Education Improvement and Core Beliefs ?>

Education Improvement and Core Beliefs

Arguments overt PARCC tests and Abbott funding in New Jersey education require that we dig down to our core beliefs about the purposes of education and government.  Much ink has been spilled promoting specious statistical arguments coated with platitudes.  These discussions are much easier to conduct once we lay out the first principles and see the degree to which we agree on them before we debate the details.

Nature vs Nurture

There is little disagreement, I think, that some children emerge from the womb better equipped to learn.  Given adequate nutrition and a world to observe, some will prosper no matter what.  Unfortunately, the converse is also true.  There are some children whose progress will never be as quick as the average.  We change the label every couple of decades, but you know who I am talking about: special needs, challenged, and so on.  The science of genetics tells us that moderately high intelligence is passed from parents to child with regularity but not certainty.  The same with average and moderately low intelligence.  Deviations at both ends of the spectrum, savants and autism, seem to be a matter of chance and don’t carry from generation to generation.

Decades of study have shown also that the environment in which a child is raised affects the child’s ability to learn.  Some factors are early and close-up.  A parent’s willingness and ability to talk to a child is one.  A parent’s vocabulary directly affects the vocabulary of the child.  The absolute availability of books in the home and their relative availability compared to video is another.  Some factors are close, but measured in hundreds of yards instead.  The neighborhood with a library is more conducive to learning than one with a drug-dealing corner.  In many cases, these factors are impossible to segregate.  Does a child’s love for books come from books in the home or from a friendly neighborhood library?  In a neighborhood where libraries are scarce, so is the possibility of a bookshelf in the home.  The two are so closely related that it’s impossible to segregate them in an analysis.

Every ten years we collect information on our population, the most reliable portion of which is the geographic distribution of people and their attributes.  That’s not surprising; the census was originally designed to count people geographically for the purpose of determining voting districts and representation.  Census takers don’t ask the IQ of everyone in the house.  The measures they have of income and occupation are hazy at best.  But they have the address pinned right down.  The result is data collected by ZIP code.  The unfortunate result is that the Post Office’s effort to improve the delivery of mail affects our public policy.  Yes, one can make the same observation about township lines and the placement of rivers, but the point is clear: because we measure location, location tends to be a factor on which we focus.

We all seem to agree that nature and nurture both play a part, but we’re unwilling to agree on their proportion.  Those who believe nature plays the bigger role will argue that a successful parent having achieved a level of financial comfort will move to a neighborhood where other successful parents have moved.  This is likely to be a neighborhood with less crime and more libraries.  These believers in nature will describe a system in which successful parents breed successful children.  They all live together in a community where the cost is higher and the less successful are excluded.  Conversely, those who are not economically successful tend to gravitate to areas where their neighbors are less economically successful.  They live where the cost of living is not so high.  The result is geographic divide that spans multiple generations.   School performance will be better in quiet neighborhoods with big houses – because that’s where the well-educated go to live and rear their children.

Those who believe nurture plays a bigger role describe the lesser performance of children in lower-income neighborhoods as the result of less available wealth to allow more time with infants, fancier schools, and more libraries.  If, they say, children in Newark had access to better schools, devoted teachers, nearby libraries, and less distraction from crime, they would exhibit the same progress as kids from wealthy suburbs.  This is the argument for redistribution of wealth within the state.  Suburbs pay for their own schools from real estate taxes.  Inner city schools are subsidized from taxes collected all over the state, including inheritance taxes never collected in the inner city.  After a generation or two of support, the inner city schools will improve.

Duty to our fellow citizens and entitlement

In our Declaration of Independence, we claim that all men are created equal.  From birth, everyone should have the same shot at happiness.  Public schooling goes further.  Implicitly, we say that everyone who graduates high school should have the same shot.  That requires that every high school diploma represents a common minimum level of achievement.  For that, we are willing to tax ourselves and grant every deserving child a high school education that includes reading at a tenth grade level and math including Algebra I.  For the record, I’m in favor of that.  Indeed, I’m in favor of a system that includes state-paid tuition in public colleges too.  With that grant, though, should come conditions that limit how much the system can be gamed.

