Montclair, New Jersey, has long been proud of its fine public schools. But these days, not even good schools and good districts are exempt from the corporate reform steamroller. At present, a substantial part of the community is at war with the school board and the Broad-trained superintendent. A group of dissident parents, who happen to be among leading scholars of education —–including Ira Shor, Stan Karp, and Michelle Fine—wrote the following description of the turmoil in Montclair.
PREFACE FROM MONTCLAIR CARES ABOUT SCHOOLS:
Montclair, New Jersey is a progressive town with highly-regarded public schools noted nationally for successfully desegregating through a districtwide magnet system. Kids of all colors go to all schools; families of all colors, classes, and sexual preferences are welcome here.
But the town now has a renegade board of education issuing subpoenas to uncover names of critics posting anonymously on blogs and websites. And we have a schools superintendent, hired by the board in fall 2012, who lacks state certification but was trained by the unaccredited Broad Superintendents Academy. The superintendent, Penny MacCormack, came to Montclair from the NJ State Department of Education run by Christopher Cerf, another Broad graduate. Liberal Montclair, which voted overwhelmingly against Republican Governor Chris Christie, now has a superintendent from his administration.
Our school board, appointed by the mayor, took a destructive turn a few years ago by embracing austerity, cutting effective programs and essential classroom aides, ending services needed by students, while piling up multimillion-dollar budget surpluses year after year. The board also tried closing two successful and integrated schools, a plan it abandoned only after sustained parent protests.
Things went from bad to worse after MacCormack’s hiring following a secretive search. In true corporate-reform fashion, the board and MacCormack have restricted comments by the public and the local teachers‘ union president at meetings. Community management not public dialogue is its stock in trade. MacCormack hurriedly declared that Montclair was woefully behind on adapting the Common Core standards; she pushed a new “Strategic Plan” with a new layer of quarterly skills tests in every grade. After some of these new district assessments somehow got onto the Internet in the fall, the board launched an investigation and issued its subpoenas – including to a fellow board member – the only one to publicly question the superintendent’s policies- and to Google and a local online news site in an attempt to find out the identities of a local blogger and online commenters critical of the district leadership.
The ACLU of New Jersey sued on behalf of the blogger and following public protests, including from the Town Council, the board has withdrawn the subpoenas seeking identities of online critics. But the board’s subpoena against its own board member is still live and demands him to turn over emails and phone records, in fact, virtually all records of everyone he talks to in the community. You can see the subpoena here.
Our group, Montclair Cares About Schools, came together last spring out of concern over the destructive direction in the schools. We speak at board and Town Council meetings, hold public forums and workshops, send letters to the editor of the town paper, and have an active and popular Facebook page.
In December, Montclair Cares About Schools presented to the board and residents a timeline of how we got to this sad point in our district. An edited and abridged version is below.
Timeline of a Debacle: “Just Six Months Ago…”
(issued Dec. 16, 2013)
Just six months ago, Montclair Cares About Schools asked the board to please slow down their plan to impose a new layer of quarterly, district-wide tests. Had the board listened to MCAS instead of ignoring our suggestion, the costly and divisive events since last June 23 could have been avoided.
June 2013: MCAS posted a petition online asking the board to slow down implementation of the planned quarterly assessments. Within 48 hours, 370 parents and community members signed online and another 40 signed a hard copy. Since then, online signers have grown to 560. At the board meeting that night, Montclair High School students presented their own petition signed by about 578 students also asking to slow down implementation of the new assessments.
The board refused to respond to the pleas to slow down. Instead, it rushed ahead recklessly.
It rushed ahead even though the new quarterly assessments and related curricula changes mandated by Superintendent MacCormack would come in the same year as a complex and burdensome new teacher evaluation system imposed by the State.
July and August 2013: The district recruited more than 100 teachers to develop the new quarterly assessments for every K-12 class. The superintendent maintained the new tests were necessary to get students ready for the upcoming state PARCC exams scheduled to begin in 2015.
>The public was told that the district would generate open-ended assessments, attuned to the unique characteristics and concerns of our high-performing district.
>By summer’s end, despite great cost and rush, only the first-quarter tests and lessons were ready, not the whole-year curriculum. School started in September with teachers not having the yearlong curriculum ready for them to plan their lessons.
>Teachers also learned that the assessments would have to be graded on a Scantron-ready metric. Our school curricula were being dumbed down to make them computer-friendly for the new PARCC testing en route to all classrooms.
>Although supposedly every Montclair student would be subject to the new layer of assessments, Advanced Placement students were exempt, making these new Scantron tests directed at only certain students, in a district where fairness and equity matter.
>We also have no evidence that any accommodations were planned for students in special education taking the new tests.
September 2013: At the start of school, students throughout the district were given ‘surprise’ pre-assessment tests. Many were on material not yet taught. We have a copy of a memo telling teachers to make these assessments difficult so that teachers could demonstrate students’ improvement on the next round of tests and to NOT share the pre-assessments or how students performed on them with students or parents.
Based on these unannounced, unprepared, and unnecessary pre-assessments, students were pulled out of regular classes for math and English language arts support, often without any notification or explanation to parents. This disturbed parents, frustrated those children pulled out of classes, and in many cases altered the racial makeup of classes.
October 2013: On Friday, October 25, the district learned that at least 14 of the district’s 60 first-quarter assessments suddenly appeared on an unprotected website on the Internet. Teachers were supposed to administer these tests the following week.
