Education Reform: Addressing inequality – Full interview with Christopher Cerf | VIEWPOINT

Chris: Anyone out there who says that you
can have high expectations for students and standards, and not have some measure were
about whether those standards are being met, has never spent a minute in a classroom. Rick: Hi. I’m Rick Hess director of Education Policy
Studies at the America Enterprise Institute. Glad that you could join us today. Got the privilege of having with me friend
and colleague, Chris Cerf, superintendent of the Newark Public Schools, former state
superintendent of New Jersey, former deputy Chancellor of New York City. Chris, you’ve done most of the jobs there
are to do in the education space. Chris: I’ve had a few, yeah. Rick: How does one land into these jobs? I mean, you were at Edison Schools when Edison
was trying to figure this stuff out. You worked with Joel Klein in New York City. How does one even wind up in these positions? Chris: Well, I think it starts with having
a conviction that addressing educational inequality is the most important thing one can do with
one’s life. And you find yourself, you know, working for
a cause as much as you find yourself working for a particular organization, and that can
take you to a lot of interesting places. Rick: Did you start out as a career educator? Chris: I did. I graduated from college, taught high school
history for four years – American history, modern European history and so on. Rick: And so you were Commissioner of New
Jersey under Governor Chris Christie, when he was hugely popular, going right to the
top. And about a year and a half ago now, I guess,
give or take, you actually moved over and became superintendent of schools in Newark. Can you talk a bit about that? What’s it like to look at, you know, a challenged
urban school system like Newark, first at the State level, and then what prompted you
to go into superintendent? Chris: Well, I’ve been involved Newark in
one or other for five or six years now. I worked with now Senator Booker, when he
was Mayor, advising him on educational matters. And Newark is famously a state-operated district. So when I was Commissioner of education in
New Jersey, Newark, the school district actually reported directly to me. So my involvement has been that way. But it’s interesting, your question brings
me back to the book you recently published. When you are a state commissioner, even though
you have 580 districts nominally under your control, your ability to exert influence is
largely through regulation and policy and the power of the purse, not a small thing
either. But it is really remote compared to actually
being in a district. I find the work at the district to be more
immediate, more direct, more fulfilling and, in many respects, much harder. Rick: So you’ve been at this for a long time. What are a couple of the big ahas that either
have become clear to you with time? Or maybe that you’ve come to think differently
about since you got started? Chris: Well, there are lots. I mean, I’ll sort of start with this. And forgive me if I sound slightly cynical
about this. So, you know, I’ve operated my work, my career
around a conviction that, you know, we are a country, forgive an old history teacher,
we are a country that has, you know, confronted the fundamental issue of inequality in a different
way. The wax philosophical for a moment, when you
look at the reality, the people have very different starting points in life. Some societies have said, “Well, you know,
that’s just the way it is.” I call that the Aristotle or the Marie Antoinette
school of thought. You know, that’s just the way it is. That’s the natural order of things.Others
have approached it through sort of radical redistribution. And whatever that may sound like on paper,
that has turned out pretty badly, I’d say, in their effort. So the American experiment is built on the
idea of equality of opportunity, which is easier said than done. And public education has many purposes. But for me, its central purpose is to say
that regardless of the circumstances into which you are born, we are gonna position
you for success going forward. And the reality is that that is a great big
lie in the United States of America. If you were born poor, which in urban America
means just proportionally a child of color, that the probability that you will graduate
from high school, be truly prepared for success and go on to and persist in either college
or higher education in a way that is essentially highly predictive of other like outcomes,
like, you know, wealth, health, contact with the judicial system and so on. The probability that that will happen to you
if you’re born that way are despairingly low, notwithstanding the many millions of people
who transcend those circumstances for success. So I think if you start with a conviction
that that is something that needs to be addressed, I’d say the cynical answer to me is I don’t
think that conviction is fully shared in our American system of values. Rick: And that’s something that you feel is
clear to you now than it would have been 20 years ago? Chris: Yeah, 20 years ago I would have said,
you know, all you have to have is the conviction, the will and the skill to sort of pound through
the wall. And if you had right on your sides, that the
wall would give way, things that operate to actually impede the opportunity to equalize
everyone’s chances at life. Now, I’m sure I’m more keenly aware that while
almost everybody will say, “This is all about the children.” “Children first” or whatever bromide
comes to mind, when that interest collides with other interests, those other interests
often predominate in the conversation. Rick: So what is an example of these other
interests? Chris: Well, they’re many. But I’ll give you two. One is in Newark, or for that matter Boston,
the charter school sector is by any measure doing very, very well. This is not a comment about charter school,
generally. Believe me, every point on the quality spectrum
is represented in the charter school world as it is in the traditional school world. But it happens to be the case in certain parts
