Friday, December 23, 2016

Parents and Teachers, It's Time to Organize

Last month, at the NJEA Convention, Mark Weber delivered the plenary speech. You can read the whole speech here. He called for teachers to organize. Keep in mind this was before Betsy DeVos' nomination for US Secretary of Education (SecEd) and before Jeff Sessions' nomination for US Attorney General (USAG). 
"It is not an exaggeration to say that right now, public education hangs in the balance. Teacher workplace rights are in serious jeopardy. The ability of NJEA to protect the future of New Jersey’s outstanding public education system – by any measure, one of the finest in the world, in spite of this state’s recent abdication of its role to fully fund its schools – is under dire threat.
There is only one course to take: we must organize. We must stand strong, we must stand together, and we must refuse to give into desperation. Our families, our colleagues, and our students have always counted on us when they needed us the most – we must not now, nor ever, stop fighting for them or yes, that’s right, for ourselves."
Yes. Please. Teachers, especially those of you teach in sparkly districts, who have the best resources (comparatively), please start speaking up. If you feel like you can't do it in the district in which you teach, then do it in the one in which you live. 

If you don't already, come to just one State Board of Education meeting on open public testimony days (like the one coming up on January 4th). Or come to just one Assembly or Senate Education Committee meeting when there is a bill that directly affects you or your students. Yes, your state union is there, already speaking up, but I promise, just like with parents, our legislators need to hear directly from you. They do not get that kind of firsthand information from anyone.

Participate when your union asks. Make those phone calls. Write those letters. Numbers do matter. 

To those of you who don't like your union leadership, I urge you to have conversations with them. Tell them what you need from them. Offer to help. Get involved. Hold them accountable. No, you really don't have to agree on everything. If you don't fight back, there won't be a teaching profession. This is not a time to leave it to others. Yes, I know, this paragraph is terribly simplified. This is work. 

I know. It's difficult. It's also necessary. 

Parents, it's not just teachers who need to organize. I know how difficult it is to find the time to participate. I know how difficult it is to put yourself out there and sometimes have to say things that others do not want to hear or acknowledge. I know how easy it is to complain and not actually do anything. I know how easy it is to keep your head down. 

Fight that urge to only complain. Fight that urge to say, "Well, it's not directly affecting my children." Fight that urge to leave it to others. Fight that urge to look away when those who are standing up make you uncomfortable or aren't doing what you only imagine you would do. 

I know. It's difficult. It's also necessary.

Where to start? 

Look in the right-hand column of this blog. There is a list of education bloggers; some are parents, some are teachers, some are education scholars. All are advocates, dedicated to public education for all children. 

Attend your local and state board of education meetings. Go visit your state and federal representatives. Remember, they work for YOU. It doesn't matter if you belong to a different political party. They weren't elected to serve only constituents from their party. It's not that difficult to get appointments. If you can't do that, write a letter. Make a phone call. All of them have staff who work on the issues that are important to you, including education policy. Ask them what they are doing to protect public education for all students. 

It's ok if doing these things makes you uncomfortable. There are many of us who do these things all the time. And, the longer we do it, the more connections we make, and the better we get at it. It's ok if your voice shakes. What's most important is that you find your voice and use it. 

Edited to add: Jessica Smock wrote a piece for Scary Mommy What Outraged Parents Can Do To Defend Public Education After the Confirmation of Betsy Devos, referencing this blog post. Many thanks to Jessica. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

What Will Happen To Special Education?

Yet another reason to be concerned about Jeff Sessions as US Attorney General. Special Education. Back in 2000, when he was an Alabama state senator (formerly the state's attorney general), Sessions made an utterly ignorant, and now potentially dangerous, statement about special education and the federal law which guarantees the rights of students with disabilities, the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). You can read his whole statement here

It's difficult to pull quotes out of the text because the entire statement is so heinous. Yes, students with disabilities have rights. No, those rights, and those exercising those rights are not "a big factor in accelerating the decline in civility and discipline in classrooms all over America." The disqualifier at the beginning of that paragraph does not excuse the ridiculousness of the statement either. So glad to hear that he didn't want to end IDEA.

Sessions quotes parts of letters written to him by teachers who are frustrated by their students and what they described as problems with the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). While I am sure there are teachers who are frustrated by what they see in their schools, to blame students with disabilities for those frustrations is absurd. 

Sessions does give a nod to the lack of funding associated with IDEA. It has never been fully funded, nor has it come close to the goal of 40% funded. Ever. He should have been railing against a system that purposely defunds, or underfunds, education mandates, no matter whom they directly affect. To blame the students and IDEA is absurd. 

As I read through Sessions' statement and the statements by teachers, I saw what, in my opinion, is violation after violation of those students' rights. IDEA is not a permission slip for students to behave badly. It does not prevent "discipline." It does not require students to be mainstreamed with their neurotypical peers. 

What IDEA does do is requires states, and therefore school districts, to place students in a Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). It requires them to conduct Functional Behavior Analyses, using those results to create Behavior Plans for exactly the scenarios which are described in Sessions' statement. This is not rocket science. This appears to have been completely lost on every one of those teachers and their administrators and Sessions. It also appears to be lost on these people that wrong classroom settings, inappropriate placements, and lack of services contribute to inappropriate behavior - in any setting. 

Before someone piles on here, yes, there are students, unfortunately, who do act out and have no self-regulation or control. God bless the teachers and paras who teach and assist them. It is a reality. However, it should not be happening in a general education setting. LRE does not mean a general education, mainstreamed setting. LRE means providing the best environment for that student. It's a simple concept that is grossly misused. 

I was astonished at the claims that teachers are leaving the profession because of lawsuits brought by special education parents. The statement implies parents are going after teachers. That's not how the law works. It's absurd to state that as though it is fact. 

The last story is from a superintendent. He laments not being able to mete out similar discipline to two students who brought weapons to school. One student, with no disability, was given a 1-year suspension. The other student, with a disability and IEP, was placed for 45 days in an alternate school setting before returning to his regular school. 

