Friday, June 24, 2016

The Unintended Consequences of Governor Christie's Funding Reform

Governor Christie's plan to equalize state funding in education will have an enormous impact on funding in our urban schools. The plan is clearly appealing to suburban taxpayers (and voters), and illustrates the anemic strength of urban areas in the political landscape at the State level. I can only speculate whether there is a hidden intent to this proposal- that it is subterfuge to fatally exposing these districts to the growing number of charter schools (and by extension their political clout)- but the resulting financial strain will require that difficult decisions be made on both sides of the ledger.

But besides the fairly obvious intent of this proposal to reduce suburban property taxes, a more onerous and problematic unintended consequence of this proposal will be to "handcuff" urban districts from making what I believe to be one of the more important changes they can bring to inner city education: incentivizing young middle class professional families from moving into our urban areas.

In the last decade their has been a nationwide trend in this direction. Among the features deemed most attractive to these young couples and young families is the relatively lower property tax burden found in the cities. Similarly, urban centers like Trenton, Camden, etc.. could have created property tax based incentives to attract this important demographic, possibly tying a tax abatement or lower tax to a commitment sending their kids to the public schools. Let me be blunt: for urban districts to succeed, they will require an influx of middle class families and their children into their schools. Socioeconomic diversity is not just a good thing for urban schools, it is an essential thing.

I know this is an uncomfortable issue for alot of people, but there is such a thing as "middle class" values, and the more pervasive they are in a community the more likely that community is to being economically and socially stable. The impact on inner city schools would likewise be dramatic. Parents are more likely to advocate for their kids. Teachers are more likely to design curricula that is "student empowering" and performance expectations will rise. Additional resources will find a way into a school's academic and co-curricular activities. I'm not saying it is right that this is "how it goes," but this IS how it goes.

If anything, today's urban districts need more fiscal flexibility so that they can innovate and hopefully improve their schools. I realize that most urban areas do not have a good track record for showing significant academic innovation and improvement, but I think that a lot of that has to do with the high level of "interference" by the State DOE and its performance based mandates and curriculum requirements.

There is so much to do in our urban communities if we are ever going to see real improvement in student performance. The Governor's proposal makes a political calculation that suburban families will reward his Party for this gift of  lower  property taxes.He is undoubtedly fully aware of the impact his plan will have on our urban districts, not just in their ability to provide essential services and resources to their children, but in their ability to use the local tax code to "reset" the urban demographic. This supposedly unintended consequence may have the most dire consequences of all, and, suffice to say, I bet no one gave it a moments thought.

Friday, April 10, 2015

College for Everyone?

In the last few days I have viewed or read at least 4 stories considering the high cost of a college education. Since 1990 the cost of a 4 year education has apparently risen almost 1200%, and there seems to be considerable debate on the causes for this incredible rise. These same stories included comments of course advocating "college for everyone" as the righteous path to economic security. We of course know that college is not for everyone, and many young people make the decision to pursue specialized training, enter the military, or pursue other non-academic paths. The key point is that college is a choice, but what I see as the most salient problem in high school education right now is that the schools, the State, the advisers, everyone seems to point to college as a first consideration.

Testing is college driven. Curriculums are by and large college driven. Our culture is college driven. This makes the idea of students making a truly well thought out, wise choice about their future very suspect. We drive kids towards college and then accept the fact that not all will go.

First let's get back to the costs. For me, the greatest influence on the rising cost of college is the almost unlimited access for students to "free money," through either loans or grants, to pursue a college education. Colleges are of course aware of this, and respond to this increased demand by raising prices. This is classic demand driven inflation. It is also the reason that so many graduates are now saddled with debt, and why the number of students that actually graduate from a 4 year university is around 58%. There are clearly too many kids being pushed into college, where the first courses for many of them are remedial classes to remedy the inadequate preparation they receive in high school.

So we poorly prepare kids for college, push them into college, and then watch as half of them drop out while the other half graduate with mounds of debt. Does anyone have a problem with this???

