Sunday, November 24, 2013

Is this the problem?

Hey, is the problem with the Common Core not actually with the concept but with how it has been done? Can there be a curriculum that actually educates the whole person? I looked at the social studies standards, and they are mind-boggingly complex and detached. Can there be something that could be created as humanistic common core? Look at this web site: Should this be the starting point, getting kids to think about their values and priorities and have THIS as the starting points and essential questions? Are there any teachers or academics who want to start a movement for an alternative Common Core, something teacher driven rather than by EdD's and corporate educators? Or is the whole concept flawed?

Or is the problem that there are mixed motivations? Are there those who were involved in the creation and implementation of the Common Core and the PARCC assessments who want to use it as a tool for something else than teaching students?  Is the motivation to use this as a tool to get rid of ineffective teachers or promote schools without unions or tenure?  Is this inconsistent with the concept of the Common Core?  

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

What I Miss

I miss so many things about Montclair.  After 22 years, I made a great many dear friends and met so many remarkable people and teachers.  I miss many who have retired, Joe Macaluso, Dennis Murray, Phil Easton, Ed Lebida, Frank Green, my close friends in guidance, Shirley and Nedra, and the rest of the guidance staff, so many great teachers, people like Peter Guiffra, to so many wonderful students and parents I met as a counselor, a coach and as guidance director.  I miss the calm wisdom of Helen Kuryllo and Petal Robinson, the passion of Anna Pancheckha and Jonathan Mancinelli, the 'professors' Jonathan Meyer and Greg Woodruff, my friends George Burroughs and Jim Aquavia.

But I do not miss anyone in the administration.  Really, I really cannot tell you how much I do not miss them.  Well, not all, I have nothing bad to say about my dealings with Felice Harrison, she has always been a decent person, and Gail Clarke is one of the more competent administrators in the district.  John Jeffries and Damien Cooper are both decent guys, though John can be really mercurial.  I am really sorry for what I posted about Damien.  I took stuff from my computer to my blog and I was really careless.  I am talking about the people who thought they needed to show me how they were the boss:  Penny, Eileen, James, Shirlene.  They're not all bad people.  I meant it when I told James I would be thrilled with him as a neighbor, as a friend, as a relative.  He is a great guy one-on-one.  He is honest, he is caring, he is intelligent.  As a principal, not as much.  When he brought John Jeffries in, John would tell us, watch out when James gets tenure, and this was really offensive.  Tenure is to reward you for what you've shown and to expect more of it.  James has this weird view that there is some kind of incongruity between loving your job and doing well in it.  He is of a world where if you get a paycheck, you should accept what is given you.  And to be fair, its what he expects of himself.  He does not need praise or recognition or appreciation to do his job, and he treats others that way.  I've heard he's more engaged with the teachers lately, and that's a great thing.  He has it in him, but has to really believe it is important that teachers are loyal to him not because they are afraid of the consequences of being disloyal, but because they share in a mission with him.  To be honest, I don't know that he has that in him, but I am encouraged by what I've been hearing.

Neither Penny nor Eileen have ever showed me in any way that they had any concern about students.   They both have the off-putting distance that's almost creepy, not the kind of people I would want my kids to grow up to be like.  Why would we ever have a superintendent who does not model the character that we would want in our children?  I simply don't get it.  To break the unions?  To show your resentment of tenure?  Have our leaders really bought into the corporate, Race to the Top, top down control of education?

