Thursday, July 3, 2008

Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District Aims Low

Tevye: And Reb Nahum, the beggar . . .
Nahum: Alms for the poor, alms for the poor.
Lazar: Here, Reb Nahum, is one kopek.
Nahum: One kopek? Last week you gave me two kopeks.
Lazar: I had a bad week.
Nahum: So if you had a bad week, why should I suffer?

--- Fiddler on the Roof

Why indeed? Amid a faltering economy and housing crisis, skyrocketing oil prices, and rising taxes, our teachers will be receiving annual pay increases ranging from 4.25% to 13.75% over the next two years. Not only are the teachers not giving any work concessions, the Board of Education made their job easier by setting performance goals that meet the absolute minimum legal requirements. Pay more, expect less is MARSD’s secret formula for success.

The one bright spot in the district is, once again, Dr. O’Malley. Last December, I advised the administration to implement adaptive tests provided by the Northwest Evaluation Association. These computerized exams adapt the questions according to the user’s ability to answer prior questions, thereby providing a more accurate measurement of where his strengths and weaknesses lie. I promoted the exams on this blog in February and April but it wasn’t until Dr. O’Malley recommended the exams in June that the board finally considered and approved them. Additionally, he will be introducing Everyday Math to all grade levels and begin teaching algebra in the seventh grade.

(Dr. O’Malley recently made one unfortunate mistake and for reasons unknown. When Pamela Main was reassigned last year to Coordinator of Student Personnel Services, a vacancy was created in the guidance counselor department. This created an opportunity to reduce the number of guidance counselors and bring the counselor-student ratio in line with the American School Counselor Association’s recommendation of 1:250. Instead, Dr. O’Malley returned Main to the guidance counselor department where our counselor-student ratio is nearly 50% higher than the state average of 1:321.)

Still, it’s highly questionable how much Dr. O’Malley can accomplish given the financial shackles and low standards set by the board.

Under the Memorandum Agreement between the Matwan-Aberdeen Regional School District and the Matawan Regional Teachers Association, teacher salary guides will be increased by 4.25% this year and next year. Those increases are on top of the raises a teacher gets with each year of experience. To witness the enormity of the pay increases, let’s look at the average teacher who has 9 years of experience and his masters plus 30 credits (this is the average profile according to the New Jersey Report Card). In the 2006-2007 school year, he earned $54,440 not including stipends, reimbursements, benefits, and other miscellaneous items. Three years later, that same teacher will be earning $74,750 for the same job. That’s a 37.3% salary increase in three years.

Meanwhile, budget growth is capped by the state at 4% but salaries and benefits are virtually guaranteed to grow faster than 4% which means more money will need to be drained from the already depleted capital and maintenance funds. But wait, there’s more! The proposed budget is capped at 4%. Given our district’s history of rejecting school budgets, the budget cuts imposed by the municipalities will be coming out of building maintenance, the only place there’s still funding that’s not covered by labor contracts or special interest groups.

Without maintenance funds and capital improvement, the schools’ infrastructure will literally start to fall apart. Ah, but the board has a plan. Pour money into operations, neglect maintenance, and, when the situation gets really bad, float a second question on the school budget. That way the board can please the unions and blame the townsfolk at the same time.

Next, the board has lowered the bar of expectations so far, students will be tripping over it. On June 12th, Diane Morris of the New Jersey School Boards Association hosted a discussion about setting goals for the school district. The results would be laughable if they didn’t involve our children.

First, the board was asked to discuss accomplishments during the prior year. The board rattled off a number of items but not one referenced education unless that’s what the board meant by “etc.” Then the board discussed general goals such as “create a professional learning community.” I have no idea what a “professional learning community” is and I doubt anybody else does either. Here’s a hint: If a goal can’t be measured, it isn’t a goal.

However, it was the board’s measurable goal that really set the stage for the upcoming year – “By the end of the 08-09 school year, 10% of the partial proficient students will achieve proficiency on the state assessments while maintaining our advanced proficient student percentages.”

First, let’s clarify that statement. I assume they mean that 10% of the students will advance from partial proficient to proficient. Otherwise, they’d simply be trying to reduce the percentage of partially proficient HSPA math scores from 29% to 26%.

The travesty is that proficiency on New Jersey State assessment exams is a score of 50%. Our district’s goal, what we as a community are spending tens of millions of dollars a year to achieve, is to see our children score 50% on a state assessment exam? Fifty percent? That’s not even enough to get a drivers permit but the solons on our school board believe it’s enough for our children.

Not only that, if your child is “fortunate” enough to score fifty percent, the school won’t even provide any extra help to that child because the school’s not interested in seeing more children reach “advanced proficiency” (that’s 75%).

Fifty percent on a state exam. Our Board of Education, our elected representatives, the people we’ve entrusted with our children’s future, have decided that fifty percent on a state test is good enough for our kids.

What good is it to give teachers huge salary increases, adopt new testing methods, or implement a more rigorous math curriculum, when you then announce that our students only need to score 50% on a state test?

How can anybody claim they care about our kids, that they value a strong educational foundation, that they want our children to succeed in life, when then say 50% is good enough?

What kind of message is that to our teachers? What kind of message is that to our students?

When I went to school, anything below 70 was a failing grade. On the New York State Regents, students in the “dummy” class were expected to get 80s and the rest of us were expected to get 90s.

I’ll never forget my 8th grade math teacher, Mr. Samuels. He was borderline crazy and the best teacher I ever had. Mr. Samuels demanded that his students not only score 100% on the exams but that they answer the bonus question as well. That year, I scored a 96 on my math regents and it was below the class average of 97.

If a foreign power ever tried to impose the educational standards that our Board of Education has established for our district, it would be regarded as an act of war. And we would fight back.
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