Spotlight on Ideologies at the Extreme in New Jersey

About a week ago, I characterized “reformy” ideologies in a way that I myself even thought was extreme – so much so, that later on I added caveats to my description to say that this really isn’t what most “reformers” are advocating, but rather “reform” at the extremes.

  • Reformy Ideology #1: Teacher quality is the one single factor that has the greatest effect on a child’s life chances. Get a bad teacher or two in a row, and you’re screwed for life. The “best possible” way to measure teacher quality is by estimating the teacher’s influence on student test scores (value-added). Hiring, retention and dismissal decisions must, that is, MUST be based primarily on this information. This information may be supplemented, but value-added must play the dominant single role.
  • Reformy Ideology #2: Charter schools are the answer to most of the problems of poor urban school districts. Take any poor, failing urban school district, close those dreadfully failing schools and replace them as quickly as possible with charter schools and children in the urban core will have greatly expanded high-quality educational opportunities.

In that same post, I raised some questions about both ideologies, as I’ve done in many previous posts. In short, the “solution” part of reform ideology #1 is deeply problematic for a multitude of reasons and I urge you to read my entire thread on value-added models for assessing teacher effectiveness:

In addition to discussing the multitude of technical issues with value-added measures specifically, I also discuss extensively the potential labor market consequences for high poverty schools.

As I noted on my post the other day the problem with Reform Ideology #2 is not so much about specific charter schools or specific models and/or whether some work well or don’t, but rather about the idea that massive charter expansion is a panacea for the problems of poor urban districts. I’ve written much about his topic on this blog in the past:

Who in their right mind would really argue that the solutions to all of our problems – or at least to urban education (code for poor and minority education) problems – is  as simple as charter school expansion, merit pay and tying teacher evaluation to test scores? Really, are there that many, or any, out there who still stick by this two-prong, unfounded, deeply problematic set of reform strategies?

Just when I thought I might have gone overboard and perhaps even been too unfair to the reform crowd, I read this editorial in New Jersey Spotlight today:

Here are the conclusions of the editorial:

Here’s one way to get through the rational albeit provincial resistance from leaders of high-performing districts. Let’s just say, we have schools that are among “the very best in the nation.” But we also have schools that are among the nation’s worst. We’ve made this distinction for years, primarily through the State Supreme Court Abbott decisions, which mandate that we fund our poorest districts (recently revised to poorest students) at the same rate as our wealthiest. Why not take this acknowledgement of inequity to its logical conclusion and implement reform efforts — charter school expansion, school choice, higher compensation for great teachers, data-driven instruction — in our chronically failing districts?

Surely school leaders, legislators, New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) executives and the DOE can coalesce around charter school expansion in Pleasantville and Trenton; merit pay in Camden and Plainfield; or tying student growth to teacher evaluations in Newark and Asbury Park. While state-wide school reform will eventually come to New Jersey, our poorest students can’t wait. Targeting progressive educational strategies to failing schools may be politically distasteful, but it’s the only way to get those kids under that big white tent where they belong.

In short, the author is explaining in the first part of the editorial that many wealthy, successful New Jersey school districts haven’t supported aggressive statewide “reformy” strategies because they want no part in those strategies in their own districts. The same districts have been tentative about expanded choice for inter-district transfers. But, as this editorial argues, these districts should band together… should coalesce, to RAM DESTRUCTIVE, ILL-CONCEIVED POLICIES DOWN THE THROATS OF THEIR POOR URBAN NEIGHBORS. That’ll fix ’em! And without comparable adverse effects on their own districts!

I must say that this is about the most offensive call to arms I believe I’ve read in recent months. Yes, I’ve read some absurd arguments, like the argument that the “upper half of charters is better than average” or the argument that if current teacher evaluations are flawed, then the only answer is to replace them with student test scores (and other absurd false dichotomies).

The present NJ Spotlight argument begins with a deeply distorted, selective “factiness” about the failures of New Jersey’s urban districts (some of the nation’s worst! evidence?) and reasons for them (not enough charters, and no merit pay for teachers) and then jumps quickly to the most extreme and dreadfully oversimplified representation of the solutions (solutions, mind you, that may be far worse than the “disease”) to all of our – excuse me – their problems.

All when I thought that I might be getting too tough on the overly simplistic, bombastic and misguided logic of reform.

Published by schoolfinance101

Bruce Baker is an Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. From 1997 to 2008 he was a professor at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, KS. He is lead author with Preston Green (Penn State University) and Craig Richards (Teachers College, Columbia University) of Financing Education Systems, a graduate level textbook on school finance policy published by Merrill/Prentice-Hall. Professor Baker has written a multitude of peer reviewed research articles on state school finance policy, teacher labor markets, school leadership labor markets and higher education finance and policy. His recent work has focused on measuring cost variations associated with schooling contexts and student population characteristics, including ways to better design state school finance policies and local district allocation formulas (including Weighted Student Funding) for better meeting the needs of students. Baker, along with Preston Green of Penn State University are co-authors of the chapter on Conceptions of Equity in the recently released Handbook of Research Education Finance and Policy, and co-authors of the chapter on the Politics of Education Finance in the Handbook of Education Politics and Policy and co-authors of the chapter on School Finance in the Handbook of Education Policy of the American Educational Research Association. Professor Baker has also consulted for state legislatures, boards of education and other organizations on education policy and school finance issues and has testified in state school finance litigation in Kansas, Missouri and Arizona. He is a member of the Think Tank Review Panel, a group of academic researchers who conduct technical reviews of publicly released think tank reports on education policy issues.

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