Category Archives: Chris Christie

Chris Christie and the Magical Mystery Standards

Back in February, I noted that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had begun to walk back his support of the Common Core State Standards.  The governor began sounding cautious notes about the implementation of the standards and about how the Obama administration has been involved in the adoption process and used funding as incentives for states to come and stay on board. These statements were directly contrary to the big, wet, sloppy kisses he gave to the standards and to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the KIPP School Summit in 2013:

Whoopsie.  How embarrassing.

Since it is now established fact that all Republican hopefuls for the nomination in 2016 who are not named “Jeb” have to be against the Common Core, Governor Christie assured Republicans in Iowa that his administration was really concerned about the federal role in the standards:

So we’re in the midst of a re-examination of it in New Jersey. I appointed a commission a few months ago to look at it in light of these new developments from the Obama administration and they’re going to come back to me with a report in the next I think six or eight weeks, then we’re going to take some action. It is something I’ve been very concerned about, because in the end education needs to be a local issue.

I suppose that commission got back to Christie as he decided to blow up the education section of most newspapers by announcing that he believed New Jersey should no longer follow the Common Core State Standards.  Speaking at Burlington County College, he declared:

It’s now been five years since Common Core was adopted and the truth is that it’s simply not working….It has brought only confusion and frustration to our parents and has brought distance between our teachers and the communities where they work. Instead of solving problems in our classrooms, it is creating new ones.

The Governor also announced he wants to form a group to develop “new standards right here in New Jersey,” and the news media went moderately crazy over the implications.  Observers closer to home and closer to classrooms were less impressed.  New Jersey parent Sarah Blaine noted that Governor Christie’s announcement took a swipe at the Common Core State Standards, but also pledged to keep New Jersey in the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) whose annual Common Core aligned testing debuted in New Jersey this Spring with widespread complaints and approximately 50,000 opt outs.  Ms. Blaine correctly notes the contradiction that Governor Christie wants to set aside the standards, but will keep the PARCC examinations that are designed to assess student mastery of the standards, and he will keep using the examinations as part of the dreadful AchieveNJ teacher evaluation system, thus keeping both the standards and the aligned assessments central to teachers’ work in New Jersey.  She concludes:

Christie’s announcement changes nothing, and shame on the media for lapping it up so naively. Christie’s so-called rejection of Common Core is simply a sound bite for him to take on the road to Iowa and New Hampshire while our NJ public school kids continue to deal with a language arts curriculum that doesn’t teach them to consider texts and ideas within their broader historical context….However, as long as the Common Core-aligned PARCC test continues to be the barometer to allegedly measure our schools, teachers, and children’s efficacy, Christie’s announcement is worth even less than the paper his speech was written on. If you believe otherwise, then man, I’ve got a bridge to sell you…

Peter Greene bluntly calls Governor Christie’s move an “empty gesture”, and New Jersey
music teacher and Rutgers graduate student Mark Weber, blasted the governor for “screaming hypocrisy” in suddenly claiming to care about what teachers think and about the integrity of local control:

America, take it from those of us living in Jersey: this man doesn’t care one whit about the Common Core, or education standards, or anything having to do with school policies. Chris Christie’s sole interest in education policy is in its worth as a political tool: a tool to diminish the strength of unions, demonize public workers, and shift the focus off of his own many, many failures as governor.
My colleague, Dr. Christopher Tienken of Seton Hall University, was not impressed by how seriously the governor wants new, locally developed, standards given his short time frame, noting, “This is years and years of work that it takes to do this.”  So in all likelihood, New Jersey can expect “New Jersey College and Career Readiness Standards” that are mostly Common Core but with a few definite and indefinite articles swapped around.
I am in complete agreement with Ms. Blaine that Chris Christie’s announcement is pure politics aimed at Republican Party caucus and primary voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.  Republican voters lead the nation in disapproval of the Common Core with perhaps three quarters having a negative opinion of the standards.  While reasons for opposing the standards are diverse, there is a strong impression that the kinds of activist voters likely to participate in the early contests represent that most extreme, and often inaccurate, ideas about what the standards do and do not do.  With Chris Christie’s public move against the standards, Jeb Bush is left alone in the Republican field.
So just to be perfectly clear, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, famed “tough guy” governor who “tells it like it is,” is throwing the Common Core brand off of his campaign bus so he can appeal to this guy:

For all of his declarations that the Common Core standards are not working and that the federal role has been too intrusive, Governor Christie still spoke the language of education reformers in his original remarks:

It’s not enough for most of our students to become proficient – we want all of our students, no matter their economic status or their race or ethnicity, to acquire the skills they need to compete in the 21st century.

And a look at the projected demands of employers in 15 years indicates that we will not be able to meet their needs unless we do a better job educating our children.

By 2030, it is projected that 55 percent of all new and replacement jobs will require people with a post-secondary degree. Yet in New Jersey today, only 42 percent of individuals over 25 have at least an associate degree.

Unless those numbers change – and they must change – that means that 15 years from now, nearly six out of every ten students will lack the basic requirement for a good job.

Where Governor Christie gets his numbers for how many college graduates will be needed by 2030 is unclear because projections vary from under 30% to the mid-40%, but with wages for college graduates basically stuck in place, there is little evidence in the labor market that we are short on graduates.  A more important question is why Governor Christie, like most reformers today, seems to attribute standards with an ability to make classrooms better prepare students for their future in the workforce:

And that’s where we must focus our attention – in every New Jersey classroom and home.  That’s where higher standards can be developed.

