NJ Schools a Long Term Play ?>

NJ Schools a Long Term Play

The Gates Foundation tried, really tried, to revolutionize the education game.  Education is a long term play that requires deep systems thinking to improve.  Gates admitted as much in its discussions of Common Core, but said we’d have to wait ten years to know the results.  How different from running a company or a mass-vaccination program!  Here, we’ll look at the long term challenges of education and why it makes such an intractable process.

Education is such a thorny issue in New Jersey that we should start with topics on which we agree.  Almost everyone agrees that education is a good thing, worthy of commitment of society’s resources.  New Jersey has even outlined the goals of our education system in the broadest terms.  We seek to improve life as described by the following measures:

  • Percent of adults with no high school diploma
  • Percent of adults with some college education
  • Occupational status
  • Unemployment rate
  • Percent of individuals in poverty
  • Median family income.

The good news is that these measures are concrete, regularly collected, and generally undisputed.  If we make the assumption that most citizens of New Jersey are born and remain here, then education is the means to improve our scores.  Later, I’ll discuss the impacts of in- and out-migration, but for the moment, we’ll leave it aside.

The challenge that the six goals give us is that changes in the educational system take decades to be reflected.  A couple of years with high graduation rates don’t significantly change the state’s numbers of adults with high school diplomas.  It takes even longer to affect the gross numbers on occupational status.

Given that these six goals are so hard to change within the term of a governor, we seek other measures that give prompt feedback.  These measure are less perfect and subject to manipulation.  One can manipulate the college matriculation rate by lowering the standards for entry to NJ community colleges.  In another famous example, we can improve the apparent occupation status numbers by reclassifying job titles.  In one infamous example, the federal government reclassified fast food jobs from service to manufacturing – as if assembling bun and burger is a bona fide manufacturing job.  The most egregious example of manipulation is social promotion – graduating high school seniors just because the showed up in school, without demonstrable math and English skills.

Where numbers are concerned, we often hear this sound bite attributed to Lord Kelvin, “If you cannot measure it, then it is not science.  It’s probably worth it to return to Thomson’s original words in their entirety:

In physical science a first essential step in the direction of learning any subject is to find principles of numerical reckoning and practicable methods for measuring some quality connected with it.  I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely in your thoughts advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be.

We need numbers.  We share Ed Koch’s desire to know “How ’m I doing?”  The cynical take your boss’ attitude, “What have you done for me lately?”

Objective, numeric, immediate measure

We need short term measures, as imperfect as they may be.  New Jersey teachers seem to be happy with a single measure, time-in service.  They get tenure after four years, after which the threat of dismissal is greatly diminished.  No one has proven that a bad teacher gets better with ten years of repetition.  The typical New Jersey policy is last in first out.  Time in service is a measure, sure, but it’s not provably related to the future success of the students.

Proponents of testing tell us that if it’s student performance we want to improve, then it’s student performance we need to measure.  Student testing is, I admit, less than perfect when applied to individual students.  Statisticians tell us that thirty-student scores are not a reliable measure of teacher performance.  I have no doubt, though, that testing is a reliable measure of schools, districts, and states.  Reliability in statistics is the tendency of the test to deliver the same results for similarly situated students or the same student to get a similar score on multiple administrations of the test.

What the critics of testing don’t get is the reliability of tests over large populations.  They take anecdotal examples – samples of one child – and point to failures of the test.  The kids just don’t like them, but what kid likes tests?

The developers of the PARCC test failed miserably where the validity of the tests is concerned.  Validity describes how well a test measures what you intend to measure.  The NJ graduation tests are intended to measure proficiency in Algebra I and English at a tenth grade level.  That seems reasonable enough.  Related to validity is discrimination.  In this usage, discrimination refers to the test’s ability to divide the population into “ready to graduate” (a score of 4 or 5) and “not ready to graduate” (a score of 1, 2, or 3).  Statewide, only 36% of New Jersey test takers in 2014-15 scored 4 or 5 on the Algebra I test.  For English, 37% scored 4 or 5 on English Language Arts.  There are two possibilities: (a) teachers failed and the students are morons, or (b) the administrators of the test set the bar too high.  I rather doubt that 63% of New Jersey students are unqualified to graduate, so the second possibility is the only reasonable conclusion.  In short, the NJ BOE shot itself in the foot.  The good news is that it has until 2021 to calibrate the test scores with our expectations of graduating seniors.

