NJ Education Commissioner Stepping Down

By Geoff Mulvihill
|  Tuesday, Feb 11, 2014  |  Updated 9:31 PM EDT
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NJ Education Commissioner Stepping Down

Office of the Governor

Chris Cerf with Chris Christie

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New Jersey's education commissioner is stepping down after a three-year tenure in which he made major changes to his department.

Christopher Cerf is becoming CEO of Amplify Insight, an education technology company.

Cerf helped broker a major change in the state's teacher tenure law in a move that brought together Gov. Chris Christie's administration with a frequent enemy, the New Jersey Education Association. The 2012 made it harder for teachers to earn tenure and keep tenure protections, and made their status based partly on how well their students perform.

But Cerf is a divisive figure among education interests in a state where student performance by many measures is among the highest in the U.S., on average, but where lower-income students in urban schools fare much worse.

As a Democrat working for a Republican governor, Cerf went to greater lengths than predecessors to hold educators responsible for how students do. Besides the tenure law, he introduced major changes to the way teachers are evaluated and supported charter schools.

In an interview Tuesday, Cerf said he fostered changes, including a reorganization, consistent with his mission for the department: "We should exist for a very simple reason, and that is to increase the number of students who graduate from high school ready to be launched successfully in life regardless of their birth circumstances."

The NJEA portrays the former CEO of Edison Schools, a company that manages public schools, as an embodiment of what they see as a troubling trend in education: for-profit firms taking a bigger role in what happens in public schools.

"In Cerf's new position, he and his company will profit from selling assessment products and services to public schools struggling to adapt to exactly the kind of misguided mandates that Cerf's Department of Education is currently imposing on New Jersey's schools," NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer said in a statement.

Cerf said it upsets him when critics talk about school "privatization." He said much of the key innovation that could improve public schools is coming from academics and the private sector. "So long as the decision maker is a public authority, that is clearly for the good of children," he said.

Most of Cerf's changes are too new to show results. The NJEA has complained about problems implementing new standardized tests, but Cerf says that "leading indicators" have been promising in some areas.

For the first half of his tenure, Cerf was acting commissioner as a state senator blocked his appointment.

Cerf will leave his $141,000-a-year job on Feb. 28.

In Cerf's new job at Amplify, he'll work for former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein. Cerf was his deputy from 2006 until 2009.

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