Thursday, October 25, 2012

Assessing the Educational Claims of Kids First- Parsing Rhetoric and Hyperbole From Leadership and Reform

Barely True
The following is taken directly from the Facebook page of a political group in Hoboken known as Kids First. Kids First is an active political group that have gained control over the public schools of Hoboken. First rising to some note in 2007, Kids First gained full majority control of the Hoboken Board of Education in the spring of 2009 and have remained in majority control since that time. In February of 2012 the Kids First majority voted to move Board of Education elections to November instead of having them in May. This was a controversial decision. On the same night, Kids First also voted to not have the yearly budget of the Hoboken Public Schools come up for public vote if the budget for the forthcoming year was less than 2% of the previous year. This was another controversial decision. With this as a pre-text, Kids First is now running for 3 seats in the upcoming Hoboken Board of Education elections. The following statements are part of their political platform. Campaign literature always tries to paint candidates in the best light. The current candidates are all fine people who I am sure want to do well for the community. However, it is important sometimes to look beyond the rhetoric and spin and look for the substance. I have tried to some detailed information and to verify that information as independently as possible. Best of luck to everyone. 


Providing for our Children

Creating life-long learners by providing a broad variety of programs suited to each child
Barely True
This lacks any specificity and in general is very common "education speak"- providing little details. There's no evidence presented that the programs offered now are any more varied than before Kids First took control of the Hoboken Public Schools. In addition, it is just unrealistic to even claim you have programs suited for EACH child. No evidence is presented that indicates any conscious attempt to create "life-long learners" has taken place any more over the past few years with Kids First in control of the Board of Education than before. 

Raising the bar and challenging top students with an expanded Gifted & Talented program, Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, dual college-credit classes and a rapidly expanding AP program
Barely True
In 2010 Kids First eliminated the notable Saturday U program which offered a varied and expansive curriculum and was expanded to mid week activities for gifted and talented students (READ MORE). Later that same year, they began to limit the number of NEW students to the Johns Hopkins Program for Talented Youth. In June of 2011, Kids FIrst voted to terminate the Gifted and Talented Coordinator and Johns Hopkins Director, Ms. Cheng Yen Hillenbrand in a very contentious Board of Education Meeting (READ MORE). While it is true that Kids First that in June 2010 Kids First ceased adding any new students to the International Baccalaureate in favor of the Advanced Placement program-- Research that was available at the time of the decision published by Harvard Education Press (2010) was very critical of the AP Program. A report by the NY Times summed up the difference between IB and AP best, "AP is great for content-based traditional's great for kids who like to memorize. But for more creative kids, who want to make those connections, there's nothing like the IB." You can read more HERE. The additional of dual college credit classes is new to the district and was approved of by the entire Hoboken Board of Education. 

Establishing a dedicated Special Education and Autism Center
Mostly True
There is a dedicated Special Education and Autism Center that was supported by the entire Hoboken Board of Education. There is no evidence that this was an initiative solely of the Kids First Board members but rather a decision of district administration. 

Offering exciting new vocational options including Culinary Arts with a student run commercial café, a new C Tech Program along with a TV- Media Production Studio and a full construction workshop
Barely True
A Culinary Arts Program, curriculum, teacher and facility was in place in the Demarest Alternative School as early as September 2007. In addition, the TV-Media Production Studio was well in place as well before Kids First was in the majority of the Hoboken Board of Education. So, neither of these programs fits the definition of "new" and appear to be stretching the truth. What is true is there has been new construction on some related facilities and the adoption of a new C Tech Program in the public schools. 

Providing a new healthy and fresh, breakfast and lunch program with updated menus and user friendly online payment system
Barely True
In December of 2011 an independent audit by Lerch, Vinci and Higgins indicated that the Hoboken Board of Education owed $783,000 to its then food services provider Chartwells (at least $369,000 from the 2010-11 school year alone--similar figures the previous year). The auditing firm spoke at the December 2011 Board of Education meeting stating that the findings required the school district to take action on the item. Most of the debt was caused by the board not collecting the money owed to it. Kids First was in full control of the finances of the district via the Business Administrator's office for a number of years before the audit finding. There is no evidence that the new food provider offers any more healthy or fresh breakfast or lunch programs as Chartwells. There is an online payment system currently in place. Kids First have also ceased adding new students to the Johns Hopkins Program for Talented Youth