We do not want to be the first generation in our Nation’s history to leave our children less equipped and less prepared to build for themselves and their children a nation stronger and more prosperous than the one our parents gave to us.

We owe our kids the educational foundation they need to thrive, not just survive.

In reality, the connection between “quality” standards and classroom achievement looks tenuous at best. For example, Massachusetts is widely regarded as having had excellent standards prior to adopting the Common Core, and it basically was at the top of the country in the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  Texas, meanwhile, was also recognized as having high quality standards prior to Common Core (which the Lone Star State did not adopt), but on the 2013 NAEP, it was only above 7 other states on 8th grade reading.  If quality standards were the elixir for student success, one would expect states with high quality standards to have convergent results from community to community, and yet, there is variability across communities within states as well.  Again, we can look at Massachusetts.   In 2013, Massachusetts urban communities were 32% at or above proficient in 8th grade reading compared to 28% nationally, and suburban communities were 52% at or above proficient compared to 39% nationally.  In 2005, those scores were 25% and 51% respectively.  So – 8 years with Massachusetts’ “high quality” standards, and there was no real movement in suburban achievement and some movement in urban achievement, a mixed bag still demonstrating significant variation in communities across the state even though their standards were the same.

What accounts for this?  The simple fact that standards are not magic and, on their own, do nothing to improve education.  Nor does tying school and teacher survival to standardized assessments aligned with those standards, the other favored tool of reformers.  What improves teaching and learning is often idiosyncratic, messy, and expensive.  However, general principles apply.  Writing in 1990, David Cohen presented the case of “Mrs. Oublier”, a California mathematics teacher who enthusiastically embraced the California math reforms and sincerely believed her practice was embodying them. Cohen, however, found her teaching more frequently belied a pre-reform understanding of the content of mathematics and dressed that understanding up in activities that looked like the reforms.  What held her back?  Her own insufficient education in the new ways of understanding mathematics and teaching mathematics plus the lack of a community consistently engaged in conversation and development on the standards.  Mrs. Oublier had one necessary component to reform and to improve her teaching, her own buy in and enthusiasm, but she lacked two critical other components.

This is something that modern reformers, Governor Christie included, never seem to acknowledge.  Standards, even high quality standards, mated with perverse incentives in the form of high stakes tests, do not reform or improve teaching.  Given the incentives to narrow the curriculum and to teach to the test, they can actually actively make matters worse.  When written clearly and in a developmentally appropriate manner, standards can, ideally, offer teachers end goal benchmarks from which they can “backwards design” instruction to take students from where they are to where they are going (hat tip the recently and too soon departed Grant Wiggins).

But on their own, they do not matter at all.  Teachers need to have genuine buy in, schools needs to be appropriately resourced with materials and meaningful professional development, and teachers need to work within genuinely collaborative learning communities where they and their colleagues are consistently engaged in what it means to teach and to improve teaching.  This cannot be done on the cheap by subjecting teachers and their students to stakes which make a standardized test the most important objective in the system.

And since we can pretty much guarantee that Governor Christie is not going to provide New Jersey schools with genuine respect and new resources, it will not matter if this Common Core backtrack of his results in genuinely new set of standards, a re-adoption of New Jersey’s previous standards, or simply a slap and dash rebranding of Common Core standards with a new name.  The Magical Mystery Standards that improve teaching and learning without a massive, lengthy, and expensive effort do school improvement the right way will never be written.

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Filed under Chris Christie, Common Core, Funding, PARCC, politics

Does Anyone in Education Reform Care If Teaching is a Profession?

Bob Braun, retired veteran reporter for the New jersey Star Ledger and current independent blogger, reported earlier this month that state-appointed Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson announced that Newark teachers seeking graduate education would only get district stipends if they did all of their study at the Relay “Graduate School of Education.”  For those who are unfamiliar, Relay “Graduate School of Education” was singled out as an innovator by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan last November, but it is a “Graduate School of Education” that has not a single professor or doctoral level instructor or researcher affiliated with it.  In essence, it is a partnership of charter school chains Uncommon Schools, KIPP, and Achievement First, and it is housed in the Uncommon Schools affiliated North Star Academy.  Relay’s “curriculum” mostly consists of taking the non-certified faculty of the charter schools, giving them computer delivered modules on classroom management (and distributing copies of Teach Like a Champion), and placing them under the auspices of the “no excuses” brand of charter school operation and teachers who already have experience with it.

In the case of North Star Academy in Newark, that means that the teachers who earn certification through Relay “Graduate School of Education” will have “instructors” who meet state requirements for faculty degrees by the school claiming “equivalency” because they are such amazing teachers who get amazing results.  In Relay’s words that is “the equivalent of the leading entrepreneur teaching in MBA programs or the leading writers and artists teaching in MFA programs.”  That’s quite a lofty claim, especially when Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University has demonstrated (repeatedly) that the “awesome” results of North Star are deeply connected to how the school has many fewer students with high needs due to poverty, language, or disabilities issues, how it suspends students at rates much higher than district schools, and how an African American male who enrolls in 5th grade has only a 40% chance to staying at the school until 12th grade.

