Second Look: Was That Newark School Reform Effort Really Such a Failure?

 PHoto:  Songquan Deng/shutterstock

PHoto:  Songquan Deng/shutterstock

The sweeping push to improve Newark schools, fueled with $200 million in private funding, has often been cited as an example of how not to do K-12 philanthropy. Indeed, this episode is now so deeply carved into the Mount Rushmore of school reform failures that it rarely gets a second look. Mention "Newark" in some nonprofit circles, and everyone knows what you mean: a case study of arrogant, top-down philanthropy.

But it turns out, there is much more to the $200 million effort. A newly released study shows that the package of reforms produced some positive results—among them, a rate of growth in student achievement that outpaced other schools in New Jersey. 

First, let's recap what happened. Over seven years ago, an ambitious Democratic mayor and a Republican governor joined forces to improve the state's largest school system, one that was virtually synonymous with poor achievement and corruption, which had previously resulted in a 1995 state takeover.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie found a patron in 2010 when Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, eager to get started as a big-time philanthropist, pledged $100 million over five years to finance reforms to improve the Newark Public Schools. Zuckerberg's pledge was eventually matched by $100 million from other funders, most notably hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman, who put in $25 million, bringing the total infusion into Newark schools to $200 million over five years—a seemingly enormous sum, but in reality only 4 percent of the school system's budget for the same time period.

Parents and teachers in the city, along with other local stakeholders, first learned of the Zuckerberg gift when it was announced with much fanfare on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Things went downhill from there. The reforms kicked off in 2011-12, with the hiring of Cami Anderson, a white New Yorker, to lead a school system with a long distrust of outsiders and where more than 80 percent of students are African American or Hispanic. Highly paid consultants were hired to manage the effort, while community groups and leaders with deep knowledge of Newark and its schools felt cut out of the process.

In her masterful book, The Prize, Dale Rousakoff documented the Newark experiment and the political conflict it generated. The book, which should be required reading for all K-12 reformers, describes the problems of launching such an ambitious initiative without a clear plan and without engaging local stakeholders to build a broad base of support.

The architects of the Newark reform effort—Booker and Christie—had a vision, but no explicit plan for getting there beyond making Newark a national model of school reform. Further, as superintendent, Anderson recognized contradictions in a plan that would leave many of the system's neediest students in low-performing schools and exacerbate the district's budget crisis through the exodus of students to new charter schools. Finally, a strong community backlash grew over time against a reform effort that created enormous disruption in the lives of children and parents, but lacked transparency and funneled millions to consulting groups, creating a perception that outsiders had taken over Newark's schools. 

Yet, amid all the political missteps and infighting, it appears the reforms did lead to some positive results. That is the conclusion of a newly released study from a team of Harvard researchers led by economist Thomas Kane. The study was funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which is sure to raise eyebrows among skeptics. Kane has said that the results were derived independently of CZI. It's not unusual for funders to commission outside analyses of their investments. 

The researchers reported their findings in a working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). They acknowledged that reform in Newark was not a single intervention, but a package of systemic changes that included a new teacher contract, new school leadership that saw many existing principals replaced, a new Common Core-aligned curriculum, the closure of chronically underperforming schools coupled with expansion of charter schools, and a choice plan.

Recognizing the virtual impossibility of gauging the effects of individual interventions, the Harvard researchers split the reforms into two broad categories: within-school reforms and "between-school reforms." The former category includes the new teacher contract, new curriculum, and "turnaround" efforts aimed at improving existing district schools, while the "between-school" category included school closures, charter expansion, and the universal choice program.

The study offers the following conclusions:

  • By 2015-16, Newark students demonstrated significant growth in English Language Arts (ELA), but no similar change in mathematics growth. The team from Harvard's Center for Education Policy Research found that much of the growth was fueled by enrollment shifts made possible by the $200 million in private funding. These changes included a citywide school choice system that allowed families to rank preferred schools regardless of where they lived, the opening of new charter schools, and the shuttering of chronically low-performing schools. 
  • The enrollment shifts fueled by the "between-school" reforms accounted for 62 percent of the gains in ELA. In contrast, "within-school reforms," such as redesigned accountability, an early focus on the Common Core standards, replacing principals, and an expanded use of blended learning, accounted for less than 40 percent of the growth in achievement.
  • The gains reported did not come immediately. In fact, growth declined in the early years of the reforms before rebounding in 2015. Kane and his research team concede that the disruptive nature of the reforms likely contributed to the initial declines.

Pro-school choice advocates and their funders may be tempted to seize upon this report as evidence that they are right, given the weight of the positive changes the researchers attributed to such changes as charter expansion and universal choice. However, Kane cautioned that the results should not be interpreted as a wholesale endorsement of school choice programs.

"Newark saw what no other district in New Jersey saw. It was able to drive growth in market share in better schools,” he told The 74. “One hundred million dollars only matters to philanthropists. The real question is, what do the results imply for what Newark does next?”

Newark Public Schools, for its part, sees the Harvard study as a part of a body of evidence, all pointing to continued progress in the city's school system. Its own analysis of assessment data in 2016-17 — beyond the timespan considered by the Harvard study—points to continued improvement. This analysis found that the proportion of students meeting or exceeding expectations on the PARCC—the standardized test used in several states, including New Jersey—grew at a faster rate than the state's growth rates in both ELA and math. The higher rate of growth reduced performance gaps between Newark Public Schools and the state. Separately, high school graduation rates since 2010 have increased more than 15 percentage points to more than 75 percent.

"Whether you look at PARCC scores, student growth percentile, value-added scores, or graduation rates, student outcomes are trending in a positive direction in Newark," Newark Public Schools Superintendent Chris Cerf said in a statement. Cerf was state superintendent for New Jersey when he was chosen as Cami Anderson's successor to guide Newark's return to local control, achieved in September of this year after more than two decades under state supervision.

Since the Newark reform effort, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan have continued to evolve as K-12 philanthropists. While Zuckerberg has defended the Newark initiative, he and Chan have also said they learned from this effort. In 2014, the couple committed $120 million to improve schools in the Bay Area and that effort has been structured from the start to engage local stakeholders closely. 

More recently, since its creation in late 2015, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative's education work has focused mainly on personalized learning. Elements of its current work include:

  • The Summit Learning Platform, an online learning tool developed by the Summit Public Schools network of charter schools
  • An alliance with the College Board to expand access to SAT preparation courses through Khan Academy, Advanced Placement computer science courses, and peer advising through the National College Advising Corps
  • Vision to Learn, an effort to provide free eye exams to low-income children across the country. Such action can improve educational outcomes for children with correctable vision who lack access to eye care.

And just last week, CZI announced it was teaming up with the Ford Foundation to support Communities In Schools, the Coalition for Community Schools and StriveTogether to launch new program that will award up to $150,000 each to 10 communities that propose new ideas for meeting the needs of diverse student populations.

But back to Newark. While this reform effort continues to offer a cautionary tale of big philanthropy gone awry, new research suggests that critics need to take a less reflexive and more nuanced look at what the initiative actually achieved. In fact, there's some encouraging news, here. 

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to note that CZI funded the Harvard study.