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5-22-12 Education and Related Issues in the News
NY Times Op-Ed - Gates Puts the Focus on Teaching

The Record - Christie's schools budget challenged as 'illegal'

Prominent Lawmaker Seeks to Slow Down NJ's Virtual Charters…Assemblyman Diegnan seeks six-month moratorium before approving new online charter schools

Politickernj - Assembly committee moves electronic defibrillator in schools bill

NY Times Op-Ed  -  Gates Puts the Focus on Teaching

By JOE NOCERA   Op-Ed Columnist  Published: May 21, 2012 73
A few months ago, Bill Gates wrote an Op-Ed article in this newspaper objecting to New York City’s plan to make public the performance rankings of its teachers. His central point was that this kind of public shaming was hardly going to bring about better teaching.

In the course of the article, Gates mentioned that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which spends around $450 million a year on education programs, had begun working with school districts to help design evaluation systems that would, in his words, “improve the overall quality of teaching.”

That caught my attention. Wanting to learn more, I went to Seattle two weeks ago to talk to Bill Gates about evaluating teachers.

Although the Gates Foundation is perhaps best-known for its health initiatives in Africa, it has long played an important role in the educational reform movement here at home. It was an early, enthusiastic backer of charter schools. Around the year 2000, it also became enamored with the idea that students would do better in smaller schools than bigger ones.

By 2008, however, despite spending around $2 billion helping school districts replace large high schools with small ones, Gates had become disenchanted. Although the data showed that small schools reduced violence, actual achievement gains were modest. Concluding that the foundation had made an expensive mistake in putting so many of its eggs in that one basket, Bill and Melinda Gates decided to switch direction.

All along, Gates says, he had been asking questions about teacher effectiveness. How do you measure it? What are the skills that make a teacher great? “It was mind-blowing how little it had been studied,” he told me. So, with the help of Thomas Kane, an education professor at Harvard, the Gates Foundation began videotaping some 3,000 teachers across the country. It also collected lots of other data to measure whether a teacher was effective. All of this work, Kane says, was aimed at “identifying the practices that are associated with student achievement.”

With a wealth of data now in hand, the Gates Foundation was ready for the next step: trying to create a personnel system that not only measured teacher effectiveness but helped teachers improve. Although pilot projects have been announced in four school districts, the one that is furthest along is in Hillsborough County, Fla. That district, which is dominated by Tampa, is in the second year of a seven-year, $100 million grant.

There are several important things to point out about the Gates approach. The first is that in order for the district to be eligible for the grant, the Hillsborough County teachers’ union had to be a willing participant. Although Gates remains a supporter of charter schools, he realizes that charter schools alone will not solve the crisis in American education. “Even with rapid growth, it won’t reach 10 percent” of students, he says. True education reform requires engaging all of the country’s teachers.

Second, in Hillsborough, test scores are only a small part of a teacher’s scorecard. The combination of peer review and principal review comprise 60 percent of the evaluation. And students are also asked questions aimed at eliciting how well their teachers are instructing them. (Gates and Kane both say that the student feedback is an extremely reliable indicator.)

While Gates does not dismiss the need for test scores — “you do have to know whether equations are being learned,” he said — he views them as the least important in terms of helping teachers improve. A test score, he said, “is not very diagnostic. You usually give them at the end of the year, so they don’t help you during the year.” Far more important, he believes, are the peer teachers, who are paid with the foundation’s money and whose job is to work with teachers on the nuts and bolts of teaching.

And that’s the final point. In business, employee evaluation systems are aimed at improving employee performance. Yes, sometimes they lead to an underperformer being fired, but that is really not their primary purpose.

Teaching has never really had the kind of sensible evaluation system that business takes for granted. Seniority used to be all that mattered. Now, test scores have become dominant. Neither system has had as its goal getting teachers to improve what they do in the classroom. That is what Gates is trying to change.

“We’re technocrats,” Gates said toward the end of the interview. By that he means that for all its might and wealth, the Gates Foundation can only hope to try things — through experiments like in Hillsborough — that school districts across the country will want to adopt broadly. It is early yet, and the possibility certainly exists that the Hillsborough pilot project will founder, just as the small-school initiative did.

But the signs, so far, are promising. And it sure makes a lot more sense than shaming teachers on the Internet.


Prominent Lawmaker Seeks to Slow Down NJ's Virtual Charters…Assemblyman Diegnan seeks six-month moratorium before approving new online charter schools

By John Mooney, May 22, 2012 in Education|1 Comment

As students continue to sign up for New Jersey’s first experiments with online charter schools, one leading legislator is asking the state to slow down.

State Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Assembly’s education committee, said yesterday that he is preparing legislation that would seek at least a six-month moratorium on new online charters.

If approved, how much impact the bill would have is uncertain. Five charters that are either full-time or so-called hybrid online schools have already been approved, although not yet granted final charters.

Diegnan yesterday said he wasn’t seeking to stop them from opening this fall. But he wanted to send a high-profile message that the state shouldn’t move too fast with a scheme that has more than its share of critics, if not outright opponents.

“I’m not looking for a long-term moratorium but something short term so we can at least get some information,” Diegnan said in an interview. “Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s take a time out.”

Expected to be filed in June, the legislation comes as online charter schools continue to gain a foothold in the state, but also draw increasing concerns on a number of fronts.

The largest of the five schools, the New Jersey Virtual Academy, has already signed up its full complement of 850 students for next year. The charter, based out of Newark, would be managed and staffed by the nation’s largest online education company, K12 Inc.

“We are moving forward as if we will be opening in September,” said Peter Stewart, K12’s vice president for school development.

