Wednesday, November 12, 2014

HSPA Scores are out, and Trenton Parents Should Demand Change NOW

"We will take action. They will not be easy decisions to make, but incremental progress is not enough." So said Paymon Rouhanifard, Superintendent of the Camden School District in response to the abominable ASK and HSPA scores of students in his District. He seems to recognize that progress is going to require profound change. The only question is whether he is willing to acknowledge that risks must be taken, that "business as usual" is a recipe for failure. It is not enough to simply recognize that incremental failure is not enough.

Now let's take a look at Trenton High School's HSPA scores in comparison to West Windsor South. At TCHS 18% of students failed the Language Arts test, while 8% achieved what the State calls "Advanced Pass," which is a step above proficient and implies "mastery." In West Windsor, NO ONE failed the test, while 64% achieved Advanced Pass. That is 64 versus 8%.

In Math, 50% of TCHS students failed the test, while 3% achieved Advanced Pass. In West Windsor, 2% failed, while 75% achieved Advanced Pass. That is 75 versus 3%.

Now as much as I hate the HSPA; it is a horrible measure of what students learn in high school, and frankly tests the wrong things. Our State's Curriculum Standards emphasizes things that have no connection to what kids truly need to know when they graduate, but they do nonetheless provide a valid comparative tool.

And honestly, any parent looking at these scores should be getting nauseous. Is that a statement about the teachers, about the kids, about the parents, about the schools, or about the communities and local culture? Where do assign blame? I am going to put the least amount of blame on the kids. It certainly isn't a racial issue, since race has nothing to do with intelligence or test scores.

What this tells me, and what it should be telling you, the parents, or you, the local businessperson, is that we need to tear down the school's curriculum as we are tearing down the actual school. The City can be doing more to attract young and middle class families, can be doing more to alleviate the concentration of poverty in minority communities, and can be doing more to bring the business community into the education domain, but by and large the greatest responsibility falls upon the School District to completely change the way we teach and what we teach to our children.

Score differentials like this cannot continue. It is a disgrace and an embarrassment to the State that such inequality exists between our urban and suburban schools. Action MUST be taken. Parents must literally rise up in revolt and say NO MORE! How many more years of pointless programs and initiatives must we endure before someone has the guts to stand up and say this will not work.

If there is anyone out there ready to organize, I am here to help. We spend so much time building up the self-esteem of our kids, but all that is doing is setting them up for disappointment and frustration. It is up to us, the community, to make things right in the schools. Feel free to reach me at if you want to try and get the ball rolling. We can be patient no more.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Dear Trenton Parents and Businesses: WAKE UP and Save Your Kids

I have no doubt that there are parents, even groups of parents, and local businesses, that deeply care about the education their children are receiving. But I am stunned and frustrated that no one seems to have learned that the people in charge of education in the City and at the DOE are going to do NOTHING radical to change the schools and bring quality education to Trenton.

The kind of change our schools need is going to require a lot of thinking and a lot of work, and from my experience in education you will be hard pressed to find administrators willing to "stick their neck out" and take the initiative and risk that is involved unless they are pushed to do it. Why change the status quo if you don't have to?

All you are going to get from our "leaders" is talk of "new programs," "restructuring," and "improved accountability." But haven't you heard all of this before?

Let's face it, the City of Trenton is nothing like West Windsor or Princeton Townships, but it is time for the children of Trenton to receive an education of the quality received by the kids in these towns. But the demographics of these towns are drastically different from Trenton, the access to human and material resources is drastically different, and the quality of life in these communities are vastly different. Those are facts. The chances of a middle class migration into Trenton is unlikely, and this means that it falls upon the District, along with stakeholders and organized groups of parents to provide the tools that our children need to improve the quality of education and create greater opportunity.
The children in Trenton are no different than the children of West Windsor, and it was only by the fate of birth that they have been born into different families and different communities. Equality of opportunity in education is a right, but insuring that right requires the people of Trenton to fight for it.

I implore, no, I am begging, someone out there to get the ball rolling and create a group dedicated to bringing profound, radical change to the Trenton School District, and especially to Trenton High School. How many more years near the bottom of the list of New Jersey schools will it take before people realize that "half steps" will do nothing. Why are parents willing to wait? Why are you willing to defer to the "experts?"

I have proposed trying to get Trenton High School designated as an "experimental school," in essence turned into something akin to a charter school, and completely transform the school. You don't need to look far- try Atlantic City- to see that a brand new modern school will do nothing to improve education unless something "brand new" is done with the curriculum and the culture of learning as well.

