Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Lunacy of NJ's CCCS

In the previous blog I strongly suggested that New Jersey's Core Curriculum Content Standards are too onerous and unduly broad and deep, requiring teachers to cover so much content that it is a fool's folly to expect students to actually learn the subject matter. If the purpose is simply to introduce students to a wide variety of information, what's the point? Invariably, students will tend to forget what they have learned as soon as the test is over; possibly they will retain it throughout the school year, but by the time they graduate the information will be almost completely lost unless it in some way connects to work they will do in college or career.

According to Bloom's Taxonomy, there are 6 levels of understanding or learning, from basic knowledge through to evaluation. It follows that the higher the level of understanding, the more time will be required in class to reinforce, assess, and evaluate. A look at the CCCS   indicates that the State is expecting students to often be taught at the higher end of the taxonomy. Of course, since the HSPA is limited to just language arts/English and mathematics, there is no mandated mechanism for determining what has been learned. Similarly, there is no mechanism for holding teachers accountable for that learning. And thank G-d for that, because there is little chance that most students will be proficient.

In social studies, five of the six standards are content based. Within these standards are 168 "cumulative progress indicators" - specific items that teachers are expected to teach. If we break down the actual content of these CPI there area well over 500 elements of social studies that teachers are expected to discuss, analyze, evaluate, identify, engage, debate, explore, compare and investigate at the high school level. They are cumulative, so, get this, "teachers should NOT reteach concepts and skills in previous grade levels."

The purpose of social studies should, generally speaking, be to develop a passion for learning and a thirst for knowledge so that teenagers will become "lifelong learners," willing and able as adults to pursue information they want or need to know.

I am begging our political leaders and the DOE to reconsider the whole idea of what should be required content for high school students, and narrow the requirements to those things that a student MUST know prior to graduation. Those should not be those things that students may need for college; count on the students, with help from parents and guidance counselors, to know that you should take biology if you are planning on a career in medicine, to take physics if you plann to be an engineer, and so on.

Preparation for college should NOT be the lense through which we develop the CCCS, it should be preparation for life. In my opinion, graduation requirements (and the HSPA) should include financial literacy and economics, health and nutrition, practical law such as reading a contract, practical math such as determining compound interest, the Constitution and Bill of Rights, physics, how the political process REALLY works, psychology and sociology, and maybe some aspect of our cultural history. Even that general list may be too broad.

In my experiences as a student, teacher, and writer, I've learned that it is much harder to condense writing than to expand it. The same is undoubtedly true with rewriting our content standards, but it must be done.

Only then can we give teachers the freedom to design their own innovative and challenging courses based on their own passions and knowledge. In the same way it is hard to condense writing, it is going to be hard for our State leaders to relinquish power to the local level, letting schools manage their own culture, respective of the community stakeholders, parents, and teachers. Hard, but necessary, because the State's effort to bring more equity to educational achievement has been a horrible failure.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Time for a New Education Paradigm

The subject of this posting is going to make a lot of people uneasy, as I propose eviscerating what stands today as the core content curriculum standards. Now I am assuming that most readers of this blog are adults, and so I have a question: what do you remember from high school? Separate what you learned in college and just think about high school. Now think about what skills you learned in high school.

The purpose of this thought experiment is to make an enormously important point: unless the content is in some way connected to our current jobs or experiences, we have pretty much forgotten everything.

There are two main reasons for this. One is the issue of “who cares?” Let’s be honest, most of the content we learned in school we learned because it was required, not because you were truly interested in it. The second, more important reason, is that because state mandates are so broad and deep that teachers don’t really have the time to confirm that the content was actually “learned.” It was remembered long enough to take a test, and it may rest ever so precariously somewhere in the recesses of our mind, but we never really learned it. Learning is a long, complicated process that requires a great deal of reinforcement and assessment. To really be certain that someone has learned something, they should ideally be able to engage in a discussion of the subject matter and probably also be able to write on the subject; then and only then can there be some assurance that the content has been broadly understood by the class.

By requiring too much, we are actually making true learning less likely. All this content is demanded because we have academicians in all of these fields determining what they believe should be required learning. Is it any wonder why there is so much required content?