New Jersey has used standardized test score as a graduation requirement since the 1980s.  The Minimum Skills Test morphed in the NJ-ASK in 2003.  With the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act and adoption of the Common Core Standards, the state joined the PARCC coalition of states.  The advantage to the state was a test jointly financed with other states and a common yardstick against which to measure our performance against those states.

PARCC boasted a membership of 24 states in 2010.  By 2016, only seven states were using PARCC instruments.  Of those, only four, New Jersey, New Mexico, Maryland and Massachusetts are using the test above the ninth grade level.  Our state is almost back where it was, sharing costs with no one, and no one with whom to compare the results.  Opponents point at the list of states who’ve pulled out and say we should too.  Teaching requires patience.  So should our approach to new teaching methods.

Long Investment Horizon

Education has a longer investment horizon than other government programs.  We do battle with a disease and relatively soon, it’s under control.  With Ebola, $5 billion and a year, it was done.  We started spending on AIDS research in earnest in 1988.  By 1997 aids deaths were down 50% from a peak in 1995.  Win, lose, or draw, these fights have a beginning middle, and end.  Even warfare does.  The United States spent four years in WWII.  The US and its NATO allies spent eleven years in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Sure, there’s a tail; AIDS continues to kill people.  Conflict in the Middle East is not over and we cannot forget the thousands of wounded veterans.  At least the trend is clear, though.  Not so with education.  It took twenty years to run New Math from its beginning with Sputnik to its closure with the “Return to Basics” in the 1980s.

In contrast to New Math, phonics took a hundred years to be tested in teaching English.  From the mid-19th century phonics had its proponents.  Detractors lost their fight at the end of the 20th century.  The collected wisdom by then was that “phonics instruction is an effective method of teaching reading for students from kindergarten through 6th grade, and for all children who are having difficulty learning to read.”

The Common Core State Standards are only seven years old, so it’s probably too early to call them dead.  Why did support for PARCC collapse so quickly?  There are perhaps other long-term factors in play.  In New Jersey specifically there’s hug factor: money.  Two hundred fifty thousand current and former teachers are counting on a defined benefit retirement plan.  The corporate world has largely abandoned defined benefit plans in favor of defined contribution plans.  Whole industries have declared bankruptcy to shed pension liabilities, to wit: steel, automobile, and the airline industries.  Government is the last to give up life-long pensions.  With life expectancy ever-increasing, a teacher may expect to receive benefits for more years in retirement than he or she worked.  In New Jersey, a teacher is eligible for lifetime health benefits after 25 years of service.  He or she may retire after 25 years of service.  The pension is based on the higher of the average of the compensation during last three or five years of service.  The benefits confer on the teachers spouse after the teacher’s death.

Let’s look at an example:

An average teacher in my school system makes $89,000.  That’s the average, not the rate during the last three years of service.  Let’s say the teacher taught from age 25 to 55.  Thirty years of service under the current agreement  makes that teacher eligible for a pension of $47,000 until the teacher and surviving spouse dies.  Is it any wonder that teachers want a system that protects them until they are ready to retire?  The average teacher’s salary went up 2.5% last year.  That’s less that the 4.2% they got in 2010.  Nevertheless, every jump in salary this year potentially affects the state’s pension liability for the next fifty years.

The state’s pension liability to teachers is currently $54.5 billion, of which $27.1 billion is unfunded.  That’s a $3,000 burden on every resident of the state.  You can’t blame the teachers for that, they negotiated the best deal they could.

