Monday, November 26, 2012

Free Inner City Schools from the Tentacles of the State

In today’s Trenton Times Connie Goddard wrote an OpEd piece which seemed to call for greater autonomy for the Trenton School District. Her praise of both Toby Sanders and new Superintendent Francisco Duran, and her clear skepticism towards the motives of our State Commissisoner and the Regional Achievement Centers that act on his behest epitomize a core belief that the best way to reform and improve underachieving schools is by returning key decision making to the local level. It is a sentiment that I strongly support.

Readers of this blog know that I have called for radical reform to the State’s education hierarchy, and in fact believe that the enormous gulf separating urban and suburban schools is tantamount to declaring them so dissimilar that they should not be required to abide by the same mandates, take the same tests, or study the same curriculum. The problems facing failing urban schools are so complex that, unlike suburban schools, a holistic approach that involves all stakeholders is required.

With about half of all inner city students dropping out, with test scores showing at best tepid improvement, and given the overall poor performance of the schools, it is time for state officials to admit that their efforts have been a failure. What is needed, and I will admit this is counterintuitive to most “experts,” is to completely liberate schools like Trenton High from the state system.

Inner city high school teachers should have almost complete freedom to design their own curriculum. Administrators, after consulting with teachers, parents, and students, should be free to create their own culture of learning at the school.

Although a decent number of graduates go on to college, mainly community college, very few of them are pursuing the type of programs pursued by the majority of kids at suburban schools. This suggests having these high schools aggressively reach out to the business community to design programs that will better prepare these kids for employment. A school like Trenton should of course provide a challenging curriculum, but that curriculum should be highly differentiated, in essence creating tracks for students based on their personal aspirations. Flexibility is the key, as is the essential involvement of parents and stakeholders in the business and non-profit communities.

A pool of “incentive” money should be created to support efforts to use money as an inducement to exceptional college students, as bonus pay for teachers and administrators, and possibly to pay students and parents for taking positive steps to improve performance.

Ms. Goddard’s approach to education suggests deep frustration with our State’s top down approach to reform. Those in power seem convinced that a firm grip on these schools is needed, when the truth is that they need to perform the most selfless of acts and admit that government, and the academics enriched by government, don’t have all the answers. What is needed in our inner city schools is a more entrepreneurial approach. We hail the entrepreneur and entrepreneurial activity as the main engine of innovation and growth in our economy, but that exaltation seems to stop at the schoolhouse door.

Let the teachers take ownership of the classroom, and let administrators, with enormous input from teachers and the community, take ownership of the school. Maybe Trenton High should consider becoming a charter school? The one thing I know for sure is that local schools should be governed locally; the tentacles of the State should be removed. I’d hate to think that the State believes poor communities and inner city schools are incapable of improving performance without the involvement of politicians and their experts. Next time these people look at the data, rather than see it as a failure of the schools, see it as a failure of their policies. That is where the real blame belongs.

No comments:

Post a Comment