10 Questions for Camden’s Next Superintendent of Schools

by Christopher Paslay

“Poverty” has more to do with culture and values than it does money. 

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie says not taking over Camden public schools would be “immoral.”  Christie’s plan is to hire a new superintendent and do what he can to fill teacher vacancies.  According to the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Once the takeover begins, the state “will ensure that every child has the books, instructional materials, and technology necessary for a high-quality education, many of which are currently not reaching the classroom,” according to a statement from the governor’s office.

Books, instructional materials, and technology.

And we can’t forget money.  School reform advocates will also insist poor urban districts across America need more funding.  Noted education scholar Diane Ravitch recently published the post “Do Americans Believe in Equality of Opportunity?” on her blog:

Governor Jerry Brown of California gave a brilliant state of the state speech in January, where he pledged to change funding of public schools so that more money went to children with the greatest needs. . . .

But a Los Angeles Times poll finds that only half of the public support the idea of spending more for those with the highest needs.

This raises the question: Do we really believe in equality of educational opportunity? Or do we feel that it is okay that schools for children from affluent families have more resources than those for children of the poor?

Interestingly, Camden public schools spend over $20,000 per student, yet have some of the lowest SAT scores in New Jersey and a graduation rate of only 49 percent.  According to an article in the Notebook:

Camden, the poorest city of its size in America and the most violent — with nearly 70 homicides last year in a population of less than 80,000 people — has a graduation rate below 50 percent. At the same time, due to landmark New Jersey court decisions on school funding, the city spends more than $20,000 per student, close to the amount spent in some of the area’s wealthy suburbs.

According to an article in the Delaware County Daily Times, per-pupil spending and achievement are not correlated:

If spending were an important factor in education we’d expect Lower Merion’s $26,000 per-student spending to rocket their academic performance far above neighboring Radnor’s at $19,000 per student. Yet Radnor is ranked No. 4 by the Business Journal and Lower Merion is ranked No. 7.

But for a stark comparison we should look to Central Bucks where they spend $13,000 per student — less than half of that spent by Lower Merion. And their ranking? Just behind Lower Merion at No. 8!

What folks like Ravitch rarely address, however, is that “equality of opportunity” has more to do with values and culture than it does with money.  What does “poor” mean, exactly?  My father grew up in a 900 square foot row-home in Southwest Philadelphia with nine siblings, and the only source of income was my grandfather’s salary as a Philadelphia firefighter.  Was my father poor?  Financially, maybe, but not in terms of his values and character.  He learned responsibility, respect, work ethic, honesty, integrity, and the importance of family nonetheless.  He went on to become a well-respected teacher and administrator, and eventually earned his Ed.D.

In a 2009 Educational Testing Service policy report titled Parsing the Achievement Gap II, national trends between students of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds were tracked.  The report listed 16 factors that have been linked to student achievement.  Of the 16 factors, nine were directly related to a child’s home environment.

Camden is over 85 percent minority.  If its public schools are going to make any real progress, the next superintendent should have a plan in place to address the following 10 questions (these questions apply to any major urban school district in America):

1.  How are you going to get Camden parents involved with school?  According to ETS, Black students’ parents are less likely than White parents to attend a school event or to volunteer at school.  Children whose parents are involved in their schooling have higher levels of achievement.

2.  How are you going to get Camden men to father their children?  Minority students were less likely to live with two parents, and 77 percent of Black children in America are born out-of-wedlock.  Children who live with two married parents do better both behaviorally and academically.

3.  How are you going to keep Camden families from frequently moving and changing schools?  Minority students are more likely than White students to change schools frequently.  There is a high correlation between frequently changing schools and poor test scores.

4.  How are you going to increase the low birth weight of Camden newborns?  The percentage of Black infants born with low birth weight is higher than that for White and Hispanic infants.  Studies show children with low birth weight do worse in school.

5.  How are you going to keep Camden children from getting lead and mercury poisoning?  Minority and low-income children were more likely to be exposed to environmental hazards, which harms brain development.

6.  How are you going to get Camden children to eat healthy?  Minority and low-income children were more likely to be food insecure, which can lead to concentration problems and issues with development.

7.  How are you going to encourage Camden parents to get their children to school?  Black and Hispanic students have the highest rates of absenteeism.  There is a high correlation between truancy and low academic achievement.

8.  How are you going to get Camden parents to read to their children?  Minority and low-income children were less likely to be read to daily as infants, which studies show impacts a child’s vocabulary development and intelligence.

9.  How are you going to get Camden parents to turn off the television? Minority and lower-SES children watch more television.  Excessive television watching is associated with low academic achievement.

