Monday, April 23, 2012

The Problem with PIACS

The charter school reform movement is under assault in the State legislator, and it is schools like the proposed Princeton International Academy that are the reason for this horrible and unnecessary backlash. Current bills in Trenton that would require public referendum on new charters and fulfillment of new, onerous application requirements are a direct consequence of these suburban, “boutique” charter schools, and if the leaders of PIACS really gave a darn about the larger charter movement they would either move their proposed school to Trenton, or withdraw their application completely.
PIACS is designed to be an English/Mandarin immersion school, which is all well and good, but the school is seeking approval to locate in the suburban Princeton area and draw students from Princeton, West Windsor-Plainsboro, and South Brunswick. Now I can’t speak for South Brunswick, but Princeton and WW-P already have two of the State’s finest Chinese language programs. The program in WW-P, which I am intimately aware of from my 21 years teaching at WW-P South, is a vigorous, challenging highly acclaimed program that enjoys large enrollment and incredible support from both the school and the community.

By proposing to start a school in an area in which there is absolutely no demand or need they have awoken a “sleeping giant,” namely members of this affluent community that will not tolerate any potential threat to the quality education that WW-P schools provide. The professionals that live in these communities are politically connected, highly astute, and willing to use the political process to stop this school. As a result, the charter community at large is now required to spend time and capital to fend off legislation that will throw a wrench into the good works that the charter movement is providing for children in the inner city, exposing innovative efforts to transform learning to the political process.

I hope that the egotistical, self-absorbed leaders at PIACS will see the bigger picture and realize the damage that their school will do to the charter movement. PIACS is not alone; there are similar plans for charter schools in East Brunswick, Ridgewood, and a few other relatively affluent communities with strong educational programs and NO NEED for a charter school. Meanwhile, students in the inner city continue to suffer from inadequate and underfunded programs that have not made a dent in dropout rates in over a decade. If these charter leaders really believe that they have truly innovative school concepts that will elevate the quality of learning, they should do the right thing and relocate to the inner cities. Now is the time to show where their true concern lies, with the students of New Jersey or with their wallets.

When Is a Teacher Not a Teacher

When is a teacher not a teacher? No, this isn’t the first line of a joke, it’s a serious query with important implications. Every time I drive past Trenton High, and see those Phys Ed students walking around the track- some with cell phones in hand- I start to think about teaching, specifically the meaning of the verb “to teach.”

To me the answer is very simple; a teacher is a teacher when a student can demonstrate learning. To judge a teacher any other way is disingenuous. This raises the question of how we evaluate the performance of a teacher; to do this we must design a legitimate, fair method for measuring learning. As I’ve alluded to many times on this blog, there are a plethora of factors that affect student learning, with teachers playing a vital, central role. My personal preference for evaluating learning is to have students demonstrate what they have learned by engaging in some sort of oral presentation, whether it be a speech, discussion, debate, or presentation. But these are time consuming methodologies, and instead teachers are often limited to simply designing a formal test like those that utilize that infamous scantron. So let’s talk about testing.

New Jersey has a love affair with testing, more specifically with generating quantitative measures of performance. These formal tests, most notably the ASK and HSPA, have been implemented to measure student performance, and will soon be applied to the evaluation of teachers.

This gets me back to the Phys Ed teacher. I will readily admit that I was one among many teachers that viewed the system of remuneration for teachers as unfair. What exactly were kids learning in phys ed classes? How much planning and assessment were phys. ed. teachers engrossed in during a typical school year? Did they deserve the same pay as me? The issue is of course moot until a better system is devised, one that assesses learning and rewards exemplary performance in every school subject.

Now to the main point of this posting: Right now, New Jersey’s graduation test fails to meet its own criteria, it does not suffice as an assessment tool for the vast majority of teachers, and it is totally disconnected from the “real world” and the content that is essential for every high school student to have learned in preparation for life in civil society and a market economy.  Something must be done about this, and it must be done immediately.

The following statement is a direct quote from the NJDOE’s “Guide to the HSPA.”

The HSPA is a state test given to students in the eleventh grade to measure whether they have gained the knowledge and skills identified in the Core Curriculum Content Standards. These standards, adopted by the State Board of Education, identify what students should know and be able to do at the end of various benchmark years. The HSPA will help determine whether your child is making satisfactory progress toward mastering the skills he or she will need to graduate from high school.

The problem is that it’s a lie. Since the test is limited to math and language arts, it is only measuring whether teenagers have “gained the knowledge and skills” in only about 20% of the required Core Curriculum.   

I am asking anyone reading this blog that is interested in reforming the NJ HSPA to please contact me as soon as possible. I am interested in forming a PAC for the sole purpose of revising the HSPA and the Core Curriculum Content Standards on which they are based.  I would love to meet with those who are interested and engage in a discussion of what each of you believes students MUST know as a prerequisite for graduation.

