Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A Quick Word About Incentives

In a recent post I strongly suggested that urban schools in particular utilize a system of performance pay or performance ladders to reward exemplary teachers, pressure medicre and lazy teachers, and attract new adults into education. Money is of course a powerful inducement, but there are other non-pecuniary ways to reward quality educators that could also be integrated into any "reward" system offered to teachers. Support for these non-pecuniary rewards could come from not only the school district but from stakeholders that have the means to donate tangible and non-tangible items to the school.

For example, schools could create a pool of money that could be used by exemplary teachers to create scholarships in a teacher's name and under the management of that teacher. Teachers can be rewarded with funds to purchase resources for their curriculum. They can be given "gifts" in the form of vacations, tickets to special events, or other tangible goods.

The point is that creative administrators can develop a workable system of rewards for teachers, and that such rewards are a vital part of urban education reform.

In the next post we will delve more thoroughly into the role of adminstrators and how they can create a culture of learning that will allow entrepreneurial minded teachers (and students), to flourish.

Finding New Entrepreneurial Educators

The next step in this goal of creating challenging, dynamic inner city high schools with a vibrant culture of learning is attracting high quality college graduates and members of our private sector. My goal is to create a faculty of specialists rather than teachers with education degrees, something I consider an enormous waste of time; it is a degree that by and large attracts mediocre students. Learning is the ultimate “learn on the job” profession; trial and error is the defining characteristic of successful teachers, teachers whose desire to improve their craft and improve their work product is never satiated.

Members of the private and non-profit sectors, be they mechanics, electrical engineers, accountants, zoologists, fundraisers, marketing specialists, or a host of other professions, have the potential to be excellent teachers. The most salient issue is the extent to which they demonstrate those aforementioned characteristics of successful entrepreneurs.
It is of course incumbent on schools to provide the necessary support for these new teachers, ideally in the form of mentor teachers and clinical supervisors. It has always been my belief that every school in New Jersey should have a clinical supervisor on staff, charged with the sole responsibility of providing this specific brand of supervision to the faculty. As for remuneration, that would of course be up to each school district, but I would suggest something akin for crediting these new teachers with up to one year on the salary scale for each year of experience they bring to the classroom.
Now as for college students, it is time for the state to incentivize the process of bringing students with degrees other than education into the profession. I believe that having a system of performance pay and performance ladders are an attraction for those with the entrepreneurial spirit I seek. Providing professional support in the manner I suggested above will help draw prospective teachers; it will certainly help insure that these new teachers stay in teaching rather than “flee” to the private and non-profit sectors.
But of course the most direct way to attract these college students is to offer some financial inducement such as signing bonuses or the reduction or elimination of student debt. The burden of debt is growing more severe each year, so giving new graduates the opportunity to start their professional lives with little or any debt is incredibly appealing. I would like nothing more than to staff my school with entrepreneurial minded graduates with degrees in a multitude of disciplines.
It is critical at this juncture to try anything and everything we can to develop a knowledgeable, passionate faculty of individuals ready to meet the challenges of teaching. These entrepreneurial educators will provide the foundation for schools that teenagers look forward to attending. Assume tat no teenager MUST attend school, and devise a school program and curriculum that they WANT to attend.
It starts with a quality faculty, but even the best of faculties will stumble and fail if it is not supported by entrepreneurial administrators, professionals dedicated to creating a culture of learning in the school and willing to put in the time and effort necessary to secure the involvement of critical stakeholders, namely the parents and members of the business and non-profit communities. It is through the involvement of the community that students will receive the support and enrichment they need and deserve.
In a future posting we will turn our attention to the management of a school staffed by entrepreneurial minded teachers. It Is this management that will provide the “infrastructure” for our community of teachers and students and the extrinsic motivation to elicit exemplary work from both.
The challenge of creating inner city schools with the potential for high quality learning like that found throughout New Jersey’s suburbs is an enormous undertaking; these communities are hampered by a dearth a dearth of resources and demographics that do not align with those evident in our successful suburban districts. It is up to those who run these urban schools to find creative ways to compensate for those missing ingredients. But it can be done. Frankly, it must be done.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Entrepreneurism is the Key to Quality Teachers

Of all the problems facing public education in the inner city, no need is more pressing than placing quality teachers in the classrooms. I will narrow the focus to high schools, where I believe the opportunity to develop an innovative, passionate, intelligent, and risk taking faculty is most attainable and most pressing.

