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Opinion: Newark’s Phantom Gains in School Improvement

The celebrations and self-congratulations are real; unfortunately, the data shows that Newark’s educational successes don’t measure up

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Mark Weber

There’s been a lot of talk lately — including here at NJ Spotlight — about the recent “successes” of Newark’s schools. New research purportedly shows that students in Newark have made outsized gains in achievement in the wake of a high-profile, $100 million donation in 2010 from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The leaders of Newark’s schools, including its charter sector, are celebrating the findings of this research, claiming vindication for their particular brand of school “reform.”

But what does this research — and other data on Newark’s schools — really show? Today, the National Education Policy Center is releasing a report authored by Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers’ Graduate School of Education and myself. In this report, we critique this recent research, and add our own deep dive into the data on Newark’s schools. Our conclusion?

Hold off on the parties. While Newark’s students, teachers, staff, and families should be proud of their schools, there is very little evidence that Newark has made meaningful gains in student achievement during this latest “reform” era compared with the rest of the state.

Further, the claim that Newark’s charter schools are leading the way in boosting academic growth through innovative practices does not stand up to scrutiny. The gains of the charter sector are most likely due to differences in student characteristics, resources, and a curriculum that focuses heavily on test-prep.

This means that the strategy of moving more of Newark’s students into charter schools is likely not feasible. And even if it were, any gains in student achievement are likely to be, at best, practically small.

Running the numbers

The research Baker and I critique was written by a team of Harvard economists and funded by Zuckerberg’s foundation. It compares Newark students’ test score gains to students across the state, controlling for differences in socio-economic status, English language fluency, and special education status. The models are hampered by crude data measures, as is much of the research on educational outcomes.

That said, the researchers found no gains in “value-added” — a measure of student growth — in math test scores between 2010 and 2016, the period of “reforms” in Newark that were supposedly initiated by the Zuckerberg donation.

The researchers did find growth in English language arts (ELA) scores during that period. But the growth is, in our estimation, practically small: 0.07 standard deviations, which is, at best, equivalent to a few percentile points.

Further, most of the gain occurred when the state changed from the NJASK to the PARCC as its statewide test in 2015. This sudden, small leap is actually confirmed by data released by the Newark Public Schools itself.

As a teacher and as an education researcher, I know that making meaningful gains in student learning is slow and often frustrating work. Successes do not happen overnight. Newark’s schools might have aligned their instruction in ELA slightly better than other New Jersey districts; that is not the same, however, as making meaningful improvements in instruction.

As to the contributions of Newark’s vaunted charter sector: no one should attempt to claim they are “better” schools without first acknowledging the advantages they enjoy.

Philanthropic contributions

Newark’s biggest charter operators — TEAM/KIPP and North Star/Uncommon Schools — collect millions of extra dollars in philanthropy each year. TEAM/KIPP, for example, stands to reap between $7 million and $9 million on the sale by an anonymous donor of a single painting by artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Newark’s charters also benefit from tax incentives and facilities funding not available to the public schools.

The charters tend to employ teachers with far less experience than NPS. This allows TEAM/KIPP and North Star to pay more competitive salaries; in turn, they can have longer school days and years. This is a strategy that will be difficult to bring to scale: how many teachers are willing to see their careers in charters as temporary?

And as I and others have noted many times, the students in Newark’s charters are fundamentally different from those in NPS. Charters enroll fewer special education students; the ones they do enroll tend to have less profound (and less costly) classifications. Charters enroll very few Limited English Proficient (LEP) students. There are also significant differences in students’ socio-economic status, even when measured by crude variables such as eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch.

Again: Newark, like all communities, should take pride in its schools. But Zuckerberg proclaimed on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in 2010 that the goal of his donation was to “… turn Newark into a symbol of educational excellence for the whole nation.”

The data is clear: That never happened. If we’re going to truly improve urban education, here in New Jersey and around the nation, we’re going to have to do better than the Newark-Zuckerberg “reforms.”

Mark Weber is a public school music teacher in Warren Township; a doctoral student at Rutgers University in Education Theory, Organization, and Policy; an NJEA member; and a former New Jersey public school parent. He blogs at Jersey Jazzman. His opinions are his own and are not necessarily those of his employers, Rutgers, the NJEA, or NJ Spotlight.

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