Thursday, January 17, 2013

The New Jersey Education Reform Train Wreck

Oh, the power of the pen. Or keyboard. Whatever.

As the President of the Madison Education Association, I'm going on an adventure to Trenton at the end of January with Madison Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Michael A. Rossi and Madison Board of Education President Lisa Ellis. We're going to meet with Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf and members of his staff about the frustrations we're feeling while trying to implement the new teacher evaluation system (EE4NJ), the Common Core Standards, and PARCC.

How, you ask, did this happen? Because of a letter Dr. Rossi wrote, and testimony he made in front of the State Board of Education, with input from Ms. Ellis and me, that obviously struck a chord in the august halls of the Department of Education. It's been picked up in the media, but I will reproduce it below in its entirety. It speaks volumes about the state of education reform in New Jersey and what happens when ideological politicians get an idea in their heads, but don't think through either the consequences or implications of their actions. I will provide updates as I get them.

State Board Testimony of Madison, NJ Schools Supt. Dr. Michael A. Rossi

January 15, 2013
 359 Woodland Road  •  Madison, NJ  07940 

Dear Members of the New Jersey State Board of Education,
The purpose of this note is to provide (in as diplomatic a fashion as possible) a reasonable, reliable and valid analysis of the proposed implementation schedule for all the new initiatives. I am in my 25th year in education and have taught or supervised at the elementary, middle, high school and collegiate levels. I have been in districts with less than 200 students and ones with more than 10,000. My sister taught for 38 years and my dad for 55. Currently I have the distinct honor of leading one of the finest academic, extra-curricular and athletic organizations in America. I know how difficult it is to effectuate change even in one district and cannot imagine how challenging your task must be. Accordingly, I seek not to complain but simply to point out stark realities. In Madison, we have faculty and staff with multiple advanced degrees, savvy and seasoned administrators, parents that support everything we do both philosophically and financially, and most importantly, determined, bright and wonderful students. All of this combined, and even with umpteen awards in all walks of education, and we are, to a person, confused, overwhelmed and altogether concerned about trying to roll out several initiatives at once.

It is not that we do not support you, are resistant to change, nor are we unwilling to spend money (to date we have had to allocate close to a half million dollars) trying to get ready for EE4NJ, Common Core, PARCC, Principal Evaluation, etc.). Our teachers and administrators want to do a good job and want to help you achieve your goals, but simply put, it is far too much too fast. I offer some concrete examples to underscore our concerns.

EE4NJ: We are trying very hard to work through just a simple understanding of how the state wants this to work. Non-tested areas need benchmark assessments, how the anchor and ‘outside’ observer process will work is nebulous at best; nursing, guidance and CST areas have been given little direction (the last communique is this area suggested to look at other state models), and the district and school based panels have yet to be given a solid understanding of their roles, how often they should meet and to what extent they shape the process. On top of this we have to develop a new principal evaluation system and have been given no direction about Directors and Supervisors.
Common Core: Although we have been conversing about the Common Core for a few years now it is a gargantuan task to revise all K-12 curricula, work on framing out units of study, get teachers familiar with it, imbed into our lesson planning and then connect to state tests. There are only so many committees that we can form to write curriculum without compromising the educational process. If we take teachers out of the classroom we lose instruction; if we do it after school we either lose coaches or advisors and/or we have to pay people per contract language. Additionally, the essence of the Common Core calls for assessments at the end of each unit. Besides the bizarre notion that these total over 200 tests K-12 just on the Common Core, we have not been given any direction as to whether or not those assessments will be a reality, when we will know and how they will be administered.

PARCC: I cannot say this any other way but to describe it as a train wreck right now. The power point on this mentions no less than 12 tests for our current 6th graders when they reach high school. Those would be on top of Common Core assessments, benchmark assessments in non-tested areas, SATs, ACTs, APS, and then classroom teacher tests. Functionally, at this point, Madison cannot implement PARCC because the design is to be on computers that do not use XP as an operating system, which our entire district has. Even with the resources here we cannot turn that many computers over by 2014-2015. Combine all this with the most recent announcement that PARCC will not work with I-PADs and other BYOD initiatives suffice it to say we will grind all computer assisted teaching to a halt to do the PARCC testing.

NJDOE Overhaul: With the major structural changes in tow, the RACs just being formed and the county folks now employees at will, it is almost impossible to get any assistance. So much has changed so fast most people do not even know if they will have a job next year let alone be able to provide real leadership. It is disheartening to go to state meetings and leave with the feeling that no one has any real idea of where everything is headed and few questions can be answered.
Before we can address the aforementioned, those of us in the trenches still have our list of 93 unfunded mandates, we still have QSAC, daily considerations in special education, I & RS, etc., etc. There has been no relief to the pile of reports we have to submit, and now add to everyone’s list concerns related to Sandy and Newton, Conn. If Madison is feeling like this is going to go poorly rest assured most of NJ is as well.

Please ask the Governor for at least another year for all this and/or more pilots to emerge. Frankly, I think it will help his re-election and will certainly solidify you as someone who wants this to work well.
Look at thi
s way: if you were on a BOE and the Superintendent came in and said that in a couple years he wanted to change all K-12 curricula, change the entire K-12 teacher and staff evaluation process, change the entire testing process (and oh by the way your current operating systems all have to be replaced), and restructure the leadership model for the district, would you want that individual to forge ahead despite widespread concerns?

I am very sorry for the length of this note but I do speak for the vast majority of those of us working in the field. I realize some areas need an immediate overhaul but the current approach has the potential to wreak havoc on great school systems, of which there are many in NJ.
Please slow down.

Michael A. Rossi, Jr., Ph.D.

PS.  This letter is written with the support of our BOE President, Mrs. Lisa Ellis, and our Teacher’s Union President, Robert Grundfest.

Register your comments here and on Twitter @rigrundfest 

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