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School & District Management Opinion

Newark Superintendent Chris Cerf on System Reform

By Rick Hess — October 21, 2016 3 min read
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On Wednesday, Newark Public Schools’ superintendent Chris Cerf visited AEI to talk about the state of Newark’s schools, the aftermath of the $100 million Zuckerberg gift to the district, and the challenges of urban school reform. Cerf is an unfailingly interesting thinker who has served as commissioner of education in New Jersey, as a deputy to Joel Klein in New York, and as everything from a law clerk for former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to an associate counsel for President Bill Clinton. You can see what he had to say here, so I’m not going to offer any kind of blow-by-blow. Instead, I just want to touch on a few things he said that I thought especially interesting.

Cerf opened by taking issue with the notion that “system reform is futile” and with “lionization” of charter schooling. Cerf is a charter school supporter, and he reiterated that, but argued that those who think system reform is hopeless are ignoring three sets of inconvenient facts. He cheered “real beat-the-odds” charters like KIPP and its ilk, but said there is a grave supply problem—that it’s much harder to grow quality charters than advocates would like. He argued that district economics (like fixed costs and legacy costs) and state law make the transition to a charter-centric system prohibitive. And he said it’s just not politically possible in most cities—absent a forcing event like in New Orleans—to override community attachments to the local district.

But Cerf argued that these barriers to charter-centric systems aren’t as big a problem as some reformers might imagine. Why? Because he argued that system reform is wholly possible, even in circumstances as challenging as Newark’s. In the past 6 years, he said, Newark has made real gains. He pointed to a five-year graduation rate that has increased from the high 50s to nearly 74%, to the fact that there’s been a doubling share of Newark’s African-American students who exceed the New Jersey average on state assessments, and that Newark is now outperforming 80% of 37 demographically similar systems in the state (after lagging behind all but a handful of them in 2010).

Cerf took pains to acknowledge that progress has been slow and often frustrating. He said that it’s been a “slog” and conceded that the effort has included plenty of mistakes. He argued, though, that the reform push has gotten some big things right. He credited the push for “educator effectiveness,” including a dramatic new teacher contract that has moved away from pay-for-longevity and to pay linked to performance. He noted that three-quarters of 200 teachers brought up on tenure charges have left the system, after almost no similar instances in the preceding decade. And he said that 95% of teachers that the district rates effective are now staying on, compared to 62% of others.

He also pointed to the system’s attention to rigor and accountability. He gave shout-outs to the Common Core, Core Knowledge, and Singapore Math. Cerf also emphasized the importance of expanding options while equipping parents to exercise choice. He talked about Newark’s universal enrollment system, which includes all of the city’s public schools (both district and charter), noting that 75% of families chose a school other than their neighborhood school and that 42% of families listed their first choice as a “high-performing charter school.”

Cerf’s bottom line was that system reform is bloody difficult, and that it only has a chance with sufficient stick-to-itiveness, courage, and patience. With those things, he argues that the evidence suggests that it can pay off—even if the path is inevitably going to be marked by backlash, conflict, and a lot less harmony than we might wish.

If you’d like a closer look at Cerf or where things stand in Newark, check out Richard Lee Colvin’s terrific piece in the Fall 2016 Education Next.

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