly when their children get up to high school.

Makris: For those parents, the idea of sending them to the public elementary school near public housing is totally off of the table. In the junior-senior high school, we’re starting to see a little change. There are groups of adamant advantaged parents – often early wave gentrifiers even some who were involved with the early charter schools, who are passionate about education in Hoboken – who send their children to the high school, and enjoy that diverse experience.

I’m seeing some preschool children whose parents really want to stay, and are really devoted to trying to figure out how to make the high school somewhere they would send their children.

But for the vast majority of affluent parents I interviewed, the high school is not an option. The public school near public housing is not an option.

Weber: So if that’s true, why are you optimistic about integrating the schools throughout the city?

Makris: Well, I would say we have the potential here, and we have that in large part because of gentrification. There is such a desire for urban living that you have more advantaged people who are choosing to live here and remain here. These people, when I interview them, say that diversity is one of the reasons they want to live in a place like this.

There are schools in this country and there are communities where people choose to send their children to socio-economically diverse schools. I went to a high school in Akron, Ohio; it was a large, urban high school, about 50 percent black students, about 50 percent free or reduced lunch eligible. There was a degree of in-school tracking, but they had programs that drew a variety of students into that school. And we did have very diverse networks because of that; I still do. So it depends on how you see the purpose of schooling.

Weber: And how do you see the purpose of schooling?

Makris: From my perspective, it’s so much more than social reproduction: where your child is going to go to college, what kind of job they’re going to end up with. There’s social justice; there’s learning about people who are very different from you, learning from people who are very different from you.

This is a big argument in the book: I’m not arguing for these integrated schools so middle-class capital can “rub off” on low-income children. I’m advocating for them so everybody’s capital can be shared and equally valued and everybody can learn from each other.

Weber: That’s an important point. If you talk to teachers of color, students of color, parents of color, that’s a concern: that outsiders are treating their community like it’s a pathology, and they’re coming in to “save” it.

Makris: That’s a huge concern of mine, because the neighborhood school here near public housing is valued by the community. Families that go there do feel quite a bit of social and cultural capital and comfort. In the book, parents say things like: “My friends can watch my kids from their window. My children feel safe and part of a community here.” If advantaged families come in and start taking over that school and making it a school they want, it may not align with those parents’ interests.

Weber: Part of school choice, to my mind, is this idea of values. Some people look at an advantaged charter school and say: “It makes no sense: why wouldn’t anyone want to send their child here?” But isn’t that an imposition of values on others?

Makris: I think so. You’re not recognizing the value of that neighborhood school, and what that school might represent: the history for the families of that school, the convenience, the idea of where your children may fit in.

It is hard to understand everyone’s own backgrounds and values. We saw that with the dual-language school. Some involved in the founding and/or beginning of the school thought using Spanish would attract more of the public housing population, but they found it wasn’t a draw.

Research led me to think that one reason public housing families may not choose a charter school is because of the progressive pedagogy. So I went into this thinking that might be part of the issue. But I found that wasn’t the reason for the decision, because there was such a level of charter confusion, and so many people thought these were private schools and would cost money; it wasn’t that they weren’t going because they perceived that the schools weren’t strict enough.

Weber: What was wrong with the way universal enrollment was done in Newark, from your perspective?

Makris: I would not want to see the universal enrollment tied to the closing down of certain schools and reopening them as charter schools, or closing them down altogether.

Weber: But isn’t that a precondition for open enrollment and charter schools? The more that you open up “schools of choice,” you’re going to close down district schools. It’s just mathematics.

Makris: Here in Hoboken, I wish we could just stop: no more additional charter schools. Which I think is where it’s going; the last charter school that was proposed did not happen. I would be surprised to see another one come in. Then I would like to see all public district and charter schools on one application so that all parents would know they have the option to choose between all of these schools.

Weber: One of the things you say in your book is that you can’t make an equation between Hoboken’s charter schools and the charters from the big CMOs, like KIPP or Uncommon or Mastery.

Makris: No, they’re not the same. The intention of these charters from these large management organizations that come into low-income communities is to keep kids in school as long as possible; increase the school day, increase the school year. We don’t have any of that with the charter schools here. We have fifth graders taking school trips to Puerto Rico and chocolate-making class. It’s a completely different situation. But they’re all somehow part of this larger narrative about school choice and charters.

Weber: That whole debate over school choice has become highly politicized, with stakeholders on all sides making claims about the effectiveness of charter schools. You live in a city where the debate is very politicized. Is it possible, in this environment, to have an honest conversation about school choice and segregation?

Makris: I think it can be difficult to talk honestly about what’s going on with the loudest voices in the room. In my research, I’ve tried not to rely solely on the loudest voices in the room. The quiet voices I think are open to having these conversations. I see that in public housing, too. I go to board of education meetings, housing meetings – there are always the loudest voices in the room, and you always know where they stand.

I’ve done two book talks in the community, and afterwards, there are always parents who say, “Thank you for writing about this. It seems like people were really honest with you.”

Again, they’re the quieter voices in the room. They’re parents of young children who have a social justice mentality, and they’re asking: “How can we talk about this? How can we meet as a community and talk openly about change without imposing values on people? What are positive solutions?”

Weber: You write about the use of test scores to drive a narrative about school effectiveness.

