What's the Big Idea? 

It is an enduring strain in American discourse that the vox populi is to be trusted over that of the nation's appointed or de facto leaders. After all, the country was founded in defense of individual liberty and against unilateral power. This spirit still animates much of our public discussion – and with the glow of 4th of July fireworks still fading from our retinas, it’s as good a moment as any for national self-reflection.

Chris Cerf, Acting Commissioner of New Jersey schools, argues that "the voice of the people" isn't always the loud voice of dissent. We, the media, tend to focus on controversy, and community leaders often arise and prosper by fanning its flames.

"There are tens of thousands of children on waiting lists in Harlem and the rest of New York City to get into a charter school," says Cerf, "Yet the newspaper will report that there are deep objections within the community to bringing in charter schools . . . because people like to cover conflict."

This Works Both Ways, Of Course . . . While he has divested himself of his stocks and professional responsibilities in these companies, Cerf has strong past ties to big educational business. He is the former CEO of Sangari Global Education and the former President and COO of Edison Schools, a private manager of public education. Companies like these will certainly profit under New Jersey’s school reforms, as they have done in New York. Critics argue that many proponents of data-driven school reform and an expanded private sector role in public education have similar ties and loyalties, and that these may influence their policy decisions. 

What's the Significance?

Successes in New York City and Cerf himself make a compelling case for the effectiveness of data-driven reform. And Cerf’s efforts to incentivize successful teaching, in spite of strong union resistance, appear to reflect a sincere commitment to improving education for the sake of all students.  

We owe it to ourselves not to allow the complexity of an issue or the polarizing forces of media to shuffle us into default, unquestioning loyalties to political parties, community identities, or professional associations. As citizens in a representative democracy, it is our right and obligation to identify the problems that matter to us, and scrutinize equally the motives and methods of all those who propose to solve them.

In the case of education, the only question is - and always must be - what skills young people will need in the future to lead happy and successful lives, and how best we can ensure that they acquire them.