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 2, 2014

Chris Cerf Returns, More Reformy Than Ever

It's been a little less than ten months since Former Acting NJ Education Commissioner Chris Cerf announced his resignation so he could go work for Joel Klein selling tablets (with questionable records of quality) to schools. We hadn't heard much from Cerf over the past year -- until today.

In a sprawling op-ed for NJ Spotlight (full disclosure - I write regularly for them) the Chris Cerf we came to know and love over his tumultuous three-year tenure is on full display. Cerf musters his well-worn repertoire of rhetorical devices -- the righteous indignation, the snide dismissal of critics, the tut-tuting at "tone," the claims of success with absolutely no evidence to back them up -- in defense of his protege, the embattled State Superintendent of Newark, Cami Anderson:
Here are five falsehoods worthy of dispelling: 

Falsehood 1

The work of the past 3.5 years (Superintendent Anderson’s tenure) has been a failure:
In fact, while we are in the early innings, more has been done to advance the interests of Newark's children over this period than in the three decades that preceded it. And early results are encouraging (laid out in detail in Superintendent Anderson’s letter).
Go ahead and click the link; what you'll see are excerpts from an apparent letter, dated October 24, 2014, from Anderson to her "friends," asking for their help in defending her in the press. Chris Cerf's op-ed here is clearly in response to Anderson's plea to defend her, making the entire endeavor rather pathetic.

Cerf's claim that the letter contains any evidence of "encouraging" results in Newark is simply absurd. The spotty "data" that supposedly demonstrates the success of Anderson's vaunted "Renew Schools" doesn't even describe how school consolidations may have changed the student populations in the schools. It's ignorant beyond belief to make any claims of "success" without accounting for changes in student populations. And there's no comparing these schools to schools that were not "renewed," so there's no way of knowing whether the "renewal" itself made any difference.

Most professional educators understand that improving schools is a slow and arduous process. But Cerf and Anderson studied at the feet of New York City's Joel Klein, a master of selling "successes" that never were. Cerf tries hard to emulate the master, but it's clear his heart just isn't fully into it:
To be sure, as is always the case, the evidence of improvement is textured and in some respects uneven. The many positive indicators and trend lines, however, paint a picture of hope and progress that is completely at odds with the pessimism that has made its way into the standard storyline.
That is as weak an endorsement as you will ever find, probably because even Cerf knows the truth: most of the "success" Anderson touts can't be seen in student achievement measures. And, to be fair, how could they?

I would never make the case that Anderson was a "failure" or a success on the basis of student outcomes unless the evidence was compelling one way or the other. What is clear, despite any blather about test scores, is that Anderson has utterly failed to win the respect and the support of the Newark community. In this sense, her work has been an unquestioned disaster.

Maybe, someday, the Renew Schools will gain some points on the state's new PARCC tests. Perhaps the graduation rate will rise, although Anderson has played fast and loose with those numbers before. Maybe teacher quality in Newark will improve.

But at what cost? Is it worth alienating parents to get some small test score gains? Is it worth getting marginal gains in graduation rates if it means disrespecting students? Are higher mSGPs for teachers worth flouting the tenure laws and reneging on promises about merit pay?

The pessimism Newark feels toward Cami Anderson is not some figment of Mayor Baraka's imagination. And it takes a lot of brass for an outsider like Chris Cerf to tell the good people of Newark that he sees what's happening in their city far more clearly than they do. But a sense of shame has never stopped Chris Cerf before -- why let it now?
Democratic governors, concerned about alienating their base, all too frequently avoided making hard decisions in the face of pressure from local politicians and activists -- the same ones who had presided over the collapse of the system in the first place, and the same ones who to this day insist on turning serious discussion about positive change for children into a poisonous political circus in which the interests of children are often subordinated to adult concerns.
That's our Chris -- always putting the little ones first...
Nonetheless, even though the state did not fully exploit the opportunity for comprehensive change, the schools and the system itself unquestionably are better today than at the time of the takeover. Most importantly, the takeover created the opportunity for a change-oriented governor (who famously noted that he had received very few votes in Newark) to appoint a transformational superintendent who in fact has been successful in implementing real reform.
See, what all you Newarkers need to understand is that you don't know what's good for you, but Chris Christie -- a man you solidly rejected twice -- does! I mean, if we let "you people" actually run your own schools, lord only knows what kind of chaos you would bring upon yourselves! Local control, after all, is reserved for a certain type of community (wink, wink):

Besides, you can't expect the state to put forward a plan for democratic, local control after a mere 19 years! After all, if any other school board were as out of control as Newark's was back in the day, they would surely still be under state's thumb!

Except for Toms River, the "worst case of corruption" the sentencing judge had ever seen. And Hamilton. And Garfield.  Golly, wonder why they're so different...

