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Who’s in charge of America’s schools? Rutgers Nursing, CC BY-NC

Lessons from Newark: why school reforms will not work without addressing poverty

In 2010, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show with Cory Booker, Democratic mayor of Newark, New Jersey, and Chris Christie, Republican governor of New Jersey. Zuckerberg announced, to cheers and applause, a US$100 million challenge grant to “turn Newark into a symbol of educational excellence for the whole nation.”

The plan mattered not only for Newark – a desperately poor city with failing public schools despite significant state funding and state control – but also for the national debate about how to best improve public education.

Five years later, Dale Russakoff, a longtime journalist, has published her valuable chronicle of the process, The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? Her verdict: Newark’s children are generally not better off for the experiment.

That’s disappointing news to me personally and professionally. I’ve taught journalism and American studies at Rutgers University-Newark since 2000, and I know firsthand the complaints of students, parents and teachers with the Newark school system.

I’ve also written widely on the history of New York City. In researching my latest book – Crossing Broadway: Washington Heights and the Promise of New York City – I learned how the city’s public schools have long defined neighborhoods and shaped economic opportunity. I’ve also seen how inequalities in the schools have sparked movements for democracy and racial justice.

Newark schools in desperate need of reforms

Downtown Newark is only 12 miles from lower Manhattan, but there are days when the distance seems much greater. While New York grapples with gentrification and globalization, Newark struggles – with some signs of success – to revive its economy. New York’s politics are famously multi-ethnic, but in Newark – despite a growing Hispanic population – city politics is stubbornly set in a racial frame.

In New York, school reform is a project more than a decade old that began in the mayoralty of Michael Bloomberg. Working in a safer city with a more robust economy and a growing population, New York reformers closed low-performing schools, expanded school choice, and opened charter schools. Their efforts were controversial and not always successful, but they succeeded in breaking up the city’s ossified educational bureaucracy.

In Newark, there is no question that public schools needed reform. Despite substantial court-ordered state funding and direct state control of public education, over the years weak schools far outnumbered good schools.

Newark adopted many elements of the New York reform effort, including a reliance on charters and school closings. Indeed, the school superintendent in Newark who presided over this project was Cami Anderson, a product of the reformed New York City system.

Poverty in the classroom

Yet Newark’s reform effort yielded little, Russakoff argues, because it was a relentlessly top-down effort, with grandstanding by both Booker and Christie and little consultation with parents and teachers. It was also, she suggests, proof of the limitations of the current debate over how to improve urban public schools.

For all the complexities of urban education, the differences between opposing camps are sharp. One side, including teachers’ unions, says that educational problems cannot be solved without addressing poverty. The other side, which includes school reformers and supporters of charter schools, argues that unionized schoolteachers are making excuses when they cite poverty as a critical problem in educating inner-city kids.

Russakoff wisely rejects this framing, and gives vivid examples of how poverty affects Newark’s children in the classroom.

A top-down effort? Insider Images, CC BY-NC

Readers will be inspired by Princess Fils Aime, a teacher from Newark who overcomes homelessness to become a talented presence in the city’s schools. Russakoff shows how she impressively combines discipline, high standards, and nurturing learning in a classroom where, in one year, 15 of her 26 kindergartners are being monitored for “alleged neglect or exposure to domestic violence.”

And they will remember Russakoff’s depiction of Alif Beyah, a struggling student whose performance improves with help from his mother, a principal, assistant principal, special education teacher and basketball coach. This support system vanishes when he goes to high school, where he makes the basketball team as a freshman but loses ground academically.

When Alif’s friend is stabbed to death while they are walking home from a pickup basketball game, he goes into a tailspin and cries himself to sleep. Alif finishes his freshman year failing history, math and English. Despite the dogged efforts of a vice principal, his academic future does not inspire optimism.

Cases like Alif’s convinced Zuckerberg to retool his approach to philanthropy to take into account poverty.

Can education be left to reformers?

As for the political questions that surround public education, reformers might argue that their top-down approach was necessary to create change. But in 2014, their Newark efforts culminated in a mayoral election that was something of a referendum on their project.

The winner was Ras Baraka, an opponent of school reformers, who derided them as elitists who violated Newark’s right to self-rule.

As Russakoff points out, the anger at public school reform (not only in Newark, but also in Chicago and New York City) suggests “education reform is too important to be left to reformers alone.”

But engaging communities is a difficult task. In cities like Newark, where schools define neighborhoods and provide much-needed jobs, the same parent who wants a charter school to provide a better education for her child might be angry to see her sister lose her job as a school aide when a regular public school closes.

Do charters provide a better model?

The Prize is a taut work of narrative journalism, written with sharply rendered scenes and characters. It memorably portrays dealmakers, teachers and students. In a political landscape defined by opponents and defenders of charter schools, it describes good work done in both charters and regular public schools.

Nevertheless, its structure has limitations.

Through close-up portraits of two schools, Russakoff argues that charters do better than regular public schools at getting money into classrooms where it can help students. She echoes politically varied critics who say Newark’s schools are mired in a wasteful, choking bureaucracy rife with patronage.

There is something to her argument, but it has been criticized by Mark Weber, a teacher and graduate student in education at Rutgers. Weber makes a good case that in some places The Prize juxtaposes schools and administrative structures that are too different to compare usefully. Also, as Weber points out, it ignores publicly available state data that call into question the charters’ reputation for efficiency and effectiveness.

The missing Latino voices

The tight focus of The Prize also removes from view the story of Hispanic Newark.

Russakoff’s close attention to Mayor Booker, an African American, and the black/white racial politics of school reform say next to nothing about Latinos who make up about a third of the city’s population.

Newark has long been thought of as a black city, but its school-aged population is roughly half African American and 40% Hispanic. Latinos have been less vocal than blacks in the city’s school wars, and therefore less visible.

Their place in Newark’s schools deserves greater recognition.

The growth of Newark’s charter schools and the decline of public school enrollments both raise serious questions about the future shape of the city’s school system.

Equally important for the future are Mayor Baraka’s demands for home rule, a surge of energy in his administration and a major commitment to improving education in Newark made by my own university, Rutgers University-Newark.

The Prize may not answer every question in the school reform wars, but it does convey the importance of lessons learned and opportunities lost in New Jersey’s largest city.

Anyone who cares about the future of education, in Newark and the rest of the United States, can learn something from this book.

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