Friday, December 21, 2012

A shocking story to share

This past weekend I attended my nieces bat mitzvah, and as expected I got into another high spirited discussion with my youngest brother.

The subject turned to education and the inequities between urban and suburban schools.  It was then that I learned some disquieting news.

It turns out that parents who have a child performing below grade level, and that subsequently get classified with a learning disability, are able to receive even more money from the state SSI program. I'm sure the school also receives additional funding through Title 1.

The ramifications of this are incredible, as this is in essence an incentive to be an unsupportive parent. I know this assumes the parent has less than noble intentions, but when you look at the inordinately high percentage of under performing and special ed students in the inner city it does establish at least a prima facie case that an abuse of the system exists, to the detriment of any child caught up in this naked, selfish grab for money. At the very least the issue deserves someone's attention.

Inner city children already exist in an environment that compromises their right to an education that properly prepares them for life after high school. Equity and greater opportunity are in short supply in New Jersey's public education system. To think that some parents may be contributing to the challenges facing their children is too sad for words.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Christie Administration's Great New Initiative, Now for the Final Pieces to be Put in Place

Today's announcement that the DOE will be partnering with Princeton University to seek out the "best and brightest" college graduates to pursue careers as math and science teachers for low performance schools represents another positive achievement for our Governor.

As a former alternate route teacher, I can say unequivocally that, at the high school level, a degree in education is a meaningless indicator of future performance. It is in fact a detriment to higher learning and achievement, as these graduates have nowhere near the level of knowledge and passion embodied in graduates with degrees in other fields of study such is engineering, statistics,  astronomy, accounting, government, kinesthetics, or other specialized fields.

Teaching is the ultimate "learn what works on the job" profession. Trial and error, when supported by excellent supervisors, is how teachers succeed. A Mobil sponsored television commercial getting airplay these days is right on the mark: teachers with greater knowledge of the subject matter are best able to inspire students and provide higher level learning.

The true test of this initiative, however, will be in keeping these new educators motivated to make teaching a career. As reported in the Scientific American, 25000 young STEM teachers left the profession before their tenure year. This flight out if education must be thwarted.

So what can be done to improve the profession so we can create faculties full of passionate, intelligent, and effective teachers? I'd like to suggest the following steps:

Most important is to begin thinking of teachers as entrepreneurs, with their class and curriculum as their product, and students as future entrepreneurs being mentored. Give teachers ownership of their course and incentivize the workplace so they can profit for exemplary performance. I truly believe this should be the future of education. The difficult part is that it will require a more decentralized system where our politicians and bureaucrats are less involved, relinquishing power and their inclination to  micro manage  education, ESPECIALLY in low performing inner city schools. The absence of any real improvement in student performance at these schools is as much an indictment of their policies as it is of the schools themselves.

In conjunction with this change to an entrepreneurial model, with "teachers as entrepreneurs",  important practical steps need to be taken. (I will explain the importance of these steps in subsequent posts)

First,  require all Title 1 schools to have a clinical supervisor on staff to work with new and at-risk teachers.

Second, replace the current HSPA with an assessment that tests across the curriculum rather than the current test, which only assesses math and language arts.

Third, completely gut and rewrite the core curriculum content standards to reflect what students MUST know to become independent, healthy, and  empowered citizens that understand and can function in our democratic, free market system.

Fourth, give teachers the academic freedom and latitude to design their own unique curriculum/products.

And fifth, incentivize the system of teacher remuneration with either performance pay or performance tiers, replacing a system built around years of service with one that rewards exemplary work.

Currently our State treats suburban and inner city schools the same when it comes to indicators of success and failure, in spite of the fact that the huge gulf in performance between these type of schools renders the use of "one size fits all" metrics a harmful joke.

The needs of urban schools are different, the immediate goals of the schools are different, and so the policies that guide theses schools should also be different.

Our inner city schools should be seen as fertile grounds for dramatic reform and laboratories for innovation and risk taking. I humbly suggest pursuing the course I have laid out above. Given the current state of education in our inner cities, there is much to gain and little risk that things can get worse than they are now.

With this latest initiative, the Christie  Administration has shown itself receptive to bold new ideas. I certainly didn't expect to be saying this when he took office, but the Governor has proven to be a champion for public education.

Much more needs to be done by our State. Our limited resources need to be channeled to where they will do the most good, new partnerships with stakeholders need to be undertaken, and ineffective mandates and initiatives coming from Trenton must be ended. Though it may seem counter intuitive, what is needed in our urban schools is less, not more, government oversight and intrusion into learning. Let local educators design "student friendly" high schools that young adults want to attend and we'll be on our way to real improvement in student performance.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Deplorable Trenton High Infrastructure

A recent story in the Trenton Times documented the abominable conditions inside Trenton High. Is it any wonder that the kids, and faculty for that matter, get the impression that the public, as communicated through our elected officials, just don't care?

As a former teacher, I just can't imagine trying to create an environment conducive to learning. If I was a student or faculty member I'd invite the media and stage a walkout.

Perception is important. It must be frustrating enough as a student to see so few opportunities on the horizon. There are no distractions facing low income students both in and out of the school building. They shouldn't have to worry about getting sick we're getting injured by the very school they see as there gateway to a better life.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Lunacy of NJ's CCCS

In the previous blog I strongly suggested that New Jersey's Core Curriculum Content Standards are too onerous and unduly broad and deep, requiring teachers to cover so much content that it is a fool's folly to expect students to actually learn the subject matter. If the purpose is simply to introduce students to a wide variety of information, what's the point? Invariably, students will tend to forget what they have learned as soon as the test is over; possibly they will retain it throughout the school year, but by the time they graduate the information will be almost completely lost unless it in some way connects to work they will do in college or career.

According to Bloom's Taxonomy, there are 6 levels of understanding or learning, from basic knowledge through to evaluation. It follows that the higher the level of understanding, the more time will be required in class to reinforce, assess, and evaluate. A look at the CCCS   indicates that the State is expecting students to often be taught at the higher end of the taxonomy. Of course, since the HSPA is limited to just language arts/English and mathematics, there is no mandated mechanism for determining what has been learned. Similarly, there is no mechanism for holding teachers accountable for that learning. And thank G-d for that, because there is little chance that most students will be proficient.

In social studies, five of the six standards are content based. Within these standards are 168 "cumulative progress indicators" - specific items that teachers are expected to teach. If we break down the actual content of these CPI there area well over 500 elements of social studies that teachers are expected to discuss, analyze, evaluate, identify, engage, debate, explore, compare and investigate at the high school level. They are cumulative, so, get this, "teachers should NOT reteach concepts and skills in previous grade levels."

The purpose of social studies should, generally speaking, be to develop a passion for learning and a thirst for knowledge so that teenagers will become "lifelong learners," willing and able as adults to pursue information they want or need to know.

