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TEN IMPORTANT FACTS ABOUT NEW JERSEY CHARTER SCHOOLS… AND FIVE WAYS TO IMPROVE THE NEW JERSEY CHARTER SECTOR
Mark Weber, Ph.D.
Full Report: NJCharterReport4_22_19
“Let’s get one common set of facts and make sensible decisions.”
– NJ Governor Phil Murphy, speaking about charter schools, 3/29/18
Over the past decade, the charter sector has boomed in the Garden State. In the 2017-18 school year, charter enrollments had grown to nearly 50,000 students, or 3.6 percent of the state’s publicly-funded student population, more than doubling the 21,300 students just eight years ago.
Unfortunately, during this period of charter growth, little if any attention has been paid to many of the realities of charter school expansion. Too often, claims of “success” based on the test outcomes of a handful of charters have replaced a clear, data-driven view of the entire sector in New Jersey.
In this report, I explain ten important points about New Jersey’s charter schools that are often ignored yet are critically important for policymakers and stakeholders to understand. Good charter policy simply isn’t possible unless we agree on this common set of facts.
Next, I suggest five ways the Murphy administration, the NJ Legislature, the NJDOE, and the State Board of Education could improve the state’s charter sector. All of these suggestions could be implemented within a year, would have minimal cost, and would improve both the state’s charter sector and the state’s public district schools.
The NJDOE’s recent pause in granting new charters makes this an excellent time to provide new perspectives on New Jersey’s charter sector. I hope this report spurs a long overdue conversation about how to make our state’s charter sector better.
 Weber, M. A., & Rubin, J. S. (2018). New Jersey Charter Schools: A Data-Driven View – 2018 Update, Part I. https://doi.org/10.7282/t39z983m
Are Graduation Rates Really Improving Faster in Camden and Newark, New Jersey?
PhD Candidate, Graduate School of Education
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
February 13, 2018
Download PDF of Policy Brief: Weber.GraduationRates.2-12-2018
In this research brief, I explore the claims made by state and local officials that Newark and Camden schools have seen remarkable gains in graduation rates over the past several years. I find:
- Comparisons of growth in graduation rates between districts like Newark and Camden and the rest of New Jersey’s districts are invalid, as many districts have graduation rates that are approaching 100 percent and therefore cannot get any larger.
- The better approach is to compare Newark and Camden to similar districts: those in District Factor Group “A” (DFG-A), which have large populations of students in economic disadvantage and students of color.
- I find that all of New Jersey’s DFG-A districts have had rising graduation rates over the past six years – Newark’s and Camden’s gains are not statistically significantly different from similar districts across the state.
- One explanation for the rising graduation rates may be the increasing use of “credit recovery” programs. These programs, which often place students at risk of dropping out into on-line learning programs, are controversial as there is little research on their proliferation or outcomes.
- New Jersey should regulate credit recovery and similar programs to determine whether rising graduation rates truly reflect better instruction in the state’s high schools.
Newark’s Schools: The Facts
PDF of Brief Baker.Weber.Newark.12-13-17
This brief is in three sections:
In Part A, we argue that those studying school reforms must give more thorough consideration to history and context. In Newark, that context includes:
- The importance of the Abbott rulings, which brought resource advantages to Newark and similar New Jersey school districts that have effects even in the present.
- The proliferation of charter schools – specific to Newark, charters with significant resource advantages over the public district schools.
- The stabilization of poverty rates in Newark, even as poverty increased in surrounding districts.
All of these factors have influenced Newark’s schools, even if they are rarely discussed.
In Part B, we argue that analyses of the relative effectiveness of Newark’s schools over time should make efforts to consider variations and changes in resources available and should also consider factors that constrain those resources. Analyses should also consider how changes to outcome measures might compromise model estimates and eventual conclusions. We undertake such an analysis and find:
- Much of the “growth” of Newark’s test scores, relative to the state, can be explained by the transition from one form of the state test (NJASK) to another (PARCC) in 2014-15. There is no evidence Newark enacted any particular reform to get those gains, which are actually quite modest.
- The fact that other high-poverty districts close to Newark showed similar small gains in growth also suggests those gains are not unique to Newark.
- Newark’s high-profile charter schools are not exceptionally efficient producers of test score gains when judged by statistical models that account for resource differences.
In Part C, we explore some of the substantive differences that exist between Newark’s high “value-added” charter schools and district schools (and other charter schools) yielding less “positive” outcomes. Those differences include:
- Newark’s high-profile charters enroll substantially fewer special needs students proportionally. The special needs students those charters do enroll tend to have less severe and lower-cost learning disabilities.
