Saturday, December 28, 2013

Superintendent O’Malley and Models of Failed Bureaucracy

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes Max Weber as, “the foremost social theorist of the twentieth century.”  If you have studied bureaucratic structures in any way you have likely stumbled across Weber’s theories.  If you have ever been employed within a bureaucratic structure you have likely seen the best and worst of Weber’s bureaucratic notions.  Bureaucracy has become a dirty word in the 21st century and with good reason.  When bureaucracy is corrupted the results can be nauseating.  Weber was well aware of how the worst of bureaucracy could come to pass.  In fact, he defined, in astonishing detail, what lousy bureaucratic leaders would look like.

A bureaucracy can be led by what Weber referred to as either “Charismatic” or “Legal-Rational” authority (he also defines “traditional” authority but this does not apply here).  A “charismatic” authority figure maintains his (I mean “his or her” but I will use “his” for the sake of brevity) authority only for as long as people “believe” in him.  A “legal-rational” authority, when effective, establishes authority with knowledge and can more likely sustain a bureaucratic structure.

A charismatic leader will avoid, at all costs, a debate that challenges his notions of what is right.  A charismatic leader is fearful of appearing weak or unknowledgeable.  He will defiantly refuse to engage in debates, particularly those he knows he cannot win.  When he is compelled to provide a rationale for an unpopular stance he will resort to empty rhetoric, or what we might today refer to as “sound-bites.” He will try to say something which appears intelligent but upon inspection is revealed as meaningless.   A charismatic leader would appear very shiny (almost polished) from head to toe.  The charismatic leader would likely drive a fine luxury car, wear the finest suits, and would never be seen in public without the latest version of the most popular electronic device. In the most extreme case, he would keep his head buried in his little digital device and appear not to care what ideas the public was presenting.  A legal-rational leader would appear quite the opposite to the charismatic leader in each and every way.  The primary concern of the legal-rational leader would be decision-making based on expertise and knowledge – appearance and rhetoric would have little place in the legal-rational bureaucracy.

Weber also delineates two distinct managerial styles and he defines them as methods of coercion or collaboration.  The coercive method relies on forced compliance, and a bureaucracy relying on coercion is riddled with abstract rules and regulations.  The collaborative method builds consensus based on expertise, thus the rules and regulations are meaningful and just.  Coercive leaders do not much care for input or discussion, while Collaborative leaders foster an organic democratic process.  Coercive leaders seek rigid control structures over “top-down” initiatives (also known as micro-management), while Collaborative leaders offer ideas in advance of action and are therefore more trustful that their initiatives will be faithfully implemented.

If the Edison Board of Education is concerned with data, perhaps they should collect some on their Superintendent and share it with the Edison Public.  The BOE should create a survey with a meaningful guarantee of anonymity and offer it to every employee of the Edison Public School System.  The survey should include Principals, Teachers, Secretaries, Custodians, Security personnel; everyone under the purview of the Superintendent.  It would be very interesting to see whether the Superintendent would be rated as a charismatic or legal-rational leader; would his methods be viewed as collaborative or coercive.
Before they take the survey perhaps they will allow me to share my exchange with the Superintendent from June of this year (2013).  I reached out to Dr. O’Malley to express my concerns about large sums of money being invested in a handful of elementary classrooms without Public comment.  I wrote to O’Malley from my personal email and identified myself as an Edison resident.  What follows is, except where noted, a verbatim transcript of our exchange. My explanatory comments are italicized and in parenthesis:

(Each piece of my correspondence was arranged formally and opened with “Dear Dr. O’Malley” and was closed with “Regards” and my full name and Edison address.  I leave them out for the sake of brevity.  Dr. O’Malley made no such attempts at formality and his comments are presented completely intact)

TVP:  I would like to schedule a time to meet with you to discuss so-called 21st Century Learning Classrooms.  As an Edison resident who happens to be a teacher I have some questions about these classrooms.  I have been unable to obtain answers to these questions either within my building or in my review of documents available to the community.  My concerns pertain to funding, development, and access to these classrooms.  Thank you for considering my request to meet.

ROM:  I don't understand.  Are you interested in pursuing this type of classroom next year as well as some of your colleagues? (I cannot say whether his confusion is genuine, but I thought it was clear that I wished to discuss “funding, development, and access”)

TVP:  I apologize if I wasn't clear. No, sir, my concern is not in pursuing this type of classroom.  (I have deleted a paragraph here.  It contains the names of individual employees whose permission I do not have to print – the essence of this paragraph was to convey that I had addressed my questions to O’Malley’s appropriate subordinates before I addressed his office, in an effort to justify bringing my concerns to the Superintendent.  It is worth noting that O’Malley was personally handling the development of these classrooms and his subordinates were admittedly entirely unaware of the funding, development, and access)
I am trying to understand how these classrooms are being funded.    Are these classrooms being funded by public monies?  I have been trying to find some mention of them in the BOE minutes, but I cannot.