I am begging our political leaders and the DOE to reconsider the whole idea of what should be required content for high school students, and narrow the requirements to those things that a student MUST know prior to graduation. Those should not be those things that students may need for college; count on the students, with help from parents and guidance counselors, to know that you should take biology if you are planning on a career in medicine, to take physics if you plann to be an engineer, and so on.

Preparation for college should NOT be the lense through which we develop the CCCS, it should be preparation for life. In my opinion, graduation requirements (and the HSPA) should include financial literacy and economics, health and nutrition, practical law such as reading a contract, practical math such as determining compound interest, the Constitution and Bill of Rights, physics, how the political process REALLY works, psychology and sociology, and maybe some aspect of our cultural history. Even that general list may be too broad.

In my experiences as a student, teacher, and writer, I've learned that it is much harder to condense writing than to expand it. The same is undoubtedly true with rewriting our content standards, but it must be done.

Only then can we give teachers the freedom to design their own innovative and challenging courses based on their own passions and knowledge. In the same way it is hard to condense writing, it is going to be hard for our State leaders to relinquish power to the local level, letting schools manage their own culture, respective of the community stakeholders, parents, and teachers. Hard, but necessary, because the State's effort to bring more equity to educational achievement has been a horrible failure.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Time for a New Education Paradigm

The subject of this posting is going to make a lot of people uneasy, as I propose eviscerating what stands today as the core content curriculum standards. Now I am assuming that most readers of this blog are adults, and so I have a question: what do you remember from high school? Separate what you learned in college and just think about high school. Now think about what skills you learned in high school.

The purpose of this thought experiment is to make an enormously important point: unless the content is in some way connected to our current jobs or experiences, we have pretty much forgotten everything.

There are two main reasons for this. One is the issue of “who cares?” Let’s be honest, most of the content we learned in school we learned because it was required, not because you were truly interested in it. The second, more important reason, is that because state mandates are so broad and deep that teachers don’t really have the time to confirm that the content was actually “learned.” It was remembered long enough to take a test, and it may rest ever so precariously somewhere in the recesses of our mind, but we never really learned it. Learning is a long, complicated process that requires a great deal of reinforcement and assessment. To really be certain that someone has learned something, they should ideally be able to engage in a discussion of the subject matter and probably also be able to write on the subject; then and only then can there be some assurance that the content has been broadly understood by the class.

By requiring too much, we are actually making true learning less likely. All this content is demanded because we have academicians in all of these fields determining what they believe should be required learning. Is it any wonder why there is so much required content?

Learning skills is another matter. I have read the new national skill standards and find them to be perfectly constructed to meet the needs of today’s society. Unlike the content, skills will be reinforced across the curriculum. If we are to require anything, it would be the skills. Let teachers have greater freedom to design the curriculum content they will use as the foundation for skill building.

I have total faith that, with input from teachers, students, administrators, and the community, that a curriculum will be developed that is perfectly tailored to the future goals and interests of the students. The problem is that our political leaders don’t have enough confidence in teachers to design engaging, challenging curricula on their own, and that is a real disappointment. Granted, there are teachers performing at the lower end of a performance continuum, but hopefully the new evaluation process will help end that. I am also hopeful that the State will support financially school districts that want to reach out and find college students outside of Schools of Education, students with expertise in engineering, accounting, economics, zoology, or any number of fields of study. It is these “future teachers” that will bring their knowledge and passion into the classroom, creating courses that inspire and challenge. Supported by a strong system of clinical supervision, these teachers will help transform our inner city schools into vibrant centers of learning.

All I know for sure is that what is being done now and over the past decade has yielded horrible results. It is time for a new paradigm and a new outlook on education. Let’s give these inner city schools, its teachers, its parents, and stakeholders in the community a chance. I am confident that success will follow.

Free Inner City Schools from the Tentacles of the State

In today’s Trenton Times Connie Goddard wrote an OpEd piece which seemed to call for greater autonomy for the Trenton School District. Her praise of both Toby Sanders and new Superintendent Francisco Duran, and her clear skepticism towards the motives of our State Commissisoner and the Regional Achievement Centers that act on his behest epitomize a core belief that the best way to reform and improve underachieving schools is by returning key decision making to the local level. It is a sentiment that I strongly support.

Readers of this blog know that I have called for radical reform to the State’s education hierarchy, and in fact believe that the enormous gulf separating urban and suburban schools is tantamount to declaring them so dissimilar that they should not be required to abide by the same mandates, take the same tests, or study the same curriculum. The problems facing failing urban schools are so complex that, unlike suburban schools, a holistic approach that involves all stakeholders is required.

With about half of all inner city students dropping out, with test scores showing at best tepid improvement, and given the overall poor performance of the schools, it is time for state officials to admit that their efforts have been a failure. What is needed, and I will admit this is counterintuitive to most “experts,” is to completely liberate schools like Trenton High from the state system.

Inner city high school teachers should have almost complete freedom to design their own curriculum. Administrators, after consulting with teachers, parents, and students, should be free to create their own culture of learning at the school.

Although a decent number of graduates go on to college, mainly community college, very few of them are pursuing the type of programs pursued by the majority of kids at suburban schools. This suggests having these high schools aggressively reach out to the business community to design programs that will better prepare these kids for employment. A school like Trenton should of course provide a challenging curriculum, but that curriculum should be highly differentiated, in essence creating tracks for students based on their personal aspirations. Flexibility is the key, as is the essential involvement of parents and stakeholders in the business and non-profit communities.

A pool of “incentive” money should be created to support efforts to use money as an inducement to exceptional college students, as bonus pay for teachers and administrators, and possibly to pay students and parents for taking positive steps to improve performance.

Ms. Goddard’s approach to education suggests deep frustration with our State’s top down approach to reform. Those in power seem convinced that a firm grip on these schools is needed, when the truth is that they need to perform the most selfless of acts and admit that government, and the academics enriched by government, don’t have all the answers. What is needed in our inner city schools is a more entrepreneurial approach. We hail the entrepreneur and entrepreneurial activity as the main engine of innovation and growth in our economy, but that exaltation seems to stop at the schoolhouse door.

Let the teachers take ownership of the classroom, and let administrators, with enormous input from teachers and the community, take ownership of the school. Maybe Trenton High should consider becoming a charter school? The one thing I know for sure is that local schools should be governed locally; the tentacles of the State should be removed. I’d hate to think that the State believes poor communities and inner city schools are incapable of improving performance without the involvement of politicians and their experts. Next time these people look at the data, rather than see it as a failure of the schools, see it as a failure of their policies. That is where the real blame belongs.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

John Rawls and the Conservative Argument for Strong Public Education

The most poignant fact about education in New Jersey is its stratification. Frankly, I would rather that it be mediocre or poor throughout the state that defined by an inequitable distribution; if all schools were relatively bad no one is gaining any particular advantages. The correlation between academic success and quality of life is fairly strong. An excellent education increases an individual’s ability to be relatively autonomous, similarly increasing the number of choices available to those individuals. Well educated people have a stronger sense of empowerment. They have a greater sense of mobility, autonomy, and understanding of the world. They vote in larger percentages. They have stronger networks through which they can prosper and secure advantages not readily accessible to poorly educated people. Let’s face it; there are very few well educated poor people.