So, there you have it: a “Graduate School of Education” without a single professor of education, offering teacher certification and degrees to the employees of the charter school in which it is housed, specializing in a curriculum that emphasizes teaching and discipline strategies that successfully drive away more than half the students whose families deliberately sought out the school in the first place. And THIS will be the sole provider of compensated continuing education for all of the teachers in the Newark Public Schools.

sheldon-throwspapers

What makes the embrace of Relay “Graduate School of Education” in Newark, Trenton, and Washington D.C. so frustrating is that university-based teacher preparation continues to have the standards for our graduates raised by the very same entities that think Relay should be allowed to call itself a graduate school and confer certification and degrees.  Trenton, in particular, is barreling ahead with proposed revisions to teacher certification rules that university-based programs will need to adhere to whether or not there is evidence that they will result in better teachers.  Currently, the young people who wish to become teachers must meet entrance criteria upon matriculating at our school.  Once in they must maintain a minimum GPA to take classes in their education major.  In addition to a full major in education courses, they must have a major in a content field within the College of Arts and Sciences, and they must take additional coursework in a liberal arts core to fulfill both university requirements and state requirements of a minimum number of credits in liberal arts courses.  Our program has extensive field work prior to student teaching that go beyond current state requirements that our students must coordinate with their full time class schedule.  The state also requires that all students seeking certification pass Praxis II examinations.  Various changes to the code requirements are under consideration in Trenton, all of which will make it more difficult for people to seek certification at universities.  Entrance requirements may be increased, or potential students can demonstrate “readiness” to begin their studies with another standardized exam.  The state is considering requiring what would amount to a year-long student teaching experience, and the next version of the state code will almost certainly require teacher candidates to submit a performance assessment to the state which, for all intents and purposes, will require most universities to adopt Pearson’s EdTPA assessment.

All of this probably sounds great if you agree uncritically with self appointed teacher quality watchdog, National Council on Teacher Quality, that declared teacher preparation an “industry of mediocrity” in a report so exhaustively researched that they failed to visit a single university campus and gleaned most of their quality “data” from online catalogs and program descriptions.  For more cautious observers, changes like these might be intriguing, but they come with questions and trade offs.  The biggest question is whether there is any evidence at all that trimming the available corps of potential teachers entering preparation and then holding those who make it in to more rigorous benchmarks will result in better learning in their eventual classrooms.  Critics of traditional teacher preparation often criticize the academic caliber of students entering teacher preparation without noting a very obvious point: if being the best student was absolutely essential to being the best teacher, then the nation’s professoriate would enjoy a much better reputation for teaching skills.

However, even beyond the question of evidence, advocates for increasing requirements on traditional teacher preparation need to acknowledge there are trade offs for increasing standards and requirements this way. Increasing the necessary test scores for entry into a program means that certain populations of students may not be able to even begin teacher preparation and prove their ability in a timely fashion and be effectively locked out of undergraduate study in the field (you can have one guess about from which communities most students who might not meet this hurdle would likely come).  A full year in the classroom for student teaching is an appealing idea  — that comes with massive logistical challenges for students trying to get all of their coursework completed in just 4 years and might make undergraduate preparation unworkable for transfer students and community college graduates.  A state required performance assessment is an idea worth exploring, but with indications that the state is willing to simply farm this out of a major testing corporation at a cost of $300 out of pocket for students, there should be a robust debate on the instrument itself and the ethics of tying up another certification requirement with a corporate revenue stream.

Assuming these issues could be resolved favorably and equitably, there is another issue to consider.  Current conditions and proposed changes all appear aimed at trying to ensure that high caliber students and high caliber students only enter and make it through traditional teacher preparation.  That goal might be defensible, but what, exactly, is Trenton, or any other state capitol for that matter, doing to make teaching an attractive prospect for such high caliber students?  Chris Christie breaking his own pension reform obligations probably isn’t a big incentive.  Despite claims to the contrary, New Jersey teacher salaries are not comparable to other professionals with similar education levels.  In my 22 years in education and higher education, I have yet to meet a single teacher who thinks the distorting stakes attached to current high stakes examinations would be a job perk.  The callous havoc unleashed upon school districts under state control by Trenton appointed superintendents cannot make many of the state’s best and brightest want to work in urban schools.  While Governor Chris Christie has not yet traveled to the New Jersey Education Association annual meeting in Atlantic City to personally beat up a teacher on the boardwalk, he has yelled at several of the state’s teachers in person and accused them of using students “like drug mules” for a Project Democracy assignment near school elections.  All of this is certainly going to entice New Jersey’s best students to accrue debt and work hard to enter a profession held in such esteem by the highest offices in the state:

Governor Chris Christie, Raising Teachers' Public Esteem Again

Governor Chris Christie, Raising Teachers’ Public Esteem Again

The disconnect between allowing Relay “school” to operate while placing these requirements on traditional programs and leveling this much disrespect upon working teachers is staggering.  To a degree, those of us in academic teacher preparation have ourselves to blame for some of this.  As the first wave of the “failing schools narrative” took shape with the release of A Nation at Risk in 1983, numerous reports and proposals were released that focused upon “professionalizing” the field of teaching, conjuring a future where the teacher workforce more closely resembled higher status professions in career trajectory and in clinical preparation.  While the wholesale transformation never happened, the clinical preparation ideology is well entrenched within different teaching standards, accreditation organizations, and among no small share of teacher educators themselves, and David Labaree of Stanford University noted in the early nineties that this focus emphasized teaching as a technical, rational, activity and potentially shut out public input the way medical fields protect their specialized knowledge.  Indeed, by accepting wide swaths of the teaching as technical/rational viewpoint, teacher education has limited the role of powerful visions of teacher development that embrace all of teaching’s complexities and, as Ruth Vinz wrote, begin “to look behind the act, the formula, the answers to the causes, conditions, and contexts.”  We have, in fact, participated in portraying teaching as technical practice whose most important aspects are measurable, so it is little wonder that policy makers are hurling a runaway train through that opening.

