Discussing Newark Schools with Journalist Owen Davis

School Building reached out to journalist Owen Davis to discuss Dale Russakoff’s recent book, The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools. Russakoff covered the massive reform efforts in the Newark public schools that took place between 2009 and 2015. After a coalition formed between billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, Mayor Cory Booker and Governor Chris Christie, a new set of policy-makers arrived in Newark. Bolstered by $200 million in philanthropic gifts, these reformers attempted to completely overhaul the system, but they achieved far less than they had hoped. We reached out to Owen Davis because of his coverage of the Newark school reforms that appeared in the Nation in 2014. This conversation, which was conducted over e-mail, begins a series on essential education reading that Davis and School Building will be posting over the next few weeks.

The Consultant Class

SB: When Mark Zuckerberg announced his $100 million gift on Oprah, he made it clear that his ambitions were not limited to Newark alone. He described how he wanted Mayor Booker and Governor Christie to, “have the flexibility they need to… turn Newark into a symbol of educational excellence for the whole nation.” In fact, Booker had courted the billionaire months before with that exact goal. In the mayor’s reform plan, the Newark Schools were described as a “laboratory where the education reform movement could apply its strategies to one of the nation’s most troubled schools districts.” Although this would be Zuckerberg’s first major donation, he perfectly embodied what is now  known as a “venture philanthropist.” This new class of philanthropist doesn’t merely fund a cause, they review the problem at an institutional level and seek to provide solutions by drastically changing  the system. This approach has become very popular in education, but this project offered something new: an entire city where venture philanthropists could implement multiple initiatives with the backing of the Mayor and the Governor.

And, five years later, what was the quality of the results? This is a  big question, so let’s start here: did the money get to the students?

OD: What do you mean by “get to the students?”

SB: Meaning, were dollars being spent in a way that directly affected the experience of the children in the classroom? Now in some sense, whenever money goes into the system, the influence of it should impact the the experience of the students. The way I see it, spending $50K to hire a school psychologist, well, that would be highly an influential use of money. Spending $1000 a day on a consultant to develop new data-analysis systems that are intended to evaluate teachers based on test scores would be an example of, all told, money not coming to the students.

OD: One of the strongest points of The Prize was really outlining how much of the money actually fell to ground and how much remained caught up in the swirl of consultants, administrators and professional reformers. Russakoff tabulated $21 million going to consultants alone. That’s a pretty staggering figure.

From the standpoint of Zuckerberg and company, though, there’s some logic to it. With $100 million or $200 million, what can you really do? Newark’s annual budget is around $1 billion. If you hire, say, 100 new psychologists and social workers for the district at an annual cost of $5 million, how long will that last before the money dries up and they all get laid off? From this vantage point it makes more sense to direct money towards changes at the very top, where there was certainly plenty of work to do.

But even if we accept that line of thinking, did the deeper structural reforms make sense? For example, the teacher contract. That was Zuckerberg’s top priority, aligning teacher pay with test scores. Half of the original $50 million was earmarked for this effort. Was this justified?

It helps to look at the context. Russakoff’s book does a great job of mapping the institutional and sociological terrain in which the reforms took place. And in laying out the history of Newark — the disinvestment, the white flight, the riots and injustices — she makes clear that the challenges facing the teaching profession in Newark are much steeper than a simple lack of motivation on the part of teachers.

I taught in a public school for two years in Bridgeport, Connecticut, a city not unlike Newark in its economic and racial history. When I encountered feckless, burnt-out teachers — and there certainly were some — it was clear that pay incentives weren’t the main issue. There’s a malaise that grows in schools charged with achieving results they’re simply not equipped to achieve. You have one counselor, one part-time social worker and no school psychologist, and you’re supposed to transform the lives of 800 students coming from poverty-riddled communities, many of whom are scarred by traumas you can’t fathom. It takes a lot to persist in that context. Idealism sours quickly. Then someone comes along and tells you the problem is your incentives are off, that you should be raising these kids’ test scores first and foremost. How are you going to react?

The McKinsey consultant class doesn’t look at problems this way. They might be able to identify inefficiencies and waste, but when it comes to understanding a community, only the community can do that. When you look at the early expenditures of the Zuckerberg money, a lot of it is to expensive consultants who were planning this switch to a portfolio district, and what it would mean for the schools on the ground.

SB: And what did these consultants accomplish?

OD: I believe a lot of the consultant money went to people planning the shift away from the traditional district model–where the district directly oversees all its schools–to the portfolio model, where individual schools or networks are semi-independent, and the district plays only a supervisory role. The portfolio model is the favorite of charter proponents and business types. It mirrors an investment portfolio, where higher-performing stocks receive greater investments and disappointing ones are dropped. In the same way, successful schools are multiplied and low-performing ones are closed. This means big changes at the top of the district, especially since individual schools are expected to take on many of the responsibilities that the district once carried.

SB: Responsibilities like staffing, budgets, and curriculum and instruction are shifted away from the district’s central office–which the reformers consider an overwhelmed bureaucracy–and given to individual principals. This gives the principals more autonomy but also positions them as a focus of accountability. I suppose these reformers think that the portfolio of schools approach is also beneficial insofar as it should reduce the size of the bureaucratic machinery and create cleaner lines of accountability.

OD: I think it remains to be seen whether the portfolio model has worked out in Newark. It’s clear, though, that it didn’t really align with what the community wanted, which was chiefly more resources in the schools.

