Friday, February 24, 2012

The New Haven Merit Pay Experiment

In Monday’s Trenton Times, Nicholas Kristof wrote a wonderful piece about the education reform efforts being taken by the New Haven school district, specifically its effort to implement a merit pay system. The plan they have undertaken has the support of AFT President Randi Weingarten and has apparently been well received by the teachers’ union.

The collaboration between district administrators and the union to devise a plan is refreshing and may serve as a model for other inner city school districts. And while I disagree with the large (50%) emphasis they place on data driven assessments, it nonetheless proves what can be accomplished when all the stakeholders are given legitimate participation in the plan’s conception.

The plan is limited to the New Haven district, and I think that is a very important point that we in New Jersey should not overlook. The problem I see in New Jersey is that our political leaders, led of course by the Christie Administration, is trying to devise a system for evaluating teachers with the obvious intent of using that system as the basis for a merit pay plan to be used by all New Jersey school districts. This “one size fits all” approach is, I believe, the absolute wrong way to go in a state like ours with such a huge disparity in the performance of our schools.

It is my contention that the best way to proceed is for our legislature to mandate that all districts have a merit pay plan in place by 2013, but allow for these districts to work with the local union to construct a plan on their own. It is also incumbent on our state government, possibly working in concert with the many corporations that call New Jersey its home, to provide enough supplementary funding to allow for substantial salary increases for teachers in our inner city schools.

Merit pay is one of many ways in which we can attract college students with degrees in areas other than education into the field. There is an extraordinary need for such students to join the ranks of educators. Merit pay is also an important component to a revised system of remuneration for teachers. The current system offers absolutely no motivation for teachers to perform at the “top end of the curve.” It is demoralizing for our best teachers to receive no more pay than mediocre, lazy, risk averse, and disinterested teachers. Years of service and attained degrees are a horrendous basis for pay.

I applaud the New Haven school district and hope that, either by desire or executive mandate, we can find school districts in our State willing to experiment with reform that will clearly result in improvements to the quality of teaching we provide to our students, especially our students in the inner city. There are legitimate concerns among teachers with creating a valued merit pay plan: the plan must be transparent, provide safeguards against arbitrary and capricious decisions, created with the participation of teachers, and include both qualitative and quantitative metrics.

The urgent need for meaningful reform of our inner city schools is without question. It is time for the NJEA, our legislators, the Governor, and our corporate stakeholders to work together and place the needs of our students at the forefront of our thoughts. It is impossible to justify any other need before theirs.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

In Support of Charter Schools

Charter schools play an important role in our efforts to reform education in New Jersey and improve the culture of learning in our inner city schools. But recently I have noticed an apparent backlash against these schools, as evidenced in the bill working its way through our legislature, a bill that would require all future charter schools be approved by a public vote. This bill MUST be defeated; its passage could be the death knell for the charter school movement.

The genesis of this proposed legislation is the proliferation of so-called “boutique” charter schools. The term refers to charter schools that are seeking approval in high performing school districts like West Windsor-Plainsboro, Montgomery, Princeton, and Cherry Hill. The proposed charter in the West Windsor-Plainsboro area, for example, would be a Mandarin immersion school, this in spite of the fact that the school district has an incredibly excellent Chinese language program.

Charter schools should NEVER have been approved anywhere but the districts most in need of reform, districts like Camden, Newark, and Trenton. By approving these boutique schools, the DOE has deviated from the intent and mission of the original charter legislation. By promulgating charters in high performing and highly taxed school districts it has created what many of these families see as a threat to the quality of their schools and a disruption of the status quo.

The controversy and debate we are seeing today is directly related to the perversion of the relationship that should exist between public and charter schools. The problem can be traced back to those in the education reform movement that promoted charter schools as competition to public schools, advancing the mistaken belief that competition is the key to improving the quality and performance of our inner city public schools.

For reasons I’ll address in a future post, true competition, even if it could exist, is not the answer. The point I want to make is that nowhere in the original charter school legislation was there ever a hint that competition was the bill’s intent. The purpose of charter schools is to experiment with innovative ideas that either could not be or simply were not being implemented in our failing schools. It seems clear to me that the purpose was to demonstrate what works and then share that knowledge with the public schools. The relationship was meant to be collegial, not adversarial.

If the charter school movement is to stay vibrant and relevant, it is incumbent on the DOE to publicly declare that it will only approve charter schools located in “failing” school districts. Put an end to these boutique charter schools and restore the focus to our inner cities.  At the same time, find a way to facilitate communication between charter schools and public schools in these cities.

Charter schools are a great idea, but the relationship between public and charter schools must be properly structured to allow for the efficient exchange of ideas. The proposed legislation must be defeated, and the DOE must not only refuse to approve charters in high performing districts but it must also increase the level of scrutiny it applies to a review of applications. End this characterization of charter schools as competition for our public schools, and promote the idea that the success of charter schools is in everyone’s best interests. The failure of our inner city schools is a tragedy that will, at some point, touch all of our lives.  Charter schools hold great promise in helping to turn around our public schools. They are not the enemy.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Christie, the NJEA, and Inequities in Education

The drama between the Christie Administration and the NJEA once again took center stage Wednesday as the Governor, along with voucher legislation sponsors Raymond Lesniak and Tom Kean Jr. , “condemned” NJEA executive director Vincent Giordano’s statement that “life’s not always fair” with respect to the blight of inner city families “stuck” in failing schools.