And then there's West New York. And Elizabeth, for a long time a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Christie administration.

And don't forget Lakewood.  And Belleville...

Newark could have, at the very least, moved to mere oversight by a state monitor, as in Lakewood and Belleville. But that would have meant that Chris Christie couldn't have appointed Cerf's buddy Anderson, who doesn't have a standard certificate, to run Newark's schools. Heaven forbid she actually go get some training, get qualified, and have to earn the job with the approval of an elected school board.

But that would have put the Christie-Cerf-Anderson "reform" agenda on hold:
Can anyone who has observed the conduct of the reform-resisters over the past two years seriously suggest that the children of Newark would have been better off in their hands? Bear in mind that the same elected officials calling for the end of state control formally passed a resolution calling for a “moratorium” on reform -- this in a city where only about 40 percent of third graders are proficient in reading.
First of all: if state control isn't a "failure," why is Cerf complaining about proficiency rates? I thought the schools were "unquestionably" better. Can't Cerf get his story straight?

But as to the "moratorium of reform": it wasn't a moratorium on all reform -- only the reforms Anderson wanted:
"This moratorium shall include, but not be limited to, the hiring of educational consultants, reductions of school budgets, reductions of staff, opening of new schools including charter schools and regular public schools, designation of Renew Schools, changing of school designs and organizational structures, and closing of schools," the resolution reads. 
The council also called for an analysis of those initiatives and their effectiveness.
One of the reforms the council did not want to stop was fully funding the schools, something Chris Christie fought against while Cerf sat at his right hand. Maybe if Newark had adequate funds, the district wouldn't have had to cut staff. But Cerf seems to think that Newark should just take what it gets, even if it's not enough, and gratefully give up the democratic control suburban districts enjoy:
And finally, no talk of “local control” would be complete without reference to the oft-ignored reality that the state taxpayers send approximately $800 million a year to Newark public schools, roughly 75 percent of its budget. Equalizing school funding is a critical value, and we should properly reject a system in which children’s educational resources are dependent on the value of tax ratables in the city where they happen to live. That said, you would think that “democratic values” are also relevant to the state taxpayers who foot the bill for Newark’s schools -- that “democracy” entitles them to some voice in how their taxes are spent.
I've heard and read quite a few obnoxious words from Chris Cerf over the years, but this is quite possibly the worst thing he's ever said. I know the man has been out of office for a while, but maybe he's forgotten that all New Jersey school districts get some level of state aid. Nobody has ever suggested that democratic control of those other districts should be rescinded.

Newark is constrained by state law in how it can raise revenues for its schools. Much of the land in Newark is exempt from property taxes, and the city can't leverage its ports, including the airport, to raise school funds. It's not Newark's fault it needs state aid; if it's anyone's fault, it's the state's itself.

Cerf's suggestion that state control of Newark's schools and the abrogation of its citizen's rights is justified because the city can't raise revenues like Millburn or Livingston is evidence of an elitism so rank it would put normal people to shame. Does Cerf really think democratic control is only for districts that can raise their own revenues? Is he prepared to call for full state control in every district that takes dollars from Trenton?

I could go on about the rest of this screed, but let me just quickly knock down a few of Cerf's more ridiculous assertions:

- "Charter public schools are just as "public" as traditional public schools." Not according to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Census Bureau, the National Labor Relations Board, or established case law.

- "Charters are open to all." Yes, they are open to all, but they certainly do not serve the same students as their hosting public schools.

- "I was personally present with local and national union leadership when they acknowledged that reality and celebrated that much of the money donated by Mark Zuckerberg was going to go into the pockets of their teachers." Too bad you didn't follow through and make sure the district kept its word to Newark's teachers, who were promised $20 million in merit pay over three years but got only $1.4 million (maybe even less) in the first year. Would you be a bit upset, Mr. Cerf, if someone promised you a payday and never delivered?

- "An independent study out of Stanford University confirms that Newark’s charters are dramatically outperforming their traditional school counterparts." Baloney. The most generous reading of the CREDO study shows that Newark charter moved students from the 50th to the 60th percentile in math and from the 50th to the 59th percentile in reading. Good, but hardly "dramatic."

And we know that the high-flying charters in Newark serve fundamentally different student populations, and have significant patterns of cohort attrition:

It's easy to "dramatically" outperform the local public schools when you don't serve the same types of kids, and they leave in droves as they move through grades.

All of this debunking brings me back to the glory days of Cerf's reign over New Jersey's schools. The Commissioner had an uncanny ability to grab a truth and twist it to his will until it lost any objective connection to reality. Take trip down memory lane if you'd like to relive some of Cerf's greatest reformy moments, including the amazing graph that proves poverty doesn't affect test scores!

