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.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Bravo to Frank Breslin for His Attack on State Testing

Bravo to Frank Breslin for his recent Op-Ed in the Trenton Times decrying the State’s obsession with testing, an obsession that is turning our inner city schools into vast wastelands of learning. As Breslin notes, “Children need inspiration and excitement to come alive, not the ceaseless drills of a Prussian parade ground.” He goes on to state: “Only schools that offer a rich assortment of learning experiences can inspire children’s belief in themselves, for this is the alchemy that changes their view of the world and its limitless possibilities.”

I refer to Mr. Breslin’s piece because it beautifully reflects my disdain for what passes as education in our inner cities, and, more to the point, how the long reach of the State and its mandates has actually caused a digression in student achievement, as reflected in perpetually low test scores and the subsequent ranking of our inner city high schools as the poorest performing hundred schools in New Jersey.

I of course believe I have the solution by essentially transforming EVERY public high school into charter schools, by liberating these schools from the corrupted policies of the State and giving these schools and its teachers the freedom to design innovative courses where teachers can communicate and transfer their personal passion and knowledge into the young minds they are responsible for educating. Basic skills can be taught regardless of the instructional content. My anger is not directed at the new 21st Century Skills curriculum being adopted nationwide, but rather with the way in which our “experts” at the State level mandate that they be taught.

By turning our educators into entrepreneurs, by giving them the respect they generally deserve while holding them to a legitimate level of accountability, we can create schools with cultures of learning that will inspire, educate, and create classes of lifelong learners.

State policies do little to motivate or inspire teachers to aspire towards greatness in their own practices, so how can we expect those teachers to do all they can to reach our students. We need a new generation of entrepreneurial teachers in our classrooms, but we also need to do more to get our existing classroom professionals to excite our students about the wonders of the world. Once again, our government has proven that  it has no idea what to do when it comes to educating the next generation of young adults.


Monday, August 5, 2013

The Entrepreneurial Approach to Education

The key to understanding my approach to education reform is to focus on that symbol of American independence, innovation, and strength, the entrepreneur. Since our founding, entrepreneurs like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, and Steven Jobs have helped define "who we are" as a nation. Entrepreneurism is the great catalyst of America's economy, and it has always perplexed me why entrepreneurial spirit is so absent from our schools and the classroom. We hear teachers defined as many things, but never as entrepreneurs. I want to change that. I also believe that by defining teachers as entrepreneurs, we will attract a whole new breed of college educated specialists into the classroom, bringing greater knowledge, passion, and innovation into learning. In order to bring about this transformation, wholesale changes will need to be made, including changes to how teachers are paid, where we find our teachers, what we mandate to be taught, and how we reshape the culture of learning within the school.

If I were running a school, my first dictate would be that no future hire would have a degree in education. That is, frankly, the last place I want to find our next generation of teachers. Teaching is the ultimate "learn on the job, and learn by doing" occupation, and with proper, intense clinical supervision- every school should have at least one supervisor whose ONLY job is clinical supervision- I am convinced that we will not see the level of turnover we currently see among new teachers with STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) degrees for example. Teachers with specialized degrees, whether it is in economics, kinesiology, astronomy, or computer science, to cite but a few, will bring that aforementioned knowledge and passion into the classroom, qualities that to me are requisites for the innovation and risk taking we need among our faculties. Attracting these future college graduates will require some inducements, some financial and some "quality of life," and will invariably fall on our politicians and our administrators to provide.

I have studied the stories of dozens of entrepreneurs, and in doing so identified what I believe are the 5 characteristics of successful entrepreneurs: Passion, Organization, Knowledge, an Empowering nature, and mastery at Resource utilization. These characteristics make up what I call the POKER metrics for developing, evaluating, and rewarding teachers; these are the "lenses" in which we will observe our educators. (Time for a "plug:" The company I am trying to build, Entrepreneurial Educators, hopes to one day have these metrics detailed to where a school district can employ them to conduct the observations and evaluations recently mandated by Sen.Ruiz's legislation)

An entrepreneurial educator will demonstrate these metrics in their work, and should be rewarded with remuneration beyond that provided today with the asinine "years of service" model currently employed. I am tired of hearing this method called "the worst, except for all the rest." It is simply the worst. I am not saying that years of service should not be a component of pay, but to have it the exclusive method simply breeds mediocrity, contentment, risk aversion, and lethargy. Believe me when I tell you that my experience as a teacher made it clear that the better teachers at school loathe it. I'm not even saying that money for performance is the only alternative; there are many possible ways of rewarding teachers (having a scholarship created in their name, creating a performance ladder they can move up, giving them "gifts" provided by thankful stakeholders...) in addition to some type of merit pay. The important point is that it is incumbent on us to change, by doing so we may even prod those at the low end of the performance curve to move from the tail.

An entrepreneurial educator should be free to teach whatever they want, provided it meet some connection to the overall goals of school and the needs of future graduates. We simply have too many content requirements in public education, and it is time for those academics in charge of constructing them to stop being so parochial and "snotty" about what graduating students should know. I will go into this in more detail as well, but in short our core curriculum standards should be based solely on what graduates MUST know as a prerequisite for their diplomas, not what they should know or might know or would like to know.

Most adults remember little from the content they learned in high school; it is the skills that are important and the skills that should be the focus. Let the teachers inspire by teaching what they love and by empowering students to do the same. I am convinced that in this environment, with less onerous curriculum demands, that teachers can take the time to truly teach and assess, meaning that the students are actually learning content, not just "getting a taste" of this and that, which is what today passes for learning. Learning is a time consuming process, and by liberating teachers in the area of curriculum design we may find schools where a true culture of learning exists.

