Commentary: New Jersey is beginning to pay the price for Christie’s ambitions

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie addresses a gathering Thursday at Burlington County College in Pemberton. Christie is backing away from the use of Common Core school standards, saying the system isn't working for students in New Jersey. (Mel Evans/AP)

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie addresses a gathering Thursday at Burlington County College in Pemberton. Christie is backing away from the use of Common Core school standards, saying the system isn't working for students in New Jersey. (Mel Evans/AP)

Last Thursday during a speech at Burlington County College, Governor Christie renounced his commitment to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), the guidelines that lay out what students should know by the end of each grade in language arts and math. Christie said, “it’s time to have standards that are even higher” than the Common Core, adding that it’s time to “wrest [power] away from the bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.”

What does Christie’s reversal on a key item of his education platform mean for New Jersey’s schools, students, and teachers? Can the N.J. Department of Education absorb this change in direction? And will this shift improve the odds for the Governor’s foundering presidential hopes?

The short answers are “not much,” “yes,” and “not really.” But it’s unclear how Christie intends to reconcile his disavowal of Common Core with his continued support for their aligned assessments called PARCC. Another conundrum is how his sleight of hand will affect the credibility and oversight capabilities of the State Department of Education.

Christie’s about-face on Common Core is predictable — after all, the right-wing GOP leadership has made this a litmus test for entry into the clown car of GOP candidates —  but his allegiance to PARCC, as NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer has already pointed out, is illogical. The only way it works is if you keep the same standards and just rename them. “You keep the car. You just change the color of the paint,” said Christopher Tienken, an associate professor of education at Seton Hall University.

But the danger here is that Christie will soon demand N.J.’s resignation from the shrinking PARCC consortium, which once numbered 25 states and now is down to 10. If he does, then we can add another item to the list of Christie flip-flops and New Jersey schoolchildren will lose the accountability assured by assessments aligned with college and career-ready standards.

Other collateral damage from Christie’s chameleon education platform is the consistency of his Department of Education. Go to the N.J.  D.O.E. page on the Common Core State Standards. There you’ll learn that “the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) led the development of the Common Core State Standards with the participation of educators, curriculum experts, school administrators and higher education faculty.” Those standards, the D.O.E. correctly explains, “set clear and consistent standards for every student” in order to “foster students’ development of critical thinking skills and ability to solve real-world problems rather than memorize facts. These standards are “benchmarked to academic standards from the highest performing countries.”

Oops. Doesn’t sound much like Christie’s insistence that the standards are a product of pundits on the Potomac, or that they’re “simply not working” and have “brought only confusion and frustration to our parents.”

In addition to undermining his D.O.E. (although maybe he just undermines himself) Christie also subverts the hard work of the Study Commission charged with reviewing concerns about Common Core and PARCC. This esteemed group of educators diligently published an interim report in February, with a follow-up due next month. The Commission’s first recommendation in the interim report is this: “The State and NJDOE should communicate clearly and effectively its vision for educational improvement and how student assessments should be used to accomplish the vision.”

Maybe Christie should read his own Commission’s report. Or maybe he should listen to their reactions to his speech on Thursday. 

Nicole Moore, a school principal in Shamong, noted that “we are still doing our work and to say otherwise is premature.”

Patricia Wright, Executive Director of the N.J. Principals and Supervisors Association, said, “our experience is that educators in New Jersey believe in the Common Core and have worked really hard in the last five years to implement it.”

Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, said, “is this time to review? We still have pieces of information that will help inform,” he said.

Emil Carafa, Lodi Public Schools principal, said, “What this means is the work we have been doing for the last three or four years in aligning everything to the standards is taking another shift. We were just getting comfortable and knowledgeable with the standards, and this now…uproots everything we have been working on.”

And the President of the State Board of Education Mark Biedron confessed, “I have no idea what we’ll do, that’s the honest truth.”

We’ll take “honest truth,” rather that than the craven sputtering of a governor once admired for his educational audacity. Maybe we’re better off with Christie in the clown car.

_____________________________________________________

Laura Waters is vice president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJLeftbehind.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.