UPDATED: Montclair Board Meeting: Questions and Criticism About Dr. MacCormack

Montclair Board MeetingUPDATED: Added info about Larson’s comments regarding Superintendent’s bonus guarantee in the contract.

on The Montclair Board of Education hoped to make news with its announcement of Dr. Joseph Putrino as new principal for Glenfield Middle School and an explanation of its implementation of its new standards for the 2013-14 school year at its July 15 meeting.  However, the board, which got a late start with the public part of its meeting for July 15 owing to an executive session that ended at 8:30 pm instead of the customary 7:30 pm, found itself embroiled in yet more criticism surrounding its standardized assessments and grumblings that Schools Superintendent Penny MacCormack lacked a proper certification mandated by the state and that her contract contained a bonus guarantee that was not made public when she was hired.  These charges were reported in the July 11 edition of the Montclair Times.

Fourth Ward Councilor Renée Baskerville addressed the board expressing concerns about the apparent lack of transparency in Dr. MacCormack’s hiring, saying that she was concerned that hiring process appeared to be an act out of the norm and that the information about her hiring should have been disclosed instead of letting Montclair residents learn about it by having to read the Montclair Times.

Board member Leslie Larson sought to put an end to the controversy once and for all by reading a statement from current and former board members explaining the process of Dr. MacCormack’s hiring.  She said that Dr. MacCormack was chosen as the result of a nationwide search, with ten community forums held to gauge what Montclair residents wanted in and expected from their new schools superintendent, dismissing any charges that the public was excluded by the hiring process as “baseless.”

“All meetings were well-publicized, and residents who could not attend could offer input to the Board of Education’s website,” Mrs. Larson said. “Once all of this information was processed the search began.  Numerous highly qualified candidates were interviewed, many of whom were from out if state. Dr. MacCormack was the board’s unanimous first choice.” The process was kept confidential until a superintendent was found in the interest of potential candidates avoiding awkward situations with current employers, and Mrs. Larson—later backed on the same point by board member Shelly Lombard—said it was ridiculous to expect any out-of-state candidate for the job to be ready at the start with a New Jersey superintendent’s certification in place.  Dr. MacCormack, who has such a certification from Connecticut, has time—specifically, until January 2014—to acquire the same certification from New Jersey.

Larson’s statement also addressed the bonus questions by stating, “Dr. MacCormack’s salary is limited by the cap on superintendent’s compensation imposed by the state last year.  Dr. MacCormack earned approximately 25 percent less than Dr. [Frank] Alvarez did, and even if she receives the maximum bonus, it will only amount to less than 6 percent of her salary.  Dr. McCormack’s compensation is in line with market norms and is certainly in line with the her [responsibilities].”

Dr. Penny MacCormackMeanwhile, Dr. MacCormack and Gail Clarke, the newly appointed Chief Academic Officer, led a lengthy presentation to the board detailing the district’s efforts in writing new curriculum under the state’s newly adopted Common Core standard.

MacCormack gave a recap slide show of all her points from previous meetings about how Montclair needed to develop more rigorous standards in reading comprehension and to be able to write clear, defensible essays to support opinions with facts, as well as develop an understanding of how to pursue mathematical problems with more analysis and a greater understanding of how formulas work, in line with the Common Core goals and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Careers (PARCC) standards.  The plan is in reaction to state objectives.

“We are a very good school system,” she said.  “Yet we are being asked, we are being required to implement standards and assessments that will be more challenging for our educators and for students.”

Gail Clarke addressed the board on the progress of 50 three-teacher teams in the district formulating new curricula for the 2013-14 school year.

Among the teachers offering progress reports were science teacher Delia Maloy, who explained that her teams were emphasizing assessments on lab work and on students’ abilities to explain their work in writing, in the interest of getting kids to “think like scientists.”   Social studies teacher Davida Harewood talked about an effort to get students to improve their reading and comprehension and apply their language skills to understanding ancient and modern history, while math teacher Emmett Murphy stressed the need for geometry and algebra students to not just put numbers into formulas to get the right answer but also be able to explain and understand how formulas work.

The detail of all these plans exasperated many people in the audience, some of whom thought the district was moving too fast with too much, particularly with assessments. Mrs. Lombard defended the testing, saying it was important to know where students stood academically and who needed improvement and in what subjects.  Mrs. Larson said the accelerated pace of strengthening standards and of assessing students to see how they fare with such standards was imperative.

“We’re playing catch-up,” she said. “A lot of this is coming from the state.  We don’t have a choice. We’re doing the best we can.”

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  1. Dear Steve, you may very well be the best reporter on Baristanet’s staff (with the possible exception of Holly in her once-a-year-or-so fit of pique). Your articles are among the few that could be considered hard news, and I always look forward to them. However, it would be really great to have a little help in wading through what’s said in these meetings.

