Sunday, November 24, 2013

Mr. Stoolmacher is Right, A State Takeover is No Solution to What Ails Our Urban Schools

A recent Op-Ed in the Trenton Times, authored by noted area consultant Irwin Stoolmacher, challenged the notion that a state takeover of education is a panacea for struggling school districts like Trenton. I fully support his position, a position that gives added weight to conservative beliefs in keeping decisions on education local as much as possible.

The involvement of government is always conditional, and I have rarely seen state or federal action in education that has proven successful other than situations where it is primarily contributing resources and allowing decisions to be made by those responsible for the endeavors organization and performance, such as with Head Start and other early education initiatives.

Government is notoriously weak in the area of administration and has a track record of creating dense and far reaching bureaucracies. Frankly, the last thing education needs are more bureaucrats. The state can point to some districts where improvement was claimed, but I suspect that in some cases the success is superficial, and in other cases the success was probably attributable to innovative leadership and the participation of stakeholders.

Ford Motors learned along time ago that it was the workers on the assembly line, and not the suits "upstairs," that best understood the process and the most efficient ways to produce the product. The same is true with education. I am adamant that the best position to take in education is the "conservative" position in so far as that schools and school districts should function autonomously; ideally each school would be filled with teachers possessing an entrepreneurial spirit. I realize that to most it seems counter-intuitive to decentralize decision-making when dealing with failing schools, but I contend that it is because the damage done by the state is so pervasive, from its failure to properly allocate resources to its test obsessiveness to its choice of core content requirements, and so on.

Mr. Stoolmacher's main point, which I also agree with, is that our failure to address income inequality in general, and poverty in particular, is the single most important factor contributing to failures in urban education. As I regularly point out in this blog, 99 of the 100 poorest performing schools are in urban areas in the lowest "District Factor Groupings." This fact cannot be ignored, and no amount of state intrusion through a takeover is going to change that. Attacking poverty goes beyond simple economics; the social and cultural dimensions to poverty cannot be ignored either. Increasing socio-economic diversity is a related and equally important goal.

If the State really wants to help public education, declaring a new war on poverty would be a great start. This is of course a long term endeavor, and along the way there are many steps that can be taken to make education more relevant, more passionate, and more incentivized for both students and teachers, with more opportunities for both groups of stakeholders to benefit from contributing to a school's success.

So let's end this talk of a state takeover, and let's instead deal with the true causes of failure in our urban schools with honesty, transparency, and action. Our urban schools are no less than a natural disaster, and our attention to them should be no different.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Trenton TImes Article Suggests A Correlation Between Race and Achievement; I Thought We've Moved Beyond That!

In todays Trenton Times an article indicated that NJ students transitioned to the new HSPA and ASK tests reasonably well, with no significant drop in test scores. This was taken as a good sign, obviously, as New Jersey further integrates the national Common Core standards into the state curriculum and tests.

However, one area of concern is still not being resolved, that being the performance gap between white students and students that are either Hispanic or African-American. I've written extensively in this blog concerning strategies I believe will close that gap, but my issue today is slightly different.

I take exception to the continued use of race as a variable being used to identify issues in student performance; this categorization strongly implies that there are differences among students that can be tied to race. Frankly, I thought we have moved beyond this, unless the suggestion is that race is actually meant to refer to culture. Either way, this grouping by race completely misses the point.

The achievement gap between whites, blacks, and Hispanics is actually an income and poverty issue, not a race issue. There is abundant evidence that income levels among blacks and Hispanics is significantly lower than for whites, and this gap is compounded by the fact that, unlike with poor whites, poverty among blacks and Hispanics is heavily concentrated.

The reality is that, by and large, rich kids do well on these tests, poor kids do not. It is really that simple, but for some reason our reporters and/or our political leaders refuse to focus on income rather than race. Until we aggressively address the income issue by supplementing the income of the poor by providing greater access to educational resources, find ways to encourage urban neighborhoods to achieve more economic diversity, disperse the minority poor to alleviate the "concentration" issue, and target government resources and policies towards these poorer communities and schools to provide some countervailing improvements in other areas, we will continue to fail in our responsibilities to these children.

