By Lynn Fedele
I am a teacher. I am also a member of Montclair Cares About Schools. I am proud of both.
My father was a teacher, too, who taught History at North Bergen High School for over 30 years. He was also a union officer. He was proud of both.
When I started teaching 24 years ago, I never imagined I would have to become an education activist in my private life, and when I moved to Montclair 18 years ago, I never imagined I would be faced with such acrimony for speaking out on behalf of children.
Yet despite my failures of imagination, things have gotten a bit ugly in Montclair. A new group of “anonymous parents” with a website and a lawyer – Shavar Jeffries, a charter school advocate who recently lost the mayoral race in Newark to Ras Baraka – have launched an attack video against MCAS and placed a FOIL request for the emails of a township activist. They have filed a highly dubious ethics complaint against town councilman Sean Spiller. They have said some very hurtful things.
A comment that really got to me was one by Jeffries, published in an article in the Montclair Times. The article states that, according to Jeffries, parents are not speaking out publicly “out of fear that district educational staffers may retaliate against their children.”
When I read this, my first thought was, how in the world did we get to a place and time where it is acceptable to make such malicious, unfounded comments about teachers?
My second thought followed quickly: I’m just glad that my father isn’t alive to see this, because it would break his heart.
Then I cried.
I don’t want to get sucked into the muck and the mire of this. I want to continue to speak and to work for what is best for children – all children. And I will, because Montclair is a place with a long, beautiful history of struggle, of people coming together to face issues that are not easy to face. I moved here because of the town’s history of activism, especially in dealing with race and education. We have been a national model in many ways, and this is due to the people here who have continually striven to do what is right when what it right is not what is easy. Still, there is a much bigger picture here, one that Montclair is a part of and one that because of all the turmoil surrounding public education reveals the chance of something good happening for us all.
Because truthfully, something strange is in the air, some kind of shift in the educational wind. It may not be as dramatic and immediate as I would like, but suddenly, the clouds of “reform” are parting and there is a distinct possibility for hope, for rational discourse about real education. The current animosity cannot be maintained forever, and as more people are waking up to what “reform” really entails, more people are entering into this discussion. This is a very good thing.
In the past few months, the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions has been taking testimony as it looks into rewriting No Child Left Behind (you can find the senators’ contact information here on the left side of the screen).
Arne Duncan admitted that there has been too much focus on standardized testing in schools.
Last month, in his weekly radio address, President Obama stated: “This year, I want to work with both parties in Congress to replace No Child Left Behind with a smarter law that addresses the overuse of standardized tests, makes a real investment in preschool, and gives every kid a fair shot in the new economy.”
Chris Christie, in speaking with potential Iowa supporters, admitted doubt in his previously unflagging support for the Common Core State Standards.
Test refusal in New Jersey has surpassed everyone’s expectations.
And in Montclair news, superintendent Dr. Penny MacCormack has announced her resignation.
None of this adds up to a complete reversal of the movement toward standardization and testing that has been squeezing public education, but something is happening. And I think this something is causing the moneyed, charter-school, privatization advocates to come out swinging wildly.
Whether we look at these changes and reversals as the hard work of activists bearing fruit, or shifts in the political winds, or the American public waking up to the dangers of standardization and testing, or as simple career opportunism, the fact remains that now is the time for educators to have their voices heard. Because people are starting to listen.
There is a place here and now for us to speak up loudly, to address education issues as fervently as we can. On the local level, we are facing the search for a new superintendent, and this in the midst of troubles surrounding the badly depleted budget Dr. MacCormack will leave in her wake. Nonetheless, we need to create our wish list for change – true education reforms – that will help bring the Montclair Public Schools back to being the innovative, creative, and student-centered places they have always striven to become. There is a lot of work to be done. Fortunately, teachers are quite accustomed to hard work.
So here is a beginning, a wish list of things I would like to see happen in Montclair:
*More people speaking up. It’s been happening, with teachers, parents, and community members. Keep it coming, The more voices, the more opinions — the more ideas and the more possibilities.
*Fair contracts for paraprofessionals. Their work is never under-appreciated by the students, parents, and teachers with whom they work, but they have been increasingly undervalued by Central Services and the BOE. All paraprofessionals deserve full-time status with benefits.
*Smaller class sizes. We have been watching class sizes in Montclair grow, and educators know how important this issue is. For some of the many reasons why class size matters – including its effects upon the achievement gap – click here. This may require hiring more teachers and re-examining scheduling in some of the schools.
*More special needs resources and teachers. The district has been losing one court case after another in recent years for deficits in following students’ IEPs. Special needs students need to have curriculum and methods tailored to their needs in order for them to succeed, and these needs should not take a back seat to the demands of unrealistic standards and testing.
*Refocus elementary and middle school curricula on their magnet themes. Yes, the standardized testing will be with us for some time longer, but sacrificing what makes each school a unique addition to the Montclair community will not improve any child’s educational experience. Additionally, cutting back on physical education, foreign language instruction, art, music, history and science will not help our kids be ready for anything in life, never mind college or careers.
*More support for and the extension of small learning communities at the high school. The successes of the small learning communities continue despite increased pressure to standardize curriculum and methodology to fit the tests, and they would flourish if given the necessary resources to develop their programs more fully.
*Support for Imani and a return of The Writer’s Room. The type of one-on-one student support these programs provide has immeasurable effects, for beyond mere test scores. Education is an extremely personal venture, one that relies upon interpersonal connections and supports.
*Real Professional Development. Teachers need to be allowed to be proactive in pursuing the training they know will benefit their classrooms the most. As a one-size-fits-all standard is harmful to students, it is harmful to teachers as well. This should include PD related to racism and to legitimately addressing the achievement gap.
*A budget that focuses on the students. Enough over-bloated administration. The district budget needs to be just as student-centered as the curriculum. Yes, there is a deficit, and one we cannot ignore. But we also cannot blindly trust those who spent a multi-million dollar surplus down to a budget gap. Each and every decision must be made in accordance to what helps students, not in accordance with the ideological beliefs of administrators.
*Piloting the foreign language immersion program. The projected cost is minimal in a budget a large as Montclair’s, and there are long-term benefits to the schools and the children that offset this initial cost. The parent advocates who have been working tirelessly on this for years have more than done their homework. This is the type of creative innovation our township should embrace.
And there is so much more. We need to speak up about alternative assessments, about actual performance based assessments and project-based learning.
So please, add to this list. Write letters and emails. Shout from the nearest rooftops – whatever works. There is a Contacts page on this site; there are BOE meetings to attend. The time is now. If we do not lead in advocating for true education reform, we can be sure that others – with whatever motives they have – will.
I am not going to stop speaking up for what is best for kids, and I think my father would have been proud of that, too.