Friday, December 21, 2012

A shocking story to share

This past weekend I attended my nieces bat mitzvah, and as expected I got into another high spirited discussion with my youngest brother.

The subject turned to education and the inequities between urban and suburban schools.  It was then that I learned some disquieting news.

It turns out that parents who have a child performing below grade level, and that subsequently get classified with a learning disability, are able to receive even more money from the state SSI program. I'm sure the school also receives additional funding through Title 1.

The ramifications of this are incredible, as this is in essence an incentive to be an unsupportive parent. I know this assumes the parent has less than noble intentions, but when you look at the inordinately high percentage of under performing and special ed students in the inner city it does establish at least a prima facie case that an abuse of the system exists, to the detriment of any child caught up in this naked, selfish grab for money. At the very least the issue deserves someone's attention.

Inner city children already exist in an environment that compromises their right to an education that properly prepares them for life after high school. Equity and greater opportunity are in short supply in New Jersey's public education system. To think that some parents may be contributing to the challenges facing their children is too sad for words.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Christie Administration's Great New Initiative, Now for the Final Pieces to be Put in Place

Today's announcement that the DOE will be partnering with Princeton University to seek out the "best and brightest" college graduates to pursue careers as math and science teachers for low performance schools represents another positive achievement for our Governor.

As a former alternate route teacher, I can say unequivocally that, at the high school level, a degree in education is a meaningless indicator of future performance. It is in fact a detriment to higher learning and achievement, as these graduates have nowhere near the level of knowledge and passion embodied in graduates with degrees in other fields of study such is engineering, statistics,  astronomy, accounting, government, kinesthetics, or other specialized fields.

Teaching is the ultimate "learn what works on the job" profession. Trial and error, when supported by excellent supervisors, is how teachers succeed. A Mobil sponsored television commercial getting airplay these days is right on the mark: teachers with greater knowledge of the subject matter are best able to inspire students and provide higher level learning.

The true test of this initiative, however, will be in keeping these new educators motivated to make teaching a career. As reported in the Scientific American, 25000 young STEM teachers left the profession before their tenure year. This flight out if education must be thwarted.

So what can be done to improve the profession so we can create faculties full of passionate, intelligent, and effective teachers? I'd like to suggest the following steps:

Most important is to begin thinking of teachers as entrepreneurs, with their class and curriculum as their product, and students as future entrepreneurs being mentored. Give teachers ownership of their course and incentivize the workplace so they can profit for exemplary performance. I truly believe this should be the future of education. The difficult part is that it will require a more decentralized system where our politicians and bureaucrats are less involved, relinquishing power and their inclination to  micro manage  education, ESPECIALLY in low performing inner city schools. The absence of any real improvement in student performance at these schools is as much an indictment of their policies as it is of the schools themselves.

In conjunction with this change to an entrepreneurial model, with "teachers as entrepreneurs",  important practical steps need to be taken. (I will explain the importance of these steps in subsequent posts)

First,  require all Title 1 schools to have a clinical supervisor on staff to work with new and at-risk teachers.

Second, replace the current HSPA with an assessment that tests across the curriculum rather than the current test, which only assesses math and language arts.

Third, completely gut and rewrite the core curriculum content standards to reflect what students MUST know to become independent, healthy, and  empowered citizens that understand and can function in our democratic, free market system.

Fourth, give teachers the academic freedom and latitude to design their own unique curriculum/products.

And fifth, incentivize the system of teacher remuneration with either performance pay or performance tiers, replacing a system built around years of service with one that rewards exemplary work.

Currently our State treats suburban and inner city schools the same when it comes to indicators of success and failure, in spite of the fact that the huge gulf in performance between these type of schools renders the use of "one size fits all" metrics a harmful joke.

The needs of urban schools are different, the immediate goals of the schools are different, and so the policies that guide theses schools should also be different.

Our inner city schools should be seen as fertile grounds for dramatic reform and laboratories for innovation and risk taking. I humbly suggest pursuing the course I have laid out above. Given the current state of education in our inner cities, there is much to gain and little risk that things can get worse than they are now.

With this latest initiative, the Christie  Administration has shown itself receptive to bold new ideas. I certainly didn't expect to be saying this when he took office, but the Governor has proven to be a champion for public education.

Much more needs to be done by our State. Our limited resources need to be channeled to where they will do the most good, new partnerships with stakeholders need to be undertaken, and ineffective mandates and initiatives coming from Trenton must be ended. Though it may seem counter intuitive, what is needed in our urban schools is less, not more, government oversight and intrusion into learning. Let local educators design "student friendly" high schools that young adults want to attend and we'll be on our way to real improvement in student performance.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Deplorable Trenton High Infrastructure

A recent story in the Trenton Times documented the abominable conditions inside Trenton High. Is it any wonder that the kids, and faculty for that matter, get the impression that the public, as communicated through our elected officials, just don't care?

As a former teacher, I just can't imagine trying to create an environment conducive to learning. If I was a student or faculty member I'd invite the media and stage a walkout.

Perception is important. It must be frustrating enough as a student to see so few opportunities on the horizon. There are no distractions facing low income students both in and out of the school building. They shouldn't have to worry about getting sick we're getting injured by the very school they see as there gateway to a better life.