By ROSA CIRIANNI
RESEARCHER BARI ERLICHSON views New Jersey’s existing school district monitoring system, conducted every seven years, as a broad paint brush: districts either passed or failed.
A new monitoring system, however, promises to give school districts and New Jersey Department of Education officials a holistic view of individual school districts with more detailed information and more flexibility. Enter the New Jersey Quality Single Accountability Continuum—QSAC.
Adopted by the Legislature in 2005, QSAC began with a pilot program and is now being implemented in about 25 districts. Over the next three years, it will replace the old process and will provide school districts with a uniform evaluation tool aimed at helping them operate at a higher level of performance.
Key Areas School districts will be evaluated in five categories under QSAC’s District Performance Review:
- Instruction and programs
- Fiscal management
The review will occur in three phases: district self evaluations; county superintendent verification of those findings and recommendations; and a final review by the state commissioner of education.
“It eliminates areas that need further attention before they sort of catch fire and burn,” said Erlichson of The Center for Research on Public Education at Montclair State University.
The center has a contract with the state Department of Education to administer QSAC in 15 districts, including three state-operated districts and others under intensive state review. Erlichson serves as project director for the external independent reviews that began in January and are scheduled to be completed in May with a report to the state. About 10 other districts also are undergoing the process, but through self-evaluation versus external team evaluation—using the same criteria.
QSAC is expected to kick into high gear throughout the state this fall. County superintendents and their staffs have been asked by the education department to devise a schedule of districts with the most pressing needs that should go through QSAC during the first year of the three-year roll-out, said Bill King, assistant commissioner of field services for the state Department of Education.
The QSAC process will take a few months. By 2009-2010, every school district should have undergone the process for the first time. Afterward, each will go through the monitoring system every three years.
“It’s more of a collaborative process,” King said. “We as a department are not just coming in on a one-day basis determining the needs of that district—what they’re doing well and what they are not doing so well.
“In some ways it is a perspective. It will tell us where the deficiencies are and what we need to work on with the district and what they need to work on. So, I think it’s a much more positive process than we’ve had in the past. And that’s the whole theme of this administration: Not to be just a compliance agency, but a resource and support function.”
District Ratings QSAC’s performance review process allots points for demonstrating progress or compliance in a variety of indicators that fall under each of the District Performance Review areas. For example, under the personnel category, the state will grade districts on personnel policies, professional development and appropriate certifications and licensing.
- By attaining 80 percent to 100 percent of points in each category, a district would earn the designation “high performing” and would not be subject to state action.
- Districts that score between 50 percent and 79 percent in any of the categories must submit an improvement plan to the state. They would have two years to increase the ratings to 80 percent.
- Districts scoring below 50 percent in any of the five District Performance Review areas could face partial or full state intervention.
“It gives you the kind of in-depth and detailed information before problems exist. [QSAC] ought to allow both districts and the state department to target their energies on areas that are not yet problems,” Montclair State’s Erlichson said. “It kind of nips those issues early and provides a great deal of information to the department about what its efforts in the field should be.”
Proactive Approach Knowing that QSAC was coming down the pike, the Hunterdon County School Boards Association selected the new monitoring system as a focus of discussion for its annual leadership breakfast last fall.
“The local board members were quite surprised. They were concerned about where they would get the resources to conduct this District Performance Review, the amount of time it would take to organize all of the documentation that was required, and a bit concerned that it was one more state requirement being imposed on them,’’ said Diane Morris, an NJSBA Field Service Representative, who delivered a QSAC presentation at the session.
Morris, who continues to present QSAC basics to school board members and administrators, recently told the Morris County School Boards Association: “I think we need to be clear—there’s always been a system of monitoring that has come down from the state.”
The big difference, she said, is that QSAC is conducted by a committee comprised of district staff and one or more members of a school board. And while student achievement will drive many of a school board’s decisions, training will be paramount to meeting those standards.
