Acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf speaks Friday at the New Jersey Education Association's conference at the Atlantic City Convention Center.

Anthony Smedile

ATLANTIC CITY - After being snubbed last year, teachers gave a cautious welcome Friday to Acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf at the New Jersey Education Association annual conference at the Atlantic City Convention Center.

Cerf brought a far more conciliatory tone than teachers have heard from his boss, Gov. Chris Christie. But sometimes the two sides appeared like divorced parents, trying to do the best for the children but still arguing over deep-seated disagreements.

Cerf got applause from the crowd when he mentioned the high ranking of New Jersey's education system nationally, and gave teachers a lot of the credit.

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But they rolled their eyes when he said that the DOE and governor are not against unions, and laughed outright when he gave high marks to Washington D.C.'s teacher-evaluation system. When he challenged them to look at D.C's data, saying he'd bet $1 right there that he was right, a teacher told him to put the dollar instead into teacher pensions.

Still, teachers said later they were appreciative he came, especially after then Acting Commissioner Rochelle Hendricks did not come last year as the governor's relationship with the NJEA deteriorated.

"I think the mood coming out of the Department (of Education) is that they want to work with us more," said Stephanie Tarr, a teacher at Cedar Creek High School in Egg Harbor City. "It was nice that he did come in person, even if we didn't like everything he said."

She said can see them working together on curriculum and academic standards, and she would hope they could work together on teacher evaluations. But, she said, they are opposed to merit pay because it isn't effective in a system that is based on collaboration, not competition.

"Teachers want feedback, and they want to improve and have their work recognized," she said.

Erland Chau, a teacher at Mainland Regional High School and a school-board member in Northfield, said Cerf talked a lot about reaching students who are not succeeding, but the state has provided no money to offer extra programs.

"I don't think he knows what it's like for teachers in the classroom," Chau said. "I don't see the tools coming from the state to help us."

While acknowledging the challenges facing low-income students, Cerf insisted it was a myth that those students could not succeed.

Chau said at Mainland low-income students consistently underperform on state tests.

"We've raised scores, but that group is always lower," he said. "That should be the state's focus."

Cerf said he is willing to work with the union on teacher evaluations, even postponing implementation for an extra year if necessary. But, he said, there will always be areas where the state and union do not agree.

"I represent the interests of the children of New Jersey," Cerf said. "In many areas, the interests of the union and children are aligned. But there are areas where they do not overlap, such as seniority. You may think (seniority) is fair, but you can't argue it's in the best interest of children."

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