Tuesday, September 22, 2015

South Brunswick Board of Ed Tries to Oust Education Advocate

In every generation, you hope there will be people who are active and engaged in the community in which they live. You hope they are smart and willing to devote time to contribute and make things better in their corner of the world. New Jersey is lucky to have a lot of such people, especially in education advocacy. 

One of those people is a young woman named Melissa Katz. She is smart and funny and completely dedicated to becoming an urban educator. She is deeply involved in state advocacy for public education, seeing it not only as duty to a greater good, but also with the intent of saving a profession she dearly loves. Her future students will be very lucky to have her as their teacher.

Yesterday, I had a conversation with Melissa, actually I should say another conversation, about how her local Board of Education does a not great job of informing the public about their meetings -- specifically with regard to making their meeting agendas public. What is made available to the public before every meeting, via the district website, is a single page with an outline of a meeting. It looks like something the Business Administrator might start with before filling it in. As a member of the public, you should be able to look at an agenda, 48 hours in advance per the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), and discern what will be discussed. You should be able to decide if there is business you need to attend the meeting for -- either to comment or just to hear the details. South Brunswick Board of Education does not do this. You must attend the meeting to get an actual, full agenda.

Several members of the public have previously brought this to the Board's attention and nothing has been done. Melissa was troubled that the public comments had been ignored. We talked about the best way to approach the Board to ask for an explanation. This, with the full understanding that a Board does not have to respond to the question itself at a meeting. So, Melissa went home and looked at surrounding districts' websites for their Board agendas. All of them were complete. 

At last night's South Brunswick Board of Education meeting, Melissa asked what could be done about providing the full agenda per OPMA. She showed the Board members agendas from three districts. All of which were no less than 19 pages long. She held up theirs...it was one page. She asked how a member of the public could make a decision to attend or not based on the one page "agenda" with no information on it. When she finished, in under the time allotted for comment, she was given a quick thank you and that's it.

Melissa asked the Board VP repeatedly if he would respond. At that point, a simple courtesy (due to anyone who stands up to make a public comment) would have been just to thank her again and take it under advisement. But he didn't do that. Instead, he nodded to the police officer in attendance and asked for her to be removed. 

Think about that for, oh, half a second. A member of the public brings up a legitimate concern regarding how this Board conducts its business, that is by the way, theoretically prosecute-able, and the VP's response is at first to be rude, and then absurd by asking the  police officer to remove her. Melissa refused to leave and sat down. The officer stood over her for several minutes -- presumably to intimidate her into silence. It worked. She said nothing else.

Obviously, this raises some really basic concerns. 

1. Let's presume the Board is not providing a proper agenda because they don't know any better. (Yeah, I know. Suspend your disbelief for a sec.) Once this was brought to their attention, apparently now several times, why didn't they do a better job of informing the public by providing full agendas? Do they not want public input? It sure looks that way. 

2. Boards are not required to respond directly to any questions posed to them during a public meeting. However, they can answer if they choose to.   

3. Perhaps most important, will last night's ridiculous behavior by the Board VP have a chilling effect on the rest of the public? They have just witnessed what happens when a concerned citizen asks a perfectly legitimate question: A police officer will stand over you to shut you up. 

A reminder to the majority of Boards of Education in the state of New Jersey: You are elected to represent the public. Ignoring and attempting to intimidate the public to whom you are responsible is reprehensible. It is unethical. If you can't or won't do the job you were elected to do, step down, get out of the way. There are citizens who would be happy to do the job responsibly.

Note: I'll post video when I can get me hands on an edited version. The entire original is over an hour long. 

Edit to add:
Melissa posted her experience here. This is the edited version from the meeting:

Friday, September 18, 2015

The NJ Standards Review Farce

Back in the spring, Gov. Christie, quite out the blue, announced that he had concerns with Common Core State Standards (CCSS). I’m sure he took a lot of the reformy cheerleaders in the state by surprise. With that proclamation, he also announced yet another review committee to look at CCSS and turn in a report by the end of the year.

A mad scramble ensued over the summer. The committee was quickly thrown together. The composition of the “stakeholders” was announced. As a parent who is very involved and watching closely, I am appalled by a few things.

First, SPAN was listed as the parent special education representative. Those who know me, know I have a very deep respect for SPAN. They do excellent work in this state. I have even had the great privilege of being recognized by them “For Demonstrating Community Leadership to Strengthen New Jersey Families.” In this case, however, I thought that giving the one special education parent spot to an organization, instead of a parent, was unfair. There are many special education parents in the state who would have made a great representative. Oddly, SPAN did not get the seat allotted to them. SEAC did – NJDOE run Special Education Advisory Council. Hmm…NJDOE advising NJDOE. No problem there, right? Here is the full list of Committee members.

I know I’m going to get flak for that comment about SEAC. Let me be really clear. The person appointed represents a dyslexia group that is part of SEAC, and you would only know that if you’re familiar with SEAC members. However, in the NJ education world where transparency is as clear as mud, this appointment was bad form. SPAN, too, would have been for the same reason.

Process matters.

