What Newark Schools Need
When Lenore Furman teaches, it looks like magic.
Her seventeen kindergarteners at Abington Avenue, a public elementary school in Newark, New Jersey, are rapt as they sing along with Furman's guitar in English and Spanish, read aloud in unison a paragraph on the change of seasons from fall to winter and learn a list of difficult vocabulary words related to animal hibernation: burrow, perch, trudge and slither. The children gather in a circle to share stories about their lives, then work independently to write them down in full sentences.
But Furman's methods aren't magic, and they rely only partly on her innate talent for teaching. Her singalongs, read-alouds and writing lessons are all part of a research-backed system developed by the Children's Literacy Initiative, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that has won a $22 million grant from the Obama administration to bring its teacher training program to fifteen Newark elementary schools. There's evidence that CLI's program works: several of the Newark schools using its techniques, including Abington Avenue, are among the highest-performing schools in the city, and their students—almost all of them from impoverished backgrounds—routinely meet or exceed state test score averages in math, reading and science.
CLI's results are especially exciting in light of the latest research on reading and the achievement gap, showing that a child who finishes third grade reading below grade level has little chance of ever catching up to his or her peers and a disproportionate chance of dropping out of high school. To reach the rest of Newark's kindergarten through third-grade classrooms in thirty-six schools, though, CLI will need more funding. Former New Jersey legislator and assistant commissioner of education Gordon MacInnes, now a fellow at the Century Foundation, believes scaling up CLI would be an excellent use of the much-hyped $100 million five-year donation to the Newark schools from Mark Zuckerberg, the 26-year-old founder of Facebook and thirty-fifth richest person in America.
"I would tend to say, Why don't we use this money to make sure that every third grader in Newark can read?" MacInnes says. "If every third grader can read, there's a chance they can go on to be educated in science, history and mathematics."
Despite success stories like CLI's, the Newark schools have been portrayed as almost uniquely terrible since Zuckerberg's donation was announced September 24 on The Oprah Winfrey Show. In press appearances celebrating the donation, New Jersey governor and rumored GOP presidential hopeful Chris Christie, who has addressed state budget deficits in part by cutting $819 million in education spending, has repeatedly called the performance of the Newark school system "an obscenity." The city needs "an entirely new plan" for education, Christie told Winfrey. Zuckerberg chimed in that Christie and Newark Mayor Cory Booker will be able to "implement new programs in Newark and really make a difference," thanks to the grant.
None of the men mentioned Newark's pre-existing six national Blue Ribbon schools, cited for excellence in closing the achievement gap, nor have they pledged to scale up or replicate promising reform programs already operating in the city, such as the Global Village Zone, an effort to coordinate instruction, teacher coaching and family social services in seven high-need neighborhood schools in the city's Central Ward.
The public conversation about the Zuckerberg donation—which, even with its intended matching grant, will equal only about 4 percent of the district's $940 million budget each year for five years—ignored the cyclical nature of education reform in Newark since the 1960s, when the district first experimented with "schools within schools" and, in 1971, became the site of the longest teachers union strike in an American city. "National foundations and all sorts of nonprofits and entrepreneurs and hedge-fund people have all thought, when they have an idea they think would work, Gee, let's do it in Newark," MacInnes says. "That creates one of the real problems, which is that Newark is always willing to open its bank account to receive outside funds and start projects to try out these ideas, but that is all done in a setting where there's very little coherence."
One of those rare coherent moments in education policy occurred in New Jersey in 1985, when the State Supreme Court ruled in Abbott v. Burke that Trenton must equalize funding between New Jersey's richest and poorest school districts and provide supplemental programs for the most disadvantaged kids. With the billions of extra dollars that flowed from this and subsequent court rulings, Newark and thirty other high-poverty districts launched universal preschool and full-day kindergarten and provided greater access to social workers, computers, in-school meals, summer programs and intensive small-group reading instruction.
The system was regarded as a national model. According to a recent report from the Schott Foundation, during the years of full Abbott implementation, from 2003 to 2008, Newark was the national urban leader in closing the high school graduation gap between black and white males. Seventy-five percent of the city's black male students graduated from high school in 2008, compared with just 41 percent of black males in Washington and 28 percent in New York City—the two districts whose school reform policies are most often cited as models by Mayor Booker and his staff, who admire New York's vibrant charter school sector and Washington's controversial new teacher merit-pay program.
In 2008 the New Jersey legislature changed the school funding formula to send extra dollars to every district with high-poverty students, not just to those that, like Newark, are overwhelmed by the challenges of poverty. Additional budget cuts under Governor Christie resulted in a total loss of $1.1 billion annually for Newark and the other high-poverty districts—a number that dwarfs the size of the Zuckerberg gift.
"The mayor has never done the kind of community support for the Abbott funding that he's doing now for this donation," says Stan Karp, director of the Secondary Reform Project at the Education Law Center, which brought Abbott v. Burke to court. "It's a concern, because Abbott did result in some really fundamental change."
Indeed, for a man fashioning himself as a national education reformer, Christie is surprisingly ignorant of Abbott's track record. At a press conference with Zuckerberg and Booker on September 25, he referred obliquely to the Education Law Center, which has recently questioned the legality of the Zuckerberg donation, as those who have "sued the state's education system into failure. Candidly, I don't give a damn what those people think."
Newark's overall academic performance remains low. Ninety-eight percent of the system's graduates who attend local community college end up needing some kind of remedial education. But it is clear that there has been consistent improvement in Newark over the past decade. In 2000, just 33 percent of Newark's fourth graders passed the state math exam; in 2009, 54 percent passed. Over the same period, fourth-grade reading scores went up 39 points and eighth-grade math scores increased 22 points.
"To suggest we're a complete failure would be a disrespect to the district and the people of the city," says Newark school advisory board president Shavar Jeffries, reflecting on media coverage of the Zuckerberg donation. "This really wasn't rooted in the community. At some level, it's absurd for the people of Newark to hear about important changes being made that affect children, and the way you find out is to watch Oprah at 4 pm.... Given that kind of cacophony, it's very easy to tell the usual story. We're talking about urban kids, black kids, brown kids, everything must be a failure. There's a missionary spirit that will obviously grate on people."
Zuckerberg, Christie and Booker have been vague about their plans for the new funding stream, but the Facebook founder has said it is Booker's passion for school reform that inspired him to make his first foray into large-scale philanthropy. "Newark is really just because I believe in these guys," Zuckerberg said on Oprah, referring to Booker and Christie.