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."