COMMENTARY: Three Ways Gov. Murphy Can Resuscitate his Education Department

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I’m tired of writing about the ineptitude of the Murphy Administration’s Department of Education.

And now I’m (almost!) tired of reading about it: Just over the last few weeks multiple media platforms, from the Star-Ledger to the Record to Politico, have noted the pattern of incompetence that began when Gov. Phil Murphy’s selected Lamont Repollet as his Education Commissioner. Repollet, a glib hotshot late of Asbury Park where he created a system that lowers standards in order to conceal actual student learning, started the DOE’s slide into mediocrity. Current Acting Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan, from all appearances, goes along to get along. (More on that below.)

What’s got these media outlets’ attention? The DOE’s categorical refusal to release district-level data on the learning loss suffered by NJ students, some of whom are seven years behind in reading and math. We know from the scant data that was released that, for instance, 61% percent of NJ high school seniors failed a 10th grade-level reading test. But which districts are implementing effective strategies for learning recovery? We don’t know because, while almost all states have released district-by-district proficiency levels, NJ released what yesterday’s Star-Ledger calls “incomplete and superficial” data that keeps parents, teachers, and schools in the dark.

When the stars align, actions beget consequences. Murphy’s bad press, courtesy of the DOE, might instigate improvement, especially as he contemplates a presidential run. So as a gesture of good will, here are three items that, if implemented properly, could resuscitate Murphy’s educational reputation and turn things around for NJ students.

Release the Data (duh).

Why hasn’t the DOE done so, even though President Biden’s Education Secretary Miguel Cardona told states three months ago that it is “vital” to “publicly report clear, timely, and concise information in an accessible format to help educators, parents, and families chart progress towards academic recovery”? 

There are only two possibilities: incompetence or the influence of the state teachers union, NJEA. 

(On the other hand, these two possibilities aren’t mutually exclusive.)

We’ve all been reporting on the DOE’s inability to recruit high-quality candidates for top positions. This past September, upon the resignation of the Chief Finance Officer, Politico described a  “strained and understaffed” agency with a “serious lack of institutional knowledge.” That’s not new and dates back to the summer of 2018 when, four weeks before schools opened, Repollet fired most of the staff working in the Office of Comprehensive Support, which serves our lowest-performing districts, most likely (according to sources) for personal reasons. Some of those key functions were never replaced. Other staff members in various departments were fired or left on their own due to low morale and a culture of nepotism.

So maybe, just maybe, the DOE is telling the truth when it says it hasn’t the bandwidth to redact information that might invade student privacy. Yet that seems unlikely: we have software to do this, as well as a track record of performing this task every single year, Which leaves us with NJEA leaders who have demonstrated a distaste for standardized testing because they say, outcomes merely reflect socio-economic conditions.

But surely NJEA execs are well aware some school districts do better than others, regardless of family income levels. At Uncommon Schools in Newark, a charter network, 75% of students reach proficiency in math and reading, more than twice the proficiency rates in Newark district schools, despite having more low-income students and $4K less per pupil to spend. 

So let’s start by being honest about the fact that not every school is interchangeable. We can learn from those that have effective strategies for learning recovery. But we can’t learn from them if the DOE won’t tell us which ones they are.

And, really, don’t parents deserve a little transparency? 

Kevin Huffman writes,

Measure and share the results [of state tests], rinse and repeat. Commit to the parents of your state that they will know how their children are performing — no spin, real facts in real time. Talk about what the numbers show wherever you go. Highlight the places that are making the most progress. Call out the places that are not catching kids up. You have the bully pulpit — use it to talk about student achievement, not to foment the culture wars.

Choose a New Commissioner.

Allen-McMillan is doing her best. I wish her no ill will. But she’s trapped by politics, not lack of educational knowledge. If she shares the information everyone’s pleading for, she’ll risk the wrath of NJEA leaders. Just look what happened to Paula White who in 2018 was chosen as Deputy Commissioner by the Murphy Administration based on her long record of leadership, including her stint at the DOE as Chief Turnaround Officer overseeing NJ’s 200 lowest-performing schools, and unanimously approved by the State Board. She shows up for work the first day, is greeted with acclaim by her colleagues-to-be, and, driving home after work, receives a call from the Governor’s Office informing her she has lost the job because (reportedly—White is too professional to say) NJEA complained about her former post at Democrats for Education Reform. (When queried, the Governor’s Office “would neither confirm nor deny.”) 

Senate Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz said at the time, “the whole thing is strange. You offer a highly qualified individual a position, she gets the unanimous support of the state board, is introduced to her staff, and later the same day she gets the job rescinded. From the outside, it looks suspect.”

If Murphy had been able to resist this command from NJEA’s top brass, our kids’ educational  experience during the pandemic could have been different. Imagine a fully-staffed state department stepping in with clear guidance, resources, and careful oversight. Instead we have the dissolution of a once well-regarded state agency that has  eschewed mandated oversight, misallocated federal funds,  been charged with racism, rewarded loyalty instead of competence, and hired this top staffer who referred to students with disabilities as “morons.”

The DOE needs a fresh start, a new leader with the strength to adhere to what’s best for students instead of cowering at any idle threat from NJEA.

Which leads us to the last item in this list, which may be a pipedream.

Gov. Murphy Must Cut the Umbilical Cord between Himself and NJEA leaders.

Let’s look at how the Murphy Administration tried to deflect the impact of the DOE’s release of some test score data: the day before the State Board meeting, the NJ Joint Committee on Public Schools heard testimony that derided statewide assessments from–you guessed it—leaders of NJEA, including Deb Cornavaca, the union’s Director of Government Relations who, coincidentally, was recently Murphy’s Deputy Chief of Staff. She describes standardized assessments as “structural racism” and advocates for their elimination.

Uh huh. 

We all know Murphy is a few seconds out from the campaign trail and needs teacher unions’ cash. Yet his transactional approach to choosing leaders puts kids last.

For instance, he just announced a $10 million tutoring program that will sign up 5,000 volunteers to work with students. Yet if he had competent education advisors, he might have learned that effective tutoring is teacher-led, not guy-off-the-street-led, and requires a depth of knowledge and experience that you most likely won’t find from volunteers. 

That’s one example of a fringe program. Yet there are so many ways Murphy and his DOE could re-earn the trust of the public: set goals for learning recovery in math and reading; incentivize schools that surpass or even just meet those goals; create a research-based teacher-led tutoring program paid for with some of the mountains of cash we’ve got in federal emergency Covid aid; accept the recommendation of National Council on Teacher Quality’s and ensure “new elementary school teachers demonstrate sufficient knowledge of the science of reading instruction.”

So much to choose from. So many ways to demonstrate that students matter more than campaign cash. Cut the cord, Governor, cut the cord.


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