Cerf & Co. Deliver ‘State of the Schools’ Address

John Mooney, Education writer | September 20, 2012 | Education
At the yearly convocation, commissioner and staff review goals and chart progress of state's education initiatives -- one slide at a time

Credit: Amanda Brown
Chris Cerf, New Jersey Commissioner of Education.
It’s becoming an annual “State of the Schools” address, with the New Jersey’s education commissioner and top lieutenants exhaustively outline the administration’s plans and priorities for the coming year.

Yesterday, state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf’s so-called convocation before 400 school administrators gathered at Jackson Liberty High School lasted more than two hours and nearly 80 PowerPoint slides.

In the end, the presentation included both the familiar and the new, including a guest appearance of the old topic of early literacy. Yet Cerf was also reminded by those in the audience that even modest plans don’t always fall in place as smoothly as a slide show.

What did the presentation that tested the endurance of both presenters and audience include? (Click the links below to view each speaker’s presentation; a recap of some of the highlights follows):

Cerf: Reading By Third Grade

This was Cerf’s second convocation, but his first since he was confirmed as commissioner this summer. His reception yesterday was polite — at times supportive — and Cerf delivered a conciliatory message. He applauded the schools overall, and struck the familiar theme of trying to free the good ones of state rules, while helping those in need to improve.

He came with new statistics, including 2011-2012 tests scores that showed high school achievement on a slight rise, while elementary and middle schools held mostly steady.

On the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA), 92 percent of juniors passed in language arts, and 79 percent in math, both increases. On the elementary and middle school test, known as NJASK, 66 percent in language arts and 75 percent in math.

But those stats came with Cerf’s familiar clarion call to close the achievement gap, which is narrowing in the high school tests but remains wide in other grades.

He also spent much of his time outlining the administration’s latest push to ease red that binds many schools — especially the state’s voluminous monitoring system. That pledge drew the first and maybe the loudest applause of the morning.

One new campaign, although hardly a new cause, was Cerf’s insistence that children be able to read by third grade, a key indicator of later success, he said. Tracking of students could begin in kindergarten, starting with a pilot assessment program in a half dozen districts, Cerf added.

Goals would be set each year to gauge third-grade proficiency, with each gain of three percent meaning another 2,000 young students able to read at grade level statewide, he said.

“Every one of those students has a name, and you are serving all of them,” Cerf told the school leaders.

Data, Data, Data

Next up was Bari Erlichson, Cerf’s assistant commissioner and chief performance officer. Erlichson, the department’s data guru, provided the latest updates on NJ SMART, the student-based system that will include everything from test scores to post-graduate success. For the first time this year, she said, every district’s graduates have been tracked as to how they are doing in college two years later — assuming that they continue their education.

It was a presentation heavy with spreadsheets, detailing how NJ SMART will track where students succeed and where they fall short, down to the kinds of questions on the tests.

Districts have already started to receive this information, with more on the way. One point of continued contention: the state’s plans to link student achievement to individual teachers, a central component of the new teacher evaluation initiative.

The plan is to have the evaluation component in place by 2013-2014, but districts are only now starting to submit and verify teachers’ schedules and class rosters. Erlichson said the first correlation of student scores to teachers should be in place by early next year.

Model Curricula and RACs

Penny MacCormack, Cerf’s assistant commissioner and chief academic officer, only has another month on the job before she joins those in the audience as the new superintendent of Montclair schools.

Although she’s spent just a year in the state post, she outlined a host of previously announced initiatives that will surely outlast her, from a new model curriculum now in its second iteration to Regional Achievement Centers that will serve as the state’s satellites for the lowest-performing schools.

The RACs, she said, are up and running, evaluating programs and launching their own tracking to see if improvements are taking hold.

“That’s what makes this different,” she said. “When you start to measure on a regular basis [every seven weeks] and adjust accordingly, I think we are really doing something new to improve student achievement.”

Technology and Innovation

Evo Popoff is the newest assistant commissioner, Cerf’s chief innovation officer, and in his first presentation to the superintendents he had the tough task of telling many of them they need to change.

While he stressed that innovation is more than just technology, he spoke at length about online learning — detailing different models of “blended learning,” in which online instruction is melded with face-to-face teaching. It has been a contentious topic, especially since the state approved two blended (hybrid) charter schools.

With many of the state’s new assessments relying on computers, he said the distinction is increasingly blurred.

“It is already happening in quite a few places, and in a few years, I envision dropping the word blended and it will just be learning,” he said.

There are real obstacles, though: only about half of the districts have sufficient bandwidth and software to support the necessary programs, he said.

“You may have the computers in the classroom and the connection to the Internet, but do you have the ability to access the resources that are out there?” he asked.

Teacher Talent

Tenure reform has been the most debated education topic during the past year, ending with passage of a new tenure law this summer. Assistant commissioner Peter Shulman, the chief talent officer, has the job of putting the mechanisms in place to meet the intentions of the law.

Yesterday he outlined where the state stands with its statewide evaluation system, now being piloted in 20 districts. He urged patience, stressing that the state was listening to the field.

Work is also underway to improve mentoring and teacher certification. Earlier in the day the state announced a streamlined call center for expediting the licensing process for teachers, and down wait times that topped 20 minutes to less than two.

“Twenty-two minutes, that’s preposterous,” Shulman said. “I would have hung up.”

The Testy Part

The highlight of the convocation is when the audience gets to question the commissioner and his staff. They only got about 20 minutes yesterday, prompting a pledge from Cerf that next year would see double that time.

Nonetheless, they had some pointed questions, including whether the state would loosen limits on administrative spending to help them meet the various demands discussed.

Cerf wasn’t very forgiving, saying he understood the burdens but also said the state is generous in its spending overall and districts need to think of “creative redistributions” of their resources.

“If we keep spending our resources in the same ways, we will not have enough to do what we need to do,” Cerf said.

The issue of the state’s superintendent salary cap inevitably came up. The outgoing superintendent of South Hackensack’s single-school district, William DeFabiis, said that when he leaves, his replacement will likely make less than some of his teachers. The salary of the next South Hackensack superintendent is capped at $125,000.

“You’re asking superintendents to take a dead-end paying job,” DeFabiis said, adding he is also principal and business administrator.

A year ago, Cerf got in a little hot water with his boss when he sounded open to revisiting the caps. This time he offered a more diplomatic answer, both defending the caps while praising those in the room that now live under them.

“I am not remotely persuaded that the caliber of those here has diminished at all from last year,” he said.