Saturday, January 14, 2012

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.

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