The Poetry of Teaching

Here’s some coverage of the wonderful night spent at Tierney’s this past Wednesday, January 28.

Through words and song, Montclair’s teachers wowed the audience throughout the night with their talent. The event was co-sponsored by the Montclair Education Association and Montclair Cares About Schools.


Testing Testimony

The U.S. Senate’s H.E.L.P. committee (Health, Education, Labor and Pensions) has been accepting testimony from around the country about No Child Left Behind and its focus on standardized testing with an eye to possibly enact some changes in the law.

The Badass Teacher’s Association has collected a good number of testimonials from teachers and has posted them on their blog.

The following is the testimonial sent in by Montclair resident Lynn Fedele:

My name is Lynn Fedele and I have been teaching English in New Jersey for 24 years. I am writing to address the problem of standardized testing and the problems it has created in our schools.

When we look to see how to measure student learning in schools, we are looking for an answer to a complex set of qualitative questions. How do we measure learning? How do we measure a child? How do we measure teachers? How do we measure student-teacher relationships and how these relationships impact learning? What type of learning is most valuable to our society at the present moment? In the future?

I believe these questions are crucially important to the health of our society and democracy, to the growth of our children. In my experience, these questions are not in any way accurately measured by standardized testing.

Standardized tests have become increasingly relied upon in recent years for information they do not measure, especially since the advent of No Child Left Behind. What might have begun as an attempt to discern how public schools perform has come with a host of unintended, negative consequences that have damaged many students’ classroom experiences, damages that are being exacerbated by the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, the impending PARCC assessments and the federal government’s Race to the Top program. Literacy is, of course, of incredibly important, but simply achieving literacy has replaced the broader and better goal of truly understanding literature and language. We have come to accept functionality as being good enough. Stories are now read for a small set of easily measurable skills, not for independent thinking and development, and most certainly not for enjoyment.

Where I teach, for the first many years, test prep was a small part of my teaching duties, and my life as an English teacher was an interesting mix of reading and writing both creatively and academically. There was time and space for students to explore their own ideas, to develop their own relationships to language and to literature. There was time to prepare for college and time for students to explore their creative interests and skills. I loved my classes and their variety; I loved my job.

Enter NCLB. The New Jersey High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA), which had been an important exit test, suddenly became paramount. To ensure that students passed, my school eliminated electives for juniors and all had to take a full-year test prep class. For ten long, dull years, more than half my day was spent teaching this course. Instead of poetry, we read dull articles about mundane subjects designed not to be in any way controversial, and therefore holding no real interest for the students, much like the HSPA itself. Gone were personal reactions to stories and characters, replaced by formulaic searches for the textbook’s notion of theme and main idea. Instead of writing to explore and develop ideas, to express critical thinking, students wrote strict five paragraph essays summarizing what they had read or expressing their opinions of topics in which they had no real interest. Instead of taking classes in psychology, sociology, nutrition, astronomy, statistics, art, music, or a third year of a foreign language, students practiced bubble tests and wrote perfunctory essays. On the state exams in past years, sixteen-year-olds have been asked to write persuasively about stray cats and about postage stamps. I have never been able to truly understand what the students were meant to learn from these exercises beyond how to sit still and follow directions.

As the years progressed and NCLB engendered testing in more and more grades, I began to see a change in my high school students, and not for the better. My students who have grown up facing year after year of standardized tests are now afraid to think for themselves, are widely panicked about finding the “right” answer. They also now largely think in threes, as they have been drilled into finding three reasons to support their opinions in their five paragraph essays, and into writing a minimum of three examples in each detail paragraph. When I now ask them to describe something, they immediately list three adjectives, frequently synonyms. Additionally, as the state writing rubrics for all levels of the standardized tests put grammar and mechanics at the bottom, making them the least important aspects of writing, my high school students have close to no knowledge of how English functions. It wasn’t on the tests, so far too frequently, it just wasn’t taught. The overwhelming majority of my seniors this year cannot define the terms “subject” and “predicate,” never mind understand how a sentence functions to present meaning. Yet they all passed the HSPA.

