At our next meeting on September 24th, the Board of Education is
scheduled to vote on our district goals.
Along with deciding on the budget, setting the goals for the district is the single most important thing the BOE does.
District goals include both a vision that the Board believes should guide the district and specific, measurable indicators and milestones.
There are some major positive features in our district goals. One key positive is our commitment, spelled out in specific indicators and milestones, to holding ourselves accountable. As imperfect as the NJASK and the HSPA are, the alternative of not holding ourselves accountable in any objective way is far worse.
Unfortunately, our vision, which is the first and central feature of our goals, is deeply flawed.
In our previous Board discussions, there have been signs of confusion about how to craft a vision statement that supports both the objective of valuing diversity and the objective of striving for academic excellence.
The vision now reads: “The South Orange-Maplewood School District will be the top-performing diverse suburban school district in the nation.”
There are four fundamental problems with the current vision.
First, the vision is misaligned with our goals, which rely on results on New Jersey’s state tests.
Second, the vision refers to diversity without explaining what we mean by it or why it is important to mention.
Third, the vision could be read to mean that we’re setting the bar low on our aspirations because of diversity. I don’t believe the Board or the community favors using diversity as an excuse. We shouldn’t have a vision that could be read that way.
Fourth, although the vision sounds as though we might be measuring ourselves relative to other districts across the U.S., we aren’t. Comparisons of performance here to districts in other states would be interesting information to have. But it is very hard to equate results on different state tests, and we’re not doing that work.
Fortunately, the problems just described are all fixable.
We can craft a concise vision that is clear, well-aligned with our actual accountability measures, and in accord with community values.
Here’s what I suggest: “We are committed to having our students learn more and perform better than students in our peer districts as defined by the state.”
To lend clarity, I believe we should follow the vision with an explanation. That follow-on to the vision could read:
“We value our high level of racial and socio-economic diversity compared to the
average district in our state-defined category, District Factor Group I. At the same time, we are strongly committed to not using our diversity as an excuse. Matching or exceeding the performance of our state-defined peer districts on state tests is a difficult challenge to meet, but it is a challenge that we need to meet. We embrace that challenge.
Our commitment to our students learning more as well as performing better reflects our belief that learning is broader than performance as measured on tests. Accountability is critical, but we must always bear in mind that broader meaning of learning and avoid narrow teaching to the test.”
I believe we should get rid of the current vision language and replace it with
what I’ve suggested here.
I fully respect that people of good will can and will differ on that question,
and on whether we go with what’s proposed here or with a different approach.
Personally, at some point in the future I would like to see a vision that refers to global citizenship and to global benchmarking.
At the same time, I believe the simple change to the vision proposed here would be a big step forward for us.
The vision I’m proposing promotes accountability as well as a broad objective of learning more.
Especially with the explanatory language, it is clear.
Finally, it is well aligned with the values of our community.
Let’s adopt it now.
If you agree with me—or for that matter if you don’t—please come to speak out at our meeting on September 24th. This is an important issue. The voices of people in our community--not just the voices of BOE members like myself--should be heard.
This op-ed is written in my personal capacity and does not reflect a position of the
South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education.