Makris: That’s something I think quite a lot about as a parent. I think parents often use it as a justification. It’s very easy to point to the test scores and say: “These scores are terrible. Why would I send my child to that school?” So it does become a justification.

But then the advantaged population is also not concerned about test preparation for their children – for those [state] tests (they are interested of course in college admissions tests). So if you have schools that have so much pressure to improve their test scores, and they’re serving a population that traditionally is going to struggle more on those tests, they’ve got to really focus their teaching on the tests. And that further drives the advantaged population away. The last thing I want to think about my daughter doing in early elementary school is test preparation.

Weber: You think the district schools, then, have something to learn from the charter schools in terms of how to get parents involved in schools and how to make themselves an attractive choice. Is part of that putting aside a test-prep curriculum?

Makris: Yes, but I worry about that for the schools. Because they are in such a difficult position to do that, because they are so scared about their test scores. And there are so many eyes on their test scores. There was a celebration at the Board of Ed meeting this week for the public housing neighborhood school because it was removed from federal “focus” status. So there is all this pressure.

I think there are other ways to give a vigorous, rigorous education. Of course, I know many of the teachers and administrators in the district schools are doing wonderful work. But I do think parent involvement is a huge draw for the parents in the charter schools. And again and again I heard from charter school parents that they tried to do things in the district and they weren’t able to.

You see this in the research elsewhere, such as New York City, where the parents say it’s easier to start your own school than to work within the district, which seems insane.

I always caution: I think the district can learn from the charters for some things, but not all things, because they’re not serving the same population, and it wouldn’t be fair to say: “Do it like they do it, because it’s always better.”

Weber: Geographically, Hoboken is a small community. If there was ever a place to implement a “Princeton Plan” – a fully mixed and integrated system of schools across the city – Hoboken would be it. But you document in your book how people tried that here, and the plan was shot down quickly.

Makris: Mark Toback, the former superintendent, tried that, and he was shot down, seemingly from what I heard from both sides. For advantaged families, there’s not really a huge interest in rocking the boat: are you really interested in going across town for elementary school? For public housing families, to be told your kid has to go to school across town, even though it’s the same community, it’s a haul. And if you don’t have a car, and you don’t have the job flexibility, it’s makes a huge difference.

So despite this being a small community, there were still concerns with that. There would have to be some sort of transportation that went with it to make it work. But I do think there’s potential, and parents still bring that plan up. There is still interest. But there’s really not a big conversation here about segregation; it’s still not a pressing concern.

Weber: Can you define neo-liberalism as you use it in the book? You’re using a more classical interpretation of the term, right?

Makris: Yes; it’s more a classic conservative strain of thought. Privatization of things that were once public; decrease in the social safety net; that sort of thing. Charter schools, alternative route teaching programs, data-driven assessment, on-line schools -- all are part of this larger neo-liberal movement.

Weber: This is where Hoboken seems to be so different: the charter schools aren’t aligned with that. They aren’t, for example, taking TFA (Teach For America, an alternate route preparation program) teachers.

Makris: And neither is the district. You don’t see the same kind of outside forces and consultants that you see in Newark.

Weber: Newark is a stage on which a larger drama is being played out. But that’s not the case in Hoboken.

Makris: It’s not the case. There’s a different drama being played out. But I do think unwittingly the charter schools here are a piece of that corporate reform model.

Weber: Your book is about much more than schooling; you also address the larger environment and how people from different socio-economic backgrounds interact with each other in a city like Hoboken.

Makris: When I started my research, my education findings weren’t very surprising to me, especially in light of research done elsewhere. But the environment findings were surprising, because here the public housing is in an isolated campus, and other research has shown that in similar communities, the public housing population might not have access to the same amenities as an advantaged population. In the book I demonstrate how that is not the case.

When I asked young people from the public housing population if there was any place they felt uncomfortable, the only example was one girl who said: “The sushi stores, because I don’t like sushi.” So there’s a great deal of social and cultural capital that does come from gentrification. The young people, and the grown-ups, really do come to Washington Street and take advantage of the parks and the fairs and the free events. Transportation was interesting, because the shuttle in town was intended to get cars off of the streets and be green, but it also allows families and older people from public housing to get to Washington Street and hang out at Panera.

But there is still a disconnect; it’s separate and different, but not isolated. When I asked youth living in public housing whether there were more rich people or more poor people in Hoboken in general, all but one said more poor people. Which I think speaks to the fact that they’re still in a separate community.

Weber: But isn’t there a threat to the character of urban communities? When cities start taking on the trappings of the more affluent suburbs, with organized sports leagues and franchised retail shopping, don’t they risk losing what makes them unique?

Makris: There we get into values again, and what we want our cities to be. A lot of scholars write about gentrification and the “death of the city,” how our cities are all becoming generic. They’ll write a lot about how Starbucks is the death knell of the community. But in all of my research, the low-income youth I work with love Starbucks. So for me to say: “We shouldn’t have a Starbucks” – well, some people do want to have that Starbucks.

So what are the values in a community? Are there groups of people that want to have those amenities? And is it my own middle-class urban aesthetic that I want to impose?

Weber: You talk about Hoboken moving to “supergentrification.” What does that mean?

