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  • A Myth Grows In The Garden State

    Written on July 15, 2016

    New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s recently announced a new "fairness funding" plan to provide every school district in his state roughly the same amount of per-pupil state funding. This would represent a huge change from the current system, in which more state funds are allocated to the districts that serve a larger proportion of economically disadvantaged students. Thus, the Christie proposal would result in an increase in state funding for middle class and affluent districts, and a substantial decrease in money for poorer districts. According to the Governor, the change would reduce the property tax burden on many districts by replacing some of their revenue with state money.

    This is a very bad idea. For one thing, NJ state funding of education is already about 7-8 percent lower than it was in 2008 (Leachman et al. 2015). And this plan would, most likely, cut revenue in the state’s poorest districts by dramatic amounts, absent an implausible increase in property tax rates. It is perfectly reasonable to have a discussion about how education money is spent and allocated, and/or about tax structure. But it is difficult to grasp how serious people could actually conceive of this particular idea. And it’s actually a perfect example of how dangerous it is when huge complicated bodies of empirical evidence are boiled down to talking points (and this happens on all “sides” of the education debate).

    Pu simply, Governor Christie believes that “money doesn’t matter” in education. He and his advisors have been told that how much you spend on schools has little real impact on results. This is also a talking point that, in many respects, coincides with an ideological framework of skepticism toward government and government spending, which Christie shares.

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  • Greetings From Due Diligence, New Jersey

    Written on March 28, 2013

    Earlier this week, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie announced that the state will assume control over Camden City School District. Camden will be the fourth NJ district to undergo takeover, though this is the first time that the state will be removing control from an elected local school board, which will now serve in an advisory role (and have three additional members appointed by the Governor). Over the next few weeks, NJ officials will choose a new superintendent, and begin to revamp evaluations, curricula and other core policies.

    Accompanying the announcement, the Governor’s office released a two-page "fact sheet," much of which is devoted to justifying this move to the public.

    Before discussing it, let’s be clear about something - it may indeed be the case that Camden schools are so critically low-performing and/or dysfunctional as to warrant drastic intervention. Moreover, it's at least possible that state takeover is the appropriate type of intervention to help these schools improve (though the research on this latter score is, to be charitable, undeveloped).

    That said, the "fact sheet" presents relatively little valid evidence regarding the academic performance of Camden schools. Given the sheer magnitude of any takeover decision, it is crucial for the state to demonstrate publicly that they have left no stone unturned by presenting a case that is as comprehensive and compelling as possible. However, the discrepancy between that high bar and NJ's evidence, at least that pertaining to academic outcomes, is more than a little disconcerting.

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  • Interpreting Achievement Gaps In New Jersey And Beyond

    Written on February 21, 2012

    ** Also posted here on "Valerie Strauss' Answer Sheet" in the Washington Post

    A recent statement by the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) attempts to provide an empirical justification for that state’s focus on the achievement gap – the difference in testing performance between subgroups, usually defined in terms of race or income.

    Achievement gaps, which receive a great deal of public attention, are very useful in that they demonstrate the differences between student subgroups at any given point in time. This is significant, policy-relevant information, as it tells us something about the inequality of educational outcomes between the groups, which does not come through when looking at overall average scores.

    Although paying attention to achievement gaps is an important priority, the NJDOE statement on the issue actually speaks directly to the fact, which is well-established and quite obvious, that one must exercise caution when interpreting these gaps, particularly over time, as measures of student performance.

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  • Serious Misconduct

    Written on September 15, 2011

    A recent Monmouth University poll of New Jersey residents is being widely touted by Governor Chris Christie and his supporters as evidence that people support his education reform plans. It’s hardly unusual for politicians to ignore the limitations of polling, but I’d urge caution in interpreting these results as a mandate.

    Others have commented on how some of the questions are worded in a manner that could skew responses. These wording issues are inherent to polling, and that’s one of the major reasons why they must be interpreted carefully. But one of the questions caught my eye – the question about teacher tenure – and it’s worth quickly discussing.

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  • Digging For Data In The Garden State

    Written on March 8, 2011

    In January, the New Jersey Department of Education released a report titled, "Living Up to Expectations: Charter Schools in New Jersey Outperforming District Schools." It consisted of a list of charter schools and their students’ aggregate proficiency rates by grade, along with comparisons with the rates of the regular public school districts in which they are located. The state then tallied the number of charters with higher rates (79 percent in language arts, and 69 percent in math), and concluded - in a press release - that this represented evidence of superior performance. The conclusion was reported without scrutiny. Later that same day, NJ Governor Chris Christie formally announced his plan to expand the state’s charter school sector.

    In a short post that evening, I pointed out the obvious fact that the state’s analysis was wholly inadequate to demonstrate charter performance – good, bad or indifferent – relative to comparable regular public schools. Rutgers Professor Bruce Baker did the same, and also presented a school-level analysis showing that there was no difference.

    Christopher Cerf, the state’s acting education commissioner, decided to stand by the suspect results, basically saying that they were imperfect but good enough to draw the conclusions from.

    It was an astonishing position.

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  • Policy And Research: A Shotgun Wedding In New Jersey

    Written on January 18, 2011

    Earlier today, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie announced his plan to open 23 new charter schools in his state.  Just hours before this announcement, the NJ education department issued an analysis of new data on the performance of charter schools in the state (during the 2009-10 school year).   In an accompanying press release, the department claims that “the data affirms [sic] the need for Governor Christie’s reform proposals to grow the number of high-quality charter schools…” 

    The release also contains several other extremely bold assertions that the results support expanding the state’s charter sector.  The title of the actual report, which contains only tables, is: "Living Up to Expectations: Charter Schools in New Jersey Outperforming District Schools."

    Unfortunately, however, the analysis could barely pass muster if submitted by a student in one of the state’s high school math classes (charter or regular public).

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  • "No Comment" Would Have Been Better

    Written on November 9, 2010

    Bruce Baker is a professor at Rutgers University who writes an informative blog called School Finance 101.  He presented some descriptive analysis of New Jersey charter schools in a post, and ended up being asked to comment on the data by a reporter.  The same reporter dutifully asked the New Jersey Charter Schools Association (NJCSA) to comment on the analysis. 

    The NJCSA describes itself as “the leading statewide advocate for charter public schools in New Jersey and a principal source of public information about charter schools in the state.”  The organization issued the following response to Baker’s analysis:

    The New Jersey Charter Schools Association seriously questions the credibility of this biased data. Rutgers University Professor Bruce Baker is closely aligned with teachers unions, which have been vocal opponents of charter schools and have a vested financial interest in their ultimate failure.

    Baker is a member of the Think Tank Review Panel, which is bankrolled by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice. Great Lakes Center members include the National Education Association and the State Education Affiliate Associations in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin. Its chairman is Lu Battaglieri, the executive director of the Michigan Education Association.

    There are now thousands of children on waiting lists for charters schools in New Jersey. This demand shows parents want the option of sending their children to these innovative schools and are satisfied with the results.

    Note the stretch that they have to make to allege that Baker is “closely aligned” with teachers unions—he occasionally reviews papers for an organization that is partly funded by unions. There is no formal connection beyond that. Note also that the NJCSA statement “questions the credibility of [sic] this biased data”—meaning they doubt the credibility of data from the State of New Jersey, which Baker merely recasts as graphs and maps. There is not a shred of substance in this statement that addresses the data or Baker’s description of them. It’s pure guilt by association (and there’s not really even an association).
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