Tuesday, March 31, 2015

New Jersey Has Modest Public Pension Benefits by Stephen Herzenberg

Garden State Ranks 95th in Pension Generosity Out of 100 Top Plans Nationally
If you’d prefer to read a PDF version of this report, click here.
Stephen Herzenberg is Executive Director of the Keystone Research Center
December 17th, 2014  |  by   |  Published in Budget and Tax PolicyReports
While one of the central tenets of repeated calls for major changes to New Jersey’s public pension system is the claim that public employee pensions are overly generous, retirement benefits for the state’s public workers are already among the least generous of all large public-sector pensions in the country, in part because of cuts enacted in the pension reforms of 2011.
In fact, New Jersey ranks 95th in pension generosity among the country’s 100 largest plans.
To arrive at a ranking for each plan, we measured three key dimensions of pension generosity: whether the plans offer inflation protection to retirees, how benefits are calculated and the amount employees contribute to their own retirement plans. (For the full methodology, see Appendix A.)
Here’s how New Jersey gets its low ranking for overall generosity:
• New Jersey retirees have no automatic protection against inflation. While 69 of the 100 largest plans offer retirees some inflation protection, cost-of-living adjustments for New Jersey retirees were suspended indefinitely by the 2011 legislative pension reforms.
• New Jersey uses a very low multiplier. The percentage by which New Jersey calculates state pensions per year of service – known as the multiplier – is among the lowest nationally, at 1.67 percent. This means pensions benefits equal 1.67 percent of final salary multiplied by the number of years of service; 1.67 percent is a lower multiplier than all but 21 of the 100 plans. New Jersey lowered the multiplier from 1.81 percent in 2011. 
• New Jersey employees pay more into the system than those in most other systems. New Jersey public employees contribute 6.93 percent of their salaries to their own pensions, more than 55 other plans in the top 100. By 2018, the employee contribution level for New Jersey pensions will rise to 7.5 percent, which is more than employees contribute today in about two-thirds of the top 100 plans.
In addition to being some of the least generous pensions in the country, New Jersey’s pensions are modest in dollar amounts, even though the Garden State remains one of the highest-cost states in which to live.
Pension benefits in New Jersey average $26,000. State employees receive $25,000 on average and local government employees about $16,000. Teacher pensions average $40,000.[1] While police and fire personnel receive higher average benefits, their benefits are inflated by comparison with other groups (both public and private) because New Jersey police and fire retirees do not receive Social Security. Correcting for this brings safety personnel average benefits down to $41,402.
Lastly, overall compensation for New Jersey’s public-sector workers is comparable to the state’s private-sector workers. Total annual compensation is 4.1 percent lower for public employees than for comparable private employees (with similar levels of education and other characteristics), according to a 2010 study by Professor Jeffrey Keefe of Rutgers University’s School of Management and Labor Relations.[2] The study confirmed that benefits are indeed higher for public employees than for comparable private employees, but found that public wages and salaries are lower by a more than offsetting amount, with the result that overall public-sector compensation slightly trails that in the private sector. There’s a reason people never say, “I’m leaving the private sector to go and make more money.”
The Real Pension Problem? The State’s Failure to Contribute
New Jersey’s real pension problem is lack of employer contributions, not overly generous retirement benefits.
The source of New Jersey’s unfunded pension liabilities is the state’s persistent failure to make annual required contribution payments. New Jersey ranks last among the 50 states – by a large margin – for the share of required pension contributions actually made since the early 2000s.[3] Gov. Christie exacerbated New Jersey’s worst-in-the-nation ranking in the last budget when he line-item vetoed $900 million in pension contributions and announced plans to short pensions by nearly $2.5 billion in the 2014 and 2015 budgets combined. This veto was unnecessary as well as imprudent because the Legislature had found a way to raise the needed revenue without burdening New Jersey’s middle class.
In sum, New Jersey’s pension benefits are not more generous than most other large plans, no matter the standard of comparison. What is out of line is New Jersey’s 50th-place ranking when it comes to making required employer pension contributions. Chronic underfunding is the primary reason New Jersey has an $83 billion unfunded pension liability. Solving New Jersey’s self-inflicted pension crisis requires the state to obey the law by contributing its legally obligated share.

