Cautionary lessons for today’s “new educators” from New Jersey’s famed Elizabeth Allen

Elizabeth Allen: A teacher leader for our day, too. Photo courtesy of the New Jersey Education Association.

Elizabeth Allen: A teacher leader for our day, too. Photo courtesy of the New Jersey Education Association.

Earlier in May, the New Jersey Education Association elected a new president and the state’s schoolteachers observed Teacher Appreciation Week, making this a good time to recall the remarkable woman who was elected, a century ago, to head the NJEA – Elizabeth Almira Allen.

For 40 years, Allen (1854-1919) was a principal in Hoboken, and in 1882, a decade after she began teaching there, she was chosen by her peers to be vice president of their local branch of the NJEA. For the next 35 years, Allen fought valiantly for her fellow teachers – for their professional autonomy, for a reliable pension system, and for them to be evaluated as other professionals were: on the basis of experience and competence.

In reviewing Allen’s career today, one is struck by the similarities between issues schoolteachers faced a century ago and those they face today. But of greater significance to the taxpayers of New Jersey is how counterproductive were practices and regulations imposed upon them back then – most often by leaders of the “new education” movement whose chief experience in the classroom was as students themselves.

Today the state is still paying – both figuratively and otherwise – for the shortsightedness of these men. Alas, misogyny and paternalistic attitudes prevailed as the role of urban teacher developed in cities nationwide as the 19th century turned into the 20th.

Allen’s career was, at its start, representative. It began when she enrolled, at age 13, in what was then the Trenton Normal School (it’s now known as the College of New Jersey). After a few years of secondary education and pedagogical preparation, she had her first classroom, at age 18, in Atlantic City. Two years later, in 1871, she moved to Hoboken.

Not until the Civil War did women moved into the nation’s classrooms in large numbers; a scarcity of male teachers was less the issue than that females could be had for far less money than male teachers: in fact, NJ’s commissioner of education in 1871 noted that a “first-rate” woman could be hired for $500 per year, while a “second-rate” man would demand far more. Further, there was the assumption that these young women would teach for a few years, then marry, and a fresh crop of young ladies would take their place. By 1900, 90 percent of New Jersey’s teachers were female; except for rural areas in the southern part of the state, male teachers in elementary schools were seldom to be found.

Men had moved into district administration, a field that of necessity grew as immigration drove the growth of urban districts. And leading the development of this part of public schooling was another New Jersey native, Nicholas Murray Butler (1862-1947), founding president of Teachers College in New York. Butler was a pompous autocratic who achieved national prominence with condescending pronouncements about the “undemocratic” tendencies of new immigrants and the need to centralize urban education under the leadership of omniscient men like himself – guys with three names and a similar number of college degrees.

Allen, according to her biographer (see note on sources below) tended to use Butler as a foil – as am I. But his fear of women, especially those whose abilities rivaled his own, and of people whose last names ended in vowels (or were, for him, otherwise unpronounceable), blinded him to the realities of the urban classrooms of his day, to the potential of the new Americans whom he did not quite trust, and to the challenges faced by the women (not all of whom were young) who were struggling daily to assimilate children of these immigrants into mainstream American society. And, as it turned out – look at the American economy in 1950 — doing a pretty good job of it.

From 1890 until 1910, Butler led the National Association of Education – then an elitist group of university presidents (in 1902, Butler became president of Columbia) and superintendents of large urban districts. When women like Allen and other strong-minded teachers began muscling their way into the NEA beginning in 1900, Butler and his cronies tried to limit their influence. Allen’s opinion of Butler’s attitudes is most succinctly summed up in a paper called “The Teachers Congress,” published by the New Jersey Education Association in 1900.

Three years earlier, Allen had joined with a group of other New Jersey teachers to begin their campaign for a pension fund similar to that police and other civil servants had – an effort that finally met with some success a dozen years later. But her concern in this article outlining a “teachers parliament” was not material but philosophic. Teachers, she felt, should be organized to address “questions of vital moment” not only to the students but to the taxpayers of the state. She wanted an organization in which teachers could meet (at their own expense) to discuss a “higher pedagogy” that would lift them from the “weary technical grind of the classroom into the healthy, inspiring atmosphere of large educational views” and send them back to the classroom “refreshed and enriched in mind and spirit, a better teacher and a better citizen.”

But leading male educators of her day, led by Butler, had a different conception of what teachers needed in the way of preparation and supervision. He was, Allen argued, advocating a “new education” which would establish a “privileged class” of supervisors that would be “tremendously expensive” to taxpayers, centralize and “remove the public school system from the control of the people,” and degrade the teachers. The teachers congress that Allen proposed would be one in which these dedicated and poorly compensated women could discuss what they were doing and how. But such discussion was not only discouraged, it was banned outright by some administrators.

Butler and others were enamored of the emerging “factory system” of organizing the teachers’ work and of “close supervision,” which would regulate what they were teaching and how. Allen and other teacher leaders, such as Chicago’s Ella Flagg Young (1845-1918), argued that this would treat teachers like “workers on a treadmill” and instill in them fear of their supervisors. (Butler, by the way, was so afraid of Young that he resigned from his leadership posts at the NEA when she was elected its president in 1910 – and then had his henchmen endeavor to discredit her leadership.)

Another of the new educators’ priorities was an evaluation system which would be a prerequisite for promotion or advancement in salary. These examinations, Allen argued, would take “time, energy, and enthusiasm” away from pupils. Exams would not make good teachers of poor ones, and further, they were not required of lawyers or school superintendents or university presidents – most of whom, not incidentally, were male.

