Montclair parents have joined a growing education reform movement, which includes Opting-Out of NJASK standardized tests, questioning Common Core State Standards and teacher evaluation methods, and the new Strategic Plan of the Montclair School district.

Concerns About Montclair’s Strategic Plan

One group, under the name “Montclair Cares About Schools,” has created a petition asking the Board of Education to defer the adoption of the Montclair Board of Education’s new Strategic Plan, which will implement district-wide quarterly assessments, at the meeting this Monday, June 17. The district recently announced new curriculum and assessments procedures for the upcoming 2013-2014 school year and the groups’ concerns are that questions still remain about the plan.

The petition states:
We are parents and community members of Montclair, New Jersey. We write because we believe in Montclair’s identity as a community of intellect, courage, collaboration, creativity and dedication to equity, and we believe that these values are reflected in a nationally respected, exemplary and desegregated school district. We understand that our district must comply with state and federal testing requirements. However, the Strategic Plan currently under consideration puts an undue emphasis on data-driven instruction above and beyond these requirements at the expense of the creativity and energy that are at the core of Montclair’s personality.

The Strategic Plan calls for the imposition of four district-wide common tests each and every year. These tests would be imposed on every child from kindergarten to 12th grade, and would impact math, reading, writing, science and social studies (See Goal 1, Objective 3). It calls for data from these tests to be used to shape instruction in ways that jeopardize teacher autonomy and student engagement (See Goal 1, Strategies 10 & 11).

This raises serious questions about the future of teaching and learning in the school district we love:

  • Will the imposition of these tests undermine the unique personality of each magnet school?
  • Will the imposition of these tests undermine the initiative and creativity of our best teachers?
  • Will data review geared towards competition undermine authentic teacher collaboration?
  • Will data review damage authentic learning opportunities for a wide variety of students?

To that end, we, the undersigned, urge the Montclair Board of Education to defer the adoption of district wide quarterly assessments that go above and beyond those mandated by the State of NJ for compliance with Common Core Curriculum for the 2013-2014 school year.
A parent who signed the petition told Barista Kids that she is concerned that the Strategic Plan will have short-term and long-term consequences on Montclair’s Magnet School System. She feels that we need more than 90 days (the amount of time the district’s new Superintendent, Dr. MacCormack, spent on a “listening tour” before she began to implement a Strategic Plan) and more than 12 weeks for teachers to implement the changes and create assessments for the 2013-2014 school year.

Elana Halberstadt has a child in kindergarten. She signed the petition because she’s concerned about the Strategic Plan. ”Montclair has had an excellent reputation, has been a leader in desegregation, and has been recognized as a top magnet school district that thrives on its diversity and strengths of its citizens who believe in democracy in our town and in our public schools. Do I believe there is much to change and improve upon? Of course, and there always will be room for improvement. However dismantling everything is counter- productive and destructive.”

She adds, “The Strategic Plan as it is currently written is a disaster for our school district and will be harmful to our students, teachers, and entire community. It represents a gutting of core values, it won’t close the achievement gap, won’t inspire our teachers or students to have meaningful, authentic learning experiences that really could prepare our students for the world we live in now and in the foreseeable future. The Plan must be rejected.”

John Wodnick has concerns about meaningful educational lessons being pushed aside with the new plan:
Thursday night, I attended a Toast for my son’s second grade teacher. I had just cleaned some papier mache out of my son’s hair that had come from a project she had designed to encourage the students to connect with endangered species across the globe. The host’s children were so enthusiastic to see chicks hatch in their classroom that they had emailed the teacher begging to take the chicks home as pets. This is the sort of enthusiasm for learning that I fear we are putting at risk if we place too much emphasis on testing in the coming strategic plan.

Despite the superintendent’s assurances that creative approaches to education will be celebrated in this new system, a great deal of Goal #1 of the Strategic Plan remains dependent upon district-wide common assessments. These tests cannot help but interfere with the independence and creativity of the most energetic and engaged educators we have here in Montclair. I do not want my grade school children subjected to a battery of tests every ten weeks in the coming years. I do not want their success measured merely by data—I want them coming home eager to return to school the next day, eager to learn more, eager to explore and connect and imagine. Common assessments imposed district-wide will not have the same power to inspire my children as inspired teachers do.
Montclair Cares About Schools will be presenting the petition at the Montclair BoE meeting on Monday, June 17 at 7 pm at MHS Auditorium, 100 Chestnut Street.