So there you have a basic overview of what it means to be an entrepreneurial educator. Think of our teachers as entrepreneurs, think of their course as their work product, and think of their students as future entrepreneurs being mentored by the "owner."

I can think of nothing more exhilarating for education than a school full of entrepreneurial educators. A really creative, thoughtful administrator might even find a way to instill a little healthy competition into the school's culture, maybe be utilizing a college registration type system that will create something akin to a "marketplace of ideas" in the building. I can already hear the complaints from those in love with "Professional Learning Communities (PLCs)" or with team teaching, but nothing I've outlined precludes their existence.

I'll admit to a little bias, but what I've introduced is a school I would love to attend. How about you?
Entrepreneurs have made our nation great, and have generated great wealth. Can't they also generate great learning?

Appearances Can Be Deceiving...the Lousy State of Education in New Jersey

I've been away from this blog for quite a while; quite frankly I got tired of feeling like I was just "spinning my wheels," that nothing I said was going to change a darn thing. And that probably is still the case, but there is just too much frustration bottled up inside me. For those who may not be familiar with my perspective, here's a primer on how I see NJ's public school system and the monstrosity- otherwise known as our state government- that is supposed to improve its performance.

First, there is absolutely no denying that there is horrendous inequity in the performance of our public schools, and that this inequity falls clearly along socioeconomic, demographic, and geographic lines. Put another way, our suburban school are by and large doing reasonably well, leading to the horribly misleading statistic that our schools have among the highest average SAT scores in the nation. The highest performing schools are all found from among the highest District Factor Groups, all  -with the exception of a few urban charters- are from the suburbs, and all are predominantly populated with white and Asian students that come from fairly stable middle and upper middle class families whose parents are well educated and professional.

This inequity has created a chasm so deep that there is almost nothing in common between urban and suburban schools, and that it literally makes no sense to have a Department of Education that sets policy for all schools as if they were more similar. The State is driven by a mentality that believes the purpose of high school is to prepare students for college.

This mentality guides the construct of our Core Curriculum Content Standards and HSPA test for graduation. These are, frankly, two items so removed from reality as to be laughable if the consequences weren't so serious. If the people writing the CCCS had even a nominal understanding about the neuroscience of learning and the time demands inherent in learning and assessment they would realize that their expectations are doing more harm than good.

The general population of teachers are filled with, for the most part, dedicated and well intended individuals that unfortunately lack the passion, knowledge, and personal perspicacity to deliver a high quality product. They are also a very risk averse bunch. This situation is made worse by the State's mandates.

Teacher remuneration is based on a "years of service" system that does nothing to reward excellence but does a lot to breed complacency and  mediocrity in product quality.

Even though the State has begun to implement an evaluation system meant to increase accountability, the unrealistic and onerous supervision provisions, and the overwhelming "paperwork requirements" placed on teachers  will invariably lead to a process that does little to improve performance but will give the appearance of working smoothly.

The demands placed by the State and Federal government on low performing urban schools has done NOTHING to improve performance over time. I have yet to see a longitudinal study that shows demonstrative gains at these schools, and in fact at many schools the trend has turned down.

The reform movement, almost exclusively focused on charter schools, with some cyber and home schooling splashed in, is steered by people with an individualistic, family centered approach to education. And while there is essentially nothing wrong with having a family focus, it does nothing to improve the futures of the vast majority of inner city students not in these schools. The movement really doesn't care about everybody else; they aren't being callous it just doesn't fit into their philosophy to care.

And finally, it is imperative that everyone understand that the failure of urban public schools reverberates through all of our lives. The failure of these schools will result in another generation of young people overly dependent on the State for their survival, and with limited resources, combined with limited opportunities, this will become a prescription for frustration, anger, and potential violence. Yes, I am one of those people who is convinced that our cities will explode like they did in the late 60's and early 70's.

There we have it, my general perspective on the education system in New Jersey. Having taught in West Windsor-Plainsboro for 21 years (pretty darn rich and high performing), but having spent a lot of time traveling through Trenton, I am often close to tears when I see the energy and spirit of young urban students who have yet to understand the challenges that lie ahead, challenges that they must endure simply by the consequence of birth. Where you are born and who you were born to are two things that a child has absolutely no control over, and the luck and chance of birth should not consign a child to a life of lost opportunities and inferior education.

So is there a way out of this mess; is there a way to elevate the quality of urban education to the level of a West Windsor? Probably not, actually, because there is so much more than just the schools that affect learning and future opportunities. A holistic approach, one that treats schools as part of a community rather than a separate construct, would be more successful as an approach but would also be much more costly and thus more difficult to enact. But there is much we can do to the schools, to those that work in the schools, and to the policies made by politicians and "experts" to make a real difference. What is needed is an iconoclastic approach; we have to be ready to "blow everything up" and literally start from scratch. We must assume that students are no longer required to attend school, and then design a school they would choose to attend every morning.

In the next few posts I will outline this iconoclastic approach to urban education. First we will focus on future teachers, the schools and the State, then move on to the families, the communities, and the stakeholders. When 99 of the 100 lowest performing high schools are all urban, something is clearly wrong and something clearly needs to be done. I hope to one day try to lobby Trenton to make the changes I am outlining, and maybe I can impress some of you enough that you'd be interested in joining my fight. It is a worthy fight, but, more importantly, it is a necessary fight. There is simply too much at stake.