Thursday, October 25, 2012

A Quick Foray into Politics and the Election

I just could not let this election go by without getting my “two cents” in regarding the political scene. My background by the way is in the social sciences. My B.A. is in International Relations, I have minors in Economics, Philosophy, and Government, and my Master’s is in Political Science, with an emphasis on studying the relationship between the media and Executive Branch. So how did I end up in education, with a blog on education reform. That is a story for another day. I’m actually thinking of starting a second blog devoted to the aforementioned topics.

With respect to the current election and political scene, I have some random thoughts I want to get off my chest. First, I believe that if Romney did win the election he will follow the Reagan model, governing as a pragmatist with a conservative slant, but someone who WILL raise taxes in a second term. I say second term because, given the cyclical nature of our economy, our next President will inherit an economy that will begin to grow at a more robust rate than we see now. By the way, it is worth pointing out that the US is the only Western country experiencing growth, tepid as it is.

Second, I believe that a Romney presidency will show clear moderation on social issues and not face a challenge from the extreme right wing of his Party. I have no doubt that upon taking office he will strike a “grand bargain” with these wing nuts on the right, wherein they will stay relatively silent in exchange for the nomination of an ultra-conservative for any vacant seat on the Court.

Third, I believe that there is unfortunately a small but important group of so-called liberal whites who attest to their support for President Obama, but will actually vote for the white guy on election day. Their reasoning is in essence a form of affirmative action; “We did the ‘right’ thing and voted for the African-American, we gave him a shot, but he just wasn’t up to the job at hand.” I am convinced that this group of, yes I’ll say it, liberal racists, may actually end up swaying the outcome.

And finally, a word to the so-called Pro Life people as it relates to the issues of rape and abortion. It is a scientific fact that most fertilized eggs never attach to the uterine wall and are discharged in an action known as “spontaneous abortion.” By the definition of many among this group, life begins at conception. If that is truly the case, and if “G-d is nature,” then G-d is actually allowing “human life” to be aborted. I am amazed this issue is never raised by the Pro Choice crowd, for it clearly puts the Pro Life people in a philosophical bind. Saying that life begins at conception is tantamount to saying that G-d aborts human life. This is clearly a dilemma. And further, if life does begin at conception, how can you make allowances for rape and incest? This would seem to confirm my suspicion that, to many of these politicians, the Pro Life decision is a matter of political expediency, not some deep philosophical position.

Believe me I could go on forever. I miss talking about these things. As the election approaches, I am reminded how much I abhor our system of voting. The legislation allowing for one to vote simply says that each person has a right to vote, not that they only have one vote. There are a host of voting methodologies permitting citizens to cast more than one vote, and it is definitely time that we explore these alternatives if we are to broaden the number of people and parties choosing to run for office. If I do get this second blog going, I will jump right into this issue.

Ok, I’ve gotten off my chest those topics that have been “bouncing around” in my head these last few weeks. Tomorrow I will get back to education and the position our candidates have taken on the issue of reform. I would like to say that at least candidate has staked out a position I could wrap my arms around, but, alas, I can’t. And that is a real concern.

Romney and the False Promise of School Choice

Once again Mitt Romney is on the campaign trail “dissing” the teachers’ unions and advocating for school choice. His reasoning is fair enough: if a student is “trapped” in a failing school, her and her family should have the opportunity to pursue other options, at taxpayers’ expense, with the “cost per pupil” of her district be used at another area public school that demonstrates much better returns for its pupils.  He mentions charter schools, which really doesn’t apply because anyone is able to enter charter school lotteries. He also mentions cyber schools, though data on their efficacy is far from ready to be evaluated. That leaves private schools and regional public schools.

Since we are not talking about a voucher per se, the likelihood that courts will allow tax money to be used to fund attendance at a parochial school problematic. As for private non-sectarian schools, the tax money would barely make a dent in tuition, and even now poor students are free to apply to these schools, utilizing scholarship money that many of these schools have set aside for poor students with strong academic records.

