Montclair School Board’s Strategic Plan, Part One: It’s Awful

Bill Wilson

Montclair School Board’s 2013 strategic plan is hyper-focused on undefined ideas of effectiveness, achievement, rigor and expectation.  As a result, goals and objectives are vague, confusing, arbitrary, sometimes meaningless.  The students’ needs are ignored.  And, expectations are unfairly set higher for at-risk and non-proficient kids.


I mentioned in a previous post that I have experience as a program evaluator. The word “effectiveness” is written on my eyelids in Sharpie. Having said that, I’m sick of hearing it.  It’s one of the most overused and misused catchphrases of the decade, along with its sister phrases, evidence-based and data-driven.

Montclair’s School Superintendent Penny McCormack waxes passionate about school effectiveness.  Yet it means almost nothing the way she uses it.

In strategic planning and assessment, effectiveness is simply a judgment of how well goals and objectives are met.  There is no such thing as, for instance, an effective teacher. There are methods that teachers can use, and that are effective in certain situations.

In other words, effectiveness is never a goal, objective or strategy.  When McCormack makes it one, she is saying our schools need to work better so that they can work better.  It’s a common mistake people make when creating strategic plans without understanding what they are trying to change, how or why.  Broadies and other education reformers do it all the time.

Assessment isn’t only standardized testing. It is part of strategic planning and implementation from beginning to end.  By far the most important part is assessment of needs.  If we don’t understand the needs of our children, teachers, paraprofessionals, parents, school administration and others, school changes are likely to be useless, perhaps harmful.

McCormack and her consultants used 100 focus groups (“community forums”) and presumably reviewed data to identify Montclair’s school-related concerns. Among other things, she concluded that too many of our kids are non-proficient readers.  Most of us would agree. But identifying the problem tells us nothing about how to tackle it.

Why do our non-proficient readers struggle? What do they need to overcome the “why?” How can we give them what they need?

Asking these questions seems obvious, and if McCormack and her consultants have done so, that’s great. My trust would increase if they shared a detailed report of the results. I suspect they are skipping it. The proof is in McCormack’s strategic plan.

The plan seems based on a vision of what somebody thinks schools should be with little consideration for what ours are.  It contains no description of our district’s history, demographics, problems faced, strengths and needs. Leaving all of this out of a strategic plan is like a doctor diagnosing a patient and planning treatment without referring to medical history and symptoms.

It’s the first red flag that the plan is based on pre-determined goals, and does not actually make our children’s achievement the focal point.  The second red flag is the amount of Broadie language used. It tells me (a) McCormack defers to the Broad Foundation’s concerns; (b) at best, Montclair’s concerns are forced to fit Broadie ones.

In particular, I’m pretty sure the word “rigor” was airdropped under cloak of darkness. In all my years living in this town, I have never once heard a parent complain, “Our schools aren’t rigorous enough!”

In fact, McCormack lets us know she has omitted our vision of schools with spirit, heart and compassion, because she doesn’t think they fit her criteria:

“While I recognize and personally value many less easily defined or measured characteristics such as its “spirit” its heart and the compassion of all involved in the process of educating children, I also recognize the importance of community agreement on multiple and measurable objectives for each identified goal.”

She is quite wrong. Spirit, heart and compassion are warm, fuzzy and easily translated into clear goals with measurable objectives.

Maybe, by spirit, heart and compassion, we mean our children need to care about, and give to the community.  Therefore our goal is to foster this.  Maybe it would involve getting kids to volunteer more and learn about their community.  Then our objectives are to increase student volunteering and knowledge of Montclair history.  Maybe, after assessing how best to meet these objectives, we decide to require all high school students to do 50 hours of community service a year, and all 5th graders to learn Montclair history.  Voila, strategies for policy and program change.

It just requires figuring out what we mean by spirit, heart and compassion.  This, in turn, requires McCormack and her consultants to put in the effort, and defer to our vision over the Broadie one.

Instead, McCormack is hyper-focused on “effectiveness.” Ironically, after labeling spirit and heart too fuzzy, she doesn’t seem to know what she means by effective. The word appears 20 times in a 23-page document without being defined.

