Monday, October 28, 2013

Today's Trenton Papers Highlight Need for Charters and a New State Curriculum

Two education related articles appeared in today’s Trenton papers, each of which raised an issue of consequence to the future of Trenton schools.

The Trentonian has been running a series comparing our city to Camden, and today’s focus was education. Camden schools have been taken over by the State, ostensibly to put an end to the corruption, cronyism, and patronage that has seriously compromised the quality of Camden schools. The implicit message of the piece was that a State takeover of Trenton may be a possible remedy to the problems in our District. An accompanying article highlighted the Leap Academy, one of several charter schools in Camden that has shown great results at graduating Camden students.
As far as a state takeover, all I would say is that I would be hesitant to support any policy that takes the decision making power even farther from the local level. That is not to say that local control has succeeded, put I would much rather improve things at the local level than place our students’ future in the hands of “experts” and politicians at the Capitol. Taken together, the two articles imply that expansion of charter schools and state control will together be a cure for Trenton’s dismal track record.

I don’t necessarily disagree with expanding charters, but my position is that what should be done is to turn ALL of our public schools into charter schools. If we were to liberate these schools from onerous mandates placed on our inner city districts, and, combined with an aggressive effort to find content specialists from our colleges, a salary system  that includes performance pay, and a commitment to intense clinical supervision, we can dramatically improve the quality of learning in our inner city schools, particularly at the three high schools. There is of course more to the equation, but creating a more teacher centered and student centered education system built around the charter school philosophy provides a great foundation.
The Trenton Times article, actually an Op-Ed, speaks to the need for “healthier lifestyles for Trenton’s students.” The point of the article is that Trenton schools need to become more “green,” and that the school curriculum should make a more concerted effort to teach health and fitness to better address serious health issues such as obesity. And by “greening” the schools we can also better prepare our students for career opportunities that will begin to emerge in a “green economy.”

I definitely agree with the author, Doug Demeo, but would take the issue a step further. I believe that our State’s Core Curriculum Content Standards and HSPA exam are a complete disservice to our inner city students, and think that we need to completely rethink what it is that students MUST learn as a condition for graduation. In this rethinking there should be a place for Health, Fitness, and Environmental Awareness, and that this should be one of the new categories required under a revamped CCCS. All students should graduate demonstrating competency or mastery of content in this area. By demonstrating knowledge in this area students will be prepared to maintain a better quality of life for themselves and their children; it is an unfortunate reality that a significant number of graduates will soon become parents themselves, placing a high level of responsibility on them to take better care of themselves and their children. It is hard to look at the existing Core Content requirements and not believe that we can pare it down significantly, making room for content in this area.
So taken together, these articles suggest several things that we can do to improve our inner city schools. Make our schools more entrepreneurial by making a commitment to turn them into something akin to charter schools, and then redesign our content standards to make room for learning a “healthy lifestyle.” Don’t just teach it, but require that it be learned by making it part of the HSPA, thus holding teachers more accountable for teaching the content.

Creative thinking is definitely at a premium in Trenton, and changes like these definitely fall within this domain. Let’s hope that our legislators will reconsider how we teach and what we teach in our inner city schools, because we are currently on a path to failure, and failure, whether by our students or our politicians, should never be an option.

Friday, October 25, 2013

It is Time to Creat a Department of Urban Education

It is time for New Jersey to acknowledge what has been obvious for decades; urban and suburban school systems are fundamentally different in almost every way. The issues they face are fundamentally different. Their needs are fundamentally different. And the solutions to their problems are fundamentally different. 

If we are to believe all of the research that strongly suggests correlations between student achievement and “environmental” variables outside of the school’s reach, then we have to conclude that the most effective solutions to problems in education must be “localized,” that policies made in Trenton must be fungible so they can be more effectively carried out.

All of the mandates, rules, and requirements coming out of Trenton regarding the curriculum has, based on longitudinal studies, resulted in no statistically significant improvement, and in some areas performance has digressed. No improvement in graduation rates have emerged, and 99 of the 100 worst performing high schools still come from the inner city. Clearly, whatever has been tried has proven ineffective. Maybe what is needed is some counterintuitive thinking, some risk taking, and some radical reform in our State's approach to education.

