An unlikely clash between a superintendent and a community

test

Suburban school districts are not usually the place where clashes develop over standardized test-based school reform policies, but that’s just what is happening in Montclair, N.J. Here’s a post on what’s going on by LynNell Hancock, the mother of two Montclair High School graduates, grandmother of a Montclair fifth grader, and professor of journalism at Columbia University.

By LynNell Hancock

When my family moved to Montclair from the Bronx more than two decades ago, the contentious issue involved a high school course–World Literature and Global Studies—that aspired to integrate culture, race, fiction and history in all-inclusive classrooms. Some ugly arguments erupted, over politics, content, and tracking. It was democracy in action, wrangling with core values and learning — the heart of the matter.

What a difference two decades make. Today’s disputes have little to do with enriching life and learning in the classroom. Instead, the discussions are about management strategies and new layers of external tests. Superintendent Penny MacCormack began the school year by hiring teams of middle managers to oversee the added measurement tools. Librarians, art instructors and foreign language teachers had already been downsized, making room for these higher-salaried administrators. The message was clear – testing trumps learning.

On these matters, the school board president demonstrated little tolerance for discussion. “This is not a dialogue!” Robin Kulwin declared with a crack of her gavel when a community member sought to use her allotted three minutes to ask the board a question. Hundreds of students, residents and teachers had brought petitions to that meeting asking for more time to consider this new regime of testing. They were summarily ignored.

This is a Montclair I hardly recognize. It’s not the children, the quality of the schools or the town’s democratic values that have changed. It’s a paradigm shift in school leadership, a top-down technocratic approach that narrows its focus to “fixing” schools by employing business strategies – more testing, more administrators, limited interference by the public or teachers’ union.

It’s not surprising then, that MacCormack has stumbled in her post ever since she arrived last fall. Her approach clashes with the community’s core values and it clashes with clear evidence. Data-driven strategies have been enacted aggressively in America for the last two decades. They don’t work. The race and class achievement gap is as big or greater than ever.

MacCormack’s training makes her a true believer in such methods. Technocratic ideology is the hallmark of the highly influential Broad Academy, which MacCormack recently attended. The academy is an unaccredited group funded by billionaire real estate mogul Eli Broad that recruits military leaders, business executives and some school administrators like MacCormack to attend weekend corporate-style training sessions for 10 months. Broad graduates tend to hire amongst themselves. Gov. Chris Christie’s education commissioner, Chris Cerf, is a Broad graduate and he recuited MacCormack for his state cabinet. She left in less than a year when she was hired—without the usual public vetting—by the appointed Montclair Board of Education.

Her latest gaffe could prove to be her undoing. MacCormack admitted she gave principals merit raises and made tenure decisions last year without conducting mandated evaluations. That seems like it could be a violation of state law. One lone board member, David Cummings, had the courage to raise the question in a public meeting. The rest of the board was silent.

Silence is what MacCormack seems to tolerate, but it is not what this community was ever about.

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | October 30, 2013