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.