MILLBURN, NJ—In 2010 New Jersey decided to have students in its public schools meet the nationwide educational yardsticks known as the Core Curriculum standards.

Many of the questions at Sunday’s open forum sponsored by the Millburn Board of Education centered on state mandates for the standards and the online PAARC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers) of student achievement that soon will become a part of public elementary and secondary education statewide.

Millburn Assistant Superintendent of Schools for Curriculum and Instruction Christine Burton said at the forum that curricula in language arts and mathematics were the first subject areas to fall under the core corriculum standards and science soon will follow. She added that PAARC testing will begin in state schools in 2015.

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One of the concerns about the new standards, according to board president Jeffrey Waters, is that, like many state mandates, it could “crowd out” many other areas both in professional development and in curriculum that the Millburn schools wish to address.

Burton pointed out that curricula in the target subjects often will have to be completely rewritten because, even in the first grade, the state will expect students to meet standards before they advance to the next grade. One of the effects of this in Millburn, she noted, is that the kindergarten-to-fifth grade mathematics curriculum is being completely reworked.

Eventually, she said, science courses in kindergarten to 12th grade will “be coming down the pike.”

The assistant superintendent added that, because teacher evaluations will have a greater connection to student progress, more of teacher professional development training has to be reworked to tie into the implementation of the new curriculum yardsticks.

One resident wanted to know if the core curriculum standards were, in fact, centralizing the power over education in the state and taking it away from local control.

Superintendent of Schools James Crisfield replied that superintendents throughout the state had tried to make Trenton officials aware of the cost of imposing the new standards, especially the “opportunity costs”  lost from other educational areas.

One of the problems, Crisfield said, is that many of those in the legislature, who make the final decision on implementation of the standards do not have educational backgrounds and tend to support “one size fits all” solutions that may help districts in Newark or Camden but do not work as well in Millburn.

Asked if this, in fact, would result in the “dumbing down” of academics in Millburn-Short Hills, the superintendent said the skills and expectations outlined in the Core Curriculum were in fact more rigorous than those previously in place.

He added that this also is demonstrated in the PAARC assessments where, for example, students will be required to explain their answers and demonstrate critical thinking skills rather than just repeating back what they have been taught.

Replying to a question from resident Dave Siegel, Crisfield said core curriculum and the PAARC assessment process probably would not add to budgets by “requiring more bodies” but there could be a budgetary cost for more time required for training. He added thar time probably would, for example, be taken away from teachers observing other teachers and allow for less extensive explanation of new technology.

“We will have to react to the state’s priorities rather than our own,” the Millburn school leader noted.

Burton added that, because of time required to “running the buildings,” increased teacher evaluation requirements also meant more time would have to be spent after school on these activities, while Crisfield also pointed out that the state still expects, for example, programs on suicide prevention and updating individual education plans for special education students to be completed in addition to the increased curriculum and testing requirements,

The superintendent did say he would be requesting that the position of kindergarten-to-12th-grade curriculum supervisor be restored to take some of those responsibilities off Burton’s shoulders.

Waters noted the position had been deleted from the school budget when the state completely eliminated the township district’s state aid and the high school currently has department heads who also teach three or four classes.

He said the curriculum supervisor position is one which he personally believes, if reinstated, it should keep.

Waters estimated the state only provides about $2 million of the district’s $70 million budget, but it does pay the employer portion of teacher social security taxes. He also said it would be tremendously expensive if school district opposition to state mandates became to object of litigation.

On the topic of professional development, resident Judy Rosenthal on Marion Avenue said that, since those in other licensed professions in the state such as attorneys and physicians, must personally pay for continuing education courses out of their own pockets school districts should negotiate this requirement into teacher contracts rather than compensating them for time spent in professional development.

Burton said teachers only are paid for time spent during the school year not for professional development done after the school years ends.

On another topic, a number of parents said that there doesn’t seem to be as great an effort made to help children in the middle of the learning spectrum as there is with some with learning disabilities and with aiding the education of those who qualify for advanced placement courses, for example. 

A few parents said they were forced to hire tutors to help their children reach a certain level because they were not able to reach a certain level in the classroom.

Crisfield, clarifying one issue about tutoring, said the district only monitors tutoring by district teachers of district students to determine if there tutoring stays within guidelines deemed appropriate by the district.

On another topic, Gov. Chris Christie’s suggestion about possibly increasing the time spent in school each day or increasing the length of the school year, the superintendent said he didn’t specifically hear the governor say where the money would come from to pay for the additional time.

In addition, Waters said, with many residents complaining about the stress of school on children, an increased school day or school year might add to the stress.

One parent replied that if, for example, block scheduling was added at the high school students could receive an hour rather than 45 minutes of instruction without significantly adding to the school day.

Burton said some of the implementation teams on the district strategic plan committee were studying block scheduling and how it has been implemented in other districts.

Board member Chase Harrison, a student at Millburn High School, said a number of studies have shown that block scheduling is advantageous to students.

On another topic, Rosenthal wanted to know if teachers at the high school were permitted to penalize students who were late for class by reporting that their homework was not turned in on time.

Crisfield replied that the topic is one a parent should raise with the teacher and then the school administration. He said he would look into it, however.

The superintendent did say, however, that teachers in Millburn have been more cognizant of attendance since the township district was cited for attendance in a state school report card a few years ago.

On a topic frequently raised this year at school board meetings, resident Milton Resnick wanted to know if the district would compel parents of non-resident students found to be attending township schools illegally to reimburse the district with tuition.

The superintendent replied the district would take action in the cases of any students found to be attending township schools illegally, but he said these would be handled on a case-by-case basis and each case had its own set of facts.

Board property committee chairman John Westfall-Kwong said tuition reimbursement was a difficult question to deal with, but he added the committee very shortly would be announcing an increased investment in discovering students attending township schools illegally. He declined, however, to give specific details about what actions the district would be taking.

School body vice president Regina Truitt also said the program committee still was trying to decide on how the board would handle requests for schools to close in observance of ethnic, religious or other holidays.

A parent in the audience said that Indian parents had collected the signatures of over 100 families in the township requesting that the Indian Diwali festival be a school holiday and several non-Indian families supported the idea.

Support for the idea was expressed by residents at two board meetings last year.