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Abbott History

Section VI
The New Jersey Department of Education’s
Role In the School Reform Process

Introduction

The New Jersey Department of Education has tended to operate in a strong regulatory policy environment. However, complex reform initiatives call for a rethinking and redefinition of the operating environments in not only local school districts but in state departments of education as well. In this new environment, states have to create climates in which consensus and a spirit of partnership between the local districts and themselves is fostered. We have seen in earlier sections of this report that there are dissonant viewpoints between the local districts and the New Jersey State Department of Education over critical areas of reform. We have also seen where organizational constraints and resource issues have imposed undue burden on the districts in their implementation efforts. In the context of these difficulties, what role, if any, has the State Department of Education played in alleviating some of these problems? It should be stated parenthetically at this point that the stringent deadlines imposed by the Courts, and the strong regulatory predisposition of the Department both have the potential to create a relationship that is likely to be fraught with difficulties. This is likely to be the case, particularly if the Department has not begun to redefine what its operating environment ought to be with respect to this reform.

Several studies have examined the role of state departments of education in complex reform initiatives including the role of the New Jersey State Department of Education in ensuring school districts compliance with the Quality Education Act (an act that was subsequently deemed to be unconstitutional by the courts). In the New Jersey study, the SDE was found to be, in spite of its difficulties, a positive force in assisting some districts overcome the hurdles and problems they confronted as they sought to comply with the regulations (Firestone et. al., 1997). However, the regulatory presence of the State was much more pronounced in the Special Needs Districts than it was in the more affluent districts. While there is unanimity among most students in their understanding of the State Department of Education (SDE) roles in reform that State departments of education must assume a policy and regulatory posture that ensures that districts adhere to policies and regulations that guarantee students success, the extent of the regulatory presence which is required to attain these ends is less definitively clear.

Lusi ‘s (1997) examination of the roles played by the Kentucky and Vermont state departments of education in their states’ reforms arrived at a critical distinction between States holding districts accountable for process versus outcomes. Holding districts accountable for outcomes allows them to have much more latitude and flexibility in making their own decisions about processes. On the other hand, when States build their accountability on the platform of processes, their oversight presence in districts tends to become more pronounced. The Abbott rulings which place a strong emphasis on processes de facto implies that the State has to assume a fairly visible role. However, the rulings in their implications do consistently address district autonomy and flexibility to develop programs based on their demonstrated needs. These rulings do not inherently preclude the possibility of both groups SDE and local districts from creating a consensual operating environment that can aid the reform process.

Against this backdrop, districts were asked to evaluate the role of the State Department of Education and the School Review and Improvement teams in assisting them in their implementation efforts. Three lines of inquiry were pursued: 1) timeliness with which districts are notified about submissions to the State and provided with feedback; 2) clarity of the State’s requests; and 3) the state’s role in assisting with the reform. All three lines of inquiry converge on explicating the nature of communication and the quality of the relationship that currently exists between the State and the districts.

Findings

Timeliness of Requests, Clarity and Feedback

In their responses to the question on how far in advance does the state notify them of documents or items required for submission, half of the districts reported that requests from the state for items that need to be submitted are usually made less than two weeks in advance. Five percent or one district stated that the request is usually made between two to three weeks in advance of the due date, and approximately 27% or 6 districts indicated that requests were made a month or more in advance of the due date. Four districts noted that the timeliness with which the state notified them of items for submission depended on what information was being requested (See Table 6.1). Given the relatively short time span in which districts were expected to comply with state requests, the lack of clarity in the state’s formulations of its requests became a compounding problem. For example, none of the districts felt that it was very easy or even easy to know what they needed to do in order to comply with the state’s request. In fact, 59% stated that it was very difficult, 36.5% difficult and 4.5% somewhat easy (See Table 6.2).

