Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Lessons from Foundation Academy's Success

A recent article in the Trenton Times on the success of Foundation Academy Charter School shows that some urban charters can in fact produce the results envisioned by those that designed the initial legislation. I'll reserve comment about their methodology, but the one thing I want to point out is that if their is some strategy at the root of their success, then it is incumbent on the Academy and public school leaders to sit down and share these "keys;" this is also what was envisioned by those that created charter schools in New Jersey. Charters were to be laboratories that we could learn from, and then use those ideas to improve the schools attended by the vast majority of students.

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.

Open Letter on Education to the Next Trenton Mayor

The crisis in urban education is nothing short of a national disaster and should be afforded the same attention and commitment of resources. When 99 of the 100 lowest performing high schools in the State are located in our inner cities it is clear that the issue demands an exceptional effort, innovative and risk taking decisions, and a realization that the crisis is not just limited to the schools; there is something in the It is important for the next Mayor to sit down with the Trenton School Board and develop a comprehensive set of reforms, some to done in the schools and others in the community. Many of these ideas might be seen as iconoclastic, which I consider a good thing. We literally need to chart a completely new course in urban education, because the path we are on is being blocked by power grabbing politicians, unimaginative bureaucrats, and territorial minded education “experts” interested in protecting their turf and promoting their parochial agendas.

·         This isn’t so much an idea as it is an issue: There is a 25% gap in the graduation rates at Trenton Central and West, yet no one has brought this up and demanded that a study be done to find out why! I believe that this is something that a Mayor would want to know. Is it the teachers? The demographics? The parental involvement? Gaining insight here is vital.  

·         Modeled on the idea of Urban Enterprise Zones, I envision creating something called Urban Opportunity Zones. The UOZ would ideally be a revitalized brownfield (so also an urban development idea) where businesses, entrepreneurs, craftsmen and artisans, professional associations, non-profits, political groups,  and others  would locate here and, in exchange for inducements similar to those in UEZ, be expected/required to provide employment, mentorships, internships, after school enrichment programs, tutoring, or any other type of partnership arrangement that we can envision.  

·         To have Trenton push to have its new high school turned into a charter school, basically turning the school into an “experimental” or “demonstration” school that would be free to develop its own curriculum, devise its own graduation test, system for paying teachers, and evaluating performance of employees.  Get the Christie Administration to allow Trenton High to “opt out” of the HSPA; make him happy by agreeing to have students take the new PARCC assessment in addition to its own graduation test. For truly meaningful and substantive change to come to our urban schools, there must be a school that is given the freedom to take risks and innovate without worrying about sanctions from the State. Trenton High should be that school. 

·         Building on the idea of turning THS into a charter school,  I would go a step further and seek a waiver, or find some way to have all Trenton schools turned into charter schools. If not possible, then at least philosophically we need to have these schools led by independent, entrepreneurially minded leaders rather than those with a bureaucratic, risk-averse mindset. It is up to these leaders to create a new culture of learning in our schools.  

·         Teachers should be paid by a combination of years of service and performance, with performance based on metrics that teachers have some say in. Years of service is a disastrous basis for pay in this profession, providing no incentive for improving the quality of ones work. The metrics should be more qualitative than quantitative; the days of data driven (rather than data “informed”) schools must come to an end. My blog introduces my POKER metrics. 

·         Based on the idea of microcredit being used in poor nations, I envision creating a type of “resource bank,” financed and supplied by local business, corporate, and individual donations that would be made available for responsible parents that want to secure resources that would otherwise be unavailable to them. This access to resources is a major advantage to children in “better off” families. This “bank” could supply anything from capital resources such as computers to tutors to attending specialized camps to even “help offered” ads from lawyers or other professionals willing to mentor disadvantaged but highly motivated kids.  

·         The next Mayor should, through donations and/or city revenue, create an “incentive fund” to help attract “the best and brightest” among our college graduates to come into teaching as opposed to an office, lab, studio, or boardroom.  As part of the proposal the participating graduate must also agree to live in the city.  

·         Teachers should be rewarded by both performance pay and by use of “performance ladders,” where teachers can attain a higher level of status and responsibility. We need to put some degree of horizontal mobility into the profession.

·         There should be financial, recognition, and “gift” type rewards available for exceptional performance among the teachers AND students, with recognition done both annually and periodically. 

