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.

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