Friday, June 19, 2015

House of Cards

The pendulum has reached its peak and is ready to return to rationality.  The aged ideologues are passing on this mortal coil and the new generation has very different ideas as to how the world should be.  The coalition that has held together, fighting science, reason, rationality, compassion and fairness, is falling apart and the house of cards is about to fall.

Evidence is starting to trickle in.  A majority of Americans are in favor of gay marriage.  The Republicans are starting to talk about income inequality.  The pope is producing an encyclical entreating us to do something about climate change. 

Americans are tiring of hearing about another mass shooting; about the social safety net crumbling;
about our civil liberties being threatened; about money interests controlling the political agenda; about billionaires telling us that public servants, from teachers, to fire fighters to police officers to nurses, are the cause of our societal problems,; about greater and greater threats to the environment that we are leaving our children; about spending our defense dollars on useless programs as favors to special interests; about spilling our citizen’s blood on senseless political wars.

This new generation is socially liberal and economically conservative.  They want to get high capacity guns out of the hands of deranged criminals.  They want their private conversations to remain private.  They want to have the government out of the way in their medical decisions.  They want their representatives to listen to them, not dogmatic billionaires.  They want to leave their children an environment that is healthy.  They want schools that serve their children and to promote strong relationships between students and teachers.  They want to make sure the poor, the aged, the disabled and the homeless are protected and cared for.  They want defense dollars to be spent on 21st Century threats, not Cold War boogie men.  They want restrictions on money from the rich in politics.  They want our bridges and tunnels and mass transit to be the envy of the world.   They want a path to citizenship for undocumented citizens who productively contribute to the society.    They want a tax code where the rich pay the highest taxes and there are higher taxes on work than investments.  They want police officers who abuse their authority to be held accountable.

Those who do not see this sea change will be left behind.  The house of cards is crumbling and those who see the future as just building more layers will be in for a rude awakening.

Seriously Bad Ideas

Paul Krugman wrote an Op-Ed piece yesterday in the NY Times with this title about the way that Britain is dealing with their economy, writing:  Mr. Osborne isn’t offering the wrong answer to Britain’s problems; he’s offering an answer to problems Britain doesn’t have, while ignoring and exacerbating the problems it does.”  I’ve read through the materials on the Montclair Kids First site and what was mailed home and it is clear that the same could be said about them.

For each problem they identify, they suggest solutions that would not only not improve the situation, but make it worse.  I spent 21 years in the Montclair Schools.  I gave my heart and soul to the students and the school and believed that students were getting a great education there.  I still believe they are, but not because of what is being done administratively, but despite it.

The biggest straw man and red herring is looking at the union as a core problem in the schools.  To be honest, I rarely had much to do with the union.  I rarely sought their assistance and did not even belong to the district union for my last 7 years.  But the union and the administration had great relationships for most of my time there.  When Joe Macaluso and Dennis Murray were in leadership positions and Michael Osnato and Frank Alverez were superintendents, the union and the administration worked productively together.  The poor relations with the union did not begin until the Board hired an inexperienced, dogmatic and confrontational leader to run the schools.

MKF writes that we pay too high taxes and faults the union for this.  This is wrong and misguided.  The costs are high because the Board of Education is now doing catch-up controlling costs that they should have gotten a handle on long ago.  Frankly, I was shocked at how little oversight was given to controlling costs at the school.  Until just a few years ago, almost a quarter of the teachers in the high school taught four classes, including all the English teachers and all the teachers in small learning communities.

The oversight of Special Education is abysmal.  The costs are unbelievable.  Families consistently tell me that they moved to Montclair because their children had disabilities and that the district was known to send students out-of-district, at a cost (including transportation) of about $70,000 per student.  There was virtually nothing done to improve the Special Education teachers’ instructional ability or oversee what was going on in the classroom.  African American students, particularly males, continue to be classified at an incredibly high rate yet little was ever done to actually meet their needs except profligate spending.  The school is extremely heavy in case managers, psychologists, social workers, therapists, etc., and they generally were quite good, but left the oversight of the teachers to a weak administrator.  The result was, and continues to be, a huge expenditure without any oversight of instruction.

The answer from MKF is using the PARCC test to assess teacher performance.  This is another red herring for all students  (more on this later) but absurd for the Special Education students.  The test is not designed for and totally inappropriate for students with intellectual disabilities.  Depending on tests to determine teacher performance is like expecting your children to do their laundry well and punishing them for doing it poorly, or not at all, when you never did any work showing them how to do the laundry, not overseeing what they were doing and not doing the hard word day by day, making sure they are improving what they are doing. 