Empirical evidence makes it clear that students in poorer communities are burdened with an inferior education. The point right now is not to lay blame, because quite frankly there is considerable blame to go around. The issue I want to raise today is whether inequitable educational opportunities are a moral issue, because as such I would argue that unless this inequality can be justified than it cannot be sustained.

In the Theory of Justice, John Rawls addressed the issue of “justified inequality,” and advanced Two Principles of Justice: first, that all citizens have an equal right to “the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others,” and second, that “social inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (A) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all.”

This variation of social contract theory raises the question of whether the drastic inequalities in evidence today can be justified as being to everyone’s mutual benefit, so in essence the poor accept having an inferior education because the sum result benefits them as well as the better off.

Now where valid arguments can be made to justify some element of inequality in the economic sphere, it is more difficult to sustain those arguments in education, since access to a quality education is a critical prerequisite for obtaining the liberty spelled out in the first principle.

The most important thing to remember is that children did not choose where and to whom they were born, so the fact that some children are rich and some are poor, that some live in communities with excellent schools and some live in communities with horrible schools is strictly a matter of chance. I find it hard to argue against society, mainly through its political and economic institutions, aggressively working to “level the playing field,” removing as much as possible the advantages and disadvantages of birth. In doing so we can navigate towards that ideal of creating a meritocracy, where equality of opportunity is so strongly defended that individuals can no longer assign blame for their relative poverty to “society” and “the system.”

Creating relative fairness amongst New Jersey schools is actually consistent with conservative thinking, since more fairness and equality of opportunity improves the chances for greater numbers of people to live a life free of dependence on the state for their sustenance. The problem conservatives have is that they have been so enamored with policies – vouchers and choice- that do little to improve public education in broad terms.

However, there is an important consideration that must be understood to fully justify aggressive government intervention to achieve greater equity. We already know that greater equity cannot be achieved by somehow reducing the quality of high achieving schools. Equity must be achieved by improving the quality of learning in our poorly performing schools, and here we are faced with dilemmas. There are numerous stakeholders in public education, and in the same way we look to these stakeholders to help improve these schools, we must look to these stakeholders and weigh, relatively speaking, their culpability in producing substandard schools and poorly achieving students.

The problem is that, in assigning blame, parents must be held accountable. Children did not choose their parents, and so those in poverty did not choose this lifestyle. However, they have a right to demand that their parents will work tirelessly to provide whatever resources and support they can offer to help give their children a “fighting chance,” a chance to achieve the equality of opportunity characteristic of a just, fair society.

Some way must be found to hold parents more accountable for their children’s academic success or failure. Please look back at one of my previous posts to see the 6 ways that parents are responsible for their children’s achievement. Society must step in to help support parental efforts to overcome inequities, whether it be through finding better teachers, giving parents greater access to equity, or creating programs that better integrate the business and education communities.

It is clear that equity in public education is a moral imperative, and that our failure to create greater equity compromises pronouncements that America is at its heart a meritocracy. Justice demands a more level playing field, which will then lead to greater equality of opportunity. Our current level of inequity is tantamount to discrimination, which from an economic perspective leads to inefficiencies and waste. The lack of a more equitable distribution of resources flies in the face of conservative thinking by supporting a system that will lead to greater dependence and less autonomy. Conservatives and a strong public school system, they are ideas that go perfect together.  




Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Rearranging the Chairs

Today I want to discuss something seemingly mundane, but that actually demonstrates the small things that can be done to improve the culture of learning in the classroom, while also improving classroom management and giving students a greater sense of empowerment and “ownership” of the classroom. I want to talk about rearranging the chairs.

In a typical classroom, the seats are arranged in rows and aisles. Each student has their “personal space,” and both teachers and students can negotiate the pathways to move around the room. Unfortunately, the problems it engenders far outweigh any supposed benefits to this arrangement.

First of all, this arrangement creates too much distance and separation between teacher and student. As a former teacher, I can tell you that being in front of such a room feels stifling, like I’m trapped behind a desk that in effect becomes a “wall” between teacher and student: “This is my space, that space is yours.” Second, when a teacher does decide to move amongst the students there is the real potential for taking a “pratfall,” there are a lot of pieces of furniture to have to maneuver around. This might not seem like a big deal, but such an incident can be disruptive and easily cause students to lose focus. And third, this arrangement is isolating for the students, creating too much distance between students and creating a sense of solitude that may actually discourage certain students from asking questions, making comment, and in general participating in the teacher’s plans for the day. From a management standpoint, at first glance it would seem like a positive thing, since isolating them presumably will keep them focused on the lesson and not making the effort to communicate with one another. Are people who think this really being serious? Lol

What I suggest, strongly suggest, is placing chairs in a semi-circle, forming an arc or two about 5 or 6 paces from the front of the room. From a management perspective, this is actually a much better arrangement, as teachers can more easily move into and around the students’ space. No more hiding in the back of the room! It gets the teacher out from the back of the desk and gives her a nice open space to work from. Rather than the farthest student being as much as 10 to 15 yards from the teacher’s desk, by using that open space there is no student more than just a few steps away. This also enhances discussion, as the close proximity gives a greater sense of collegiality among the kids, and it is clearly easier for students to hear the teacher and one another. Sitting in the back, I am no longer staring at row after row of students’ backs. During presentations, for example, a semicircular arrangement is more comforting by reducing the effective space that students in front of the class must deal with.

By placing desks in this arrangement, it is easier to distribute and disseminate materials, and it is easier for students to share resources. And by moving the desks closer together, you have opened up a lot of free space for students to utilize when group work is part of the lesson plan.

Now I can hear the objections of those who think I am facilitating the ability of students to pass notes, chat, and otherwise communicate with each other. Yes, I guess I am. But on the other hand, students will always find ways to communicate, and so I am at least minimizing the disruption they might cause through their efforts. And by being able to “invade” their space much quicker and easier, by literally being “on top” of them all period, I raise their risks of being caught. And by being in closer proximity, in general it is less likely that students will be able to get away with things “behind my back.” A teacher’s credibility can be negatively impacted when a class feels that they can “get away with stuff,” and that is much more likely in a traditional arrangement.

