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10-24-12 Education in the News
NJ Spotlight- NJ's Top Three Supers Open up About Life Inside the System…Flux is the norm in New Jersey's public schools, offering unique challenges and opportunities

Press of Atlantic City - Education commissioner stresses finding new ways to be effective at school boards conference in Atlantic City

NJ Spotlight- NJ's Top Three Supers Open up About Life Inside the System…Flux is the norm in New Jersey's public schools, offering unique challenges and opportunities
By John Mooney, October 24, 2012 in Education

All told, the three men represent more than 50 years of school leadership -- in different New Jersey communities with different challenges.

Whatever their differences, however, the three share a common bond: They were named yesterday as the top school superintendents in their regions. They also share a common sentiment: the expectations and pressures now facing New Jersey’s schools are unprecedented, especially in the face of constrained resources and strict caps.

They weren't complaining about their jobs, something they made clear in a joint interview with NJ Spotlight. Recent changes in the state’s tenure laws and coming changes in curriculum offered some equally unprecedented opportunities, they said.

But it wasn’t getting any easier, either. Albert Brown, the first superintendent in the state to be shared by two neighboring districts -- Stratford and Laurel Springs in Camden County -- recalled sitting through state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf’s convocation with more than 300 fellow superintendents last month.

The presentation lasted two-and-a half-hours, with Cerf and his top staff describing an array of changes in curriculum, testing, and district accountability -- and their attendant consequences and rewards.

“I don’t think there was anybody there who wasn’t overwhelmed by the amount of expectations that are coming down from Trenton,” Brown said. "The workload on administrators, principals, and teachers has never been higher. “These jobs have never been easy, but it just seems the burden is getting heavier,” he said.

The New Jersey Association of School Administrators named Brown as the southern region’s top superintendent. He joins Christopher Manno of Burlington Township as the central regional winner, and Ridgewood’s Daniel Fishbein in the northern region.

One of the three will be named the state’s top superintendent in early November.

Yesterday, they were in Atlantic City as part of the administrators association’s annual conference held with the New Jersey School Boards Association.

In an empty room away from main event, the three supers sat down and talked about some of the changes coming, starting with the new ways of evaluating and judging teachers and principals under the tenure reform law enacted last summer.

“This has led to an invigorated conversation about teaching and learning, and we’re talking more about what good teaching and learning look like,” Manno said.

“The vast majority of our teachers are good, very talented people, and I don’t think this will impact them at all negatively. I think it will enhance them as they continue to grow," he said.

"It will impact struggling teachers, and I think it’s not a bad thing that it will make a system address performance concerns more efficiently and effectively,” Manno continued.

But with every opportunity, there was a concern, too. “If you just do the math of the [teacher] observations and evaluations required in the law, it is a significant increase in time,” Manno added. “Combine that with all the other administrative requirements, for instance the new [anti-bullying law] -- most of us have cut administrative staff in recent years, and this makes it very difficult.”

“We want to do this well, but without the proper administrative resources to do it, that’s a challenge,” he said.

Brown also applauded the idea of the added tools that came with the law, but he worried that it also put an equal burden on evaluating the very best teachers as well as the struggling ones.

“The highly proficient teachers, we already know who they are, we know our stars,” he said. “I’ve been observing them for years, and I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know how much wisdom I will impart to them. They’re teaching me. “Let’s concentrate on the problem areas, that very small percent who really need the attention,” he said.

With student performance now a central piece of both teacher and principal evaluations, the three said the jury was out on what that would look like. “If it was easy to do, it would have been done a long time ago,” Brown said. “There are just so many variables involved in this, and to pull out and somehow allocate the responsibility to a particular teacher of a student’s score three-quarters through the year, it is going to be a real problem.” The three were more upbeat about the upcoming wave of new curricula in New Jersey schools under the national Common Core State Standards, “We are deeply in the process of aligning our math and language arts K-12 with the Common Core, and it’s a big change,” Manno said. “It’s more rigorous, with the math programs [having] a whole different underpinning."

“I think the changes are very positive,” he said. “They will push our students and will be more rigorous, and I think will lead to better student outcomes.” The new testing that will accompany the new curriculum brought up the issue of capacity again. This time, however, the concerns were as much about technology as anything else.

The new state testing will be entirely online, and none of these three superintendents said their districts were anywhere close to being ready. “I know in talking to my tech people that we don’t have the ability to do this,” Brown said. “We don’t have the infrastructure, we don’t have enough computers, and I don’t think we are that far behind compared to a lot of the districts in Camden County. Where is that going to come from?”