Admittedly, I don't catch every minute of every meeting, but I don't recall any discussion of these classrooms, either.  If these classrooms are being funded by public money there are a number of questions that follow.

If you'd prefer I provide a delineation of my concerns prior to discussing the matter further, I would be happy to do so.  However, my questions would appear foolish if these classrooms were being funded by a private grant, or a specific Board approved "pilot" program and I was not aware.  Perhaps you could let me know if these are funded within the Edison Public School budget and we can proceed from there. Thank you for your attention in this matter.

ROM:  School budget (This two word response was when I realized he was not interested in my thoughts on this initiative.  With two words he is verifying that these classrooms are being funded by tax payer dollars and also seems to be implicitly agreeing that these “pilots” were never discussed at a public meeting or listed on Board minutes – not sure about the legality of such a maneuver, but it would certainly be the first and most expensive “pilot program” to ever be enacted in Edison without public comment or a BOE vote)

TVP:  Dear Dr. O' Malley, Thank you for your response.
In light of this, again, I would like to schedule a time to meet with you to discuss so-called 21st Century Learning Classrooms.  As an Edison resident who happens to be a teacher I have some questions about these classrooms.  I have been unable to obtain answers to these questions either within my building or in my review of documents available to the community.  My concerns pertain to funding, development, and access to these classrooms. Thank you for considering my request to meet.

ROM:   I don't know why I would meet with you to discuss funding for something you are not interested in implementing.  These pilots have become very popular throughout the district and just yesterday I received emails from 5 more teachers at Lincoln School alone interested in implementing this classroom. Therefore, unless you are interested in implementing these classrooms, there would not be a need for me to meet with you not spend a moment further discussing this with you.  (His grammatical errors are left intact.) 

I will leave you to draw your own conclusions regarding where O’Malley fits on the Weberian spectrum, but I must say this: His final response here is almost as absurd as it is illogical.  He points out that more teachers have come directly to him and asked for hundreds of thousands of more tax-payer funded technology.  He then goes on to say if I do not beg to participate in this ridiculous drain on an already stretched school budget, as so many of my colleagues (he claims) have done, then I don’t get to be part of the discussion.  I think something bad is happening in Edison, with my tax dollar, but unless I help to make it worse I don’t have a say.  If a tax-payer wants to meet with O’Malley about fiscal responsibility his answer is, essentially, go to hell.  

If not “go to hell” then maybe he is saying “go write your congressman if you don’t like it.”  Well, I’ve tried writing to Congress and all I get are canned responses from low-level staffers.  Now I am trying the last Constitutional avenue afforded to the good ole American citizen – the free and independent press.

Thanks for reading.

Yours in education,

Tyler L. Van Pelt

Thursday, December 12, 2013

As Predicted Edison BOE President Gene Maeroff Touts Meaningless PISA Results

On December 5th, a mere six days ago, Professor Christopher H. Tienken, Ed.D of Seton Hall University, predicted that the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results would soon be trumpeted by pseudo-intellectuals pushing the Corporate/Federal “reform” agenda.  Professor Teinken asserted that these PISA results would be deceptively thrust at Public School communities as concrete evidence that America as a nation, not to mention its school system, is in a state of disrepair.  Teinken assured that PISA results would become the popular propaganda tool for the Corporate/Federal takeover of the American Public School.  Right on cue, less than one week later, Gene Maeroff, Edison Board of Education President, sat at his desk and followed the script (Mr. Maeroff’s full message can be viewed at the Edison Public Schools website and I encourage you to read it for yourself).

While Maeroff does not reveal the foundation for his thesis (the PISA report) until the very end, the tenets of the Corporate/Federal agenda he apparently admires are impossible to mistake.

Mr. Maeroff’s playful narrative depicts an almost Utopian vision of the “constructivist” math classroom. Students use “manipulables” (connecting cubes, square tiles, counting chips, etc.) to construct the meaning of addition and subtraction word problems in a concrete fashion, and thus acquire a deeper understanding of the math process.  Mr. Maeroff points to the “Singapore Math” program, a math curriculum which has been purchased and implemented in Edison since he became Board President, as the key ingredient to a math instruction revolution within the Edison Public Schools.  Sounds great, I agree, but hold your applause until the end.