- North Star Academy, one of Newark’s highest-profile charters, enrolls substantially fewer students in the greatest economic disadvantage. Recent studies, however, do not acknowledge this difference, leading to unwarranted conclusions about North Star’s relative productivity.
- Newark’s charters enroll very few Limited English Proficient (LEP) students.
- Newark’s high-profile charters show substantial cohort attrition: many students leave between grades 7 and 12 and are not replaced. As those students leave, the relative test scores of those school rise.
- Newark’s high-profile charters have very high student suspension rates.
The Sweeny-Prieto School Aid Proposal: An Analysis
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
POLICY BRIEF: Weber_SweeneyPrieto_June26_2017
SUPPLEMENTAL FILE (Regression Output): SweeneyPrietoLog
This brief presents an analysis of the school funding plan presented by New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, referred to here as “Sweeney-Prieto.” The proposal:
- Will drive more aid to districts with higher proportions of Hispanic, free lunch-eligible, and LEP students.
- Will drive less aid toward districts with students classified as having a special education need.
- Will drive more aid on average to districts in the CD District Factor Group; however, there is great variety among these districts, with some losing significant amounts of aid.
- Will give less aid to very small districts.
- Will drive aid towards districts making greater local taxing effort, holding school cost and taxing capacity
While this last characteristic makes Sweeney-Prieto more “fair” overall, there are still individual districts that are receiving significantly less or more aid than would be predicted by measures of cost, capacity, and effort.
In addition, the aid allocated under Sweeney-Prieto is less than 2 percent of the aid proposed by the governor’s budget for FY18; the proposal, therefore, has little overall effect on the bringing New Jersey’s school budgets to adequacy as designated by the state’s own funding law.
Based on these conclusions, I offer the follow recommendations:
- Policymakers should ensure that those districts receiving significantly less aid per pupil under Sweeny-Prieto – particularly those whose changes in aid are far under prediction – do not suffer undue harm from the proposal.
- Lawmakers should carefully consider the unintended consequences of basing the reallocation of aid largely on factors such as the Growth Cap or Adjustment Aid, and adjust the allocation of aid accordingly.
- All stakeholders should realize the scale of Sweeney-Prieto renders it largely ineffective in making up for the chronic underfunding of SFRA over the last eight years.
On the Relative Efficiency of New Jersey Public School Districts
PDF of Brief: Baker.Weber.NJEfficiency_8_2_16
Bruce D. Baker
Contrary to current political rhetoric, New Jersey’s least efficient producers of student achievement gains are not the state’s large former Abbott districts – largely poor urban districts that benefited most in terms of state aid increases resulting from decades of litigation over school funding equity and adequacy. While some Abbott districts such as Asbury Park and Hoboken rate poorly on estimates of relative efficiency, other relatively inefficient local public school districts include some of the state’s most affluent suburban districts and small, segregated shore towns. And yet these districts will be, in effect, rewarded under Governor Chris Christie’s “Fairness Formula,” even as equally inefficient but property-poor districts will lose state aid.
Findings herein are consistent with previous findings in cost-efficiency literature and analyses specific to New Jersey:
- There exists some margin of additional inefficiency associated with Abbott status relative to non-Abbott districts in the same district factor group, but the margin of additional inefficiency in the poorest DFG is relatively small.
- The state’s most affluent suburban districts – those with the greatest local fiscal capacity and currently lower overall tax effort – tend to have equal degrees of inefficiency as compared to less-affluent Abbott and non-Abbott districts.
- Districts in factor group I (the second highest category of socio-economic status) have the largest ratio of students enrolled in inefficient relative to efficient districts.
Coupling these findings with those of similar studies in New Jersey and elsewhere, it makes little sense from an “efficiency” standpoint alone to re-allocate resources from high-need, low-income, urban districts to affluent suburban districts for the primary purpose of tax relief. This policy proposal is based on the false assumption that the poor urban districts are substantively less efficient than affluent suburban districts to begin with, and ignores that providing such increases in aid to affluent suburban districts tends to stimulate even greater inefficiency.
Put bluntly, the Governor’s proposal not only fails on a) tax equity and b) student funding equity, as previously explained by Weber and Srikanth, but the “Fairness Formula” proposal also fails on the more conservative economic argument of “efficient” allocation of taxpayer dollars.
How Fair is the “Fairness Formula” for New Jersey School Children & Taxpayers?
Mark Weber, PhD Student, Rutgers Graduate School of Education
Ajay Srikanth, PhD Student, Rutgers Graduate School of Education
PDF Policy Brief: Weber.Srikanth.FairnessFormula.June_30
This brief provides a first look at the “Fairness Formula,” Chris Christie’s school tax reform plan. In this analysis, we show:
- The “Fairness Formula” will greatly reward the most-affluent districts, which are already paying the lowest school tax rates as measured by percentage of income.
