The language we use is important. Nice sounding buzzwords like “reform,” “choice,” and others can be used in ways that have devastating effects on communities. The latest word getting a lot of buzz in Camden education circles is “accountability.” But the accountability fetish only applies to a very narrow understanding of the word; the Camden School District is neither legally nor democratically accountable. 

With Uncommon Schools now officially approved by the state to come to Camden, it’s worth taking a deeper look at what they mean by accountability. Let’s go directly to the Uncommon Schools website

Under the heading What is a Charter School? Uncommon Schools explains “accountability” by saying: 

A charter school is an independently run public school granted greater flexibility in its operations, in return for greater accountability for performance.

“Performance” is another one of those words that sounds great until we take a deeper look at what it means. By performance, Uncommon Schools means test scores. Uncommon Schools are accountable to the state and judged by test scores. This is controversial only because analysis by Mark Weber and Bruce Baker shows that much of test score gains in Uncommon Schools comes from lower rates of special education or disadvantaged students. Essentially, a significant portion of these scores comes from exclusion. 

But test scores are not the only, or even most logical, way to define accountability. And when we expand “accountability” to touch on democratic or legal areas, the school district fails the test. 

As I’ve detailed at length here, there is no democratic accountability in Camden. It is the only district to have both a state-appointed superintendent, and a non-elected school board. I’ve long been calling for some sort of standard that parents and students could meet if they disapproved of the changes. Four months ago I asked:  

– Is there any scenario in which community feedback could result in the changing of a plan to replace a public school with a Renaissance School? What specifics benchmarks could be met by communities for this to happen? 

The answer is no. Teachers have protested. Parents have protested. Students have protested. None have received any indication that there is a scenario in which their voices would make a difference.

Photo by April Saul in her collection Camden, NJ: A Spirit Invincible. Check out her facebook page.

Photo by April Saul in her collection Camden, NJ: A Spirit Invincible. Check out her facebook page.

The school district uses test-based accountability as a club, but is unwilling to set up any system that will hold itself accountable to the people it serves. That’s a theme. Not only is there a lack of accountability to the Camden residents, but there is a lack of accountability to the law. My colleague at Rutgers, Dr. Julia Sass Rubin, published a piece at EdWeek that details what she calls “Shady Public Dealings:” 

Last week, while many of us were busy making plans for the summer, something much more sinister was happening in the halls of the State Capital in Trenton, N. J..

At 11 p.m., on Tuesday, June 24th, legislation was discussed and voted on by the New Jersey Senate and Assembly Budget Committees, without all the legislators understanding what they were approving.  “We didn’t have the bills in advance,” complained one of the Senators, “I didn’t know what the hell the bills were.” This legislation was then quickly pushed through the full New Jersey Senate and Assembly.

The legislation revised a 2012 law known as Urban Hope in order to enable two charter chains – Mastery and Uncommon Schools – to claim a large share of Camden’s public education dollars.  The charters’ efforts had been imperiled by the grassroots group Save Our Schools NJ, which had sent a series of letters in May to New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe.  The letters detailed how the two charter chains and the Camden state-appointed Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard were violating various aspects of the Urban Hope law in their efforts to open new renaissance charter schools in Camden next fall.  The violations included using temporary facilities instead of building new schools; failing to provide key information required by the application; and not giving Camden residents the opportunity to review and comment on their applications.

Rather than stopping their illegal activities in response to the letters, the Mastery and Uncommon charter chains and the Camden Superintendent turned to their friends in the legislature to “fix” the problem by amending the Urban Hope legislation so that what had been illegal could now be legal.

In this case, Uncommon and Mastery Schools, along with the district, did not follow the law as written. The state legislature then changed the law to make their actions legal. This after state-appointed superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard stood in front of the public at a board of education meeting and, when questioned on the topic,  insisted that the Renaissance schools’ applications were in compliance. Will he be held accountable for that?

When it comes to the district’s flawed understanding of test scores, the Camden School District is more than happy to use accountability as a hammer to fire teachers and close schools. But when it comes to being accountable to the people it serves, or to the law it serves under, the district is woefully lacking.

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  • Willing to bet the anon teacher is simply catfish, and I would really like to speak with Mr. “Miguel Sanchez”

  • Blame, blame, blame more blame. I don’t see anyone telling the gangs & drug dealers to go away but a lot will go on facebook & bad mouth the police. Here is a word of advice; TAKE CARE OF YOUR KIDS. It is the PARENTS JOB to make sure they have what they need for school not the teachers. I don’t see any talk of parental accountability. It’s common sense don’t need no PH.D to figure that out.

