Sunday, January 29, 2012

Scrap the HSPA and the Core Content Standards

Every year New Jersey juniors spend several days taking the HSPA, a pre-requisite for graduation.. As with most other indicators of instruction, results of the HSPA demonstrate the glaring inequities in our education system. Whether looked at through the lens of geography, of race, or of income, the range of scores is stark. What makes matters worse is the fact that the HSPA, seen as an Assessment of student readiness for life beyond high school, an Assessment of skills, and an Assessment of what kids “learned” in school, is an absolute fraud and an abject failure in meeting its putative objectives. Simply put, we need to scrap the Assessment, salvage what we can, and design an Assessment that shows kids are prepared for life beyond high school.

According to the New Jersey Department of Education’s “Guide to the HSPA,” the Assessment “requires all students to demonstrate mastery of skills needed to function politically, economically, and socially in a democratic society”. But anyone making an honest review of the Assessment will conclude there is a total disconnect between the Assessment and these goals. The HSPA is supposedly aligned with New Jersey’s Core Curriculum Content Standards, which include language arts, mathematics, science, visual and performing arts, health and physical education, technology, world languages, social studies, and 21st century life and careers. Is there some reason most of these required subjects are absent from the Assessment? Is it not important that our kids demonstrate proficiency in these areas too? If not, why have the standards at all?

Even though the State has done an admirable job trying to streamline the “cumulative progress indicators” delineated in the NJCCCS, the reality is that we are requiring our students to learn too much. The key word here is “learn.” Even if all of these indicators were introduced to students, were they really taught, or more importantly, “learned?” The constraints of time make learning, and assessing that learning, extremely problematic. In a State that touts ideas- time consuming ideas- such as individualized instruction and alternative assessments, there is just no way that students are learning all that we are requiring, and maybe that’s the reason they’re not in the Assessment.

What I suggest is a drastic diminution and then broadening in what we believe kids MUST know as a condition of graduation. What I envision would be in essence a “citizenship test” akin to what people take to become naturalized citizens. High school graduates are very much like naturalized citizens; they are entering adulthood in a democratic society whose vitality is a direct function of an individual’s ability to understand the contemporary issues, the institutions, and the historical underpinnings of our culture.  Why shouldn’t we make sure kids know about proper diet and nutrition, global warming, fiscal and monetary policy, Constitutional law, balancing a checkbook, understanding a contract, or evaluating a survey or poll? U.S. foreign policy is the most important influence on international relations on the world stage. Shouldn’t our graduates be able identify the countries of the Middle East, explain why the India-Pakistan border is perhaps the most dangerous on earth, reflect on the significance of World War II, or describe the political significance of statesmen such as FDR and Reagan? Shouldn’t a well-rounded high school graduate know what Jazz and Impressionism are?

Obviously we can’t let a graduation Assessment turn into a “game show” of random facts , but the point is that there is content, content beyond mathematics and “language arts literacy,” that our graduates must demonstrate that they know. It is admittedly hard to distinguish between what we would like our graduates to know and what they must know, but it can be done.

A comprehensive graduation Assessment, one that touches on all the Core Curriculum Content areas, will fulfill the Department of Education’s aforementioned goals of having kids demonstrate mastery of the skills needed to “function politically, economically, and socially in a democratic society.” If they are going to master the skills, don’t we also need to make sure they have mastered the content? Moreover, it is eminently possible to assess those standards and integrate them into the reading and writing sections of the current HSPA.

A collateral benefit of this change to the HSPA and the drastic reduction in required “indicators of progress” is that it will free up teachers to take a more entrepreneurial approach to their profession, designing courses that reflect their personal passions and expertise in their general content areas. “Teaching to the test” will be replaced by more inspired instruction as educators are freed from the constraints of our current Standards.

Our students in the inner city, currently struggling to meet proficiency standards in the current formulation of the HSPA, will be the greatest beneficiaries of a new HSPA. The current Assessment is unfair and fails to meet the State’s own objectives. It is not aligned to all of New Jersey’s Core Curriculum Content Standards and, most importantly, it does not test kids on the things they should know to be actively engaged in our democracy and free market economy. It is time for a change.