We have unique problems in the inner city environment, problems ranging from issues at home to the influences and involvement of the local community to the availability of resources to complement learning to the relationship between the schools and stakeholders in the region.
The reason I bring this up is that I believe we need to create what would essentially be a Department of Urban Education. This “Department” should be singularly focused on the inner city and may in fact consider hiring people assigned the task of facilitating the relationship between individual schools or regions with the State, in a sense becoming ombudsmen for these schools. The Department would act as a “support system” for the schools as they try to revamp their culture of learning.
The main issue that this disengagement from the suburban districts would bring involves state mandates and requirements in areas such as testing, curriculum, and graduation. There would be differences between the two; this is not to suggest that we create something “easier” for the urban schools, just different. I strongly believe that there should be a different set of core content standards and a different graduation test for urban schools; our current system gives the impression that our schools are designed solely to prepare kids for college, and that the purpose of the CCCS and HSPA should be to monitor and assess that preparation. But college is not the goal of everyone, nor should it be, and feeding into that mantra is doing a disservice to many of our inner city students. In other blogs I have and will continue to detail what I have in mind as far as the "urban CCCS and HSPA."
This would be an enormous undertaking, but in my mind an absolutely essential one. One of the consequences of this new policy would be a decentralization of decision making from Trenton to the local schools; seeing as that they are primarily responsible for the implementation of new rules or mandates (which I hope would be minimal) and the utilization of any resources provided by Trenton, it just makes more sense that the decisions be made by those most aware of the school and the community. What I would essentially want to do is turn each urban school into the equivalent of a charter school, with all high school teachers drawn from content areas at college and with a performance pay element to their salary structure. This reform idea should make conservatives, as I'm trading an approach heavy on government interference for one that returns education to the local level and draws on local stakeholders to effectively partner with these schools.
A new Department of Urban Education does suggest “more government,” but in reality we are just creating two entities rather than one. It is like slicing the apple in two; you don’t have more apples, just two smaller ones.
Our urban students are on the precipice of a future not much different from their parent(s). The cycle of poverty and over-dependence on State services will continue unabated unless new opportunities are available. It is wonderful when the “fortunate few,” those students, who, with the right support, were able to navigate the system and graduate with a bright future. But it is the responsibility of our society to create a system where opportunity is more broadly accessible, then it is up to the student, with support from the family, to take the reins and help themselves.
By creating an Urban Department of Education we are telling our inner city residents that we care, and isn’t that really what these residents need; some reason to hope. It is my hope we could make this happen.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Teach NJ is Ruining the Profession

"I love teaching, but I hate my job."
"I don't know one teacher who hasn't been to a doctor to be evaluated for stress."
"I wouldn't be surprised if every teacher in this building is on Xanax."
"If you know anyone that has expressed an interest in teaching, tell them to find some other profession, there is no way I would ever have gone into teaching under these conditions."
"Teachers walk around like zombies. All you hear all day is "Domain 4," "that's Domain 2,"...

These are just some of the comments I heard from teachers over the course of a conversation over dinner last night. These veteran teachers don't know even one colleague that is satisfied with Teach-NJ, and supposedly the Danielson Model used by their District is the least onerous of the three options offered by the State.

For the life of me I still don't understand why the State did not let each school District, or maybe a few districts working in collaboration, devise their own system for evaluating teachers. The argument that the State wanted uniformity doesn't hold water because they are offering three options and because any expectation that administrators from district to district will handle the evaluations similarly is extremely unlikely.

Meanwhile, while this system manifests itself in what will probably be horrible ways, our inner city schools will continue to struggle. The opportunity cost of Teach-NJ is enormous, as I suspect that this legislation will take the place of meaningful reforms to target these schools. Teach-NJ is a distraction from the real needs of these schools for visionary administrators determined to create a culture of learning that motivates and empowers both teachers and students.

