Sunday, November 24, 2013

Mr. Stoolmacher is Right, A State Takeover is No Solution to What Ails Our Urban Schools

A recent Op-Ed in the Trenton Times, authored by noted area consultant Irwin Stoolmacher, challenged the notion that a state takeover of education is a panacea for struggling school districts like Trenton. I fully support his position, a position that gives added weight to conservative beliefs in keeping decisions on education local as much as possible.

The involvement of government is always conditional, and I have rarely seen state or federal action in education that has proven successful other than situations where it is primarily contributing resources and allowing decisions to be made by those responsible for the endeavors organization and performance, such as with Head Start and other early education initiatives.

Government is notoriously weak in the area of administration and has a track record of creating dense and far reaching bureaucracies. Frankly, the last thing education needs are more bureaucrats. The state can point to some districts where improvement was claimed, but I suspect that in some cases the success is superficial, and in other cases the success was probably attributable to innovative leadership and the participation of stakeholders.

Ford Motors learned along time ago that it was the workers on the assembly line, and not the suits "upstairs," that best understood the process and the most efficient ways to produce the product. The same is true with education. I am adamant that the best position to take in education is the "conservative" position in so far as that schools and school districts should function autonomously; ideally each school would be filled with teachers possessing an entrepreneurial spirit. I realize that to most it seems counter-intuitive to decentralize decision-making when dealing with failing schools, but I contend that it is because the damage done by the state is so pervasive, from its failure to properly allocate resources to its test obsessiveness to its choice of core content requirements, and so on.

Mr. Stoolmacher's main point, which I also agree with, is that our failure to address income inequality in general, and poverty in particular, is the single most important factor contributing to failures in urban education. As I regularly point out in this blog, 99 of the 100 poorest performing schools are in urban areas in the lowest "District Factor Groupings." This fact cannot be ignored, and no amount of state intrusion through a takeover is going to change that. Attacking poverty goes beyond simple economics; the social and cultural dimensions to poverty cannot be ignored either. Increasing socio-economic diversity is a related and equally important goal.

If the State really wants to help public education, declaring a new war on poverty would be a great start. This is of course a long term endeavor, and along the way there are many steps that can be taken to make education more relevant, more passionate, and more incentivized for both students and teachers, with more opportunities for both groups of stakeholders to benefit from contributing to a school's success.

So let's end this talk of a state takeover, and let's instead deal with the true causes of failure in our urban schools with honesty, transparency, and action. Our urban schools are no less than a natural disaster, and our attention to them should be no different.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Trenton TImes Article Suggests A Correlation Between Race and Achievement; I Thought We've Moved Beyond That!

In todays Trenton Times an article indicated that NJ students transitioned to the new HSPA and ASK tests reasonably well, with no significant drop in test scores. This was taken as a good sign, obviously, as New Jersey further integrates the national Common Core standards into the state curriculum and tests.

However, one area of concern is still not being resolved, that being the performance gap between white students and students that are either Hispanic or African-American. I've written extensively in this blog concerning strategies I believe will close that gap, but my issue today is slightly different.

I take exception to the continued use of race as a variable being used to identify issues in student performance; this categorization strongly implies that there are differences among students that can be tied to race. Frankly, I thought we have moved beyond this, unless the suggestion is that race is actually meant to refer to culture. Either way, this grouping by race completely misses the point.

The achievement gap between whites, blacks, and Hispanics is actually an income and poverty issue, not a race issue. There is abundant evidence that income levels among blacks and Hispanics is significantly lower than for whites, and this gap is compounded by the fact that, unlike with poor whites, poverty among blacks and Hispanics is heavily concentrated.

The reality is that, by and large, rich kids do well on these tests, poor kids do not. It is really that simple, but for some reason our reporters and/or our political leaders refuse to focus on income rather than race. Until we aggressively address the income issue by supplementing the income of the poor by providing greater access to educational resources, find ways to encourage urban neighborhoods to achieve more economic diversity, disperse the minority poor to alleviate the "concentration" issue, and target government resources and policies towards these poorer communities and schools to provide some countervailing improvements in other areas, we will continue to fail in our responsibilities to these children.

It would be a great start if we could lay to rest the suggestion that race has some bearing on academic performance, and lay the blame where it squarely belongs, on income. The free market understandably produces winners and losers, and income inequity in our economy is a necessary condition. However, education is different, and these inequities can never be tolerated. Understanding the causes for this inequity seems like a great place to start.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Let's Consider Why Inner City Schools Perform So Poorly

Education will always remain in the forefront in discussions of the health and dynamism of our economy and our political institutions, as it should be. Locally, the dominant issue is the condition of Trenton High School and its impact on teachers, students, and the learning process. At the state level we are preoccupied with the recent tenure reform legislation designed to improve teacher accountability. And at the national level the new Core Curriculum is front and center. I do my best to address issues at all three levels. In the briefest of terms, the items below are what I consider to be the most salient variables that affect teacher performance and successful student learning:

1) Characteristics of Community 2) Access to Resources 3) Engagement of Family 4) Culture of School 5) Development of Teachers 6) Teacher Selection Process 7) Teacher Motivation 8) Student Empowerment 9) Envisioning the Future 10) Public Policy and Government Mandates 11) Availability of Alternatives 12) Co-curricular Opportunities

Today I want to focus on the first item. This has recently drawn my attention after reading an article that noted a statistically significant difference in graduation rates at Trenton's two main high schools, Trenton Central and Trenton West. According to the article there is almost a 30% difference between the two schools, with West having a 78% graduation rate. This is the second consecutive year that this gap existed, but I have yet to hear of anyone in authority making an effort to find out why!!! I sincerely hope, frankly, that this more a matter of oversight than an effort to avoid an issue that may raise sensitive issues about the communities feeding either school.

Months ago I raised a hypothetical question that relates to this issue. Rather than ask what Trenton could do to produce results similar to West Windsor-Plainsboro South, I flipped the issue on its head and asked whether it was conceivable that results at WWPS could ever deteriorate to the level of Trenton. I limited my focus to the characteristics of the community, and in doing so it is clear that such a devolution could never occur. By the same token, I am confident that, assuming that the community characteristics stay constant, Trenton West will continue to maintain relatively high graduation rates.

So what is it about communities that I find so telling? First, the education level of the parents, and the percentage of two parent families. Second, the number of children born out of wedlock. Third, the availability of learning opportunities outside the confines and control of the school. Fourth, the presence of role models within the neighborhood. Fifth, the primary value system in the community. Sixth, the rate of violent crime. Seventh, family income levels and the concentration of poverty. And finally, home valuations. Taken together, these conditions exert an enormous influence on student achievement. I'm really just describing rather than explaining the importance of these variables, I'll have to save that for another day. If you would like some prima facie evidence of the enormous impact this variable has, one need look no further than NJ's list of the best and worst performing schools. And while there are some occasional successes in urban areas, almost exclusively at a few charter schools, the fact is that 95 of the top 100 schools come from districts with the highest "factor groups," and 99 of the 100 worst schools come from districts with the lowest factor groupings.  

This variable raises issues that are extremely sensitive to a lot of people, which may explain why solutions in the inner city are rarely discussed. Unfortunately, until they are our inner city schools will continue to flounder. Do we start busing again? Do we creative incentives to discourage pregnancy among single women? Do we encourage suburbanites to migrate into the cities? Do we literally "close down" our worst neighborhoods disperse the residents? Is race an issue, or is it more likely an income problem?

These and other questions must become part of the discussion on education. The question is whether there are any influential people with the courage to begin it? I hope so, but I doubt it, and that is a shame.  

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Some Positive News in Trenton on the Issue of Co-Curricluar Activities

Today's Trenton Times ran a story of page one that gives me some cause for optimism concerning the new Superintendent, but it also provided information that demands attention and scrutiny from District officials if we are to have any hope for improvement in student performance.

The positive news concerns Superintendent Duran's decision to expand extracurricular options for middle school students. In this day and age of tight school budgets, all too often it is extracurricular activities that are first to be cut; just look at Philadelphia and how they have decimated such activities throughout the city.

