SCOOP: First Peek at New Jersey State Test Scores!December 7, 2022
State Board of Education Members Get Fired Up During Discussion About Gender Identity in Sex Education ClassesDecember 7, 2022
Vince Matrisciano is a certified Project Management Professional, Lean Six Sigma Black Belt, and Human Capitol Strategist. He has made a career of successfully engaging diverse stakeholders in multiple product development and process improvement projects. He can be reached at Vince@MatriscianoConsulting.com.
On November 30th, I attended a webinar hosted by JerseyCAN (one of the state’s largest advocates for students and schools) with a panel of high profile education stakeholders including State Senators Teresa Ruiz and Vin Gopal. The topic of discussion was the continued delay in the release of statewide data on standardized testing and how that is negatively impacting our students. Despite the underlying (and still unknown) reasons why the data has yet to be released (as of this writing, NJ is one of only two states that has not yet released their data), the overall consensus of the participants was clear – “we” are collectively failing our students, particularly those in lower income areas. Senator Ruiz, the Senate Majority Leader, correctly stated that fixing the education problem in NJ is complex and starts in the womb with better health care and pre-K education and must also address outside-of-the-classroom situations. Senator Gopal, Chair of the Senate Education Committee, called for a statewide strategic plan to focus efforts on the most pressing problems.
I agree with both of them. However, the continued problem is “we” collectively spend way too much time talking about the problem and not nearly enough time addressing the problem. It’s time to act and here is the start, as I present my version of an initial Strategic Plan for Education in New Jersey. (See my previous article on Newark’s strategic plan.) This first cut is meant to spark action. Much more work is required to execute this, and I call on all involved to do their part.
The Strategic Plan
A strategic plan is meant to prioritize and resource lines of effort and harmonize effort from all stakeholders to create unity in execution. Every strategic plan starts with a shared vision, so I submit that the vision for education in NJ should be something like: “Every student has the opportunity and means to reach their full potential and graduate to become contributing members of New Jersey’s economy.” We can debate the wording, but I don’t think anyone would argue the intent. Next comes the mission (what we will do to achieve the vision) and I propose the following: “All state and local agencies and other stakeholders work collaboratively and deliberately to ensure that all schools (pre-K through college or trade schools) have the resources required to achieve the vision, and any area that is lacking is blatantly visible and judiciously addressed.” Again, we can deliberate the prose, but the intent should be unanimous.
Vision & Mission Defined
Words matter, and they mean different things to different people. To achieve a common understanding, let us dissect the vision and mission statements to determine what they really mean. A look at the key words in each will determine their meaning in our context. “Every student” should be obvious, it means every student from the lowest performing school to the highest performing school. “Opportunity” can be tricky. Ditionary.com defines it as “a situation or condition favorable for attainment of a goal. A good position, chance, or prospect, as for advancement or success.” In this context it means that every student has the same chance with respect to quality education regardless of their socioeconomic status and learning style. “Means” goes along with opportunity, which dictionary.com defines as “the medium, method, or instrument used to obtain a result or achieve an end. Resources, for us, means every school provides the resources and medium to create opportunity, accommodating students’ differing learning needs and styles. “Full potential” will vary greatly from student to student, depending on their abilities and aspirations. It does not mean that everyone is a genius and gets an “A”, nor does it mean no one fails. “Contributing member” means that the individual has a good job matched to their abilities, and/or contributes to their community, and/or raises children that become the next generation of contributing members.
For the mission, “All State and local agencies” obviously includes the Department of Education, but also includes other non-education agencies such as Corrections, Labor & Workforce, Children and Families, Health, Transportation, and Human Services. “Other Stakeholders” include, first and foremost, students and parents as well as educators, boards of education, local law enforcement, community centers, local business, faith-based organizations, childcare centers, health care providers, just to name a few. “Work collaboratively and deliberately” means actively and continuously addressing the needs of our students (not just once or twice a year). Certain stakeholders are assigned the lead for each initiative with others identified in a supporting role. This is a key ingredient which has been missing to date. “Blatantly visible and judiciously addressed” means no one is left behind and no problems are ignored. This is another key ingredient that has been missing to date. Hiding behind the claim that NJ has the best schools and not addressing issues is not the right answer.
