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School Reform Needs Courage

by Janine Walker Caffrey, EdD, Special Contributor to Fearless Parent

cowardly-lionSchool reform needs courage. It’s the missing ingredient.

Corrupt leaders are dependent upon a fearful populace to maintain their power and control. They rely on ignorance of this group and its lack of education so they can provide what is perceived as the only path toward success.

Nowhere is corruption more apparent than in our educational system in impoverished communities.

In Perth Amboy, NJ, where I am currently serving as the superintendent of schools, I see this in action every day. The city has a very large unemployment rate and the school district is the largest employer. There are many jobs available and some politicians and community leaders gain support by promising those jobs to people.

This system works very well for those doling out the jobs but is disastrous for the children who are enrolled in the school system.

There is no consideration for quality of services and, in a few cases, people who may be harmful to students are kept on the job. Anyone who attempts to threaten the status quo is systematically ostracized and removed. Come to any Board of Education meeting and you will see this in action as a small group of very vocal gadflies continually fuel this engine of corruption.

Fear prevents people from speaking out.

The truly sad part of this entire scenario is that there are many more people who desire change than those who wish to maintain the corrupt system.

Almost all school administrators and managers privately express their disdain for the situation. Parents, community leaders, students, teachers and staff frequently discuss how things need to change.

Yet, very few will make such statements in public and many do not vote.

It is completely understandable. Anyone who does speak out is shunned by the community, threatened, and made to feel stupid for desiring the change. Are they afraid of violence, death or imprisonment like so many have endured in other civil rights struggles?


A few are afraid they will lose their jobs or prevent their children from eventually getting jobs. But for most people, the fear is simply about being shunned. They don’t want to be cut off from the herd. I believe the fear comes from our very primitive roots when being alone meant being vulnerable. If you are not running with the herd, you are running alone and subject to attacks from predators.

How do you fight this fear? You create a new “herd.”

You help people find strength in numbers and band together against those who are currently holding the power. It really doesn’t take much. If five or ten people in a town like Perth Amboy were to come together and take a very loud, organized, public stand against educational oppression of our children, others would join them. Their numbers would grow quickly and overturn corrupt politicians.

This can only happen if a few people develop the courage necessary to be split from their original herd; to be vulnerable enough and strong enough to endure the shunning and jeering that will certainly come from their actions. One’s desire to do right must overpower all else.

Unfortunately this community has not chosen courage. Instead they have elected officials to the Board of Education who have promised control of jobs and to continue educational oppression.

These Board members are working to remove promising reading programs and have already removed professional development from teachers that was working. They are trying to return the district to previous oppressive practices such as the segregation of Spanish speaking students. Despite these alarming actions, which seem to be aimed at keeping a generation of children ignorant and dependent, there remains an astounding lack of courage. People speak privately but never in public. They go along with those now in power in order to sustain their own status in the community.

Unfortunately the story of Perth Amboy Public Schools is not unusual. There are school districts everywhere that are oppressing their own children in order to sustain corrupt politicians and other corrupt community leaders.

The missing ingredient to changing the status quo is courage.

What is courage? It is listening to the voice inside of you that tells you what is right instead of following the herd. It is doing what you know is right even when you know there may be a personal cost. It means facing our fears head-on and learning from failure. Courage means accepting shuns, jeers, and set-backs. In school reform it means persistently, unapologetically standing up for children and often becoming a target.

If we want our children of poverty to get the education they deserve, we need to focus on them and do what is right. We must put our own fears aside and take on corrupt leaders. We need to have the courage to reject what is, and demand what should be for our children.

In our 12/4/13 radio show, hear Janine talk about how to motivate children to be self-starters and successful learners

Janineheadshot2Janine Walker Caffrey is committed to improving educational opportunities for all. She has been a public school teacher (special education, English for speakers of other languages, and physics), leader of an international non-profit helping troubled youth, university instructor, private school founder, and a leader in two large urban districts (NYC and Perth Amboy, NJ). She extends her role as educator by helping the public understand critical educational issues. Her Star Ledger article on teacher tenure was instrumental in raising the level of public interest in this topic. Janine’s role as an advocate has sometimes included very public battles with those who would prefer to see perpetuation of a status quo that stalls educational progress. Janine’s work has extended to helping parents become “Pathfinder Parents” through books and speaking engagements.