A final point: It has become impossible to pick up a newspaper or turn on a talk show without the issue of teacher quality being discussed. It is a critical concern, and actually blends in well with a discussion of NJ's graduation test and "core curriculum content standards." Almost all the current research indicates that a critical issue for prospective teachers, and for new teachers that abruptly ended their pursuit of a teaching career, are the issues of autonomy and intellectual freedom. I have no doubt that the current curriculum requirements, being so broad and wholly unnecessary, stifle teachers from designing creative, ingenious, and challenging courses that reflect their personal passions and knowledge. If we want to attract new graduates  through mechanisms like the alternate route, graduates that have extensive knowledge in subjects like engineering, economics, international relations, or philosophy to cite but a few examples, they must be liberated from the onerous constraints imposed by the HSPA and the CCCS. Since we really only test in English and Math, continuing with the current test and the existing Standards is, as far as I'm concerned, a MAJOR impediment to our goal of attracting great new hires. I'll say it again, it is time for a change.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Dropping Out of Trenton's Schools

I had one of those rare serendipitous moments today, a moment any writer would crave. Ever since I was made aware of the dropout rates in the inner city I have been consumed with trying to understand the huge chasm separating urban and suburban schools. I’ve read studies, anyone can read studies, but now I had the opportunity, at a Subway no less, to interview a group of young black males, all of whom dropped out of Trenton High School. When I approached them at their booth, they were all willing to share their experiences.

Only 1 of the 5 was working full time, helping out his dad who does “fix up” work.  Another worked part time stocking shelves at a supermarket, while the others were unemployed. After about 10 minutes, though, two of them admitted that they dealt drugs- mostly to middle class whites- in the Lamberton area of the city.

None of the group made it to their senior year, one dropped out as early as 9th grade. Once we starting talking in earnest, it became clear that, generally speaking, they felt completely disconnected from the academic culture of the school. Jay, the one in the group that seemed more frustrated than anything about dropping out, felt that the few classes he did like were so prone to disruption that he was getting nothing out of being there. He blamed part of it on the teacher, who seemed intimidated and ill at ease with discipline, and part of it on individual students. Peer pressure to conform was nonexistent. Jay also pointed out that two of the most disruptive students had no business in these classes, not because of their behavior but because they were for all practical purposes illiterate, at the very least years behind the other students skill wise. Anthony and “G” told a somewhat related story, telling me about teachers that either used materials that were too obtuse for the class, or other teachers who chose work that was so easy they were bored to tears, as if the teachers didn’t think they were capable of anything more challenging. “S” focused on curriculum that was completely disconnected from the “real world,’ history classes that provided no context, English readings that “you had to blow the dust off of,” and worksheet after worksheet after worksheet. There was, as I interpreted it, absolutely no sense of student empowerment in these classes.

More than once at this impromptu interview these teenagers openly wondered “why are we learning this stuff?” It’s actually a pretty good, valid question, one I heard many times in my own experiences as a teacher. I’ve oftentimes wondered the same thing. The answer they frequently heard- “because that’s what you’re being tested on”- is troubling to me.  Would any of us as teenagers be satisfied with that answer? Anthony remembers asking a guidance counselor what he had to look forward to if he graduated. The response, “So then you could go get a job.” He remembered thinking to himself,  “In Trenton, was he kidding?”

I made a point to turn the conversation to their neighborhood- they all grew up in the same part of West Trenton- and realized that “the streets” played as much a role in their decision to leave school as the school itself. The two “dealers” in the group learned by the 7th grade that there was money to be made selling drugs, and that the risk was relatively small, though both have already been arrested in the last year. Anthony told me that he essentially weighed the benefits of staying in school and graduating versus “learning the business,” and soon found himself on Perry Street building a clientele. It was through “S” that I learned about what Professor Elijah Anderson termed “the code of the streets.” I frequently used his essay in my class, and now I was getting a real lesson. The code is based on respect and is typically contrasted with the more middle class values of “normal” families. I’m guessing that their anonymity led them to open up; I learned that only “G’s” household had a dad at home, but even still they all came home to empty houses. Out on the street everything was about respect, but unfortunately that respect is typically meant to be expressed by being feared. It’s a value that would be so incredibly destructive if it were to penetrate the school, but that is exactly what is going on. Jay got his first “lessons” about the street during one of his suspensions from school, suspensions that in essence became like vacation days, letting Jay spend the day on Calhoun Street and roaming Prospect Village.

Their moms rarely asked about schoolwork, but none would say that this was a matter of not caring but more an issue of time; these moms were tired, consumed with economic issues or involved in relationships. I had little sense that these moms had the time to get involved; Anthony intimated that his mom had a bad experience the one time she tried to advocate for her son and felt disrespected- and a little intimidated- by the administrators she spoke to.    

There was more, and I’ll get to that part of the discussion in a future blog. Their portrayal of “life at school” was a disturbing picture of kids that do not know how to advocate for themselves, of a learning culture that fails to empower kids, and of a “system” that is more akin to a dysfunctional factory floor than a school.