Allen advocated, instead, for more stringent requirements for entry into teacher education programs, something other leading female educators such as Young argued for as well. They also advocated for the teachers congresses and real professional organizations for teachers such as those other professions were establishing at the same time. Allen also urged the NJEA to more carefully monitor state legislation that would be injurious to teachers and principals (many of whom were also women).

Alas, male fears of Allen’s prescriptions became part of how teachers were selected, prepared, and provided with professional development. Except that the NJEA became more proactive in monitoring legislation – for which the organization is roundly criticized today – none of Allen’s ideas were institutionalized. Instead, universities relegated teacher-education programs to the status of “cash cows” to fund more prestigious programs. Teachers did get promotion and tenure, but as a leading education historian has argued, it was a “corrupt bargain.” In return, the teachers were forced to remove themselves from the policy arena – hence, they retreated behind closed classroom doors and did the best they could with the limited professional autonomy they did have. Until Albert Shanker revitalized teachers’ professional organizations in the 1970s, teachers’ voices were seldom sought – or heeded – when education policy was made. Butler’s “new education” was like organizing the legal system without consulting lawyers.

How I wish today’s education “reformers” (or deformers as their opponents would say) – men like Bill Gates and Eli Broad – would learn a few humbling lessons from the counterproductive actions of men like Butler. So might Chris Cerf, New Jersey’s current commissioner of education, and several big city mayors in New Jersey and elsewhere. Whatever the shortcomings of urban schools today, further demeaning classroom teachers does not address the problems. It’s time to heed the lessons of Allen and Young, women who knew that they were talking about.

A note on sources. The most complete recent biography of Elizabeth Allen is an article by Margaret Smith Crocco, “The Price of an Activist Life,” in Pedagogies of Resistance (Teachers College Press, 1999). The article referred to above, “The Teachers Congress,” was published by the New Jersey Education Association on December 28, 1900. The era and the personalities – including that of Nicholas Murray Butler – were covered in my Ph.D. dissertation, “Ella Flagg Young’s Educational Legacy: Theory and Practice in Chicago’s Schools, 1862-1917” (UIC, 2005).  The most recent biography of Butler is Nicholas Miraculous by Michael Rosenthal (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006); that of Shanker is Tough Liberal by Richard Kahlenberg (Columbia University Press, 2010).

A Kismet — or lack thereof

So, I went to find a previous post this morning — and discovered that some demon had destroyed them all. Alas, I had neglected to acquire an anti-spam program quickly enough — or so I learned from a nice young man at GoDaddy. They were gone —  poof! — though I still have versions in MS Word, so all is not lost.

And, interestingly, the anti-spam program is called Akismet, Arabic for fate. Or, It is written. Or not, as it happens.

However, my plan this morning to post a tribute to Elizabeth Allen, a noted New Jersey teacher of a century ago — someone whose comments on teachers and the pressures they face from people who know little about the work — will have to wait for another day.

The great disconnect: is anyone responsible for achievement?

A full agenda would be an understated description of Trenton’s board of education meeting on April 22. It was the last meeting to be presided over by the widely admired Toby Sanders, whose three-year appointment to the board was not renewed by the city’s mayor. Hence, there were many tributes to him.  The music and dance performances that have now become regular features of board meetings included an exciting presentation by a group called TEDI, some high school students were given an award from a national organization for its video about career preparation, and an individual high school student was lauded for being a scholar-athlete who will be representing the district in a national conference next month.

The meeting began with the board’s acceptance of the superintendent’s recommendations – 30-odd pages providing details of promotions, terminations, contracts proposed, field trips and the like, a regular part of every meeting (and the reason why boards of education exist). But there was a hitch – the state’s controversial commissioner of education had, at the last minute, requested that two recommendations for promotions be removed from the agenda. Opposed to this interference, Sanders asked whether the board could decide not to remove these recommendations (for a new principal) and then the commissioner could do as he wished – as the state provides 85 percent of Trenton’s funding and claims that three fourths of its schools are failing for low-performance, the commissioner has considerable latitude in district decision-making.

The leaders of the Trenton Education Association audibly applauded this move, but as members of the board discussed the issue, a decision was apparently made to stand its ground on other issues. The commissioner’s preference was heeded.

Then it was time for public participation – always a lively part of Trenton’s board meetings, a celebration of democratic freedom of speech and the community’s sense of involvement with the schools. First up was a man who appears often at board and city council meetings to remind his fellow citizens of their obligations and of real problems facing the community: poor academic skills, too much violence, too little good nutrition. Then I spoke, with a plea that district teachers consider adopting on their own more structured methods for discipline and instruction, points I had recently made in published commentaries and in this blog.  Teachers and administrators at Trenton’s schools may object to interference from the state, but it isn’t going to go away until they manage to improve academic performance. A chill seemed to have filled the room at the end of my remarks.

After another commendation and a complaint, the vocal and forceful leader of the Trenton Education Association, stepped to the podium, with harsh comments about the supposed “turn-around expert” the state named to oversee Trenton’s  effort to improve its schools’ performance. Last spring, with considerable fanfare, the New Jersey Department of Education established eight Regional Achievement Centers to oversee instruction and leadership at schools performing in the bottom five percent on statewide achievement tests.  And it named to head these RACs as they are called, “distinguished educators” from around the country.

The TEA president has a valid point – I’d expected that the mane who heads Trenton’s RAC would appear at board meetings and similar functions to try to get a sense of the community and to make news about his plans. But other than a quick appearance at a board meeting in September, he’s kept an exceedingly low profile considering his responsibilities.

