9-19-11 Education Issues in the News


Philadelphia Inquirer - Christie has to slow his goals for schools

Gov. Christie may have declared this the "year of education reform," but for legislators, this is the year of reelection.

Amid campaign fund-raising and door-knocking this fall, legislators are only sporadically convening to consider bills. That means Christie's efforts to overhaul public education have slowed until after November.

So far unable to push a single significant education bill through the Democratic-controlled Legislature, Christie is lowering his short-term goals, easing the antiunion rhetoric, and highlighting more mild aspects of his reform agenda.

During visits to three schools last week, Christie laughed with students and sought advice from superintendents, downshifting from the aggressive style he used earlier this year in weekly, jam-packed town-hall meetings to successfully sell public employee benefits changes.

With bigger education plans on hold, Christie used one stop to unveil a preliminary report from an Education Transformation Task Force he appointed in May.

The task force's proposals, many of which Christie could enact through gubernatorial authority alone, include asking for a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law so the state can create a new, less cumbersome accountability system.

Such a system is used to monitor schools and intervene in failing districts, but the one currently in place is considered too onerous and paperwork-heavy. The superintendents Christie gathered for the announcement support a change.

The task force - which included a principal and retired superintendent but no current teachers - also said the state has "gone too far" with its 1,200 pages of education statutes and 1,000 pages of regulations. Such regulations specify the type of file cabinets to house records, prohibit "multicolor glossy" paper for school district publications, and mandate student records be kept for a century.

Many of these regulations were established to control spending, but the task force said that with Christie's 2 percent property-tax cap, such dictates are unnecessary.

Regulatory changes

Other proposed regulatory changes would ease the approval and renewal process for charter schools, which are a cornerstone of the Christie education agenda.

Acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf last week detailed how he has "completely dismantled" the state Department of Education, creating new positions - such as "chief talent officer." And the department is considering using an exam like the SAT or ACT as a graduation requirement, instead of the High School Proficiency Assessment, or HSPA, which he said isn't an effective measurement of college-readiness.

Christie also used his school tour to highlight previously approved changes to the education system for captive children, faculty and media. He dropped in on Sharp Elementary School in Cherry Hill, for example, to discuss new national curriculum standards in language arts and math that had been adopted by the state board of education three months earlier.

The next day, he went to a school district in Bergen County that has joined a state pilot program on teacher evaluations - the seeds, Christie hopes, of a statewide system of merit pay in which teacher salaries are tied to student performance.

In the school appearances, he didn't lay a hand on his favorite target - the powerful New Jersey Education Association teachers' union - but he still talked tough about closing the disparity between low-income and wealthy districts.


"I'm not going to have urban mothers and fathers lied to about the quality of education they're receiving, and I'm tired of giving out fake diplomas to people who can't qualify to sit in a college classroom," he said.

"We need to hold people accountable who are providing that education, and we need to hold students accountable for achieving to a level that entitles them to that diploma."

Christie might have to wait some time before he gets the accountability he envisions.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) controls which legislation comes up for a vote in the Senate, where several education bills are awaiting final approval, but he is cool to many of the governor's ideas.

"He's not going to get away with the fact that he cut funding to education," Sweeney said. "You can do all the reform you want to do, but you've got to fund it, too."

Sweeney is most amenable to changing tenure, but he doesn't want to change the last-in, first-out approach. Christie wants to replace that with a system that evaluates teachers on test scores and classroom observations.

Sweeney also rejected Christie's merit pay plan. The governor believes salaries should be based in part on performance, with additional money for teachers in hard-to-staff positions.

Sweeney said he'd be open to a proposal to send more resources to improving schools so teachers have an incentive to work for smaller class sizes, for example. But he doesn't think the judgment of a principal should influence a teacher's salary.

Skeptics, in the teachers' unions and beyond, say there is little research supporting the claim that such reforms improve student performance in the poorest districts. They say poverty and lack of parental involvement inhibit student learning, and cannot be rectified with education "reform."

Christie counters that the status quo, in which schools are allowed to fail every year while draining tax dollars, cannot continue and all options must be tried. There is no silver bullet, he says.

The trick for Christie will be to keep his proposals on the forefront without waging a scorched-earth campaign that could frame him as anti-teacher and buoy Democrats running for Legislature.