About 50% of Trenton’s students drop out rather than graduate high school. I remember one particular year in West Windsor- where I taught- that the number was 4. Not 4%, 4 kids. The actual numbers way be a little higher, but you get the point. Something is amiss in the inner city, and the consequences are far reaching and in no way positive. We can no longer accept solutions that “will take time.” As I learned today, we are losing out kids to a future of despair. Listening to Jay, “G,” “S,” Anthony, and Matt talk about their lives, I couldn’t help thinking of Hobbes description of life in the state of nature: nasty, brutish, and short.                                                                                                                                                                                       

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Response to Trenton OpEd: "Teachers are America's Backbone"

Today’s Op-Ed by Gene A. Budig and Alan Heaps rightly acknowledged the critical role that teachers play in shaping our nation’s future. It also pointed out the relative lack of respect and admiration received by our teachers when viewed globally. But there are several points in their piece that are insufficiently detailed and that I have to disagree with.

The authors repeat the common mantra about teachers, that teaching “is still a prized profession- a calling as much as a job,” and that teachers by and large act out of some sort of moral imperative. Now I don’t dispute that many teachers possess those feelings, but I would love to see a longitudinal study that shows how long those feelings endure. Idealism has a way of wearing thin, and as the years go by many teachers are compelled by other factors, most notably job security, as much as they are by their love of kids and love of teaching.

In my own experience I met teachers with a variety of motivations for entering and staying in the classroom. For many new teachers that were raised in poor or lower middle class homes, money is absolutely a strong motivator, as are the benefits, which are generally speaking much better than you will find in other professions. Some women I knew became teachers to find husbands- sorry ladies but its true. Some women and men go into teaching to supplement their spouse's income. Others become teachers because they want to coach, and teaching is in fact secondary to the basketball court or football field. Still others love the hours- I would want to look a little more closely at the 50 hours a week claim- both the daily schedule and the 10 month calendar.

For teachers looking to supplement their base salary with coaching, advising, curriculum writing, tutoring, or work in other field, finding that supplemental income is not very hard.  

I guess my point is that teachers are really not much different from anyone else, and that the generalizations in the article cloud the issue. Education is America’s backbone, and teachers play a pivotal role in a child’s emotional, intellectual, and practical development. But we must also admit that there is a wide range of ability among teachers, and there are far too many teachers that do not perform to the levels we need to reach our “at risk,” passive, and disaffected students.

We also pay teachers using a salary structure that offers absolutely no pecuniary incentive to improve performance, or even to pay the better teachers more. If you think that our better teachers- the ones putting in the long hours and connecting with their kids- don’t get frustrated that other less motivated teachers with the same years of experience get paid the same salary, they you are just way too myopic. Budig and Heaps note that college deans believe that teachers “cannot be indefinitely disadvantaged when it comes to fair economic treatment,” but there will be little public support for increasing teacher salaries unless some system is put in place for measuring performance and tying that performance to income.

The authors remark that “teacher retention is too low,” and money may certainly be a consideration, but there are others. A recent study by the Guardian (UK) noted that teachers are by and large disturbed by the lack of professionalism they are treated with, and the lack of autonomy and respect they have on the job. This is confirmed by a Scientific American study of the 25,000 young STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) teachers that left the profession last year.

Many of these STEM teachers came from the upper strata of recent college graduates, so losing these “best and brightest” is a real blow to education, especially in the inner city. Although interest in teaching is high among college students, the authors should share with us whom amongst these students are from this top tier. I remember hearing last week that the vast majority of new teachers come from the lowest third of their graduating class. This must be corrected, and it is incumbent on our legislators to device public policy that motivate the elite college students to choose the classroom over the lab, boardroom, trading floor, or operating room.

I loved my 21 years in the classroom, and I am proud of the work I performed. I am one of those people for which teaching was a calling, but I’d be lying to say that there wasn't more to it. We need better teachers, we need better support for our teachers, we need a better way of paying them, and we need to change the way that our culture values the profession. All of these needs are intertwined. The urgency to make these changes is real. We cannot resign another generation of inner city children to an inadequate education, relegating them to a socioeconomic tier they will spend a lifetime trying to pull themselves out of.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Quality Teachers for the Inner City

Close your eyes for a moment, and imagine a room full of entrepreneurs, whether they are Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison or the neighbor that owns a successful sporting goods store. Think about those qualities that you find so admirable in these entrepreneurs, their spirit, their determination, their intelligence, their passion. Now imagine a school full of teachers possessing those same qualities. What a wonderful learning environment that would be!

