Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Perfect Moment to Make Trenton High a "Demonstration School"

So Trenton is finally going to get a new high school for the community, and now the question is being raised whether having a new school with produce the desired result of improved learning. There is no denying that, at least in the beginning, there will be a refreshing sense of renewal, that the students in the school will have “a fresh start.” But will that translate into a new culture of learning, a requisite for quality in education.
I can’t help but think of Atlantic City High- I see the school every time I visit Ventnor- and all the promise that went with it when it was initially built over a decade ago. Unfortunately, that new building never did translate into improved test scores or graduation rates. Casual observers will point out that even though A.C. had a new school, everything else about Atlantic City remained status quo. From that experience it is clear that a new school in and of itself will do nothing, and that with the new school must come new relationships, new programs, new strategies, new curricula, and greater engagement in the school from parents and stakeholders in the business and non-profit communities.
I am convinced that the new school would be a perfect opportunity for Trenton to appeal to the State to become a “demonstration school,” a school where innovation and risk taking in the school’s overall curriculum and policies regarding teacher hiring, instruction, evaluation, and salary. It would be the perfect moment to turn the school into a place where instruction is made practical, geared towards preparing students not so much for college but for life after high school, a place where they can acquire marketable skills they can take into the workplace. If, as I envision it, the school forms those important relationships with outside stakeholders, then the groundwork would have been laid for that transition from school to the workplace.
As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, I would like Trenton High to in essence become a charter school, providing them the legal flexibility to make substantive changes to the way business is conducted in the building.
Let’s face it, whatever has been tried by the school in collaboration with the State and its mandates has not worked. There is no longitudinal study I am aware of that shows any significant improvement in learning at Trenton or most other inner city schools. By becoming a “demonstration” school, Trenton High will be free to try things that they might otherwise be reluctant to do for fear of failure. But as any entrepreneur will tell you, failure is merely a stop on the road to success; it is a learning experience as long as you have the ability to make the changes that failure teaches you to make.
When I studied economic development in the Third World, research showed that a great number of rural peasants were risk averse; they were unwilling to try the new seeds and technologies that the U.N. and others tried introducing because the risk of failure was too high. What the U.N. learned to do was essentially create a farm of their own and use that farm to “demonstrate” the gains that were possible. Once the peasants witnessed these gains they were far more receptive to adopt those changes.
I believe this strategy needs to be tried in the inner city. I realize that was, in theory, to be the promise offered by charter schools, but in the decades since the initial legislation we have steered far from that original intent. Charter schools are seen as competitors, not collaborators, and, anyway, given the scale of these schools relative to the huge public high schools, it is far from certain that any positive features in these schools would easily translate to the public school.
By making Trenton a “demonstration school” and untethering it from the State, we have a real opportunity to transform learning in the inner city. It is my hope that someone in authority shares this vision, and will do the right thing with this moment.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

To Learn or Not to Learn: The Wilmot Proviso vs. "Here's Looking at You Kid"

There is new attention being given to the idea of extending the school day and school year, and to me that debate raises a similar issue of "what" is listed as required content in our Core Content Curriculum Standards.

First a word on the above debate. In the previous post I laid out arguments against both ideas, but I would like to make additional comment. One of the arguments I made is that the real issue with retaining information over the summer is the poor way that the content was taught in the first place. To me this is a direct consequence of teachers that are poorly trained and supervised in the art of assessment AND the onerous and "out of touch" demands on time imposed by the CCCS. Extending the school year does not address this endemic problem. Building on this, and on the issue of extending the school day, I want to point out that a body of research shows that the high school day should start much later and then end later, as the teenage brain does not "click on" until later in the morning. A more proper schedule would have elementary school starting earlier and high school later.

I also pointed out that research in countries we apparently want to emulate, such as China and Norway, shows that we do not use time effectively; teachers need more professional development time and less time in the classroom. If we are to be honest with ourselves we need to move in this direction. This will however, impact what we require kids to learn, which is the main focus of this post.

As I've mentioned on more than one occasion, we require educators to teach way too much content, and so we need to completely reassess curriculum to focus not on what we want kids to learn, but what they MUST learn to be well informed and independent citizens upon graduation. As far as I'm concerned, our CCCS are completely off base, not just too broad and deep but off base in terms of the subject matter. Adding to this mockery is the fact that the HSPA only tests students in math and Language Arts, so there is no accountability for the content in the first place.

I would radically change what we identify as the content students MUST learn, and I would redesign the HSPA to test in all of these areas. This gets me to the title of this post. American history is of course a crucial part of a teenager's learning, but as we know history is a huge subject requiring a great deal of winnowing down. Political history (Wilmot Proviso) and cultural history ("Here's Looking at You Kid") are two elements of that history. Currently, we require the first but not the second. I would not require either, but if I had to choose I frankly would rather they learned about Casablanca and Bogart. Cultural history provides essential connections among generations, preserving elements of our language and experiences that should be enduring.

Now to tie this into the issue of extending learning and improving retention, my point is that if we give teachers greater intellectual freedom to create their own unique curriculum, curriculum that draws on their knowledge and passion, while concomitantly reducing what students MUST learn, we will greatly improve chances that knowledge will be retained because this will naturally improve the quality of their instruction and assessment.

