Saturday, September 29, 2012

Remedial College Classes Signal Need for Change

A recent article in the Trentonian reports that over 50% of students attending community colleges are taking remedial courses as a prerequisite to the actual coursework in their chosen program.

Think about that for a second. Not only are New Jersey’s inner city high schools only graduating half of its students, but half of those graduates attending community college are not truly prepared.

This fact is troubling on many levels, but the important point for me is that many of these students currently struggling to get started at community college should have had other, better options. We need to move beyond the current mantra that high school is seen as little more than the prerequisite for college, and that college is necessary for any student determined to improve his or her economic position.

Whether the field is health care, building trades, or other skills where training, but not necessarily a college degree, is required, our high schools do an extremely poor job partnering with the business community to create programs that prepare students for careers where college is not essential. You may not particularly like the European system, with its clear policies of tracking, but it does a much better job of preparing a greater cross section of its students for careers. It may be the historical connection to guilds that creates this determination to give students the skills to succeed, but our lack of a historical connection does not preclude our schools from doing the same thing.

Not all students should be steered towards college after graduation. For inner city students, given the current state of affairs, this is clearly the case. It is time to disengage our inner city schools from existing state mandates and allow them to independently create programs that address the particular needs of its student body. A visionary leader, one that is knowledgeable and respectful of student perspectives and needs, can establish a school culture that is challenging, focused, and buoyed by tangible opportunities for the student body borne out of meaningful connections between the school and the private and non-profit sectors in the region. Only then will there be true paths to success for our inner city students, rather than channel them into a system destined to result in frustration, debt, and disappointment.

Mitt Romney: Urban Reformer

Mitt Romney laid out his position on education today, and I was shocked to hear that, implicit in his policy, is a call for urban reform as a catalyst to improvement in our urban schools and student performance. After laying out his boilerplate Republican standards on education reform- more charter and cyber schools, vouchers and school choice, greater accountability for teachers through quantitative assessments, loosening the grip of unions, grading schools- Governor Romney turned his focus to parents.

As you might expect, Governor Romney expressed the belief, which I share, that student success is inextricably linked to parents in a litany of ways. As readers of this blog know, I recently had an Op Ed published in the Trenton Times (May 9, 2012) where I laid out 5 “lenses” through which we can evaluate the performance of parents in fulfilling their duties to their children in the area of education: health and welfare, resource acquisition, oversight, engagement, opportunities for enrichment, and values/advocacy. I absolutely share Mitt’s belief that parents are the single most important variable in student achievement, and though some students are able to overcome their parent’s deficiencies, it is clearly the exception.

Now before I get to my point about “Mitt the Urban Reformer,” I would like to say a word about parents, especially those in the inner city. Many of these parents themselves face challenges that compromise their ability to meet their child’s needs, while other parents seemingly elect to neglect their children. I believe that government can play a role in helping these parents, whether it is easing the path to home ownership, which gives families some equity they can use to help their child, or incentivizing the process by paying -either with cash or “in-kind”- parents that attend parent/teacher conferences or activities involving their child. These are but two examples. The important point again is the primacy of parent behavior.

If you accept the indisputable fact that a community is a collection of families, then we must draw the conclusion that a healthy, vibrant, successful school can only be sustained in communities where the majority of parents are meeting their child’s needs. In Harlem, we see the effort of Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone- a non-profit community support group. We need to support families individually, but we must also support the environment that these parents’ children are going to be growing up in. The likelihood of suburban middle class suburban families, some of whom probably “fled” the inner city once they achieved some upward mobility, moving back into the cities is extremely remote.

Mitt Romney has made the family the centerpiece of education reform. Implicit in his advocacy for vouchers and choice is a belief that failing schools are at its core the result of communities dominated by “failing families,” leading to a failure in the schools to create a dynamic learning culture, thereby justifying a policy allowing for individual families to opt out of the local school and send their children elsewhere. Mr. Romney has to know that such a policy will have a limited salutary effect. If he is truly committed to a quality education for all, then consistency demands that he establish public policy that will increase the number of inner city families instilled with “middle class values” and committed to the education of their children. Vouchers and choice, in the absence of any true urban reform, is nothing more than a talking point; it will have no substantive effect on inner city schools or the challenges faced by the vast majority of children.

