Friday, April 10, 2015

College for Everyone?

In the last few days I have viewed or read at least 4 stories considering the high cost of a college education. Since 1990 the cost of a 4 year education has apparently risen almost 1200%, and there seems to be considerable debate on the causes for this incredible rise. These same stories included comments of course advocating "college for everyone" as the righteous path to economic security. We of course know that college is not for everyone, and many young people make the decision to pursue specialized training, enter the military, or pursue other non-academic paths. The key point is that college is a choice, but what I see as the most salient problem in high school education right now is that the schools, the State, the advisers, everyone seems to point to college as a first consideration.

Testing is college driven. Curriculums are by and large college driven. Our culture is college driven. This makes the idea of students making a truly well thought out, wise choice about their future very suspect. We drive kids towards college and then accept the fact that not all will go.

First let's get back to the costs. For me, the greatest influence on the rising cost of college is the almost unlimited access for students to "free money," through either loans or grants, to pursue a college education. Colleges are of course aware of this, and respond to this increased demand by raising prices. This is classic demand driven inflation. It is also the reason that so many graduates are now saddled with debt, and why the number of students that actually graduate from a 4 year university is around 58%. There are clearly too many kids being pushed into college, where the first courses for many of them are remedial classes to remedy the inadequate preparation they receive in high school.

So we poorly prepare kids for college, push them into college, and then watch as half of them drop out while the other half graduate with mounds of debt. Does anyone have a problem with this???

By far the biggest problem is in the inner cities, where students are receiving an education far less rigorous than in the suburbs. And while college may be an acceptable choice for a large percentage of suburban students, it is absolutely the wrong path for a majority of inner city students, most of whom should be studying curriculum that prepares them for a more practical future in vocations and technical training. The best decision would be for our urban schools to adopt a more European model and create multi-tracks for students. This would of course require some sort of testing or advising process that would steer students into a path that is deemed the most practical one for them to take.

This of course goes against the whole mantra of students being able to make their own choices, but frankly I am not advocating forced education. If a student doesn't like the advice they are getting and would prefer, for example, to go to college rather than a trade school, so be it. But the point is that we need to end this obsession with college and this notion that there is something more noble about receiving a college education; that everyone should strive for college and then accept something "less" if they don't make it.

If it means doing away with State mandated curricula for all students, or doing away with a State mandated "graduation" test for all students, then by all means lets do away with it. There is not a scintilla of evidence that State interference in education is producing any demonstrable gains, or at the very least any gains that could not have otherwise been attained through local measures.

The inner cities will never be repaired until its young students are given realistic, practical advise about their futures and what would be the most appropriate path for them to attain some economic independence and security. There is already a huge performance chasm between urban and suburban schools, so "detaching" them in terms of their curricula and goals is not such an outlandish idea. A student's education should always allow for choice, but those choices should be tempered by the realities of their existence. If it means creating academic and non-academic tracks in urban schools, so be it. I would much rather have that then perpetuate a system that is full of false choices, false opportunities, and false futures.

It is time to, as I hear people say, get real with education in the inner cities, and it is time to get real with ending this obsession with college and college driven learning. Then, and only then, will we see our inner city students given a real chance to make intelligent decisions about their life. Anything short of that is nothing less than perpetuating a fraud on kids that deserve better.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

An Opportunity for Stakeholders to Support Trenton's Kids

One of the ideas I recently suggested to the Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson was the creation of a "resource bank," funded through donations by stakeholders in the region, to help support inner city parents that want to support their aspiring kids but lack the means to do so. The idea is to create a fund that families can approach for help, whether it be to provide capital resources or supplemental educational programs for their children to attend. If the proposal is deemed worthwhile, the bank will either grant the funds or provide them at an extremely favorable terms for repayment.

If we as a community are ever going to help bridge the "learning gap" that exists between urban and suburban schools, stakeholders in the area are going to have to fill that "gap" by providing the kind of programs and opportunities often absent in the inner city beyond the reach of parents who desperately want to support their motivated kids.

Trenton schools will never attain the level of quality available in suburban districts like West Windsor-Plainsboro or Princeton. There will never be equity in access to resources, whether human or material, and so support from "others" is a necessity if we truly believe that equality of opportunity is a value worth believing in.