I'm twitching as I write this because I cannot believe the rank stupidity of this decades-long educator. IDEA has an entire section dedicated to discipline (Sec. 300.530). In fact, there's even a section on weapons. He most certainly could have suspended that student with an IEP for 1-year, just like the first student. His own ignorance of the law made for the inequity. Further, it made his reference to Animal Farm ("All are equal, but some are more equal than others.") even more inappropriate. 

It also demonstrates that Sessions, as Alabama's former attorney general, either didn't know the law, or he knew and used this sorry excuse of a story to fortify his position that special education is ruining public education and teachers' careers. Shame on them both! 

Unbelievably, the superintendent continues with this ditty: "I became a teacher in 1965 and I do not remember hearing of gun shootings prior to 1975 when Congress began telling ten percent of our students you are not responsible." Gaslighting at its best, folks. When in doubt make an absurd claim, based on nothing, and blame it on the special ed kid. Disgusting. 

Sessions ended his abhorrent statement with this: "I think these teachers make a point. It is a matter we need to give careful consideration to, not overreact, not undermine the great principles of the Disabilities Act Program. But at the same time, we need to say that a child is not allowed to commit crimes, to disrupt classroom, to curse teachers, principals and students, and abuse them and do so with impunity."

Again, that is not what IDEA actually says. You'd think a state attorney general would know that. What will the enforcement of IDEA look like under a US Attorney General who doesn't know the law? Or, perhaps worse, one who does know the law and ignores it?

Edit to add: Valerie Strauss at The Washington Post republished part of this blog in her column Answer Sheet: Trump’s pick for attorney general once linked special education law to ‘decline in civility’ in classrooms. Thank you to Valerie!

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A Thank You To Teachers. I See You.

I wish parents could see their children's teachers outside of school. We've all been bathed in the "bad teacher" narrative for so long that when someone mentions a "bad teacher" we just do the head nod. Fortunately, for all of us, that narrative is largely false. Before someone sends me hate mail, of course there are people who should be doing something else, just as you find in any workplace. Understand, that "bad teacher" narrative has a specific purpose...but that's for another blog post. I want to talk about teachers today.

I'm very lucky to know a lot of teachers through my activism. I have very deep respect for them, because not only do they care very deeply about their students and profession, they are also willing to fight like mad to make sure public education is there for everyone's children. That is not just fluff-talk. Some put in long hours researching and writing to educate all of us (some of my favorite teacher-bloggers: Mark Weber, Peter Greene, Marie Corfield, Russ Walsh), some head up volunteer organizations that lift up students, and teachers, and public education (like Marla Kilfoyle, Denisha Jones, Michael Flanagan, and Melissa Tomlinson), some write amicus briefs for the US Supreme Court, and others take the time to do professional development work beyond what their districts provide. They do all of these things on their own time and with their own money. No one is paying them to use their voice for their students and for their profession.  

Which brings me to this year's NJEA Convention. I love going and talking with teachers about what they are doing in their classrooms, what they're excited about, what their students are excited about, and what their concerns are. It's also fun to walk the floor and see what the latest and greatest toys, books, tech, and programs are being sold to teachers. 

Even with the fancy bells and whistles of the tech stuff, the booksellers' booths are always the busiest. Especially the ones who sell books for the lower grades. After grabbing a late lunch with a friend, we noticed a very long line which snaked across a couple of aisles. We asked what they were all standing in line for, expecting it to be a book signing, but it turned out they were waiting for free books for their classrooms. Free books. For your kids. On a day off. The line was at least 200 people long. I want to share with you a few pictures of the line because you should see what your children's teachers do for them. 

From top to bottom: the beginning of the line, to all the way around, to you can't see the end of the line - which was a couple of aisles over from the start. Unfortunately, I didn't get a picture of the little chalk board announcing the times of the giveaways. This line was a good 10-15 minutes before the giveaway started. I hope the pictures "speak a thousand words."

So, on the eve of Thanksgiving...thanks to Maddie's teachers. You know who you are, the ones who put in the extra time, who cared enough to learn more about her and the way she learns, who stood up for her and her rights as a student. Thanks for your patience and your resilience.

I see you.  

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

It Was A Very Long Day, Part 1, 2 & 3

Part 1: Every month I try to make it to the State Board of Education (SBOE) meeting. While reading the agenda gives an idea of what's going to happen, there is nothing like being there in person to witness the depth of privilege and echo chamber-ness in that room. I want to be very clear about the criticism in this piece. NJDOE has some really great, hard-working people within its ranks and my thoughts on this are not about them. This is about leadership, or rather, the lack thereof. Their willingness to remain well seated in their echo chamber and the arrogance with which pronouncements are made. And, the SBOE and their unwillingness to "dive deep" and ask hard questions and expect good, true responses, and their seemingly endless inability to know the difference between a real answer and a false one. Their job is not to sit there and nod in agreement with statements that are so patently false it would be hilarious if wasn't so damned serious. And yet, that is what we have. The November meeting was no different.

Chris Cerf was in to deliver his annual report on Newark schools. Good news is graduation rates are up. Bad news is he's still the state-appointed superintendent and it's still state-controlled. He made a great show of saying charters and public schools should be working together and no one should be paying attention to what is said on social media. All he wants is for everyone to get along for the sake of the kids. He's not wrong about doing things for the sake of the kids. What and how things get done are the issue.

It would also be great if we could also get some acknowledgment that charters don't serve the same demographics and are costing districts, like Newark, a fortune for a parallel and unequal system whose basic management is kept far, far out of the sunshine. There is nothing "public" about charter schools except the money which primarily funds them. Too bad if you don't like that little piece of reality from "social media." 

Cerf did manage to give a nod to poverty, and then, unbelievably, continued with qualifications, like new immigrants want to get out of poverty, but people who have experienced multi-generational poverty "resist the ladder" out of poverty. In the context of the conversation, education, it's doubly astonishing when talking about a district that has been under state control for more than 20 years. The lack of state funding, the lack of tax base (remember the poverty thing?), the lack of needed support for those students is because the state has denied it to them. On top of that, charters have been allowed to proliferate. It costs this district millions of dollars to sustain them at the direct cost to every other student in the district. So, education, which is a lot of rungs on that "ladder" has been decimated under state control. And guess what, Chris? When you were NJ's Education Commissioner, you perpetuated that too.

