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4-6-15 Recent Education Issues in the News

NJ Spotlight  - Op-Ed: Instilling ‘Soft Skills’ Serves Kids Better Than Memorizing Hard Facts…Ability to 'think outside the box' will prove more crucial to success in the future  ‘In 2015, there's significantly increased educational focus on the nature of information gathering -- think Dewey Decimal-based searches in 1990, versus Google searches today -- which highlights why the skills and attitudes we teach must evolve regularly to enable students to flourish at school and in the world at-large… look at the time-honored emphasis on memorization. It was a core facet of education for generations of America's students, but being a potentially great “Jeopardy” player is no guarantee of success in the game of life. Our students need abilities tailored to modern demands, and we need to adjust how we teach and what we teach accordingly…’

By Patrick J. Fletcher and Dr. Daniel Fishbein | April 6, 2015

(Patrick J. Fletcher is superintendent of the River Dell Regional School District. Dr. Daniel Fishbein is superintendent of the Ridgewood Public Schools. Both are board members of the Bergen County Association of School Administrators…GSCS Note: Dan Fishbein is Past President of GSCS.)

Like it or not, things change ... constantly. It's as much a reality in public education as it is anywhere else.

So, while so much attention is being paid to PARCC testing, it's crucial that anyone interested in the future of our young people and nation realizes that what and how we teach -- as well as what and how students learn -- are evolving rapidly.

As an example of the challenges we face, consider that a youngster entering kindergarten this September will retire around the year 2075. Looking backward 60 years, cell phones and personal computers weren't even a glint on the horizon, so the obvious question is whether we can possibly know what a student will need to know during the coming six decades.

The obvious answer is that we can't. But we can provide training in "soft skills," those somewhat intangible abilities that are increasingly being emphasized in our classrooms and that enable individuals to think "outside the box," grasp multiple points of view, solve problems, delegate, and work with others toward common goals. While technical content and abilities are easier to define and measure, soft skills such as attitude, work ethic, communication capabilities, and emotional intelligence are essential for individual success.

In 2015, there's significantly increased educational focus on the nature of information gathering -- think Dewey Decimal-based searches in 1990, versus Google searches today -- which highlights why the skills and attitudes we teach must evolve regularly to enable students to flourish at school and in the world at-large.

If you find the Dewey Decimal–Google comparison eye-opening, consider that before 1900, total accumulated human knowledge -- that is, all information known to mankind -- doubled roughly every century. By the end of World War II, this rate of doubling had increased to once every quarter-century. But today, estimates indicate that our total accumulated knowledge doubles every 13 months -- meaning that in just five years, there will be about 30 times more total human knowledge than there is today.

Pause a moment to digest all of that ... then consider the staggering volume of information that youngster who's starting kindergarten this September will need to adapt to in the next 60 years or so. Obviously, a wide variety of creative educational strategies is needed to keep students moving in the right direction.

The one soft skill teachers want students to master more than any other is the ability to persist when confronted with a challenging situation. An enthusiasm for getting started promptly and working methodically through a difficult task is invaluable today and will continue to be in the future, as we all face an increasingly complex barrage of new technologies and experiences.

As poet Maya Angelou put it, "You can tell a lot about a person by the way he handles ... tangled Christmas tree lights."

Also crucial for today's learners are the Standards for Mathematical Practice (SMP), a list of soft-skill capabilities concerned with what effective mathematicians actually "do" -- with an emphasis on reasoning, perseverance, identifying resources, developing a plan of attack, and being precise. All of this is outside the realms of calculus, geometry, algebra, or other specific disciplines, but it's crucial to real-world success for those who work with numbers.

Further, SMP principles are applicable to other areas of study. Without a doubt, reasoning, precision, and perseverance -- among other proficiencies -- are essential to success in fields related to English, social studies, science, and the arts.

Another question local schools must ponder is how soft-skills development will impact standardized testing -- and whether these skills can ultimately serve as a complement.

Our classrooms are also seeing an increase in the use of play, gaming, and simulations as instructional components. These are excellent tools for teaching students about teamwork, negotiation, compromise, and planning. Author Michael Schrage's book "Serious Play: How the World's Best Companies Simulate to Innovate" has examined this phenomenon on a corporate level, while Ridgewood Public School District Superintendent Daniel Fishbein, Ed.D., wrote on the subject in his recent article "How Does a Student Become a Good Citizen."