Now that we are facing the prospect of the PARCC assessments, we are being told that there will be a vast improvement in the assessments, that the reading will be “relevant” and that these are not “bubble tests.” These claims are misleading and disingenuous. I have taken the sample PARCC assessment in high school Language Arts Literacy that is now available online. While the readings do involve actual literature as opposed to the stale reading selections of past tests, this does not give them relevancy. In the samples, the students are asked to compare two related works of literature from two very different historical eras and cultures. As the students are given absolutely no information regarding the historical context of the tests, the questions that pertain to how they differ—in particular the comparative essay assigned—are too obscure to answer with simple common sense, nor do the questions promote a clear understanding of what is written. If they do not know, for example, that the two texts are separated by close to 2,000 years and were produced in such incredibly different circumstances, understanding the themes of the texts is impossible. The fact that one selection is actually narrative and the other a lyric poem also adds to the difficulty of a simple comparison. Without the appropriate historical context, without properly studying, and without the time it takes to truly reflect upon what they have read, the students’ essays are bound to be filled with broad generalities and false assumptions. Many who advocate the PARCC say that these types of questions show “rigor,” but true rigor, truly asking students to apply themselves to challenges, does not mean they should be asked to do something that is next to impossible to do well, or even to do properly.

The informational texts are no better. Given excerpts of texts that are written beyond their grade level, students not only struggle with basic understanding and vocabulary but the historical context and
relevancy of the texts. These become an exercise in frustration and provide no opportunity for actual learning.

Additionally, while the PARCC assessments are not technically “bubble tests” as they are taken online as opposed to on paper with a Scantron sheet, much of the assessment is still multiple choice, but the questions utilize technological functions with which the students are unfamiliar. This means that opposed to generating their own ideas about the meaning and importance of a text as a whole or of portions of a text, they are still being guided to answer to somebody else’s idea of what is most important and what text means, even though literature is always, always open to interpretation, meaning that there is more than one right way to understand a narrative or poem. The questions that ask students to identify, select, and use the computer mouse to drag supporting information into a text box are also truly multiple choice questions. If they are selecting 2 out of 6 possible choices to find an answer, then that is multiple choice, regardless of whether they are filling in a bubble or clicking with a mouse.

On the whole, the students hate the testing and the preparation it entails, as do I. They are not learning to love reading or writing; on the contrary, for far too many of my students, these things have simply become a chore. They all become functionally literate—my school boasts an excellent passing rate on the HSPA—but only a very few now become true readers, capable of understanding complex texts on their own terms, and precious fewer ever express the desire to become writers.

As an educator with over 20 years’ experience in the New Jersey public schools and as a parent of two school-aged children, I urge you all to stop marching blindly toward increased levels of standardization and testing. Our children depend upon us to provide them with opportunities for learning and growth in a welcoming, nurturing atmosphere, one not weighed down by the stressors of preparing for the next test. Our children need to develop their intelligence, creativity and talents so that they can become life-long learners and people who can fully function in our diverse society, who can participate actively and effectively in our democracy. Our children are far more than numbers, and we owe them far more than high-stakes tests.

Today in Trenton 1/7/2015

The state Department of Education held open testimony today in Trenton, which was well attended by teachers, parents, and students from across the state, most of whom spoke out loud and clear against the upcoming PARCC assessments. To see video clips of testimony, read testimony, and read about the event, follow the links:

Montclair Cares About Schools facebook page:

Marie Corfield:

Bradford School Comments

Comments to the Board of Education 12/15/14

The following comments were made to the Board by concerned teachers from the Bradford School.

I am here to speak on behalf of the Bradford faculty about two concerns: (1) the district’s exclusive use of the Developmental Reading Assessment (or DRA) to measure reading progress and (2) serious problems with the current referral process to special education our district is using, known as RTI.

My collegues and I are troubled by a tremendous over-reliance on the DRA to make important decisions about children. The DRA is overlooking children with weak phonics skills and it over-identifies children as having poor comprehension who are merely poor writers. These problems have been identified by our veteran teachers, reading specialists, and even our novice teachers. Yet the DRA score is given far more weight than a teacher’s professional opinion.

No single test should be used to make critical and complex decisions about children, and a teacher’s observations & judgment should always be relied upon when interpreting scores.

Currently, there is more red tape to get children extra support than ever before. Teachers are required to provide so much data to document a student’s weaknesses that there is little time to conduct meaningful interventions. For each child who struggles, the teacher must document specific weaknesses with work samples, observations and test results, describe the interventions and then chart their frequency. The teacher is expected to administer tests to struggling children every 2 weeks.

