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Sunday, February 12, 2012



Saturday, January 14, 2012

What does a supervisor actually do?

My social studies department had a supervisor, but to be honest, in the 18 years since being granted tenure, my supervisor, and for that matter all administrators, visited my classroom about 20 times. My principal didn't visit my classroom once, not once!

So what, in fact, do supervisors actually do? They hold department meetings. They oversee a collection of curricula, making sure that all the paperwork is completed and the courses comply with state mandates. They collect lesson plans and want to be kept informed on noteworthy activities, and typically approve or disapprove of field trips and guests to the school.  They respond to parent concerns, some real some imagined. On occasion they mediate disputes among colleagues or between teachers and students with their parents.

But most of their time is spent dealing with people at the Board Office. They kept demands on my supervisor, and other supervisors I'm sure. Meetings were a seemingly daily occurrance. They also completed a department budget and ordered any necessary resources, keeping within Distict guidelines and operated with an ever dwindling budget.

I bring this to your attention because the need for classroom supervision is critical, especially in the inner city, where the need to give students a positive experience and recieve exemplary classroom leadership from a teacher is an important factor in keeping kids in school. We need educators that teach kids how to advocate for themselves, and encourage student engagement, empowerment, and accountability in the classroom.

I have to assume that department supervisors in the inner city face a similar fate in their daily experience, even more so given the increased participation of government agencies. This is a tragedy of the highest order. Whether in a collaborative or directional vein, the need for intense, practical, clinical supervision is vital. Department supervisors and other administrators must consider turning some powers and repsonsibilities over to the faculty so that they can dedicate their time and resources to helping improve teacher performance. It is important that this not be seen as an adversarial relationship, which is why a collaborative approach is far preferable unless their is a real need for directional supervision.

Now the biggest problem I foresee is that supervisors and administrators are often times rusty or downright uninformed about the current state of supervision and the best practices they are supposed to be encouraging.

My solution to the issue of supervision is much different. What I believe is that we should be turning some of the supervisory duties to designated teachers. Much of the paperwork, inventory, and even disputes can be handled by teachers, freeing the supervisor up to spend more time in the classroom. But more importantly, every school should have a full time clinical supervisor on staff to do nothing other than work with teachers in the classroom.

The clinical supervisors would be specifically charged with working with all non-tenured teachers and any "at risk" teachers as determined by the school administration. If a performance pay system is in place they would have a substantial role in its determination.

The inclusion of a clinical supervisor is obviously an added expense to school districts, but a clearly justifiable and legitimate use of revenue. The demand for quality teachers in the inner city is high, supply is low. This is not to lay the blame for the failure of inner city public schools on the lap of our teachers, but is more an affirmation of the crucial role they play in the overall maturation- social and intellectual- of children in our inner city schools.

Putting in place a better system of indentifying and encouraging "star students" in college to become teachers is another piece of the puzzle, a component in the overall effort to develop a faculty of high quality educators. Having these clinical supervisors in place when these new teachers arrive will help keep these teachers in the profession, addressing what has be indicated a primary cause for many of these new teachers voluntarily resigning or staying in the profession as confused and frustrated educators. I cannot emphasize enough how important this feature is to the renewal of our inner city schools. The time to give teachers the support they want is NOW. We cannot wait.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Issues Facing New Jersey