Makris: It’s a theory that early-wave gentrifiers are eventually replaced down the road with people who work in FIRE industries: finance, insurance, real estate. They tend to be less social justice-minded than people who are earlier gentrifiers. I would argue that, at least along the waterfront, it’s supergentrified here.

Weber: Are these supergentrifiers all going to send their kids to private school? Are charter schools not even an option?

Makris: For some, charter schools are. There’s a private bus company that picks up at two of the big luxury housing apartment complexes on the waterfront and drives to the dual-language charter school across town. But largely, for many of the people I encountered living in those buildings, their plan is private schools, or living here for a few years and then moving to the suburbs.

Interestingly, we do have this crop of parents whose children don’t get into the charters, they send their kids to the district schools through the preschool programs, and I see some of that capital and energy go into the district schools. So there’s a network of parents of younger children who are very involved and actively engaged because they didn’t get into the charter schools. And they are becoming advocates for the district. It remains to be seen whether those people stay longer. Fourth grade, fifth grade seems to be the turning point for many.

So I argue that because parents can choose their preschool location and because they can then choose which elementary school location and in a large part because of charter schools, they’re staying longer. And that’s influencing real estate development.

Weber: It seems as if you attract enough affluent people here, it’s almost inevitable that at least some of them will stay and invest themselves for the long term.

Makris: I think I’m seeing some of that, and I hope that’s the case. The question then becomes is it a critical enough mass to change the demographics of the schools to create socio-economically and racially balanced schools that respect all of the voices.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

At Rally Against @GovChristie, Real NJ Voices #tellingitlikeitis

This afternoon, Chris Christie announced his candidacy for president at his alma matter, Livingston High School. The superintendent of the district, Jim O'Neill, skipped the event, as he understands just how bad Christie has been for this state's public education system.

Christie is many things, but he's not a fool. Given his dismal approval ratings, he knew he was likely to have a throng of critics at his announcement. That's why he kept the location secret until it leaked out last Thursday, giving detractors little time to organize a counter event.

It's a testament to Christie's deep unpopularity, then, that so many people -- especially teachers -- showed up today in Livingston to condemn Christie's record of failure. And it's a testament to Christie's cowardice that he held his announcement in a closed gym, away from the people who understand the consequences of his horrible tenure as governor.

My invitation to go inside for the speech must have been lost in the mail. Instead, I milled around, taking pictures and speaking with teachers and others about the train wreck that is Governor Chris Christie. Here's what I saw and heard. Sorry for the missing names, but it was chaos; this was a big, peaceful, but angry crowd that had a lot to say.

By the way: it was great fun meeting all of you who read the blog. Many, many thanks for your support.

Teachers making signs before the rally.

Mike Mignone, President, Belleville Education Association, teacher, poster boy for tenure: "He's not a leader. A true leader acts on what he says. But his actions don't match his words."

On the bus.

Teacher in Hudson County: "He's spewing lies about teachers. My husband and I are both teachers, but my husband is working three jobs. Our house was hit by Sandy, and it took us a long time to get the insurance money. We didn't get any help from the state. My husband's working right now; I left my kids with my mom to be here."

In the crowd.

Retired teacher: "He's wasted billions of dollars. He ran the state into the red, and he now says there's no money for the pension. But the money was there; he just wasted it."

Teacher from Bloomfield with 4 years of experience: "I don't regret going into teaching, but I am very nervous. Our benefits are down, and our payments are up, and we aren't paid a lot. I do this for the love of the job, but I'm worried I won't be able to continue."

Jesse Turner, the Walking Man.

Nancy Ooms: PE teacher at Livingston High School who actually taught Christie when he attended: "He was nothing like this. It's hard to believe he's forgotten about this place and all of us. He says we work a part-time job, but I work day and night."

The crowd gets ready to greet Christie.

Mark Worobitz, retired teacher, Sparta: "He says we do a part-time job? HE does a part-time job, for a full salary. He's traveling all over the country, worrying about pigs in Iowa and syrup in New Hampshire, instead of what's happening here."

Teacher from Ridgefield Park: "If he had just left the money he gave to corporations in the pension, he could have made the payments. Our state's credit is nothing. People can't find jobs -- but all of his friends have jobs."

Christie's limo, windows tinted, drives by while people boo.

English teacher, Livingston High School: "We're planning, grading, writing curriculum. We work over the summer. We meet with our co-teaching teams to plan. I work all evening, taking questions from parents and students on the internet. What should I do: stop working at 3:00 PM?"

Univision covers the rally.

@TickTockMrsGlock: "My husband's a police officer. We've both made 678 pension payments, but he's made none. We came into our jobs knowing we wouldn't make a lot of money, but we would make a difference."

Retired teacher, Parsippany: "He has an impulse control disorder. Imagine him in a room with Putin!"

In the crowd.

Jersey City teacher: "He has failed for New Jersey, and he will fail for this country."

Jim Keady

Jim Keady, candidate for State Assembly (aka Mr. "Sit down and shut up!"): "Chris Christie has been an abject failure as a chief executive. The pension is becoming insolvent. Our bond rating is in the toilet. Our job recovery is terrible. He should do his job and show some results -- then maybe he could be considered a candidate for president."

