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If education historian Diane Ravitch was the all-knowing eagle of education during her speech at last week’s New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey’s Acting Education Commissioner, Chris Cerf, was clearly the prey being circled by hawks. Blue Jersey’s own Deciminyan reviewed Ravitch’s speech, and it’s a must read in light of my review of Cerf’s…
In a standing room only venue, all eyes and ears, and iPhones and iPads, were trained on Cerf as he spoke to educators for about an hour. Tweets and texts were flying from the more tech-savvy, while others took notes with pen and paper. Cerf represents everything educators know is wrong about the divisive, corporate ‘reforms’ that are destroying public education nationwide: increased reliance on standardized testing and charter schools, vouchers, merit pay, and value added measures (VAM).
The former New York City Deputy Schools Chancellor under Joel Klein, Cerf came to New Jersey with some professional baggage. Leonie Haimson, education activist, Executive Director of the New York City group Class Size Matters, and founding member of Parents Across America (PAA) paints a troublesome portrait. With quite an extensive resume in the private and public sector, Cerf actually taught high school history for four years at the beginning of his career. However, it’s ironic that he didn’t make it to the five-year mark-the make-or-break point where teachers decide whether to stay or leave the profession. But he opened his speech with the applause garnering statement that he never worked harder than when he was teaching. Can’t argue with that.
However, the hawks swooped in with boos, hisses and shouts of “liar!” when he emphatically stated that Governor Christie “has the highest regard for teachers,” and that, “neither I nor the governor are against unions.” Now, I think it’s safe to say that anyone reading this post has some idea of current events in this state, so you know that this is simply not true. But if perchance you need some proof, look no further than Blue Jersey blogger Jersey Jazzman for evidence.
As the speech progressed, Cerf tried his best to lay out the governor’s ‘reform’ agenda without provoking the hawks, but it didn’t work. Where Ravitch backed up her words with facts, research and data, Cerf mentioned not one study, nor shred of evidence to prove the corporate business model will work (because there aren’t any). Instead, he spoke of the ‘natural distribution of talent’ being common in the business world, and ‘why is this so hard for you to understand?’ Maybe because education is not a business, it’s a process. Students are not assembly line products, they’re unique individuals, and educators treat them as such. If public education is going to become a business, the ‘reformers’ better be prepared to send teachers back to school for MBA’s so we can learn to speak that language.
He spoke of the need to end LIFO (last in-first out), and that the NJEA’s tenure reform proposal doesn’t go far enough (it’s actually more extensive that the state’s and dramatically shortens the time it takes to remove an ineffective teacher). This statement raised the loudest chorus of protests because Cerf wouldn’t admit that tenure protects teachers from-among other things-political influence. But we shouldn’t be worried because under Christie’s tenure ‘reform’ we don’t lose our job, we just lose tenure. I feel so much better knowing that. Under this plan, if a school district needs to save money (and what district doesn’t these days?) they can give senior teachers, who earn more than less experienced ones, poor reviews so they lose tenure and can then be fired. These veterans will never teach again because they are too expensive to hire, and newer teachers will lose valuable mentors. Public education will then mirror the private sector in that it will be filled with a cheap labor pool with high turnover, and well-paid administrators. How is this good for students? How is this good for the profession? How is this system any better than the business world where it’s who you know-not what you know-that counts? Neither system is perfect, and there’s dead wood in both, but seniority does keep the competition out-something that Cerf and Company see as inherently wrong.
When questioned about merit pay, he was amazed at how what is said can be so misinterpreted-right, like that bit about Christie not hating teachers. He said teachers should be incentivized-that’s how they do it in corporate America. And we all know how well corporate America is doing these days! Merit pay could be given as a school-wide bonus, or to teachers of math or science or to recruit others to work in high-risk schools. Again, corporate measures for a non-corporate profession, and some subjects are more equal than others. Because all students have different strengths and learning styles, a well-rounded education should include all subjects including the arts, social studies, world languages, physical education, computers and vocational training. Rather than dangling the merit pay carrot, make sure all teachers are well trained, paid a decent wage, and that all subjects are given equal emphasis. And support the collaborative atmosphere that is the foundation of teaching and learning.
On the impact of poverty he offered no solutions. I guess it’s ok for Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone to provide a holistic community/educational approach from pre-K through grade 12, including drug and alcohol counseling, parenting classes, and a host of other community services. But according to Cerf, value-added measures will cure all educational ills in New Jersey!
The hawks all but eviscerated him and dropped his entrails on the boardwalk for the seagulls to pick over when he claimed that Washington, DC’s teacher evaluation system is the best in the country. Funny thing about teachers: they’re very smart, and they can smell a load of you-know-what faster than a speeding school bus. Michelle Rhee’s DC ‘miracle’ was exposed as nothing more than a sham when a cheating scandal implicating her broke. Her evaluation system may be the best in the country for humiliating teachers, reducing their experience and knowledge down to a number derived in part from standardized tests-the ones she is accused of changing the answers to-and firing good teachers. But what about all the things teachers do that can’t be measured but have a dramatic impact on a child’s emotional growth and development? Well, if it can’t be measured, it must not count, so somebody better make up a test for this new anti-bullying law because that’s the only way we’ll know if it’s working.
He spoke about how horrible it is that New Jersey spends an average of $18,000 per student, and that leaders in other states are shocked. Yet New Jersey has one of the best public education systems in the nation. While he criticized our state for the large achievement gap between black and white students, NJEA President Barbara Keshishian had to remind him that we are the national leader in closing that gap thanks to many of the Abbott-funded programs. And he lamented the fact that the new common core standards have been badly marketed-as if teachers need to be ‘sold’ on the reform-du-jour instead of naturally embracing sound, research-based policy.
The question and answer session was rough. A long line of teachers waited at the microphone, but only a handful had a chance to speak. Those who did spoke of the devastating effects of Christie’s budget cuts and ‘reforms’ on their schools, students and colleagues. One school librarian spoke of how two schools in her district had to shutter their libraries, and how a recent study showed the importance of a fully functioning school library and librarian in a child’s ability to read. After fumbling his way through a non-answer about leaving good suburban schools to their own devices, he said that the study was too new and needed to be reviewed.
I give Cerf credit for showing up. Last year, acting education commissioner Rochelle Hendricks didn’t even bother because she said educators weren’t on board with Christie’s ‘reforms’. But if Cerf shows up again next year, he should consider wearing camouflage-or at least doing his homework.