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

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Another Broad Super Is Failing in Montclair, NJ

This is a really remarkable story, but it requires a bit of set up:

Eli Broad, one of the richest men in America, runs a private, unaccredited "academy" to train budding school leaders in corporate education reform. I put "academy" in quotes because the thing is really a book club: six weekends over ten months, which I consider an insult to the many dedicated professionals I know who work hard to earn their Ph.D.s and Ed.D.s at real, accredited institutions of higher learning before taking over school districts.

Thanks to Broad's little sleep-away camp, we now have a bunch of reformy guys and gals running districts and state DOEs around the country (to be fair: even if I don't agree with their policies, some of the Broad folks have had legitimate careers in public education - but many have not). Sharon Higgins, via Diane Ravitch, has a nice run-down on some of the most spectacular Broad failures (add Mike Miles, who fed at the Paterson, NJ trough before wreaking havoc in Dallas, to the list).

Anyway, one of the most prominent of the Broadies is our own NJ Education Commissioner, Chris Cerf. He's brought in Eli's folks and taken Eli's dough to hatch plans to take over Camden and gut Newark's schools. He installed a Broadie, Marcia Lyles, to run Jersey City's school under some ethically dubious circumstances.

And he also brought in Broad-trained "talent" from Connecticut: one Penny MacCormack, who initially got a healthy wage as a consultant before the NJ Senate caught on:
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, [State Senator Paul] 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.
Ya think?

So here's where the story really gets interesting: Penny Mac was making big coin as a consultant... but then she had to take that pay cut; otherwise, Chris Christie, who was running around the state saying education leaders and teachers were overpaid, would have looked like an even more massive hypocrite than he already is (hard to believe he could be any worse). So MacCormack - who thought she was moving up the food chain by taking a state-level job after working in Hartford, CT - came all the way down to Jersey just to find out her pay would be slashed. I can't imagine she was very happy about it...

What could Cerf do? Well it just so happens that Cerf - despite his ridiculous denials - lives in Montclair, the center of the reformy intelligentsia in New Jersey (more on this later, but for now: any town that is the home to Jonny Alter, Tom Moran, and the reformy power couple of Don Katz and Leslie Larson should just rename itself Reformyville). And Montclair has an appointed school board. There's a good reason for that, having to do with the town's integrationist history, but it also made Cerf's life much easier: he got the mostly reformy school board to appoint MacCormack as the new superintendent so she could get her pay bump. (I have to wonder if she was happy to be pushed back down to the local level again...)

So here we have another test case: one of Eli Broad's most high-profile protégées is now running an integrated, suburban, high-performing district in New Jersey, one of the highest-performing state education systems in the nation. How's that working out?

Let's ask the teachers (all emphasis mine):
Penny MacCormack has come in with a playbook and has played the Board and the teachers and the students.  She has convinced the willing that we are a failing school in need of a top to bottom restructuring.  She has torn the heart out of the school system, leaving a tomb in its place.  Montclair has become a soul-less, inhumane place where fear and intimidation have replaced concern and support.  Quality instructors and administrators are being removed from the schools to Central Support.  There is more and more money for consultants and micro-managers, yet less and less for education.  Everyone needs to do more, the corporate model says.  Everyone is replaceable by younger, more enthusiastic and non-union workers. 

The results are frightening.  Quality leaders and teachers are leaving.  Teachers are closing their doors, hiding in their classroom fortresses.  Everyone has an exit plan.  The schools feel like morgues, with every discussion revolving around in a world where compliance and loyalty trump excellence.

My own story:  After 22 years as a leader respected and valued by the community, I was stripped of all authority and given more responsibility than any one person could possibly handle:  the entire schedule for 2000 students, all testing, the entire 504 process, running the guidance web site, handling NCAA compliance, over-seeing the AP Audit process, processing College Board accommodation requests, handling Skyward technical issues, and on and on.  The superintendent spent $28,000 on a scheduling consultant without ever speaking with me about the scheduling process.  She put guidance in the high school as one of her highest priorities for improvement but never once spoke to me.  Not about guidance, not about anything.  She has never spent one second getting a sense of the culture or the schools or community. 