That leaves other public schools, and quite frankly there are very few of these schools, especially in affluent communities, that have room to take in out of district students; most are struggling with existing overcrowding problems, and there would be strong public pressure not to accept them. There are exceptions; I believe that South Hunterdon, for example, has low local enrollment and is receptive to out of district students. But these options are rare.

So while I understand the policy that “money should follow the student,” practically speaking there are limits to its effectiveness. My opposition to this policy, however, is much deeper and much more profound. The Romney policy is an individualistic position, diminishing the importance of  allocating resources to these poorly performing schools. He seems to think that his policy will somehow stimulate competition for dollars among schools, which in turn will improve performance. I have found no research that supports this mantra of competition, and with respect to charter schools this competitive mode of thinking is completely contrary to the impetus and rationale for such schools, which is to serve as “laboratories for innovation” and not as competitors to the local public school.

The only real solution to the problem of poorly performing urban schools is not to try and undermine these schools but to make a commitment to improving the quality of work performed at these schools by administrators, teachers, and students. It also requires making a commitment to applying reasonable pressure on parents to do a better job advocating for their children. 

Many of my previous blog posts are devoted to the issue of improving these public schools. These improvements include incentivizing teacher salaries, incentivizing the system for attracting new teachers, liberating teachers from onerous state curriculum mandates so they are free to design new courses, changing the graduation test to better reflect what students should be learning in high school, freeing administrators from the pressures inherent in running a “data driven” school, employing clinical supervisors for new and “at risk” teachers, providing incentives for parents to be more active advocates for their children, partnering with stakeholders in the business and non-profit communities to broader opportunities for learning and for careers after school, providing resources to help college bound students better prepare for entrance tests like the SAT or ACT, and, finally, trying to find a way to reshape inner city communities to reflect a more diverse demographic. You can find details on all of these ideas by looking back on this blog.

I would love to create a new political action committee that will advocate on behalf of these and other ideas to improve the quality of our inner city schools. As I previously detailed, 99 of the 100 lowest performing schools, based on HSPA scores, can be found in the two lowest District Factor Groups developed to group New Jersey schools. New Jersey really is the “tale of two cities,” in this case the issue being the “performance chasm” between urban and suburban public schools.

Urban issues have gotten NO attention in the current presidential campaign, and that does not bode well for those living in America’s inner cities. Until pressure is brought to bear on our political leaders, these schools will continue to suffer, as will their students. I am ready to join those interested in making the case for urban schools to our political leaders. Waiting for them to help is a recipe for ruin. Action is needed, and it is needed now, especially if we will soon be dealing with a President Romney and his vision for our schools.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

For the Love of Teaching, A Modest Proposal

It’s hard to go through a news cycle these days without someone expressing their love of teachers. Mitt Romney, Barack Obama, and their various representatives are literally falling all over one another wanting to be first in line to show the love. But what exactly does that love mean for public policy? If “love of teachers” simply translates into the hiring of more teachers, then it is, like so many romances, a love lost. I think that both candidates, like anyone entering a “loving” relationship, should spend some time looking more closely at who they want to build their relationship with; it is important that we be a lot more selective- through public policy- in choosing our future educators. Unlike other countries, the US system of selecting and preparing people for careers in teaching leave a lot to be desired; teachers rarely come from “the best of brightest” of our college students, and those who become teachers rarely possess the kind of “entrepreneurial zeal” demonstrated by those pursuing degrees in other highly competitive professions.

 Through my own experience as a teacher, and as a teacher that entered the profession through New Jersey’s Alternate Route, I can say with the utmost confidence that there is absolutely no benefit derived by high school teachers that followed the traditional route of receiving a degree in education. This position was further reinforced by my son’s experience in high school. My son is now a freshmen studying aerospace engineering at the University of Maryland, and I can tell you unequivocally that his best teachers all entered teaching through the alternate route, all having spent time in the private sector prior to teaching.

