How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

Mission Possible: How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

When the children are forgotten: The Newark School Fiasco

With a tremendous amount of fanfare five years ago, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced a $100 million donation to the Newark school district on the Oprah Winfrey Show with the Big Hairy Audacious Goal of fixing the public school system and making it a national model.

The importance of having a BHAG was first proposed in the 1994 book "Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies" by James Collins and Jerry Porras.

In the new book "The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Schools?," Dale Russakoff, who spent 28 years at The Washington Post, provides a behind-the-scenes account of a four-and-half-year effort to remake the Newark school system. The author reveals that infusion of $100 million from Zuckerberg and an additional $100 million in contributions from foundations and individuals were not able to reform what Cory Booker, then mayor of Newark, described as a "repugnant" school system.

The book's end notes indicate that key players in the drama gave Russakoff a "rare opportunities to witness the unfolding story of education reform in Newark."

One of the book's few deficiencies is its failure to indicate how much of the blame for the inability to turn the district around was attributable to the performance of the key players. More important than assigning blame would be suggesting what might have been done differently to increase the chances of bringing about transformational change.

The book provides real insight regarding the growth of charter schools in Newark and the issue of "charter culling" — facilitated by parents some call "choosers:" "those with time to navigate the charter lotteries and to foster a striving attitude at home."

The author notes that when budget cuts forced more than one-third of Newark's schools to close, the Superintendent Cami Anderson replaced the existing neighborhood school model for the 55 remaining schools and the self-selecting lottery for the 16 charters with an algorithm that assigned children to certain schools.

The assignments gave preference "to children whose schools were closing and those with the lowest family income or learning disabilities – giving highest-need students a better shot at their top choice." The goal was to increase the percentage of poorer students in the charters.

Russakoff provides three key reasons for the failure of Newark school reform:

1) There was no consensus from the get-go on the best way to proceed. Christie wanted to break the backs of the teachers' union; Booker wanted more charter schools, Zuckerman wanted to raise the status of top teachers and reward exemplary performance. Everyone seemed to naively underestimate the level of resistance of the teachers' union to weaken tenure and the non-teachers' unions to eliminate jobs.

2) The deleterious effects of poverty and concomitant adverse childhood experience — broken homes, violence, substance abuse and multiple trauma — on classroom performance was not given enough saliency.

Ras Baraka, Newark Central High principal and leader of those opposed to Booker and the current mayor, indicated the "Booker-Christie-Zuckerberg strategy was doomed ... because it included no systematic assault on poverty, the real enemy of achievement."

Russakoff writes: "Teachers, they knew that transforming education would require far more than strict accountability, performance incentives, and heightened emphasis on data. They were intimately familiar with the challenges Newark children brought to the classroom."

3) The education establishment and high-priced education consultants (labeled in the book as "a boondoggle" and the "school failure industry") approached reform from the top down rather than from the bottom up.

Russakoff writes: "Despite Booker's public promises of 'bottom-up' reform led by the people of Newark, he quietly hired a team of education consultants – none from Newark – soon after the Oprah announcement to create a 'fact base' of the district's need and to lay the groundwork for changes he and Zuckerberg had agreed to over the summer."

Far too little effort was expended in listening to and including parents and teachers in shaping the reforms. The reformers rationalize their top-down approach as the only way to avoid the possibility of their effort being "taken captive by unions and machine politicians." Booker said, for example, "Entrenched forces are very interested in resisting choices we're making around a $1 billion budget. There are jobs at stake."

A down-the-road benefit of the failures in Newark is that Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan have announced they will be giving $120 million to improve the education of low-income students in the San Francisco Bay area and they will be applying some lessons they learned in Newark, especially about "the importance of meaningful community partnership."

More specifically, Chan has, according to Russakoff, come to believe that "schools on their own were unlikely to meet the needs of students raised amid extreme poverty and violence."

As a result, Russakoff wrote, we must "address adverse childhood experiences – such as poverty, trauma, and neglect – that can interfere with a student's ability to learn, even before kindergarten. In contrast with the approach in Newark, Chan's starting point would be children, their needs, and schools equipped to address them."

It appears Priscilla Chan has learned a great deal from the Newark fiasco. I hope New Jersey education leadership has also learned something.