·         Treat all teachers as entrepreneurs, with their course seen as their unique business and the curriculum as their product.  The students should be seen as apprentices to the entrepreneur and have a great deal of empowerment to pursue independent study within the curriculum. In keeping with the prior bullet point, teachers should be free to design their own unique courses that builds on their personal passion and knowledge.  

·         Building on the prior point, emphasize skills over content. That emphasis is the one aspect I like about the new Common Core Standards, though I hate to say it but the more I hear about the Standards in practice the less enthusiastic I become. Let’s face it, most adults forget much of the content they learn in high school (another reason I want to change what “must” be learned and give teachers more flexibility in what is taught); it is the skills that are more likely retained. 

·         Place a new emphasis on practical, marketable skills and knowledge, orienting the curriculum towards the skills that are in demand in the working world. 
  •       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.  EVEN BETTER........

·         Create your own “graduation test,” one that is more akin to a “citizenship test” than the current HSPA, which is more like a pre-college exam and devoid of any connection to the real world. It would include things like diet, health, nutrition, the environment, Constitutional rights, financial literacy, “street law,” and other issues that better reflect what young adults need to know upon graduation.  

·         Run focus groups in all schools to discern student interest in learning and find out “what works” and what doesn’t in the classroom, and to find out what they think about the culture of learning in their school. 

·         All future hires at the high school level should be college graduates with a specialized degree; DO NOT hire anyone with a degree in education. Also look for hires from the business community, professions, and the trades.  

·         Require every school to have one supervisor that is ONLY a clinical supervisor, charged with the responsibility of providing clinical supervision of teachers. This is far different from an “observation,” and is critical if schools are to retain new teachers and improve the performance of all teachers. Frankly, most supervision jobs are superfluous and can be filled by teachers as part of the performance tiers idea. 

·        Work with City Council to find a way to change the demographics of the city. Evidence is clear that a huge difference between the white poor and the Hispanic and black poor is the concentration of poverty. White poverty is MUCH more diffuse. We need to, in a sense, try to recreate the neighborhoods of the 40’s and 50’s where there was a much greater middle class presence, along with the role models and values system that was more prevalent at that time. Offer incentives for suburbanites to migrate back to the city; recent research suggests that this is a growing trend, and many young professionals are now choosing to settle in cities. We need to encourage and incentivize this process. It may take time to affect the schools but it definitely would be a positive thing. 

·        Lobby the State to create a quasi-independent agency like a “Department of Urban Education,” the purpose of which is not to impose more unnecessary mandates but simply to help identify and secure  resources and provide consulting support to districts requesting such things. The days of the State dictating what goes on in our inner city schools must end; there is NO EVIDENCE they have led to any statistically significant improvement whatsoever.
  • 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.

·        Rethink the belief that a longer school year and longer hours are necessarily a good idea. More is not necessarily better, and the important point is that “moments of learning” can be found almost anywhere in the community; limiting students to the school is needless and counter -productive.

Some final thoughts about teachers: My experience, and the experience of my colleagues over the years, is that principals can be very subjective in their evaluation of teachers, are oftentimes unskilled in making reliable assessments of teachers, and are not above “stacking the deck” against teachers they do not like for whatever reason. It would be better to have a group of trained “clinical supervisors” make the kind of assessments you seem to be looking for.

Also, I can tell you that teachers, for valid reasons, are highly suspect of systems that place too much weight on test scores as an indicator of student performance.  It would be much better if you proposed something along the lines of “working with teachers to devise an evaluation system that considers both quantitative AND qualitative metrics of performance. Teachers are currently struggling with new evaluation models like the Danielson model that are very time consuming and stressful. Creating another set of metrics on top of the existing one, especially if teachers are left out of the process, will create an adversarial relationship that doesn’t need to exist. There are plenty of excellent teachers that do not like the current system of remuneration and would support some sort of performance pay or performance ladder, but they must feel some ownership of the system being created. This sense of ownership is ESSENTIAL if you want a supportive faculty.
 Changes to our urban schools must be extreme, innovative, and demand some risk taking. Whatever is being tried today just won’t cut it and may in fact be making things worse. A culture of learning based on entrepreneurial values is the base of my new model. I invite you to look through my blog for more information. I spent 21 years as a teacher, and have a clear vision of what needs to be done. Our inner city schools need the same attention we would give a health crisis or natural disaster. Anything short of that is a waste of time.