Now that we have a common understanding of what the vision and mission are, let’s develop the action plan to achieve them. There are some major lines of effort that need to be addressed to execute the mission and achieve the vision. Here are a few (there are likely more):
- Assign a lead agency to complete and implement this strategic plan with FULL support from the Governor and the Department of Education. This includes defining the methods agencies and stakeholders will use to collaborate on the remaining lines of effort and ensuring key personnel have this effort specifically referenced in their performance objectives for accountability.
- Fix the funding discrepancy across the schools by evaluating and changing the school funding formula. We must ensure that funds are directly applied to improvements that support the strategic plan and that spending is 100% transparent so everyone knows where every penny goes.
- Investigate alternative school schedules to address the “summer slide” and other issues.
- Address significant life issues outside of the school that negatively impact student development (physical and mental health care, nutrition, safety, housing, transportation, family support structure, etc.). Coordinate so that all efforts are aligned.
- Create an environment in every school where EVERYONE is respected and they respect all others despite any differences, parents are actively involved in curriculum development and execution, and learning and growth is the primary objective. This is much more than LGBTQ+, it means respecting the right of opposing points of view, even if there is respectful disagreement. It also means students respect all their classmates, and teachers actively reinforce that. (This is much harder than it sounds, just look at any middle school and see how the students treat each other.)
- Define, measure and act on the right data needed to assess and continuously improve our schools. Make every decision a data driven decision. Manage our schools like a good business manages itself.
- Actively collaborate with community stakeholders that supplement learning and growth outside of the classroom to ensure a multiplier effect.
- Perhaps enact a law that bargaining units which represent public sector employees are barred from donating to political candidates and campaigns. This will take politics and partisanship out of managing the schools (and other government functions).
For each of the lines of effort listed above, and any others that may be identified later, there is a generic methodology to ensure an effective and efficient result. Here are the key steps:
- Define the current state – document what today looks like using all available data and documentation. One cannot fix what one does not know.
- Define the desired future state – rely heavily on customer and stakeholder involvement to define what success looks like from their perspective. (See definition of stakeholder above.)
- Identify gaps between the current state and desired future state – define what needs to be done to get to the future state, a roadmap to success.
- Identify how each activity interrelates with other activities. Don’t work in a vacuum.
- Identify, measure, and analyze key data to quantify status of each activity and drive progress. Create measurement methods if the required data does not exist.
- Prioritize the required activities to reach the future state — based on outcome, risk and effort/resources required and available budget (return on investment, or bang for the buck).
- Perform proactive failure analyses (i.e., “what if” drills) to identify any unwanted second or third order effects and eliminate them BEFORE the change is implemented. We don’t want to replace one problem with another.
- Based on results of the failure analyses, update and quantify each activity’s plan, and identify who is the lead and who supports. Ensure each activity is SMART (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, Time-based).
- Execute and monitor progress of each activity while ensuring accountability for completion. Regularly engage with the stakeholders that helped define the future state to ensure their needs are being met.
- Continuously measure and improve each activity once implemented. Repeat this process as needed for any other improvements.
Go Forward Plan – The Time is NOW
The time is now to stop talking and start acting. This article provides the blueprint and starting point for action. I believe the state’s Department of Education, supported wholeheartedly by the Governor, needs to take the lead for this and execute. This is the very essence of their existence. Education is an issue that affects all state residents, like Covid did. And like Covid, it requires a prioritized statewide coordinated effort. I anxiously await action and stand ready to provide my expertise wherever it is needed (I will not be “all talk no action.”) We don’t need high-priced consultants to develop a document to put on a shelf. We need action. Our kids deserve it. To do anything less is negligent. I apologize if this article seems forceful and preachy, but I think that is where we are and what we need. Time for a swift kick in the butt. Let’s go!
As I submit this article, news broke of the Murphy administration launching the New Jersey Partnership for Student Success (NJPSS), an initiative designed to harness the energy of volunteers and community organizations to help students, educators, and schools as they work to address learning loss and other challenges in the wake of COVID-19. It will include a statewide high-impact tutoring program supported by at least $10 million in federal funding from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief fund, two targeted early literacy professional development programs, including the $2 million Reading Acceleration Professional Integrated Development (RAPID) program allocated in the FY2023 state budget, and a complementary $3 million ARP ESSER-funded program targeting upper elementary grades, and guidance in maximizing scheduling to address academic recovery.
These are all good initiatives if done correctly, but probably too little, too late. And I can pretty much guarantee that the above methodology was or will not be used to ensure a proper solution. I hope to be wrong.