Monday, August 5, 2013

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.

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