Transcription of the episode > Celebrating students’ “superpowers”: What tests can’t measure

[00:00:14] Amy H-L: I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. 

[00:00:15] Jon M: And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Dr. Peter Hughes, superintendent of the Cresskill Public School District, a pre-K through 12 district with four schools in Bergen County, New Jersey. Welcome, Peter! 

[00:00:17] Peter H: Thank you. Glad to be here. 

[00:00:18] Amy H-L: What are the demographics of Cresskill?

[00:00:19] Peter H: Cresskill is very unique. Demographics is kind of a loaded question, right. So we have a fairly affluent community. We have a lot of our parents living right outside of New York City. They’re typically CEOs, management, that work in a variety of occupations in and around the city. On one side of town, we are bordered by Alpine, which is one of the highest SES districts in the country, and in the other side of town we have just everyday people. So financially, we have a variety. 

But we also have a really unique situation in terms of our demographics ethnically, because we have two large populations of almost expat communities. I say that because a lot of our parents are coming from other countries, and this is where they’re landing. And we have two populations in particular that make up large swaths of our students and our parents. That’s our Israeli population that’s approximately 22 percent and our Korean population, which is about 22%. And our Israeli population is kind of on the increase. People see as a great community to live in around people that share their same beliefs and values. It’s a really nice, high performing district just outside of New York City. 

[00:01:46] Jon M: How do you engage with parents in a multilingual community? 

[00:01:50] Peter H: There are a number of ways that we do this. First of all, our Korean population has been around the longest, and they actually have a parent association that represents them that I actually incorporated into our President’s Council. Our President’s Council is the PTA, PTO, HSA presidents, and the KPO, our Korean Parent Organization. They all come and meet with me monthly so that they have access to me as a superintendent. They can ask questions, and they liaison with their communities, which I think is a really nice process. Also this year, we started to do a strategic planning process where we invited the entire community. So that’s been another piece of engagement that we’ve been doing with a variety of stakeholders. 

And then finally, we’ve been doing a lot of work to try and reach out to parents that don’t speak English as their primary language through translating services. One of the changes we’re going to be putting into place is immediately after January, parents are going to be able to email us in any language they choose. We’re going to use any email, any language, and just translate it on our end to make sure that they’re getting their points across in the best possible way to us. It’s an issue of equity and making sure that all of our parents can partner with us. 

And I think that that’s something that is unique in the way we look at things. We look at it as really trying to meet our parents where they are, and trying to address their needs as individual communities. 

[00:03:30] Amy H-L: Aside from language, how do cultural differences show up in the families’ relationships with the schools?

[00:03:38] Peter H: So this is actually interesting, because you have very different cultural perspectives into the various groups, right. So we have, for example, the Israeli population that are just coming from Israel here, there’s a lot of anxiety that their kids aren’t going to be successful. So they come in and they want us to help their kids in whatever way possible. And to make sure that we have systems of support set up for them. And then on my Korean side of the equation, sometimes they come in, but they trust or are more trusting towards the schools. And they allow us to dictate kind of what ways to best help the kids. 

So I think parent involvement and parent engagement comes in as a topic. And it’s just interesting how different cultures interact with school administrators and teachers and different values come into play. But at the end of the day, all parents want the best for their kids. And so do we. So I think that that is the common string and the common foundation that pulls us all together. And I think that that’s the thing that I try to focus on is, even though parents may come from different problems in different ways culturally, we’re still trying to do the best for the kids, regardless of how the parents choose to kind of advocate for their kids. 

[00:05:04] Jon M: I think you’d mentioned when we were talking before that some parents tend to want to look for special education classification because they feel that it’ll bring more resources and other parents don’t necessarily press for that. Is that something that that you find? 