The NJEA’s basic position on vouchers is that “it is not the way to address the challenges faced by urban schools,” while opponents base their argument on the belief that “parents of limited means (should not be) forced into failing schools by virtue of their ZIP code.”

Who’s right in this case? Well, they both are.

Vouchers may turn out to be bad public policy, but by the same token “resource poor” families in the inner city should not be resigned to years of trying to navigate through substandard schools and crime ridden neighborhoods in their struggle to secure the same opportunities for success as kids in the suburbs.

The debate can in effect be reduced to the rights of individual families versus the needs of the community. If in fact “voucher families” can find schools willing to receive them, the impact on the community school may be devastating.

We need a “Marshall Plan” for urban schools. If such a plan were in place, it would be hard to argue against allowing a voucher plan to proceed. This is a State with a progressive history; it needs to experiment with change. Try a voucher plan, try some merit pay plans. Try allowing some inner city schools to form their own charter schools. Try a redesigned HSPA that tests students in all disciplines, not just math and English. Try out a streamlined Core Curriculum that only requires teaching kids what they MUST learn rather than all those things we aspire for them to learn.

Then turn to the neighborhoods. Try a program that incentivizes suburban families to move back into the city. Try out the “elastic cities” concept in one of our urban centers and its surrounding communities. Try creating “urban opportunity zones,” with incentives for businesses to move into the city and create “connections” with urban schools. Try, try, try.

I learned an important lesson in one of my international economics classes at Lehigh. Studying rural populations in the Third World, we learned how risk averse communities would not support agricultural innovations offered by the U.N.; the risk of failure outweighed any “theoretical” gains. It wasn’t until the U.N. used their own land to demonstrate the merits of their technology that these communities would agree to give it a try. My sense is that the same line of reasoning applies here when it comes to education reform.

Children have no say in who their parents are, or what kind of life they were dealt at birth. They are born equal, and they should be thought of as equal when it comes to educational opportunity. As Rawls so rightly declared, inequality can only be justified if there is a societal benefit to be gained by it. Our economy benefits from some measure of inequality. Our education system does not. It cannot be justified. It cannot be tolerated. It cannot continue.

The Folly of Raising the Age for Compulsory Education

Tuesday’s Trentonian carried a story that our “enlightened” legislature has decided that raising the graduation age to 18 should be a priority as we struggle to find answers to the deplorable state of education in the inner city. Their argument, as far as I can gather, is that the growing need to acquire skills necessitates that even students intending to drop out should at least stick around long enough to learn those requisite skills.

Of course a secondary benefit of this change in our system of compulsory education is that the graduation rate might show improvement since most students don’t turn 18 until their junior or senior year in school. I guess they figure that if kids are required to stay in school until they turn 18 they might just figure “what the hell” and stick around long enough to graduate. But then again these kids would now be required to take the HSPA, and it may just be that instead of reducing the dropout rate it will increase the HSPA failure rate. That in turn would further increase the intrusion of government in the schools as the worsening statistics will lead to greater scrutiny of a school’s performance.

No doubt the legislation will include a provision for those who intend to drop out for “hardship” reasons such as providing income for the family, or maybe in cases of pregnancy. I’m going to digress for a minute; I wonder if the “Family Leave Act” would apply to students that feel the need to stay home and help care for a newborn?

So why would I have a problem with this idea? Well for starters, I’ve always had a problem with the idea of “forcing” kids to stay in school. Shouldn’t we be designing the kind of education where kids “want” to be in school rather than having to stay in school? Don’t we really need to provide the kind of schools that kids look forward to each day because they are motivated by the curriculum, the teachers, and the opportunities that will be available at the end of the journey?

Providing those kind of schools seems a distant dream, and will stay a distant dream until we reduce the volume of required “cumulative progress indicators” and content requirements. By concentrating on what kids MUST learn prior to graduation, and creating a HSPA that actually tests kids on that curriculum- something it currently DOES NOT DO- we can untether educators from teaching required courses and give them an opportunity to create innovative, dynamic courses that will inspire and motivate kids, feeding off the passion and knowledge that teachers would bring to their classrooms. It would also allow us to refocus our attention on the skills we should be requiring kids to learn. Given the rationale for extending the age of compulsory education, my line of reasoning seems wholly consistent with the legislature’s apparent goal.

My greatest problem with extending the graduation rate, besides priming the public to think of school as something kids must do, is the fear that discipline problems, crimes, and a general sense of insecurity will arise as we require kids that don’t want to be in school to in fact stay in school. Can’t we assume that a vast majority of those “potential dropouts” were students who felt disconnected from the “learning experience” and were either “trouble makers,” candidates for special education programs, or kids with failing grades and who were in all likelihood not “at grade level” in terms of their basic knowledge and skills? Why foist these kids on the rest of the student body, forcing them to sit in classes with kids that want to be there?