The documentation and red tape is so burdensome that under these conditions, only the weakest students get services, and children with milder problems are neglected until their problems become a severe hindrance to their ongoing development.

In addition to problems with documentation, RTI takes too long. District policy dictates that children can’t officially move to a higher level of support until the start of a new marking period. This has been problematic for a Bradford student who requires speech services. The child’s needs were evident on the first day of school, and supported by our speech pathologist’s screening. However, the child’s teacher was not able to refer him for a formal evaluation and told to wait unti the start of the next marking period. This means he’s unlikely to get services until February or March.

We are frustrated by the administration’s response to our concerns about students. When requesting extra support, we are too often told that our students cannot quality because their DRA scores aren’t low enough. It’s appalling tha the expertise of teachers and specialists are disregarded in favor of a DRA score.

The district is grossly misusing RTI. Rather than using is to proactively help children, it’s used to reduce referrals to special education and make it appear as though the district is eliminating the achievement gap. In reality, this gap is widening for more children and at a faster rate than ever before.

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I am here to speak on behalf of Bradford MEA members – about our concerns regarding teacher professional development, communication and technology.
We have district-mandated PD days – that are one-size fits all workshops and are not beneficial to all of us. We are at widely varying stages of our professional lives and can identify our own strengths and areas for improvement. We yearn for quality professional development in areas that we choose according to our needs. We are expected to differentiate our instruction for children. We want that same respect paid to us.
For example, in October, teachers attended a workshop about guided reading that many of us could have taught. Substitute teachers were hired and our students lost yet another day of real teaching. When a teacher at our school requested funding for an out-of-district workshop given by experts in the field, she was told that “the district already gives PD in this.”
There are more “professional development” days planned for this school year – more days away from our students, more funds spent on substitutes. The Board has been told that this PD is “invaluable” to the teachers. What would be “invaluable” to us would be to receive funding and release time for professional development of our choosing that addresses our needs. Stop taking us from our students! Stop listening to the administrators’ misrepresentation of how great the district professional development is. LISTEN TO THE TEACHERS!
Communication between the district & teachers is lacking and misleading when directed by the district to the parents. Parents are led to believe when it comes to the Common Core, benchmark assessments, and PARCC preparation that teachers are resistant to change and don’t like having to work harder. THIS IS NOT TRUE. We embrace change when the change is appropriate and beneficial to our students. We are not opposed to more work!
Communication is also last minute. Central Office sent an email on the last day of a 2-week time period given to complete reading assignments that gave additional instructions, new tasks and new procedures for entering reading grades on the report cards. Most of us had already completed the DRAs and entered the grades. The information came too late !
Regarding technology – we are asked to implement curriculum that requires technology that we do not possess. We are using Pearson Envision math with an online component. We were told that use of this Pearson product would be reflected in our observations & our evaluations. At Bradford – some of us have Smart Boards – some us do not. For those who do not, the program is used by gathering about 25 students around one old small computer screen – often with buffering internet.
If we have to use technology – YOU MUST SUPPLY IT ! Do not tell us that funds are not in the budget ! A budget that supports bonuses to the superintendent & members of her staff should not plead poverty when it comes to servicing students.

At the heart of Bradford School, is a concern for the importance of equity as well as respect for the work that the paraprofessionals do each day. We could not possibly meet the needs of our most vulnerable students without these dedicated and experienced professionals. At Bradford School, we have a large number of children with special needs and we work hard to be inclusive. We have been mulling over the importance of equity and how that relates to the importance of paraprofessionals since October 13th, a day when the entire district came together to hear Dr. Chris Emdin speak about equity in education and, ironically enough, a day for which the paraprofessionals have NOT YET BEEN PAID. We are simply appalled that the BOE prefers to pay more to enter into a grievance process than to pay the paras for this day of work.
It is not possible to separate the importance of equity in education from the important role that the paraprofessionals play in supporting the students of Montclair. Paras work one-on-one with children or with small groups of children to provide specific interventions for children such as: helping children focus, breaking down tasks into manageable chunks, and reviewing strategies not yet grasped. Equity is about providing our students who are furthest behind with the support needed to succeed and eventually close the achievement gap. On a side note, we would like to echo the call from others to disaggregate the achievement gap data in Montclair according to socioeconomics.
Yet, paras are not valued for the vital role they play in the education of our students. A few years ago, they were threatened with outsourcing and stripped of their benefits. The district has made significant cuts which has left the classrooms with paras for classified students ONLY. Currently, most paras are spread very thin – often assigned to three or four of our neediest students. So, it is inconceivable that classrooms are threatened with a 30% down-sizing of paras again. Moreover, there are an increasing number of paras being hired as long time subs without contracts. If we continue to disregard our para professional’s work conditions, we will not attract high caliber individuals and our students will suffer. Despite these conditions, our paras arrive each day at school bringing dedication and their unique talents to the children with different learning styles. Paras show infinite patience and resourcefulness. They continually go above and beyond, are asked give up lunch periods, and asked to perform tasks designed for highly trained specialists.

