Chris Cerf: In Appreciation

Last week, Chris Cerf stepped down after three extraordinarily successful years as New Jersey’s commissioner of education. Education observers in the Garden State and beyond will remember his tenure for its major initiatives.

He secured a Race to the Top 3 grant and one of the first ESEA waivers. He successfully led the charge for the overhaul of the state’s outdated tenure statute and launched a new teacher-evaluation pilot program. He negotiated a new labor contract in Newark, and he had the state intervene in the tragically low-performing Camden school district. He dramatically improved chartering in the state, authorizing dozens of new schools while closing 10 persistently low performers. And he was a stalwart for both Common Core and PARCC.

Cerf’s accomplishments are undeniable. But in the fine tradition of blogging, I need to make this about me.

To wit, no single person has had a larger or more positive influence on my professional development. I learned mountains from Chris Cerf about leadership in general and, more specifically, how to bring about change as the whipping winds of politics (and worse) swirl around you.

As fate would have it, our adventure and all I took from it came an inch from being aborted. We met during the darkest period of my professional career. I had been offered the job as New Jersey’s deputy commissioner by Cerf’s predecessor.

I quit my job, moved my wife and two-week old baby away from family in Maryland, bought a house, and began to settle into my new position.

Three weeks later, my boss was fired.

The next several months were agonizing. The state board wouldn’t confirm me for the job I had accepted and for which I had uprooted my life. I was unable to do the work I had left felicitous personal and professional conditions to undertake.

I was gritting my teeth, trying to show resilience and make lemonade, but daily I wondered if I had made a catastrophic mistake affecting my and my wife’s careers and our wonderful infant at home.

Cerf arrived as I was reaching my wit’s end. And he was a godsend.

He wasn’t just understanding of my plight; he was genuinely kind, accommodating, and self-effacing in our first encounters—all this from a man with no need to be solicitous, possessing a stellar reputation and gaudy resume.

He began his career as a history teacher and later went on to Columbia law school. Such were his intellect and abilities that he became a U.S. Supreme Court clerk and legal counsel at the White House.

He could’ve pursued a career in law—I’m sure he would’ve been wearing a black robe before long—but instead he decided to dedicate his talents to K–12 education.

His entrepreneurial bent led him to several executive positions outside of government, but his commitment to public service brought him to the New York City Department of Education and—later, as I had one foot out the door—to Trenton.

In our first few weeks together, I was blown away by his intellectual wattage, titanium spine, knowledge of the field, understanding of big organizations, and willingness to engage in debate.

But then came The Call.

Over the next 10 days, I was recruited for and then offered my dream job—a job so important and exciting I would’ve lacked the audacity to pursue it had I known it to be open. It offered not only an unparalleled professional opportunity but also the chance to put the unpleasantness of the previous months behind me and start anew.

But I stayed, and it was the best decision of my career.

Cerf taught me so much.

Organizational leadership: Once he approved a plan of action, he gave full and unbending support to the team charged with its execution. He would take the political flak, solve procedural puzzles, and reallocate resources so that those doing the work could focus on the work.

Gumption: He once had this crazy idea about using some special-education funding to reward schools and districts accomplishing great things for students with IEPs. “Here we go,” I thought. “Tilting at windmills.” I mentally listed the myriad reasons why this would be impossible. “You can’t do that! You just can’t.” But by God, he pulled it off: a $1 million “Special Education Recognition Award.

Toughness: If Chris Cerf believed in something, he would fight for it, whether that meant managing up, tussling with legislators, standing up to board members, or taking on critics far and wide. He didn’t seek out tough decisions or quarrels—this is not an inherently disputatious man—but once the fight was joined, he was the ultimate foxhole friend.

I could go on and on…about the way he showed compassion for colleagues in distress, actively sought to develop junior staff, talked glowingly about his wife and kids, and provoked discussion but resolved issues firmly.

But there’s just one final story I’ve not told before: such were Cerf’s gifts that I dedicated the back pages of my ever-present notebook to capturing his lessons. In some cases it was just the right word at the right time (“perseverate,” “ineluctable”) or a clever phrase (“I’m from Missouri on this one”); in others it was a type of argument (“Oh, you know that’s a makeweight”) or an astute strategy (“Give your opponent an honorable way out”).

Yes, you can buy Rumsfeld’s Rules; but for a couple years, I got to study Cerf’s sagacity.

Not long ago, one of the few people who knew about The Call asked me if—now with the benefit of 20–20 hindsight—I ever regretted not taking that dream job.

No, not even for a second. It turned out the dream job was working for and studying under Chris Cerf.

-Andy Smarick

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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