These anecdotal experiences have been confirmed by a host of recent studies indicating that teachers with greater knowledge of their subject matter are best able to create passion and deeper knowledge of the subject for their students, that they exude greater confidence in the classroom, and are able to set higher expectations for their students as well. This of course does not mean that we can simply “dump” these subject matter “experts” into the classroom and expect them to perform. In fact the alternate route program includes a rigorous program of supervision in concert with college coursework taken at night as a requirement for completing the program.

What I propose- Senators Ruiz and Turner are you listening!!- is legislation to encourage students graduating with degrees in fields other than education to become high school teachers. For those looking to work in elementary or middle school, the program will focus on teachers that earn dual majors in their content area and early childhood education. Specifically, each college graduate will receive $5000 a year towards repayment of their student loans as long as they receive satisfactory performance reviews. This program will continue for the four years leading up to tenure. For those professionals that enter teaching from the private sector, they should earn a year on the salary guide for every year they have worked in the private sector.

Like all legislation reflecting public policy, there is some element of discrimination, subjectivity, and choice. In this case the legislation is designed not to hurt those that pursue degrees in education, but rather to reward those that choose to enter the classroom rather than become engineers, scientists, accountants, computer programmers, economists, statisticians, or any other number of professions, or who choose to give up those professions to enter the rewarding world of teaching.

I will admit that this proposal aligns with my own philosophy towards teaching, that being a belief that teachers should be viewed as entrepreneurs, with their classroom in essence their product. Having content specialists is an integral part of this philosophy. The next step is to dial back the core content requirements in each subject area, thereby liberating these teachers to design unique courses that reflect their personal passions and expertise. Taken together, these policies will lead to a more dynamic, rigorous, and exciting school with a culture of learning guided by entrepreneurial educators motivated to create the most exciting class the school has to offer.

So let us continue this love fest with teachers, but let’s not lose sight of the need to hire an entirely new breed of educator, driven by the passion and knowledge of their subject and prepared to empower students to take ownership of their learning, guided by educators who have been given the freedom to design their own innovative and challenging curricula. As a student, that’s the kind of school I would look forward to attending when I got up each morning.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Honoring....and Critiquing NJ Principals

In today’s Trenton Times Op-Ed section, Patricia Wright, executive director of the NJ Principals and Supervisors Association lauded the important role that her constituents play in guiding the future of New Jersey schools. She mentions the diverse and critical responsibilities these administrators play, now made even more important with the introduction of our State’s new teacher evaluation system.

While I agree that her members play a vital role in transforming education, an honest evaluation of past performance, especially in the inner city, suggests that there leaves much to be desired in their ability to affect meaningful change in their schools.

Let me be clear that I don’t lay blame squarely on the shoulders of principals and supervisors, but my own experience, and the experiences of colleagues that I have interviewed and casually spoke with, suggests that changes must be made if these administrators are to be truly effective.

My own observations and anecdotal information identifies five glaring problems with school administration today:

1)      In highly successful schools like the one I taught in, administrators become intellectually lazy, feeling that there is little they need to do in providing leadership, vision, and the creation of a learning culture that is ethical and value driven

2)      In inner city schools, administrators are driven by a bureaucratic mindset that is to a great degree the result of State oversight and the demands for data

3)      In too many schools the administrator/faculty relationship is “personality driven,” with too many teachers being identified as “favorites” and “annoyances.” This leads to a real problem with administrators being objective in their assessment of teacher performance.

4)     A lack of time to become skilled, effective “clinical supervisors,” a problem that exacerbates the current problem of new and “at risk” teachers not getting the type of effective guidance and supervision they need to produce exemplary leadership for their students

5)     The last two problems lead to a cascade effect on what I believe will be the next major problem facing our schools, particularly our inner city schools, which will be a truly objective and meaningful system to evaluate teachers.

