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John Thompson: What Will Zuckerberg Learn From Newark?

Guest post by John Thompson.

Dale Russakoff's New Yorker profile "Schooled" is a wonderful account of Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million investment in Newark school reform, and how and why it failed. Perhaps the best new revelation in "Schooled" starts with the lesson Russakoff learned from a wealthy donor. "Investors bet on people, not on business plans, because they know successful people will find a way to be successful." And, sure enough, when Facebook's founder announced his plan to transform Newark schools, "One Newark," he explained that he was persuaded by then-mayor Cory Booker, "This is the guy I want to invest in. This is a person who can create change."

Booker created a confidential draft plan to "make Newark the charter school capital of the nation." Because it would be driven by philanthropic donors, no openness would be required.  "Real change requires casualties," Booker argued, and stealth was required to defeat "the pre-existing order," which will "fight loudly and viciously."

This raises the question of what would have happened if Booker had done all of "the right things," and been transparent, instead of caricaturing teachers and unions. What if Booker had provided Zuckerberg with a fair and balanced analysis of school improvement issues?

What if Booker had objectively reported the results of Newark's high-performing charters, such as North Star Academy, a member of the Uncommon Schools network? North Star was driven by data and non-unionized teachers who could "teach like champions!" The result was proficiency rates as high as 100% and graduation rates of 100%.

What if he then shared the research of Rutgers' Bruce Baker? Baker showed that in comparison to Newark schools North Star served 14% fewer students with family incomes low enough for free lunch. It served 36% fewer students with learning disabilities. The charter served no students with emotional disabilities, traumatic brain injuries, or multiple impairments. North Star was tied with another charter school for the city's second highest suspension rate. That was only one reason why the attrition rate for black boys between 5th and 12th grade was 60%.  

In other words, had Booker informed Zuckerberg of both sides of the story, we would not have had to wait until Russakoff's article to discuss the policy implications of Newark relying so heavily on charters. She would explain:

With his (Booker's) encouragement, Newark spawned some of the top charter schools in the country, including fifteen run by Uncommon Schools and KIPP. Parents increasingly enrolled children in charters--particularly in wards with the highest concentrations of low-income and black residents, which had the worst public schools. Many district schools were left with a preponderance of the students who most needed help.

Of course, the mass dumping of the most challenging students on the most troubled schools further damaged those schools and their students. And, since "One Newark" would rely on the closing of failed schools, Booker should have also reported on both sides of the evidence and the policy recommendations of the Gates-funded "bible" of school turnarounds.

"The Turnaround Challenge" famously called for the replacement of "culture killing" teachers who were not fully on board with comprehensive school transformation policies. But, it warned that only a small percentage of teachers should be removed. It explicitly warned against a key component of Booker's plan, the mass dismissal of teachers.

Moreover, "The Turnaround Challenge" argued against the cornerstone of the Newark policy. It concluded that instruction-driven, curriculum-driven efforts are inherently incapable of turning around the most challenging schools. In other words, "One Newark's" faith that answers can be provided by teachers inside classrooms, before socio-emotional supports are functioning, was naïve.

What if Booker had then summarized the result of perhaps the nation's most important experiment in mass school improvement. Due to the New Jersey Supreme Court ruling, Abbott v. Burke, an additional $3000+ per student per year was invested in poor schools. Booker could have summarized the disappointing results in Newark, as well as Camden, and Trenton. They saw a "relative decline" in achievement. 

But neighboring systems like Union City, Elizabeth, and Orange, have seen "virtually unprecedented" improvements over entire districts, as opposed to gains in scattered schools. They succeeded by narrowing the "kindergarten gap."

Booker could have cited Gordon MacInnis. In "Fire. Aim. Ready. Why Reformers Miss the Target," MacInnis drew upon cognitive and education research to explain:

We have a lot of evidence about what works best. Start early. Give three- and four-year-old children from poor families two years of high-quality preschool. Follow this with a course of intensive early literacy instruction in grades K-3. A kid who does not read at grade level in third grade has only a one in seven chance of ever reading at grade level! Strong readers can be educated; non-readers cannot.

At the same time, Booker would need to explain that the science-based policies advocated by MacInnes would be as challenging to implement as the iffy experiment that was "One Newark." As MacInnes explains, early education cannot be high-dollar daycare.  New Jersey invests $12,000 per student in it.  The professional development of preschool teachers takes as much skill and diplomacy as that of public school teachers.  Early education must nurture self-control and inner-directedness.  And, teaching children to read for comprehension by 3rdgrade, as opposing to merely decoding, is rocket science.

On the other hand, those seeking change in Union City, New Jersey, embraced high-quality early education. As David Kirp would later explain in Improbable Scholars, Union City used research-based reforms to turnaround a school system that had been one of New Jersey's worst. Kirp shows how we can build great schools on the strengths of our democracy. Their successes did not come from outside technocrats, but from a local culture of "abrazos" or caring.  Rather than firing our way to the top, Kirp shows that school improvement must come from trusting relationships.  The secret sauce of Union City's success was "respeto," or respect.

The equally good news is that school improvement is best achieved by the "grunt" work of "continuous improvement." Rather than gambling on "disruptive innovation" and "transformative" change, real reform requires a modest ethic of "plan, do, and review."

Sadly, Kirp seems to retrospectively explain why Booker embraced the reform ethos. The hard work of planning, implementation, and trial and error is not as dramatic as a Democrat leading a blood-in-the-eye assault on his party's constituencies.

What do you think? Why did reformers adopt the "Fire. Aim. Ready." approach to Newark's schools? Will they continue with Cory Booker's politics of demonizing teachers? Or will they learn from the Newark fiasco and begin to listen?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

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