Yesterday Governor Christie signed into law the Urban Hope Act, legislation that permits private non-profit groups to set up and operate "renaissance schools" that will- unlike charter schools- be considered a part of the inner city school district. It is, quite frankly, a misguided attempt to get private sector managers into the education sphere. Borne out of frustration with the horrific pace of reform in our inner cities, it is nonetheless an unnecessary diversion of capital away from existing schools, most of which are in deplorable conditions that make learning problematic. I share the Governor's frustration, but believe that there are other, more effective uses of the NJDOE's time and resources. Here is what I see are the most pressing issues facing New Jersey in the area of education reform in our inner cities. Unfortunately, it is hard to be sanguine about our ability to tackle these issues, because quite frankly the financial and procedural impetus needed for change must eminate from the wealthier districts and their representatives in Trenton. With no clear, perceived benefit from helping inner city schools at the expense of their own suburban schools, its unlikely we will have the radical, transformative changes we so desperately need. When you add in the stubborn reaction of the NJEA to any significant reform, it doesn't look good for the kids in our cities. Its seems we'd rather spend the money of welfare and prison cells than on schools and neighborhoods. With such shortsighted thinking, I don't expect much, but, what the heck, here's my list anyway (I will speak to each of these issues in more detail in upcoming posts): 1) Charter Schools: > more scrutiny in the selection process > school districts should be able to form their own charters > greater collaboration, rather than a sense of competition, needs to be established between public &charters 2) Clinical Supervision > it should be mandated that every public school in New Jersey have a clinical supervisor on site 3) Performance Pay > combining qualitative and quantitative metrics, merit pay must be instituted in our State, replacing the reliance on years of service and degrees attained as the primary criteria for pay raises. > several different plans should be tested throughout the State to find one that is effective at improving teacher performance. 4) Graduation Test > the HSPA must be replaced with a test that is focused on real world needs as opposed to its current emphasis on English and Math testing. 5) Neighborhood Renewal > the lack of socioeconomic diversity in inner city neighborhoods makes a mockery of the idea that inner city schools will be able to support the goal of upward economic mobility > inner city neighborhoods, especially minority neighborhoods, have a high concentration of people in poverty and an an absolute dearth of middle class values and role models, things that are critical for students if they are to truly gain a sense that opportunity is within their grasp. 6) Urban Opportunity Zones > replace Urban Enterprise Zones with Urban Opportunity Zones, they will operate on the same basic terms but the businessess and other entitites that locate their should in some way be connected to the curriculum and goals of our schools, providing mentorship, apprenticeships, and exposure to future opporutunities to inner city kids 7) College Graduates > we need to attract graduates at the top of the class rather than the bottom, which is the current reality. Provide economic inducements, loan forebearance, and promise a work environment that is supportive and the provides a great deal of intellectual freedom to design innovative curricula 8) Scholarships and College Prep Help > we must do a better job at providing opportunities for inner city kids to attend college, this can be accomplished by having the business community encouraged through incentives to offer college scholarships > we must provide low cost or free college prep support to students planning to take the ACT or SAT, giving these kids the same advantages as kids in the wealthier suburban schools 9) State Curriculum Mandates > we have gone completely overboard in the amount of required content that kids must learn, creating a test driven mindset and preventing teachers from creating innovative, interesting courses that reflect their personal knowledge and passions. we must reassess what our kids MUST learn to be functioning members of civil society, and our state graduation test should be tied to this narrower content set. > the curriculum should also refocus on skills rather than content, requiring kids to learn skill sets consistent with 21st century competencies 10)Tenure Reform > tenure should be tied to the aforementioned performance pay and need for clinical supervision, and any teacher deemed ineffective should be teamed with a clinical supervisor to improve performance over a two year period. If performance does not improve, tenure should be revoked There you have it, my top 10 list of priorities for the State of New Jersey. It is a comprehensive, "interdisciplinary" approach to improving our inner city schools. I would love to hear what you have to say!!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


Close your eyes for a moment, and imagine a room full of entrepreneurs, whether they are Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison or the neighbor that owns a successful sporting goods store. Think about those qualities that you find so admirable in these entrepreneurs, their spirit, their determination, their intelligence, their passion. Now imagine a school full of teachers possessing those same qualities. What a wonderful learning environment that would be!

There are a plethora of problems facing students, especially those in the inner city, and many of those problems extend beyond the reach of our schools: problems in the family, a lack of socioeconomic diversity in distressed neighborhoods, the paucity of important resources to assist in learning. These are sensitive public policy issues, and as such are subject to a plodding, divisive political process.

But the one area where consensus is much more likely is the issue of improving the quality of our teachers. This means finding a way to improve the performance of our existing teachers and finding a way to attract the “best and brightest” to education, ideally to education in the inner city. A recent report noted that 50% of all new teachers graduated in the bottom third of their class. Meanwhile, the top students are on their way to operating rooms, Wall Street, research labs, law offices, the IT industry, and engineering firms. As I wrote in a recent blog, last year over 25,000 STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) teachers left the profession, noting “disgruntlement with their jobs and a lack of professional support” among the reasons they left.

My personal feeling, my suspicion, is that the best way we can attract and keep these young, energetic graduates is to guarantee them a high level of autonomy and intellectual freedom, institute an incentivized pay structure that rewards success, and provide clinical supervisers that will mentor and collaborate with these new hires, providing practical guidance and emotional support.  Let’s turn our high school into a true “marketplace of ideas” where teachers will have greater freedom to design their own “product” and greater accountability and pressure to "generate profit."

I regularly reminded my students that they are to a great extent in competition with one another, that they themselves are a “product” they need to sell to colleges and future employers. Teachers are no different. “Liking kids” and “really wanting to make a difference” are wonderful platitudes but insufficient qualities for the demands of teaching in today’s world.