Hopefully any teachers reading this blog will, if they haven’t already, at least try this arrangement. I think you may also find that- knowing your kids are arranged this way- it will actually make you more creative as you plan your curriculum and design class activities. I don’t exactly know why that occurs, I just know that it will J The bottom line is that, if you want to improve the culture of learning in your classroom, rearrange the chairs. You’ll be glad you did!



Monday, November 12, 2012

The State Doesn't Have a Clue How to Fix Urban Schools

A recent story in the Trentonian reported that “about half the public schools in New Jersey did not met the state’s new goals for student performance on standardized tests and will have to come up with improvement plans.” It further goes on to state that “New Jersey’s plan focuses on improving the states’ lowest performing schools while giving more autonomy to the rest.”

There are 381 high schools in New Jersey, so about 190 high schools did not meet the state’s goals. As I’ve previously mentioned, 99 of the 100 poorest performing schools on the state’s HSPA exam are from the two lowest District Factor Groups, with most of those schools located in either our inner cities or most rural areas. My interest is primarily with inner city schools, and I am convinced that with regard to these schools the state is essentially “ass backwards” in its approach to these schools. Longitudinal studies indicate that there has been absolutely NO PROGRESS whatsoever in the performance of these schools, and in many cases the performance gap has actually widened. This has happened in a period with greater and greater oversight and regulation by the state, as its obsession with data has essentially dictated the management of these schools and their culture of learning.

So what is the state’s remedy for this poor performance: even more oversight? It is about time for our legislators and bureaucrats at the DOE to start thinking outside the box. Maybe what is needed, indeed what I believe is absolutely necessary, is for LESS oversight of these schools. It is time to liberate these schools, exempt them from the onerous core curriculum content standards, and create a different HSPA exam, one that is more closely tied to the real intellectual needs of inner city students. It is time to essentially allow these high schools to turn themselves into charter schools, allowing them to become “laboratories for innovation.”

The low test scores and depressingly high dropout rates should be sending a message loud and clear to those at the state level responsible for oversight. Whatever they have been doing has not been working. We really need to ask ourselves why these schools fail, and then design a strategy- a comprehensive holistic strategy that includes urban renewal- that will result in schools that our students are enthusiastic about attending, schools where they truly feel like stakeholders, schools that reflect the specific needs of these urban students. Most of these students are not college bound, and most that are aspiring for higher education will be attending community colleges. These high schools should be preparing these students prepared to cope with life after school, whether it is learning a trade, developing financial literacy, and instilling a sense of empowerment and self-sufficiency among other things.

I have called for the creation of a distinct entity at the state level dedicated solely to the performance of these inner city schools.  The differences between suburban and urban schools is so drastic, the chasm so large, that treating them all the same does a complete disservice to inner city communities.

It is urban schools that need more, not less autonomy. It needs leaders that, freed from the top down micromanaging of state officials, can bring excitement, energy, and relevance to these schools. They need leaders that will form meaningful partnerships with local stakeholders. These schools must be fully integrated into the local and regional communities. And, when evaluations of these schools are done, there must be equal weight given to qualitative metrics; quantitative data driven metrics are stifling these schools, compromising the ability of teachers and administrators to create passion filled centers of learning, and limiting opportunities for student empowered learning. I am convinced that our inner cities are filled with perspicacious, curious, energetic students just begging to attend schools that reflect their interests and needs.

Very few adults retain most of the content learned in high school; if we are lucky they at least retain the skills. Putting more and more demands on a broader common core of content is taking education in a ruinous direction. It is time we become less concerned with what students are learning and more concerned with how they are learning. I don’t disagree that there is a common core of knowledge, but as far as I’m concerned New Jersey’s requirements, like the requirements of most states, is totally off base. Moreover, the HSPA exam is limited to math and language arts, so we are in effect demanding more and more content be learned while designing an assessment that doesn’t even test to see if that content is learned. Besides the fact that this system makes the idea of teacher accountability a joke, it reflects a content core that is completely and utterly detached from what we need our young citizens to be learning as they enter “the real world.” To cite but one example, there is absolutely no specific requirement that students learn financial literacy, nor is there a state test to measure whether that learning has taken place.

The entire system has been hijacked by politicians and academics more interested in promoting their parochial interests than the interests and needs of our students and our democratic, free-market society. I realize it is tough to let go, tough for our political and educational leaders to forego their need to feel in control and allow for more educational freedom to flourish.

There is a lot that needs to be done, not the least of which is creating a system that encourages our best and brightest in college to opt into teaching, to heal our failing schools.  In my next posting I want to delve a little more closely at trying to understand why schools fail. The key, as far as I’m concerned, is to better understand why other schools succeed. What do they have that our inner city (and rural) schools don’t? If anyone reading this wants to share their insight into this understanding of what makes for a successful school, by all means get in touch. I’d love to hear what you think.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

A Quick Foray into Politics and the Election

I just could not let this election go by without getting my “two cents” in regarding the political scene. My background by the way is in the social sciences. My B.A. is in International Relations, I have minors in Economics, Philosophy, and Government, and my Master’s is in Political Science, with an emphasis on studying the relationship between the media and Executive Branch. So how did I end up in education, with a blog on education reform. That is a story for another day. I’m actually thinking of starting a second blog devoted to the aforementioned topics.

With respect to the current election and political scene, I have some random thoughts I want to get off my chest. First, I believe that if Romney did win the election he will follow the Reagan model, governing as a pragmatist with a conservative slant, but someone who WILL raise taxes in a second term. I say second term because, given the cyclical nature of our economy, our next President will inherit an economy that will begin to grow at a more robust rate than we see now. By the way, it is worth pointing out that the US is the only Western country experiencing growth, tepid as it is.

Second, I believe that a Romney presidency will show clear moderation on social issues and not face a challenge from the extreme right wing of his Party. I have no doubt that upon taking office he will strike a “grand bargain” with these wing nuts on the right, wherein they will stay relatively silent in exchange for the nomination of an ultra-conservative for any vacant seat on the Court.

Third, I believe that there is unfortunately a small but important group of so-called liberal whites who attest to their support for President Obama, but will actually vote for the white guy on election day. Their reasoning is in essence a form of affirmative action; “We did the ‘right’ thing and voted for the African-American, we gave him a shot, but he just wasn’t up to the job at hand.” I am convinced that this group of, yes I’ll say it, liberal racists, may actually end up swaying the outcome.

And finally, a word to the so-called Pro Life people as it relates to the issues of rape and abortion. It is a scientific fact that most fertilized eggs never attach to the uterine wall and are discharged in an action known as “spontaneous abortion.” By the definition of many among this group, life begins at conception. If that is truly the case, and if “G-d is nature,” then G-d is actually allowing “human life” to be aborted. I am amazed this issue is never raised by the Pro Choice crowd, for it clearly puts the Pro Life people in a philosophical bind. Saying that life begins at conception is tantamount to saying that G-d aborts human life. This is clearly a dilemma. And further, if life does begin at conception, how can you make allowances for rape and incest? This would seem to confirm my suspicion that, to many of these politicians, the Pro Life decision is a matter of political expediency, not some deep philosophical position.