However, according to the TEA  president, he has begun to show up in the schools; he was apparently behind the commissioner’s request regarding the promotions. Also, he and some of his staff have been visiting schools to evaluate teachers – but, per the TEA, those doing so have no credentials for the work. Most recently, the RAC head has told teachers that they must all follow a certain form of lesson plan – something the TEA said is ridiculous: how can teachers with responsibility for six subjects each day, also find time to fill out complex lesson plans? She’s right; it’s absurd.

The TEA’s feisty grievance officer came up next and directly addressed the state’s monitor, a stone-faced woman who is the commissioner’s representative at board meetings. Why, the TEA official asked, would the state appoint to the post of turn-around chief, someone as unqualified for the work as the one sent to Trenton? He was, she claimed, “non-renewed” after two years as a school principal in Delaware – which is tantamount to being fired, she said. “Why would the state department of education send leftovers to Trenton?” she asked. A valid question, indeed.

As TEA officials have noted, their numerous requests to meet with the RAC head have been ignored: “Someone forgot to tell [him] what collaboration is,” she said. With only two years heading another school, “What gives him the expertise to lead districts like Trenton?” Also a valid question. She closed her comments by saying: “We have to do what we are trying to do, which is to educate the children of Trenton.”

Her point is as valid as her questions – but the state’s point is equally valid: Trenton’s students perform way below those of other communities and its high school graduation rate is roughly 50 percent. Trenton’s teachers may be trying to educate the children of Trenton, but they are not succeeding in their efforts.

Then it was time for the superintendent to make his remarks; as usual, he is both a cheerleader for district accomplishments and occasionally a prod about its challenges. But, alas, the longer he has been in his post, the more the former seems to have superseded the latter. Part of this is inevitable – he knows he cannot accomplish anything without wide support, but the inspiring personal story that brought him in Trenton and his great aims for collaboration and accomplishment a year ago when he was hired, have been tending to fall into a pattern of making excuses. Recent newspaper stories have pointed that the district recently hired as assistant superintendent a woman who had participated in a test-result altering scheme in Philadelphia and that a special education program at a district high school was a farce. The superintendent’s published comments about both were classic bureaucratic avoidance of the real issues at hand.

His commented noted the district’s new website and commended the meeting’s “celebration of positive things.” “Tonight is an example that public schools are not a failure, our schools can perform well,” he said. “We have achievement issues,” he continued,” but the way to solve them is not to attack [us] . . . blaming the teachers or the parents or the school board is not the solution.”

And he ended his comments by saying: “We cannot allow [other] people to dictate to us what our schools need,” a comment that seemed aimed not only at the state and its representative sitting not far from him, but possibly at the three critics (including myself?) who had also spoken at the meeting.

The state Department of Education, I would agree, has contributed little to improving Trenton’s schools, and it seems to have appointed officials of questionable qualifications to oversee the “turnaround” efforts it has imposed on the district. But if neither the teachers nor the parents are to blame for the schools’ shortcomings – as the superintendent claimed – who is?


Trenton’s role in addressing threats to American public education

On April 22, the last Trenton Board of Education meeting to be presided over by outgoing board president Toby Sanders, I made a brief statement during the public participation part of the meeting. Motivating my comments was an ongoing concern about what Trenton graduates do not know when they start taking courses at the local community college where I teach. Despite my regard for district leadership and considerable sympathy with the pressure teachers are under, something is missing in the preparation district schools are able to provide for their students. Further, the academic deficiencies revealed by these students’ performance on statewide tests are being used as an excuse to dismantle American public education. Less its introductory remarks, my comments appear below.

 . .  . Despite all the good work I have seen in this room, I am very concerned about public education here in Trenton and in many other communities nationwide. The public school, free and open to all, is one of America’s gifts to the world, and it is the basis for our middle-class democracy. I realize that many Americans have been deprived of this right, or provided it only grudgingly, and I know that many of the problems Trenton’s schools face today are a heritage of that deprivation.

But that does not absolve us of responsibility for doing better, as Rev. Sanders would repeatedly remind us.

Over the past two decades or so, we as a nation have seen our public education system assaulted by those who seem more interested in redirecting into private pockets the vast amounts of money states and municipalities invest in public education. The rationale for this disservice is the poor academic performance of schools in cities like Trenton. Closing the achievement gap, meeting the global challenge, whatever, are all, to my mind, distractions from less honorable motives.

But that does not mean that all is well in Trenton’s schools. As a teacher at a local college I note with great sorrow what your graduates do not know; they do not have the knowledge base that they need for success in the workplace or for discharging their duties as citizens.

Too many students cannot write a simple sentence, cannot conjugate a verb, do not know the difference between a preposition and a possessive. They cannot fill in a map of the United States or put the Emancipation Proclamation in the right decade. According to my math-teaching colleagues, they cannot line up numbers on the decimal point or add fractions with different denominators.

This is a tragedy – and it bodes ill for the future of American democracy. Many of these educational deficiencies are common to graduates of other Mercer County high schools; less common are behavioral barriers to success in school. And I do not believe we can effectively address the former without addressing the latter first.

As some of you know, I have recently written about what is widely known as the KIPP method and a local charter school that employs it. And this school been getting far better academic results from many of the same students as the regular district schools have. And, though I recognize that this is a contentious point, these results are not just the outcome of “skimming” the best students.

The KIPP methods work; I have been using some of them in my college classes. Students are paying more attention and doing better on quizzes. So, I am appearing here today to urge Trenton’s regular district teachers to try using them as well.

Trenton, along with other urban districts in New Jersey, wants to get the state off your back. But until the academic performance of your students improve, that isn’t going to happen. And I worry that if you cannot take up this challenge more effectively, we will continue to witness the decline of American public education. And this, too, would be a tragedy. Thank you.



