I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Chris Cerf Story - Part III

If Cerf is remembered for anything besides the Edison stock scandal during his tenure at the NYC-DOE, it's his continued championing of charter schools. Of course, even Cerf acknowledged that charters usually skim the cream off the top:

Deputy Chancellor Christopher Cerf said that 10% of charter school students receive special education services, compared to 13% of traditional public school children, and 5% of charter school students are still learning English, compared to about 10% of students citywide. But Cerf insisted that charter schools are as public as any other school, and cited a study that found that New York City charter schools served the same kind of populations as nearby neighborhood schools.
Cerf said the city is working to expand the number of charter schools because the schools do a better job at serving poor and minority families than the traditional public schools in the same neighborhoods. He said that not helping charter schools grow, and instead forcing families to send their children to struggling traditional public schools, would be morally wrong. “To tell those parents that today they should wait for another generation of efforts to fix those, when there is an alternative that is working for them right now, is something we’re not willing to do,” Cerf said.

Remember: Cerf was making this push for charter schools after serving "...eight years as the President and Chief Operating Officer of Edison Schools, Inc, the nation's largest private-sector manager of public schools..." And, again: he retained a financial interest in Edison right up until he was about to be publicly embarrassed by a group of NYC parents.

Cerf's role in shaping media relations for the NYC schools often put him at odds with parent groups. The NY Sun reported that Cerf even put together a "Truth Squad," tasked with monitoring the writings of Klein's critics. And Klein's office had little compunction about helping those who would answer for them: a scathing article targeting Diane Ravitch, the influential education policy guru and critic of Klein's brand of reform, was fueled by a "research file" compiled by the NYC Education Department. According to parent and Klein critic Leonie Haimson, the press office was under Cerf's control:

None of this is particularly surprising, but what did surprise me is what I learned during a forum a few months ago, in April, on “Grading NY’s public schools.” During the question period, I asked Cerf a question. I began by introducing myself, but he quickly interrupted me to say, “I know who you are; I read your stuff every day.”

Every dayNot in my wildest dreams had I imagined that Cerf or anyone at that high a level at Tweed had the inclination or the time to do this. Sometimes I don’t even read myself every day – I’m too busy. I know my husband almost never does. I doubt most of the people on the list serv do.

But I was happy to hear this, if a bit surprised that Cerf had admitted this, for if I and others on our list can cause him one tenth the headaches that Tweed causes us every day, not to mention the other one million plus NYC public school parents -- that does give me a small sense of satisfaction.

After looking at the historical record, I now conclude that what probably started as a pure monitoring exercise, instigated by Cerf in Feb. of 2007 eventually turned into a rather lame attempt to beat the critics at their own game nearly a year later.

It was in October 2007, after all, that it emerged that Diane Ravitch had been taped by the DOE at various speaking events, and a file compiled of her remarks. [emphasis mine]

I ask those of you in New Jersey who've watched Christie's office over the last year: does this type of behavior sound familiar?

The move underscores the degree to which the mayor’s race has become a referendum on Mr. Bloomberg’s education reforms.
The mayor has promoted rising test scores and graduation rates as evidence that mayoral control of schools works — and that he deserves a third term. At the same time, his campaign has attacked the education record of his leading opponent, Comptroller William C. Thompson Jr., a former president of the now-defunct New York City Board of Education, who has criticized elements of the mayor’s control of the schools.

During the campaign, Bloomberg had to fend off questions about whether or not his education policies were actually achieving the results he claimed. Thompson pointed to a grade tampering scandal in the Bronx as evidence that Bloomberg was exaggerating his successes.

Christopher Cerf, an education policy adviser for the Bloomberg campaign, defended the mayor’s accountability system, which rewards or punishes principals based on their schools’ test scores and graduation rates.
“We cannot comment on any aspects of this, but we certainly do not condone the kinds of things that are alleged. But at the same time, we believe that accountability for student outcomes is a central driver of positive reform and we believe it is critical to hold everybody in the system accountable for student results.”

There have been many post-mortems over the last few weeks about how Michael Bloomberg, the New York City mayor, could spend more than $90 million, breaking all spending records except for presidential campaigns, and yet manage to win only 50.6% of the vote.
Despite saturation advertising on TV, radio, and in community newspapers, endorsements by all the dailies, and a nearly constant barrage of mailings and robocalls, his margin of victory was less than 5 percent. 
But perhaps the most Republican aspect of this imperial mayor is his pro-privatization bias, and his insistence in giving away precious public school space to charter schools.
Following the election, the Times reported how Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children's Zone and a charter school operator, called Valerie Jarrett, adviser to Obama, to ask that the president refrain from campaigning for Thompson. Canada has received millions through city contracts -- as well as $600,000 from Bloomberg's own pocket. The only education plank in the Bloomberg campaign was to create 100,000 seats for charter school students over the next four years -- and establish new "Children's Zones" in the other boroughs as well.
The charter school push undoubtedly came from Cerf. As the blog GothamSchools noted:

Still, there are some reasons for the Bloomberg campaign to think Cerf could help them. He is seen as the mastermind behind a parent outreach push to renew mayoral control, which in turn is seen as a success. It was Cerf who hired Peter Hatch, the director of the group Learn NY, which managed to persuade a long list of community groups to sign onto its platform, getting parents to show up at rallies and take a bus to Albany.
Of course, it was Hatch, not Cerf, who led the group, and city contracts with many groups on the Learn NY list no doubt helped. Also, it’s far from clear that Learn NY really delivered a stirring in the streets. At rallies I attended, Learn NY parents always appeared slightly bored.
Charter school parents in particular are what the campaign seems to want Cerf to organize, and that might be an easier audience. The pro-mayoral control effort, for instance, was boosted by charter school parents, who often seemed much more energetic in their sign-holding than Learn NY parents. But whether Bloomberg can count on charter school parents to turn out for his campaign with as much energy is an open question.

Cerf collected a nice bonus from Bloomberg for his efforts:

Three top election aides to Mayor Bloomberg walked off with $400,000 each in extra pay as the mayor doled out a record amount in bonuses in a record-shattering $108.4 million campaign that narrowly gave him a third term, it was disclosed yesterday. 


Other staffers earned 20 percent of their base pay, which gave spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker an extra $18,886; advance man Chris Coffey $19,565; policy aide Brian Mehanna $21,369; and education adviser Chris Cerf $34,123. [emphasis mine]
With the campaign over, Cerf returned back to the education-industrial complex, this time working for a Brazilian company, Sangari Brasil. The company makes science curricula, with an emphasis on what appear to be web-based materials (although, according to this video, it looks like the kids will be making potato batteries, just like I did when I was a kid).

Cerf was brought in to open up the US market; therefore, like most in the reform world these days, he has a vested interest in making the US seem behind in science education. In this video, he bemoans the low test scores of US students in science, despite the obvious problems with making such international comparisons.

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