If we teach less, teach better, and teach what is meaningful, we will conquer the problems of student learning and retention. Our current CCCS are devoid of reality and designed with college in mind, not the real world. Its time we leave it to students, working with parents and guidance counselors, to insure they are learning what they will need for college. It's also time to realize that it is skill development, and not content beyond those "MUSTS," that should be the focus of a student's education.

Let me leave you with this thought about curriculum. New Jersey has always been at the forefront of progressive change in education, and I would love to see the State do the same with our content standards. Let's rethink these standards, and if we do might I suggest the following as areas that all students be required to learn; believe me there is quite alot more that I would personally WANT students to learn, but the issue here is what they MUST learn:

American History (emphasis on culture, global engagement, key events and "movements," great leaders)
Declaration and Constitution (emphasis on Bill of Rights and historical underpinnings)
Politics and Citizenship (legislative process, rights and duties, NPOs, interest group politics)
Street Law (emphasis on contracts, liability issues, consumer rights)
Science (emphasis on biology, neuroscience, the environment, basic physics, engineering)
Computer Science and Technology(using productivity software, how "things" work)
Health (nutrition, fitness, healthy lifestyles, preventive health care)
Economics (financial literacy, entrepreneurship, basic micro and macro concepts)
Humanities (comparative religion, historically significant figures and their work in art and music)

I'm leaving out Math and Language Arts because I consider anything to be required in these areas to essentially be skills based. 
All of this content provides a great foundation for developing the reading, writing, verbal, and interpersonal skills- as outlined in the national  Core Curriculum movement- that all high school graduates need to be well prepared for life after high school, regardless of career path. There are quite a few subject areas, but a limited amount of content in each. This gives teachers responsible for required coursework the time to properly assess and insure competency/mastery, and also provides time to design curriculum that empowers students to pursue work independently within the curriculum.

Let's not kid ourselves that extending the day and year will cure what ails public education. The majority of schools are doing fine; our focus should always be the inner cities, where this issue will do nothing more than let policy makers feel good about themselves that they are doing "something," even if that something is tantamount to doing nothing.

We need innovators, iconoclasts, and risk takers, not political leaders and their palliatives. This will require policy makers and politicians to relinquish their stranglehold on education, but unfortunately I feel the grip tightening.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Summers in Public School is a Small Minded Idea

It is rare that you find an issue where the Governor Christie and the Trenton Times Editorial Board are in agreement, as is the case with extending the school year. Unfortunately, both parties found agreement on an issue where they are wrong. Talk of extending the school year is a great political platitude and yes, the initial rationale for having “summers off” is no longer relevant, but that doesn’t mean it’s no longer a good idea.

I’ll leave aside the issue of school buildings that are equipped to handle summertime temperatures, repair work that would be made problematic, and salaries that would need to be increased (teachers are not paid for 12 months work- only 10- and would want to be compensated, though each of these are valid arguments against summer school. The real issue is with people who seem to think that education only takes place in schools, and that students “shut off their minds” for 2 months. Granted, research does show that a lot of what is learned in the previous year is forgotten over the summer, but that is because of the lousy way that the students received the instruction in the first place. I don’t mean to lay the blame directly on the teachers; the issue is much more complex and involves the onerous state curriculum mandates and other external influences on a student’s ability to actually learn subject matter rather than just be exposed to it.
Summertime is an excellent time for learning, learning that can to a great extent be directed by parents and their kids towards areas of particular interest. My summer vacations were wonderful learning experiences as we traveled through North America. My son has gone to engineering workshops and camps, as have thousands of kids, whether they be the more generic summer camp or camps geared towards educational enrichment. Spending time at my dad’s office over the summer was a great experience and a wonderful form of mentoring; there is no reason that some creative entrepreneurs can’t come up with similar type of programs for inner city kids that are otherwise unable to get that exposure to professions. Kids go with their dad the painter to learn the craft. And on and on. Each event is a learning experience and something that will contribute to that young boy or girl’s emotional, social, and intellectual development. All without stepping foot in a school. Hallelujah!

Teachers can also benefit from the summer break. Most contemporary studies of education in countries like China and Norway, countries that we seem to revere in terms of academic output, show that their teachers spent MUCH MORE TIME involved in professional development rather than in the classroom during the school day. If we are not going to make the changes necessary to align our schedules with theirs, than we will need the summer time to provide that opportunity for improving their work product.
Now of course summertime learning is much more accessible to those with the financial and other resources needed to pay for and attend summer enrichment events. Something definitely must be done to help those with limited resources in the inner city, which is why I have been pushing the idea of creating “micro-credit centers” to help urban families help their kids. The bottom line is that summertime need not be wasted time, and that some creative thinking, along with some financial support, can be put to work to create enrichment programs that can potentially provide far greater learning opportunities than a child might ever get in the school. Do not force students and teachers back into school over the summer. Summer school is a small idea for small minded people. It lacks any creativity or thought. It is a bad idea.