  • Meadow Davidson

    This is so true! It is definitely hard to stand alone in front of your bosses and state the truth, without worrying about how it will affect you. Most people need their jobs desperately, so they go along with the unjustice to stay employed. There can be blatant, well-known atrocities going on daily…to CHILDREN….and those reports are never taken seriously….but speak against the authority and you will be burned at the stake.
    Excellent post…thanks for sharing….I will be joining the ranks 🙂

  • Evelyn Lopez Delgado

    Is she the one that worked for Perth Amboy.. I live in Woodbridge and remember reading about the goings on in Perth Amboy and that school district in the newspaper almost everyday.

    • Evelyn Lopez Delgado

      Yes, Evelyn, she’s the one. When it comes to school politics, there are simply things that you are not supposed to say… EVEN IF your top priority is for children to come first. Unfortunately, when it comes to the real world, our kids are often thrown under the bus.

  • Holly Bortfeld

    Parents are a huge problem too though. You can’t put unfed, unhealthy, undisciplined kids into a classroom and expect them to excel – and hold the teachers accountable – when the parents aren’t holding up their end. When poor Michelle Rhee said this, she was run out of town, but its true. The whole system needs to be burned down and started over. But it won’t be. Glad I got my kids out of the public schools long ago.

    • Jackie Schlegel-Polvado

      Holly, I was about to say the same. We’ve got to tear it down and start over! It’s a mess! My 2 youngest go to a charter school. No sugar allowed, no soda, no junk etc. they focus as much on social and emotional development as they do academic. They tell parents how obtain vaccine exemptions!!! They function on several thousands dollars a year less per a student then the average public school. And they use best practices, such as speech therapy 5 days a week for my articulation kid. It’s not perfect, but it’s night and day to the traditional public schools! I’m a huge proponent of vouchers, charters and magnet schools. We’ve got to allow families to chose the model that fits their needs best!

    • Louise Kuo Habakus

      That brings me to Holly’s excellent point. Parents are complicit… and worse. Parents have a job to do, too. They need to parent their kids! And they need to speak up and defend people who are advocating on behalf of children. Fixing the “school problem” means fixing it for all kids, not just yours. Maybe you’re happy when the “bad” kids are suspended. Maybe you’re able to send your kid to private school. Maybe you don’t want to make waves because you’re afraid there will be consequences. Silence is a vote for the status quo.

  • Cindy Walsh

    So when the public school system says they have no model for how the school should be reformed, they can look at your school. They are succeeding in some places if you know where to look.

    • Jackie Schlegel-Polvado

      Yes! But in Texas they only allow 2-3 new charters a year! And they also put out bad press saying charters don’t live up to the same standards as the local public schools , which is a completely unfair comparison because they are using standardized testing to “grade” them. We came out of a public school that was graded “exceptional” the highest level possible and moved to a charter that is “acceptable” (second to last rating in texas) and yet what my kids are learning is so far ahead of our last school, it’s not even a close call. But they’re not concerned with ratings or teaching to the test! They are concerned with well educated, free thinkers, who truly understand the core concepts of problem solving!

  • Amy Yardley

    People who live in deep poverty for years and generations often develop the mindset of not questioning status quo – particularly from authorities. This includes school officials. Life becomes all about dealing with what it deals you (life is what happens to you). People who have more resources and have that modeled for them by their parents develop a mindset of ‘life is what I make of it’. It’s all about perceived ability to control your life. So when parents appear to be apathetic and not engaged, it is often deeper than just the surface behavior.

