Wednesday, November 12, 2014
Now let's take a look at Trenton High School's HSPA scores in comparison to West Windsor South. At TCHS 18% of students failed the Language Arts test, while 8% achieved what the State calls "Advanced Pass," which is a step above proficient and implies "mastery." In West Windsor, NO ONE failed the test, while 64% achieved Advanced Pass. That is 64 versus 8%.
In Math, 50% of TCHS students failed the test, while 3% achieved Advanced Pass. In West Windsor, 2% failed, while 75% achieved Advanced Pass. That is 75 versus 3%.
Now as much as I hate the HSPA; it is a horrible measure of what students learn in high school, and frankly tests the wrong things. Our State's Curriculum Standards emphasizes things that have no connection to what kids truly need to know when they graduate, but they do nonetheless provide a valid comparative tool.
And honestly, any parent looking at these scores should be getting nauseous. Is that a statement about the teachers, about the kids, about the parents, about the schools, or about the communities and local culture? Where do assign blame? I am going to put the least amount of blame on the kids. It certainly isn't a racial issue, since race has nothing to do with intelligence or test scores.
What this tells me, and what it should be telling you, the parents, or you, the local businessperson, is that we need to tear down the school's curriculum as we are tearing down the actual school. The City can be doing more to attract young and middle class families, can be doing more to alleviate the concentration of poverty in minority communities, and can be doing more to bring the business community into the education domain, but by and large the greatest responsibility falls upon the School District to completely change the way we teach and what we teach to our children.
Score differentials like this cannot continue. It is a disgrace and an embarrassment to the State that such inequality exists between our urban and suburban schools. Action MUST be taken. Parents must literally rise up in revolt and say NO MORE! How many more years of pointless programs and initiatives must we endure before someone has the guts to stand up and say this will not work.
If there is anyone out there ready to organize, I am here to help. We spend so much time building up the self-esteem of our kids, but all that is doing is setting them up for disappointment and frustration. It is up to us, the community, to make things right in the schools. Feel free to reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to try and get the ball rolling. We can be patient no more.
Tuesday, November 11, 2014
The kind of change our schools need is going to require a lot of thinking and a lot of work, and from my experience in education you will be hard pressed to find administrators willing to "stick their neck out" and take the initiative and risk that is involved unless they are pushed to do it. Why change the status quo if you don't have to?
All you are going to get from our "leaders" is talk of "new programs," "restructuring," and "improved accountability." But haven't you heard all of this before?
Let's face it, the City of Trenton is nothing like West Windsor or Princeton Townships, but it is time for the children of Trenton to receive an education of the quality received by the kids in these towns. But the demographics of these towns are drastically different from Trenton, the access to human and material resources is drastically different, and the quality of life in these communities are vastly different. Those are facts. The chances of a middle class migration into Trenton is unlikely, and this means that it falls upon the District, along with stakeholders and organized groups of parents to provide the tools that our children need to improve the quality of education and create greater opportunity.
The children in Trenton are no different than the children of West Windsor, and it was only by the fate of birth that they have been born into different families and different communities. Equality of opportunity in education is a right, but insuring that right requires the people of Trenton to fight for it.
I implore, no, I am begging, someone out there to get the ball rolling and create a group dedicated to bringing profound, radical change to the Trenton School District, and especially to Trenton High School. How many more years near the bottom of the list of New Jersey schools will it take before people realize that "half steps" will do nothing. Why are parents willing to wait? Why are you willing to defer to the "experts?"
I have proposed trying to get Trenton High School designated as an "experimental school," in essence turned into something akin to a charter school, and completely transform the school. You don't need to look far- try Atlantic City- to see that a brand new modern school will do nothing to improve education unless something "brand new" is done with the curriculum and the culture of learning as well.
So if there is anyone out there willing to get things started, here is your first volunteer. It is time for the parents to rise up and demand change, and to demand it now. Anything less would signal that the parents of Trenton just don't care, and I can't believe that is true.
