Thursday, July 10, 2014

Some More Thoughts on JerseyCAN

On July 9th, 2014, the State Board of Education convened for their monthly meeting. Quick summary - the morning included a presentation by Chief Academic Officer Tracey Severns that can’t be described any other way than simply insane. The level of incompetence at the NJ Department of Education (NJDOE) is astounding, and they very clearly have absolutely no understanding of what actually goes on in a classroom. You can see her full powepoint here (though, I must say, you missed an… interesting presentation… I was waiting for Severns to break out in dance with a common core cheerleading flash mob). My faith in humanity, though, was restored during public comment, where person after person after person stood up and spoke about the issues with the way teacher effectiveness reforms are being discussed and implemented. Even better, these people used actual evidence! That stuff exists?! You can also read those here. But for now I want to focus on one public testimony, that of JerseyCAN.

I’ve written about JerseyCAN once before after I heard them speak at an open-topic session on the re-adoption of the Core Curriculum Content Standards (CCCS), including the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The testimony both last time and just yesterday were delivered by Executive Director Janellen Duffy. I’m sure after the writing of my last piece and now this one, we will have really cemented our ‘bestest friends forever’ status.

JerseyCAN, the New Jersey Campaign for Achievement Now founded in March of 2013, is “a part of 50CAN: the 50-state Campaign for Achievement Now. [They] are a non-profit organization that launched in March 2013, and [they] advocate for a high-quality education for all New Jersey kids, regardless of their address. JerseyCAN is working to create learning environments that best meet every child’s needs by focusing [their] work on starting earlier, expanding choices, aiming higher, cultivating talent and reaching everyone."

But there is more to this story than just meets the eye. As Leonie Haimson points out on Diane Ravitch’s blog:

“CAN was founded not by hedge-funders but by Jonathan Sackler, heir to a Perdue Phama, makers of the controversial drug Oxycontin. Sackler is a big supporter of charter schools, especially Achievement First. As the NY Times reported, ‘in 2007 Purdue Pharma agreed to pay $600 million in fines and other payments to resolve the charge that the company had misled doctors and patients by claiming that the drug’s [Oxycontin’s] long-acting quality made it less likely to be abused than traditional narcotics. The company’s president, medical director and top lawyer pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of misbranding and paid more than $34 million in fines.’”

“JerseyCAN is a nonprofit education advocacy and research organization. Former Governor Tom Kean serves as the co-chair of our board along with other philanthropic and business leaders.”

Something seems to be missing here… oh yes, teachers. There is no doubt in my mind that JerseyCAN is just another reformy-group with the same ‘our-schools-are-failing-and-our-teachers-suck-and-our-students-don’t-know-how-to-think-at-all-so-we-need-the-common-core-to-save-us’ rhetoric based off of my research on them, but this first statement really says it all. “Other philanthropic and business leaders” - the exact people who are funding the destruction of public education like Bill Gates and Eli Broad. If a group like this were to actually include teachers - the people who are directly impacted by and live these reforms every single day (and of course the students) - it would be harder to sell the claim of failure.

The statement goes on to thank the State Board of Education for their time, blah blah blah, and then we get to the good stuff.

“As you know, for too long, students were allowed to move from grade to grade without developing the analytical skills they needed to master college-level course work and enter the workforce. Higher standards are critically needed so that the students can meet the demands of today’s workforce. Rigorous standards, assessments and a strong teacher evaluation system will ultimately help better prepare students.”

If I were to respond to this statement, I would be using a lot of explicit terms (and trust me, those curse words and flying around my head as I write this). Therefore, I’m going to leave it to one of the experts, John Chase. Chase is a public school teacher and summer youth employment counselor. He is founder and president of the Musicians United For Songs In The Classroom Inc. (M.U.S.I.C.) and creator of Learning from Lyrics art and technology integration curriculum. He is also co-admin of the Facebook page "The Art of Learning."

He wrote an article in June 2014 entitled “Data is Fool’s Gold of the Common Core:”

“Teachers should strive to meet the individual needs of their students, not the “needs” of standards or tests. There should be high academic expectations for all students, but to expect everyone, regardless of ability/disability, to meet those standards simultaneously and in the same way is foolish and inherently unfair.
“Standardized tests are toxic for the Common Core and they are the primary reason for the botched implementation efforts around the country. These tests do not generate comprehensive or reliable data regarding constructivist learning that is called for in the Learning Standards.
“The tests have been coupled with the Standards anyway because states that received Race to the Top incentives to implement the Common Core are required to use standardized assessments to evaluate teacher performance.
“Schools have rushed to ‘unpack’ the standards and hastily rolled out poorly designed scripted curriculum materials primarily to prepare students for the high stakes tests (that supposedly measure their teachers performance) rather than prepare students for learning.
“The Common Core testing regime is more about satisfying data-driven enthusiasts’ ‘thirst’ for more data, than it is about cultivating students’ thirst for knowledge.
“We are witnessing an unprecedented data collection ‘gold rush’, while the validity and reliability of this ‘fool’s gold’ is of little concern to those who are mining it.
“The ‘college and career readiness’ mandate or mission of the Common Core is misguided and not in the best interest of all our students. There are many “paths” to trade and vocational careers, and they don’t all go through college.
“Since the Common Core Standards were designed to serve and support the college and career readiness mandate, they are seriously flawed and deficient.
“A more inclusive and appropriate mandate such as readiness for ‘adulthood and employment’ would better serve the academic, social, and emotional needs of all our students. Rather than simply ‘correcting’ the inadequate Common Core standards, they should be reconstructed and redesigned from the ground up.
“Schooling should be about inspiring all of our students and helping them to discover their unique talents, while supporting them as they pursue their passions.
“This will require more vigor in the classroom which is inherently student-centered, and much less concern about rigor in the classroom which is primarily standards and test-centered.”
It is always about the data. Jersey Jazzman, teacher, doctoral student, and blogger extraordinaire, concluded the following about JerseyCAN:

This is all about using data in a lame attempt to sow seeds of doubt about New Jersey's outstanding public schools - especially the suburban schools that have, so far, rejected the reformy prescriptions of education officials like Cerf and corporate reform supporters like JerseyCAN.”