By far the biggest problem is in the inner cities, where students are receiving an education far less rigorous than in the suburbs. And while college may be an acceptable choice for a large percentage of suburban students, it is absolutely the wrong path for a majority of inner city students, most of whom should be studying curriculum that prepares them for a more practical future in vocations and technical training. The best decision would be for our urban schools to adopt a more European model and create multi-tracks for students. This would of course require some sort of testing or advising process that would steer students into a path that is deemed the most practical one for them to take.

This of course goes against the whole mantra of students being able to make their own choices, but frankly I am not advocating forced education. If a student doesn't like the advice they are getting and would prefer, for example, to go to college rather than a trade school, so be it. But the point is that we need to end this obsession with college and this notion that there is something more noble about receiving a college education; that everyone should strive for college and then accept something "less" if they don't make it.

If it means doing away with State mandated curricula for all students, or doing away with a State mandated "graduation" test for all students, then by all means lets do away with it. There is not a scintilla of evidence that State interference in education is producing any demonstrable gains, or at the very least any gains that could not have otherwise been attained through local measures.

The inner cities will never be repaired until its young students are given realistic, practical advise about their futures and what would be the most appropriate path for them to attain some economic independence and security. There is already a huge performance chasm between urban and suburban schools, so "detaching" them in terms of their curricula and goals is not such an outlandish idea. A student's education should always allow for choice, but those choices should be tempered by the realities of their existence. If it means creating academic and non-academic tracks in urban schools, so be it. I would much rather have that then perpetuate a system that is full of false choices, false opportunities, and false futures.

It is time to, as I hear people say, get real with education in the inner cities, and it is time to get real with ending this obsession with college and college driven learning. Then, and only then, will we see our inner city students given a real chance to make intelligent decisions about their life. Anything short of that is nothing less than perpetuating a fraud on kids that deserve better.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

An Opportunity for Stakeholders to Support Trenton's Kids

One of the ideas I recently suggested to the Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson was the creation of a "resource bank," funded through donations by stakeholders in the region, to help support inner city parents that want to support their aspiring kids but lack the means to do so. The idea is to create a fund that families can approach for help, whether it be to provide capital resources or supplemental educational programs for their children to attend. If the proposal is deemed worthwhile, the bank will either grant the funds or provide them at an extremely favorable terms for repayment.

If we as a community are ever going to help bridge the "learning gap" that exists between urban and suburban schools, stakeholders in the area are going to have to fill that "gap" by providing the kind of programs and opportunities often absent in the inner city beyond the reach of parents who desperately want to support their motivated kids.

Trenton schools will never attain the level of quality available in suburban districts like West Windsor-Plainsboro or Princeton. There will never be equity in access to resources, whether human or material, and so support from "others" is a necessity if we truly believe that equality of opportunity is a value worth believing in.

To these ends, I have just created The Trenton Education Resource Bank on the crowdfunding site The initial goal of the site is to raise $10,000. Once this goal is met I believe we can approach businesses, individuals, and organizations in the Trenton area to raise even more. I encourage others who, like me, believe that children should not be disadvantaged simply by the luck of birth to take up the cause of helping bring equity and opportunity to the children of Trenton. You can access my project by going to and making a donation, then tell 5 others to do the same. Together we can help support the inner city's future engineers, artists, artisans, entrepreneurs, tradesmen (and women), scientists, and political leaders. If we don't do it, who will?

Ideas For The New Trenton Mayor

Several weeks ago Mayor Eric Jackson and Superintendent Francisco (?)Duran made a joint appearance designed to highlight their shared objective of improving the performance of Trenton’ schools and its students, most of whom have spent years slogging through a system that has promised change but more often than not fell short of its goals. I applaud the apparent improvement in the District’s graduation rate, but my concern is that this improvement will give the District a false sense of confidence, that it is “on course” and doesn’t need to risks to better our future. These risks are necessary if our students are going to receive the kind of quality education they need to graduate as independent and empowered individuals with the awareness to navigate the financial, legal, social, and technological forces that will impact their lives.