Once you’ve gotten the taxpayers to agree that a basic high school education is an entitlement, the system is prone to abuse.  Experts in education have described a relation between musical education and excellence in mathematics.  That makes a good argument for music classes.  Now the practical question arises: does that mean every high school should have a band or orchestra?  Even the most successful musicians admit that performing is a romantic but not a practical career choice.  If the suburban school district decides it wants to support an orchestra, including lending cellos to students, is that a reason for a Newark school to demand the same?  Or would a chorus or ensemble of five dollar song flutes meet the same underlying need?

I really liked Bernie Sanders’ proposal to subsidize public colleges.  We have the community college infrastructure in place.  Taxpayers, I think, would pay for two years at a government-run community college.  The condition is that students would have to meet the entrance requirements first and maintain a passing grade average.  As to the college, we’d need to establish a system of incentives based on student outcomes, not the number of matriculants.  The danger is that we create a community college system that replicates the failures of for-profit universities, one that rewards the administration for the number of enrollees without considering graduation rate or job placement.  The last thing we need is to extend our K-12 public education system to a Kindergarten to Sophomore system.

Working with our community college system provides us an experimental playground to develop techniques that can be used for high schools.  We need to segregate the must-have qualities of a school from the nice-to have.

Politicians talk endlessly about “good schools.”  They leave to the listener to imagine what “good school” means.  At one end of the spectrum is a school that reliably graduates a high percentage of students, who in the main go on to an average spectrum of colleges or who are gainfully employed after say three months.  At the other end of the spectrum some would say a “good school” has a TV studio or a swimming pool.  Yes, Phillipsburg High School has a TV studio.  Its district is an Abbott B district, which made it eligible for a new building paid for by the state.  Montgomery High School, which is in an Abbott “J” district has a swimming pool paid for by local real estate taxation.  The portion of Phillipsburg students scoring 4 or 5 on the PARCC Language Arts section was 39.7%.  In Montgomery, 62.1% got the passing scores.  So “good school” is not defined simply by facilities and special programs.

Good schools have good teachers.  What is a good teacher?  I think that we can agree that a good teacher is one who motivates top performance from every student.  Smart students are coached to do genius quality work.  Slower students are tutored to higher levels than they expected.  A good teacher does this while fairly dividing time and keeping order in the classroom.  That’s fine, but how do we measure it?

Time in service

The first option is not to measure teacher performance at all.  We can assume a teacher gets better with experience.  Most probably do.  With this view, we hire the best we can, then give standard raises every year until the teacher quits, retires, or is discharged for some gross malfeasance.  This procedure pushes teacher evaluation back to the university from which the teacher graduated and to the skills of the interviewer.  It’s probably an adequate measure for a teacher of one to three years’ experience.  It misses the mark completely for a teacher who fails to develop after five to ten years or loses motivation.  It’s based on the assumption that all teachers are the same, all average.

Peer Reviews

The second option is to observe the teacher in action.  New Jersey has an observer look and record four attributes of a teacher’s approach:

  • Planning
  • Environment
  • Instruction
  • Professionalism

This approach centers on the teacher’s process.  The idea is that a structured process should result in better outcomes.  It is based on the assumption, for example, that a well-planned lesson produces better student outcomes.  In math, it may.  In classes that purport to stimulate critical thinking, it may have the opposite effect.  Nonetheless, it is the method we use to develop 70% of a teacher’s grade each year.  The result of teacher evaluation is one of four:

  • highly effective
  • effective
  • partially effective
  • ineffective

In the Newark Public Schools, a grade of highly effective earns the teacher a jump to the next pay grade and a bonus of $5,000 up to $12,500 if other conditions are met.

A grade of effective earns the teacher a jump to the next pay grade.

A grade of partially effective may earn the teacher jump to the next pay grade at the discretion of the Superintendent.  That teacher must also receive a mid-year review.

A grade of ineffective requires the teacher to remain at his or her current pay grade.  That teacher must also receive a mid-year review.  The teacher contract does not discuss dismissal of a teacher graded ineffective.

By law, the records of teacher evaluations are confidential and not subject to public disclosure.  You’ll never know your child’s teacher’s score, nor the average for the whole school.  All the teachers may have been rated effective or highly effective.

Standardized Testing

Standardized testing of students is an imperfect means of evaluating individual teacher performance for reasons discussed elsewhere at length.

