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A Flawed Vision and a Proposal to Make it Better

A criticism of the current vision statement of the schools and a proposal for change

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.



 



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Michael Paris September 22, 2012 at 01:03 AM
Jennifer: Overwrought? Moi? To answer your question: Yes, I do believe that many parents in our district would agree with Mr. Eastman's statement that test scores are imperfect, but the alternative is far worse. I don't agree with it, because the focus on test scores and the test score gap have a way of narrowing our conception of education and how we think about the purposes and functions of public schooling. The obsession with "performance" as measured by test scores has narrowed the curriculum and the use of them to evaluate teachers has undermined teacher morale. Test scores are just part of the picture, which leads directly to why I don't think comparing ourselves to other diverse suburban districts necessarily does or should or would imply anything about lowering the bar or lowering standards. So let me repeat it: No fix is needed, although I would urge the board to add his language to the existing language. There is the matter of the reverse problem: the negative innuendo or accusation that might be implied ("let's stop, or let's not, use diversity as an excuse!"). Diversity, whatever one means by it, is always a negative and unwanted thing, something that drags down performance. So "diverse" students become the problem to be solved. As for the insinuations, you can tell me whether I'm right or wrong about a stealth campaign at this point. I favor honesty about political partisanship, my own included. Best, Michael
David Frazer September 22, 2012 at 02:35 AM
Mr. Eastman's pivot away from diversity as an "excuse" and toward a goal of "perform[ing] better than students in our peer districts as defined by the state" based on standardized test scores will, ironically, require the district to focus even more intensely on the racial achievement gap. I say ironically because the clear thrust of the Eastman/Bennet/Pai campaign, which included objections to Osborne's deleveling initiative, was that the district was expending too many resources on bridging the gap while ignoring the needs of high achieving students. So, let's take Mr. Eastman at his word and assume he wants to bring the district's standardized test scores up to the DFG regardless of the reality of the achievement gap. Well, if that's the case, the work to be done is, almost exclusively, with our "under achieving" black students. As the MOL poster sprout has pointed out, our white students already score in the TOP FIVE of all NJ school districts -- including the higher SES DFG J -- on standardized tests. Our white students, almost literally, cannot improve when it comes to standardized tests. CONTINUED
David Frazer September 22, 2012 at 02:36 AM
This means that, if we are to reach Mr. Eastman's stated goal, the district must double-down on efforts to improve the scores of black students which lag significantly behind our white students. [Though, per MOL's sprout, they are within the top ten of all NJ districts for black students.] Yet, the pushback to Osborne's effort to make marginal gains in this area via deleveling is exactly what powered the Eastman/Bennett/Pai campaign. So, the question for Mr. Eastman is: if not deleveling, what additional programs and resources are you prepared to dedicate to bridging the racial achievement gap so that we can realize your vision of standardized test scores at or about our DFG peers?
Jennifer Crohn September 22, 2012 at 06:45 PM
Michael: You have conceded that people on all sides of the debates about our school district’s aspirations have taken issue with the wording of a vision statement that could be read as limiting those aspirations in exactly the wrong way. But you cannot be persuaded that a fix is needed. To insist otherwise is to hold that "Diversity, whatever one means by it, is always a negative and unwanted thing, something that drags down performance. So "diverse" students become the problem to be solved." I don't know anyone around here who holds such views.
Jennifer Crohn September 22, 2012 at 06:50 PM
As for whether you are "right or wrong about a stealth campaign at this point"-- well, I guess we’ve been found out and I may as well come clean. It’s true: Wayne Eastman, Andrew Lee, and all your interlocutors here are engaged in a shrouded conspiracy to upend all that is right and good. I know all about everyone’s plans, so I can tell you for sure that Andrew Lee wrote an op-ed here on Patch because he has decided to run for office fourteen months from now. One can never commit to these things too early! Naturally, Andrew and Wayne agree on all matters in every respect, and neither of them thinks anything but standardized test scores are important. Be very afraid. You’re right, too, that Andrea Marino (or as we in the Cabal know her, “Media Machiavelli”), has told all of us what to say and when to say it. It would otherwise never occur to anyone who worked on the PEB campaign, and knows and likes Wayne and Andrew, to respond to aggressive insinuations about them that we read on message boards.

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