As educators, we respect our vocation's traditions -- but it's essential to realize that today's unprecedented information access means updating our daily practices and focus.

For example, look at the time-honored emphasis on memorization. It was a core facet of education for generations of America's students, but being a potentially great “Jeopardy” player is no guarantee of success in the game of life. Our students need abilities tailored to modern demands, and we need to adjust how we teach and what we teach accordingly.

As Sir Ken Robinson has said in writing about education, "The real role of leadership is climate control, creating a climate of possibility."

Evolutionary educational changes will be adopted at different rates by different school districts. But given our awareness of the possibilities inherent in soft skills, the SMP, and the incorporation of play, games, and simulations into classrooms, we're all moving toward creation of priceless new learning experiences that benefit all our students -- now and into the future.

Patrick J. Fletcher is superintendent of the River Dell Regional School District. Dr. Daniel Fishbein is superintendent of the Ridgewood Public Schools. Both are board members of the Bergen County Association of School Administrators.

 

NJ Spotlight - New Code Curbs Education Commissioner's Power to Set Charter Tuition…Change meets some objections, but state BOE says it’s only bringing code in line with current laws

John Mooney | April 6, 2015

A seemingly routine change in how charter-school finances are regulated is proving anything but. The proposal is reviving arguments -- in court and out -- as to how much leeway the state should have in setting charter-school funding.

A proposal before the state Board of Education this month would eliminate the state education commissioner’s discretionary ability to limit the tuitions that charter schools may draw from local districts.

Related Links

Piscataway Township Schools v. David Hespe

By law, districts are required to pay a charter school where their students are enrolled at 90 percent of the district’s per-pupil costs. At issue, however, is whether districts would be entitled through the commissioner to request reductions in tuition if a charter is retaining inordinate surpluses.

The question has been the subject of a protracted legal challenge from Piscataway schools, which took the state to court in 2012 for refusing to consider such a reduction in tuition for five of its students attending four area charter schools.

At one Plainfield charter, for instance, the surplus was close to $500,000 over the 2 percent limit placed on district schools, according to the complaint.

That case is now before state appellate court, after the Christie administration twice argued that it did not have such discretion.

But now the filing of new regulations -- including the state board’s vote last week to expedite the process -- has raised questions as to what powers the commissioner had all along, and what funding discretion should be in the hands of the state in the case of these alternative schools.

“Why even for appearance sake would you want to strip the commissioner of the discretion in this case?” said David Rubin, attorney for the Piscataway schools. “We aren’t demanding that he make any changes, but why not have the discretion?”

A spokesman for state Education Commissioner David Hespe said last week that the filing of the new regulations was only meant to align with state law adopted in 2000 that reenforced that districts fund charter schools at the 90 percent level. That law was an amendment to the state’s original charter statute adopted in 1995.

But he did say that the state wanted to provide more flexibility to charter schools, which face some constraints in how they can use the funding,

“Since charter schools are funded differently than traditional public schools … it would be good practice for charter schools to have surplus money available to cover potential unexpected or increased costs,” said spokesman David Saenz.

Rubin questioned the timing of the changes as the case moves to the appellate court for the second time. The first time, it was remanded back to the commissioner. He said the state law now cited has been on the books for 15 years, without any changes in regulation.

“The state board took no steps to repeal [current] regulations over the last 15 years, and not only that, twice readopted them,” he said.

Rubin, who said that legal briefs have been filed in the appellate case, promised that Piscataway and possibly others would be filing objections to the rules change before the board in the coming weeks.

“Since we already have a case pending in the appellate division, why not just let the court decide?” he said.

Press of Atlantic City - School spending per child rises 1.6% in New Jersey

By DIANE D’AMICO Education Writer | Posted: Wednesday, April 1, 2015 10:14 pm

Total budgeted per-student spending in New Jersey public and charter schools rose .6 percent, or $301, to $19,211 in 2013-14, according to the 2015 Taxpayers’ Guide to Education Spending released Wednesday.

The increase was much smaller than the 5 percent increase in 2012-13 and reflects the almost flat state aid schools received, plus the 2 percent cap on increases in the local property-tax levy.

 

Category

2012-13

2013-14

Total cost per student

$18,909

$19,211

Classroom costs

$8,421

$8,588

Administration costs

$1,500

$1,561

Extracurricular activities

$262

$274

The total cost includes not just basic operating costs, but also all state contributions for staff pensions and benefits, as well as debt service and transportation.

