Lessons from the leafy suburbs: Reform may be harder for the rich

Robyne Camp


Guest blogger Robyne Camp served three years on her board of education in Irvington, New York, losing a tight race for re-election in May. Her first career was in financial services, specializing in complex lending to insurance companies. Her second career began in her 40s, after she was widowed, when she became a lawyer. She has worked as a pro-bono assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, representing abused and neglected children in appeals cases and prosecuting domestic violence crimes.

Three years ago, in a landslide election six months after the crash, I won a seat on my local school board in Westchester County. This May I lost my bid for re-election in a hotly contested five-person race for two open seats. I learned some lessons.

When I ran, I was a reform candidate in an affluent district where reform candidates rarely run (and don’t win if they do), but the village was then in turmoil, and the rules had been suspended. I was swept into office and assumed responsibility (along with four colleagues) for oversight of a district whose salient demographics can be registered in a glance:

Projected enrollment school year 2012-13: 1740

Projected per pupil spending 2012-13: $29,400

Reduced-Price Lunch: 2 percent

Limited English Proficient: 2 percent

Black/Hispanic: 6 percent

Asian or Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander: 9 percent

White: 83 percent

Small, affluent, majority white—with a cadre of devoted and highly engaged parents. Unfortunately, I was not a parent, and that became a problem.

IMG_1150
Education reform may be toughest in the 'burbs.
Photo by Jan-Erik Finnberg.

I came in third this spring, twenty-seven votes behind a recent president of the Parent Teacher Student Association. The election was nasty, with much of the vitriol focusing on the fact that I do not have children attending the schools. At the height of the campaign, public attention turned to the more concerning reality: that I do not have any children at all. One of my fellow board members released a Mother’s Day message asking residents to vote for two of my opponents (both mothers) because we have no “mothers on the board.”

The Mother’s Day endorsement prompted one of my closest allies to produce a pointed resume of my good works and marital history, all but calling out my colleague as a cad (you can see it here); another supporter suggested that my mothers on the board-endorsing colleague consider resigning from the board since he wasn’t a mother, either.

Needless to say, these interventions did nothing to quell the furor, and on election day a blogger on a “Pro School-Parent” site ventured the opinion that “We doubt [Camp’s husband] even looked at her as motherhood material….”

Obviously, this is not what policy experts have in mind when they extol the virtues of “parent involvement” in the schools. Given my experience, though, I think the experts are wrong to encourage it. Involved parents can help their own children, but when it comes to the school as a whole, involved parents are divided amongst themselves and have virtually no ability to influence curriculum, quality of teaching, or educational outcomes for all children.

As I review my brief board tenure and recent electoral loss, I’ve come to the conclusion that I won the first time because of the crash—and lost the second time because the school establishment got back on track—with a vengeance!

In 2009, I was the “cost-cutting” candidate. I had a financial background, and the town (including many parents)—was in an uproar over an unpopular and free-spending superintendent whose five-year contract was being rolled over each summer while no one was paying attention. The superintendent was permanently in the first year of a contract with four years left to run, with very few people being aware that was the case. Just a few short months after the village learned the meaning of the term “evergreen contract,” the economy crashed, and parents and ‘non-parents’ alike were in open revolt. I was their candidate.

At the same time, a small but determined group of reform-minded parents had coalesced around issues of curriculum and accountability some three years before I ran. These parents had created a list serve they called the Irvington Parents Forum, where they posted “citzens’ op eds” pressing their case. Their mantra at the time of the crash: District spending had doubled in ten years time with no measurable gains in student achievement. I became their candidate, too.

Perhaps because of the Parents Forum, my town never reached the point of having a tax revolt. We had an accountability revolt instead, which united residents whose primary issue was taxes with parents whose primary issue was curriculum and student achievement.

A pre-existing and public parent group lobbying for academic improvement, an unpopular school leader, and a once-in-a-century economic catastrophe: if that’s what it takes for a reform candidate to run and win in the “leafy suburbs” (see Mike Petrilli’s op-ed), we won’t see many reform candidates running and winning in those suburbs.

Nevertheless, I was able to get a number of things done. The superintendent was out by the end of my second year, a major accomplishment, and one for which I feel entitled to claim the lion’s share of the credit—certainly for the speed with which her administration drew to a close. But it was a bitter fight that included standing-room-only board meetings and name-calling.

