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

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Derrell Bradford Takes Manhattan!

Hey, New York! Yeah, I'm talking to you! You and me, we got a beef:

See, you guys are always shipping your reformy types across the Hudson to us here in New Jersey and, frankly, we're all sick of it. We're up to our necks in these corporate education reformers, with their "no excuses" and "think-tanky research" and Joel Klein-enhanced resumes.

ChrisCamiPaymonJanine. They've infested the NJDOE and the school district central offices and the lobbying outfits and the press. Their op-eds are plastered all over the newspapers; their policies have warped the minds of too many gullible legislators and school board members. They're opening charters and selling us unproven software and testing our kids like maniacs. And they just keep coming...

Well, it's time for a little payback, Jersey-style!
New York, NY. –Derrell Bradford has been named executive director for NYCAN: The New York Campaign for Achievement Now. Derrell has spent more than a decade on the front lines of the education reform movement and has emerged as a leading voice on the issues, from his work leading E3 (Excellent Education for Everyone) and Better Education for Kids (B4K) to his appearances on local and national television and his writings on educational improvement, choice and policy change.
“I’m delighted and grateful to have the opportunity to support the work of so many people doing great things for children in New York City and New York State,” said NYCAN Executive Director Derrell Bradford. “I spent fourteen years of my life living in New York, and look forward to driving change there in a way that continues what I have learned and done working in New Jersey and in other states across the country.” [emphasis mine]
Derrell Bradford is leaving New Jersey. I think a little part of me just died inside...

Folks, I've never met Derrell - but we go way back. I believe I was pretty much the first moderately well-known voice in New Jersey to point out that Chris Christie's appointment of Bradford to the now-infamous Educator Effectiveness Task Force made the entire enterprise a joke. Bradford has never been an educator, holds no degrees in any relevant field, and came into education lobbying having been a nightlife magazine editor.

I'll always remember the night when the invaluable @stopthefreezeNJ (a fellow NJ teacher) and I tried to get Bradford to give us one good reason why he should have been on that task force:

Dyrnwyn Derrell Bradford
@jerseyjazzman never said that. Been working in Ed policy in NJ for almost a decade. Work with state and usdoe often. I am just not a tchr

jerseyjazzman Jersey Jazzman
@Dyrnwyn "Working in ed policy" could mean anything. Why should I, a working teacher with more than a decade actually teaching, trust you?

Dyrnwyn Derrell Bradford
@jerseyjazzman but tore asking why I was picked. Like unsaid. You'd have to ask the Gov.

jerseyjazzman Jersey Jazzman
@Dyrnwyn I'm not asking why you were picked - I'm asking why you are qualified to set policy. You have no practical or theoretical exp.

It went on that way for way too long. The truth is there was no answer: Derrell Bradford is as unqualified a man as you could possibly find to sit on a panel in charge of overhauling teacher evaluation. He knew it and we knew it: there was nothing to debate.

Bradford's sole experience in anything remotely having to do with education was working at the now-a-ghost-of-its-former-self voucher lobbying shop, Excellent Education for Everyone, or E3: first as a director of communications, and then as Executive Director. E3's mission was to bring "choice" in the form of opportunity scholarships vouchers to New Jersey's urban children.

Bradford is always happy to use his personal story to sell the idea of "choice": he claims he just wants for every child what he himself had. What he fails to acknowledge is that he went to an extremely expensive and elite private school (not that there's anything wrong with that) that spends twice per pupil what the local public schools spend. Yet he questions whether New Jersey schools spend too much on "bells and whistles," and the opportunity scholarships vouchers he promoted wouldn't have come close to providing children with the "hoity-toity" (his words) education he enjoyed. Derrell Bradford's "personal story" has nothing to do with his preferred policies.

It is a testament to Bradford's "effectiveness" as an advocate that after his nearly a decade of service at E3, the Opportunity Scholarship Act has disappeared from Christie's policy agenda and isn't being discussed seriously by anyone. But I guess we can't blame Derrell entirely: it was always a bad idea, designed solely to court a very specific constituency and impractical as a large-scale "reform" (it's worth noting that when it came time to move up the food chain, Bradford was happy to curb any passion he had toward vouchers).

Bradford's service on the task force produced a disaster of a report, which led to a disaster of a teacher evaluation scheme (AchieveNJ, aka Operation Hindenburg). But it also opened up new possibilities in reformy advocacy -- for Bradford, that is. When the Christie administration needed someone to serve on the secret charter school review panels of 2010, they called Bradford. When they needed someone to take a cheap swipe at then-NJEA President Barbara Keshishian, they called Bradford:

I go up against the president of the teachers union in New Jersey all the time, right? She's got a bad haircut and terrible fashion, right?
Golly, how hilarious. And don't you also love the glib way Derrell dismisses the idea that people who work in schools and/or study them might have more expertise than he does? I mean, he's watched Dangerous Minds! HAHAHA!

