I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

How The "Reform" Virus Is Spreading To NJ's Suburban Schools

New Jersey's schools are considered to be at the top of the nation; our suburban schools, in particular, are among some of the very best in the world. Nonetheless: the "reform" virus is spreading out from the urban areas into the 'burbs with frightening speed.

How is this happening? Let's look at a test case:

Last month, I told the tale of one Tim Capone, superintendent of the Highland Park, NJ schools and unabashed union-buster. Within months of his arrival, Mr. Capone managed to fire both the president and the vice-president of the local teachers union, among other staff, in the middle of a contract negotiation. The ostensible reason for this was to free up monies for improved instruction; however, Capone simultaneously hired more central office staff, including a "data analyst," rather than putting all of the savings back into Highland Park's classrooms.

These days, it seems that New Jersey's suburbs are full of superintendents with ties to the NJDOE and Commissioner Chris Cerf - all with the uncanny ability to come into a district and anger staff, parents, and students almost immediately. Capone is no exception, having come to Highland Park via one of New Jersey's Regional Achievement Centers (RACs), a pet project of Cerf's whose creation was funded by his California billionaire patron, Eli Broad. The RACs are supposed to be providing guidance for districts and schools that struggle, which means, one would assume, that they are staffed by the best of the best: school leaders with proven records of success.

Well, last night, Highland Park parents stood up and asked some pointed questions about whether their new superintendent was really all that he, and the board that hired him, claims to be:
Parents are alleging that newly appointed Superintendent Timothy Capone, who will make $148,000 through June, misrepresented himself on his resume, a claim they believe should cause the Board of Education to terminate his contract.
The Board of Education, however, is sticking with their superintendent, and has concluded that he didn't fudge his credentials.
The battle over Capone's past is just one area of contention between warring factions in this close-knit town that prides itself on its academics (many residents are affiliated with nearby Rutgers). If Monday night's Board of Education meeting is any indication, a dispute that started in early November with nine layoffs is not likely to end anytime soon. [emphasis mine]
Wow - that's a very audacious claim by the disgruntled parents. Can they back it up? 
Capone, who was principal at Howard High School of Technology in Delaware from 2011 through 2012, was transferred to Marshallton Education Center on January 30, 2012 after the New Castle County Vocational Technical School District voted unanimously to not renew Capone's contract on December, 21, 2011.
According to a February 2012 article from Delaware's The News Journal: "Capone, who was brought from Sussex Central Senior High School in the Indian River School District a year ago, has been reassigned to the district offices. The district declined to say why. Capone declined to offer a reason."
Now that's not something you see every day in the world of school leadership: a principal who is brought in mid-year, but then denied a contract renewal before the next year is even up. What happened at Howard High under Capone's leadership? The story from The News Journal is behind a pay-wall, but here's an excerpt:
There's also been challenges. Leadership is key to a successful school turnaround, but two schools are losing principals midway through the effort.
Principal Tim Capone, who ushered in the school's new model and helped select staff, is no longer working at the school. Capone, who was brought from Sussex Central Senior High School in the Indian River School District a year ago, has been reassigned to the district offices. 
The district declined to say why. Capone declined to offer a reason. 
"I cherish the time that I spent at Howard," Capone said in an e-mail. "I was hired to provide leadership, and to ensure that a cultural change and improved results occurred in a time-compressed manner. We have met those objectives. 
"I am very proud of my students and staff, and of our accomplishments," he added. "I know that my staff and students will accomplish the goals that we set for this year. I will be cheering them on, and I am confident that Howard will make [federal No Child Left Behind Act score goals] and once again improve in the state ranking." 
Mostly positive 
Parent Tracy Truitt, whose son is a senior at Howard, said changes at the school have been, for the most part, positive, and she thinks the school deserves to have a good reputation in the community. The schedule and elimination of some shop courses led to confusion at the start of the year, but that's been fixed, she said. 
Truitt and some teachers have expressed concern over the leadership change. "We are still not sure how that transpired," she said. [emphasis mine]
OK - there are always two sides to every story, and neither the IRSD nor Capone cared to comment on his non-renewal. So let's not jump to any conclusions...

Let's, instead, read further and find out how Capone got his "results":
Howard is one of 10 schools in Delaware pushing forward with an intensive school restructuring, an effort paid for with a portion of the state's $119 million federal Race to the Top grant. Trends in student test scores on reading and math assessments are used to choose which schools will go into the program, called the Partnership Zone. About $2.2 million will be spent on these schools.
Yes, that's right: what you're about to read was "paid for" by SecEd Arne Duncan's signature program, Race To The Top. Keep that in mind as we continue, and ask yourself: is this really what we want for New Jersey's outstanding public schools?
Among the changes made at Howard within the last year, was the doubling of the amount of classes freshman and sophomore students spend in reading and math classes. Statewide tests in reading and math are administered in ninth and 10th grades. The school also introduced new technology, such as tablet computers, which gives teachers quicker feedback on a student's progress. 
Other course requirements, such as social studies and science, are given less emphasis until later grades.
Delaware has high-stakes tests in 9th and 10th grade, but in math and language arts only. So what did Capone do at a vo-tech school - a school specifically designed to provide an alternative to students who may be more comfortable on a different academic track? Cut back on other areas of study and narrow the curriculum for underclassmen.

