We are fortunate to live in a community with so much passion and talent that we have a crowded field of candidates for this year’s BOE election.
I would like to highlight one candidate, who truly stands out from the crowd: Margaret (Peggy) Freedson. She is running on a slate with two veteran Board members who bring skill, leadership and experience at a crucial time in our district. Wayne Eastman has extraordinary depth, knowledge of this community, and broader vision for our community; Madhu Pai is a gifted communicator, who always hones in on the essential issues.
Peggy stands out for something else: her extraordinary expertise and knowledge as a professor of education, with deep roots in the classroom. Peggy earned her Ph.D. in education at Harvard, and has worked with teachers and students in Paterson, while serving as a professor of education at Montclair State University. If Peggy were elected to the Board, we as a community, would be very lucky indeed. Peggy will fill a historically weak link on our Board: informed, professional guidance on curriculum and instruction. And she will join this body at a seismic moment—when an ambitious policy of equity and access has been voted in. Peggy is what we need to get it right.
First, I think it’s important to remember what Board members can or cannot do. As Freedson’s running mate Madhu Pai rightly points out, during the campaign season, the role of the Board of Education can be blurred. Promises are made that can’t be kept. District protocol exists that established clear lines between the roles of an elected Board and the staff of our schools. Rightly so—we can’t have elected officials meddling into the day-to-day affairs of administrators and teachers.
Given this structure, curriculum and instruction is one area that occupies an awkward place in Board responsibilities. In the past, Board members were also understandably reluctant to press on curriculum and instruction, believing it should be left ‘to the professionals,’ since this is not their expertise. This is unfortunate. A recent assessment of our district by the quality assessment division of the New Jersey Department of Education gave us a poor (52%) rating on curriculum integration and alignment to the state-mandated Language Arts and Math standards. As parents, we all know the pre-semester jitters: will our children get the “good” teacher? But really, with thoughtful professional development of our teaching talent, clear and well-designed curriculum and supervision, this shouldn’t be the case. Class assignments should not be a lottery game.
This is where strong curriculum and instruction comes in. Curriculum and how it is delivered in the classroom is really the core of any good school district. It’s the gas that runs a car; the pumping blood line that makes it possible for teachers to teach effectively. It’s the books your children are reading; the assignments they do; the units and sequencing they study; the level by which their work is judged.
To have a Board member so well-versed in education means the Board can play a hugely valuable role in its oversight capacity. One has to know what good curriculum and instruction looks like to ask the right questions. When presentations are offered by the administration, one can’t take them at face value. How to recognize clear and well-designed curriculum with rich content; how to know when it conforms to the state standards to which we are bound; how to recognize the signs of consistent classroom practice; how to determine whether the approaches taken are the best for our children; how to recognize true differentiation in the classroom. Such questioning isn’t necessarily adversarial—this is a healthy check and balance between a Board and its administration. With someone of Peggy’s depth and knowledge, we have greater assurance that we will finally be asking the right and tough questions.
I have known Peggy for many years, when we met to discuss ongoing Language Arts and Social Studies issues in the district. During the time of our prior Superintendent, she was persistent in speaking before the Board, writing to administrators, gently pointing out issues in the curriculum, and suggesting how to better improve instruction. When the administration was adapting its ELA curriculum for the new standards, she raised some very serious and probing questions about their approach.
Peggy is also a parent, with a high schooler and elementary school student in the District, and could instantly hone in on why certain assignments were not grade-appropriate or whether enough explicit scaffolding existed in the classroom to make all students succeed. She knows our district through and through, as a parent and as a professional.
The other thing about Peggy is her grace and sensitivity and her ability to listen. It isn’t hard to imagine Peggy in the ELA and diverse classrooms where she first taught, nor as a gentle, but firm professor of education guiding future practitioners and researchers. Peggy knows what an inclusive classroom looks like. She has advised urban districts with tremendous challenges to help them move toward their goals, and offered consultation to schools throughout the state. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have someone on the Board who can actually give us this broad and comparative perspective?
In recent years, parents have pushed for gifted programs, a richer curriculum, and greater access to higher level classes. During campaign time, we can all cheer these lofty and ambitious goals. But when the campaigns end, the regular, week-to-week responsibilities of a Board begin. That’s when we need people who can dig down, ask the right questions, understand on a nitty-gritty level, what it means to make these abstract goals a reality for our children. How do we make sure our open access policy isn’t a recipe for sink-or-swim failure? How do we ensure that children are given the right supports to prepare them for the coursework ahead? With a brand new Superintendent and many new administrators, we need a Board that can hit the ground running. Peggy, who brings such an astonishing breadth of experience and know-how, will be able to do this—and more.
I urge voters to vote for this exceptionally talented, knowledgeable, and gracious candidate.