View from the Top: Cerf and Ruiz Talk Education 2013

John Mooney | January 3, 2013 | Education
Following up on the past year's initiatives is just the beginning of what the commissioner and the senator plan to accomplish in the year ahead

They are arguably the two most influential players in New Jersey public education: the state commissioner steering, if not dictating, Gov. Chris Christie’s agenda, the state senator who was the architect and driving force behind the groundbreaking tenure reform act.

But with a new year comes new challenges for Education Commissioner Chris Cerf and Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), as they move from laws and initiatives launched in 2012 to making them stick in 2013.

And that doesn’t include other projects — including a shared concern that New Jersey teachers get the best preparation possible.

NJ Spotlight spoke with both of them in the waning days of last year and the first of this one, asking them to elucidate their priorities for 2013.

Cerf: Just Getting Started

For Cerf, 2012 marked the year he finally was confirmed by the state Senate as education commissioner, after more than a year of being dogged by the title “acting commissioner.”

Now that he’s firmly ensconced, he’s ready to put in place several major initiatives that went through last year, including teacher evaluation systems, turnaround strategies for troubled schools, and at least the introduction of new standards and assessments for students.

“There is an enormous amount of implementation and execution work that has to be at the top of the list,” Cerf said yesterday. “It’s one thing to announce them, as we did last year, but another to implement them.”

“The major theme for 2013 will be to support districts as we move through that implementation,” he said.

The teacher evaluation portion of the state’s new tenure reform law is job number one, with the department slated to send out as game plan on how it will be phased in over the next six months.

Turnaround strategies for low-performing schools will be ongoing, Cerf said, as the department puts in place Regional Achievement Centers (RACs) throughout the state to assist those schools.

And new standards and assessments aren’t far off. The first pieces of the national Common Core State Standards are already showing up in school curricula and in this spring’s administration of the state’s elementary and middle school tests, known as the New Jersey Assessments of Skills and Knowledge, or NJASK.

That will be nothing compared to a year from now, when there will new tests altogether in 2014-2015 under the national Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC. With more than 20 states participating, PARCC will represent a new generation of testing that will ultimately take place several times a year and entirely online.

As New Jersey’s education commissioner, Cerf serves on the governing board of PARCC, attending its most recent meeting in Washington. D.C., last month. He said the project remains on track but faces some big hurdles.

“It is an extremely ambitious project on very tight deadlines and massively complex,” he said.

As such, there are a number of decisions to be made as to exactly how the tests will be rolled out, what accommodations will be made for students, and what technology required for schools.

The last has been a sore point, with districts worried that they aren’t close to having the hardware and bandwidth likely to be needed. But Cerf said he’s optimistic that capacity will be met, even if it means phasing in the online testing.

“It is certainly not out of the range of possibilities that we phase into that,” he said. “I can imagine scenarios where we’re not entirely online in the first year or not in all places.”

He also said that a big issue to resolve, or at least discuss in the coming year is the extent of the testing, saying he is recognizes the concern that students are tested at length already.

“When you add up all the time of NJASK, it’s quite substantial,” Cerf said. “I’m very sensitive to not adding more time to it, very sensitive . . . It’s a conversation we’re in the middle of, finding the right balance.”

One issue that hasn’t got much play yet but is sure to surface in 2013 is teacher preparation — specifically what’s required of teachers coming to the classroom from college or other routes.

Cerf said a state task force is likely to be announced in the coming month or two that will look at all facets of teacher preparation, from the requirements of different programs to the development of a system for tracking whether some prepare teachers better than others.

“For the districts doing the hiring, we need have some ways of evaluating the effectiveness of graduates,” he said.

That may take longer than a year, but he said teacher quality remains a critical piece in any strategy for school improvement.

“Any respectable system will be mindful of all aspects of the continuum,” Cerf said. “What are we doing to recruit talent, and what are we doing to make sure they will be successful . . . Everything related to teacher preparation will be on the table.”

Ruiz: Setting a High Bar

Ruiz, the state senator from Newark first elected in 2008, has a tough act to follow — herself.

The year 2012 marked her writing and then shepherding the state’s landmark tenure reform law through the Legislature — a measure that for the first time sets specific parameters as to what it takes for a teacher to earn and retain tenure.

In an interview on the last day of the year, she didn’t sound like someone who will stop there. And as the chairman of the Senate’s education committee, she’s in a place to make a difference as to what legislation is enacted — or even considered.

And her priorities are not necessarily what one might expect.

For instance, Ruiz has already said that she wants to focus on special education in the coming year, specifically helping families of students with disabilities navigate the system.

After holding a public hearing on the topic last fall, she has already submitted a few bills aimed at assisting struggling students before they are classified for special services. But she said more will come.

“It’s not enough, and we’ll work on more as we go along,” Ruiz said. “How do we as a state create opportunities for families who really feel they haven’t that access.”

She said it won’t come without a price. One idea she is discussing is a new state ombudsman for special education. “And some of that will require at least a realignment of resources,” she said.

Teacher quality won’t be far from her attention, either, as Ruiz pledged to closely follow the implementation of the tenure law and also start looking at teacher preparation, as Cerf has also proposed.

“I want to bring in the deans of our education schools and other stakeholders to start discussing what they think we can do to better prepare our teachers,” Ruiz said.

“How do we deal with the alternate route process, how do we improve on certification?” she said. “If we are to raise the stakes for teachers overall [through tenure reforms], we have to look at the entire system. If we are aiming for the best and supporting the best teachers, then we need to prepare for the best.”

One issue left over from 2012 that will surely come before Ruiz’s committee will be the state’s charter school requirements, now spelled out in a 15-year-old law that virtually all agree needs revisiting.

Ruiz has been reluctant to say too much about her intentions in new legislation, but several drafts are said to be circulating already, including one by Ruiz’s pen. On Monday, she only said that she wants the new law to make sure the process of approving and monitoring charters to be “fair, open and accountable.”

Elaborating a little, Ruiz said she was inclined to add new organizations to serve as authorizers of new charter schools, beyond just the state department of education. She also said the brewing debate over online or virtual charters needs to be addressed.

“We will have to have clear definitions and make sure there are accountable measures,” she said. “Whether it’s part of the law or stands alone, it will addressed.”

Other issues: Ruiz has a bill in the Senate that would create a pilot program for districts and schools to explore a longer school day and year. School safety is another issue that’s on her radar, given the recent Newtown, CT, school shooting.

She also said that school safety is about more than violence.

“When we talk about school safety, we need to talk about the status of our facilities in general,” Ruiz said.

That’s all Ruiz is willing to discuss, at least for now. There will be plenty to talk about when her committee meets on January 28.