Sunday, May 10, 2009

Self Assessment

Education in the Inner City has been quite an eye opening experience for me. I came into this class eager to learn about the inner city as I am a Prudential Scholar and I will be teaching in Newark starting in the fall. I have never spent any time in Newark prior to this class and was very unsure of what to expect. I have gained a lot of knowledge of the inner city, particularly Newark, through the readings and my visits for the community inquiry project. Overall, I have learned a lot about myself, public education in the inner city, and teaching in the inner city.
The culture project showed me just how different everybody in our class really was. It made me think about when I have classrooms full of students. There will be a culture collage behind each and every student. It will be my job to understand all of them and teach my lessons based on this. It showed me just how aware I need to be about every student. When meeting with parents I will need to understand the culture they come from. It is quite possible that I could do something that they consider disrespectful without being knowledgeable of their culture.
I have also learned about the problems that students face in the inner city. Most of these problems get in the way of the student obtaining a quality education. Students may not be getting the proper amount of sleep each night. They may not be staying warm in the winter. They may not be eating enough or if they are it may not be the healthiest of choices. These issues and many others hinder their ability to pay attention in school. Some students may not have time for homework as they could be working everyday after school to help put food on the table for their family. It will be a struggle to help the students overcome these obstacles and at the same time have a fair and democratic classroom. I have also learned that although it will be hard it definitely can be done.
Another very important thing that I learned is that many good things happen in the inner city. Although the media decides that only bad news ends up on the front page, there are many good stories that go unnoticed. There are many students who want a good education. A lot of them will respond in a positive way when challenged if they see the material as being relevant to their lives. There are a lot of parents who are dedicated and will be a part of their children’s education if given the opportunity.
The most important thing that I have learned is being prepared, dedicated, and open-minded can help me be successful as an educator. Being prepared speaks to knowing the students, parents, and the community. It also means having each day planned out very well with different contingency plans. Open-mindedness will allow me not to judge the students but help them through their days at school. It will also allow me to empower the students and have them decide which direction the class is heading. Dedication speaks to being there each and every day, whether it is in class or staying after class so a student can get some homework done in a warm and safe environment. So all in all I would say that I have learned much more than I could have imagined. The reason that I am not scared away from all of the horror stories is the mere fact that plenty of hope does exist in the inner city.

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Community Inquiry Project-Abstract

Upon the river of knowledge, a student will drift upon their raft until they meet a teacher who can guide them towards the delta and then the sea. This sea of knowledge, a plethora of standardized tests and exams and curriculums that they must attain as their portfolio of known facts to continue on their journey is a worthwhile venture, but must be evoked in a proper manner. Urban education today in the Newark area is getting better every day, but is still far below state and national standards. The test scores and the strangling hold the curriculums have over teachers is more of a hindrance rather than help. These government instituted laws and programs made by mostly non-educators, could use some work. At the beginning and at the end of the day, there is a teacher and there is a student; and that student must learn, and that teacher must teach. That is what is most important. That is what we do.

Community Inquiry Project-Conclusion

This inquiry project gave us some insight into the Newark Public School system and the numerous challenges and difficulties faced by teachers, students and administrators. Some of the hurdles we encountered while undertaking this research included not getting access to “walk through” some of our target schools and as such had to observe the schools from the outside. Our efforts to meet with a few principals who have been in office for over 20 years proved futile and as such we were not able to get a cleared picture of the situation which existed prior to the implementation of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policy and in what ways standardized tests may have changed over the years. We also found it difficult to have a detailed interview with some of the teachers since they were either in the process of completing the preparation of their students for the NJ ASK test or in the process of reviewing before the test - another testimony that the lives of the teachers and the students are “governed” by test taking and not necessarily learning life skills.

Notwithstanding the aforementioned difficulties, we were able to deduce that there is an overwhelming attitude and mentality of despair hovering above and surrounding participants of the NPS system. There is a strong desire for the “powers that be” to realize that the current curriculum does not adequately prepare the New Jersey child for future success. Many of the respondents believed that the state can achieve a great deal by simply tweaking the current curriculum and test system to include areas such as etiquette, critical thinking, data analysis. Criticisms were also levied against the decision to “focus” on two subjects, math and literacy, in that, students and teachers tend to neglect other subject areas in favor of those being tested. There was also a call for a more comprehensive evaluation of students which takes into account the inability of some students to do well on structured tests.
We believe that there is hope for the Newark Public School system but it will take some bold initiatives on the part of the administration to deviate from the norm and implement new strategies that will make Newark students stand out from amidst the rest of the nation. There needs to be a direct reversal in the trends of test scores in the four target schools identified but there is also need for modifications to be made in order to improve those tests and make them more meaningful and representative of a complete evaluation.