The first problem with Mr. Maeroff’s “Singapore Manifesto” is that Singapore Math was not the first constructivist math program to come to the Edison Public Schools.  At some point between 2000 and 2003 a constructivist math program known as TERC was purchased as an additional resource for elementary teachers.  Mind you, this was back in the days when Edison Teachers were trusted to pull from the appropriate resources at their disposal in order to meet the needs of their students, so TERC instruction was not mandatory - “Singapore Math” is.

TERC headquarters is located up in Cambridge, Massachusettes, right next door to Harvard and MIT, and TERC even has some Harvard and MIT educators on its Board of Directors.  Mind you, this was back when we trusted American educators enough to go to them for American math curriculum; back before we went across the globe to Singapore looking for ways to teach kids in Edison, NJ.   TERC was a great resource and I, along with many of my colleagues, used it with great success.

Problem number two with the Singapore Manifesto: Edison did not need a mandatory constructivist math program (and certainly not one from Singapore).  I have made it clear that big stakes standardized testing is the last thing we should be looking at when we determine how best to educate the whole child.  Still, if administrators and elected school officials are going to use standardized test data, they ought to use it logically and consistently.  Edison’s students were achieving well above the State averages in math.  We had overwhelming numbers of students achieving proficiency and advanced proficiency year after year.  And Edison Teachers had the option, as Professionals, to determine when constructivist math was appropriate and when it was not.

Prior to the purchase of “Singapore Math” I had never been a party to any committee meeting, faculty meeting, in-service workshop, staff development program or administrative directive that expressed any concern over the quality of math instruction taking place in the Edison Public Schools.  Not one administrator ever said, "The only way we will reach these kids is if we force them all to learn math the constructivist way." In fact, many of my administrators and colleagues raised concerns about the extent to which the constructivist approach could consistently and effectively reach all learners in all areas of math instruction.  Most, if not all, Edison Teachers were happy to have options in their math instruction. Comparatively, Mr. Maeroff’s “Singapore Math” initiative is of the mandatory, Corporate/Federal, one-size-fits-all variety. All other options are out the window for Edison Teachers and students.

Math instruction was never broken in Edison, yet when it is all said and done, millions of tax-payer dollars will have been dumped into fixing it with the help of Singapore… math that is.

So if we already had it, and we didn’t really need it, how did Mr. Maeroff pull-off the Singapore Math heist? The same way he continues to convince us of the program today.  Hint: this is where the PISA propaganda comes in.  Since, he couldn’t really claim that Edison was failing at math, and he really wanted to show how cutting-edge and “global” this Board could be, Mr. Maeroff worked off of international assessment results that had no relation to the students in the Edison Public Schools.  And he is still doing it.

Now, why shouldn’t we listen to Mr. Maeroff when he tells us that PISA proves how desperately we, in Edison, need his salvation in the form of “Singapore Math”?  Perhaps because the very company which develops and sells PISA warns us we should not.  PISA’s parent company, The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), warns folks like Mr. Maeroff (emphasis mine), “the results of PISA should not be used to make sweeping indictments of education systems or important policy decisions” (OECD pg. 265, 2013).  PISA is a randomly generated assessment in that it is not aligned to any curriculum. Using PISA to make judgments about Edison school curriculum would be like analyzing global weather data to decide whether or not to carry an umbrella when you walk out of your house tomorrow morning - it is absurd.

PISA results in no way reflect the math proficiency of Edison Public School Students.  Let me say that again, PISA results in no way reflect the math proficiency of Edison Public School Students.  We need to stop this non-sense.  We need to stop trying to scare our citizens into accepting the incredibly expensive Corporate/Federal education “reform” agenda.  We need to stop canonizing International Assessment results when they bear no resemblance to our communities and are NOT a predictor of future success or global competitiveness.

Ironically, Mr. Maeroff’s most recent book is entitled, “School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy” (now you can applaud while I chuckle).  Honestly, I haven’t read the book.  I don’t think Mr. Maeroff is suggesting that School Boards haven't worked in our democracy, and I doubt he wants to ignore the School Board’s inherent democratic ideals, foundations, and responsibilities (although misunderstanding is understandable if we consider the undemocratic way Mr. Maeroff’s Board of Education ignored hundreds of petitioners and voted 9-0 to transfer a Principal in the middle of the school year).  I want to give him the benefit of the doubt.

So, whatever "School Board Flaws" Mr. Maeroff points to in his book, I'd like to suggest he add another chapter to the paperback edition.  This chapter should be entitled: What To Do When Unpopular Corporate/Federal Agendas, Founded in Unproven Meaningless International Standardized Assessment Data, With No Clear Moral or Ethical Foundation, Keep Marching Along in Edison, NJ.  Too clinical and choppy, you say?  Then a romance: "Data Crazy School Boards and the Superintendent's Who Love Them"  

Thanks for taking the time to read.