This petition is just one way Montclair parents are becoming active and vocal for education reform.

Opt-Out Movement

There were two fewer Montclair students taking the NJASK standardized tests a few weeks ago. The middle school students were kept home by their parents who have joined the “Opt-out” movement happening nationally.

Rachel Egan got her first taste of the NJASK tests this year. As a mother to a recently adopted tween, she hadn’t given NJASKs much attention since her other children haven’t started 3rd grade yet, which is when NJASK annual testing begins. But this year, her middle school student, who is a recent English speaking student, was being prepared to take the yearly standardized test and Egan didn’t like what she was seeing. After learning more about the Opt-Out Movement and listening to leaders in educational reform, Egan decided to have her daughter “Opt-Out.”

“This system of testing has already failed, it is the old way, it costs a fortune, and it doesn’t work. We need to evolve and find a new, more sophisticated way—just as we have evolved and found that there are better ways to discipline our kids, other than spanking them,” says Egan.

Egan said she discussed it thoroughly with her daughter, who didn’t want to take the tests and was comfortable with her parents’ decision.

Egan learned that there isn’t a clear method of Opting-Out, but there isn’t a legal obligation to have your child take the test either. Keeping your child out of school for the entire testing and makeup period (8 days) is illegal, but Egan took her daughter in at 11 am daily, after the tests were administered. When the school tried to get her daughter to take the tests during the makeup period, Egan went in and demanded that they stop. They did, but her daughter was marked late for the testing days.

Egan will have a 3rd grader next year and plans to keep her from taking the NJASK as well.

“Even though we are concerned about the younger children’s reaction to possibly being treated differently during NJASK week, we always stress in our family that it is important to try to activate change when you believe in it. I feel that most kids deep down get that these exams are wrong, and I want to support my children and stand up for them too. I want them to know when they are older that we did not comply with things that were harmful to them in the long run, simply to ease their short term fears.” Egan explains.

She added, “We want to teach them to be strong and to understand the power that people have in this country. We cherish democracy. It is natural for us all to try to make our children’s lives as smooth and happy as can be, but as you made that great point about classroom competition being like real life, it can be a bumpy road, and in real life you do also have to some times say no to the status quo, which can be uncomfortable. I am confident, however, that more parents are joining us and that this will become easier, and that we will create a better assessment process. I hope that my kids will feel great pride that they took part in this opt out movement, making schools better for all children.”

Edgar Aracena is against what he feels is an overload of standardized testing, which causes teachers to teach to the test, rather than teach in a meaningful way. He recently hosted a leader in New Jersey’s education reform movement, Jean Schutt McTavish, at his Montclair home to discuss the Opt-Out movement.

“Jean and her sister, both principals in NYC, came to our house for a discussion. My friend, Mary Adams, who is on the Rochester, NY School Board and a Rochester teacher, joined us via Skype,” says Aracena. It was after that meeting that Aracena decided that his middle school daughter would “Opt-Out” of taking the NJASK.

“NJASK/Common Core have nothing to do with educating our children. This is part of a corporate-mad dash for our shrinking education cash,” he added.

Jean Schutt McTavish is a principal of Edward A. Reynolds West Side High School in New York City, and the mother of two children in Ridgewood, NJ Public Schools—two very different school settings, with very different performance ratings. She notified the public schools that both her children would stay home during NJASK testing.

McTavish wrote a post on the “United Opt-Out” website explaining her decision, in which she begins, ”I do not permit my children to participate in the NJ ASK or any other standardized testing for state report cards and NCLB/RTTT accountability. I believe that this kind of testing is, at best, counter-productive and perhaps even harmful to my children’s education and development.”

McTavish spoke to Barista Kids about her leadership in the reform movement. “I thought that No Child Left Behind, and the recent Race to the Top waiver, were only an urban problem. I was wrong. It’s making my hair stand up at the amount of test prep students are going through.” She’s not feeling any more confident with the newly adopted Common Core State Standards (adopted by 45 states and three territories) and the upcoming PARCC assessments, that will replace NJASK.

“You can’t assess deep understanding with bubble tests. PARCC is not much better than NJASK,” says McTavish. She says the new assessments will require 8 1/2 hours more test time, roughly three more hours per year than current tests require. And that’s only the test time, not the time teachers will spend prepping students for the tests.

McTavish feels that as more parents and educators join the reform movement and stand up against data-driven education, change will come.