Monday, November 3, 2014
Monday, July 14, 2014
I have always been a little skeptical about the Common Core for many of the reasons being popularized right now. Objections have come from the right and left and threaten to delay or prevent their implementation in many once approving states. What frustrates me, and what I find to be the real problem, is the lack of attention being paid to the breadth of the Standards themselves.
If we are to tether the States to national standards, those standards should reflect those things that every student, regardless of their residence, must learn as a prerequisite for living and working in our culture. Math and Language Arts are of course important, especially the skills we often associate with these disciplines. But if these are to be national standards, why is there no mention of standards connected to our economy, our culture, our laws, or to the demands of living a healthy, environmentally conscious life.
First a word on skills as they relate to math and language arts. I have always felt that it is through these disciplines that teachers can develop important qualitative and quantitative skills by using the curriculum of these courses as a foundation through which students will become competent or master each of the following skills:
Making a Formal Presentation
Conducting Efficient and Effective Research
Collecting and Interpreting Data
Leading a Group
Utilizing productivity software to write and calculate
Organizing and Allocating Resources
I'll leave it to the experts to determine how math and LA should be taught, but we are failing our children if we do not require each of them to be at the very least, competent in these skills. In fact, every course that a student takes at the high school level must reinforce these skills. Any course, regardless of the content, should be able to construct assessments that utilize some of these skills.
Now to my main point. If most states are like New Jersey, they have required content standards across the curriculum. In NJ it is the Core Course Curriculum Standards. And even though the CCCS include all traditional disciplines, the graduation test is limited to math and LA. We have to take it as a matter of faith that teachers are fulfilling their responsibilities since they basically "self-report" their success at meeting the standards. I would have hoped that a national set of standards such as the Common Core would have addressed this deficiency and developed requirements that covered all other disciplines. Sadly, this is not the case.
Any "Common Core" that do not set content requirements which include economics, history, culture, health, science, law, and the environment has failed our students and failed our nation. High school standards should not be designed as preparation for college, as seems to be their intent, but as preparation for citizenship. Our state graduation tests should in a sense be citizenship tests, assessing students as to how well they are prepared to function in our society. It is my firm belief that any competent, proper Common Core MUST require all high school graduates to have learned some "to be determined" content in the following areas:
Basic Macro and Micro Economic Concepts, ie. scarcity, supply & demand, fiscal policy, globalization
The Bill of Rights, Constitution, and Declaration of Independence
Great Movements, Moments, Statesmen, and Cultural "Heroes" in American History
Personal Health, Nutrition and Fitness
Applied, Practical Science
It is from these disciplines that we can create a short list of content that EVERY student MUST learn. I have always felt that we not only require our students to learn too much minutiae, but that what we require them to learn bears little or no connection to the real world and may in fact be one cause for the failure of our urban schools. We need to greatly narrow what needs to be learned and provide the time to insure that these new standards are truly being learned.
So while we continue to scrutinize the Common Core, I believe it important to not only debate the appropriateness of national standards and their application to teaching and learning, but to also consider what it is they we have determined necessary for all students to learn. In that vein the Common Core is a complete travesty, a disservice to our students and to our nation. It is time for a new national debate on what we should require of our students, and our teachers. The purpose of high school, and public education in general, is to produce students that are prepared for the challenges of the society they are growing up in. Using the Common Core as the foundation through which we are going to assess student preparedness is like using a history test to measure physical fitness.
We have reached a critical moment in education, especially urban education, where radical reform is our only real option. And it is here, I guess, that I see my final objection to Common Core; there is nothing "common" about public education as it relates to our suburban and urban schools. I know it is a sensitive issue because of appearances of racial overtones, but the bottom line is that our urban schools must be approached differently from suburban schools. In fact a single Department of Education is probably inappropriate for a state like New Jersey; at the very least there should be a "secondary" DOE for Urban Education.
Let the suburban schools "play around" with the Common Core, but our inner city schools have much more pressing issues. So for whatever reason, I support those who seek to put off implementation of the Common Core. It will do nothing to improve urban education, so I consider it superfluous and distracting. Lord knows we've been distracted for way too long; hopefully it's not "way too late."