Oh my god, I cannot tell you how nice it is to be in Morristown!  They are really decent, nice people in the administration.  There is dignity and respect everywhere.  And fun.  Oh how I missed the fun. You know what is missing in Montclair now:  Dignity and Respect....and a Soul.  They are promoting an atmosphere where there is not kindness or caring or even humanism.  There view of caring is safety, their view of performance is test scores.  Its really scary.  We in Morristown have the same SGO's and the Common Core and the PARCC Assessments, but we haven't abandoned the emphasis on these overshadowing creating thoughtful and sincere and kind kids.  Thankfully, this does not seem to have affected all schools.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Missing the Point

Much of the opposition to the corporatization of schools focuses on the opposition to processes:  utilizing the Common Core, quarterly common assessments, Student Growth Objectives, etc.  This wholly misses the point.  There are schools and school systems that instituting these without objection, even some that are embracing them.  What is the difference between what is happening in the schools where there is an increasing and vocal opposition, like Montclair, and those where there is not:

1)  There is a lack of appreciation of the culture of the community.  There is an assumption that there is a prescription for school success that is transferrable across schools and districts that does not involve any qualitative judgement.
2)  There is a lack of emphasis on humanism, compassion, dignity and respect.
3)  Teachers are treated as means to an end, as is teaching.
4)  The primary mode of communicating is defensiveness and self-promotion.
5)  Every decision is top down.  There is a lack of emphasis on local authority and team building.
6)  All change must be abrupt and sudden and systematic.
7)  There is a narrative that the schools are failing.
8)  The leaders have no commitment to the community.  They are in to bring change and leave.
9)  The leaders are using the opportunity to move on to bigger and better things.
10) What is presented as listening is proselytizing.
11)  Loyalty is valued above competence.
12)  Management and control are valued more than creativity and individuality.

If these speak to you, your school may be infected by the "corporatization virus.  You may need to have your district reform the reform, the only cure for this insidious disease.

Issues at Montclair

Issues at Montclair High:

1) Morale is as low as I have ever seen it.  Virtually every teacher I speak to, especially the strongest teachers, are planning their exit strategies.  The environment is about compliance and loyalty and there is absolutely no emphasis on strong teaching.
2) Supervision is only to maintain control.  There is no mentoring or positive reinforcement.  Weak teachers are being hired and given good evaluations while great teachers feel threatened and unappreciated.  One English teacher teaching high honor students assigned one book for the entire year.  Teachers in one department, from the best to the worst, were given "satisfactory".
3) There is a total lack of expertise in the oversight of curriculum.  Teachers are writing lesson plans that are never read.  There are some departments that are receiving absolutely no oversight.
4) The administrative team is extremely weak.  
5) The superintendent has no idea of the culture of the community or the needs of the schools.  She is spending money on consultants at an incredible rate.  She hired a scheduling consultant at $5000 a day without ever talking to me about our needs.    They have made decisions that have made scheduling more and more difficult, including 3 small learning communities, 6 world languages, almost every AP course available and common instructional periods, and provided no support in completing the task.  The superintendent refused to pay anyone to assist with scheduling; only capitulating when I told the principal that there would be no way the schedule would be done without assistance. 
6)  We are being treated as a failing school when there are many highly successful things about the school.  We have a great college placement record, there was not a single student who failed to graduate due to failing the HSPA, and we are regularly recognized in areas like math and economics.  The system being put in place puts greater accountability in fairly strong areas yet leaves the weakest areas, like PE, unsupervised and unaccountable.
7) The total top-down management of the principal and superintendent makes for an environment where education is secondary to management and control.  There is a lack of expertise in the most important area of the school, the oversight of teaching and education. 
8) There is no sense of collaboration or common purpose or unified mission.  There is no appreciation or encouragement of creativity or love of learning.  Rather than try to find a way to way to continue to do what we do well despite a system from the State and federal government that is meant to destroy quality public education, we have totally allowed the superintendent to change our educational system to adapt to it.   We have taken a corporate atmosphere that is hostile to teachers, encouraging to charter schools and voucher and allowed it to infect our school system.  We are wasting our most precious asset, our teachers, and allowed our culture as an environment of thoughtfulness and creativity to be damaged.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

