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

Friday, July 19, 2013

A Reformy Rumble in Montclair

Most folks who know Montclair, NJ wouldn't think of it as a hotbed of dissent. This integrated, bedroom community strives to be known as a hip outpost full of ex-New Yorkers turned suburbanites.

But it looks like Montclair is becoming the latest front in the war to bring reformyness to the Jersey 'burbs: [all emphases mine]
An animated exchange between two Board of Education members and the leader of Montclair's teacher union has prompted a formal complaint from at least one of the parents who witnessed the incident Monday night. 
According to witnesses, board members Tanya Coke and David Deutsch approached Montclair Education Association President Gayl Shepard during the Board of Education's marathon public meeting in the Montclair High School auditorium and began a conversation that bystanders said soon became loud and heated. 
"It was ugly," said David Herron, who was one of several people nearby who watched the incident unfold. 
"They were standing over her [Gayl Shepard]," said Herron. "She couldn't even get up. 
"I think it was reprehensible that a board member would be callous enough to approach a citizen in the community who happens to be a union president and lambast her in a public arena." 
The incident occurred shortly after 10 p.m. during a break in the nearly four-hour-long board meeting, during which the seven-member panel approved a strategic plan for the Montclair School District. The move came over the objections of dozens of parents and students who oppose additional testing and assessments.
Hmm... so what's this all about? It turns out that Montclair is one of the few suburban districts in New Jersey whose superintendent is fully embracing the new reformyness coming out of Trenton these days:
Montclair Schools Superintendent Dr. Penny MacCormack tried in vain to convince the critics that her two-year educational Strategic Plan would be effective in improving Montclair schools.  Parents and students delivered petitions urging the Board not to adopt it so quickly, with more than 400 signatures from parents and 568 signatures from students.  After an interminable and contentious meeting, the Board voted unanimously to adopt it anyway, much to the chagrin of opponents who stayed for the final vote. 
During the meeting Dr. MacCormack presented yet another slide presentation on the plan [they do so love their Powerpoints, don't they? - JJ], which included an emphasis on improving the transitions from middle school to high school, improving freshman-to-sophomore transitions in at Montclair High School itself, getting teachers up to 80 percent effectiveness on the Marshall Evaulation Rubric adopted earlier in the year, and—the main bone of contention at the night’s meeting—four common assessments on five basic subjects throughout the school year.  Dr. MacCormack, responding to concerns that the assessments would standardize teaching to a test and discourage teachers from creative instruction, insisted that the assessments would reflect what students learn, not how they are taught.  She stressed the public input into the plan over the course of several public meetings, and she also noted the importance of meeting the Common Core State Standards.
Aha! And so the moment has finally come: the Common Core has reared its ugly head in the Jersey 'burbs. The parents of high achieving children, already wary of the testing regime that is being imposed on college-bound students, are starting to question why the schools are going to ratchet the pressure up even higher on kids who, even now, are showing signs of burn out.

When you listen to the parents and teachers, it's clear that the standards aren't the issue nearly as much as the testing:
Although the school board recently voted unanimously to move forward with this plan, many parents rallied against it. Reva Jaffe-Walter, a parent, former teacher and current Post-Doctoral fellow in Educational Policy explained, “There is a deep history in Montclair of teaching that’s focused on hands-on, inquiry-based teaching, where students are engaged in the production of new knowledge.  We have phenomenal teachers in our schools.  This system seems like such a radical departure from that.” One teacher, who wished to speak anonymously, also pointed out, “A common curriculum has the potential to constrain classroom dialogue.”
Opposition specific to the common assessments has been the loudest. John Wodnick, father to three young boys, said, “I moved to Montclair specifically for the schools.  I moved here because of the magnet system, the schools’ commitment to arts education, and the imaginative, innovative approaches that I’d heard so many good things about. This is why I’m extremely concerned about the data-driven approach that Dr. MacCormack is promoting — it seems not to match up with the values that I expected from the school system when I moved here.  I believe that teachers work best when they’re trusted to use their intelligence and their imaginations to motivate kids and to promote a love of learning.  Uniform quarterly assessments across the district seem to me to be antithetical to those values.”  A petition that requested the approval of the assessments be delayed was created by the Facebook group Montclair Cares About Schools. And last Monday’s Board of Education meeting turned into a parade of parent concerns about over-testing and taking time away from instruction for test prep.
These assessments are not considered ‘high stakes tests’ by administration, but this teacher pointed out, “They can be ‘high stakes’ for the teachers.”  The state has called for new teacher assessments across schools this year and for 30 – 50 percent of these evaluations to be based on student achievement.  Hannah Walter, a high school student, is concerned about her teachers ‘teaching to the test.’”
Smart kid - she should be concerned. Despite the (deliberate?) misreading of research by the likes of Michelle Rhee, there's no doubt tying teacher evaluations to test scores creates a powerful incentive to move classroom instruction toward test prep.

