Doing Reform Wrong in Newark

Back to January 2016 Ed Reporter

Doing Reform Wrong in Newark

In 2010, three people came together to change Newark, New Jersey public schools. They didn’t work with parents or local educators to come up with a plan. In fact, the public was first made aware of the reform project when it was announced on a national television show.

Governor Chris ChristieThe scheme was hatched by then-mayor Cory Booker and Governor Chris Christie, along with the money man, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. It involved “reforms” that changed how families choose schools for their children. Reformers sought to reward teachers for merit and to eliminate the practice of rewards based on seniority. With the amount of money spent and the sacrifices made, there could have been multiple successes had the plan been properly implemented. But the top-down effort met with resistance and criticism, and was an overall failure.

Dale Russakoff details the Newark debacle in her book, The Prize: Who’s In Charge Of America’s Schools. She was a reporter for the Washington Post for 28 years and she exposed the pitfalls of the attempted Newark reforms during an interview on National Public Radio on September 21, 2015.

Bypassing Teachers and Parents

The plan called One Newark began in 2010, and came as a surprise to Newark educators, parents, students, and community leaders who first heard about it when it was announced on Oprah Winfrey’s television show.

Although Newark residents agreed that change was needed at their schools, the reformers who descended on Newark failed to ask for advice or suggestions from those already engaged in efforts to teach students. Instead of involving those who knew best what might help high-poverty and crime-ridden neighborhoods of the city, the reformers told citizens what was to become of their schools, neighborhoods, and families.

Russakoff says, “There were a lot of people, including some very skilled, experienced teachers, who deeply understood the needs of the children in Newark who would have been eager to be part of that conversation.” According to her, “Not only were they insulted that they were left out, there was an agenda that was crafted that didn’t have the benefit of their really important insights into what was needed in Newark.”

Parents weren’t consulted before the project was put in place. Parents were forced to go online to sign up children to attend schools according to an “algorithm” determined by outsiders. Children were moved from neighborhood schools, to which they could safely and easily walk, and assigned to schools whose locations sometimes involved walking through dangerous, crime-infested areas. Reformers provided no transportation system.

Locals Need Not Apply

Zuckerberg donated $100 million. This was tied to the Foundation for Newark’s Future, which aimed to raise a second $100 million from contributors. Seats on the Foundation were originally given only to donors who gave at least $10 million. When there were too few, the requirement was reduced to $5 million. But this still “meant that virtually no one from Newark could afford to serve on this foundation that was trying to change the Newark schools.”

This mistake alienated locals, including “a number of local foundations in Newark that had been involved for years in education,” that were forced to sit on the sidelines because they didn’t have budgets that allowed them to make a $5 million annual gift.

Parents, teachers, principals, and community leaders, “really intelligent, smart, committed people who had been in the fray for years in the lives of children in education,” had no say in changes made or how money was spent. Instead, “the board decided to spend the money the way the wealthy donors wanted it spent.”

The money was allocated in a “business model, top-down reform.” The intent was to increase the number of charter schools; to eliminate “weak” teachers, as determined by peer evaluations and student test scores; to reward better teachers; and to run the district “more like a business.”

Failed Teacher Contracts

Russakoff explains that teachers, the backbone of education, are especially unhappy with Newark’s reform results. They got a new contract that gave a few small raises for what outsiders decided was improved performance, but in return they are forced to work longer hours. This is not what they would have chosen to improve student outcomes had it been left up to them or if anyone had asked what they wanted.

Zuckerberg expected to reform teacher contracts and designated $50 million to that end. The plan was to reward better teachers and fire bad teachers. Zuckerberg was apparently unaware of New Jersey law and teachers union contracts. His plan backfired when legislators negotiated some accountability in teacher contracts but only achieved that by keeping intact seniority, making it impossible to fire teachers or to have any real ability to reward those who performed well.

Russakoff says, “The seniority protections became automatically a part of this new contract in Newark, which was supposed to be, in the words that the reformers were using, a transformational contract that would become a model for how to reform school districts all across the country, and it was not.”

What Was Learned?

In a post on his Facebook page, Zuckerberg refutes some of the failures that reportedly occurred in Newark. He claims that graduation rates increased and that charter schools are more successful in Newark than they are across the nation. He believes that revised teachers union contracts helped retain good teachers.

But with the massive amount of money invested and the turmoil students, teachers, and parents endured, some positive results could be expected. The question remains, what sort of results could have been achieved if the project had proceeded logically and with important people, like parents and teachers, on board from the beginning.

One attribute of the Zuckerberg effort that is particularly troublesome to the community is that $20 million of his donation went to outside consultants who took care of management of various parts of the project. (BusinessInsider.com, 9-25-15)

Zuckerberg may have learned something from the Newark mistakes. His next venture into education will be closer to his home in the San Francisco Bay area, where he promises to “work with everyone — district schools, charters, private schools, teachers, parents, unions, and other philanthropists.”

It’s not clear why tech billionaires feel they have anything to offer education reform, but some combination of elitist ego and naiveté might drive them to believe in their own potential. Bill Gates is the largest private funder of Common Core. Steve Jobs’ widow is venturing into education reform. Many find their money useful but their interference infuriating.

Like Zuckerberg, the other main players who disrupted Newark education have moved on. Former Newark mayor Booker is now the junior U.S. Senator for New Jersey. Governor Christie works on his presidential campaign. Left in Newark to deal with the ongoing challenges of inner city education are the hardworking teachers, the struggling students, and the parents who were left out of the decision-making loop. It is up to them to continue the arduous task of lifting up the children.