One Life at a Time

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing my sister-in-law's play, that she directed, at Lincoln Center.  At the After Party, sitting at our table were David Schwimmer, Chris Rock, Jeff Goldbloom, Bobbie Carnivale, to name a few.  But the most important person of the night was Jessica, our waitress.  She is a Hunter College graduate who just took her LSAT's to go to law school.   I asked her if she wanted to be a lawyer, and she told me no.  "So, if you could do anything you wanted, what would you want to do."  "Teach" she said.  So I spent the next few minutes letting her know that despite the difficulty in getting jobs, the hostility toward teachers (in the guise of hostility to the unions) by politicians and many in the media, and the trend toward corporatizing education, that there were few jobs (except maybe nursing) where you could change lives every day. I brought her to Eve, my wife, so she could describe her journey as a high school drop out who got her GED at age 48, then completed college and got her dream job as a teacher in an alternate school in Orange NJ.  Eve is my hero and she is doing God's work.  I wanted Jessica to see her passion and love for what she was doing.   Just afterward, as I was leaving, I got a text from one of my former wrestlers who needed help with college expenses.  "Peace, Coach White" it started, asking me if I could help him with tuition for county college.  I found Jessica and showed her.  "This is what its all about" I told her, "making connections."  Jessica, if you read this, comment what you thought and what you're planning on doing.  I hope I changed one life that night....

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Cognitive Dissonance: Finding What You're Looking For

There have been a lot of comments, particularly during the last Board of Education meeting, stating that we should look at the Strategic Plan more closely.  I suggest each of you do this.

Read the comments of Michelle Russell, the new Chief Talent Officer, in the Montclair Times:  "While she emphasized that she’s not trying to ‘throw the school district’s guidance counselors under the bus’, Russell said that instructions students are getting from some of the counselors may be playing into their decisions about what classes to take.  We’ve received complaints from parents, particularly about the imbalance between CGI and CSJ and how students are counseled into particular programs,’ said Russell.  ‘This is unacceptable and something we need to interrupt.  Coming in as a new person [to the school district] I don’t understand how we’re telling our kids ‘oh’yeah, if you’re white you go into CGI and if you’re black you go into CSJ. 

Watch the comments at the most recent Board meeting, particularly by the latest shill, former mayor Jerry Fried.  "They [his children] were not inspired by many teachers and were let down by many, many situations, particularly things like guidance, overall guidance, there were many many areas that fell short.  Having a strategic plan, and see how it works, adjusting it as it as it goes, is the way, the only way to go."

Now, lets look at the strategic plan about the SLC's and guidance:

SLC's:  By June 2015, all MHS Small Learning Communities will meet the agreed upon criteria for an effective small learning community. 

Strategy:  Compile research on effective Small Learning Communities to share with parents, students and teachers to inform the development of criteria for effective Small Learning Communities (including a diverse student population) and a plan for additional community supported SLCs.)

Anyone notice how how Russell's comments are a solution looking for a problem that is articulated in the strategic plan?  Anyone also notice that there are no facts to back up Russell's comments.  A la Montclair resident Stephen Colbert, why have facts when you can reason with your gut.

Now let's look at guidance:

Guidance:  By June 2015, 80% of students and parents will rate guidance services (including contact time, four-year programming, annual scheduling) as effective or highly effective. 

And how is this going to be accomplished?  Let's look at the 3 strategies to accomplish this?

*Complete a map of course offerings
*Determine if magazine ratings should be a focus of MHS school improvement
*Form a committee of teachers, parents and students to revise the program planning guide.

That's it.  This is the strategic plan for improving the guidance that their chosen spokesman and party giver Jerry Fried says has let so many down.  

And the most amazing thing:  These strategic plan objectives and strategies were developed with not a single discussion between Central Support and a single teacher counselor or lead teacher or supervisor in either the SLC's or the guidance department in the entire tenure to date of the superintendent and her administration.  

You read the strategic plan and tell me that you think it is a thoughtful plan to improve the high school and the other schools in Montclair.

Hopey Changey

So I began looking at the specific content of the strategic plan.  Item # 1 (and I would think its placement would mirror its importance:

1. By June 2015, 80% of students, parents and teachers will rate their school
climate as effective or highly effective (including promoting high
expectations and strong student – teacher relationships) as measured by
school-level climate surveys.