But the mistrust that's grown in Montclair is not limited to the Common Core assessments; parents are beginning to question the woman who has implemented these changes herself:
A newly formed parents' group maintains that Schools Superintendent Penny MacCormack's employment contract contains a bonus guarantee and other provisions that should have been made public at the time she was hired. According to the group, Montclair Cares About Schools, MacCormack is eligible for bonus payments atop her $177,500 salary. 
Under the term of the contract awarded to her in August 2012 by the Montclair Board of Education, MacCormack has until January 2014 to obtain a state-mandated certification required of all schools superintendents. Right now, MacCormack does not have the certification. 
Montclair Cares About Schools member Michelle Fine said the contract acknowledges that MacCormack possesses a certificate of eligibility and has applied for, but has not yet received, a provisional administrative certificate and school administrator endorsement from the state Department of Education. 
"If this is the case, why was she offered top-level salary with substantial room for merit pay on the basis of unspecified criteria?" asked Fine. 
Good question; what makes Penny MacCormack so special? Well, for starters, she is only one of two district superintendents in New Jersey who graduated from the Broad Superintendents Academy Book Club - the same academy book club that counts state education commissioner Chris Cerf as one of its alumni (Jersey City's Marcia Lyles is also a graduate). And when you're Cerf's friend, life is good:
In documents provided to the OLS in its budget review, the department disclosed consultants on the Cerf’s school funding proposal made as much as $1,000 or even $2,500 a day.
“That’s certainly an interesting amount,” said state Sen. Nellie Pou (D-Passaic) of the latter figure. “Imagine if that went a full year, that would break all records.”
One assistant commissioner, Penny MacCormack, was hired last fall for three months at $1,000 a day until she could be confirmed by the state Board of Education as a permanent hire in January. She is now earning a salary of $135,000 a year, officials said.
Cerf defended the extra pay, saying MacCormack was a critical hire and the consultants on the funding report – including some notable national names in the school funding debates – were invaluable.
“This level of talent and expertise comes with a price tag,” he said.
Nonetheless, Sarlo asked Cerf for a full list of the per diem and consultants hired. The chairman said afterward it remained a curious stretch for an administration quick to criticize the pay of teachers and other school employees, including caps on superintendents, that is well below what it is paying consultants.
“A little hypocritical, isn’t it?” Sarlo said in an interview.
More than a little, Senator - but that's how they roll at your NJDOE...

In any case, MacCormack only stayed in Trenton for a year before she moved on to Montclair; I'm sure the pay bump was appreciated:
Kulwin said that the board conducted a nationwide search and that MacCormack was certified in Connecticut, where she served as chief academic officer for the Hartford School District before joining the state Department of Education prior to accepting the superintendent position in Montclair
"MacCormack is in the process of obtaining her certification here in New Jersey," said Kulwin. 
Fine, a longtime Montclair resident and a professor at City University of New York, participated on the Montclair School District search committee that led to the hiring of previous superintendents, including Frank Alvarez, Michael Osnato and William Librera.
Fine and other members of Montclair Cares About Schools said they are troubled by the district's lack of transparency on the contract and the exclusion of the public from the search process that led to MacCormack's hiring. 
"Given Montclair's longstanding tradition of broad community involvement in educational matters and hiring, I was quite surprised to learn after the fact that parents were not invited to participate in interviews with the final pool of prospective candidates," Fine said.
Golly, a superintendent with ties to the Broad Academy and Chris Cerf got a job in a local school district without community and parental involvement? I'm just shocked...

I really don't know what's going on at Eli Broad's little academy book club, but it's becoming increasingly clear that they need to add a few classes in transparency and community engagement. It's astonishing that a new superintendent can come into a district and generate so much distrust so quickly - but it's not like this hasn't happened under Cerf's reign before:
All were aligned closely with Cerf and Governor Chris Christie; all wound up alienating teachers, parents, and board members. MacCormack just seems to be the latest in a line of school leaders who could stand to give themselves more distance from Trenton and less distance from their communities' wishes.

"School superintendent" is one of the toughest jobs imaginable; try as you might, you can never make everyone happy. But a look at the Montclair Cares About Schools Facebook page makes clear that parents in this state are very well informed about the reformy changes that are coming to their schools, and they are deeply concerned. Unlike school leaders who work in districts under state or mayoral control*, superintendents like Penny MacCormack don't have the luxury of simply imposing their will: they have to make a case that what they are doing is best for their districts' kids.

I think a lot of these districts will wind up fractured like Montclair, because many people are simply not buying what the reformy types are selling.

Doesn't look like a very reformy town to me...

* UPDATE: Well, it turns out that Montclair actually has a school board appointed by the mayor. More to come...


Anonymous said...

Thank you for covering this. It's true that Montclair parents, teachers, students and other community members have been surprised at the corporate-reform agenda suddenly taking hold in our district.

Montclair has a long history as a progressive town, with a desegregated school system that has been a national model. The hiring by the school board of a superintendent straight out of Governor Christie's administration and Cerf's department stunned people as it seemed from the start a choice that did not fit our town or district.

People started asking, how could this happen?

One thing to note is that many of the reformers of national stature live in Montclair - including Cerf and John Schnur and Norm Atkins, who is chairman of the board of the Uncommon Schools charter school network.

And, Montclair school board member Leslie Larson is the wife of Donald Katz, the founder of Audible.com who sits on the board of Uncommon Schools. Uncommon Schools receives money from the Broad Foundation.

Did these various connections play a part in the school board's hiring a Broad-trained superintendent? That is something many people in Montclair are wondering.


Mrs. King's music students said...

As I sat in 'principal school' a few years back, I recall a similar story about a fresh face superintendant who thought it would be a good idea to fix Princeton teachers by introducing evaluations. Then she was gone.

In this case, I have the perfect place for Ms MacCormack to point her spear and make a difference. That's right....I'm talking about Camden. In Camden, she can hover over our tiny union pres all she wants, and no one will care. In fact, if she can squeeze her toes into Ms LaVerne's slippers, she can serve tea to the boys from the state in her stead, as scores of highly qualified teachers just say no to Camden shennanigans and students continue to pay the price.

Just sayin