Appendix A: Methodology
For this analysis, we combined New Jersey’s two biggest pension plans (the plans for teachers and for state/local government employees) with the 99 other largest pension plans for non-public safety personnel in a national state pension database.[4] This database is maintained by the National Association of State Retirement Administrators (NASRA) and accessible online at http://www.publicfundsurvey.org/www/publicfundsurvey/normalretirementprovisions.asp.
To rank each pension plan’s overall generosity, we first compare our 100 largest state pension plans on three separate measures of pension generosity: 
• The strength of their automatic inflation protection (assuming 2.5 percent inflation). 
• The amount by which pensions increase with each additional year of public service as a percentage of “final average salary,” an amount commonly referred to as “the multiplier.” (Final average salary is usually calculated as the average salary over the final three or five years of an individual’s public service.)
• The amount employees contribute to their own pensions. When employees contribute less, we consider their pension more generous.
Overall generosity is determined by giving each pension plan a score out of 100 based on its rank on these three separate dimensions of pension generosity. A pension plan ranked first on one of the dimensions receives 100 points, a pension plan ranked 100th receives one point.
Adding up the three ranks generates the plan’s overall generosity score. The 1st-place-ranked and most generous pension plan received an overall score of 225.5. The least generous pension plan by far, with a score of 24.5, covers municipal employees in California’s Contra Costa County. The pension plan ranked 99th, the New Hampshire Retirement System, received an overall generosity score of 74.5, not far below New Jersey’s 85.

[1] The New Jersey Pension and Health Benefit Study Commission reports higher benefit levels because it reports the average for new retirees and it does not adjust police and fire benefits to take account of the fact that members do not participate in Social Security. See Truth and Consequence: Status Report of the New Jersey Pension and Health Benefit Study Commission, September 2014.
[2] Economic Policy Institute, Fact Sheet: New Jersey Public-Sector Workers Are Undercompensated Compared with Private-Sector Counterparts, February 2011, and Are New Jersey Public Employees Overpaid?July 2010.
[3] New Jersey Policy Perspective and Keystone Research Center, How to Dig an Even Deeper Pension Hole, September 2014.
[4] We exclude pension plans for safety employees such as police and fire, because these employee groups have more generous benefits in New Jersey and in most other states. Our estimates of the generosity of New Jersey’s pension plans are conservative in the following sense: in comparing other pensions to New Jersey’s pensions for teachers and state/local employees, if there was ambiguity in the generosity of other state pension plans compared to New Jerseys, we erred on the side of recording the other states’ systems as less generous.

