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The Newark School Reform Fiasco

When Mark Zuckerberg announced on Oprah almost four years ago that he would give $100 million over five years to reform Newark's persistently failing schools, the news was electric.  But today the picture there is still bleak for reasons that serve as a cautionary tale ("Schooled," The New Yorker, May 13).

If there's one overall lesson that can be drawn, it's that the best intentions are not enough. It's what I call the philanthropic paradox. Education reform too often is seen as something done to people, rather than something done with people. It's the reason that 77 members of the clergy signed a letter in mid-April urging Gov. Chris Christie to put a moratorium on the school reform plan. It's also seen in the election of Ras Baraka as the new mayor of Newark ("Newark's Voters Choose New Mayor and New Path," The New York Times, May 14).  His victory is being interpreted as an expression of voter resentment toward outsiders, particularly Wall Streeters promoting school privatization ("Ras Baraka's Victory in Newark Could Revitalize New Jersey Progressives," The Nation, May 14). 

It's to Zuckerberg's credit that he acknowledged from the beginning his ignorance about urban education and philanthropy. Accordingly, he stipulated that then-Mayor Cory Booker would have to raise a second $100 million before releasing his matching dollars.  Nevertheless, it wasn't long before $20 million of Zuckerberg's gift and matching donations went to various consulting firms.  

This kind of spending has happened time and again in other school districts that were intent on reform.  Yet it seems to be an affliction that cannot be cured.  I realize it's imperative to have a realistic plan in place before money is spent.  But it's hard to understand what expertise consultants bring to education that educators don't already know. It's a telling commentary that six months after Zuckerberg's original announcement Newark still had no superintendent, no comprehensive strategy and no progress toward a new teachers' contract.

Whether it can be called progress is debatable, but the only evidence of change I see is that New Jersey state law now makes tenure much harder to get and much easier to lose.  Moreover, raises for the first time are given only to teachers rated effective or better under the district's new evaluation system.  This could mean bonuses of between $5,000 and $12,500 for top teachers.

Lost in the details is the effect on student learning.  Under a plan known as One Newark, parents were able to choose among 55 district schools and 16 charter schools, with preference given to students from the poorest families and those with special needs. The purpose was to free students from failing neighborhood schools.  But One Newark was one of the most contentious issues in the recent election.

I don't think that philanthropists can possibly grasp the enormity of the educational problems they are trying to solve. The advice they get from high-priced consulting firms is not the same as teaching in inner-city public schools. That's why almost all of Zuckerberg's $100 million has been spent or committed, with little to show for it.  He would have been better off relying on his wife's advice from the outset that teachers are not miracle workers.  She correctly understood that what happens in class is overwhelmingly dependent on what students bring to class.

I repeat: the best intentions are not enough.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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