Friday, June 18, 2010

ELC: "The NJ DOE Is Still Failing Our Students"

David Sciarra, Executive Director of the Education Law Center, excoriates the NJ Department of Education in the most recent widget to emerge from ELC’s press release factory called "The DOE Is Still Failing Our Students":
There's a lot of heated rhetoric these days about "failing" public schools. Education Commissioner Bret Schundler took it up a notch when his spokesperson recently called New Jersey's public school system "wretched." Whether our schools are "failing," and by whose definition, is debatable. But that label can fairly be applied to the NJ Department of Education, which has been failing our students for years.
Sciarra goes on to reference a 2007 evaluation (cost to taxpayers: $1.2 million) by the outside agency KPMG which finds, among other conclusions, that

1) The reporting structure and authority levels between the State Board of Education and DOE fosters an environment with the potential for competing priorities and inconsistent decision making processes.
2) The Strategic Plan for Improvement in Public Education in the State of New Jersey is not aligned with current DOE objectives, goals, and initiatives.
3) DOE’s compliance monitoring activities are impacted by a lack of people, processes, and technology. Further, it appears coordination across units performing compliance and monitoring activities is lacking.
4) Current personnel allocations within DOE may not support the roles and responsibilities of the Divisions or Offices.
5) Due to a lack of cross-training and documented policies and procedures, an institutional knowledge gap exists when employees leave DOE or change positions.

You get the idea. The DOE is a god-awful mess: dysfunctional, mismanaged, obsolete, encumbered by outdated technology, procedures, personnel, and redundancies, crippled by a dearth of professionals (local districts and private industry pay a lot more), lack of authority (the State Board of Education, all political appointees, can overrule it at a drop of a hat), and no communication between (occasionally unnecessary) divisions. Here’s the original KPMG evaluation, here’s ELC’s summary, and here’s a September 2007 editorial by Sciarra entitled "An Education Department Incapable of Doing Its Job."

Mr. Sciarra’s right. The DOE’s a mess and that’s a poorly-kept secret. Here’s the list from his press release of what he views as the DOE’s most recent follies: the rejection of its grant application from the Feds to update our data collection system; the new Alternative High School Assessment, which ELC views as a disaster because so many kids failed; and “NJ’s now infamous application for a federal Race To The Top grant” when, “at the eleventh hour,” Gov. Christie “took a my way or the highway approach.” ELC now calls upon the Legislature to convene hearings on reforming our wayward DOE, using the “quietly shelved” KPMG audit as a starting point.

(It’s unclear whether any of the mess at the DOE has been cleaned up since the KPMG report came out three years ago. Of course, the shop was run by Jon Corzine and Lucille Davy, ex-governor and Commissioner of Education, although the roiling rancor of Sciarra’s latest missive is directed elsewhere. In all fairness, he was pretty pissed at Corzine and Davy back then too.)

Here’s what’s not in the press release. ELC is probably going to lose its current Supreme Court battle over the restoration of full funding for poor urban districts. Twelve of our chronically failing (sorry) Abbott schools just received federal grants for extreme make-overs. NJEA’s rep continues to sink (see this latest poll) and the umbilical cord between the two organizations drowns any distinction. But Sciarra’s screed presents an opportunity to make the ELC relevant again if it can see its way clear to controlling its anger at Christie and managing its NJEA-separation anxiety.

Imagine this: ELC becomes the voice of reason in promoting an open Legislative evaluation of the DOE’s progress since the KPMG audit. Part of its agenda becomes a progressive dialogue about improving teacher quality in our poor urban districts through improved data systems. In a unique partnership with the DOE, ELC opens a series of charter schools in chronically failing districts. ELC partners with Teach for America in order to recruit a new generation of committed teachers to Districts-Formerly-Known-as-Abbotts. It’s called “Teach for New Jersey."

Hey – it’s Friday. We can dream, right?