Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Supposed reform of Newark's schools is a cautionary tale

Posted By on Tue, Jun 3, 2014 at 11:26 AM

A friend brought New Yorker reporter Dale Russakoff’s article “Schooled” to my attention. Newark, New Jersey’s school reform efforts involving Governor Chris Christie, Senator Cory Booker, and social media’s boy-billionaire Mark Zuckerberg is a must read.

Russakoff chronicles Booker's rise from a sharp, post-civil-rights-era law scholar and community activist to Democratic mayor of Newark, and eventually to a seat in the US Senate. There, he joins forces with Christie, a rising Republican political star, to make Newark the urban education reform model for the country.

The pair tap Zuckerberg, who has a fresh and somewhat naive interest in philanthropy, and he gives $100 million to help underwrite some dramatic changes: closing traditional public schools, promoting charters, cutting teachers, linking job security to student test scores, hiring a tough education czar — all standard reform-movement measures.

And everyone from US Education Secretary Arne Duncan to Oprah jumped on the “let’s reform Newark’s schools” bandwagon; everyone except New York Education Commissioner John King. Interestingly, King turned down an offer to be Newark’s education chief, partly because he didn't believe the district could be turned around in five years — a target that reformers often use. 

Russakoff makes several important observations about urban education and what happened in Newark. First, many big city mayors have found themselves tied to low-performing school districts with relatively little direct authority. And they often run their campaigns on education reform messages, but they underestimate the explosive mix of politics and education.

They also don’t appreciate how long it takes to turn schools around and the investment it requires. School turnarounds don’t occur in a year or two, and they aren’t cheap. A huge challenge, Russakoff says, is making sure the money gets to the students who need it, and isn't eaten up by consultants and layers of administrators who can’t even produce basic data.

And maybe most important, he says, is that every party in the community has to buy into the plan for school improvement, especially parents, students, and teachers. Reform can’t be imposed; it’s not a surgical procedure that’s performed in a sterile room. s

After all the fanfare, Newark’s school system isn’t in any better shape than it was before Christie and Booker decided to rescue it.  And their effort is more of a cautionary tale than the model of reform they envisioned.

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