The actual cost for the basic education of students is much lower. The average cost just for classroom instruction, including the teacher salary and benefits, books and supplies in 2013-14 was $8,588.

The guide from the state Department of Education compares districts of similar size and type, and breaks down expenses in 14 categories, including classroom instruction, administrative costs and legal services.

“The annual spending guide continues to be a valuable source of clear, useful data for taxpayers who want information about spending in our schools,” Commissioner of Education David C. Hespe said.

Locally, spending patterns remain the same, and in smaller districts the loss or gain of just a few students can dramatically change the per-student cost.

Eight of the top 10 spending districts are county special services schools, which work with the most severely disabled students. The schools by law have very small class sizes, and many students also have personal aides.

Avalon and Stone Harbor round out the top 10. Avalon’s spending rose from $43,775 per student to $48,835 largely because enrollment dropped from 106 students to 96. Stone Harbor’s average per student cost in 2013-14 was $37,054.

Rounding out the top 25 in per-student total cost are Long Beach Island, ranked 20th at $27,645; Atlantic City, 22nd at $27,411; Margate, 24th at $26,787; and Wildwood Crest, 25th at $26,639.

Most of the lowest-spending school are charter schools. Compass Academy Charter School in Vineland is the fourth lowest-spending district at $11,275 per student. Vineland Public Charter School spent $11,530, and the Millville Public Charter School spent $12,266.

Hammonton remains among the lowest-spending public school districts at $14,384 per student. Other districts with low per-student costs include Absecon at $15,259, Hopewell Township in Cumberland County at $15,610 and Folsom at $15,979.

Contact Diane D’Amico: 609-272-7241   609-272-7241

DDamico@pressofac.com    @ACPressDamico on Twitter

To learn more

The Taxpayers’ Guide to Education Spending can be found at www.state.nj.us/education/guide/2015.

 

NJ Spotlight - Opinion: Don’t Fall For The Opt-Out Cop-Out…NJ’s kids deserve demanding standardized tests, and we all need the data they deliver

By Laura Waters

Upholding ethical principles in Trenton’s State House is no game for wimps. Legislators in the Assembly and the Senate are relentlessly hounded by lobbyists to sponsor and support bills specific to special-interest groups and lately it seems that much of this legislation is about New Jersey’s public education system. Certainly, our elected representatives share noble aspirations of educational equity. Nonetheless, it must be tempting to succumb to special interests.

That appears to be what has happened with A-4165, just passed unanimously by the Assembly and now headed to the Senate floor. The proposed law, sponsored by Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex) and commonly known as the “opt-out” bill, makes it easy for parents to refuse all standardized testing for their kids, including the new PARCC assessments that replace NJ’s obsolete ASK and HSPA tests.

Why would an elected official, especially one who prides himself on his educational acumen (Diegnan is chair of the Assembly Education Committee) propose a bill that undermines the ability of school districts and the state to disaggregate data that, in turn, allows us to focus resources on the educational needs of poor children and those with disabilities? That data, derived from the standardized tests that Diegnan would deem optional, is the one assailable benefit of No Child Left Behind.

Kati Haycock wrote on this site, “civil rights and disabilities communities know from long experience that children who are not tested don’t count.” A-4165 would render us unaccountable to disenfranchised children.

That can’t be Diegnan’s intent. But his opt-out bill invites the perception that he’s pandering to deep-pocketed lobbyists and sponsoring legislation that ignores the needs of kids who historically don’t count.

About those deep-pocketed lobbyists: The NJEA, one of Diegnan’s top campaign contributors, has been wildly backtracking on its erstwhile support for data-infused teacher evaluations and just completed a $15 million TV ad campaign against PARCC assessments. The union also hosts a website devoted to the demise of the tests. Save Our Schools-NJ blithely propagates misinformation like the tests will “place confidential data at risk to be shared or sold for profit-making purposes.”

In January a chief NJEA lobbyist explained to NJ Spotlight that Diegnan’s opt-out bill was just part of a package of antitesting legislation; she said, “It’s not going to be just one bill. We’re now sorting out what is out there and seeing what needs to be amended … Bills are out there, and I think you will see more.”

SOS-NJ triumphantly exclaimed on its Facebook page last week, “Thanks to your efforts, the four bills to limit high-stakes standardized testing passed the New Jersey Assembly with overwhelming bipartisan support. Now it is time for the New Jersey Senate to act!”

