Thursday, August 30, 2012

America's Most (Saratoga, CA)/Least (Hoboken, NJ) Attractive School Districts- The Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal (Aug 28, 2012) reports today that across the country, parents are preparing this week to send their children back to school, spending hundreds of dollars on books, uniforms and cold cuts for brown bag lunches. Another key back-to-school purchase for many families is a new home.

A new analysis of Census data by the real-estate services company Trulia Inc. shows that the quality of schools remains a crucial factor in where parents choose to buy homes. Of course, schools have always been closely tied to real-estate sales, but Trulia’s findings indicate that despite the collapse of the housing market, education is sometimes even more important than factors such as price, commute time and nearby amenities.

Using data from the Commerce Department’s Decennial Census taken in 2010, Trulia compared the ratio of families with children aged 5 to 9 versus families with children aged to 0 to 4. The results showed that the most attractive communities for families with school-aged kids are traditional suburbs like Hillsborough and Saratoga (both in Northern California), Cold Spring Harbor, on New York’s Long Island, and Glencoe, Ill., north of Chicago.

The communities that are least attractive to parents with school-age children – or the districts with the lowest ratios of 5-to-9-year-olds to 0-to-4-year-olds – tended to be densely-populated communities that are popular with young professionals and students, yet have high real estate prices. These include Hoboken, New Jersey — which has only 39 children at elementary school age for every 100 preschool-aged children — Alexandria, Va., and Somerville, Mass.

The 10 school districts on Trulia’s list that were most attractive to parents of school-age kids were ranked, on average, in the 94th percentile of schools, nationally. By comparison, the average percentile ranking of the least attractive school districts was 52.

On a statewide level, differences in quality are even more pronounced. Compared with other schools in the same state, the schools in the top-10 most desirable districts had an average ranking in the 94th percentile; in the least-desirable districts, the average was the 38th percentile.

Click HERE to read a reply by one of the school districts negatively portrayed in the report.

Click HERE for a related story by the Hoboken Reporter.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Misinformed Public Discourse and Debate Using STEM Topics: An Examination of the Average Temperature of Alaska and an "extremely deceptive number"

I'm updating this post by request from some regular readers of the blog. Enjoy. -Dr. Petrosino 

At a Board of Education meeting in Hoboken, N.J. an interesting exchange occurred between two board members (see video at bottom of this page). One member was essentially requesting a goal of reducing legal fees by 10% (for the past few years, the Hoboken Board of Education has exceeded State of New Jersey guidelines for legal expenses).

Evidently, the use of an average is unacceptable to Hoboken Board of Education member Leon Gold. Initially, Mr. Gold uses an example of the average temperature of Alaska to apparently make his point and then follows it with an assumption that averages are extremely deceptive:

"I mean I suspect the average temperature of Alaska is 50 degrees. Averages are an extremely deceptive number" -Hoboken BOE member Leon Gold

Let's take a look a little more closely. First, the average temperature of Alaska is no where near 50 degrees. According to the NOAA National Climatic Data Center, the average temperature of Alaska is 26.6 degrees. But he says it with such authority and confidence, one would be inclined to trust him. In fact, Alaska is an extremely cold place. The coldest state in the United States by far (North Dakota is a distant 2nd at 40.4 degrees). Perhaps Board member Gold was confused by the average temperature of the United States? (average temperature roughly 52.7) Perhaps he was thinking that such a large land mass would closely parallel the average temperature of the earth? (average temperature generally accepted to be 59 degrees). Its difficult to be sure. But what is clear is that the average temperature of Alaska is no where near 50 degrees. Perhaps having spent time in Alaska and being a STEM educator this misuse of climate data and average made me sensitive and attuned to this mistaken notion. In fairness to Mr. Gold, he did say "suspect" concerning the average temperature of Alaska but when viewed in context (see video below) one can tell that it was said with a fair amount of confidence and arguably...perhaps bravado.

The next assertion Board member Gold makes is that average is an "extremely deceptive" number. I do not want to pretend to know what Mr. Gold means by deceptive but most grade school students understand that an average can be overly influenced by an outlier or multiple outliers. In fact, all one needs to do is to take a look at a list or distribution of the numbers and see if, in fact, there are any outliers. Also, we have measures like standard deviation to determine if we need to pay special attention to representative nature of the average.

I did a study on this with a bunch of fourth graders while I was a post-doc at The University of Wisconsin-Madison (see full paper below) and the 9 and 10 year olds understood this concept very well after a little instruction.* There is also a very thoughtful summary of the use of average from a history of mathematics perspective by Arthur Bakker of the Freudenthal Institute at Utrecht University. The consensus seems to be that, like any statistic, the average has had many uses over hundreds of years are is neither deceptive nor should it be feared.