- The “Fairness Formula” will force the least-affluent districts to slash their school budgets, severely increase local property taxes, or both.
- The premise of the “Fairness Formula” – that the schools enrolling New Jersey’s at-risk students have “failed” during the period of substantial school reform – is contradicted by a large body of evidence.
The “Fairness Formula,” then, would transform New Jersey’s school funding system from a national model of equity into one of the least equitable in the country, both in terms of education and taxation. This proposal is so radical and so contradicted by both the evidence and economic theory that even the harshest critics of school funding reform cannot support it.
“Beating the Odds”: A Comparison of the Demographics and Performance of Charter Schools to District Schools in Jersey City
Ajay Srikanth, PhD Student, Rutgers Graduate School of Education
Bruce Henecker, EdD Student, Rutgers Graduate School of Education
February 5, 2016
Note: All opinions here are those of the authors and do not reflect those of their employers, the NJEA, Rutgers GSE, or their professors and advisors there.
PDF Policy Brief: Srikanth_Henecker.JC.Feb5_2016
On May 13, 2015, the Jersey City Council passed a resolution urging the Governor and State Legislator to provide equitable funding for the charter schools in Jersey City. The council argues that the charters in Jersey City are some of the highest performing schools in the city and also serve demographically-similar students. Both of these assertions are inaccurate. On average, charter schools serve significantly lower percentages of students eligible for Free Lunch, lower percentages of Special Education students, and substantially lower percentages of English Language Learners. With respect to student achievement, charter schools do not outperform district schools in Language Arts or Math once you control for demographics.
In response to the council’s resolution, we propose the following:
- Recommend to the Jersey City Council that they pass a resolution requiring that charter schools operating in Jersey City hold weighted lotteries that increase the rate of students receiving free lunch, students who receive special education services, and students classified as Limited English Proficient (based on a recommendation stated in Weber and Rubin, 2015).
- Recommend that the New Jersey Department of Education develop an enhanced charter funding formula that takes into account the increased cost of educating students across the range of Special Education classifications so
that charters receive a reimbursement rate commensurate with type of special education students they serve.
- Recommend that the New Jersey Department of Education develop an enhanced charter funding formula that reduces the base-funding amounts charter schools receive if they do not accept English Language Learners at a rate consistent with that of the host district.
- Recommend that policymakers account for demographic differences when comparing school performance within and across sectors- district vs. charter.
Research Note: On Average, Are Children in Newark Doing Better?
Bruce D. Baker & Mark Weber, Rutgers GSE
PDF of Policy Brief:Baker.Weber.NewarkBetterOff.NJEPF.11_15_15
In this research note, we estimate a series of models using publicly available school level data to address the following question:
Q: Did students in Newark (combined district and charter) make gains on statewide averages (non-Newark) on state assessments, controlling for demographics?
Specifically, we evaluate changes in mean scale scores on state assessments (NJASK) for language arts and math grades 6 to 8.
Newark Reforms Since 2009
Schools in the city of Newark have undergone a series of disruptive reforms since 2009, including substantial increases in the numbers of children served in charter schools, adoption of a unified enrollment system, ratification of a performance based teacher contract, and school closures, reconstitutions and reorganization.[i] Some of these reforms were instituted following the much publicized gift of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, chronicled in Dale Russakoff’s The Prize.[ii]
A commonly asked question in the aftermath of these disruptions is whether students in Newark on the whole are better off than they were before these reforms? That is, were the disruptions and resulting political turmoil worth it? Some have chosen to speculate, based largely on anecdotal evidence, that children in Newark must be better off today than before these disruptive reforms.
Chris Cerf, former NJ Commissioner of Education and current State Superintendent of Schools for the Newark Public Schools, asserts that the past few years have brought significant positive changes for Newark’s schools:
“Whether the measure is graduation rates, improved instructional quality, last year’s improvement in the lowest-performing schools targeted for special intervention, a nation-leading new collective-bargaining agreement, the addition of many new high-quality public schools, increased parental choice, or a material increase in the proportion of effective teachers, the arrow is pointed decidedly up in Newark.