And the number one strategy to accomplish it:

1. Collaboratively adopt an effective school-level climate survey to measure
evidence of high expectations and strong student-staff relationships and
effective school-level leadership; schedule the administration and scoring for
the surveys at the beginning and end of each school year.

Let's see how that school climate survey is going?  How about asking teachers:

1)  Has there been an improvement in the school climate in the past year?
2)  Are you treated with dignity and respect as a teacher?
3)  Are you supported by the administration?
4)  Are you treated as a professional by the administration?
5)  Are the Montclair schools on the right track.
6)  Do you enjoy coming to work in the morning?
7)  Do you consider your work more or less rewarding in the past year.
8)  Do you feel there is a cooperative atmosphere with the administration?
9)  Are you supported by administration when there is an issue with a student and/or parent.
10)  On a scale of 1-5 (1 being highly agree; 5 being highly disagree), please rate the following:

*I feel I am part of a greater school community that I am excited to contribute to.
*I feel there is recognition for the good work that I do.
*I consider my classroom a refuge from the unpleasantness of the other school life.
*There is a positive environment in the school
*There is encouragement of good teaching.
*Administration has been successful in making me a better teacher.
*I feel that I am undermined by the school administration.

Let's see how that hopey changey thing is going?

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Playbook

From Montclair Cares About Schools Facebook page:

Go to 172:30 of the video of the last Board meeting to see the new playbook: blame the teachers and the high school guidance department for all that is wrong with the schools: Come to Jerry's party and ask him why he is trashing our teachers and counselors.

Friday, October 25, 2013

It Is Time

Wow.  Did you read the Montclair Times and the quotes in the article A Tale of Two Montclairs:  the achievement gap persists?  I’m sort of amazed at the sloppiness.  Far from demonstrating the precision of a high tech CEO, the district leadership threw out its whole playbook in one ill-timed and ill-thought out quote.  Cleave the community racially, dismantle the small learning communities, and blame it all on the high school counselors.  Boy, why would they be going after couns……never mind.  Well, here’’s the quote: 

“Michelle Russell, the Chief Talent Officer and the Civil Right Commission liaison, said that many black students are being confronted with the choice of enrolling in classes with their friends or choosing college prep courses.

“While she emphasized that she’s not trying to ‘throw the school district’s guidance counselors under the bus’, Russell said that instructions students are getting from some of the counselors may be playing into their decisions about what classes to take.

‘We’ve received complaints from parents, particularly abou the imbalance between CGI and CSJ and how students are counseled into particular programs,’ said Russell.  ‘This is unacceptable and something we need to interrupt.  Coming in as a new person [to the school district] I don’t understand how we’re telling our kids ‘oh’yeah, if you’re white you go into CGI and if you’re black you go into CSJ.”

This is all well and good, but it simply is not true.  There has been a massive change in the past few years in who has been entering small learning communities and the counselors should be given a lot of credit for it.  Only 2 years ago, there were 125 new sophomores in CGI and 45 in CSJ.  This year, both programs had equal numbers of new sophomores, about 80 each.  In addition, CSJ in particular is fully integrated and has admirable diversity, something for which we should take pride.  It is no longer seen as a lesser alternative but a true option for even the most talented of students.  Instead of taking pride in this fact, misinformation and lies have been disgustingly used as a talking points to further a cynical agenda.  Shame on the central office administration for selling out three of the strongest things about MHS to the media:  these two long standing and amazing SLC’s and an unbelievably strong guidance staff.  

Both of these SLC's do amazing things for their students.  Social Justice, in particular, should be held up by the administration as a model of what is possible, and an example of what is best about Montclair.  It is a highly rigorous program with a diversity of students who learn from each other.  It is a place where the best of students can be challenged but the average student can feel welcome.  It is simply unbelievable that the administration thinks it is okay to demean these programs in this way instead of touting them as models of educational excellence and diversity.  Its like eating your young what is going on here.  There is no excuse for it and it is repulsive.