Extracurricular activities- I prefer to call them co-curricular activities- can play an integral role in improving classroom performance. Many studies show a strong correlation between the two. Participating in such programs helps strengthen the bond between student and the school, and the skills learned in these programs have collateral benefits for these students in the classroom. Moreover, these programs can, at the high school level, lead to important scholarship opportunities. And finally, a well run co-curricular program will involve some sort of tutoring program to directly improve student performance.

Taken together, these benefits far exceed any cost savings derived from eliminating after school activities. I applaud the Superintendent for taking a leadership role in this area, I would just suggest that he begin to adopt the term "co-curricular" in further communications; it is much harder to argue for something considered "part of" the academic program rather than something that is "extra."

The other interesting item in the article concerns graduation rates at the three high schools. As in the past, the percentage of students graduating High School West far exceeds the graduation rate at the other two high schools. It is imperative that the District begin a study to better understand the reasons for the disparity. That understanding could lead to actions at the other high schools, particularly the Chambers Street Campus, to help bridge the gap. The causes may relate to faculty, they may relate to demographics, or they may relate to some variables previously unconsidered. Whatever the result, failing to undertake this study would be a huge disservice to families in the District. Knowledge can never be a bad thing, and gaining a better grasp on the issue of student graduation and drop out rates can only be seen as a good thing. Some people may not like the "answers," but discomfort with the facts cannot be a reason not to find these answers.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

A "Radically Conservative" Solution to Our Inner City Schools: Make Them ALL Charters

It is hard to find anyone in the education reform movement or among our legislators that is not smitten with charter schools. Our new Senator and our Governor are also among the proponents, and the isolated but dramatic success stories of some charters seems to lend credence to those who want to increase their numbers. As far as I'm concerned, its actually time to "go all the way."

Let me explain. I do not support the current charter school movement- for a lot of reasons- because I believe it shifts the philosophical emphasis in education to individual families rather than to the population at large. I don't disagree that we need more parents advocating and supporting their kids, and I sympathize with those who look at our failing inner city schools and argue that parents should have "a way out" for their kids, but the existing system will never be able to improve the performance of enough of our students to make a real dent in the system; the majority of inner city students will continue to receive an inferior education.

So here's what I mean by going "all the way." I believe that it is time to turn EVERY inner city school into a charter school. Rather than dump on these inner city school districts more and more mandates and rules and directives and tests and whatever else our legislators have "up their sleeves," they should turn these districts loose and let them figure out for themselves how to create a vibrant culture of learning at their schools, how to integrate stakeholders into education, and how to motivate the teachers and students to improve their performance.

By freeing these districts, hopefully they will make better decisions on choosing their leaders, turning their focus to visionary leaders (for real, not just in sound bites) rather than skilled bureaucrats that are great at making sure the paperwork is properly churned.

Let's face it, whatever is happening now is not working. Generally speaking, nothing has improved. More and more government is translating into less and less success. I guess what I'm calling for can be termed "radically conservative." The point is that we need to change course and we need to do it soon. Otherwise our schools will soon be colliding with teachers on that darkened road that they are already being led down by the tenure reform movement.

On Tenure Reform, NJEA Does a Disservice to Its Members

I just got done listening to an NJEA radio commercial touting the merits of the State's new tenure reform measure, and I almost got sick to my stomach. Don't get me wrong I'm a strong proponent for teacher reform in New Jersey- I probably have ideas that would be considered much more radical- but this legislation is not good for NJEA members or, more importantly, the goal of improving the quality of instruction in the State.

The legislation is heavily tilted towards teacher accountability at the expense of teacher performance; the idea seems to be that teachers will simply become better if you hold their feet to the fire. As a host of articles evaluating teachers in other countries shows, the percentage of time teachers spend in the classroom rather than on professional development and other ancillary responsibilities is a critical variable, and of course in this country we spend much more time in the classroom. That issue was not considered.

Leaving aside the question of whether these models are even a fair way of evaluating teachers, there is enough to dislike about the legislation.

Compounding the aforementioned heavy class load is the amount of paperwork demanded by the metrics used by districts to "demonstrate" performance, which leads to the scoring system that I guess denotes accountability. The opportunity cost of the paperwork required by these "Models" is ridiculous and fails the needs of both teachers and students.

Moreover, the stress level created by these models and by the whole process has put an unbearable strain on many, many teachers, which has soured the atmosphere and culture of learning in schools. The stress and pressure to meet the scores of standards in these models (the least amount I believe is the 76 areas of evaluation in the Danielson model) is going to lead to risk averse decision making in the area of curriculum, a further disservice to learning.

The heavy volume of paperwork will create a time lag between completing the work and receiving the final evaluation, which somewhat minimizes the value of the "input" the administrators are supposedly making,

The volume of paperwork will also force many administrators to cut corners, which compromises the integrity of the process.

Let's face it, chances are that a very small percentage of teachers will be found incompetent to teach; for a variety of reasons there is actually more pressure to find teachers acceptable than unacceptable.

And if per chance a lot of teachers are removed, where is this large pool of replacement coming from? As I've heard from many teachers, they now are of an attitude where they would dissuade people from going into education. It is already hard to find college students in specialized fields to entice into teaching rather than the private sector, and this certainly isn't going to help.

The lack of "ownership" by teachers for this legislation was, from the start, a fatal mistake, and for the NJEA not to demand not just one seat but many seats "at the table" as this legislation was being conceived is unconscionable. It's as if the NJEA leadership doesn't understand the state of mind of its own members.

I could go on, but the point is clear. This legislation was not designed to improve teacher performance other than tangentially. This  is a "seek and destroy" mission meant to root out failing teachers. The irony is that, with proper supervision, support, incentives, and encouragement for risk taking, most people- if properly placed in courses- can become successful teachers.

The existence of this legislation means that it is unlikely we will see legislation designed to actually improve teacher performance for many years to come, if at all. The next step is clearly to turn this existing legislation into one that allows for merit pay.

The NJEA is leading its members down a dangerous path. The problem is that they don't have to travel down that road with

Monday, October 28, 2013

Today's Trenton Papers Highlight Need for Charters and a New State Curriculum

Two education related articles appeared in today’s Trenton papers, each of which raised an issue of consequence to the future of Trenton schools.

The Trentonian has been running a series comparing our city to Camden, and today’s focus was education. Camden schools have been taken over by the State, ostensibly to put an end to the corruption, cronyism, and patronage that has seriously compromised the quality of Camden schools. The implicit message of the piece was that a State takeover of Trenton may be a possible remedy to the problems in our District. An accompanying article highlighted the Leap Academy, one of several charter schools in Camden that has shown great results at graduating Camden students.
As far as a state takeover, all I would say is that I would be hesitant to support any policy that takes the decision making power even farther from the local level. That is not to say that local control has succeeded, put I would much rather improve things at the local level than place our students’ future in the hands of “experts” and politicians at the Capitol. Taken together, the two articles imply that expansion of charter schools and state control will together be a cure for Trenton’s dismal track record.

I don’t necessarily disagree with expanding charters, but my position is that what should be done is to turn ALL of our public schools into charter schools. If we were to liberate these schools from onerous mandates placed on our inner city districts, and, combined with an aggressive effort to find content specialists from our colleges, a salary system  that includes performance pay, and a commitment to intense clinical supervision, we can dramatically improve the quality of learning in our inner city schools, particularly at the three high schools. There is of course more to the equation, but creating a more teacher centered and student centered education system built around the charter school philosophy provides a great foundation.
The Trenton Times article, actually an Op-Ed, speaks to the need for “healthier lifestyles for Trenton’s students.” The point of the article is that Trenton schools need to become more “green,” and that the school curriculum should make a more concerted effort to teach health and fitness to better address serious health issues such as obesity. And by “greening” the schools we can also better prepare our students for career opportunities that will begin to emerge in a “green economy.”

