By David Cruz
Among the state’s commissioners, Education Commissioner Chris Cerf is most often the target of criticism. Part of that is because he’s the front man for the governor’s aggressive education reform agenda, but it also has a little bit to do with his personality, which, at times, has rubbed some people the wrong way.
“Commissioner Cerf has a personality,” chuckled Sen. Gerald Cardinale.
Cerf is leading the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, a test-heavy set of guidelines on math and language art instruction for all grades, which supporters say focuses on improving students’ analytical skills. Forty-four other states have signed on to the new standards because the federal government has promised to help pay for the implementation; that’s $38 million for New Jersey. But critics, like Carolee Adams of the conservative Eagle Forum, say the new curriculum dumbs down education and could actually put a heavy burden on taxpayers.
“We want to stop it, slow it down,” said Adams. “Consider that New Jersey only received $38 million. We’ve asked Commissioner Cerf to define what the true cost is now and in the future. He has not done so. But a private organization called the Pioneer Institute suggested that it would be $575 million total. There are towns getting a $500,000 hit for infrastructure rewiring and that’s just for now.”
Parents like Kim Barron of Mahwah say the Common Core takes all the individuality out of the teaching process by relying too heavily on standardized tests and lessons.
“The core curriculum only allows teachers, or the schools, to add 15 percent to the curriculum, so they are given the curriculum and they have to follow it, verbatim,” said Barron. “Great teachers are telling me that they are leaving the teaching system because they can’t do what their heart tells them to do. They can’t use the talent that God’s given them to teach children.”
And much of the ire of opponents is — not surprisingly — targeted at Commissioner Cerf, who is moving ahead with the 2015 target deadline for implementation.
“He hasn’t responded to us,” said Adams. “It’s non-transparent. It’s unresponsive and indeed that carries down to the local boards of education.”
Cardinale is one of a dozen Republican senators who this week sent a letter to Cerf asking for some clarity on the Common Core State Standards.
Cardinale says he’d like to hold some hearings on the matter in an effort to slow it down and, as has been suggested, tweak it a bit. He said he’s hopeful that Cerf will prove to be a bit more accommodating with senators than he’s alleged to have been with critics.
“He has maybe not the best bedside manner if you want to talk about it that way,” added Cardinale, “but I think he’s a very competent guy. He’s a very experienced guy.”
Cerf did make a presentation before the NJEA convention earlier this month. The state’s largest teacher’s union supports the Common Core, but they too say they’d like to slow down the implementation.
“The start and end are really, I won’t characterize it as easy, but of the three things you have to do, the implementation and maintaining is really the huge part and that’s where our members are concerned,” said NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer.
Cerf couldn’t talk with us today but he has said he looks forward to answering any and all questions about the implementation. Cardinale didn’t say when any hearings might be scheduled.
If the Common Core curriculum is inevitable, how it gets implemented and how its success is measured is something that stakeholders from the Eagle Forum to the NJEA want to have a say in.