Monday, November 12, 2012

The State Doesn't Have a Clue How to Fix Urban Schools

A recent story in the Trentonian reported that “about half the public schools in New Jersey did not met the state’s new goals for student performance on standardized tests and will have to come up with improvement plans.” It further goes on to state that “New Jersey’s plan focuses on improving the states’ lowest performing schools while giving more autonomy to the rest.”

There are 381 high schools in New Jersey, so about 190 high schools did not meet the state’s goals. As I’ve previously mentioned, 99 of the 100 poorest performing schools on the state’s HSPA exam are from the two lowest District Factor Groups, with most of those schools located in either our inner cities or most rural areas. My interest is primarily with inner city schools, and I am convinced that with regard to these schools the state is essentially “ass backwards” in its approach to these schools. Longitudinal studies indicate that there has been absolutely NO PROGRESS whatsoever in the performance of these schools, and in many cases the performance gap has actually widened. This has happened in a period with greater and greater oversight and regulation by the state, as its obsession with data has essentially dictated the management of these schools and their culture of learning.

So what is the state’s remedy for this poor performance: even more oversight? It is about time for our legislators and bureaucrats at the DOE to start thinking outside the box. Maybe what is needed, indeed what I believe is absolutely necessary, is for LESS oversight of these schools. It is time to liberate these schools, exempt them from the onerous core curriculum content standards, and create a different HSPA exam, one that is more closely tied to the real intellectual needs of inner city students. It is time to essentially allow these high schools to turn themselves into charter schools, allowing them to become “laboratories for innovation.”

The low test scores and depressingly high dropout rates should be sending a message loud and clear to those at the state level responsible for oversight. Whatever they have been doing has not been working. We really need to ask ourselves why these schools fail, and then design a strategy- a comprehensive holistic strategy that includes urban renewal- that will result in schools that our students are enthusiastic about attending, schools where they truly feel like stakeholders, schools that reflect the specific needs of these urban students. Most of these students are not college bound, and most that are aspiring for higher education will be attending community colleges. These high schools should be preparing these students prepared to cope with life after school, whether it is learning a trade, developing financial literacy, and instilling a sense of empowerment and self-sufficiency among other things.

I have called for the creation of a distinct entity at the state level dedicated solely to the performance of these inner city schools.  The differences between suburban and urban schools is so drastic, the chasm so large, that treating them all the same does a complete disservice to inner city communities.

It is urban schools that need more, not less autonomy. It needs leaders that, freed from the top down micromanaging of state officials, can bring excitement, energy, and relevance to these schools. They need leaders that will form meaningful partnerships with local stakeholders. These schools must be fully integrated into the local and regional communities. And, when evaluations of these schools are done, there must be equal weight given to qualitative metrics; quantitative data driven metrics are stifling these schools, compromising the ability of teachers and administrators to create passion filled centers of learning, and limiting opportunities for student empowered learning. I am convinced that our inner cities are filled with perspicacious, curious, energetic students just begging to attend schools that reflect their interests and needs.

Very few adults retain most of the content learned in high school; if we are lucky they at least retain the skills. Putting more and more demands on a broader common core of content is taking education in a ruinous direction. It is time we become less concerned with what students are learning and more concerned with how they are learning. I don’t disagree that there is a common core of knowledge, but as far as I’m concerned New Jersey’s requirements, like the requirements of most states, is totally off base. Moreover, the HSPA exam is limited to math and language arts, so we are in effect demanding more and more content be learned while designing an assessment that doesn’t even test to see if that content is learned. Besides the fact that this system makes the idea of teacher accountability a joke, it reflects a content core that is completely and utterly detached from what we need our young citizens to be learning as they enter “the real world.” To cite but one example, there is absolutely no specific requirement that students learn financial literacy, nor is there a state test to measure whether that learning has taken place.

The entire system has been hijacked by politicians and academics more interested in promoting their parochial interests than the interests and needs of our students and our democratic, free-market society. I realize it is tough to let go, tough for our political and educational leaders to forego their need to feel in control and allow for more educational freedom to flourish.

There is a lot that needs to be done, not the least of which is creating a system that encourages our best and brightest in college to opt into teaching, to heal our failing schools.  In my next posting I want to delve a little more closely at trying to understand why schools fail. The key, as far as I’m concerned, is to better understand why other schools succeed. What do they have that our inner city (and rural) schools don’t? If anyone reading this wants to share their insight into this understanding of what makes for a successful school, by all means get in touch. I’d love to hear what you think.

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