10.  How are you going to keep Camden children from regressing academically over the summer?  Minority and low-SES students grow less academically over the summer, and in many cases, lose knowledge.

Until these awkward but important issues are adequately addressed, Christie’s takeover of Camden public schools—along with a new superintendent—isn’t going to make a significant amount of difference.

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Bloomberg and Christie Ignore Major Findings on Performance Pay

by Christopher Paslay

Despite growing evidence that performance pay has no effect on student achievement, politicians continue to push for its use.   

In July of 2011, the RAND Corporation issued the following news release about their study on performance pay in NYC public schools:

“A New York City program designed to improve student performance through school-based financial incentives for teachers did not improve student achievement, most likely because it did not change teacher behavior and the conditions needed to motivate staff were not achieved, according to a RAND Corporation study issued today.

From 2007 to 2010, nearly 200 high-needs New York City public schools participated in the Schoolwide Performance Bonus Program. The study, commissioned by the New York City Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers and funded by the New York City Fund for Public Schools and National Center on Performance Initiatives, is the most comprehensive study on the city’s performance pay program.”

How has New York City mayor Michael R. Bloomberg reacted to the news?  He wants to double-down on performance pay.  In his State of the City speech last Thursday, 1/12, Bloomberg stated he would push to overhaul the city’s teacher evaluation system, and give top teachers $20,000 bonuses.     

Why has Bloomberg ignored the conclusions drawn by the RAND study?  Because politicians such as Bloomberg realize that the public is more interested in the heightened regulation of teachers than in the actual education of students.      

In 2010, two additional studies on performance pay were released with the following conclusion: performance pay had no effect on student achievement. The first study, by Mathematica Policy Research, took place in Chicago and was published in May of 2010. Of the study, Education Week reporter Stephen Sawchuk writes:

“Preliminary results from schools taking part in a Chicago program containing performance-based compensation for teachers show no evidence that the program has boosted student achievement on math and reading tests, compared with a group of similar, nonparticipating schools, an analysis released last week concludes.”

A second study, which involved almost 300 middle school math teachers in Nashville, Tennessee and was released in September of 2010, revealed much of the same results. Of this study, Education Week reporter Sawchuk writes:

“The most rigorous study of performance-based teacher compensation ever conducted in the United States shows that a nationally watched bonus-pay system had no overall impact on student achievement—results released today that are certain to set off a firestorm of debate.”

Interestingly, a “firestorm of debate” didn’t materialize. In the weeks following the report’s release, supporters of merit pay, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan, all but ignored the study, dismissing the findings as premature and too narrow. In fact, like Bloomberg, some education reformers held even tighter to the idea of using merit pay to boost student achievement. New Jersey governor Chris Christie, one week after the findings were made public, announced that he was going to indeed tie teacher pay to student achievement.

Despite enthusiasm from politicians such as Christie, many of America’s school teachers insist they are not motivated by merit pay. According to a 2010 report conducted by Scholastic and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation titled Primary Sources: America’s Teacher’s on America’s Schools, supportive leadership is listed by educators as the most important factor impacting upon teacher retention. Time given for teachers to collaborate is ranked second, followed by access to high-quality curriculum and a clean and safe building environment. Ranked ninth—dead last—was merit pay.

Likewise, not many teachers felt monetary rewards for teacher performance would have a strong impact on student achievement. Of the 40,000 teachers surveyed in the study, 30 percent said that merit pay would have no impact at all, while 41 percent said it would only have a moderate impact.

Still, supporters of performance pay insist it’s a viable way to increase learning. Dom Giordano, the Philadelphia-based broadcaster and radio personality, wrote in a 2010 commentary for the Philadelphia Daily News that, “all signs point to the conclusion that teachers should join the real world and get paid based on performance.” Giordano’s less-than-polite remarks are not only typical of the public’s anti-teacher sentiment but also an example of how grossly misinformed the average person is on the workings of education (yes, I am well aware that back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, Mr. Giordano was a school teacher).

Merit pay may indeed deserve further exploration, but to insinuate that teachers live in some fairytale world is preposterous. If teaching is so easy, if educators are taking free money, then why do so many quit every year? Why is teacher retention costing America seven billion dollars annually?

The fact remains that teaching isn’t easy, that despite low test scores, nearly all teachers face enough daily challenges to earn their keep.  In addition, quality teaching is based on a complex set of variables, teacher motivation being the least of them.  Let’s hope that politicians in the Philadelphia area make an effort to acknowledge this reality, and don’t waste money and resources on policies that have little effect on student achievement.