It was on the basis of stunts like this that Derrell reeled in his biggest fishes yet: two hedge fund managers with millions to blow and a hankering to enter the world of education reform, just like all the Wall Street big shots over in Manhattan. David Tepper and Alan Fournier set up Bradford with his own lobbying shop: Better Education For Kids, or B4K (What is it with the mixing of letters and numbers? You might have missed it, but it's not the '90s anymore...).

For pundits like Tom Moran, the thought of a counterweight to the evil teachers unions was the stuff of dreams...

Yes, that really is supposed to be a lean, mean David Tepper, fighting off a gorilla in a red Speedo and boxing gloves embroidered with the initials "NJEA." And Tom's sucking up in print was actually worse than this cartoon.

And so began the Age of B4K, a truly nutty time in New Jersey's education history. Highlights include:

 - The tenure overhall law, TEACHNJ. B4K loves to claim they had a role in its creation: the truth is the final law was nothing like what they had proposed. They had no authority in the debate, and were pretty much ignored, if we judge the results.

- The "partnership" with Michelle Rhee's StudentsFirst (intercaps -- seriously, what's the deal with the names?), which was going to shift the NJ Legislature to reforminess but instead led to the groups spending an obscene amount of money to keep one real teacher out of the Assembly.

- But that's been par for the course. Fournier put a ridiculous amount of money into the Perth Amboy school board race, and managed to get only one seat out of the deal. These guys throw around a lot of dough, but ultimately it doesn't get them very much, does it?

- Why did Founier care about Perth Amboy? The explanation goes back to B4K's truly bizarre defense of Janine Caffrey, the beleaguered former superintendent and New Jersey's deposed Queen of Tenure. B4K rushed to put out a public relations campaign for her when her job was at stake. Unfortunately, they put her in a compromised position that ultimately did her no favors.

- When Caffrey was finally dismissed, B4K -- in what I have described as the most cynical thing I've seen in my four-plus year of blogging -- pulled money for a vaunted literacy program in her former district. And yet B4K and its sugar daddies had plenty of money to dump into Jersey City politics. So much for "it's all about the kids..."

Allow me to get a little personal here. Because all this time, I was one of the few voices out there who was calling attention to all this. We hadn't yet seen the explosion of bloggers and social media voices standing up for education in New Jersey we're witnessing now (which is, by the way, a beautiful thing). There was just me and a few others in the blogosphere: Darcie, @stopthefreezenj, Blue Jersey, SOSNJ, and not much else*.

But here's the funny thing: even though I was just a loudmouth teacher-blogger with no connections, no clout, and no funding source, I became something of an obsession for B4K. They banned any mention of me on their Facebook page:

What's really weird is that they then wrote an entire piece on their website trying to rebut my critique of their analysis of education data to show New Jersey's outstanding public schools weren't really all that great. Their rebuttal was amateurish and ill-informed, but that's not what really struck me as cra-cra.

No, the true wackiness was that Bradford and B4K were absolutely determined to sell us teachers all an idea that they were angels from on high, come to save us from our own baser instincts:
"The one really important difference is that the people we represent are the kids and the families," said Derrell Bradford, executive director of the policy arm of the group [B4K]. "I know everybody says it's all about that. We have no financial interest in public education, at all. Every other group does. I don't say that in a way that's meant to disparage anyone. We can be about pure activism because we don't have anything to gain from the success of the agenda other than that kids get better educational opportunities." 
B4K's founders are two hedge-fund managers: David Tepper, a Democrat, and Alan Fournier, a Republican. Neither had been deeply involved in education policy issues before they started the organization this year. [emphasis mine]
"I don't say that in a way that's meant to disparage anyone." I mean, how is any teacher supposed to take that? Derrell Bradford, pulling down more change than any New Jersey teacher could dream of, is somehow more pure of heart than the people who are actually in the schools every day doing the job?! Does he really believe this?

As part of research for my master’s degree, I interviewed [XX], whom I had gotten to “know” over Facebook. XX leads a local branch of StudentsFirst, funded by David Tepper and Allen Fournier, the billionaire hedge fund boys. By his own admission, XX fell into ed reform when he was unemployed. 

