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.