The super came up with this brilliant plan: offer teachers $1000 to teach courses over 24 students (without providing enough teachers to make this remotely possible) and depend on her view of the greed of teachers to brand them as enemies of education.  Guess what?  They all wanted the smaller classes instead of the money.  Another failed insincere, manipulative attempt down the drain. 
This is one of a series of remarkable blog posts from Scott White, a fearless former head of the guidance department at Montclair High. Yes, "former" - he apparently is leaving, which, according to the former superintendent, Frank Alverez, is a real loss for the community:
April 30, 2009

Dear MHS and Eighth Grade Parents/Guardians/Caregivers:

It is my pleasure to announce that Mr. Scott White will be returning to Montclair High School as guidance supervisor effective July 1, 2009.

Mr. White is well known to the Montclair community, having served as a guidance counselor and guidance supervisor from 1991 to 2008. He is well respected by colleagues and community members alike. He is a recognized authority in the field of guidance, has published extensively, and continues to be a sought-after speaker at regional and national conferences. Additionally, Mr. White is a community resident whose children have attended the public schools and who understands the complex needs of our student body.

I hope you will join me in warmly welcoming Mr. White back home and in extending our sincere thanks to Mr. Mark Walters, who assumed the role of guidance supervisor during Mr. White’s leave this past year.


Frank Alvarez
Sounds like exactly the kind of guy you want running your school's guidance office, which is why, apparently, another district has snatched him up. But not before White lays it on the line about Montclair's current, Broad-trained super:
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.


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.  
This has been the pattern everywhere the Broadies come in: Rochester, Chicago, Seattle, Dallas... and it always ends in disaster. But there's a difference here: Montclair's schools are not "failing," and Montclair's stakeholders - parents, students, teachers, citizens - haven't yet had all their political power stripped away from them:
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. 
I really don't think I'm overstating the importance of this moment when I say the resistance in Montclair is a turning point in the national story of the breakdown of corporate reform.

This was going to be the time when Andy Smarick's fantasy of suburban revolt against public schools finally became reality. All the pieces were in place: a Broadie superintendent, reformy types barbecuing in each other's backyards, an integrated community where the specter of "urban school failure" could be used to frighten the parents...

Guess what - it ain't happening. And if the 'burbs resist, it's only a matter of time before more Bill De Blasios are elected in cities all over the country, and the reformy gravy train - which has so happily kept the consultancy and testing and charter dollars flowing to the eduvultures - comes to a grinding halt.

It can't happen soon enough. Keep up the fight, Montclair: we've got your back.

The beginning of the end starts here.


Russ Walsh said...

Great article, Jazzman. ZALooks to me like Cerf and his minion walked into a trap they created for themselves. I wonder why these fools don't see Montclair as models to emulate and not destroy. I guess they have their story and they are sticking to it, no matter what.

Kids First FOR REAL said...

Montclair is Normandy and it was important that they acquired it but sorry Charlie. A FB friend who is a life long resident of Montclair and came up through the school system commented on a link to this blog the following;

Used to be a time when coming up through the Montclair School system used to illicit looks of pride or envy. Now folks just snicker or laugh outright. Townies who "remember when..." like to whine about how, "Montclair's not like it used to be," and how, "Kids are different nowadays." As though parents suddenly started birthing substandard babies (I dunno, maybe it's the radon). For all of you who think this is a local story, think again (if you were lucky or timely enough to come through a school system that helped develop that particular skill).

The privatization or corporatization of so-called education reform is a joke worthy of snickers and a hearty guffaw or two. Corporations exist for one reason: to make money; to turn a profit, generally in the most expedient manner possible. Turn a quick buck an' all.

This country's bizarre war on teachers and subsequent reliance on private corporations to educate its children is shameful and ultimately a loser's game, particularly if the private sector doesn't deem your neighborhood, your city, your "demographic" profitable enough to invest in much needed resources. If that's your kid, well, hey, somebody's got to carry the bags and sweep the floors. Don't get me wrong. An honest day's work is a noble endeavor and besides, those fries aren't going to salt themselves."

But yeah Jazzy it's time to get back to teaching. Thank Gosh for Montclair, I knew there was a reason I had to live here.

Mrs. King's music students said...

As a former Camden teacher (also between jobs hint hint), there are a lot of similarities in how 'reforms' are being implemented in Camden and in Montclair. It's weird because these 2 districts are not alike except that effective teachers are the surest route to increased achievement in every district/school. To make matters worse, the reforms in progress in Camden right now consist of even more non-instructional personell in classrooms evaluating teacher's ability to generate even more data.

Michelle said...

Montclair, we support you!
Love from Highland Park Cares About Schools