An Addendum:

My challenge to anybody: If you give me demographic information about a community, I can almost guarantee you that I can predict student outcomes at that school. All I need to know is the following:

1)     Percentage of home ownership in the community

2)     Average family income

3)     Percentage of single parent families                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

4)     Average home values relative to a state average

5)     Percentage of families receiving some form of State or Federal Aid

6)     Percentage of families in poverty

 Why can I make this challenge? Well the latest figures from New Jersey’s test scores show that the 100 worst performing high schools in the State are ALL from families in the lowest 2 District Factor Groups, a designation based on similar demographics. The correlation would seem rather strong, and rather distressing.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Urban and Suburban Schools

This past Sunday I was fortunate enough to have an Op Ed printed in the Trenton Times. The main point of the piece was that there are fundamental differences between urban and suburban schools, differences supported by empirical evidence, and that the only way we are going to make any gains in the performance of these schools is to create a unique set of curriculum standards and a unique set of tests to evaluate teacher efficacy and student outcomes.

The “two prong” approach entails creating an agency at the State level singularly committed to the plight of urban schools and to loosen the grip on these schools by in essence treating each of these schools as charter schools.

Unfortunately, even with these changes I am not sanguine about the prospects for improvement. This is mainly due to my belief that the culture of the schools and student performance at school is inextricably linked to the demographics of the community. Until we can find a way to create greater socioeconomic diversity, these schools will be resigned to failure, regardless of what we are able to do in the schools. My hope is that if we can create some real improvement in the schools then we might be able to utilize financial inducements and create incentives to induce middle class families to move into the inner city and attend these public schools.

I am adamant about the need to create academic and co-curricular programs that are student-centered, based on student interests and tailored to meet the particular needs of inner city students whose career paths will for the most part be vastly different from the paths of students in suburban communities, students who are to an overwhelming degree being steered to college.

Though the schools will be student centered, they will also be teacher centered to the extent that teachers, cognizant of student interests and knowledgeable of the skill sets that these students need, will be free to design their own courses, courses that reflect the personal passions and knowledge of the faculty.

Finally it is important to understand that I am in no way making an expression of student “inadequacy” or inability to handle a rigorous academic program. Quite the contrary, I believe that many inner city students are capable of high level work and are currently being presented with coursework that lacks relevancy and challenge, that a culture of academic mediocrity has permeated these inner city schools. What I advocate is not an “easier” academic program, just a different one. I know this “smacks” of “separate but equal,” and I concede that this is the case. But I’m not going to run away from the statement. Decades ago when resources were clearly allocated by race, the expression was a canard. In today’s world, I do not believe it to be true.

Improving student performance in the inner city is a moral issue, touching on issues of equality of opportunity, fairness, and justice. We have a duty to improve the performance of these schools, but there is admittedly only so much that can be done by the schools alone. Parents in the inner city are obligated to do a better job advocating for their children and encouraging them to aspire achievement. They must spend less of their discretionary money on leisure, and more on resources that will benefit their children in school. We are all I this together; we all have a part to play. It is incumbent on our political leaders to do their share by creating an agency dedicated to our inner city schools. Once they make this commitment, it will be much easier to get other stakeholders on board. As that great philosopher Larry the Cable Guy so eloquently puts it: “Let’s get ‘er done.”

Friday, September 7, 2012

Tenure Reform's Dubious Promise

As the school year starts, our politicians herald the hard fought tenure reform law now in place. Although I am not opposed to tenure reform, I really feel that the money, time, and resources consumed by this law would have been better spent requiring a clinical supervisor on site for maybe every 50 teachers. If you truly want improvement in teacher performance, having a clinician to provide collaborative or directed supervision is a far more effective means.

