NJ Education Chief: Be Tougher On Failing Schools

As New Jersey’s acting education commissioner, Christopher Cerf is charged with carrying out Gov. Chris Christie’s plans to overhaul some aspects of the state’s public education system. Along with the Republican governor, Cerf has often battled with the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s main teachers union, which opposes the administration’s plans to use test scores as part of a retooled mechanism to overhaul teacher evaluations, take away the lifetime job protections of tenure for educators and introduce merit pay for educators.

Cerf has previously worked as deputy chancellor of the New York City Department of Education and has worked for private education companies. He also spent four years teaching history at a high school in Cincinnati.

He gave an interview to The Associated Press last week on the state of New Jersey’s schools and the changes he wants to make.

AP: What’s the state of public education in New Jersey? How do we compare to other states?

Cerf: We compare very well from an aggregate perspective if you take the NAEP, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. New Jersey typically ranks within the top two to four in each of the four major categories.

It’s a reflection of a very evolved, very developed, very successful education system in the main. The dissonance in that is if you get beneath the numbers, beneath the aggregates, you’ll see that we have one of the largest achievement gaps in the nation.

One of the things that just gets my blood boiling a little bit on this is our achievement gaps in the schools, measured pretty any way you want to measure it, racially, ethnically or by poverty … they’re really jarring. The NJEA just put out a press release which I will tell you I find as offensive as anything I have seen in my long career in education, basically going, ‘What’s the big deal? It’s not that bad.’

AP: Their argument was essentially that the gap is so large because the best-performing kids do so well.

Cerf: They had two arguments. The other one is: Our black kids are doing better than their black kids. … Both of those are not helpful and indeed, I think, quite destructive arguments. To say that we have a large achievement gap because the top of the state is so high basically assumes that the poor black kids don’t belong at the same strata. That seems to me to be really offensive to me to say we shouldn’t actually expect the kids in Newark and Camden to be performing at the same level as the kids in Bergenfield.

The second argument is, again, the African-American kids here are doing better than the African-American kids in New Orleans. … Does that mean that as a class, poor kids or kids of color, we want to see who wins the contest in that class? No. It’s not that all. It’s about: Can we give every kid an equal opportunity in education regardless of birth circumstances?

AP: Is it a problem that we’re the highest-cost-per-student state?

Cerf: I don’t think it’s a problem. All of us who are citizens or government are managing scarcity, right? So we need to make decisions between hospitals and universities and schools and universities and highways and tunnels and so on. I would never say it’s a problem that we spend so much. But it is a naive point of view to say that we can have that conversation in isolation from all the other social priorities.

AP: There have been some studies that suggest that standardized tests not only have trouble sorting out teachers in the middle, but also teachers who don’t consistently score at the top and the bottom; they don’t help you figure out who are your very best and very worst educators. Are they wrong?

Cerf: Every accountability system is flawed and problematic. That is certainly true in education. If the standard is, can we build an accountability system that is better than the one we have today and keep working as a society to improve it? That takes you down one path. If the other path is, ‘Wow, this is potentially unfair because it may yield a result that we may not trust; therefore, let’s not do it at all.’ Read more in Examiner.

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  1. i agree that test scores are indicative of some data but they fail to show the whole picture. many teachers work tirelessly with students before and after class. it is the community that needs to jump in the ring to demonstrate the importance of education and all it entails. coupled with this and the assistance of parents the students will achieve incredible heights. to continue the blame on teachers is not the answer.

  2. the problem here in Lakewood is NOT just the teachers , with a graduation rate this low there are many factors contributing to the problem. NO ONE is willing to be honest and come up with viable solutions because it will not be an easy solution and to much financial wastful non essential spending is not devoted in the right places ,in my oppinion never will be as long as you have the same players making those decissions , we need state intervention or it will never change P E R I O D ! ! !

  3. We, as a society had better provide a better education to young people. If we do not, the uneducated will never become a self-supporting asset to themselves and the community. We need to learn how to do that.

    Delivery of education, from dedicated teachers is essential, but so is the family unit that presents a student to be educated.

    In Lakewood, non English Speaking students in the Public Schools, with few family resources and support make it nearly impossible to maintain a successful educational system.

    The School District needs to aggressively lobby State and Federal Educational Departments for help in addressing the language and support issues.

    The Lakewood School District did not cause the problem, however they need help with dealing with the issue. It is too big for a single School District to address without help.

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