Education in the Media
Acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf Offers Olive Branch at NJEA MeetingNovember 13, 2011
Acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf made a noble attempt on Friday to assure teachers that Gov. Chris Christie really does love them.
It was a tough mission, because the governor’s tirades on this topic are infamous. Union leaders are "thugs." Teachers use students as "drug mules." At his town hall meetings, beating up teachers is a go-to move. And everyone remembers that one year ago, the Christie administration broke tradition by boycotting the annual meeting of the New Jersey Education Association in Atlantic City. The message was received.
But here was Cerf, laboring valiantly under the weight of that history, trying to build a relationship by attending this year’s teachers’ convention.
We should all wish him luck. Because even if Christie gets everything he wants from the Legislature, pretty much everyone agrees the reforms won’t work if teachers think they are bunk.
So Cerf knows he has to change some hearts and minds.
"I just want to assure you, this issue of improving public education, especially for our neediest students, is not a political platform for him (Christie)," Cerf said. "It is the purpose of his being in office. He has the highest regard for teachers and teaching."
The last line was too much for the few hundred teachers who packed a room at the Atlantic City Convention Center to hear him.
They hissed. They booed. Some shouted words that can’t be reprinted here.
Cerf knew the reaction was too much to ignore, so he went once more into the breech.
"You will form your own judgments, and I can hear that out there," he said. "But he deeply appreciates your work and the amazing successes you’ve brought to this state, something we need to shout from mountaintops."
Okay, so this part of his speech didn’t work. By now, nearly everyone in New Jersey has a rock-hard opinion of the governor, one way or another.
But Cerf did achieve his larger goal — to open the door to a new dialogue with the teachers that was both respectful and challenging, saying both sides need to basically knock off the hyperbole that pollutes the discussion. Here’s a sampling:
On money: "Anyone who tells you money doesn’t matter is an idiot. Of course it matters. But this is as much about how money is spent as it is about how much money is spent."
Spending on quality preschool makes a difference, for example, but padding the administration with patronage hires does not.
"The more we funnel this argument into how many dollars, the more we are going to delude ourselves."
On the impact of poverty, he found the sensible common ground. Yes, it has a huge impact on student outcomes and we can’t expect teachers to produce the same results for rich and poor. But no, that is no excuse for New Jersey’s economic achievement gap, the worst in the nation behind Alaska’s.
"Poverty not only has an impact, but is probably the predominant contributor to educational failure," Cerf said. "But to lay this off on poverty is an extremely misguided and dangerous thing to do."
Finally, he stepped into the vortex of the storm by discussing teacher quality head-on. Every profession has good and bad performers, he said, and any effective system roots out the worst failures. Tenure rules today make that impossible.
"We’re not blaming teachers by pointing out what everyone in this room knows," he said. "Some teachers are irremediably bad. There, I said it."
The reaction of the teachers was skeptical, but not hostile. Several said they suspected he didn’t like Christie’s vitriol any more than they do.
Will he change some minds? Maybe, but it’s a steep climb. On Thursday, teachers heard a red-meat polemic from Diane Ravitch, a professor of education at New York University, who told them to stand tough against Cerf’s reforms on tenure, merit pay and charter schools.
Ravitch got a standing ovation. And afterward, Barbara Keshishian, the union president, gushed to the crowd: "Exactly what we say! She has certainly given that verification by her remarks today."
Cerf got no such embrace. But the door to finding common ground was opened, if just a crack. And that counts as a big success.