However, given the promotion of Relay “Graduate School of Education” and given the continuous disrespect and degradation of working conditions heaped upon teachers, I cannot accept that Trenton is really trying to elevate the profession — in either a technical manner or not.  Taken together, the current and proposed policy environment seems more geared towards greatly decreasing the number of teachers who obtain certificates via traditional teacher preparation while opening the door for many, many more to enter teaching via what amounts to on the job training without ever having studied for the job in the first place.  Trenton, intentionally or not, is engineering a shortage of teachers with credentials from undergraduate study, which will result in more schools like Relay “Graduate School of Education” being “needed” to fill in the gap by certifying their own employees.  Those who survive the “churn and burn” for which charter schools are famous would have state issued credentials to move on to fully public schools.

Or perhaps they won’t.  I find it hard to believe that today’s education “reformers” really believe that teaching is a profession at all.  If they did, the pressure to make certain only top students enter university-based teacher preparation and then to make sure those students have rigorous preparation would be coupled with similar efforts to raise the attractiveness of teaching as a lifelong career.  Instead, reformers act as if they believe that teaching is something you do in your twenties when you are idealistic and want to “give something back”  — and then you move on to a “real career” in some other sector.  If your charter school bosses like you, perhaps they will make you a school principal before you are 30, or they will set you on a path to become Commissioner of Education for the state of New York when you are only 36 years old.  But mostly, they will thank you for a few years of service and see you off to your grown up life outside of education.  After all, reformers’ favorite schools — “no excuses” charters — manage to train their students into “little test taking machines” without very many career teachers, so why should reformers really value teachers who dedicate their entire adult lives to teaching?  That people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s are dedicated and developing professionals who wish to remain in the classroom must seem like an amusing and quaint anachronism to them.

The teachers I know and work with are not laughing.

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Filed under Cami Anderson, charter schools, Chris Christie, teacher learning, Testing

The Student Heroes Of Newark

Sometimes, in the midst of powerful interests steamrolling communities, we are reminded that silence is a choice.  One example was last November in the small city of Richmond, California where oil and gas giant Chevron put down $3 million to buy the city council election but were beaten back by a slate of candidates with only $50,000 to spend.  Another example has been unfolding in Newark, New Jersey where state appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson has wreaked havoc upon the school system with her “One Newark” plan that was put into full implementation this school year.  One Newark is the fruition of a partnership between Governor Chris Christie and the former mayor of Newark, Senator Cory Booker backed by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, throws open the entire school district to school choice and expanded charter school options.  In practice, the implementation has spawned chaos and situations that would be intolerable to parents and students anywhere, but which have been forced upon the district with no recourse due to state control of the schools.

Bob Braun, the former education reporter for the New Jersey Star Ledger, has relentlessly documented Anderson’s tenure as superintendent and the series of rolling disasters One Newark has spawned.  Braun has documented schools that were slated to close under Anderson even though they were succeeding and beloved.  He has documented Anderson’s abrupt decision to stop attending board of education meetings from which she has been absent a full year.  He was there to cover the insensitive and incompetent summer enrollment where parents who had taken time away from work just to get put into the school selection pool waited for hours and were sent away with nothing.  He was a main source of information on Barringer High School where parents and students marched out to protest the deplorable conditions that persisted well past the opening of the school year.

Anderson, for her part, has remained an elusive figure in the city but has traveled widely to talk about education.  However, even outside of Newark, she has refused to face the people whose school system she runs, canceling a public talk at the American Enterprise Institute in November when Newark students and parents arrive in Washington, D.C. to demand answers from her.  Even state legislators have had to make repeated requests and wait nearly a year for Anderson to appear at the joint committee on education to answer questions about her performance in Newark.

In the face of this superintendency characterized by arrogance, silence, and disregard for community, few adults have managed to bring adequate attention to the situation.  And then there is the Newark Students Union, a collection of young activists acting as the conscience of Brick City.  The students, who have staged a number of direct action protests this school year, made national and international headlines on February 17th when they walked out of another board meeting where Anderson was absent and occupied the Superintendent’s office suite, refusing to leave until Anderson met with them and agreed to attend a school board meeting.  The district administration initially responded with hostility, calling the students trespassers and sending police to the students’ homes to “inform” parents of the situation:

The student occupiers got support from local clergy, Mayor Ras Baraka, and former talk show host Montel Williams who took to Twitter to offer encouragement and to chastise Anderson for her continued refusal to meet with them:

The Newark Students Union provides an extremely compelling case for their occupation:

The students ended their occupation after Anderson met with them for an hour, something that the state legislature took nearly a year to accomplish.  In their meeting, Anderson agreed to attend a board meeting this week.  However, that pledge was swiftly broken as the board met on the 24th with Anderson nowhere in sight:

where's cami

It may be back to business as usual in the Superintendent’s office in Newark as Cami Anderson continues to push changes and incompetent management upon the children and families of the city and ducks her legal and ethical responsibilities to meet with them.  However, in one very important way, business cannot return to usual.  These 8 student activists showed that decision making power may have been placed in the hands of those who refuse to listen, but that the Newark’s families do not have to relinquish their voices because of it.  The students drew national and international attention to an arrogant and damaging way of doing business that sees itself as a national model for urban education.  In 4 days of direct action, they got from Cami Anderson something that the school board and state legislature have failed to get: her presence.  They have gained notable advocates who have platforms capable of amplifying their message far beyond Newark.

I am immeasurably impressed with these young heroes.  We should all support them.