    For instance, as far as I can tell, neither Clarke nor Larson nor anyone else ever responded to the charge that the BoE failed to disclose MacCormack’s bonus clause. Is this true? Or did I miss it when I dozed off reading those long passages in which you too-faithfully report all the horsesh*t they actually did say? And if they didn’t address it, you might have gone out on a limb and said as much.

  2. “…….Montclair needed to develop……and to be able to write clear, defensible essays to support opinions with facts, as well as develop an understanding o hoe to pursue mathematical problems with more analysis and a greater understanding of how formulas work, in line with the Common Core goals and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Careers (PARCC) standards”

    Mrs. Larson said. “Once all of this information was process the search began. Numerous highly qualified candidates were interviews, many of whom were from out if state Dr. MacCormack was the board’s unanimous first choice

    hopefully the writer will be taking the writing classes as well. I also agree with Walleroo…. though the article starts with an accusation of a non-disclosed bonus, it is then never mentioned again.

  3. “MacCormack’s bonus clause”

    It was stated last night that merit pay is standard for all our administrators. More, even with all that, Dr. M will be making significantly less than Dr. A did.

    “lacked a proper certification mandated by the state”

    Apparently, 5 of the 6 candidates at some point in the search were from out of state and would have had the same issue. This is not uncommon for someone coming from out of state, and there’s a process for gaining the new state’s certification analogous to one moving a driver’s license.

    Unfortunately, the MT didn’t bother to report any information from the state DOE (which I presume manages this certification), but merely reported “she said, she said”.

    In my opinion, the big story from last night was in the presentations from the teachers involved in the synthesis of the new curricula. Mr. Cummings expressed a concern, for example, that the curricula would “squelch” teachers’ ability to creatively teach to their own styles. Two of the teachers responded to him, asserting that the a curriculum would describe what needed to be learned, but not how it would be taught.

    More, I was very excited to hear details of the work these groups of teachers are doing. The assessments in science, for example, will include discussions of lab work. The specifics evolve over the year (or perhaps it was over the years of middle school), ending with a student documenting an entire process from asking a question to forming an hypothesis to identifying the tests to documenting and discussing the results.

    The emphasis described for math on the selection of the proper model, in contrast to merely plugging numbers into a predetermined formula, reflects an emphasis on how math is used in the real world. Again, it was exciting for this parent to hear.

    People use the phrase “teaching to the test”. We’re building our “tests” around what we want to teach. That’s the way it should be.

    It’s a shame TV34 wasn’t there last night. I’d love to have Mrs. Clark create a video of these (and perhaps other) teachers describing their work. It would not only inform and excite parents; it shows just how Montclair is again blazing a trail, this time with real-world based curricula and assessments instead of just blinding following some texts or off-the-shelf curricula.


  4. “What we want to teach” is being dictated by the Common Core, not the district of Montclair. Whatever the Common Core says is essential, then tests will be created to reflect that. That, to me, sounds like teaching to the test.

    With these tests becoming a a greater percentage of a teacher’s evaluation, to save their jobs, teachers will teach to the test. It’s only human nature when jobs depend on it.

    As for bonuses/merit pay, most Superintendents (i.e. my wife is a teacher in Bergen County, and this is the case for her super) receive bonus pay simply based on how many programs they implement, not if they are successful. All her superintendent has to do is implement some half-baked literacy program, or alternate scheduling program for students, and even if it’s a complete mess or simply doesn’t do anything, the superintendent will get their bonus. That is why transparency is needed to determine what actually will account for our superintendent’s bonus. If it is just to “implement things”, rather than assessing the effectiveness of those “things”, then no bonus is warranted.

    For those that clamored for caps on superintendent pay (i.e. Gov. Christie), wasteful bonuses should be abhorrent. But, for some reason, I don’t see those that freaked about superintendents’ pay freaking about possibly handing out money for doing very little to actually impact a child’s education for the better.

  5. “Whatever the Common Core says is essential, then tests will be created to reflect that. That, to me, sounds like teaching to the test.”

    Not quite. “Teaching to the test” requires that the test dictates the teaching. How Montclair is doing it is that the test is being dictated by the teaching.

    If there are to be tests (or other assessments), I think it very appropriate that they’re based upon what is being taught (rather than the reverse).

    “With these tests becoming a a greater percentage of a teacher’s evaluation”

    That was something else that caught my attention. Someone asked about this last night, and apparently whether the district assessments play a role in teacher evaluations is something that is up to individual teachers and principals. How this will work in practice I cannot say, of course, nor how the state-mandated assessments fit into this.