Some of those risks must occur within the schools themselves through a major transformation in the curriculum, the personnel, the supervision of those personnel, and the incentives we offer to educators to improve their performance. But it is equally important that a new relationship be created between schools and stakeholders throughout the Trenton area, stakeholders that can make a valuable contribution to learning. And that is why seeing Mayor Jackson and Superintendent Duran together was such a refreshing sight, if indeed it signals the beginning of an effort to bring together our schools and those stakeholders. Whether they be in the business community, among our non-profits and universities, or in the very neighborhoods that are home to our schools, these stakeholders must be “brought on board.”
If this new partnership is to fully blossom, it is incumbent on our leaders to reach out to the community for ideas on how to best bring stakeholders into this relationship. With this in mind, I have a couple ideas that I believe will help our students and their families gain greater access to the resources and expertise that our stakeholders can provide.
In Trenton, economic development and education are inextricably linked, as many students will hopefully graduate and look to the region to live and work. One idea is designed to join these two interests by creating what I term “Urban Opportunity Zones.” Similar in design to now defunct Urban Enterprise Zones, the general idea is to offer tax and financial incentives to businesses, non-profits, trades, and professional associations that relocate or create an entity in these Zones in exchange to providing internships, employment, mentoring, after school programs, scholarships, or some other educational opportunity for Trenton students. Ideally we could rehabilitate one of the brownfields in the city to locate these Urban Opportunity Zones, hopefully with help from the State and Federal government to develop these properties. This program would be an ideal way to partner stakeholders with high school students and provide opportunities readily available to students in nearby suburban districts like West Windsor-Plainsboro or Princeton, where exposure to professional adults and their positive influences is common.

A second idea is modeled on a popular program in the developing world, commonly known as “micro credit.” This idea, started by Nobel Prize winner Mohammed Yunas and the Grameen Bank, is to provide small, non-collateralized loans to budding entrepreneurs to help them develop their underutilized skills.
What I have in mind is to create a “community bank” that will provide loans, grants, or actual capital resources to parents in Trenton that are highly motivated to help provide educational resources and opportunities to their children but do not have the financial ability to do so. I cannot say enough about how important this access to resources is to help bridge the gulf that exists between the educational opportunities of suburban families and families in the inner city. Whether it is in the form of technology, tutoring, summer or after school programs, or a myriad of other resources, finding a way to provide these resources to parents that are committed to providing opportunities to their children is a critical component of academic achievement.  Donations of money or capital can be aggressively sought, with incentives used to help motivate contributions. Creating a non-profit organization to oversee the process, one that will review “applications” and then provide or finance the appropriate resources, would not be particularly complicated and would again demonstrate the desire of our Mayor to truly participate in the educational futures of our children and to truly bring together stakeholders in the region with inner city students. Stakeholders directly benefit from the quality of urban education, for it is these inner city students that will one day help create and define the quality of life in the City as citizens and consumers.

These are but two ideas, but I am confident that there are others in the community equally interested in helping to shape the future of learning in our City. And like many others, I would like to help make that future bright. Let us hope that the sight of our Mayor and Superintendent was more than just a photo opportunity. They need to roll up their sleeves and get to work.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

HSPA Scores are out, and Trenton Parents Should Demand Change NOW

"We will take action. They will not be easy decisions to make, but incremental progress is not enough." So said Paymon Rouhanifard, Superintendent of the Camden School District in response to the abominable ASK and HSPA scores of students in his District. He seems to recognize that progress is going to require profound change. The only question is whether he is willing to acknowledge that risks must be taken, that "business as usual" is a recipe for failure. It is not enough to simply recognize that incremental failure is not enough.

Now let's take a look at Trenton High School's HSPA scores in comparison to West Windsor South. At TCHS 18% of students failed the Language Arts test, while 8% achieved what the State calls "Advanced Pass," which is a step above proficient and implies "mastery." In West Windsor, NO ONE failed the test, while 64% achieved Advanced Pass. That is 64 versus 8%.

In Math, 50% of TCHS students failed the test, while 3% achieved Advanced Pass. In West Windsor, 2% failed, while 75% achieved Advanced Pass. That is 75 versus 3%.