Theoretically speaking, I don’t believe education should be compulsory. I oftentimes wonder who would show up for school if they didn’t have to. Some would show up because that’s where their friends are, and no doubt learning social skills is an important part of the learning process. And some would show up because they truly value an education and want to learn. I suspect most kids attend for a combination of the two.

I’m sure the legislation will pass, and we will either see a rise in graduation rates or HSPA failure rates throughout the State. But please don’t mistake any increase in graduation rates as a sign of improvement in the quality of our schools. A more telling statistic will be the increase in discipline problems, crime, and insecurity. Like much of the legislation we see today, the law of unintended consequences will prevail. This legislation is a mistake, a distraction, a palliative. The only thing that should be compulsory in education is having our leaders get to work building an education system that works.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Is A Degree in Teaching Becoming Obselete?

In my last blog I proposed significant changes to the graduation test used by the State of New Jersey and the Core Curriculum Content Standards that are the putative foundation on which the HSPA is built. In making my case the issue of teachers came up, specifically the need for our State to attract “the best and the brightest” among or college graduates. It was then that I realized that some potentially divisive issues may arise if we treat collegians with education majors differently from those with degrees in disciplines like math, economics, and engineering for example. Now the more I think about it, the more I realize that a possible solution, albeit a controversial one, would be to eliminate the undergraduate degree in teaching. It is time to open up discussion on whether college students interested in a career in teaching should be required to earn a degree in a “specialized” major, and more importantly, if we should eliminate the B.S. in Education for the purposes of teaching.

A WestEd study by Frederick Hess titled “Finding the Teachers We Need,” which drew on studies by the author, the US Department of Education, McKinsey, and several other reputable sources, noted that “Undergraduate education majors typically have lower SAT scores than students who hold other kinds of majors and who consider teaching, and those who leave the profession in their first few years have higher scores than those who remain in teaching. Some estimates find that 44 percent of middle school students take at least one class with a teacher who doesn’t have even a minor in the subject being taught, and almost a quarter of secondary school students take at least one class with a teacher who doesn’t have even a college minor in the subject, a figure that climbs to 32 percent in high-poverty schools.”  According to the NCES (National Council on Education Statistics) study, which surveyed high school teachers during the 2007-2008 school year, “fewer than half of chemistry and physics teachers majored in those subjects, and a quarter of math teachers don't hold math degrees. The problem extends to history, where less than two thirds of teachers hold a history degree.” These statistics are even worse in our inner city schools where the need for knowledgeable, passionate, and resourceful educators is even more profound.

Compounding matters is the fact that public education is doing a poor job retaining college graduates that do enter the profession with “specialized” degrees. A recent study in the Scientific American noted that 25,000 STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) teachers left the profession last year, citing inadequate pay, a lack of professionalism, and poor supervisory support.

The problem, as I see it, is that if we as a nation are committed to getting and retaining “the best and brightest” in the classroom, especially in our inner cities, then we are going to have to incentivize the hiring process through a combination of merit pay, loan forbearance, improved clinical supervision, and greater freedom for teachers to design curriculum and have a say in establishing the culture of learning at school. To do this we are going to be targeting those college students NOT in undergraduate teaching programs, and older professionals interested in career change. We would be effectively creating two classes of prospective teachers. This could have long term consequences in the schools as the potential for disparate treatment by stakeholders, and disparate outcomes in merit pay become evident.

Moreover, there is no evidence that new teachers entering the profession with degrees in Education perform better, or are more likely to stay in teaching, than those entering the profession through non-traditional paths and with non-teaching degrees. There is simply no strong rationale for drawing teachers from those who went to college to receive a degree in teaching rather than those with degrees in accounting, economics, statistics, botany, or anything else.

Now this doesn’t mean that we should just be throwing new teachers into the classroom completely unprepared. Maybe we can explore the idea of requiring all college students anticipating a career in teaching earn a minor in education and receive support through an intensive program combining observation, mentoring, clinical supervision, and opportunities for collaboration. For those entering teaching without any background in education, existing alternate certification paths are in place to provide those aforementioned needs in addition to providing supplementary college coursework.

Most teachers learn what works “on the job,” through a combination of trial and error, professional development, and effective support from supervisors and peers. I will admit to a certain bias in this debate, as I was part of New Jersey’s first “class” of alternate route teachers in 1987. I enjoyed what I believe to be a wonderful support network, from my classes at Glassboro State, to my mentor teachers, to my supervisor Walt Belfield, who “Madeline Huntered” me every day for a month and provided exceptional directional supervision.  There is no reason that all new teachers can’t have a similar experience.

If our goal is to attract an “army” of high quality teachers, then we must be open to discussing the way in which we select, prepare, and retain them. I think there is a pretty strong consensus for what is needed to build a high quality professional corps of teachers, and it does not include increasing the number of college students with teaching degrees. It is time to discuss whether a degree in teaching has become obsolete.