An End-of-Year Assessment for Montclair’s Education Reformers

Echo Chamber

Assessing the work of a school board and superintendent goes far beyond completing a yearly satisfaction survey.  Parents must decide whether board members treat them like partners, and whether the partnership is productive.


I love the mission of my town’s Board of Education.  Recognizing every child’s ability to achieve and making sure we do right by them…  Who wouldn’t want to get behind that?  And, as Montclair’s Superintendent Penny McCormack and last year’s Board President Robin Kulwin say, we need to assess to make sure it happens.

As the school year ends, our most important assessment is the one we parents do to hold McCormack, Kulwin and other board members accountable for the work they’ve done.

We don’t assess them by completing a yearly parent satisfaction survey. That’s how the district assesses itself, and relying on a satisfaction survey means they consider us customers to satisfy.  Nor do we assess them only by our children’s test scores. Otherwise, we would also be treating ourselves as customers to be satisfied.

We are partners in our children’s education. One of our jobs is to assess whether board members treat us that way, and whether our partnership with them is a healthy one.

In Montclair, I’d say the answers are no, and no.

Kulwin and McCormack are Broadies – a nickname I’m using loosely for education reformers enamored by, and working closely with the Broad Foundation.  They follow its vision of how to make American schools the best in the world. The Foundation happily invests money in school districts, if they give Broadies leadership roles and follow Broad-influenced standards and programs. It describes itself this way, and is convinced this approach is the answer to school improvement.  McCormack in particular is a part of what it calls its “pipeline.”

This means McCormack, with the backing of board members, is bringing pre-chosen standards, programs, consultants and private curriculum developers into the district. She assures us the standards and programs are data-driven and effective. Yet she doesn’t tell us how they define effectiveness, much less what evidence they have for it. She rarely divulges the names of the programs and consultants, sometimes even when asked. Nevertheless she and the school board expect us to support their changes as good for our children’s wellbeing.

Even if we were all staunch Kulwin and McCormack supporters and the board’s strategic plan was the best ever devised, it would be foolish to blindly accept board members’ word.  As partners, it’s our responsibility to continually make them answer for every action they take. It’s their responsibility to respectfully do so.

I am not challenging anyone to a power play.  I am borrowing from the wisdom of Margaret Heffernan, a renowned expert in business leadership and innovation.  After decades as an entrepreneur and corporate CEO, she knows that defending ideas and actions is part of successful innovation. Confident leaders welcome it.

Heffernan is very clear on this. For true creativity, problem solving and change to occur, leaders must have thinking partners who aren’t echo chambers.

Based on their actions, our board members do not seem at all confident the community would back them if given an informed choice, and so make it an informal policy to prevent it.

Evidence of it hangs in the breeze as if they had T-P’ed their own Board of Ed building. This year alone, among other things, they:

  • Expended considerable resources to pursue, intimidate, harass, blame, belittle and alienate anyone who openly questioned or challenged them.
  • Lied to us by saying they were victims of computer hackers, although they knew staff had accidentally given public access to confidential assessments.
  • Used illegal subpoenas to try seizing email addresses and correspondence of anonymous critics and Montclair residents.
  • Allowed themselves to be dragged into court by the ACLU for civil rights violations, rather than stop the witch-hunt.
  • Still refused to stop after the public learned they had lied about being hacked.
  • Harassed dissenting Board Member David Cummings to such a degree, he was forced to spend thousands of dollars on legal defense.
  • Blamed the legal bills they accrued on Cummings — If “someone” had been willing to give in to their harassment, Kulwin explained, they wouldn’t have been forced to continue harassing him.
  • Ostracized another dissenter among them, Montclair Education Association President Gayl Shepard, by verbally accosting her at a board meeting, then barring her regular involvement.
  • Asked supporters to flood the mayor’s office with requests to appoint only board members who would not challenge them;
  • Continually threw up roadblocks when the community tried to hold forums and debates outside of their control;

I had high hopes when Kulwin and McCormack first took over.  These actions, and others, quickly turned my hopes into disappointment, anger, even disgust at times.  I get no pleasure in stating this.

Please note that I am expressing serious concerns, not uninformed complaints based on fear of change with a refusal to provide alternative solutions. In addition to being a parent and longtime Montclair resident, I have a lot of experience designing and conducting program assessment and research. As any evaluator knows, poor partner/stakeholder relationships will quickly break a strategic plan no matter how awesome it might be.

But what if I were uninformed and afraid of change? If so, information and debate would be more important than ever.  When people ask for legitimate explanations, patting them on the head and telling them to be patient is patronizing.  Telling them, “I don’t hear you offering alternatives” is a ploy to put them on the defensive and divert attention from the questions raised. Acting wounded and crying “help! attack!” is the same kind of ploy.  Incidentally, it tends to backfire. People just see it as disingenuous.

Psychological ploys are not the issue per se.  The issue, as Margaret Heffernan clearly warns, is that disasters occur when disagreement is stifled by those with power who are capable of affecting thousands of lives. Fear of disagreement makes leaders spiral down, and they can end up sucking a lot of people into their whirlpool.

It has already happened a number of times in other districts led by Broadies. Sometimes they have been run out of town after leaving districts in debt and disarray.  In Newark, Broadies managed to run through a $100 million donation from Mark Zuckerberg in just a few years.  The result: Little positive change, confusion over the money trail, charges of corruption and back room deals, and school reformers running for cover.

At this point, it almost doesn’t matter to me whether I agree with our Board of Education’s vision. I respect its members’ experience and commitment, and believe they are sincere in wanting to improve schools.  But frankly, they have gone after opposition like they’re hardened criminals in general lockup.  That’s not strong leadership.  It’s illogical fear of being shanked if they don’t shank first.  They have created mistrust, division, legal tangles, unnecessary battles and a host of other problems as a result.

Going forward, I hope our new Board President David Deutsch will take what I have laid out to heart.  I hope he works to both improve the board’s treatment of parents, and encourage questions and debate.

To paraphrase Heffernan, when it comes to transforming our schools, engaging in constructive conflict demonstrates love for our children because it takes love to commit the energy and patience.  It also brings out our best thinking.  If we want creative, innovative, thinking children, we need to dare to disagree.

— penelope bly

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