Now as much as I hate the HSPA; it is a horrible measure of what students learn in high school, and frankly tests the wrong things. Our State's Curriculum Standards emphasizes things that have no connection to what kids truly need to know when they graduate, but they do nonetheless provide a valid comparative tool.

And honestly, any parent looking at these scores should be getting nauseous. Is that a statement about the teachers, about the kids, about the parents, about the schools, or about the communities and local culture? Where do assign blame? I am going to put the least amount of blame on the kids. It certainly isn't a racial issue, since race has nothing to do with intelligence or test scores.

What this tells me, and what it should be telling you, the parents, or you, the local businessperson, is that we need to tear down the school's curriculum as we are tearing down the actual school. The City can be doing more to attract young and middle class families, can be doing more to alleviate the concentration of poverty in minority communities, and can be doing more to bring the business community into the education domain, but by and large the greatest responsibility falls upon the School District to completely change the way we teach and what we teach to our children.

Score differentials like this cannot continue. It is a disgrace and an embarrassment to the State that such inequality exists between our urban and suburban schools. Action MUST be taken. Parents must literally rise up in revolt and say NO MORE! How many more years of pointless programs and initiatives must we endure before someone has the guts to stand up and say this will not work.

If there is anyone out there ready to organize, I am here to help. We spend so much time building up the self-esteem of our kids, but all that is doing is setting them up for disappointment and frustration. It is up to us, the community, to make things right in the schools. Feel free to reach me at if you want to try and get the ball rolling. We can be patient no more.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Dear Trenton Parents and Businesses: WAKE UP and Save Your Kids

I have no doubt that there are parents, even groups of parents, and local businesses, that deeply care about the education their children are receiving. But I am stunned and frustrated that no one seems to have learned that the people in charge of education in the City and at the DOE are going to do NOTHING radical to change the schools and bring quality education to Trenton.

The kind of change our schools need is going to require a lot of thinking and a lot of work, and from my experience in education you will be hard pressed to find administrators willing to "stick their neck out" and take the initiative and risk that is involved unless they are pushed to do it. Why change the status quo if you don't have to?

All you are going to get from our "leaders" is talk of "new programs," "restructuring," and "improved accountability." But haven't you heard all of this before?

Let's face it, the City of Trenton is nothing like West Windsor or Princeton Townships, but it is time for the children of Trenton to receive an education of the quality received by the kids in these towns. But the demographics of these towns are drastically different from Trenton, the access to human and material resources is drastically different, and the quality of life in these communities are vastly different. Those are facts. The chances of a middle class migration into Trenton is unlikely, and this means that it falls upon the District, along with stakeholders and organized groups of parents to provide the tools that our children need to improve the quality of education and create greater opportunity.
The children in Trenton are no different than the children of West Windsor, and it was only by the fate of birth that they have been born into different families and different communities. Equality of opportunity in education is a right, but insuring that right requires the people of Trenton to fight for it.

I implore, no, I am begging, someone out there to get the ball rolling and create a group dedicated to bringing profound, radical change to the Trenton School District, and especially to Trenton High School. How many more years near the bottom of the list of New Jersey schools will it take before people realize that "half steps" will do nothing. Why are parents willing to wait? Why are you willing to defer to the "experts?"

I have proposed trying to get Trenton High School designated as an "experimental school," in essence turned into something akin to a charter school, and completely transform the school. You don't need to look far- try Atlantic City- to see that a brand new modern school will do nothing to improve education unless something "brand new" is done with the curriculum and the culture of learning as well.

So if there is anyone out there willing to get things started, here is your first volunteer. It is time for the parents to rise up and demand change, and to demand it now. Anything less would signal that the parents of Trenton just don't care, and I can't believe that is true.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Time for the Public to Rise Up in Trenton

Now that the Trenton School Board and the State have decided what do on the site of the old high school, it is time to think long and hard about what will go on in the school and the surrounding community. First, it is time to accept the harsh reality that little if anything that has been introduced in the last decade by the education establishment to improve student performance has succeeded. There is no longitudinal study that shows statistically significant progress of the kind that shows that the District is on the right path and that we just need to be patient. When it comes to urban education, patience is not a virtue, and does little but consigns another generation of kids to a poor education. Why should these kids, and their parents, have to be patient? Whether it is the Common Core, or PAARC, or some other mandate or program, they are nothing more than branches of the same sick tree.