While the tenure reform law might seem benign in the area of removing tenure or firing teachers deemed “not proficient,” listening to Governor Christie and other policy makers gives clear indication that a collateral purpose of the legislation is to allow school districts to layoff veteran teachers with seniority rather than younger teachers, assuming all else being equal I would presume.

If I were an older teacher, I would feel justifiably threatened by this law. Teaching is a funny profession in that, unlike physicians, lawyers, or other professions where experience is considered an important quality, older experienced teachers are seen as far more expendable. This is incredible to me. Teaching is the ultimate “learn what works on the job” profession, and experience is inextricably linked to quality. Granted, personality and attention to changes in technology and learning strategies are also needed for experienced and inexperienced teachers alike, but I am convinced that most school districts will be motivated by cost savings and the “prevailing wisdom” that somehow younger teachers are better able to connect to students and provide superior performance. I strenuously disagree.

I am also concerned because experienced teachers are also more likely to be the most vocal among the faculty, willing to express their feelings about discipline, curriculum, policy, and other issues of consequence at the school. This outspokenness almost never goes well with administrators, especially principals, who seem a somewhat insecure lot and who take criticism or critiques of “their” school to be an unacceptable challenge to their authority. I have NO DOUBT that many principals will see this law as an opportunity to move or remove faculty members whose personality they conflict with or whose beliefs are contrary to their own beliefs, policy, or conception of the proper “culture” of the school.  In 21 years of teaching, I found only one administrator that was entirely comfortable as a leader and who did not hold grudges or express judgment against faculty members.

I am not against tenure reform, in fact I believe it is an important step towards performance pay or the creation of performance tiers. I would prefer having clinical supervisors employed throughout the state, but “it is what it is.” But what is important is that there be some in district “counterweight” against the arbitrary and capricious behavior of administrators, a way of impartially reviewing their decisions well before reaching the stage of arbitration. Mandating this oversight should be an important policy priority of the NJEA. I’m sure their files are full of horror stories confirming my contention. Legislative should be drafted and put before education committees. If our legislatures are sincere that their only goal is providing a faculty of exemplary teachers, they should have no trouble supporting legislation protecting experienced teachers, or just wait for that day when the first age discrimination lawsuit is filed.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Colleges are having a Negative Impact on Academic Quality

A recent news story reported how the Bayonne school district is now lowering its standards for passing from a 70 to a 65. Now rather than comment on this clear concession to self-esteem building and social promotion, I’d like to comment on something even more egregious, an issue directly related to the pressures being put on high school from our nation’s colleges and their demand that students take honors and AP courses.

When I left teaching in West Windsor, the procedure for placement in Honors and AP courses was a complete travesty. Although in theory a teacher recommendation was required, there was no other prerequisite whatsoever, and parents were able to override any teacher recommendation. In 11th grade social studies, there were MORE honors classes than regular track classes. We even had 9th graders taking AP courses.

Now I realize that West Windsor is an elite public high school, but the impact of this concession to parents and the fact that 60% of students were in honors classes has resulted in a dumbing down of the honors, and by extension the AP curriculums. The students that are suffering by this travesty are the ones that truly deserve to be in these courses. How can you truly call a course Honors if it is essentially open to anybody? I sarcastically suggested to our principal that we just call every course at school honors. An honor is something that is supposed to be reserved by the deserving few.  Students at the school should not compare themselves to kids in other districts as justification for placement in honors, they should be judged against their peers.

But G-d forbid students not have an honors class on their transcript. I feel some sympathy for these parents demanding placement for their kids; it all gets back to the colleges and the pressure they are putting on families and schools to have these courses taken.
I’ve been told to “chill out,” that the whole thing is just a “game,” and that it really doesn’t matter. But it does matter. It matters to the teachers that have to now take extra time to provide supplemental instruction to underserving kids placed in these classes, and it matters to our best and brightest students that are being denied the academic challenge that should be offered in honors and AP courses. I sat in on a few of our AP classes, and to say that they are akin to a first year college course is a joke.