Anthony Rosamilia

Anthony Rosamilia, teacher at Livingston High School, president of Essex County Education Association, and chief organizer of today's rally: "We're here to send a message to the rest of the country: if Chris Christie becomes president, it will be a disaster for the nation. I teach here. To choose this location for his presidential announcement is rubbing our faces in it. We had to do something."

In the crowd.

Livingston High School teacher: "Christie's mother worked in this district, and collected a pension until the day she died. She was a wonderful woman. I don't understand what happened to him."

In the crowd.

John Samtak, retired teacher from Pequannock: "He can't be trusted. The first thing he said back in 2009 was: 'I won't touch your pensions.' The first thing he did was touch our pensions."

In the crowd.

Melissa Katz, education student and education activist: "As a future teacher, I think the hypocrisy of his announcing a run for president at a public school is appalling."

Teachers from South Orange-Maplewood.

Teachers from South Orange-Maplewood: "He's dishonest. He will do anything to have the bully pulpit. He cannot imagine a world where he is not the big cheese. But he's not going to win; he's probably just auditioning for Fox News."

Awo Okaikor Aryee-Price, Ikechukwu Omyema, Elizabeth Cornell, Mel Katz.

Awo Okaikor Aryee-Price, teacher and education activist: "Chris Christie is not a president for all people. He has been a persistently imposing force for the people of Newark to block any local control. Recently, he backed off only to get votes."

Ikechukwu Omyema, teacher and education activist: "I left teaching in Newark, and the State Superintendent [Cami Anderson] is the reason I left. She drove out good teachers who were tired of disrespect. Anderson's ridiculous policies were only in place because of Chris Christie."

Waiting for the buses back to the parking lot.

Bill Cole, educator in Morris County: "By any metric Christie is a dismal failure. We're one of the lowest performing states economically. He catered to the one-percent on the backs of the middle class. He has nothing to point to; where are his successes?"

Christie supporters had to walk by the teachers waiting to take buses back to the parking lot.

I asked many of Christie's supporters as they left what they like about him. To a person, they said some variation of: "He tells it like it is."  Propaganda works -- at least on some of us.

I take comfort in two things from Christie's candidacy:

1) He'll be around here a lot less.

2) The other Republican candidates are finally going to make his record in New Jersey a topic of scrutiny. Fellas, you can use anything you find on this blog, but I'll warn you -- there's a lot of failure documented here. Enjoy.

ADDING: Here's a great video of today's events:

Monday, June 29, 2015

Why Should Newark's Families Settle For an Unqualified Schools Superintendent Like Chris Cerf?

Cami Anderson, reviled by many of the stakeholders in Newark's schools, is leaving as the State Superintendent. Given the many failures of the unqualified Anderson -- including a huge budget deficit, the chaos of her One Newark plan, and the poor performance of her "renew" schools -- that's good news.

Governor Chris Christie and Mayor Ras Baraka have reached an agreement to create a "roadmap" to restore local control of the school district, a privilege enjoyed by all affluent suburban districts but denied to Newark for two decades. Given Christie's habit of breaking his promises, people are understandably wary; however, this is the first time this governor has agreed that local control must eventually return to Newark, and that's good news.

Unfortunately, we know now who will be running Newark's schools during the transition to local control. Chris Cerf, former Commissioner of Education for the entire state, is coming back from yet another junket in the private sector and will run the district for the foreseeable future.

This is not good news.

Those who've followed my writing over the years know that Cerf has a questionable track record, both in and out of the public sector. The former president of Edison Education, Cerf oversaw several disastrous experiments in school privatization in Philadelphia and Baltimore. His time working in the New York City schools was marked by allegations of conflicts of interest and mediocre performance.

While working for Christie as the head of the state's Department of Education, Newark's schools (as well as the rest of the state) saw an unprecedented retreat from adequate funding as defined by the state's own laws. Cerf imposed an illogical and expensive teacher evaluation system while greatly expanding standardized testing, over the objections of both Mayor Baraka and Newark's students.

Cerf has always been a huge proponent of charter school expansion; he even recently accepted an appointment to the board of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Yet he never acknowledges that these schools can cause real damage to the finances of their host districts. He lauds charters' "successes," while blithely dismissing the fact that the charter sector does not educate nearly as many children who have special education needs or who are Limited English Proficient as its hosting district schools.

Cerf's firm, Global Education Advisors, actually came up with the proposal to expand charter schools in Newark. After Christie announced Cerf as his pick to lead the NJDOE, Cerf changed his story about the extent of his involvement in drafting that plan. There is no question, however, that Chris Cerf was one of the primary forces behind contracting Newark's school district while expanding charters.

Why, then, does it make sense to appoint a man to lead the Newark Public Schools when he was directly involved in shrinking the district? Especially when that man is unqualified to lead any locally-controlled district?

Chris Cerf taught for a few years at a tony private school; he's never taught in a public school, let alone led a district. He holds no degrees in education, and he has no standard certification in school administration. He's never been an instructional leader, he's never been at the helm of a public school district, and he has no record of building consensus within a community so schools can be improved.

The plain truth is that if Chris Cerf applied for a superintendent job in the suburbs, his resume would be stamped "Unqualified" and thrown into the trash. Yet here he stands, ready to take on the toughest school leadership job in the state.

New Jersey has many proven school leaders with records of real success in leading urban school districts. Why weren't they considered for the job? Why does Newark have to settle for Cerf when it can do much better?