Telling it like it is: a tribute to Toby Sanders

At a meeting of the Trenton Board of Education early in January, when feelings about the district’s reconfiguration plan were running a bit high, board president Toby Sanders picked up the gavel that’s a symbol of the office – and noted that he’d never used it. Pounding a gavel “does not represent the kind of attitude I have,” he said. And he continued, reminding members of the public crowding the board meeting room that in there “you can say anything you want, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be challenged, . . . that you can speak your truth, but that doesn’t mean you cannot be rebutted.”

The comment was quintessential Sanders: authority expressed with power and grace. A large and imposing man, Sanders needed no gavel to call board meetings to order. He would arrive, sit down to greet fellow board members, then ask all to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. It’s a pledge he takes seriously, and as he reminded members of the public at another board meeting, “education is a joint responsibility between parents and the board.”  “It’s not enough to tell our children to read,” he said at a meeting in November. “We must model it.” And he then went on to gently chide teachers who don’t read books on a regular basis either.

Sanders, who for two years headed the board of this tragically under-performing school district, was never afraid to tell it like it is. That, perhaps, might explain why he was not reappointed to the board. The city’s mayor, currently under indictment for petty corruption and taken seriously by few in this city of 79,000 people that he nominally runs, had brusquely notified Sanders in early April that his services were no longer needed. No doubt the board president’s competence was perceived as offering too much contrast to that of the city’s foolish mayor.

Whether boards of education can actually have a positive impact on academic achievement in a district is an open question – a book on American school boards published a few years ago claimed that the board’s most significant responsibility is choosing a superintendent. And in discharging that responsibility, the board under Sanders’s leadership seems to have done well in selecting a seemingly gifted administrator, Francisco Durán. Commenting on his appointment last summer, Sanders reminded parents and teachers that Durán was backed by the board “1,000 percent.” He seemed to be saying, to a district where black-Latino tension has resulted in tussles and threats at the high school, “Let’s not have any of that foolishness.”

Sanders is well aware of the district’s shortcomings – 16 of its 21 schools are on a statewide watch list for serious underperformance, a state-appointed monitor oversees its spending (85% of which comes from the state), and only half of its students graduate from high school in four years. Further, as a community college teacher who has had many Trenton graduates in my classes, I know that they can graduate unable to conjugate a verb, fill in a map of the country, write a common English sentence, or pronounce words such as “essential” or “prediction.” My math teaching colleagues claim their students cannot line up numbers on the decimal point or find a common denominator to add fractions – all skills they should have acquired by sixth or seventh grade.

Sanders also knows where the problems are; he has expressed substantial support for the district’s restructuring plan, which will bring back the K-5, 6-8 plan it had until seven or eight years ago when middle schools were eliminated for financial reasons. This has led to a “nadir in achievement,” he noted at a January 2 meeting; so now the district needs to “correct our disinvestment in middle schools.” Sanders has also been candid about where the most serious problems are: “we seem to be losing our boys at around fourth grade,” he said at the same meeting. And earlier, in one of his efforts to have district decisions driven by data, he asked the district’s research administrator for “more nuance” in the data gathered. Could it be broken out by subgroups, he asked, in a candid reference to differences between the varied ethnic groups that compose the student body?

Despite his affection for data, Sanders has also noted “suspicions about how data on black people” is collected: depending on its political purpose, the numbers can either over- or under-report whatever is being investigated. He’s also been sufficiently candid to admit that his years in school included some time in special education classes – and that he, along with other black leaders of distinction, had been suspended at one time or another. But past injustice does not absolve the community – roughly 60% of which is black – from taking greater interest in how the schools are doing: “We need the community to show up when we go into the wards for meetings. We are asking parents not so much to complain, but to contribute to the education of our children,” he said at a meeting in mid-January.

Sanders has been a cheerleader as well – he commends what’s positive, be it academic or musical or athletic accomplishments of Trenton students, and most recently noted parent turnout at an afterschool sports event. “It is a powerful thing, a hopeful beginning” he said, commending a new spirit. He also praised the superintendent, staff, and community as a whole for concern and neighborliness after Hurricane Sandy: “It was a shining example of how a community should be,” he said at the board meeting following the disaster.

An ordained minister who heads the Beloved Community congregation near Cadwalader Park, Sanders also represents a moral force in Trenton. This was never more apparent than last September, just days after the only son of a district paraprofessional was killed when he and some friends were caught in crossfire between rival gangs. Speaking to a room that hushed immediately when he began, Sanders spoke of how “proud but heartbroken” he had been when seeing the way school staff and neighbors flocked to the hospital chapel to be with the boy’s mother. “I am talking broken, but feeling whole,” he said. “We will find out a way to honor [this young man] and the mother who lost her only son.” We can do something about this, he said, and we will. “But first we must grieve.”

Sanders surely recognizes the close connection between violence and schooling – the ministers and others who led the development of American public education two centuries ago justified their campaign by claiming that schools now would be cheaper in the long run than prisons later. It’s as true now as it was then. “Tragedies like this help us focus on major things,” he had said earlier in that late September meeting. “We have to do more; it’s not that we have not done something, but we have to do more.”

Thus, Sanders sees the big picture, but he also looks carefully at the details. His command of district procedures and their impact on the children and families the schools serve is impressive as well; he listens to the community and to district teachers. He understands that changes like the restructuring currently underway will inconvenience some and that decisions the board makes will not please everyone. But if the compliments he received at his last board meeting on April 22 are any indication, his leadership has been widely appreciated. He was lauded for perseverance and dedication by fellow board members and praised by many others who spoke. In return, he commended his colleagues as well for their courage and diligence. He said he’d never served with a better group of people, “more fun to disagree with, more noble to represent.”

Toby Sanders’s act will be a hard one to follow; I wish his successor well.

