Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Chris Cerf: Who, Us?

After Robin Lake decided to reject the "reformy" mantle, Chris Perf has decided to add his two cents, but I'm not sure that his two cents is not overpriced.

Cerf came up in the Klein-Bloomberrg overhaul of NYC pubic schools, by virtue of having taught at a private school for a year, then working as a lawyer in Joel Klein's law firm. The arrangement was a curious one-- his salary was paid not by the city, but by private donors. From there he went on to run New Jersey's department of education (thanks Chris Chistie); he also spent some time as a lobbyist for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. He left New Jersey to join Amplify under his old boss, Klein. After fleeing that disaster, he resurfaced as Superintendent of Newark Schools. He appears to be between gigs at the moment, but like most reformsters, Perf has a network for falling upward.

Short form: Cerf is certainly familiar withe the reformy world.

His brief essay at The 74 has just a few points to make, and all of them are either disingenuous or deliberately misleading.

In a curious linguistic twist, over the past decade, opponents of transformational change have co-opted the word “reform” and essentially converted it into a malediction.

"Gosh, you guys. I have no idea how the term "reform" collected bad connotations. Our evil opponents must have done it!"

Nope. Reformsters grabbed the term and held on tight because it had the power to immediately frame ed reform as a bunch of white hat heroes coming to rescue education from the Powers of Badness as typified by teachers, unions, regulations, etc. Those of us in the defense of public ed camp worked hard not to let them have the word-- hence the use of words like reformster, rephormes, privatizers, colonizers, GERM, etc-- but they clung to it as fiercely as they have worked to attach the term "public" to charter schools.

If "reform" became a malediction, that is on the reformy camp. They are the ones who attacked the teaching profession , silences communities by stomping democratic processes, treated teachers like the enemy, allowed charter fraud and malfeasance to bloom unchecked, unleashed profiteers under the guise of free market competition, and promoted various programs with toxicity levels evident even too casual observers (test-based accountability, anyone).

In short, if Cerf is sad that reform has a bad name, I recommend some soul searching. Public ed teachers do it daily, and it helps keep them harp and focused. When you stop thinking and just start blaming Those Guys, you're in the weeds.

Perf says it's curious to turn on reform when non-white, non-wealthy students are lagging in success and test score growth has stalled (a stall that coincides with the rise of modern ed reform).  

One would think that seeking to “reform” a system that yields these outcomes would be considered a good thing.
"I swear, nothing that went wrong was our fault."

This is the classic reform fallacy. There is a real problem, therefor my solution must be a good one. No. No, no, no. You do not prove the effectiveness of your solution by proving the severity of the problem. Are there real problems in public education? Absolutely-- despite reform rhetoric to the contrary, I've never heard anybody say that pre-reform education was perfect and all we need to do is go back to that. We have some serious problems with how we support education in some communities, and issues with the same racism baked throughout our society. We have schools and communities that are terribly underserved. None of that means that reformy ideas are good ones.

But Cerf is fine with chucking "reform" with just a few caveats:

What does matter is that the urgency of bravely pushing for positive change remains front and center; that we resist the temptation to return to the “anything goes” mentality that preceded the standards movement and No Child Left Behind; that we improve on, rather than abandon, proven ideas (like standards, accountability, empowering parents with more options, and acknowledging differences in teacher efficacy); and that we not fall prey to politically safe slogans like “personalized learning,” “student agency,” or “community schools” to the extent they operate as a substitute for making sure that every child, regardless of birth circumstances, is launched into adulthood prepared to succeed in life.

Was there an anything goes mentality before NCLB? That's a pretty huge assertion, and it takes us back to the bad old days of reformsters suggesting that everybody in the education world, including all the people who had devoted their adult lives to educating children, just sucked eggs and needed the noble amateurs of the ed reform movement to rescue children from the awful school system.

But more importantly, virtually nothing on Cerf's list of proven ideas has actually been proven. None of it. The reformy team has been trying to prove them for at least two decades, and they've got nothing to show for it (well, except those who have big fat piles of money to show for it). 

And woah-- if Cerf thinks that personalized learning is just a safe euphemism, he's been out of the loop. It is the next big reform pay day. Hr'd better make some calls to iNACOL or the folks at Chan-Zuckerberg.

Look, lots of ed reform figures have taken a moment to examine their choices and programs. Some, like Rick Hess, have pressed for uncomfortable truths all along, and some are just showing up at the party. But if reformsters like Perf think the solution is to insist that their ideas were awesome and they were just thwarted by a vast conspiracy of naughty public ed fans, they are going to stay stuck right where they are, the reformy equivalent of that fifty-year-old paunchy guy on the porch who is still telling anyone who will listen how he should have won that big football game in high school. 

You guys screwed up. In some big ways, and some small ways. In avoidable ways, and in ways that are baked into your ideas. In lots of ways related to your amateur status coupled with your unwillingness to listen to trained professionals.  You can face all of that, or you can just keep stamping your feet.

I recommend the former. Look, in public ed we confront our failures all the time, often in real time as we watch a lesson plan crash and burn right in front of us. Being able to face failure is a basic survival technique in the classroom. I recommend that Cerf and those like him try it out, because this kind of whiny self-justification with a touch of moral one-upmanship is not abroad look on anyone. I offer this advice in the spirit of the season because, really, if they ignore it, they will only disappear from view that much faster, which would not be the worst thing for those of us who support public ed. 


  1. The Parade of Failures in Reformville a professional embarrassment to Cerf and his ilk. For starters, they violated the first rule of fixing things: understand the problem before you try and solve it. They missed this essential idea by a light year. False assumptions are the first refuge of the lazy (and arrogant). Learning standards were never the problem. Nor was pedagogy, teachers, or our unions. And if Cerf is reading this I guarantee he will be left wondering what the hell I'm referring to. Try teaching for a decade or so if you want a clue Chris.

    1. First, you assume that Cerf and his ilk are capable of embarrassment. I think that's a highly debatable point.

      Second, you assume that Cerf didn't in fact fix the problem - at least, the problem he set out to fix. The problem as the rephormers see it is that not nearly enough of that $7 billion dollar education slush fund is going into their pockets. That's the problem Cerf and his ilk are out to fix.

  2. Cerf had more than ample opportunity to remedy the educational malfeasance. Where is the evidence of his successes? However, he was skillful in cutting Newark Public School budgets.