Golly, do you think that might have an affect on test scores?
Preliminary test results show double-digit improvement by Howard students on the Delaware Comprehensive Assessment System. So far, scores in reading moved from 42 percent proficient in the fall to 63 percent in the winter. Similarly, math scores went from 31 percent proficient in the fall to 54 percent in the winter.
Folks, if that's not "teaching to the test," I don't know what is. Science, social studies, and other curricular areas are important - especially to teenagers who are motivated to apply to an alternative high school. How must those underclassmen have felt when, expecting to come in to Howard and learn new skills, they find themselves drilling-and-killing to pass the state's bubble test?

Of course, the folks who want to standardize learning are quick to defend the narrowing of the curriculum:
Howard has launched so many new initiatives that it's difficult to say which may be most responsible for boosting student test scores -- or whether the achievements will be lasting. 
As for those who say this approach is paramount to teaching to the test, Howard's acting principal Stanley Spoor says that the test is aligned to state standards, so teaching to succeed on the tests is a good thing. 
Of course it's "good" to teach to the test! The standards say so! You know, the math and LA standards - the only ones in the Common Core. The only ones that "count"! Because... well, because they're the standards! That the tests align to! And... uh...
Noreen LaSorsa, who heads the state Department of Education's School Turnaround Unit, said that there's nothing wrong with Howard pushing instruction in some areas off until the junior and senior years in favor of intensive math and reading lessons for freshmen and sophomores. The state requires a certain number of credits for graduation, but there's no requirement as to the order in which they must be taken. 
Focusing on math and reading is not new, but there's no consensus that it's a good long-term strategy. Nationally, a publicized effort in North Carolina to focus on intensive reading instruction for elementary school students found that the resulting increase in test scores didn't carry into later grades, according to a 2011 report on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools effort.
There is plenty of literature around that questions the efficacy of narrowing the curriculum. What Capone did at Howard was in the service of test scores, and not necessarily children. But I guess that even though Capone didn't get a contract renewal, Commissioner Cerf thought he was exactly the guy to go around to New Jersey's suburban schools and tell them how to do things:
Capone was hired fresh out of one of the NJDOE's Broad funded Regional Achievement Centers. 
This brief bio reveals that prior to being the Executive Director of the Region 4 RAC he was a "turnaround" principal at a Race to the Top school in Delaware.  
These RACs were part of a plan, funded by Eli Broad, to centralize operations and curricular decisions for "priority" and "focus" schools away from local districts and toward Trenton. What does it say about the goals of the RACs that Tim Capone, a principal with a history of narrowing the curriculum, was brought in to supervise these schools in Central New Jersey?

And how was Mr. Capone's advice welcomed out in the field? Well, here's Naomi Johnson-LaFleur, President of the Trenton Education Association (TEA):
As I have read the NCLB waiver, RAC was supposed to be here to do specific things. The seven RACs throughout the State were supposed to be staffed with turnaround experts. Right now, from where I stand representing 1059 teachers of the public school system, the academic achievement officer assigned to Trenton is not qualified as an expert of anything. How can you serve as an administrator in the State of Delaware for only two years? What have you learned in two years of doing something that gives you the expertise to guide districts such as Trenton? What could you have possibly learned in two years, and having been non-renewed from your job, makes you qualified to tell anyone how to do anything? Especially since you were non-renewed, how can you tell Principals in another district what to do? I don’t understand. How can you direct a whole school district? I would like to know, at this particular point, what Administrative Code gives Tim Capone authority to come in and to dictate who should be a Principal where? Where is it written? I would like to know. As I read the waiver, we have seven RACs that were formed as an extension of the waiver; and they were supposed to be guiding the eight turnaround principles of school climate, principal leadership, quality instruction, curriculum, the use of data, effective staffing, family/community engagement and redesigning school time. They were supposed to be working collaboratively with the District. Someone forgot to tell Tim Capone what collaboration means because, of the other six RACS, there has been collaboration with unions. Tim Capone has refused to meet with the associations within his area. So he lacks training there as well. This is becoming troubling because Tim Capone is infringing too many things upon my teachers. It goes into the daily practices of what they have to do. Our teachers work under a bargaining agreement which gives them, in elementary school, a 40-minute prep or a 35-minute prep, 44 minutes in the high school. Yet he has just sent out a lesson plan template which, just to write lesson plans for one subject – for one subject, is 10 sheets of paper for one week. An elementary teacher teaches six subjects per day. When are they to do all of this research, along with everything else that he has imposed upon the teaching staff? At the beginning of the year, we had to deal with him asking my teacher leaders to take on administrative roles, to go in and to pretty much assess their colleagues as though they were supervisors or paid evaluators. This ESEA waiver, again, had guidelines that were directed towards our Priority and Focus schools. Some of our schools within this District do not even fall into those categories and it appears to me that right now, they are even taking control over those. We are not under direct State control. We have a State Fiscal Monitor sitting right there, and so my concern is, and I would like to ask, how has the Commissioner really gotten directly involved in this picture. I don’t know if it’s the relationship that the Assistant Commissioner may have with Tim Capone, being that they both came from Delaware. I don’t know. I don’t know how he got the appointment of being a chief academic officer with no experience. But what I would like this Board to do, and the Superintendent of this school district to do, is to go to the next State Board meeting. And I need some questions asked, because it needs to be put on the record that we question the “expertise” of the chief academic officer Tim Capone that has been assigned to the Trenton Public School District. If he’s not willing to collaborate, to discuss and to work with the people here, it’s clear that his intent is not to assist Trenton in anything; but rather to try to paint us a picture of failure. We’re not going to allow him to do that, because the Commissioner’s statement of 2/15 from Commissioner Cerf says “where schools fail to show an upward movement in student achievement, the State will have no other choice but to look for other means of educating the students in those schools.” If you’re coming with something new every day, how can you ever reach that achievement - because you are constantly throwing a monkey wrench and changing the terms and conditions of what is going on. We cannot sit here and just allow this to happen. We have to address this collectively as a community and move forward and stay focused on what we are actually trying to do, and that is to educate the children of Trenton. I thank you for your time. [emphasis mine]
Oh, my.