The centerpiece of my reform idea is the American entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs have been the engine for economic growth and innovation since our nation’s founding, and I truly believe we can capture the spirit of entrepreneurs from Ben Franklin to Steven Jobs and apply those skills to the classroom.
I spent a considerable amount of time studying entrepreneurs, trying to find some common characteristics that define the successful entrepreneur, and I think I have done so. These characteristics can form the metrics to evaluate teachers and to “train” them to be exceptional teachers.
What I have found is that successful entrepreneurs demonstrate five characteristics: they are Passionate, they are well Organized, they are incredibly Knowledgeable about their product, they are Empowering with regard to the people they associate with in developing their work, and they are Resourceful in their ability to gather, organize, and utilize the materials essential to their craft.
Knowing this, we can then build the foundation for creating an exceptional faculty. First, these five metrics can be the basis for creating a system of remuneration that includes performance pay and/or performance ladders. Two things that have always bothered me about my former profession is the use of “years of service” and “degrees attained” as the basis for determining pay, and the lack of any true upward mobility to the profession. There is absolutely no correlation between having an advanced degree and being a better teacher, and treating all teachers with the same years of service the same is a slap in the face to every exceptional teacher; it in fact creates a disincentive for such teachers to continue putting in the time and effort associated with designing a quality “product.” It also “rewards” lazy and mediocre teachers by eliminating any financial pressure to elevate their work. It rewards those doing the minimum.
Using the “entrepreneurial metrics” I suggest, we can devise a system that not only holds teachers accountable for performance with their annual evaluations, something that is being instituted in New Jersey this year, but creates a foundations for rewarding excellent teachers by increasing their pay or promoting them up a “performance ladder” where such teachers will assume greater responsibilities and roles within the school commensurate with their superior abilities. Moving up such a ladder would also be supported with increased pay.
Implicit in the use of these metrics, and consistent with the spirit of entrepreneurism, would be the creation of a policy that gives teachers far greater academic freedom to design their own curriculum. Teachers would in essence start competing for students, so students would also have more freedom to choose course that reflect their own passions and interests. It would be up to the school, by learning more about the “consumer,” to try and align the passions and interests of the faculty with those of the student body.
This of course raises the issue of our state’s Core Curriculum Content Standards, something I consider one of the greatest tragedies in public education. I want to distinguish the CCCS with the currently popular national core standards. These national standards are by and large all skill based rather than content based, and I wholly agree that all high school classrooms should be integrating those core skills into their curriculum. I would argue that these core skills are far more important than any mandated content standards, which are unduly burdensome on teachers and should be greatly reduced. The academics creating these content standards have failed to distinguish between what students could learn, even should learn, and what they MUST learn.
Two more points are important. First, most adults forget almost all the content they learn in high school unless it is in some way connected to their college work, their personal interests, or their employment; it is much more likely they will remember the skills. The reasons for this are two- fold: the content is uninteresting or unconnected to their life, and the broad and onerous content requirements, the “cumulative progress indicators,” cannot be truly learned given the time constraints of the school year. There is a huge difference between being “taught” something and actually “learning” something. Learning is a time consuming process, and most curriculum is never taught in such a way that it can become part of a student’s long term memory. To truly assess learning would require the creation of any number of assessment tools, something that cannot be done today.
More to the point, these content standards are completely disconnected from what every high school student must know to be autonomous, independent, engaged, and knowledgeable citizens in our society. These standards, and the subsequent HSPA evaluation, are much too “college oriented” rather than societally oriented; making things worse is that the test only covers math and English, giving most teachers a “pass” from having to actually teach the CCCS. There is no accountability for the vast majority of teachers.
Scrapping the existing standards and HSPA, and replacing them with standards and tests that are far more relevant to “the real world,” will by consequence free up teachers to develop their own unique “products,” allowing them to express that aforementioned entrepreneurial spirit in the classroom. This would then be tied to a performance based system of evaluation and remuneration. Students will be the true beneficiaries of such a system, attending a school with a vibrant culture of learning steeped in the spirit of entrepreneurism.
In my next post I will turn my attention to new teachers, and how we should reach into our colleges and the workforce to find our future educators. This will be followed by a post explaining how to get our most important stakeholders, the parents, business community, and non-profits, into the fold to further enhance student learning. As the pieces fall in place, a solution to the tragedy that is urban education will come more in focus.