It would be a great start if we could lay to rest the suggestion that race has some bearing on academic performance, and lay the blame where it squarely belongs, on income. The free market understandably produces winners and losers, and income inequity in our economy is a necessary condition. However, education is different, and these inequities can never be tolerated. Understanding the causes for this inequity seems like a great place to start.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Let's Consider Why Inner City Schools Perform So Poorly

Education will always remain in the forefront in discussions of the health and dynamism of our economy and our political institutions, as it should be. Locally, the dominant issue is the condition of Trenton High School and its impact on teachers, students, and the learning process. At the state level we are preoccupied with the recent tenure reform legislation designed to improve teacher accountability. And at the national level the new Core Curriculum is front and center. I do my best to address issues at all three levels. In the briefest of terms, the items below are what I consider to be the most salient variables that affect teacher performance and successful student learning:

1) Characteristics of Community 2) Access to Resources 3) Engagement of Family 4) Culture of School 5) Development of Teachers 6) Teacher Selection Process 7) Teacher Motivation 8) Student Empowerment 9) Envisioning the Future 10) Public Policy and Government Mandates 11) Availability of Alternatives 12) Co-curricular Opportunities

Today I want to focus on the first item. This has recently drawn my attention after reading an article that noted a statistically significant difference in graduation rates at Trenton's two main high schools, Trenton Central and Trenton West. According to the article there is almost a 30% difference between the two schools, with West having a 78% graduation rate. This is the second consecutive year that this gap existed, but I have yet to hear of anyone in authority making an effort to find out why!!! I sincerely hope, frankly, that this more a matter of oversight than an effort to avoid an issue that may raise sensitive issues about the communities feeding either school.

Months ago I raised a hypothetical question that relates to this issue. Rather than ask what Trenton could do to produce results similar to West Windsor-Plainsboro South, I flipped the issue on its head and asked whether it was conceivable that results at WWPS could ever deteriorate to the level of Trenton. I limited my focus to the characteristics of the community, and in doing so it is clear that such a devolution could never occur. By the same token, I am confident that, assuming that the community characteristics stay constant, Trenton West will continue to maintain relatively high graduation rates.

So what is it about communities that I find so telling? First, the education level of the parents, and the percentage of two parent families. Second, the number of children born out of wedlock. Third, the availability of learning opportunities outside the confines and control of the school. Fourth, the presence of role models within the neighborhood. Fifth, the primary value system in the community. Sixth, the rate of violent crime. Seventh, family income levels and the concentration of poverty. And finally, home valuations. Taken together, these conditions exert an enormous influence on student achievement. I'm really just describing rather than explaining the importance of these variables, I'll have to save that for another day. If you would like some prima facie evidence of the enormous impact this variable has, one need look no further than NJ's list of the best and worst performing schools. And while there are some occasional successes in urban areas, almost exclusively at a few charter schools, the fact is that 95 of the top 100 schools come from districts with the highest "factor groups," and 99 of the 100 worst schools come from districts with the lowest factor groupings.  

This variable raises issues that are extremely sensitive to a lot of people, which may explain why solutions in the inner city are rarely discussed. Unfortunately, until they are our inner city schools will continue to flounder. Do we start busing again? Do we creative incentives to discourage pregnancy among single women? Do we encourage suburbanites to migrate into the cities? Do we literally "close down" our worst neighborhoods disperse the residents? Is race an issue, or is it more likely an income problem?

These and other questions must become part of the discussion on education. The question is whether there are any influential people with the courage to begin it? I hope so, but I doubt it, and that is a shame.  

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Some Positive News in Trenton on the Issue of Co-Curricluar Activities

Today's Trenton Times ran a story of page one that gives me some cause for optimism concerning the new Superintendent, but it also provided information that demands attention and scrutiny from District officials if we are to have any hope for improvement in student performance.

The positive news concerns Superintendent Duran's decision to expand extracurricular options for middle school students. In this day and age of tight school budgets, all too often it is extracurricular activities that are first to be cut; just look at Philadelphia and how they have decimated such activities throughout the city.

Extracurricular activities- I prefer to call them co-curricular activities- can play an integral role in improving classroom performance. Many studies show a strong correlation between the two. Participating in such programs helps strengthen the bond between student and the school, and the skills learned in these programs have collateral benefits for these students in the classroom. Moreover, these programs can, at the high school level, lead to important scholarship opportunities. And finally, a well run co-curricular program will involve some sort of tutoring program to directly improve student performance.

Taken together, these benefits far exceed any cost savings derived from eliminating after school activities. I applaud the Superintendent for taking a leadership role in this area, I would just suggest that he begin to adopt the term "co-curricular" in further communications; it is much harder to argue for something considered "part of" the academic program rather than something that is "extra."

The other interesting item in the article concerns graduation rates at the three high schools. As in the past, the percentage of students graduating High School West far exceeds the graduation rate at the other two high schools. It is imperative that the District begin a study to better understand the reasons for the disparity. That understanding could lead to actions at the other high schools, particularly the Chambers Street Campus, to help bridge the gap. The causes may relate to faculty, they may relate to demographics, or they may relate to some variables previously unconsidered. Whatever the result, failing to undertake this study would be a huge disservice to families in the District. Knowledge can never be a bad thing, and gaining a better grasp on the issue of student graduation and drop out rates can only be seen as a good thing. Some people may not like the "answers," but discomfort with the facts cannot be a reason not to find these answers.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

A "Radically Conservative" Solution to Our Inner City Schools: Make Them ALL Charters

It is hard to find anyone in the education reform movement or among our legislators that is not smitten with charter schools. Our new Senator and our Governor are also among the proponents, and the isolated but dramatic success stories of some charters seems to lend credence to those who want to increase their numbers. As far as I'm concerned, its actually time to "go all the way."