Cerf says a ONE Newark survey demonstrated parents actually choose to send their kids to schools well outside of their neighborhood. That it's a "myth" parents actually want a neighborhood school. Yes, I'm putting in a request to see the survey and the results. 

So, why throw in that tidbit about ONE Newark? Well, a couple of weeks ago, the Newark BOE voted to get rid of ONE Newark...which, of course, he failed to mention. 

Cerf was asked what he thought about PARCC and if NJ should keep it. Of course, he immediately sang its praises. And, really, what could he say? He was selling PARCC to the SBOE and the public when he was Commissioner.

Then it was on to a comprehensive report on PARCC by Pete Shulman. The basics were that scores were up compared to the year before. No mention that half the students who took it "failed." No mention of how many students would not have graduated had the new graduation requirements been in place this year. And, no mention of which version of PARCC they were comparing to. You'd think that an organization who bows to the Data Gods would have pointed that out. We haven't had two years in a row of the same test. What are you comparing?

Continuing, PARCC is the best test for gauging college and career readiness and the standards. Notice that it's now just "the standards" since they changed the name of Common Core State Standards to New Jersey Student Learning Standards. There were no fundamental changes to the standards, they're just hoping you didn't notice.

For some reason, they just can't deliver their info on PARCC without a very hard swipe at either NJASK or HSPA. That day, it was both. NJASK and HSPA didn't deliver usable data, they were inferior tests. It's groan-worthy because for a decade, both of these tests were revered. Students have to take them! How would we know how they're doing without them!? Take a look at what a New Jersey dad put together on NJASK here. Funny, sounds a lot like the claims about PARCC. 

Finally, the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) "study" was trotted out as proof of PARCC's validity. *sigh* No, it's not. It's not even a "study." I've covered this before. Twenty-three Teachers of the Year decided, among other things, that the 5th grade PARCC test is more difficult than NJASK was. You can read about it and the other "studies" NJDOE claims validate PARCC here

The meeting ran so long they never got to the new charter regs - the ones that lower the standards for teachers, administrators, and business administrators working in charter schools. The ones which were developed by/with people in the charter industry. That discussion has been put off until the December meeting. 

Part 2: Public testimony on charter schools, interdistrict school choice, student residency, and student transportation. Most testimony was about the new charter regulations. There were employees, a few parents, and teachers from charter schools to provide testimony in favor of the new regs. NJEA, SOSNJ, and a few parents spoke out against them. 

This is a good place to state in the strongest way possible, that it's despicable the way public school parents and advocates are pitted against charter school parents and advocates. I see it at SBOE testimony sessions and at legislative hearings at the State House. It cannot be said enough times, we are not angry with, nor disappointed in, charter school parents. They have simply done what they feel is best for their children, as anyone would. End of story. 

The issue is with public policy. Really poor public policy, that has created an environment in which public schools have been systematically resource-starved, and in which a secondary, unequal, parallel system has grown at the direct expense of the public system. That is the issue. Not that you happen to send your child to a charter school.

It was pretty astonishing to hear charter school teacher recruiters asking SBOE to make it easier for people to become teachers and administrators in their schools. That Praxis was making it too difficult for people to become teachers. The irony was completely lost on SBOE, the people making the plea, and many members of the audience. The charter cheerleader stories are always about how much "better" they are than public schools. Yet, here they were, asking the state to lift certification requirements for teachers and administrators. The SBOE will very likely do exactly that. Why does anyone think having a lower level of certification, that will never be accepted in public schools, be ok for charters and their students? How does that fit into the narrative that charters are great. The mind boggles. 

