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

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Thin-Skinned, Reformy Education Commissioners

Why do New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Education Commissioner Chris Cerf get along so well? I think one reason is that they are the same type of personalities: they both have very thin skins. Christie, of course, likes to call up doctors who are concerned for his health to bully them. Cerf, in the same way, likes to snidely dismiss those who criticize him, even when they are on his side.

Case in point:

A few weeks ago, In the Public Interest released a series of emails sent between state-level education officials and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Eduction. As The Nation reported, the emails not only suggest that Bush may be using his reformy crusade for personal gain; they also reveal a close web of interconnected state education officials, all working toward the same corporate reform goals. One of those officials - surprise! - is veteran education privatizer Chris Cerf.

The members of this little cabal apparently like to pass their latest grievances around via Bush's foundation; it's like a support group for reformy education commissioners throughout the country. So when Cerf got into a spat with the Education Trust, he made sure to send copies of his response to all of his reformy fellow travelers:

Golly, whatever could have made Cerf so upset that he went whining to his fellow reformy state education chiefs? Was he angry about some union report, or a research brief from one of those pesky academics (what with their annoying "research" and "facts" and junk...)? Maybe something came out from NEPC or the Great Lakes Center?

No... he was actually upset at a very mild comment from a reformy ally, the Education Trust. EdTrust is part of the reformy "fight club," and they have a bad habit of setting up smokescreens about school financing to help push reformy policies. These should be the guys Cerf loves! But they made the mistake of putting out an analysis of New Jersey's Race To The Top waiver application.

Well, Commissioner Chris Cerf does not like scrutiny, even from friends:
From: Cerf, Chris [mailto:[XXX]]  
Sent: Friday, February 24, 2012 12:54 PM 
To: Chris Cerf? Pastorek, Paul? Tony Bennett? Huffman, Kevin? Patricia Levesque Skandera, Hanna
Subject: FW: Ed Trust Waiver Accountability Summary for Your Review 

Thought you might be interested in how I am responding to the EdTrust inquiry. 
From: Cerf, Chris  
Sent: Friday, February 24, 2012 12:32 PM 
To: 'Kati Haycock' 
Subject: RE: Ed Trust Waiver Accountability Summary for Your Review 

Always good to hear from you.  You know how much I respect you and your work. 
As for this request, unfortunately there are many factual errors.   In many respects, moreover, this summary completely misses the overall thrust of the work.     
You are more than free to publish this email, but I am very reluctant to devote senior staff time to addressing your letter in any greater detail on the tight timeline 
you demand. For whatever reason, this waiver process has generated a cottage industry of second guessers and Monday morning quarterbacks, many of whom haven't the first clue about running a reform oriented State Department or the immense complexities of the negotiation process with USDOE.    We are engaged in a truly radical reform agenda on virtually every imaginable front and deeply believe that the substitute accountability system we built to replace NCLB will be instrumental in achieving it.  New Jersey has among the largest achievement gaps in the nation 
- yet is one of the top performers on the NAEP when viewed in the aggregate.   We have quite consciously devised a differentiated intervention strategy that reflects these distinctive circumstances. I am more than happy to have others express their views on our work, but have limited appetite for engaging the process.  
Best regards,
Chris [emphasis mine]
Whoa - defensive much?

I must say that I find it hilarious that a guy who never ran a school or a district or even taught in a public school - and has no degrees in education - is complaining about his critics not having "the first clue." And, of course, we once again get Cerf's favorite refrain about the "achievement gap," his desperate attempt to bad-mouth New Jersey's outstanding progress in educating all of its students - progress due, at least in substantial part, to New Jersey's commitment to equitable funding of schools.

A commitment both Christie and Cerf appear ready to abandon.

Data abuse is nothing new for Cerf, but I haven't yet seen him make these kind of thin-skinned rebukes to his mild criticism. Here's what EdTrust said about the NJDOE's waiver application that set Cerf off:
New Jersey aggressively identifies high schools with low graduation rates. Instead of identifying schools with graduation rates below 60 percent as Priority or Focus Schools, which is the minimum waiver requirement, the state includes all high schools with graduation rates below 75 percent. 

While New Jersey has established ambitious, gap-closing achievement goals, it’s not clear that, for most schools in the state, not meeting these goals will result in anything more than writing an improvement plan. Progress against gap-closing goals does not factor into the identification of Priority or Focus Schools, and only 5 percent of the “other Title I schools” that miss their goals will receive supports from the state. 

The state does not appear to guarantee students in its lowest performing (Priority) schools the right to enroll in a higher performing school. 

Talk about tepid. The rest of the report is merely descriptive, not evaluative. But that seems to be enough to not only set Cerf off - he had to invite his fellow reformy commissioners to come to his pity party. Why?

I often think these folks have set up a hermetically sealed dome for themselves that needs constant repair and reinforcement. They know that teachers and parents hate the expansion of testing, and that teacher evaluation by tests has been roundly disproven. They know that charters aren't doing any better than publics when accounting for student characteristics, that they are increasing segregation, and that vast majority of parents not living in poverty-striken areas don't want them. They know that money matters, but their conservative bosses can't acknowledge that simple fact without alienating their tea-gulping bases.

So they set up their own little club, where everyone tells each other over and over again what they want to believe is true - even when it isn't. And they've become so defensive that even the mildest criticism is met with disproportionate scorn and derision.

I find this both sad and disturbing.

Accountability begins at home.

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