Learning skills is another matter. I have read the new national skill standards and find them to be perfectly constructed to meet the needs of today’s society. Unlike the content, skills will be reinforced across the curriculum. If we are to require anything, it would be the skills. Let teachers have greater freedom to design the curriculum content they will use as the foundation for skill building.

I have total faith that, with input from teachers, students, administrators, and the community, that a curriculum will be developed that is perfectly tailored to the future goals and interests of the students. The problem is that our political leaders don’t have enough confidence in teachers to design engaging, challenging curricula on their own, and that is a real disappointment. Granted, there are teachers performing at the lower end of a performance continuum, but hopefully the new evaluation process will help end that. I am also hopeful that the State will support financially school districts that want to reach out and find college students outside of Schools of Education, students with expertise in engineering, accounting, economics, zoology, or any number of fields of study. It is these “future teachers” that will bring their knowledge and passion into the classroom, creating courses that inspire and challenge. Supported by a strong system of clinical supervision, these teachers will help transform our inner city schools into vibrant centers of learning.

All I know for sure is that what is being done now and over the past decade has yielded horrible results. It is time for a new paradigm and a new outlook on education. Let’s give these inner city schools, its teachers, its parents, and stakeholders in the community a chance. I am confident that success will follow.

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.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

John Rawls and the Conservative Argument for Strong Public Education

The most poignant fact about education in New Jersey is its stratification. Frankly, I would rather that it be mediocre or poor throughout the state that defined by an inequitable distribution; if all schools were relatively bad no one is gaining any particular advantages. The correlation between academic success and quality of life is fairly strong. An excellent education increases an individual’s ability to be relatively autonomous, similarly increasing the number of choices available to those individuals. Well educated people have a stronger sense of empowerment. They have a greater sense of mobility, autonomy, and understanding of the world. They vote in larger percentages. They have stronger networks through which they can prosper and secure advantages not readily accessible to poorly educated people. Let’s face it; there are very few well educated poor people.

Empirical evidence makes it clear that students in poorer communities are burdened with an inferior education. The point right now is not to lay blame, because quite frankly there is considerable blame to go around. The issue I want to raise today is whether inequitable educational opportunities are a moral issue, because as such I would argue that unless this inequality can be justified than it cannot be sustained.

In the Theory of Justice, John Rawls addressed the issue of “justified inequality,” and advanced Two Principles of Justice: first, that all citizens have an equal right to “the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others,” and second, that “social inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (A) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all.”

This variation of social contract theory raises the question of whether the drastic inequalities in evidence today can be justified as being to everyone’s mutual benefit, so in essence the poor accept having an inferior education because the sum result benefits them as well as the better off.

Now where valid arguments can be made to justify some element of inequality in the economic sphere, it is more difficult to sustain those arguments in education, since access to a quality education is a critical prerequisite for obtaining the liberty spelled out in the first principle.

The most important thing to remember is that children did not choose where and to whom they were born, so the fact that some children are rich and some are poor, that some live in communities with excellent schools and some live in communities with horrible schools is strictly a matter of chance. I find it hard to argue against society, mainly through its political and economic institutions, aggressively working to “level the playing field,” removing as much as possible the advantages and disadvantages of birth. In doing so we can navigate towards that ideal of creating a meritocracy, where equality of opportunity is so strongly defended that individuals can no longer assign blame for their relative poverty to “society” and “the system.”

Creating relative fairness amongst New Jersey schools is actually consistent with conservative thinking, since more fairness and equality of opportunity improves the chances for greater numbers of people to live a life free of dependence on the state for their sustenance. The problem conservatives have is that they have been so enamored with policies – vouchers and choice- that do little to improve public education in broad terms.

However, there is an important consideration that must be understood to fully justify aggressive government intervention to achieve greater equity. We already know that greater equity cannot be achieved by somehow reducing the quality of high achieving schools. Equity must be achieved by improving the quality of learning in our poorly performing schools, and here we are faced with dilemmas. There are numerous stakeholders in public education, and in the same way we look to these stakeholders to help improve these schools, we must look to these stakeholders and weigh, relatively speaking, their culpability in producing substandard schools and poorly achieving students.