Believe me I could go on forever. I miss talking about these things. As the election approaches, I am reminded how much I abhor our system of voting. The legislation allowing for one to vote simply says that each person has a right to vote, not that they only have one vote. There are a host of voting methodologies permitting citizens to cast more than one vote, and it is definitely time that we explore these alternatives if we are to broaden the number of people and parties choosing to run for office. If I do get this second blog going, I will jump right into this issue.

Ok, I’ve gotten off my chest those topics that have been “bouncing around” in my head these last few weeks. Tomorrow I will get back to education and the position our candidates have taken on the issue of reform. I would like to say that at least candidate has staked out a position I could wrap my arms around, but, alas, I can’t. And that is a real concern.

Romney and the False Promise of School Choice

Once again Mitt Romney is on the campaign trail “dissing” the teachers’ unions and advocating for school choice. His reasoning is fair enough: if a student is “trapped” in a failing school, her and her family should have the opportunity to pursue other options, at taxpayers’ expense, with the “cost per pupil” of her district be used at another area public school that demonstrates much better returns for its pupils.  He mentions charter schools, which really doesn’t apply because anyone is able to enter charter school lotteries. He also mentions cyber schools, though data on their efficacy is far from ready to be evaluated. That leaves private schools and regional public schools.

Since we are not talking about a voucher per se, the likelihood that courts will allow tax money to be used to fund attendance at a parochial school problematic. As for private non-sectarian schools, the tax money would barely make a dent in tuition, and even now poor students are free to apply to these schools, utilizing scholarship money that many of these schools have set aside for poor students with strong academic records.

That leaves other public schools, and quite frankly there are very few of these schools, especially in affluent communities, that have room to take in out of district students; most are struggling with existing overcrowding problems, and there would be strong public pressure not to accept them. There are exceptions; I believe that South Hunterdon, for example, has low local enrollment and is receptive to out of district students. But these options are rare.

So while I understand the policy that “money should follow the student,” practically speaking there are limits to its effectiveness. My opposition to this policy, however, is much deeper and much more profound. The Romney policy is an individualistic position, diminishing the importance of  allocating resources to these poorly performing schools. He seems to think that his policy will somehow stimulate competition for dollars among schools, which in turn will improve performance. I have found no research that supports this mantra of competition, and with respect to charter schools this competitive mode of thinking is completely contrary to the impetus and rationale for such schools, which is to serve as “laboratories for innovation” and not as competitors to the local public school.

The only real solution to the problem of poorly performing urban schools is not to try and undermine these schools but to make a commitment to improving the quality of work performed at these schools by administrators, teachers, and students. It also requires making a commitment to applying reasonable pressure on parents to do a better job advocating for their children. 

Many of my previous blog posts are devoted to the issue of improving these public schools. These improvements include incentivizing teacher salaries, incentivizing the system for attracting new teachers, liberating teachers from onerous state curriculum mandates so they are free to design new courses, changing the graduation test to better reflect what students should be learning in high school, freeing administrators from the pressures inherent in running a “data driven” school, employing clinical supervisors for new and “at risk” teachers, providing incentives for parents to be more active advocates for their children, partnering with stakeholders in the business and non-profit communities to broader opportunities for learning and for careers after school, providing resources to help college bound students better prepare for entrance tests like the SAT or ACT, and, finally, trying to find a way to reshape inner city communities to reflect a more diverse demographic. You can find details on all of these ideas by looking back on this blog.

I would love to create a new political action committee that will advocate on behalf of these and other ideas to improve the quality of our inner city schools. As I previously detailed, 99 of the 100 lowest performing schools, based on HSPA scores, can be found in the two lowest District Factor Groups developed to group New Jersey schools. New Jersey really is the “tale of two cities,” in this case the issue being the “performance chasm” between urban and suburban public schools.

Urban issues have gotten NO attention in the current presidential campaign, and that does not bode well for those living in America’s inner cities. Until pressure is brought to bear on our political leaders, these schools will continue to suffer, as will their students. I am ready to join those interested in making the case for urban schools to our political leaders. Waiting for them to help is a recipe for ruin. Action is needed, and it is needed now, especially if we will soon be dealing with a President Romney and his vision for our schools.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

For the Love of Teaching, A Modest Proposal

It’s hard to go through a news cycle these days without someone expressing their love of teachers. Mitt Romney, Barack Obama, and their various representatives are literally falling all over one another wanting to be first in line to show the love. But what exactly does that love mean for public policy? If “love of teachers” simply translates into the hiring of more teachers, then it is, like so many romances, a love lost. I think that both candidates, like anyone entering a “loving” relationship, should spend some time looking more closely at who they want to build their relationship with; it is important that we be a lot more selective- through public policy- in choosing our future educators. Unlike other countries, the US system of selecting and preparing people for careers in teaching leave a lot to be desired; teachers rarely come from “the best of brightest” of our college students, and those who become teachers rarely possess the kind of “entrepreneurial zeal” demonstrated by those pursuing degrees in other highly competitive professions.

 Through my own experience as a teacher, and as a teacher that entered the profession through New Jersey’s Alternate Route, I can say with the utmost confidence that there is absolutely no benefit derived by high school teachers that followed the traditional route of receiving a degree in education. This position was further reinforced by my son’s experience in high school. My son is now a freshmen studying aerospace engineering at the University of Maryland, and I can tell you unequivocally that his best teachers all entered teaching through the alternate route, all having spent time in the private sector prior to teaching.

These anecdotal experiences have been confirmed by a host of recent studies indicating that teachers with greater knowledge of their subject matter are best able to create passion and deeper knowledge of the subject for their students, that they exude greater confidence in the classroom, and are able to set higher expectations for their students as well. This of course does not mean that we can simply “dump” these subject matter “experts” into the classroom and expect them to perform. In fact the alternate route program includes a rigorous program of supervision in concert with college coursework taken at night as a requirement for completing the program.

What I propose- Senators Ruiz and Turner are you listening!!- is legislation to encourage students graduating with degrees in fields other than education to become high school teachers. For those looking to work in elementary or middle school, the program will focus on teachers that earn dual majors in their content area and early childhood education. Specifically, each college graduate will receive $5000 a year towards repayment of their student loans as long as they receive satisfactory performance reviews. This program will continue for the four years leading up to tenure. For those professionals that enter teaching from the private sector, they should earn a year on the salary guide for every year they have worked in the private sector.

Like all legislation reflecting public policy, there is some element of discrimination, subjectivity, and choice. In this case the legislation is designed not to hurt those that pursue degrees in education, but rather to reward those that choose to enter the classroom rather than become engineers, scientists, accountants, computer programmers, economists, statisticians, or any other number of professions, or who choose to give up those professions to enter the rewarding world of teaching.