He’s not in this because of any deep abiding conviction to make schools better (though he may have developed an interest). He’s in this because he needed a job, is a private-school educated African American who speaks well and now controls a SuperPAC. It’s a chess game for him, and is quite addictive. He hangs out with Rhee and has addressed ALEC on several occasions.

He said two interesting things to me in our meeting. “I’m here because you’re not.” Translation – if the education establishment had taken on the issues, or at least been less complacent about messaging (the REAL problem in my opinion) there’d be no market for the “reforms.”  The second thing he said was, and I’m paraphrasing here, “Reform 1.0 was school choice. Reform 2.0 was tenure (for NJ). Reform 3.0 is we have a SuperPAC – we can elect candidates.

As I said, he’s developed an interest in education but he’s hanging with the wrong guys, and i told him as much. His real interest is in the chess game of politics, which is fascinating, especially when you have the resources to play for real. [emphasis mine]
This is from one of Diane Ravitch's readers, who contacted me after this post was published and confirmed it was all accurate. And there's not a shred of doubt who [XX] is.

"OK, look", you might say. "That's one quote from a second-hand source. You can't really believe that Derrell thinks this movement is about himself and not about the 'reforms' he is advocating for!"

But it's not just me saying it, or the author above: it's Bradford himself.

This is from Bradford's speech which is excerpted in the video above (Interestingly, the original source of the video is no longer available to the public. But don't fret: copies exist). "Growing your movement is about advancing the people that advance the reforms, not the reforms themselves." 

It's a quote for the ages: a perfect encapsulation of the spirit of reforminess. They are superior people, so if it's all about them, that's just fine. Those of us who show up at school every day to teach kids might be plain, simple folk, but we're compromised by our desire to be treated like professionals, earn a decent middle-class wage, see the government keep its promises to us, and have a say in how public schools are run. Obviously those are all desires that run counter to the interests of children (oy).

Folks like Derrell Bradford, however, are unencumbered by such unimportant things as experience, training, or education. He has, after all, seen Dangerous Minds. HAHAHA!

I doubt very much this will be the last mention of this man on this blog: the Empire State is just an EZPass charge away. But I have to admit: New Jersey education policy just won't be the same without Derrell Bradford around.

He's all yours, New York. Good luck.

* I don't put Bruce Baker in this group because that's not what he does; people who think he belongs with us have obviously never read him.

Also: if I left you out of this list, don't take it as a slight - I just forgot. Email me and I'll fix it.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Two Questions For Arne Duncan

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave an interview to Andrea Mitchell this past week that once again attempts to shift the blame for America's inequitable education outcomes on to everything and anything except the most obvious thing:

Yeah, sure, that's the problem: the schools of education. I mean, what else could possibly explain this:

Obviously, the difference in student outcomes between affluent districts and poverty stricken districts is that the teachers in the poor districts had more education history and philosophy courses in their undergraduate preparation. Makes perfect sense...

[Bangs head on keyboard repeatedly...]

Jersey Jazzman (artists's conception)

Bruce Baker has more on Duncan's incoherence. I'd just like to add two questions to the SecEd and his e-school hatin' acolytes:

1) Where is there any evidence that getting rid of education history and philosophy and developmental psychology courses and replacing them with more clinical practice leads to better teacher preparation? From the National Academies of Sciences, 2010:
Yet however they are designated, teacher preparation programs are extremely diverse along almost any dimension of interest: the selectivity of programs, the quantity and content of what they require, and the duration and timing of coursework and fieldwork. Any pathway is likely to entail tradeoffs among selectivity, the intensity of the training, and the obstacles it presents to teacher candidates. More selective pathways, and those that require greater effort and time to complete, may have the disadvantage of yielding fewer teachers to fill vacancies, for example, but the teachers they do produce may be more highly qualified. 
There is some research that suggests that there are differences in the characteristics of teacher candidates who are attracted to different pathways and types of programs. There is also some research comparing the outcomes for graduates of different kinds of programs. However, the distinctions among pathways and programs are not clear-cut and there is more variation within the “traditional” and “alternative” categories than there is between these categories. We found no evidence that any one pathway into teaching is the best way to attract and prepare desirable candidates and guide them into the teaching force. This finding does not mean that the characteristics of pathways do not matter; rather, it suggests that research on the sources of the variation in preparation, such as selectivity, timing, and specific components and characteristics, is needed. 
There has been an extraordinary amount of work, from a variety of fields, on questions about the factors that influence the effectiveness of teaching, but this work is only a starting point. There is little firm empirical evidence to support conclusions about the effectiveness of specific ap- proaches to teacher preparation. However, we found no reason to question the recommendations professional societies have made about what is important for teachers to know. Moreover, those recommendations integrate well with the relatively small body of empirical work. The research base is strongest for reading and least strong for science, and our conclusions about preparation in the three fields reflect these differences. [emphasis mine]
I must say that I continue to be astonished at the authority Secretary Duncan accrues to himself on topics about which experts themselves admit they actually know very little. The truth is that we just don't know if substituting more clinical practice for fewer theory courses is a good strategy for making more effective teachers. My suspicion is that Duncan wants this to be so, because he himself is remarkably ignorant about education theory: after all, if he don't need no high-falutin' book learnin' 'bout teaching, why should anyone else?