There are a plethora of problems facing students, especially those in the inner city, and many of those problems extend beyond the reach of our schools: problems in the family, a lack of socioeconomic diversity in distressed neighborhoods, the paucity of important resources to assist in learning. These are sensitive public policy issues, and as such are subject to a plodding, divisive political process.

But the one area where consensus is much more likely is the issue of improving the quality of our teachers. This means finding a way to improve the performance of our existing teachers and finding a way to attract the “best and brightest” to our inner city schools. A recent report noted that 50% of all new teachers graduated in the bottom third of their class. Meanwhile, the top students are on their way to operating rooms, Wall Street, research labs, law offices, the IT industry, and engineering firms. As I wrote in a recent blog, last year over 25,000 STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) teachers left the profession, noting “disgruntlement with their jobs and a lack of professional support” among the reasons they left.

My personal feeling, my suspicion, is that the best way we can attract and keep these young, energetic graduates is to guarantee them a high level of autonomy and intellectual freedom, institute an incentivized pay structure that rewards success, and provide clinical supervisers that will mentor and collaborate with these new hires, providing practical guidance and emotional support.  Let’s turn the high school into a true “marketplace of ideas” where teachers will have greater freedom to design their own “product” and greater accountability and pressure to "generate profit."

I regularly reminded my students that they are to a great extent in competition with one another, that they themselves are a “product” they need to sell to colleges and future employers. Teachers are no different. “Liking kids” and “really wanting to make a difference” are wonderful platitudes but insufficient qualities for the demands of teaching in today’s world.

Unfortunately, too many people with influence over policy, and too many people charged with hiring, still have their eyes shut. We need to retain and attract teachers that possess the spirit of the entrepreneur, who feel a deep, personal attachment to the curriculum, the classroom, and the school in much the same way an entrepreneur feels about her product or service. I understand there are those who would object to what appears to be an effort to bring a little competition and decentralization to our schools, letting the teachers has a greater say in the operation of their schools. My response is to look at our inner city schools, look at the lack of progress, and admit that whatever has been tried has failed. Incremental reforms are not enough, patience is not a virtue. These kids deserve a quality education. They deserve better teachers, and they deserve to have them NOW.

What does a supervisor actually do?

My social studies department had a supervisor, but to be honest, in the 18 years since being granted tenure, my supervisor, and for that matter all administrators, visited my classroom about 20 times. My principal didn't visit my classroom once, not once!

So what, in fact, do supervisors actually do? They hold department meetings. They oversee a collection of curricula, making sure that all the paperwork is completed and the courses comply with state mandates. They collect lesson plans and want to be kept informed on noteworthy activities, and typically approve or disapprove of field trips and guests to the school.  They respond to parent concerns, some real, some imagined. On occasion they mediate disputes among colleagues or between teachers and students with their parents.

But most of their time is spent dealing with people at the Board Office. District administrators kept demands on my supervisor, and other supervisors I'm sure. Meetings were a seemingly daily occurrence. They also completed a department budget and ordered any necessary resources, keeping within District guidelines and operating with an ever dwindling budget.

I bring this to your attention because the need for classroom supervision is critical, especially in the inner city, where the need to give students a positive experience and receive exemplary classroom leadership from a teacher is an important factor in keeping kids in school. We need educators that teach kids how to advocate for themselves, and encourage student engagement, empowerment, and accountability in the classroom.

I have to assume that department supervisors in the inner city face a similar fate in their daily experience, burdened even more so given the increased participation of government agencies. This is a tragedy of the highest order. Whether in a collaborative or directional vein, the need for intense, practical, clinical supervision of teachers is vital. Department supervisors and other administrators must consider turning some powers and responsibilities over to the faculty so that they can dedicate their time and resources to helping improve teacher performance. Much of the paperwork, inventory, and even disputes can be handled by teachers, freeing the supervisor up to spend more time in the classroom. It is important that this not be seen as an adversarial relationship, which is why a collaborative approach is far preferable unless there is a real need for directional supervision.

A problem I foresee is that supervisors and administrators are often times rusty or downright uninformed about the current state of supervision and the best practices they are supposed to be encouraging. Increased professional development at the administrative level is important, but more importantly, every school should have a full time clinical supervisor on staff to do nothing other than work with teachers in the classroom.

The clinical supervisors would be specifically charged with working with all non-tenured teachers and "at risk" teachers as determined by the school administration. If a performance pay system is in place they would also have a  role in its determination.