So what can be done? In West Windsor, nothing I’m sure. I do hear that other districts do put prerequisites on entrance into these courses, and I applaud them for that. But I also think that those won’t last long as the competitive pressures of college begin to weigh down on them. Will it dawn on colleges that in the long run they are really only hurting their own academic standards by doing this. I doubt it.

Tenure Reform, the Need for Supervision, Montgomery Teachers, and News About Charters

The news has been filled with a variety of articles on education, all indicative of some seemingly intractable problems facing the “business.” By far the most prominent stories have featured the new tenure reform bill. As much as I am all in favor of the reform, and think it will lead us towards a system of performance pay or performance tiers, those who see it as a panacea for urban schools are kidding themselves and misleading the public. It will do little to compel teachers performing at the minimum to vastly improve their work product. The problem I do have with the bill, and with many of the people that pushed for its passage, is this belief that older teachers are somehow an impediment to educational gains. It’s funny how, in other professions, we look to those with experience as preferred, but in education somehow it is our senior teachers that pose a problem. My own experience is that I am more suspect of newer teachers than I am of veteran teachers. I am suspect because I have real questions about what motivates a lot of younger teachers to enter the profession, while I have no doubt that our more experienced teachers are from a generation that were deeply committed to the profession and to the kids. I have come to know way too many young teachers that seemed to value the “lifestyle” to teaching more than the actual job they are entrusted to perform. I deplore the attacks on seniority, although I will admit there are some burned out older teachers and although I completely oppose the system of remuneration that makes years of experience the sole criteria for pay. The issue should be teacher quality and nothing more.

As for teacher quality, once again a summer went by where there was not even one job posting for a clinical supervisor; a person whose sole responsibility is to provide practical supervision of new and at risk teachers. I was especially disturbed about this in this particular year because we do have new legislation in place and a new emphasis on raising teacher quality and performance. On site clinical supervisors represent the single best way to insure improved performance, and the unwillingness of districts to hire such professionals shows, to me, enormous insincerity towards this goal. I keep wondering why districts are so reluctant to hire these people, and I’ve come to the conclusion it is because current supervisors and administrators think that they are capable of providing adequate supervision, and that is so far from the truth as to be laughable, if the issue weren’t so serious. These self -serving administrators, most of whom lack the vision and leadership needed to create a true culture of learning, are a greater impediment to “great schools” than deficient teachers.

In other news, teachers in Montgomery are resisting efforts to require having 18 more minutes added to the school day. Are they kidding? Do they realize how this is being perceived, at a time when citizens, worn down by the recession, are in no mood to support people seen as being lazy. I’m not sure how Montgomery constructs its school schedule, but we are talking about adding on average 2 – 5 minutes to each class period. Suck it up Montgomery teachers, your profession cannot afford being perceived as greedy and selfish, which is exactly the vibe you are giving off to the hard working people of your Township.

And finally, a new Rand study reports that charter schools are in fact a huge drain on the financial resources of public schools, and that this problem is being made worse not because public school students are migrating to charter schools, but because private school students are. Remember it’s not the private school that has to provide the per pupil funding, it’s the public district, so already drained public schools are now in essence paying for private school students, whose parents see these charter schools as a means to get a quality education without having to pay private school fees anymore. So now charter schools are not only putting financial pressure on public schools, but now they are putting private schools under pressure as well. Some have in fact closed.

This is troubling news for me. Philosophically, I support the idea of charter schools as “laboratories” for change, a venue for trying innovative ideas that might then be integrated into our public schools. This was their original intent, and this is how I view them. But charter schools have begun to grow, with very mixed results, and are now even appearing in suburban districts where there is absolutely no need for them to exist. Charter schools have become an “industry,” and I am truly concerned that the sense of “mission” has been lost and that they are becoming problematic. This recent news story means that another group of people, namely private school leaders, has become animated in halting their growth. As these private school leaders align with suburban parents alarmed with their spread, powerful political forces opposed to charters are now being energized to push back against them. I hate to say it, but this may be a good thing, if as a result the spread of charters is slowed. As their growth is paused, maybe we can refocus on the true purpose of these schools and reestablish the important connection that should exist between the urban public and charter schools.