One final note, despite the repeated outcry of every school in our district, our MEA president Gayl Shephard’s place on the board meeting agenda has not been reinstated. Last year you provided each school with a forum to speak. This year we are given no voice at all, so we rely on Montclair teachers who reside in town to speak. Your efforts to silence us have not gone unnoticed. Your efforts to silence us have not worked.


Montclair 250

Board of Education Meeting Comments 12/15/2014

The following comments were written and presented by members of Montclair 250, an organization of Montclair residents who work for the school district.

We are Montclair. We live here; we work here; we are parents of children who have or still are part of the Montclair school system that has always been a source of pride for our town. We are your neighbors, friends, and educators. As educators we say change is good, and there are many changes throughout the district that we would welcome.

The history of Montclair is steeped in the freedom to disagree yet still have a voice. It has always been part of the culture of this town and part of our respect for each other and our differing opinions. Lately, many voices of varying dissent are being silenced. This is not the norm for Montclair and we are not comfortable with this leadership that seems out of touch with what families want for their children’s education.

We are sad to say that it is our experience that members of this board and administration seem to have a need to separate people from one another: Principals from teachers, parents from teachers, and teachers from paraprofessionals. You have removed people from the agenda, ended a tradition of having teachers speak for their schools and have taken names out of order when calling people up to speak. We would never teach our students to jump ahead of line. Yet this is what is modeled at these meetings.

This kind of separation is attempted through breeding distrust. However, we, as a town, are all together – unified in whatever we agree and disagree about. It is the culture of this town: a culture that is more important than some may realize.

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Succeeding in separating groups of people cannot go very far when it is based upon the misinformation, disrespect and inconsistency that affects our students. The current administration and some members of this board are no longer trusted to be honest or respectful to others. Most important of all, they are not trusted to be concerned with the quality of education for all of our children. Instead, this board and administration continue to pass blame for any failings on past administrations, present employees and still attempt to set one group against another.

For example, at the last board meeting, after a round of public comments from many parents in this town who took the PARCC and were not pleased, the Board discussed this. Rather than listen to what the citizens of Montclair said, David Deutch stated This is simple economics. The PARCC is going to count in teachers evaluations. It gives them the incentive to be negative about it.

Let us be clear with you: the issues educators have with the PARCC are not based on the fact that we will be evaluated. Rather, it is that we have evaluated the PARCC, and find it developmentally inappropriate for each age group it covers, and of low quality. Much more important, is the stress it puts on our students, while offering no benefit to them or instructional direction for teachers.

Perhaps listening to the many parents and educators who have recently taken the PARCC and trying to work within a framework of compromise (at a minimum) instead of attacking educators would be more helpful. Those who work with students are the experts. It is time that all realize that how to educate is best left to the educators.

During a meeting at the Bradford school, between parents and teachers last March, Dr. MacCormack, discussed how 46 states were adopting the common core and how wonderful it was. A parent stood up and asked, “If the common core is so good, then why have several schools spoken out against it at the board meetings? Dr. MacCormack said Because its hard. She then went further and explained to the parents that it is difficult for teachers to change, that the common core is very different for them – its rigorous. Change is hard for the teachers. This same line has been given to parents at meetings theyve had with Gail Clarke. It has become the central offices mantra. One parent said that Gail Clarke made the common core so clear to her, and then followed up by stating that I know no one likes the extra work, but its good for our kids. Can you imagine anyone walking around stating Oh, they just dont like changeits too much work about people in other fields? Again, this is misinformation to separate the community and to continue abusing our childrens education: because all of this dishonesty, and micro-management of who says what to whom, and retribution or intimidation for speaking up is just that—abuse of our childrens education.