I definitely agree with the author, Doug Demeo, but would take the issue a step further. I believe that our State’s Core Curriculum Content Standards and HSPA exam are a complete disservice to our inner city students, and think that we need to completely rethink what it is that students MUST learn as a condition for graduation. In this rethinking there should be a place for Health, Fitness, and Environmental Awareness, and that this should be one of the new categories required under a revamped CCCS. All students should graduate demonstrating competency or mastery of content in this area. By demonstrating knowledge in this area students will be prepared to maintain a better quality of life for themselves and their children; it is an unfortunate reality that a significant number of graduates will soon become parents themselves, placing a high level of responsibility on them to take better care of themselves and their children. It is hard to look at the existing Core Content requirements and not believe that we can pare it down significantly, making room for content in this area.
So taken together, these articles suggest several things that we can do to improve our inner city schools. Make our schools more entrepreneurial by making a commitment to turn them into something akin to charter schools, and then redesign our content standards to make room for learning a “healthy lifestyle.” Don’t just teach it, but require that it be learned by making it part of the HSPA, thus holding teachers more accountable for teaching the content.

Creative thinking is definitely at a premium in Trenton, and changes like these definitely fall within this domain. Let’s hope that our legislators will reconsider how we teach and what we teach in our inner city schools, because we are currently on a path to failure, and failure, whether by our students or our politicians, should never be an option.

Friday, October 25, 2013

It is Time to Creat a Department of Urban Education

It is time for New Jersey to acknowledge what has been obvious for decades; urban and suburban school systems are fundamentally different in almost every way. The issues they face are fundamentally different. Their needs are fundamentally different. And the solutions to their problems are fundamentally different. 

If we are to believe all of the research that strongly suggests correlations between student achievement and “environmental” variables outside of the school’s reach, then we have to conclude that the most effective solutions to problems in education must be “localized,” that policies made in Trenton must be fungible so they can be more effectively carried out.

All of the mandates, rules, and requirements coming out of Trenton regarding the curriculum has, based on longitudinal studies, resulted in no statistically significant improvement, and in some areas performance has digressed. No improvement in graduation rates have emerged, and 99 of the 100 worst performing high schools still come from the inner city. Clearly, whatever has been tried has proven ineffective. Maybe what is needed is some counterintuitive thinking, some risk taking, and some radical reform in our State's approach to education.

We have unique problems in the inner city environment, problems ranging from issues at home to the influences and involvement of the local community to the availability of resources to complement learning to the relationship between the schools and stakeholders in the region.
The reason I bring this up is that I believe we need to create what would essentially be a Department of Urban Education. This “Department” should be singularly focused on the inner city and may in fact consider hiring people assigned the task of facilitating the relationship between individual schools or regions with the State, in a sense becoming ombudsmen for these schools. The Department would act as a “support system” for the schools as they try to revamp their culture of learning.
The main issue that this disengagement from the suburban districts would bring involves state mandates and requirements in areas such as testing, curriculum, and graduation. There would be differences between the two; this is not to suggest that we create something “easier” for the urban schools, just different. I strongly believe that there should be a different set of core content standards and a different graduation test for urban schools; our current system gives the impression that our schools are designed solely to prepare kids for college, and that the purpose of the CCCS and HSPA should be to monitor and assess that preparation. But college is not the goal of everyone, nor should it be, and feeding into that mantra is doing a disservice to many of our inner city students. In other blogs I have and will continue to detail what I have in mind as far as the "urban CCCS and HSPA."
This would be an enormous undertaking, but in my mind an absolutely essential one. One of the consequences of this new policy would be a decentralization of decision making from Trenton to the local schools; seeing as that they are primarily responsible for the implementation of new rules or mandates (which I hope would be minimal) and the utilization of any resources provided by Trenton, it just makes more sense that the decisions be made by those most aware of the school and the community. What I would essentially want to do is turn each urban school into the equivalent of a charter school, with all high school teachers drawn from content areas at college and with a performance pay element to their salary structure. This reform idea should make conservatives, as I'm trading an approach heavy on government interference for one that returns education to the local level and draws on local stakeholders to effectively partner with these schools.
A new Department of Urban Education does suggest “more government,” but in reality we are just creating two entities rather than one. It is like slicing the apple in two; you don’t have more apples, just two smaller ones.
Our urban students are on the precipice of a future not much different from their parent(s). The cycle of poverty and over-dependence on State services will continue unabated unless new opportunities are available. It is wonderful when the “fortunate few,” those students, who, with the right support, were able to navigate the system and graduate with a bright future. But it is the responsibility of our society to create a system where opportunity is more broadly accessible, then it is up to the student, with support from the family, to take the reins and help themselves.
By creating an Urban Department of Education we are telling our inner city residents that we care, and isn’t that really what these residents need; some reason to hope. It is my hope we could make this happen.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Teach NJ is Ruining the Profession

"I love teaching, but I hate my job."
"I don't know one teacher who hasn't been to a doctor to be evaluated for stress."
"I wouldn't be surprised if every teacher in this building is on Xanax."
"If you know anyone that has expressed an interest in teaching, tell them to find some other profession, there is no way I would ever have gone into teaching under these conditions."
"Teachers walk around like zombies. All you hear all day is "Domain 4," "that's Domain 2,"...

These are just some of the comments I heard from teachers over the course of a conversation over dinner last night. These veteran teachers don't know even one colleague that is satisfied with Teach-NJ, and supposedly the Danielson Model used by their District is the least onerous of the three options offered by the State.

For the life of me I still don't understand why the State did not let each school District, or maybe a few districts working in collaboration, devise their own system for evaluating teachers. The argument that the State wanted uniformity doesn't hold water because they are offering three options and because any expectation that administrators from district to district will handle the evaluations similarly is extremely unlikely.

Meanwhile, while this system manifests itself in what will probably be horrible ways, our inner city schools will continue to struggle. The opportunity cost of Teach-NJ is enormous, as I suspect that this legislation will take the place of meaningful reforms to target these schools. Teach-NJ is a distraction from the real needs of these schools for visionary administrators determined to create a culture of learning that motivates and empowers both teachers and students.

Teach-NJ is a systematic effort to play "gotcha" with teachers. There are certainly incompetent teachers that need to be fired, but this is a problem that could be better addressed at the district level. There is a real possibility that Teach-NJ will end up removing a cohort of teachers that may have been poorly placed or that simply need a better support network in place to improve their performance.

I wonder how we are going to find the skilled new teachers our State will soon require as older teachers retire, frustrated teachers gravitate to the private sector, and the poor teachers are removed. Teach-NJ is a total turn off, and with no real countervailing incentives to attract college seniors, it is unlikely we will find the young people we need.

I'm beginning to realize how good I had it  when I taught years ago, with a supervisor that respected my intelligence and passion and gave me relative free reign to design my own curriculum and risk take for the sake of designing a quality product. Those days are long gone, as will many qualified but disgusted teachers if something isn't done soon to address their concerns.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Danielson Model, oy vay

One of the evaluative systems approved for use by the State is called the Danielson Model. To understand why Teach-NJ is problematic one need only take a cursory look at the structure of this Model.

As I mentioned in a recent post, one of the greatest problems with Teach-NJ is the lack of ownership felt by teachers in the formulation of the legislation. Teachers simply aren’t going to be enthusiastic about something that has such significant consequences for their careers if they feel the policy has been imposed on them “from the top-down.” That is just the reality of it. Well, adding to the lack of ownership in the legislation is the lack of participation in the models and metrics that will impact their livelihood. Looking at the Danielson Model, we see 4 domains: Planning and Preparation, Classroom Environment, Instruction, and Professional Responsibilities. This is all well and good, but within those 4 domains there are what are called 22 Components, and within these 22 Components are 76, that’s 76, elements. Yes, the Danielson Model has completely dissected “what it is that defines a teacher” and holds teachers accountable to demonstrate competent or exemplary performance in 76 ways and maybe more if the Components have to be addressed as a whole.