    I thought the idea of giving choice a good one if only from the naive perspective of “more choice is better”, but one of the speakers last night stated w/o explaining that this would have dire consequences.

    “receive bonus pay simply based on how many programs they implement, not if they are successful”

    Does that district have a plan with measurable outcomes? That we have this means that we can actually define merit by those measures. It’s one of the points about the plan that gets missed: this becomes a tool with which to hold the superintendent (and other senior staff) accountable.


  6. mtclrsown – You say that CCSS will entail teaching to the test. Do you understand that the CCSS is not a set curriculum & that the CCSS does not include any type of set exam or test? There is no set list of books (just examples, or exemplar texts) and a listing of concepts that students will need to master as they move through their public school years?
    The CCSS is all about concepts, critical thinking, and an awful lot of writing. I don’t understand the correlation of what the CCSS stands for and people upset about testing. It’s oranges and apples.
    And the fact that their are teacher teams here in Montclair developing the curriculum, to fit our town and our student population, well I just think this is good thing. I look forward to learning more about it.

  7. While I do not always agree with Fourth Ward Councilor Renée Baskerville, she is the only member of the Town Council who sometimes breaks ranks and stands up for good government.

    Once again concerned parents and teachers left a Montclair BOE meeting frustrated and empty handed. By deliberately starting late and then filling the remaining time with mindless statements and re-used PowerPoint slides, the BOE managed again to avoid any real questions about the going-ons of Superintendent MacCormack.

    There are a lot of red herrings being flown about, but Dr. MacCormack’s corporate style of education and wastefully spending money for private firms to do useless work, her failure to even try to understand this community, and her lack of knowledge regarding education does not bode well for the future of Montclair’s schools.

    The Board of Education has been reckless in its hiring of Penny MacCormack, likely because it itself is so under-qualified regarding education. Dr. MacCormack is grossly overpaid and it is telling that the BOE chose not to disclose the full terms of the contract to the town’s people.

    At the end of the day, because the mayor and town council were elected by less than 15% of the eligible voters in Montclair, does not in any way suggest that this is a democratically led town: it is neither “by the people” or “for the people.”

    This is a town that increasingly appears led by private corporate and business interests behind the scenes. This goes beyond the irresponsible use of the taxes the town government levies on the town’s people and results in an enormous debt for the citizens which is now serviced at the huge expense of property owners with absolutely no return on their expenditure.

    I am pleased that Fourth Ward Councilor Renée Baskerville asked an obvious question. Likely the asking of an honest question was already going too far. Expecting an honest reply from Montclair’s political corps is certainly entering the realm of fantasy.

  8. “There are a lot of red herrings being flown about”

    Indeed, and many of them are being posted in the note to which this is a reply.

    “spending money for private firms to do useless work”

    This herring especially catches my attention. Montclair is paying its teachers to do something that many other districts do with consultants (or other forms of outside enterprise). This is a part of Dr. MacCormack’s plan. I’m sure that the district is still using outside firms for various tasks; that long predates the current superintendent. Ignoring her increased and unusual use of in-house talent, though, makes this particular herring especially malodorous.

    “BOE chose not to disclose the full terms of the contract to the town’s people.”

    What part of “public document” confuses people?

    BTW: It was especially ironic to me to hear a councilor accuse the district of using a housing allowance to “bump up” a contract’s pay since it was a town council that did precisely this for a prior town manager. On a more serious note, however, this behavior was very odd considering that the contract is a public document. Why would a councilor simply make up stuff rather than read the document?

    I guess the red herrings are flying fast and furious as some in town seek to maintain the status quo. If we didn’t have problems like the achievement gap, and if the status quo didn’t include seeking to hide this from the public, perhaps this highly conservative approach (“slow down”, “don’t change”) wouldn’t be so bad. As recent articles on the schools being attended by some of our graduates demonstrate, our schools are doing some things well.

    Yet that gap has persisted over the years before the new superintendent. As well as our schools do for some, others are being left behind. Why are some so willing to accept this?


  9. I was the person who spoke at the meeting (referred to in an above post) who expressed concern about giving teachers a choice whether or not to use the quarterly assessments as part of their evaluation.

    My time was limited, and I said the other night, I was not expecting to hear that this was to be an option for Montclair teachers. When Dr. MacCormack mentioned it, it took me by surprise.
    There are several reasons why using test scores of students are detrimental (I believe that was the word I used, not “dire”).

    Such a practice is likely to result in an unhealthy atmosphere among teachers, promoting competition, rather than collaboration and ultimately reduce teacher morale.
    Doing so will ultimately result in these quarterly assessments becoming high-stakes. Also, will these results be made public? By school? Grade? Teacher? If so, and I imagine they will for transparency, then we will now have a high-stakes situation. Parents will be drawn to schools where results are “better” where more teachers are willing to be “accountable.”