Sunday, October 20, 2013


25 years ago, I was at MKA and the headmaster had this vision to make the school fit into the philosophy of the Coalition of Essential Schools, following the philosophy of Ted Sizer, with one of its main tenets being "less is more", with students studying less content with more depth.  MKA was going to be the first school of high achieving students to join this group.  But it failed, because the aims were incompatible with some other high goals, including high AP participation and performance, which was highly content driven.  When Mel Katz came to MHS, he told me he wrote his PhD thesis on "Principals as Agents of Change" and he would be the first principal to bring a middle school model, where teams of counselors and administrators would work with only one grade at a time and follow them each year.  It did not succeed, because the needs of sophomores was so different than those of seniors.  It was another model which was incompatible with reality.  There is a reason that these two plans did not work is that they were inherently in conflict with reality. 

Now we have another attempt at an administrator wanting to be the first to use a model designed for use in failing schools being used for the first time at a school which, for the most part, that it highly successful in carrying out its mission of educating its students.  Don't get me wrong.  There are schools that might benefit from the top-to-bottom restructuring envisioned by the "reform" movement.  

There is a false dichotomy here that is being ignored. It is possible to get higher test scores in an atmosphere of trust and respect. We do not have to sacrifice morale, or a sense of shared purpose or a community where the students, faculty and administration work together and willingly on shared goals. Will the present plan result in higher test scores? I would think so, for they are being placed as a priority above all else, and in my opinion, at the expense of all else. Is there improved management and control at the high school? Definitely. But this has come at a great cost. We can and should have schools where there is both order and respect, improved test scores and improved morale.

The model being instituted at the Montclair Public Schools is a dangerous one and, if allowed to spread, will result in schools where there are factories of teachers and students churning out higher test scores.   Like the MKA experiment and Mel Katz's experiment, this model has not been successful in other school systems similar to Montclair for it is incompatible with the community desire for genuine and authentic learning and teaching, a desire to not give up those things that are great and special about Montclair in order to bring up test scores.  

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Meaningful reform

One might think by my previous posts that I am against the Common Core, quarterly common assessments, SGO's, tenure "reform", the Marshall and Danielson rubrics. None of that is true.  Each are tools that, used in a atmosphere of trust and respect, could improve instruction, consistency, accountability, student learning, and teacher performance.  But any of these being used as an end unto themselves is not only dangerous and destructive, but ethically wrong.  Putting these as goals rather than tools pretends that teaching and learning is a science more than an art, and genuine learning can be "measured accurately" (rather than being viewed in context) and that improvement means the same to every class, teacher and student.

The view of these is affected by one's view of how individual teachers and schools are performing.  A couple of weeks ago I attended a training by Kim Marshall of the Marshall rubrics.  I liked him.  He was smart, sincere and concerned about how to improve teacher assessment.  His system of regular assessments and multiple operational rubrics is an improvement over the single yearly observation.  But I was deeply troubled about where he was coming from.  His first slide stated that "unfortunately" there is "uneven" instruction going on in schools.  I challenged him, asking him whether he is coming from a place where he believes most public schools have poor instruction.  I recommended that he start with "fortunately, most instruction is of high quality, but it should be a goal that all instruction be of that quality" or the like.  Also, the only two schools he mentioned as "good" schools in his presentation were a charter school (Northstar Academy) and a private school (Georgetown Day).

The Common Core is a valuable tool as a guide to instruction, certainly preferable to the content driven by textbooks approved by the Texas legislature now being used in most classrooms.  The Common Core is a road map to guide and inform instruction, not something that should blindly drive instruction.  The PARCC assessments, based on the Common Core, are admirable goals, but some (particularly in math) are simply too complex and sophisticated to realistically expect all our students to reach.  The present NJ test, the HSPA, is a realistic goal and sure, we would love every student to be able to have the level of analysis and synthesis required of the PARCC.  But there is and will always be a bell curve, and even if we move this bell a bit to the right, we will have many students, even in the best of schools, who will be successful, hard working employers or employees who cannot reach this level of analysis. My hope is that embracing the Common Core will push more students to think more deeply, but my fear is that expecting it of all students will leave too many students without a high school diploma, students who have tried their hardest, engaged in their learning and shown the requisite skills and knowledge to be successful in their careers and society.