To me, the single greatest need for New Jersey schools is the placement of full time clinical supervisors in every school district, the number to be determined by some ratio to faculty. These supervisors- using both collaborative and directed models- will provide the kind of meaningful feedback and assistance that teachers need as they work to perfect their craft. These supervisors should also become part of the teacher evaluation process, lending an air of objectivity to a process that teachers are justifiably concerned with, especially now that tenure may be held in the balance.

I have been trying to start a business that will provide clinical supervisors to school districts to work with new and “at risk” teachers; we would contract with schools for a semester or full year to provide something other than the typical summative evaluations most teachers receive. And even when administrators voice a commitment to providing clinical supervision to the faculty, they do not have the time that is needed to do a thorough job, a job that requires pre and post conferencing.

Administrators have so much on their plate that they need to admit that their school would benefit from the addition of full time clinical supervisors, or at least contract with outsiders to provide help with specific faculty members. This would be the most effective use of professional development money that I can imagine. The biggest problem I have found is that principals see bringing in outside professionals as a “slap in the face,” an acknowledgement that they are not up to the job. But I would rather these principals see it as acknowledgement that their jobs are difficult and complex, and that they simply do not have the time to either relearn “how” to conduct effective clinical supervision, or that they simply don’t have the time to do the job as thoroughly as they would like.
Our inner city schools are failing, there is just no other conclusion that can be drawn from the graduation rates and other assessments of performance. Leaving aside the issue of clinical supervisors, I think the biggest problem is the preponderance of bureaucratically minded principals and administrators in our urban schools, and for that I place the blame on our politicians in Trenton and their craven desire to “run” these schools. The oversight they demand and the data they require place an onerous burden on school administrators. It may sound counter-intuitive, but what these schools need- both administrators and teachers- is to be liberated from state control and allowed to design a culture of learning that is tailored to meet the needs of their constituent families and their communities. I truly feel that only then will be able to find the kind of visionary leadership these schools demand. We don’t need to look to the business community for these leaders, as some contend; I think they are among us already. They may already be in place, but have simply been stifled by state mandates. Whatever the case, the salient fact is that while it is perfectly right to honor these administrators during National Principals Month, we cannot be content with the work that is currently being done. We can do so much better, we can do so much more.

Additional Time for New Jersey schools

An article in the October 7 Trentonian titled “Could A Longer School Day be Coming to Trenton” announced that the Trenton School District is among those in the State receiving grant money to allow for a longer school day for Trenton students. Of course simply lengthening the school day of an already “failing” school will do little to improve learning, but, in the words of Superintendent Duran, “ I would work closely with principals and teachers in order to increase our ability to provide fun, relevant learning environments, while also using this additional time to help teachers plan and work together to create rigorous and challenging learning experiences for all students.”

If this is the case, then this added time has enormous potential. In my mind, this would be an excellent opportunity to have schools partner with the business and non-profit communities to provide meaningful mentoring, internship, and supplemental education in areas that the school typically does not include in their school curriculum. By partnering with outside stakeholders, the high school, for example, could bring in adult role models that could stimulate new areas of critical and creative thinking, while also allowing teachers to use this additional time to collaborate and improve their curriculum, and administrators time to plan ways to create a “culture of learning” in their buildings.

I implore Superintendent Duran to explore this avenue as the District plans and designs its strategy for effectively using the time and space this program envisions.  I personally hope to approach the District with my own ideas for creating a “Center for Business and Entrepreneurship,” a program that will bring professionals into the high school to introduce students to the private and non-profit sectors in a way that will create a greater sense of opportunity and hope for students that presently face a dearth in both. It will be time well spent.

Knowledable and Inspired Teachers

There is a commercial getting a lot of airtime in the last month, and no it’s not about one of the Presidential candidates; it’s about teachers. The commercial, sponsored I believe by a Mobil foundation, implores our nation to do more to improve the performance of our teachers. But unlike those expounding performance pay or competition in education as the impetus to better work, the commercial makes two crucial points: first, that teachers’ with a deeper knowledge of their subject matter translates into students learning on a higher level, and second, that inspired teachers will necessarily produce more exemplary work. I could not agree more, the question is how to reach that noble and worthwhile goal.