Results and Discussion of Inquiry Project
Discussions with past and current students yielded a variety of opinions as it pertains to the value of standardized tests. A majority of the students interviewed didn’t have a clear definition of what a standardized test was but was knowledgeable about the existence of such a test. Some students especially in the middle school, regarded school as something they had to do until they were 16 yrs old and had no control over that. As such, they did not have an opinion as to whether what they were learning in school was important to their future life or just a means to an end. While some students (about 25% of those interviewed) thought that the standardized test were helpful in their efforts to get good grades and ultimately shape a career, the majority (about 75%) thought that standardized test only serve to limit the amount of knowledge they can acquire during their elementary and high school years. Most of the students contend that their teachers teach to the tests and find very little time to help students in developing social or life skills. This was in keeping with the notion put forward by Madus (1988) that tests are losing their legitimacy on evaluating students on their learned knowledge due to the “teaching of the test.” This corrupts the information that the students have learned and therefore know because instead of retrieving the information from long-term memory, they are memorizing test material and format. Additionally, some find that the lessons are usually scripted with very little room for impromptu modifications on the part of the teacher or students. School was also referred to as boring and useless by many of the students interviewed. The administrators spoken to were generally of the view that the standardized tests are not the quick fix to the numerous problems being encountered in the NPS system. One contends that the standardized test system is “what we have now and what we have to work with”. A discussion ensued about the need for alternatives to the much dreaded standardized test and some of those already being tried out in districts outside Newark. Some of those alternatives have included criterion-referenced tests, teacher-made tests, contract grading, interviews with students and their parents, and detailed documentation of a student's accomplishments (Wildemuth, 1984). Other administrators were a bit more blunt in their criticisms of the current situation and expressed that the current curriculum “focuses too much on subject content and leaves little time to engage in the overall development of the students”. The curriculum was seen as being “too tightly fit into the 180 teaching days which exists in the NPS System – resulting in some teachers being unable to complete the curriculum content”.
The teachers spoken to were equally critical as their students in condemning the current educational system and curriculum taught in schools. One recurring theme was the notion that the curriculum in use in schools in the Newark Public Schools does not include any aspect that deals with nurturing interpersonal skills or promoting other skills which should go hand in hand with education in the various subject areas. The curriculum was regarded as being one that does not teach or encourage students to think critically, be innovative or develop new ideas. Students who are able to think critically are able to solve problems effectively. Having knowledge is simply not enough in today’s world. To be effective in the work place and in personal lives, students must be able to solve problems and make effective decisions; they must be able to think critically (Synder and Snyder, 2008). There were suggestions to modify the current curriculum to address those deficiencies and aim to produce wholly developed individuals rather than book smart or content savvy individuals. The general impression from the respondents was that the current curriculum is failing the students and isn’t geared towards personal development. Students need to learn more about the world, think outside of the box, become smarter about new sources of information, develop good people skills and redefine how they learn. The curriculum needs to be adjusted to incorporate a balance between core knowledge and portable skills such as critical thinking, making connections between ideas and knowing how to learn (Wallis and Steptoe, 2006). Information technology was regarded as one of the areas that needed more attention and greater inclusion in the district’s curriculum.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Connecting Unequal Childhoods to Essex County

2. It is very expensive to live in Essex County, New Jersey. Life for the working class/poor families (Taylor’s, Brindle’s, and McAllister’s) would be very difficult. The key here is to examine the self sufficiency wage. This will give us an idea of just how tough a time that these families are going to have. First let’s look at the Taylor family. Celeste is the sole provider for this family. She works as a secretary and makes $20,000 a year. If you take a look at table 2 you can see how scary this is. For one adult, one preschooler and one school aged child the annually salary for the self-sufficiency wage is $46,686. So this is about three times what Celeste makes and she has three children. The fact is that she would not make even close to enough money to live comfortably in Essex County. A similar case will be the Brindle’s because once again there is one adult that is the sole provider for the family. She has three children also and is currently unemployed. So there is no way that she would be near the $46,686 annual salary. This will lead to a day to day struggle just to put food on the table. The sad part is that besides not having enough money for necessities, they certainly do not have money for unexpected things such as car repairs, or maintenance for the house. They mention in the book that their toilet is constantly running. This would be a problem in a middle class home and be fixed immediately. But for this family it is very low ion the priority list each and every day. Lastly we can look at the effect it will have on the McAllister’s. It is hard to gauge what money this family has coming in because Jane is on public assistance, Hank is a mechanic and only chips in somewhat, and Keith is a truck-driver. So all in all they have some money coming in but no way can this be near the self-sufficiency wage. On top of this they can have up to 11 people in the house at a time. It will be a struggle everyday to take care of this many people on such a limited income.

3. According the LSNJ the Brindle’s would qualify for public assistance in Essex County. The McAllisters would most likely qualify. The scary thing is that the Taylor’s would not. Celeste Taylor makes $20,000 annually, which is the median salary for people in New Jersey that do not fall below the poverty line and fall below the standard. This is going to make things very difficult in a very expensive county to live in. The situations that these families are in can be very stressful. Besides the major problems such as putting food on the table or having heat in the winter, little things to a middle class family become huge things for these families. An example of this would be laundry. In a middle class family this is just a chore that needs to be done and can be done right inside the home. But for these families it costs a lot of money to go to a Laundromat each week with a full families worth of clothes. Also sometimes it may be a bus ride to the Laundromat. This is just one of the many things that can cause stress to a family living below the standard in Essex County.