Tuesday, July 8, 2014
His assault on testing points out what I believe to be the most salient fact; the correlation between test scores and students' socioeconomic status, community, and home environment. Is it an wonder that 99 of the 100 worst performing high schools are in our inner cities?
However, I depart from Breslin when he attacks Michelle Rhee and seems to give a free pass to current educators, and when he brushes aside charter schools as some sort of venal, corrupt, and demonic movement to destroy public education.
First of all, we do need a new cadre of teachers in the inner city, teachers drawn from college students in specialized, non-education degree paths such as engineering, biology, economics, and others. With proper supervision and incentives, we can develop interested college students to be exceptional teachers with the passion and knowledge to inspire our students. If I could, I would never hire someone with only a teaching degree for our urban high schools.
Second, the charter movement had very noble beginnings, conceived of as laboratories for change in educational theory and practice. These schools were to be partners with our urban schools, not their competitors. Obviously we have moved away from that ideal, but that doesn't mean it is a lost cause.
The years of government mandates, directives, and programs to improve urban education has proven an abysmal failure, and it is time for radical steps to be taken. Breslin himself indicates that the real sources of success for our schools lies in their environment, suggesting to me that real solutions may prove to be found closer to home. Now transforming these urban neighborhoods to create more socio-economic diversity would be a great step, but that is a very complicated issue, as is busing, which in some districts might be a viable answer.
However, what I would do, eventually, is turn ALL of our inner city schools into some sort or hybrid charter school, where teacher contracts would be kept yet improved through some sort of performance connected bonus or integration into base teacher pay. Along with this transformation, our State would need to drastically alter the required course content and associated testing expected of inner city students.
For me, the perfect place to start this experiment is in Trenton, with the building of the new high school. This would be the perfect laboratory for reform. As I've said before, it is hard to see student performance getting any worse, and the existing data on graduation rates and test scores could be our baseline. I'm of the belief that if we can create a school with an entrepreneurial mindset, from the administrators to our teachers to our students, we can create a culture of learning that is vibrant, relevant, and productive. Let the New Trenton High create its own Core Content Curriculum Standards and "HSPA," let the teachers design their own courses driven by their personal passion and knowledge, empower the students, give vital and active roles to community stakeholders, demand greater accountability from parents, and demand greater accountability from teachers and administrators in exchange from the greater freedom and opportunity for increased reward offered in this charter design.
So in closing I applaud Mr. Breslin for his attack on testing, but I am disappointed with his tacit acceptance of the status quo. I agree that a Marshall Plan for our cities is in desperate need, but in its absence let us at least try something radical and potentially liberating for our schools. The charter school movement definitely needs a "makeover," for it is there that a potential solution may be found. Trenton- its legislators and its educators- may hold the key. Are kids deserve change, and they deserve it now.
Urban education is a failure throughout New Jersey, and it is my belief that Trenton High can become a grand experiment in reform. Let's be honest, there is little that we can do that will make things any worse than they are now. If there is no risk taking there will be no improvement, period. What is not needed is another government mandate or another government attempt at creating "this or that" program to help.
What we need to do is to move in the opposite direction, and create a school that is free of any sort of interference from the State. The State can help provide resources, but the school itself should "stand alone," working with local stakeholders to develop programs that meet the needs of today's urban students. To suggest that these needs are necessarily the same as all other New Jersey districts is simply a lie. Our suburban schools, especially our affluent ones, are college driven, and have families and a community that can provide all of the resources needed to secure that goal.
Our urban schools must be driven by more practical needs. This is not to say that some urban students won't be heading to college, but that should not be the organizing principle of its programs. Until we can admit that a "one size fits all" approach to education will not work we will never be able to make improvement in our cities.
The best way to approach this is to turn THS into a public charter school and let it be a "demonstration school," an experiment in reform that, if successful, will provide a blueprint for other urban schools in New Jersey.
