Sunday, March 23, 2014

Why I'm at Morristown

A few reasons why I'm in Morristown: 

Number of high school subject area supervisors:
Morristown 6 Montclair 0

Number of staff dedicated to closing the achievement gap
Morristown 2 Montclair 0

Number of Assistant Principals
Morristown 2 Montclair 5

Responsibility of Guidance Director
Morristown: running the department, responding to parent and student needs
Montclair: scheduling, testing, 504, I&RS

Amount of money investigating and defending consequences of bad decisions (Assessmentgate)
Morristown 0$ Montclair $100,000's

Discussion time with Superintendent about directions of schools
Morristown: many hours Montclair 0

Administrators who care more about learning than management and control
Morristown: all Montclair: none

Board Meeting

In the last edition of the Montclair Times, the title of the article stated “MacCormack Encourages Teachers to Speak Up.”  A more apt title might be “Teachers See A Failure of Leadership.”  Some comments include: “The relationship between central service and teachers is strained at best and there is a constant fear of reprisal.”  “There is the lowest morale at MHS in all of our collective memory.”  “This once great Montclair that other districts admired and copied is being dismantled.”  “Teachers feel disheartened and vilified.”

The teachers requested a moratorium on quarterly assessments;  a desire to “trust your teachers and respect their judgment.  Stop making everything common and centralized.  It is too inflexible and not authentic.”;  A to return to “building level department supervisors”;  and a desire to “bring back the Writer’s Room, reduce class size and increase library hours and staff.”

Despite this, they concluded that “We love what we do so much.  The passion in our building is astounding.”  When I asked one teacher about the response of the Board, he responded  They defended, denied, deflected and didn't do anything to get off the track they are on.” 

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Some thoughts on College Athletics

There are two books on athletics that, though a bit too dense for most athletes, should be read by all those who advise them:

As a former college athlete, high school and college wrestling referee, counselor to scores of student athletes and coach of 33 years, I have gotten to see all sides of college athletics and cannot help be struck how far it has strayed from what I do now:  coach novice 2nd through 8th graders in my town rec program.  Honestly, this is the purest coaching I have ever done.  I get to build young men (and occasionally women).  Sports are merely a metaphor for building character, mentoring, being a role model and building pride and discipline.

The perceived unfairness of development cases, legacies, early decision, merit aid, need aware admissions, etc. is dwarfed many fold by what happens in college athletics.  Everyone who has been in this business knows of the huge numbers of student-athletes who would never have been admitted without athletics, ironically, with greatest impact at the smallest, most selective colleges.  

The pernicious effects of this pervade every economic class, every community, every school.  My son played regionally select soccer (luckily he did not have an interest in the college sweepstakes).  We were told again and again how every event was a "showcase" for college coaches, and that the thousands spent would be returned with winning the lottery of college admissions.  So many students, with no chance of a scholarship, spent every waking moment in pursuit of this unrealistic dream.  And to be honest, we all let it happen.

College is supposed to be about the transition to adulthood, with an opportunity to explore the world socially, intellectually, philosophically.  I believe my experience is a more common experience, one of being told to play through injury, being asked to put everything else in life aside for ones sport and given the message that the only important thing is getting the coach W's for their resumes.

How disgusting that so many of our tax dollars are spent on coaches and athletic programs when it could go to bolstering the academic programs.  Maybe we should put limits on public college athletic expenditures and have our public colleges just compete among each other.  I have to praise my alma mater, Swarthmore, for dropping wrestling and football.  The cost, in both dollars and in the academic quality of the student body, not just in these programs, but on also the need to provide similar support for women's athletics, was staggering.  

I don't know if this body can impact any of this.  To be honest, I don't know the sting of having to admit an academic recruit at the expense of some student who would contribute in so much more in other ways (I worked at Bard College in the early 80's), but maybe we should start speaking out about our experiences.  

It seems those in our profession or those who write about it are so oddly silent about it.  I loved reading inside looks of college admissions, like Admissions Confidential or the Gatekeepers, but there was this odd avoidance of this topic.  Its like someone writing about the effects of drought or unemployment on some small town, ignoring a tornado that just roared through the town tearing up most of its buildings.