When 99 of the 100 poorest performing high schools come from our urban centers or lowest District Factor Groups (DFGs), there is clearly a problem. The chasm that exists between our heralded middle and upper class DFGs and our inner cities has allowed leaders to hide poor performance while the NJEA and DOE can produce advertisements championing higher overall test scores in our State.
However, we have now reached a critical juncture where all that can change and the future of urban education can be rescued. Weeks ago L.A. Parker suggested using space in the Trentonian as an education forum to give concerned citizens a voice. I think it’s a wonderful idea, because frankly the  solutions to what ails our schools may need to come from “outside” the education establishment.

For radical change to occur, and that is clearly what I espouse, there needs to be some “radical success” that can be pointed to before schools (and the State) are willing to assume the risk that comes with profound change. This is a global truth, one that I learned years ago in college studying economic development among Third World peasants. It wasn’t until the U.N. literally farmed its own land with new seeds and new technologies that these peasants would agree to take the risk.
Why I believe the time is right is that with the creation of a new Trenton High comes the opportunity to make everything about the school new. Trenton can become that farm, a demonstration school or laboratory to create a radical new approach to urban education, something that will show other schools the rewards of taking new risks. It’s not as if things could get much worse, and I’m confident they won’t; well thought out and well planned change will work as long as the right people are in place.

Several years ago I studied the success stories of entrepreneurs, trying to find some common characteristics. Like most Americans, I am somewhat captivated by entrepreneurs; since the time of Ben Franklin they have been the driving force behind our economic success, and I am somewhat confounded that the spirit of entrepreneurism is absent from our education system. What I found are five metrics we can use as predictors of success: Passion, Organization, Knowledge, Empowerment, and Resourcefulness.
I firmly believe that if we sought out entrepreneurially minded teachers- teachers that strove to master these metrics- from our colleges and private sector, treated teachers as entrepreneurs, allowed them to behave as entrepreneurs, and rewarded the performance of exemplary entrepreneurial teachers, we can transform the culture of learning in our urban schools. We don't need more teachers with education degrees, we need specialists that will come to education with passion and knowledge that will inspire and challenge students. Give our teachers greater latitude towards the curriculum and transform our required coursework and the graduation test; what is critical is that these teachers empower their students to express themselves “entrepreneurially” as well. Surround these new teachers with administrators skilled in clinical supervision and choose school leader that embrace the spirit of entrepreneurism and will create a climate for learning that is safe and dynamic, and where success is acknowledged with extrinsic rewards.

The current Core Course Curriculum Standards and HSPA (now PAARC) are completely driven by college prerogatives and built on the expectation that all students should be prepared for college, while the real purpose of a high school curriculum should be to prepare young adults to be independent, civic minded, and globally aware citizens. Financial literacy, health literacy, legal literacy, technological literacy, and cultural literacy- among other things- should be taught and assessed in our inner city schools. Beyond teaching and properly assessing what students MUST know, our inner city schools should be skill driven. I am confident college driven students will make sure they get what they need, and beyond that all students will learn the practical skills they need to pursue whatever path they choose.
Since it is highly unlikely that Trenton neighborhoods will change socioeconomically, it is incumbent on the schools and stakeholders to provide the human and capital resources that are typically absent in the City but easily accessible to suburban students. The playing field must become more level, and equality of opportunity must be provided. By taking a radical approach and creating a culture of learning driven by entrepreneurial values, and then supporting this effort with aggressive involvement from regional stakeholders, we can quickly improve student performance and address the concerns of urban families who have been patient for much too long. Trenton High may hold the key to the future of urban education, if people were only willing to take the risk. And really, what do we have to lose?