To these ends, I have just created The Trenton Education Resource Bank on the crowdfunding site The initial goal of the site is to raise $10,000. Once this goal is met I believe we can approach businesses, individuals, and organizations in the Trenton area to raise even more. I encourage others who, like me, believe that children should not be disadvantaged simply by the luck of birth to take up the cause of helping bring equity and opportunity to the children of Trenton. You can access my project by going to and making a donation, then tell 5 others to do the same. Together we can help support the inner city's future engineers, artists, artisans, entrepreneurs, tradesmen (and women), scientists, and political leaders. If we don't do it, who will?

Ideas For The New Trenton Mayor

Several weeks ago Mayor Eric Jackson and Superintendent Francisco (?)Duran made a joint appearance designed to highlight their shared objective of improving the performance of Trenton’ schools and its students, most of whom have spent years slogging through a system that has promised change but more often than not fell short of its goals. I applaud the apparent improvement in the District’s graduation rate, but my concern is that this improvement will give the District a false sense of confidence, that it is “on course” and doesn’t need to risks to better our future. These risks are necessary if our students are going to receive the kind of quality education they need to graduate as independent and empowered individuals with the awareness to navigate the financial, legal, social, and technological forces that will impact their lives.

Some of those risks must occur within the schools themselves through a major transformation in the curriculum, the personnel, the supervision of those personnel, and the incentives we offer to educators to improve their performance. But it is equally important that a new relationship be created between schools and stakeholders throughout the Trenton area, stakeholders that can make a valuable contribution to learning. And that is why seeing Mayor Jackson and Superintendent Duran together was such a refreshing sight, if indeed it signals the beginning of an effort to bring together our schools and those stakeholders. Whether they be in the business community, among our non-profits and universities, or in the very neighborhoods that are home to our schools, these stakeholders must be “brought on board.”
If this new partnership is to fully blossom, it is incumbent on our leaders to reach out to the community for ideas on how to best bring stakeholders into this relationship. With this in mind, I have a couple ideas that I believe will help our students and their families gain greater access to the resources and expertise that our stakeholders can provide.
In Trenton, economic development and education are inextricably linked, as many students will hopefully graduate and look to the region to live and work. One idea is designed to join these two interests by creating what I term “Urban Opportunity Zones.” Similar in design to now defunct Urban Enterprise Zones, the general idea is to offer tax and financial incentives to businesses, non-profits, trades, and professional associations that relocate or create an entity in these Zones in exchange to providing internships, employment, mentoring, after school programs, scholarships, or some other educational opportunity for Trenton students. Ideally we could rehabilitate one of the brownfields in the city to locate these Urban Opportunity Zones, hopefully with help from the State and Federal government to develop these properties. This program would be an ideal way to partner stakeholders with high school students and provide opportunities readily available to students in nearby suburban districts like West Windsor-Plainsboro or Princeton, where exposure to professional adults and their positive influences is common.

A second idea is modeled on a popular program in the developing world, commonly known as “micro credit.” This idea, started by Nobel Prize winner Mohammed Yunas and the Grameen Bank, is to provide small, non-collateralized loans to budding entrepreneurs to help them develop their underutilized skills.
What I have in mind is to create a “community bank” that will provide loans, grants, or actual capital resources to parents in Trenton that are highly motivated to help provide educational resources and opportunities to their children but do not have the financial ability to do so. I cannot say enough about how important this access to resources is to help bridge the gulf that exists between the educational opportunities of suburban families and families in the inner city. Whether it is in the form of technology, tutoring, summer or after school programs, or a myriad of other resources, finding a way to provide these resources to parents that are committed to providing opportunities to their children is a critical component of academic achievement.  Donations of money or capital can be aggressively sought, with incentives used to help motivate contributions. Creating a non-profit organization to oversee the process, one that will review “applications” and then provide or finance the appropriate resources, would not be particularly complicated and would again demonstrate the desire of our Mayor to truly participate in the educational futures of our children and to truly bring together stakeholders in the region with inner city students. Stakeholders directly benefit from the quality of urban education, for it is these inner city students that will one day help create and define the quality of life in the City as citizens and consumers.

These are but two ideas, but I am confident that there are others in the community equally interested in helping to shape the future of learning in our City. And like many others, I would like to help make that future bright. Let us hope that the sight of our Mayor and Superintendent was more than just a photo opportunity. They need to roll up their sleeves and get to work.