My personal view is that coursework in the theory, history, and philosophy of education, along with coursework in research methods and developmental psychology, is absolutely invaluable for a practitioner. I can't tell you how many times I have found myself dealing with classroom situations where I relied on things I learned in my master degree courses. Of course, I went to a high-quality program at a state university (University of Central Florida) that sought to find a balance between clinical experiences and theoretical instruction. I understand that this is considered rather passe in the Teach For America world we now live in, but I've not seen any evidence that all the courses I took with scholars in the field were really just a big waste of my time.

2) Where's my money? Over and over, I've heard the SecEd say that I deserve to be paid more. Hey, you'll get no argument from me... so where the hell is my check?

There has never been a serious proposal put forth by the Obama administration to raise teacher pay. They've never said how they would pay for it, they've never said how much more it should be, they've never said how it should be disbursed. And yet Duncan falls back on this bromide as if it will shield him from the fact that he has shown little if any respect for practitioners (the most egregious example being how he acquiesced to locking teachers out of the development of the Common Core (great work, as always, from Anthony Cody)).

I am getting sick and tired of Duncan making me and my fellow teachers a promise he has no intention of keeping. Unless and until he develops a serious proposal to increase teacher compensation, his talk about raising pay is little more than a cheap political ploy.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Arne Duncan is a lousy Secretary of Education. He's probably the worst appointment President Obama has made. He has no business making education policy for this nation, as he is unqualified, incoherent, and has no track record of success. That Obama appointed his basketball buddy over the extraordinarily well-qualified Linda Darling-Hammond speaks volumes about how little the president really cares about education policy.

Stick with what you're good at, I say.

Our Secretary of Education in his natural habitat.

ADDING: More from Bruce on Duncan's nonsense (better sit down for this one: the professor is in rare form!). 

It is not at all a stretch to say Duncan is Obama's greatest embarrassment.

ADDING MORE: Sherman Dorn weighs in:
Do historians and philosophers of education dominate teacher ed curriculum? Don’t take my word for it: you can look at the catalog description for undergraduate elementary education majors in a large public university near you (or minors, where there is no education major). Here are a few: University of South Florida-Tampa (my current institution–that PDF is for all undergraduate programs in our college), Arizona State University (where I’ll start working in July, and which Duncan praised in his press conference Friday), and to pick on a state at random… the University of MichiganMichigan State UniversityEastern MichiganWestern Michigan, and Central Michigan (For Central Michigan the PDF of the entire 2013-14 catalog). In six of those seven colleges of education, the apparently dominating theory courses comprise six or seven hours from a 120-hour program, split between educational psychology and a course lumping together all humanities and social-science perspectives on education. In no case is there an undergraduate course required for teachers that is devoted entirely to the history of education or the philosophy of education. [emphasis mine]
You know, maybe Duncan could cool out with the celebrity basketball games and cable TV interviews and maybe, you know, do a little research on the topics on which he opines?

Just a thought...

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Cami Anderson's Rusty Knife

Newark's state-appointed superintendent, Cami Anderson, is so hard at work fighting against "adult interests" that she doesn't have time to attend public meetings of her elected school board. She doesn't even have time to explain herself to the NJ Legislature.

But she apparently does have time to hobnob with a bunch of edupreneurs for a few days in the warm Arizona sun. Speakers at the ASU-GSV convention include Reed Hastings of Netflix, Norm Atkins of the uncommonly segregating Uncommon Schools, the nearly-as-illiterate-as-his-brother Jeb! Bush, and Former Acting NJDOE Commissioner Chris Cerf, who has left his position for a job in the private sector selling cheap tablets that may or may not melt depending on the day.

Anderson sat on a panel at this little confab, and I have to tell you: she looks more relaxed than she's looked in quite some time. Who could blame her? This was a room full of affluent, connected, self-congratulatory "winners" in the capitalist game. They have nothing to complain about: they all have elite educations and plenty of social capital and exciting careers and health insurance and their kids all go to schools where they learn to socially reproduce their parents' status. Talk about an easy crowd.