[00:05:24] Peter H: Yeah, it is actually something that we’re seeing in particular. Recently we were cited and this is, this is interesting because I think it’s the way the federal government uses statistics. Recently, we were cited of having too large of a disparity between our white students getting classifications as other health-impaired and our non-white students getting classifications as other health-impaired. In our data, it looks like we’re over classifying white students and under classifying non-white students. But when you look at the actual populations, we’re classifying our immigrant Israeli population a little bit higher because they have additional needs and the other culture is sometimes a little bit more reticent in allowing us to classify. So we’re actually seeing a difference in the way parents advocate for their students along cultural lines, and it’s impacting how the federal government looks at Cresskill because they think that there’s a disparity in the way we’re addressing the needs of our kids. Almost like we’re, we’re over-classifying one group and under-classifying the other because of race when actually culture is playing a part of it. And parents and advocacy, the way they advocate. My belief is that we give every kid what they need when they need it, regardless of whether or not we call them something through classification and special ed. 

I think we’re obligated, when we talk about ethics in schools, to make sure every kid has what they need when they need it. That to me is the definition of equity, to look at every unique family and unique child and try to meet them wherever they are. And whether or not a kid is classified does not necessarily determine the level at which we support kids. And I think that’s something that I need to sometimes work with teachers and my administrative team to make sure that we just see all of our kids as needing the same access to the same level of support 

[00:07:31] Amy H-L: And more generally, how do these parents define what’s best for their kids? What are they looking for?

[00:07:38] Peter H: Oh, that’s that’s interesting. We are a high affluence district, right. These parents, many of them, have been very successful in the traditional modes of what success is. And what is that in the United States? It’s often how well you did on the SAT or the ACT. But unfortunately, those only measure a couple of areas, mathematics and language, and those measures are sometimes very lacking. And I’ll give you an example. Last night, we had our holiday concert at Cresskill High School. Let me tell you something. I would put my kids in music up against any professionals out there. They are exceptional.. They are like the epitome of excellence. I would say that they are exceptional, but that doesn’t get factored into how people look at schools, how people measure schools. 

So unfortunately, sometimes my parents look at things like ratings on or U.S. News and World Report. Now we do well. We recently got ninth in the state on U.S. News and World Report for our middle school. But again, using what factors? Is it really an assessment of the whole child? And what does excellence really look like for kids versus how it’s being measured? There’s work to be done there. The way we’ve traditionally labeled kids as being excellent is when kids perform on tests, and tests are not the most authentic measure of a human’s full potential, right. Especially standardized tests in only two areas. 

I think we need to, from my perspective, look at the ethical dilemma of how do we measure real student achievement in a more comprehensive way. And I think that when you talk about how do we do that with multiple groups of communities, right, because I’m really a community made up of communities. So we’re doing that right now through the strategic planning process. And in the strategic planning process, first of all, I invited everyone. I encouraged especially representatives from those communities that are larger representatives of silent groups because of language barriers to participate.

And in that I asked them three questions. What does Cresskill do well? What can we improve upon? And where do they want to see Cresskill in five years? And those three questions lead to dialogue. And you make sure that the groups that you pull together are very diverse. I include administrators, students, staff, parents, all in the same groups. And by hashing out and having those dialogue conversations, you’re actually partnering up different disparaging viewpoints and having a much more better and full discussion of what student achievement can and should be in Cresskill. And I think that that that is very valuable. 

So let me just tell you the breakdown. We’ve recently done these. They’re night meetings. We’ve had over 70 people involved in each event. That’s not a huge group, but it is a nice group to get toward what is valued by the community. We’re going to meet in two more months. They’re doing breakout work right now, but in two months from now, they’re going to come back and they’re going to present on what they would like included in the strategic plan. And the strategic plan becomes our pathway towards excellence for the next five years. And by incorporating a diverse group of stakeholders, it is my hope that we get to a common vision of what student achievement and student success actually looks like. 

