Monday, July 14, 2014

The Real Problem with Common Core

The Common Core Standards have become a hot topic at the National Governors Association being held this week in Nashville. Conservative governors that once supported the Standards have suddenly changed course in the wake of growing backlash among more staunch conservative "players" in the Party.
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:
Persuasive Writing and Speaking                                                                            
Writing with Clarity and Purpose            
               Extemporaneous Speaking                     
               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:

Financial Literacy
Consumer Law
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
The Environment
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

Breslin Op-Ed is Right on Standardized Testing but Wrong on Solution

Retired teacher Frank Breslin wrote a compelling Op-Ed in a recent Trenton Times, attacking the standardized testing movement, its connection to the popular Common Core, and its use in condemning teacher competency. Now I'm definitely not as sanguine as Breslin about the quality of teaching going on in the inner city, though I do place some of the blame on the State's curriculum requirements, which are out of touch with our urban students, out of touch with the "real world," and too onerous to actually be taught in such a way that true learning can really take place; is it any wonder many students don't remember in September what they learned the year before.

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.

Disappointment in the Lack of Voices for a New Vision for Trenton High School

It has been months since New Jersey announced plans to move forward with a new Trenton High School, and so far there has been a vacuum where there instead should be a cauldron full of ideas about what this new school should look like, not physically but in terms of facilities, resources, programs, and its leadership. There has similarly been almost no public discussion about creating a new "connectedness" between the school, parents, and stakeholders in the business and non-profit communities. All of this is very disappointing.

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.

A New STEM Curriculum Signals Need for an Assault on NJ's Core Standards

It is time for an all-out assault on the Core Content Curriculum Standards and the HSPA exam, or whatever it is being called now, if New Jersey is to properly navigate into the future and provide an education that properly meets the needs of its students personally, professionally, and civically.

Two recent and somewhat related articles articulate the direction we need to take. An Op-Ed in the Trenton Times, “Prepare Today’s Students for Tomorrow’s Science” points to the need to design a science curriculum that provides depth rather than breadth, and that emphasizes new STEM standards guided by the Next Generation Science Standards. These standards integrate science and engineering and seek to prepare students for the challenges created by a modern world. As I’ve pointed out on numerous occasions, today’s CCCS require students to learn too many chunks of information, which invariably becomes a futile exercise in teaching given the real time necessary to both teach and assess to make sure that true learning has taken place. This doesn’t mean courses like Chemistry and Biology won’t be taught, but maybe they should no longer be identified as the required coursework in science. Kids who need those courses for college will undoubtedly take those courses as electives, while all students will now learn the content that is most important for their futures.
A second story focused on the Boys and Girls Club of Mercer County and their “More Than Hope” campaign to provide “a safe place for students to learn when they are out of school.” The campaign plans to build a STEM Center to enrich children’s’ understanding of STEM concepts. This commitment to SEM learning is a great indication that stakeholders in the business and non-profit communities are ready to drive this new emphasis on science that is firmly linked to our future needs.

What is now needed is a concerted effort by education reform PACs in New Jersey to pressure our legislators to revamp our State mandated curriculum in science and, frankly, across the entire spectrum of our schools’ course offerings. Change is needed in not just STEM courses but in social studies, Language Arts, and health.
I am personally interested in social studies, and would like to start a new political action committee dedicated to a new curriculum that emphasizes financial literacy and economics, health, nutrition, and fitness, the Declaration and Constitutional rights, the 20th Century (interdisciplinary), the Civil War, computer literacy, and essential reading, writing, speaking, and research skills. If anyone is interested in joining this effort or simply want to offer some ideas, please contact me at . It is only through pressure that we will be able to draw attention to the huge failure that exists in our required high school programs and its assessment.

Personally, I think the curriculum itself may be part of the reason why our inner city students do so poorly in terms of testing and graduation rates. Students see and internalize the disconnect between what they are required to learn and what they perceive as their needs, and that in turn weakens the culture of learning every school needs.
I hope to hear from you, and I hope that we can affect change soon. Our children’s futures are at stake