I don't know where the effort to transform Trenton High will come from, but it must start soon. If we allow Trenton High School to become simply a glossier version of the old school we will have denied our students true opportunity at a better future. I don't know why some old white guy former teacher in the suburbs seems to be the only voice for real change in our new Trenton High, but it's pretty disappointing. I've contacted Jeff Edelstein and L.A. Parker at the Trentonian, and I've submitted Op-Eds at the Times, and no one seems to think I am worth the time. I certainly hope they care more about the kids in Trenton than they care about me.
Wednesday, June 18, 2014
Governor Christie recently announced an initiative, in concert with several foundations, to create an "incentive pool" to attract new STEM (science, technology, engineering, math)teachers to our inner city schools. Granted, the commitment these new teachers would be required to make is just short of the years required for tenure, but I guess that is designed to protect the school's from being forced to retain teachers that turn out to be substandard. Some of these teachers would probably come from our Schools of Education (which I think is a bad idea), but most would be graduates with a "specialized" degree in a field other than teaching. This would mean that these teachers would be participating in the "alternate route" program, which has been around since 1987; I was in fact a member of that first "graduating class."
I guess my point is that these poorer districts can find potentially great teachers from outside the "hallowed" walls of our Schools of Education, but these districts must be willing to commit resources to the search for these "diamonds in the rough," and then have money put aside to incentivize the pursuit of these teachers and entice them to commit. But it doesn't stop there. If these inner city districts want to keep these potentially great teachers, whether they come through the Governor's program or just through the existing alternate certification route, there will have to be an enormous commitment of supervisory resources to make sure they are receiving the guidance and support needed to keep these new teachers confident, enthusiastic, and committed. There MUST be practical, clinical supervisors in place, much more so than "department" supervisors, if these teachers are to stay in education and make it a career.
New Jersey also passed an "Accountability Act" last year that introduced for the first time a new set of metrics to assess and evaluate teacher quality. The metrics came with a series of rubrics that teachers are expected to complete as part of the process. These rubrics, combined with a series of classroom evaluations, are together designed to provide insight into a teacher's competence as an educator. Anyone with a "clear set of eyes" must acknowledge that this "Act" is basically a "gotcha" plan meant to weed out not only incompetent but also "undesirable" teachers, regardless of their skill. This Accountability Act is also the first step on the path to merit or performance pay, anyone denying this is being disingenuous at best.
I have previously addressed the shortcomings of the current "brands" of metrics that school districts can choose from, and how these metrics are undermining rather than improving the learning environment in NJ schools. There are so many better ways of improving accountability, ways I have and will continue to explore, that I am left to seriously wonder whether truly effective change is ever possible in a system that requires education reform to pass through the hands of our politicians and our supposed academic "experts."
So, Mr. Gillikin, you are right to be concerned about the quality of education in our poorer, mostly urban schools. Leaving the teaching profession to the vicissitudes of a free market is not the way to go, but neither is a system that discourages risk taking and protects mediocrity. Based on test scores and graduation rates alone, you can reach no other conclusion than that these schools stink. Now obviously the problem is much more complicated than just teacher quality; it is my contention that nothing less than radical reform will be necessary if inner city students are to receive an education that is every bit as excellent in terms of quality and utility. Making changes to the tenure system, to the system of remuneration, to the places we look for our future teachers, and to the curriculum we require of students to learn are all essential if we are to be honest in our desire to provide greater equity in our education system. An equitable distribution of quality teachers would go a long way towards that goal.
Friday, June 13, 2014
I have been adamant in my belief that we need to find our next generation of teachers from among these specialized fields, and I would go so far as to only hire such teachers at the high school level. It is also worth noting that we have not done very well as a nation in retaining such prospects. A Scientific American study a few years back noted that almost 75% of all STEM teachers recruited in a manner such as this ended up leaving education once their required "time to serve" ended.
My personal feeling, some of which is supported by studies like that referenced above, is that we lose these prospective teachers because these graduates are not like the "typical" graduate with an education degree. First of all, the quality of practical, clinical supervision they are provided with during their first few years on the job is, in their view, substandard, giving them neither the support or feedback they need to be effective. Second, these graduates clearly have opportunities to pursue outside of education, and that reality is never far from their minds. And third, these graduates are much more entrepreneurially minded than traditional teaching students, and as such they philosophically approach the curricula, their classroom, and the system of remuneration differently from those with education degrees.