I’m thinking back to my years as a teacher and am trying to think about 76 different facets to my job. If you assume, as it is fair to do, that teachers must write the equivalent of an essay at the very least for each element then you have created a system that is so cumbersome and time consuming that it must negatively impact their ability to do the already time consuming planning, creative, and critical thinking that goes with teaching a course. I certainly hope that teachers at the middle and elementary schools, most of whom teach multiple subjects, don’t have to write on each subject.

Even worse than all of this work being dumped on the teachers is the assumption that administrators must read and score all of this information, all the while doing the existing responsibilities that come with their job AND the self-evaluations they are also required to complete. No wonder teachers are already being told there will be delays in getting their work back to them. I simply don’t see how administrators are actually going to do all this, which in turn makes a mockery of the system in the eyes of teachers.

I was also told by several teachers that they will be subject to (3) classroom observations. Now on the face of it there is nothing wrong with that, but two of those observations are "unannounced." If the objective of Teach-NJ is to improve teacher performance, unannounced observations are not the way to go since there won't be a pre-conference, an essential element of an effective clinical observation. I was also told that in one of the other models their will instead be (7) 10-20 minute observations. So these administrators won’t even be sitting through an entire instructional period. Another joke. If true, that is unfair to the teachers and, frankly, to the students who are supposed to be the true beneficiaries of this system of accountability.

The more I hear about Teach-NJ, the more objectionable I find it. It is not that I don’t believe we should be holding teachers accountable, but that this method is beyond tedious and, in the pursuit for accountability, has completely discounted what I believe is the more immediate need for improved teacher performance. Teach-NJ is too passive in its approach to improved performance, making it a tangential rather than primary focus of the Act.

I’ve always believed that if you are going to complain about something you should have some alternative of your own to offer, so I will.

I believe that teachers should view themselves as entrepreneurs, and as such I also believe that they should be evaluated, and mentored, through the lenses of an entrepreneur. I spent many hours researching the “success stories” of dozens of entrepreneurs and found 5 lenses that I would look through, those lenses being the metrics I would use in place of the Danielson Model.  Most importantly, I would NOT have teachers demonstrate skill in 76 areas.

A successful entrepreneur, and hence a successful teacher must demonstrate 5 things and be able to demonstrate how they have instilled those 5 things in their students as well: Passion, Knowledge, Organization, Empowerment, and Resourcefulness. I realize these aren’t the most pedagogical of terms, and my more specific metrics might not be filled with the convoluted and often meaningless terms used in education, but frankly I believe that these metrics are more “teacher friendly” and much easier for a teacher to demonstrate as measures of their skill as an educator. Aren’t these the qualities that we want in our teachers? I would have each teacher build a portfolio of their work based on a few rubrics, and then supplement the portfolio with summaries and an end of year interview.

I have seen too many trashcans filled with the work of teachers; teachers who were told how important and essential this work was to complete. And I have seen too many administrators overlook excellent work and instead make decisions based on their personal biases and assumptions. This could obviously happen in any system, even mine, but when I think of all this work being done by teachers and then imagine it gathering dust in a file cabinet I can’t help but think there has to be a better, less time consuming way.

I hope that our legislators and the Department of Education will soon announce that they will review Teach-NJ to see how it can be improved, and that they bring in a cross-section of teachers to participate in that review, because as I see it now, Teach-NJ is amounting to a lot of work by educators that feel adrift in a system that will affect their lives. That is not a good thing.

Mr.Summers Excellent OpEd is Noteworthy for What is Not in There

Joseph V. Summers wrote an excellent Op-Ed in today’s Trenton Times, but I think I will remember the essay more for what is NOT in the piece rather than the actual content. The subject of the Op-Ed is the teaching profession. Mr. Summers is confronting head on efforts to demean and diminish the profession,  expressing his support for education and appreciation for teachers. His main point is that teaching is a “learned art,” and that taking shortcuts on the road to a career in teaching will result in poor performance and failure in the goals of inspiring learning and serving as positive role models.

I strongly support his belief that the best way to train new teachers and motivate them to stay in the profession is to provide a strong support system utilizing master teachers to mentor and clinical supervisors to provide collaborative  (or directed) supervision.  I have always argued that every school in the State should have a supervisor whose only job is to provide clinical supervision. And I can attest to the utility of a master teacher; as an Alternate Route teacher I was assigned two mentors that proved invaluable.

But as the title of this blog and the first sentence suggests, the essay left out one traditional component to teacher preparation, that being a degree in education. I hope the omission was intentional, because I am adamant in my belief that our next generation of high school teachers in particular should NOT be those with a degree in secondary education.  As Mr. Summers article suggests, teaching is learned “on the job,” by trial and error, and those that are knowledgeable, passionate, organized, resourceful, and empowering will have a great likelihood of success if that aforementioned support system is in place.

An education degree is superfluous for success in the classroom, and we should be finding our teachers from the private sector and from those graduating with “specialized degrees” in content areas.  I hope that our “leaders” in education will provide the resources to attract people into education and then support them once they enter the profession. This is the only way we will be able to reduce the “drop out“rate in teaching and give students the kind of people that will inspire them to greatness. It is the students of course that will be the true beneficiaries of improvements to teacher quality, and they are certainly worth the effort.

Monday, October 21, 2013

More Problems with Teach-NJ

As I mentioned in my last posting, the Law of Unintended Consequences will prevail with Teach-NJ, an honest attempt to improve teacher accountability- not performance- by introducing evaluative metrics into the profession. However, the onerous nature of these metrics is going to have a collateral effect that is far worse than the benefits being gained by the current system in place.

New Jersey has a real and profound need to recruit a new corps of teachers with expertise in fields other than education. Getting college graduates with degrees in biology, computer science, economics, accounting, and any number of "specialized fields" is going to require some serious incentives to dissuade these people from taking jobs in the corporate world.

We have already seen the horrible track record in education with retaining STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) teachers; more than 60% leave teaching within a year. Well, the problem I foresee is that the current metrics are so ridiculously heavy in paperwork and online that it will be a complete turnoff to these graduates, who by nature are much more entrepreneurial in outlook and will shy away from this top-heavy form of work management. It's not that the business world doesn't have similar demands, but these graduates would be earning far more money to compensate them for this work.

The need for these teachers, especially in the inner city, is far more immediate than the need to bury teachers in piles of paperwork. I sincerely hope that the State will revisit the Teach-NJ program and find a way to reduce the heavy demands it is placing on teachers; we need to reduce the emphasis on accountability and balance it with a program to improve teacher performance; they are NOT the same thing.

By modifying Teach-NJ to emphasize performance, these college graduates will also see that the education profession is committed to having a program in place to help these new teachers, most if not all of whom will be in the Alternate Route. This commitment to better training will serve as another incentive to persuade these graduates to choose teaching rather than the lab or office.

I implore our State officials and politicians to begin an evaluation of Teach-NJ immediately, bearing in mind its potential impact on recruiting new teachers. Our inner cities need these new teachers, and our current teachers need some relief. We can do better; we must do better; but will we do better?

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Teach-NJ off to Inauspicious Start

Though I left teaching several years ago, I still have many friends in the business, and they are underwhelmed by the launching of Teach-NJ. I heard from one teacher who told me that under the current metrics demanded by their districts chosen system her weekly lessons plans are 15 PAGES LONG. Do you have any idea how much time is consumed to produce such lengthy plans, time that could be better used attending to other features of her curriculum and activities? She also mentioned being told by administrators that there will be about a 6 month delay in getting their evaluation of her required self-evaluation paperwork back to her. First of all, if these are to instructive evaluations for the teachers, how can this feedback be truly helpful? And what if we reach a point where merit pay is tied to these evaluations? The time lag would completely disrupt the whole remuneration process.

This teacher was recently visited by an administrator, who spent 20 minutes visiting her class and gave here feedback that made no sense had this supervisor actually attended the entire instructional period. Supervisors in some of these districts would have to conduct several hundred evaluations to fulfill their job requirements under Teach-NJ.