“This sounds so neat in the beginning, but when you really start thinking about it, it’s a monumental undertaking,” he said.

Fishbein recalled that about a decade ago schools were required by the state to test their students on public speaking. The mandate lasted only a year, after it proved untenable for training staff to administer it.

“You had to mobilize your whole school,” he said, “to get all your teachers trained to how to use the rubric. I see that again unfortunately.”

In general, Fishbein said it seems districts are always in transition in New Jersey. “It wasn’t that long ago when we were going to have end-of-course testing, and we’re still piloting some of them year after year after year,” he said.

“It seems we are always re-gearing for the next wave of education improvement,” he said.

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Press of Atlantic City - Education commissioner stresses finding new ways to be effective at school boards conference in Atlantic City 0ct 24, 2012 by Diane D’Amico

New Jersey’s education commissioner told hundreds of school board members Tuesday that they, like the state, have to think of new ways to be more effective because money alone is not solving educational problems. “We have to break the chain of logic that says more money will equal better outcomes,” Commissioner Chris Cerf said at the annual New Jersey School Boards conference in Atlantic City. “Money is important, and the need in high-poverty schools is greater. But we have to move beyond the notion that we can dollarize education. More money does not guarantee better results.”

A good part of Cerf’s presentation focused on the the lowest-performing “priority” schools that are receiving more state intervention. But he also said all school boards should be willing to look at new ways to address problems about student performance and budgets. He said the state is looking at ways to reduce regulations so that high-performing districts have more flexibility.

“Most of our schools are doing just fine without us coming in to tell you what to do,” he said. “But we are going to be very active in failing schools.” He said it is the school board’s responsibility to pick an effective school superintendent who will move the district forward, but the board must then let that person do their job, even if it does generate controversy. “Boards do not exist to make microdecisions about personnel,” he said. “When I hear about some of the things that are happening, I know that is a dysfunctional district.”

He said the state Department of Education is investing its resources in improving academics, recruiting and retaining talented teachers and administrators, providing data on student performance that is useful, holding schools accountable, and innovating how students are taught. “New Jersey is big on the quantity of data we have, but we lag in quality and usefulness,” Cerf said.

Cerf acknowledged the challenges districts face with budget caps, but said boards must learn to “manage scarcity” in ways that rethink how they accomplish goals rather than just cutting programs. He said their goal is to do the best for the children, not maintain the status quo. “Look at what you do through that filter and not through the people who got you elected, or who might get upset,” he said.

He said new tenure reform laws and teacher evaluations are designed to make all teachers better, not just to make it easier to fire bad teachers. He said all school board members should know what percentage of teachers in their district are granted tenure and how many are let go.

“We can do more for children by helping all teachers get better than just by culling those at the bottom,” he said. “But we all understand that there is that small number of teachers that we wouldn’t put our children in front of. (Firing that person) becomes a huge production so nothing is done. The era of such excuses is over with the new tenure law. You should know what procedures are in place in your district.”

When questioned about the impact of the cap on local tax levies, Cerf said he was not going to address removing the cap, but supports flexibility for districts to work within the law. He said he is concerned about the the amount of money spent on special education for students with disabilities. “I am not persuaded that all special education money is being spent as effectively as it could be,” he said, saying he supports early interventions that help all students rather than just labeling some students and then diverting money.

“Even the vast dollars we deploy to special education are insufficient, so the balance comes from the regular education program,” he said. “We need to be more honest about that.”

Cerf also encouraged the members to use the state School Boards Association to lobby on their issues. He said the New Jersey Education Association, which represents teachers, has a strong voice in Trenton and board members should make sure they are also heard. “I’m counting on you,” he said. “You can have so much influence through your association.”

Anne Erickson, president of the Hamilton Township Board of Education in Atlantic County, said state plans sound good, but she worries about how they are implemented. She said Cerf noted that the state put more money into education this year than ever before, but her district has still not recovered from earlier cuts and residents are still struggling. “We don’t even budget to the cap,” she said. “We know local taxpayers can’t afford more.”

She said there is a lot of concern statewide about the cost of implementing new teacher evaluations, and what might happen if federal school aid is cut in January. Contact Diane D'Amico: 609-272-7241


Garden State Coalition of Schools
160 W. State Street, Trenton New Jersey 08608
609-394-2828



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