Nurturing the whole child with strengthened academics and expanded arts- visual, theater and music 
 Barely True
It is certainly a worthwhile and applaudable goal to want to nurture the whole child. There is no argument with that aspect of this claim. But, have academics been strengthened? And have the arts been expanded? No specifics are offered. What we do know is that it appears this team feels as if offering Advanced Placement work is more academically rigorous than the existing International Baccalaureate program but articles in the New York Times and books by the Harvard University Press disagree with that assumption. It is also with noting that under Kids First the Johns Hopkins Program for Talented Youth have ceased accepting new students for the past 2 years. At ne time the Hoboken district had one of the largest programs in the country for this program. Recall in July of 2011 the Kids First majority voted to deny tenure to gifted program coordinator Ms. Cheng Yen Hillenbrand. A very controversial decision at the time: 

The vocal crowd was mostly disappointed when five of the nine board members – often referred to as the “Kids First” majority – supported the decision. -Ray Smith 
A decision was also made by Kids First to eliminate the very popular Saturday U Program for gifted and talented youth. A program that was recently expanded to include new curriculum and an expanded reach for student participation. 
As for the claim about the arts, many people still remember the very controversial and unpopular decision to not grant tenure to Ms. Paula Ohaus, an award winning, theater arts program director. A great many people came out to support both Ms. Hillenbrand and Ms. Ohaus but Kids First stuck by their decision. Some may want to read this very detailed description of the meeting and the circumstances surrounding the non-renewal of both Ohaus and Hillenbrand by Hoboken Patch
The elimination of the IB Program, the delay in effective AP implementation, the ending of the John Hopkins Program and Saturday U and the non renewal of nationally known teachers Ms. Hillenbrand and Ms. Ohaus do not seem to support the general contention of the political literature for Kids First. 

Investing in Education

Expanding STEM offerings including hands-on Full Option Science System (FOSS) and Singapore Math
Half True
FOSS (Full Option Science System) is a research-based science curriculum for grades K—8 developed at the Lawrence Hall of ScienceUniversity of California at BerkeleyThe program was originally developed and trial tested in urban and suburban San Francisco Bay Area school districts and field-tested and implemented nationally in ten sites. Twenty-six modules were developed for K–6, and nine courses for middle school. The FOSS program uses several instructional pedagogies: inquiry-based learning (each investigation is guided by questions), hands-on learning and active investigation (students work with materials and conduct investigations to attempt to answer questions), student-to-student interaction, writing (students keep careful notes in science notebooks), and research/reading (readings are included to enhance or underscore active investigation—students work with materials prior to doing any reading). Here is a FOSS FAQ

Singapore Math is a teaching method based on the primary textbooks and syllabus from the national curriculum of Singapore. These textbooks have a consistent and strong emphasis on problem solving and model drawing, with a focus on in-depth understanding of the essential math skills recommended in the NCTM Curriculum Focal Points (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics),the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, and the proposed Common Core State Standards. The method has become more popular since the release of scores from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study in 2003 showed Singapore at the top of the world in 4th and 8th grade mathematics. This was the third study by the NCES, and the 2007 TIMSS was released in December 2008.

FOSS is a supplement to existing science curriculum. Singapore Math was only approved in the late Spring and has not had time to be implemented. It involves a change of textbooks and will involve a significant teaching training/professional development component. Results have not been reported for either program to date. 

Providing 21st Century Technology: SMART Boards, Laptops, Apple and PC labs
Half True
1) Smartboards don’t change the model that’s broken. They just make that model way more expensive. With a Smartboard, the teacher usually still controls the content, stands in front of a classroom, and has to manage a bunch of children through a lesson plan they’d rather not be managed through. It doesn’t give children an adaptive learning environment, doesn’t differentiate instruction (though it does make it a little more media savvy), doesn’t enable social feedback, doesn’t reduce teacher workload, doesn’t make lesson planning more efficient, yada yada. It just makes the whiteboard a little more attractive.
2) Smartboards are an administrative cop out. Administrators like Smartboards because when they spend money on technology they need to spend a lot of it and it needs to be on things they can point to and count. Instead of re-imagining what school/classrooms/learning looks like/the student-teacher relationship, they write proposals with line-items, they spend money and buy things. Administrators get evaluated on test outcomes, true, (not learning outcomes), but they also get evaluated on anything else that can fit into spreadsheets and reports. A senior administrator can ask: “Why do you need more money?” and a junior administrator can say “Because we want to buy Smartboards.” This is convenient, because if you want to ask for additional resources, you need to specify how you are going to spend the money. Saying “I would like an extra 200K to experiment with ways to improve learning outcomes” just doesn’t cut the cheese. It’s also doubly convenient because an administrator can look moderately successful just by spending that money on what they said they would spend it on. ”Test scores are up 1%! And, we bought as many as 30 Smartboards!!!!” It’s less risky to buy objects you can count than spend money on more ambitious initiatives – like, let’s say, reading and math remediation for students supposedly at grade level.