In response to Christie's proposals this week, Democrats issued news releases saying the governor needed to first concentrate on creating jobs.

Those in the education reform movement heard a familiar tune.

"It is really easy to put the interests of kids last because they don't vote, and it's really easy to put the interest of poor kids last because they don't vote and their parents don't vote," said Derrell Bradford, executive director of Better Education For Kids, which backs tenure reform.

"I happen to believe the governor's disruptive nature was critical to getting the conversation where it is now . . . but the nature of the conversation is fundamentally alien to our leaders in Trenton, which is why it's so hard for them."

Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D., Middlesex), the chair of the education committee, believes the conversation can begin by, well, having a conversation. "Let's include everybody in the process rather than dictating, because [Christie] will be surprised there's a lot more common ground than he may believe there is," Diegnan said.

"The divisiveness is never in the long run effective. It may get headlines, it may make you feel good, it may give you a national stage, but in terms of bringing consensus and change, it's never productive."



Politickernj.com -Informed Opinion on Education Reform Poll?

By Patrick Murray | September 16th, 2011 - 5:14pm

Last month, Monmouth University and NJ Press Media released a poll on education reforms proposed by the Christie administration. It has produced a whirlwind of blogosphere commentary from a few folks who took exception to the poll’s results.

The poll found broad, general support for the governor’s proposals, but with a few caveats. When we asked questions pertaining to public awareness, we found a widespread lack of knowledge about these policies (especially with regard to charter schools). We also found some concerns about implementation: performance-based pay is a good idea, but using the current standardized tests as the metric on which to base that may be unfair. And finally, we found that one of the arguments used by reform proponents – that it would close the achievement gap – does not necessarily hold water with the general public.

I initially chose to let the poll stand for itself. Polling results frequently draw criticism when the results undermine a particular strategic perspective. For example, Governor Christie was not happy with a poll we conducted early in his term that showed New Jerseyans expressing skepticism about his ability to bring about change (which was less about Christie and more about their jaded view of Trenton). And individual election polls have been criticized at times by candidate’s campaigns – sometimes from both parties in the same cycle. It’s understood. Negative polling results can impact campaign contributions and undermine the storyline you are trying to put forward.

In most cases, the critics will question the poll’s methodology, say they see it differently, and move on. That’s fair. It’s all part of being the messenger about where the public stands on important issues of the day, a role I take very seriously.

That’s usually the end to it. Rarely does a critic try to misrepresent the poll or how it was conducted. In fact, that has only happened to me twice. This education poll is one of those times. Unfortunately, I feel I must now respond directly to those criticisms.

To start, most of the criticism has come from people without expertise in the field of survey research. Some has, which I will treat more seriously. But it’s important to note that all of these critics, including some who are academic researchers, have taken very public normative positions on education policy. Normative is one of those great social science words. It simply means they already have a clear opinion about how things ought to be. When normative values get applied in a research setting, they lead to bias.

The Monmouth University Polling Institute, on the other hand, has a record of measuring public opinion “as it stands” without bias. For example, one of the charges levied against this poll centered on the question about tenure. The criticism is that we used a colloquial definition of tenure rather than a legal one.

Well, that’s the point! If you are trying to measure extant public opinion you need to use colloquial language. This is especially important when it is not clear how well the public already understands the issue. In these situations, most pollsters will look to see how other pollsters have handled it.

Our own search turned up a few poll questions on tenure, including one from the well-respected national Phi Delta Kappa survey conducted each year by the Gallup organization. Their question defined tenure for public school teachers as “after a two- or three-year period, they receive what amounts to a lifetime contract.” A Time magazine poll also used the word “lifetime” to describe tenure.

Based on my experience, I felt that the word lifetime could be a bit loaded in this context. Our team spent a great deal of effort searching for something that reflected a more common definition of tenure, such as this entry in the Oxford English Dictionary: “Of an official position, usu. one in a university or school: carrying a guarantee of permanent employment until retirement.”

I decided to word our poll question as: “After working in a New Jersey public school for three years, a teacher is either given tenure or let go. A teacher who gets tenure after this trial period is basically given a permanent job unless they engage in serious misconduct.”

I think the improved fairness of my question was borne out by the results. In our question, 42% approved of tenure compared to 26% to 28% in the polls that defined tenure as a “lifetime” appointment.

