‘For Every Action,An Unbelievable Reaction’

January 25, 1984 6 min read

Last September, Gov. Thomas H. Kean of New Jersey became the first governor in the nation to propose that his state permit college graduates without degrees from schools of education to teach in the public schools. The idea had been suggested to Mr. Kean by Commissioner of Education Saul Cooperman.

Mr. Cooperman, who was appointed by the Governor in July 1982, after eight years as superintendent of schools in Madison, N.J., has made a number of controversial moves to change the status quo in education. He has stiffened the requirements for teacher seniority, reorganized the state’s department of education, and toughened the state’s student-testing and school-monitoring programs, as well as proposed major changes in New Jersey’s teacher-certification regulations.

Associate Editor Thomas Toch spoke recently with Mr. Cooperman about the commissioner’s efforts to implement these and other changes in New Jersey’s educational system.

Q:It’s often said that state education agencies are large, unwieldy bureaucracies. Does your experience so far bear that out?

A:It’s interesting being on the outside and then on the inside; your viewpoint changes a little bit. When I was on the outside, I thought that maybe the state education [agency] wasn’t helping me, it wasn’t looking at the right problems as I saw them.

Then you come down here and you see that much of the work is regulatory--following money, enforcing laws. You look at what you are working with--we have 940 people on the state payroll and a budget of about $16 million--and you say to yourself, “Gee, a pretty good-sized district in New Jersey--one with about 2,500 kids--has a budget of $16 million.” Possibly, it’s a rationalization, but we’re all contributors to the problems.

Q:The first thing you did was reorganize your department. What was the reason for that?

A:There was no consensus when we asked people here what the primary responsibilities of the department should be. It was, “I do my job.” We didn’t see any thread or thrust. So the first thing we did was ask, ''What is our core mission, what is our business, what should we be about?”

We wrote a mission statement. And from that we reorganized the department. We tried to organize in terms of what we want done, and we decided we had to be more performance-oriented.

Take the new statewide testing system as an example. We know we are not teaching enough writing in the schools. But the state’s testing program didn’t have a writing component. My God, we have short-answer, multiple-choice, and fill-in-the-blank questions, and the world is not all short answers. We added a writing section to the statewide test to encourage schools to teach more writing.

Q:Has it been easy to reshape your department?

A:It is not easy to move the bureaucracy. If someone comes in and starts rocking a little bit, people are justified in saying, “I’ve been doing a good job here for 8 or 10 years. Are you saying I’m not doing a good job?” We have to deal with that... It’s been a grinder.

Q:How would you describe the pressures that have been brought to bear on you since making these sometimes-controversial moves?

A:Intense. Last week, I kidded with someone. I said I have a new law of physics. I taught physics in high school and thought then that every action has an equal reaction. It’s not so. Every action has an unbelievable reaction. The pressures are intense, as, I guess, they should be.

If you do something that many people sense as a proper way to go, they will generally say, “It was the only right thing to do anyway, and I’m glad he’s doing it.” But they aren’t participants in the process, because you are doing what they think should be done. But to people who do not think what you are doing is right--and that’s legitimate, that’s what makes the country great--they get organized very, very quickly and can work on lots of fronts and do.

Q:Can you give an example of how one group has responded to your proposals?

A:The certification issue is very lively right now. The colleges and many of the people in the schools of education--the deans and so on--have put tremendous pressure on in an organized way.

Wherever I and others go to speak, they are usually in the audience, ready to bring up the questions that they think should be brought up to show flaws, as they see them. ... I’ve still got the issue to fight. ... It’s tough sometimes. They use organizations. They are able to use money. And the status quo is theirs. ... It’s a struggle. Literally, it’s a day-by-day struggle. ... You just keep banging at it because you think you are right.

Q:Do you think the interests of students are going to survive the political battles you are fighting over reform?

A:I hope so, but only the end will determine that. If a horse becomes a camel and you can’t recognize it, then you say, “Oh my God, we’ve fought so hard in this battle, and nothing has come of it.” Then there’s severe disappointment. ... The programs are the only things that count for me. We’ve pretty well stayed put and tried to fight the battles. If it all comes out well and if we are able to get a good percentage of our program through, if we can look ourselves in the mirror and say, “Darn it, we changed it a little bit and we changed it on the right issues and it is going to help kids,” then all of this that we are going through will be worth it.

Q:You are still relatively new to your job. What have you learned so far about being a chief state school officer?

A:There are a lot of different viewpoints; I never realized there were so many, never realized there were so many organizations. Anything that is done, a barrage comes back at you. And though I realize that that’s the way it has to be, sometimes it’s the intensity of it and sometimes there is anger. And you only have the ability to see yourself, so maybe I’m the cause of some of the anger and maybe it’s legitimate. But sometimes I’m surprised that things get distorted a bit.

Q:Why do some, especially the teachers’ unions, say that your proposal to rewrite New Jersey’s teacher-certification laws would let “amateurs” into the schools?

A:Some people really feel that the present system has worked well. The stability of doing it this way for so many years has created a belief on the part of some people that, hey, this is a good way. You very well could get the impression that I’m going to let anyone teach. But I don’t believe that for a minute. There is a body of [pedagogical] knowledge that people need to teach. That isn’t going to change. I’m simply want to open the profession to those bright college students who are not now going into it. When I meet with teachers and explain what I am trying to do, the reaction I get is, “Oh, we didn’t know that.”

Q:What are the next steps in the reform process in the state?

A:There are battles to be fought over the new statewide testing program because it’s rigorous and some districts will not do well on the test. They will therefore ask for more money; some will ask for help. On many of things that we are doing now, there will be tangential issues. We’ve gone from identification of the problems; we’ve raised awareness, come forth with what we think are reasonable options, and now we are in the implementation phase in many of these things. Now we have to wind it up and see if it goes.

Trying to get consistency in the new monitoring system is one issue. If we are able to get the alternative [teacher-certification] system in, then there are going to be questions like: What is the body of knowledge needed to be a teacher? How are teaching interns to be evaluated?

Q:Much of the discussion of education reform at the national level has focused on quantitative change--increased graduation requirements, longer school days and school years. What do you think about that?

A:We can argue whether the school year should be 180 or 190 days, but if we just add days and nothing substantively changes in the classroom, then we haven’t changed that much. And so I think the emphasis has to be on what quality changes can be made in the classroom. You can make them in several ways, such as through certification. If we bring one more talented teacher into a school, that makes a change. In the end, it is what is done in the classroom that makes the difference.

A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 1984 edition of Education Week as ‘For Every Action,An Unbelievable Reaction’