The inclusion of a clinical supervisor is obviously an added expense to school districts, but a clearly justifiable and legitimate use of revenue. The demand for quality teachers in the inner city is high, supply is low. This is not to lay the blame for the failure of inner city public schools on the lap of our teachers, but is more an affirmation of the crucial role they play in the overall maturation- social and intellectual- of children in our inner city schools.

Putting in place a better system of identifying and encouraging "star students" in college to become teachers is another piece of the puzzle, a component in the overall effort to develop a faculty of high quality educators. Having these clinical supervisors in place when these new teachers arrive will help keep these teachers in the profession, addressing what has be indicated a primary cause for many of these new teachers voluntarily resigning or staying in the profession as confused and frustrated educators. I cannot emphasize enough how important this feature is to the renewal of our inner city schools. The time to give teachers the support they want is NOW. We cannot wait.

To Improve Our Schools, Improve Our Cities

I am shocked by the lack of urgency we are showing to the deplorable situation in our inner city schools and their neighborhoods. If what was happening in these communities was a natural disaster we would be bringing in the National Guard. Test scores, for what they’re worth, have shown little improvement in the last decade. This is true for the public schools and for many of the charter schools that were to be change’s linchpin. Even more distressing is the lack of improvement in graduation rates. Our inner city neighborhoods are being filled with poorly skilled, desperate young people that will one day become dependents on our State our guests in our prisons. The sense of being trapped, of going to school in a community devoid of hope or opportunity, is a challenge to our moral sensibilities. Every child that wants to succeed, that wants to be upwardly mobile, that wants to break free of this cycle and have a better life than their parents must be given the chance.

There is no single cause to the failure of our inner city schools, but it is clear that any remedy will require the participation of us all. Inevitably, we will need to look to our Legislature, Assembly, and Governor to pass bold legislation that will be our equivalent of a Marshall Plan for New Jersey’s cities.

We need performance pay in our public schools. We need early retirement for our worn out teachers. We need the private sector to donate millions in college scholarship money rather than the divisive “Opportunity Scholarships.” We need parents to do their jobs by encouraging their children and holding the schools accountable. Children must be taught to advocate for themselves. We need graduation tests that reflect the real world, and curriculum that is no longer constrained by the ridiculously detailed “cumulative progress indicators” requiring educators to teach content that will be quickly forgotten. Learning is an intense, time consuming process that can only be assessed by frequent demonstrations throughout the school year showing that content and skills were acquired. Beyond a very narrow core, we should be less concerned with what kids are learning and more concerned whether true learning is taking place.

We need to change the way people think about the profession.  A recent article in Scientific American was lamenting the fact that 25,000 STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) teachers leave the profession every year due to “disgruntlement with their jobs and lack of professional support.”  In the words of their editors, “To attract and retain enough science and math teachers will require an elevation in their status and a thorough revamping of attitudes toward the entire profession.”

To attract the top students, the ones planning careers with engineering firms, in operating rooms, in corporate boardrooms, or in pharmaceutical labs, we need to incentivize the salary guide and give teachers the freedom to put their passion and knowledge to work by giving them the same control over their curriculum as entrepreneurs have over products of their own creation. And to support this cadre of aspiring entrepreneurial educators, every school in New Jersey must be required to have a clinical supervisor in their building.

Addressing what goes on at school is only half the struggle. Too many of the neighborhoods in the inner city are entirely impoverished, with no middle class or professional class role models and few if any indigenous entrepreneurs other than those in the underground economy. Growing up, weekend visits to my dad’s corporate office had an enormous impact on my maturation and aspirations for material success. I have no doubt that many kids in suburban school districts do the same with their moms or dads.

It is incumbent on our legislators to offer incentives for middle class families to move into the inner city and attend public schools. The City should use its powers of eminent domain to condemn and demolish abandoned buildings, even relocate families on distressed streets to more diverse neighborhoods. Studies show that minority neighborhoods lack socioeconomic diversity, and that problem has ramifications in the schools.

And finally, we should take the much maligned Urban Enterprise Zones and revise the concept with an eye towards urban education, creating what I call “Urban Opportunity Zones.” Generally speaking, businesses and organizations within the UOZ are incentivized to hire, train, mentor, or educate high school students. The enterprises in the UOZ will to a great extent mirror the high school curriculum and are conceived to be a place where inner city students can gain access and exposure to opportunities that are currently so distant from their daily lives.

There is nothing in this vision of reform that is beyond our reach. It will demand cooperation, concession, and coordination among stakeholders. If we really believe in a social contract, if we believe there are moral imperatives, then we must devote our energy and resources to the children in our inner cities, bringing hope and opportunity before the perils of their existence turn wonderment into frustration and desperation. I can think of no more noble goal.