Lets step back to one of the first powerpoint presentations by Dr. MacCormack at a board meeting. Dr. MacCormacks data showed that the achievement gap was much wider in Montclair than previously thought. She showed that the previous administration (again, the blame sits elsewhere) did not include the socioeconomic data and said this is something she would not leave out. In the most recent presentation of data that included the achievement gap, she did just that. Data and budgets change seamlessly. Responsible approaches, collaboration, any transparency and honesty are lacking in this top-down, corporate model of management that is not working for education. It ends up reducing the role of the educators, excluding them from the planning and decision making in a way that decreases the ability to move our students forward.

Not one member has addressed the budget with any real transparency. In addressing the budget, this district recently reported that they ended the year with no deficit balances and no line item over expenditures. However, with all the money marked for technology, why did they have to take money from principals building budgets to fulfill their spending on technology? Forget deficits – where has a surplus that could have been used for students gone? Again, this is something that greatly affects our students.

Also stated in the district’s budget report was that as this district prepares for the development of the 2015-2016 budget, they continue to address increasing expenses in the areas of special education costs, utilities and employee health benefits. This district changed health insurance companies to save a vast amount of money. They muddled through this quickly, not researching CIGNA enough. Much quality has been lost. The CNA determined that Cigna denies roughly 39.6% of all claims (compared to competitors such as Aetna who denied about 5.9% of all claims in the same time frame.) The district did not research other companies, get bids on the insurance, or discuss it with the MEA. After handling this in so incorrect a manner to save money, we do wonder why employee health benefits is under the label of increasing costs.

More importantly, this district claims that special education costs are increasing. They certainly are. When the needs of our students are not met, parents will take their students elsewhere and our district and taxes will foot the bill. Out-of-district placement is up. In this administration’s short tenure legal fees have tripled from the $200,000’s to the $600,000’s. This upsets us greatly. We work hard to make a difference in our students’ lives even without the needed resources in materials and staffing. Our students are our neighbors and their parents our friends. By taking away materials and paraprofessionals, and worrying more about seeming to close a gap rather than really closing it, once again, the board and administration of this district have frayed the edges needed to help our next generation of students succeed.

The meetings held with parents early in this administrations tenure introduced the idea that the brightest and the best would be brought in. First of all, the insult inherent in that statement to all the existing staff is offensive. Many of the brightest and best have been here much longer than this administration and have helped thousands of students, both academically and emotionally, from kindergarten through their senior year of high school. So far, incorrect data, misleading statements, poorly thought out plans, and a lack in the ability to motivate, train, and advance educators is all we have seen. We are still waiting for the brightest and the best.

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Last year offered little professional development to teachers or paraprofessionals. Until late in the year, most of the Professional Development offered was a repeated overview of the Marshall Rubric. We are educators. As educators, we have dealt with a vast amount of rubrics in our careers. We could figure out the Marshall rubric. So after a year of this, Central Office decided to get back on the academic track. They offered specific Professional Development. This was offered with the promise of more. Gail Clarke specifically said that the Balanced Literacy Professional Development was geared more toward newer teachers, even calling it Professional Development 101, but would move forward from there. It has not moved forward.

Many of us have years of experience and a wealth of knowledge. We would like to go outside of district for more in-depth professional development. We are told nothe district provides it. We have to miss a day of teaching our students to come to these Professional Development sessions that do not offer growth. If the Professional Development is geared toward newer teachers, then why does the whole district have to lose teaching time and pay substitutes? Just as we differentiate our teaching for our students, we expect the district to be held to the same standard. It seems that our definition of Professional Development and our districts differ.