The reams and reams of paperwork and the hundreds of hours being spent on-line to attend to each of the specific elements of these evaluative metrics simply cannot be seen as a positive influence on classroom instruction. The end result of this legislation is to create a system where, if teachers and administrators actually abide by all of the features, classroom instruction will be negatively impacted. And on the other hand, if schools decide to "cut corners" and "fudge" the work product in order to get things completed on time, then it simply makes a mockery of the legislation's intent. Either way, the bottom line is that Teach-NJ is on course to become an onerous imposition on teachers and learning.

It has always been my contention that Teach-NJ was designed to emphasize accountability, an admittedly worthy goal, at the expense of improved performance. It is "gotcha" legislation that is filled with problems, notably its application throughout the spectrum of employees in a school.

From the start, the fundamental mistake was the lack of true teacher input in the process. I have yet to find even one teacher that feels like they have any "ownership" of the process; I consider this a fatal flaw that will lead Teach-NJ to end up being more "destructive" than "constructive."

My concern is that since we have already moved forward with Teach-NJ, it will be very difficult to take "two steps back" and rethink the system, especially the choice of metrics made available by the State to conduct these so-called evaluations.

Once again the Law of Unintended Consequences will end up ruling the day, and a opportunity to create a system that truly strives to improve teacher performance will have been lost. If problems like the few I brought up earlier can be tying up in knots a high performance district like the one my friend works in, I can only imagine what is going on in our poorer performing school systems.

My position is that New Jersey should have let each of the suburban districts, the vast majority of whom are doing a good job preparing their kids, to develop their own metrics for holding teachers accountable and improving teacher performance, and put the State's financial resources into creating programs to help our urban schools. It is analogous to the fight against AIDS; even though there were actually a few very specific geographic areas where AIDS had destructive potential, we instead spread our resources out to every district in the State rather than target that money where it could do the most good.

It really is time to take a step back with Teach-NJ, because I'm afraid that if we take another step forward we are going to step in something pretty messy.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Shortcomings in US Education Policy and Why We Don't Compare to Other Nations

In the Op-Ed page of today's Trenton Times, Mary Sanchez laments that "(this) elite has made war against any policy that aims to produce equality of outcomes." Her insinuation is that there has been a conscious effort by policy makers to construct an education policy that essentially keeps the poor from developing the requisite skills for higher level thinking. By focusing policy on quantitative metrics and basic skills, and with our political leaders seemingly trying to micro-manage education, our system of education is failing to provide that “lift” so desperately needed in our inner cities.

She points to the correlation between poor education and poverty and points to a very real concern that the traditional belief in attainable upward mobility among the poor is no longer the case, and that educational outcomes are serving to perpetuate a cycle of poverty destined to trap this and future generations.

Now there is some hope that the new Common Core, with its emphasis on skill development, will contribute to an improvement in the quality of education provided to those in our urban centers. And Ms. Sanchez is absolutely correct that there is a huge chasm between the quality of education in our suburbs and inner cities.
The problem is that the issues impacting our inner city schools go way beyond the schools themselves. They are impacted by the concentration of poverty among minorities, something not seen with the white urban poor. They are impacted by the high rate of single mothers. They are impacted by the lack of role models and middle class values in poor communities. They are impacted by the lack of participation by stakeholders in the business community and by the lack of enrichment programs and resources available to poor minorities. They are impacted by the lack of “content expertise” among educators and by the absence of a salary structure that rewards exemplary work.

These deficiencies require money, but not the “throwing more money at schools” type money. Financial resources must be strategically allocated. And though this is a sensitive and touchy subject, social and economic policies must be constructed that make poverty more diffuse in minority communities.

As for our schools, besides the obvious need to improve the quality of our next generation of teachers through more clinical supervision and through policies that attract college graduates with “specialized degrees,” there is a real need to rethink how we view the teaching profession and rethink the relationship between urban schools and our political leaders. And finally, we need to rethink this obsessive belief that college is the essential need and goal for all high school students, that a college degree is the only real path to upward economic mobility. The purpose of high school is much more than simply preparing kids for college; we are preparing these students to be citizens that can achieve the skills and taught the content that is necessary for them to be independent, healthy, literate (in many areas), civic minded, and able to self-advocate.
The education puzzle has so many pieces that must fit together I question how much of it we can complete. Part of the problem is that some solutions, such as giving schools (ideally led by visionary rather than bureaucratic administrators) more, not less autonomy, seem counter intuitive. I will try to be optimistic, but given the apparent lack of sincerity and will among our leaders, I doubt it.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Making Inner City Students Tech and Health Savvy

Two recent news items raised issues that have important possible ramifications for education in the inner city. The first, an article in the most recent Atlantic Monthly, pointed out that an important shift is occurring in the allocation of start-up capital, namely that more and more of that money is now targeting the inner city, reflecting a growing interest among young entrepreneurs and other workers in the tech industry to live and work in urban centers. As a matter of fact the Trenton/Ewing area was listed as the 19th most popular area for new start-up capital. Its relevance to urban education cannot be overlooked, and it is incumbent on academics, politicians, and administrators to recognize this shift and begin to emphasize practical, technology centered learning in our inner city schools. That same article even made mention of a school name “CodeHS” because literally all of the students are being taught to write code, an important, practical skill that will pay huge dividends to those in attendance.

This influx of “techno-capital” into the region demands that schools like the three Trenton High Schools take this opportunity and reorient its curriculum to provide training in writing code and other fields that might be in demand to these companies migrating into the region. It is also a great opportunity for the administrators at these schools to develop partnerships with stakeholders that might have an interest in young people with these skill sets.

What this also shows is that public schools, rather than be tethered to the State and the demands it places on curriculum, be given greater flexibility to design its own learning culture, one that reflects the particular needs and demands of the region.

A second piece, this one an OpEd in the Trenton Times, noted a recent initiative at the Millhill Child and Family Development Center that is using a federal grant to give students hands-on experience with gardening, in particular the growing of fruits and vegetables. Most of Trenton is a “food desert,” with little opportunity for families to purchase fresh produce. The lack of a well- balanced diet directly correlates with the high percentage of obese children in the inner city. These high levels of obesity will follow these children throughout their lives, costing our health system millions of dollars and compromising the child’s ability to be productive workers as they grow older.

I point this out because one of my ongoing grievances against New Jersey’s Core Content Curriculum Standards and the HSPA is their lack of relevance to the “real world.” You can more detailed analyses of these problems in other postings, but the salient point is that Health, Fitness, and Nutrition, items usually taught in the Health and Physical Education Department, should be a required part of the CCCS, and the learning should be assessed as a component of the HSPA. The CCCS and HSPA should reflect those things that all high school graduates must know if they are to succeed as independent, empowered, and aware young adults. Can anyone really argue that a strong understanding of personal health, nutrition, and fitness aren’t essential needs, and as such goals of our education system. Many of these young adults may soon be parents, and this understanding is crucial if they are to be responsible parents as well.

The bottom line is that the content being taught in our urban high schools must reflect the needs and demands of the community, and that these schools must have the power to manipulate the curriculum at the local level so that these schools are able to provide learning that is relevant and useful. This is going to require a change in thinking among our leaders in Trenton, and in some cases will require officials to allow decision-making to be centered at the local level. I hope our leaders are up to the task.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Government Finally Gets It Right with Common Core

Public education has been on the front burner of government policy since President Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative. Unfortunately, that legislation has ushered in a new paradigm where testing and “edumetrics” (my term) have consumed most of the resources and dictated the flow of research and grant funds. We have become a nation obsessed with testing, making it the most prominent lens through which we assess success or failure. Unfortunately, reviewing the tests and much of the funds allocated through programs like Title I have produced empirical evidence that actually shows a negative correlation when looked at in terms of student achievement in the inner city. These disappointing results would leave one less than sanguine when word of new government initiatives is announced. That it is why I must admit to being pleasantly surprised by the new Common Core Standards being adopted by almost every state in the Union.  For once, the states-with support from the Federal government- are doing something right in public education, and it deserves acknowledgement.

The Common Core Standards, at least in the area of Social Studies (part of the English/Language Arts component), focus exclusively on skill development. Whether intentional or not, this focus gives tacit acknowledgement to the fact that our education policy makers are completely off base in their determination of what students learn in our social studies courses. New Jersey’s content standards are nothing more than an exercise in ego massaging for the academics responsible for determining required course content.