I will admit that this proposal aligns with my own philosophy towards teaching, that being a belief that teachers should be viewed as entrepreneurs, with their classroom in essence their product. Having content specialists is an integral part of this philosophy. The next step is to dial back the core content requirements in each subject area, thereby liberating these teachers to design unique courses that reflect their personal passions and expertise. Taken together, these policies will lead to a more dynamic, rigorous, and exciting school with a culture of learning guided by entrepreneurial educators motivated to create the most exciting class the school has to offer.

So let us continue this love fest with teachers, but let’s not lose sight of the need to hire an entirely new breed of educator, driven by the passion and knowledge of their subject and prepared to empower students to take ownership of their learning, guided by educators who have been given the freedom to design their own innovative and challenging curricula. As a student, that’s the kind of school I would look forward to attending when I got up each morning.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Honoring....and Critiquing NJ Principals

In today’s Trenton Times Op-Ed section, Patricia Wright, executive director of the NJ Principals and Supervisors Association lauded the important role that her constituents play in guiding the future of New Jersey schools. She mentions the diverse and critical responsibilities these administrators play, now made even more important with the introduction of our State’s new teacher evaluation system.

While I agree that her members play a vital role in transforming education, an honest evaluation of past performance, especially in the inner city, suggests that there leaves much to be desired in their ability to affect meaningful change in their schools.

Let me be clear that I don’t lay blame squarely on the shoulders of principals and supervisors, but my own experience, and the experiences of colleagues that I have interviewed and casually spoke with, suggests that changes must be made if these administrators are to be truly effective.

My own observations and anecdotal information identifies five glaring problems with school administration today:

1)      In highly successful schools like the one I taught in, administrators become intellectually lazy, feeling that there is little they need to do in providing leadership, vision, and the creation of a learning culture that is ethical and value driven

2)      In inner city schools, administrators are driven by a bureaucratic mindset that is to a great degree the result of State oversight and the demands for data

3)      In too many schools the administrator/faculty relationship is “personality driven,” with too many teachers being identified as “favorites” and “annoyances.” This leads to a real problem with administrators being objective in their assessment of teacher performance.

4)     A lack of time to become skilled, effective “clinical supervisors,” a problem that exacerbates the current problem of new and “at risk” teachers not getting the type of effective guidance and supervision they need to produce exemplary leadership for their students

5)     The last two problems lead to a cascade effect on what I believe will be the next major problem facing our schools, particularly our inner city schools, which will be a truly objective and meaningful system to evaluate teachers.

To me, the single greatest need for New Jersey schools is the placement of full time clinical supervisors in every school district, the number to be determined by some ratio to faculty. These supervisors- using both collaborative and directed models- will provide the kind of meaningful feedback and assistance that teachers need as they work to perfect their craft. These supervisors should also become part of the teacher evaluation process, lending an air of objectivity to a process that teachers are justifiably concerned with, especially now that tenure may be held in the balance.

I have been trying to start a business that will provide clinical supervisors to school districts to work with new and “at risk” teachers; we would contract with schools for a semester or full year to provide something other than the typical summative evaluations most teachers receive. And even when administrators voice a commitment to providing clinical supervision to the faculty, they do not have the time that is needed to do a thorough job, a job that requires pre and post conferencing.

Administrators have so much on their plate that they need to admit that their school would benefit from the addition of full time clinical supervisors, or at least contract with outsiders to provide help with specific faculty members. This would be the most effective use of professional development money that I can imagine. The biggest problem I have found is that principals see bringing in outside professionals as a “slap in the face,” an acknowledgement that they are not up to the job. But I would rather these principals see it as acknowledgement that their jobs are difficult and complex, and that they simply do not have the time to either relearn “how” to conduct effective clinical supervision, or that they simply don’t have the time to do the job as thoroughly as they would like.
Our inner city schools are failing, there is just no other conclusion that can be drawn from the graduation rates and other assessments of performance. Leaving aside the issue of clinical supervisors, I think the biggest problem is the preponderance of bureaucratically minded principals and administrators in our urban schools, and for that I place the blame on our politicians in Trenton and their craven desire to “run” these schools. The oversight they demand and the data they require place an onerous burden on school administrators. It may sound counter-intuitive, but what these schools need- both administrators and teachers- is to be liberated from state control and allowed to design a culture of learning that is tailored to meet the needs of their constituent families and their communities. I truly feel that only then will be able to find the kind of visionary leadership these schools demand. We don’t need to look to the business community for these leaders, as some contend; I think they are among us already. They may already be in place, but have simply been stifled by state mandates. Whatever the case, the salient fact is that while it is perfectly right to honor these administrators during National Principals Month, we cannot be content with the work that is currently being done. We can do so much better, we can do so much more.

Additional Time for New Jersey schools

An article in the October 7 Trentonian titled “Could A Longer School Day be Coming to Trenton” announced that the Trenton School District is among those in the State receiving grant money to allow for a longer school day for Trenton students. Of course simply lengthening the school day of an already “failing” school will do little to improve learning, but, in the words of Superintendent Duran, “ I would work closely with principals and teachers in order to increase our ability to provide fun, relevant learning environments, while also using this additional time to help teachers plan and work together to create rigorous and challenging learning experiences for all students.”

If this is the case, then this added time has enormous potential. In my mind, this would be an excellent opportunity to have schools partner with the business and non-profit communities to provide meaningful mentoring, internship, and supplemental education in areas that the school typically does not include in their school curriculum. By partnering with outside stakeholders, the high school, for example, could bring in adult role models that could stimulate new areas of critical and creative thinking, while also allowing teachers to use this additional time to collaborate and improve their curriculum, and administrators time to plan ways to create a “culture of learning” in their buildings.

I implore Superintendent Duran to explore this avenue as the District plans and designs its strategy for effectively using the time and space this program envisions.  I personally hope to approach the District with my own ideas for creating a “Center for Business and Entrepreneurship,” a program that will bring professionals into the high school to introduce students to the private and non-profit sectors in a way that will create a greater sense of opportunity and hope for students that presently face a dearth in both. It will be time well spent.

Knowledable and Inspired Teachers

There is a commercial getting a lot of airtime in the last month, and no it’s not about one of the Presidential candidates; it’s about teachers. The commercial, sponsored I believe by a Mobil foundation, implores our nation to do more to improve the performance of our teachers. But unlike those expounding performance pay or competition in education as the impetus to better work, the commercial makes two crucial points: first, that teachers’ with a deeper knowledge of their subject matter translates into students learning on a higher level, and second, that inspired teachers will necessarily produce more exemplary work. I could not agree more, the question is how to reach that noble and worthwhile goal.

