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Don't Generalize About Fixing Schools

With so much on the line, it's understandable why reformers continue to seek a model for turning around failing schools ("How to Fix the Country's Failing Schools. And How Not To," The New York Times, Jan. 10).  But there is no assurance that what works in one school district will work in another. 

Consider the experiences of public schools in Newark and nearby Union City, New Jersey.  Schools in both districts are populated by mostly poor minority and immigrant students, posted low graduation rates, and were rife with corruption and cronyism. Therefore, they seemed good candidates for comparison. The debate came down to the contrasting approaches taken that have produced different outcomes. 

In Union City, the success (81 percent graduation rate) was said to be due to the "slow-and-steady" strategy adopted, while the failure of Newark (69 percent graduation rate) was said to be due to the aggressive strategy pursued.  But what about schools in Jersey City, Paterson and Camden, New Jersey?  All the schools in these cities are overwhelmingly populated by low-income minority students, as in Newark and Union City.  What have been the outcomes there?  What about test scores, or are graduation rates all that matter?  Why are they not part of the discussion?

A bit of history is in order here. New Jersey enacted the nation's first state-takeover law in 1987. The state began operating public schools in Jersey City in 1989.  Then in 1991, it did the same in Paterson.  In 1995, it seized control of public schools in Newark, the state's largest district. Finally, in 2013, it took over Camden's public schools.

Until more is known about what transpired in public schools in Jersey City, Paterson and Camden, it's premature to draw conclusions about the strategy adopted in schools in Union City, which is overwhelmingly Hispanic. For example, Camden, which has used Union City's strategy, has not improved its outcomes, with only a 50 percent graduation rate ("Camden schools' turnaround plan will need public support to have a chance," newsworks.org, Nov. 13, 2014).  Is that because the student population is different?  That's important in order to make a satisfactory match.  

Turning around school districts is an ongoing issue.  I remain open to evidence about scalability and sustainability.  But I urge caution before jumping to conclusions, however promising they may seem.  There are so many factors that come into play in determining outcomes.

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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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