When we were prepping for this interview, we had a really nice dialogue, the three of us, about student success, which is really about preparing kids to have joyful futures where they also serve others and where they are impactful in the world around them. So if we can create a curriculum and a goal of getting our kids there, I think that’s worthy. And I think that’s an ethical goal for our schools because it’s really not only about your own personal success, it’s also about the success of the society you’re in and how you uphold other people and you bring them up. Amy, you shared me shared with me some of that emphasis and and I took that away from our conversation. So I thought that was really a beneficial outcome. So thank you.

[00:12:09] Jon M: What are some of the stresses and issues that young people face growing up in a wealthy professional community? 

[00:12:15] Peter H: I learned a long ago that money does not solve your problems. Oftentimes, you can have other types of problems that come up. For example, when you have high performing parents, they typically are at a certain level of anxiety at times. And in northern Bergen County, you see a lot of “keeping up with the Joneses” that comes into play. And you also see, because the parents are successful, they expect and have high, really high, unrealistically high, expectations of their kids sometimes. And that causes mental anguish sometimes in the children if you’re not careful, if you don’t talk about mental wellness, mental health. We’ve seen an increase in anxiety disorders as superintendents after COVID. And then we also had a flood here. We saw an increase in anxiety around going to school and being involved. And I think the mental health piece is becoming more of a concern. And in a high affluent area, that’s balanced with the pressure from both the parents and the children themselves. Because if you’re raised by parents that are highly motivated themselves and driven, the children sometimes take on that same persona, and it sometimes is healthy and it’s sometimes not healthy in a district like Cresskill.

You also have some kids being watched by nannies versus the parents. And sometimes there’s a little bit of a disconnect that happens because of that. You know, sometimes there’s, there’s that disconnect from the parents and kind of the guidance that they need. And I think that that’s something that we all need to be mindful of.

[00:13:54] Jon M: You mentioned high stakes tests as something people are frequently focused on and that obviously can also be a source of stress. Do you have project-based learning and assessment in the schools?

[00:14:08] Peter H: That’s actually one of the things that’s come out as a goal of our strategic plan, to incorporate more project-based learning because it’s more authentic and it’s a better indicator of the complex problems we have in our world right now. For example, as a superintendent, or even just putting this podcast together. You have to have the interpersonal skills. You have to have the technology skills. You have to understand the finances that are involved, understand that the statistics of whom you’re reaching. It’s complex. It’s project-based because it’s incorporating these different subject areas, and that’s real world. That’s the type of project that we’re having to engage in all the time. And I think that we should be emulating that with our kids. Our projects should not just be math with blinders on to how math impacts finance or science. Math should be inside of finance and science. English language arts should be incorporated into all areas. Literacy, scientific literacy, goes into literacy of what you read and what you read goes into your literacy of science. Having a more holistic viewpoint ultimately is a goal of ours. We’re not there. 

The parents who are sometimes the most successful are also the most hesitant in changing the system because they’ve been successful in that system. Sometimes the most innovative teaching methods are in the districts that have nothing else to lose and are really looking to gain. And I think that sometimes that’s what you see play out in school districts. I’m hoping that through our strategic planning process, our parents see the value of looking at schools differently and looking at schools is actually a training ground for more complex problems that our kids are going to have to critically think through. Those are the types of things that I think are going to serve them better over time because this right here in my hand, the cell phone, has changed the world. The fact that I no longer need to know the capitals of countries, that it basically will tell me the capital of Ethiopia. It will give me the statistics of the population and how it’s changed over the last 15 years. It’s how you use that data that now will be more important. The other thing that we’re seeing is a big shift to two dimensional screens from the real world, and it kind of is detracting. It’s making us live two different lives. It’s the life of the interpersonal and real world, and then there’s the fictional life that’s on the 2D screen. And I think that that’s had an impact on how kids interact with one another and how people interact with one another. And I think that that’s something that we need to also prepare kids for in the future. 