Common assessments, whether they be by unit, quarterly or at the mid-term and final, are an effective way of encouraging similar demands and expectations from different teachers teaching the same subject to the same level of student.  As long as the assessments are realistic, they can be valuable in ascertaining whether students understand the material that is presented and whether there is common, high level instruction.  I coach wrestling, now to 2nd through 8th graders.  I have common assessments of all of them; it's called a wrestling match.  If I "teach" a kid to look away from a half nelson and in a match situation they don't do that, the result is that that student will be counting the ceiling lights soon. There are years that I have great natural athletes who pick up things easily and can win without very good coaching and years where there is not a lot of promise and success will be elusive even with the best of coaching.  Sure, over the long run, I will be judged by my wins and losses, and I am fine with that.  But I would not think it reasonable to be judged in a given year by how well I can uniformly turn that 97 pound weakling into a winning wrestler.

The same is true of Student Growth Objectives.  SGO's, are by no means inherently bad. In fact, when done properly, with the student in mind, they are much better than many previous methods we have used. They require teachers to expect every student to improve from where they started from.  But they have many drawbacks, particularly that they place much more emphasis on language arts and mathematics than the many other things that are learned in schools.  Instead of improving the richness of learning, they, in practice, become reductionist.  We know who the great teachers are.  We remember those teachers from our own schooling who moved us, who cared about us, who treated us with respect, who challenged us individually.  They were the creative, passionate, resourceful teachers who had the judgement to often move off the set curriculum or modify instruction to suit the needs of individual students or the class.  I don't think that giving such high priority to limited goals, particularly when limited mostly to the domains of language arts and mathematics, will encourage this kind of teaching. Again, as a guide, they are great.  As a goal, they are extremely limited.

I have not been shy about my feelings of the limitations of both tenure and union protection.  In an environment of mutual trust and respect, both of these can stifle cooperation and accountability.  For the last four years, I did not have a local union (I still joined the state union).  And I have given up tenure twice without hesitancy.  But in an atmosphere of hostility and false accountability, I am sad to say that both are a necessity to protect those who are judged not for their teaching, but for their loyalty and compliance.  It is folly that you can measure teacher performance as you would profitability in a business.  Great teaching is like great art.  You cannot measure it but you know and appreciate it when you see it.

Lastly are the rubrics that are being used to assess teachers.   It is productive to move to a model where there is thought and consideration as to what is being looked at, there is more standardization in how these things are evaluated and that there are more frequent evaluations and feedback.  But like all those things described about, one need to look at the level of trust and respect, and frankly, the motives of those who are doing the assessing.  In an environment of shared goals, these assessments can be valuable tools.  In an environment of hostility and suspicion, they can be just a more effective way of removing teachers who are seen as bad apples than as a true assessment of performance.

Systems are neither bad nor good.  Great things can happen as well in a school where there is little structure or oversight and in schools where there is an extensive system of routine, discipline and accountability.  The difference is in the purpose, philosophy and atmosphere.  Where there is a consistent, thoughtful and compassionate emphasis and a student centered approach to education, students will thrive.  Any system that takes into account the differences in what motivates individual teachers and students and what can get a community of learners to work together in the best interests of students will be successful.  But instituting a system without a soul is doomed to failure.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Counselors and the Common App


 We are the models.  We are in control.  If we cannot keep it together,
 how can we expect our students and parents to?  Remember, when they see
 us freaked out, their level of anxiety goes through the ceiling.  They
 are already like a driver already stuck in 2 hours of NY (LA?) traffic,
 ready to snap at any moment.  Or like an animal stuck in a trap.  Or a
 pre-teen on his/her first date...Or, never mind, you get the point.  They
 are not themselves.  They are nervous, scared, edgy, at times, mean,
 reactive, panicked, and, sometimes, out of their minds.