Cash Monitoring List Unveiled- By Michael Stratford

Wallace Schoolyard- Hoboken, NJ 1976
WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Department of Education on Tuesday, for the first time, named most of the hundreds of colleges whose federal aid it has restricted because of concerns about their finances or compliance with federal requirements.
The department released a partial list of the nearly 560 institutions that, as of March 1, were subject to the financial restrictions known as heightened cash monitoring. Most of the colleges -- 487 institutions -- were on the lower level of scrutiny, and 69 were subject to the higher, more stringent restrictions.
“We feel that by issuing this list today we’re doing what’s right for good government and transparency’s sake,” said Ted Mitchell, the under secretary of education.
The department continued to keep secret the identities of 21 of the 69 colleges that it placed on the highest level of monitoring, which means that department employees manually approve every dollar that flows to an institution. Nearly all of those unidentified colleges were on that status because a federal audit of the institution resulted in “severe findings.”  
“We have ongoing investigations at each of those institutions and we fear that, at this point, releasing those names would impede the progress of our investigation,” Mitchell said in an interview. He said the names of those colleges would eventually be released as the investigations are completed. 
‘A Caution Light’
Mitchell said that colleges may be placed on either form of cash monitoring for a range of reasons, some of which are more serious than others.
The department, for example, may impose the sanction on a college for submitting its financial statements late. That appears to have been the case for 43 public colleges and universities in Minnesota, all of which were on cash monitoring with the designation of “audit late/missing.”
At the other extreme, a college may land on cash monitoring because of serious concerns about its financial viability. Roxbury Community College, in Massachusetts, for instance, is on cash monitoring because of concerns about its "administrative capacity." The college released a report in 2013 that showed, among other things, that administrators had lost track of significant amounts of money.
A college being on the list “is not necessarily a red flag to students and taxpayers, but it can serve as a caution light,” Mitchell wrote in a blog post. “It means we are watching these institutions more closely to ensure that institutions are using federal student aid in a way that is accountable to both students and taxpayers.”
New Transparency Step
Before releasing the names of the institutions on cash monitoring Tuesday, the department had fought to keep the information secret. As recently as last week, the department said that disclosing the list was likely to result in a “substantial competitive injury” for colleges operating in a competitive marketplace.
The department reversed its position late last week after Inside Higher Ed reported that the cash monitoring information was largely being kept hidden from public view.
When Inside Higher Ed first requested the cash monitoring list last summer, the department denied the request and claimed that it did not keep such a list.
Going forward the department plans to publish the cash monitoring list online and update it on an ongoing basis, but it hasn’t yet decided how frequently, Mitchell said.  
Varying Levels of Scrutiny 
Many of the colleges on the lower level of monitoring, which typically places a several-day delay on colleges’ federal funding, are placed there automatically because they fail the department’s standards of financial responsibility.
Colleges and the groups that represent them have long complained that the methodology of those scores is out of date and doesn’t accurately reflect an institution’s financial health.  
"A lot of financially healthy institutions can find themselves on HCM1, for any number of minor reasons," said Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education. "HCM2 is a more serious problem, and institutions that are on there probably merit a close look."
Hartle said that although the department is rightly trying to make sure colleges have the financial and administrative capacity to receive federal funding, officials have not been clear about how they use the cash monitoring sanctions. 
"What institutions do to end up in that circumstance is not always clear," he said. "Because they're now making it public, the stakes are much higher, and the need for more disclosure and transparency by the department has increased."
For-Profits Dominate List
For-profit colleges made up more than half of the institutions on each level of heightened cash monitoring.
Of the 487 colleges facing the lower level of scrutiny, mostly for failing the department’s financial responsibility test, 290 were for-profit institutions. Similarly, for-profit institutions represented 39 of 69 colleges facing the more stringent restrictions.
Many smaller for-profit beauty, barber and cosmetology schools faced the highest level of monitoring, for a variety of reasons, including accreditation problems, high default rates and severe audit findings.
Large for-profit college chains also have some colleges on the list, such as Corinthian CollegesITT Educational Services, Education Management Corporation, and Career Education Corporation, including several of its Le Cordon Bleu campuses that are up for sale. Those publicly-traded companies had all previously disclosed their status to investors. (An earlier version of this paragraph incorrectly suggested that only some of these companies had told investors of their cash monitoring status.)
Noah Black, a spokesman for the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, said in response to the department’s release of the list that students "would benefit greatly not from another disclosure, but from clear, direct and accurate information."
He pointed to the “wealth of information that currently exists” on the department’s website, including various data points about colleges and universities that are collected and published by the government.
Trace Urdan, a senior analyst at Wells Fargo who focuses on for-profit education companies, said in a note to clients that the public disclosure of the list wouldn’t have a huge impact on stock prices. But, he said, the list “could have the effect of discouraging enrollment at named institutions, thereby exacerbating their enrollment challenges.”
He also said that there is “a strong likelihood that state regulators could demand disclosure of the sanction to prospective students, and/or impose their own sanctions on named schools.”

Institutions on Heightened Cash Monitoring 2:
City, State 
Arkansas Baptist College

