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8-31-15 Education in the News

NJ Spotlight- Too Soon for Legacy, Christie’s Education Record Continues to Shape Issues…Critics waste no time ‘welcoming’ Cerf to Newark, funding shortfalls persist in puzzling and plaguing policymakers and pols

John Mooney | August 31, 2015


The start of the school year is anything but routine for New Jersey educators and families, but this time around it should also prove to be an interesting ride for Garden State politicians and policymakers -- especially a certain governor hoping to make a run for the White House.

So far, Gov. Chris Christie’s talk about education in his quest for the Republican nomination has focused on how much he dislikes teachers unions and why he reversed his position on the Common Core State Standards.

But the state’s public schools face a few more-pressing issues this fall, some of which may directly involve Christie’s education record.

Here are a few of them:

Newark schools, post-Cami Anderson

The Newark public schools were to be Christie’s showpiece, a district going through massive change even before Christie arrived, ones that were only accelerated by the $100 million donation by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg that the governor helped cement.

Appointing Cami Anderson to lead the state-run district in 2011, Christie said it would be a model of education reform for the nation. Charter schools -- another Christie favorite cause -- would continue to thrive, and a teachers contract negotiated by Anderson would bring the state’s first large-scale performance bonuses to educators.

But that was then, and the tumultuous past year in the state’s largest district is hardly a model for anyone. Anderson’s reforms brought, at best, mixed results in student performance, and protests over her most severe measures ultimately led to Christie letting her go from the post this summer.

Now, Anderson has been replaced by the man who mentored her on the job, Christie’s former education commissioner Chris Cerf, and his honeymoon in the new job may prove anything but.

Cerf attended his first public meeting last week before the district’s school board, and while it was a relatively subdued crowd by Newark school standards, Cerf was nonetheless greeted with critical questions on everything from his intentions for the district’s local schools (he vaguely promised they would continue to serve a majority of students) to whether his corporate past would influence his decisions (a predictable “No”).

But Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, who has emerged as the leading anti-reform voice, showed up and called the reforms “failed,” and the head of the Newark Teachers Union, whose contract has now expired, went a step further and called for a dismantling of One Newark altogether.

Maybe most telling, four years after Newark’s supposed transformation under Christie, the core issue now is when the district will leave state operation altogether and be returned to local control.

School funding, redux

Christie’s longest-lasting impact on New Jersey public schools is probably state funding -- a complicated story, to say the least.

It started with what was the harshest year for schools in recent memory, when Christie in his first year in office cut more than $1 billion in state aid to public schools in the aftermath of the 2008 economic meltdown.

Half of that money was restored for the state’s neediest districts, thanks to the state Supreme Court and the legacy of Abbott v. Burke. But four years later and slight aid increases since then, a majority of districts have still not fully recovered to their previous aid levels, and the funding gap between what districts receive and what the law entitles only widens.

How long that will remain tenable is an open question, with administration officials and others saying state funding of schools could be a central issue in the next year on a number of fronts.

Most immediate, the administration is due to issue its required report on the state of funding this fall -- the Education Adequacy Report – where any of its own plans are likely to be unveiled.

At the same time, a report on special education funding and oversight is also overdue. One that will have its own recommendations on how to pay for what is becoming a dominant slice of local district budgets.

Preschool may come into its own as a dominant concern as well, since leading Democrats have said that expanding access is a core aim in the next few years. But even short of that, for Democrats looking to succeed Christie in 2017 -- chief among them state Senate President Stephen Sweeney -- few are likely to make excuses for a funding law that is so grossly underfunded.

PARCC realized

And then there’s PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers).

While Christie has taken pains to move away from the Common Core as part of his shift to the right as a presidential candidate, he has left intact the new online tests used to evaluate student performance under the standards.

And the results of those tests are about to be realized.

Taken last spring amid considerable controversy by elementary, middle, and high-school students, test results will be coming back this fall in a few waves.

First will be the State Board of Education’s deliberations over where to finalize the so-called “cut scores” or passing grades on the new tests, a complicated process that started this summer with the convening of educators nationwide in Denver to begin setting the bar for states to adopt.

Once finalized, those scores will be coming back to the districts, which will likely see starkly different passing rates than they are used to.

At the very least, the Christie administration has adjusted to that possibility, and already scaled back any moves to ramp up the consequences of the tests for teachers and schools for at least a year.


The Atlantic - What Do Americans Really Think About Education Policy?...Two recent polls conflict in their findings on what adults think about standardized testing, the opt-out movement, and the Common Core.

Getting a read on the American public’s views on education is no easy task, made more complicated by just how much local schools vary. In a country with more than 13,000 school districts that enroll nearly 50 million students, a range of experiences and perspectives are to be expected.

According to two polls released this month by different organizations, U.S. adults maintain divergent views on some of the most controversial topics in public education today. For both policymakers and political candidates, the poll results at times say conflicting things, even if the questions were worded differently.