So if there is anyone out there willing to get things started, here is your first volunteer. It is time for the parents to rise up and demand change, and to demand it now. Anything less would signal that the parents of Trenton just don't care, and I can't believe that is true.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Time for the Public to Rise Up in Trenton

Now that the Trenton School Board and the State have decided what do on the site of the old high school, it is time to think long and hard about what will go on in the school and the surrounding community. First, it is time to accept the harsh reality that little if anything that has been introduced in the last decade by the education establishment to improve student performance has succeeded. There is no longitudinal study that shows statistically significant progress of the kind that shows that the District is on the right path and that we just need to be patient. When it comes to urban education, patience is not a virtue, and does little but consigns another generation of kids to a poor education. Why should these kids, and their parents, have to be patient? Whether it is the Common Core, or PAARC, or some other mandate or program, they are nothing more than branches of the same sick tree.

When 99 of the 100 poorest performing high schools come from our urban centers or lowest District Factor Groups (DFGs), there is clearly a problem. The chasm that exists between our heralded middle and upper class DFGs and our inner cities has allowed leaders to hide poor performance while the NJEA and DOE can produce advertisements championing higher overall test scores in our State.
However, we have now reached a critical juncture where all that can change and the future of urban education can be rescued. Weeks ago L.A. Parker suggested using space in the Trentonian as an education forum to give concerned citizens a voice. I think it’s a wonderful idea, because frankly the  solutions to what ails our schools may need to come from “outside” the education establishment.

For radical change to occur, and that is clearly what I espouse, there needs to be some “radical success” that can be pointed to before schools (and the State) are willing to assume the risk that comes with profound change. This is a global truth, one that I learned years ago in college studying economic development among Third World peasants. It wasn’t until the U.N. literally farmed its own land with new seeds and new technologies that these peasants would agree to take the risk.
Why I believe the time is right is that with the creation of a new Trenton High comes the opportunity to make everything about the school new. Trenton can become that farm, a demonstration school or laboratory to create a radical new approach to urban education, something that will show other schools the rewards of taking new risks. It’s not as if things could get much worse, and I’m confident they won’t; well thought out and well planned change will work as long as the right people are in place.

Several years ago I studied the success stories of entrepreneurs, trying to find some common characteristics. Like most Americans, I am somewhat captivated by entrepreneurs; since the time of Ben Franklin they have been the driving force behind our economic success, and I am somewhat confounded that the spirit of entrepreneurism is absent from our education system. What I found are five metrics we can use as predictors of success: Passion, Organization, Knowledge, Empowerment, and Resourcefulness.
I firmly believe that if we sought out entrepreneurially minded teachers- teachers that strove to master these metrics- from our colleges and private sector, treated teachers as entrepreneurs, allowed them to behave as entrepreneurs, and rewarded the performance of exemplary entrepreneurial teachers, we can transform the culture of learning in our urban schools. We don't need more teachers with education degrees, we need specialists that will come to education with passion and knowledge that will inspire and challenge students. Give our teachers greater latitude towards the curriculum and transform our required coursework and the graduation test; what is critical is that these teachers empower their students to express themselves “entrepreneurially” as well. Surround these new teachers with administrators skilled in clinical supervision and choose school leader that embrace the spirit of entrepreneurism and will create a climate for learning that is safe and dynamic, and where success is acknowledged with extrinsic rewards.

The current Core Course Curriculum Standards and HSPA (now PAARC) are completely driven by college prerogatives and built on the expectation that all students should be prepared for college, while the real purpose of a high school curriculum should be to prepare young adults to be independent, civic minded, and globally aware citizens. Financial literacy, health literacy, legal literacy, technological literacy, and cultural literacy- among other things- should be taught and assessed in our inner city schools. Beyond teaching and properly assessing what students MUST know, our inner city schools should be skill driven. I am confident college driven students will make sure they get what they need, and beyond that all students will learn the practical skills they need to pursue whatever path they choose.
Since it is highly unlikely that Trenton neighborhoods will change socioeconomically, it is incumbent on the schools and stakeholders to provide the human and capital resources that are typically absent in the City but easily accessible to suburban students. The playing field must become more level, and equality of opportunity must be provided. By taking a radical approach and creating a culture of learning driven by entrepreneurial values, and then supporting this effort with aggressive involvement from regional stakeholders, we can quickly improve student performance and address the concerns of urban families who have been patient for much too long. Trenton High may hold the key to the future of urban education, if people were only willing to take the risk. And really, what do we have to lose?