“To be sure, as is always the case, the evidence of improvement is textured and in some respects uneven. The many positive indicators and trend lines, however, paint a picture of hope and progress that is completely at odds with the pessimism that has made its way into the standard storyline.”[iii]
Tom Moran, Editorial Page Editor of the Star-Ledger and a consistent supporter of the Newark reforms, writes: “The growth of charters has not damaged the kids in the traditional system. In fact, they’ve made modest improvements.”[iv] In a post on his Facebook page, Mark Zuckerberg, whose $100 million gift was the catalyst for the NPS reforms, writes: “No effort like this is ever going to be without challenges, mistakes and honest differences among people with good intentions. We welcome a full analysis and debate of lessons learned. But it is important that we not overlook the positive results.”[v]The chief-of-staff for Cory Booker, former mayor of Newark and current U.S. senator who was instrumental in secure Zuckerberg’s donation, states: “Newark students are quite simply better off now than they were five years ago.”[vi]
In these conversations, “better off” is often reduced to whether or not, on average, across district and charter schools, student test scores for children in Newark have improved. That is, are students achieving more than they otherwise would have, had there been no such disruptions? It remains far too soon to measure longer term outcomes, including graduation rates, college attendance or economic outcomes.
While we are unable to compare against what might have been in the absence of reforms, we can at least evaluate whether children in Newark have made progress when compared to statewide averages, controlling for student population characteristics.
In a recent interview, Russakoff stated that she did not believe Newark’s students are better off today than they were five years ago: “…it feels like a wash.”[i] The analysis herein, while admittedly narrow in scope and short in time frame perspective, finds that Russakoff is correct. Average state assessment scores in grades 6, 7 and 8 are pretty much right where they were – relative to non-Newark students – in 2009.
Follow-up analyses are certainly warranted, but limited by changes in state outcome measures.
[i] Weber, M. (2015) Empirical Critique of One Newark: First year update. New Jersey Education Policy Forum. https://njedpolicy.wordpress.com/2015/03/12/empirical-critique-of-one-newark-first-year-update/
[ii] Russakoff, Dale (2015) The Prize: Who’s in charge of America’s schools? New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
The (Mis-)Use of Data in Dale Russakoff’s The Prize
Mark Weber, PhD candidate, Rutgers University, Graduate School of Education
Full Review: Weber_RussakoffFINAL-1
Dale Russakoff’s The Prize is one of the most discussed books on education policy in recent memory. Russakoff tells the story of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation toward education “reform” in Newark, NJ, and the subsequent changes in the city’s schools.
Russakoff cites several data points in the course of the book in an effort to generalize the individual stories she recounts. Unfortunately, many of these points rely on proprietary data, rendering them unverifiable. Several are presented without proper context, creating a false picture of the reality of schooling in Newark. Others are contradicted by publicly available and uniformly reported sources.
Russakoff, for example, states that a single charter school has more social workers per pupil than a single NPS school. State data, however, shows Newark’s public district schools have more educational support personnel of many types per student than Newark’s charter schools. Russakoff also compares Newark’s per pupil spending to that of entire states, without accounting for differences in student populations or regional wage differences.
A central theme of The Prize is that Newark’s public district schools suffer from budgetary bloat; state data, however, shows that district schools spend less than charters on administration. Plant spending at district schools is not excessive compared to charters.
Russakoff does acknowledge differences in student population characteristics between district and charter schools. She does not adequately explore, however, how these differences, and differences in resources, affect student outcomes. She also repeats the contention of many of her book’s protagonists that teacher quality is unduly poor in district schools without examining how teacher characteristics have changed in Newark during the last several years of “reform.”
Policy makers should approach The Prize with caution: while an interesting and compelling narrative about the politics of school “reform,” the book’s misapplication of data to uphold its theses makes it an inadequate analysis of education policy in Newark and elsewhere.
Camden’s “Transformation” Schools: Racial & Experience Disparity in Staff Consequences
Doctoral Student, Rutgers Graduate School of Education
Policy Brief: Weber_CamdenTransformationsFINAL
This brief examines the 2015 “transformation” plan of the Camden City Public Schools, which will transfer five district schools to charter management organizations. When using New Jersey’s growth measures, adjusted for student demographics, I find that these are not the “most struggling schools” in Camden, as the district asserts.
Staff at these schools must reapply for their positions, but are not guaranteed employment. I find that this consequence affects Camden’s black teachers more than its white teachers, even when controlling for school-wide growth measures and student body characteristics. Using a logistic regression model, black staff are 1.6 times more likely to face an employment consequence than white staff. Similarly, staff with 5 to 24 years of experience are between 2.3 and 3.4 times more likely to face this consequence than staff with less than 5 years of experience.
Previous research suggests the loss of experienced teachers and teachers whose race aligns with students could negatively impact student achievement. At the same time, there is little evidence to suggest the charter management organizations taking over transformed schools will fare any better at improving test-based student outcomes.
CCPS should immediately release its methodology for identifying the transformation schools as the “most struggling” in the district, and justify the potential loss of experienced and black staff under its plan.