Newark's families deserve a well-qualified, experienced superintendent as much as families living in the suburbs. Chris Christie should rescind Cerf's appointment and give the beautiful, deserving children of Newark the school leader they deserve.

Local control: it's still a white people thing.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Fact-Checking Cami Anderson's Legacy

Look, I understand the news media has a tough job -- especially the local beat reporters, who have to know a little about everything in a city or a region. There are many excellent journalists out there who really try to get to the bottom of things; I admire and respect their work.


When someone as controversial as Cami Anderson, the high-profile state superintendent of Newark's schools, resigns from her position, it's certain she is going to spin her record in the most favorable light possible.

It is, therefore, incumbent on reporters to double-check her claims of success. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to have happened; Anderson and her supporters have made several statements that simply don't hold up when examined.

* * * * *

- "Ms. Anderson said she was proud of her accomplishments: stabilizing the number of students in public schools; improving the graduation rate by 14 percentage points, to 70 percent, even as she retained more high school students..." - Kate Zernike, New York Times.

Here are the official adjusted cohort graduation rates for the Newark Public Schools, according to the NJDOE, from 2011 to 2014:

New Jersey changed how it reports its graduation rates starting with the 2011 cohort. Anderson was appointed in June of 2011; if you want to think that 7.5 bump in percentage points was due to her policies after barely one year on the job, and not due to some reporting issue, then be my guest. In any case, the graduation rate has remained flat since then -- and it never went up 14 percentage points while Anderson was on the job.

Maybe Anderson has some other way of calculating grad rates. Maybe she has data from this year not released yet by the state. OK... then explain it to us. Because the official numbers don't line up with her story -- and the reporters who reprinted her words could have discovered that for themselves with less than 5 minutes of searching.

* * * * *

"She resisted the push by Mr. Booker, a Democrat who is now the state’s junior senator, and Mr. Christie, a Republican, to expand charter schools, fearing aloud that they drained motivated families and money from traditional schools." - Kate Zernike, New York Times.

This claim is simply ridiculous. Here are Anderson's own words, only from this past January:
Every high-performing school has a transformational school leader who is empowered to hire excellent teachers. They have 21st-century facilities, engaged families, and best-in- class tools and curricula. 
Many of these high-performing schools are charters. And, in many regards, they are playing with a much more favorable hand than traditional public schools. They don’t have to choose between balancing their budget and “force placing” teachers because of seniority rules that are not driven by quality. They can retain teachers who are excellent and exit those who are not growing. They can use tax credits and bonds to efficiently renovate buildings and buy air conditioners. They can drive money into the classroom without the attacks that come when a district attempts the same objectives. 
We can deny that charters have these advantages, or we can try to slow their growth, but that denies families’ access to high-quality schools now. The fact remains that many charters in Newark are outperforming traditional public schools. Instead of fighting against a charter system that is working for our kids, we must create a public policy agenda that gives traditional public schools the same pro-student advantages. [emphasis mine]
Yeah, that's some "resistance," huh?

The truth, as I have shown in my policy work, is that the school ratings created for Anderson's One Newark plan were wildly biased in favor of the charters. Anderson painted a false picture of charter school "success"; Bruce Baker's recent work makes this fact plain.

It's clear, however, that Anderson never thought deeply about what charter school expansion would actually mean for her district. After three years at the helm of NPS, it turned out that the schools under her control were underperforming. As I testified before the NJ Legislature's Joint Committee on the Public Schools, the evidence, including work done by Len Pugliese, showed that Anderson's "renew schools" were actually falling behind on test-based outcomes. Pugliese also showed that NPS schools were showing outrageously inflated attendance rates on state reports.

What was Anderson's excuse? That the charters were skimming the cream:
“We’re losing the higher-performing students to charters, and the needs [in district schools] have gotten larger,” Anderson said. 
At another point, Anderson specifically cited some of the district’s highest performing charter schools as clearly serving a different set of students than in some of her toughest schools, “where there are 35 percent if students with special needs.” 
“I’m not saying they are out there intentionally skimming, but all of these things are leading to a higher concentration of the neediest kids in fewer [district] schools,” she said. [emphasis mine]
Yes, Anderson had misgivings about charters -- but only when she needed an excuse for her own failings. The plain fact is that she never "resisted" charter expansion. Like Dr. Frankenstein, she only regretted her actions after she had brought the monster to life.

* * * * *

- "Still, under Anderson the district has seen positive change. An innovative teachers' contract denies standard pay increases to low-performing teachers and grants bonuses to the best." - Reformy Tom Moran, Star-Ledger.

Now, unlike Reformy Tom, I actually talk -- and, more importantly, listen -- to the leaders of the Newark Teachers Union. And what they've said time and again to anyone who will listen is that Anderson has violated the terms of that contract:
Del Grosso contends that Anderson is not following the provisions of the controversial contract he negotiated with her back in 2012. "She is in absolute violation of the contract. There is supposed to be a peer oversight committee, but she refuses to put it in place." Has she outright refused, or has she just not followed through? "She'll say, 'We'll do it soon,' but she never follows through."

