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?

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