New Jersey Schools Under Siege?

There was an amazing amount of hyperbole on display in yesterday’s Trenton Times OpEd by Frank Breslin, “Laying Siege to New Jersey’s Public School System.” Breslin’s outrageous exaggerations and palpable cynicism regarding the intent of Governor Christie is unbecoming of a professional educator. Armed with no real facts, the article is little more than innuendo and gross oversimplifications.

The supposed “target” of the piece is charter schools, which Breslin characterizes as little more than “diploma mills” that have lost sense of their primary mission as laboratories for innovation. Breslin sees enemies everywhere, and this paranoia blinds him to the real problems facing our inner city schools in particular.
The Christie Administration’s main focus has been on the subject of accountability, and on that issue alone he deserves high marks. Setting in motion a system of performance review is a critical step, and while I agree with critics who believe that devising a fair system, one that utilizes qualitative as well as quantitative metrics, is problematic.
Breslin also bemoans efforts to encourage veteran teachers to consider early retirement as some kind of nefarious policy, but as one cog in the effort to get new teachers into our urban schools, early retirement is a reasonable position. Teachers have proven, for the most part, to be risk averse, and this is most evident- for different reasons I suspect- in our youngest and oldest teachers. Aversion to risk is a serious hindrance to innovation and reform, and anything we can do to encourage, and reward teachers to be risk takers are essential.
Charter schools will never, on their own, be able to provide broad reform to our education system in the current environment, where charters are seen as competitors rather than partners in the reform process. Individual families in the inner city do deserve the opportunity to send their children to quality schools, but rather than siphon off money, resources, and proactive families and students from the urban schools, I would rather the inner city public schools themselves be given the freedom to act like charter schools.
It is obvious to me that there is an unfortunate negative correlation between government intrusion and the performance of urban schools; greater government oversight and mandates has done nothing to improve performance in these schools, and in many cases performance has actually declined.
New Jersey public schools are not “under siege,” but they are being mismanaged, poorly staffed, unduly burdened by government, and resource poor. It will take comprehensive, holistic, iconoclastic solutions to improve the quality of instruction received by inner city students. The solutions to what ails our schools will be, in many cases, counterintuitive to conventional thinking, and that is a main reason that so little has been accomplished.
Rather than see charters as the enemy, Mr. Breslin should join me in calling for greater cooperation between our public and our charter schools, ; working together these schools can share ideas on “what works” and make a positive contribution to instruction and management.
More to the point, what public education requires for them to be successful is the adoption of a more entrepreneurial mindset. From management of the school to management of the classroom, we must kindle in our schools the entrepreneurial spirit that has proven so successful in our general economy.
In my next posting I will explore more deeply what it means to be an entrepreneurial educator, and how we can improve the quality of instruction delivered to our children in the inner city. This entrepreneurial spirit, when tied to essential reforms in our state curriculum and testing, and to the greater involvement of key stakeholders in our business and non-profit communities, holds the key to education’s future.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Sincerity of Choice Advocates and the Failure of Urban Education

While I am, and will continue to be a strong advocate for charter schools, I have to tell you that some of the most ridiculous drivel I hear in the education reform movement comes from supporters of school choice. A great example is today’s Trenton Times Op-Ed by Chris Boyajian in favor of choice and the Opportunity Scholarship Act.