Unfortunately, too many people with influence over policy, and too many people charged with hiring, still have their eyes shut. We need to retain and attract teachers that possess the spirit of an entrepreneur, who feel a deep, personal attachment to the curriculum, the classroom, and the school in much the same way an entrepreneur feels about her product or service. I understand there are those who would object to what appears to be an effort to bring a little competition and decentralization to our schools, letting the teachers has a greater say in the operation of their schools. My response is to look at our inner city schools, look at the lack of progress, and admit that whatever has been tried has failed. Incremental reforms are not enough, patience is not a virtue. These kids deserve a quality education. They deserve better teachers, and they deserve to have them NOW.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Need for Student Self-Advocacy

Lost amidst the cacophony of voices debating the scope and direction of education reform is the critical need for students to  learn how to advocate for themselves, both individually and as a group. This is a skill, and as such must at some level be taught. Students must learn to advocate at school, but there is no less a need for youngsters to learn how to advocate at home. Whether it is insisting on the proper choice of food in the house, asking for help with homework, securing necessary or supplementary resources, or asserting that their parents get more involved in school, kids as young as elementary school must learn how to do more to create a more favorable learning environment and greater opportunites for themselves.

Student advocacy at school is also extremely important. As a group, high school students should have greater influence over the culture of learning at school, have some say in policy through a vigorous and respected Student Council, and have their opinions solicited and legitimized through the use of focus groups. Every teacher should be expected to integrate instruction on student advocacy into their first week instructions. The Principal and guidance counselors should similarly reinforce the importance of student advocacy at assemblies and conferences.

Students are important stakeholders on the frontlines of this saga. Rather than be passive "recepticles," students must be proactive and their voice- both individually and collectively- must be heard.

Friday, January 6, 2012

To Improve Our Schools, Improve Our Cities

I am shocked by the lack of urgency we are showing to the deplorable situation in our inner city schools and their neighborhoods. If what was happening in these communities was a natural disaster we would be bringing in the National Guard. Test scores, for what they’re worth, have shown little improvement in the last decade. This is true for the public schools and for many of the charter schools that were to be change’s linchpin. Even more distressing is the lack of improvement in graduation rates. Our inner city neighborhoods are being filled with poorly skilled, desperate young people that will one day become dependents on our State our guests in our prisons. The sense of being trapped, of going to school in a community devoid of hope or opportunity, is a challenge to our moral sensibilities. Every child that wants to succeed, that wants to be upwardly mobile, that wants to break free of this cycle and have a better life than their parents must be given the chance.

There is no single cause to the failure of our inner city schools, but it is clear that any remedy will require the participation of us all. Inevitably, we will need to look to our Legislature, Assembly, and Governor to pass bold legislation that will be our equivalent of a Marshall Plan for New Jersey’s cities.

We need performance pay in our public schools. We need early retirement for our worn out teachers. We need the private sector to donate millions in college scholarship money rather than the divisive “Opportunity Scholarships.” We need parents to do their jobs by encouraging their children and holding the schools accountable. Children must be taught to advocate for themselves. We need graduation tests that reflect the real world, and curriculum that is no longer constrained by the ridiculously detailed “cumulative progress indicators” requiring educators to teach content that will be quickly forgotten. Learning is an intense, time consuming process that can only be assessed by frequent demonstrations throughout the school year showing that content and skills were acquired. Beyond a very narrow core, we should be less concerned with what kids are learning and more concerned whether true learning is taking place.

We need to change the way people think about the profession.  A recent article in Scientific American was lamenting the fact that 25,000 STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) teachers leave the profession every year due to “disgruntlement with their jobs and lack of professional support.”  In the words of their editors, “To attract and retain enough science and math teachers will require an elevation in their status and a thorough revamping of attitudes toward the entire profession.”

To attract the top students, the ones planning careers with engineering firms, in operating rooms, in corporate boardrooms, or in pharmaceutical labs, we need to incentivize the salary guide and give teachers the freedom to put their passion and knowledge to work by giving them the same control over their curriculum as entrepreneurs have over products of their own creation. And to support this cadre of aspiring entrepreneurial educators, every school in New Jersey must be required to have a clinical supervisor in their building.

Addressing what goes on at school is only half the struggle. Too many of the neighborhoods in the inner city are entirely impoverished, with no middle class or professional class role models and few if any indigenous entrepreneurs other than those in the underground economy. Growing up, weekend visits to my dad’s corporate office had an enormous impact on my maturation and aspirations for material success. I have no doubt that many kids in suburban school districts do the same with their moms or dads.

It is incumbent on our legislators to offer incentives for middle class families to move into the inner city and attend public schools. The City should use its powers of eminent domain to condemn and demolish abandoned buildings, even relocate families on distressed streets to more diverse neighborhoods. Studies show that minority neighborhoods lack socioeconomic diversity, and that problem has ramifications in the schools.

