Monday, August 20, 2012

The Urgent Need to Create a Department of Urban Education

I took a little hiatus from writing. Quite frankly I’ve just been frustrated that there is SO MUCH to do with New Jersey’s urban schools, and all I see are politicians and education leaders patting themselves on the back for a tenure reform bill that, to me, simply illustrates how disengaged our leaders are from understanding the urgency to reform our schools.

I just read longitudinal graphs of NJ HSPA test scores, more specifically the proficiency gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged districts, and sad to say over the last ten years the gap has in some cases widened and in other cases stayed about the same. Clearly, whatever is being done in New Jersey right now is a complete an utter failure, and tenure reform is going to do little if anything to rectify the situation.

It is time for our State to literally declare a state of emergency in urban education, and commit the same relative time and resources to our schools and cities that we would if there were a natural disaster, epidemic, or other devastating event occurring.

Although some may insinuate from what I am about to say that I am somehow acknowledging failure, what it is instead is a realization that urban education is fundamentally different from suburban education, that the issues they face are fundamentally different, that their needs are fundamentally different, and that the solutions to their condition are fundamentally different from suburban schools.

What I am calling for, at least theoretically, is to create two distinct Departments of Education, one for urban schools and one for everyone else. I believe that urban schools should have a completely distinct set of Core Curriculum Content Standards and a completely distinct graduation exam. It is obvious from the nature of the current HSPA and statements from our education leaders and politicians that they see the CCCS and HSPA as designed not so much as a test to prepare students for life beyond high school but as a preparation test for college. Quite frankly, such tests already exist in the SAT and Achievement Tests. The DOE and our leaders have lost their sense of mission. For many if not most urban students, college is not “the next step” after high school, and judging from the drop-out rate from community colleges and for profit colleges, we are failing our urban students by  promoting college as their primary and essential path. I really am tired of hearing people say that college is now essential for all high school graduates. First of all, we are barely graduating half of our urban students, and secondly, the failure of our State to provide meaningful options in artisanship and trades is tragic.

What I would like is for all urban public high schools to be “emancipated” from state mandates and control and to in essence be turned into charter schools. We need to get rid of every bureaucratically minded administrator at the school level and replace them with visionary leaders that are free to design “independent” schools with a culture of learning that is challenging, safe, and student centered. Urban teachers should be guided by a contract that rewards exemplary performance based on metrics that provide teachers with enormous intellectual freedom to design new courses. Leaders of urban schools should be encouraged to develop comprehensive programs that integrate the business community, professionals, unions, and non-profit organizations into their fold. Incentives should be offered to parents to draw them into the schools and into their children’s lives.

Assume that no child is required to attend school, and then design a school that they would choose to go to each and every day when they get up in the morning. I think everyone needs to read the report by Civic Enterprises entitled: “The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Drop Outs.” This insightful report, which I’ll discuss in detail in my next posting, makes it clear that the reasons students drop out of school are complex AND easily addressed by schools that are free to design programs that connect to the young people in their community.

It is time for our leaders to wake up and get to work on fixing our urban schools. Money is important, but it is not the most critical factor. There has to be a realization in New Jersey that our urban schools and our suburban schools should not operate under the same rules. I am in no way saying that the standards in our urban schools should be lessened, only that they should be different. I hope I’m not the only that sees this; it is time for someone in our government or at the NJEA to admit to this reality and call for the kind of radical reform that is needed. There is no more urgent matter facing our State.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Scrap the HSPA and CCCS

Identifying factors that contribute to the horrible, and what I believe to be immoral inequities in our public education system can be exhausting. Blame can be spread around, from the culture of the schools to the quality of instruction to the guidance of parents to the quality of life in the communities to the policies of our political and educational leaders. Let’s not forget to include the business and non-profit communities as well. No one can truly escape scrutiny. The one factor I would like to address today is the role of the State, in particular the High School Proficiency Assessment and the Core Content Curriculum Standards.

To begin with, I think we need to acknowledge that there are actually two distinct types of school systems in the State: the urban and the suburban (we could add rural schools to the mix as well). I would argue that the difference between these type of districts is so profound, the performance chasm so great, that we literally need to have two distinct HSPAs. Personally, I think the HSPA is a fraud, a test completely detached from reality, and that we should take the opportunity to device a new assessment for graduation, using the urban schools as the “testing ground.”

