Back in the spring, acting education commissioner Chris Cerf approached the state's superintendents association about organizing a no-holds-barred survey of its members.
All 580 of the state's district superintendents would be polled on what they like and dislike about the state education department, which is charged with monitoring, supporting, and regulating their public schools. There would be 66 questions in all, and a comments section.
Well, the results are back, and they’re not pretty.
Cool relations between Gov. Chris Christie's administration and the field are nothing new, but superintendents -- 408 responded in the end -- gave low grades to the department in nearly every regard, from all the paperwork it requires to the quality and usefulness of the data it gives back.
The criticism wasn't across the board. The department’s help with budgets is pretty good, the superintendents said, as is guidance on certain programs.
But on one of the big questions, only a third said the department's statewide goals have been communicated to districts, . A smaller fraction said that the state helped them improve instruction.
Bottom line, just a fifth of the state's supers agreed with the following statement: Overall, the Department plays an important role in helping my district achieve its core mission of elevating student achievement …
They were tough reviews for a department that has been decimated of late, and now faces what Cerf has long promised would be an overhaul of its functions and priorities. The survey's results and his personal discussions with superintendents factored into that decision, he said in a memo to districts yesterday that was released by his office, along with the survey results.
"You do not always feel that the department is responsive to your needs, whether when you need technical advice or when you seek help setting goals and priorities for your district," Cerf wrote in one bullet-point summarizing of the results.
"You often feel micromanaged and constrained by the heavy burden of compliance," he wrote in another.
And Cerf said change would come.
"Certainly a state Department of Education cannot change overnight; we are committed to making the types of cultural and functional changes necessary," he wrote. He also pledged there would be annual surveys.
Still, Cerf’s actual remake of the department moves slowly. Eight months into his term, three of four "cabinet-level" assistant commissioners have yet to be hired. The state's county offices, which serve as the point of contact with local districts, also are in limbo, with only nine of the 21 executive superintendent positions filled with full-time appointments.
Cerf in an interview last week said that the reorganization is proceeding, including a likely change in the county offices that would make them more responsive to district needs.
Still, he would not disclose many details about what is being discussed, keeping silent on what has been a protracted transition. Since his appointment, Cerf has held face-to-face meetings with superintendents in every county, enlisted an outside consultant from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation who is still on the payroll, announced a new organization chart, and started to hire a mix of newcomers and department veterans to key positions, including a former commissioner as his chief of staff.
"This is intensive work, and hopefully I’ll have some progress to report soon," he said. "There is an overwhelming upside for the program, and I'm itching to get going.”
Richard Bozza, the executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, conducted the survey through the group’s website, and commended Cerf for seeking out the hard truths about relations between the state and its districts, even preceding the Christie administration.
"These things that came out people have been saying for a long time," he said.
Bozza said one key barometer is the monthly roundtables in each county with all the local superintendents, ones that used to be something his colleagues looked forward to. Now, he said they are too often dreaded.
"It’s now about, 'What is the state going to tell me to do next?'" Bozza said.
"I think superintendents will appreciate that he is being honest about this," Bozza said. "Now it is a question of whether he will be able to transform the department to be one that helps and supports them."