  • Will Walsh

    Sorry Louise, but I do not buy it at all. The Superintendent is the leader of the school district. The first face leading. If she want to get a group of parents to come in and make a vocal presentation, she should be able to coordinate that and pull it off. If she cannot, then it is her failure of leadership.

    • Janine Walker Caffrey

      I understand your point, Will. But let me ask you – whose job is it to fix schools that are failing? Perth Amboy’s graduation rate is less than 59%. When parents or other community members DO speak out, and are systematically shunned, ostracized, and threatened, how can we help them find the courage to continue speaking out until change really happens? What role should the Board of Education play in this process? Should they lead the community discourse or simply react to fear-based and politically-motivated rants?

      • Will Walsh

        Janine, you get people who voice support for those parents. As the superintendent, I am sure that you are sitting right up front during board meetings and the public comments. You can give them the mantel of support. Better, you coordinate efforts so that two or three people speak on a point and you lend your support. Presuming that the Board is not alienated completely, you get one or two Board members to craft the comments into something that they support.

      • Will Walsh

        As to the role of the Board, most Boards simply follow and rubber stamp the superintendent. A good, competent Board should assist in leading the community. The same applies to Board members. Board members, however, do not necessarily always agree with the superintendent and some may not agree with the direction of the majority. One of the question becomes whether the majority voice, or the minority one is the direction to follow. Budget issues, of course, can render all of this moot.

      • Will Walsh

        Reform ideas (vary base on state and district) — 1. Allow parents to provide input on teacher evaluations. More frequently than not, the parent has a far better idea of how well a teacher is doing with the class than the building principal or the superintendent or assistant superintendent. 2. For those states that have it (such as NY), eliminate tenure and replace it with a seven or ten year contract period. 3. Differentiated instruction has to be a real and actual approach, rather than a lip service event that happens far more in theory than in practice. 4. Make teacher web sites more interactive between teacher and parents so that a dialog is created and maintained.

    • Janine Walker Caffrey

      Will Walsh All great ideas. Before I landed in the world of corrupt NJ politicians I would have believed all you have stated would work. It is so difficult to help people understand the depth of what is happening in some of these districts. It boils down to board members wanting to have complete control over jobs. This overrides everything else and becomes the hidden agenda. These Board members are part of a much larger political party backed by business leaders who control the jobs that aren’t governmental positions. All of this is in the context of a very insular community where people have deep connections with others whom they have known their entire lives. There is great suspicion of anyone or any new idea from “outside” the community. Convincing a group to sustain itself in the loud expression of what is right for children needs to happen. I agree that as a superintendent I have failed to make that happen. Believe me, it was not for lack of trying. I have put it all on the line every day for two and half years. Just when it appeared that we were making progress, everything suddenly turned around for the worse, and we are now moving backward. My goal in writing this piece was to help community members, particularly parents, find their courage through connecting with others who share their values. They will not band with an “outsider” superintendent, or anyone else trying to shift the status quo, without significant courage.

      • Will Walsh

        “world of corrupt NJ politicians” — think this is mixing matters. Having, long ago, spent a fair amount of time in NJ politics and, more recently, having 6 years on a Board, I question the extent of political intrusion into Board operations. At the state level, it does happen elsewhere (Texas being an ugly example), but job appointments and arranging contracts is not standard fair for full Board control. The issue of an “outsider” superintendent and staff/faculty opposition to changing District ways, that would not surprise me in the slightest. Certainly, faculty are far happier having one of their own, someone who understands what they are dealing with, as opposed to that crusader superintendent who has arrived determined to change everything in 6 months. That has always been a problem and your Board should have understood that from the outset. As they selected you, they also should be supporting you and your efforts.

  • Holly Bortfeld

    I agree that the schools push parents out – from the 24 hour written approval we must get before we can step on campus, to the lack of communication making us have to fight for scraps of data, schools have made it clear that they don’t want to partner with us as parents but at the same time demand more and more classroom supplies and tolerance for their failures. The sheer volume of homework being sent home is ludicrous. IMO, teacher’s Unions are the cause for most of this nonsense and they should all be disbanded. They only protect bad teachers but all teachers have to pay to cover for the bad ones and the losers are our kids. I think it’s an institutional failing that will never go away as long as there are unions for teachers.