Three things happened in the wake of the online publication of the assessments:
1. Suspicion about how the assessments got online landed immediately on people who were publicly critical of the assessments, the board and the superintendent.
2. As copies of the published assessments began circulating among parents, the cover was blown off the Superintendent’s and board’s claims that these assessments were creative and teacher-generated. Many were canned short-answer tests, a low standard for assessment. Some had been copied verbatim from model state exams and some were clearly developmentally inappropriate for their grades. So much for the high-quality, teacher-generated assessments promised to the public.
3. The true cost of the assessments became known: $490,000. A half-million dollars of our taxes wasted by the board to get us into this mess, with a huge legal bill to follow.
October 28 or 29: According to Baristanet, a local online news outlet, the District filed a police report about the unauthorized publication of the assessments around October 28. As we understand it, the police did not pursue this case because they judged that no crime had been committed.
November 1: The board held a hastily called meeting to vote to hire its own attorney for what it claimed would be an “independent” investigation into the online publication of the assessments.
The board attorney was quoted in news reports that he would “cast a wide net” and would be issuing subpoenas to “blogs and websites.” At that same meeting however, board Pres. Robin Kulwin told reporters that she believed the “leak” was internal.
Why, if the board president believed the leak was internal – that is, caused accidentally or deliberately by someone who works for the district – did the board authorize its attorney to cast a wide net with subpoenas directed at outside parties? This key contradiction has never been explained. Why a big dragnet for a local problem with no evidence of criminal behavior presented?
December 4: The ACLU of New Jersey sued the board to quash subpoenas that the ACLU said were defective and beyond the limited investigative authority of a local school board. The ACLU had previously approached the board asking it to withdraw the subpoena to its client. But unlike other school districts in New Jersey approached by the ACLU on similar matters, our board refused to stop hounding its critics.
December 5: A state judge acknowledged the merits of the ACLU’s claims by granting a temporary restraining order against the board to prevent it from issuing any more subpoenas or taking further action on the ones issued.
December 9: The Montclair Township Council voted to refuse a school board request to investigate a computer network server shared by the town and school district. The council resolution declared that the investigation “is contributing to divisiveness and strife among the people of Montclair,[and] is resulting in the diversion and expenditure of substantial funds.”
December 16 board meeting: We ask the board, how much money has been poured into this punitive and pointless investigation for which you have provided no evidence of criminal activity? Why are you targeting your critics?
We propose that evidence points to the following scenario:
• The assessments had been placed by the district placed on an unprotected site (as confirmed by the board’s own computer network coordinator).
• The assessments were found on GoBookee, a “spider” or scavenger site that retrieves documents from the Internet and then tries to sell them online. Considering this and other Montclair school documents are on this site, we think it likely that this is how the assessments got online.
• We believe no one “leaked” the assessments but that they were poorly secured on the web portals open to teachers. Given the rush and lack of care in this entire process of creating and mandating these new assessments, this is not surprising.
No crime was committed here, and we think the board knows it. The only offenses have been by the board by engaging in a witch hunt – an investigation of parents, educators and community members critical of the board. This investigation has violated freedom of speech rights, embarrassed this respected town, and most likely, as the ACLU asserts, broken laws.
The township council has spoken, parents have spoken, educators have spoken. Enough.
The superintendent and board leadership should take responsibility for any security breach, apologize to the community and cease this destructive investigation.
Epilogue: As 2014 begins, Montclair Cares About Schools continues its fight to expose and stop the damage to our good schools caused by this board’s and superintendent’s top-down, test-focused management and by its failure to tolerate public dialogue about our public schools. Our group endeavors to show alternatives. We hold public forums, workshops, living-room meetings for parents. We invite everyone interested in public education to visit our Facebook page.
In addition to this joint statement, Ira Shor wrote the following letter to the editor of the Montclair Times to complain about the influence of the Broad Foundation in Montclair:
Dec. 29, 2013
Is Billionaire Eli Broad Running Our Schools?
Why is the District refusing to release items regarding the Superintendent’s relation to the Broad Foundation? On October 31, 2013, I filed a request under NJ’s Open Public Records Act(OPRA) for documents regarding Supt. MacCormack’s financial disclosure that she received “more than $2000” in 2013 from the Broad Foundation. We need to know how much “more than $2000” Broad is paying her and for what services. Contrary to OPRA law, Mr. Fleischer, her COO, provided no requested documents and did not explain why he refused. OPRA requires district officers to meet legal requests in 7 business days or explain in writing why not. Mr. Fleischer had 35 days but provided no Broad items and explained nothing.
What is the Superintendent hiding? Who does she work for–Montclair’s families or billionaire Eli Broad and his campaign to standardize public schools? She attended the unaccredited Broad Academy whose “grads” follow Broad’s playbook, imposing one-size-fits-all curricula, endless bubble-tests, and high-priced consultants and testing technology. We have a right to know if she answers to Broad or to us.
The Superintendent and our Board have recklessly disrupted our good schools and squandered taxes on ridiculous subpoenas, while refusing to spend yet another huge surplus on things our kids need: smaller classes, foreign language, aides in all classes, librarians in all schools, instrumental music, and after-school mentoring for at-risk kids. Listen to our over-tested kids reporting fear and stress; listen to our under-supported teachers at monthly Board meetings; then, you’ll agree we should roll back the Broad agenda and its assessment train wreck. The refusal of my OPRA request joins other illegal refusals from Mr. Fleischer and the Supt.’s office. Stop hiding from those you should be serving. Open your books and files.
302 North Mountain Avenue
Montclair, NJ 07043