Critics also took issue with way we described how a teacher can lose tenure since the question didn’t use statutory language regarding dismissal, i.e. for “inefficiency, incapacity, or conduct unbecoming a teaching staff member or other just cause.” Again, the poll’s intent is not to measure the public’s opinion on the theoretical concept of tenure, but what they think of it in practice. And considering the data available on tenure dismissal in the state (see: PolitifactNJ), only a handful of teachers have ever been dismissed for “inefficiency” – far fewer then are probably dismissed for this reason in any other profession (a good empirical question in itself).

As such, I stand by the question wording as an accurate measurement of public opinion on current tenure practices, to the extent the public is aware of them. Even still, I am confident that using the legal language to describe dismissal conditions would have had little to no effect on the end result.

Our poll included a follow-up question, asking people if they would support a change to “limited tenure” which requires periodic evaluation and potential loss of tenure. Even though this is technically not “tenure” by the dictionary definition, it is a common term used in public discussions of this proposal.

There is widespread support – 77% in fact – for changes to the tenure system that would make it easier to dismiss underperforming teachers. Here are some interesting facts about that statistic. These changes to tenure are supported by a whopping 71% of teacher households and 73% of those who actually approve of the current tenure system.

In our press release I wrote, “It appears that New Jerseyans want some type of job protection for teachers, but broadly support modification to the current system.” I don’t know how you argue with that considering that teachers themselves support these changes.

Critics of this poll have focused on minor wording issues without considering the larger context within which this opinion is formed. During an extended economic downturn with persistently high unemployment, 4-in-10 New Jerseyans feel that teachers should benefit from an extraordinary level of job protection – and I use extraordinary in the sense that this is something that no other profession enjoys. And fully 3-in-4 New Jerseyans feel that teachers should have at least better job protection than most other workers. That should be somewhat surprising, and heartening to these critics, given the current economic climate.

There are many ways to ask about tenure, and I strove to provide a definition that was fairer than other polls I have seen. I am open to discussing other ways to approach this issue. And if this was the nature and tone of all the critiques, I would have welcomed the debate.

Unfortunately, the poll was also subject to a number of other attacks that were ill-informed and downright malicious. Since those attacks have gone unabated, I feel it is important to respond on behalf of the reputation Monmouth University’s Polling Institute has earned in New Jersey.

In some cases, critics oddly misinterpret questions that actually support their normative view. For example, standardized tests would be a major component in determining tenure and merit pay under current proposals. One critic saw our poll results as saying “people think standardized tests are reasonably accurate at measuring student abilities.” The results show quite the opposite, which actually bolsters the argument against merit pay! Just 38% give a positive response of excellent or good to the accuracy of the tests, compared to 59% who give a negative response of only fair or poor. [By the way, the “only fair” or “just fair” construction is textbook polling procedure to delineate between two positive responses and two negative responses in a balanced response set].

Furthermore, the critic takes issue with the same question as it relates to how these tests reflect teacher competence. He writes: “Implied within that question is that student achievement and good teaching are a 1 to 1 ratio.” Well, I’m not sure what he was reading, but the question we posed pretty clearly asks if people think there is a direct correlation between student test scores and teacher ability – and a clear majority (62%) do not! So, I’m left scratching my head at the charge.

Critics have also charged that the headline of our press release was misleading. It stated that the public “supports” proposed education reforms. The data show that the public does support these ideas. And anyone who has followed opinion in New Jersey knows that the public has become increasingly supportive of all measures that promote greater accountability and choice. It would certainly have been misleading if we wrote that the public “demands” or “calls for” these reforms. Instead, we accurately reflected that the public expresses “support” for these proposals as they are generally understood by the public. No more, no less.

The real problem is when critics lower themselves to base accusations that we conducted a “push poll,” which shows a clear misunderstanding of that term. Or try to plant rumors with the media that nefarious forces were behind the poll questions. That’s where the criticism steps over the line.

As I mentioned before, this is one of only two times that displeasure with a poll I conducted reached a level where critics actively tried to misrepresent the poll. The other time in question, the criticism came from members of the Tea Party. This was in response to a poll that showed their candidate not doing as well as they believed she was. That poll turned out to be right on the mark, by the way.

