Improving accountability and transparency for Jersey City Public Schools

In 2021 Jersey City Public Schools fully funded its schools for the first time in over a decade. Reasonable questions now follow related to transparency and accountability, including:

How do we hold the district administration and school board accountable for full investment in our kids?

I’m part of a team with Jersey City Together and we’ve been discussing this need for more transparency and accountability for nearly three years in tandem with our push for full funding. We’ve pushed openly for it. But transparency is still not where it needs to be; we need more clarity to answer questions like:

Are class sizes actually smaller now that we have full funding and if so, what does this look like on a per-school basis?

Are children with special needs receiving the services they are legally entitled to?

Are support positions (e.g. academic coaches, counselors, social workers) staffed in all schools to the levels suggested by the state’s funding formula?

I think it’s important to acknowledge that transparency will take community effort because what NJ and Jersey City provide is currently insufficient; while there are voluminous compliance mandates forcing states and districts to be “accountable” (e.g. test scores, salaries per school, and so on), we need more clarity on the investment. For example:

  1. NJ has a “user friendly budget” (the JCPS version for 2021-22 is at the district Budget page here ) but it’s not user friendly to caregivers who want to know: are there enough teachers staffing our schools to keep class sizes low?
  2. The NJ Department of Education data portal is chock full of data related to enrollment, school cost, and school performance but there is not a sufficiently designed user experience for caregivers who simply want to know: how many kids are in my school, is my school sufficiently funded, and is my school performing in a manner that keeps up with standards? (note: that user experience is not easy to create…that said, it’s also not impossible)
  3. The NJ Department of Education has its scorecard site which allows you to drill into school-based data; while I’m frankly impressed with the volume of information presented and the attempt to lay it out in a user friendly manner, I’m not sure how accurate it is (after taking a look at the teacher-to-student ratios).

So challenges abound. I want to offer a constructive frame for improvement. This is not a “gotcha” exercise to demonize the state or district; this is a “let’s work together to improve things” exercise so that we can see the investment at work.

    Dashboards with data that make sense to caregivers 

    An example of a school accountability dashboard from Los Angeles Unified school district in CA

    Dashboard are a common way to help distill data for quick analysis. Examples of school accountability dashboards exist in other states, including California, Oklahoma, and Pittsburgh, PA.

    So, similar to how a driver in car can immediately gauge: (1) is my gas tank full or not, (2) what speed am I going, and (3) what time is it, a caregiver should be able to look at measures that inform if our schools are both funded and staffed properly.

    For instance, I’d be interested in an “Instructional Staff Accountability Dashboard” so I could see:

    1. Does my child’s school have sufficient teachers and wraparound staff…
    2. To enable small enough class sizes…
    3. That will create an optimum environment for learning.

    While I realize nuance abounds, we could view this through the prism of two variables compared against each other:

    1. How many teachers SHOULD BE in the school (Target X)
    2. How many teachers ARE in the school (Actual Y)
    3. Is there sufficient staffing? If Actual Y is less than Target X, then the school has insufficient staffing.

    Again…nuance abounds, so this is not intended as final end point or panacea for all questions, but rather an entry point to engage and understand. Here’s a sample visual I drafted up in Tableau:

    If we looked at this data, we could glean some insight like:

    1. Not all schools have enough homeroom teachers — that may impact class size throughout the school.
    2. There is systemic understaffing of academic coaches among elementary schools.
    3. While all elementary schools have “specials,” there are gaps. Sample School #26 doesn’t have an art teacher. Half the schools lack a drama teacher. There are also gaps in Music and PE (Physical Education) / Gym.

    We also can ask questions that may shed additional context about is happening in these schools, and why. For instance, there may be an administrative choice about types of specials to offer and why. Or perhaps there is a shortage of drama or art teachers that is hindering the district’s ability to staff all schools with those specials. And so on.

    Finally – a somewhat wonkish view of “useful information”

    This entire exercise seems to rest on what “useful information” is. We may perceive that differently based on our unique perspective. I am an accountant so I’m going to lean on some professional standards offered by the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) which defines “useful information” as:

    • Relevant, meaning it must have both predictive and confirmatory value. (can help us make predictions or confirm feedback)
    • Faithfully representative, meaning it must be complete, neutral, and free from error.

    So — using my examples from above — the NJ Dept of Education’s performance scorecard showing school ratio data seems

    relevant (smaller class sizes have predictive value about the quality of the experience for my child)

    but doesn’t seem

    faithfully representative because “12:1” does not gel with my personal experience in the school (having been there for 8 years). There is something about that data does not add up for me and it may simply be a function of the way the data is aggregated; regardless, I don’t see that scorecard as useful on that measure.

    FASB also drills down on how to make information useful. It highlights:

    • comparability (e.g. how does one school’s class ratios compare to another, or to a districtwide or statewide average, or to a legal mandate?)
    • verifiability (where is the data coming from? how is it compiled? Is the state verifying what’s being reported?)
    • timeliness (is the data current? or several years old?)
    • understandability (can a parent with no professional background in K-12 education understand what is being presented? Or does it take an expert to dissect this?)
    FASB SFAC No 8. “Qualitative Characteristics of Useful Financial Information” Visual courtesy of Gleim CPA Prep.

    It’s important to note that this is all wrapped between a cost/benefit constraint. Meaning, the school district can invest some resources into transparency, but there will be a limit as to how much investment they can and will make.

    Wrapping up…

    We need more accountability for the investment in our public schools to (a) ensure children are getting what they need in their schools and (b) to support continued full investment. Sustainable, fully funded schools will require more transparency and accountability across the board.


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