New Jersey’s Education Commissioner stepping down

New Jersey Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, who had helped broker a tenure law with the state’s teachers union, has made the decision to step down and rejoin the private sector.

He plans to rejoin his former boss, New York City Schools Chancellor Joe Klein, as chief executive for Amplify Insight, an education technology firm that is a division of Amplify. Cerf says he plans to continue his mission to close the achievement gap, and give teachers the tools needed to help children learn. Amplify Insight sells digital products that diagnose students’ weaknesses in reading and math. It also offers other services, including prescribing interventions that tailor to to each child.

Cerf, who is a Democrat, spent three years making changes at New Jersey Schools. The changes came at the same time as Governor Christie’s criticism of the leaders of the New Jersey Education Association for being “greedy protectors of the status quo”.  He also made sure to praise the teachers who helped raise the achievement scores to the highest in the nation, and was known for calling out the failure and low graduation rates of urban schools.

Cerf said that while he had promised to work through Gov. Christie’s first term the opportunity at Amplify came up unexpectedly and he “became increasingly excited about my ability to make a difference from that seat.” He says he is still “deeply committed to the value of public education”. Education advocates have been warning Cerf of the dangers that for-profit companies can do in influencing school policies. He calls the claims “propagandistic” and says that public education can benefit by advances in the private sector.

Cerf says that one of his proudest accomplishments was the 2012 tenure law. It took days of negotiations with union leaders and elected officials and has proven to “be one of the strongest tenure reforms in the country”.

The law makes getting tenure, and keeping it, dependent on getting good evaluations that are tied to student learning. Starting next year, about one-fifth of New Jersey teachers will have 30 percent of their formal evaluations based on their students’ progress on state tests.

Cerf did have some frustrations in his position. One was the failure to end the last in first out policy that require districts to downsize based on seniority, not effectiveness. Teachers unions support the seniority rules. Cerf became exasperated with the back and forth.

 “The level of vitriol or rhetoric in the school reform discussion is really disappointing to me,” he said. “There is a desperate need in New Jersey and across the nation to keep our eyes absolutely focused on the truth of where we are being successful and where we have a need for improvement.”

According to Leslie Brody, staff writer at NorthJersey.Com, Cerf also approved 37 charter schools, and shut down 10 that had bad results or financial problems, in an effort to give parents more choices. He deployed the department’s staff to focus on the most troubled schools, helped orchestrate the state’s takeover of Camden’s district, and fought to give more independence to schools that performed well.

Cerf says that he has full intentions of following the rules of his new job that may keep him from pursing contracts with New Jersey government entities.

Amplify Chief Executive Officer Joel Klein said in a statement that he “couldn’t be more excited about Chris coming onboard. … Chris really gets what it takes — at every level — to help prepare students for success.”