Table 6.1
Timeliness of NJDOE Requests to Districts for Information

Timeliness of State Requests

Number of Districts Responding

Percent

More than a month in advance

4

18.2

A month in advance

2

9.1

Between 2-3 weeks in advance

1

4.5

Less than 2 weeks in advance

11

50.0

Other

4

18.2

N = 22

Table 6.2
Districts’ Perceptions on
Ease of Knowing What is Required for Submission

Ease of Knowing Submission Requirements

Number of Districts Responding

Percent

Very Easy

0

0

Easy

0

0

Somewhat Easy

1

4.5

Difficult

8

36.4

Very Difficult

13

59.1

N = 22

Once submitted, the timeliness with which the State provided feedback to the Districts was unanimously rated as being extremely poor. Ninety percent of the Districts indicated that the State Department of Education was poor in the timeliness with which it provided them with feedback, 4.8% fair and 4.8% excellent. (See Figure 6.1) Two-thirds of the districts also noted that it was quite difficult for them to obtain a response from the department when they sought to get clarification or additional information on an issue (See Table 6.3). The untimely manner in which the state responded to the districts is vividly illustrated by the events surrounding the Districts’ preschool plans.

According to an affidavit prepared by the Education Law Center, districts submitted their preschool plans to the State Department of Education in November of 1998. The Department did not issue its decisions on the plans until February 11, 1999, three months after their submission and about two weeks before the Districts had to submit their budgets to the department. Because of the lateness of the States’ response, not only was an extension on the due date of the budgets had to be given, but districts were left with minimal time even with the extension in which to come up with alternative strategies (Ponessa, 1999). In the most recent court proceedings around the failure of the state department of education to provide for the quality preschool programs ordered by the courts, the Department was criticized by the state supreme justices for the untimely manner in which it responded to the districts’ plans (New York Times, October 14, 999).

Table 6.3
Ease of Obtaining Clarification From the NJDOE

Ease of Obtaining Clarification

Number of Districts Responding

Percent

Very Easy

1

4.5

Easy

1

4.5

Somewhat Easy

4

18.2

Difficult

6

27.3

Very Difficult

9

40.9

Other

1

4.5

N = 22

Perception of Support Provided by State Department of Education

As indicated in the previous chapter, Districts are experiencing varying problems in their efforts to implement several aspects of the reform. The extent to which the State Department of Education through its communications with the Districts has been able to play a supportive and helpful role in this process is depicted in the information contained in Tables 6.4 and 6.5. The data indicates that for most of the Districts, the perception of the State as a bastion of support and help is very negative. Fifty percent of the twenty-two districts responding to the survey stated that the State directions and guidelines for implementation were definitely not helpful, 22.7% felt they were not helpful, 22.7% somewhat helpful and 4.5% helpful. Thus, over 70% of the districts felt that communications from the State Department of Education proved to be of no help to them as they begun to comply with the court’s orders. Indeed, one may surmise, given the districts’ responses that the state’s communications and directives rather than helping the reform actually stymied the reform process.

Table 6.4
Districts’ Ratings of Helpfulness of NJDOE Communications and Directives

 

Rating

Number of Districts Responding

Percent

Very Helpful

0

0

Helpful

1

4.5

Somewhat Helpful

5

22.7

Not Helpful

5

22.7

Definitely Not Helpful

11

50.0

N = 22

Not surprisingly, given these findings districts were very negative in their ratings of the overall support provided to them by the state department of education. When asked to judge the quality of support received from the State, three districts indicated that they had received no support at the time of the survey, 8 districts or 38% of the districts rated the support as definitely inadequate, another 8 or 38% as inadequate, 1 district as adequate, and 1 as very adequate (See Table 6.5). The following comments proffered by the Districts capture the feelings of cynicism and frustrations felt by the districts in response to how the State has handled the process so far.

  • The reform issues in Abbott are meant to fail in our urban districts so that the State DOE can once again claim that it’s district’s problem. (Abbott District 1)

  • The NJDOE is learning about urban schools as they bump into problems, react and adjust. The districts are paying the price through the loss in initiative, effort and enthusiasm associated with compliance (Abbott District 2).

Table 6.5
Districts’ Evaluation of Support Provided by NJDOE

 

Evaluation of Support

Number of Districts Responding

Percent

 

Very Adequate

1

4.8

Adequate

1

4.8

Inadequate

8

38.1

Definitely Inadequate

8

38.1

Has not received support

3

14.3

Note: Number of districts responding –21

 

  • The initiatives are commitments on paper for which there are limited latitudes for customization to District variation. We are forced to adopt measures we do not feel we need (Abbott District 3).

  • Give us the responsibility, the resources and hold us accountable as a district. Stop the time-consuming audits, meaningless plans, impossible timelines and political interference by the Department of Education (Abbott District 4).