I’m hoping that the day of having two separate lives, a screen life and a non-screen life merges a little bit more so that it’s more tangible for everyone. We didn’t talk about that, but I think that that’s an interesting topic. I like the idea of augmented reality types of technologies that actually make real life more interactive rather than just on a on a computer screen. So I think these are the types of things we need to start looking at. How do our kids use augmented reality? How do they use artificial intelligence? How do they use these technologies to become more creative and think deeper, not avoid thinking and circumvent creativity. So I think that that’s kind of the bigger change that we need to make in schools. That’s my belief, but I’m trying to get my community to see what what I see, as well as augment what they want to see from our schools. And that’s what the strategic planning process is about.

[00:17:51] Amy H-L: Do your teachers incorporate ethics and citizenship, in the broadest nonlegal sense of the word, into their curriculum and their discussions?

[00:18:02] Peter H: I think they they are. We have a civics class in the middle school level that I think is a wonderful thing, and it really is not about teaching kids what to think. It’s about teaching them how to make up their own mind and how to make their own decisions and how the world works. I think that they do incorporate the critical thinking aspect. I don’t want our teachers to tell kids what their beliefs are. A good teacher doesn’t even reveal their own motives. A good teacher leads a student to their own discoveries of what their own beliefs are. And I think that that should be the focus. 

As a district, we have a goal this year of increasing student voice, and that has to do with the idea that we want to empower our kids to learn how to be self advocates and also bring forward their voice in the world so that they’re heard. When you look in society, you sometimes see a few student or youth voices, but by encouraging them more frequently, I think you develop better leaders. We have two students that sit on our board of education, for example, board of ed liaisons for our student body. And that’s actually a new New Jersey regulation, but it’s something that we had done and it’s actually positive. We have students that attend diversity conferences. We have students that are raising awareness right now around the environmental issues that are happening. And in one of our classes, they were challenged to create a local difference that they themselves can enact as students. Many times, when you look at environmental issues, it’s things that our students don’t have control over. Like solar panels on their roof. They don’t control the roof. It’s their parents. But what students can do is organize the bike-to-school day, or they can organize awareness campaigns, and they themselves can impact change. And I think we have an obligation to encourage them to do so. In my district this year, my board of ed and I value the idea of students learning to advocate and change the world. And that is our student voice goal right now, and I’m hoping that it continues to develop. Recently, there was a curriculum consortium that happened. And my director of curriculum brought the idea forward about student voice and getting the kids more involved, and it took off. Why? Because they’re the people we serve. It doesn’t matter if we advocate for our own beliefs. What matters is if our students are advocating for their own beliefs and for bettering the world. The goal of, say, uplifting other students rather than simply competing with them, that’s a value. 

[00:20:50] Amy H-L: To what degree do you feel schools should instill values?

[00:20:54] Peter H: I think we should model values. I think when you look at the way we have things like project-based learning, it takes away this competitive nature and creates more of a team approach. Anytime that we’re emphasizing team rather than that you get ahead by pushing others down, that is helpful. 

The reality, though, is they still follow a model of kind of competitive get into college. It’s a big deal here. Who gets into into the highest level college is a big deal in a high socioeconomic district, and in some ways, it’s a race to nowhere because sometimes you get the same job as someone who was in an Ivy League. And it doesn’t make the same difference that you believe it would. Sometimes we have a race to nowhere and it’s important that we remind parents of that. I’ll give you an example. I’ve had parents that really want their kids to skip grade levels. But to what end? When you run out of math classes by 10th grade, and you now have to wait for college, or you are taking a higher, higher level of math or physics, and you have no intention of becoming a physicist. We’re sometimes pushing kids towards achievements that they themselves don’t really want. It’s not their passion. It’s not their future. And I think we have to be very cautious about that. We have to be very cautious about over-emphasizing the wrong things. And that idea of getting ahead of everyone else at the expense of everyone else. I do think that we have an obligation to make sure that all students feel that they can make a mark on this world. 