Teach-NJ is a systematic effort to play "gotcha" with teachers. There are certainly incompetent teachers that need to be fired, but this is a problem that could be better addressed at the district level. There is a real possibility that Teach-NJ will end up removing a cohort of teachers that may have been poorly placed or that simply need a better support network in place to improve their performance.

I wonder how we are going to find the skilled new teachers our State will soon require as older teachers retire, frustrated teachers gravitate to the private sector, and the poor teachers are removed. Teach-NJ is a total turn off, and with no real countervailing incentives to attract college seniors, it is unlikely we will find the young people we need.

I'm beginning to realize how good I had it  when I taught years ago, with a supervisor that respected my intelligence and passion and gave me relative free reign to design my own curriculum and risk take for the sake of designing a quality product. Those days are long gone, as will many qualified but disgusted teachers if something isn't done soon to address their concerns.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Danielson Model, oy vay

One of the evaluative systems approved for use by the State is called the Danielson Model. To understand why Teach-NJ is problematic one need only take a cursory look at the structure of this Model.

As I mentioned in a recent post, one of the greatest problems with Teach-NJ is the lack of ownership felt by teachers in the formulation of the legislation. Teachers simply aren’t going to be enthusiastic about something that has such significant consequences for their careers if they feel the policy has been imposed on them “from the top-down.” That is just the reality of it. Well, adding to the lack of ownership in the legislation is the lack of participation in the models and metrics that will impact their livelihood. Looking at the Danielson Model, we see 4 domains: Planning and Preparation, Classroom Environment, Instruction, and Professional Responsibilities. This is all well and good, but within those 4 domains there are what are called 22 Components, and within these 22 Components are 76, that’s 76, elements. Yes, the Danielson Model has completely dissected “what it is that defines a teacher” and holds teachers accountable to demonstrate competent or exemplary performance in 76 ways and maybe more if the Components have to be addressed as a whole.

I’m thinking back to my years as a teacher and am trying to think about 76 different facets to my job. If you assume, as it is fair to do, that teachers must write the equivalent of an essay at the very least for each element then you have created a system that is so cumbersome and time consuming that it must negatively impact their ability to do the already time consuming planning, creative, and critical thinking that goes with teaching a course. I certainly hope that teachers at the middle and elementary schools, most of whom teach multiple subjects, don’t have to write on each subject.

Even worse than all of this work being dumped on the teachers is the assumption that administrators must read and score all of this information, all the while doing the existing responsibilities that come with their job AND the self-evaluations they are also required to complete. No wonder teachers are already being told there will be delays in getting their work back to them. I simply don’t see how administrators are actually going to do all this, which in turn makes a mockery of the system in the eyes of teachers.

I was also told by several teachers that they will be subject to (3) classroom observations. Now on the face of it there is nothing wrong with that, but two of those observations are "unannounced." If the objective of Teach-NJ is to improve teacher performance, unannounced observations are not the way to go since there won't be a pre-conference, an essential element of an effective clinical observation. I was also told that in one of the other models their will instead be (7) 10-20 minute observations. So these administrators won’t even be sitting through an entire instructional period. Another joke. If true, that is unfair to the teachers and, frankly, to the students who are supposed to be the true beneficiaries of this system of accountability.

The more I hear about Teach-NJ, the more objectionable I find it. It is not that I don’t believe we should be holding teachers accountable, but that this method is beyond tedious and, in the pursuit for accountability, has completely discounted what I believe is the more immediate need for improved teacher performance. Teach-NJ is too passive in its approach to improved performance, making it a tangential rather than primary focus of the Act.

I’ve always believed that if you are going to complain about something you should have some alternative of your own to offer, so I will.

I believe that teachers should view themselves as entrepreneurs, and as such I also believe that they should be evaluated, and mentored, through the lenses of an entrepreneur. I spent many hours researching the “success stories” of dozens of entrepreneurs and found 5 lenses that I would look through, those lenses being the metrics I would use in place of the Danielson Model.  Most importantly, I would NOT have teachers demonstrate skill in 76 areas.