According to Del Grosso, Anderson hasn't spoken to him in "seven or eight months." She refuses to attend meetings with John Abignon, the NTU's director of organizing. Del Grosso says that he is scheduled to meet with her and Education Commissioner David Hespe next week; at that meeting, he will broach the subject of the district's legal bills.

"The district needs a full-fledged audit. They spend five or six times what has been budgeted for legal fees. There is a $50 million to $100 million deficit."
You really can't call a contract "innovative" if the parties involved aren't following its provisions. Further, there's no evidence the "best" teachers are getting bonuses. As I showed in my analysis of year one of the agreement, there was a higher percentage of teachers outside of the merit pay pool than within it.

It amazes me that neither NPS nor NJDOE has done a serious analysis of the outcomes of the contract. Considering how so many were lauding how awesome this merit pay scheme was, you'd think they would be the first to show how it boosted student achievement. Any evaluation, however, would likely show that the $20 million promised to Newark's teachers never actually made it into their hands

It would be nice if a reporter bothered to ask about any of this.

* * * * *

- "Under One Newark, the city's charter schools are forced to accept their fair share of at-risk kids, unlike in most cities where no such safeguards exist." - Reformy Tom Moran, Star-Ledger.

We don't have enrollment figures for special education in charter schools following the first year of One Newark. We do, however, have enrollment for free lunch-elegible and Limited English Proficient (LEP) students. What do they show us? (Charter schools are red bars.)

11 charters are below the median in free lunch-eligible percentage; 7 are above. But take away the early childhood centers and the specialized high schools, and the picture becomes even more clear: the regular admission K-12 schools serving the smallest percentage of economically disadvantaged children in Newark are almost all charter schools.

According to data released by NPS, North Star Academy was the most popular school under the One Newark application system. Yet of all schools that serve children under Grade 8, North Star serves one of the lowest percentages of free lunch-eligible students. How, then, can Moran make the claim that One Newark is forcing the charters to accept "their fair share of at-risk kids"? 

As for Limited English Proficient students:

Newark's charter schools are not educating any substantial number of LEP students. Period. 

Again, we'll see what the special education numbers turn out to be. But given the charters' track records, it's certain that the children with the most profound learning difficulties will not be educated in the charter schools. Moran simply has no evidence to back up his claim that One Newark has forced charters to take more at-risk students.

* * * * *

- "On Monday, Ms. Anderson said she was proud of her accomplishments, including negotiating a teacher contract with merit pay and improving student discipline to cut suspension rates." - Leslie Brody, Wall St. Journal.

I'll admit that this is a tough one to verify, because data is reported at the school level, and judging the entire district would require aggregating the data using weighted enrollments (don't ask). So I don't fault Brody or anyone else for not verifying this claim. I'll only point out this:

From my latest analysis of One Newark and its affect on the segregation of Newark's schools. The most "popular" charter schools under One Newark have high suspension rates and high percentages of black students; the most popular NPS schools have low suspension rates and low percentages of black students.

Does anyone else have a problem with this?

* * * * *

Again: we would certainly expect Cami Anderson to spin her claims of "success" on her way out the door. But that doesn't mean the press has to swallow them whole.

Too often, education writers credulously accept the claims of those in the "reform" industry who have the best PR staffs. But parroting propaganda is not very useful for creating good education policy. Anderson shouldn't be allowed to make her claims in the press without at least some basic fact-checking on the part of those who interview her.

Otherwise, it's not actual journalism, is it?

Reformy Tom Moran, doing what he does best.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

There Is No "Choice" For ALL Urban Parents

The charter school industry has always been very good at marketing its brand. And, like any sellers of a product, its most powerful marketing tool is customer testimonials: the glowing reviews of the parents who send their children to charters. Who could refute the word of any parent -- especially a person of color, raising children in a community with enormous economic challenges?

As I've said before, no one should ever blame a parent for enrolling their child in a charter school; any father or mother has do to what they believe is in the best interest of their child. 

But it is not at all out of bounds to listen carefully to a parent's praise of his child's charter school, then take his words to their logical conclusion. Which is why I'd urge you to follow the link and read this entire op-ed by Altorice Frazier, whose children attend KIPP's (aka TEAM Academy) Thrive Academy in Newark. Because Mr. Frazier is saying something very important -- but it's not necessarily the message the charter industry wants us to hear.

