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

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Cerf: Facts Have A Racial Bias

There is no other way to read this latest pronouncement from ACTING NJ Education Commissioner Cerf:
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? [emphasis mine]
First of all, here's the NJEA press release. I dare the ACTING Commissioner or anyone else to find anything here, or anywhere else at the NJEA website, that says or even implies that poor black kids can't achieve at a high level. To the contrary, the press release explicitly says:
“There is a clear correlation between wealth and test scores,” Keshishian said, “and it’s not unique to New Jersey.  What is unique about New Jersey is the success we’ve had in closing the gap, thanks to the reforms we’ve instituted in our most economically challenged districts.
“Ironically, as the wealth gap in America widens every day, our achievement gap is narrowing,” Keshishian said.  “We must be doing a lot of things right, and the goal is to do even more, so that all students can reach their potential.” [emphasis mine]
Cerf's statement is nasty, obnoxious, and a great example of race-baiting. He should be ashamed of himself for painting the NJEA as an organization of racists; he owes them an immediate apology.

It is not racist to point out the facts. And the fact is - as Cerf himself acknowledges - all categories of students in New Jersey have shown improvement. This improvement came at a time of renewed emphasis on equitable school funding, and it came without the aid of charter schools, test-based evaluations of teachers, vouchers, merit pay, deunionization, or any of the other "reforms" Cerf and his merry band love to push.

One other thing: if Chris Cerf really, truly believes that poor black children can achieve the levels of success as wealthier white kids, why doesn't he let the communities of these poor black children run their own schools? Why does he bring outsiders - in some cases, all the way from Los Angeles - into these communities to push charters without the input of the citizens and parents who live there? Why does he insist on secret charter approval panels? Why does he stick his nose into the hunt for superintendents to run these school districts?

It's as if he doesn't trust these communities to run their own schools. But somehow, those celebrating the achievements of the children in those communities are the real racists.


A couple other beauties from this Q&A:
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.'
It's a pretty fundamental divide. I think that there is so much trepidation and propaganda in this area. It's really hard to have a reasoned conversation about this. My own view is that the data is potentially one component of a satisfactory assessment system, but it had to be used in a very limited and very responsible way.
We need to build confidence in our teacher corps that we are doing this almost completely in order to enable them to get better as opposed to just trying to identify the low performers and quote exit them.
Listen, ACTING Commissioner: you're the one who's pushing a system to delineate teachers in far more categories than the research says is warranted. You're the one who has a teacher evaluation task force with only one working teacher on it. You're the one who basically wants to roll the dice with a teacher's career.

Don't be surprised if you don't get a lot of buy-in from us. Especially given the tone your boss has taken from the very start of this.
Cerf: I've got so many competing for the top it takes my breath away. I would be much more honest and much more impatient about schools that are failing kids. We tend to have a habit in public education of saying when a school fails it's because we haven't tried hard enough or put enough money into it or given it enough time or somehow we have failed to enable a school to be good.
The evidence is pretty clear that if we are incredibly honest and fact-based, we need to be much more patient and give schools an opportunity to get better and give them the supports they need. But if that doesn't work, we have to take dramatic action.
So we need to be more impatient, and we need to be more patient. Makes sense...
I would impose much higher standards so that graduating from high school actually means something, not that you have a degree but that you are actually ready to be launched into life prepared for the next phase of life. That involves changing a lot of what we do in terms of the curriculum we have, the assessments.
I would focus intensely on third-grade literacy because once again, the statistics are really unsettling. We have 40,000 kids today in New Jersey who are not reading at the proficient level and it's very, very, very hard for kids who go into the fourth grade not reading to catch up and keep up.
I think we need to have a much greater focus on identifying, promoting and retaining talent at all levels of the system.
I'm sorry, but I just start to tune out at this point. It all becomes bromides and platitudes and nonsense, and it's in direct contradiction to the actual actions of the folks who are running the show in Trenton.

How does it help to "retain talent" when you slash benefits and break promises on pensions? How does having "higher standards" do anything to help the achievement gap? Everyone agrees third graders should read; what exactly should we do about that?

So it goes in the reformy land of the NJDOE: lots of talk about how important schools are while slashing state aid. Lots of talk about how important teachers are while slashing compensation. Lots of talk about "accountability" while secret charter panels and back room privatization deals run amuck.

Just freakin' awesome...


Teacher Mom said...

You caught a lot of hot buttons on this one, so the only one I'll address is third grade literacy skills. Maybe I'm biased as a primary level teacher, but reading begins LONG before third grade. Focus on k-2 literacy, earlier the better with pre-k reading readiness, and you won't see these gaps in third grade. If you wait until third grade, you've waited WAY to long, and that ship has sailed. My current principal made the same mistake, and I am waiting patiently for his test scores to bomb next year because there has been NO focus at the primary level.

Duke said...

Careful what you wish for, TM. They'll say the way to bring focus to K-2 is to bubble test the kids starting in PreK.

But you are, of course, right; it starts way before Grade 3. It starts at home on the day of conception. Pre-natal care, nutrition for kids, high quality child care; where is the plan for all this?

Norma Ray said...

"The evidence is pretty clear that if we are incredibly honest and fact-based, we need to be much more patient and give schools an opportunity to get better and give them the supports they need. But if that doesn't work, we have to take dramatic action."

Hmmm... if honesty doesn't work, then we go in with all sorts of stuff that's been proven not to work (ne: dishonest)? At least he's honest about that.

"We need to build confidence in our teacher corps that we are doing this almost completely in order to enable them to get better as opposed to just trying to identify the low performers and quote exit them."

Hmmm... implementing measures that have been proven not to work for decades in order to enable teachers to improve is going to... improve them? And they're going to be happy about that? After so many deserving teachers will no doubt lose their jobs? What am I missing here?