New Jersey’s Education Secretary blasts teachers union in parting letter

     N.J. Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf answers a question at Sharp Elementary School in Cherry Hill, N.J. in 2011. (AP File Photo/Mel Evans)

    N.J. Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf answers a question at Sharp Elementary School in Cherry Hill, N.J. in 2011. (AP File Photo/Mel Evans)

    Chris Cerf, New Jersey’s Education Commissioner for the last three years, has left in a huff. He was out the door anyway but memorialized his departure by hurling a scathing letter at the heads of the new leadership of NJEA.

    After years of collegial collaboration, Cerf charges, the teachers’ union has unleashed a well-financed attack on N.J.’s new tenure reform and teacher evaluation law that is infused with “a deliberate campaign of misinformation” and a “reckless indifference to the truth.”

    Okay, Commissioner. What’s really on your mind?

    Cerf’s remarks are ostensibly about NJEA, but his anger ripples beyond state politics. While union officials are wary about the national shift towards accountability, they’ve appeared enthusiastic about the new standardized course content called the Common Core State Standards. However, commentators have recently noted that this resistance towards the assessments has started to leak into the standards themselves.

    But let’s stay local for a moment.

    In his letter, Cerf says that NJEA’s new leadership team is willfully misconstruing history. He reminds us that during the Corzine Administration the N.J. Legislature, with the support of NJEA, overwhelmingly approved participation in the Common Core. That participation required replacement of N.J.’s widely-derided state tests with new national assessments (N.J. chose a consortium called PARCC) that measure student growth.

    In 2011, again with NJEA’s full support and cooperation, the Legislature approved a bipartisan bill called TEACHNJ, which tweaks tenure laws and mandates that student outcomes inform teacher evaluations.

    Here’s NJEA’s 2011 statement on the value of using student progress as one measure of teacher effectiveness:

    “An effective evaluation system should be comprehensive, looking closely at instruction, but also at a teacher’s preparation and planning, classroom environment and other professional responsibilities.  It should utilize multiple measures of student progress and not rely primarily on standardized test scores.  And it should be backed up by supports for teachers and administrators, built into the school day, including professional development, collegial coaching and other collaborative learning.”

    In other words, says NJEA, student academic growth should be part of a teacher’s evaluation. This growth should be measured in multiple ways and one of those measures should be test scores.

    So here we are in 2014, Common Core rolled out and assessments slated for next year. But, in an unanticipated reversal, NJEA’s leaders are calling for a time-out and testifying in the Statehouse about the perils of standardized tests, even though evaluations can be based on non-PARCC assessments. Certainly, Cerf says, implementation will “be bumpy” and “some districts are ahead of others in terms of the quality of their execution.” He continues,

    “For the NJEA, those realities mean, “let’s go back to a system that we ALL agreed was failing. ” For me, it means, “let’s work together to get this right, learn as we go, and commit to making improvements based on real world experience.” I would ask the NJEA which approach best serves the interest of children? And, which approach best serves its historical, almost religiously-held position that adult accountability for student learning is to be vigorously fought and, wherever the opportunity arises, affirmatively undermined?”

    Cerf could just as easily been talking about a national trend.

    A few weeks ago Tim Daly at TNTP wrote,

    “Unions hoped that the occasion of Common Core (and their support for it) might present an opportunity to roll back or dilute teachers’ accountability for results…As it has become clearer that no such accountability holiday is forthcoming—and that educators, in addition to schools, will be on the hook for advancing students toward the standards—the union withdrawal has been a foregone conclusion.”

    In other words, Daly explains, unions gave in on the more challenging course standards in the mistaken belief that the accountability piece would go away. It didn’t. Hence, the pushback, right on the brink of implementation.

    Daly speculates that the lengthy marriage between teacher unions and the Democratic Party is irreparably damaged and that if President Obama “could run for a third term as president, it’s a very good question whether he could garner an NEA or AF endorsement…. and whether he’d accept one.”

    Of course, teacher unions exist to protect teachers. But it’s probably time for NJEA’s new leadership to recalibrate its rhetoric and reevaluate the educational and political implications of this pushback against higher standards and achievement. As Cerf said on his way out the door, let’s work together to get this right.


    Laura Waters is 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.


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