A successful entrepreneur, and hence a successful teacher must demonstrate 5 things and be able to demonstrate how they have instilled those 5 things in their students as well: Passion, Knowledge, Organization, Empowerment, and Resourcefulness. I realize these aren’t the most pedagogical of terms, and my more specific metrics might not be filled with the convoluted and often meaningless terms used in education, but frankly I believe that these metrics are more “teacher friendly” and much easier for a teacher to demonstrate as measures of their skill as an educator. Aren’t these the qualities that we want in our teachers? I would have each teacher build a portfolio of their work based on a few rubrics, and then supplement the portfolio with summaries and an end of year interview.

I have seen too many trashcans filled with the work of teachers; teachers who were told how important and essential this work was to complete. And I have seen too many administrators overlook excellent work and instead make decisions based on their personal biases and assumptions. This could obviously happen in any system, even mine, but when I think of all this work being done by teachers and then imagine it gathering dust in a file cabinet I can’t help but think there has to be a better, less time consuming way.

I hope that our legislators and the Department of Education will soon announce that they will review Teach-NJ to see how it can be improved, and that they bring in a cross-section of teachers to participate in that review, because as I see it now, Teach-NJ is amounting to a lot of work by educators that feel adrift in a system that will affect their lives. That is not a good thing.

Mr.Summers Excellent OpEd is Noteworthy for What is Not in There

Joseph V. Summers wrote an excellent Op-Ed in today’s Trenton Times, but I think I will remember the essay more for what is NOT in the piece rather than the actual content. The subject of the Op-Ed is the teaching profession. Mr. Summers is confronting head on efforts to demean and diminish the profession,  expressing his support for education and appreciation for teachers. His main point is that teaching is a “learned art,” and that taking shortcuts on the road to a career in teaching will result in poor performance and failure in the goals of inspiring learning and serving as positive role models.

I strongly support his belief that the best way to train new teachers and motivate them to stay in the profession is to provide a strong support system utilizing master teachers to mentor and clinical supervisors to provide collaborative  (or directed) supervision.  I have always argued that every school in the State should have a supervisor whose only job is to provide clinical supervision. And I can attest to the utility of a master teacher; as an Alternate Route teacher I was assigned two mentors that proved invaluable.

But as the title of this blog and the first sentence suggests, the essay left out one traditional component to teacher preparation, that being a degree in education. I hope the omission was intentional, because I am adamant in my belief that our next generation of high school teachers in particular should NOT be those with a degree in secondary education.  As Mr. Summers article suggests, teaching is learned “on the job,” by trial and error, and those that are knowledgeable, passionate, organized, resourceful, and empowering will have a great likelihood of success if that aforementioned support system is in place.

An education degree is superfluous for success in the classroom, and we should be finding our teachers from the private sector and from those graduating with “specialized degrees” in content areas.  I hope that our “leaders” in education will provide the resources to attract people into education and then support them once they enter the profession. This is the only way we will be able to reduce the “drop out“rate in teaching and give students the kind of people that will inspire them to greatness. It is the students of course that will be the true beneficiaries of improvements to teacher quality, and they are certainly worth the effort.

Monday, October 21, 2013

More Problems with Teach-NJ

As I mentioned in my last posting, the Law of Unintended Consequences will prevail with Teach-NJ, an honest attempt to improve teacher accountability- not performance- by introducing evaluative metrics into the profession. However, the onerous nature of these metrics is going to have a collateral effect that is far worse than the benefits being gained by the current system in place.

New Jersey has a real and profound need to recruit a new corps of teachers with expertise in fields other than education. Getting college graduates with degrees in biology, computer science, economics, accounting, and any number of "specialized fields" is going to require some serious incentives to dissuade these people from taking jobs in the corporate world.