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Filed under Activism, Cami Anderson, charter schools, Chris Christie, Cory Booker, Newark Students Union, One Newark

Chris Christie and the Common Core Two Step

Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey is a Tough Guy.  The New Jersey Republican revels in his reputation as a politician who says what he thinks without apology and who is willing to get into dust ups with constituents who challenge him in public.  There have been moments in his tenure in Trenton when this has had a certain bipartisan charm, such as when, with Superstorm Sandy bearing down on the Garden State, the governor told people to “get the hell off the beach.”  Unfortunately, many more examples of Christie being “authentic” are unnecessary and embarrassing examples of temper — such as the time Governor Christie, when faced with former Navy SEAL and current Rutgers Law School student William Brown in a town hall meeting ended up calling the veteran an “idiot” and had him escorted out.

Here is Governor Christie also in 2012, expressing his anger at a passerby who made negative remarks about his education policies:

Then there was the time that Governor Christie was in the Jersey Shore community of Belmar to talk on the second anniversary of Sandy and tout his record on the recovery, but when he was confronted by a former Asbury Park city council member Jim Keady over how 80% of recovery money was not yet dispersed, Mr. Keady was treated to full Chris Christie:

Mr. Keady explains himself nicely here:

Governor Christie has saved some his most “authentic” moments for New Jersey’s public school teachers and their union.  Early in his first term, he accused the union of using students as “drug mules” because of a civics lesson in Monroe Township on the eve of statewide school budget votes – after he had already proposed deep cuts to state aid.  The governor accused the NJEA of placing ads that accused him of “hating kids” and of openly praying for his death.  New Jersey teacher and blogger Jersey Jazzman makes clear just how big a pile of hooey those accusations are.  The “prayer” was little more than a joke in questionable taste, and this was the billboard in question:

NJEA billboard 2011

The Governor has also made his hostility clear in direct confrontations with New Jersey teachers.  Marie Corfield, an art teacher in the Flemington-Raritan Regional School District, went to a Christie Town Hall in 2010 to challenge his education policies and rhetoric.  Mr. Christie, not appreciating what he deemed a disrespectful look on Ms. Corfield’s face, launched into a monologue that suited him so well, it went up on his Youtube channel to help cement his Tough Guy reputation. It also inspired Marie Corfield to run for Assembly:

And there was the time, days before his reelection, that Governor Christie met elementary teacher Melissa Tomlinson at a campaign rally where she asked why he was constantly calling New Jersey public schools “failure factories“.  The result was predictable:

Christie Yells Again

Governor Christie has been on board with education reform from the beginning of his term, applying for Race to the Top funding, adopting the Common Core State Standards, joining the PARCC consortium as a governing state, crafting new teacher evaluations using student test scores, and working to expand charter schools in the state.  Nobody can likely recall any doubt about any of these initiatives from anyone within the governor’s inner circle and certainly not from Governor Christie himself.  In fact, in August 2013, Governor Christie appeared at the KIPP Schools Summit in Las Vegas and spoke positively about the Common Core initiative and the Obama Administration:

“We are doing Common Core in New Jersey and we’re going to continue. And, this is one of those areas where I have agreed more with the President than not. And with Secretary Duncan. They haven’t been perfect on this, but they’ve been better than a lot of folks have been in terms of the reform movement.”

Given Governor Christie’s reputation for being a genuine Tough Guy who sticks to his guns even if it is not popular, it was odd to find that he apparently would like what was said in Vegas to stay in Vegas and is now walking back that support for Republican audiences in Iowa:

“I’ve said this before.  I have grave concerns about the way this has been done and especially the way the Obama administration has tried to implement it through tying federal funding to these things.  And that changes the entire nature of it from what was initially supposed to be a voluntary system that states could decide on their own.”

Lyndsey Layton in the Washington Post reported that Governor Christie went on in those remarks to say:

“So we’re in the midst of a re-examination of it in New Jersey. I appointed a commission a few months ago to look at it in light of these new developments from the Obama administration and they’re going to come back to me with a report in the next I think six or eight weeks, then we’re going to take some action. It is something I’ve been very concerned about, because in the end education needs to be a local issue.”

What could possibly be going on that would give the famously self confident and unapologetically “authentic” “Tough Guy” governor to start walking back from reforms he has been pursuing since 2010 with barely pausing to breath?  What could plant any seed of doubt in his generally doubt free mind?

Oh, right.

Chris Christie is running for the Republican nomination for President.  One of his main rivals will be former Florida Governor Jeb Bush who is trying to stick with his support of Common Core while not naming it too often.  Governor Christie must be mindful that Republican support for Common Core has fallen in the past year with 58% of Republican parents opposing the standards and only 19% viewing them favorably.  While most of those opponents likely object to the standards on substantive grounds, Mr. Christie must also be mindful that conservative opposition to the standards also include no small number of these people:

…who also, according to popular theory, wield outsized influence in primaries.

Will trying to two step his support for education reform to the right of Jeb Bush work for Governor Christie?  I have no idea.  Recent polling suggests that Common Core may not be so toxic in all early voting states, and primary voters may not be as extreme and polarized as commonly thought.  So Governor Christie is trying to distinguish himself from Governor Bush, but to what effect is up in the air.

What is not up in the air is what this “rethinking” means for New Jersey: Bupkas.

The New Jersey Department of Education website still contains links to the Common Core State Standards in the English Language Arts and Mathematics and links to college and career readiness and to New Jersey’s resource page for teaching Common Core.  The AchieveNJ section of the DOE site is still up, complete with links to Student Growth Percentiles for teachers in tested subjects and Student Growth Objectives for teachers in all subjects.  PARCC assessments are still being fully implemented this spring as scheduled, and the Commissioner sent “guidance” to districts that strongly suggested that districts could face consequences if too many parents opted their children out of the assessments and that there was no requirement for schools to provide those students with alternative settings. Trenton-appointed Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson is still in place and still thundering ahead with the One Newark plan to turn the district into the “charter school capital” of the nation.