Here's an extended passage:
Every day, not just Father’s Day, is a moment of reflection for me. Without a father in my life, I have made many misguided steps that cost me a great deal in my life. Now, as a proud father, I know firsthand the impact I have on my children. It has been my mission in life to break the pattern that started with me. I know my involvement in their lives and the decisions I make for them is meaningful and powerful.
As a father of four, part of this is making sure they’re getting a quality education. We first began exploring Newark’s public charter schools because of a simple science question I posed to my daughter, who at the time was attending a district school in Newark and was supposedly a top student, receiving all A’s. I was shocked to find out, when asked at age 10, she was unable to name any of the planets in our solar system. I did some digging and found out that she was not learning any science or history because the district school she was attending did not have teachers that taught either of those subjects. Instead of providing my child with an education, this Newark school just simply took those classes and put substitute teacher in the class for the school year. Practically taking these subjects out of her curriculum and replaced them with straight A’s. In any suburb outside of Newark this would be unconscionable, but in the city where many parents are fighting these kinds of an uphill battles every day, it has become far too common.
Financially unable to move to a town like Maplewood or attend a private school, getting into a Newark public charter school was the only option to ensure that my kids received the education they deserve. We had no other choice and I am shattered by the idea that those with their own political and financial agendas are now trying to enforce their value systems on my family.
If we were to believe the critics of public charter schools, I would be singled out as a parent misinformed and misled by charter schools. I am not a parent misinformed, misled, or hoodwinked. I am a parent who supports schools that will provide my children with a quality education. 
From their experience at KIPP New Jersey’s Thrive Academy, my kids have received social and emotional development and a high level of critical thinking. Now one of my kids is college-bound, and my two twins are now tracking to attend college -- something the great majority of students in a Newark district school can’t say. 
I understand the political realities. There are some who do not live in Newark and do not truly understand the issue. There are others who are waging this battle against me and my kids, defending the status quo at all cost, because they have a personal and direct financial gain.
But what should not be lost on any of us is that there actually is no “charter vs. public school” debate in New Jersey. For the vast majority of parents, like me, public charter schools have become mainstream and the needed solution.
So let's break this down:

- Mr. Frazier's personal story is obviously compelling. He sees how critical it is to "break the pattern" for his children. What would he do, then, if money was no object?

Move to a more affluent town like Maplewood, where the schools would look like this:

Newark's schools are about 8% white; South Orange-Maplewood's are about 50% (making it one of the few racially integrated districts in the state). 20% of SO-M's students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch; compare that to 81% for Newark. And Maplewood barely has any students who are Limited English Proficient (LEP).

What Frazier is implying in putting forward the idea that he would move if he had the money is that his children's peers matter. South Orange-Maplewood is a fine district with excellent teachers (I know, I used to teach there). But it also serves a fundamentally different student population than the Newark Public Schools.

So let's look now at how KIPP's TEAM Academy stacks up against NPS:

Let's be very clear: the differences in student populations between urban public schools and urban charters is only a fraction of the difference between urban and suburban public schools. Still, there is a substantial difference between urban public schools and their neighboring charters. As I explained in my charter report last year, that difference in reduced-price lunch populations actually explains quite a bit of the variation in test-based outcomes.

Reduced-lunch students are certainly in economic disadvantage (130%-185% of the poverty line), but not nearly as much as free-lunch students (less than 130%).

I'm going to state this again because it's so important: no one should ever pretend that the differences in student populations between the suburbs and the cities is equivalent to the differences between the urban public schools and the charters. But there are substantial and meaningful differences between charter school populations and urban public school populations.

And that includes which schools educate special needs students:

Again: charter schools do not serve the same students as urban public schools. But the differences don't always show up in the data...

- One of the most compelling books I've read this past year is Public Housing and School Choice in a Gentrified City by Molly Vollman Makris. In her exploration of Hoboken's segregated charter schools, Makris presents some of the best evidence I've seen to date that shows parents who choose charter schools use their social capital to get their children into schools with other students whose families share their values and means.

Granted, Hoboken is an extreme case. But Makris's work parallels other studies that show charters tend to attract parents who, like Frazier, are more involved in their children's education. Makris makes the case -- and I agree with her -- that charters have something to teach public schools about how to get parents more involved in their children's schools.*

But doesn't it make sense that a "choice" system would lead to schools where students and families had similar values? Shouldn't we expect the students and families who apply to TEAM/KIPP to be different from those who do not?

There is much we still don't know about One Newark, the city's universal enrollment system. But my initial study of the enrollments released publicly shows that the more segregated schools in Newark tended to be the more popular schools under One Newark. This suggests that the families who choose charter schools are, in some way that does not show up in the data, different from the families who do not. For whatever reason, they see their preferred charter as a better "fit" for their student. OK...

What about those parents whose children don't "fit" into a charter school?

- In many cases, they pull their children out of the charter. Advocates do all kinds of statistical flips and twists to deny it, but a core feature of a "choice" system of schools is student attrition. TEAM/KIPP's attrition isn't nearly as large as other "high performing" charters in Newark, but a significant number of their students do leave their schools each year, even as their test scores rise.

This is further evidence that charters do not serve the same children as their hosting public districts. The children who are leaving charters like TEAM/KIPP and North Star are likely not a good "fit" with those schools.

- I want to pause here, because this is the part of the argument where charter school advocates always get indignant. Once again: the differences in student populations between urban and suburban schools is far greater than that between urban public and charter schools. When people move to the suburbs, they are moving into towns where families possess similar amounts of social and financial capital. Test-based outcomes are largely a reflection of this difference, and not of school "effectiveness."

Since that is the case, no suburban parent should ever wag their finger at an urban charter school parent who looks to gain this same advantage for their child. I would never fault Altorice Frazier or any other charter school parent for enrolling their child in a KIPP school if they have the opportunity.

No, my issue has always been with the charter cheerleaders: those who wave their pom-poms for "choice," without fully acknowledging the implications of their advocacy. For example:

- "Successful" charter schools often enjoy a resource advantage over their hosting districts, and that advantage often has pernicious effects for urban public schools. Let's go back to Frazier's op-ed:
I did some digging and found out that she was not learning any science or history because the district school she was attending did not have teachers that taught either of those subjects. Instead of providing my child with an education, this Newark school just simply took those classes and put substitute teacher in the class for the school year. Practically taking these subjects out of her curriculum and replaced them with straight A’s. In any suburb outside of Newark this would be unconscionable, but in the city where many parents are fighting these kinds of an uphill battles every day, it has become far too common. [emphasis mine]
No science or history teachers? That's odd: I thought Newark had too many teachers and needed to cut back staff...