These new STEM and other "specialized" teachers expect greater academic freedom to design courses consistent with their personal intellectual passions and knowledge, expect to be mentored and supervised in a more collaborative manner, and expect to be paid either in salary or bonus for exemplary performance if it were to occur.
I've never really thought much of those who claim teachers go into education because they "love children" and simply want to help prepare the next generation of adults. I don't doubt that is a motivator, but for most educators their are far more practical and personal reasons for becoming teachers. These "other" reasons are simply more amplified in this new corps of prospective teachers, and these motivators are not a bad thing.
Our inner city schools are in need of radical transformation; the intrusive and piecemeal approach typical of the "government mandate" model is outdated and ineffective. We need to literally turn every public school into its own charter school, led not by bureaucratic administrators and risk averse educators but by passionate, entrepreneurially minded leaders that want the same in their teachers and students.
It is my hope that these STEM teachers will receive the practical, clinical support they need, will not be overwhelmed by paperwork, adopting the "jargon" of the field, and other requirements that cause their passion to shrivel and their desire to wane. The current written requirements that are part of the recent "accountability legislation" have been shown to be draining whatever passion is still left in our more veteran, able teachers. I can only imagine the impact it is having on these newer recruits. We must do all that we can to nurture these new STEM teachers, and use any "lessons learned" to create additional incentivized programs to attract our top college graduates into urban education. I applaud the Christie Administration from supporting this initiative, and hope the NJEA will lend its support to efforts like this to mobilize a new breed of teacher. Our inner city students deserve nothing less.
It is time for government for "get off the backs" of our urban schools, and for decentralization and freedom to become the new mantra for the inner city. This is obviously but one piece of a very complicated, multi-piece puzzle, but a necessary one nonetheless.
Wednesday, June 4, 2014
Tuesday, June 3, 2014
Tuesday, May 13, 2014
Choice, privatization, and charter schools are all ideas borne of frustration with the horrific condition of learning in urban public schools. They also reflect a philosophy that it is individual families rather than the whole population of public school students that should drive education. This is fine to a point. The bottom line is that these schools will never be able to serve enough students to make a dent in the overall public school system. We need solutions that will improve learning for EVERYBODY, not just a select few.
It is for that reason that I have been espousing the belief that all public schools be given the opportunity to "turn into" charter schools, with the academic freedom that comes with it. By liberating our schools, injecting some entrepreneurial spirit into education, finding a new corps of passionate and intelligent teachers, adding performance into their pay scheme, and designing curricula that is more closely tied to the needs of young adults that will need to be financially literate, in possession of marketable skills, culturally aware(both past and present), and equipped to make intelligent decisions regarding their health, their environment, and their government.
I realize that, given current and past performance in these schools, that people are understandably skeptical about giving educators more academic freedom, but I am not talking about just leaving them alone. "Liberated" teachers will need sound, practical supervision and a great deal of accountability in exchange for that freedom. But we need to stop micro managing their profession with evaluation rubrics and metrics that are overwhelming in every sense of the word.
The point must again be made that the path we are on and the policies of our political leaders and education experts ARE NOT WORKING. Something new, something radical, and something comprehensive- that looks for solutions in the community and not just in the schools- must be considered now, not later. The problem is that solutions this dramatic will require those in control to relinquish some of that power, and this is rarely accomplished in our political climate.
I've termed my ideas radical, but frankly they are quite conservative and somewhat libertarian; I want to drastically decentralize education AND give those "in the trenches" greater freedom to experiment and greater freedom to teach what they want.
We will only solve this crisis when we correctly identify this problem as a national emergency and devote the resources and intellectual energy (creative and critical thinking to problem solving) it demands. Let's hope it is soon.
