Cerf's Up!

Now that Christopher Cerf is, for all practical purposes, our next Commissioner of Education, what will this mean for school reform prospects in NJ?

First, a little background on Mr. Cerf. He’s been on the short-list for Ed Commish for some time, and is well known as a supporter of charter schools, merit pay, and tenure reform. His last gigs include senior advisor of education for Michael Bloomberg’s mayoral campaign, president and CEO of Edison Schools, associate counsel for Bill Clinton, and clerk for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. He was also deputy chancellor of NYC’s public schools, reporting to Joel Klein, and closed down 90 failing schools. He began his career as a high school social studies teacher and most recently served as CEO of Sangari Global Education, which supplies science material to schoolchildren.

Most notably, he has a history of working well with teacher unions. Today’s NJ Spotlight quotes UFT President Randi Weingarten:"Chris may not have agreed with us, but he always listened. Our union was constantly at the table with the Department of Education discussing what teachers need to do their jobs well."

So Cerf can ably play “good cop” to Christie’s indefatigable “bad cop” routine. Bret Schundler tried on that costume but got caught in the crossfire of Race To The Top. And our new commissioner enters an arena where, arguably, relations between NJEA and the Governor’s Office have never been worse.

Specifically, Cerf’s advent onto the NJ educational scene coincides with the roiling battle between NJEA and the Christie Administration over lengthening the time from first day on the job to lifetime employment; using student growth for at least 50% of teacher evaluation; and streamlining teacher dismissal processes. There’s much at stake. If Christie can get this done (odds are pretty good: the Legislature, from all appearances, seems ready to work with him) then the balance of power shifts from a school system that privileges adults over children to a system that (dare we say it?) regards academic achievement as the primary metric for establishing success.

Enough blue sky. Let’s go back to one section of NJEA’s loudly-trumpeted tenure reform proposal, important both for its vision of tenure reform as expansion of union control and for what Cerf’s up against. (For review, see my first take here.) NJEA proposes that the following items would now become eligible for negotiations between a local district and its bargaining unit: budget development, professional development, teacher transfers and promotion, class size, and selection of instructional materials.

Some of these addenda to the typical negotiations platter are non-starters. Local districts are unlikely to partner with union representatives on staff transfers or promotions to administrative positions. Nor is class size likely to be on the table: increases are anathema to teachers, yet fiscal constraints and the introduction of virtual learning into classrooms will change the way we look at the centuries-old model of one teacher in front of twenty-five kids.

But there are some opportunities within NJEA’s wish list for Cerf to win some smiles. Perhaps instead of direct union involvement in teacher promotions, we can work out a system whereby our most effective teachers become master teachers who are paid additional money (i.e., merit pay) for coaching less effective teachers. (This would involve acknowledgment that some teachers are better than others, which would be a breakthrough for school reform.) And why not have our all-stars be part of the discussion of selection of instructional materials and professional development? If we can shift NJEA’s proposal from an expansion of union power to an expansion of authority for our finest teachers, then everyone wins.

Of course, the sticking point is that old union canard that our tools are inadequate to differentiate our most effective teachers from our least effective ones. But if Cerf can bring NJEA leaders to a qualified stance – something like data-driven measurements of student learning are imperfect but still valuable for distinguishing our finest educators – then we’re on the right track.

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