As is happening in urban areas across the country, the Camden school district is undergoing a reformy makeover that involves a loss of local control, teacher layoffs, charter expansion, and resulting community outcry.
A little over a month ago, I wrote about Camden state-appointed superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard’s plans to lay off teachers and convert district schools to charters.
This week, another piece of that plan fell into place.
At the Monday, May 12th school board meeting, which Superintendent Rouhanifard abandoned prematurely because of growing opposition from the parents and teachers in attendance, employees who had received Rice notices the week before learned the fate of their positions by reading the board minutes that were distributed when the meeting was cut short. Those employees, some of whom have more than a decade of service to Camden’s children, received RIF letters the following day.
In total, 241 layoff notices were issued—206 to teachers.
In response to the layoffs, more than 300 high-school students, accompanied by many parents and community members, staged a walk-out yesterday in protest of the superintendent’s decisions:
When cellphones flashed “noon” in Ziaira Williams’ history class, students shifted in their seats, exchanged glances, and then filed out into a hallway of purple and gold, launching a two-hour protest of Camden City School District layoffs.
Williams’ history teacher received a layoff notice Monday and said goodbye to his exiting pupils with silent pats on the back and nods of appreciation, Williams said.
“They’re glad we’re doing this. They said, ‘Go ahead,’ and honestly, I don’t care if I get in trouble – I want my teachers back,” the 17-year-old junior said.
Hundreds more would join the two-mile march from Camden High to the Board of Education building downtown Wednesday afternoon, including students from Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy, Brimm Medical Arts High School, and Woodrow Wilson High School, many carrying signs and chanting, “Save our teachers!”
The walkout came in response to the district’s announcement Monday that it would lay off 272 people, 206 of them teachers, to bridge a $75 million revenue gap. Samir Nichols, a senior at Creative Arts and the school’s valedictorian, said he organized the rally.
The protest grew so large that police blocked off Haddon Avenue and Cooper Street. It apparently prompted NJ Transit to suspend for about an hour service on the RiverLine between the Walter Rand Transportation Center and the waterfront.
When the students and parents arrived the central administration office, Rouhanifard emerged to address them:
“First of all, I want to say I appreciate you all coming out here today — this is a great way to have a dialogue about these issues,” he said, speaking to the students from the front steps of the central administration building. “I want to answer some of the questions you have — we are not closing any schools. We have been saying that for the last three months.
“As for the layoffs, we have a budget problem and we are managing it as best we can. It is a hard time for everyone. I’m going to be coming in to the schools over the next two weeks to speak with you and the staff.” The latest round of layoffs is just the most recent example of ways in which outsiders are seeking to gain control of—and micromanage teachers in—Camden’s schools.
No, not exactly closing district schools: just starving them, phasing them out, getting rid of teachers, and importing charter operators.
UPDATE: Rouhanifard sent an email to district officials today announcing that staff members who were present for the students’ protest “will be disciplined.” See here for the nj.com story.
WHY WASTE MONEY ON EXPERIENCED TEACHERS? ANYONE CAN READ FROM A SCRIPTED LESSON!
Many reformers decry traditional teacher-training programs, instead insisting that one does not need to be trained as a teacher to be effective in the classroom. Teach for America corps members, for example, receive only 5 weeks of training the summer before they’re tasked with educating children, and they typically only stay in the classroom long enough to fulfill the conditions of their agreement with the organization and then move on to permanent careers in other fields (or to running urban districts despite having very little teaching experience; Newark’s Cami Anderson and Camden’s Paymon Rouhanifard are perfect examples).
One way to promote this agenda is to take freedom away from teachers, a practice that’s already happening in Camden’s schools. Professional educators with decades of experience are being provided with canned, scripted curricular units that even go so far as to tell teachers what to say and what to write on the board in virtually every lesson; these units must be followed to the day, without diversions to accommodate for struggling students, etc. Here’s just one example from the Grade 1 Reading Unit, which was sent to me by a Camden teacher. (Notice the document is scripted by date. Though it does acknowledge some procedures may need to be “adjusted,” many Camden teachers say they have virtually no flexibility when it comes to deviating from this very specific plan–and that in theory, every 1st grade teacher in the district should be doing the exact same lessons every day. This is a reading unit only; educators are required to teach from scripts like this for every subject, every single day.):
“I am going to show you another page, and I want you and your carpet partner to say many things about what you notice in the picture.” Show the class another picture.
“Write this heading on the board and ask students to go back through the text and stick post it’s on NEW things they discovered. Then have each student share the three things he or she learned.Choose three things to write on the board (for example, polar bears live in the Artic, polar bears mostly eat seals, and polar bears give birth to one to three cubs).
“The second step is to write ‘two interesting things.’ Use the same approach as in the first step. (For the polar bear article, you might write, 25,000 to 40,000 polar bears live in the Artic and polar bears can sneak up on their prey.)
“Last, have students think of one question they still have about the topic. Have students share some of their questions. Write ‘1 question we still have’ on the board along with one sample question (for example, How long do polar bears live?).”
And as for assessments? Those are provided too—directly from the Department of Education website. Teachers are provided login information, and they must print and administer assessments every five weeks—and score those assessments the way the DOE directs them to.
No personalized learning and no departing from the script. Compliance, compliance, compliance.
In other words, the standardization of teaching and learning.
Exactly what urban children who live in poverty need–and exactly the way to promote excellence in teaching!
WHY THE MADNESS?
Because veteran teachers are more expensive than novices—and veteran teachers speak out when they see injustice. There’s no room for dissent, which isn’t conducive to school closings and charter expansion, in state-controlled districts!
So, many teachers, stripped of professional judgment, creative license, and the freedom to do what their experience tells them is best for children, will leave once they realize that what they’re required to do goes against what they know is good teaching. (One less expensive teacher to pay for! #winning!) Those who don’t leave (teachers who are passionate about their jobs and who comply solely for the sake of Camden’s children: you know, the ones Camden should hold on to at all costs) can be targeted–and disciplined–for failure to follow the scripts, even when their teaching is far more meaningful than what’s listed in the document they’re required to follow. In essence, teachers must follow these scripted lessons even when experience tells them those lessons don’t work; otherwise, they must make changes in secret in order to do what is best for their students while avoiding punitive measures.
And new teachers who don’t know any better (or TFAers who don’t care because they don’t plan on teaching for more than a couple of years) will follow a script if doing so is the only way for them to keep their jobs.
BUT THERE’S HOPE!
Don’t despair: even though the district is cutting hundreds of experienced teachers, there are still plenty ”teaching,” “school leadership,” and “other” Camden positions being advertised on the Teach for America Greater Philly page. Evidently, the Mastery Charter Schools chain is hiring administrators and elementary, special education, and secondary science teachers. (See? The “if people just agree to work for a charter, we can save jobs!” approach.)
The district is also still looking for an “Analyst, Talent Management” (manage that “human capital!”), a bunch of “Special Assistants” (“Performance and Data; Talent Management; Finance and Operations; School Support; Innovation; General Counsel”) and a “Manager, Communications.”
It’s odd that the district has money for these positions, yet it’s letting go of its most dedicated educators.
But really, it’s all about the money–even at the expense of some of New Jersey’s neediest children.
That’s education “reform.”