I won’t bore you with the details of the hundreds of “core progress indicators” and the ridiculous amount of minutiae integrated into the content standards, this even after a revision to reduce these metrics occurred several years ago. The basic problem is that these content requirements are more an expression of what these academics “would like” students to know rather than what they “must” know. Given the amount of time that is actually required to present, reinforce, and assess classroom material, the required content is rarely learned. Most of the content is remembered long enough to pass a test, then quickly forgotten. True learning is extremely time consuming and rarely occurs.

Current research in neuroscience on the "science of learning" confirms my suspicion that little true learning of the content takes place in the classroom. Most of us remember very little from high school; it is imperative that we both narrow down the required content to only those items students must learn as high school graduates,  and redefine what that required content should be.

Making these changes will serve two important goals. First, it will help our graduates become aware of our institutions, our economy, our culture, our history, our laws, and our future. And second, it will “liberate” teachers so that they will have more freedom to develop courses that reflect their passion and knowledge; this will have a dramatically positive impact on student achievement.

By combining the ambitious and meaningful Common Core skill requirements with new Core Content  requirements, the result will be independent, empowered, and aware young adults better equipped to succeed in our society. It is these goals, and not preparation for college, that should be our interest with regard to our next generation of citizens. The beauty of emphasizing skill development is that they can be reinforced "across the curriculum." It is these skills that we learn in high school that pay real dividends in college and the workplace. With the adoption of the Common Core, New Jersey and most other states have taken a huge step in the right direction. Well done, for a change.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

It is Time to Start Our High Schools Later

I was just told by a friend that the students at Lacey High School begin their classes at 7:15am, that they are waiting for their buses at 6:30 in the morning. This is outrageous. Granted, Lacey may be an extreme example, but by and large all NJ high schools are up and going before 8am. Expecting students to be "ready to learn" at so early an hour is a joke and flies in the face of all relevant research into the relationship between time and learning. According to the research, it would actually be better to start our youngest students at this earlier time and start the high schools closer to 9 o'clock.

The early start time is simply an admission that student learning is not the preeminent goal of a school's use of time and space, that considerations such as co-curriculars play a large role in the structure of the school day. Now you will find no bigger fan of co-curricular activities than me, but I have to believe that a little imagination in the planning process could figure out a way to make later start times work. First of all, if students are more alert and attentive then learning can be more efficient. If we cut down on all the crap that now passes for required core content then we might not actually need as much time in class to teach what is truly essential.

I admit that I don't have an answer at hand; all I am saying is that our education leaders need to recognize that there is a connection between "real world time" and learning, and that it is time for these leaders to at least study alternatives to our current model across the state which invariably has high school students in school first and elementary students in latest. I suspect that in our inner cities a later start may actually have a positive effect on student attendance and thus have an effect on dropout and graduation rates. This is in and of itself enough of a reason to study the issue. If we truly care about such things, then a study is the least we can do.

NJ SAT Scores Show Gains, Whoop De Do

Once again NJ political leaders and the NJEA are boasting about our State's gain of about 10 points in 2013 while the national average remained unchanged. New Jersey continues to be near the top among states, which supposedly indicates the superiority of our education system. I suspect, however, that once the details are in on these scores, we will see that the enormous chasm between our urban and suburban schools continues to grow. The fact that more and more urban schools are insisting and in some cases even requiring students to take the SAT, even though college may not be in their future plans, will contribute to this gulf.

The most troubling aspect of the articles I read on this "news item" was the chorus of administrators and government officials singing the praises of a college education for everyone; preparation for college has in fact become the de facto "purpose" of high school for all students, and this is simply a prescription for disaster in our urban centers. This mantra of college has led to a dearth of comprehensive programs designed to prepare inner city students for more appropriate career paths in the trades or as skilled employees in one of the many growing sectors of our economy. The more practical vocational, technical, and paraprofessional career paths provide realistic alternatives to college and should be an integral component of our urban high schools. Yes this sounds like tracking, and so what? The European school systems have pursued a similar system for generations with a great deal of success.

The preoccupation with college has corrupted our curriculum standards, corrupted our determination of what students must learn in high school,  and corrupted our test for graduation. Until we refocus our time, energy, and resources into more appropriate uses in our inner city schools we will continue to fail our urban youth. These students are already dealing with the impediments created by the substandard physical plant and learning experiences they endure; now they must deal with education leaders espousing a direction filled with false hope and promises. Will our policy makers ever get things right??

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The State's Efforts to Find New Teachers is a Small Step in the Right Direction

Today’s Trenton Times editorial offers support for recent legislative and administrative initiatives designed to diversify and improve the quality of the “new teacher pool.” And while a program encouraging minority males to take the Alternate Certification route, and a policy to set a minimum GPA for aspiring teachers are both worthwhile ideas, they lack the boldness and vision that is so desperately needed to reverse the horrible path that our urban schools are still on.

I certainly agree that we want teachers in our classrooms that have performed well in their own classes. The GPA requirement is a start, but quite frankly I’d rather that the requirement be limited to the GPA in one’s major rather than their overall work in school; there are many college students who, for a variety of reasons, don’t always do as well in the courses they choose outside their major.

The most critical need in our high school classrooms is for a new generation of passionate, knowledgeable teachers ready to make a lengthy commitment to a career in education. Finding those future teachers, and providing the supervisory support they need to grow into their jobs, has been a clear failing of our educational system at both the State and local levels.

New Jersey needs to create an incentive laden program to encourage college graduates with specialized degrees to go into education. Personally, I would love to require all urban high schools to only hire such teachers, bypassing college students with a meaningless education degree. Such a program could also integrate a GPA component by increasing the incentives relative to one’s GPA.

Encouraging graduates to enter education is the first step, but much more is needed. I’ll leave aside my belief that increased academic freedom should also be provided and simply focus on the issue of training. Teaching is the ultimate “learn on the job” occupation, but it is still critical that new teachers be provided with no not only mentors, but intense, consistent clinical supervision.

I would hope that the NJEA would be supportive of efforts to draw people into education from outside the education community, but I am not so sanguine. The reason for my skepticism is that these new hires are just the type of people that would support merit pay or performance pay/performance ladder programs, thus presenting a challenge to the status quo. This will be seen as one of those policy decisions where teachers will be seen as having to make a choice between the interests of the union versus the needs of the kids. It’s a shame it will be seen that way because I believe it is a false choice, but nonetheless it will put the NJEA in awkward place.

The initiative to increase the number of minority male teachers in our public schools, especially in the inner city I would assume, is a great idea but one that kind of sidesteps the real issue, that being the dysfunction that exists in far too many inner city communities. It may be an uncomfortable reality to accept, but it is clear that the absence of more traditional families in minority inner city communities has had a destructive effect on the lives of children in these neighborhoods. Just because a child can be raised by a single parent, even a teenage or “20 something” parent, doesn’t make it ok.

We absolutely need to find a way to socioeconomically diversify inner city minority neighborhoods and increase the percentage of traditional family structures in these communities. The infusion of middle class values and the presence of male role models in the homes and in the neighborhood will have a positive ripple effect that will help transform the schools.

So in conclusion Commissioner Cerf deserves a “B” for these two new initiatives, but there is so much more he can do. One of the more difficult things he is going to have to acknowledge is that empirical evidence seems to suggest that State programs to mandate classroom outcomes have had the opposite effect; test scores and other indicators of performance have either gone sideways or declined. The conclusion I draw is that the while the State has the right and responsibility to set performance standards, it needs to change course and grant schools GREATER, not less autonomy if it really wants our inner city schools to succeed. Like the NJEA, our State government has to make a choice, deciding whether to put its own interests aside for the greater good. If both of these stakeholders can rise to the occasion it will set a positive example for everyone else looking to make a difference in our schools. If we are looking for role models, there is no better place to start looking than at the top!

Why is Social Studies boring?

