Saturday, October 12, 2013

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.


Axel Hellman said...

Thank you for writing this! It's so refreshing to hear an honest take on what's happening in the schools these days.

steve schiff said...

Thanks for sharing. As a school parent, it would help for you to share some specifics we should be engaging our schoolboard on.

Robin Hoffman said...

Echoing Steve's comment above, there are so many issues you note in your blog. What are the most pressing ones parents should focus on, in your opinion? Any tactical advice would be great too.