In June of 2013, it was reported that JerseyCAN released a ‘Top 10 List’ that ranked schools who did the best in serving low-income students, black students, and Latino students, and also those that they believe have done the best job at closing the achievement gap.  
JerseyCAN has a model for enacting “great school policies” in the hopes of “bridge that gap so that every child in the state can have access to a great public school.”
Directly from their website, here is how JerseyCAN describes its three-part model process to enact these great school policies:
“Doing the research. We can’t get our schools where they need to be without knowing where they are now. Through our School & District Report Cards and annual ‘State of New Jersey Public Education’ reports, JerseyCAN provides both a high-level and detailed look at New Jersey public schools and the kids they serve.
*Note: The New Jersey Department of Education released a similar annual “Report Card” on school performance.
“Setting the vision. No one policy will be enough to close New Jersey’s achievement gaps. Instead, we need a holistic, multi-year vision for enacting a set of policies that will revitalize New Jersey’s public schools and give every child the great education they deserve. Our multi-year policy blueprints will provide just that. Reflecting a careful analysis of the current education landscape, our policy blueprints will offer lawmakers a clear and comprehensive roadmap for transforming New Jersey from what it is today—a state in which black fourth-graders trail their white peers by about 3o percentage points in language arts literacy and math —to what it can and should be—a state in which every child, no matter who they are or where they come from, gets the first-class education they need to succeed.
“Convening the leaders. Having the solution doesn’t matter unless there are people to champion it. That’s why JerseyCAN brings together education leaders, policymakers and experts from across the state, rallies them around a common vision for New Jersey public schools and then arms them with the facts they need to turn that vision into a reality.”
These district report cards mentioned earlier, look at data in five categories. When Jersey Jazzman wrote about JerseyCAN in June of 2013, not long after their founding, he included these as being the five categories from which the data was compiled for JerseyCAN’s 2013 school and district report cards:

  • “Student performance (Average percentage of students who are proficient or above across reading and math).
  • Subgroup performance (Average percentage of low-income, black and Latino students who are proficient or above in reading and math).
  • Achievement gap (Average difference between the percentage of low-income and minority students and percentage of non-low-income and white students who are proficient or above in reading and math).
  • Performance Gains (Average one-year change among a cohort of students who are proficient in reading and math).
  • Four-year cohort high school graduation rates.”
Jazzman continues with a flawless analysis of what this all actually means. He writes:
“And on what research basis have you decided that all of these metrics should be equally weighted when determining a school's rank? Where is the rationale that 'Student performance’ is equally as important as ‘Performance Gains’?
“Actually, I should admit that I'm assuming JerseyCAN weighted everything equally [in regards to the calculation of their ‘Top 10 List’ ranking schools]; I wouldn't know, because they don't tell us how they weight the categories in their methodology. In fact, the documentation is so light I challenge anyone to look at it and replicate their findings, a basic test of research validity. But, even then, the metrics used here are severely flawed:
  • Proficiency rates are weak metrics; they are not the same as actual test scores, and can be quite different from other test-based metrics.
  • “Averaging sub-group performance is a ridiculous no-no. By doing so, JerseyCAN is essentially equating students who are black, Hispanic, or qualify for free/reduced price lunch. That's absurd on its face.  (by the way, folks: NJDOE uses the term ‘Hispanic,’ not ‘Latino.’)
  • “It's impossible to judge the ‘achievement gap’ of a school that is socio-economicially or ethnically homogeneous. New Jersey is a highly-segregated state; how can JerseyCAN assign a score for the ‘gap’ to a district that has, for example, no black students? (I probably shouldn't be so hard on JerseyCAN for this - after all, the NJDOE does essentially the same thing.)
  • “JerseyCAN tries to make up for this by apparently excluding schools that don't have a certain percentage of students in a particular subgroup. I say ‘appears’ because, again, there's no documentation on the criteria they use for doing this.
  • “The ‘performance gains’ description is written so poorly I can't say for sure what it is; I think it refers to proficiency rates.”
I will conclude this piece the same way I did my last piece on JerseyCAN: Just because a group has a nice-sounding name like the “Campaign for Achievement Now” and an inspirational slogan like “great schools change everything,” never take these things just as they are. Never hesitate to jump in and do research – even just looking around websites and seeing who funds groups like these and who sits on their boards – to become increasingly more educated and informed. Many times groups that claim the public is ‘misinformed’ are misinformed themselves. And many times, they aren’t even misinformed – they just completely ignore evidence and statistics that counter their arguments. Always listen to both sides of an argument, look closely at data, and make conclusions from there.
I’ve got my eye even closer on JerseyCAN, and you should too.

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