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Cerf Names Penny MacCormack as Chief Academic Officer

New assistant commissioner served as assistant superintendent of Hartford secondary schools.

Nine months into the job, acting education commissioner Chris Cerf continues to fill out what he calls his top "cabinet-level" positions, the latest hire a former official in Hartford, CT, schools to be his chief academic officer.

For the past five years, Penny MacCormack served as chief academic officer and assistant superintendent for secondary schools in Connecticut's capital city.

Starting two weeks ago but serving in an interim role until confirmed by the state Board of Education (BOE), MacCormack will be in charge of New Jersey's curriculum development and testing programs. Although a new title, the position has historically been the highest profile in a commissioner's inner circle.

Cerf has taken longer to fill these assistant commissioner positions than predecessors, but he said yesterday that it is all part of a broader remake of the department and its functions.

He said more hires and announcements will come in the next several weeks, including a chief talent officer and a restructuring of the state's county offices into "regional achievement centers."

A Strong Leader

Cerf in an interview said MacCormack showed herself to be a strong education leader in Hartford, where she helped lead an aggressive reform effort to turn around some of that state's lowest-performing schools with a mix of school-level controls and state-level accountability.

"She has an established history of leading change efforts, with deep expertise, of not only developing high standards but designing strategies for effectively implementing them," he said.

Before Hartford, MacCormack was an assistant superintendent in New Haven, CT, schools and a principal in Milford. Cerf and MacCormack also both participated in the Broad Foundation's leadership programs, an increasingly influential training ground for education leaders nationwide.

MacCormack said in an interview Friday that she appreciated the opportunity to take her work to a statewide position, and was impressed by Cerf's plans to build the department along four distinct but integrated areas of teacher performance, academic improvement, research, and innovation.

"What I really liked was that all four areas will be equally important and that there is a real desire for all four to work together," she said.

Moving to a statewide job will represent an obvious change from her local postings, she acknowledged.

"No doubt there will be a learning curve for me, but working in an urban district, you have a lot of dealings with the state, and I think I learned a lot from that," MacCormack said. "Some things are not all that different, just involving more people."

She did not offer specific plans for the state's curriculum development or assessment efforts, saying that much of it will driven by the national Common Core State Standards and complementary testing systems.

But when asked about debates over the quality of New Jersey's testing or whether students are tested too much, she did stress her views of assessments as an instructional tool as well as an evaluative one.

"Assessment is part of teaching," she said. "I don't think we assess too much, but I do think we look at assessments as a judgment too much, where it should be more about the learning."

More Hires Coming

Cerf said he would announce a chief talent officer, the third of four cabinet-level hires, in the coming weeks. He continues to interview candidates for the last of the four, the chief innovation officer who will oversee programs such as charter schools. Cerf had already hired Bari Erlichson as his chief performance officer.

Filling these positions, Cerf said, is all part of what he called "radical change" in the department.

"We have done more to reorganize that department in the last six months, absolute record time in throwing out one organizational structure and bringing in another," Cerf said.

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