The great disconnect: is anyone responsible for achievement?

A full agenda would be an understated description of Trenton’s board of education meeting on April 22. It was the last meeting to be presided over by the widely admired Toby Sanders, whose three-year appointment to the board was not renewed by the city’s mayor. Hence, there were many tributes to him.  The music and dance performances that have now become regular features of board meetings included an exciting presentation by a group called TEDI, some high school students were given an award from a national organization for its video about career preparation, and an individual high school student was lauded for being a scholar-athlete who will be representing the district in a national conference next month.

The meeting began with the board’s acceptance of the superintendent’s recommendations – 30-odd pages providing details of promotions, terminations, contracts proposed, field trips and the like, a regular part of every meeting (and the reason why boards of education exist). But there was a hitch – the state’s controversial commissioner of education had, at the last minute, requested that two recommendations for promotions be removed from the agenda. Opposed to this interference, Sanders asked whether the board could decide not to remove these recommendations (for a new principal) and then the commissioner could do as he wished – as the state provides 85 percent of Trenton’s funding and claims that three fourths of its schools are failing for low-performance, the commissioner has considerable latitude in district decision-making.

The leaders of the Trenton Education Association audibly applauded this move, but as members of the board discussed the issue, a decision was apparently made to stand its ground on other issues. The commissioner’s preference was heeded.

Then it was time for public participation – always a lively part of Trenton’s board meetings, a celebration of democratic freedom of speech and the community’s sense of involvement with the schools. First up was a man who appears often at board and city council meetings to remind his fellow citizens of their obligations and of real problems facing the community: poor academic skills, too much violence, too little good nutrition. Then I spoke, with a plea that district teachers consider adopting on their own more structured methods for discipline and instruction, points I had recently made in published commentaries and in this blog.  Teachers and administrators at Trenton’s schools may object to interference from the state, but it isn’t going to go away until they manage to improve academic performance. A chill seemed to have filled the room at the end of my remarks.

After another commendation and a complaint, the vocal and forceful leader of the Trenton Education Association, stepped to the podium, with harsh comments about the supposed “turn-around expert” the state named to oversee Trenton’s  effort to improve its schools’ performance. Last spring, with considerable fanfare, the New Jersey Department of Education established eight Regional Achievement Centers to oversee instruction and leadership at schools performing in the bottom five percent on statewide achievement tests.  And it named to head these RACs as they are called, “distinguished educators” from around the country.

The TEA president has a valid point – I’d expected that the mane who heads Trenton’s RAC would appear at board meetings and similar functions to try to get a sense of the community and to make news about his plans. But other than a quick appearance at a board meeting in September, he’s kept an exceedingly low profile considering his responsibilities.

However, according to the TEA  president, he has begun to show up in the schools; he was apparently behind the commissioner’s request regarding the promotions. Also, he and some of his staff have been visiting schools to evaluate teachers – but, per the TEA, those doing so have no credentials for the work. Most recently, the RAC head has told teachers that they must all follow a certain form of lesson plan – something the TEA said is ridiculous: how can teachers with responsibility for six subjects each day, also find time to fill out complex lesson plans? She’s right; it’s absurd.

The TEA’s feisty grievance officer came up next and directly addressed the state’s monitor, a stone-faced woman who is the commissioner’s representative at board meetings. Why, the TEA official asked, would the state appoint to the post of turn-around chief, someone as unqualified for the work as the one sent to Trenton? He was, she claimed, “non-renewed” after two years as a school principal in Delaware – which is tantamount to being fired, she said. “Why would the state department of education send leftovers to Trenton?” she asked. A valid question, indeed.

As TEA officials have noted, their numerous requests to meet with the RAC head have been ignored: “Someone forgot to tell [him] what collaboration is,” she said. With only two years heading another school, “What gives him the expertise to lead districts like Trenton?” Also a valid question. She closed her comments by saying: “We have to do what we are trying to do, which is to educate the children of Trenton.”

Her point is as valid as her questions – but the state’s point is equally valid: Trenton’s students perform way below those of other communities and its high school graduation rate is roughly 50 percent. Trenton’s teachers may be trying to educate the children of Trenton, but they are not succeeding in their efforts.

Then it was time for the superintendent to make his remarks; as usual, he is both a cheerleader for district accomplishments and occasionally a prod about its challenges. But, alas, the longer he has been in his post, the more the former seems to have superseded the latter. Part of this is inevitable – he knows he cannot accomplish anything without wide support, but the inspiring personal story that brought him in Trenton and his great aims for collaboration and accomplishment a year ago when he was hired, have been tending to fall into a pattern of making excuses. Recent newspaper stories have pointed that the district recently hired as assistant superintendent a woman who had participated in a test-result altering scheme in Philadelphia and that a special education program at a district high school was a farce. The superintendent’s published comments about both were classic bureaucratic avoidance of the real issues at hand.

His commented noted the district’s new website and commended the meeting’s “celebration of positive things.” “Tonight is an example that public schools are not a failure, our schools can perform well,” he said. “We have achievement issues,” he continued,” but the way to solve them is not to attack [us] . . . blaming the teachers or the parents or the school board is not the solution.”

And he ended his comments by saying: “We cannot allow [other] people to dictate to us what our schools need,” a comment that seemed aimed not only at the state and its representative sitting not far from him, but possibly at the three critics (including myself?) who had also spoken at the meeting.

The state Department of Education, I would agree, has contributed little to improving Trenton’s schools, and it seems to have appointed officials of questionable qualifications to oversee the “turnaround” efforts it has imposed on the district. But if neither the teachers nor the parents are to blame for the schools’ shortcomings – as the superintendent claimed – who is?


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