Tuesday, February 12, 2013

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.

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