Teachers work hard, there’s no doubt about that.  After a hard days’ work or a career, they are justifiably concerned that they get what they earned.  The deal they made with the state was that they would be taken care of for life.  After the stories of workers in other industries who got screwed out of their retirement they have every reason to be suspicious.  A standardized test is a potential pitfall, especially one on which most New Jersey students are failing.

Who to blame?

You can blame the Assembly and all the municipalities for not contributing to those pensions as they went along.  You can blame the Assembly and the local school boards for not demanding top performance from each of those teachers, teachers who will be supported by the state until they die.  A teacher in New Jersey earns tenure after only four years.  A teacher is fully vested in the pension plan after ten.  After that, continued employment is based primarily on classroom observations.  How that works in real life is a subject for speculation.  I speculate that a lot of back-scratching goes on.

Until 2014, 30% of a teacher’s evaluation was derived from the NJ-ASK results of the students.  In 2015, NJ schools switched to PARCC.  Because it was an untried test, the portion of the teacher evaluation based on PARC went to 10%.  In 2016, the portion related to the standardized test returned to 30%.  Nevertheless, the tripling of the PARCC weight made big news.  Students hate it.  Parents listen.  And the teacher’s union NJEA doesn’t want anything that potentially upsets the progression of its members’ salaries to a maximum at retirement.  Since the Citizen’s United decision, the NJEA has been outspoken in its support of its friends in the Assembly.

It would be nice if we could tie teacher compensation directly to the six measures on which everyone agrees.  The problem is that effects take longer to observe than a typical teacher’s tenure.  Any rubric that ties the outcome of a thousand students to their teacher is fraught.  We need something that measure in the short term, something that is a reasonable surrogate for the six goals.  I argue that teacher observations don’t do it.  PARCC may not be perfect, but no one is stepping forward with a better suggestion.

I understand students don’t want to take tests.  Parents don’t want to hear children complaining.  Teachers don’t want anything that retards the march to the gold ring.

Corporate Involvement

Conspiracy theorists decry the involvement of Pearson in the PARCC testing business.  They talk about an educational-government complex.  That’s crap.  If the states liked PARCC but not the vendor, they are free to develop their own tests and administration system.  If they can figure out how to administer the test for less than thirty bucks, I’m all for it.  I am quite certain no big or small company will be able to do it reliably for less.  It’s a red herring.

The cost of having the best educational system

New Jersey has, arguably, one of the three best public education systems in the United States.  That makes New Jersey an attractive place for parenting.  At one end of the spectrum, it brings high-earning parents to our suburbs.  They complain about the high school taxes, pay them anyway, and watch their children grow.  As soon as the last child graduates, the house is sold.  Off they go to somewhere real estate taxes are cheap but where the schools are scary stupid.  When the possibility of estate taxes is looming, the races is even quicker.  They leave the rest of us to shoulder the tax burden.  New Jersey has suffered net out-migration over the past decade.

This whole business of having our highest-paid tax-averse population moving out is a matter of managing tax policy.  It’s not an education discussion, although that is part of it.  If you want people to stay here and pay the property taxes, you have to give somewhere.  That somewhere might be in estate taxes.  Changing the estate tax will certainly cost us money this year.  If it keeps people from moving away over the next ten or forty, it might well be worth it.

New Jersey also gets its share of immigration, too.  Pour life here is enriched by Korean and Hispanic neighborhoods.  The cost in educational terms is a requirement to focus on students with lesser English skills.  First, these kids need to learn English, before they can score well on a tenth-grade English exam.  There’s an opportunity to manipulate the system, by discouraging those parents with less than perfect job credentials and kids with limited English skills from living here, but that’s not the way we operate.

Making a plan to improve education in New Jersey isn’t as easy as building a bridge, insitutuing a vaccination program, or even cunducting a war.  The time scale is too long.  That’s why we need to be will to take chances, to evalate program over the long haul. Short sighted policy making is easy when the objective is votes. When the objective is improvement of our children, we need to take the long view.

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