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Are You For the Superintendent or Against Him? Wrong Questions at the Wrong Time

I have long been a great advocate of the Superintendent--he is the right person for our district. Yet the best support a Board member can give is to help him succeed at his bold plans.

Are You For the Superintendent or Against Him? Wrong Questions at the Wrong Time

Yesterday a friend e-mailed me to ask, Is this election boiling down to being supportive of the Superintendent or not supportive?

At first I was too stunned to respond.

For me, it’s completely the wrong question.  And I’m amazed that any campaign would frame an election in such a way.

I have long been a great advocate of the Superintendent.  Not only do I like him personally, I believe he is the right person for our district.  I was out there handing out flyers at supermarkets for full-day kindergarten and have watched with great pleasure the steps his Administration has taken in improving our district and opening higher access to more students.  I have seen the difference between my 6th grader’s experience and my 2nd grader’s—reflecting the very real reforms and changes he has instituted.  I completely believe this District is heading in the right direction. 

Yet every step of the way, I have seen it as my duty to check and double check that what is being reported is actually true—that when, for instance an administrator says a curriculum is revised according to Common Core, and I discover it is far from it—I must bring that to the attention of the Superintendent.  I have a son in the middle school and while I supported the Transformation Proposal, I’m keenly aware of its deep vagueness and his own mixed experiences and lack of challenge in some classes.  I depend on my Board to be accountable, to measure, to ask, to probe, to make sure they really vet our curriculum—especially as we face a plan that is our Superintendent’s most ambitious yet. 

The best support a Board member can give is to treat our Administration as professionals who should not be allowed to fail at their bold plans.  That’s what this election is about—professional, hard working individuals who know that cheery boosterism is not the same as being responsible.  That is true inclusiveness—delivering on our grand banners, for all our children, and making sure they are not empty promises.  That’s what it means to be the custodian of public education. 

So let’s get on to what it means to ask tough questions. 

Throughout this campaign—indeed before the campaign—I have steadfastly remained independent and saw myself as a resource on IB and curriculum improvement.  Whoever is elected, I wish to work with them in doing the nitty gritty work of making this implementation succeed and bringing our curriculum into the 21st century.  As many critics have argued, IB programs have faltered because of poor implementation. I believe it is my ethical responsibility—as someone who so heartily advocated for this program—to ensure that we do not let that happen.

If anything, because of my own values, I held on to the hope of casting for the other tickets because I so appreciate their enthusiasm and their broad and positive support of education for all.

However, as the campaigns wore on, and I thought about it, I had to face facts. The Payne- Parrish, Swanson, Higer team has been vague on curriculum, vague on IB implementation and its benchmarks, with hints that they see questioning the administration as a sign of opposing it -- which is precisely the opposite of what we as a community should expect of our Board.

To give just one egregious example, when pressed on curriculum at a public debate, Ms. Swanson waved her child’s middle school assignment on Confucius, as if expecting middle schoolers to have heard of the Chinese scholar was a sign of unusual, remarkable, instruction, rather than a normal expected piece of cultural knowledge (to say nothing of how that might come across to an East Asian family!) Later, she gave an example of a rather typical bulletin board assignment of the great work that’s going on in schools. This is inappropriate for someone running for the Board.  We deserve a much higher level of engagement with our schools.

In contrast, let’s consider how Mr. Bennett viewed IB -- the cause which has meant so much to me. He began with skepticism which he addressed by seeking out all of the reading material he could find, posing sharp and critical questions, and then formulating his conclusions. I support him not because he came to see value in IB, but because his approach -- doubt, question, deep research, grounded thoughtful conclusion, is what I want to see in a board member, whether or not he or she agrees with my views on a particular issue.

Is the best support for our Superintendent casual boosterism or careful study? Which do you see as most likely to improve the quality of education for all of our students?

But, I’ve been told, The Eastman team see education as a zero sum game.  They are not for education for all.  They do not want to see children of all backgrounds in the same classroom.

I really thought hard on this one, for it cuts deep, gets to the core of what I care about.  A commitment to public education for children of all backgrounds is deep in my blood.  It’s what I live and breathe.