At issue during this particular Board of Education debate was simply one member requesting that the district have a goal of decreasing their legal fees by 10%. Legal fees that caused a financial audit violation and are many times higher than the State of New Jersey average. That this request was met by such opposition has both legal and political aspects that space does not allow to fully articulate.

But, as a STEM professor I found the erroneous and misinformed reply of Board member Gold to be worthy of attention and the importance of having a solid background in science and mathematics education and to use it in a thoughtful and professional manner in order to effectively engage in public discourse and debate.

In the end, the Board felt even a 10% reduction of legal fees was too much to consider at this time--a decision seemingly at least influenced somewhat by Mr. Gold's misappropriation of average climatic data and evoking the "deceptive" nature of average argument.

* Petrosino, A. J., Lehrer, R., & Schauble, L. (2003). Structuring Error and Experimental Variation as Distribution in the Fourth Grade. Journa l of Mathematical Thinking and Learning. 5(2&3), 131-156.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

HHS Drops to Bottom 50 Public Schools in State Rankings- Analysis Indicates Poor Leadership Largely Accountable not Teachers or Students

Hoboken Patch is reporting disturbing news about Hoboken High School. It appears that Hoboken High School is now ranked among the bottom 50 high schools in the State of New Jersey (according to NJ Monthly there are 328 high schools in the State of New Jersey).

In 2008 HHS was ranked 139th in the State of NJ (and awarded "2nd Most Improved HS in NJ by NJ Monthly). In 2010 it was ranked 187th. And now, in 2012 it is ranked 298th.

This accelerated decline cannot be due to the students or the teachers. In my opinion, this rapid decline is largely related to the political group known as Kids First and their policies and leadership of the Hoboken Board of Education. You will recall Kids First is led by Trustees Theresa Minutillo, Ruth McAllister, Leon Gold, Irene Sobolov and others. Since they have been on the Board, there has been a revolving door of administrators and interims with none or little history or stake in the community throughout the entire school system (recall, the Hoboken School District in Nov 2011 was classified as a "District in Need of Improvement" for the first time in its history).

Last year the Kids First led Board of Education hired a first year principal at Hoboken High who followed a retired interim principal of 2 years (part of Interim Superintendent Carter's "dream team") and who recently announced she was leaving the school for another opportunity. All told Hoboken High School will have 5 or more principals or interim principals in 5 years. The children and young adults of Hoboken are literally being denied their life opportunities at this point.

Please see attachment for the full 2012 New Jersey Monthly Rankings.

I will write a more detailed account of this soon.

Monday, August 20, 2012

August 2012 Hoboken Board of Education Agenda

The following is the Board Agenda for the August 2012 Hoboken Board of Education Meeting.

There are a number of important aspects of this meeting including:

* The transfer of the Connors principal (Ms. Laurinda Pererira) to Calabro School after 2 lackluster years as the Connors principal (CAPA report, low test scores, school has failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress, etc...). This is the beginning of Ms. Pererira's final year before a decision needs to made about tenure for her as principal. She started in the district in September of 2010. All the best to her as she takes over the highest performing school in the Hoboken School District which for years had been under the effective leadership of Ms. Palumbo who retired over the summer.

* The Board of Education intends to hire yet another veteran of the Newark Public School District with the hiring of Gerald Fitzhugh II as principal of Connors School. There has been a number of hires from Newark, Keyport, and Roselle of late. Mr. Fitzhugh II has a few years of experience as a principal at the Chancellor Avenue School at Grade 3-8 Public School in Newark, NJ. The Newark School District, like the Hoboken School District, is a district in need of improvement as designated by the New Jersey Department of Education. Good luck to Mr. Fitzhugh.

* Ms. Robin Piccapietra will be named Interim Principal of Hoboken High School
* Mr. Ivan Ramos will be named Acting Assistant Principal of Hoboken High School

Why these 2 excellent veteran Hoboken School District employees and administrators are being named to temporary positions ("Interim" and "Acting") is both surprising and disappointing. Best of luck to the two of them as they lead Hoboken High School for at least part of this upcoming school year.

It is worth noting that Hoboken High School will now have had 5 different principals or interim principals within the last 5 years.