 I am particularly struck by the tone of this CA discussion.  Yeah, we
 knew they were rolling out something new and improved, but whenever you
 roll out a new tech, all the beta testing in the world will not pick up
 all the glitches (can we say "Ios 7" or "health care exchanges").

 We need to keep our heads about us!  We cannot, CAN NOT, let their panic
 become our panic.  I know this is particularly true of independents.
 When we are operating as independents, we sometimes over-promise and have
 a much more select group of over-anxious customers who want answers and
 solutions yesterday.  We all want satisfied customers, clients, students,
 parents, but coming with all guns firing or using disparaging comments to
 those who are trying to help us (like CA tech support) will not get
 solutions any better or faster.  We are all in this together and we need
 to begin to act that way!   Isn't that the point of this organization?

 I have to say, Rob and the technical staff have been wonderful.  They
 have been highly responsive to this list, on their web site, on their
 Facebook Page and to individual inquiries.  I have had a number of
 students with issues and they have been responded to and resolved in a
 short amount of time.  I can't imagine how many inquiries they have been
 dealing with, but they have treated every one with urgency.  I can't
 imagine what that office has had to go through to keep everything on
 track.  I feel like sending them an 18-year-old bottle of scotch with a
 six foot high thank you card!

 So when your parents and students come in angry, panicked, confused and
 snappish, threatening to call the Superintendent if you do not resolve
 this immediately and using language that should never be used outside of
 a bar, keep your wits about you.  Especially you new to the profession, I
 know this is particularly tough.  Some of you have never seen previously
 delightful parents come at you with the fervor of a rabid wolf.  Just
 remember, when you let their lack of control or distress cause you to
 move off your mark, you are abandoning them.  They depend on your
 assurance, your calm, your confidence and your professionalism.  I know
 it can feel like talking someone off a window ledge, but every moment is
 THE moment to these students and parents, the one instant when all their
 hopes and dreams for the last 18 years comes crashing down because the
 paragraph breaks did not work out perfectly.  You need to assure them
 that everything will be okay, that many, many people are experiencing the
 same problem, and that it will be resolved in a timely fashion.  Be
 strong, be confident and be the rock they need.  You can do it!

MacCormack to the rescue

It took me awhile for me to figure it out.  We met the new superintendent, Penny MacCormack in the Large Group Instruction room at our school.  She was there to address the faculty.  She was asking a lot of questions, but didn't seem to be listening to what people felt.  She had an answer to every question that reflected what she believed prior to the meeting.  The teachers again and again were pleading for educational leadership, a plea to this woman that they wanted her to do things to foster learning, student engagement and the passion and excitement of discovery.  But there was something different going on.  She had a mission, and it did not include anything that the student's needed or teachers cared about.  She was taking back the schools from the parents, the students, the teachers, and, in many cases, the administrators.  She was going to impose this top down control with the only measure of success being higher test scores and measurable achievement. 

"What about improving the industrial arts?" asked one teacher.  "Those jobs are gone," she retorted, stating that advanced math skills were needed even to be a PSE&G lineman.  I didn't know if she was just uninformed or being disingenuous.  The highest demand in the U.S. was not for jobs demanding the skills she was promoting, advanced math reasoning and writing skills.  Sure, at the highest levels, there is a need for those who can solve equations with multiple variables and who can write highly nuanced support of abstract principles.  But there are hundreds of applicants chasing every job in this category.  The greatest demand is for those who have the specialized skills to do our most physically demanding and toughest jobs.  And these jobs rarely required skills higher than those required on the present graduation test.  There was something else at work here.  Her vision was out there for all to see.  The high school was a place in her vision where the wheat was separated from the chaff.  Those who could pass more and more rigorous standards would graduate and go off to college to join the elite.  The rest would simply not graduate, enduring a life without opportunity, solidifying an underclass with an ever-higher potential for crime and poverty.  And the schools would no longer be places of innovation and thoughtfulness.  This would still be available to the elite who could afford private school. 