Let's review:
  • A principal is installed in a Delaware school on a Race To The Top grant. 
  • That principal narrows the curriculum for underclassmen to raise test scores. His contract, for whatever reason, is not renewed.
  • That principal then travels to New Jersey, where he is put in charge of "turnaround" schools. According to local teachers union leaders, he refuses to collaborate with them.
  • The former principal is then promoted, and becomes a superintenent in a suburban school district...
  • ...where he proceeds to fire the two leaders of the local teachers union.
  • Chaos follows:    
"I am just not satisfied," said Rob Roslewicz, one of many parents who took to the lectern in a meeting that lasted from 7:30 p.m. Monday until after 1 a.m. this morning.
The mood at the meeting was, at times, borderline bedlam. It started off on a positive note: For about an hour, educators gave out individual awards to students in high school, middle school and elementary school, everything from "making new friends" to "best Model U.N. delegate."
Then, Capone presented a strategic plan with suggestions submitted by parents about what to do in one year, three years and five years at borough schools. As the slideshow presentation flickered across the screen, parents began to grow restless, fidgeting in their chairs, looking at the clock, passing notes and striking up side-chats with one another.
"May I have your attention?" Bull said at one point as side conversations grew louder.
"No!" one person in the crowd shouted back. "You're stalling!" another person said. [emphasis mine]
And there it is: the Broad-endorsed "disruption" we've all come to expect from this new generation of reformy superintendents. Why have a community reach consensus and work together to improve schools when you can, instead, just raise hell?
"Parents are worried that teachers are reporting to parents that they'll have minute-by-minute lesson plans, that teachers will have less autonomy, that they'll be closely monitored," Chapman said. "Parents are concerned principal are urging evaluators to give or 1 or 2 rating in evaluations.We hear these things repeatedly. But when you approach Capone, he says these things are untrue.
"But he apparently lied, so how do we trust him," Chapman added.
What we have here in Highland Park, everyone seems to agree, is a lack of communication. It's the board's policy not to address any speakers at the lectern, so it's a sort of standoff as parents upbraid board members, who have to sit there silently. This can go on for hours.
As Monday night's meeting turned into Tuesday, the board discussed better ways to communicate with the public for about an hour. There was talk of information transmitted. There were discussions of the best ways of moving forward. It would be substantive, and it would follow certain parameters. In the end the board decided something about a committee on communication.
"To form the committee or to explore forming the committee?" one board member asked.
To explore forming the committee. Soon after that, the meeting adjourned.
Boy, that's some real bold, decisive action right there. I have little doubt the voters of Highland Park will reward this kind of leadership with exactly what it deserves...

Until then, let Highland Park serve as a warning beacon to parents, taxpayers, students, and educators throughout New Jersey: a pipeline has been built, and reforminess is gushing through it. Think very carefully about who you want running your schools.

Uncle Eli says: "I sure got a lot of 'disruption' in NJ for $1.9 million!"

2 comments:

Lucy Doris Walker said...

Wow!

Mrs. King's music students said...

Is it possible that Naomi Johnson-LaFleur does not know that Trenton Public Schools pink slip (aka non-renew) 50% of the workforce every other year? For her to point at non-renewal as an indicator of an educator's merit is slimy and sickening. If the TEA was worth a dime they would be collecting names and data on their own principals and an utterly corrupt BOE who indicted Priscilla Dawson, threw out the Teacher of the Year who blew the whistle on her, then welcomed Priscilla back saying she wasn't guilty before - another guy (who didn't negotiate w/us) did those things. Oh...and ask her about Mr Tracey, the wildly popular principal who made a difference at the Alt HS, and was not renewed in spite of the objections of hundreds of parents and students who rallied for him - which is unheard of in Trenton.

I apologize for going a little off the rail here - but both the TEA and BOE in Trenton have a lot to answer for before they call the kettle black - even if it is black.