It is insulting to imply, as MKF does, that the parent PARCC opt out movement is union led.  Why do parents object to the PARCC?  Because it does nothing to help their kids!  It takes tens of hours out of instruction for every student, not to mention millions of dollars out of the school budgets and hundreds of hours of administration time, to give a test that is used as a cudgel on teachers without holding accountable the administrators who are asleep at the switch.  The results provide little to help teachers work with their children.

The issue at Montclair schools is not that there is not enough management and control.  There is too much management and control of behavior and woefully inadequate oversight of education.  Where I work, we have peace with the union.  All teachers teach 6 classes.  Special Education instruction is strong and costs are controlled.  We have high school supervisors for each academic area and there are excellent relations between the Board, the superintendent, the teachers and the community.  Why?  Because the emphasis is where it should be:  on the needs of students and on the quality of education.

Montclair has good education going on for economic reasons.  Schools, including mine, are not hiring expensive teachers.  Thus the teaching staff is stuck where they are.  Instead of seeing this as an opportunity to work together with a staff, Montclair, particularly the high school, has chosen the route of confrontation.  It is insulting that most of administrators in the high school are overseeing departments that they have no experience in.  The English Department, after pushing out of the nation’s top administrators, Jim Aquavia (also a National Teacher of the Year), was led by Shirlene Powell-Sanders and James Earle, who each had no experience (or talent) in overseeing English instruction.  Imagine being an English teacher and being told what to teach and how to teach by persons who never taught English, knew nothing about the subject and considered hands-on oversight of the education as their last priority.  It was like having your plumber do eye surgery and your eye surgeon doing your plumbing.

The morale of the teachers is as poor as one can imagine.  The teachers have taken to seeking refuge in their classrooms.  There is no sense of community in the high school.  It does not have to be, but this is the path that the administration has chosen and MKF is advocating.  The Board certainly needs to have oversight of what is going on in the schools and this does not mean hiring more leaders who are managers.  They need to hire leaders who are educators and team builders.  Here, they have fallen down on the job and should be held accountable.

The poor relations between the teachers/union and the administration is not a consequence of the leadership not achieving what they wanted to do, but a direct result of what Penny MacCormack and the Board, in hiring her, wanted to achieve.  The irony  was amazing in the letter from Susan Weintraub in the Montclair Times.   She wrote that “state and national union activists [are] using Montclair as a testing ground for their agendas, contrary to the interests of Montclair students”.  This is exactly what was done in the hiring of Penny MacCormack in the attempt to take the urban schools initiative from the Broad Superintendent Academy into the suburbs.  We see how the Broad methodology is playing out in Newark and it is unsurprising that hostility and conflict emerged in Montclair.

Montclair Cares About Schools arose out of opposition to a lazy and misguided approach to leadership.  Having good schools is hard work.  It is daily work to oversee and improve teaching and education.  It is responding to things that will not come to your attention.  The administration of the Montclair Schools are seeking to improve education by rubrics, by demanding rather than earning loyalty, by expecting improvement without leadership or mentoring.  Educational research has shown time and again that the way to improve the achievement gap is by encouraging a meaningful relationship between teachers and students.  This has been ignored as a value in Montclair and the “reform” movement.

So why is there a problem with Montclair Kids First?  For one, it is an exclusive group of white residents, none of whom are educators, purporting to know what is best for education, particularly for closing the achievement gap while fighting for lower taxes.  MCAS was developed in response to the misguided mistake of hiring a dogmatic ideologue to run our schools.  She is gone.  It is time to move on and hire an inspirational leader and educator.  We need someone who does not have an ideology to implement other than on improving the education of students, the morale of the community and the financial security of our schools and town.  We need someone who is a healer and works to unite the community, not divide it.

MKF grew out of support for Dr. MacCormack and the Board that hired her.  It was an error in judgment.  It is time to move on and seek to heal the wounds.  MKF seeks to not only continue the disunity, but make it worse.  They are using legal means to obtain and publish e-mails of Michelle Fine and David Cummings, those they see as opponents.  They do not seek to support the schools but to undermine them.  If you want good schools, seek the support of the teachers in a common purpose.  If you want to prove that public schools are failing, you undermine teachers by challenging their professionalism, their job security and their integrity and make them feel that their worth is determined by tests results and the judgments of those who have no expertise in their subject. 

MKF is not about improving schools and education.  It is time to move on.