Accountability In the past, some school districts with serious issues in student achievement and personnel also did not have very strong school boards, according to Montclair State’s Erlichson. She said she believes that QSAC shows that school boards are part and parcel of all aspects of district operations, including student achievement.
“As much as we hold superintendents and the business administrators and everybody else accountable for their role and responsibilities, school boards need to be held accountable, too,” Erlichson said.
While much of the QSAC legislation has been covered before in statute and code, Erlichson said the emphasis on governance is in some ways new.
“Right now for the first time school districts and school boards are being asked to show that these are their standard operating procedures. This is the new part—holding school boards accountable for their role and responsibility,” Erlichson said. “At the end of this, districts should have an idea of what they are doing well.”
Assistant Commissioner King said that to reach the goal of improving instruction, more accountability is needed in some places, but that it is not the overriding principle of QSAC.
Penelope Lattimer, an assistant commissioner in the state education department who oversees district and school improvement, likened QSAC to an opportunity for school officials to conduct an honest assessment of their district.
“Look at accountability from a standpoint of confessional conversation with yourself, ‘Well, how well am I doing?’ That’s the theme that we’re hoping for as people go through this,” she said.
N.J. Ahead of the Pack An associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at Rowan University, Virginia “Gini” Doolittle, characterized school districts’ ability to meet QSAC as “absolutely feasible.”
Doolittle plans to write a handbook to help districts adhere to guidelines and develop action plans that are consistent with QSAC and with the existing review process for schools deemed in need of improvement under federal law.
Ideally, QSAC is expected to be a collaborative approach by getting the right people to talk to the right people—or at least, it has that potential, Doolittle said. And, leadership is crucial.
“You need school board policies that are going to support the teaching and learning and professional development process; budget processes that support instruction. You need everything in schools from safety to health issues,” she added.
As a researcher, Doolittle has found that, more than anything else, what happens in the classroom affects student achievement. In terms of monitoring, it appears that the Garden State is ahead of the pack.
“In a lot of ways New Jersey is moving to the fore nationally in my perspective.”
District Friendlier NJSBA successfully advocated school board-friendly changes in the original 2005 QSAC law. These amendments provided for the following: state payment for at least half the cost of “highly skilled professionals” (state-appointed consultants assigned to oversee improvement efforts in districts under full or partial takeover); the piloting of the program in selected school districts; inclusion of the state Board of Education in developing code to implement the system; and due process for school districts targeted for intervention.
“It’s an opportunity for a district to take a look at itself, see all the good things that it does and see those areas where the district can operate in a better fashion,” said Michael F. Kaelber, senior counsel for NJSBA, who is providing QSAC training to Association staff and will be conducting seminars for board members, along with NJSBA’s Morris and its policy manager, Steve McGettigan.
“It’s an inclusive process that involves the board, the administration, and teaching staff members.”
On Jan. 25, Gov. Jon S. Corzine signed into law new legislation further amending QSAC. The bill contained NJSBA-sought changes, including one that eliminated provisions that would have given the highly skilled professionals sole authority to hire and fire employees.
Inclusive Process It will be tough for any one in education to argue against the basic premise of QSAC, Kaelber said.
Boards get to approve their school districts’ self evaluation, and county education officials will review it. The boards then are given a score. Depending on where they fall on a list, they could be labeled high performing or in need of assistance.
“The process has a greater level of flexibility to it, so you’ll get in and out of it depending on how well you perform and how well you improve. And for the heightened areas of partial and full state intervention, there are full hearings in the state office of administrative law that give boards due process protection, which is something we like,” Kaelber said. “The state is not just going to come in unless it can prove its case in a full hearing.”
For local school boards, a critical part of the process will be record-keeping.
On this point, NJSBA’s Morris offered parting words of advice for school officials: “Every district out there needs to get an NJQSAC stamp and start stamping documents that in some way are related to district performance review and begin keeping a file, a folder, a binder; it’s a requirement of the monitoring process.”
Rosa Cirianni is a writer for the New Jersey School Boards Association. She can be reached at email@example.com.