  • John Marelli

    If, “reform” means that the system is broken, I will agree. This is an opportunity to brain storm some ideas to fix a broken system. I’ll add a few if any one is interested in the consideration of change.

  • Autistic Living

    For starters I would be happy if the laws that apply to all of us off school grounds, applied the same way to everyone on school grounds.

    That includes prosecuting abusive school staff, and affording students the same civil rights as the rest of us.

  • Rick Tallman

    Corrupt NJ politicians?
    I have always thought NJ had the best politicians money can buy.

  • Nicole Crosby

    “… in a few cases, people who may be harmful to students are kept on the job.”

    This is often because of unions. It’s nearly impossible to fire a teacher nowadays. Unions were originally formed for all the right reasons, but now unions protect truly bad, abusive teachers. I think this is one place reform is needed in education.

  • Donna Biroczky

    The missing ingredient: the ability or interest in educating children on their level and meeting their individual needs. This ‘one size fits all, everyone must be the same’ is ridiculous and not working.

  • Louise Kuo Habakus

    Sorry to be late in weighing in. Thanks everyone, for reading and commenting. This is a tough issue, with a lot of strong feelings of frustration and anger. Our kids are in trouble. Schools are in desperate need of reform. And people aren’t engaging in constructive dialogue because there’s a reflexive inclination to resort to sound bites and smack downs, based on our own experience.

    IMO, we would all do better to listen and ask more questions before rushing to judgment. I met with Janine for 2 hrs, read her book, heard her speak, interviewed her on the radio, read articles about her, and watched video clips. She is no lightweight. I challenge anyone to actually spend a little time on the details first.

    No one is claiming that Janine Walker Caffrey’s experience is universal. She is the superintendent of an urban school district with a lot of poverty. When she arrived in Perth Amboy, 39% of students were being suspended for TEN days. Stop and think about this for a moment. This matched up against the 60% high school completion rate. When Janine limited suspensions to students who posed a danger to themselves or others, or so disrupted the classroom that the teacher could not teach, suspensions fell below 5%, and vandalism and violence decreased by 50%. What do you think was the reaction? Teachers, union leaders, and parents had a fit. And they went on the attack.

    Will Walsh, you and I go way back to high school, and while we occasionally had our differences, I have only the fondest memories of you and your family. My guess is that your school community is vastly different than Janine’s. It is almost surely more educated and affluent.

    There are politics everywhere but I have to tell you that in NJ, the politics and accompanying corruption and back channel dealings are EPIC in their entrenchment and ugliness. It’s disgusting and the stories would make your hair curl. When an outsider comes in, tasked with making change, there are no open arms. It’s dog eat dog, everyone zealously guards his own turf, and woe to anyone who threatens the status quo. I faced a similar situation when I was hired to run corporate marketing for a big investment firm. The senior leaders who brought me in were the very same ones who fought me tooth and nail for headcount, turf, and every nickel. People who supported me in private didn’t dare to speak out, for fear of retribution. The guy at the top would give different executives the same task to see who’d end up on top. The culture was one where people sought to bring others down.The firm was legendary for its gladiator politics. (I was the 5th person they hired in that spot in nearly as many years) Not all companies, schools, environments are like this. But some are.

    • Will Walsh

      Louise, no question that the Districts are different. Perth Amboy is a lot larger and faces far more economic problems. My community is decidedly mixed, we are not Mt. Vernon, but there are only (purportedly) two trailer parks in all of Westchester and both are in my district. That said, there are any number of common threads and there are also common foundations for successful leadership. The article was a failure of the latter.

  • Will Walsh

    An outsider coming into a community to lead faces these problems all of the time. It is nothing unusual or specific to New Jersey and it has everything to do with internal or office politics. Here, the largest problem is the union. Unions will not give ground.

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