There is no sign that any of that is being reconsidered in Trenton.  Governor Christie may move one foot away from his education record while in Iowa or New Hampshire, but residents of the Garden State should expect the “Tough Guy’s” other foot to stomp down with emphasis right where it already is.

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Filed under Cami Anderson, charter schools, Chris Christie, Common Core, Newark, One Newark, PARCC, Testing

Liberal Apostasy: Is It Time To Downgrade the Federal Department of Education?

Washington has seen recent jockeying for positions on the debate to repeal or revise the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) as Republican Senator and former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander takes over the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions.  Senator Alexander has signaled that he intends to engage in significant overhauls of the 2001 law which updated the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and which has been due for re-authorization since 2007.  He will likely find atypical allies from traditionally Democratic leaning teacher unions who will join more conservative advocates in calling for a decrease in standardized testing and walking back Obama Administration initiatives that have pushed states to evaluate individual teachers and make tenure and dismissal processes tied to such scores.

Current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan laid out some of his priorities for an overhaul of the legislation in a speech on January 12th, and he was joined by a group statement from a number of venerable civil rights organizations that, among their other priorities for federal education law, called on lawmakers to preserve the annual standardized testing requirements from NCLB.  Given the historic problems in many state with both resistance to integration and with neglecting urban and rural student populations which led to more vigorous federal education laws in the first place, it is not surprising that such organizations would want a new education law to retain tight oversight provisions for the states.  Secretary Duncan, in his planned remarks, emphasized accountability:

I believe parents, and teachers, and students have both the right and the absolute need to know how much progress all students are making each year towards college- and career-readiness. The reality of unexpected, crushing disappointments, about the actual lack of college preparedness cannot continue to happen to hard-working 16- and 17-year olds – it is not fair to them, and it is simply too late. Those days must be over.

That means that all students need to take annual, statewide assessments that are aligned to their teacher’s classroom instruction in reading and math in grades 3 through 8, and once in high school.

As he continued, he framed the need for accountability in civil rights language:

Will we work together to ensure that every public school makes a real priority of the educational progress of minority students, those living in poverty – be there rural, urban, or someplace else — those with disabilities, those learning English, or other groups that have struggled in school in the past? Should unacceptable achievement gaps require action? Or is that simply optional?

Secretary Duncan’s questions were poignant, and the moral authority of the NAACP and the ACLU should have reminded listeners that we have historically done a poor job improving educational opportunity for students minority students and students in poverty.  However, the insistence that annual, standardized test-based accountability is the only solution to making certain that we are accountable to all of our students is deeply flawed.  It is flawed because the testing regimen that Secretary Duncan supports has already narrowed the curriculum received by huge swaths of our student population, even though Secretary Duncan declared that non-tested subjects like science and the arts “are essentials, not luxuries.”  It is flawed because even though Secretary Duncan stated that teachers and principals deserve support, the national reality is that most states are still spending less on education today than they did before the Great Recession even as the federal government has pushed those states to demand much more from those same teachers and principals.  It is flawed because while Secretary Duncan said he believes “teachers deserve fair, genuinely helpful systems for evaluation and professional growth that identify excellence and take into account student learning growth,” his favored metric is the value-added model (VAM) of teacher performance, and the research simply does not support using VAMs as either “fair” or “genuinely helpful” and they certainly cannot “identify excellence” with reliability.

Secretary Duncan once famously said that “We should be able to look every second grader in the eye and say, ‘You’re on track, you’re going to be able to go to a good college, or you’re not,’” so his faith in power of standardized testing data is long lasting and probably sincere, but it has led his department, under the guise of relieving states from the most punishing aspects of NCLB, to push states in educational directions that are legitimately damaging to the public’s trust in education and which incentivize schools and teachers to further narrow their curriculum in search of higher test performance.

Which leads me to a question: Is it time to downgrade the federal department of education?

This is not an idle question because while I believe that the federal legislation from the 1960s and 1970s was a necessary beginning to address systemic inequalities in educational opportunity for the poor, for minorities, for women, and for people with disabilities, the Cabinet level role of the Department of Education has become highly problematic in today’s hyper-focus on standardized testing.  The federal DOE was actually created by Congress in 1979 in order to strengthen the federal commitment to public education and to increase coordination and accountability for the various federal laws that have direct impact on schools.  The department was immediately under fire from conservative activists interested in a smaller federal government, and President Reagan, riding the conservative wave that put him in office, pledged to abolish the fledgling department.  This did not happen, and by the 1990s, the department was secure under the successive Presidencies of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.  With the bipartisan passage of No Child Left Behind, the department was firmly entrenched in pushing states to hold schools accountable to student achievement on standardized test scores, and while the Obama administration Race to the Top grants allowed states to apply for waivers on NCLB requirements that all children read and do math “at grade level,” states had to agree to adopt common standards, expand charter schools, and use standardized test scores to evaluate teachers.  Secretary Duncan made it clear that he would hold states receiving waivers to those agreements when in April of last year, he stripped Washington state’s NCLB waivers for not meeting the federal department’s “requirements for reform.” 