Laptops vs iPads/Tablets
Laptop computer technology is just like any other tool: it can be abused and used poorly or it can be leveraged powerfully to engage students. One interesting decision was why decide on laptops when iPads and tablets offer some interesting advantages? For instance, many elementary and middle schools are gravitating more towards iPads than laptops.  iPads (or tablets) are lighter, easier to transport, take up less space, boot up quicker, and will do almost anything a laptop can do.  There are enough integrated apps to solve some of the early issues we were having.  The best part is, you can get 2iPads/tablets for the price of 1 laptop on our state bid list. Many school district now use iPads in all of their classrooms.  They see it as a device with multiple uses.  They can do most everything they can do on a laptop and more with the apps and portability.  They even moved iPads above Smartboards on their priority list because with Apps like Splashtop, they can get some of the same functionality.  Here is a quote from a teacher, 
"I like the tablet in place of laptops.  Reasons for are the weight, size and cost...tablets are much easier to care for, weight less and can be put in a small back pack or in its own carrier.  Battery life can be short but for the amount of good it provides I'll stick with it.  Cost is far less than many laptops."
Smartboards break down often and are not functioning very well and laptops are clearly not a clear cut decision to be made over iPads/Tablets. 

Fully funding long overdue capital improvement plan including new science labs, playgrounds, gyms, and brighter classrooms with cost saving ”green” lighting
Barely True
Certainly there have been a number of planned improvements to the physical facilities over the past months. Whether they were "long overdue" is somewhat questionable and gives the impression that facilities were not in proper working order previously....nothing could be further from the truth. A review of the last QSAC Report gave Facilities a very positive and passing review of 95%! So,m trying to characterize the facilities as needing "long overdue" improvements appears to be a political description rather than an accurate description. 

Providing a comprehensive educational field trip program for all district students
Half True
The Hoboken School District has always funded field trips for its students. The establishment of a program may be new but it is not clear it has led to more or better field trip experiences for the school children. 

Ensuring up-to-date textbooks and class room materials in every school
Barely True
Again, the implicit assumption is that textbooks were not up to date before or that there were not classroom materials in every school. In fact, there are questions about textbooks. For instance, textbooks do not work well. Research shows that with rare exceptions they do not help improve student achievement much. They are not effective because effectiveness doesn’t sell. Publishers are incentivized to create materials that appeal to educators who don’t want to change, so curriculum materials that could have a significant impact on education reform are less profitable. For instance, when I was in the district, there was a conscious effort to focus more on primary source materials than the rather traditional textbook approach to subject matter. Again, that is not to imply one approach is correct and the other approach is not-- but having "up to date textbooks" does not necessarily assure anything productive in terms of student learning or teacher preparation. 

Working cooperatively with teachers to provide a longer school day and a longer school year and expanding professional development
Barely True
The new teacher contract does provide for a longer school day and longer school year. However the teacher contract was negotiated by an outside law firm and ultimately the contract was approved by the majority of the Board of Education so it is not clear the Board minority or majority can claim any particular accomplishment with the contract since the Board relinquished negotiating responsibility to an outside entity. Can't have it both ways. 

Summer Academic and Enrichment Program and a wide variety of co-curricular activities for all students
 Half True
There have been summer academic and enrichment summer programs before and they were for all students. Not sure how unique this claim actually it so I will give the benefit of a doubt and say mostly true. However, it should be noted that ONLY Hoboken district students were allowed to attend the most recent summer programs held in the district. 