Unlike those people in Newark. They are just so... well, you know...

"My sister is a surgeon, a trauma surgeon, a general surgeon, who cuts people open, and...when she is in the operating room, with literally someone's life in her hands, she does not have a bunch of people in the second row voting on whether or not she should to close or keep going. She does not have someone in the third row telling her that she must use the rusty scalpel because someone's cousin had the contract for a decade and knows the most vocal politician in town. She does not have the five loudest people who are anti-everything, shouting and banging on the door about the color of her hair or skin or where she went to school or not."
"The five loudest people." You mean like the seventy-seven local pastors and religious leaders who've implored Anderson to stop her One Newark plan? Or the elected school advisory board, the elected city council, the students, the teachers, and the parents?

Are those the "five loudest people" who have a problem with One Newark, State Superintendent Anderson?

Peter Green gets this exactly right:
Cami, Cami, Cami. Here are the two biggest ways your metaphor is not quite what you had in mind.

First, your sister the surgeon is a trained professional. She has years of training, years of practice, years of learning her craft so that she has a level of expertise that earns her the right to that empowerment. She did not get that empowerment just because she is somehow an inately superior human being.

I guarantee you that she did not get her surgery licensure after five weeks of training, and she didn't get the job in the hospital because of political strings. Well, actually, I don't know that-- but I'm betting it's true. You, on the other hand, have no training, no experience, and no qualification [some more on this - JJ]. So in the metaphor, you are not a highly trained surgeon, but a woman whose political connections somehow got her the right to stand in an OR holding a scalpel that you know nothing about using.

Second, your sister the surgeon could not operate until she had the consent of the patient and his family. Even trauma surgeons do not just walk up to someone on the street, announce, "You need surgery," knock them unconscious, and proceed to operate. Doctors must get the consent of the patients (kind of like civil authority flows from the consent of the governed).

Before she could set foot in that operating room, she had to convince people that she had a plan, that the plan was good, and that they should agree to it.
Amen. But allow me to extend this a little further:

Let's say I had the great misfortune to be hit by a bus, and they rush me to Cami's sister's emergency room. I'm passed out, the blood is gushing everywhere, and it's clear that my leg has to be amputated to save my life.

Suppose, for whatever reason, Cami's sister pulls out a rusty scalpel and starts to hack away at my good leg.

If I were ever in that position, I would hope and pray that someone -- anyone -- had the courage to stand up and scream at her to stop. I would hope someone would do all that they could to make sure that Cami's sister didn't make things worse. I would hope the other doctors and nurses and staff and people in the "second and third rows" would demand that Cami's sister drop the blade before further damage was done.

It is clear at this point that One Newark is an ill-conceived plan that has little if any empirical evidence to support it. Bruce Baker and I have now written three reports -- here, here, and here -- detailing One Newark's many flaws. The one time Anderson's administration tried to rebut us, we showed -- definitively, in my opinion -- that they do not have a case: they made amateur mistakes in their analysis that are, frankly, not forgivable for an undergraduate.

And the flaws in One Newark continue to pile up. It's clear the district has not worked out the logistics of transporting thousands of students all over the city, nor for paying to move them across town and away from their neighborhood schools (does this, by the way, sound like an environmentally friendly idea?). It's clear that the divestment of public property has not been properly vetted so as to protect the interests of Newark's and New Jersey's taxpayers. It's clear the district is setting itself up for a major lawsuit when the teachers union forces it to justify an unjustifiable teacher evaluation scheme.

Cami Anderson is getting ready to plunge a big, rusty knife into the heart of Newark. People don't just have a right to stand up and tell her to stop -- they have a duty to do so. And if she can't live with that, I hear Joel Klein is hiring his old underlings...

One Newark (artist's conception)

Friday, April 25, 2014

Corporate Education Reform Buys Public Broadcasting - Again

A couple of months ago, David Sirota broke the story of how PBS took money from plutocrat John Arnold to push a story touting a non-existent pension crisis. I'll admit that since then my radar has been more finely tuned to corporate-friendly frameworks when watching PBS or listening to NPR.

So, as I was sitting at the kitchen table this evening, my ears perked up at the 5:30 break for WNYC, the NPR outlet here in the greater New York area. The announcer let us know that All Things Considered was proudly sponsored by the Walton Family Foundation, which was supporting (I'm paraphrasing here) educational "choice" for families.

The Walton fortune, of course, was amassed on the backs of workers who have been systemically exploited and denied the opportunity to organize. The Walton Family Foundation takes a small amount of Sam's brood's lucre -- which, considering the pile they're sitting on, is actually a fortune -- and uses it to attack teachers unions while simultaneously promoting an anti-democratic reformy agenda that has no evidence to support it.