of America. Harlem is one, Newark is another, Boston is
another, D.C. arguably is another. Charter schools are providing not only an
opportunity for parents to choose what’s best for their kids, but are providing academically
superior outcomes. And there’s very little reason to resist giving
parents that opportunity to participate in an educationally successful chance for their
kid. But you see a lot of sort of propagandistic
resistance to that. And that I think it’s based as much on power
as it is on anything else. The only way a charter school is different
from a traditional public school, let’s look at the facts. They are open to all. They are tuition free. They are run by an accountable to democratically-elected
entity. They are overwhelmingly, and 100% of the case
in Newark, not for profit. The only way they are different is that they
are not run by the traditional centralized bureaucracy that runs the rest of the school
system. People yield that power and influence with
some reluctance. And I think that concern sometimes overwhelms. We used to say Trump’s, but sometimes overwhelms
that other value. Rick: So, if these political challenges have
become clear to you over time, how has that informed how you’ve operated as commissioner
of New Jersey, as superintendent Newark?. How do you drive the kinds of changes that
you’ve talked about, needed to equalize opportunity, in the face of that? Chris: Well, first of all, I spend a tremendous
amount of time on sort of small pea politics. To be clear, I’ve never run for anything. But meaning, you know, I don’t do it for Machiavellian
reasons. I just think that to be successful in this
world, you have to build relationships, build bridges, engage in legitimate give and take,
and even opportunities to persuade and be persuaded by other people who have political,
you know, have a direct political stake in the city. So that’s one thing. I have always viewed…You know, the metaphor
I’ve been known to use is if you’re at the top…I do a lot of white water canoeing. So if you’re at the top of the center rapids
and, you know, you’ve make your way down, the rocks actually are what makes it interesting,
right? Without the rocks, it would be much less interesting,
right? So part of the job is navigating the rocks. And many of those rocks are political in nature. That’s one. The second is you cannot spend enough time
with people in the community. And, you know, just listening and hearing
and engaging, not inevitably agreeing with every opinion that is advanced, but giving
people an opportunity to be heard and then frankly be secured enough to be open to the
reality. And I think this is a point I’ve had you make,
Rick, that you got to be nervous about people who have an absolute conviction in the rightness
of their cause, right? That’s taken us to some weird places historically,
right? So it’s very important to be open to the possibility
that you got something wrong. A third way, and I get a lot of… It’s funny. I would say the most common comment that I
get in the sort of social world is, “You know, how do you do this? Right, because in the modern era, with the
24-hour news cycle and the blogosphere and, you know, the ethos of fact checking on the
internet is literally not… absent. So, people can and do say anything. People are often paid to speak. An interest group has paid them to take a
position and they find some seemingly legitimate outlet. And then, it looks like it’s very vertical
but it’s in fact an interest group that’s paid a pseudo-reporter to write a piece and
so on. So if you don’t have pretty thick skin, this
is not the right arena to be in. Because I do know this, given the depth of
the problems that we have and the urgency, the moral urgency of addressing them, that
the highest value here is not peace and harmony and consensus. That’s not the highest value. Rick: You know, and so, isn’t right… I mean, so you’re a guy who says, “The highest
value is not harmony. It’s trying to do the things that you believe
in for kids.” You’re in Newark, which has been in a pretty
politically polarized environment at last in the half dozen years since the Zuckerberg
gift to help improve the schools…You’ve got a guy whose mayor now, Ras Baraka, who
ran against some of the kinds of things you kind of earned support, like charter schooling. So as a specific example, how do you handle
those sort of relationships with like the mayor’s office right in Newark knowing that
you’re not always gonna agree? Chris: Well, first of all, I really like and
respect him. There has never been a single occasion when
he has not been absolutely straight with me. And I…for me, that is the absolute litmus
test of foundation for a relationship that works. Now, as I say, he doesn’t always agree. In fact, he sometimes strongly disagrees. But he has never, ever been anything but straight
with me. You know, there is a… You know, I’ve worked for a president. I’ve worked for a governor. I’ve worked for a mayor. I’ve worked for CEOs. And there is…running things is very, very
hard. It’s a lot easier to run for something than
to run something. And I think when, you know, this mayor succeeded
in becoming mayor, now he’s got a city with tremendous amount of opportunity and
equal number of challenges. And you can’t run a city based on, you know,
placards and state and, you know, simple slogans. You’ve really got to actually get the trash
picked out, and get the snow picked up, and get the economic development rolling, and
so on. And I think he’s made that transition very
well. Rick: So if we think about the same challenges
in terms of trying to drive improvement the school system, one of the things that you’ve
talked about frequently is, you worry about micro-management and bureaucracy but you’ve
also argued that we need some big changes. You’ve been a strong supporter of Common Core,
of teacher evaluation, of accountability. How do you think about the balance between
doing these kinds of big policy changes in a way that avoids these concerns about over
regulation or micro-management? Chris: So, it is the question. It is really the question to ask in this field. And, you know, I go back to the whole sort