The problem is that, in assigning blame, parents must be held accountable. Children did not choose their parents, and so those in poverty did not choose this lifestyle. However, they have a right to demand that their parents will work tirelessly to provide whatever resources and support they can offer to help give their children a “fighting chance,” a chance to achieve the equality of opportunity characteristic of a just, fair society.

Some way must be found to hold parents more accountable for their children’s academic success or failure. Please look back at one of my previous posts to see the 6 ways that parents are responsible for their children’s achievement. Society must step in to help support parental efforts to overcome inequities, whether it be through finding better teachers, giving parents greater access to equity, or creating programs that better integrate the business and education communities.

It is clear that equity in public education is a moral imperative, and that our failure to create greater equity compromises pronouncements that America is at its heart a meritocracy. Justice demands a more level playing field, which will then lead to greater equality of opportunity. Our current level of inequity is tantamount to discrimination, which from an economic perspective leads to inefficiencies and waste. The lack of a more equitable distribution of resources flies in the face of conservative thinking by supporting a system that will lead to greater dependence and less autonomy. Conservatives and a strong public school system, they are ideas that go perfect together.  




Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Rearranging the Chairs

Today I want to discuss something seemingly mundane, but that actually demonstrates the small things that can be done to improve the culture of learning in the classroom, while also improving classroom management and giving students a greater sense of empowerment and “ownership” of the classroom. I want to talk about rearranging the chairs.

In a typical classroom, the seats are arranged in rows and aisles. Each student has their “personal space,” and both teachers and students can negotiate the pathways to move around the room. Unfortunately, the problems it engenders far outweigh any supposed benefits to this arrangement.

First of all, this arrangement creates too much distance and separation between teacher and student. As a former teacher, I can tell you that being in front of such a room feels stifling, like I’m trapped behind a desk that in effect becomes a “wall” between teacher and student: “This is my space, that space is yours.” Second, when a teacher does decide to move amongst the students there is the real potential for taking a “pratfall,” there are a lot of pieces of furniture to have to maneuver around. This might not seem like a big deal, but such an incident can be disruptive and easily cause students to lose focus. And third, this arrangement is isolating for the students, creating too much distance between students and creating a sense of solitude that may actually discourage certain students from asking questions, making comment, and in general participating in the teacher’s plans for the day. From a management standpoint, at first glance it would seem like a positive thing, since isolating them presumably will keep them focused on the lesson and not making the effort to communicate with one another. Are people who think this really being serious? Lol

What I suggest, strongly suggest, is placing chairs in a semi-circle, forming an arc or two about 5 or 6 paces from the front of the room. From a management perspective, this is actually a much better arrangement, as teachers can more easily move into and around the students’ space. No more hiding in the back of the room! It gets the teacher out from the back of the desk and gives her a nice open space to work from. Rather than the farthest student being as much as 10 to 15 yards from the teacher’s desk, by using that open space there is no student more than just a few steps away. This also enhances discussion, as the close proximity gives a greater sense of collegiality among the kids, and it is clearly easier for students to hear the teacher and one another. Sitting in the back, I am no longer staring at row after row of students’ backs. During presentations, for example, a semicircular arrangement is more comforting by reducing the effective space that students in front of the class must deal with.

By placing desks in this arrangement, it is easier to distribute and disseminate materials, and it is easier for students to share resources. And by moving the desks closer together, you have opened up a lot of free space for students to utilize when group work is part of the lesson plan.

Now I can hear the objections of those who think I am facilitating the ability of students to pass notes, chat, and otherwise communicate with each other. Yes, I guess I am. But on the other hand, students will always find ways to communicate, and so I am at least minimizing the disruption they might cause through their efforts. And by being able to “invade” their space much quicker and easier, by literally being “on top” of them all period, I raise their risks of being caught. And by being in closer proximity, in general it is less likely that students will be able to get away with things “behind my back.” A teacher’s credibility can be negatively impacted when a class feels that they can “get away with stuff,” and that is much more likely in a traditional arrangement.

Hopefully any teachers reading this blog will, if they haven’t already, at least try this arrangement. I think you may also find that- knowing your kids are arranged this way- it will actually make you more creative as you plan your curriculum and design class activities. I don’t exactly know why that occurs, I just know that it will J The bottom line is that, if you want to improve the culture of learning in your classroom, rearrange the chairs. You’ll be glad you did!



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.