The idea behind the Act, allowing parents in low performing districts to send their kids to the out of district school of their choice, is all well and good, but in reality will only benefit a very small number of the children in poor school districts. I sympathize with these parents and their kids, they are doing what any good parent would do and advocating for their kids. What drives me crazy is that people like Mr. Boyajian somehow rationalize that this Act will somehow benefit the poor school district these children were attending. “The OSA will effect (sp!) positive change in chronically failing districts by providing students with the funds necessary to attend the school of their choice.” Huh? Am I missing something?
Mr.Boyajian leaves it to our imagination to figure out how siphoning off the supposed “better students,” and the tuition money that would follow them, will benefit the “chronically failing district.” Exactly how will the school benefit?
Choice advocates give nothing but lip service to the notion of improving underperforming districts. Their concern is not with the schools, but with the individual students and families. Unless you are going to trudge out the unsubstantiated claim that losing these students will somehow spur competition among schools to keep these students, and that competition is in fact a desirable strategy for improving schools, then choice advocates should drop the canard and stick to their primary position that it is individual students, not schools, that they care about.
Bills like the OSA are mere window dressing, school reform on the cheap. There is so much that is dysfunctional in New Jersey’s educational system that nothing short of a complete paradigm shift will be needed. The need for iconoclastic thinking has never been greater. Holistic solutions to inner city education are urgently needed. Disuniting the urban and suburban schools in the policy making process is critical. Improving communication between urban public and charter schools is vital. Integrating the business community directly into the learning process in the inner city is essential. Enticing the best and brightest among our college graduates into a career in teaching would reap huge benefits, as would interjecting performance pay and/or performance ladders into the remuneration process. And getting the grip and domineering presence of the State out of the urban schools is paramount. Is it just a coincidence that the performance of these schools has plateaued or decreased as the number of state mandates and directives has risen? I don’t think so.
Urban schools are as dissimilar from suburban schools as oranges are to apples. The need for career and college tracking, for its own unique core content standards, and for its own graduation assessment, are all justified by realities “on the ground.” Of the 100 worst performing schools in the State, 99 of them are from DFG A,B,or C and are located in our urban areas. 
We really need to take a sober look at why a district like West Windsor-Plainsboro is so successful, and why Trenton is a failure. Until we take an honest look at the differences, and they go beyond just wealth, we will never be able to honestly improve our worst schools. Getting into college, and especially a top tier college, is a pervasive goal of the families in WW-P, and the parents have the resources to help make that a possibility. College is not, nor should it be the driving force at Trenton High School. But our state curriculum and state assessments are all influenced by this goal, expounded by our President, that every child should have college in their future. This way of thinking is holding back true progress in our urban schools.
In this day and age of MOOCS (massive open online courses), the need for having college as the organizing principle for urban high schools is no longer necessary. Soon these MOOCS will be offering certificate programs that employers will look as favorably upon as a traditional degree, maybe even more so since “MOOC students” can be designing a curriculum from colleges across the globe, tailored to meet existing opportunities in the modern workplace.
Boy did I go off on a tangent, so let’s get back to the original point. Choice advocates should drop the insincere position that choice will improve the quality of failing schools. It’s not their policy goal and would never achieve that policy goal. Choice advocates sole concern is individual families, and there is nothing wrong with that. That is one of many reasons why I support charter schools.   
As one component of a comprehensive education reform strategy, Opportunity Scholarships are all well and good, but if that is seen to be a major piece of the puzzle then we’re in a lot of trouble.