As readers of this blog may be aware, I entered teaching through New Jersey’s “alternate route;” I was in fact a member of the first “class,” starting my career in 1987. I was fortunate enough to begin my work at Cherry Hill West, where a wonderful supervisor named Walt Belfield, along with excellent and supporting social studies staff, ably mentored through what was for me a rigorous process of directed supervision. Mr. Belfield, employing the teachings of Madeline Hunter, provided intense and helpful oversight. I learned from early on that teaching was one profession where “trial by error” and “learning what works” on the job were truisms once I understood the rudiments of effective planning, activity design, student psychology, and management.

But even though I was a novice teacher, I believe the students benefitted greatly from my instruction, as they would for the next 21 years, because of the expertise I brought to the subject matter due to my undergraduate and graduate coursework. I had never taken a course in education, but I had degrees in International Relations and Political Science, along with minors in Government, Philosophy, and Economics. I was, and continue to this day, to have the heart of a student, always perspicacious, always striving to learn and share that knowledge with my students. I stayed current reading the Economist, Christian Science Monitor, Atlantic, Harpers, and other occasional periodicals. The point is that, like the commercial said, “teachers with deeper knowledge” of the subject matter are able to raise the intellectual level of the coursework and consistently challenge the students to question, explore, and investigate.

Quite frankly, I almost never saw that same level of personal striving for knowledge on the part of teachers that entered the profession in the traditional manner, with a degree in education, sometimes combined with specialization in “social studies,” history, or some similar subject. These were for the most part very able teachers well versed in classroom management, curriculum planning, and other areas covered by their degree, but there were clear limits to their knowledge base. This is one reason why I firmly believe that, particularly at the high school level, every teacher MUST have their primary degree in an area of specialization other than education. If I were responsible for assembling a faculty, I would only hire such “alternate route” teachers. Properly mentored, primarily through intense clinical supervision and effective collaboration with colleagues, such “subject matter experts” can be highly successful teachers and a clear benefit to the student body.

What is needed, in addition to a faculty of teachers with specialized degrees in a range of subject areas spanning anything from engineering to accounting to astronomy to economics, is a state or federal level program to attract college graduates into teaching rather than into those aforementioned careers. I’ve suggested such a policy in previous postings, but having a performance pay or performance tier plan in place, along with possible loan forbearance, should certainly be considerations.

The commercial also talks about “inspiring our teachers,” and though I’ve somewhat alluded to that subject already in this posting, the subject deserves great attention. Inspired teachers are passionate teachers, and there can be no more important goal than to have a teacher passionate about their subject matter in each and every classroom. Teachers with specialized degrees are by their nature passionate about their subject, but I believe we can do so much more in this area. Unfortunately, current trends in education, with their focus on standardization, data driven metrics, and, in the area of urban education, greater political/government oversight, are precisely the wrong way to go. I would actually argue that in the inner cities, where reform is most needed and where our limited resources should be most directed, what we need is the exact opposite: liberated teachers with the freedom to design their own courses, done in conjunction with whole school reform that is localized, driven by the specific needs of the school and its community. I believe that while a core curriculum would be useful in the area of skill development, we should greatly reduce and rethink what we believe high school students MUST know as a prerequisite for graduation. Our emphasis should instead be placed on freeing up our teaching professionals to design courses that are infused with their personal knowledge and passions.

Improved teacher performance is an absolute prerequisite for improved student outcomes. If we want exemplary students we need exemplary teachers, and the first step is rethinking where we get our teachers from, and what we have them teach. Right now we are doing far to little, and I’m afraid that much of what is being done is steering education in the wrong direction, especially in the inner city where the need is greatest.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Remedial College Classes Signal Need for Change

A recent article in the Trentonian reports that over 50% of students attending community colleges are taking remedial courses as a prerequisite to the actual coursework in their chosen program.

Think about that for a second. Not only are New Jersey’s inner city high schools only graduating half of its students, but half of those graduates attending community college are not truly prepared.

This fact is troubling on many levels, but the important point for me is that many of these students currently struggling to get started at community college should have had other, better options. We need to move beyond the current mantra that high school is seen as little more than the prerequisite for college, and that college is necessary for any student determined to improve his or her economic position.

Whether the field is health care, building trades, or other skills where training, but not necessarily a college degree, is required, our high schools do an extremely poor job partnering with the business community to create programs that prepare students for careers where college is not essential. You may not particularly like the European system, with its clear policies of tracking, but it does a much better job of preparing a greater cross section of its students for careers. It may be the historical connection to guilds that creates this determination to give students the skills to succeed, but our lack of a historical connection does not preclude our schools from doing the same thing.

Not all students should be steered towards college after graduation. For inner city students, given the current state of affairs, this is clearly the case. It is time to disengage our inner city schools from existing state mandates and allow them to independently create programs that address the particular needs of its student body. A visionary leader, one that is knowledgeable and respectful of student perspectives and needs, can establish a school culture that is challenging, focused, and buoyed by tangible opportunities for the student body borne out of meaningful connections between the school and the private and non-profit sectors in the region. Only then will there be true paths to success for our inner city students, rather than channel them into a system destined to result in frustration, debt, and disappointment.

Mitt Romney: Urban Reformer

Mitt Romney laid out his position on education today, and I was shocked to hear that, implicit in his policy, is a call for urban reform as a catalyst to improvement in our urban schools and student performance. After laying out his boilerplate Republican standards on education reform- more charter and cyber schools, vouchers and school choice, greater accountability for teachers through quantitative assessments, loosening the grip of unions, grading schools- Governor Romney turned his focus to parents.

As you might expect, Governor Romney expressed the belief, which I share, that student success is inextricably linked to parents in a litany of ways. As readers of this blog know, I recently had an Op Ed published in the Trenton Times (May 9, 2012) where I laid out 5 “lenses” through which we can evaluate the performance of parents in fulfilling their duties to their children in the area of education: health and welfare, resource acquisition, oversight, engagement, opportunities for enrichment, and values/advocacy. I absolutely share Mitt’s belief that parents are the single most important variable in student achievement, and though some students are able to overcome their parent’s deficiencies, it is clearly the exception.

Now before I get to my point about “Mitt the Urban Reformer,” I would like to say a word about parents, especially those in the inner city. Many of these parents themselves face challenges that compromise their ability to meet their child’s needs, while other parents seemingly elect to neglect their children. I believe that government can play a role in helping these parents, whether it is easing the path to home ownership, which gives families some equity they can use to help their child, or incentivizing the process by paying -either with cash or “in-kind”- parents that attend parent/teacher conferences or activities involving their child. These are but two examples. The important point again is the primacy of parent behavior.