Here is the testimony provided by Save Our Schools New Jersey. It hits on all of the issues with the newly proposed regulations on charter schools.
Presented by Susan Cauldwell
November 2, 2016
In her October 5 memo to the State Board, Acting Commissioner Kim Harrington said the following:
“Governor Christie met with charter operators to discuss the state of public charter schools in New Jersey. During this discussion, many charter operators explained that New Jersey’s regulatory environment is a major impediment to growth of the charter sector in the State. During the last several months, the DOE has worked with charter leaders to develop recommendations to offer school operators increased autonomy and opportunities for innovation in exchange for accountability for student outcomes. The proposed changes will ensure charter schools have increased flexibility, autonomy, and time to innovate and produce strong educational outcomes for all students. In addition, the changes will incentivize operators both in-State and out-of-State to invest in New Jersey.”
These words tell you all you need to know about the proposed charter regulations. The Governor wants them. Period. No analysis, no data, just the desire of this administration to continue its effort to destroy traditional public education in urban districts. Adding more charter school seats in urban areas will only serve to further financially destabilize these school districts. Every state superintendent who address you, acknowledges the challenges of balancing a budget with flat state aid and an ever-growing charter school bill. And the Commissioner is required to consider this is as part of her decision-making process. 
How can the DOE, which wants to collect data on everything from the aptitude of pre-school students, to the college grades of pre-service teachers, to the lifetime SGOs and SGPs of teachers propose such changes as dumbing down teacher and administrator certifications without one shred of data to support it? It’s simple. The Governor wants it.
At last month’s meeting, it was interesting to watch the staff try to explain why charter school teachers needed less training than traditional public school teachers. The staff couldn’t answer it; the Acting Commissioner couldn’t answer it. Deputy Commissioner Pete Shulman had to jump up from the audience to calm things down. Even more curious is why you, as a State Board, are not aware the dumbed down charter school teacher certification already exists. The proposed regulations codify the regulations for teachers and will add dumbed down qualifications for charter school BAs and heads of schools. But, none of this matters because the Governor wants it.
In their report last month, staff attempted to justify pre-ordained code changes with facile charts and graphs that did not make the case. You, the State Board, have an obligation to ask proper questions such as:
1. Why compare state demographics with demographics of charter schools? Charter school populations should be compared to the home districts of the students. A comparison like this would show just how much fewer less poor, less male, less LEP, and less special ed students are enrolled in charter schools, which the staff obviously wanted to avoid.
2. The comparison of test scores showed that charter students outperformed their district peers, which is no surprise give the difference in students as noted above. What the staff did not dwell on was this: charter school average outcomes in state operated districts were worse than state averages in math and ELA in grades 3 through 8, except for math in Newark.
The truth is that, on the whole, charter schools, despite their selective enrollment procedures, and their kill and drill instructional methods are not living up to their promise of greater educational outcomes. Given this fact, why should charters be held to lower standards than traditional public schools? The answer is simple. The Governor wants it.
As for specific comments on the regulations, Save Our Schools NJ offers the following:
1. The proposed dumbing down of administrator and head of school certifications merely to attract out of state charter school operators is troubling. Reports of out of state charter school fraud and waste have made national headlines. NJ has had few episodes of fraud and waste in charter schools and we need to keep it that way. In addition, at least 3 out of state charter chains are successfully operating here already. We do not believe these changes are warranted.
2. We strongly oppose the requirement that school districts be forced to accept charter school students on their sports teams and in extra-curricular activities. This matter was considered by the legislature a couple of years ago and was rejected. In addition, we believe charter schools, which receive funds for a comprehensive education (which includes extra-curriculars and athletics) of their students should be required to provide these activities. At the very least, we believe this decision should rest with the local school district.
3. On the matter of facilities, we do not support co-locating charters and traditional schools. We also do not support turning over publicly financed facilities at bargain basement prices to private entities like charter school management companies.
4. Expedited renewals for “high performing charters” is the wrong approach. The use of standardized test scores as the benchmark supports canned kill and drill instruction, narrows curriculum in favor of test prep, encourages the removal of low performing students, and discourages the enrollment of LEP and special needs students. This proposed change moves charter schools further away from the notion of a public school.
5. The accountability proposals do not go far enough for a public school. We suggest the following:
a. Require that charter schools include all attachments, memos, and reports associated with charter school board meetings on the website;
b. Require that charter school board meetings take place in the community where the school is located;
c. Require the charter school to post an annual calendar of board meetings prior to the start of each school year;
d. Require that charter school boards include residents of the community.
6. The proposed regulations do not address the ability of host communities to have a formal role in the decision making process on whether to permit a charter school. We continue to advocate for either a local vote by residents or, in the alternative, a vote by the local school board.
Thank you for your consideration. We urge you to do what is best for NJs school children.
I left the testimony session early to get up to New York City. Which brings me to...

Part 3: A few weeks ago, I ran into Dr. Lauren Wells. She asked me to come see her speak as a counter-point to Dr. Chester "Checker" Finn at Hunter College. Finn has recently released a book on the 25-year history of charter schools and their future. 

Lauren and I arrived at the same time. Upon entering the building we were introduced to Dr. David Steiner, former New York State Commissioner of Education, who was moderating the discussion. Lauren had Dr. Finn's book in her hand and Steiner asked if she had read it. The question may have just slipped out, but what an incredibly stupid thing to ask the person who is there for express purpose of providing comment on it. Of course she read the book. I confess to being touchy about this, it was a long day, and stupidity was king. But, really? Dr. Wells is a professor of education at American University in Washington DC. She is also the former Chief Education Officer for the City of Newark. Why would he think she hadn't read the book? 

The venue was Franklin Delano Roosevelt's former home on E. 65th Street, and having arrived early, we were allowed to wait in FDR's library. It is not a large room, but rather cozy. It's easy to imagine FDR spending quiet time in this room. It also felt a little like a calm before a storm. Here is a picture of Lauren going over her notes before the discussion. 

The discussion began with Steiner introducing Wells and Finn, and providing a brief history on charter schools. Finn further expanded on the history of charter schools and noted there is no right way to charter. He believes deeply in "choice" and that we have a duty to provide that choice even at the expense of others. He does not have a problem with cherry picking (although, of course, he doesn't call it that), nor with students being counseled out,  nor with excluding certain students, like those with disabilities. He does not have a problem with educating a few at the expense of all others. It sounds very much like The Talented Tenth. Finn believes it is a moral obligation to educate that small number. He seems to believe those students would not get an education without the "choice" to bail out of public education. 

Personally, I found his conviction and stance to be closer to a savior complex, than to that of a person dedicated to education. It is far easier to educate the easiest students than it is to provide a great education to every student. I believe it is every child's right to have that great education. Finn appears to believe that only a select few have that right. It's interesting, but not surprising, since he had a rather exclusive education himself. Although, I doubt very much that Exeter's curriculum and practice look anything like what he thinks is a superior education for city kids. 

To be clear, the definition of "doing better than" and "great education" is actually just high standardized test scores. Of course, curriculum and practice that has the sole purpose of raising test scores, actually does do that. But is that education? Or is that training? 

Wells chose not to speak about charter schools directly. Instead, she discussed the need to educate all students. This wasn't just a fluffy statement. She spoke about meeting students where they are. Igniting curiosity. Recognizing that every student has gifts and they deserve an environment and highly qualified teachers to explore those gifts. In short, Wells talked about what every parent wants for their child, regardless of socio-economic status, classification, and zip code. 

The discussion then turned to Q&A. The NAACP moratorium on charter schools came up. Needless to say, Wells and Finn, and Steiner (who, oddly, had a lot to say in his role as "moderator"), had differing views. Wells was very clear in her support of the moratorium and why - deepening of segregation, student populations that don't look like the districts they operate in, funding that is stripped from the local school district to pay for charter schools, harsh discipline practices, high attrition rates, no backfill, co-locations of charter schools inside public schools, and so on. All of which distort "success." Needless to say, Finn does not have issues with most of this. He does not support the idea of "no-excuses," but everything else is fine.   

Let's be clear about what Finn extols - a separate and unequal system that lays waste to the supporting public infrastructure in order to get higher test scores. All else be damned. While there are "mom and pop" charters out there who are doing innovative work, the majority of what we have here in New Jersey and New York does not look like that. The rest of country is filled with charter schools we know nothing about. Mark Weber, aka Jersey Jazzman, has written about what we don't know. Read here. The point is a moratorium and research is needed so we know exactly what public money is being spent on, and frankly, if it's worth it.   

