Three years ago, 6 months after the crash, I won a seat on my local school board in Westchester County. I was a reform candidate in an affluent district where reform candidates rarely run, but the Village was in turmoil, and the rules had been suspended. I was swept into office.
I assumed responsibility, along with four colleagues, for oversight of a district whose salient demographics can be registered in a glance:
Projected enrollment school year 2012-13: 1740
Projected per pupil spending 2012-13: $29,400
Reduced-Price Lunch: 2%
Limited English Proficient: 2%
Asian or Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander: 9%
Small, affluent, majority white – with a cadre of devoted and highly engaged parents. Unfortunately, I was not a parent, and that was a problem.
This spring I lost my bid for re-election in a hotly contested 5-person race for two open seats. I came in third, 27 votes behind a recent president of the PTSA. The election was nasty, with much of the vitriol focusing on the fact that I do not have children attending the schools.
Obviously, excluding non-parents from having a role in public schools is not what policy experts have in mind when they extol the virtues of “parent involvement” in the schools. Given my experience, though, I think the experts are wrong about the relationship between involved parents and quality of the schools. Involved parents can help their own children, but when it comes to the school as a whole, involved parents have virtually no ability to influence curriculum, quality of teaching, or educational outcomes for all children.
As I review my brief Board tenure and recent electoral loss, I’ve come to the conclusion that I won the first time because of the crash—and lost the second time because the school establishment got back on track.
In 2009, I was the “cost-cutting” candidate. I had a financial background, and the Village (including many parents) was in an uproar over an unpopular and free-spending superintendent whose 5-year contract had been rolled over each summer while no one was paying attention. The superintendent was permanently in the first year of a contract with four years left to run. Just a few short months after the Village learned the meaning of the term “evergreen contract,” the economy crashed, and parents and “non-parents” alike were in open revolt. I was their candidate.
At the same time, a small but determined group of reform-minded parents had coalesced around issues of curriculum and accountability some three years before I ran. Those parents had created a list-serve they called the Irvington Parents Forum, where they posted “citizens op eds” pressing their case. Their mantra at the time of the crash: district spending had doubled in 10 years time with no measurable gains in student achievement. I became their candidate, too.
Perhaps due to this somewhat unique convergence of interests, Irvington never reached the point of having a tax revolt. Instead we had an accountability revolt, which united those concerned about taxes with parents whose primary issue was curriculum and student achievement.
A pre-existing parent group lobbying for academic improvement, an unpopular school leader, and a once-in-a-century economic catastrophe: if that’s what it takes for a reform candidate to run and win in the “leafy suburbs,” (http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/11/opinion/11petrilli.html) we won’t see many reform candidates running and winning there.
Nevertheless, I was able to get a number of things done.
The superintendent was out by the end of my second year, a major accomplishment, and one for which I claim the lion’s share of the credit—certainly for the speed with which her administration drew to a close.
In the weeks before I took office, the Board, breaking with its practice of previous years, decided not to roll over the superintendent’s contract. So, as I began my 3-year term, the superintendent was beginning a 4-year run.
Although the handwriting was on the wall, the superintendent still enjoyed strong support on the board, and the situation devolved into an open battle between the superintendent and me. At the nadir of my time on the Board, the superintendent publicly denounced me as a “liar” and was not called to order by the Board president.
That dramatic act of defamation (and insubordination) took place before a standing-room-only audience of parents who had come to the meeting to protest anti-Semitic incidents in the middle school. Although initially I had been the only member of the Board to respond to the issue, I now heard myself being denounced as a “politician” who had “exploited” anti-Semitism for political gain. A letter to the editor citing my “social views” followed not long after.
By the next morning word had spread that I would have to resign: the superintendent had called me out, exposed me as a liar, and I would have to go. One year later, she was gone.
Although every day during those first two years seemed to bring a new slugfest, I also managed to deliver on my platform where spending and transparency were concerned. I spent my entire first year in office trying to find out what the average teacher in our district earned. The administration refused to tell me, and the other Board members backed that up.