Every year I hear the same thing; “God is my social studies class boring.” I am beginning to think that the indifference social studies is given at the policy making level is a direct result of policy makers having such negative memories of their own classes. There is absolutely no reason for a social studies class to ever be boring. I accept that not everyone is interested in social studies, but, properly taught, there is no reason that social studies students should ever be lacking for stimulation.

Leaving aside the fact that social studies is the ultimate “student empowerment” course, the fact is that social studies, properly taught, is akin to storytelling. It is drama, it is soap opera, it is a passion play, it is conflict, it is the story of life itself.

Part of the problem is the lack of teachers with degrees in social studies fields like history, international relations, economics, and pre-law to name a few. Often times social studies is in fact a dumping ground for “coaches that teach,” and I also suspect that social studies teachers are most often not only those with education degrees but those with a lower GPA than other education majors.

But by far the greatest problem are the core content curriculum requirements, requirements that aren’t even assessed with a subject test as part of the HSPA. If we don’t hold the teachers accountable, then why are we bothering to mandate what they teach?

There are definitely items that I believe every graduating student should know in the “field” of social studies, but these items are fundamentally different than what NJ currently requires.

So let us please make every effort to make social studies less boring. Let’s hire teachers with expertise in their subject areas, lets liberate their classes from irrelevant State mandates, and let us refocus social studies on those things that all high school students truly need to know to meet the demands of a market economy and republican form of government. Let our teachers have some fun, and I have no doubt our students will too!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Year Two of the Teacher Evaluation Plan: View From the Trenches

I have taken of contact I still have within the profession to gather some initial feedback from the new teacher evaluation plan being administered by the State through District administrators. I certainly hope that the State, or at the very least a group of districts, will conduct focus groups to learn more about how well the process is being done. My first impressions are not positive; I am hoping to gather more comprehensive information to share with you in the next few weeks.

One initial concern is that the emphasis of this program is on accountability and not on using these clinical observations to improve the performance of teachers. This is the "gotcha" concern I spoke about last Spring. There is certainly nothing wrong with increased accountability, especially in courses not covered by the State's HSPA exam. But given the limited time and resources districts have to implement the program, it is important that teachers feel that they are benefitting professionally from the evaluation.

Second, the time demands created by this process will affect the aforementioned problem. Some districts have actually hired additional supervisors with the sole mission of providing clinical evaluations, and that is a remarkably positive thing. It would be great if the State mandated this hiring for all districts.

Just as administrators are hampered by the constraints of time, so are teachers. This has led many teachers to voice a concern that their ability to construct effective and comprehensive lesson plans has been compromised, and that they often will take a risk averse path to curriculum writing.

And third, since the HSPA and ASK exams are limited to math and language arts, the percentages assigned to each portion of their evaluation are different from other teachers. With more of their evaluation linked to the CCCS and student performance on the tests, these teachers are not only additionally burdened, but their work is now inextricably linked to these tests and likely to lack the creativity and sophistication we hope to get from our professional educators.

From everything I have learned, teachers were left out of the policy making process, at least to the point where they feel some ownership of the finished product. This lack of ownership invariably reduces the feeling that the evaluation is a legitimate work product. This will have a cascade effect on the policy and lead to disaffection that was never needed. Let us hope that after this second year our policy makers will see fit to reassess the standards and the process that currently exists. I am in favor of increasing the accountability and performance of teachers, but they deserve respect as professionals in the creation of this product.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Syria Debate Exposes Another Failure of Our Education System

The current debate over bombing Syria in response to news of nerve gas being used against citizens has led many legislators and commentators to draw on history for analogies as they try to stake out a position on the use of force. This application of history is a stark reminder to me about one of the many deficiencies in New Jersey’s current HSPA exam and the Core Content Curriculum Standards.

In terms of the standards, my recollection is that some but not all of the historical references are “required” by the CCCS. However, my criticism is not that the standards aren’t broad enough, it is rather that they are all too often too broad; teachers will never be able to teach everything, and in fact I believe that the requirements are already so broad that very little true learning is actually taking place, given the amount of time it takes to confirm true learning takes place, given the amount of time that the “learning and assessment” process actually takes. My position is that the more important job of teachers is to instill and reinforce a love of learning in students so that truly interested “future adults” will want and be able to research the information they need to understand the issues being introduced through the media.

My even greater concern is with the HSPA. The current HSPA graduation exam only tests in Language Arts and Math, even though the CCCS requires content in a broad array of subjects including social studies. By not including social studies in the exam- and yes I know that changes are being proposed- the teachers in this subject area are not being held truly accountable for instruction. Equally important, we don’t really know if students are truly learning the subject matter.

Our CCCS are completely detached from reality and the needs of all students graduating from high school. It is incumbent on our political leaders and academic experts to transform the exam into one that tests students in areas they will truly need to function as mature and independent young adults with a love of learning. Health and physical fitness, legal literacy, financial literacy, scientific and environmental literacy, cultural and historical literacy, technological literacy, and the reading, writing, speaking, and researching skills needed to function in business and social settings. These content needs should be narrowly conceived so that the majority of teaching being done is curriculum designed and conceived of by the teachers themselves, based on their personal knowledge and passion. Student wants should also be integrated into the high school learning experience through the use of focus groups.

Back to my original point.  Most adults remember very little of the content they learned in high school, and we frankly do not have any way of knowing whether they received instruction in the moments in history being discussed in the discussion over Syria. My point is that if we turn our focus from content to skills and to a perspicacious attitude towards knowledge that adults will quickly be able to find and evaluate the information they are being exposed to.

A true, vigorous republican form of government requires an informed citizenry. Until we transform the way learning is “delivered,” and until we replenish our pool of teachers will content specialists rather than those with education degrees, we will continue to fail our teenagers and graduate young adults ill-equipped to meet the demands dictated by life in a market economy governed by intelligently selected representatives. Maybe that is what those in power fear the most; what other conclusion can we reach given the failure of today’s leaders to provide a sound system of education, especially for those most vulnerable to our economy and to our democracy.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Frank Breslin's Latest Op Ed on "College for All" is Right on Track

In yesterday's Trenton Times retired teacher Frank Breslin took aim at one of the many debasements of public education created by well intentioned but misguided public policy, a debasement that has had a profoundly negative impact on our colleges, high schools, and the students caught in the middle.

I am glad to see other voices out there in the "reform community" challenging one of the most destructive "truisms" in education today, that being the so-called "right" of everyone to go to college. Now obviously everyone has a right to college in the sense that there can be no justification for discriminating against anyone who qualifies for college, but this belief that college is the necessary ends of high school if one is to have a "better life" has had a dumbing effect on education from the college level on down.

Colleges are now faced with the need to provide ever more remedial courses to incoming freshmen. Remedial courses!!?? The high schools are facing a similar problem in its curriculum, as the "right" to take honors and AP courses, mainly due to the ridiculous policy of "parental overrides," has diluted these courses and negatively impacted the rigor and quality of many course offerings, with the most damning effect being on the students at the "upper end of the curve."

The reasons for this primacy given to a college education range from the colleges themselves to our political leaders to economists to academia to parents, to name but a few. This truism has led our State Department of Education to tailor all of its efforts, namely the Core Curriculum Content Standards and the HSPA exam for graduation, not towards "life after high school" for all students but towards preparation for college. THEY ARE NOT THE SAME THING! As a consequence, both of these conscripts fail in meeting their true purpose of making sure that graduates have truly learned the important information they need to be healthy, financially literate, law literate, computer literate, consumer literate, grammatically literate, and historically literate with the ability to think creatively and critically and with the skills to read, write, speak, and research.

This false promise that college is a necessity has had its worst effect on inner city students. Of course telling inner city students that college is not necessarily the road to travel will at first smack of racism, of telling inner city minorities that they aren't "good enough" for college. The reality is that our education has failed to develop comprehensive vocational programs that will prepare graduates for the type of jobs that aren't at the mercy of international flows of labor and capital. These are skilled service jobs, the kind of jobs that in historical terms were those learned through apprenticeships taught by masters of the trade. It also includes those type of jobs now offered in certificate programs at community colleges.