You can read the full text of the moratorium here. And a statement from Cornell Brooks, president and CEO of the NAACP here

One of the most difficult things to witness that evening was how Wells was treated. While she spoke, Finn did not look at her. He was visibly agitated by her comments, looking at the back of his hand, looking at the ceiling, frowning, sighing. I am not one who jumps to be offended, but I was wondering what bothered him more; the fact that's she's a woman, or that she's Black. Maybe it was both. Keep in mind, she was invited to be in this space to offer a counter opinion to a rosy view on charter schools. She was respectful. She did not make wild claims. And, her doctorate in education is worth just much as his. His behavior was more like a petulant 5-year-old than a 70-something scholar. Next time you want an echo chamber, don't bother to invite anyone else to speak.

It was a long day. It was also very clear there is a lot of work to be done. It won't end until every child in the US has the opportunity of a great education regardless of the zip code they live in. 

Monday, September 12, 2016

What A Difference A Year Makes

A year ago, I wrote about a student's 8th grade class schedule in a Newark middle school. You can read that post here. It was also later picked up by Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post. The Newark schedule was in stark contrast to what schedules look like in suburban and wealthier districts throughout the state.

This was his 8th grade schedule:

The parents, both from multi-generational Newark families, and their son, struggled with the lack of variety within the school day. I would characterize that schedule as oppressive. How can children thrive on a day that looks like that? I know lots of people will think (and feel free to rail against me for suggesting otherwise) there's nothing wrong with a monotonous day filled with English language arts and math. That art, gym, chorus, music, languages, etc. are for those who "deserve" it and not for students who live in a place where high test scores are the only thing keeping their local schools open. 

At the end of last school year, the parents made the very tough decision to leave their city, their home, behind and head for the Jersey shore. Yes, they were fortunate to be able to afford to do so. Not everyone is in that position.

What their son experienced in 8th grade was enough for them to say no more. They wanted him to have history and language every day. They didn't want him to have double and triple periods of any class. They wanted him to have gym more than twice a week. They wanted him to have access to electives. No more, frankly, than what any parent wants for their child. Why did they have to move to get it?

Here is his schedule this year:

So, why does Newark have such a narrowly focused curriculum? They are still under state control after more than 20 years. As I've said, any current problems in that district lay squarely on the shoulders of the state. It's disgraceful that all the state provides is a bare minimum of classes, clearly aimed at achieving nothing more than maybe higher standardized test scores. Is this really what the NJ Department of Education believes is a "high quality" education? 

I'd love to know what Kimberley Harrington, the soon to be crowned Acting Commissioner of Education, will do to make sure the children of Newark (and every other state controlled district) receive an enriched curriculum these parents had to move elsewhere to get. 

Sunday, August 28, 2016

New Jersey's Special Education Ombudsman

On August 2nd, the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) released an Amended Notice of Vacancy for the new position of an Education Program Development Specialist 3 (Ombudsman). You can read the details here. This is a position State Senator Ruiz, Chair of the State Senate Education Committee, had actually wanted to be a Public Advocate. In the world of New Jersey politics, however, that desire got turned into a much watered down Ombudsman position within NJDOE. 

When Senator Ruiz introduced bill S451 which created the position, well over a year ago, I happened to be at the Committee meeting. I was uncharacteristically unprepared, but provided testimony anyway. I told the Committee, parents and students don't need another hoop to jump through. We have a difficult enough time securing classification and services without having yet another obstacle. If the Senator was serious about this position being autonomous, with the actual power to effectively provide help, then great, we need the help. If she couldn't deliver a truly autonomous position, then we don't need it. Senator Ruiz said her hope for the position also encompassed the ability to bring together, or at least help parents identify, the help of other New Jersey agencies, like NJ Division of Developmental Disabilities. The bill passed through the Senate and Assembly and on January 19, 2016, the Governor signed it into law. 

Following its passing, I reached out to Senator Ruiz's office hoping to find a reporting line that was not inside NJDOE. It was suggested the position be housed in NJDOE, but reporting to the NJ Department of Justice. It certainly sounded like the most reasonable way to keep the position from becoming an internal NJDOE position. It was a way to maintain a certain level of autonomy. The idea, apparently, went into a black hole and seven months later we have an Education Program Development Specialist reporting directly into NJDOE. *sigh*

Now, instead of having an advocate for parents and students, we have another staffer at NJDOE. Their job? From the official description:
Under general direction of a manager in the Office of Special Education Programs, the Ombudsman supervises the design, production, and delivery of curricula, training, program improvement, and related education services to education agencies to ensure achievement of mandated goals and to meet existing and emerging needs; performs mandated regulatory functions; performs professional work with minimal supervision in monitoring and evaluation of education programs in school districts statewide. 
Got that? The Ombudsman works for Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) within NJDOE and for an unspecified manager. They are doing all kinds of work that has nothing to do with supporting parents and students in their quest for classification and services, as a public advocate would have. The description goes on:
The Ombudsman may be responsible for the provision of information and communication strategies to parents, students, educators and interested members of the public regarding the special education process, supports, evaluations and services according to State and federal laws and regulations governing special education in a pleasant, positive and efficient manner; performs work of a professional nature in a confidential manner with utmost fidelity; does other related duties.
Got that? This person will tell you what the special ed regs are. Seriously? Isn't that what OSEP already does? Isn't that what SPAN and virtually every other disability-related group in the state already do? 

We know what the regs say. We just don't have anyone willing to enforce them! Not OSEP, not OCR. What we need is an actual Public Advocate. As with everything related to education in this state, it looks like we will be waiting a long time (read: when we get a new Governor) before we get that position. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Yes, Social Impact Bonds. Again.