It is time for New Jersey students to take a graduation test that truly measures how well they have been prepared for “life beyond high school.” There is currently no way of evaluating how well teachers have met the “cumulative progress indicators” prescribed in the Core Curriculum Content Standards. Unless we test in all areas covered in the NJCCCS, why require teachers to teach to the standards? It is pointless.     

 As New Jersey embarks on a new experiment in evaluating teacher performance, the timing is perfect for rewriting the HSPA to reflect all of the content areas identified in the NJCCCS. The issue of evaluating teachers using quantitative metrics was a common theme at the recent hearings on Senator Ruiz’s reform legislation, so there would clearly seem to be the political will to construct  a test that addresses all subject areas. It is time for the community to apply pressure on our educators and legislators to make it happen. Please join me in helping to make these needed changes a reality. As I see it, a proper HSPA for 11th grade students will include the following subject areas:





Government and Law





We need look no further than New York for the precedent for such subject tests. The New York Regents exams have, since the 1930’s, tested students in a broad range of subject areas. Comprehensive exams such as these are a perfect model for New Jersey to build on. If New York can do it, why can’t we??  
So when is a teacher not a teacher: When students can't demonstrate learning. And though there are many ways to show that learning has occurred, there is no escaping the point that testing is one method that has broad acceptance for its validity. I am no fan of "more" testing, but I do believe in "better" testing, and that means creating a new and improved HSPA, one that will properly measure compliance with the NJCCCS, create a usable metric for teacher evaluations, and properly measure student preparation for the demands of life beyond high school.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

Sunday, April 8, 2012

STEM Education is Important, but it's Time We Considered a SHELF Education Too

American education has become obsessed with the issue of STEM (science, technology, engineering,math). We need more STEM teachers, we need more STEM students, we need money for STEM programs. STEM, STEM, STEM!! And while I share the concern with our being able to provide a vigorous, comprehensive STEM curriculum for our students, led by well educated, well prepared STEM teachers, this obsession is leading to a growing indifference and neglect for other parts of the curriculum, courses and subjects that are critical if we are to graduate well rounded, broadly aware young adults.
I am speaking of our social studies curriculum, those “soft” classes that no one seems too concerned with. Need I remind you that we live in a dynamic society, work in a market economy, are governed by democratically elected representatives, and must learn to navigate a bureaucracy of government programs and institutions? The demands put on individuals to live in a system such as ours are immense. Going to the polling booth, if you do in fact vote, accomplishes nothing unless those participating are well informed and, at some basic level, intellectually curious. It is so much to ask that students have a basic understanding of Constitutional law and the history that breathes life into it? Success in the workplace and at home similarly requires an understanding of economics and finance that our schools have proven unable to provide. It is all well and good to improve our STEM programs, but it is time to rededicate ourselves to establishing a strong SHELF (sociology, history, economics, law, finance) program as well.

The ability of powerful, influential individuals and groups to manipulate information-mainly through the various media- and shape public opinion is a real and immediate threat to the vitality of our nation. Moreover, the clear lack of understanding in SHELF subjects demonstrated by high school graduates suggests that too many people are unable to balance a checkbook, calculate interest, read a contract, reference the Bill of Rights, understand the provisions of a health care bill, distinguish between monetary and fiscal policy, or perform any of the requisite skills one would need to succeed in the workplace and have any shot at upward mobility.

At least with STEM classes we have standardized tests in place to measure understanding, and we make proficiency a prerequisite for graduation. No such system is in place for SHELF classes; we graduate hundreds of thousands of students each year and don’t have a clue what they know or don’t know in these areas. There is absolutely no system of accountability for the students or the teachers.

So by all means lets push ahead with improving our ability to deliver a top notch STEM education. Our nation’s health demands it. But our nation also needs a strong citizenry; individuals who are prepared to live in a multiethnic society, raise a family, and participate in our economic and political institutions, prepared to make intelligent decisions about their lives and their leaders. A strong SHELF education will provide that; to neglect this important component of public education creates a harm that will resign a great number of Americans to a life of dependency, ignorance, and stasis.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

If We're Going to Evaluate Teachers, How About Evaluating Parents Too!

Teachers have faced the brunt of public criticism as we address the failings of our public schools, but the inescapable fact is that too many parents have- no doubt for a variety of reasons-abdicated their responsibilities to their children and turned to teachers, the internet, and their peers to (in) effectively raise their kids. The problem is most acute in the inner city. It is a topic that few people want to confront for fear of being accused of being prejudiced against poor families, racist towards many of the minorities that populate the inner city, or insensitive to the difficulties and challenges many single parents encounter trying to maintain a job while finding adequate care for his or her children.