Compelling idea

So I heard this idea on the news.  It was that we take all education dollars from the federal government and use it all to pay for all public college tuition, which makes college free for anyone who wanted to go to college.  It would have massive drawbacks, not the least of all on the diversity at private colleges.  Operationally, it would be a nightmare with trying to control costs, decide who gets what, being able to deal with the influx of students, etc.  But it is a very thought-provoking idea.

College and Students of Color

There is a short article in the Atlantic, written by a student of moderate means who is "a native of East Flatbush, Brooklyn and the descendant of a housekeeper, doorman, drug addict, and prisoner."    There are many observations that are thoughtful about the challenges of low income students gaining admission to elite universities.  There are a few observations that I might want to add:

She compares elite colleges, including Yale, Amherst and Vassar to other colleges, writing  "Schools that are lower ranked and less rich but more committed to social justice—such as Antioch, Berea, or my current employer The New School—may be the actual bests for the normal-income student who is committed to economic equality. In their curriculum and admissions practices, these institutions of higher learning have centered concerns about systemic economic inequality. The experiences and perspectives of average income families are not rarefied but robustly reflected in these schools’ ethos and practice. The diversity of achievements by average income youth who navigate many obstacles to obtain an education are fully recognized. These are some of the steps elite universities like Yale, Amherst, and Vassar need to take in order to see their vision of an economically democratic student body become a reality."

My own observations, doing admissions work at a selective college, 9 years at private schools and 23 years in diverse public schools, mirror hers.  There are things she implies or alludes to, though, that I have observed:

  • The greater the income gap between the average student and that of recruited "under-represented" students, the less likely the connection between these students and the community.  The experience of first generation low-income students is one of being in a fish bowl.  The average student in the school cannot understand or comprehend the lives and experiences of these students.  When these students are students of color, as is more often the case, there is this norm of rich white kids and poor students of color with little intersection of the two worlds, something I clearly observed at the elite private school I worked at.    
  • Much of the discomfort is not in the lack of programs and services for these students, but cultural norms which are embedded in the environment.  One of my low income students of color who went to Harvard tried to explain this to me.  She said it was something that most white students would never even notice.  "Have you ever noticed," she said to me, "that when police cars go to an emergency in your end of town that they only have flashing lights on, but in my end of town, they always have their sirens on, no matter what time of day it is?"  When I worked at a private school in Montclair, I wrote an article in the school paper about this, noting that all the professionals in the building were called by their last names, but the custodians had their first names printed on their uniforms.  Needless to say, not something that was deeply appreciated by the administration.
  • The language in many urban and rural environments is truly a different language from that of the majority.  I am not talking about ELL students but native English speakers.  I read the papers that my wife's students hand in (she is a social studies teacher in an alternate school in Orange NJ).  They communicate well, but the rules of their language are simply different from those of Standard Written English.  And learning SWE is not about "improving" their writing, it is about learning a new language with different rules of grammar and usage.
  • Which takes me to this main point:  many elite colleges seek students of color from places where white, upper middle class values and cultures have been inculcated from an early age.  Many have been placed in prep schools through organizations like Prep for Prep or the A Better Chance program.  Others have been educated at charter schools, like Northstar Academy, where all the rooms have names of elite universities and the norm is preparing students for the world of the white upper class:  how to dress, how to speak and how to behave.  Others are sought from the few truly diverse public schools, Evanston, Montclair, Morristown, etc.  Those students of color who are talented yet remain where most students of color are educated, i.e. schools of little diversity, high poverty and low parental involvement, rarely enter the elite college lottery.
  • Also, many of the "under-represented students" are students of color from upper middle class families who have already been inculcated in this culture.
  • Attending an "elite" college is more often about power than education.  Going to a school like Yale, as the writer did, was not just about learning how to write and think, it was about learning how to speak and behave in order to be successful in the world of the rich.  There was in interesting conclusion in the Dale and Krueger study (which found that students who were admitted to elite schools and went to other colleges did as well as those who attended these elite colleges):  " Lastly, the payoff to attending an elite college appears to be greater for students from more disadvantaged family backgrounds."  This is consistent with my observation above.