Why I like KIPP — or it’s instructional methods at least

Two months ago, I had my first opportunity to visit a school based on the KIPP / Knowledge Is Power Program, and after three hours of hearing about its methods and observing their effectiveness, I went to teach my community college history class with new conviction — no foolishness.

When Charlie nodded off in the back of the room, I walked over to his seat and told him to wake up — or leave the class. When Cheryl took out her cell phone and started reading a text — a clear violation of rules I’d established on the first day — I walked over to her and put out my hand. She got the hint, gave me the phone, and noted that I put it at the front of my desk, where it stayed for the rest of the period.

Before observing KIPP methods in action, I might have ignored Charlie’s nap — motivated by a desire to not embarrass either of us. As for Cheryl’s phone, I might have just told her to put it away — or ignored it as well. After all, the class was almost over, and the girl had given me a sob story about a recent illness.

The following week, distressed by how poorly my 20-odd students had done on a simple test, I told them of my visit to the KIPP-like school and wrote its SLANT rules up on the board.

Sit up straight             Look and listen             Ask questions             Nod your head (when you understand)            Track the teacher with your eyes

I told them where the rules came from and that they’d be enforced in our classroom as well. Since then, marks have not much improved, but self-discipline has.

Like a lot of other teachers, I’d tended to ignore behavior that got in the way of learning. My students are legally adults, after all. At 20, they should know better. In class I’d often cited the correlation between students who paid close attention, did homework — and got good marks. But few changed their habits in response to my sermons.

A somewhat similar story is told in Work Hard, Be Nice, a 2009 book subtitled “How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America,” which was written by Washington Post reporter Jay Mathews. A decade after the two teachers — Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg — had started their now widely lauded KIPP schools, one of them was called in to address the problems of a failing, sixth-grade math teacher at a school in New York City.

Though well-educated and well-recommended, this young teacher was a poor manager and motivator. After just three months, his students had already fallen behind. Had his principal been at a regular public school, as Mathews wrote, she would likely have called him in for a pep talk and sent him to observe some veterans. And, if he hadn’t learned to be more effective at the end of his probationary period, she might have let him go (or let someone else hire him).

But this was KIPP. That approach would not work for them. This principal called in Dave Levin for some help. Levin’s first task was to do some quick behavior mod with the classroom troublemaker, which he did in private while the regular teacher kept the others in the hall. Having secured the problem child’s cooperation, Levin had the rest of the class return — and for the next 40 minutes he had two-dozen students focusing intently on long division.

First he got their attention with a brief introduction; “no whining” he said when they responded languidly to his initial greeting. The students took note: authority was in charge. Then he moved on to the lesson. “Okay,” he said, “I am missing one person’s eyes.”

Levin cajoled, inspired, persuaded every child to participate, and reminded them that “smiling keeps your brain awake.” A great salesman, instantly responsive when he knew the class was not following him, Levin employed all the tricks he’d learned over a dozen years. He stimulated them with a challenge, kept their names straight, wrote a mistake on the board, and kept reminding them “eyes up, please.” Though the teacher Levin had come in to help had taken copious notes, it was soon clear that he was meant for something other than being a KIPP teacher, so he was transferred out of the classroom and encouraged to find another line of work.

Having known of KIPP for several years, I was somewhat surprised at my own reaction to its methods: that once seeing them in action at a Trenton high school one morning, I would be employing them myself that afternoon. As a staunch supporter of public education, I was suspicious of charter schools to begin with and tended to distrust KIPP’s reports of vastly improved test scores. Too authoritarian. And likely good at teaching to the test,  manipulating results, and self-promotion.

Nevertheless, I got a copy of Mathews’s book and started reading it. Soon, I was sold.  Several years of teaching community college students in Chicago and New Jersey have convinced me of a couple things: (1) Poor self-discipline is the major cause of poor performance, and (2) teachers — myself included — are more inclined to complain about students’ lax attitude toward learning than doing something about it.  In sum, I’m thinking that the most cost-effective means of improving performance in troubled urban schools would be for teachers unions to start urging their members to adopt as many KIPP methods as they can. I’ve already begun doing so with my community college colleagues.


Restoring TCHS: Con an icon from one era be a beacon of hope for another?

Articles in the Times of Trenton 80 years apart almost to the day – January 19, 1933, and March 7 of this year – could serve as benchmarks for the highs and lows of Trenton Central High School. The first tells of the school’s dedication ceremony, when it was lauded as one of the “best educational facilities in the world” and the second of hopeful signs that the once glorious building might soon be readied for the 21st century.

For a decade, the building’s leaking roof, nonfunctional ventilation system, dated plumbing and wiring – plus asbestos-infested walls – have been the source of local controversy. One side declared the building an insult to the community and the students it serves. Tear it down and rebuild, they declared. Another side resisted; deal with deferred maintenance – but don’t destroy a building that is structurally sound, architecturally distinguished, and a symbol of Trenton’s glory days as a thriving manufacturing center.

The difficulty has been that neither side had the wherewithal to do either. So water continued seeping into the stairwells, now marred by disintegrating plaster that deposits a layer of dusty crud to be swept up each night; more water seeped in around windows, buckling floorboards. A few of the school’s 170 classrooms have had to be closed as unusable, and even the main office has signs of water damage high on its walls.

A half-dozen years ago, the building was slated for repair, if not rebuilding, by the state’s Schools Development Authority – as Trenton could not afford to do either, the SDA would play a major role in the decision as to which. Though Trenton did benefit from some school construction at the time, squabbles about whether to restore or rebuild TCHS delayed action on either.  At one point, according to an architect involved in the discussions, a bid of $129 million to rehabilitate the school moved close to being accepted, then complications set in. And soon, there was the national meltdown of 2008 and SDA-funded projects were put on hold.  So, the TCHS roof continues to leak, malfunctioning plumbing spews odors into the hallways, and lack of air circulation presents health hazards to faculty, staff, and students.