It’s okay to have different superpowers than others. You don’t have to have superpowers in every single subject and every single thing in order to be successful or to contribute to the world. I think back to my years as a middle school principal. I had an autism program. And I had one student who was nonverbal, but he had perfect pitch. The music teacher discovered this and the kid would sing, but he just wouldn’t speak necessarily. He wound up having a solo in the school musical. It’s something that doesn’t happen all the time, but sometimes you see these magical powers come out of kids. And that’s the purpose of school. The purpose of school is really to help kids discover their passions and their superpowers. If we can do that, I think we’re going to be doing a service for the world because they have something to offer. The idea that it’s just math and ELA that makes sense for kids is so short sighted. And especially when I can, I can have a math problem in front of me, and I can hold up my phone and use visual math, and it will show me all of the work and all and the right answer. And I don’t need to know a thing about math, but something I carry around in my pocket, my cell phone, will do it for me. 

So what are we doing? Are we focusing on the right thing with our kids? That’s a bigger dilemma, and I think that’s a bigger dilemma for the United States and the world, in general. If that’s all we’re focusing on, that’s not the definition of success. Are our kids becoming ethical human beings and making the world a better place, and are they happy, ultimately? Those are more profound questions. If you ask kids, and I’ve done this, if you ask them why are you, why are you trying so hard in school? Well, I want to get, I want to get good grades. Well, why do you want to get good grades? I want to get into a better college. Why do you want to get into a better college? So I can make more money in a job. Why do you want to make more money in a job? So I’m comfortable. Why is comfort important? Well, I’ll just be happier. It always comes back to happiness. Always.

But a piece of happiness is serving others. And if we can teach kids that, if we can teach kids that a piece of their responsibility is also serve the people in the world, I think that that’s that’s a worthy goal. Maybe the best way to assess schools is to assess happiness. 10 years afterwards, to assess whether or not our kids are having an impact 10 years after graduating. That’s a better assessment of the school and its impact, but I just think of things a little bit differently. I love my job because I impact 2000 lives every single day. I can have that impact. And I want my kids to feel that. And my job, trust me, it can be really tough, but it can also be really rewarding. And I think that if my kids can also say that, that’s a great thing to be in life, to feel like you’re making a difference in the things that you do. Anyway, that was a little bit of a tangent. Sorry. 

[00:25:29] Jon M: No, it wasn’t a tangent at all. I love the idea of assessing happiness 10 years later. 

[00:25:34] Amy H-L: Happiness plus impact. 

[00:25:37] Peter H: Happiness plus impact. The more I thought about that the other day, when you were talking about the impact… a big part of my joy in the world is do you make an impact in what you do every day, and how. And I think that if we start to train people to actually see that, they’ll start doing things differently that make our society a better place. I’m an idealist. But I’m an educator, I’m supposed to be idealistic about my kids and where they go and where they bring their world. If you’re not idealistic about the current generation, you should not be in education. 

[00:26:09] Jon M: Everything you’re saying is an updated today’s version of stuff that John Dewey was talking about a hundred years ago.

[00:26:18] Peter H: Yeah. I mean, he had some things right. And there’s a reason we still study them in education. But, you know, you could be anything in this world and make a difference. One of the cool things I was able to do during COVID was I actually presided over a graduation ceremony of doctoral students in nursing. Why? Because the college would not have a doctoral graduation that year. One of my friends was actually graduating. She asked me to speak at the event. But what a great gift to honor the nurses the year of COVID that were going on to get their degrees. It’s such a gift to be able to recognize other people for the gifts that they bring to the world. That, to me, is joyful, recognizing the accomplishments of others. 

It’s so much more than test scores. It’s every little thing. It’s the musical abilities of kids. I saw a kid. He had a guitar solo last night. He was absolutely joyful. You knew that kid was doing exactly what he was meant to be doing in this world. There was no doubt in the audience. They saw it in this particular student. He had big, crazy hair. He was amazing. Amazing. And I look at my kids, and I’m always in all of them because they are discovering their gifts. And I think that that’s what we should value. I think that sometimes if you, if you look for the superpowers to develop kids to the highest level, that’s where it’s at. I just think that that definition of success is different. And I hope that I bring that to my diverse community. And I think that the diverse community. There are different values. I’m going to be honest.