Next was the seat to PTO. Parent Teacher Organization is any non-PTA group. That includes, PFA, PTO, HSA, and so on. I wondered what NJDOE thought the definition was and how they were going to contact all of those organizations in the state when there is no central office for “PTO,” unlike PTA, who can get the word out to the local organizations – in the middle of the summer.

I called the person at NJDOE (whom I will not name, because this is not about shaming any one person) tasked with forming this committee. I left a lengthy message with an assistant and heard nothing back. I then reached out to the president of the State Board of Education. He in turn forwarded my request for explanation to that NJDOE representative and asked that my question be answered. Nothing. I got no phone call, no email, nothing. So much for transparency. Needless to say, the local PTOs I am familiar with had no idea there was a standards review happening at this very moment. They were never contacted by NJDOE for the opportunity to nominate someone.

Process matters.

Then, last night, I attended and provided testimony at the “Listening Tour” (and Focus Group – I’ll get to this) of the Committee. It was held at the Public Safety Training Academy in Parsippany. Only, it wasn’t IN Parsippany, it was in Morris Plains. I wonder if that’s why the third committee member was a no show. Hmmm.

We each had three minutes to weigh in on the entire content of CCSS. Beyond the laughable time allotment, it also appears that none of it was recorded. Less than 10% of the entire committee was in attendance, and they will not hear what was said. They can read it, but I do know that at least one person spoke about something entirely different than what was submitted in writing – something I regularly do at Senate, Assembly, and State Board of Ed meetings. I hope those members in attendance took great notes.

I chose to speak about process. I am a stickler for process, especially in the public sphere where everything should be transparent. I mentioned everything above. And, where special education is concerned, all of the money spent on NCLB and CCSS and the testing and prepping and the insipid notion that education is a one-size-fits-all enterprise, has cost us dearly. How many districts have spent the money on computers to take the tests instead of reading specialists?

And then, there is The Survey. A very, very laborious and long survey. I sincerely hope teachers take what will undoubtedly be a big chunk of time to complete it. Parents, I suspect, will not. At the very least, I hope they will attempt the standards for the grades their children are in, or were in last year. 

Again, process matters. This survey is taking place at the busiest time of year for teachers. For parents, it’s pretty clear they did not have us in mind at all when this was developed. Frankly, I fully expect that even if a few thousand surveys are completed (or turned in incomplete) the spin will be that NJDOE has thousands of data points to brag about. Nevermind that only a tiny percentage of teachers took the survey.

Finally, in the vestibule there was a monitor listing the events happening last evening in the building. Standards Review Listening Tour and Focus Group is how it was listed. What happened last night was definitely not a focus group. Interested to see if NJDOE does follow through with conducting actual focus groups and who/how those participating are chosen. Or, will last night be referred to as a focus group in the final report? Hmmm.

It is impossible to take any of the state’s review committees seriously. We are still waiting (months) for the Special Education and the Assessment Review Committees’ reports. What is the hold up? Now we have this one which has about 6 months to gather information, opinions, and deliver new standards? Better? Different? The same but with cursive writing and a new name? I know my education professor friends are both horrified and laughing their butts off. This is NOT how standards are developed. 

One of my colleagues is calling this a farce. The #ChristieCCSSReviewFarce. I agree. As usual, we deserve so much better than what we are getting. 

Friday, September 4, 2015

This Is 8th Grade In Newark

Newark Public Schools have been under State control since July 1995. Twenty years. In that time, the citizens of Newark have had no say in what happens to their schools. They have watched their neighborhood schools close. They have watched as District money is funneled into charter schools. They have listened to the politicians in this state criticize the very District they are responsible for. Frankly, twenty years later, anything that is not working in Newark Public Schools is squarely on the State’s shoulders.

Have you ever wondered what a student’s schedule looks like? After all, New Jersey Department of Education is laser-focused on standardized test scores and being college and career ready. How does New Jersey translate that into the lives of the young citizens of Newark?

A Newark dad shared his child’s schedule. To my suburban friends, can you ever imagine your child bringing home a schedule that looks like this? Or a superintendent selling this to you? No? Me neither. This is outrageous.

ELA = English Language Arts. SS = Social Studies. It’s not possible to tell how often Social Studies will actually take place, but given that it’s not currently tested and used to condemn students, teachers, and schools, one would presume more time will be given to ELA. By the way, what the heck is a STEM class? In a 30-period week, they already have half devoted to STEM.

We hear a lot about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). Really, we should be hearing more about STEAM (A = Arts), but I digress. Should any student be subjected to so narrow a curriculum? And in 8th grade no less!

Where are music? Chorus? Art class that’s more than one period a week? Languages? Gym that’s more than two periods a week?

College and career ready is all we hear about from the US Department of Education and the New Jersey Department of Education. They haven’t bothered to define what that is exactly, but from this schedule, for kids in Newark, it means ELA and Math to exclusion of all else that makes life interesting, worth living, and generally makes for a well-rounded person. 

Edit to add:
Well, this clearly struck a nerve. Here is the 8th grade schedule from a dad in a decidedly Sparkly District. This is what Newark students' schedules should look like.