Let me explain. I do not support the current charter school movement- for a lot of reasons- because I believe it shifts the philosophical emphasis in education to individual families rather than to the population at large. I don't disagree that we need more parents advocating and supporting their kids, and I sympathize with those who look at our failing inner city schools and argue that parents should have "a way out" for their kids, but the existing system will never be able to improve the performance of enough of our students to make a real dent in the system; the majority of inner city students will continue to receive an inferior education.

So here's what I mean by going "all the way." I believe that it is time to turn EVERY inner city school into a charter school. Rather than dump on these inner city school districts more and more mandates and rules and directives and tests and whatever else our legislators have "up their sleeves," they should turn these districts loose and let them figure out for themselves how to create a vibrant culture of learning at their schools, how to integrate stakeholders into education, and how to motivate the teachers and students to improve their performance.

By freeing these districts, hopefully they will make better decisions on choosing their leaders, turning their focus to visionary leaders (for real, not just in sound bites) rather than skilled bureaucrats that are great at making sure the paperwork is properly churned.

Let's face it, whatever is happening now is not working. Generally speaking, nothing has improved. More and more government is translating into less and less success. I guess what I'm calling for can be termed "radically conservative." The point is that we need to change course and we need to do it soon. Otherwise our schools will soon be colliding with teachers on that darkened road that they are already being led down by the tenure reform movement.

On Tenure Reform, NJEA Does a Disservice to Its Members

I just got done listening to an NJEA radio commercial touting the merits of the State's new tenure reform measure, and I almost got sick to my stomach. Don't get me wrong I'm a strong proponent for teacher reform in New Jersey- I probably have ideas that would be considered much more radical- but this legislation is not good for NJEA members or, more importantly, the goal of improving the quality of instruction in the State.

The legislation is heavily tilted towards teacher accountability at the expense of teacher performance; the idea seems to be that teachers will simply become better if you hold their feet to the fire. As a host of articles evaluating teachers in other countries shows, the percentage of time teachers spend in the classroom rather than on professional development and other ancillary responsibilities is a critical variable, and of course in this country we spend much more time in the classroom. That issue was not considered.

Leaving aside the question of whether these models are even a fair way of evaluating teachers, there is enough to dislike about the legislation.

Compounding the aforementioned heavy class load is the amount of paperwork demanded by the metrics used by districts to "demonstrate" performance, which leads to the scoring system that I guess denotes accountability. The opportunity cost of the paperwork required by these "Models" is ridiculous and fails the needs of both teachers and students.

Moreover, the stress level created by these models and by the whole process has put an unbearable strain on many, many teachers, which has soured the atmosphere and culture of learning in schools. The stress and pressure to meet the scores of standards in these models (the least amount I believe is the 76 areas of evaluation in the Danielson model) is going to lead to risk averse decision making in the area of curriculum, a further disservice to learning.

The heavy volume of paperwork will create a time lag between completing the work and receiving the final evaluation, which somewhat minimizes the value of the "input" the administrators are supposedly making,

The volume of paperwork will also force many administrators to cut corners, which compromises the integrity of the process.

Let's face it, chances are that a very small percentage of teachers will be found incompetent to teach; for a variety of reasons there is actually more pressure to find teachers acceptable than unacceptable.

And if per chance a lot of teachers are removed, where is this large pool of replacement coming from? As I've heard from many teachers, they now are of an attitude where they would dissuade people from going into education. It is already hard to find college students in specialized fields to entice into teaching rather than the private sector, and this certainly isn't going to help.

The lack of "ownership" by teachers for this legislation was, from the start, a fatal mistake, and for the NJEA not to demand not just one seat but many seats "at the table" as this legislation was being conceived is unconscionable. It's as if the NJEA leadership doesn't understand the state of mind of its own members.

I could go on, but the point is clear. This legislation was not designed to improve teacher performance other than tangentially. This  is a "seek and destroy" mission meant to root out failing teachers. The irony is that, with proper supervision, support, incentives, and encouragement for risk taking, most people- if properly placed in courses- can become successful teachers.

The existence of this legislation means that it is unlikely we will see legislation designed to actually improve teacher performance for many years to come, if at all. The next step is clearly to turn this existing legislation into one that allows for merit pay.

The NJEA is leading its members down a dangerous path. The problem is that they don't have to travel down that road with