We have already seen the horrible track record in education with retaining STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) teachers; more than 60% leave teaching within a year. Well, the problem I foresee is that the current metrics are so ridiculously heavy in paperwork and online that it will be a complete turnoff to these graduates, who by nature are much more entrepreneurial in outlook and will shy away from this top-heavy form of work management. It's not that the business world doesn't have similar demands, but these graduates would be earning far more money to compensate them for this work.

The need for these teachers, especially in the inner city, is far more immediate than the need to bury teachers in piles of paperwork. I sincerely hope that the State will revisit the Teach-NJ program and find a way to reduce the heavy demands it is placing on teachers; we need to reduce the emphasis on accountability and balance it with a program to improve teacher performance; they are NOT the same thing.

By modifying Teach-NJ to emphasize performance, these college graduates will also see that the education profession is committed to having a program in place to help these new teachers, most if not all of whom will be in the Alternate Route. This commitment to better training will serve as another incentive to persuade these graduates to choose teaching rather than the lab or office.

I implore our State officials and politicians to begin an evaluation of Teach-NJ immediately, bearing in mind its potential impact on recruiting new teachers. Our inner cities need these new teachers, and our current teachers need some relief. We can do better; we must do better; but will we do better?

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Teach-NJ off to Inauspicious Start

Though I left teaching several years ago, I still have many friends in the business, and they are underwhelmed by the launching of Teach-NJ. I heard from one teacher who told me that under the current metrics demanded by their districts chosen system her weekly lessons plans are 15 PAGES LONG. Do you have any idea how much time is consumed to produce such lengthy plans, time that could be better used attending to other features of her curriculum and activities? She also mentioned being told by administrators that there will be about a 6 month delay in getting their evaluation of her required self-evaluation paperwork back to her. First of all, if these are to instructive evaluations for the teachers, how can this feedback be truly helpful? And what if we reach a point where merit pay is tied to these evaluations? The time lag would completely disrupt the whole remuneration process.

This teacher was recently visited by an administrator, who spent 20 minutes visiting her class and gave here feedback that made no sense had this supervisor actually attended the entire instructional period. Supervisors in some of these districts would have to conduct several hundred evaluations to fulfill their job requirements under Teach-NJ.

The reams and reams of paperwork and the hundreds of hours being spent on-line to attend to each of the specific elements of these evaluative metrics simply cannot be seen as a positive influence on classroom instruction. The end result of this legislation is to create a system where, if teachers and administrators actually abide by all of the features, classroom instruction will be negatively impacted. And on the other hand, if schools decide to "cut corners" and "fudge" the work product in order to get things completed on time, then it simply makes a mockery of the legislation's intent. Either way, the bottom line is that Teach-NJ is on course to become an onerous imposition on teachers and learning.

It has always been my contention that Teach-NJ was designed to emphasize accountability, an admittedly worthy goal, at the expense of improved performance. It is "gotcha" legislation that is filled with problems, notably its application throughout the spectrum of employees in a school.

From the start, the fundamental mistake was the lack of true teacher input in the process. I have yet to find even one teacher that feels like they have any "ownership" of the process; I consider this a fatal flaw that will lead Teach-NJ to end up being more "destructive" than "constructive."

My concern is that since we have already moved forward with Teach-NJ, it will be very difficult to take "two steps back" and rethink the system, especially the choice of metrics made available by the State to conduct these so-called evaluations.

Once again the Law of Unintended Consequences will end up ruling the day, and a opportunity to create a system that truly strives to improve teacher performance will have been lost. If problems like the few I brought up earlier can be tying up in knots a high performance district like the one my friend works in, I can only imagine what is going on in our poorer performing school systems.

My position is that New Jersey should have let each of the suburban districts, the vast majority of whom are doing a good job preparing their kids, to develop their own metrics for holding teachers accountable and improving teacher performance, and put the State's financial resources into creating programs to help our urban schools. It is analogous to the fight against AIDS; even though there were actually a few very specific geographic areas where AIDS had destructive potential, we instead spread our resources out to every district in the State rather than target that money where it could do the most good.

