Newark students are better off, despite the political noise | Moran

By Tom Moran | Star-Ledger Editorial Board
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on September 06, 2015

Newark School Superintendent Cami Anderson and Gov. Chris Christie talk at the Newark Teacher's Village grand opening ceremony on Halsey Street in Newark, NJ, on Wednesday, September 25, 2013.

 

Give New Jersey credit for this much: It has put enormous effort into lifting Newark's schools over the past few decades, a noble effort to give poor children a shot at a better life.

Philadelphia spends $12,600 on each student. Newark spends $22,300. And the political muscle behind reform has been just as lopsided.

But the results have frustrated everyone. Conservatives see waste, and liberals see missed opportunities. In Newark, resentment against state control is universal, with the vigorous changes over the past five years met by vigorous protest.

Into this maelstrom now steps the fearless Dale Russakoff, a respected reporter from the Washington Post who just spent more than four years immersed in Newark and just completed a book on its school reform saga, "The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Schools?" She jumped in when Face­book's Mark Zuckerberg, seduced by then-Mayor Cory Booker, agreed to chip in $100 million as seed money for a new round of reform.

The reformers hoped to make Newark a national model by pressing the kind of reforms endorsed by the Obama administration.

They expanded charter schools, closed chronically failing schools, offered merit pay to good teachers, gave principals powers to hire and fire, and offered a menu of new school choices.

Russakoff's verdict?

"It feels like a wash," she says. "Those in high-performing charters are better off. But those in the district schools are not."

Ouch.

For a Q&A with Russakoff on the book, click here.

Many of those who sweat and bled over this effort are seething about that verdict, and worry that Russakoff's book will deal a body blow to the credibility of the reform movement nationally.

"The suggestion that the district is not considerably better off today is preposterous," says Chris Cerf, a former state education commissioner and now Newark superintendent.

So where does the truth lie? Are Newark schools stuck in neutral, as Russakoff says? And has her book slimed the reform movement, as Cerf says?

If you ask me, they're both missing the mark.

It seems beyond dispute that Newark kids are much better off today, on the whole, mainly due to the explosive growth of the best charter school chains, such as Team Academy and North Star Academy.

But let's face it: Reformers blew the politics of this, provoking a backlash that puts this progress at risk, especially when the schools are returned to local control, as the governor has promised.

Reformers ought to read this fine book and take notes so they can correct course. It points out where the land mines are buried.

* * *

Let's start with the kids. At last count, 26 percent of Newark students attended charter schools, a number that has spiked in the past five years and is expected to grow to as much as 40 percent.

According to the most respected national study on charter school performance, from Stanford University, Newark's are among the best urban charters in the country. At TEAM Academy's high school, 95 percent of the kids attend college after graduation. TEAM's elementary and high school students beat the state average on reading and math tests.

And TEAM isn't cheating by recruiting the wealthier and whiter kids in Newark: 92 percent of their students are African-American and 88 percent get free or reduced-price lunches.
Newark parents have been on to this for years. More than 10,000 are on waiting lists for charters, equal to nearly a third of those in the traditional system.

So if the charter sector is growing fast and performing much better than traditional schools, how is that a wash for Newark kids?

"It's not close," says Ryan Hill, who runs the TEAM Academy schools. "We don't have to guess. The data is unequivocal. There's a million ways to crunch it, and they all say the same thing."

What about the traditional system? If those kids were doing worse, that could outweigh the progress at charters.

But that's not true. The growth of charters has not damaged the kids in the traditional system. In fact, they've made modest improvements.

Reading and math scores for K-8 students have been flat for the past four years. In high schools, the share of 11th graders proficient in reading jumped from 68 percent to 80 percent, while math scores were flat.

Graduation rates have improved from 56 percent to 70 percent, according to the district. That's a big deal, says Booker.

"Having that diploma has a huge impact on life outcomes, from earnings to the chance you land in jail," he says.

Add this: Some of the changes made by former Superintendent Cami Anderson could take years to show results. She established several new themed schools that are proving popular. She upgraded the training and recruitment of principals, and gave them new authority to hire and fire. She gave families more opportunity to select the school of their choice.

The jury is out, but these are sensible changes that could bear more fruit.

* * *

Russakoff treats this kind of accomplishment with respect, which is why it strikes me as odd that so many reformers are miffed.

Where her knives come out is in describing the politics. On that front, the reform effort was a crash and burn.

By the time Anderson resigned in June, she could not speak at a public meeting without protesters shouting her down. She gave up even attending meetings of the elected advisory school board. Union leaders and local politicians seemed to relish the chance to throw sticks in her spokes.

Russakoff's description of Anderson's political ham-handedness is devastating. And she nails Booker, too, for his inability or unwillingness to rescue her.

This was a top-down reform that was fraudulently sold as grass roots. The core elements were agreed upon at the start by Booker, Zuckerberg, Cerf and Gov. Chris Christie.
Russakoff description of the phony "outreach" effort makes you cringe.

Here the reformers complain that Russakoff downplayed the nasty behavior of the unions and local politicians, including Mayor Ras Baraka who fanned resentment against Anderson for their own political gain.

"She did a brilliant job of telling half the story," Cerf says.

I did want to know more about saboteurs. But there is a larger political lesson.

As Newark kids migrated to charter schools, state money followed them. So the traditional schools have been forced to cut budgets and shed jobs. The political conflict is built in.

And in a city like Newark, where jobs in the schools and city government have been key vehicles for upward mobility, that conflict can get hot fast. Closing local schools, even persistent failures, creates its own backlash.

"Forces that benefit from the broken status quo, for example unions and their allies, pray on this and politicize it," Anderson says. "They fuel mistrust and misinformation, making a hard conversation about trade-offs almost impossible."

In Camden, similar reforms are underway but have not provoked the same opposition. Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard used to work for Anderson in Newark, and took elaborate care to engage local residents from the start in Camden.

Newark is much bigger, the elbows are much sharper, and the resentment against outsiders is inflamed after two decades of state control of schools.

I do wonder if anyone on Earth could push hard enough to make needed changes without provoking the kind of backlash that Anderson suffered.

That's the political challenge. And reformers would be smart to read this book as they try to find that sweet spot.

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