By Jim O’Neill
The Bridgegate investigation led from Fort Lee to Hoboken, the Hunterdon County Sheriff’s Office, Sandy ads, Sandy funds and the ARC tunnel. After four years of being intimidated by the crass talking intimidator-in-chief, our elected representatives and investigative journalists have their mojo back and should hurry to investigate the highly touted education reforms in NJ. Articulated and spearheaded by a private school advocate clothed in the powers of state education commissioner, the soon to be departed Chris Cerf leaves NJ teachers and students suffering from a debilitating hangover.
Cerf learned from our governor that, if you say the same thing often enough, say it forcefully enough and demonize all those who raise a hand to disagree, you will attract attention and true believers. The naysayers were painted as out of date fat cat public employees only interested in themselves and not the health, welfare, or academic well-being of the students in our schools. Fortunately for the parents of over one million students in NJ public schools, nothing could be further from the truth.
The reforms foisted on NJ and other states lack intellectual credibility because the advocates refuse to entertain alternate ideas or facts. The “we know we are right” attitude confirms an insular mentality and a deep-seated insecurity, which also blinded those in the governor’s circle of trust. Platitudes about closing failing schools and all children succeeding are the public catch phrases of a political agenda masquerading as education reforms.
We did need an easier and less costly way to get rid of poor teachers but the answer was not to build a house where only the carpenters could be blamed for failure not the architects. The speed with which NJ Achieve and the new evaluation system was implemented ignored the complexity of the issues. Failure to act will precipitate the fall of New Jersey public schools from among the very best in the nation. The reform battle was reminiscent of the Christie/NJEA battles but there was widespread agreement about what to fix; only the methodology of change was in dispute.
In spite of the fact that the federal government has spent over 5 billion dollars promoting many of these reforms since 2009, a recent study concluded the results were negligible. “Money and Mandates” in 2011/12 resulted in 55% of schools improving math scores a mere 2 points, while 38% declined and 7% stayed the same. In language arts, 61% of schools improved but only by one point; while 34% declined and 6% stayed the same. (1)
Arrogance doomed the process; if there had been an open discussion of these reforms, a willingness for them to be modified or even implemented in a longer time frame we could have avoided the fallout resulting in excellent but demoralized educators changing careers and retiring.
One of the many flaws of the reforms was the complete disregard for the time intensity of administrative staff. While principals promote character education, pursue bullying, prohibit gangs, eliminate drugs, accommodate special needs, make students from different cultures feel welcome, those from economically disadvantaged homes believe they can overcome dire circumstances, build confidence in all and meet with parents not happy about a teacher, a detention or a grade– they also have time to monitor attendance, excessive testing and conduct 70 or more observations accompanied by pre- and post-conferences (total 210 in fewer than 180 days).
Two members of the Assembly Education Committee told me and others in October that Cerf did not come and give them updates or reports. Why not? We already have a rubber stamp state Board of Education so, if the Legislature is not overseeing the state Department of Education, who is? The same reforms the Legislature felt so strongly about they chose not to endorse the regulations, but wrote them into statute! If not for academic reasons why has the legislature abandoned their fiduciary responsibility to oversee the biggest unfunded mandate ever imposed on school districts? A traffic jam in Fort Lee was not the only thing that happened the past four years. Bill Baroni and David Wildstein were not the only individuals appointed to high public office. The Legislature needs to investigate the Christie/Cerf education reforms with the same interest and fervor as Bridgegate.
Jim O’Neill is interim West Orange schools superintendent. He served many years as Chatham schools superintendent. Guest contributions are welcomed at Bob Braun’s Ledger