Demanding Accountability

District received an award of excellence for financial reporting and accountability
Mostly True
In March of 2012 the Association of School Business Official International awarded a prize to the Hoboken Board of Education. The school district received a financial reporting award for having met or exceeded the program's high standards for financial reporting and accountability. The award was for the fiscal year ending 2011. 
However, in August of 2012 the Hoboken Board of Education Business Administrator and Assistant Business Administrator were terminated less than 2 weeks before the start of the 2012-2013 school year. To date, no reason has been offered or given for the sudden termination. 

Using innovative assessment tools to create an honest baseline to track individual student performance and needs to increase success overall
Barely True
If the "innovative assessment tools" are the SRI (Scholastic Reading Inventory), I brought that into the district back in 2008. You can read all about it here (Spring 2008 workshop) as well as here (2009 Professional Development Day). More disturbing were the errors in reporting of student baseline data during the summer of 2012 that was never retracted or corrected using the Scholastic Reading Inventory and Mathematics Inventory

Contracting expert counsel to successfully represent the district
Whether KIDS FIRST has contracted expert counsel to successfully represent the district or not is not a source of debate or comment for me. What has been a point of some contention in the amount of money spent on legal fees during the tenure of KIDS FIRST. For instance, a December 2011 audit by Lerch, Vinci & Higgins found the Hoboken School Board spends significantly more per pupil in legal costs than New Jersey's average, which is $47 and in a recent Letter to the Editor, a minority board member questions the legal expenses that KIDS FIRST have overseen and appear to derive great pride. 

Increasing communication and transparency with a redesigned website, online parent support, and District Progress Reports and Newsletters
Pants On Fire
When a Board majority institutes "LIVE AGENDA ITEMS" as a means for voting on items not on the published agenda -- like the hiring of a superintendent, it is difficult to make a persuasive claim of transparency and increasing communication. As Board Trustee Maureen Sullivan explained: 

The only thing thrown under the bus was the promise of openness and transparency made by the KF team. Can it possibly matter what they said back in September? On Feb. 6 they said the superintendent hire was not on the agenda for Feb. 9. It did not appear on the agenda posted to the district website or handed out on the night of the meeting. It was not put in writing at the last minute as a "live" item. The details of the contract were hammered out between 7 and 9 p.m. in closed session, as members of the public disappeared. Again, the audience was given no official word that the superintendent would be hired that night. Heck, I wasn't aware it was going to happen. Theresa M. read the resolution to the remnants of the crowd. Read it, because even the members of the board did not have a written copy of the resolution
Implemented transparent online hiring system and new staff evaluation to ensure the best for our kids
Barely True
You may be able to apply online (true) but there is nothing about the process of getting hired that is anymore or less transparent than in the past. Except for maybe a certain preference for being a friend of former Interim Superintendent Peter Carter or perhaps now having some connection to Bayport or the Newark Public Schools. More importantly, given the recent test scores and school violence reports, it is challenging at best to see how this "new" hiring system ensures "the best or our kids." Rather, seems like run in the mill political rhetoric.

Spending wisely and keeping the tax levy flat for three years in a row
Barely True
KIDS FIRST would like you to think that keeping the tax levy flat is similar to keeping costs constant. However, that is not true. In the Spring of 2009, the KIDS FIRST majority could not bring themselves to vote for the excessive $59.1 million dollar budget that was proposed. For instance, the Hoboken Reporter was quoted: 

(KIDS FIRST) Board member Carrie Gilliard joined Theresa Minutillo and Rose Markle in opposition to the spending document. “$59 million is troubling me. We need to revisit this. I cannot support it,”
Yet, three years later, the same members who voted no in 2009 to $59 million had no trouble voting YES to a $63.2 million budget 3 years later....and with less Hoboken resident students in the district. An increase of over $4 million dollars. 
Furthermore, the KIDS FIRST claim on keeping the tax levy flat is a little overplayed as this analysis shows of previous budgets over time--- where the municipal tax levy was kept very consistent (in inflation adjusted dollars)

Hiring and fully supporting Superintendent Mark Toback as he leads our district forward
Half True
Superintendent Mark Toback has been overwhelming supported by the entire Hoboken Board of Education and we all wish him the best in moving the district forward. 
Its nice to see the Board support the superintendent as opposed to then Board President and current Kids First member Theresa Minutillo who wrote letters to the Hoboken Reporter and Hoboken Now against the then superintendent barely 1 year into his tenure as superintendent
Picture: Some members of the political group known as Kids First - Hoboken, NJ.

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