The amount of money NPS has had to pay the charter schools has doubled in just four years to $226 million. Meanwhile, the cumulative gap in adequacy funding - the difference between what the state's own law says Newark should get and what it actually does, has grown to over $350 million. The gap next year for NPS under Chris Christie's proposed budget will be about $178 million.

As I've shown, funding gaps lead to fewer music, art, PE, and other "specialist" teachers, as well as a decline in staff to teach foreign language and school nurses. Support staff has been decimated in NPS, including attendance counselors. Making things worse is the incessant focus on language arts and math, the two "tested" subjects that NPS uses to determine (wrongly) if a school is "failing" or not.

But even as NPS is being bled dry, there always seems to be plenty of money for the charter schools. Christie is pushing a plan for charter funding to be "held harmless," meaning NPS will have to find yet another $25 million for the charters. The charter industry also got plenty of the Zuckerberg money, as well as special financing the public schools can't access: TEAM Academy alone got $138 million in financing from federal bonds unavailable to NPS.

Further, contrary to the views of the ignorant, TEAM/KIPP racks up a very large amount of philanthropic giving; look at their tax forms if you doubt it (more on this later this summer).

I don't blame Frazier for being concerned about the narrowing of the curriculum and the lack of resources, including adequate staff, in NPS schools. I don't fault him for moving his children to a schools that is well-resourced. But let's not pretend for a second that NPS is on a level playing field with TEAM/KIPP when it comes to finances, especially since NPS is educating many more special needs and LEP children who need extra funding for an adequate education.

And when we take this funding difference and student characteristic difference into account...

- There is no evidence that, when accounting for differences in student populations and resources, Newark's charter schools are any more effective than its public schools. Here's Bruce Baker:**
These final two graphs rank charter schools statewide by their performance on growth measures, given their resources, students, enrollment size and grade range. Figure 6 shows the 2013 ranking and Figure 7 shows the 2012 ranking. Both charts are sorted from lowest (average across both tests) to highest growth against expectations.
Figure 6 shows that Freedom Academy, Discovery Charter School and Camden’s promise had the greatest achievement growth given their resources, students, enrollment size and grade range and Union County TEAMS, Sussex County CS for TEC and East Orange CS had the lowest growth against expectations. In 2012, Discovery and Camden’s promise also did very well.
But other more “talked about” charters fall within or closer to the average mix of schools. Specifically, large and long running charter operators in Newark, include TEAM academy, whose performance is consistently around average (slightly above or slightly below). North Star Academy is consistently slightly to modestly above average, while Robert Treat Academy is more consistently below average on the student growth measures adjusted for resources, students, enrollment size and grade range. [emphasis mine]
TEAM/KIPP is a decent school. But when you take away its advantage in resources and student population characteristics, you will find it is actually quite average. Which, unfortunately, is the real takeaway in all this.

Altorice Frazier wants the best for his children. But the State of New Jersey has only given him two choices:

1) Intensely segregated public schools that are inadequately funded and not subject to democratic control.

2) Better funded charter schools that are only available to some students, do not serve as many special needs or LEP students, and do not accord parents or students the same rights as public schools. In addition, when accounting for resource and student population differences, these charter schools do not perform appreciably better than prediction.

Mr. Frazier says that the if state of Newark's public schools existed in "...any suburb outside of Newark this would be unconscionable..." He's absolutely right: no suburb would ever stand for the "choices" Newark's families are being offered today. Suburban parents would demand that, before any system of "choice" was foisted on them, their public schools would be well-funded and subject to local control. In fact, several years ago, they did demand this, and the state backed off on its plans to bring boutique charters to the leafy 'burbs over the objections of local school boards.

The reason the state pulled back was obvious: the suburbs are Chris Christie's political base. Not so Mr. Frazier's town of Newark, or Camden or Paterson or Jersey City or Trenton or any of the other cities that are subject to varying forms of state control -- the same cities where the state has imposed charter schools with no local input or accountability.

I congratulate Mr. Frazier on his children's successes. I am happy for him that his children are enrolled in a school that works for his family. But we all have an obligation to step back and see the larger picture. KIPP admits it has no interest in fully taking over an urban district. Chris Cerf, the man who will soon lead NPS, admits that charter schools can't be the sole answer for the problems with urban schools. 

What happens to those, then, who do not enroll their children in charter schools? Where is their advocate? Who is willing to write op-eds in the New Jersey media on their behalf? Where are the large grants from the Walton Family Foundation and other plutocrats to improve education for them?

Altorice Frazier may not have much of a "choice." But those parents have no choice at all.

Local control of New Jersey schools: it's a white people thing.

* This raises an important question: how can any district not under democratic control expect its citizens, including parents, to be involved in supporting its schools? Isn't the first step in getting parents engaged in their children's schools giving them a say in how those schools should be run?

** As always: Bruce is my advisor in the PhD program in Education Policy at Rutgers.