NJ’s Top Three Supers Open up About Life Inside the School System

John Mooney | October 24, 2012 | Education
Flux is the norm in New Jersey's public schools, offering unique challenges and opportunities

All told, the three men represent more than 50 years of school leadership — in different New Jersey communities with different challenges.

Whatever their differences, however, the three share a common bond: They were named yesterday as the top school superintendents in their regions. They also share a common sentiment: the expectations and pressures now facing New Jersey’s schools are unprecedented, especially in the face of constrained resources and strict caps.

They weren’t complaining about their jobs, something they made clear in a joint interview with NJ Spotlight. Recent changes in the state’s tenure laws and coming changes in curriculum offered some equally unprecedented opportunities, they said.

But it wasn’t getting any easier, either. Albert Brown, the first superintendent in the state to be shared by two neighboring districts — Stratford and Laurel Springs in Camden County — recalled sitting through state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf’s convocation with more than 300 fellow superintendents last month.

The presentation lasted two-and-a half-hours, with Cerf and his top staff describing an array of changes in curriculum, testing, and district accountability — and their attendant consequences and rewards.

“I don’t think there was anybody there who wasn’t overwhelmed by the amount of expectations that are coming down from Trenton,” Brown said. “The workload on administrators, principals, and teachers has never been higher.

“These jobs have never been easy, but it just seems the burden is getting heavier,” he said.

The New Jersey Association of School Administrators named Brown as the southern region’s top superintendent. He joins Christopher Manno of Burlington Township as the central regional winner, and Ridgewood’s Daniel Fishbein in the northern region.

Christopher Manno, Burlington Township superintendent
One of the three will be named the state’s top superintendent in early November.

Yesterday, they were in Atlantic City as part of the administrators association’s annual conference held with the New Jersey School Boards Association.

In an empty room away from main event, the three supers sat down and talked about some of the changes coming, starting with the new ways of evaluating and judging teachers and principals under the tenure reform law enacted last summer.

“This has led to an invigorated conversation about teaching and learning, and we’re talking more about what good teaching and learning look like,” Manno said.

“The vast majority of our teachers are good, very talented people, and I don’t think this will impact them at all negatively. I think it will enhance them as they continue to grow,” he said.

“It will impact struggling teachers, and I think it’s not a bad thing that it will make a system address performance concerns more efficiently and effectively,” Manno continued.

But with every opportunity, there was a concern, too.

“If you just do the math of the [teacher] observations and evaluations required in the law, it is a significant increase in time,” Manno added. “Combine that with all the other administrative requirements, for instance the new [anti-bullying law] — most of us have cut administrative staff in recent years, and this makes it very difficult.”

“We want to do this well, but without the proper administrative resources to do it, that’s a challenge,” he said.

Daniel Fishbein, Ridgewood superintendent
Brown also applauded the idea of the added tools that came with the law, but he worried that it also put an equal burden on evaluating the very best teachers as well as the struggling ones.

“The highly proficient teachers, we already know who they are, we know our stars,” he said. “I’ve been observing them for years, and I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know how much wisdom I will impart to them. They’re teaching me.

“Let’s concentrate on the problem areas, that very small percent who really need the attention,” he said.

With student performance now a central piece of both teacher and principal evaluations, the three said the jury was out on what that would look like.

“If it was easy to do, it would have been done a long time ago,” Brown said. “There are just so many variables involved in this, and to pull out and somehow allocate the responsibility to a particular teacher of a student’s score three-quarters through the year, it is going to be a real problem.”

The three were more upbeat about the upcoming wave of new curricula in New Jersey schools under the national Common Core State Standards,

“We are deeply in the process of aligning our math and language arts K-12 with the Common Core, and it’s a big change,” Manno said. “It’s more rigorous, with the math programs [having] a whole different underpinning.”

“I think the changes are very positive,” he said. “They will push our students and will be more rigorous, and I think will lead to better student outcomes.”

The new testing that will accompany the new curriculum brought up the issue of capacity again. This time, however, the concerns were as much about technology as anything else.

The new state testing will be entirely online, and none of these three superintendents said their districts were anywhere close to being ready.

“I know in talking to my tech people that we don’t have the ability to do this,” Brown said. “We don’t have the infrastructure, we don’t have enough computers, and I don’t think we are that far behind compared to a lot of the districts in Camden County. Where is that going to come from?”

“This sounds so neat in the beginning, but when you really start thinking about it, it’s a monumental undertaking,” he said.

Fishbein recalled that about a decade ago schools were required by the state to test their students on public speaking. The mandate lasted only a year, after it proved untenable for training staff to administer it.

“You had to mobilize your whole school,” he said, “to get all your teachers trained to how to use the rubric. I see that again unfortunately.”

In general, Fishbein said it seems districts are always in transition in New Jersey. “It wasn’t that long ago when we were going to have end-of-course testing, and we’re still piloting some of them year after year after year,” he said.

“It seems we are always re-gearing for the next wave of education improvement,” he said.