Yours in education,
Tyler L. Van Pelt

Monday, December 9, 2013

Dr. Richard O'Malley: Willing Martyr for the Standardized Testing Industry

Edison Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Richard O'Malley and the democratically elected Board of Education (BOE) which hired him, have unanimously embraced a new bureaucratic paradigm for Edison Township. Henceforth, decision making primarily on the basis of high stakes standardized test data is the way of the world. When faced with a petition from more than 400 citizens and a packed auditorium of concerned parents, teachers, and administrators, O'Malley and the Board of Education stood firm, turned away from the basic principles of representative democracy, and refused to acquiesce to the unprecedented demands of the school community.  And you had better get used to it.

O'Malley and the BOE did not say much, but what they did say is eye-opening.  O'Malley  asserted, "I know it is not easy and there are a lot of nonbelievers, and these decisions are not popular. Yet sometimes what is right is not always popular."  O'Malley is asserting that he and the BOE have the moral high ground and they will not give it up easily.  O'Malley wants us to know it is "not easy" to ignore hundreds of members of the Public School Community, but he and the BOE are too strong to allow something as flimsy as the will of the community to get in the way of doing what they consider good work.  One could almost hear O'Malley and the BOE mutter over the poor unknowing Edison residents, "Forgive them Father, they know not what they do..."  Such assertions of moral superiority beg the question: Do O'Malley and the BOE have righteousness on their side here?

If in fact the BOE and O'Malley have the moral high ground it should be persuasive and easily made clear.  O'Malley is correct about one thing - many things which are today considered "right" have been at one point "unpopular."  In this country, the abolition of slavery was very unpopular for decades.  The notion that women should have the right to vote was, for an even longer time, pretty unpopular, too.  So if O'Malley is correct then the question we are faced with is this: In the future, will managing the public schools primarily through the use of standardized test data appear as obviously righteous and morally upstanding as ending slavery or giving women the right to vote?  I believe it is foolish to think that some day in the future educational communities across the nation will press their collective hands to their foreheads and say, "My goodness, how obvious now.  We should only have cared about the Language Arts proficiency rates of grades three through five when determining whether our schools were successful!"  It sounds ridiculous because it is ridiculous.

The truth is, more often than not, things are unpopular because they are wrong.  The decision to remove Principal Schutz from Lindeneau School in the middle of the school year is indefensible and wrong. O'Malley and the BOE have no answer for residents when they ask,"What about her ability to create a safe learning environment?  What about her ability to work with and engage at-risk children?  What about her ability to reach out to the parents of her community and involve them in the learning process?  What about her success in teaching character and responsibility to our children?  What about the personal relationships she has developed with all of the students in her school?"  O'Malley and the BOE refuse to answer those questions because the answer would embarrass them.  The answer is that all of those aforementioned ideals, which should be held in the highest regard, don't matter much to O'Malley and the BOE these days... and they certainly don't matter as much as NJASK Language Arts "proficiency" data.

(I'm paraphrasing without interfering with meaning here) O'Malley says, "In this new age of school reform... test scores do count, and they count more today than they ever have before... and it can no longer be pushed aside or discounted."  O'Malley is right about test scores counting more than ever but whether they can be pushed aside or discounted remains to be seen (and is largely in the hands of American citizens).

By no means have we arrived at a consensus with regard to the value of high stakes testing.  Nonetheless, school officials at every level are pushing an agenda that would allow big stakes testing to dictate personnel decisions and define the success and failure of schools, teachers, and children.  And they don't much care if you agree or disagree.

I chose the Lindeneau School incident for my inaugural post because it offers a window into everything that threatens the American Public School.  This incident will allow me, in future posts, to examine, among other things: 1 - The costs, corruption, and flaws rampant in the standardized testing industry. 2 - The countless experts in the field of education attempting to stem the tide of big stakes testing inherent in the "Common Core." 3 - The inanities involved when we apply broad stroke educational "reforms" to strikingly different communities across our nation, 4 - The questionable motives involved with the private sector's push to make broad stroke national education "reform" a Public School reality 5 - Most importantly, the ways in which citizens can effectively work to combat high stakes testing and have their voices heard when democratically elected leaders turn their back.

Thanks for taking the time to read.  I look forward to hearing reactions and criticisms.  I am always happy to hear from people who can expose flaws in my arguments or my logic.

Yours in education,

Tyler L. Van Pelt