If we are being forced to live by the Core Content Curriculum Standards, then let us at least seek a waiver to design our own HSPA, one that tests in all subject areas. The CCCS has done as much as anything to corrupt true learning in our schools, and since math and English are the only subjects tested on the HSPA, the majority of educators currently aren’t truly accountable for teaching the Standards. The CCCS are so demanding and onerous that there is little time for true LEARNING to take place, which is one reason so little is retained over the summer. Assessing true learning requires a great deal of time and is poorly done in the current environment.
Get the lead out of all Trenton homes. Lead is a leading cause of brain damage and has a direct effect on a child's ability to learn. It is definitely an important factor contributing to the large number of urban students in Special Education classes due to learning disabilities.
Wednesday, March 19, 2014
First of all, the charter school movement is heralded by those who take an individualistic approach to education, that individual families should have greater choice in where their kids go to school, and that what matters is not education "for all," but for my children. Let's be real, charter schools- assuming they are an improvement over the typical public schools- will NEVER be able to include enough kids to make a significant dent in the overall poor performance of urban schools. They will help a small number of children, but do nothing to help the vast majority of students. This is especially true in the competitive model that has seemed to gain favor, though it might surprise Cohen and others that this model is totally inconsistent with the intent of its initial supporters. For example, the legislation that created charters in New Jersey was clear in its belief that these schools should be seen as "laboratories" for the public schools, and that any successful strategies and philosophy be shared with the public schools so as to benefit ALL students, not just those in the charter schools. This belief in coordination and shared goals is rarely found in discussions today. Moreover, many of the new charter schools are popping up in the suburbs, even in highly successful districts, as a sort of "boutique" school founded to emphasize narrow agendas, i.e. "we are latin based, we are Chinese based, etc..."
Charter schools and public schools MUST coordinate their efforts so that the impact of any success can be felt throughout the public schools and not just felt by a narrow few. Done right, charters can be an integral element in the overall success of our urban schools. As initially conceived, I am a fervent supporter of charter schools, so much so that, given the abysmal track record of our government's intrusion into public schools through its initiatives and mandates and testing, that if I could I would turn EVERY public school into a charter school! The statistics don't lie: the performance of public schools has either remained unchanged or gone down as government involvement has increased. This is why, when I look at the city of Trenton and the building of its new high school, I see a great opportunity to make a daring and bold change to education in our city.
I believe that Trenton High should be demand to be classified as a charter school, and as such to be seen as a "demonstration school," a school that should be completely free to experiment with new strategies in everything from how it hires teachers to its curriculum design to how it pays its employees. Let's face it, given the low graduation rates and test scores at Trenton and almost every urban high school, we have nothing to lose. Things cannot get worse!!!
I am disappointed that there has been little to no conversation about coordinating profound changes with the creation of the new school. The State should embrace the idea of "liberating" Trenton High from its Core Curriculum Content Standards, its graduation test(HSPA), and other mandates that have done nothing to improve learning in Trenton or other urban high schools. The graduation test has no connection to the needs of students in the real world, the curriculum is filled with irrelevant minutiae created by "experts" who seem to want students to be scholars in their field, and the imposition of testing has bastardized the learning process. Do these experts realize how time consuming true learning is, and how their demands are counterproductive? Do they realize that they could do real good by helping provide incentives that will attract passionate and knowledgeable college students to education?
So please, citizens of Trenton, demand that the new Trenton High School be turned into a charter school, demand that a new group of innovative, passionate administrators and clinical supervisors be brought in, insist that stronger ties be created between the school and stakeholders in the greater Trenton area, demand that we shake up the faculty and bring in those with passion and knowledge, push for performance pay and performance ladders rather than relying solely on years of service, and, finally, promise that you will get intimately involved in the future of the school.
The time is now to turn Trenton High into a grand experiment, one that could hold the key to success for urban high schools throughout the State. I am tired of hearing that change will take time; it can be done quickly and it can be done now. Am I the only one that sees this new high school as our chance to provide true learning and opportunity to our teenagers? I sincerely hope not, but I am not encouraged. I fear the status quo, because I fear that no one wants to take a chance, take a risk. But why should they? Things are just going so well right now, aren't they??