Little Rock, Ark.
Private, Nonprofit
Administrative Capability
JRMC School of Nursing
Pine Bluff, Ark.
Private, Nonprofit
Audit -- Severe Findings
Asian-American International Beauty College
Westminster, Calif.
Accreditation Problems
David's Academy of Beauty
Pico Rivera, Calif.
Accreditation Problems
Community Christian College
Redlands, Calif.
Private, Nonprofit
Accreditation Problems
Galaxy Medical College
North Hollywood, Calif.
Accreditation Problems
Southern California University SOMA
Los Angeles, Calif.
Accreditation Problems
Real Barbers College (The)
Anaheim, Calif.
Accreditation Problems
California Career School
Anaheim, Calif.
Audit Late/Missing
American Beauty College
West Covina, Calif.
Other -- CIO Problems (Eligibility)
Potomac College
Washington, D.C.
Administrative Capability
SAE Institute of Technology -- Miami
North Miami Beach, Fla.
Administrative Capability
Ultrasound Medical Institute
Lantana, Fla.
Audit Late/Missing
Academy of Healing Arts, Massage & Facial Skin Care
Lake Worth, Fla.
Other -- CIO Problems (Eligibility)
Atlanta Beauty & Barber Academy
Doraville, Ga.
Accreditation Problems
American College of Hairstyling -- Cedar Rapids
Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Audit Late/Missing
American College of Hairstyling -- Des Moines
Des Moines
Audit Late/Missing
Larry's Barber College
Audit Late/Missing
Masters of Cosmetology College
Fort Wayne, Ind.
Administrative Capability
Collins School of Cosmetology
Middlesboro, Ky.
Accreditation Problems
Roxbury Community College
Administrative Capability
International Beauty School
Cumberland, Md.
Accreditation Problems
Sojourner-Douglass College
Private, Nonprofit
Accreditation Problems
Missouri School of Barbering & Hairstyling -- St. Louis
Florissant, Mo.
Audit Late/Missing
eClips School of Cosmetology and Barbering
Cape Girardeau, Mo.
Default Rate
Fort Berthold Community College
New Town, N.D.
Payment Method Changed
Little Priest Tribal College
Winnebago, Neb.
Private, Nonprofit
Administrative Capability
Total Image Beauty Academy
Union City, N.J.
Financial Responsibility
Bramson ORT College
Forest Hills, N.Y.
Private, Nonprofit
Accreditation Problems
Rabbinical Seminary of America
Flushing, N.Y.
Private, Nonprofit
Audit Late/Missing
Joffrey Ballet School, American Ballet Center
New York, N.Y.
Audit Late/Missing
Yeshiva Shaar Hatorah
Richmond Hill, N.Y.
Private, Nonprofit
F/S Late/Missing
Saint James Mercy Hospital School of Radiologic Sciences
Hornell, N.Y.
Private, Nonprofit
Financial Responsibility
VEEB Nassau County School of Practical Nursing
Uniondale, N.Y.
Financial Responsibility
Ohio Mid-Western College
Private, Nonprofit
Financial Responsibility
Institute of Therapeutic Massage
Lima, Ohio
Outstanding Liability/Offset
CC's Cosmetology College
Tulsa, Okla.
Program Review
Citizens School of Nursing
New Kensington, Penn.
Private, Nonprofit
Other -- CIO Problems (Eligibility)
Western Pennsylvania Hospital School of Nursing
Private, Nonprofit
Other -- CIO Problems (Eligibility)
Nashville Barber and Style Academy
Administrative Capability
Shear Academy
Crossville, Tenn.
Audit -- Severe Findings
Texas Beauty College
Haltom City, Tex.
Accreditation Problems
(The department declined to name an additional 21 colleges that were subject to heightened cash monitoring 2.)

Friday, March 27, 2015

Longitudinal Data on Low Income Students in the Hoboken Public Schools (1997-present)

Despite claims of charter schools causing "segregation" in the Hoboken School District, longitudinal data tells a different story. In fact, the percentage of low income students in the school district has been on a downward decline since 1997. There are many factors for this decline in the percentage of low income students in the district. But two things are clear: 1) the percentage of low income children in the district has a downward trend line and 2) there has been no "increase" in segregation causally linked to charter schools in the city. -Dr. Petrosino

Blue dots: % low income in Hoboken School District by year
White line: trend line of % low income in Hoboken School District from 1997-present
Yellow dotted line: 1997-2013 average low income percentage