But maybe Assemblyman Diegnan thinks that his obligation is only to his constituents in the 18th legislative district in Middlesex County. The residents in the 18th district are mostly white (0.2 percent black, 9.1 percent Hispanic) and mostly well-to-do. That demographic happens to comprise much of the PARCC opt-out movement. NJEA Spokesman Steve Wollmer helpfully explains that “the vast majority of opt-outs are taking place in non-urban, non-disadvantaged districts because parents tend to be better informed in those districts and tend to communicate among themselves a lot more.”

So Diegnan is just serving his base, regardless of the impact of his bill on families who can’t afford to live towns like East Brunswick or Metuchen. Welcome to New Jersey’s fragmented and segregated education system.

For comparison’s sake, Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) represents NJ’s 29th District and chairs the Senate Education Committee; she’s Diegnan’s counterpart in the other chamber of the State House. Most of her constituency lives in Newark (she also represents Belleville, a diverse and working-class township). Here’s what she told NJTV about the value of standardized testing in general and PARCC in particular: “Are we ready to raise the bar and not be afraid of not getting it in the first year but reinvesting, supporting, circling back, having conversations about changing policies, restructuring. Are we ready to take it to the next level? And I am committed to doing that as chair of the Education Committee, to working with the DOE and every singled stakeholder group that’s here,” she said.

New Jerseyans committed to educational equity and fairness for all children live in hope that the Senate will indeed “take it to the next level,” and remember that they represent all NJ schoolchildren, not just well-heeled constituents and lobbyists. A-4165 is a glob of oleaginous pander. Please, senators, raise the bar.

Laura Waters writes about education politics and policy for NJ Spotlight and other publications. She also blogs at NJ Left Behind and has been a school board member in Lawrence Township (Mercer County) for 10 years.

Star Ledger – New Front opens in war on PARCC: The spin game…New Jersey's education community is divided over the new PARCC tests

By Adam Clark | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com 
Email the author | Follow on Twitter 
on April 03, 2015 at 10:00 AM, updated April 03, 2015 at 10:03 AM

The television advertisement about New Jersey's new standardized tests begins with a shot of a frowning woman and ends with a voiceover: "We're setting our kids up to fail."

In a different video, posted online, a young boy enthusiastically talks about the same tests, saying they are interactive, engaging and "will give parents like you more detailed feedback on my learning."

As New Jersey introduces new state assessments this spring, the state's education community has crafted dueling narratives about the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exams for students in grades 3-11.

On one side, the state's largest teachers union has branded the PARCC exams untested, unproven and a distraction from daily classroom instruction. On the other, the state's PTA and organizations representing New Jersey principals and superintendents are declaring the tests could help parents and teachers understand how well students are learning more than ever before.

Meanwhile, a grassroots parent movement opposed to PARCC is demanding its voice be heard, and the state's Department of Education says it's trying to communicate its own message, though officials acknowledge they may be drowned out by the noise.

With most students in a break between the first and second testing windows, here's a look at who's shaping the debate about PARCC.

Parents

Save Our Schools NJ, a parent group that has taken a stand on various education issues since 2010, launched its campaign against PARCC testing last year, calling the computerized math and English exams "diagnostically & instructionally useless."

It published a list of 12 reasons its opposed to the test, including PARCC's financial burden, and its members have testified against PARCC testing at state Board of Education meetings and other public hearings.

Members also created a step-by-step guide for how to refuse the tests, and the group's social media pages have become a message board for parents to share their PARCC concerns and experiences.

"Parents realize much is at stake and are organizing in ever-increasing numbers to protect their children and their public schools," member Susan Cauldwell wrote in a joint op-ed with New Jersey Education Association President Wendell Steinhauer.

An unrelated group, United Opt Out NJ, existed prior to PARCC testing but experienced a groundswell of support beginning in January, said Jean McTavish one of the groups leaders.

The group advocates refusing standardized testing as a way for parents to get a seat at the table in decisions made about public school education.

"I feel like we are starting to be heard," McTavish said after the state Assembly supported a bill protecting students' right to opt out of PARCC. "And that's a great thing."

But early reports from the state indicate that the majority of New Jersey students have participated in testing. The state Department of Education maintains that some parents are misinformed about the tests and has said it hopes parents see the value of PARCC when score reports are released in the fall.


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