Montclair (and Beyond), It’s Time For Action

Almost eight years ago, my family was trying to figure out where — in New Jersey — to buy a house and put down roots. I’m a Jersey girl, born and bred. I grew up in Short Hills, and attended the Millburn Public Schools for 13 years. As my local readers know, the Millburn Public Schools are consistently considered some of the highest performing schools in the state. However, in March of my senior year of high school, our family moved to Montclair. I commuted back to Millburn for the last few months until I graduated, but the following fall my brother began his sophomore year as a student at Montclair High School. At the end of that year, my family moved back to Short Hills, so that my brother graduated from Millburn High School.

When it came time for us to decide where to raise our kids, school quality was a primary factor as we tried to decide where to put down roots. We considered towns all over northern New Jersey. When talk turned to Montclair, I called my brother. I asked him to comment on the quality of his education in Millburn versus in Montclair’s far more diverse (and less highly ranked) public high school. He said:

“Do I think it’s possible I got into a slightly better college because we moved back to Short Hills? I don’t know, I guess that’s possible. But I learned more about life and people and how to get along in the world in my one year in the Montclair Public Schools than I learned in my twelve years in the Millburn Public Schools — and those are lessons I still carry with me every day.”

I was sold.

Almost eight years after that conversation, I now have two children enrolled in the Montclair Public Schools. Almost universally, I have been thrilled with my daughters’ teachers, who have been thoughtful, dedicated, experienced professionals.

But things are changing. Our test-taking focused national, state, and now local culture threaten the values that make Montclair unique: by insisting that all children must learn all things in lockstep, we deviate from education best practices. And by accepting — without question — a test-taking culture that imposes hours and hours of standardized testing on our 8, 9, and 10 year old children, without carefully reviewing these tests and pushing back as a community where we believe the tests are poorly designed, developmentally inappropriate, and leading to intense pressure to narrow curriculum to meet the tests’ demands, we are stepping away from the community values that make Montclair special. Our schools should be — and historically, through our all-magnet public school system, have been — tailored to meet our children’s needs, but now we seem to be under pressure to tailor our children to meet state and federal politicians’ and bureaucrats’ unrealistic expectations — and if we don’t, our schools will be declared failures.

So what can we — as parents — do?

First, we must educate ourselves. If you’re reading this, you know how to read and write. So take an hour. Sit down and work through the 3rd or 4th or 5th grade English Language Arts sample exam, which is available at parcconline.org/practice test . Think of yourself at 8, 9, or 10 years old. Ask yourself whether these questions strike you as fair, whether you could make arguments in favor of more than one of the responses, and whether you think that we as a community should allow our schools to be judged based on our students’ performances on these exams. Here is a sample essay question from the 4th Grade English Language Arts test to get you started:

Identify a theme in “Just Like Home” and a theme in “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me.” Write an essay that explains how the theme of the story is shown through the characters and how the theme of the poem is shown through the speaker. Include specific details from the story and the poem to support your essay.

[As an aside, yes, we are asking 9 year olds to identify themes in two different stories (whether they are supposed to be the same theme or unrelated themes is unclear from the prompt), and then to explain “how the theme of the story is shown through the characters” and “how the theme of the poem is shown through the speaker.” I have a masters in teaching high school English, and I’m not really sure what that means. Are they asking for examples of how the character’s/speaker’s actions demonstrate the theme(s)?]

Second, if, after reviewing the tests yourself, you find that you have concerns about these tests, think seriously about refusing these tests on behalf of your children. There are all sorts of Facebook groups for parents who are thinking of opting-out (for e.g., there’s one called Opt Out of Standardized Tests – New Jersey).  Talk with your children about this. You will start to hear that your kids will not be alone if they refuse these tests. There is strength — and power — in numbers. And I’ve found that the front-line educators in our schools will at least quietly applaud your efforts. The school culture may be such that they are not comfortable speaking up publicly, but they know right from wrong when it comes to educational practice. Mention that you’re thinking of joining the opt-out movement, and you will see eyes light up.

Third, speak up. Attend Board of Education meetings to make your voice heard. Talk with other parents. Write letters to the editor and op-eds. Call and write to your legislators. Contact the Board of Education — at both the state and local levels. Demand that our local Board of Education immediately issue its position regarding the opt-out/refusal movement, and demand that they make alternate learning opportunities available to our kids.

Fourth, suggestion alternates to a testing-focused culture. We can evaluate our kids’ learning in different — but more effective — ways. For instance, we can demand that our district evaluate kids’ progress toward achieving standards by asking schools to work with students and parents to compile portfolios of student work or require students to complete capstone-type projects at critical junctures. I taught high school in rural Maine at the turn of the millennium and we were able to make the portfolio and senior project approach work there. There is no reason we can’t manage the same here in Montclair. Standards-based assessment does not require standardized testing.

Fifth, demand detailed local coverage of Board of Education meetings. Many people (including me, but I was far from alone) spoke at the BOE meeting on Monday, November 17, 2014, but it is now more than a week later and the only coverage I saw in our local media (print and online) was a small Montclair Times article regarding a tiny subset of what was discussed (it discussed only the process by which the BOE can respond to questions posed at meetings). But The Montclair Times failed to do a comprehensive article regarding the meeting, and Baristanet, Patch, and The Alternative Press were completely silent.  [UPDATE: At 7:42 on Tuesday, November 25, 8 days after the meeting was held, Baristanet ran this story, which does attempt to summarize the public comment portion of the meeting, but still does not summarize the three reports to the BOE, nor the illuminating BOE discussion after public comment ended.]  We don’t know what’s happening unless we have journalists covering these issues.

And yes, Montclair Cares About Schools did a terrific email summarizing the last BOE meeting, but as much as I tend to agree with them on many issues, I recognize that this is an email from citizens summarizing their point of view, and that while I think it was a quite accurate summary, I’m not sure this was always true of all of their characterizations of BOE materials in the past, and more generally speaking, the MCAS email doesn’t have the same authority as an unbiased news source that our local news outlets at least theoretically have.  I can’t find a link to the email on their blog, but the Montclair Cares About Schools blog, Montclair Voices, does contain a bunch of the public comments made at last week’s meeting.  Similarly, our Montclair teachers’ points of view (and a bunch of their public comments to the BOE last week) are reflected on our teachers’ new blog, Montclair Education Matters.

High quality — and diverse — schools are what brought many of us to Montclair, and they are what keep us here. We need to unite as a community to reject externally-imposed policies (whether imposed by NJDOE or the USDOE) that stand between our children and the well-rounded educations our children deserve — and that our teachers know best how to provide.  And that includes educating and supporting our local school board members so that they have the knowledge, community support, and tools to stand with us at the front lines of saying no to so-called “education reform” that is bad for our children, bad for our schools, and bad for our community.

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