4. This information is going to greatly affect who I am as an educator. It is very important to understand the community in which you teach in. Understanding where the students come from and where they go outside of school can be very useful in the classroom. I plan to teach in a high school and this information tells me that I may have many students that are working in order to help their family put food on the table. If a student does not do their homework I should find out why they did not do it rather than just giving them a zero and moving on. They cannot just quit their job if their grades slip. I think just getting to know the students on a more personal level would help. Showing them that I care about what they do outside of school will could also help. I think that knowing what they may be going through will help me to have thicker skin. What I mean by this is that if students are tired or they do not care about my class then I should not take this personally. Maybe they are just hungry, tired from a long night of work, possibly they did not get a good night sleep because their heat was shut off, or they just have more important things to worry about than Algebra. These are certainly things that I did not realize would be issues but now that I do it is my job to use this knowledge to make me a better educator.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009


“When will I ever use this in my life?” and “Why do I have to learn this?” are two very common questions that school aged children ask everyday. These questions can easily be answered by telling them that they need to do well on their next test and if they do well in school that they will get into a good college. From a very early age students are encouraged to take their schooling seriously and obtain an education, for one’s future success is almost always inextricably linked to a sound formal education. History has taught us that the ideal situation for an individual involves obtaining a formal education, being successful at exams, graduating with honors and finding a stable job or building a prosperous career. However, some students, especially in urban areas like Newark, New Jersey are not getting the education needed to become competent and successful members of society. The matter of changing school and curriculum (educational reform) to compensate for the rapidly changing world in which these schools and it student’s exist has been an ongoing battle of both failure and success in particularly urban areas. For instance, most of the students in and around the Hawthorne Avenue area in Newark come from lower income, working class families that are just barely making ends meet. Many of the parent(s) in these families have low educational backgrounds and this lower education is correlated to the lower income status that they presently possess.

President George Bush, in an effort to raise failing schools (classified by students who are falling behind), in primarily urban areas, proposed No Child Left Behind (NCLB); a series of standardized tests and guidelines for meeting an Annual Yearly Percentage (AYP) for various subject areas or the school in concern receives less funding or ultimately is closed down. There are a number of perceived inherent problems of the NCLB act and its implementation which currently dictates and drives the focus of teaching at both public and private schools across the country. Numerous reports have emerged showing the achievement gaps which exist between different components of society, be it against racial, cultural, religious or social divides. However, the fundamental underlying common denominator remains what is taught in schools. What is the role of the curriculum in future success? The reality remains that the focus of those standardized tests as currently employed may very well serve as a contributing factor to performance gaps which exist.

Students are very different and each will take very different paths in their lives. Thus, each student will need very different tools for their lives. At a young age students learn all sorts of different tools that will be useful. They learn basic math skills, geography, reading and writing, how to paint and play music. These are most certainly skills that will be useful in their later schooling. They are building blocks that are necessary to their future learning. The problem seems to arise in later grades when the focus is much more on Math and English. In order to see what the students are learning we must take a look at the curriculum that is being taught. It does not take long to see that curriculum in our schools are driven by standardized tests. These standardized tests are what we use to measure the students, teachers, schools and school districts. The focus of school is now on finding ways to raise test scores rather than the practicality of what the students are learning. In fact, we believe this idea of standardizing curriculum and learning goes against nature; fundamentally, it defies our societal structure. There needs to be more than one solution to assessing schools and its students and this concept of more than one answer is a vital component educators should be instilling in students today. The current policies in place assume that teachers can be led to perform better if they are made much more accountable for test score gains. Standardized testing seems to be the “solve-all” solution and there is evidence to support its prosperity and its failure. Both prosperity and failure are limited to the view of test scores. Students are not being assessed in the many ways they learn limiting the validity in the assessment of the student’s learned knowledge. In addition, the curriculum and teaching styles of educators is changing due to high-stakes testing. Educators are now teaching to the test, which in turn invalidates their reliability and validity. A major issue that we want to take a look at is how the standardized tests in New Jersey change as students advance through school. In elementary school students take the NJ Ask, where they are tested in seven different content areas. Later when students prepare for the HSPA, which they take junior year of high school in order to graduate, they are only tested on two content areas. Narrowing down our focus to two major areas, Math and English, has a great impact on their curriculum. As a result, students are being assessed on how much test content and information they can memorize in regard to passing the test instead of assessing the depth of understanding and reasoning, along with the critical thinking that goes into making the decisions.

Goals and Objectives:

This research aims to investigate the curriculum being used in the Newark Public Schools system, particularly the Hawthorne Ave School and assess the role of standardized test in preparing the nation’s youth for the 21st century. A brief comparative analysis against countries such as Belgium and Sweden and Singapore which employ standardized testing as a means of assessment with more positive results in an effort to determine why students in these countries regularly out perform the United States on Math and Science high-stakes tests and have higher success rates. Finally, the research will suggest alternative ways by which assessment can be done without taking away from the ability to teach students life skills that will be important for future success.