of, forgive me, Hegelian dialectic of, you know, thesis, antithesis, synthesis, right? There is always gonna be a dynamic tension
between, you know, top down, you know, directives and micro implementation at far end of the
supply chain. And it is…I actually do believe that there
are a very limited number of things that the central authority, whether it’s a state, a
district, should maintain control over. One is defining what success looks like, at
least a floor. That is the revolution in America public education. It’s not vouchers or charters. It’s the standard. Well, with this to say that by the third grade,
a child ought to be able to read a paragraph of a certain complexity. By the seventh grade, you ought to be able
to do this level of math or we’re not gonna let you graduate from high school, if you
took a course called algebra but actually is balancing your checkbook. Right? That there are actual standards and they’re
actually based on the idea that too many of our poor kids were victimized by low expectations. And too many of our affluent kids were not…were
kind of deluding themselves about the quality of the education they got. So the defining from the center is something
that should happen. That doesn’t mean you gotta read Huck Finn
and not Tom Sawyer. But it means you ought to be able interpret
a paragraph of a certain complexity or write a persuasive essay and so on. That’s one thing. Second, I think that the systems by which
various players in this drama are held accountable, has to be managed centrally. You can’t let anyone or any school be the
judge and jury in their own case. That is an appropriate role for a central
authority. Thirdly, I think, at a micro level, substantial
R&D is very difficult. Yes, you can have innovation, you can have
fantastic teachers designing new and different ways to construct a lesson or to teach. But the idea, for example of…You know, I’ve
spent time in product development in my private sector days. The idea that at a school level, you’re gonna
design a radically different enterprise system or platform to integrate information and new
curriculum materials, or whatever maybe you are to do, that’s very, very hard to do. So I think the central authority…By the
way, I would extend this to the federal government, by the way, like NIH. I think the central authority ought to have
a R&D function and ought to have an evaluative function around telling people what resources
works or what doesn’t work. The other arena where I think… Rick: And just to clarify. So, the research function, the R&D function
you’re saying, you would see lodged in Washington. How about on the other two: the defining expectation
for students and for the accountability? Do you have a sense in that where in the pyramid
would you like to see those lodged? Chris: Yeah. And those are harder ones, but I do think
that…I think the value of, you know, devolution down to the lowest local denominator is easy
to say and, ultimately, not the best policy in certain domains. I think at minimum, at a state level, there
ought to be a common set of expectations. What does it mean to be a high school graduate? What does it mean to have satisfied…you’ve
not just Carnegie units and the seat time. What must you have learned? What skills must you have required? Now, this gets so bastardized in the conversation
for all sorts of political reasons. You are not setting ceiling, you’re setting
a minimum floor, right? You’re setting a minimum threshold. You’re not directing curriculum. That should be highly localized. You are directing standards and expectations. And anyone out there who says that you can
have high expectations for students and standards, and not have some measure about whether those
standards are being met, has never spent a minute in a classroom. Meaning, that I will tell you that the phrase,
“Teaching to the tests” has always driven me to distraction. So when I was an AP U.S. history teacher,
all right, here’s what we did, right. We took at our students knew were gonna take
a test written by somebody else at the end of the year, that it was gonna ask them to
integrate four or five primary documents into an historical essay that also demonstrated
their understanding of a particular historical era or historical context. So you know what I taught? I taught how to do that, right? Was that teaching to the test? No. It was teaching students to be effective communicators
and interpreters of dense historical documents. So that’s the kind of thing that I think the
central authority should do. I think I would probably add one more. Although I would say we could probably agree
we have not done this at the level that we had hoped to. I think the area of human capital is really
important. Well, to say it’s really important is an understatement. It is,you know what, I’m overhead as superintendent. But when you are a teacher, in a classroom
you are the individual who’s gonna make or break the future of that children, to the
extent that the school has the ability to do that. And the ability to hire, recruit, responsibly
evaluate and sort of set, you know, a minimum performance standards for teaching, I think
it’s an appropriate central function. I don’t think that should be left to the individual
school. I think it’s an appropriate state function. And I am comfortable with the federal government
creating incentives to have certain guardrails around that function, not to micro manage
it. But I will say this, that the implementation
of those values has gotten really goofy. That is some evaluation systems, not ours
I’m proud to say, you know, it’s a micro assessment of, you know, things that don’t make much
difference. And that is a problem. Rick: And when you say that you guys have
avoided that problem, there are a couple…You know, it’s easy to get lost in the complexities
of student learning objectives and observational protocols, but are there a couple kind of
top-level intuitions that can help people steer the shoals? Chris: Sure. So one of the really interesting things that
has happened in New Jersey as a state and in Newark in particular, that, you know, the
unions were fiercely resistant to the idea of using evidence of student growth, academic