If you accept the indisputable fact that a community is a collection of families, then we must draw the conclusion that a healthy, vibrant, successful school can only be sustained in communities where the majority of parents are meeting their child’s needs. In Harlem, we see the effort of Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone- a non-profit community support group. We need to support families individually, but we must also support the environment that these parents’ children are going to be growing up in. The likelihood of suburban middle class suburban families, some of whom probably “fled” the inner city once they achieved some upward mobility, moving back into the cities is extremely remote.

Mitt Romney has made the family the centerpiece of education reform. Implicit in his advocacy for vouchers and choice is a belief that failing schools are at its core the result of communities dominated by “failing families,” leading to a failure in the schools to create a dynamic learning culture, thereby justifying a policy allowing for individual families to opt out of the local school and send their children elsewhere. Mr. Romney has to know that such a policy will have a limited salutary effect. If he is truly committed to a quality education for all, then consistency demands that he establish public policy that will increase the number of inner city families instilled with “middle class values” and committed to the education of their children. Vouchers and choice, in the absence of any true urban reform, is nothing more than a talking point; it will have no substantive effect on inner city schools or the challenges faced by the vast majority of children.

An Addendum:

My challenge to anybody: If you give me demographic information about a community, I can almost guarantee you that I can predict student outcomes at that school. All I need to know is the following:

1)     Percentage of home ownership in the community

2)     Average family income

3)     Percentage of single parent families                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

4)     Average home values relative to a state average

5)     Percentage of families receiving some form of State or Federal Aid

6)     Percentage of families in poverty

 Why can I make this challenge? Well the latest figures from New Jersey’s test scores show that the 100 worst performing high schools in the State are ALL from families in the lowest 2 District Factor Groups, a designation based on similar demographics. The correlation would seem rather strong, and rather distressing.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Urban and Suburban Schools

This past Sunday I was fortunate enough to have an Op Ed printed in the Trenton Times. The main point of the piece was that there are fundamental differences between urban and suburban schools, differences supported by empirical evidence, and that the only way we are going to make any gains in the performance of these schools is to create a unique set of curriculum standards and a unique set of tests to evaluate teacher efficacy and student outcomes.

The “two prong” approach entails creating an agency at the State level singularly committed to the plight of urban schools and to loosen the grip on these schools by in essence treating each of these schools as charter schools.

Unfortunately, even with these changes I am not sanguine about the prospects for improvement. This is mainly due to my belief that the culture of the schools and student performance at school is inextricably linked to the demographics of the community. Until we can find a way to create greater socioeconomic diversity, these schools will be resigned to failure, regardless of what we are able to do in the schools. My hope is that if we can create some real improvement in the schools then we might be able to utilize financial inducements and create incentives to induce middle class families to move into the inner city and attend these public schools.

I am adamant about the need to create academic and co-curricular programs that are student-centered, based on student interests and tailored to meet the particular needs of inner city students whose career paths will for the most part be vastly different from the paths of students in suburban communities, students who are to an overwhelming degree being steered to college.

Though the schools will be student centered, they will also be teacher centered to the extent that teachers, cognizant of student interests and knowledgeable of the skill sets that these students need, will be free to design their own courses, courses that reflect the personal passions and knowledge of the faculty.

Finally it is important to understand that I am in no way making an expression of student “inadequacy” or inability to handle a rigorous academic program. Quite the contrary, I believe that many inner city students are capable of high level work and are currently being presented with coursework that lacks relevancy and challenge, that a culture of academic mediocrity has permeated these inner city schools. What I advocate is not an “easier” academic program, just a different one. I know this “smacks” of “separate but equal,” and I concede that this is the case. But I’m not going to run away from the statement. Decades ago when resources were clearly allocated by race, the expression was a canard. In today’s world, I do not believe it to be true.

Improving student performance in the inner city is a moral issue, touching on issues of equality of opportunity, fairness, and justice. We have a duty to improve the performance of these schools, but there is admittedly only so much that can be done by the schools alone. Parents in the inner city are obligated to do a better job advocating for their children and encouraging them to aspire achievement. They must spend less of their discretionary money on leisure, and more on resources that will benefit their children in school. We are all I this together; we all have a part to play. It is incumbent on our political leaders to do their share by creating an agency dedicated to our inner city schools. Once they make this commitment, it will be much easier to get other stakeholders on board. As that great philosopher Larry the Cable Guy so eloquently puts it: “Let’s get ‘er done.”

Friday, September 7, 2012

Tenure Reform's Dubious Promise

As the school year starts, our politicians herald the hard fought tenure reform law now in place. Although I am not opposed to tenure reform, I really feel that the money, time, and resources consumed by this law would have been better spent requiring a clinical supervisor on site for maybe every 50 teachers. If you truly want improvement in teacher performance, having a clinician to provide collaborative or directed supervision is a far more effective means.

While the tenure reform law might seem benign in the area of removing tenure or firing teachers deemed “not proficient,” listening to Governor Christie and other policy makers gives clear indication that a collateral purpose of the legislation is to allow school districts to layoff veteran teachers with seniority rather than younger teachers, assuming all else being equal I would presume.

If I were an older teacher, I would feel justifiably threatened by this law. Teaching is a funny profession in that, unlike physicians, lawyers, or other professions where experience is considered an important quality, older experienced teachers are seen as far more expendable. This is incredible to me. Teaching is the ultimate “learn what works on the job” profession, and experience is inextricably linked to quality. Granted, personality and attention to changes in technology and learning strategies are also needed for experienced and inexperienced teachers alike, but I am convinced that most school districts will be motivated by cost savings and the “prevailing wisdom” that somehow younger teachers are better able to connect to students and provide superior performance. I strenuously disagree.

I am also concerned because experienced teachers are also more likely to be the most vocal among the faculty, willing to express their feelings about discipline, curriculum, policy, and other issues of consequence at the school. This outspokenness almost never goes well with administrators, especially principals, who seem a somewhat insecure lot and who take criticism or critiques of “their” school to be an unacceptable challenge to their authority. I have NO DOUBT that many principals will see this law as an opportunity to move or remove faculty members whose personality they conflict with or whose beliefs are contrary to their own beliefs, policy, or conception of the proper “culture” of the school.  In 21 years of teaching, I found only one administrator that was entirely comfortable as a leader and who did not hold grudges or express judgment against faculty members.

I am not against tenure reform, in fact I believe it is an important step towards performance pay or the creation of performance tiers. I would prefer having clinical supervisors employed throughout the state, but “it is what it is.” But what is important is that there be some in district “counterweight” against the arbitrary and capricious behavior of administrators, a way of impartially reviewing their decisions well before reaching the stage of arbitration. Mandating this oversight should be an important policy priority of the NJEA. I’m sure their files are full of horror stories confirming my contention. Legislative should be drafted and put before education committees. If our legislatures are sincere that their only goal is providing a faculty of exemplary teachers, they should have no trouble supporting legislation protecting experienced teachers, or just wait for that day when the first age discrimination lawsuit is filed.