The federal government provides roughly 12% of the annual national spending of $550 billion on elementary and secondary education.  While this does not represent a sum that comes close to helping states meet federal requirements, it has proven enough for the federal government to use the Department of Education to push policies like test-based accountability and rapid expansion of charter schools upon states and locales that might seek other ways to improve their schools given more flexibility.  Title 1 funds, for example, reach 56,000 schools serving 21 million children, but since NCLB those funds have been tied towards demonstration of student annual progress via standardized testing and during the Obama administration states were required to use standardized tests to evaluate teachers if the received waivers from other NCLB provisions.  The federal government can use its funding to enforce specific policy priorities on the states, but it rarely funds those priorities enough to help school districts implement them effectively.  For example, for 40 years the federal government has failed to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), covering roughly 17% of the cost of the legislation even though it has long promised states to cover a full 40%.

Questioning the Cabinet level role of the DOE does not mean abandoning the landmark legislation in education that proceeded the department’s formation, and it is important to recognize the significant and needed impact of that legislation.  Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children in 1975.  In the 1969-1970 school year, a total of 2,677,000 children representing 5.9% of all children in public school received special education services, but none of them were identified with specific learning disabilities.  In the 1979-1980 school year, 4,005,000 children representing 8.9% of all students received special education services, including almost 1.3 million with specific learning disabilities that were being accommodated.  Title IX was passed in 1972 when 386,683 women received bachelors degrees, representing 46% of degrees conferred.  By 1979-1980 school year, that percentage had risen to 49%.  In 1960, five years before the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed, the median years of school attended by an African American male was 7.9, and by 1980, that had increased to 11.9 years — more important, the gap in the median number of years in school between white and black males closed from 20 percentage points.

All of these gains occurred in the wake of landmark federal legislation, but before the Department of Education was created in its current form.

What makes the current federal DOE so problematic in 2015 is not the role that it was created to play, but the fact that most initiatives out of it since Congress passed No Child Left Behind resemble a classic case of regulatory capture by the for profit charter school sector, the testing industry, and the data mining industries.  Unlike other cases of regulatory capture, there appears to be no prospect for partisan realignment as administrations change and monied interests involved in the Executive branch shift — successive two-term Republican and Democratic administrations have charged down the current path, prioritizing testing with increasingly higher stakes.

While eliminating the Cabinet level DOE would impede some of these forces, I am also mindful of important considerations.  First, the civil rights organizations that have signed on supporting Secretary Duncan’s priorities are not wrong in their concern that states have historically neglected and have even actively discriminated against certain populations, and that states and localities must be held accountable for providing equal access and equal opportunities for all of their students. While I disagree that yearly high stakes examinations are the way to ensure that, nobody can reasonably look at our history and dismiss the issue.  Second, demoting the federal DOE might complicate the plans of the interests who have worked to monetize public education, but it is not as if they are absent from state level government. When it comes to adding requirements to teachers while cutting funding and when it comes to turning public schools over to charter corporations, there is little daylight between Democratic star politicians like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, and former Newark Mayor and now United States Senator Cory Booker and Republican counterparts such as Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Chris Christie of New Jersey.

Finally, as Arthur Camins notes here, our problem of the past 15 years can be described as the federal DOE “reaching for the wrong things:”

The problem over the last several decades of education policy is not overreach. It is that the federal government has been reaching for the wrong things in the wrong places with the wrong policy levers. For example, the nation has largely abandoned efforts to end segregation, arguably a prime driver of education inequity. The large-scale, community-building infrastructure and WPA and CCC employment efforts of the Great Depression have given way to the limited escape from poverty marketing pitch of education policy following the Great Recession. Whereas the 1960s War on Poverty targeted community resource issues, current education efforts target the behavior of individual teachers and pits parents against one in other in competition for admission to selected schools.

Professor Camins’ points are well-taken, but advocates for returning public education to the public’s care need ideas for addressing how education policy has been captured in both Washington D.C. and in state capitols. Consider the case of Andrew Cuomo who raised over $40 million between his inauguration in 2010 and reelection in 2014 — more than half of which came from just 341 donors, donors who expect influence upon the governor commensurate with their investment.  In essence, this is a question of rooting up corruption and the circumvention of democratic processes, but as Fordham Law Professor Zephyr Teacher demonstrates, there are no easy answers.

But we must seek answers, even difficult ones.  What has happened at the federal DOE is dangerous for quality and equitable public education, but it is also a symptom of a problem endemic in our politics.  Mere handfuls of extremely wealthy people can override the wishes of millions of voters and circumvent public debate on crucial issues.

We cannot afford it any longer.

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Filed under Chris Christie, Corruption, Cory Booker, Funding, Gates Foundation, politics, Social Justice

If You Don’t Know What is Happening in Newark, You Should

Newark Public Schools began the school year under the “One Newark” program imposed upon the city by Trenton appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson.  The plan, which is the fruition of the partnership between Governor Chris Christie and former Mayor and current U.S. Senator Cory Booker, essentially speeds up the process by which neighborhood schools are labeled failures and turned over to charter school management and, in theory, opens up the entire city to a school choice plan potentially sending students all across the city in search of schools.  Community concern, parent, student and teacher, has been brushed aside, and the plan has been put into operation this school year.