The Newark Virtual Academy is one of four schools that K12 will play a prominent role in. The others include three more Newark charters -- Newark Prep, Spirit Prep, and Virtual Charter -- that are be based on a hybrid model, which mixes online and in-person classes. Stewart said those schools, each starting with 150 students, have also met their enrollment goals. (The fifth school is Merit Preparatory School, also in Newark, which will enroll 180 in the first year. It is not connected to K12.)

Diegnan said K12’s role in the schools as a for-profit, publicly traded company is one of the issues he wants to discuss. He said there also remain ongoing issues with how the schools would be monitored and funded, given the state’s existing charter law did not envision virtual schools and has no provisions in place for them.

Even if a moratorium would not prevent the approved schools from opening, Diegnan said they can at least be the test cases for the state before it OKs any more. None of the 36 applications under consideration for next year are online schools.

“Maybe we can see what happens with them first, before we move on to more of them,” Diegnan said.

These are issues that the Christie administration is considering as it moves closer to issuing the final charters, which must be done by July 15, after the schools have shown they will have facilities and programs in place.

The state’s charter school law has several provisions that stand as obstacles to online education, including one requirement that a charter serve specific and contiguous communities. The two online-only schools plan to draw from throughout the state. The other three would be specific to Newark.

In addition, the state’s current charter school law requires districts to pay the charters 90 percent of their per-pupil costs for each student who attends. But questions have arisen as to whether that should apply to virtual charters, where costs are considerably less than those of traditional programs.

“Those are all questions we are still looking at,” said Justin Barra, the state Department of Education’s communications director. “Those are things we will be looking at over the next two months.”

At the same time, the administration is quietly pressing for new administrative regulations that would address at least some of the issues, including one provision that would allow charter schools to serve students from disparate communities.

The Record - Christie's schools budget challenged as 'illegal'

Monday May 21, 2012, 6:46 PM  THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

TRENTON — An education advocacy group on Monday urged New Jersey lawmakers to reject Gov. Chris Christie's schools budget for the coming year, claiming that it changes the formula for funding public education without prior legislative approval and in ways that will shortchange districts with the largest percentages of poor and non-English-speaking students.

The Education Law Center claims the governor's budget for K-12 aid as presented to the Legislature is illegal.

The center, a leading public education advocate that has challenged the Christie administration previously, released its latest budget analysis Monday, about two weeks after sending it to leaders of the budget committees in the Senate and Assembly.

"The governor's FY13 school aid proposal should be rejected as an unauthorized and legally improper incursion by the Executive upon the other branches of government, in defiance of clear legislative and judicial mandates," the center's executive director, David Sciarra, wrote to legislative leaders.

Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Vincent Prieto told The Associated Press the analysis is being reviewed. He said Democrats remain concerned that the governor is trying to change the school funding formula adopted in 2008 rather than fully finance it.

Christie claims the schools budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 is the largest education aid package in state history, totaling nearly $8.9 billion, a $212.5 million increase over the current year. Democrats say that figure doesn't begin to make up for the $820 million in public school aid Christie slashed from public education in his first budget in 2010. They also say some of the proposed increase won't be seen directly in the classroom.

The Christie administration has proposed changing the calculation for impoverished and non-English-speakers as well as when in the school year student attendance is counted, all of which are likely to decrease the amount of state aid for poor districts. The Education Law Center says it's illegal to make such changes as part of the budget; proposals that alter the school funding formula need separate legislative review as outlined in state law, the center claims.

The Education Department did not respond to a call for comment Monday.

The center sued the administration over education funding last year, and Christie was ordered to return hundreds of millions of dollars to the budget for the poorest schools.

It also has challenged the administration more recently over its failure to make repairs to aging city schools in poor physical condition.



Politickernj - Assembly committee moves electronic defibrillator in schools bill

By Matthew Arco | May 21st, 2012 - 3:00pm

TRENTON – Assembly lawmakers voted unanimously to release a bill that would require all schools in the state to be equipped with defibrillators.

The bill, A1608, would mandate that both public and private schools must have automated external defibrillators (AEDs.) The machines are used to essentially shock a person’s heart back into rhythm when someone is suffering cardiac arrest.

The legislation, known as “Janet’s Law,” would also require the schools to establish protocols and emergency action plans for using the machines in the event someone suffers from cardiac arrest.

The bill was named for an 11-year-old Warren girl who died in August 2006.

“Janet was a happy, healthy, 11-year-old girl,” said Karen Zilinski, Janet’s mother, who testified in support of the bill during this afternoon’s committee hearing.

“I know if Janet would have survived she really would have done great things in the world,” she said. “We believe her life had a lot of meaning and we think that meaning now is to protect the lives of other children.”

The Zilinski family said about 96 percent of public schools in the state are already equipped with AEDs, but noted some lacked proper emergency action plans for using the devices.

Will Gerhard, 19, also testified in support of the bill alongside the Zilinski family. Gerhard was 16 in the fall of 2009 when he suddenly suffered from cardiac arrest and was “shocked 7 times” with an AED, he said.

Gerhard, who was outside the Meadowlands stadium at the time of the cardiac arrest, credited the AED with saving his life.

“I’m here today as living proof (of the AED’s effectiveness,” he said. “I am just eternally grateful every single day … and it’s just so important to me that this law gets passed.”

The bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman Jon Bramnick, (R-21), Westfield, said groups such as “The Janet Fund” will raise private funds to help reduce the cost of the device.

“You lost your daughter, but she still lives,” said Assemblyman John Burzichelli, (D-3), Paulsboro, chairman of the Assembly Appropriations Committee.


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