8-30-12 Education and Related Issues in the News

NJ Spotlight - Christie's Keynote Address: Familiar Rhetoric, Familiar Targets…It didn't take long for the governor draw a bead on New Jersey's teachers' unions


By John Mooney, August 30, 2012 in Education|Post a Comment

Two weeks ago, Gov. Chris Christie signed a new tenure reform law and praised a host of parties that came together to craft it, including the state’s dominant teachers' union -- his archenemy for much of his term.

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That feeling of fellowship didn’t last very long.

Before a national audience on Tuesday, Christie again spoke about tenure reform in his keynote address to the Republican National Convention, even mentioning that it was a “bipartisan” accomplishment.

Then came Christie’s familiar refrain about the teachers' unions, not as part of the solution but as part of the problem. He didn’t name names, instead framing it more as a Democrat vs. Republican issue. Yet the target was unmistakable.

Referring to the Democrats, “they believe the educational establishment will always put themselves ahead of children,” Christie said from the podium. “That self-interest trumps common sense.

“They believe in pitting unions against teachers, educators against parents, and lobbyists against children.

“They believe in teacher's unions,” he declared. “We believe in teachers.”

The last line received what may have been Christie’s biggest applause of the night from the convention floor, not surprising for a Republican party that has seen its governors take on public employee unions in a range of states.

But at least on the topic of the tenure law, the teachers' unions in New Jersey by most accounts were key players, with several key components of the bill coming straight from the their initial proposals, especially about streamlining the process for removing ineffective teachers.

Other provisions were more from the Christie camp, including the prominence of student achievement as one of the determinants of a teacher evaluation. And whether this bill would have passed without Christie’s push, let alone unanimously, is doubtful.

Unsurprisingly, Christie’s comments Tuesday night didn’t go over well back home with the biggest of those unions, the New Jersey Education Association.

The union’s leadership didn’t go out of its way yesterday to react publicly, as it sometimes has in the past, but NJEA executive director Vincent Giordano last night said he was sorry to be back in the crosshairs.

“We’re a little disappointed on an issue that we had worked so hard and cooperatively on -- and he even praised us at the signing -- that before a national audience he got all adversarial again and felt he had to beat us over the head,” Giordano said.

“Seems like he went back to the old approach,” he said. “It was disappointing, but hopefully we can still work together on the issues that are important to us.”

New Jersey Monthly - Education 2012: Top New Jersey High Schools

Just in time for back-to-school, we present our 2012 list of the best public high schools in New Jersey.

Posted August 13, 2012 by Ken Schlager, Amanda Staab

For the first time since 2008, a new number 1 tops the New Jersey Monthly list of the state’s Top 100 Public High Schools. New Providence High School in Union County ascends to the summit of the rankings, up from number 5 on the previous list (published in September 2010). In fact, a number of high schools make significant moves up—or down—the list, which is based on data reported by the schools to the Department of Education for the 2010-2011 school year. (Click here for a complete explanation of our methodology)

Some of the biggest moves are fueled in part by New Jersey’s use of a new graduation-rate calculation. In the past, our rankings distinguished between students going on to four-year colleges, two-year colleges and other postsecondary schools. The data for students going to four-year colleges was given extra weight, making it a potent driver of the results. This year’s rankings use the new four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate, introduced by New Jersey in 2011, as mandated by the federal government.

New Jersey Monthly made two other changes in compiling this year’s rankings: Because personal computers have become widespread among the high-school population, we eliminated student/computer ratio as a factor. More significantly, we increased the weighting for data on test results and the aforementioned graduation-rate calculation. The change in weighting is intended to emphasize the importance of student results at a time of budget cutting, when even the best schools must learn to do more with fewer resources.

In addition to publishing the Top 100 Public High Schools, we have compiled the top 10 schools by District Factor Group, which classifies schools based on their socioeconomic peer group. We also created a list of the top 20 most improved high schools (based on our overall rankings. And for the first time, we have ranked the state’s top 35 vocational schools. For a complete ranking of 328 public high schools, visit njmonthly.com/topschools.

So how did New Providence do it? The state’s new top-ranked school has climbed steadily up the New Jersey Monthly chart in recent years; it placed at number 26 in 2006 and rose to 17 in 2008 before breaking into the top 10 two years ago.

The school’s average class size is down sharply since the 2010 rankings, and its math scores in the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) have improved significantly. This at a time of state budget cuts and local belt-tightening.

Paul Casarico, who starts his sixth year as principal at New Providence this fall, acknowledges that it was tough adjusting to Governor Chris Christie’s cuts in school aid, which began in 2010, but he also sees a bright side. “It was an unfortunate thing,” he says, “but it made us look at everything we do as a school and really prioritize.”