Click to enlarge 

Don't Become a Teacher, Advises Award-Winner Nancie Atwell

From Education Week...An influential language arts teacher who recently won a $1 million international teaching prize has some surprising advice for young people considering joining the profession: Don't.
On March 15, Nancie Atwell, who has been teaching reading and writing for 42 years and has written several prominent books on language arts instruction, was awarded the first annual $1 million Global Teacher Prize by the Varkey Foundation, based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The prize, which has been lauded by the likes of Bill Gates and Bill Clinton, who is the honorary chairman of the Varkey Foundation, aims to improve the public image of the teaching profession by highlighting the work of excellent educators. 
Upon receiving the award, Atwell, who teaches at the Center for Teaching and Learning, a nonprofit demonstration school she helped found in Edgecomb, Maine, in 1990, said she was honored to represent her profession and that she felt "validated every day just by the experiences I have with children in the classroom."
But she doesn't seem keen on encouraging others to follow in her footsteps.
Following the award ceremony, Atwell appeared on CNN's New Day to talk about the award and the state of education. When asked what she would tell a student considering a career in teaching, she said that she would discourage them unless they could find a job in a private school.
"Public school teachers are so constrained right now by the common core standards and the tests that are developed to monitor what teachers are doing with them," she said. "If you're a creative, smart young person, I don't think this is the time to go into teaching unless an independent school would suit you."
In an interview with HuffPost Live (starts at 18:30), Atwell reiterated her reservations about the Common Core State Standards, which Gates' own foundation has played a central role in supporting. "The new common core curriculum and the tests that accompany it are tending to treat teachers as mere technicians," she said. "They open the box and they read the script, and that's not what good teaching is about. It's an intellectual enterprise, and that's been stripped from it by the current climate."
The Maine educator also agreed with HuffPost Live host Marc Lamont Hill's suggestion that the common core and the "hyper-testing, hyper-accountability climate" teachers face could be contributing to high attrition rates. She compared the demands on teachers to "straitjackets when it comes to how [teachers] interact with kids, what they ask of kids, what they bring to the classroom."
With respect to language arts in particular, Atwell said that schools' emphasis on test preparation leaves little room to emphasize the benefits of reading and writing. "It's just become a series of rig—not even rigorous, almost ridiculous exercises that don't have any connection with the enjoyment of stories or the exercise of self-expression," she said.
Atwell suggested that she would like to see a greater emphasis on performance assessments in schools.  "We really need to be looking at what individual kids are achieving in the disciplines, authentically and personally," she said, citing her school's evaluation method, which involves students creating portfolios and reflecting on their own work, as an alternative to standardized assessment.
At the time this was posted, the Varkey Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation had not responded to requests for comments on Atwell's statements about the state of teaching today.
Video Link: Click Here 
Photo of Nancie Atwell courtesy of the Varkey Foundation's Global Education and Skills Forum 2015.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Legal Battle Over Fate of Hoboken Charter School Continues- State DOE rules no segregation at HoLa; Board of Education criticizes decision. By ERIC.KIEFER (Patch Staff)

Nighttime scene- Hoboken, NJ
A recent article on Hoboken Patch…and a comment to the article. 
The Hoboken Board of Education’s battle with the New Jersey Department of Education over the fate of the “HoLa” Dual Language Charter School has hit another roadblock.
tOn March 20, the NJDOE issued a decision upholding the charter school’s right to expand to include grades six to eight. The decision was the most recent gambit in a legal battle that started in March of 2014, and may mark the end of the board’s attempt to halt the growth of HoLa.
Board members have maintained that the Jefferson Street charter school has shown trends of segregation, and that the percentage of minority students who attend HoLa is about half that of the district’s public schools.
However, in a letter announcing the decision, New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe stated that after analyzing available data, the DOE has concluded that there is no such trend at the school.
Multiple Hoboken school officials have stated that they have no desire to continue with the lawsuit. But in a Monday press release, Interim Superintendent Richard Brockel stated that the decision is flawed because it relies on U.S. Census data instead of school population data, and hinted that the legal fight may not be over.
“The commissioner completely ignored the Board of Education’s pleas to assess the socioeconomic and financial impact of HoLa’s proposed expansion on the Hoboken Public Schools,” stated Brockel. “This decision is extremely disappointing, and the Board of Education and I will be assessing our options due to the commissioner’s failure to fully assess all the issues in this critical matter.”
If it was really about the money and not just the beef that the BOE has with Hola, then they would be barking up different avenues.
I mean really, look at the costs per pupil per the DOE website.
Hoboken Charter
2012-13 Total Spending Per Pupil: $17,465
Elysian Charter
2012-13 Total Spending Per Pupil: $16,133
2012-13 Total Spending Per Pupil: $12,864

Click to enlarge

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Press Release on HoLa expansion by Hoboken Board of Education 3-23-15 (pdf)

Media Watch: At White House Science Fair, Obama Announces New STEM Commitments

President Wilson arrives in Hoboken on board
the USS George Washington 1919.