  • Teaching in Camden has made me lose faith in humanity. Great job though democrats transitioning from the kkk to the welfare system. You achieved your goal in destroying the black community. With the gmos, wifi, vaccines, radioactive/polluted water, and demonic music/ garbage role models you will truly wipe these people out in a matter of decades. Now that ms13 gang members are flooding over the border the 2014-2015 schools year should be filled with excitement. But seriously though I believe this city is Fubar and am looking to teach somewhere else where the people are not totally dehumanized/ walking consuming zombies. I dont blame the people of Camden they have been made this way though social engineering, learned helplessness, and destruction of the family. Its sickening to see how the residents of camden are political pawns used against the surrounding areas. The well off will pay any amount of tax to keep Camden citizens out of their communities and schools. The only solution i can see is legalizing drugs and taxing them to help Camdens population.,

  • It is misleading to say that my post gives the okay for a supposed power structure to continue an exploitation. Last I checked the residents have the power but do not use it to their advantage. People only have power over you that you allow them to have. The purpose of obtaining power is defend your values.

    Reality and history shows when people come together as a collective body is the only way to positively effectuate change. I always say a mind is a terrible thing to waste when it is morbidly obese with knowledge.

    Enough reading, research and mistakes have been made to know what it takes to make a difference.
    Leaders know when to take blame and turn it into motivation to help others. When you learn from your mistakes, accept blame without hurting your pride is the litmus that needs to be passed before you can Lead.

    Regardless of how my post it taken I am still willing to help like I’ve always done. Like the meaning of the African proverb “Ubuntu” – I am what I am because of who we all are. So let’s get together and do something constructive.

  • In reference to the most recent post by Mr. Moulier, it always kind of amazes how trained people are to blamed oppressed and exploited people for their own condition. In reality, the myth of objectivity, “that everything will be taken care of and made right if those people simply acted or behaved in a certain way” only reaffirms and perpetuates the exlploitation. I would suggest, perhaps reading literature by Friere and Franz Fannon where analysis on the behavior of oppressed ppl and what it takes to authentically empower them are explored in detail. Without that knowledge unwittingly Mr. Moulier’s post simply gives the okay for the city power structure to continue exploiting residents, and that would be pitiful.

  • Accountability of ALL and not just the elected or appointed. I am sick and tired of the blame game but we are not willing to take blame for the condition of our city. No one is not willing to look in the mirror because they are scared of the reflection of themselves of not doing more or enough.

    There is always talk of changing the status quo, well WE are the status quo because we need to change ourselves and mindset. Attendance at public meetings consist of 12-15 ppl and usually have the same cast who appear to just fight for the sake of fighting but do not provide an alternative or solutions to the problems we face.

    Voter turnout is beyond deplorable but let there be a new release of the newest Jordan’s and I’ve witnessed more people waiting outside of Sneaker Villa than at the polls. If you do not involve yourself or vote you should not complain. It is more than voting, become involved with your local party, become a committee person, apply to serve on one of the board or commissions that exist and some are just not advisory.

    When I see the word COMMUNITY I think of COMMON UNITY but where is the Common Unity, Collaboration and Partnership amongst each other to obtain the change we all seek?? WE all want a better quality of life and the best education for our children. Unity is the path we need to take to obtain the change we seek. Margaret Mead says it best “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has”

    In closing, I want to be more accountable in educating and training people to become more involved and active. It is not impossible but I am confident I can train Camdenites to be more proactive and constructive. My goal in life is to create agents of change and leaders. WE can make our city the model for other post industrial cities to follow by turning the tide which is not too late to do or impossible. Screaming, shouting, protesting, blog posts and letters to the editor only do so much but decision makers respect and acknowledge organized people and money with discipline and effective messaging.

  • The absolutely disgraceful thing to me is that people died in a revolution to overthrow faceless power controlling the intimate aspect of their everyday lives and keeping them in the crappy life situations they found themselves in. Today people want you to think that America is still some land of opportunity where anyone can change their lives, but it’s a complete farce. Anyone who doesn’t think America is pretty much an oligarchical society is blind. Money and power, as it did under kings, is the only true force of change in this country today. What a waste of 238 years.

  • Funny thing is, I was thinking about this very thing as I was grabbing an Arizona from the corner store this morning. I was thinking, pursuant to this very topic “What does it mean to have laws we all (ESPECIALLY poor urban minorities AND low income whites) presumably are bound by, when a specific sub-sect of people (rich, powerful, connected) can simply write and CHANGE them to suit their own needs and agenda WHENEVER they choose?” Why would any person who’s been historically disenfranchised (forbidden from participating in the “democratic process) or marginalized (ignored when they do participate) have any confidence in a system that behaves the way the City and NJ Legislature has in its exploitation of Camden and its residents? The cautionary question then becomes, what means will exploited people turn to to be heard when traditional avenues are obtuse and disregarding of their concerns?

    What you wrote is exactly right. That questions you posed are important ones that probably won’t be answered. And perhaps the MOST frustrating element of all of this is that those enacting these dreadful policies and agendas will NOT be here 5 years from now. We, residents, will be the ones left to bear the brunt, and endure the consequences, of temporary office holders’ actions here.

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