Nevertheless, standardized testing is the only means of implementing a normative state standard.  Without a statewide comparison, there is no way to judge the relative performance of the Absecon School District with the Wyckoff School District.  There remains the possibility that a bad principal scores a bunch of bad teachers (whom she hired) all effective.  The teachers in the under-performing school are all happy because the got raises.  The administration is happy because the reports all look right.   The student suffers because the so one else admits how bad the school is.

The NJEA and other teachers unions are fighting hard against PARCC in public fora, including endorsement of candidates based on their declared stances.  There is a very good reason for this.  By law, the rubric for teacher evaluations is not subject to collective bargaining.  They are not allowed to bring PARCC or the terms of teacher observations to the bargaining table.  They hope instead to bring the matter to the voting booth.  The last available NJEA tax return shows it contributed $9 million to a super-PAC it controls.  It campaigns hard.

Requirements for graduation

For the same reasons a student should want to know that his teacher was scored effective on some statewide basis, he should want to know that his diploma means something too.  A student is not well served by receiving a diploma just for showing up to class.  Social promotion solves a lot of problems in the short run, but a student who gets out into the work world and discovers his math or reading skills are below par is in for a lifetime of disappointment.  It really isn’t too much to ask that a graduate be able to read and write at a tenth grade level or that he have Algebra I skills.

All of this talk about “teaching to the test” is hogwash.  A graduating senior should achieve a level 4 or 5 on the NJ PARCC without any extra teaching whatsoever.  If 65% of seniors cannot achieve this score in math or English, then there is something wrong with the test.  The state has until 2021 to get that straightened out.  It should take no more than a year.  I almost forgot; this is government.  Okay, two years.

As to PARCC topics taking away from other valuable subjects, I say this:  It matters not if the school has an excellent class in Art History if the students cannot write about their impressions.  Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic are the foundation of all other subjects.  Without them competence in any other is well-nigh impossible.  Once students have achieved a score of 4 in them, all other subjects are fair game.  Until a student has achieved a 4, those subjects should be secondary.

It’s going to be up the state of New Jersey to look carefully at the tests and every individual question to determine whether the test measures our expectations of a high school senior.  This cannot be farmed out to Pearson.  It might have been farmed out to the PARCC consortium, but with the club so small, it’s a job we must do for ourselves.

Essential requirements for English

What is tenth grade English?  I propose that it is comprehension of periodicals and plain-language contracts.  I propose that it is the construction of an unambiguous essay with thesis, body, and conclusion. says a tenth grader should know ad hominem, allusion, and ambiguity.  Spelling would be nice, but I would settle for consistent use of a spell checker.  Shakespeare and Twain are supporting characters, but not the stars.

What is college sophomore English?  I propose that it is comprehension of two contrary essays that include technical terminology.  A sophomore should be able to construct an analysis of the two arguments and derive a conclusion that is cogent.  In literature, the sophomore should be able to identify voice, tone, and attitude and make a reasonable facsimile of it himself. says a sophomore in college should know abrogate, acerbic, and acrimony.

Essential requirements for math

What is Algebra I?  Algebra I starts with complete competence in all of the arithmetic operations.  It includes conversion of fractions to decimals and changes of unit, imperial to metric, for example.  It should include the elementary exponential functions including roots and compound growth.  A high schooler should be able to turn a word problem into an algebraic expression, then solve for the unknown.  The high school graduate should be facile in using computational tools common in the workplace, including graphing calculators, tables, and measuring devices.

What is college sophomore math?  I leave the order of progression to others, but I believe a sophomore should have mastered calculus at the AB level, be familiar with linear algebra, and have a firm grounding in probability and statistics.  When presented with a data set, he or she should be able to fit a curve, then describe the goodness of fit using terms like Gaussian distribution, r, and kurtosis.  The student should be able to identify flawed statistical reasoning.

What next?

We can opt our children out of PARCC tests.  We can protest and write angry blog posts.  We can vote pro-PARCC politicians out of office.  None of that will do any good until we can agree on the core principles from which a better approach to improving our educational system can be derived.

We need to admit our notion of whether nature or nurture is the bigger force in a child’s educational success.  We need to admit that people once educated would rather live in a nice neighborhood.  We need to recognize (or not) our obligation to educate our fellow citizen’s children.  And immediately, we need to agree on what constitutes a basic high school education with specifics.

Only then can we get to the task of improving New Jersey’s already excellent school system.

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