Although every day seemed to bring a new slugfest, I managed to deliver on my platform where spending and transparency were concerned. It wasn’t easy.

I spent my entire first year in office trying to find out what the average teacher in our district earned. The assistant superintendent for business refused to tell me, and my four fellow members of the board backed him. Not surprisingly, construction projects were a money sinkhole. During my second year on the board, the district undertook the renovation of an athletic field to bring it up to code for girls’ lacrosse. It was never clear whether voters had actually authorized the renovation, which was problem enough. But then, once the job was completed, administrators discovered that the finished field was 30 feet too short. Taxpayers spent another $50,000 to re-build the field as drawn on the architect’s plans.

Today, I think most of these problems are behind us. And we have four fewer administrators than we did when I was elected.

The assistant superintendent for business was replaced by a straight shooter who has spent the past year rectifying (her word) numerous problems left behind by her predecessor, a man who earned more than the superintendent of neighboring Scarsdale during his last year on the job. In the run-up to the recent election, a constituent asked our new business manager to calculate the average teacher’s total compensation in the district—and she did: $129,872.27, not including ‘lane’ increases, which are the raises given upon completion of education credits. That’s progress.

And, finally, the full board hired a new superintendent who used data-driven instruction and professional learning communities in his previous district: a man who, when he was a student teacher, videotaped himself and his peers so they could analyze their work. He is all about accountability and results, and was the unanimous choice of the board.

It’s hard for me to imagine local school boards taking steps to change this situation, if only because so few citizens believe anything is (or could be) amiss in suburban schools.

Unfortunately, curriculum was another story altogether. Our district uses Math Trailblazers, one of the weakest of the constructivist math curricula on the market. I spent two years pressing the district to consider adopting “Singapore Math.” But despite having a large group of knowledgeable parents behind me, I made absolutely no headway. The board president, who had majored in math at an Ivy League college, told the audience that in her opinion Trailblazers was weak and “Singapore Math” strong, but that she was voting to keep Trailblazers because, she said, “We have to do what the teachers want.” And that was the sign of things to come.

One of my supporters recently shared with me Richard Elmore’s 2006 article “What (So-called) Low Performing Schools Can Teach (So-Called) High Performing Schools” (You can find a copy here, but may have to pay.) My experiences echo his observations:

  • Affluent suburban schools often define learning difficulties as a “problem to be solved by students and their families” (via private tutors) not by the school;
  • Affluent suburban schools often see variations in student performance as natural and completely unrelated to teaching or curriculum;
  • Affluent suburban schools sometimes intentionally limit access to high-level courses  (even more alarming, sociologist Paul Attewell found that affluent schools often keep talented students out of advanced classes via artificially tough grading and grade deflation);
  • Leaders who want to improve affluent suburban schools may find themselves in a “risky place.”

It’s hard for me to imagine local school boards taking steps to change this situation, if only because so few citizens believe anything is (or could be) amiss in suburban schools. Students in villages like mine always score higher than students in urban or rural schools, and the number of parents who know enough about curriculum, teaching, or international comparisons to protest balanced literacy and constructivist math is small. Most parents seem to believe that teachers and administrators know best—and that school boards should not “interfere” with the core functions of the school.

As for parents who dissent, the window of time during which they can openly advocate for better curriculum or accountability comes to a close when their children reach adolescence. Pre-teens and teens dislike having their parents in the limelight for any reason, but they find it especially painful to see their parents gain notoriety as vocal critics of the school they attend.

Generous funding, perennially high scores on state tests, and the absence of a lobby for reform mean that there is no limit to the number of education-school “initiatives” that can be “rolled out” in a high-performing suburban school district. Balanced literacy, constructivist math, reading workshop, peer editing, group projects, writing workshop, flipped classrooms, flip books, technology, grade deflation, and tutors: The entire constructivist project will continue to grow and flourish in affluent suburban schools. It’s no accident that E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum has been adopted by a few schools in Queens and the Bronx, but not one in Westchester or Long Island.

Education reform here in the leafy suburbs will have to trickle up from New York City’s poorest schools.

While editor Peter Meyer is taking a brief sabbatical from his biweekly blog, Board's Eye View is hosting a series of guest blog posts from a range of experts and stakeholders answering The BIG Question: What's the most important governance issue? Meyer encourages readers to interact with our TBQ contributors or contact him directly at pmeyer@edexcellence.net if they would like to submit their own TBQ essay.

Related Articles