growth, as even a minority component of the evaluation. It turns out that every year we’ve done this
now, more teachers have had their ratings increase because the student performance by
orders of magnitude than go down. So I do think that having…there be a measure
a modest proportion of it that says how much your children learn and a way that we measure,
should be an element of the evaluation. Now, by the way, this is such a polarized
debate. I don’t think it should be 100% of the measure. I think it should be on growth and not proficiency. I think it maybe low enough even to be frankly
substantially symbolic. But to say that it does not matter at all,
seems to me to be a madness. And so I think there is that. Second, I think there needs to be multiple
observations. Observations, as it turns out, is the place
of refuge for everyone who doesn’t want real accountability. And the evidence for decades shows that. But if you are gonna do observations, it should
be against some kind of research based rubric that is related to the ultimate goal of student
learning. And then, I think, there should be room for
discretion in it as well. I mean there are great teachers sometimes
who don’t show well. I think there’s gotta be room for that. But the idea of not measuring it or saying
you don’t care about it, to me, is fundamentally irresponsible. Rick: Last question… You know, you hire lots of folks to come in
and have helped and worked for you in the commissioner’s office in New York City, now
in Newark, are there a couple of bits of advice that you find yourself passing on, things
that you’ve learned to help people be good at this work? Chris: Well, sure, I’ll start with this. The smartest thing you can do in a leadership
role is to hire people way smarter and better than you. And I know that sounds a little cliché. But, you know, my sort of management style
is very broad levels of delegations. I admit that I’m wrong a lot. And I think that that is something that… You know, I think that you kind of age into
a degree of security around. You happen to have a role called superintendent
or commissioner or CEO, but that’s just a role, that’s just a role. Other people have roles and they may have
domain knowledge and expertise that is vastly greater than yours and you should, you know,
let them do their thing. I would say the two biggest lessons I learned
are… One, simply having conviction that you’re
right and executing against a game plan, sometimes a controversial game plan, and just saying
quality will prevail or being right will prevail, is not enough. There is no such thing as too much communicating,
too much engagement, too much listening, showing flexibility, and adapting. So I think that all of us have learned to
be a little bit more humble around executing against, you know, the goal, which I think
can’t be renegotiated. But I think that the path to getting, it needs
room. The second thing I’ve learned is that… You know, you may remember. I don’t know when it was. Was it seven or 10 years ago? There was this huge debate between the sort
of school reform community and this so-called bigger bolder crowd. And the school reform community was going,
“Look. Yeah, poverty is hard. It creates complications. But we’ve got these kids for six hours, seven
hours a day within the four walls of the school. We’re gonna do everything we can and we can
overcome life circumstances by, you know, executing against, you know, the play book.” They had a driven decision making, more effective
teaching, higher standards, accountability, etc., right? On the other side, and this side is still
very well represented, by the way, out in the world, is like, ” You know, don’t be blaming
teachers. Don’t be blaming schools. They only got these kids six hours a day. You do what you can. You do your job. But man if you were born into the depths of
poverty and you’re dealing with all those, you know, adverse life events, etc. There’s only so much you feel you can do,
right? And the response of the former community is,
“That’s defeatist. You start by making excuses therefore you’re
never gonna get there.” Well, as it turns out, that was, and this
is the advice that I would give, a truly ridiculous debate. That it turns out that you certainly can and
must do better in schools, right? And you do that by getting great teaching
and getting great leaders and all the things we’ve been working on for years. But that alone is never going to solve the
educational equity problem we have in the country. That there are… We’re learning more and more and more about
literally from brain science around how early childhood experiences affect one’s learning
journey through life. In fact, it is shockingly predictive. If you look at the scaled scores in Newark
of third grade reading, it describes a perfect linear line around high school graduation
rate, and high school graduation rate with the equivalency of having passed the test
that shows that you’re competent at the skills we expect. And so, I think we do need something of a,
forgive the cliché, a paradigm shift. I think that there is the next great wave,
I think, is gonna be in early childhood education. And I say that with tremendous hesitation
because, we have talked about it and your book talks about, any, you know, silver bullet
you talk about, it sort of takes on this level of momentum that ‘s completely undeserving. I think early childhood education has to,
if not just enough to say, “You know, we need more, you know, education for young kids and
three-year olds, and four-year olds.” It’s how you do it. It’s how you implement it. It’s the systems you use. But I think it can make a tremendous difference
in setting students up to be successful once they get to school. Rick: Hey, Chris. Thank you so much for taking the time. Chris: My great pleasure. Thanks for having me, Rick. Rick: Hey, everyone. That’s the end of our discussion with Newark
superintendent Chris Cerf. Thanks for watching. As always, let us know what other topics you’d
like AEI scholars to cover on Viewpoint. And be sure to check out the rest of our videos
and research from AEI.