It really is time to take a step back with Teach-NJ, because I'm afraid that if we take another step forward we are going to step in something pretty messy.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Shortcomings in US Education Policy and Why We Don't Compare to Other Nations

In the Op-Ed page of today's Trenton Times, Mary Sanchez laments that "(this) elite has made war against any policy that aims to produce equality of outcomes." Her insinuation is that there has been a conscious effort by policy makers to construct an education policy that essentially keeps the poor from developing the requisite skills for higher level thinking. By focusing policy on quantitative metrics and basic skills, and with our political leaders seemingly trying to micro-manage education, our system of education is failing to provide that “lift” so desperately needed in our inner cities.

She points to the correlation between poor education and poverty and points to a very real concern that the traditional belief in attainable upward mobility among the poor is no longer the case, and that educational outcomes are serving to perpetuate a cycle of poverty destined to trap this and future generations.

Now there is some hope that the new Common Core, with its emphasis on skill development, will contribute to an improvement in the quality of education provided to those in our urban centers. And Ms. Sanchez is absolutely correct that there is a huge chasm between the quality of education in our suburbs and inner cities.
The problem is that the issues impacting our inner city schools go way beyond the schools themselves. They are impacted by the concentration of poverty among minorities, something not seen with the white urban poor. They are impacted by the high rate of single mothers. They are impacted by the lack of role models and middle class values in poor communities. They are impacted by the lack of participation by stakeholders in the business community and by the lack of enrichment programs and resources available to poor minorities. They are impacted by the lack of “content expertise” among educators and by the absence of a salary structure that rewards exemplary work.

These deficiencies require money, but not the “throwing more money at schools” type money. Financial resources must be strategically allocated. And though this is a sensitive and touchy subject, social and economic policies must be constructed that make poverty more diffuse in minority communities.

As for our schools, besides the obvious need to improve the quality of our next generation of teachers through more clinical supervision and through policies that attract college graduates with “specialized degrees,” there is a real need to rethink how we view the teaching profession and rethink the relationship between urban schools and our political leaders. And finally, we need to rethink this obsessive belief that college is the essential need and goal for all high school students, that a college degree is the only real path to upward economic mobility. The purpose of high school is much more than simply preparing kids for college; we are preparing these students to be citizens that can achieve the skills and taught the content that is necessary for them to be independent, healthy, literate (in many areas), civic minded, and able to self-advocate.
The education puzzle has so many pieces that must fit together I question how much of it we can complete. Part of the problem is that some solutions, such as giving schools (ideally led by visionary rather than bureaucratic administrators) more, not less autonomy, seem counter intuitive. I will try to be optimistic, but given the apparent lack of sincerity and will among our leaders, I doubt it.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Making Inner City Students Tech and Health Savvy

Two recent news items raised issues that have important possible ramifications for education in the inner city. The first, an article in the most recent Atlantic Monthly, pointed out that an important shift is occurring in the allocation of start-up capital, namely that more and more of that money is now targeting the inner city, reflecting a growing interest among young entrepreneurs and other workers in the tech industry to live and work in urban centers. As a matter of fact the Trenton/Ewing area was listed as the 19th most popular area for new start-up capital. Its relevance to urban education cannot be overlooked, and it is incumbent on academics, politicians, and administrators to recognize this shift and begin to emphasize practical, technology centered learning in our inner city schools. That same article even made mention of a school name “CodeHS” because literally all of the students are being taught to write code, an important, practical skill that will pay huge dividends to those in attendance.

This influx of “techno-capital” into the region demands that schools like the three Trenton High Schools take this opportunity and reorient its curriculum to provide training in writing code and other fields that might be in demand to these companies migrating into the region. It is also a great opportunity for the administrators at these schools to develop partnerships with stakeholders that might have an interest in young people with these skill sets.

What this also shows is that public schools, rather than be tethered to the State and the demands it places on curriculum, be given greater flexibility to design its own learning culture, one that reflects the particular needs and demands of the region.