08-21-12 Agenda for Public Meeting

August 21, 2012 Public-Notice-of-Meeting for the Hoboken Board of Education

Meeting agenda will be posted to this site as soon as it is made public. -Dr. Petrosino

08-21-12 Public Notice of Meeting

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Better Research Needed on the Impact of Charter Schools

The following is a paper that appeared in the journal SCIENCE earlier this year (Science 13 January 2012; Vol. 335 no. 6065 pp. 171-172; DOI 10.1126/science.1205418) written by Julian Betts and Richard Atkinson. The authors make three suggestions for helping in research in this area: 1) Lottery data should be shared with public agencies; 2) an independent observer should be present for lotteries, and 3) longitudinal student level test data should be made more easily available to researchers. -Dr. Petrosino

Charter schools have been promoted as a solution to what many view as the public school malaise in the United States. Charter schools, although publicly funded, can operate fairly independently of large district bureaucracies and teacher unions, for instance, by setting their own curriculum and teaching methods and by avoiding the system that grants the most senior teachers first choice of job openings, regardless of their classroom effectiveness. Proponents hope that the semi-independent governance structure of charters will encourage these schools to generate fresh ideas. President Obama has followed Presidents Bush and Clinton in identifying charter schools as a key element of school reform.

Are charter schools boosting achievement? Is there variation across charter schools in effectiveness? These are key policy questions, as failing charter schools should be shut down, and successful charter schools replicated (1). Unfortunately, most studies of charter schools' impact on student achievement use unsophisticated methods that tell us little about causal effects. We highlight below some key problems, and suggest policies and practices that could improve research and, we hope, education.

Lotteries: Promising, But Not Perfect

A recent meta-analysis discarded roughly 75% of studies because they failed to account for differences between the background and academic histories of students attending charter schools and those attending traditional public schools (2). Most studies simply take a snapshot of student performance at a single point in time. Such studies cannot disentangle school quality from the preexisting achievement level and trajectory of students who decide to attend a given school. The potential for student self-selection into charter schools is great, which makes naïve comparison of student outcomes at charter schools and traditional public schools misleading. Parents may not apply to a charter school because of the distance to the school or lack of time to fulfill volunteer work that such schools sometimes request. Families that apply may be unusually motivated. The decision by charter school operators about where to locate also influences who attends, which makes simple comparisons with traditional public schools difficult. More often than not, the difference in average test scores between charter schools and traditional public schools reflects who enrolls at the schools more than the quality of education being provided (3, 4).

But rigorous research on charters is beginning to appear, and much of this takes advantage of the way in which charter schools admit students. State laws dictate that if a charter is oversubscribed, then an admissions lottery must be held. Because only chance distinguishes who does and does not receive admission, the students who lose the lottery represent the ideal control group. Lottery-based studies of charter schools have been done in Boston (Massachusetts); New York City; a small national sample of middle schools; and a few schools in Chicago (Illinois), San Diego (California), and Lynn (Massachusetts). These studies tend to find that charter schools either outperform or perform at the same level as traditional public schools (512). These studies, however, cover only about 90 charter schools, roughly 2% of charter schools nationally (13).

We strongly support the wider use of randomized controlled trials of the impact of charter schools on student outcomes. At the same time, we acknowledge that this approach has limitations. Foremost among these is that most charter schools are not oversubscribed. For example, the U.S. Department of Education released a lottery-based study of charter middle schools that found that only 130 out of 492 such schools nationwide used admission lotteries (10). This raises the possibility that a study of oversubscribed charters will not tell us anything about the effectiveness of the majority of charter schools that are not sufficiently popular to be oversubscribed. The natural targets for research, districts with many oversubscribed charter schools, may have unusually good charter schools. Indeed, one study showed that parents in Texas are more likely to remove their children from underperforming charter schools than from charter schools that outperform nearby traditional public schools (14). Lottery-based studies of middle- and high-school charter schools in Boston produced among the highest estimates of impacts on reading and math achievement in studies of those grade spans (5). Another lottery-based study of New York City charter schools produced the largest estimated impacts among studies of elementary and middle schools in combination (8). In contrast, a lottery-based national study of charter middle schools that did not solely seek districts with the greatest demand for charter school slots found no significant gains from winning a lottery (10).

For several reasons, it will be important to study the many charter schools that are not oversubscribed, using the best research designs possible. In addition to obtaining a more representative portrait of charter schools, studying the qualitative features of a broad set of schools will allow both theoretical insight and institutional knowledge that can help to separate causation from correlation.

Essential to studies of undersubscribed charters schools is to account for individual students' past achievement. Even with this, it will be difficult to estimate the causal effects of attending a charter school because of unobserved factors that influence who attends charter schools. We have three locations in which to compare results of lottery-based and careful non-lottery-based studies (15, 16). The two approaches produce somewhat similar results, although the non-lottery-based studies have sometimes produced lower estimated effects, perhaps because of inadequate controls for unobservable characteristics of students and their families.

