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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.


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.

Arthur. Gartenlaub September 18, 2012 at 02:57 PM
Wayne, while I agree with your vision I would suggest the insertion of the following...", District Factor Group 1, and will use our diversity to further our educational advantages." With the insertion of this statement I believe that you can eliminate the next sentence. Art Gartenlaub
Michael Paris September 18, 2012 at 09:10 PM
Mr. Eastman's comments are puzzling. He asks us to consider the difference between two pithy vision statements, the Board's current proposed one, which states that “the South Orange-Maplewood School District will be the top-performing diverse suburban school district in the nation,” and his proposed alternative, which states that “We are committed to having our students learn more and perform better than students in our peer districts as defined by the state.” He would then add explanatory language to his proposed alternative indicating that "we are strongly committed to not using our diversity as an excuse." Were I a board member, I think I could happily and logically support both statements. Both sorts of reference points could have value. What troubles me about Mr. Eastman's comments, however, is his intimation (without his explicitly saying so) that anyone has proposed or favors "using diversity as an excuse." No one I know wants to do that or favors that. Does Mr. Eastman think that anyone does? Would Mr. Eastman care to say who, specifically, he is talking about, and why he thinks they want to use diversity as an excuse? Mr. Eastman uses the passive voice when he says that the first statement "could be read to mean that we are setting the bar low." Why on earth would anyone read it that way? It says no such thing. It seems to me that Mr. Eastman has conjured up a "making excuses" problem out of thin air, in order to make a show of refuting it.
Pamela Erens September 18, 2012 at 11:36 PM
Terrific piece. I support your rewording of the vision statement, and I think Mr. Gartenlaub offers a viable alternative also.
Pieter John September 18, 2012 at 11:52 PM
Dear Mr. Paris: As a CHS student, let me respectfully correct your information. The "diversity issue" is used as an excuse and a crutch throughout the school system as I have known it for most of my life. The school does set the bar very low very often, and "being inclusive" is given as a reason. CHS, at least, is very selective about enforcing many rules, not just academic standards, and we are told that not enforcing dress code, as one example, is "respect for diversity." That seems absurd; that seems like adults using "diversity" as code for lower standards than other schools. I don't speak for everyone, but I know my experiences.
Michael Paris September 19, 2012 at 03:25 AM
Dear Pieter John. Thank you for your comment. Much appreciated. Non-enforcement or under-enforcement or selective enforcement of rules concerning appropriate behavior could be a serious problem. The first question is whether that is happening--is it?--and then the second question would be whether anyone is offering "diversity" as some sort of excuse for the fact that it is happening. I'm not in the school, you are, so perhaps you could be more precise about what you mean? I suppose reasonable people could disagree about what the dress code should be and who should decide what it should be. Perhaps you might consider organizing a student forum or even a referendum on that question? I'm sure there is a dress code, I just don't know what it is. Mr. Eastman (and now Mr. Andrew Lee) purport to be concerned with academic standards, above all else. They seem to think that some unnamed people in the community are in favor of using "diversity" as an excuse for tolerating low academic standards. Until I hear a counter-argument from them with some factual support for their strange assertions about someone somehow "using diversity as an excuse," I'll have to conclude that what they are doing, whether intentionally or not, is making up a nonexistent issue so they can then stand up for not using diversity as an excuse. No one has or ever would "use diversity as an excuse."
Arthur. Gartenlaub September 19, 2012 at 12:50 PM
Now that I more fully understand both sides of this issue, I would like to respectfully disagree, in part with both. Unfortunately the word diversity is being used to discribe several different issues, so I am introducing a new, made up, word to be used to replace the word diversity...NAFTOSS (newly arrived families to our school system). If anything may be used as an excuse, it is the fact that we may have more "transplanted" students in our school system than ever before. Just a little history; I entered Clinton School in 1949 and graduated Columbia in 1961. These naftossie, have as much right to the superior education as all other students, however, some come to us without the necessary educational preparation for the grade level into that which they are assigned (an almost sure indicator for future failure). My primary concern for these naftossie is explicit testing to assure that they are placed at proper grade level (if there are any mandates that prohibit this then I stand corrected). Diversity cannot and should not ever be used as an excuse; however being a naftoss, among other factors may legitimately be used as a explanation for some academic underachievement. Given this, I believe that our educational system has a place to start to remediate the non-issue of diversity. I stand by my previous post.
Michael Paris September 20, 2012 at 02:12 PM
Would Mr. Eastman care to respond to the point I made above? I find it puzzling that both he and Mr. Andrew Lee, in a separate editorial, use the exact same puzzling language about "not using diversity as an excuse." Do they believe that anyone is using diversity as an excuse for low standards, or setting the bar low? This strikes me as a very simple question, one certainly amenable to a yes or no answer. Of course, a yes answer would then require an actual argument in support of it.
Pamela Erens September 20, 2012 at 07:14 PM
Mr. Paris, I think it’s a matter of simple logic. The phrase “top-performing diverse suburban school district” is more restrictive than “top-performing suburban school district.” Just as “top-performing district with a dance program” is more restrictive than “top-performing district.” One doesn’t need to have heard an administrator “use diversity as an excuse.” By putting the word “diverse” in its vision statement, the Board of Ed is by definition setting a lower goal. That’s what I assume Mr. Eastman meant in his critique of the vision statement. I don’t know this for sure, as I haven’t discussed it with him.