Let’s first think about the rationale for the HSPA, which also asks us to question the rationale for high school. Has high school come to be seen as preparation for college, or preparation for life in a democratic, free market society? There is a difference. Are we testing what kids learned in high school, or are we testing what they should know in preparation for college. They are NOT the same thing.

Given that the HSPA does not test in areas other than math and language arts, it seems fair to conclude that the test is not designed to assess what kids should have been taught in high school; there is too much left out. My sense, both from experience as a teacher and as an observer of debate in academia and in the political arena, is that the test is geared towards college. But we already have the SAT and a host of achievement tests that college bound kids take in preparation for college. Given that a large percentage of students, especially those in the inner city, do not go on to college, it is important to see the HSPA solely as a test of the knowledge and skills acquired in high school. More to the point, the HSPA should assess how well prepared our high school graduates are for participation in American society. This would include an understanding of politics, economics, law, health and nutrition, culture, the environment, basic math, and financial literacy.

Unfortunately, the Core Content Curriculum Standards are so far off the mark in this respect as to be completely irrelevant. Let’s face it, the CCCS are written by smart people, academics in their particular field, and as such they are going to see much of their field as important to know. But these smart people need to think like the “average” person, the guy who may grow up to be a laborer, or a salesman, or a retail manager, not necessarily the guy that is going to college and perhaps graduate school. If a teacher actually teach all that they were required to teach under the CCCS, I would argue that most of what they taught was not learned. The science of learning simply does not comport with the enormous quantity of information required to be taught. It may be taught, but it is not learned, and it certainly is not remembered years after graduation.

Most adults forget most of what they learned in high school unless it is directly tied to their life and career choice, so it is important to at least try to limit requirements to those things that students will actually use in adult life.

 Given this, New Jersey’s CCCS should be very narrowly tailored, limited to those aforementioned topics. If our teachers, in collaboration with parents, do an effective job at creating perspicacious, intellectually curious students, then they will be equipped to pursue on their own any information they may want to explore in more detail. That detail should not be built into the CCCS.

Right now there is a movement for a national core curriculum, which New Jersey seems poised to adopt. That core curriculum is skill based rather than content based, and I definitely believe that we need to find a way to integrate that skill based core curriculum into our high school assessment. At the same time, we need to scrap and completely rewrite our core content standards and then redesign the HSPA to cover the national skills standards and content that draws from a broad segment of high school instruction, not just math and language arts.

Now let me get back to the inner city schools. Inner city students are failing to meet even minimal levels of competency in shockingly high numbers. If this were a discrimination case I would argue that the test is “guilty” of disparate treatment. There is no way that in the near future our inner city students will ever demonstrate the progress needed to make differences between urban and suburban schools indiscernible, and if you think about it shouldn’t that be the case?

I believe that we need to rethink the way we approach education in the State, and device a completely distinct “action plan” for our urban schools that includes a new core curriculum and a new HSPA. New Jersey is a “tale of two cities,” in the sense that the performance of these schools is nowhere near the performance of suburban schools. Because they are so different, they must be approached differently, and yes that may mean a different curriculum and a different HSPA. Nowhere am I arguing that it should be “easier,” just that it should be different.

Once we accept the reality that these differences exist, that these differences necessitate a different approach, and that the current CCCS and HSPA are inappropriate for our urban schools, we can move forward to create a culture of learning that prepares urban students for life beyond high school, regardless of whether they choose to enter the workforce, enroll in a trade school, go to college, or enter the military. Ironically, our educational leaders fail to see that urban school students actually have more choices than suburban students, who are pretty much told by their parents that they are going to college. Our suburban schools are “college prep factories,” or inner city schools are not. The graduation test should reflect that variety of directions by focusing on the one commonality shared by these students; they will need to understand our culture, participate in the political process, be civic minded, healthy, aware of their environment, and possess the legal, economic, and financial literacy needed to function independently as citizens. If the HSPA does not address this reality, then it fails to perform as a valid assessment and will continue to be the fraud that it is today.