MacCormack engaged in a "listening tour," but again and again, it seemed more like an act of proselytizing.  I was told of this training she got from the Broad Institute and started to read up on it.  This was a training ground for public school leaders that emphasized coming in to failing urban schools, treating nothing as sacrosanct, only valuing measurable outcomes and, most importantly, instituting top down control.  But wait a minute, I thought, we are not a failing school.  We had weaknesses that needed addressing, but we had 20 students attending the Ivy League, one of the highest for a non-specialized public school in the nation.  Not a single one of our students failed to graduate due to being unable to pass the state graduation test.  90% of our students were attending college with 20% going to the most selective colleges in the country.  Our teachers were some of the best I had seen anywhere.

She quickly showed her cards more clearly.  She had a plan before she had come in that was being instituted to the letter.  Every student would be tested multiple times per year and both students and teachers would be judged on these tests.  Everything that happened would have a direct line to her.  There would be no autonomy of teachers or administrators.

Perhaps she showed her cards most when she made decisions on how the high school was being run.  The administration at the high school was woefully short on academic expertise.  All but one of the academic departments were being run by administrators who had no knowledge or experience in the departments they ran.  There were jobs posted for curricular leaders to lead the academic departments.  But those positions were never filled, and there were new ads for disciplinary deans.  What was going on here?  Then the announcement came, with the present administration planning on running the academic life of the school, managing the curriculum and the learning and the teacher training and assessment.  There it was: the smoking gun.  It was not at all about education.  How could the principal effectively run the English department, something he had absolutely no experience ever doing?  He couldn't, but that didn't matter.  It was about control, not education.  It was about managing the superintendent's vision that only what is measurable is important and the only important things were measurable.  It was about making a high school degree less about having mastered skills but of being part of the academic elite.  And it was being run more like a prison than a school:  as long as everyone does as they are told, we will all be okay.

First there were the grumblings, then the outrage.  There was no way to demonstrate excellence other than improving test scores and no value to creativity, innovation or sparking a love of learning.  Every teacher I knew, particularly those who consistently demonstrated the highest level of excellence, was planning their exit strategy.  Teaching is not like working in a shoe store where the only thing that matters is how many pairs of shoes are sold.  Teachers are the foot soldiers to make learning fun and interesting and life-long, to make sure that students are motivated and excited and involved.  None of this was valued any more, except as a means to higher test scores. 

Montclair is unique for the culture of the school and community.  People come here who seek a haven for the arts, schools that are alive with energy, and a level of community pride and involvement not matched by many other places.  There is also a prevailing ethos of liberal libertarianism, with a desire for only as much structure and control as is necessary to effectively run things.  This new superintendent was either tone deaf or really didn't care.  She was like those who attended EST in the 70's.  There was this cult-like adherence to the Broad philosophy that applied to every school that needed improvement and nothing would deter her from this mission.  

But a backlash is beginning.  After a popular principal was forced to immediately resign, almost a thousand parents signed a petition stating that the heavy-handed response was not needed or warranted.  A Facebook group, Montclair Cares About Schools, generated hundreds of members in a few days.  Articles in the local paper, the Montclair Times, started questioning the hiring process of the superintendent and many of her priorities and methods. 

Compliance, perhaps one of the worst things that can infect a school, was what was being valued most.  A new contract was passed with two important changes offered by the superintendent.  Teacher duties would no longer be required, ending the highly successful Got Tutoring program that assisted students in academic need.  The other was allowing teachers to leave immediately after school, no longer having teachers stay after school to assist students with academic difficulty.  Few seemed to care that this was consistent with the change that was already overtaking the schools.  Teachers were no longer staying after school to join committees or engage with students.  The halls were almost empty after 3 pm.  Literally hundreds of students were referred by teachers to the Intervention and Referral Service for at-risk students 2 years ago; last year:  almost zero.

Like any oppressive regime, the workers are afraid to speak out and the managers are learning that unquestioning obedience is the only way to survive. The parents and students are the hope for changing things around.  I only hope it occurs before too much damage is done.