More than 500 districts were affected by Christie’s $989 million in cuts; 100 districts, mainly affluent communities like New Providence, lost all their state aid for the 2010-2011 school year.

However, as the Christie administration has worked toward improving New Jersey’s fiscal situation, the amount of state aid for schools has increased. Christie restored $839 million in aid to districts in his 2011-2012 budget. (New Providence received $645,220 in state aid in 2011-2012, less than half the $1.48 million that had been cut the previous year, according to the Department of Education website.) In Christie’s proposed budget for 2012-2013, schools get an additional boost of about $136 million.

In adapting to the new economic reality, New Providence eliminated a few teaching positions, but Casarico says other teachers were redeployed within the district to minimize the effects of the cuts. “We worked with the middle school and the elementary schools to best utilize our staff so we didn’t have balloon enrollments of up to 29 or 30 in a classroom,” Casarico says.

Further cuts were made “around the periphery,” Casarico says. For example, “if a team had four coaches, we went down to three.” Adds district superintendent David Miceli, “We went at it with a scalpel and took little pieces from here and there. The goal was to maintain the culture of the district”—which aims to provide as many opportunities for students as possible.

Both men also credit the community and the board of education for rallying behind the schools. “People are very supportive,” Casarico says. “They expect a lot out of the schools. When kids come in, they are pretty much ready, and it’s just up to our teachers to take them to the next level.”

A number of high schools make notable jumps into the top 10, led by Glen Rock, which moves from number 28 in 2010 to number 4 this year. Also leaping toward the top are Kinnelon (21-5), Madison (15-6) and Rumson-Fair Haven Regional (31-10).

The top-10 perennials holding strong include McNair Academic, a Jersey City magnet school that topped the chart in 2006 and continues to deliver impressive results, holding at number 2. Tenafly remains at number 3, while Mountain Lakes moves up two positions to number 7 and Ridge (serving Bernards Township) climbs three rungs to number 9.

Losing its perch at the top is Millburn High School, which had been number 1 in our 2008 and 2010 rankings. Millburn’s overall score was mainly affected by an increase in average class size from 19.1 to 21.3 in the new data. The school’s HSPA results in both math and language actually improved since two years ago; it also had one of the highest adjusted cohort rates—meaning Millburn students continue to excel.

William Miron, principal of Millburn High School, acknowledges that, like most school leaders, he had to ask some tough questions following the cuts in state aid. Increasing class size was one of his answers. “We used to say that 25 would be our maximum,” Miron says. “Now we’ve eased up on that.” That means teachers considered capable of handling larger classes might get more than 25 students. But Miron points out that less-advanced students are placed in smaller classes, where they can receive greater personalized attention.

Click here for a full list of the Top Public High Schools in New Jersey.

Top High Schools (Alphabetically)

Top High Schools by District Factor Group

Top Vocational Schools

Most Improved High Schools




Star Ledger -5 Woodbridge educators suspended by state amid cheating accusations

Published: Wednesday, August 29, 2012, 8:00 AM Updated: Wednesday, August 29, 2012, 10:45 AM

By Star-Ledger StaffThe Star-Ledger, Jeanette Rundquist and Jessica Calefati/The Star-Ledger

WOODBRIDGE — Two Woodbridge elementary school principals and three teachers have been suspended after state investigators concluded they cheated or encouraged third-graders to cheat on state standardized tests, the most severe actions to arise so far from a Department of Education probe.

The five educators were suspended with pay by the Woodbridge Board of Education on Monday night, just one week before the scheduled start of classes. All five, four of whom are tenured, worked at the Avenel or Ross Street elementary schools.

The educators’ conduct was uncovered in the state’s "erasure analysis" of 2010 and 2011 NJ-ASK tests, in which investigators look for unusually high numbers of wrong-to-right erasures. Investigators also received anonymous letters and phone calls about possible testing breaches at Middlesex County schools, officials said. Dozens of staff members and students were interviewed by the state Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance, officials said.

The NJ-ASK is the achievement test given to students in grades 3-8. The tests include sections in math and language arts in all grades, along with science in grades 4 and 8.

The scandal comes to light as the stakes in standardized testing in New Jersey are taking on more signficance. Scores are used to identify schools needing help, and next year the state will, for the first time, formally link teachers’ job security to their students’ test scores.

The suspended teachers and principals engaged in a variety of inappropriate actions in their classrooms, according to investigative documents released by the school board.

According to the documents:


3 Woodbridge teachers, 2 principals suspended amid cheating investigation

More than a dozen N.J. schools cleared of cheating allegations, 9 remain under investigation

34 N.J. schools to be investigated for possible cheating after state discovers test score irregularities

• Several teachers engaged in what they called "active monitoring/proctoring" — walking around their classrooms on test days, pointing out incorrect answers for students to change. Ross Street Principal Sharon Strack encouraged this, "providing instructions to engage in activities which constituted cheating." Strack also engaged in the practice herself, telling children she had a "Magic Finger" and used it to point out wrong answers the students should correct.