Keep that in mind as I describe the story that aired about ten minutes after the Walton's sponsorship tag.

You see, our reformy Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has decided to pull Washington State's waiver for the federal No Child Left Behind law. Why has our incoherent SecEd decided to punish Washington State? Because the legislature dared to refuse to acquiesce to his demand to include test scores in teacher evaluations.

You can listen to Martin Kaste's story for NPR here -- or you can can read his entry at NPR's blog:
Washington has become the first state to have its "No Child Left Behind" waiver revoked by the Obama administration. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan notified the state of his decision today, which will restrict Washington's flexibility in spending federal education dollars. 
It sounds bureaucratic, but it's an important flare-up in a long-running war between teachers unions and the federal government over standardized testing — and whether students' scores should play a role in evaluating teachers. 
Washington, like every other state with a waiver, had promised to make that happen. But the Legislature balked, in part because of pressure from teachers, but also because of growing "test fatigue" among students and their parents. A standardized-test boycott at Seattle's Garfield High School made national headlines last year. 
In his letter, Duncan made it clear that test scores have to be part of the mix.
"Including student learning growth as a significant factor among the multiple of measures used to determine performance levels is important as an objective measure to differentiate among teachers and principals," he wrote. 
The Washington Education Association — the union — has responded by calling No Child Left Behind a "failed federal law," and it praised the state Legislature for rejecting "Duncan's inflexible and bureaucratic demands." [emphasis mine]
Catch that? See, the problem is the teachers unions. This is all about them asserting their massive power (snort!) over state legislatures. 

What's missing from this story -- and yes, from the radio report as well -- is any mention of the concerns of education researchers and statisticians in the using of test scores to evaluate teachers.

Just this month, the American Statistical Association issued what Diane Ravitch accurately describes as a "stinging statement," cautioning against the use of Value Added Models in teacher evaluation. In the post, Diane also points us to a policy brief issued jointly by the American Education Research Association and National Academy of Education:
With respect to value-added measures of student achievement tied to individual teachers, current research suggests that high-stakes, individual-level decisions, or comparisons across highly dissimilar schools or student populations, should be avoided. Valid interpretations require aggregate-level data and should ensure that background factors – including overall classroom composition – are as similar as possible across groups being compared. In general, such measures should be used only in a low-stakes fashion when they are part of an integrated analysis of what the teacher is doing and who is being taught. [emphasis mine]
You'd think an NPR report would mention this. You'd think that a joint statement by the preeminent education research assocation and the nation's recognized academy of education research would maybe interest a journalist trying to determine the efficacy of test-based teacher evaluation. You'd think maybe an NPR reporter would be curious to know whether there were maybe some valid objections to Duncan's preferred policies, especially since Duncan himself hold no degrees in education, was never a practitioner or a researcher, and left a trail of destruction behind him in Chicago.

You'd think.

When it comes to education, skip most of the corporate media (there are exceptions), and skip most of public broadcasting (there are exceptions). The anti-union, anti-public schools plutocrats have bought and paid for the media, and they are getting a fine return on their investment.
NPR approved!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Charter Schools: The New Battle of Trenton

So you guys have all seen this:

On Christmas Day, 1775, George Washington and his troops crossed the Delaware River, starting at what is known now as Upper Makefield, PA. The general led his forces south along the banks of the river, eventually sneaking up on the Hessians, the German mercenary troops of the British who were occupying Trenton. The Germans had been partying to celebrate the season, and weren't quite in their best fighting shape when George attacked. It was an important victory.

The reason I know this is that Upper Makefield is my hometown. Every year I would get dragged out by my parents on December 25th to watch our neighbors dress up like Continental Army soldiers and reenact Washington's crossing at the very same spot. 

I always suspected that my parents' friends who volunteered for this duty were celebrating the season before the reenactment in much the same way as the Hessians did. I say this because, year after year, the Durham boats used in the pageant would wind up taking extremely circuitous routes to the New Jersey side of the river, betraying a lack of naval coordination and river-faring acumen that was likely precipitated by the consumption of copious amounts of distilled beverages.

I could be wrong, of course. But I'm not...

There's a way-too-narrow bridge now where the crossing occurred (famously described in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five) whose pylons make for a few small islands in the otherwise landless expanse between the two shores of the Delaware. In my memory, the few years when the reenactors managed to accurately recreate Emmanuel Leutze's famous painting are offset by the many years when the boats would run aground against these man-made islands as the current swept the boats downriver.