The point, one that I've been constantly trying to advance, is that inner city high schools and suburban high schools are fundamentally different and should not be playing by the same rules. The needs of the majority of their students differ, and thus the goals of these schools will necessarily differ as well.

Until we reject this obsession with college as the be all and end all of high school, that its purpose is simply as preparation for college, we will never truly be able to offer inner city students the education they really need. We can add this to the list of failures of our education system, and in terms of its spillover effect, it should be at the top of the list.

Out of Wedlock Births and Its Impact on Education

In my other blog “New Policy Perspectives” I raised the issue of out of wedlock births and the debilitating effect it is having on inner city families and communities. While evidence of this can be seen in incarceration rates, in attitudes towards men, and in growing dependence on government services, the negative consequences of this growing trend- now at 72% of births in the black community- are felt most savagely in our education system. Any inroads we can make at reversing this trend will strengthen inner city communities and have a positive ripple effect on inner city schools; the need to do something has never been more vital.

In the city of Trenton, it is apparent from a simple walk through the neighborhoods that we have a generation of “children raising children.” Some of these young women no doubt have jobs, while a significant number are dependent on the City, State, and their extended families for support raising their children. And in a bizarre note, these young mothers actually receive additional social service money if their children are identified as having learning disabilities, which is sadly a common condition in these families. Financially speaking, there is actually a disincentive in actively supporting their kids academically!

In a May 2012 Op-Ed I wrote for the Trenton Times I identified  6 ways in which we can measure the performance of parents in raising their children to be “productive, independent, and mature young adults who are properly equipped to succeed after high school. The areas in which these parents should be providing support are in: (1) Health and Welfare, (2) Resource Acquisition, (3) Oversight, (4) Engagement, (5) Opportunities for Enrichment, and (6) Values and Advocacy.

It is my contention that out of wedlock children are being poorly served by their parents in most if not all of these areas, and that this failure is tantamount to resigning another generation of children to a future of poverty, lost opportunities, dependence, and higher likelihood of future incarceration.

My concern is not with assigning blame for the horribly high rate of out of wedlock births, but just like some “women rights” advocates see criticism of out of wedlock births as an assault on black women in both racial and gender terms, I am taking a contrary position and do see this as a crisis of values and a failed understanding of the importance that traditional family structures have to a child’s future success.

It seems self-evident that inner city communities with a high percentage of dysfunctional and out of wedlock families also suffer from substandard, schools. I base this on the belief that families have a direct impact on the quality and performance of the schools served by these communities.

If inner city schools are to have any hope of improvement, then improvements must be made to the demographics of the community: more traditional families, more socioeconomic diversity, and more indigenous businesses will all contribute to greater quality in academic conditions and greater opportunity for academic achievement.

So when the comedian Bill Cosby, along with Harvard Psychiatry Professor Alvin Poussaint  challenge the inner city black community to confront the culture of victimhood and culture of the street and replace it with a culture that embraces more traditional “middle class values,” they are striking a chord that resonates with those old enough to see the degradation and deterioration of their communities. Unfortunately, this younger generation, a generation seemingly immune to ideas such as guilt and shame, appear uninterested or unsophisticated enough to see the future. It is a sad commentary on the world today, and it is sad reminder that unless we confront and somehow change the path we are on, the children born into these communities face a future of false hope and failing schools. Shame and guilt, it’s time for a healthy dose of both.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Micro Credit and Opportunity Centers to Help Inner City Families

Since 1983 the Grameen Bank, run by Muhammed Yunus, has established a policy of granting micro credit to fledgling entrepreneurs in the Third World. Wikipedia defines Microcredit as "the extension of very small loans (microloans) to impoverished borrowers who typically lack collateral, steady employment and a verifiable credit history. It is designed not only to support entrepreneurship and alleviate poverty, but also in many cases to empower women and uplift entire communities by extension."

As noted above, the idea behind micro credit is to help provide resources to individuals interested in improving their socioeconomic status. These resources would otherwise not be available due to a lack of equity and collateral; both are important requisites for those providing capital as they help minimize any risk a financial institution assumes.

It is my position that this idea of microcredit can be applied to our inner cities, and that we should find a mechanism- not necessarily a bank- to provide capital to families with aspiring students interested in supplementing their learning with resources that would otherwise be out of their reach.

My experience as a teacher in the somewhat wealthy (By looking at DFGs) West Windsor-Plainsboro School District made it clear that many of the marginal students were able to improve their academic standing and gain admission to quality colleges because of the resources provided by their parents. I certainly would not deny any parent the ability to provide such academic support, but I think that simple fairness demands that we find ways to create a more equitable system that offers equally motivated but less able parents the ability to do the same.

It is in this regard that I would like to see the creation of what we might call "Opportunity Centers." They are not banks in the traditional sense, but more like "resource centers" where inner city parents of limited means can borrow money- on very favorable terms- that they can use to improve the academic success and academic access to opportunities they otherwise could not provide. These "Centers" could also serve as places where families could secure the services of people willing to volunteer their time to help these children succeed.

These "Opportunity Centers" would require the financial backing of businesses, philanthropies, and other donors willing to underwrite the costs of these resources and services, and they would obviously require professionals able to evaluate the ideas and goals of these families and make suggestions on what choices would be best for these families.

Simply trying to improve the performance of inner city schools is not enough, especially in light of the dismal results our State has had in this area. It is small wonder that so many families are trying to get their children enrolled in charter schools in a desperate effort to improve their future opportunities.

I believe these Opportunity Centers would be a key piece in the efforts of inner city parents to provide a better future for their children by providing for them resources that would otherwise be unattainable. Inner city families have the right to demand more equity and fairness in our public school system. Providing greater access to resources will help level the academic playing field and give inner city children the ability to enrich their learning. It is a worthy goal that we should all support, and I hope that those with power and influence will consider Opportunity Centers as an essential component of this effort.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Cyber High School Option for the Inner City?

As the school year approaches a commercial for Connections Academy has been getting a lot of air play. What I have noticed of course is that all of the students being used as "props" are either white or Asian and all apparently middle or upper class. Freed of drama, exposed to the innovation available on the internet, these students have been liberated from the tribulations inherent in a high school community.

Personally, I am not big fan of cyber schools, but my own feelings really aren't important. The issue is whether these "schools" can produce value for inner city students, and my gut feeling is yes. Aspiring inner city students face innumerable roadblocks on their path to graduation and then college or a trade. I spent a split second contemplating whether these schools should be utilized to get "trouble" students out of school, but then I realized that these students might not fully avail themselves of the opportunity these schools provide and that they may not have the family support to succeed, and, most importantly. But on the other hand research into "disruptive" students suggests that the reasons for their behavior are complex, and that many such students are disruptive because they have been turned off to school and are in fact academically strong once you scrape away the exterior.

There are many variables working against aspiring students, and high among the list are cultural and peer pressures devaluing academic achievement. To learn more about this I recommend everyone read "Code of the Streets," a 1994 Atlantic essay by Professor Elijah Anderson; he wrote this while at Penn but I believe is now at Yale.

With so many factors working against certain individual students, I do believe that cyber school might be a valuable remedy. The main issue is of course cost. Many inner city families do not own their residence and thus do not have the collateral to support a home loan to pay for the needed resources. Since it is incumbent on stakeholders in the business, non-profit, and philanthropic communities to support inner city education by helping provide difficult to attain role models and resources, creating a fund to underwrite the cost of a cyber education would be a wonderful undertaking. Broadening the community of cyber students into the inner city might also lead to a new class of entrepreneurial educators providing tutoring and mentoring to these students.

Having a new "class" of cyber students would also provide relief to classroom teachers that are overwhelmed with large classes and substandard resources, and give students greater opportunity to succeed.

Cyber schools are an option that I believe must be extended to the inner city. It would be a "project" requiring enormous organization and financial support, but as I've pointed out time and again in this blog, our inner city schools are failing. Graduation rates of 50% are simply unacceptable. If our political leaders and stakeholders truly care about the future of our cities, then they must at least explore this option.