Pieter John September 20, 2012 at 07:36 PM
Dear Mr. Paris: I answered the questions you pose in your first paragraph. Yes, this is my experience and observation and yes, diversity is put out there as a reason for sometimes lower standards in academics, behavior, dress code etc. (These are related.) I think your "look on the bright side" is very nice, in thinking that low standards excused by diversity is NOT happening, but it seems a little naive to me. I am in the schools everyday. There is a dress code for the schools, by the way. Have you ever been to the high school or seen its policies? That might be a good way to start learning more about the schools in this town.
Andrea Marino September 21, 2012 at 12:58 AM
Pamela hits the nail on the head. Thank you.
Michael Paris September 21, 2012 at 02:29 AM
Dear Ms. Erens. I disagree that it follows, by definition, that by putting the word "diverse" in the vision statement the Board would be setting a lower goal. That wouldn't be the intent or the likely effect, on anything, and I say this without opening up the real question, which is what it would mean to be "top-performing" and why. In my view, test scores would be just a part of that picture, and another important part wouldn't be amenable to objective measurement at all. As I said above, were I on the board, I would advocate incorporating both statements as reference points. I would, however, certainly argue for leaving out language in which we proclaim that "we are strongly committed to not using diversity as an excuse." Why is there a need to say that, unless that is somehow going on or there is a danger that it will go on. It isn't going on, and there is no danger that it will. So, I guess I'll stand by my interpretation of Mr. Eastman's editorial here, which strikes me as a species of campaigning, as opposed to governing. It seem to me that he making something into an issue, which isn't remotely really an issue, in order to take the stand he wants to take on it. Best, Michael
Morrisa da Silva September 21, 2012 at 05:55 PM
Mr. Paris, It is not Mr. Eastman's article which is puzzling or off the mark, but rather your curious interpretation of his points. Rather than relying on your interpretation of what Mr. Eastman wrote, which you spuriously characterize as a "species of campaigning, as opposed to governance" - let's look at what he actually wrote with regards to diversity : "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. " You may recall that Mr. Giles in recapping of community feedback on goals mentioned that there were a number of responses both written and in focus groups where the community reflected concern that we are potentially selling ourselves short by using diversity as a couch for our outcomes. Mr. Eastman's point is grounded in a concern by the community voiced to the BOE. That looks a lot like responsive governance to me! I appreciate Mr. Eastman's willingness to lay out his thinking on this matter in Patch. I would be just as appreciative for other sitting members of the BOE to do the same on this or other matters. In any case, I think it is inappropriate to to demand/expect BOE members to engage in a back and forth with posters on Patch. If you have further questions of Mr. Eastman feel free to contact him directly.
Jennifer Crohn September 21, 2012 at 08:15 PM
Mr. Paris: I agree that not all aspects of student achievement can be measured objectively, but Eastman is right to observe that "As imperfect as the NJASK and the HSPA are, the alternative of not holding ourselves accountable in any objective way is far worse." Do you believe many parents in our district think otherwise? I'm also not sure how one can disagree logically with Pam Erens' explanation of the problem with the way the mission statement is worded. "Diverse" school districts universally contend with a racial and/or socioeconomic achievement gap which lowers aggregate performance--and not just on standardized test scores. If we mean to change that circumstance in our corner of the world, then surely we should not be seen to be waffling about it. Unfortunately, the mission statement language sounds either cynical or inept. Mere ineptitude would welcome a fix, and soon. I can imagine the BOE taking a second look after reading Eren's precis on English usage and exclaiming, "Damn! That does need rewording." What I can't fathom is someone who genuinely cares about doing right by all students making overwrought insinuations about a board member who plainly seeks clarity and accountability in the district's achievement of that very goal.
Michael Paris September 21, 2012 at 11:53 PM
Morrisa: Thank you for the comment. Your are correct about what Mr. Giles said at the June BOE meeting. I was there when he addressed this, and I have been fully aware of what he said while I was posting my comments and questions here. Mr. Giles not only only reported these concerns, he endorsed them as valid. So I must say that I stand corrected by you to a significant extent on this point. It is not in itself outlandish to raise "diversity as an excuse" as a concern. CONTINUED ON NEXT POST
Michael Paris September 22, 2012 at 12:07 AM
Morrisa continued: I had no problem at all with Mr. Eastman's proposed alternative, and I saw no reason to choose between the two mission statements. Let me try to rephrase my concerns. I saw and see no need for Mr. Eastman's public statement in the first place. It still strikes me as trying make something out of nothing. And, if he is going to air his views on this minor point, is it too much to ask that he respond to direct and pertinent questions put to him? The question was whether there was any accusatory implication (was he saying that someone was using diversity as excuse, or not?). It was a simple question, and he could have simply disavowed it, but he didn't answer. A simple answer would have ended the whole conversation. It is also obvious that I suspected, and still suspect, that his statement and Mr. Lee's recent and forthcoming Op-Ed's are at least in part about setting up a campaign to unseat current BOE members. I conclude that based on similarities in language in the two recent Op-Ed's, and from the supportive comments added by six or seven core supporters of Mr. Eastman's last campaign. I could be wrong, but it looks like Ms. Marino's (Mr. Eastman's campaign manager) approach to media to me. If that's what you all are up to, and if Mr. Lee will be a candidate for school board, that's all well and good. But if it is true, then don't you think you should be honest about it? Of course, you are free to acknowledge this, disavow it, or ignore it.
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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