As readers of this blog may be aware, I entered teaching through New Jersey’s “alternate route;” I was in fact a member of the first “class,” starting my career in 1987. I was fortunate enough to begin my work at Cherry Hill West, where a wonderful supervisor named Walt Belfield, along with excellent and supporting social studies staff, ably mentored through what was for me a rigorous process of directed supervision. Mr. Belfield, employing the teachings of Madeline Hunter, provided intense and helpful oversight. I learned from early on that teaching was one profession where “trial by error” and “learning what works” on the job were truisms once I understood the rudiments of effective planning, activity design, student psychology, and management.

But even though I was a novice teacher, I believe the students benefitted greatly from my instruction, as they would for the next 21 years, because of the expertise I brought to the subject matter due to my undergraduate and graduate coursework. I had never taken a course in education, but I had degrees in International Relations and Political Science, along with minors in Government, Philosophy, and Economics. I was, and continue to this day, to have the heart of a student, always perspicacious, always striving to learn and share that knowledge with my students. I stayed current reading the Economist, Christian Science Monitor, Atlantic, Harpers, and other occasional periodicals. The point is that, like the commercial said, “teachers with deeper knowledge” of the subject matter are able to raise the intellectual level of the coursework and consistently challenge the students to question, explore, and investigate.

Quite frankly, I almost never saw that same level of personal striving for knowledge on the part of teachers that entered the profession in the traditional manner, with a degree in education, sometimes combined with specialization in “social studies,” history, or some similar subject. These were for the most part very able teachers well versed in classroom management, curriculum planning, and other areas covered by their degree, but there were clear limits to their knowledge base. This is one reason why I firmly believe that, particularly at the high school level, every teacher MUST have their primary degree in an area of specialization other than education. If I were responsible for assembling a faculty, I would only hire such “alternate route” teachers. Properly mentored, primarily through intense clinical supervision and effective collaboration with colleagues, such “subject matter experts” can be highly successful teachers and a clear benefit to the student body.

What is needed, in addition to a faculty of teachers with specialized degrees in a range of subject areas spanning anything from engineering to accounting to astronomy to economics, is a state or federal level program to attract college graduates into teaching rather than into those aforementioned careers. I’ve suggested such a policy in previous postings, but having a performance pay or performance tier plan in place, along with possible loan forbearance, should certainly be considerations.

The commercial also talks about “inspiring our teachers,” and though I’ve somewhat alluded to that subject already in this posting, the subject deserves great attention. Inspired teachers are passionate teachers, and there can be no more important goal than to have a teacher passionate about their subject matter in each and every classroom. Teachers with specialized degrees are by their nature passionate about their subject, but I believe we can do so much more in this area. Unfortunately, current trends in education, with their focus on standardization, data driven metrics, and, in the area of urban education, greater political/government oversight, are precisely the wrong way to go. I would actually argue that in the inner cities, where reform is most needed and where our limited resources should be most directed, what we need is the exact opposite: liberated teachers with the freedom to design their own courses, done in conjunction with whole school reform that is localized, driven by the specific needs of the school and its community. I believe that while a core curriculum would be useful in the area of skill development, we should greatly reduce and rethink what we believe high school students MUST know as a prerequisite for graduation. Our emphasis should instead be placed on freeing up our teaching professionals to design courses that are infused with their personal knowledge and passions.

Improved teacher performance is an absolute prerequisite for improved student outcomes. If we want exemplary students we need exemplary teachers, and the first step is rethinking where we get our teachers from, and what we have them teach. Right now we are doing far to little, and I’m afraid that much of what is being done is steering education in the wrong direction, especially in the inner city where the need is greatest.