Cerf World
Planet Earth

It was that casual relationship with reality that defined the Cerf era -- that and a particularly nasty predilection for casting aspirations on the motivations of others. Nice to see he hasn't lost his touch:
More maddeningly -- and this was a central failure of “The New Yorker” piece -- where is the fairness in putting the blame on those who failed to overcome a campaign of knowing falsehoods and vicious ad hominem attacks? Whatever the inadequacies of the engagement efforts, shouldn’t we focus our criticism first and foremost on those elected officials, union leaders, and activists who were pursuing a strategy of deception and vitriol -- who woke up every day seeking to thwart positive change for kids, seeking to prevent the expansion of schools that were getting outsized success for children, seeking to undermine policies designed to increase equitable access to the district’s better schools, seeking to gum up efforts to empower parents with choice, and seeking to thwart all efforts aimed at fostering an honest conversation about which educators were truly superlative and which were badly underserving children? 
Blaming those who failed to completely overcome sabotage rather than the saboteurs themselves feels like a pretty impressive swing and a miss in the coverage.
Mr. Cerf, bad baseball analogies can't save you or Cami Anderson or Chris Chistie from the truth. And that truth is rather plain: One Newark has been rejected overwhelmingly by the community not because they have ulterior motives, but because all the evidence suggests the plan will not work.

While Cerf has spent the last year struggling to get his company to make a product schools actually want, I've spent my free time studying One Newark: see here, here, here, and here. The evidence is, in my opinion, quite compelling: the expansion of charters is unwarranted, the plan has a racially disparate impact on students and teachers, the district did not use good methodologies to identify schools in need of remediation, and NPS did not give its families good information when making school "choices."

For these, and a host of other reasons, the community has said it does not want Cami Anderson's brand of reform. Mayor Ras Baraka, doesn't want it; neither did his opponent in the last election, Shavar Jeffries. The Newark City Council doesn't want it. The Newark School Board doesn't want it. The students don't want it. The parents don't want it. The teachers don't want it. The local clergy don't want it.

Chris Cerf, are you seriously prepared to tell all of these groups, and many other citizens of Newark, that they are "seeking to thwart positive change for kids"? Are you really so sanctimonious, sure so of your own moral superiority, so smug in your convictions, that you are willing to question the motives of all of these people?

Chris, I remember well your confirmation hearing, when you worked yourself into a froth of indignity over Senator Loretta's Weinberg's suggestion that you "sharpen your ethical antennae." How easily you seem to take the slightest offense at anyone daring to suggest you have any but the purest motives -- all while casually trashing the integrity of those dare to disagree with the policies you set in motion.

Good luck in the private sector, Mr. Cerf. Maybe stay there a while longer...

As always: accountability begins at home.

ADDING: Classic Cerf:
Charters are open to all (as opposed to several elite traditional public schools in Newark and many county vocational education schools across the state); they are free; they are accountable to publicly elected authorities; with only trivial exceptions, they are not-for-profit; they select students by random lottery if oversubscribed; and they are subject to the same constitutional and civil-rights scrutiny as any other public entity. [emphasis mine]
Yes, charter schools are not-for-profit -- except for those cases in which they're for profit! Makes complete sense.

But those for-profit charter firms are" trivial." You know, like the virtual schools Cerf's good buddy, Cory Booker, brought to Newark. Or the Camden charter run by throne of the biggest Republican donors in the state of Pennsylvania.

Or the company Cerf himself ran before going to NYC. Trivialities, really....


Unknown said...

Chris Cerf: Exhibit A of the law of so-called education reform zombies failing upward.

Giuseppe said...

Thank you JJ, for doing the nitty, gritty wet work. I read the first few paragraphs of Cerf's bloviation and had to set it aside before I barfed all over my keyboard. From his high perch in the educational industrial for-profit complex, he gets to pontificate and spew the propaganda of the school privatizers. He's a shill for the likes of Murdoch and Klein; he gets paid big bucks to cheer lead for charter schools and school vouchers. He accuses the so called "activists" of ad hominem attacks while he engages in his own ad hominem attacks by using such loaded terms as activists and pessimists.

Anonymous said...

Would Christie dare to use some or all of Camden High 50 million to buy Amplify products?

Unknown said...

21st century reformyspeak:

for-profit is not-for-profit
segregation is integration
private is public
exclusion is inclusion
30% is 100%
indentured servitude is volunteerism


P. Grunther said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you J.J. for spelling out so clearly why Cerf's op-ed left us feeling torn between screaming with frustration and, as a previous commenter put it, "barfing all over our keyboards".
God forbid anyone ever again give this man a job in the public sector!