Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Addressing Concerns Over Tenure and Teacher Quality

In today's Trenton Times a guest Op-Ed piece by Wayne Gillikin wonder "aloud" about the possible ramifications for New Jersey of a recent California Supreme Court decision that declared its State's tenure and seniority laws in violation of its Constitution. Mr. Gillikin is justifiably concerned about the implications of a "free market" in education, with the forces of supply and demand inexorably driving the good teachers into quality school districts and less skilled teachers into the bad ones, most of which are unfortunately found in our poorer, inner city districts. And while I share his concerns, I would like to point out that New Jersey has been fairly proactive in the area of teacher quality and accountability. As with all initiatives, there will be some good and some bad resulting from these efforts, and they do demand the attention and vigilance of the public if we are to see that these initiatives do not exacerbate the already horrendous and unethical inequities that exist in our State, because this split Mr. Gillikin fears is the reality in our State.

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

Governor Christie Once Again Hits the Mark on Urban Education

It has become clear over Governor Christie's tenure that he seems to enjoy walking the tightrope between supporting urban education and supporting the NJEA. His latest initiative, a partnership with the Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship Foundation being funded by private institutions such as Geraldine Dodge, PSEG, and Robert Wood Johnson, plans to place several hundred STEM teachers in urban classrooms. These teachers are being given a $30,000 stipend in return for entering a graduate program and a pledge to devote at least the next three years to teaching, with most of these new recruits coming from the college ranks. It is like the "alternate route on steroids." Of note is the fact that these new recruits are graduates with degrees in "specialized" fields rather than degrees in education, and frankly I couldn't be happier.

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

Today's News Shows the Bright and Dark Sides of Education; Let's Pray for the Sun

I need to be frank with you some of this post is going to sound like sour grapes, but for the most part it is a healthy mix of commendation, admonition, frustration, and grudging acceptance.
I definitely want to commend Mr. Jamison- a teacher featured in today Trenton Times- on his recent enlightenment. I have been “screaming from the rooftops” for years that we need to give our educators greater academic freedom to design their curriculum, with the expectation that this academic freedom will be passed down to the students, who will have considerably more freedom to study “what they want” within the general confines of the curriculum, as long as they also participate in assessments that assume  greater expectations and have a greater degree of accountability to match the greater empowerment that now exists in the classroom. It is certainly my hope that Mr. Jamison is designing- in concert with the students- assessments that have significant oral and visual components, maybe require both a scored discussion and a formal presentation.
I’m glad to hear that other teachers have shown an interest in this SOLE program. I was fortunate enough to have had two department supervisors who both understood that- along with my passion to teach- I had a great deal of passion and knowledge in a wide range of Social Studies subject areas, being that I was an “alternate route” teacher with “academic degrees” rather than a teaching degree. This tacit understanding led to them allowing me a great deal of freedom to design my own courses. I discovered a long time ago what Mr. Jamison is just learning now. I only wish that over the 21 years in between that more teachers would have discovered this strategy as well.
My admonition and frustration is with the State of New Jersey, specifically the DOE, politicians, and so called academic experts responsible for developing our Core Content Curriculum Standards.
Mr. Jamison has one important thing going for him in his effort to reform his curriculum and infuse greater student empowerment. As a Social Studies teacher, Mr. Jamison’s students will not be tested in Social Studies on the HSPA exam, so in a sense there really is no accountability for them or for the teacher. Sure, he has to turn in paperwork at the end of the year showing how his course aligns with the State standards, but this self-regulation is easy to manipulate and is for the most part a superfluous document.
Personally, I would prefer having all subject areas covered by the “graduation exam,” but definitely not under present circumstances, since I believe that the CCCS are a bunch of crap; they are overreaching, onerous, and bear no connection to “what students need to know” in the real world. They need to be thrown out; we need to start from scratch.
The existence of these Standards, along with Mr. Jamison’s newfound philosophy, are in complete conflict with one another. True learning of the sort that Mr. Jamison is more likely than not to achieve by his methodology and the type of assessments we can logically assume he will do, cannot be achieved if he is also required to get through the entire Standards for his grade level. This reality comes courtesy of neuroscience and the science of learning, which, in general,  makes it clear that the process of teaching and assessing is time consuming; by requiring so much content to be learned it is unrealistic to expect mastery from very many students. If the State would rethink and reduce required content, and refocus our teaching towards skills acquisition, then students might have a chance to actually learn, a skill that requires retention of information, not just recalling it. Is it any wonder students forget a lot of what they learned from one year to another. It is not the lengthy summer that is the problem, it is a curriculum that expects too much, and as a result gets less, not more.
(I have written extensively on what I believe we should be doing in terms of Content Standards and testing, simply look a few posts back to find at least one such post)
I now need to address the issues of “frustration” and “grudging acceptance,” and it is hear that my attention turns to supervisors and parents. Now I have a lot of problems with the quality of clinical supervision that most districts provide, but one thing supervisors are capable of doing is assessing a teacher’s understanding of the subject matter they teach and the quality of the assessments they create. Suffice to say, they are, for the most part, skeptical that most teachers have the existing knowledge to provide a deeply challenging and demanding curriculum to the students. Making matters worse, many parents are only exposed to the “knucklehead” actions of teachers rather than to the quality many teachers provide. In my experience at WWP South, I found that there were a great number of teachers capable of providing a great learning experience; it is a District with a great number of professional parents and bright students with high expectations about school. This “upward pressure to succeed” is unfortunately not replicated throughout the State.
Rather, parents read articles like in today’s Trentonian  about a teacher that placed dead cockroaches and trash on a student’s desk in what was apparently meant to be a “teachable moment.” There are other words we could use, but teaching or learning are definitely not among them. I was also struck by the last line of the article, where a parent expressed her attitude towards Trenton High: “That high school sucks.”
In such an environment, it may not be appropriate to increase academic freedom for the faculty, regardless of whether this is an isolated incident. Unfortunately it is schools like this in our urban areas that are screaming out for radical change and less interference from the State, interference that has produced NO statistically significant improvement in learning. My solution, as many of you know, is to no longer hire graduates with a teaching degree for the high school, and instead encourage and then nurture- through effective clinical supervision- passionate and knowledgeable graduates to teach what they want, for the most part.
By moving in that direction, by radically revising our Core Curriculum Standards, and by integrating a remuneration system that infuses performance into pay, we can start to create the kind of “entrepreneurial educators” I believe we need. I believe Mr. Jamison embodies that entrepreneurial spirit, and I applaud his effort to empower his students. Let’s hope we can introduce the SOLE program, or something similar, into our schools. I’m frustrated that this is the first time since I began teaching over 21 years ago that I have read an article on empowering students. I only pray we don’t have to wait another 21 years for the next one.