The criticism aimed at this poll is more disappointing because these advocates are doing so on behalf of our teachers. I know they don’t represent all teachers, including the NJEA members who teach my own child. However, because their actions reflect on the teaching profession, one hopes that they would engage in a more productive dialogue regarding public opinion on these reforms, and indeed on the reform proposals themselves.

As the poll results indicate, public opinion on education policy is not always well informed and at times is misinformed. But it is the public’s present opinion on this issue; the opinion that policymakers listen to.

So here’s my advice to critics who disagree with the poll results. Spend more time working to change public opinion rather than disparage the poll that measures it.


Christie, Cerf, and Teachers' Union: A Fragile Peace…The administration and the NJEA aren't battling over Christie's teacher evaluation plan -- at least not yet

By John Mooney, September 19 in Education|Post a Comment

Fred Frangiosa's presence was conspicuous last week when Gov. Chris Christie visited a Bergenfield middle school to promote his plans for remaking teacher evaluation statewide.

Frangiosa is president of the Bergenfield Education Association, and it is his union's 450 teachers who will help test the new system. Bergenfield is one of 10 pilot districts for Christie's plan.

But there was Frangiosa, sitting in Christie's audience in a middle school classroom -- not a cheerleader for the plan, by any means, but not protesting it, either.

"You can't sign off on something if you don't know what it is," Frangiosa said, "and you can't oppose it either. "

His comments are indicative of the state of relations between Christie and the state's dominant teachers' union, the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA). It's not exactly warm and fuzzy, but the thaw is unmistakable – at least where this potentially contentious plan is concerned.

Frangiosa said that was his sense too. He didn't even get a call from the NJEA's officers when word got out that Christie would be visiting.

"They weren't upset," he said. "They seemed to have lightened up on all the negative."

A Step Back

The union's leadership has taken a step back from its frequent criticism of a plan that would use test scores as part of a teacher's evaluation, saying it would rather take a wait and see approach at this point.

How much all this will matter as the project moves forward is yet to be seen. The pilot districts are now developing their specific plans, and the legislature is taking up the topic, too, with a hearing on teacher evaluation before the Senate education committee slated for today.

The easing of tensions seems to be going both ways. Christie said at the Bergenfield event that he would be happy to sit with the union on issues they agree on, saying this may be one of them.

And he and his acting education commissioner, Chris Cerf, have gone out of their ways to preface every comment about teacher accountability with a pledge that test scores will only be one piece of the evaluation system and only for some teachers.

That's not exactly a full peace offering -- Christie went on to accuse NJEA leaders of lying to their members on another issue -- but it's as close as he's gotten lately. "They have a seat at the table in this," Christie said last week. "The commissioner has reached out to include them, and he will continue to do so."

A Speaking Engagement

Cerf plans to speak at the NJEA convention in November, a year after what may have been the low point in NJEA-Christie relations. It was last fall when Cerf's predecessor, Rochelle Hendricks, turned down the invitation to attend, the first such rebuff by a commissioner in memory.

Still, the support of the union could prove critical as the pilot project proceeds. In Bergenfield, Frangiosa said he hopes his members are part of the process as the district develops its plan.

He said there has been some skepticism so far, not to mention outright worry about the extent that student achievement will grade a teacher.

"Some wondered why we did it," Frangiosa said. "It probably helped that there was a little money."

In fact, the district will receive about $95,000 for the pilot, the bulk of which will go to buying the software and hardware for a new data system to track teachers' performance.

One of Bergenfield's union members, Nicole Malizia has been teaching fifth grade at the Washington Elementary School for 10 years. She said a great deal has changed in the use of data in that time.

"You can really tell now if the class as a whole is making progress," Malizia said. "And if it's not, we can sit down and see in what we're doing and not doing."

She said there is always a concern about putting too much weight on how individual students do, given their varying backgrounds and abilities, and she hoped that all factors will be weighed, especially how a teacher manages the daily life of a classroom.

"If this is our goal as a state, it needs to be just one of the evaluations," Malizia said. "It also needs to be a daily, open door policy where they see how you are doing every day."

"Not every teacher will agree to this -- it's something different and will take some time to warm up to it," Malizia said. "But for me, I look to give 110 percent and do the best I can, so I don't have a fear of someone walking in and not seeing me giving the best of my ability."