And finally, we should take the much maligned Urban Enterprise Zones and revise the concept with an eye towards urban education, creating what I call “Urban Opportunity Zones.” Generally speaking, businesses and organizations within the UOZ are incentivized to hire, train, mentor, or educate high school students. The enterprises in the UOZ will to a great extent mirror the high school curriculum and are conceived to be a place where inner city students can gain access and exposure to opportunities that are currently so distant from their daily lives.

There is nothing in this vision of reform that is beyond our reach. It will demand cooperation, concession, and coordination among stakeholders. If we really believe in a social contract, if we believe there are moral imperatives, then we must devote our energy and resources to the children in our inner cities, bringing hope and opportunity before the perils of their existence turn wonderment into frustration and desperation. I can think of no more noble goal.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

New Graduation Test For New Jersey

Every year New Jersey juniors spend several days taking the HSPA, a pre-requisite for graduation.. As with most other indicators of instruction, results of the HSPA demonstrate the glaring inequities in our education system. Whether looked at through the lens of geography, of race, or of income, the range of scores is stark. What makes matters worse is the fact that the HSPA, seen as an Assessment of student readiness for life beyond high school, an Assessment of skills, and an Assessment of what kids “learned” in school, is an absolute fraud and an abject failure in meeting its putative objectives. Simply put, we need to scrap the Assessment, salvage what we can, and design an Assessment that shows kids are prepared for life beyond high school.

According to the New Jersey Department of Education’s “Guide to the HSPA,” the Assessment “requires all students to demonstrate mastery of skills needed to function politically, economically, and socially in a democratic society”. But anyone making an honest review of the Assessment will conclude there is a total disconnect between the Assessment and these goals. The HSPA is supposedly aligned with New Jersey’s Core Curriculum Content Standards, which include language arts, mathematics, science, visual and performing arts, health and physical education, technology, world languages, social studies, and 21st century life and careers. Is there some reason most of these required subjects are absent from the Assessment? Is it not important that our kids demonstrate proficiency in these areas too? If not, why have the standards at all?

Even though the State has done an admirable job trying to streamline the “cumulative progress indicators” delineated in the NJCCCS, the reality is that we are “requiring” our students to learn too much. The key word here is “learn.” Even if all of these indicators were introduced to students, were they really taught, or more importantly, “learned?” The constraints of time make learning, and assessing that learning, extremely problematic. In a State that touts ideas- time consuming ideas- such as individualized instruction and alternative assessments, there is just no way that students are learning all that we are requiring, and maybe that’s the reason they’re not in the Assessment.

What I suggest is a drastic diminution and then broadening in what we believe kids MUST know as a condition of graduation. What I envision would be in essence a “citizenship test” akin to what people take to become naturalized citizens. High school graduates are very much like naturalized citizens; they are entering adulthood in a democratic society whose vitality is a direct function of an individual’s ability to understand the contemporary issues, the institutions, and the historical underpinnings of our culture.  Why shouldn’t we make sure kids know about proper diet and nutrition, global warming, fiscal and monetary policy, Constitutional law, balancing a checkbook, understanding a contract, or evaluating a survey or poll? U.S. foreign policy is the most important influence on international relations on the world stage. Shouldn’t our graduates be able identify the countries of the Middle East, explain why the India-Pakistan border is perhaps the most dangerous on earth, reflect on the significance of World War II, or describe the political significance of statesmen such as FDR and Reagan? Shouldn’t a well-rounded high schoo graduate know what Jazz and Impressionism are?

Obviously we can’t let a graduation Assessment turn into a “game show” of random facts , but the point is that there is content, content beyond mathematics and “language arts literacy,” that our graduates must demonstrate that they know. It is admittedly hard to distinguish between what we would like our graduates to know and what they must know, but it can be done.

A comprehensive graduation Assessment, one that touches on all the Core Curriculum Content areas, will fulfill the Department of Education’s aforementioned goals of having kids demonstrate mastery of the skills needed to “function politically, economically, and socially in a democratic society.” If they are going to master the skills, don’t we also need to make sure they have mastered the content? Moreover, it is eminently possible to assess those standards and integrate them into the reading and writing sections of the current HSPA.

A collateral benefit of this change to the HSPA and the drastic reduction in required “indicators of progress” is that it will free up teachers to take a more entrepreneurial approach to their profession, designing courses that reflect their personal passions and expertise in their general content areas. “Teaching to the test” will be replaced by more inspired instruction as educators are freed from the constraints of our current Standards.

Our students in the inner city, currently struggling to meet proficiency standards in the current formulation of the HSPA, will be the greatest beneficiaries of a new HSPA. The current Assessment is unfair and fails to meet the State’s own objectives. It is not aligned to all of New Jersey’s Core Curriculum Content Standards and, most importantly, it does not test kids on the things they should know to be actively engaged in our democracy and free market economy. It is time for a change.