Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Why Exemplary Teachers Should Be in Open Revolt, and Why the New THS Should be Ground Zero for a Bold New Path for Urban Schools

Let me get right to the point. Our current system of teacher remuneration rewards mediocrity and provides no incentive or reward, for educators that are making clear improvement in their methods and results, or for those who are generally acknowledged to be "at the top of their game." By blending salary based on years with one based on performance we can better recognize those model teachers while also motivating others- whose mediocre performance can be attributed to a variety of factors- to improve their productivity.

Exemplary teachers in the inner city need their own voice, because unlike in higher performing schools, students subjected to ineffective teaching have little recourse they can take on their own to supplement the holes in their experience. The way we pay teachers is a perfect case study of what is wrong with learning; we would rather take a risk averse course- the safe course- rather than try something daring, bold, and potentially much better.

I use this issue to raise what I consider to be a critical moment in urban education. With the approval of a new high school for Trenton, the opportunity for profound change is with us. First let's be clear where we are at: government mandates and programs to improve student performance have failed to yield any statistically significant results, and the fact remains that 99 of the 100 poorest performing schools are in the two lowest District Factor Groups, most of which are in the inner city. Urban residents need improvement to be somewhat immediate, and the only way that is going to be done is if we engage in risk taking policy choices. Face it, we have nothing to lose; things can't get much worse.

What I propose is that a new designation be made for the new Trenton High School. Call it a "demonstration school" or "model school" or "innovation school." What that designation should indicate is that THS be thought of as something akin to a charter school. The new THS will not have to abide by the CCCS and can create their own required curriculum, one where teachers can design their own courses.  The new THS will design its own test for graduation based on its new curriculum, but will also take the HSPA for use as comparison. The new THS will be free to restructure how it pays and rewards its teachers, and will be free to create its own metrics- one where teachers have significant input- than to have to use the Danielson or other approved models. This new designation would also suggest that THS reassess its leadership and find leaders determined to create a new culture of learning. My personal preference would be one infused with the spirit of entrepreneurism. With this new system of remuneration would come an opportunity to reshape the faculty. Short of firing underperforming teachers, I would dictate that all new hires be required to have a "specialized" degree in a field other than education. And finally, this new school model would include performance tiers in addition to performance pay, thereby reducing the need for content supervisors. In their place I would bring on a group of clinical supervisors charged with giving constant support and feedback to faculty.

There is of course risk associated with such radical change, but we have chosen the risk-averse course for way too long. By freeing THS from state requirements, they will feel the freedom to innovate without repercussion. If it works, the new THS will serve as a model for urban high schools throughout the State. As mentioned in a recent blog, the United Nations oftentimes confronted peasant economies that lived on a subsistence level, which is how I would describe our urban schools. It wasn't until the UN built its own farm to demonstrate the effectiveness of new seeds and new technology that they were able to get rural peasants to participate.

The risk might seem great, but the potential rewards far outweigh those risks. Of course in addition to changes at the school, we would need change in the relationship between the school and its stakeholders. I have already come up with two ideas that would tie in beautifully with this new attitude by creating new bonds between the school and community. One is to create Urban Opportunity Zones- modeled on Enterprise Zones- to create opportunities for students with stakeholders in the business and non-profit sectors. The other is to create something- modeled here on the idea of Micro Credit- that would provide opportunities for parents to secure resources and services that would directly impact their child's performance. The point is that if I can come up with two, then getting together some visionary reformers could potentially yield dozens more.

So where can the Christie Administration come in? I suggest that they make the SDA money contingent on the Trenton School Board's approval of a reorganization plan. The Governor can even sweeten the pot by committing funds to the District to support, among other things, the infusion of performance pay into the equation. My hope is that it would not come to that, that the TSB would proactively approach our State's DOE to approve radical reform. Taking radical (albeit conservative in nature), risk taking choices is the only real path to a new generation of learning in Trenton. Seize the moment!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Time for Our Own Declaration of Indepdence From NJDOE

You wouldn’t think that the Super Bowl would be a source of inspiration for discussion of high school curriculum, but there it was, in the pre-game, a public service announcement/commercial for the Declaration of Independence! As celebrities, athletes, team owners, and politicians all took turns reciting text from this world altering document I was reminded of American Studies I curriculum at WW-P South, dictated to a great extent by the State’s Core Content Curriculum Standards. And as I remember it, teachers allocated 2 class days to cover what is generally regarded as one of the most influential global documents ever written. TWO DAYS…at most.

Personally, if I had the freedom to design my own U.S. history courses, two come immediately to mind. One I might call “The Political Thought of American Statesmen,” a course that would identify important figures from our history and use their life story and ideas as a springboard for teaching critical moments, movements, and controversies. The second might be called, “Great Document That Helped Define Our Nation.” The Declaration, Articles of Confederation, Constitution, Federalist Papers, Emancipation Proclamation,  Seneca Falls Convention’s Declaration of Sentiments,  Four Freedoms,  Reagan’s Speech/Eulogy of the Challenger Disaster, and so many others can similarly be used as a foundation for teaching aspects of our history.
The important point is that we have to rid ourselves of the notion that we have to teach “everything,” placing the content on an equal footing with skills, and that we need to teach chronologically. We are not teaching students to become history scholars. 

No less than 2-3 weeks could be spent on the Declaration. There are so many issues and debates, both historical and contemporary, that can be taught drawing on the Declaration. Then look at the Constitution; is there any question that an entire history course could be designed built around the objective of teaching the Constitution. If my son spent a year in history class and came out of it with in depth understanding of nothing more than the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and events from our history where “constitutionality” was at issue I would be ecstatic. 

The bottom line for me is that we need to discard the emphasis on quantity that defines our CCCS and give teachers the intellectual freedom to design their own unique history courses. Other than those required documents and “movements” that define us as a Nation, why worry about what is taught? Much of what is taught today is quickly forgotten, and that can be directly traced to the CCCS. The content is the vehicle to teach important salient skills, skills that have practical application to one’s future. I'm imagining a real read social studies teacher with a degree in history, or economics, or some other specialty. Giving them the freedom to design their own courses would be like giving a kid the keys to a candy store. Right off the top of my head I can remember in depth units I taught(admittedly I was given a lot of freedom) on the History of Public Health, The Impact of Nature on History, The Struggle Over Jerusalem, Deviant Behavior in American History, The Religious Wars of France, for example. And then I think of our CCCS and State DOE, and am them reminded of several lines from the Declaration:

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness. ….But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despot ism , it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies.” Switch out a few words and you'll know what I mean. It is time for our Declaration of Independence from the State DOE. Period.