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Education Department Gets Better Grades From District Supers

New survey gives DOE high marks for communication and special ed, less than satisfactory for helping districts fulfill initiatives.

A year after the state Department of Education was largely panned by the school districts it is charged with overseeing, a new survey finds that it is doing better in virtually all areas -- although there is still room for decided improvement in some categories.

State Education Commissioner Chris Cerf yesterday released the results of the survey, which he said was completed by more than 350 districts -- or 60 percent overall -- commenting that there were some encouraging signs,

Communication was an especially strong spot, with 80 percent of district superintendents saying that the department had clearly communicated its plans and initiatives. That's up from 20 percent in 2011, shortly after Cerf took office.

The results were much less sanguine when it came to rating how the department did supporting and guiding districts to fulfill those initiatives.

For example, less than half of the districts said they agreed with the following statement: “Overall, the Department plays an important role in helping my district achieve its core mission of elevating student achievement and the number of students who graduate college- and career-ready.”

And less than a majority of those responding said the department provided timely and meaningful data about their performance -- faint praise for NJSMART, the state’s new student data system, which is the centerpiece of its plans for improved school, student, and teacher accountability.

At the same time, NJSMART did win kudos from almost three quarters of districts as an effective data management tool -- when the data was provided.

In an email message to districts yesterday about the survey results, Cerf acknowledged that the department still had much to continue to improve upon.

“The results are simultaneously both encouraging and humbling,” he wrote. “While we saw an increase for each of the 55 questions, the results show that we still have a ways to go before we can fully achieve our mission.”

The survey was done last winter in conjunction with the New Jersey Association of School Administrators (NJASA), and its chief said yesterday that the department had indeed improved on some key fronts.

“Senior DOE leaders continue at a very high level to engage NJASA and school superintendents on new initiatives through communications and discussion,” said Richard Bozza, the NJASA’s executive director. “They get a high grade for communication outreach.”

The survey looked at everything from how well the department supported districts on budget and operational needs, as well as instructional and curricular ones. The department received some of its highest ratings for its special-education services and for functions such as transportation and facilities.

The weaker numbers came with instructional support. Fewer than 45 percent of respondents said the department provided “helpful guidance about how to improve the quality” of either math or literacy instruction.

And the very weakest results came with the state’s ongoing monitoring system, called the Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC). Reviewing districts every three years with an extensive checklist of requirements, QSAC was put in place long before Cerf came into office, and he has been sharply critical of it as being counterproductive.

Districts seem to agree, as just a third of the superintendents said in the survey that the QSAC process helped them improve the education they provide and raise the achievement levels of their students.

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