  • Common Core: In the Education Next public opinion poll, 49 percent of U.S. adults said they support the Common Core State Standards; in the other poll, conducted by PDK/Gallup, 24 percent of adults share that view, while more than half said they oppose the common standards for English language arts and mathematics adopted by most states.
  • Testing: 59 percent of adults, and 52 percent of parents, opposed allowing parents to prevent their children from taking standardized tests, theEducation Next poll finds. It said 25 percent of U.S. adults support the ability to opt out. The PDK/Gallup poll shows that 44 percent of U.S. adults—and 40 percent of parents—believe that parents should be permitted to opt their students out of standardized tests. And parents surveyed by PDK/Gallup were more likely to support the practice than in the Education Next poll by a margin of 47 to 32 percent.
  • Charter Schools: The polls captured different levels of support for charter schools among U.S. adults. Charters, which are publicly funded but are typically run by private nonprofit or for-profit groups, have the support of 64 percent of adults, according to PDK/Gallup. The Education Next poll found that 47 percent of adults favor the creation of charter schools.

It’s important to remember that polls are like “dipping a thermometer into a giant melting pot of American society,” says Jonathan Supovitz, the co-director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education at the University of Pennsylvania. “You’re bound to get different readings in different places.”

Given that caveat, how accurate or useful is polling data? Education polls often ask unprepared people to make “finely nuanced distinctions” without the requisite background, said Andrew Rotherham, the co-founder and a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a national nonprofit in Washington, in an interview last year. “You get a result, but you also get a lot of noise.”

“You get a result, but you also get a lot of noise.”

The Common Core’s popularity has waned as more Americans have become familiar with the standards, which are opposed by an animated contingent of liberal and conservative voters, though for different reasons. Liberal critics charge the standards were written without sufficient input from parents and teachers, while conservatives see the standards as a federal intrusion on states’ rights. (The U.S. Department of Education created incentives for states to adopt the standards, but did not require their adoption.)

Two years ago, 65 percent of Americans in an Education Next poll supported the standards. That year a PDK/Gallup poll noted that nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults have never heard of the Common Core. Fast-forward to this month and nearly every adult is in some way familiar with the standards, PDK/Gallup says, and support for the standards is considerably lower.

For the Common Core, the “proof will be in the pudding,” said Paul Peterson, aHarvard professor who oversaw the Education Next poll. “If the standards do end up being fully implemented and students start learning more, then the public opinion might change.”

When the PDK/Gallup questions on standards are put next to the Education Nextfindings on the Common Core, the responses are not out of alignment, Peterson said: People are generally in favor of setting higher expectations for students across states but they also want local teachers to have leeway in how those goals are met. (In an essay analyzing the two polls, he and his colleague Martin R. Westwrote that the “two surveys are complementary, because they ask about different topics.”)

Indeed, in a call with reporters, Joshua Starr, the former superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools in suburban Maryland and the newly named chief executive officer of PDK, made points similar to Peterson’s:

The divide between the percentage of parents who believe those standards should be higher and then the percentage of parents who don’t support the Common Core, that’s very interesting to me in signaling the potential for a lack of understanding of what the Common Core is.

The furor over allowing parents to pull their students from taking state tests is a newer phenomenon, but can affect the legitimacy and even funding of high-stakes tests. With too many students foregoing taking the assessments, the results may be limited in what they can tell the public about how much students know in math and reading. And according to the federal No Child Left Behind law, states technically risk losing some federal funding if less than 95 percent of students take the high-stakes exams.

In New York, some 20 percent of students opted out of the recently-issued assessments, which are said to measure students with more vigor now that they’re more closely aligned with the Common Core standards. New York education officials have indicated that districts won’t face financial consequences for dipping below that 95 percent threshold. Washington state also posted testing-boycott numbers that saw some of its districts dip below 95 percent participation among eligible students. Among Seattle’s 11th-grade students,nearly half boycotted the exams.

In the coming weeks, more states are slated to release the scores for their students who took the high-stakes tests, many of which were aligned with the Common Core standards for the first time. With campaign season heating up, public polls that try to get a pulse on American attitudes toward education are likely to play into the policy prescriptions of candidates who are critical of the Common Core and supportive of hot-button issues like charter schools.


Timeout for Opt-Outs?

But Americans have long been of two minds about the quality of the nation’s schools—with most giving their local schools high marks but education in the United States far lower levels of approval on the whole. As Matt Chingos, an education scholar, told theLos Angeles Times last week, “If people like their local schools, regardless of what they think about schools nationally, they’re not going to be very likely to vote based on that issue.” Chingos also told the paper that voters are “not going to vote for someone just because that candidate is going to fix a problem with someone else’s schools.” The news outlet EdSource compared the PDK/Gallup poll to those that focused just on California views, showing another gulf in sentiment depending on the polling group.

And both national polls released this month show that adults have mixed feelings—and perceptions—concerning the federal government’s role in the financial affairs of local schools, even though it provides just about one-tenth of U.S. public K-12 education funding. The Education Next poll found that on average adults believe 32 percent of public-school funding is sourced from federal coffers. The poll also asked adults how much money the federal government should contribute to public education. The respondents gave an average answer of 37 percent—nearly quadruple what the government provides now. The PDK/Gallup poll found that 46 percent of adults believe the lion’s share of education funding should come from states, while 23 percent said they want the federal government to kick in the most dollars.*

The Education Next survey polled nearly 4,100 adults, and has a margin of error of 2 percent; the PDK/Gallup poll asked 1,000 adults by phone and 3,500 adults online. PDK/Gallup’s phone survey has an error margin of 4.79 percent while the online version’s was 3.02 percent.