Better Policy, Better Data, Better Research

Research on charter schools must evolve in several other ways. Because charter schools have freedom to experiment, not all of them will perform equally well. Thus, research should estimate the impact of specific charter schools (or, at the very least, types of charter schools). Once we have identified the most successful models, in order to replicate them, we need better information on what aspects of these schools lead to better performance. Do pedagogical or curricular approaches, or the qualifications of teachers, explain any of the differences? Does it matter whether charters are organized locally or are affiliated with charter management (nonprofit) or educational management (for-profit) organizations? Do aspects of the policy environment, such as state law and approaches taken by local authorizers, matter? It will be increasingly important for the literature to report not just “average” effects of charter schools but effects of individual schools, while getting inside the “black box” to learn more about distinctive educational features of each charter school.

There are other roadblocks to the use of admission lottery data for analyzing effects of charters. Fortunately, individual states could remove most of these barriers by overhauling the laws governing charter schools, charter school authorizers, and the bureaucracy that can limit the availability of student test score data to the research community.

First, in most states, individual school districts are the main agencies that can authorize the opening of a charter school. In a few states, public universities or a state agency can directly charter schools as well. State laws typically do not require that charter schools share lottery information with the authorizing entity or the state. This is shortsighted. The aforementioned national study found that of the 130 charter middle schools that used lotteries, only 77 agreed to participate by sharing their lottery data (10). Lottery data should not be viewed as the property of the charter school; rather, it is incumbent upon authorizers to gather and scrutinize these data, not least to verify that the lotteries are being done in a fair manner. States should thus require each charter school to share its lottery data with the authorizing authority and also with the state's department of education, subject to standard safeguards to avoid release of individuals' identities.

Second, for researchers to conduct a successful evaluation of charter schools, either an observer needs to be present or detailed characteristics of the lottery process need to be reported (17). If some lottery winners turn down the admission offer, it is crucial that researchers understand how the school admitted students from its wait list of students who were not initially admitted in the lottery. If the school admits students from the wait list on a nonrandom basis, showing favoritism toward certain students, all pretense of randomization is lost. As another example, researchers need to know whether students were placed into separate lotteries by grade, or were given preferences; for instance, if a sibling already attended the school. Such information allows researchers to preserve an experimental analysis by stratifying the data. Charter schools should be required to submit not only a list of lottery winners and those who did not win the lottery, but details on how students were admitted from wait lists, whether separate lotteries were held for different groups of students, and what preferences were applied.

Finally, with a few exceptions, most states make it difficult if not impossible to obtain student-level test-score data for research purposes. States should routinely authorize researchers from academic institutions to obtain longitudinally linked student test-score data. This would raise all education research, not just on charter schools, to a more rigorous level by enabling researchers to use rigorous nonexperimental approaches in the many cases where schools are not oversubscribed. This would also open up the possibility of supplementing analyses of test-score gains with longer-term outcomes such as high school graduation and college attendance (18). These are likely to be better predictors of long-term adult success of students than test scores alone. Such studies are much needed, because of concerns that states' achievement tests focus on a fairly narrow set of skills, e.g., making it difficult to reveal differences between charter schools and other schools on measures of learning higher-order reasoning and writing ability.

It may seem like a tall order for so many states to enact these reforms independently. The federal government could play an important role in encouraging states to follow through. Federal initiatives such as the No Child Left Behind Act and the Race to the Top fund have made federal financial support for states' education systems contingent upon states enacting certain reforms. The federal government could tie funds to support charters or other schools to these reforms, and thus help identify and replicate the most successful schools, then shut down the schools that underperform.

  • * R. C. Atkinson is President Emeritus of the University of California and former Director of the National Science Foundation.


  1. For an example of how simple comparison of test scores between charter and traditional public schools reflects initial student achievement but not actual gains in performance, see (4).
  2. Both lottery-based and nonexperimental estimates for Boston are provided in (5). In three of four cases, the nonexperimental estimate is lower than the corresponding lottery-based estimate. Lottery-based estimates for New York City are provided in (8). A nonexperimental replication of the New York City results is provided in (16), and the authors obtain the same estimate for math but an estimate for reading that is two-thirds of the lottery-based estimate. An attempt to replicate the lottery-based results in (12) without lottery data yields similar results, but only if each student's past achievementis controlled for (4).

Picture: Mumford and Sons perform in Hoboken, NJ (Wednesday, August 1, 2012). Pier A