Tuesday, June 3, 2014

De Facto Discrimination in Hamilton: Does race really matter?

There is an invidious problem of segregation taking hold in the Hamilton Township School District; a problem that raises many issues regarding education, race, and income inequality. How the District addresses these issues will have a profound effect on their decision making, and they need to get it right or risk many more years of continued poor service to a vast number of the District’s students.

Superintendent Parla’s observation of de facto segregation invariably focused on the issue of race, and the high concentration of minority students in several schools such as Greenwood Elementary, which the Trenton Times pointed to in its editorial imploring swift action. But raising the issue of race itself raises issues which many people may find uncomfortable addressing.
Is it appropriate for students to be taught in a school that is overwhelmingly of one race, or, more to the point, a school that is either all white, or absent white people? The assumption is that somehow students that aren’t exposed to students of another color are being deprived of a “multicultural education” in a multicultural society. This of course presumes that students of color somehow think differently, or have a different perspective on life, simply due to their skin color; that students “ think with their blood.” How could we possibly have a thorough reading of a book or a discussion about discrimination unless there is a minority present to represent a minority perspective? This thinking also implies that all learning takes place inside schools, and that students don’t learn life lessons on their “free time.” I find this a very troubling attitude, especially when tied to the second implicit concern of those who decry “one color schools.”

The Superintendent also observed that test scores in these “high concentration minority schools” were markedly less than the scores in schools with a high white population. Taking this concern to its logical conclusion suggests that white students need be present in schools if you want scores to go up. So are white students in general smarter than minority students? What other direction could this go? Are we really going to argue that separate is always unequal?
Since arguments about the relative intelligence of races, specifically the argument that blacks and Latinos are generally less intelligent than whites, is specious, we need to look at other variables to explain the lower test scores. Is it the quality of the teachers being hired at those schools, or of the clinical supervision they are receiving? Is it the quality of resources available at the schools? Is it the curricula, or the number of students in “special services?”

All of these aforementioned variables may be impactful, but I believe the answer is far more obvious. As the Times noted; at Greenwood Elementary 80 percent of students “come from families with low incomes.” So rather than race, maybe the real issue isn’t race but income inequality. These schools don’t need more “whites,” they need more middle and upper class students. Is it that students don’t think “with their blood,” but “with their wallets?”  This is an admittedly trite way of framing the argument, but there is at least empirical evidence that does show clear correlations between income and education. You need look no further than our State’s own District Factor Groups, where the connection between  a DFG and test scores is pretty stark. Ninety nine of the State’s 100 worst performing high schools are in urban areas- and in the lowest two DFGs- where incomes are relatively low, the focus on income seems a much more productive approach to take than an approach whose goal is to reach a greater racial balance among the schools.
Fortunately for Hamilton, unlike, let’s say Trenton, where there really is no recourse to take in redistricting with an eye towards greater income balance, Hamilton has that power. Let’s be frank, something akin to “busing” must be undertaken. I think it is still worth investigating the quality of the teaching staff, namely the mix of veteran and novice teachers and the quality of their supervision, but the bottom line is that the only way we are going to achieve greater balance in academic performance in the Hamilton School District is through policies that achieve greater economic balance. Of course any effort to do so will meet stiff resistance. Superintendent Parla certainly has his hands full. His is a worthy goal, and I hope he is able to enlist stakeholders with the will to stand with him.

This debate on education, raising issues of opportunity and equality, is very similar to the discussion being played out regarding affirmative action. For decades the focus has been on race, and unfortunately the one group of people who have been most forgotten are low income whites; a group every bit as deserving of “affirmative action” as poor minorities.
Discrimination based on income may not be as evocative as that based on race, but it is every bit as destructive as discrimination based on some immutable characteristic. If he succeeds, it will be instructive to the greater picture of academic imbalance throughout the State. For the next few years, all eyes should be on Hamilton.