Monica Yant Kinney: Christie's softer education-reform approach

At Sharp Elementary School in Cherry Hill, Gov. Christie stopped Tuesday to chat with a class of 23 first graders.
At Sharp Elementary School in Cherry Hill, Gov. Christie stopped Tuesday to chat with a class of 23 first graders. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 14, 2011

Nine months into 2011, you may be startled to learn this is the year of education reform in New Jersey. Especially if you moved here for the schools.

Sure, the Garden State leads the nation in graduating high school seniors. But because we're at or near the top of less desirable lists - property taxes, urban poverty, functionally illiterate Jersey Shore cast members as TV spokespeople - Gov. Christie made overhauling education a signature priority. Smart move, considering it's the rare issue on which Democrats and Republicans find common ground.

Christie wants to blow up the tenure system, reward teachers for students' performances, introduce vouchers, and expand charter schools. Until now, he's mostly delivered this message as a stern lecture with a raised voice, the better to wake up snoozing union leaders.

This week, Christie is touring schools with a softer approach. He's goofing with first graders and assuring superintendents he wants to collaborate on new state standards.

After Tuesday's stop at Sharp Elementary in Cherry Hill, I half expected him to pass out cupcakes. Clearly, the governor digs kids. Now, he's offering olive branch snacks to embattled teachers.

Schools, Christie insisted, "need less top-down management from Trenton." Eliminating regulations and easing testing mandates will let teachers "do what they do best."

Meeting his match

Sarah Anderson and Kathy Gilmour already met my benchmark: One week into the school year, the Sharp teachers commanded enough respect to keep 23 first graders quiet and still as they waited for their VIP guest.

Governor Gruff melted in the students' presence.

When a boy recalled visiting the Battleship New Jersey, Christie nodded approvingly without mentioning that he slashed the historic site's state funding. When a girl said she read Junie B. Jones books all summer, he applauded even though parents secretly loathe the obnoxious title character.

"You hit a shark with your surfboard? You're a hero!" Christie raved to an adorable tale-teller named Mason, who shared accounts of his beach bravery. "I gotta take you back to Trenton. People try to bite me all the time."

The media were ushered out before the students tackled their math lesson: counting to 40 using a number line. That's new to first graders across the state. But not for long.


In the school library, Christie touted the reason for his visit: promoting new state educational standards, the only reform he can muster as long as the Legislature is otherwise focused on reelection.

In June, New Jersey became the ninth state to adopt the Common Core State Standards, a set of expectations detailing what children in each grade should know as they march toward college and careers.

The standards movement stresses achievement and progress over policy and test scores. But high school seniors will ultimately take new exit exams - and the results could tarnish the state's reputation.

"I'm tired of giving out fake diplomas," Christie said. With common core standards, "we'll know the truth" about just how well New Jersey educates its youth.

Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670,, or @myantkinney on Twitter. Read her blog at


comments powered by Disqus