Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Some Observations and Ideas for You to Ponder

I taught social studies for 21 years in a highly affluent New Jersey school district, having foregone a stint at law school to become one of the first “alternate route” teachers in the United States.
Though I taught in an affluent district, I live on the outskirts of Trenton a district with a 48% graduation rate. The dichotomy between these districts is saddening; seeing the excitement and enthusiasm of Trenton’s elementary students knowing what awaits them, oftentimes moves me to anger mixed with tears. For purposes of time let’s just say that I have a very Rawlsian outlook with regard to opportunity and equity in education.
What you will find below are some observations and ideas I would like to share with you regarding education, more specifically with the failure of our schools to “secure the blessings of liberty” for our most neediest children.
Ø  There is an absolute lack of commitment to proper teacher supervision. Department supervisors do not have the time nor the expertise to properly collaborate and guide new and “at risk” teachers. In my mind, every school should have at least one clinical supervisor in place to do proper observations, which include pre and post conferences and are very time consuming. I scanned the Help Wanted section of New Jersey’s main newspaper consortium  and could not find even one advertisement for a clinical supervisor.
Ø  I am tired of the argument that teachers aren’t motivated by money, and that performance pay won’t work. To say that teachers teach “because they love kids” is a sophistry; it is like saying that accountants do their job “because they love numbers.” I can cite you a myriad of reasons why people go into teaching, and in some way remuneration is at the core of that reason. I met scores of highly effective teachers that are sickened by the way they are paid, with absolutely no consideration to effectiveness. Far too many teachers perform at the absolute minimum level of competency for that reason.
Ø  The majority of teacher currently at work, and the college cohort of future teachers, are drawn from people in the lower third of college students. The majority of teachers also come from families where a career in teaching is seen- in terms of income- as a socioeconomic advance for the family. This is all well and good, but we need to draw college students from the top of the class, where most other future professionals can be found. This is but another reason why a higher pay scale, tied to performance pay, is critical if we are to elevate the quality of teaching.

Ø  Simply giving more money directly to schools is NOT the answer. If money is to be allocated, it should be given to teachers as a condition of performance; it is essential to also find a way to allocate money directly to poor families that are highly motivated to guide their children to high achievement but lack the money to provide the kinds of resources readily available to affluent children.
Ø  Kids in the inner city lack the “readiness” for learning that their brethren in the suburbs have. Compounding this problem is the reality that inner city schools do not, in general, attract the best teachers. This disadvantage is made worse after these teachers are forced to endure years of frustration and a lack of support. This results in a “bar of expectations” that gets lower and lower. We literally need to “turn over” the faculty at many of these schools, or at least provide a clinical supervisor that can ratchet up teacher performance.
Ø  The key to success in the inner city is to remold neighborhoods to have more socioeconomic diversity, maybe by creating financial incentives for middle class families to relocate to the inner city and send their kids to those schools. We literally need to recreate the kinds of inner city neighborhoods that thrived in the mid- 20th century before the mass exodus to the suburbs. The well documented concentration of poverty and minorities in inner city neighborhoods is a touchy subject. My “study” of the differences between Trenton’s two high schools, one with a 75% graduation rate and one with a 42% graduation rate, clearly shows that demographics (income and family composition in particular) do matter.
Ø  Parents cannot escape scrutiny, and it is incumbent that we find ways to incentivize parenting to “prod” effective parenting (see my Op-Ed for metrics). In Trenton we literally have children raising children. These teenagers dropping out of school will soon become dependents on the city and State for social services. Have we really begun to consider the long term consequences of this? I think this focus on parenting is one reason the Harlem Children’s Zone has become such a wonderful success.
Ø  Most of the kids in inner city schools, unlike the kids in the affluent school where I taught do not know how to “self-advocate,” and have almost no sense of student empowerment. Some of this blame also falls on teachers and the type of curriculum they develop for their students.
Ø  If New Jersey is typical of other states, then I can say emphatically that the test we use for graduation is completely detached from the real world, is disconnected from the required “Core Curriculum,” and thus provides us no meaningful data to assess student learning. The New Jersey HSPA is three days of Language Arts and Math. Where is history, government, financial literacy, science, health and nutrition, American culture, etc..? We require these things to be taught, but we do not test kids on these requirements, essentially giving teachers a free pass; there is no accountability. We also really need to ask ourselves what kids MUST know when they graduate high school, not what we would like them to know. How about reading a contract, calculating interest, understanding opportunity cost, supply and demand, the Bill of Rights, global warming, rudiments of proper health and nutrition… get the point. We have become so obsessed with comparative global testing that we have lost sight of “testing with purpose.”
Ø  We keep requiring kids to learn more and more, and anyone with any knowledge of the “science of learning” will tell you that actually learning something is very time consuming and requires a variety of assessments. There has become a complete disconnect between teaching and learning. By narrowing, not expanding what we require kids to learn, we can liberate education and allow for greater innovation and creativity in the classroom.
In addition to the new ideas introduced in the observations listed above, there are two additional ideas I want you to consider:
Ø  I have developed what I believe is a wonderful idea to create new partnerships among stakeholders in education. The idea is based on Urban Enterprise Zones. My idea, in a nutshell, is to create what would be called Urban Opportunity Zones, where businesses, non-profits, and a host of other public and private entities would receive incentives for creating programs tied to local schools, for example to hire, train, and mentor students or to provide resources for use in the schools. (I would be happy to send you more details). I have tried contacting city officials and local legislators and have gotten nowhere with something I believe has enormous potential to elevate the quality of learning in the inner city.

Ø  We often hear teachers described in a variety of ways, teacher as coach, teacher as mentor, teacher as “fill in the blank”, but the one analogy we never hear, and the one that I believe holds the greatest hope for education, is “teacher as entrepreneur.”

We herald the “American entrepreneur” and the entrepreneurial spirit as something that defines our uniqueness and identity. Since the days of Ben Franklin, the entrepreneur has been seen as the catalyst that drives our dynamism and growth. I’m not talking about so-called edpreneurs that seek to profit in the “education industry,” but rather an “entrepreneurial class” of teachers. Interestingly, classroom teaching is one area that has failed to capture the entrepreneurial drive in evidence throughout other sectors of the economy.

I have spent the last several years studying entrepreneurs, trying to find common qualities that seem to exist among all, or almost all entrepreneurs, and I think I’ve done it. Those five qualities are Passion, Organization, Knowledge, Empowerment, and Resourcefulness. These are the five qualities characteristic of entrepreneurs, and I believe they are the characteristics that define the successful teacher. They are the metrics I would use to evaluate teacher performance and effectiveness.

I believe that a key to success in our inner city schools is to create a culture of learning that is synonymous with a culture of entrepreneurism. Teachers would see themselves as entrepreneurs, with their curriculum as their “product.” They would profit from developing a successful product in the form of performance pay, which could be considerable. Teachers would be given a degree of academic freedom heretofore not seen, but would also be held to a much higher degree of accountability and scrutiny.

I’ve always felt that we should assume that no child is required to go to school, and work from there to design a school that children would choose to attend. An entrepreneurial high school is, I believe, the best way to create the energy, dynamism, and intellectual spirit that we so desperately need in our inner city schools.

I have scoured the internet, searched education databases, and nowhere have I seen any literature addressing this radically new idea. I firmly believe that I am “onto something,” that my philosophy and approach to teaching will generate highly productive teachers and well educated, perspicacious teenagers.  I have developed a charter school based on these ideas, but unfortunately I have yet to find any way to garner the support and financial backing I would need to put these ideas into action.  Suffice to say it is extremely frustrating.

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