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Op-Ed: Data Shows That Newark Students Are Making Significant Strides

Academics can squabble over the causes, but progress is real for Newark children

chris cerf
Chris Cerf

Recently, several studies have been published that attempt to measure the efficacy of educational improvement efforts in the Newark Public School system. These studies include an analysis by a team at Harvard and just this week a review of that study by a local blogger and Rutgers professor. (1) Both reports show that educational outcomes for students in Newark have improved in recent years; however, they draw different conclusions about the causes — and relative impact — of those improvements. Understandably, these studies have attracted some attention in the press.

Since beginning as superintendent, I’ve made it my mission to work with educators and community members to focus on the goal of increasing the number of public schools that provide a high-quality education for Newark students. We measure our progress toward this goal in a very simple way — by determining how much students learn in a given year and comparing that both with previous years and with students in other districts (students they will be competing with to get into colleges and for good jobs). We are agnostic about what types of public schools are producing the best results for children and don’t have a dog in the fight about which “reforms” work best, other than to figure out what’s working and try to do more of it. We also believe deeply in equity — and put front and center the value that it is not enough for our schools to simply do well in the aggregate. We must ensure that our schools provide students who come from the most disadvantaged backgrounds with a fair shot in life.

So how are we doing at this? As with all large urban districts in America, there remains room for improvement, but thanks to years of hard work by Newark educators and their students the data shows that real strides are being made. (2)

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First, it is important to understand how Newark compares nationally. Thanks to the PARCC exam administered across seven states and the District of Columbia, we can compare our city with those outside of New Jersey. Contrary to what some may think about Newark, our students outperform the average student in most PARCC states in both English and Math. It is a remarkable finding that a city where 80 percent of students are identified as low income outperform entire states where populations are considerably wealthier.

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Second, while some may attribute these results to simply being located in New Jersey — a state with historically high performance — it is important to know that Newark students haven’t always compared favorably with their peers in the state. In recent years, Newark student performance has increased significantly when compared with similar NJ districts. (This analysis was compiled in a study that analyzes Newark student outcomes across a number of measures; you can learn more about the methodology here).

This improvement is happening thanks to hard work by Newark educators whose students are learning more throughout the course of the year now than they were just few years ago. Back in 2012 (the first year student growth data is publicly available) only a handful of our schools were growing faster than state averages in either English or Math, but now many more are. This means that today, there are thousands more Newark students in schools where they are learning as much as or more than their academic peers across the state in both English and math.

And what about the lowest income students in Newark? Data shows that low-income students in Newark (those who qualify for free or reduced lunch) outperform their peers in essentially every other municipality across the country that takes the PARCC exam.

These improved academic outcomes are helping more Newark students graduate prepared to move on to good colleges and meaningful careers. Newark’s high school graduation rate has increased by nearly 20 percentage points in the past seven years (from the high 50s in 2010 to 78 percent in 2017). This past spring our students had a banner year of college acceptances, with more than $15 million in scholarships being awarded to Newark graduates, and with students being admitted to schools like Harvard and Yale; my own alma mater Amherst College; a large number attending Rutgers University and many others.

I understand that academic conversations about what has caused these gains are important to engage in so that we as a community can better understand what is driving this progress. As the city of Newark continues to make the important transition into full local control, I would advise that we use these conversations to inform, not derail, our focus on building on the great improvement that thousands of Newark educators and their students have worked so hard to make.

(1) The National Education Policy Center, where the review is published, is an organization funded by the NEA and AFT.

(2) The data referenced throughout this piece includes test results from the 2016-17 school year, which are not included in either study.

Chris Cerf is the state-appointed superintendent of the Newark Public School system and the former commissioner of education for New Jersey.

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