I've written about Social Impact Bonds, aka, Pay for Success (PFS) before. You can read those blog posts here, here, and here. I provided testimony on Pay for Success to the US Department of Education (USDOE) in Washington DC at the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) hearings. That testimony you can find here

This past Friday, August 19th, USDOE announced a Preschool Pay For Success grant competition. Instead of, y'know, actually funding a preschool initiative, USDOE has set aside $2.8 million dollars to go to "7 to 14 grantees" who will have the great privilege of conducting feasibility studies, not on the effectiveness of high quality preschool (we already know that works), but on the effectiveness of PFS. States will have to go out and find partners and then use the USDOE money to fund studies...studies which one really hopes states would have done on their own anyway. 
"The ultimate aim of the pilot is to improve early learning outcomes through a future high-quality Pay for Success project by providing grants for feasibility studies. However, the pilot does not fund the implementation of preschool services. Preschool programs that are the focus of these feasibility studies must be inclusive of children with disabilities and the Pilot will also establish safeguards to protect the rights of children with disabilities to ensure that they receive the services they need." (emphasis mine)
Who knows? Maybe they were listening to me last January. I'm very interested to see what those "safeguards" are beyond what the law already prescribes, because that shouldn't be ignored under any circumstances. Right? 

To backtrack for a second, there are Preschool Development Grants (and Expansion Grants) available through USDOE. In 2014, several states, including New Jersey, received those grants. Here's a brochure from the program. You'll notice that "high quality" programs are necessary for receiving the 2-year grant. 

Now, take a look at the program description for Pay For Success
"This pilot does not limit feasibility studies to programs that meet the definition of “high-quality” preschool used by the Preschool Development Grants (PDG) program in its 2014 grant competition in order to allow the PFS demonstrations to demonstrate high-quality in different ways, including through the impacts that the pilots are able to achieve. In this way, such projects could further develop the evidence-base of programs that are demonstrated to be effective." (emphasis mine)
*Sigh* Let's understand that statement for a moment. USDOE recognizes that "high quality" preschool programs are necessary and work. They are trying to find a way to help out their friends in the banking sector by attempting to justify the use of Pay For Success programs while also desiring successful outcomes for students. They want to demonstrate the cheaper-for-the-taxpayer-to-achieve-great-results-ness of PFS, but the studies USDOE will be paying for do NOT need to include "high quality" preschool programs. 

Surely there's a really good reason for that, I am, though, currently at a complete loss of what that might be. Anyone from USDOE is free to shoot me an email at any time. Or, maybe Mike Hynes can ask John King when he finally is granted an audience.

I'll simply say, Pay For Success is a terrible idea. In this context, our children's education is at stake. There has been a specific narrative from those pushing these programs. It's unconscionable that Pay For Success is sitting in the middle of a federal education law. I'm not alone in that thinking. 

Yesterday, Kenneth Saltman published an article called "Wall Street's Latest Public Sector Ripoff: Five Myths About Pay For Success" and it's a doozy. Please take the time to read it. I'll give you a teaser on Saltman's reason for the existence of PFS programs:
"Banks love Pay for Success because they can profit massively from it and invest money with high returns at a time of a glut of capital and historically low interest rates. Politicians (especially rightist democrats) love Pay for Success because they can claim to be expanding public services without raising taxes or issuing bonds and will only have the public pay for “what works.” Elite universities and corporate philanthropies love Pay for Success because they support “innovation” and share an ethos that only the prime beneficiaries of the current economy, the rich, can save the poor."
In the context of preschool and how PFS has been used to theoretically lower the rate of special education classification of children entering kindergarten, I could not agree more (and I said as much, months ago) with this: 
"Who is authorized to develop the metrics, what is their expertise, what are their interests, and how do they assess the rules they set in place?; To whom are those legislating the accountability measurements accountable? The scientism of metrics obscures these kinds of questions. Accountability should be a part of educational projects but not through restricted metrics that conceal the broader politics informing the project. Rather, accountability should be in a form in which knowledge is comprehended in relation to how subjectivity is formed through broader social forces and in ways in which learning can form the basis for collective action to expand egalitarian and just social relations."
If your state is entertaining using Social Impact Bonds/Pay For Success to pay for preschool, please, I beg you, have those conversations with your legislators. Know exactly who is determining the criteria for success and how the money will be paid back and to whom. 

Friday, August 5, 2016

NJ State Board of Ed Ignores Public Testimony

If the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) and the New Jersey State Board of Ed (NJSBOE) are not listening to the public, who are they listening to? What is their reaction to all of our testimony? NJDOE provided responses to testimony when they released the August 3rd agenda and this is what stood out for me.

In some cases they simply disagreed and said so. In other cases, they had some interesting citations to back up their claims related to validity. And, for the special education-related comments, clarification of just who is in control of the graduation requirements for students with IEPs.

One comment, in particular, stuck out (besides the ones that were aimed at me) because the testimony belonged to Dr. Eric Milou, a Rowan University professor, recipient of the Max Sobel Outstanding Mathematics Educator Award, former president of Association of Mathematics Teachers of New Jersey (AMTNJ) and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. This is exactly the kind of education professional this board should have been listening to, but this is their response:

40. COMMENT: The commenter stated there is no evidence the PARCC assessment is an improvement over previous standardized tests, raises student performance, provides useful diagnostic information, or indicates career or college readiness.  The commenter also stated only rigorous curriculum, instruction, and the use of formative assessments will have a significant impact on student educational success. (99)

RESPONSE: Several studies (e.g., National Network of State Teachers of the Year, 2015; Massachusetts Executive Office of Education, 2015; Center for American Progress, 2016; Fordham/Human Resources Research Organization, 2016; American Institutes for Research, 2016) have supported PARCC as an accurate measure of college and career readiness and endorsed PARCC as an improvement over previous assessments.
Dr. Milou got right to the heart of what's wrong with standardized tests in general and what's wrong with PARCC specifically. It doesn't actually provide the information that's being claimed. As we pour millions of tax dollars into a highly flawed testing system, shouldn't it, at the very least, do what NJDOE claims? Shouldn't someone, somewhere, define what college and career ready means?

Also relevant is how you go about determining validity and whom you choose to document those claims. Isn't that what we're allegedly trying to help our kids navigate? Knowing who is behind the research supporting your arguments, so you understand and account for undo influence? That's really important stuff, right?

