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.

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