A year ago, a group of Trenton parents, school board members, and others formed a Facilities Advisory Board and over the next several months, it drew up a thorough set of plans for gutting and rehabilitating the sprawling two-story building, one wing at a time. Classes and programs for its 2,000 students would be moved temporarily from one section to another so that both schooling and restoration could take place simultaneously. A great plan, carefully devised, and apparently acceptable to all stakeholders – except promises from the state for funds were made and withdrawn throughout 2012.

Then at the SDA board’s monthly meeting on March 6, dozens of Trenton residents packed the board room and overflowed into hallways. Testimony about the condition of TCHS so alarmed speakers from other communities that they implored the board to focus on addressing Trenton’s needs rather than those of their own schools. It was good news to many, as a story in the Times the following day related, that the SDA has been in conversation with Trenton school officials over the past two months – maybe an 80th birthday gift for the grand old lady.  And that the most urgent repairs just might get underway this summer.

In the meantime, the building continues to function, due largely to the extraordinary dedication of its maintenance and custodial staff. Some of the past elegance is gone – great pieces of plaster are missing from the ceiling of the entrance hall, a metal detector greets visitors, and the lighting is dim – but the broad hallways are lined with luminous rust-colored tiles, no doubt produced locally when Trenton was a center for ceramics manufacturing.

The school’s floors best illustrate both its virtues and its liabilities. On a tour last week with the head of the custodian’s union, as we walked from one sturdy but neglected stairwell to another, my lanky and congenial guide constantly bent down to pick up refuse – food wrappers, abandoned worksheets and posters, broken pencils, whatever thoughtless students had discarded. But the floors themselves positively glowed. Cleaned by a crew working all night, they are patched and polished – a credit both to the building’s sound construction and to the custodians who do what they can to keep it clean.

The school’s library tells another sad story. A graceful, ballroom-sized space with high windows that let in strong natural lighting even on a dreary day, it opens to visitors from the top of a half-flight of stairs. But marring the entrance is metal cross-work fencing three feet high. The architects 80 years ago intended that users know they should lower their voices – they were about to enter an academic sanctuary. But such appeals seem relayed in a language some TCHS students today do not understand. The fencing had to be installed a decade or more back to prevent students from lobbing wadded papers from the top of the stairs down on library tables below.

Though an argument can be made that the students’ lack of respect for the building is due to the lack of respect shown them by three decades of delayed maintenance, that’s a tad facile. The school does have several strong programs – its debate team, a robotics group, a vibrant choir, and some athletic superstars. Its faculty, from brief conversations, seems to be making a strong effort to challenge and encourage the students. And as one administrator commented, five percent of the students get 95 percent of the press.

So, the challenge is to get that other 95 percent to bring the school’s scores out of the cellar. Argue though we can all argue about the value of proficiency tests, those of TCHS are in the state’s lowest five percent. Its graduation rate is down there, too. The building’s poor condition impedes the installation of modern technology. School and district leadership are saying all the right things, and surely doing many of them as well.

But they will all breathe better once air can start circulating in the school again. So let’s hope the SDA means what it says this time. And that physical restoration of the building might lead to restoration of its academic leadership as well.



Bringing a legacy to light — Trenton’s New Lincoln School

Biking around Trenton one day, I noticed an impressive-looking school building on north Montgomery Street and became curious about its history. Soon I learned that it’s now home to Rivera, an alternative public school for the district. But not until hearing about a new exhibit at the Ellarslie museum in Cadwalader Park did I learn of the building’s distinctive role in Trenton history. An earlier exhibit at the Shiloh Baptist Church — called Bringing Our Legacy to Light — told part of the story. This new one, curated by collector (and proud grad) Elizabeth Carter Lacy, relays the school’s significance with elegance and enthusiasm.

Constructed in 1924, for a quarter of a century the New Lincoln School served Trenton’s growing black population, and as the exhibition asserts, it did it abundantly well. With migration from the South increasing during World War I, the deteriorating buildings in which classes for black children were held had become cramped. Though school segregation had been prohibited in New Jersey since 1882, it was alas widely practiced. But the New Lincoln community made the most of what the school had to offer.

Built in 18 months, start to finish, to house 1,100 students, kindergarten through ninth grade, New Lincoln was the centerpiece of its neighborhood. Though its $500,000 initial cost would hardly pay for a school roof today, it was well equipped. The school had not only an auditorium, spacious classrooms, and a gym, it had the only swimming pool in the city system. And all the school’s furnishings and equipment were new, too.

A working fireplace graced a wall of the school’s kindergarten, and one of the exhibit’s most charming displays is a tribute to its teacher, Miss Arnetta Lee. For a quarter century, she enchanted five-year olds with the possibilities that school had to offer. Miss Lee taught her young charges to have fun, to love learning and to follow rules. Among them: “be compassionate . . . share . . . be focused . . . do the best you can do.” Demonstrating her dictum to “live a balanced life,” she had students paint some, sing some, work and play some each day.

With one class in the morning and another in the afternoon, Miss Lee must have been a remarkable lady. Her lessons about grace and decorum were obviously effective: another of my favorite displays was the group portraits of graduating ninth graders: the girls dressed primly in white and the boys in jackets and ties. (Yes, my kindergarten teacher was of Miss Lee’s generation.)