Well, in this case, NJDOE is relying on information from sources that I would consider to be questionable because of where their funding comes from. I'm not going to tip-toe around that because when the same very deep pockets are quietly funding organizations that people trust, we all need to know where those organizations are coming from. I want data, information, opinions, from places where a particular and singular influence can be accounted for. In this case, NJDOE is clearly very happy with anything funded by the Gates Foundation. An entity with a very singular focus on the privatization of US public schools, on Common Core State Standards, and on the associated testing, like PARCC. Nothing the Gates Foundation does or supports is friendly to PUBLIC education. 

Let's look at who NJDOE and NJSBOE are listening to:

National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) From the Gates Foundation website: in 2015, NNSTOY was awarded a $1,000,000 grant "to improve student learning across the nation by defining, sharing and advocating for effective teaching practices and policies." 
NJDOE didn't bother to name any of the studies to which they refer, but I'll presume they are talking about "The Right Trajectory" study released earlier this year. Twenty-three Teachers of the Year took a look at PARCC, SBAC, NJASK, NECAP, DCAS, and ISAT at the 5th grade level. They applied Webb's DOK, along with other tools of assessing the level of challenge in each of the tests. The problem is, given how the questions were asked, they didn't appear to actually apply what they found. It reads more like an opinion questionnaire - which would be fine if you weren't trotting it out as evidence of validity. The study does not demonstrate PARCC as "an accurate measure of college and career readiness."
I was not familiar with this particular study and it's interesting to see what these teachers thought of the construct of these tests and, possibly, their usefulness. That said, there is nothing in the study that speaks to the validity of using PARCC to assess college and career readiness as a high school exit exam. I would argue the simple fact that they only looked a 5th grade, and they specifically left out consideration of students with disabilities, means the scope of the study doesn't include anything that supports college and career ready at the high school level. The study's conclusion is that PARCC is more challenging than NJASK. Ok. I'm good with that. NJASK was never written as "deep skills and knowledge" test, so I wouldn't expect them to find it was. 
Center for American Progress (CAP) is a heavily Gates Foundation-funded entity. From the Gates Foundation website: Since 2008, up to June 2016, they have been awarded $8,998,810 for everything from "to support Common Core implementation" to "enhance degree completion for low-income young adults through the publishing of new policy papers, stakeholder engagement, and media outreach" to "continue researching, understanding and promoting better human capital policies to benefit all public school students and to tackle the implications of developing education reforms".   
I have no idea which study NJDOE refers to in their response. CAP has many "reports" on their website, but nothing that either compares PARCC to anything or demonstrates value in a high school exit exam. If anyone knows or has the study, please send it to me.
Fordham/Human Resources Research Organization (Thomas B. Fordham Institute and HUMRO). This was an interesting way to cite two different studies that worked in parallel. The studies looked at PARCC, 2014 MCAS, ACT Aspire, and SBAC. From the HUMRO study summary, "A parallel study was conducted by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (hereafter referred to as Fordham), which implemented the [The National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment] Center’s methodology for grades 5 and 8 summative mathematics and ELA/literacy assessments. Taken together, HumRRO and Fordham were first to implement the Center’s evaluation methodology. HumRRO and Fordham conducted their studies separately; however, the two organizations communicated often about the evaluation methodology and collaborated on the steps to implement it." 
HUMRO also acknowledges who made their study possible: "This important work was possible from funding by the High Quality Assessment Project (HQAP), which supports state-based advocacy, communications, and policy work to help ensure successful transitions to new assessments that measure K–12 college- and career readiness standards. HQAP’s work is funded by a coalition of national foundations, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Lumina Foundation, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Helmsley Trust."  
I haven't poked into just how much money that is, but Thomas B. Fordham Institute has been awarded $5,214,650 between 2006 and 2015, "to support the activities of an emerging network of state level education advocacy organizations in support of a convening around strategic issues" and "for general operating support" and "to track state progress towards implementation of standards and to understand how what students read changes in response to the standards."  
Interesting to note the Fordham study looked at grades 5-8. Arguably, that has nothing to do with the validity of a high school exit exam for either math or English.
And, the HUMRO study looked at PARCC's PBA and EOY. New Jersey doesn't use their PBA (only the first year, after which they dropped it) and the EOY, starting this year, was allegedly some combo of the PBA and EOY. So what exactly has NJDOE extracted from a study that doesn't talk about PARCC in the form it actually uses?
American Institutes for Research (AIR) is also Gates Foundation-funded, although they are primarily focused on post-secondary education. Since 2009 they have been awarded $9,296,140 in grants. Since NJDOE didn't bother to name which AIR study they were referring to, I'll guess that it's the National Benchmarks for State Achievement Standards 2016 study. The purpose was to look at the quality of college and career ready standards in the test using grades 4 and 8.
From their "key findings," the standards for PARCC ELA are equivalent to NAEP "basic" and PARCC math is equivalent to NAEP "proficient."
Go to page 19 of the study and read the list of "caveats." My favorites?
"Second, in some states, some of the grade 8 mathematics students took an end-of-course test, such as Algebra 1. In this benchmarking study, this factor could have had the effect of making the state grade 8 mathematics standards appear higher."
"This should not be interpreted to mean that NAEP’s Proficient levels in grades 4 and 8 are the gold standards for deciding whether our students are on track to be ready for college. No evidence has been presented by NAEP that the proficient standard in grades 4 and 8 predicts college success."  
"Fifth, this report does not, in any way, address or evaluate the quality of the CCSS. The CCSS are content standards, while this report deals only with achievement standards. Content standards represent the curriculum that teachers should teach, and the scope and sequence of what students should learn in school. Achievement standards are cut-scores on the state test that represent performance expectations." Here's what Drs. Tienken, Sforza, and Kim found on the "quality" of CCSS. 
Again, grades 4 and 8 were used, not any of the high school grades. There is nothing to support the validity of college and career ready at high school level or as an exit exam. 
Massachusetts Executive Office of Education (MEOE) They are, presumably referring to the Mathematica study done last year, comparing MCAS and PARCC for MEOE. Why they didn't just say that, I have no idea. At this point, I have no idea why NJDOE does anything. Anyway, I saved this one for last because I've written about it and provided testimony that is contrary to how NJDOE has framed this study in their support of PARCC. You can read my whole piece here, but I will just share these two particular points in this post:
1. From “key findings” on page ix of the report, “Both the MCAS and PARCC predict college readiness. Scores on the assessments explain about 5 to 18 percent of the variation in first-year college grades…” What does this mean exactly? It means that 82 to 95 percent CANNOT be explained by the results of the PARCC test. 
2. Dr. William Mathis, managing director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, former Deputy Assistant Commissioner for the state of New Jersey, Director of its Educational Assessment program, a design consultant for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and for six states, had this to say about the Mathematica report in a Washington Post article on 27 May 2016, “A tour through the literature shows that predictive validity coefficients are quite low in general and commonly run in the 0.30’s. One conclusion is that the PARCC is just about as good as any other test — which is the report’s finding in regard to the MCAS. On the contrary, the more correct conclusion is that standardized tests can predict scores on other standardized tests (which this report confirms) but it cannot validly predict college readiness at any meaningful level.” 
You could probably write a book about how much these studies do NOT support using PARCC as a college and career high school exit exam. I think NJDOE and NJSBOE need a lesson in how to read studies like these and how to properly draw conclusions from them. 

