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. 

1 comment:

  1. Very helpful insight. I particularly appreciate the cringe-inducing symmetry of the SBOE and the talk in NYC: in the first, an old, rich, white man (Cerf) telling everyone what it takes to get out of urban poverty; in the second, a, old, rich white man (Finn) using his body language to disrespect a well-educated, qualified, female black scholar. So it goes. A lot of work ahead, indeed.

    Thanks for getting that work started today, Julie.