Miss Lee’s standards — high, though delivered with affection — characterized other aspects of the New Lincoln experience, according to a history of Trenton’s black community. Segregated though the school was, the city’s board of education had its own standards to uphold. For one (though this was a controversial move), it replaced a popular principal who did not have a college degree with one who had two. Mr. Arthur Long, with a master’s degree from the University of Chicago — at the time, one of the nation’s leading education schools — was hired as principal. Like the rest of the staff, Long was “colored,” a term commonly used then, according to a sign at the exhibit’s entrance.

But apparently, Long never moved into Trenton, which distressed much of the New Lincoln community. So in 1933 he was replaced by Mr. Patton J. Hill. An army veteran and veteran educator, Hill served the Trenton schools until 1958 — and lives on today in the name of P.J. Hill School.

And that raises a question not answered in the display — Trenton’s schools were finally desegregated in the mid-1940s, as a result of a famous court decision also memorialized in a school name: the Hedgepeth-Williams case, which predated Brown v. Board of Education by a decade. As many historians of education have noted, school desegregation had some unfortunate consequences, one of which was that the dedicated black teachers who had served generations of students in segregated schools lost their jobs in the wake of Brown. Hill may have been a fortunate exception as he remained with the system for 10 years after New Lincoln was converted to a middle school.

This charming exhibition has numerous other lessons to offer, as well as a list of some of the school’s noted graduates: the distinguished judge and legal scholar Leon Higginbotham and former New York City mayor David Dinkins among them. A proud legacy indeed! The exhibition will be on display until May 25; on Sunday, March 10, Elizabeth Lacy will give a talk about the school between 2 and 4 in the afternoon.  (Note: some of the information in this blog came from The Quest for Equality: Trenton’s Black Community, 1890-1965, written by Jack Washington, a teacher at Trenton Central High School.)

Revisiting Washington and Du Bois

As our 2013 observance of African-American history month comes to a close, I am reminded of two American educators of a century ago, men who in their day were regarded as “leaders of their race,” but whose thoughts are of value to all their fellow countrymen – white, black, other and all three. The two were also regarded as proponents of diametrically opposed approaches to education, especially as it applied to their fellows of African descent. And though characterizing their ideas about schooling as mutually exclusive has some value in understanding them, it also has limited the pair’s impact beyond a racially defined part of the population.

Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) was the elder of the two by a decade. Like W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), Washington was a remarkable human being. He was born into slavery in the western part of Virginia, and his childhood was a steady challenge for survival. He had, however, a knack for making friends who could help him meet a destiny he surely determined for himself at an early age. He walked, he tells us in his biography Up from Slavery, much of the 500 miles to Hampton Institute near Richmond, where he managed to enroll as a student, despite meager schooling.

Hampton had been organized after the Civil War to teach young black men a trade; Washington was so successful as a student (and entrepreneur) that he was soon given an opportunity to be founding head of a similar school in Tuskegee, Alabama. It was the summer of 1881, and when he arrived at his new school, he discovered there were no buildings, though there were several dozen eager students. So, he set them to work, first making bricks and then constructing a school – or so he tells readers at any rate.

This experience, though, was the core of his approach to education – a variant of the progressive idea of learning by doing: brick-making, in effect, was chemistry and heat; construction, math and physics. Learn a trade, he told his students; acquire a salable skill, and don’t worry about social or political equality. It was an appealing message to the rest of the nation, and Washington was soon head of a thriving school. He was anointed a “spokesman” for his race and so lauded that Theodore Roosevelt invited him to dinner at the White House.

Du Bois’s childhood was far different, and as with the rest of us, his early experiences surely influenced his thinking about education. He grew up in a small but well established black community in western Massachusetts. He, too, showed promise at an early age – so much so that his high school principal helped him get into Harvard. He was uneasy there, however, and completed his undergraduate education at Fisk University in Nashville, then taught in the South one summer – an experience that devastated him emotionally, but propelled him into articulating a very different set of priorities for the education of fellow blacks.

Among Du Bois’s firsts was getting a doctorate from Harvard, which he did in 1894, but despite his obvious brilliance and, as would soon become apparent, an ability to turn research data into poetry, no prestigious “white” university would invite him to join its faculty. So he went to teach in Atlanta, helped establish the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, edited its monthly magazine The Crisis, and was quickly acquired a reputation for impatience with Washington’s accommodationist attitudes.

In 1903, Du Bois produced an eloquent, prescient set of essays published as The Souls of Black Folk. As an unusually perceptive sociologist, he was a keen observer; as a pragmatic theorist, he forcefully demolished Washington’s “trade school” approach, and insisted instead that black Americans needed an educated elite to lead them toward the equality with other Americans they deserved. Black colleges should not only prepare schoolteachers, but provide an academically challenging education for this elite, which he rather inelegantly called the “Talented Tenth.”

The conflict between Washington and Du Bois can be reduced to a series of opposites: industrial versus academic education, a determinist (i.e., one’s origins determine one’s future) versus a more liberating, humanist education (in which one defines one’s own destiny). And, to bring the story back to Trenton, their conflict seems to have been reflected in schools established for black children and youth here, especially as the community endeavored to absorb southern migrants of little or no schooling during and after World War I.

There was, on one hand, Miss Arnetta Lee, the gifted kindergarten teacher at Trenton’s New Lincoln School I wrote about last week – a woman who surrounded her young students with books and stories of the wider world, punctuated them with lessons in self-discipline, and leavened them with a sense of play. Self-discovery was key. It was surely an early childhood education program of which Du Bois would approve. On the other hand, there was the Manual Training and Industrial School for Colored Youth, established in Bordentown as a northern complement to Tuskegee. Though New Lincoln’s founding came four decades after that of the Bordentown school, the two can be seen as representative of the academic versus the industrial model – I’d bet Miss Lee read Souls of Black Folk and aimed her charges toward being part of Du Bois’s elite.