For example, high school history teachers were recently told to bring their students to the assembly for a meeting about Amistad. As the students entered, Davida Harewood, district supervisor for social studies, asked if any students would like to ask questions of the presenter afterwards. Students did raise their hands. Those students were handed pre-written questions to ask from Ms. Harewood. The Common Core demands higher analytical thought, yet our students are being taught to read someone else’s questions, putting their own thoughts aside. As students left the auditorium, Ms. Harewood told them to always question – make sure they question their teachers all the time. Professional Development should always model best practices. Later that day, all the teachers found Professional Development certificates in their mailboxes, from Central Office. Just for walking their students to the auditorium. Yet this district talks about raising the bar.

New Jerseys Department of Education states that the definition of professional development is one that is aligned with student learning, educator needs and embedded in educators daily work. It further states that that PD shall have as its primary focus the improvement of teachers and school leaders effectiveness in assisting all students to meet the Common Core Curriculum Standards.

Neither change nor rigor is hard for teachers. We change consistently and constantly to meet the needs of our students, not Central Offices need to have us teach to tests. Whatever anyones issues with the Common Core, lets understand that our Central Office has been doling out propaganda for Pearson Publishing and keeping the curriculum narrower and narrower so that we are teaching to a test. That is not what we do. We educate. There is a vast difference between teaching to a test and teaching our students to have a love of learning. Enriching the lives of our students is what matters. We are critical of the changes, not anxious about change. It is time that this difference is understood.


Dissecting the PARCC Propaganda

By Lynn Fedele

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) website offers a vast array of information about this new, untried assessment system, and it is designed to sell the PARCC assessments to parents and educators on all levels. As the PARCC is tied to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), the website does a good job of promoting those standards, too. Published within a handbook for “State and District Leaders” in implementing the PARCC and the CCSS is chapter 4, titled “Organize to Implement: Getting the Message Out.” It is a 14-page long public relations manual, replete with charts and graphs and all sorts of useful suggestions.

The Montclair Schools have had an interesting relationship with the notion and function of public relations over the past year, and this year Central Services has hired its own public relations professional. While Mr. Frankel is indeed busy in selling the notion that all changes coming from the state and through superintendent MacCormack are working wonderfully, the public relations efforts to support the CCSS and the PARCC go beyond one man’s effort and employment with the school district. A close look at the PARCC’s chapter on organizing public support is telling; while any public relations work needs to be tailored to local populations and concerns, there is a good deal in the handbook that resonates loudly and clearly here in Montclair.

So let’s take a look at what the PARCC suggests.

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The chapter begins this way:

“One risk faced by any change effort is ‘undercommunicating by a factor of 10, or even 100.’ The communications effort should receive the same amount of effort as the implementation effort.” While this may seem innocuous enough, the implementation effort includes redesigning curriculum, updating technology, ordering and adapting new materials, and accelerating the level of instruction (frequently beyond grade level). These efforts have taken countless hours, a lot of money, and have upended many of our classrooms, not necessarily for the better.  That public relations should take as much time and effort is troubling. There’s an old cliche, “A good idea sells itself.” This opening statement seems like an admission that this is not a good idea and that the community will take a lot of convincing to get on board.
Their first suggestion? It’s the first section, “Build a Base of Support by Establishing a ‘Guiding Coalition.'”
First, they address why this has to happen:
“Flagging public support can push implementation off the rails. Pressure to water down student expectations may build, for example, once new assessment results show that students are not as prepared as once believed.”
The students are being assessed by a system that is largely untried. They are being assessed on standards that are being found to be frequently developmentally inappropriate. It’s not a matter of our students being under-educated, or our schools being underdeveloped, or of our teachers not having high expectations for learning; it is a matter of the PARCC being an unfair test.  What PARCC characterizes as “pressure to water down student expectations” is the joined voices of teachers, parents, education specialists, and students themselves saying that curriculum and assessment need to be fair, to be developmentally appropriate, to be focused on creating skills for life-long learning; these are voices saying clearly that demanding too much too fast is damaging  to children.
The section continues, “Inevitably, state and district leaders need help in keeping rigorous expectations for students at the heart of their agenda. Though the strategic implementation team (district administrative employees responsible for getting the schools ready to administer the test) plays a key role in supporting their agenda, a small group of highly visible and credible leaders are needed to sustain effort in the face of pushback.” This small group is, of course, the guiding coalition. Locally, who do we have to fit this bill? Will the SATPs be further co-opted? The Achievement Gap Panel? Members of the Board of Ed? Time will tell. Certainly, spending public tax money on a P.R. consultant will help, too.
Of course, publicly disparaging those who oppose the CCSS and PARCC is part and parcel of local corporate-reform efforts. Teachers are speaking out? It’s all too easy to paint teachers as lazy or, in Dr. MacCormack’s words at a Board of Ed meeting last year, “afraid of change.” Parents are concerned? Members of Montclair Cares About Schools are “uncivil” or are a fringe group or are engaging in personal attacks. Of course teachers and parents want children to learn; it’s silly to think otherwise. But it’s also silly to think that by echoing the word “rigor” proponents of PARCC and CCSS are actually advocating what is best for students.
But what is best for students is not the focus of the P.R. chapter, and what comes next is disconcerting. According to PARCC: “The role of this ‘guiding coalition’ is to remove bureaucratic barriers to change, exert influence at key moments to support implementation and offer counsel to the strategic implementation team.”  Many of the “barriers to change” are actual democratic structures put into place to keep the public schools accountable to the public. How much more quickly would Dr. MacCormack ‘s and the corporate reformers’ changes be in place if they were not open to public scrutiny? And upon whom should the guiding coalition “exert influence”? What kind of “influence” are they implying with this? The chapter does not clarify.
What the chapter does clarify, though, is how to keep the propaganda manageable.  The handbook, in referencing pushback, states “The best way to ensure that this does not happen is to play offense — make sure your messages and goals reach key audiences first and are regularly reinforced by credible messengers. In fact, don’t be afraid to communicate even if your implementation plan is in flux.”  This need for constant top-down message communication, even in the midst of “flux,” could explain the discrepancies in information this year. For instance, parents were given a list of PARCC skills that are being covered in the middle schools while the middle school teachers were not informed of their responsibility to teach these skills. Parents and teachers have been told there will be no test prep. In fact, in her posting on the Montclair Board of Education website “Why PARCC,” Dr. MacCormack writes, “As superintendent, I set the tone for how these tests will be interpreted in the district, regardless of the State’s mandates, and I will not support teaching to the test.” Yet some schools are giving practice PARCC tests. One administrator told a roomful of parents that a paper version of the PARCC will be available while other administrators are saying this will not be. The district’s powerpoint presentation to parents about the PARCC contains discrepancies about the time it will take to administer the test.
Yet there are other areas of manageability that the district seems to be adhering to quite well, in particular the simplicity of the overall message itself. The PARCC recommends developing and repeating “three key  messages” and instructs “Repeat, repeat, repeat these messages across all communication channels and by all public messengers.” They even give suggested messages, including:
PARCC: “State standards and assessments have historically been set too low, offering an inaccurate view of how well our students are actually achieving.” (Dr. MacCormack paraphrased this at a Board of Ed meeting earlier this year, and in “Why PARCC” she writes “Problems with the NJ ASK were numerous. For one, NJ ASK was not well aligned with classroom instruction, and therefore many teachers spent time doing test preparation. Turnaround of test results was slow and provided few concrete insights into student learning.” This comes despite the fact that the New Jersey standards have been proven to be among the nation’s best.)
PARCC: “The Common Core State Standards and aligned common assessments are more rigorous than what we have [had] in place… and will provide an honest picture of how well our students, schools and system are achieving on the most critical knowledge and skills.” (Data, anyone? Dr. MacCormack writes in “Why PARCC,” “In addition, data gathered from assessment tests can also guide educators toward improving classroom instruction and foster the sharing of best practices for teaching our students.This is the ideal, but for more than a decade, under the State of New Jersey’s NJ ASK testing program, the ideal has been too far out of reach.”)
PARCC: “Implementing the Common Core State Standards is a critical step toward ensuring that all students receive the true education they need for success in life.” (Last year, Dr. MacCormack and several Board of Ed members touted the CCSS as a means of addressing the achievement gap. In “Why PARCC,” Dr. MacCormack writes, “the NJ ASK offered limited measures of a student’s critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, key indicators of a student’s future success.
PARCC assessments, on the other hand, are said to provide a more thorough examination of student development than prior tests, with more writing and greater focus on critical thinking and problem-solving skills.”)
What is happening in Montclair is part of a national agenda — PARCC even uses the word “agenda.”  They’ve published their playbook; we don’t have one. We can only speak the truth.