 But the problems of good parenting are not limited to the cities. Many suburban kids are being raised in homes with enabling parents, and while these parents are more than willing to provide the tangible resources their kids need to succeed, the kids all too often develop a sense of entitlement and privilege that leaves them ill-equipped to deal with challenges, challenges that may lead to failure, and engenders an ethos where cheating and taking “shortcuts” to getting good grades is acceptable behavior.

Admittedly, these “suburban” family problems pale in comparison to the powerful socioeconomic forces weighing on poor families, but that does not absolve parents in the inner city from their important responsibilities. Based on the abysmal graduation rates in our cities, and the relatively poor performance of inner city children on comparative assessment tools, it is fair to conclude that there is a crisis in parenting in the inner city, and that we will not be able to adequately help these parents until we can be open and honest in saying that parents must be held accountable for their child’s performance, and that government and non-profit organizations must provide the support and services they may need to improve their efforts.

So how do we evaluate parents? If we are willing and able to create metrics to evaluate teachers, can’t we do the same for parents? I’ve thought a lot about it, and have identified five ways in which we can measure the performance of parents in raising their children to be productive, independent, mature young adults that are properly equipped to succeed after high school.

1)     Health and welfare: Are the children eating properly, getting adequate sleep, proper exercise, and being regularly evaluated by medical professionals?

2)     Resource Acquisition: Are the parents providing the technological and educational resources a child needs to be a high functioning student?

3)     Oversight: Are the parents effectively advocating for their children at the school, making sure that they are being properly placed, being appropriately evaluated, and having their needs met by the school? Further, are they “keeping on top” of their kids, making sure that they are fulfilling their responsibilities as a student?

4)     Engagement: Are the parents getting involved in the school, attending school sponsored events designed for the parents, volunteering their time, and participating in parent organizations connected to education?

5)    Opportunities for Enrichment: Are the parents being proactive, finding opportunities- either those provided by the school, area educational or recreational groups, or businesses- for their children to enhance their experiences at school? A great deal of a child’s learning actually goes on in places beyond the school; to what extent are parents seeing out those learning experiences?

6)    Values and Advocacy: Are parents inculcating their kids with positive values, a work ethic, a sense of responsibility and accountability? And are parents teaching their kids how to self-advocate, to speak up for themselves at school to make sure their needs are being met?

Now obviously we cannot have our schools, or our government going door to door evaluating parents, but, to some extent, it would be great if we could find a way to maybe “reward” parents that are doing a stellar job, and while I don’t advocate “punishing” irresponsible parents, we should give real thought to designing neighborhood programs that teach parents how to do their job better. We should also give real thought to finding ways to support parents that are trying but struggling to help their kids.

We don’t live in the kind of country that takes kids away from dysfunctional parents, and that is a good thing. But then again, it is so frustrating and sad to see kids being raised by parents that quite frankly don’t seem to give a damn about “doing the right thing” for their children. We’re obviously here treading on scary issues. It is unfortunate but probably true that one day these children will be dependent on the State and its taxpayers for money and services. For those parents that receive assistance from the State, isn’t there some way that we can make “parenting classes” a condition for assistance? Shouldn’t we be doing something to encourage positive behavior by these parents? Can’t we incentivize the process for those receiving State aid, and can’t we find a way to reward exemplary parents, especially those with limited resources, so that they can provide even more for their kids?

Yes, teachers must be held accountable for the success of their students. If we are serious about the education of our children, then parents should not escape that same scrutiny.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Learning and NJ's CCCS, An Unholy Marriage

There is a profound difference between being taught something and actually learning those items you are being taught. This is true regardless of whether the issue is some particular content or skill mandated by the curriculum. The reason I point this out is that New Jersey’s Core Curriculum Content Standards put demands on both teachers and students that are completely unrealistic, untenable, and devoid of any connection to the true needs of our students, and of society. Ironically, the requirements of the CCCS are an impediment to learning. It is my contention that the NJCCCS, in particular for high school, should be completely rewritten with the goal of identifying content that our high school students MUST learn in order to be productive in our market economy and intellectually equipped to be active, informed citizens in our participatory democracy.

In addition, once the essential content and skills have been identified and codified, the totality of the CCCS should be included into New Jersey’s HSPA, the test we use as a prerequisite for graduation from our public schools. The current HSPA only assesses preparation and proficiency in 2 of the 7 content areas identified by the State. As previously mentioned in this blog, it is time for the Department of Education to scrap the HSPA and start over, designing a test that integrates all 7 content areas and writes questions that assess student understanding of vital contemporary and historical issues in economics, law, health, science, and humanities in addition to the areas of math and language arts covered in the current test.

As I mentioned, there is a crucial difference between teaching something and learning something. When a teacher tells you that he or she “taught” something, they are indicating that information was introduced to the learner, that activities were introduced to reinforce and explore the content, that through these activities certain skills were developed, and finally that the student was subject to an assessment to give some indication of how well the student retained the information- the content and the skills- presented in the particular unit.