    As I also stated the other night, I was impressed by the teachers who are currently collaborating with each other. Creating a system of “rewards” from test scores will likely result in destroying collegiality and collaboration.

    My children are out of high school. I urge parents to carefully observe the results of new policies and practices being implemented in the District in the day-to-day lives of your children. Will they result in your child being excited and inspired to go to school? Will they result in your child becoming a stronger reader, writer, mathematician, and thinker through meaningful instruction? Will they negatively impact subjects not assessed such as the arts, which are already a too-often missed area of expression and which create a rich learning environment helping children develop vocabulary, focus, and other important skills?

    There are many academic articles discussing issues around using student test scores for teacher evaluation. This is one of interest: https://www.epi.org/publication/bp278/

    Gail Prusslin

  10. Andrew, thank you. The new school superintendent surely cannot take credit for what is already functioning well in the Montclair School Distict, and I don’t think you intended to suggest that.

    It is not simply about the “gaps” or about making cookie cutter learners from all our learners. “Gaps” are not necessarily bad things. Differences are sometimes what we need.

    Dr. MacCormack is not about education. She is about selling out. The Board of Education sold out to her, and no one (not even BOE members) ever suggested they were transparent about that. Now Dr. MacCormack is selling out the district’s education to corporations that provide testing and a new slew of management hireree’s, all at great expense to the tax payer and all detrimental to educational values.

    We still have no transparency regarding Superintendent MacCormack’s behavior during the Glenfield gun incident. All we know is she sold out a subordinate to save her own political hide. If you know just what actions Dr. MacCormack took and when during those 24 hours that cost her subordinate’s job, please let us in on the secret.

    Who really here is wearing the blinders?

    (PS Thank you gfp930 for contributing something here of value to a discussion on education.)

  11. ““Gaps” are not necessarily bad things.

    I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree here. I think that our schools need to provide the best possible education to everyone; not just the students that are “easy”.

    I have to admit, though: I’ve never seen anyone defend the achievement gap in quite this way. I appreciate the novelty.

    “Dr. MacCormack is not about education.”

    I cannot fathom how you can spend any time listening to her or reading what she’s produced and believe this. She strikes me as remarkably dedicated to education. Perhaps I should simply ask: where’s your evidence?

    “All we know is she sold out a subordinate to save her own political hide. If you know just what actions Dr. MacCormack took and when during those 24 hours that cost her subordinate’s job, please let us in on the secret.”

    I’m fascinated that you don’t know the actions, but you know that they involved “selling out a subordinate”. It’s been explained repeatedly that privacy concerns require that certain details remain obscured. Since this cause a lack of information, and if you’re willing to invent your own, I imagine that any conclusion at all is possible.

    In that light, you’re being terribly pedestrian. Why not assert that this is all a plot by aliens looking to prevent our children from excelling in science and math and therefore threatening their technological superiority. This is just as reasonable as your conclusions, but far more interesting.


  12. “Such a practice is likely to result in an unhealthy atmosphere among teachers, promoting competition, rather than collaboration and ultimately reduce teacher morale.”

    First: keep in mind that it is a choice out of which any teacher may opt.

    Beyond this, I’m not clear how you can draw this conclusion. Competition presumes a zero sum game, and I don’t see that here regardless of the use of test scores.

    This conversation does cause me to wonder whether the evaluations will include “peer evaluations”. I vaguely recall that these were mentioned at one of the “plan design” meetings, but I don’t recall whether the idea stuck. It seems to me that including something of this sort would go a long way to capture the value added by teachers that collaborate effectively.

    “Parents will be drawn to schools where results are “better” where more teachers are willing to be “accountable.””

    More or less, this is already the case. We all see the statistics published by the state DOE for each of our schools. Having just gone through the “choose a middle school” process, I’m not sure why this is a bad thing. It’s only one variable among many.

    As for the information being public: I wish we could have more, and more detailed, information on teachers. One son had a 2nd grade teacher that he and we loved; she made a huge difference just when he needed it. Yet other parents have complained about her, citing exactly those characteristics that so impressed us.

    In a way, this is unsurprising and reasonable. Different students thrive under different styles. How wonderful it would be to be able to match teacher and student so well.

    Instead, we’ve this “black market” of teacher recommendations. Parents exchange tips like “this one is a must-have” and “fight tooth and nail to get out of that class”. Even if we see this as reasonable, there remains the problem of the parents that are “out of the loop” of these conversations. This may be one of the factors behind the correlation between high student outcome and involved parents, and it puts some students at a disadvantage.


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