New Jersey’s monitoring system for its public schools has been much maligned for years for its onerous documentation and burdensome requirements, according to educators and administrators who attended a legislative hearing Tuesday. But the Murphy administration is promising it is getting better.
Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet told the joint legislative education committee that his department is working on the New Jersey Quality Single Accountability Continuum (NJQSAC) — the state monitoring system of schools — and has implemented revisions which are still rolling through the system. But he also said much work is yet to be done.
Under QSAC, the state sets benchmarks scores in five key areas: finance, governance, instruction, operations and personnel. If a school falls below 80 percent in each category, districts must file improvement plans or face the possibility of state intervention. The monitoring system underwent significant overhauls in 2017 aimed at streamlining the process but educators and school administrators are adamant that more revisions are needed.
Repollet said after months of meeting with superintendents, teachers, parents and advocates in all 21 counties, his department is committed to putting a new focus on using student progress metrics as a measure of success, to including more input from local stakeholders, and to further smoothing the reporting process for schools.
Still, more than a dozen people testified during Tuesday’s four-hour hearing that these commitments are not enough. Educators pointed to the serious imposition that the QSAC reporting process puts on them — taking time and personnel away from teaching students in favor of filing, in one case, close to 40 boxes of carefully sorted documents.
Repollet, while recognizing that the process is still burdensome, noted the need for an accountability mechanism of some kind.
Criticism persists despite revisions
“There has to be some way to measure the success of a district, especially when we are reinvesting millions of dollars into districts,” Repollet said.
QSAC has been controversial since its inception in 2005 and since then has been treated as more of a “living document,” undergoing several revisions over the years. At its core, it is supposed to be a standardized methodology by which public schools in the state are evaluated for effectiveness, with the exception of charters which have their own reporting mechanism. In practice it has become, for many who testified at the hearing, a significant drain on resources and an easy way for the state to intervene in a district instead of investing in support services.
In its original iteration, QSAC included more than 300 individual performance indicators that schools would have had to document but over the years, that number has been whittled down by roughly two-thirds, according to Repollet.
But even in its pared-down state, the sheer amount of documentation necessary to report on each one of these indicators is formidable, educators and others say.
Heather Moran, a principal at Logan Middle School in Logan Township, testified that the state needs to adopt a “less cumbersome and time-consuming” process. Her district was among the few selected to pilot some of the new QSAC indicators, incorporating a focus on student growth as a metric for success. She said the amount of attention she and her colleagues must pay to QSAC is unreasonable.
Drain on staff resources
“School principals understand the need for accountability,” she said, but noted that “extensive preparation is needed even before the process starts.”
To even begin to understand the QSAC reporting requirements, Moran said, schools and district leaders must review a 134-page QSAC user manual “over and over again to become familiar with the five required sections and various indicators.”
Once a solid understanding is established, the data compilation begins, she added. That process requires the time and efforts of several different school officials including teams of administrators, supervisors, principals, and administrative assistants who must compile, label, and sort hundreds of documents for all the schools in the district. That data must then be uploaded to the Department of Education’s online system.
“And this is often data that has been previously given in many, many other reports that we must do throughout the year,” Moran noted.
“This process obviously takes an enormous number of staff hours and, as you can see, it is extremely compliance-focused.” Unfortunately, Moran said, it takes away from time that could be spent working on the curriculum development and local school goals.
‘Endless boxes of material’
“It prevents me, as a building-level principal, from interacting with my staff and students in the way I normally would,” she said.
Eileen Shafer, district superintendent of Paterson schools also cited the extensive documentation required and noted that each QSAC cycle review cost her staff “days of putting together endless boxes of materials in a room that we would lock every night because we didn’t want anyone moving a document.”
Winnie Boswell, a chemistry teacher and director of technology and curriculum in Glen Ridge, noted that the whole process is framed as an “all-or-nothing approach.” If a district cannot meet the specific requirements for any of the indicators, Boswell said, they stand to lose all of their points for that section.
For example, despite having what she categorized as a robust theater and arts program in Glen Ridge, Boswell said because those activities are supervised by an English teacher rather than a full-time certified theater instructor, her school received a zero score for their visual and performing arts indicator.
Where’s the exit plan?
Others who testified Tuesday said the needed fixes go beyond just easing the administrative burden.
Sharon Krengel, policy and outreach director for the Education Law Center, called for major changes in the QSAC framework, including repealing the state intervention clause entirely.
As it has done with Newark, Jersey City, Paterson and Camden, the state under QSAC can take over a district that fails to live up to the improvement plan it crafts with the DOE after repeatedly failing to hit its marks in the five areas.
Krengel, and superintendents from Newark, Paterson and Camden all pointed to the lack of an explicit “exit plan” from the state-control process as a serious hole in the system. Once districts are run by the state, it’s very difficult for them to score high enough under the QSAC to regain local control.
Krengel noted that the Legislature “did not intend the takeover provisions to be used as a vehicle for allowing the executive through the DOE to propose its preferred set of education reforms on districts under state operation. Rather, the takeover mechanism in the QSAC framework was intended to allow the state to intervene, identify problems, and exit as quickly as possible. So, we know that didn’t happen. Newark, Jersey City and Paterson state intervention lasted for decades.”
End ‘improper’ state intervention
“The time has come to put an end to the improper use of full state intervention,” Krengel said.
But despite its significant issues, QSAC has been a useful tool for those districts in need of serious reform, according to the acting superintendent in Camden, Katrina McCombs. She said that, for a district trying to emerge from under state control, the newly revised QSAC has provided “a more robust measure of school quality.”
“As a leader on the ground, I do believe that return to local control must be both stable and sustainable. QSAC is a critical tool for measuring our progress toward that goal,” McCombs said. “As we work to address challenges and broken systems, decades in the making, QSAC is a guide and support to help us stay on course.”