Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Camden Public Schools' Accountability Scores Reveal Honesty and Leadership

Yesterday’s Philadelphia Inquirer looks at the grim PARCC  results in Camden: 6% proficiency in language arts and 4% proficiency in math among third-eighth graders, somewhere between 5% and 8% proficiency in language arts and 1%-3% in math for eleventh-graders.

That’s not really news. Camden public schools have a long track record, stretching back decades, of failing to adequately provide New Jersey's Constitutionally-required “thorough and effective” education system to its students. The real news is that current district leaders aren't  trying to hide behind spin and rhetoric.

Here’s Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard: “"You have to be honest with the challenges you see.”

Those new to Camden education news might be unaware of  the district’s sordid history of fabrication. New Jersey doesn’t just measure district function through test scores, but also through a cumbersome instrument called QSAC, the bane of every board member and administrator’s existence. QSAC stands for “Quality Single Accountability Continuum” (just rolls off the tongue, right?), a rubric handled by county offices that measures district compliance in five areas: Personnel, Instruction and Program, Operations, Fiscal Management, and Governance.

Districts have to attain 80% in each category to “pass QSAC.” If they do, they’re labeled “high-performing.” If they get between 50%-79% in any category, they have to submit  corrective action plans.  Districts that score below 50%, according to regulations, could face state intervention.

That’s why Camden was taken over by the state, and that’s why Newark remains under state control. (There, QSAC scores have improved, but are not quite at the tipping point.) And that’s why it’s so refreshing to have Camden district leaders owning their issues, both in regards to inadequate student achievement and inadequate oversight.

It wasn’t always like this. Back in 2012, Camden was, as board members call it, “QSAC’d” and the district’s self-assessment, which precedes the county’s, revealed an appalling level of dishonesty and subterfuge. The district gave itself passing grades in every category, including 100% in Personnel.

Then the county came in and, carefully checking off the boxes, concluded that the real score in Personnel was 9%. The county amended the self-evaluation to the actual circumstances and  gave Camden failing grades in all other categories: Instruction and Program was 7%, Operations was 47%, and Governance was 33%. The district did get a 79% in Fiscal Management but only, noted then N.J. Commissioner Chris Cerf, “because the district was checked daily by a state-appointed fiscal monitor.”

Fast forward three years. From the Inquirer:
This year, the district's self-evaluation scores matched the state's review in most categories. The county representatives' score in governance was twice as high as the score the district gave itself, because the district finished updating its policy manual after doing its self-evaluation.
Certainly, Camden has far to go, both in terms of student achievement and district functionality. But that trajectory has to begin with honesty and integrity. Right now Camden has both.

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