Chris Cerf says he’s not leaving his post as New Jersey’s Commissioner of Education because of Bridgegate, and I believe him. When Cerf departs at the end of March, he’ll be continuing a pattern of sliding back and forth between the private and public sector that he’s engaged in over his entire career.
Leaving for Rupert Murdoch’s Amplify — or some similar corporate education outfit — was the next, inevitable step for Cerf, no matter how many scandals may dog Gov. Chris Christie.
In many ways, Cerf is the prototypical education “reformer”: he never taught in a public school, never earned a degree in education, and never ran a school building. More accurately, perhaps, Cerf is the prototype of a new sort of reformer, one who leaves a groundswell of resistance in his wake.
After a few years of teaching at a private school, Cerf pursued a law career, eventually working in the Clinton administration. He shifted over to education not as a practitioner, but as the president of Edison Learning, the ill-fated school management company that never lived up to its promises in Philadelphia and elsewhere. That was followed by a stint in the vast and complex New York City schools, serving as deputy chancellor under his colleague in the Clinton White House, Joel Klein. who he will report to once again at Amplify.
An important part of Cerf’s training was his attendance at the Broad Superintendents Academy, an unaccredited project of California billionaire Eli Broad. The Academy is famous in education policy circles for recruiting potential education leaders — many of whom, like Cerf, have minimal experience actually teaching in or running schools — and indoctrinating them in the techniques of “creative disruption,” a style of governance that owes much to the cult of the CEO found today in American business.
Broad has proved to be an invaluable ally for Cerf during his tenure in New Jersey: his foundation provided money to create plans for the restructuring of the Newark and Camden school districts (with minimal community input), and to start the Regional Achievement Centers (RACs) that Cerf has tasked with carrying out his policies in the local school districts.
But what, besides bringing Broad’s philosophy and money to New Jersey, is the legacy of Chris Cerf’s three years running the state’s schools? What does he leave behind for the next commissioner, and for those of us who actually do the daily job of teaching New Jersey’s children?
From this teacher’s perspective, Cerf has influenced what is one of the nation’s best state public education systems in ways that are both profound and disturbing:
The test is now everything Test scores determine whether a school closes in Newark. Test scores determine whether a school gets a “Priority,” “Focus,” or “Reward” rating from NJDOE. Test scores, as filtered through Student Growth Percentiles (SGPs), will play a critical role in determining whether a teacher of a tested subject keeps her job. Test scores determine whether a school outperforms its “peers” in the new performance reports.
And yet, so far as I know, New Jersey has never conducted an independent study to determine the validity or reliability of the NJASK, HSPA, or PARCC tests that are coming. And we know that student poverty is heavily correlated to proficiency rates, which raises the question: what, exactly, are we testing?
Urban school districts are being deconstructed Newark’s state-run district is closing schools without the consent of its elected School Advisory Board and turning over facilities to charter school operators.
Camden, another state-run district, has invited in charter operators from out of state; the Pennsylvania Auditor General, speaking of one of these operator’s charter school in Chester, PA, said: “this well-funded charter school seems to disregard even basic school operational requirements.” Paterson’s teachers remain without a contract for a fourth year, while charters there continue to expand.
Under Cerf, the large, urban, autonomous, public school district has been gradually replaced by a portfolio system of school “choice.” It’s quite telling that this is not happening in the suburbs, home of Chris Christie’s political base – at least, not yet.
New Jersey’s commitment to equity has been shattered According to a new report released by the Education Law Center, New Jersey’s school districts are backsliding to an era of funding inequity. The School Finance Reform Act, successor to the Abbott laws and supposed guarantor of funding equity, remains underfunded. New Jersey has increasingly become a two-tiered school system, where wealthier districts largely finance themselves while poorer districts, without an adequate tax base to meet their school needs, go begging.
Leadership has been redefined, and not for the better Cerf and Christie brought Cami Anderson in to lead Newark’s schools; similar to Cerf, her school-level experience is limited to two years of teaching, followed by stints at private education organizations (like Teach For America) and the NYCDOE bureaucracy. Since her arrival in New Jersey, she’s managed to alienate the elected Schools Advisory Board, the city council, the teachers union , and many vocal and angry parents and students.
Janine Caffrey, also from the NYCDOE prior to taking over as superintendent in Perth Amboy, was recently fired by her school board, despite multiple intercessions from Cerf to try to save her from losing her job.
Tim Capone, one of Cerf’s recruits to his RACs before leading the schools in Highland Park, is facing strong community resistance after dismissing the president of the local teachers union.
Cerf brought Penny MacCormack to the NJDOE from Connecticut; she left to run the Montclair schools, but has faced a growing chorus of opposition to her plans to expand standardized testing.
And another product of the NYCDOE bureaucracy, Paymon Rouhanifard, has taken over the Camden schools, newly under control of the state. America’s most dangerous city’s schools superintendent is a 32-year-old who has a total of six years in education on his resume, most having little to do with teaching, curriculum, or teacher supervision. Experience, it seems, is no longer a prerequisite to take on the toughest school leadership jobs in a post-Cerf New Jersey.
Segregated and apartheid schools are now a defining feature of New Jersey A scathing report from the Institute on Education Law and Policy at Rutgers-Newark finds that many of New Jersey’s schools have moved beyond “segregated” status. They are, in effect, apartheid schools, where children of color have little or no interaction with white students. This intense segregation extends to poverty status as well.
Local control of schools has been eroded State control has come to Camden, and, despite a few feints from Cerf, it looks as if it is firmly entrenched in Paterson and Jersey City.
Newark has actually moved further away from local governance, with an appellate judge upholding state control last summer. State monitors continue to exert power in several other districts: in Asbury Park, the local school board had its choice for a new superintendent rejected by the state’s fiscal monitor (who also just happened to be an applicant who was rejected for the interim job).
But it’s more than just direct state control: all local districts must move to the computerized PARCC standardized tests, but the state has not helped with the cost of implementing them. And the state has imposed a new teacher evaluation system, but has not helped with the costs for implementing that, or providing professional development.
Teachers are burned out In the words of a spokesman of the NJEA, the state’s largest teachers union, teachers are feeling “terrorized” by the new, state-mandated teacher evaluation system, AchieveNJ. Teachers are writing Student Growth Objectives with little guidance from the state and little evidence that they will improve student performance in untested areas. Teachers are wondering how they could possibly be responsible for the Student Growth Percentile scores when even Damian Betebenner, the “father” of SGPs, let slip once that the scores can’t be attributed to teachers.
Check out the Facebook posts of teachers or their tweets, and you’ll read many comments by professionals who still love their jobs — and have no problem with being held accountable for their performance — but are disgruntled, dispirited, and burned out. The joy of teaching is being sucked out of them, all in the name of “creative disruption.”
There is, however, resistance. The NJEA has found its voice as of late under new president Wendell Steinhauer, and is no longer simply accepting the current situation. For that matter, parent groups like SOSNJ and Montclair Cares about Schools are questioning Cerf’s policies. The Newark Students Union has challenged the state-run district to step up and meet their needs, as has the Newark Teachers Union. From the cities to the suburbs, parents, teachers, and students are no longer accepting the education policies of the past three years.
Ironically, this may be the ultimate legacy of Chris Cerf: his “reforms” have generated so much resistance that an organized and vocal opposition to the interests he has aligned himself with has taken shape. As Cerf retreats back to the private sector, his successor will have to deal with antagonists who are no longer willing to accept the status quo of “reform.”
And as Chris Christie’s troubles grow, their political power increases. Chris Cerf’s tenure may not have been the beginning of corporate reform in New Jersey; it may well have been the beginning of the end.