It was the Watchung School staff’s turn to present a teacher’s report of “What’s working and What’s not working” for their school at the February 24 Budget Meeting of the Montclair Board of Education.
Watchung School teachers cited the excellent caliber of the staff, such as their advanced degrees and superior academic performance as evidence of what is working.
The teachers also reported that Watchung continues to win many honors.
“We have been awarded the U.S. Department of Education National Blue Ribbon three times,” they said. “We have also been recognized by the state as a star school, and most recently, we were honored with the distinction as a rewards school for outstanding student achievement.”
They also credited Watchung parents for helping with tutoring and volunteering to coordinate extracurricular activities.
For “what’s not working,” the Watchung staff stated that the implementation of the Duplicated Reading Assessment, Second Edition (DRA-2) was stifling teachers’ efforts to structure lessons for kindergartners, offering them less time for instruction and hindering efforts to work with underaged and socially immature kindergarten students who do not reach the age of six before completing kindergarten.
The teachers found the Common Core standards to be “developmentally inappropriate,” complaining that kindergartners are expected to know 60 words on sight instead of the previous 24. They also said that there should be a moratorium on the quarterly tests, leaving little time to teach properly and having to cover more lessons at a faster pace in a shorter period. They asked for help with a program providing a stipend for a teacher to help volunteers willing to work with children after school, and more professional development with special education and help with meeting the vigor of the new standards.
Board member Anne Mernin asked how the DRA-2, used previously at Watchung, was different this year. Teachers replied that it was different because of the frequency of its use and the higher benchmark standards.
“So what are you seeing as you’re doing this more frequently?” Mernin asked.
“We’re doing it three times a year, in 1 and 2, not in kindergarten, and each time it takes about a week to administer,” one teacher replied, adding that it was helpful to assess reading fluency and engagement and was more helpful when given a second time than testing all over a third time. They said they saw student growth in reading comprehension but that the increased testing and data did not make any greater difference.
Board member David Deutsch asked about sight words, asking what an appropriate word recognition for students would be if having students recognize 60 words was too excessive. Teachers replied that a 36-word jump for kindergarteners, many of whom hadn’t mastered the alphabet, was inappropriate when they first needed to learn their ABCs and their phonics, and that different children learned at different levels. A 24-word standard, they said, was a more appropriate median.
Teachers acknowledged that there was a great deal of research on what the proper median would be, but they told Deutsch that they were not prepared cite specific articles and information when much of the findings have not yet been sufficiently tested.
The board asked about another concern, a teacher who had tutored first through third grade students with reading during the 2012-13 school year and was paid through a grant that apparently was not renewed, as the teacher was not back for the current year. Watchung teachers said they were now relying on curriculum coaches to help with students with difficulties in reading between one and three times a week.
Board member David Cummings, saying that he had heard six groups of teachers express the same problems, asked Schools Superintendent Penny MacCormack what the principals had to say. Dr. MacCormack said that principals whom she spoke with, while acknowledging the difficulties of implementing the new standards, were confident that they could meet them.
“We’re making adjustments where necessary, so I think the flexibility on the part of our teaching staff, our principals, and our academic team has been stupendous, and we’re working together,” she said, noting the positive feedback for the professional development sessions the district has been having.
“These questions exist — what’s working, what’s not working, and what your ideas are — because you need to answer those throughout the whole change process,” Dr. MacCormack added, “but to me it doesn’t mean you stop.”
The Watchung teachers had also cited the lack of updated computers and software, an issue Chief Operations Officer Brian Fleischer later said he hoped to address while discussing the budget for the next school year.
A few members of the public weighed in on the continued strife with implementing the Common Care and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) standards, particularly where Common Core standards related to grade-schoolers.
Resident Laurie Orosz believed that they were unnecessary and made the teachers rush to much in instructing their students, while resident Elena Halberstadt read comments from what she said were from two anonymous parents of kindergarten students.
“My child is really struggling,” Halberstadt read on one parent’s behalf, “and the teacher has pointed out to me that with this new curriculum, my child has to master everything sooner that a child would have had to in years past.”