Is the Third Time the Charm?

Seven hours of Legislative hearings yesterday about New Jersey’s Race To The Top bonk resulted in old news: the Department of Education has smart people on board yet is politicized, inefficient, and ineffective. (See, respectively, Bob Braun in the Star-Ledger, NJ Spotlight, which highlights a 2007 KPMG Audit, and Gannett, which points out that the RTTT question legislators are obsessed with, that throw-away 5-pointer, is financial in nature and the Assistant Commissioner for Finance post is empty and has been for some time.)

Here’s what else we know: Bret Schundler didn’t lie to Christie about what he told the RTTT evaluators in D.C.. While he did handwrite in the wrong information to notorious question (F)(1) sometime in the end of May – the question asked what our education spending was for 2008-2009 and Schundler penciled in 2011 data partly because he didn’t have the question in front of him – he accurately reported to Gov. Christie on the content of the federal evaluation session. The Governor’s bluster about the unfairness of the process and his Commissioner’s trustworthiness was, well, bluster.

What else? The DOE – and who knows how many other state departments – overpays its consultants. $500 thousand and Wireless Generation can’t catch the same factual error in at least 4 drafts? And Dan Gohl, the Executive Officer for Innovation and Change at Newark Public Schools (according to his linkedin page), knew about the error but didn’t think it important enough to mention to anyone at the DOE (Statehouse Bureau)?

So Acting Commissioner Rochelle Hendricks, Assistant Commissioner Willa Spicer, and yet-to-be-legislatively-approved-Deputy Commissioner Andy Smarick heroically withstood seven hours of questioning. They painted a grim picture of frantic all-nighters spent poring over poorly-tracked revisions as our RTTT draft was handed off from one staffer to another, racing to make the June 1st deadline after Christie rejected Schundler’s NJEA-sanctioned draft limiting tenure reform and merit pay to a pilot program.

Take-aways: Christie shouldn’t have fired Schundler; in fact, Schundler could have potentially served an important role as good cop to Christie’s bad cop with NJEA officials. Right now the Governor is inviting the perception that he acts impulsively and unfairly. (From this morning’s PolitickerNJ: “While Christie has proven himself to be an engaging guest who takes whatever is thrown at him in stride, he has no doubt been practicing one answer over and over throughout his Labor Day holiday: ‘Bret Who?’")

Anyway, if Christie needed a scapegoat so badly there were two better choices: either Wireless Generation (reportedly retaining counsel) or Dan Gohl (who isn’t a DOE employee but perhaps can serve as an example of why the DOE needs a management structure that doesn’t require walk-on roles from passers-by).

And who’s responsible anyway for our utter failure over the past six years to create a complete state data system capable of tracking student achievement? This shortcoming played a much larger role in our RTTT loss than the meager 4.8 pointer.

Right now our priorities should shift from over-reacting to a meaningless 5-point question that should have been put to rights by competent consultants instead of fraternity boys partying at the Trenton Marriott. Instead, we should be thinking strategically about Round 3 of Race To The Top and NJ education reform in general. We barely missed celebrating success in Round 2. Most likely we’ll get a do-over. Let’s get it right this time. Figure out how to solicit even a lukewarm NJEA endorsement, or at least not outright rebellion. Or if it’s statewide tenure reform or die, then the DOE can surely do a better job at soliciting support from school boards and superintendents than the half-baked effort last time. After all, in school board conference rooms, ideas like tenure reform and tying teacher effectiveness to compensation and retention are the stuff of dreams. Many didn’t sign because of insufficient information or time. How would the feds have reacted to an application with 100% support from school districts?

Finally, how the heck are we going to recruit a great Commissioner? Does top candidate Andy Smarick even want the job anymore? If not him, than who? Maybe while we’re searching for someone we can also fill that Assistant Commissioner of Finance slot.

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