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Chris Cerf: In His Own Words

The commissioner-designate takes a stand on school reform, accountability, economically disadvantaged students, teachers unions and more.

Chris Cerf (left), Governor Chris Christie's pick for NJ Commissioner of Education.

He said he wouldn’t go into specific policy, but Chris Cerf is still a talker.

So, in his introduction at a Statehouse press conference yesterday as New Jersey’s next education commissioner, Cerf provided plenty of clues as to what he finds important in education and what specific issues he may pursue.

Some answers were terse, and Gov. Chris Christie was never too far away to expand. But on school choice, teacher tenure and a few other topics, Cerf certainly wasn’t shy in sharing his thoughts. How that plays out on specific proposals in New Jersey is yet to be seen.

What Makes Chris Cerf Tick?

In some of his first expansive comments since being tapped for the job, Cerf listed five central principles to school reform: people, accountability, competition, empowerment and innovation.

In his own words:

  • "People are at the heart of it. The last frontier of school reform is finding the very, very best teachers and school leaders and making sure they are the ones who are there, and we have the retention systems and evaluation systems, anything to maximize the effectiveness of education."

  • "Accountability is critical, we should all be accountable for student learning, however you want to measure that."

  • "Competition that is empowering parents with the opportunity to choose which public schools their child goes to is incredibly important. It drives quality in way that is frankly, unimaginably important.”

  • "I don’t think you can hold schools accountable for results unless you empower them the opportunity to make decisions. It’s the flip side of accountability. You can not hold them accountable for results unless you allow them the opportunity to make decisions. On the other hand, you cannot empower schools to be completely independent without having a parallel level of accountability or you have chaos."

  • "If you went to the 15th century village ,the only two things you’d recognize are the places of worship and the schools. The basic model of education today is pretty much like it always was. The person standing in the front of the room, the technology world has only glancingly touched education, and there are huge advances to be made in differentiated learning and instruction."

What Is the State of New Jersey Schools?

Again, his words: "We live in a state that should be very, very proud of its educational system. But also live in a state where the gap between those who are born to economic circumstances that are positive and those who are born to poverty simply do not an equal opportunity to success. And that in my judgment is a shameful problem that all of us should be throwing ourselves at.”

Will He Follow Christie in Taking On the NJEA?

There's no love lost between Christie and the state’s largest teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA). And Christie yesterday again took some more shots at the union, on one hand saying he is only responding in kind to the NJEA’s own attacks and then comparing it to those "standing at the schoolhouse door blocking reform."

Cerf, himself a former high school teacher in a Cincinnati private school, did not speak specifically to union relations but went out of his way to praise the teaching profession.

"They are the absolute essential component in student learning. It is more than that, they are the spiritual guides, the ones who really make a difference," Cerf said. "We can all talk about the reforms, but at the interface of student and teacher in the classroom is where the difference is made."

"I want to start this journey by expressing my highest regard and deep appreciation for the educators in this state," he continued. "I really look forward to working with them as we move forward together into the future."

A spokesman for the NJEA was heartened by the early signals coming out of the new commissioner-designate, pointing out some collaborations Cerf made with the teacher unions in New York that the NJEA itself proposed for New Jersey.

"We are trying to stay positive," said Steve Wollmer, the NJEA’s communications director. "I think we are at least at a place where we can sit down and talk."

Not Exactly Union Talk

Christie has appointed a task force to review and develop a statewide system for evaluating teachers and principals that would determine how they are paid, promoted, retained and potentially dismissed.

As deputy schools chancellor in New York City, Cerf was central in developing a similar system for that city’s massive school system -- roughly the same size as all of New Jersey's -- that places greater accountability on teachers.

Yesterday, he was frank in his views on teacher tenure as an antiquated system in need of change.

"It has massively mutated into something that essentially should be a guard against arbitrariness into what is essentially lifetime job protection,” he said. ”We can’t live in a world where it takes hundreds of thousands of dollars of administrative process and lawyers fees to terminate a teacher obviously ineffective with children."

And while Wollmer praised Cerf’s work with New York’s American Federation of Teachers in developing schoolwide bonuses, Cerf yesterday said he may not be against individual bonuses or merit pay, either, an idea that the NJEA has roundly opposed.

"If your first interest is to do what’s right for children, then you have to have a system of rewards and consequences to reflect how children are actually learning," he said. "A system based entirely on step raises and longevity and acquisition of degrees hasn’t worked very well."

A Good Soldier

Cerf yesterday made clear several times that he will be the governor’s soldier, not the other way around. That’s no small issue when this governor has already fired one education commissioner. And it’s no small concession for a man who already has worked under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a man who easily matches Christie in bravado.

When asked, for instance, whether Christie’s caps on superintendent pay at $175,000 would work in New York state, where superintendent pay may be even higher than New Jersey, Cerf demurred in maybe his shortest answer of the day.

"I am not going to answer a hypothetical question,” he said. “I support the governor."

Earlier, he also made clear his loyalty: "Other than the legislature, the only policymaker in the state is the governor. Therefore, my mission is the governor’s mission."

Still, there was some nuance to work through, too, as Cerf also has hardly been a cheerleader for private school vouchers -- one of Christie’s favorites -- and yesterday didn’t much change in that reputation.

When asked specifically about private school options for students, he said that he supports "anything that works" and repeated his central premise that students shouldn’t be consigned by their zip codes in the quality of education they receive.

But when asked specifically as to whether he thinks private school vouchers have worked in other cities and states, he hedged.

"Evidence on that is evolving right now," he said. "And I’m certainly in favor of continuing to develop that evidence."

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