As a result, her goals make little sense. This is especially true for the first one.  It is a long, rambling paragraph that explains how important effectiveness is, but doesn’t set a goal for it.  She ends up with objectives and strategies like these:

As part of reaching the goal of effectiveness, the district will be called effective by 80% of parents. To measure whether 80% of parents say this, a consulting firm will design an effective parent survey.  To make sure parents complete the effective survey, the district will come up with an effective way to convince them that their opinions of effectiveness are important.  That way, the district can achieve its objective of being called effective by 80% of parents.  Because, again, being called effective by 80% of parents brings the district closer to being more effective.

I did not make this up or exaggerate, I merely summarized.

While other goals are somewhat more concrete, they also tend to ramble vaguely about continuous improvement, rigor, effectiveness and high expectations.  It’s another red flag.  McCormack and her consultants are following education reform ideas but don’t know how to translate them into action for Montclair schools.

Objectives seem written to please others, are arbitrary, and sometimes not objectives at all.  For instance, to improve school effectiveness, McCormack states:

“By June 2015, 80% of 3rd graders will read at grade level.”

Reaching 80% reading proficiency in order to improve school effectiveness?  It makes no sense.  We are supposed to strengthen our schools to help our children succeed, not vice versa.

It’s a great thing to strive for, but why 80%?  Why not 70% or 90%? Why by 2015? What if only 60% reach grade level but improvement among struggling readers is significant?  The objective assumes all struggling readers struggle at the same level and can reach the same finish line given the same amount of time.

McCormack sets unequal expectations of achievement, and this objective is a perfect example.  Yes, most children are capable of reading proficiently.  But the further behind a child is, the harder they struggle just to keep up and the more they have to work to achieve proficiency.  This is especially true if they have a learning disability.

McCormack’s expectations are unfairly higher for non-proficient students and those who teach them.  They are much lower for proficient readers.

Many of the objectives involve obtaining 80% of one thing or another — 80% of teachers will score “effective” on a rubric… 80% of central office staff will meet their goals of effective services….   Clearly someone arbitrarily chose 80%, either because they didn’t know what they wanted to change, or because they were deferring to someone else’s criteria.

Many of the changes sound great, like re-introducing a world language program to our elementary schools or expanding small learning communities at the high school.  But they aren’t objectives.  What are we trying to accomplish with these programs? I’m playing devil’s advocate. If we don’t make our objectives clear, we could go shopping for a Honda minivan and come home with a Ducati motorcycle.  I’ve noticed we already have a few Ducatis in the garage.

McCormack mentions that the plan is a “living” document that can be reworked at any time.  As far as I can tell, there have been no attempts to seriously review and revise.  The first anniversary of the plan is a good time for it, so I will list ideas for improvement in Part Two of this post.

— penelope bly




  1. Here’s the “strategic plan” for Guidance: Guidance: By June 2015, 80% of students and parents will rate guidance services (including contact time, four-year programming, annual scheduling) as effective or highly effective.

    And how is this going to be accomplished? Let’s look at the 3 strategies to accomplish this?

    *Complete a map of course offerings
    *Determine if magazine ratings should be a focus of MHS school improvement
    *Form a committee of teachers, parents and students to revise the program planning guide.

    That’s it. This is the strategic plan for improving the guidance that their chosen spokesman and party giver Jerry Fried says has let so many down.

    And the most amazing thing: These strategic plan objectives and strategies were developed with not a single discussion between Central Support and a single counselor or supervisor in the guidance department in the entire tenure to date of the superintendent and her administration.

    You read the strategic plan and tell me that you think it is a thoughtful plan to improve the high school and the other schools in Montclair.


  2. There were more specific, relevant, and usable ideas/suggestions for how to improve our schools and students’ education in this short essay than I’ve seen come out of Central Office in the almost two years that MacCormack has been superintendent.

    Also, the factual, detailed, and intelligent critique of her strategic plan makes it clear that she’s woefully unfit to lead our district, and that her supporters have bought into empty, unclear, and measurement/goal-free plans that have no possible potential to deliver her promised improvements.

    I’m frustrated, disgusted, and angry that so few in our district see the charade going on, and that they’ve gullibly equated MacCormack’s cliche sound bites with her ability to deliver actual results.


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