Many districts in their open-ended comments articulated a need to have a state department of education that was collaborative in orientation, honest in its relationships with them, and sensitive to their needs. One district called for the state department to "run Abbott districts not from Trenton, but by a closer or tighter organization in which the ‘players’ have in-depth knowledge of the districts they are involved with".

School Review and Improvement Teams

One layer of support that has been established to assist the schools in their implementation efforts is the School Review and Improvement Team (SRI). This team is comprised of state department of education staff, and each Abbott school has been or will be assigned a team. The SRI Teams primary function is to work with the school management teams in their implementation of the Court directives. The teams are also expected to function as liaisons between the districts, developers and state department. They are also required to provide technical support to the schools in programmatic and fiscal areas. In the survey, the Abbott Districts were asked to provide information on the quality of support which the SRI teams have provided so far. That data is captured in (Table 6.6).

Table 6.6
Districts’ Evaluation of Support Provided by the School
Review and Improvement Teams

 

Evaluation of Support

Number of Districts Responding

Percent

Very Adequate

0

0

Adequate

3

15.8

Somewhat Adequate

7

38.1

Inadequate

1

5.3

Very Inadequate

8

42.1

Note: Number of Districts-19

At the time of this study, five districts had not had a visit from an SRI team, 5 districts had been visited less than once a month, six, once a month, and 5 between one to two weeks. The degree of satisfaction with the SRI teams varied among the districts. Of those districts that had been visited by a team, three found the assistance provided to be adequate, 7 somewhat adequate and 9 inadequate, to very inadequate.

In order to understand more clearly the type of assistance that the SRI teams have provided to the Districts, districts were asked to comment on the role the SRI teams have played so far. Districts who had rated the support of the teams as somewhat adequate or adequate indicated that the SRI teams had attended the school management meetings, helped them in their revision of their school budgets, assisted them in their decision making process in terms of whole school models, and had provided clarification on state department directives. A few districts expressed sympathies for their SRI teams noting that they had very little authority, or were still very unclear as to their roles and responsibilities. A larger number of districts were critical of the roles being played by their teams. One district noted that apart from attending school management team meetings the SRI team has done very little else in the district. A second district indicated that poor attendance by SRI team members hampered that team’s ability to provide meaningful assistance. Two districts raised concerns about the quality of the team members as can be gleaned from the following comments:

  • Unfortunately, some of the SRIs are still playing the role of former County monitors or educational specialists. The SRIs without former DOE experiences are too confused to help the SMTs.

  • They come in and out, raise questions, never have answers to anything, and follow-up with a constant stream of faxes about non-consequential issues.

Conclusion

The state department of education’s performance in the implementation of the Abbott reforms has been judged by the districts to be poor. Published articles in the New Jersey Star Ledger underscore the fractious relationship which has developed between the Department and the Abbott Districts (New Jersey Star ledger, September October 15, 1999: 15). Yet, the state has a pivotal role to play in ensuring that the court ordered mandates are successfully implemented. That the state can maintain a regulatory presence and still fashion a collaborative working relationship with the Districts is possible. However in order to attain this, the state department has to clarify for itself how it intends to work with the school districts in a spirit of consensus and collaboration. The department has to realize that like all other state departments of education involved in complex endeavors of reform that it sets the tenor for the reform. If its implementation relationship with the districts is contentious and poor, then the extent to which the reforms will produce the intended outcomes envisioned by the courts becomes questionable.

Issues related to whether or not the department itself has the capacity to adequately support the districts in their implementation efforts must be addressed. Specifically, questions related to the level and quality of the resources that the department has to devote to this effort should be studied. It is clear from some of the steps which the Department has taken, for example, the creation of an early childhood department, that it is trying to build its internal capacity to be responsive to the districts. However, similar to the local districts, the department will have to vigorously engage in capacity building in order to ensure that it can play a viable supportive role in this ambitious effort. A more immediate task for the Department, if it has not already done so, is to provide clarification on the roles, responsibilities and requisite qualifications for the SRI teams. It may also want to establish some mechanism that would allow it to evaluate the quality of support that the teams are providing. The data furnished in this study seems to indicate that there is unevenness among the teams with respect to their perceived effectiveness.