Upon hearing in mid-February of Chris Cerf’s impending resignation, many New Jersey educators speculated that the state’s Commissioner of Education would leave his post quietly—especially given the dark cloud of scandals hovering over Chris Christie, the disastrous situation for which State Superintendent Cami Anderson is responsible in Newark, and the serious questions about the ethics of Amplify’s dealings with New Jersey’s schools.
But on March 5th, a day when dozens of educators, parents, and union leaders testified in front of the State Board of Education about concerns with New Jersey’s educational reforms–and over 1,000 others submitted written testimony echoing the concerns of those who appeared in person–Cerf sent a scathing letter to the superintendents of the state in which he labeled the NJEA’s criticisms of the Common Core, PARCC tests, and new teacher evaluation system as “political antics” and “willful misrepresentations meant to mislead the public and their members.” (And surprise: Cerf’s letter is also posted on the Chiefs for Change website.)
Aside from Cerf’s offensive implication that teachers are incapable of evaluating for themselves the initiatives they’re tasked with implementing, his six-page condemnation of NJEA leadership is laced with the same flawed rhetoric to which so-called education “reformers” across the country are clinging–even as parents, children, legislators, and educators from across America join forces to demand ends to sweeping, top-down, unproven reforms that are categorically hurting the nation’s children.
Cerf’s tenure as commissioner lasted fewer than four years, and despite the fact that New Jersey’s public schools are consistently ranked among the very top in the nation, Cerf’s intention was to “dismantle, then rebuild, New Jersey’s education system.” He likened education reform to dangerous outdoor activities (“What draws me to this work is the same thing that draws me, I have to say, to wilderness canoeing. When you go to the head of a rapid and you’re trying to go downstream—it’s the rocks that make it fun.”), a comparison which suggests that it is the perils that make the business of education reform enjoyable.
So nobody should be shocked that Cerf is unfazed by parents’ and educators’ concerns that New Jersey’s education reforms are being implemented too hastily and without the proper and necessary adjustments.
In his letter to the state’s superintendents, Cerf presents seven statements made by NJEA leadership and then counters them with “facts”–many of which aren’t facts at all (or are irrelevant facts), and even more that simply talk around NJEA’s concerns without addressing them directly.
Sort of like Person A claiming the room is too hot, and Person B saying, “no–I drive a blue car.”
First, Cerf lists NJEA’s concerns with tying New Jersey’s flawed evaluation system to the “costly and unproven” PARCC tests; to disprove this claim, Cerf lists five “facts”– none of which actually addresses NJEA’s insistence that the evaluation system itself is flawed (see here) or that the PARCC is unproven (see here: “One of the primary problems with the PARCC test is the mystery and ambiguity of both the organization and its assessments. PARCC is an unproven standardized test created by a private consortium that has provided very little information or transparency on what their tests will look like.”). Where is the research to support Cerf’s claims that the PARCC is a superior standardized test (if such a thing exists)? Just last year, more than 2/3 of NYC children failed this “much higher-quality” assessment; is that proof of the PARCC’s greatness?
And Cerf says the state is “engaged in a comprehensive effort to help districts upgrade the technology they use for instruction and also to deliver the new PARCC assessments,” but he provides no specifics. Why, then, are districts filing lawsuits to appeal what they describe as “unfunded mandates”? (Cerf also lists NJEA’s concern that “districts are spending money they don’t have to implement they tests they don’t need”–and counters this claim with more “facts,” which again do not directly address or respond to NJEA’s claim.)
Perhaps most evasive is Cerf’s list of “facts” to refute NJEA’s statement that students are forced to take tests “with no regard for whether they do anything to improve the actually quality of teaching and learning in their classroom.” Cerf makes no mention of the fact that teachers and students aren’t allowed to see the tests–or that traditionally, high-stakes test results aren’t returned until the end of a school year–and in many cases until students have moved on to new teachers. He makes no mention that there is very little, if any, transparency when it comes to the ways in which the tests were scored. And he makes no mention of the countless other problems with standardized testing in general.
But never mind that; here’s my favorite Cerf Fact–#2 in response to the above charge: “I used to teach AP US History.”
Yes, he did, for a very short time: in a private, exclusive day school in Cincinnati. And not just AP US History: “modern European history, and one middle section (‘to keep me humble,’ he says)” (emphasis mine, for obvious reasons). I wonder how those students–even those in the “middle section” whom Cerf deigned to teach in order to keep his ego in check, did on standardized tests.
Cerf attempts to disprove more claims that high-stakes testing forces teachers to teach to a test, but in what appears to be an effort to deflect from the very issue he himself chose to list, he instead cites one research study which shows that “high standards lead to higher achievement.” Okay; where’s the standardized test discussion?
And finally, Cerf presents NJEA’s concern that “every day, we are hearing new reports from our members across the state that the roll-out of the evaluation system is a chaotic and inconsistent mess”; he then evades the issue again, and instead lists a bunch of bullets which describe the implementation process and timeline in New Jersey. You know–the one that’s not working. All good teachers know that lessons which look great in a lesson-plan template can fail miserably in practice; good teachers are the ones who make adjustments based on students’ needs; inferior teachers are those who are unable to recognize problems in their plans and make appropriate adjustments.
The bottom line is that while six pages of “facts” might look impressive on the surface, even a cursory study of the “facts” reveals that most of Cerf’s list is simply repackaged reform jargon that sounds reasonable but is, in practice, fundamentally flawed. In short, the reform lesson plan that Cerf is advocating, although parts of it were initially endorsed by NJEA, is failing–and it needs to be revised. To ignore the very real, specific, numerous, and documented concerns of thousands of educators who are tasked with implementing them is to do the children and families in New Jersey a great disservice.
So really, the fundamental questions here are these:
Who is best equipped to make decisions about educating the children of New Jersey: Chris Cerf, an attorney whose teaching experience is extremely limited in scope, length of service, and diversity and who is leaving his post to pursue what promises to be a very lucrative career selling the very technology the reforms he is promoting require–or career educators who are actually in classrooms each day and who, along with parents, know better than profit-driven businesspeople what’s best for kids? And if Cerf is so confident that he knows best how to educate children, then why isn’t he educating children?
We thought he might go quietly.
But no—he stomped off, very loudly, into the amplified sunset.
Farewell, Ex-Commissioner Cerf.