Cerf’s Up: NJ Education Chief Eyes Reform

NJ’s education chief looks ahead to further school reforms.

AP Photo/Mel Evans.

Since January 2011, Christopher Cerf—first as acting commissioner of education, and now officially as commissioner—has stood shoulder to shoulder with Governor Chris Christie in the effort to reform New Jersey’s education establishment. We discussed key issues with Cerf as he looked ahead to the new school year.

One of your key initiatives is the creation of Regional Achievement Centers. What role will these RACs play in public education?

New Jersey is one of the top-performing states in the nation, yet there are a number of schools that are badly failing their students. That is where the RACs come in. There are seven RACs across the state that are engaged in finding some of the best educators, both locally and nationally, who will focus exclusively on these lowest-performing schools. They will execute what is known as the federal turnaround principles, which are pretty common-sense and include making sure there is a leader at the school to lead change, and that instruction is geared to high standards and based on real-time analysis and data on learning. These entities will work with districts and directly with these schools to try and turn them around.

What frustrates you in dealing with schools that continue to fail?

I am frustrated by the assumption that this is about resources. The evidence is pretty overwhelming that focusing on how much we spend as opposed to how well we spend it leads us down a path toward failure. There is no question that New Jersey funds its schools extremely generously compared to virtually every other state in the nation. Money matters because you want to fund schools adequately for success. But we delude ourselves if we say that if we pay more, we get better results. We should be focusing on a number of strategies—for example, the step the state has taken in the direction of tenure reform. It is really very much a partnership between how much we spend and how we spend it.
What impact will tenure reform have on teacher and student performance?

It is important that we connect the two. There is absolutely no doubt that the effectiveness of our teachers is critical to student outcomes….Tenure reform makes sure that no one gets the protection of tenure unless they have a proven track record.  Further, tenure is no longer a lifetime guarantee. You can lose tenure, and ultimately your job, if you are rated on the poorer end of the spectrum for a couple of years in a row. It makes the process more direct and based on clearer and more objective criteria.
The Department Of Education has approved nine new charter schools for a total of 86. Will that number continue to grow?

I fully expect that trend to continue. …We really believe that the principal role of charter schools is to offer a quality public-education option in communities where the schools are failing our children. Therefore, you should expect to see the great predominance of charterschools in the future in urban communities, where there is an inexcusable number of students underperforming.
What advice can you offer parents?

Be as involved as you possibly can in your child’s education. We talk about the things schools can do better while the child is in school, but a big piece of the puzzle is what goes on at home. Is the child reading at home every night?  Is the parent reading to the child? Are we keeping track of the child? Is the parent engaged with the child and working with the teacher to provide support? There is no question, and it has been confirmed through research, that parental engagement and involvement are keys to a child’s success.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your job? 

I have only one constituency, which is the children of New Jersey….We spend $25 billion in New Jersey on K-12 education, so that attracts a lot of interests and interest groups. However, my only constituency is children, and my only goal is to maximize the number of children who are launched into adulthood ready for college or a career and have the values needed to be good citizens.

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