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!

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