I will say, again, that having public ed policy so constrained by standardization is nothing but lazy. It does not serve our children. It does not serve our society. I am furious that we all have to wait in hope of a Governor who will have much higher expectations of public education in New Jersey. And who understands that test scores are incredibly limited in their usefulness. Our kids deserve nothing less.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

NJ State Board of Ed Fails. Again.

 Photo credit: Jesse Turner

In a business as usual move, the NJ State Board of Education (NJSBOE) voted this morning to use the PARCC exam, or, rather, multiple exams, as New Jersey's official requirement for graduation beginning with the class of 2020-21. A move that has been fiercely contested for a couple of years by parents, students, teachers, and local school boards. The vote was Yes (6): Mark B., Joe F., Andrew M., Jack F., Arcelio A., and Dorothy S. Abstained (1): Edithe F. Absent: 3 members.

It should be noted, and probably screamed from the mountaintops, that high school exit exams are NOT a requirement of the old federal education law, No Child Left Behind, nor are they a requirement of the new federal education law, Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). 

I'm sorry to say the vote was completely unsurprising. When NJSBOE released the agenda for today's meeting, they included the New Jersey Department of Education's (NJDOE) response to testimony on Standards and Assessments (item C) since April 6th.

There were 194 individual testimonies provided from students, parents, teachers, university professors, and local board of ed members. NJDOE responded to 96 comments (synopses), and with very few exceptions, disregarded the public's testimony. The overwhelming majority of testimony was against using PARCC as a graduation requirement and, in the end, was ignored. (more on that in another post)

Save Our Schools New Jersey, a grassroots, statewide parent organization, submitted a petition against the use of PARCC as a graduation requirement with 6,000 signatures. They were ignored.

On May 14, 2016, 88% of school boards at the New Jersey School Boards Association (NJSBA) Delegate Assembly adopted a resolution stating there should be multiple pathways to graduation. They were ignored.

27 individual school boards adopted resolutions asking the state NOT to make PARCC the only exit exam. You can find most of them compiled here. Highland Park, Hopewell Valley, Bloomfield, Washington Township (Gloucester), Clifton, East Windsor, Paterson, Middlesex Regional Educational Services, Princeton, Collingswood, Bridgewater Raritan, Livingston, East Brunswick, Wall Township, Montclair, Bordentown, Ocean Township (Monmouth), Linden, Palmyra, Bernards Township, Marlboro, West Windsor-Plainsboro, Watchung Hills Regional High School, Cranford, Montville, Teaneck, and Monroe (Middlesex County). They were ignored.

If any of this sounds familiar, it should. Earlier this year, with yet more testimony against PARCC, the public was ignored. I wrote about that here.  

Going back further, NJDOE assembled a Study Commission on Assessments in late 2014. There were over 200 public testimonies taken at three different hearings around the state in the early half of 2015. The final report has been removed from the NJDOE website. I'll post it when I get my hands on a copy. Again, the point is, the overwhelming majority of stakeholders said, "No." They were ignored also. 

The pattern is really clear. The public has little to no influence over what happens inside NJDOE. While they regularly pat themselves on the back for acquiring stakeholder input, they appear incapable of processing and utilizing information from outside their walls. They operate in a dangerously closed echo chamber and it shows, not only in the quality of their own work, but in their blatant disregard for what is actually happening inside our schools. 

This is hardly the end of this fight. However, it is also clear that playing nice and pretending their calls for public input is genuine, is a farce. Personally, I will be at every call for public input that is made available to us, because I refuse to be silent. I refuse to give them an opportunity to say, "But no one objected." The reason I refuse is because there is nothing less than the future of our public education system, and by extension, our democracy, at stake. 

The next NJSBOE meeting is on September 7th. There will open public testimony on that date. Probably would be a good idea to let them know just how awful you think this decision is. 

I leave you with Save Our Schools New Jersey's statement on today's vote to make proficiency on PARCC 10th grade ELA and Algebra 1 exams a requirement for graduation, for the class of 2021 and beyond.
"Despite unified opposition from parents, school board members, and teachers, the State Board of Education has chosen to endorse a graduation requirement so inappropriately difficult that it would fail 60% of New Jersey students.
As the Education Law Center and ACLU NJ noted, these new regulations also violate New Jersey laws and our state constitution.

Save Our Schools NJ's 31,000 members will be working to ensure that New Jersey's next governor:
- Eliminates the high school graduation standardized testing requirement, which hurts students and does not improve educational outcomes. Only 15 states still have this requirement.

- Reforms the process for selecting New Jersey State Board of Education members, so that they are accountable to the people of New Jersey rather than to the Governor who appointed them."