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.
Though Booker has no official control over his city’s public schools, whose superintendent has reported directly to the state education commissioner since 1995, he is a longtime national advocate for a certain brand of school reform: mayoral control, opening new charter schools, providing vouchers for inner-city children to attend private schools, weakening teacher tenure and tying teacher evaluation and pay to student test scores. He sits on the advisory board of Democrats for Education Reform, which lobbies for such policies, and the $40 million raised so far to match Zuckerberg’s $100 million grant comes from donors with a similar focus, including Bill Gates; NewSchools Venture Fund board member John Doerr, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist; and New York City banker Ravenel Curry and his wife, Elizabeth, who have a history of supporting school choice efforts and libertarian think tanks, including the Manhattan Institute and Cato Institute. Booker’s older brother, Cary, is the co-founder of Omni Schools, a Memphis-based charter school operator.
It is widely acknowledged that Booker aspires to gain mayoral control of Newark’s public school system, New Jersey’s largest, with more than 40,000 students. According to state law, that can happen only if the state education department returns local control to the Newark school board. Then the city’s voters must approve or reject a referendum on mayoral management. By reeling in a fish as big and rich as Zuckerberg, Booker is making the case to his constituents and to the Republican administration in Trenton that it’s high time to return Newark to local control—and his own capable hands.
But on the ground in the city, there are competing visions for education reform. Booker and his allies in the charter school sector could be contrasted with a group of organizations that focus less on opening new schools and more on improving classroom curriculum and instruction in the neighborhood public schools, which educate 86 percent of Newark’s children. Caryn Henning, who leads the Children’s Literacy Initiative’s teacher coaching program in the city, says, "We’d be very excited to have Cory Booker come in and see one of our model classrooms so he can see what is possible…. The neighborhood schools educate the majority of the city, and a lot of them are doing a good job. You need to look at whether what’s going on can be replicated anywhere"—not just in charter schools, which tend to have more engaged parents and, in Newark, fewer special education students than in traditional public schools (5 percent versus 12 percent); charter schools also have a less mobile student population, with just 10 percent of their students moving during the school year, compared with 20 percent in the neighborhood schools.
Mayor Booker’s critics say he has demonstrated little sustained interest in Newark’s neighborhood schools. His defenders cite several projects Booker has worked on in tandem with traditional public schools, such as the Alternative High School Partnership, an effort to serve dropouts, and the YES Center, which connects at-risk public school students with job training. Lauren Wells, director of the Global Village Zone—a project based in part on the wraparound services of Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, except that it partners with neighborhood schools instead of charters—says, "Our work has been very broadly supported by Newark Public Schools and the mayor’s office."
The Global Village Zone has raised about $300,000 from foundations, but its goal is to reorganize existing public school resources to serve kids better—proving along the way, hopefully, that education reform can be done without relying on oodles of private dollars: "to actually demonstrate that sustainable and comprehensive reform requires that you do it within the public system," says Wells.
But when Zuckerberg visited Newark on September 25, Booker chose to show him a charter school, the KIPP Newark Collegiate Academy, rather than any of the neighborhood public school programs his administration has supported. Almost every close observer expects the Zuckerberg funds to be devoted, at least in part, to opening new charters—and the mayor’s office confirms that this is one likely outcome.
"Booker has not said to the people of Newark, ‘Here is my plan,’" notes Junius Williams, director of the Abbott Leadership Institute and a veteran Newark civil rights and public education advocate. "But the circumstantial evidence is his love of charter schools and school choice. So, many of us think the plan has already been written and a good portion of that money will be spent to begin a new round of charter schools."
"I think it’s a prepackaged agenda," says Wilhelmina Holder, a paralegal and parent activist who graduated from the city’s Weequahic High School in 1969 and has put her three children through the Newark public schools. "No one is giving you money unless you have a design. Come on, let’s keep it real here. I think [the Zuckerberg money will be used] not to support public schools but to minimize public schools and build up this whole charter network."
Booker insiders note that the city’s charter schools are a popular, oversubscribed option, with more than 6,000 children on waiting lists. But "at the end of the day, the majority of our kids attend district schools, and we understand we need to show progress and significant advancement on the district side," says De’Shawn Wright, a former Booker education adviser and partner at the Newark Charter School Fund. "That’s the priority and where we are going to focus the majority of our efforts."
Booker has undoubtedly observed with interest the public relations snafus that have plagued school reform efforts in New York and Washington under mayors Mike Bloomberg (with the Cathie Black fiasco) and Adrian Fenty (erstwhile patron of lightning rod Michelle Rhee). He knows he needs to tread carefully around community affection for and investment in even low-performing schools. To that end, he has chosen to use the first $1 million of the Zuckerberg matching grant to create the Partnership for Education in Newark (PENewark), a coalition of community groups that will conduct a two-month survey of as many Newarkers as possible, asking them how they would spend the Zuckerberg funds. The group is harvesting e-mail addresses, airing TV commercials, making T-shirts and organizing focus groups. But Wright says it will ultimately be up to Newark’s incoming superintendent of schools—likely to be named in January by Christie, with input from Booker—to define the education reform agenda moving forward. The new superintendent must be a "coalition builder," Wright says, "somebody who is willing to hear from the community and can demonstrate that the community’s voice has been heard, even if his or her final determination is not always 100 percent aligned with those views expressed."
Williams, of the Abbott Leadership Institute, is skeptical of PENewark’s outreach efforts, which are led by two New York City consulting firms with ties to the Bloomberg administration, Tusk Strategies and SKDKnickerbocker, which also represents Rhee. "Those of us who’ve been in the community and involved in this whole question of school reform for years, not just months, I think we already know what people want," Williams says. "They want a good school, a safe school. They want to feel welcome in that school as parents, and they want a teacher who knows what he or she is doing and is culturally sensitive. I don’t think you’re going to find too much variation on that theme. So what are you going to do with that information once it comes in?"
A newly formed coalition of parents, teachers and civil rights activists called the Coalition for Effective Newark Public Schools is undertaking its own survey. Teams of volunteers are visiting every school in the district, asking principals and assistant principals how quickly maintenance repairs are performed, whether students have enough textbooks and other supplies, whether teachers are teaching outside their areas of expertise and whether there are enough social workers. It’s a more practical, nuts-and-bolts effort, designed to get neighborhood schools the basic help they need in a climate of budget cuts and political hostility to public institutions.
Whatever happens to the Zuckerberg money, Lenore Furman, the Abington Avenue kindergarten teacher, hopes she won’t have to buy her own classroom supplies anymore. "I spend an infinite amount of my own money," she sighs. "Whatever impact the donation has, I’m always hoping people are making decisions that directly impact learning and instruction."