Tilson says Cerf investigation reflects "madness" of the ed world

In his daily school-reform-report e-mail today, Whitney Tilson, the hedge fund manager by day, education entrepreneur by night, defends Deputy Chancellor Christopher Cerf, the subject of a 2007 investigation that just came to light last week. The investigation concluded that Cerf had stretched conflict-of-interest lines by soliciting a charitable donation from a Department of Education vendor while he as deputy chancellor. But Cerf later took back the solicitation, and no actions were taken against him.

Tilson describes the investigation into Cerf as a trying experience that turned Cerf’s life “upside down” — all for naught, because it ultimately found no evidence of wrongdoing. His take-away is that “truly no good deed goes unpunished” in the education world, which is characterized by “madness,” he says. The full e-mail is below the jump.

Y’know, sometimes I just have to shake my head at the madness of the education world, where truly no good deed goes unpunished.  Exhibit A is what has happened to my friend Chris Cerf, who is Deputy Chancellor of the NYC public schools and one of Joel Klein’s top aides (and an incredible warrior for kids and education reform).  Here’s the story — keep in mind that I’m not making this up:

Chris was one of the top executives at Edison Schools for eight years before Joel Klein persuaded him to come work for him.  Chris had earned stock options at Edison and obviously wanted to keep them, so when he took the job he disclosed them and agreed to recuse himself from any discussions and decisions related to Edison (which has a small contract with the DOE, in an area not under Chris’s purview).

Sure enough, someone with an ax to grind found out about this and started to make a stink so, seeking to head off any controversy or even the hint of a conflict of interest, Chris gave up the options.  End of story, right?  Not so fast — this is the world of educational bureaucracies remember…

The media turned this into a circus, making it seem as if, by giving up the options, Chris had done something wrong to have initially kept them.  The Special Council for Investigation (what an Orwellian name!) spent months turning Chris’s life upside down and — SURPRISE! — found absolutely nothing and reported as such to the NYC Conflicts of Interest Board (COIB), which closed the matter.

This all happened a couple of years ago, but now the story has resurfaced because a document was released which shows that Chris, when he gave up his options, tried to do something nice.  In giving up the options, Chris was simply transferring their value from himself to the owners of Edison, so he asked the chairman of the firm that is the majority owner of Edison, Liberty Partners, to consider making a $60,000 donation to a nonprofit organization on whose board Chris sits that runs wilderness canoe expeditions for teenagers in Maine and Canada (obviously an organization that has nothing to do with the DOE).

You know where this story’s going, don’t you?  Critics started raising questions so again, to avoid any appearance of impropriety, Chris told the chairman of Liberty not to make the donation.  But of course the COIB had to do yet another full investigation — and of course took no action (the headline in the NYT article (below) says Chris was “chided”, but even that’s too strong a word for the mild letter he received).

This NY Sun editorial in 2/07 nails it:
Klein’s Cadre

Editorial of The New York Sun | February 13, 2007
The latest tactic in the effort to block school reform in the city is aimed at one of Chancellor Joel Klein’s deputies, Christopher Cerf. He was asked at a parents meeting last week about whether he had a financial interest in a for-profit education company, Edison Schools. Mr. Cerf said he didn’t, but, without misrepresenting anything, failed to say he’d given up his warrants in the company only the day before. Instead he referred his interlocutor to his financial disclosure forms. The story was thoroughly reported in the Times on Friday, but an editorial in the Times the following day missed the point, suggesting somehow that Mr. Cerf had dodged a forthright disclosure of his financial holdings.

On the contrary, Mr. Cerf has made all his financial disclosures and then some, and it’s important that the jibes at Mr. Cerf be seen for what they are. For he happens to be a triumph of Mr. Klein’s campaign to bring excellence into the leadership of the education department. Mr. Cerf is one of the brightest lawyers of his generation, having clerked on the appeals bench for Skelly Wright and then on the Supreme Court for Justice O’Connor. He was in a position to make millions in the private sector, but, inspired by what was happening in New York, threw in with Messrs. Klein and Bloomberg.

It’s not a matter of his having sold stock in Edison Schools the day before he was asked about it. What he actually did was forgo — he gave away — warrants for Edison Stock that could have been, someday, worth millions. He had no dealing with Edison in his work for the Department of Education. But he wanted to go the extra mile in exchange for a clean field in public service. Which of his or Mr. Klein’s critics has ever made that kind of sacrifice in order to be unencumbered to work within our school system?

Mr. Cerf is but one of a growing cadre of idealists Mr. Klein has recruited. The aide leading the work on accountability — meaning, standards and assessment — is James Liebman, who clerked on the Supreme Court for Justice Stevens, spent many years at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and became a professor at Columbia Law School. Robert Gordon, who was at the top of his class at Yale Law School and clerked for Justice Ginsberg, and worked in the Clinton White House, has joined the Department of Education to work on what the DOE calls fair financing and resources allocation. None of these individuals is a conservative ideologue or leftist theoretician. They are all Democrats whose main mark is that they are practical, idealistic, and capable of earning radically more outside of public service than within the school system.

Nor are these three the only such individuals in the Klein effort. The chancellor signaled early that he was going to break the mold, bringing in Caroline Kennedy to lead the effort to marshal private charitable contributions to supplement the public commitment to education reform. No one is suggesting that the enormous task of reforming the school system can be done without, or in spite of, the career education officials — or even the union. There are still debates to be had on curriculum, vouchers, and the like. But school reform is a big enough job that the best outside talent will be needed, too. The right move for the city is to be encouraging and inspiriting these individuals, not playing gotcha with them when they forsake private gain for the opportunity to help us all.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”