• Strack, who also distributed and collected test booklets at her school, went so far as to change answers herself. Witnesses told investigators she would sit alone in a conference room, sometimes wearing white gloves. One witness recalled entering the room and finding Strack erasing answers on a student’s test, "voic(ing) her disbelief at the responses entered."

• Avenel Street Principal Dara Kurlander encouraged her staff to use "test strategies that resulted in breaches." One staff member told investigators that during a meeting, Kurlander encouraged staff to tap and point at wrong answers. The staff member "dismissed the directive at the time, believing Ms. Kurlander must have been joking."

• Avenel Street teacher Stephanie Klecan "interfered with students’ work" by using a non-verbal cue.The week prior to testing, she let students know the teacher would point to wrong answers, which they should review and correct. A proctor who worked in her classroom, Joan Johnson, a retired teacher who worked as a substitute, also pointed and tapped to steer kids to change answers.

• Avenel Street teacher John Radzik obtained secure test booklets ahead of time and used them to prep students. He told stories to his class that would provide the answers to a writing prompt, and during the language arts portion of the test, reminded his students to use the story. The same story details — a cat named "Fluffy" or description of a baseball game — turned up in numerous students’ writing samples.

As a result of the alleged cheating, test scores soared, according to the documents. In Lisa Sivillo’s class of 21 students at the Avenel Street School, for example, 11 students scored a perfect 300 on the 2010 math test.

On the other hand, her class also included three of the eight students in the state — out of more than 100,000 third-graders — who had 18 wrong-to-right erasures, the documents state.

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According to Measurement Inc., the state-contracted testing company, the odds of three of those eight students ending up in the same class are less than one in one billion.

The reports detailing the Woodbridge cheating allegations are the first of as many as two dozen the state Department of Education is expected to release in the coming weeks after investigating erasures at about two dozen schools between 2008 and 2011.

In the meantime, the investigation is continuing in Woodbridge, including at Woodbridge High School. There are three high schools in Woodbridge.

"We will continue to hold people accountable for their actions, but there is no evidence that these cases are representative of educators across New Jersey," said Barbara Morgan, a Department of Education spokeswoman. "We are incredibly lucky to have a talented and dedicated group of people working on behalf of our students, and the behavior of a few should not be used to demean everyone else."

Several of the Woodbridge educators, reached at their homes Tuesday, had no comment. Kurlander offered a "no comment" through the concierge of her Hoboken apartment building, and Avenel Street teacher Stephanie Klecan declined to comment.

Sivillo and Radzik are now married to each other. Peter Sivillo, Lisa’s father, responded to a knock from a reporter at his door in Metuchen, but did not make a statement.

Jonathan Busch, attorney for the Woodbridge board, said all the educators have cooperated with the investigation.

"Anytime anything has come to the board, they’ve responded as transparently as possible," he said.

Superintendent John Crowe said he was "disheartened" and "angry" to learn some in his district had cheated.

"The majority of our employees would never consider doing this," he said. "We are very serious about seeing to it that all employees are honest and that no cheating will take place moving forward."

Though no student test scores will be adjusted, Crowe said the district would ensure that all students receive services they need to do well in school. In some cases, falsely-high test scores could keep children for getting remedial help that they need.

Crowe said the district has not determined whether tenure charges will be brought against the educators. That could result in them losing their jobs permanently.

The cases will also be referred to the state Board of Examiners, which can take action to strip the teachers of their teaching licenses.

School Board President Brian Small said in a statement on the district website that the "conscious and intentional cheating" uncovered at the two schools is "absolutely unacceptable."

The board’s "first step," he said, was to accept the resignation of an assistant superintendent. Board member Lawrence Miloscia identified her as Lois Rotella. He would not elaborate.

The New Jersey Education Association said union attorneys are representing the teachers.

Woodbridge Township Education Association President Brian Geoffroy called the accusations "if true, terrible. We would not support any tampering with student work."

The Woodbridge scandal occurs as the stakes in standardized testing are greater than ever. Scores are used to identify schools needing help, and a law signed earlier this month will formally link teachers’ job security to their students’ scores for the first time.

The documents paint a picture of educators’ concern about the tests.

One witness told investigators that Strack had discussed the importance of the tests and the need for children to pass. "During this conversation, Ms. Strack was tapping on her desk while using the phrase, "by any means necessary," the report read.

Star-Ledger staff writers Seth Augenstein and Tom Haydon contributed to this report.