5 thoughts on “Education Reform: Addressing inequality – Full interview with Christopher Cerf | VIEWPOINT”

  1. they should help educate poor people. their race shouldn't be factored into it.

    so is he working on the inequality between girls and boys in test scores? because more women go to university then men and the education system is geared towards women, does he see that as a problem?

  2. This is a man that has come out of one of the most broken school systems in the USA. New Jersy has ten times more school districts than Maryland, a state the same size, both population and land mass. They throw so much money away on unneeded staff in that state. If he cared about the students and getting them a real education he would be trying to kill off the teachers' unions that have manipulated the system and broken it. New Jersy has over 400 school districts, Maryland has fewer than 40. If New Jersy even cut down to 100, still more than double what Maryland has, they could reinvest that money back into the schools and maybe have a good system.

    Guys like this that have been part of the union their whole lives will never talk about how bad the union is and how it has helped put the bad politicians in place that have messed everything up. They have done so at the pen of the union. All of the god awful laws that have made New Jersy a waste dump of education have been written by the Teachers' union and passed by the people they helped put in office.

  3. Education's highly concentrated on forcing in information for the sake of knowledge. How about constructing an abstract practice to develop a mental capacity for a person. Similarly, training a physical body. A good example would be Dr. Ryuta Kawashima's Games. It seems to have a good hit on me… but this maybe a baseless claim however, I do believe his works maybe of use in raising the floor to a better tier. He is a doctor for a reason…

  4. I'm amazingly confused and a bit confused by the comments on this so far. I'm frankly not certain that the some of the commenters have even watched the video. I'm unfortunately reminded of the misplaced weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth about Common Core.

    I have to admit that I nearly clicked out of this video when I realized the east coast-centered nature of Mr. Cerf's experience. After reading the comments though, I decided to listen and see what people were reacting so vehemently against. I have to say that I certainly didn't find what those commenters did.

    I'm not an educator or a parent, but I have many friends and relatives that are one, the other, or both. From listening to their experiences, I really agreed with what Mr. Cerf. had to say. I liked the idea of creating a more standardized system of roles at the various levels of scale from local to national. In the attempt for every level of influence to "solve" the problem of education, the situation has become maddeningly muddled. Whether by politicians, unions, administrators or parents, the politicization of schools has, I feel, taken a terrible toll on the classroom–teachers and students.

    Equality of opportunity, equality of condition, and the actual concept of social justice are things to strive for in education, especially from early childhood through middle school. I see it as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy–as movement is made toward that goal the good results could lead to more of the same.

    I will now take my soapbox and go home.

  5. Turning over public education to teachers unions was an awful idea. It's the only form of employment where there is a system designed to protect poor performers, so we allowed that system to take control of indoctrinating our kids.

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