The idea of “teaching” is teacher centered, while the idea of “learning” is student centered. Learning is the result of effective teaching. It is somewhat easy to acknowledge when teaching takes place since the process is observable. Learning is a little more problematic, since most theories of learning suggest that learning includes things that are not only overt, observable, and measurable, but things that reside in the affective domain and include the maturation of an individual’s emotions, attitudes, and opinions. A student that truly learned something also acquires the requisite skills to act upon those learned items. I guess the point is that some learning is not as easily observable and includes thoughts and behaviors that may be deferred or may be hard to assess.

Regardless of what theory or model of learning one subscribes to, whether it be a behaviorist, humanist, or any other model, the one salient point, the one belief that is consistent throughout, is that the assessment of true learning is time consuming, going well beyond answering questions on a standard test. For a student to demonstrate that they have learned something there should be some element of social interaction and some individualized activity. A truly effective and enlightened teacher not only takes the time to design a variety of activities that integrate the desired content and skills, but he or she also empowers students to do exploration of the subject on their own, pursuing in depth some aspect of the curriculum that appeals to their personal goals or experiences.

A student that has truly learned subject matter should be able to engage others in a meaningful conversation on the topic. They should be able to write effectively and persuasively, and be able to make a formal presentation, either alone or with a team, that demonstrates their understanding of the subject and any ancillary issues raised by the subject. These assessments are time consuming and absolutely necessary if we are to create a system that properly and fairly evaluates both students and teachers.

The issue of time is critical. In the Core Content Curriculum Standards for Social Studies at the high school level, there are three content areas: US History, World History/Global Studies, and Active Citizenship in the 21st Century. Within each content area there are four “strands” that must be integrated into all course offerings: Civics, Economics, Geography, and Global Perspectives.

I took a look at one of those content areas, US History. Within each content area the curriculum is broken down into unit, in the case of US History the units are chronological. The time period is then broken down into the four strands, in essence the themes within a given time frame. Then, for each strand, are items known as “cumulative progress indicators.” Here are examples of a few from the unit “Contemporary United States (1970-today)”:

 Ø          Assess from various perspectives the effectiveness with which the United States           government addresses economic issues that affect individuals, business, and/or other countries.

Ø  Explain why natural resources continue to be a sources of conflict, and analyze how the United States and other nations have addressed issues concerning the distribution and sustainability of natural resources

Ø  Analyze the impact of American culture on other world cultures from multiple perspectives

These are three on the cumulative progress indicators in the US History standard for high schools. Each CPI is somewhat sophisticated and requires understanding of core knowledge and ancillary content. It demands higher order thinking and reasoning, and, depending on the type(s) of assessment used, there is going to be some sort of research, writing or presentation involved, whether it be an individual or group activity. Obviously class time will be devoted to the teacher’s lecture, discussion, classwork, and student questioning in addition to the class time that will necessarily be dedicated to completing the CPI in such a way that learning is demonstrated. Remember, the point is not whether or not something is taught, but whether it is learned.

In the content area of US History there are 198 cumulative progress indicators. That’s right 198. Does anyone truly believe that teachers and students have the time in two years- the current US History requirement- to assess learning in 198  areas. I refer you back to the three cpi presented above. Those of you who are familiar with Bloom’s Taxonomy will immediately identify these cpi as demonstrating understanding of the highest order. This is well beyond simply “identifying” or “describing,” these are sophisticated goals requiring students to synthesize information. It is IMPOSSIBLE for teachers to properly assess learning of these cpi in the time allocated for teaching US History.

My point is this. If we are really serious about student learning, and if we are really serious about creating a system of metrics to evaluate teachers and hold them accountable for student learning, then it is absolutely necessary to rewrite the NJCCCS to identify only those items that a student MUST know, not simply those things that we would like a student to know.

 By reducing the number of cumulative progress indicators, we can liberate teachers to design innovative and exciting courses that reflect their personal knowledge and passion. And by designing a HSPA that assesses student learning in areas that really matter, like the Bill of Rights, reading a contract, and balancing a checkbook to cite just a few examples, we  can draw a better connection between the test and the “real world,” which will I believe engender greater respect and legitimacy for the test among teachers and students.

Assessing the quality of our teachers so that we can reward the exemplary and provide support for the less effective is an important goal that New Jersey is, I’m glad to see, showing a commitment to undertaking. But to do that without reevaluating the CCCS and the HSPA is doing a true disservice to not only New Jersey’s students and teacher, but to the parents, business community, and any other stakeholder with an interest in elevating the quality of learning taking place in our schools, especially our schools in the inner city where performance is far from acceptable. I hope our legislators, and our Department of Education, will see that their efforts so far are woefully inadequate.