A second piece, this one an OpEd in the Trenton Times, noted a recent initiative at the Millhill Child and Family Development Center that is using a federal grant to give students hands-on experience with gardening, in particular the growing of fruits and vegetables. Most of Trenton is a “food desert,” with little opportunity for families to purchase fresh produce. The lack of a well- balanced diet directly correlates with the high percentage of obese children in the inner city. These high levels of obesity will follow these children throughout their lives, costing our health system millions of dollars and compromising the child’s ability to be productive workers as they grow older.

I point this out because one of my ongoing grievances against New Jersey’s Core Content Curriculum Standards and the HSPA is their lack of relevance to the “real world.” You can more detailed analyses of these problems in other postings, but the salient point is that Health, Fitness, and Nutrition, items usually taught in the Health and Physical Education Department, should be a required part of the CCCS, and the learning should be assessed as a component of the HSPA. The CCCS and HSPA should reflect those things that all high school graduates must know if they are to succeed as independent, empowered, and aware young adults. Can anyone really argue that a strong understanding of personal health, nutrition, and fitness aren’t essential needs, and as such goals of our education system. Many of these young adults may soon be parents, and this understanding is crucial if they are to be responsible parents as well.

The bottom line is that the content being taught in our urban high schools must reflect the needs and demands of the community, and that these schools must have the power to manipulate the curriculum at the local level so that these schools are able to provide learning that is relevant and useful. This is going to require a change in thinking among our leaders in Trenton, and in some cases will require officials to allow decision-making to be centered at the local level. I hope our leaders are up to the task.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Government Finally Gets It Right with Common Core

Public education has been on the front burner of government policy since President Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative. Unfortunately, that legislation has ushered in a new paradigm where testing and “edumetrics” (my term) have consumed most of the resources and dictated the flow of research and grant funds. We have become a nation obsessed with testing, making it the most prominent lens through which we assess success or failure. Unfortunately, reviewing the tests and much of the funds allocated through programs like Title I have produced empirical evidence that actually shows a negative correlation when looked at in terms of student achievement in the inner city. These disappointing results would leave one less than sanguine when word of new government initiatives is announced. That it is why I must admit to being pleasantly surprised by the new Common Core Standards being adopted by almost every state in the Union.  For once, the states-with support from the Federal government- are doing something right in public education, and it deserves acknowledgement.

The Common Core Standards, at least in the area of Social Studies (part of the English/Language Arts component), focus exclusively on skill development. Whether intentional or not, this focus gives tacit acknowledgement to the fact that our education policy makers are completely off base in their determination of what students learn in our social studies courses. New Jersey’s content standards are nothing more than an exercise in ego massaging for the academics responsible for determining required course content.

I won’t bore you with the details of the hundreds of “core progress indicators” and the ridiculous amount of minutiae integrated into the content standards, this even after a revision to reduce these metrics occurred several years ago. The basic problem is that these content requirements are more an expression of what these academics “would like” students to know rather than what they “must” know. Given the amount of time that is actually required to present, reinforce, and assess classroom material, the required content is rarely learned. Most of the content is remembered long enough to pass a test, then quickly forgotten. True learning is extremely time consuming and rarely occurs.

Current research in neuroscience on the "science of learning" confirms my suspicion that little true learning of the content takes place in the classroom. Most of us remember very little from high school; it is imperative that we both narrow down the required content to only those items students must learn as high school graduates,  and redefine what that required content should be.

Making these changes will serve two important goals. First, it will help our graduates become aware of our institutions, our economy, our culture, our history, our laws, and our future. And second, it will “liberate” teachers so that they will have more freedom to develop courses that reflect their passion and knowledge; this will have a dramatically positive impact on student achievement.

By combining the ambitious and meaningful Common Core skill requirements with new Core Content  requirements, the result will be independent, empowered, and aware young adults better equipped to succeed in our society. It is these goals, and not preparation for college, that should be our interest with regard to our next generation of citizens. The beauty of emphasizing skill development is that they can be reinforced "across the curriculum." It is these skills that we learn in high school that pay real dividends in college and the workplace. With the adoption of the Common Core, New Jersey and most other states have taken a huge step in the right direction. Well done, for a change.