Failure is in the Eye of the Political Hack: Thoughts & Data on NJ Failure Factories & NOLA Miracles

We all know… by the persistent blather emanating from reformy-land that some common truths exist in education policy.

Among those truths are that New Jersey’s urban public school districts are absolute, undeniable Failure Factories, while New Orleans’ Post-Katrina charter invasion is the future of greatness in public (well, not really public) education – the ultimate example of how reformyness taken to its logical extreme saves children from failure factories.

Thus, we must take New Jersey down that New Orleans path toward greatness. It’s really that simple. Dump this union-protectionist favor-my-failure-factory mindset… throw all caution (and public tax dollars) to the wind – jump on that sector agnostic train and relinquish all adult self interest.

But like most reformy truths, this one is a bit fact challenged, even when mining reformy preferred data sources.

Now – as I’ve explained previously, I do have my concerns with the Global Report Card method for bridging state – NAEP and international assessments. But why should a little statistical validity concern keep us from having some fun with it.

Wouldn’t it be fun, for example, if we could make some direct comparisons between NOLA’s miracle relinquished, sector agnostic charter schools and New Jersey’s union-protectin’ public bureaucracy failure factories? Wouldn’t it just?

And of course, if we can compare our individual school districts with Finland and Singapore using the Global Report Card than why the heck can’t we compare NJ Failure Factories and NOLA Miracle Charters? I guess we can.

Let’s start with a global look at NJ’s massively failing public schooling system when compared with Finland, and all other U.S. Public School Districts. In this graph we have NJ districts in Orange, compared against the Finnish average (50% on the vertical axis) and in the context of all other U.S. districts, from lower to higher percent free/reduced lunch.


In fact, a whole bunch of NJ districts look like they’re doin’ pretty darn well-Above that Finnish median (the Finnish line?). But hey… there are those high poverty NJ districts over to the right… those failure factors… those where children are being dreadfully failed by their unionized teachers (yeah… you!)… they do indeed fall well below the Finnish median… and that’s just not acceptable!

Certainly, Louisiana as a state must look at least as good as NJ when compared to Finland… especially given the massive gains of NOLA children after that wonderfully beneficial weather event some years back (or so it’s been characterized by many a reformy public official in the past 5 years or so).


Well that’s not a very good start is it? But hey, Louisiana is a very high poverty state with many issues to overcome. And it is well understood that the best way to overcome poverty is to put very little fiscal effort into public education, to rate teachers by their students test scores, and to evaluate teacher preparation similarly.

NOLA Miracles and NJ Failure Factories

Let’s dig deeper into that lower right hand corner for a bit. Let’s specifically isolate those NJ public districts and those NOLA Recovery School District charters with over 80% children qualified for free or reduced priced lunch and let’s see how they stack up against each other, by their percentile rank among U.S. Districts in 2009 Reading and Math.


Here, it certainly appears that NJ failure factories are actually doing about as well as NOLA miracle schools. Heck, Union City, West New York and East Newark beat them all, including NOLA KIPP. Newark – one of the most failure-factory of all is ahead of most NOLA charter organizations and not far behind KIPP.

The picture is pretty similar for reading, but with two NOLA charter operators rising higher in the picture. The others, not-so-much!


Now – you say.. but the NOLA charters are much higher in poverty.  This isn’t really a fair comparison, even though I’ve isolated only the highest poverty districts and schools. But to say that, you’d have to be ignorant of a key problem with poverty measurement – about which I’ve written on numerous occasions in recent years both in my blog, in peer reviewed articles and in recent reports.

Put simply, because the same income thresholds are used across the whole country for determining those free/reduced lunch rates above, poverty in NOLA schools is significantly  overstated and in the NJ schools is significantly understated.

So, I can use adjustments that we generated for our research on poverty measures to correct the free/reduced lunch rates for our NOLA charters and NJ districts. For the most part, the NJ districts, by comparison move up to 100%, but here, I allow them to go above 100% just to spread them out. By contrast and as expected the NOLA Charters go down in poverty.

And the pictures look like this:


And what do we see?


Heck, even Camden City Schools, slated to be dismantled NOLA-style… already performs about as well (middle of the pack) as most post-Katrina NOLA miracle charters.  On Reading, Union City, West New York, East Newark, Elizabeth, East Orange, New Brunswick and Newark all beat NOLA KIPP and all have higher adjusted low income rates!

Yes… the statistical bridging method here from state assessments to national percentiles is, well, imperfect at best.

But that never stopped reformy-pundits from arguing that all U.S. schools suck when compared to Finland or Singapore.

Thus by empirical and logical extension, the NOLA reformy miracle is a cesspool when compared to New Jersey’s failure factories.

Either that, or New Jersey’s failure factories really aren’t as bad as we’ve been led to believe (except maybe this one).

Well that doesn’t fit the reformy narrative very well does it?

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.

4 thoughts on “Failure is in the Eye of the Political Hack: Thoughts & Data on NJ Failure Factories & NOLA Miracles

  1. What an eye-opener! I’m sure tthat the major media outlets in NJ will run with this, Oh, wait, I forgot; we’re in Bizzarro World.

    Actually, as a Temple U faculty member in Philadelphia, I would be so appreciative if you could run a parallel set of comparison using Pennsylvania, or even just Philadelphia schools. It might be the final straw needed to push Tom Corbett out of the governor’s race.

  2. Great work as always, Bruce. It is ridiculous that the bully demagogue in Trenton keeps throwing this “failure factory” rhetoric around.

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