Why am I telling you this? Well, friends, sometimes I have to give you more background than you deserve before I spring my latest, desperate, reformy metaphor on you:
TRENTON Just as the city’s school board closed a $10.5 million budget gap last month by cutting administrative staff — a gap that some board members blamed in part on charter schools — two more charter applicants submitted proposals to enter the district in 2015. 
The state Department of Education announced last week that it received applications from Rising Star Preparatory Charter School and ASPIRE Academy Charter School to open schools that could eventually attract 900-plus students from Trenton. 
If approved, they would be in addition to four existing charter schools — Foundation Academy Charter School, International Charter School of Trenton; Paul Robeson Charter School for the Humanities and Village Charter School — and two that have been approved to open this fall, STEM-to-Civics and International Academy of Trenton. 
While officials at the charters said that they anticipate the new schools will have a positive effect in the area because they will provide what they believe will be quality options for parents and students, a number of school board members have shown resistance to the growing charter market in Trenton. 
During school board and city council meetings, members of the board and the superintendent of the district, Francisco Duran, have laid much of the blame for the district’s $10.5 million budget deficit at the feet of the city’s charters. 
School Board President Sasa Olessi-Montano has said the charter movement in Trenton has only created chaos for the district’s budget process and for students.
Yes, the charter wars have come to Trenton. Thanks to Former Acting Commissioner of Education Chris Cerf and his former boss, formerly viable presidential candidate Chris Christie, New Jersey has seen a proliferation of charter school applications. Which means the school districts which are forced to host these charters have to come up with more money to fund more of them, often at the expense of their own programs and with no say in their governance.

You'll often hear the charter cheerleaders cry poverty, claiming that they don't get the money they really deserve. Conveniently, they neglect to mention two things: first, the public school districts usually have expenses on their books that can't be shared with charters, so the comparisons of per student spending aren't really relevant. Related to this are issues of economies of scale: for example, if you pull one hundred kids out of a public school district, you still have to light and heat the buildings where they would have gone to school.

Second -- and this is the one that the mandarins of the local press keep ignoring -- charter schools do not serve the same students as the public schools.

I'm guessing, between Bruce Baker and myself, we've now got over two dozen variations on this same graph, featuring schools and districts from all over the state... but sure, let's add one more. Here are the traditional public schools (TPSs) and charters in the Trenton area; the charters are in red. Once again, the charters do not serve the same population of free lunch-eligible students (a proxy measure for poverty) as most of the Trenton public schools.

How about special education students?

Still on the low end. Both of these comparisons need a few caveats: first, I'm mixing grade levels, which is tricky for both free lunch-eligibility and special education percentages, which can have a tendency to shift as grade levels move from elementary to secondary. Second, those special education percentages lump together kids who have mild needs (like speech therapy) with those who have severe impairments (like low-functioning autism or emotional disabilities). The tendency is for New Jersey's charters to take fewer (if any) of the children with more serious, more costly needs, but I don't know if that is the case in Trenton (more later, hopefully).

Finally: having a free lunch-eligible percentage of over 60 means having a lot of kids in poverty, even if the public schools have more. To illustrate, let's pull things back a little and look at all of Mercer County, the home of Trenton and quite possibly one of the most economically unequal areas in the entire United States.

I know some of you let your eyes glaze over when you see these scatterplots, but they really are good at getting to the heart of the matter. Let me break it down:

The vertical axis shows the proportion of students who passed the cutoff for "proficiency" on the Grade 8 NJASK language arts test in 2013. Yes, all of Princeton Charter School's eighth graders passed the test, as did the vast majority in Princeton, East Windsor, Robbinsville, and the other "outer" school districts (more on that in a sec). Of the three Trenton area charters for which we have data, only Foundation Academy had a proficiency rate over 70 percent.

So, can we replicate Foundation on a larger scale? Clearly, the answer is "no," because Foundation (and Village) have a substantially lower percentage of students who qualify for free lunch than the public schools of Trenton. We just can't make every school in Trenton have a lower-than-average poverty rate

As I've pointed out many times on this blog, peer effect is real and undoubtedly contributes substantially to Foundation's success. That's not say the school isn't doing good work and may have developed some best practices that are worth emulating; I'm only stating that there is very little evidence here that Foundation can be scaled up across all of Trenton.

Some of you might look at the variation in Trenton's public schools and see that while they all have the highest poverty rates in Mercer County, they also vary widely in their outcomes. So why can't all of Trenton's schools score at least as well as Village? Well, there are likely differences between these schools' populations that can't be reflected in the data, but wind up influencing test scores. And I'm not saying school differences don't matter; they almost certainly do, although we'd have to study this situation a lot more closely to figure out what those differences are (falling back on reformy bromides like "no excuses!" or "more class time" is not helpful in this regard).

