|8-30-12 Education and Related Issues in the News|
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.
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.
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)
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
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:
• 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.
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.
Garden State Coalition of Schools