The problem, of course, is whatever aspirations New Lincoln students might have had, they were too often tempered by the reality of their day. Black students were only grudgingly welcomed in Trenton’s prestigious Central High School, which opened in 1932. Too often, once there, they were channeled into vocational programs. Trenton, from what I’ve learned, did develop its own black elite of well-educated professionals. But perhaps it was never large enough or strong enough to effectively counter the social changes of the 1960s.

Du Bois himself, self-exiled to Ghana, died in August of 1963 – just the day before Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream Speech” at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. And I, for one, wish Du Bois were still around to analyze the challenges facing Trenton’s schools today.

What’s to be considered when considering school choice?

So, January 27 ushered in National School Choice Week and that Sunday I attended a session organized by staunch proponents of “choice,” on Monday I interviewed the author of a book on charter schools, and on Wednesday I visited one here in Trenton. And what comes to mind is an observation I recall from a noted educational psychologist of years gone by – you don’t have to know everything in order to understand something.

Many advocates of school choice support the Opportunity Scholarship Act and contend that it’s currently languishing in the New Jersey legislature. OSA’s goal, according to my understanding, is that students in low-performing schools would receive state funds to attend a school in a higher-performing district. Sounds fine, you might say – students from Trenton could attend a school in the neighboring Lawrenceville district, for example, at no additional cost to their parents.

But this raises more complicated issues: for one, I read somewhere that some Mercer County students have had that option for the past few years and few thus far have taken advantage of it. For another – and this is the point that aggravates supporters of public schools – OSA could also allow Trenton students to attend not only a charter, but a private school, a virtual school, or some combination thereof. Should Trenton Public Schools, which receive over 80% of their funds from the state, be subsidizing a school that offers a religious-immersion curriculum (an issue recently in New Brunswick) or one that focuses on the Italian Renaissance (to use an example given — in jest, no doubt — by commissioner of education Christopher Cerf at the Sunday school choice event)?

Is the reason OSA hasn’t made progress because too many legislators are indebted to support from teachers’ unions, which the bill’s advocates claim?  Or is it because legislators question whether a virtual school run by a profit-making educational management organization is a worthy recipient of NJ taxpayer dollars? Could OSA – or the state’s charter school law — be devised in such a way that the privileges it grants would not be misused? Or might OSA instead operate as a voucher program, a scheme (or scam) that’s been largely discredited as a means for improving academic performance in troubled urban districts? (See, for example, the 20 years of experience with vouchers in Milwaukee.)

Trenton students – or those who apply early enough — currently have the option of attending the Foundation Academy, which appears to be the most stable and successful of the many charter schools established here since New Jersey authorized charters in 1995. Foundation, which opened in 2007, currently serves nearly 400 students in grades five to 11, at two sites, both located in former Catholic schools, one about 10 blocks south of the Statehouse and another further south. Results from the 2011 NJASK (the state’s assessment of skills and knowledge) indicate that the school’s eighth graders are performing on par with students statewide (circa 80% proficient) and nearly twice as well as eighth graders in Trenton’s other public schools.  And they do it with roughly 75% of Trenton’s per pupil spending.

Foundation Academy is operated unabashedly on the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power) model pioneered by two Teach for American grads 20 years ago. Most simply, the schools focus on changing behavior, summed up by the acronym SLANT: Sit up, Listen, Ask questions, Nod, and Track the speaker with your eyes. Overly authoritarian, some might say, but having had graduates of schools that don’t emphasize these behaviors in my community college classes, I know their value.

Foundation calls its program prescriptive, and I saw that in action while visiting two classrooms. Power Points reiterating the teachers’ instructions were on screens at the front, a large clock in the corner measured time for tasks. In one class, students were moving from one learning activity to another; as they passed their papers in, the teacher counted down from 10. Then she reminded students to “track the screen,” while she gave instructions for the next. They had three minutes to analyze characters from stories they had read. “Talk to your partner,” she said, followed by “Go.”

According to Paul Tough’s new How Children Succeed, this tough teaching approach is what works – he’d earlier written a widely acclaimed book on Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone. But, per the CREDO report from Stanford University – acclaimed, by some, for its methodological rigor – only 30% of students in charters statewide have made any gains when compared with students in regular district schools.  And this only in eighth-grade reading, likely a cherry-picked figure, too.

Foundation claims it doesn’t “skim” higher performing students from the district – nevertheless, parents do have to choose to apply and then commit themselves to seeing that their children do assigned homework and show up for school on time – and that’s at 7:15 in the morning. But it also expects more – a lot more – from its teachers, who can expect 60-plus hour workweeks in return for somewhat more generous salaries than other Trenton teachers.

And that brings me to my interview with a Montclair State professor who has edited a book on charters nationwide.  She noted that charter schools have to be looked at in the context of their community. We both agree that the quality of these schools varies widely. On the other hand, students at some charters seem to be doing better. So, the question is “What can we learn from these schools?”

Well, apparently we can learn that the Foundation approach appears to be working at its schools in Trenton. And, the schools’ supporters (a combination of local educators, funders, and some concerned residents) hope to expand their reach to include 10 percent of Trenton’s 14,000 students. Even if Foundation manages to do that – and keep up its standards – over the next decade or two, Trenton’s schools will still be far from their past position as among the state’s preeminent ones. But it’s a move in the right direction. Combined with the oft-stated intentions of the district’s current leaders to improve academic performance, perhaps Trenton’s other schools will discover they have a few things to learn from Foundation Academy, too.

And that would be a choice that won’t “deform” public education, which some of the ill-advised “School Choice” proposals, including OSA, might well do.