The New York Times notes the President as awed by the accomplishments of the children who presented their inventions at the White House Science Fair, and notes that in brief remarks he announced “$240 million in new commitments from the government and private businesses to help children succeed in science, technology and math,” part of an initiative known as STEM. However, adds the Times, “it was clear that” for Obama, “the best part of the day was spending time with the young inventors.” 

In a brief report, NBC Nightly News(3/23, story 10, 0:20, Holt) said “Obama appeared to be quite impressed by a group of cape-wearing girl scouts from Tulsa, OK,” who showed him “the page-turning robot they built out of Legos designed to help the disabled. Pretty neat stuff.”

        The AP Share to FacebookShare to Twitter (3/24, Kuhnhenn), meanwhile, notes that “the pledges the president announced include a $150 million philanthropic effort to encourage promising early-career scientists to stay on track and a $90 million campaign to expand STEM opportunities to underrepresented youth, such as minorities and girls.” Said Obama, “It’s not enough for our country just to be proud of you. We’ve got to support you.”

        USA Today Share to FacebookShare to Twitter (3/23, Jackson, Today) reports that Obama hailed “up to $240 million in private sector pledges for” STEM education, describing his interactions with the participants.

        Other media outlets that covered this story include the Huffington Post Share to FacebookShare to Twitter (3/24, Bondioli), the Christian Science Monitor Share to FacebookShare to Twitter(3/23), the New York Daily News Share to FacebookShare to Twitter (3/23, Friedman), US News & World Report Share to FacebookShare to Twitter (3/23), TIME Share to FacebookShare to Twitter (3/24), and the Arizona Republic Share to FacebookShare to Twitter (3/23).

Friday, March 20, 2015

Commissioner Decision Letter: HOLA Response Segregative Effect March 2015

State Upholds HoLa Charter School Expansion

Boys and Girls Club- Hoboken NJ 
New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe granted an expansion and charter renewal in a March 20 letter to Hoboken Dual Language Charter School (HoLa) Board of Trustees President Barbara Martinez.

In April 2014, the public school district sued HoLa and the state over its March 28, 2014 decision to approve the K-5 charter school's 2013 request for a five-year renewal and expansion to include grades 6-8.

Among its concerns with the charter, the district claimed that HoLa, located at 123 Jefferson Street, has shown a trend of segregation since its 2010 opening. 
The district said the percentage of minority students at the bilingual school had been about half the district's for three years.

On Friday, Hespe said a state review, and a review of information submitted by Feb. 2 from both HoLa and the Hoboken district, led the state to find the district's argument invalid.
"As the department's analysis of publically available student enrollment and census data shows, HoLa is not having a segregative effect in the Hoboken public schools. Therefore, I reaffirm the department's 2014 decision that HoLa charter school is renewed with its expansion for a period of five years through June 30, 2019," the commissioner stated. 
Both HoLa and Hoboken school officials did not return a request for comment on Friday afternoon.

HoLa opened about five years ago and teaches in both Spanish and English to grades kindergarten through fifth grade and already has approval to add sixth grade classes.
In 2013, the controversy began when the school requested to add more grades.
Hoboken school district's fight against this expansion has been ongoing since the district first began penning a letter to the state in 2013, urging it to temporarily block the renewal.

Citing funding, diversity and other issues, Superintendent Mark Toback said a study of the effectiveness of charter schools in the city should be conducted before the state signs off on a renewal or expansion of the HoLa Hoboken Dual Language Charter School.
According to the state review, while HoLa enrolls more white students percentage-wise than the district, the district's percentage of white students "actually increased since HoLa opened in 2010," and the percentage of Hispanic students decreased.