Bob Braun, retired education reporter for the New Jersey Star Ledger has extensively covered the plan’s roll out on his blog, Bob Braun’s Ledger, and it is safe to say that he characterizes it more as a roll OVER of the entire community.  Schools were slated to close even when succeeding by every reasonable metricAnderson stopped attending monthly public meetings where she was hearing the public’s anger and confusion.  Even Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has expressed concern that Anderson’s plans are being rushed to implementation too quickly.  During the summer months, it was clear that Anderson had no operable plans for the transportation logistics problems caused by potentially busing students from the same families across the city to entirely different schools.  The lack of planning or even of care to plan was further evident this summer, when parents, taking off much needed work hours to participate in a school assignment process, were left waiting for hours in sweltering heat only to be told they would have to return another day.  Mind you, this wasn’t to enroll in an assigned school — it was just to get an assignment at all.  Mr. Braun reported one of just many heart-breaking stories entirely born of the cruelty being imposed upon Newark:

All the parents had stories to tell about the cruelty inflicted by the Anderson/Christie regime on the often poor and predominantly black and Hispanic residents of Newark. Typical was the story told by Marisol Mendez who came to the “One Newark” registration day to find placements for her 14-year-old son, Carlos Perez, and 9-year-old daughter, Emily Perez. The family lives in the North Ward and the children attended Abington Avenue but, when they applied under Anderson’s “One Newark” plan, Carlos, a special education student, they were  assigned to West Side High School and Emily was sent to a South Ward school.

“The placements were inappropriate for both of the children,” says Mendez. “My daughter is not going to take NJ Transit across town and my son needs a self-contained, special education class. He has had one all of his school career.”

Mendez tried to get answers from both the NPS administration and from charter schools. But, she says, two charter school operators–Newark Prep and K-12–told her they couldn’t take special education students. When she tried to speak to bureaucrats downtown, she received this shocking answer:

“They told me I should home-school my children.”

Anderson was upbeat on opening day, despite numerous reports of buses wandering the streets trying to find the students they were supposed to pick up.  But this week, the Newark Students Union tried to prove a point: that even in a politically disenfranchised community like Newark, people love their schools and will use whatever voice they can to make themselves heard.  On September 9th and 10th, students took part in direct action to protest what has been imposed upon them from outside political and economic alliances that see their entire school system as a worthy “experiment” at “creative destruction”.  With threats of citywide boycotts no longer supported by adult-led institutions such as the teachers’ union and the city clergy, these teens decided they had to be on the vanguard of demanding that Newark be heard: as reported by WABC News in New York City.  The student activists protested a second day by blockading the street near Anderson’s office as reported by WNBC the following day.  That protest culminated when police moved in to unchain the protesters, injuring the group’s leader, Kristin Towkaniuk.  Time will tell what will become in Newark, but despite their setbacks, it was genuinely inspiring to see students standing up when few adults are willing to do so.

And we all might have to get used to it.  I hope that I am wrong, but I have a terrible feeling that what is happening in Newark will shortly become the norm in American urban education.  Those schools have been treated to over 31 years of a relentless narrative of failure that has set them up for this kind of externally imposed disruption, and large portions of their populations are alienated constituencies in the body politic who certainly cannot muster the kind of money that drives policy today.

What worries me is that the growing backlash against the common standards, associated testing and use of testing to label students, teachers and schools as “failures” ripe for reorganization and take over is one with teeth because it has been pushed into our politically empowered communities, ones under no threat of state take over and loss of local control.  Peter Greene, a teacher and blogger, wrote about how at least one enthusiastic advocate of current reform trends, Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute, appears to be grasping this problem.  The gist is that Mr. Petrilli is now concerned that he and his fellow reform enthusiasts have mistakenly pushed their entire reform package into communities that have always thought highly of their schools, get the outcomes that they wish from those schools, have no easily identified need for drastic changes — plus they vote.  Some of them are even affiliated with powerful corporations who can provide the kind of monetary largesse that gets the attention of policy makers.

I could have told him this years ago if he had asked.  While a super majority of Americans think our schools are doing a mediocre job at best, a similar super majority of parents approve of the schools their children attend, and the Race To The Top package of reforms have taken the failure narrative from urban parents long used to it and pushed it out to the suburbs, whose parents are getting pissed at it.  Petrilli is even willing to admit that most high poverty schools are not failing so much as they are “no better and no worse” than average suburban schools.  However, he then pivots that such schools cannot “settle” for average and arrives at his conclusion that “no excuses” charter schools are the “best” suited for the job of propelling high poverty student populations to match students in affluent communities.

And this is why we can expect Newark to be replicated across the country if we don’t speak up even from the comfortable position of middle class school patrons.  I think Petrilli is correct when he diagnoses the reasons for growing push back against Common Core, testing and school failure.  Reformers have pushed so hard so quickly that they have challenged the politically empowered constituencies that policy setters need in order to stay in office. They certainly cannot charterize school districts where well-off families paid top dollar for homes in a neighborhood specifically because of the neighborhood schools.

But the efforts to turn over more public schools to charter management organizations will not give up easily.  If you have any doubt about that, recall that Wall Street donations pushed over 3 million dollars into the campaign of Shavar Jeffries for Newark mayor because his opponent, now-Mayor Ras Baraka opposed One Newark and its plans to turn over many more Newark schools to charters.  This is in a city where the mayor and school board have no real power over the schools.  There are well-financed and influential operations that want One Newark to become a model for urban education.

If that happens, we will have missed an opportunity.  If suburban parents manage to push back the disruption of current reforms from their communities, only to stand back and allow it to be imposed, full force, on communities without political power, it will be yet one more anti-democratic burden layered upon the backs of these communities.  It will be yet another case where we have abandoned children living in poverty as someone else’s problem, favoring the “easy” answers promised by education “reform” instead of the hard work of re-imagining a society without institutional racism and an economy where genuine opportunity flows upward.

We cannot afford to keep ignoring that.

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Filed under Activism, Cami Anderson, charter schools, Chris Christie, Common Core, Cory Booker, Newark, One Newark, politics, schools, Social Justice