What I'm saying is this: even if every Trenton school could emulate the results of its best schools with equivalent rates of poverty, those schools still wouldn't "close the gap" with low-poverty schools in the same county.

Which brings me to my final point (and back to my tortured metaphor):

Growing up across the river, I know Mercer County pretty well. You can think of it as three concentric semicircular rings growing out from the intersection of Route 1 and the Delaware. The first ring is Trenton itself. The second is from roughly the city line to the loop made made I-95/295: the "inner" suburbs of Ewing, Hamilton, and Lawrence. The final ring extends to the county border: Hopewell, Princeton, the Windsors, Robbinsville, etc.

This is a pattern you see in cities of all sizes all over the country: a poor urban core (with maybe some gentrifying), surrounded by working-class inner suburbs, surrounded by relatively wealthy exurbs. If you look at the scatter plot above, you'll see the free-lunch eligible percentage slide closer to zero the further out you go from the core of Trenton. And you'll see the proficiency rate slide closer to 100 percent as that free-lunch rate decreases.

This is the most obvious thing in the world: standardized test outcomes correlate very tightly with economic measures. I know all the reformy types love to claim this is "making excuses," but their protestations don't change the fact that this correlation exists, and that there is little debate the cause is poverty's effect on test-based outcomes. In Mercer County, almost 90 percent of the variation in 8th Grade proficiency rates can be explained by free-lunch eligibility rates. As the poverty rate goes down, the proficiency rate goes up, with a nearly perfect relationship. Only the willingly obtuse or the outright mendacious would ever try to deny this truth or what it is telling us: poverty matters.

But Mercer County shows us something else:

Look at the gap in free-lunch eligibility between the highest inner suburban schools and the lowest Trenton public schools: it's over 50 percentage points. Like the cold water that runs between the shores of the Delaware, this poverty gap between the 'burbs and the city only has a few small islands in between: Trenton's charter schools. The only schools in Trenton that have free-lunch rates low enough to even approach the suburban schools are charters.

What are we to make of this? Well, if we start with the acknowledgment that charter schools are privately managed and do not have to grant students, those students' families, or their teachers the same rights and commitments to transparency as public schools, we have to conclude that charters are offering an exchange: students in poor areas can gain a peer effect if their families are willing to give up the governance structure of public schools.

You'll notice that there is no such deal being offered in the outer exurbs: those kids get to enjoy their peer effects while their families get self-determination and democratic representation in the running of their school system. You'll also notice that even the most economically segregated school in Trenton can only compete with the inner, working-class suburbs. The "gap" in proficiency with the outer exurbs still exists. Some may say this is a triumph, but we have to be honest about its cost, and we have to be honest about its cause.

Because Foundation hasn't assembled its student population by mixing kids from the 'burbs with kids from Trenton; rather, it's culled a number of less-poor children with fewer special needs from Trenton's public schools and concentrated them. This is just not a scalable formula for achieving educational equity. There is no evidence here that we will be able to close the "achievement gap" by expanding charter schools when those schools have different populations than the public schools in poor urban areas.

One other thing: remember that lone charter in the upper left corner, with 100 percent proficiency and the smallest percentage of free lunch-eligible kids in the county? You can make a very good case that Princeton Charter School is, for all intents and purposes, a private school that is being subsidized by the taxpayers of Mercer County (Bruce Baker has, in fact, made just that case).

But imagine, instead, if PCS made a commitment to living in the Delaware Poverty Gap. Imagine a school -- maybe a network of schools -- that drew students from Trenton and the outer 'burbs, allowing students to enjoy peer effects without simply concentrating the less-poor Trenton students in a few stand alone schools. Imagine a series of schools that mixed affluent and less-affluent kids through Mercer County. What might happen?

I'd still argue that there was no need for a charter school structure to create schools like this. But there would at least be the justification that those charters had a possibility of being scalable. I don't see any way that continuing to expand charters in Trenton, populated only with Trenton's children, can ever get the district to a point where a significant number of students could be served in schools with low enough populations of less-affluent students such that they could really close the "achievement gap."

In other words: we can keep opening charters, or we can start trying to develop solutions that address the real problem. What's it going to be?

ADDING: Inter-district choice may be a good first step, but I still think it suffers from the same problem: it's just not scalable. I'll try to get to this at some point in the future.

ADDING MORE: Even more typos than usual. Thanks, Giuseppe.