"Instead the data points to an overall population shift in the last ten years in the city of Hoboken, which began before the opening of HoLa charter school," Hespe said. He said the "demographic composition of HoLa's student population seems to better reflect Hoboken's population" than Hoboken school district - given how the charter was charged with enrolling a cross-section of Hoboken's school-age population.

The charter school's maximum enrollment in 2018-2019 will be 405, he said. It is currently 292.

Laura Herzog may be reached at lherzog@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @LauraHerzogL. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

First Day of Spring- Hoboken, NJ
March 20, 2015

Hola Wins Lawsuit- Renewal and Expansion Upheld

Details to follow soon, but a decision has been reached on the Hoboken Board of Education's lawsuit against the Hola Dual Language School… 

"Compared to the Hoboken District Schools, the demographic composition of HoLa's student population appears to better reflect Hoboken's population….HoLa's student population closely aligns to Hoboken's demographic characteristics based on "Age 17 and Under" population from the 2010 Census"…  

"Hola is not having a segregative effect in the Hoboken District Schools. Therefore, I affirm the Department's 2014 decision that Hola Charter School is renewed with its expansion for a period of five years through June 30, 2019" -NJDOE 3/20/15

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Teaching the Next Generation Science Standards With 'Mysteries' By Liana Heitin

Frozen Hudson River- February 10, 2015
In a packed session this morning, a professor who helped lead the development of the Next Generation Science Standards, described the new standards as "a shift from learning about something to figuring out something."
Brian J. Reiser, a professor of learning sciences at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., who was introduced as "the godfather of NGSS," offered this example: "NGSS does not ask you to explain photosynthesis, NGSS asks you to explain how a tree gets all its stuff."
Traditionally, science classes have been taught a few different ways, he explained:  
  • Through application: The teacher presents the idea, then students do the lab experiment to see it in action.
  • Through the "trust me" method: The teacher does the lab, then teaches the idea so kids understand what they just saw. "Why do we need to learn osmosis? Because you really need it in high school," Reiser mocked.
  • Through the "Mr. Wizard" method: The teacher does something awesome and says, "Isn't this cool? How does this work?" 
The NGSS storyline is different. Students are given a big question that they can relate to—a "mystery" of sorts. Through their investigation of that question, they hit on other phenomena along the way that they also need to investigate and explain. 
(To me, this is quite reminiscent of Stanford University doctoral candidate Dan Meyer's theory on math instruction, which also advocates for starting with a big, real-world question.)
For instance, Reiser showed a lesson in which students were told that there was a large decrease in the number of Galapagos finches between 1976 and 1977. ("I do biology, so I like to focus on things like death," Reiser joked.)
Students were tasked with figuring out why so many finches died and why some were able to survive. They were given access to data on the Web about the time period and had to figure out which questions to ask and what information was relevant. 
Eventually students determined that there was a drought around that time, and that the seeds the birds ate were nearly depleted. Birds with slightly longer beaks survived because they were able to open the leftover, tough-shelled seeds. 
Making Models
But that's far from the end. From there, students investigate a similar phenomenon—for instance, why peppered moths were more prominent during the Industrial Revolution. "So you have two general models," Reiser said. "Then you ask students to tell the story without the finch or moth." 
Eventually, they come up with a model. Something like this:
natural selection.JPG
That's when you deliver the kicker, according to Reiser. "Scientists have built a story like this, too, and it's called natural selection."
Classroom Implications
It's an exciting prospect—teaching science with mysteries—but is it practical right now? Many teachers are just starting to get to know the standards, which 13 states and D.C. have adopted. And so far, there are very few resources out there to help them with tasks and assessments. So for the most part, they're making up these mysteries on their own.
And as a Kentucky teacher at my table noted, these multi-day (multi-week?) explorations of data and a single question can actually become quite tedious for students. "You have to be careful what kind of activities you're [implementing]," said middle school teacher Beverly Clary of Maysville. "They're used to doing those fun labs. They get a little bored looking at data after awhile."
Would be great to hear from others' experiences with the NGSS in the comment section below.
Image: Slide from Brian Reiser's NSTA presentation, March 13, 2015.