I grew up at my father's side, helping him grade his algebra papers, for he was an Indian immigrant from a segregated colony, who became the first teacher of color in a high school of minority students. My mother became a teacher and college advisor, winning scholarships to competitive universities for immigrant children who would have never dreamed of such opportunities. Now, I am a professor at a NJ university, where I daily teach students who are far more diverse than those in South Orange-Maplewood. Seventy percent of my students will go on to be public school teachers, which is why I take their preparation so seriously—I see the strengths and weaknesses of NJ’s education, and I know they will be serving in New Jersey’s schools, maybe even ours. 

It is out of this experience that I have come to understand that exposure to rigorous curriculum is one of the keys to academic achievement.  I would rather give my students a D or C—and I give many, I assure you—than to lull them into believing they are doing fine.  That’s why I know, in its broadest sense, it is best to expose students at the moment of academic take-off—middle school—to real expectations. That's why I supported the Middle School Proposal, despite its flaws and vagueness in many places.

However, that doesn’t mean I can avert my eyes from the real challenges of such a vision and ideal. Daily in my classroom I contend with uneven preparedness, lack of college readiness, poverty, substance abuse, and family dysfunction that impedes my students from realizing their dreams.

Similarly, to point out the very real challenges our District faces is not to undermine our District’s direction. It is to strengthen it, as I embolden them.  It is to make sure we do this well and honestly, with unvarnished eyes.  To admit that students need help—as I do, in sending them weekly to the Writing Center—is to offer them what they need.  No one is relegating a child or consigning them to a fate of low achievement.  We simply need to do better and better. We need to constantly generate new ideas, try them out, check out which ideas have in fact worked. We need to admit what’s hard about fulfilling such an ambitious and worthy goal.

In declaring my support so openly, I will admit I am not always comfortable with many of the supporters in the Eastman-Pai-Bennett campaign.  At other years, at other junctures, we may not have shared the same table of endorsement, and I daresay I probably have more friends on the other side.  But ultimately I am not voting for their supporters.  I am voting for these individuals, their ideas, who they have shown themselves to be and how hard they’ve worked during this campaign.  I am voting for their capacity to be effective on a high-level, $100 million plus governing body that has been entrusted with so much change.

And as the founder of Parents for IB—even as I depart from many friends in the cause—I must vote for those who I believe will make the program a true success.

Finally—though I do not always agree with every detail in the Pai-Bennett-Eastman may utter—they have been a breath of fresh air. They forced me to define my values; they have raised the bar for me in understanding what makes for strong implementation and oversight.  They will do the same if elected.  They will invigorate our Board.  They will invigorate our Administration to do even better. 

That’s the best support I can imagine for our Superintendent.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Theresa Burns April 18, 2012 at 03:04 AM
Mary, perhaps you can fix that link--it seems to be broken. Just wanted to add that I was present at the candidates forum the other night when Ms. Swanson brought up the bulletin board example and I thought it was a terrific instance of teaching relevant content across the curriculum. It involved an invention by a lesser-known African American scientist, involved student art and community service, and had an ecological component to boot. And it was a 2nd grade bulletin board, as I recall. Call me easily impressed, but that teacher was singing my song. Look at the way all these things are connected! My son, a science nut, would have loved it, too. But I tend to like grounded, real-life examples over theoretical stuff any day. In any case, why would Ms. Swanson's sharing that vivid example with the forum that night be in any way "inappropriate" or an expression of "casual boosterism"?
Amy Higer April 18, 2012 at 04:39 AM
For the record, I've campaigned with Tia Swanson now for 6 weeks. I did not know Tia at all before this campaign. I've never met anyone who had a better understanding of what an excellent, rigorous education is. Her passion for learning, her enthusiasm for good teaching, is beyond measure. In her swipes at Tia, which were personal and direct, Marina Budhos crossed the line and violated the very principles to which she purports to subscribe.
Mary Mann April 18, 2012 at 06:09 AM
A working link for Tia's blog: http://patch.com/B-Kqp
Katie Bell May 06, 2012 at 08:54 PM
Why did the editor close comments on Tia's blog, but not Ms. Budhos'?
Marcia Worth May 07, 2012 at 12:40 AM
If you'd like to write in, please feel free to do so in an op-ed or blog. However, certain blog posts that appeared before the election attracted comments that had to be deleted. Those posts were eventually closed to further comment.

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