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Vol. LXI, No. 52
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
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One-Size-Fits-All Documentation Undermines Teaching, Board is Told

Matthew Hersh

What is more important, uniform documentation of a lesson or the creative design of that lesson? That was the question that members of the teaching profession put to the Board of Education on Tuesday, December 18, when some 50 Princeton Regional Schools teachers attended the Board of Education’s monthly meeting to express their displeasure at what they feel is a lack of communication between teachers and the administration over new requirements to write lesson plans in a “very prescribed manner.”

Representatives of Littlebrook, Riverside, and Johnson Park elementary schools as well as John Witherspoon Middle School, and the district’s Special Education services addressed the board in open forum. One after the other, they described the new requirements as distractions from the job of classroom teaching, a job, they reminded the board that had earned Princeton Regional School benchmark status as well as placement in recent listings of the nation’s top schools. They spoke of the time-consuming demands of “useless paperwork” and a lack of “meaningful dialog.”

Fourth-grade teacher Ellen Wadyka read a prepared statement endorsed by the entire teaching staff of Littlebrook School. A veteran of 17 years with the district, Ms. Wadyka described the “daunting directive” teachers had received by way of a large notebook with lesson plan templates and a copy of the New Jersey core content curriculum. “Did this imply that we had not been doing our jobs effectively for all these years?” she asked.

Ms. Wadyka expressed teachers’ frustration that there had been no meaningful communication with the administration since they had asked Superintendent of Schools Judith A. Wilson for a dialog with Valley Road administrators about the new State requirements in September, or since October, when Monica Sislak, co-president of the Princeton Regional Education Association had addressed the board. In November, teachers still hoped for meaningful dialog. “Now it’s December and we are eager to begin a discussion on ways to fulfill the somewhat ambiguous requirements of the state of New Jersey while not stifling our creativity,” she said. “What works at the middle school or high school levels does not work at the elementary school level; that is why elementary teachers want and need to be part of the process.” Ms. Wadyka’s reading received resounding applause from the assembly.

In October, more than 200 members of the teachers’ union attended the board’s monthly meeting requesting a discussion about the NJQSAC (New Jersey Quality Single Accountability Continuum), the Department of Education’s new monitoring and evaluation systems for public school districts that require formalized lesson plans to be submitted by teachers as part of self-assessment procedures to be carried out in all districts.

At that time, board vice-president Alan Hegedus had explained the request for formal lesson plans as a result of “increasing demands for accountability.” “We have to report achievement and this is calling on us to look at the overall degree of professionalism, especially in those areas where there is marginal performance,” he said.

On Tuesday, math teacher Jo Szabaga, representing the teachers of John Witherspoon Middle School, described the imposed template process as “diminishing” teacher professionalism.

Joyce Turner, special education teacher at Princeton High School, asked the professors and attorneys on the board to consider how they would feel if they were asked to rewrite their functional lectures or reports to conform to a template that served no purpose other than simply to show that they could do so.

Commenting on Thursday, December 20, Ms. Wilson had this to say by email: “I have no doubt that the concerns around lesson planning can and will be resolved. There is universal agreement that lesson planning is a central responsibility for every educator. At the core of concerns is that the current expectations are too time-consuming, especially at the elementary level. Choices of format, design, electronic or paper, etc., are all up to each teacher’s preference. A committee of elementary teachers and administrators is working on recommendations to make the process both manageable and effective. The expectations that lessons have specific learning objectives, are tied to curriculum content standards, and provide for differentiation of instruction to meet individual learners’ needs are essential.”

The next meeting of the Board of Education will be January 22, 2008 at 8 p.m. at John Witherspoon Middle School.

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