Everybody wants to see us up there with test scores. But there’s a large group that wants to see our kids excel on the athletic field and also excel in who they are character wise and also excel in the arts and also excel. There’s so many ways for people to show excellence. And I think we need to be more inclusive.

[00:28:21] Amy H-L: I was about to say you use the word “gift” a lot. And I think that what’s important to remember is the reason we use the word gift for talents and and strength strengths is that say your student who was gifted on the guitar. That’s a gift that he gives to all those listening, so our gifts are something that we can give to the rest of society, to our communities, to our families.

[00:28:51] Peter H: Yeah, I think that’s well said. And I also don’t think that he’s innately excellent with the guitar. He just found a passion and he probably put in a heck of a lot of work to become amazing at it. And he turned it into a superpower, right. And a gift that he could give to others. But that’s the type of moment that I love catching as a superintendent and I don’t even know this kid except that I saw him last night. I see him around the art and the music rooms all the time. But now I see who he is because I’ve seen his passion. And I think that we have to get to a more inclusive vision of what students can do and bring to this world. And I think that if I can do that as a superintendent, that’s kind of where where I want to go.

[00:29:42] Jon M: That’s really exciting. Shifting gears completely, does being a wealthy community mean that you have a generous education budget?

[00:29:48] Peter H: We do not. You know, New Jersey funding is really interesting. Back in the 1990s, we had to vote on budgets and the local taxpayers would vote or not vote for budgets. And in my particular community, they went out for zero percent increases when the average was six percent. And they voted down the budget once or twice. And then the town council could go in and they could edit and cut away parts of the budget. So, in my community back in the day, that all happened, right. And then they put in a cap, which said every year, you’re not allowed to go above two percent. So our district was no longer allowed to ask for more than two percent, and they’ve been going through so many challenges for those years. We were at a disadvantage compared to some other communities like one of our communities in the neighborhood has $5,000 more per child per year. So when you compare my students and why they don’t have MacBook Pros to that districts’ schools that have MacBook Pros, well, that’s the reason. If you give a kid a MacBook Pro every three years or MacBook every three years, it’s $1,000 of the $15,000 they had to spend additionally on that child. So school finances are largely local, and just because you have an affluent district does not mean that you necessarily have that level of affluence. Now, the flip side of that, though, is our parents will give our kids anything and everything in their power to do so. So some of my kids go to all sorts of enrichment activities. They have SAT prep classes. They may go to Korean school on the weekends and retake the subject later on, or they may go to shula for for my Israeli students, and they’re getting tutoring. They’re getting additional things all the time. So when you look at a place like Cresskill versus some of the less affluent districts, even though we don’t have the same per student budgets as other districts, the reality is the parents are augmenting what the schools are doing. That happens, and that’s one of the things that you see play out in national test scores. It’s one of the reasons that the more affluent the district, the higher the score is always. It’s because of the resources, not only of the schools, but augmented by the parents that come into play. 

And there’s also cultural equity that goes into that. When you have parents that are successful, they more know the game of success to give to their kids to to be successful in that game. So all of this plays into inequities in our society. I don’t know that I have a solution for that. That’s a bigger topic than today. But that’s the complexity, right. Our kids are from affluent families. Our schools are not affluent, but they have additional resources as a result. 

[00:32:51] Jon M: Thank you, Dr. Peter Hughes of the Cresskill District. 

[00:32:51] Peter H: It was a pleasure.

[00:32:52] Amy H-L: And thank you, listeners. Check out our new video series, “What Would YOU Do?,” a collaboration with the Harvard Graduate School of Education and EdEthics. Go to our website,, and click video. 

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