Construction projects were a particular money sinkhole. During my second year on the Board, the district undertook the renovation of an athletic field to bring it up to code for girls’ lacrosse. It was never clear whether voters had actually authorized the renovation, problem enough. Then, once the job was completed, administrators discovered that the finished field was 30 feet too short. Taxpayers spent another $50,000 to re-build the field as drawn on the architect’s plans.
Today, I think most of these problems are behind us. And we have four fewer administrators than we did when I was elected (although the Board has voted to add a curriculum administrator). The assistant superintendent for business was replaced by a straight-shooter who spent the year rectifying numerous problems left behind by her predecessor, a man who earned more than the superintendent of Scarsdale during his last year on the job. In the run-up to the recent election a constituent asked our new business manager to calculate the average teacher total compensation in the district, and she did. ($129,872.27, not including “lane” increases, which are the raises given upon completion of education credits).
And, finally, the full Board unanimously hired a new superintendent who uses data-driven instruction and professional learning communities in his district: a man who, when he was a student teacher, videotaped himself and his peers so they could analyze their work. He is all about accountability and results, and he was the unanimous choice of the Board.
Unfortunately, curriculum was another story. Our district uses Math Trailblazers, one of the weakest of the constructivist math curricula on the market, and I spent two years urging the district to adopt “Singapore Math.” Despite having a large group of knowledgeable parents behind me, I made absolutely no headway. In a meeting at which the subject was considered, the board president, who had majored in math at an Ivy League college, told the audience that in her opinion Trailblazers was weak and “Singapore Math” strong but she was voting to keep Trailblazers because “We have to do what the teachers want.”
One of my supporters shared Richard Elmore’s article on “nominally high performing schools” with me, and my experiences echo his observations:
- Affluent suburban schools often define learning difficulties as a “problem to be solved by students and their families” (via private tutors) not by the school;
- Affluent suburban schools often see variations in student performance as natural and unrelated to teaching or curriculum;
- Affluent suburban schools often intentionally limit access to high-level courses (even more alarming, sociologist Paul Attewell found that affluent schools often keep talented students out of advanced classes via artificially tough grading and grade deflation);
- Leaders who want to improve affluent suburban schools may find themselves in a “risky place.”
It’s hard to imagine local School Boards taking steps to change this situation, if only because so few citizens believe anything is (or could be) amiss in suburban schools. Students in villages like ours always score higher than students in urban or rural schools, and the number of parents who know enough about curriculum, teaching, or international comparisons to protest balanced literacy and constructivist math is small. Most parents, I think, trust that teachers and administrators know best, and some believe that School Boards should not “interfere” with the core functions of the school.
As for parents who dissent, the window of time for them to advocate openly for better curriculum or accountability comes to a close when their children reach adolescence. Pre-teens and teens tend to dislike having their parents in the limelight for any reason, but they can find it especially painful to see their parents gain notoriety as vocal school critics.
Generous funding, perennially high scores on state tests, and the absence of a lobby for reform mean that there is no limit to the number of education-school “initiatives” that can be “rolled out” in a high-performing suburban school district. Balanced literacy, constructivist math, reading workshop, peer editing, group projects, writing workshops, flipped classrooms, flip books, technology, grade deflation, and tutors: the entire constructivist project will continue to grow and flourish in affluent suburban schools. It’s no accident that E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum has been adopted by a few schools in Queens and the Bronx, but not one in Westchester or Long Island.
Education reform here in the leafy suburbs will have to trickle up from New York City’s poorest schools.
[blockquote class=blue]Robyne Camp has just completed a term on the Irvington School Board. Her first career was in finance, specializing in complex lending to insurance companies. Her second career began in her 50s, after she was widowed, when she became a lawyer. As a pro bono assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, she represented abused and neglected children in appeals cases and subsequently prosecuted domestic violence crimes. [/blockquote]