History Claims Everybody

SB: While reading this book, I kept thinking of the novels of Philip Roth–who was himself a product of the Newark public schools in the 1950s. In a series of books in the ‘90s, many of which are set in his hometown, Roth obsesses over the idea of historical forces overwhelming well-intentioned individuals. The theme is that, “History claims everybody, whether they know it or not and whether they like it or not.”  In many ways, that is the story of Zuckerberg’s massive attempt to change the schools in Newark. Again and again the reformers ignored the historical forces that had been at work for decades in Newark, and they end up with far less than they had set out to achieve.

OD: Russakoff investigates the challenges to schools in light of the social and economic issues that are distinct to Newark. In fact, she cites Booker and Zuckerberg’s inability to think of Newark’s specific problems as the fatal flaw in their endeavor. The reformers wanted to create a “blueprint for school reform,” a plan that could be reproduced in “every small city in america.” It’s a noble goal, but it allowed them to view  the city without the historical lens that is required in order to get a complete sense of the challenges they faced.

In short, these challenges are racial and economic. For generations, Newark was a kind of launching ground for poor immigrants to ascend into the middle class. In the early 20th century, Irish and Italian immigrants filled neighborhoods and took advantage of the industrial economy that was flourishing in the city. In this same era, the schools were renowned for their accomplishments. Famous alumni include Philip Roth, as you mentioned,  and Amiri Baraka. But black families who came to the city seeking the same opportunities in the 50s and 60s were met with segregation and white flight, and eventually the city suffered a complete erosion of the middle class tax base. That history is necessary to grasp if you want to address school issues in Newark.

SB: Perhaps the most interesting thing to me about these changes is how they are all distinct, and yet don’t quite occur independently of each other. The exodus of middle-class citizens begins with the construction of new interstate highways funded by the federal government. These allowed middle-income and wealthy workers to relocate to the suburbs, which had become culturally preferable, and enabled them to commute easily to the city. In addition to effectively removing most citizens of a certain income bracket, these new highways cut through Newark’s neighborhoods, driving down the value of the homes of those who remained in the city. The federal government further encouraged the growth of the suburbs through home-mortgage subsidies in those areas. At the same time, the federal home loan program redlined almost all of the city of Newark, labeling it “too risky” for mortgages or lending.

In this same era, the city lost its economic base as factories relocated to the south and overseas. This all occurred at the peak of the Great Migration. Like immigrants before them, black families came to Newark seeking middle-class jobs that required little education. But for this wave of newcomers–which totaled 160,000 men, women and children–the jobs had departed, along with the families whose personal wealth had helped the city.

It’s not over yet. The city responded to these changes by implementing policies that ended up further disadvantaging low-income families. In the name of urban renewal, neighborhoods were bulldozed and replaced with city plazas and new construction projects. New  public housing projects were also created, using federal funds, which were used to house the relocated poor. This resulted in a much higher concentration of poverty; by the 1960s more than eighteen thousand residents, virtually all of whom were low-income black and hispanic, were jammed into a one-and-a-half mile radius.

By 1967, seventy-one percent of the city was african-american. This was a  population who arrived in Newark with aspirations of realizing the American Dream, just  as so many white immigrants had done for decades. But the various  mechanisms that enable social mobility–manufacturing jobs, pathways to homeownership, economically integrated communities–disappeared over the same  decades in which the majority of black families settled in the city. Racial discrimination around hiring was also well-documented in this era. The rage and distrust that this bred in the community resulted in the Newark riots of 1967.

Russakoff argues that the circumstances around this economic decline are relevant to the challenges of school reform for a number of reasons. First of all,  poverty affects communities and imposes challenges to schooling–and Newark’s poverty was in large part caused by neglectful public policies. Secondly,  the fast economic decline in the city led to a steady succession of corruption within political circles, and the schools fell victim to this corruption. This further disadvantaged an already overburdened system. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, these policies have established a deep-seated distrust of the white establishment. The reformers who came into Newark were faced with a community who had plenty of reason to be suspicious of white policy-makers who promised that their intentions were good.

OD: Right. When you look at the plan hatched by Zuckerberg, Christie and Mayor Cory Booker, it kind of looks like small potatoes compared to that historical reality.

They bring a $200m infusion to a billion-dollar budget. They intend to turn the schools around in no less than 5 years. Given the history of the political decisions of white outsiders, any reformer would be hard pressed to win over the trust of the black community, especially surrounding something so emotionally sensitive as the fate of children. And what’s interesting is how the reformers almost intended to disregard that history, viewing Newark as a “perfect” experimental city, to forge an replicable model of reform.

Engaging  the Community

SB: Unfortunately, no one involved in implementing these changes paid much attention to what the community wanted. Even one of the board members of the reform-minded foundations admitted that the community engagement campaign was merely “public relations.” This appears to be a problem inherent in philanthropic reform. As Russakoff points out, philanthropy by definition is antidemocratic. Wealthy donors and boards of trustees determine the focus of the changes, and demand that evidence of achievement is outlined in their definition of the issues. The reformers made very little effort to involve the community, either in communicating the pre-set plans or listening to their suggestions. The implications of this oversight can’t be overstated.

One could argue that the lack of community engagement resulted in the diminished efficacy of the reforms. Would $21 million have been lost to consultants if there had been an effective method of democratic accountability in place? Not to mention how conventional wisdom would dictate that, when attempting to improve a community, one ought to solicit input from that community. Of course, one of the major impediments to this process was the fact that the state took local control away from the Newark School board, and rendered it advisory status. Shavar Jeffries, the president of the school board, expressed his frustration with the hidden decisions in an email to the executive director of Zuckerberg’s foundation: “This remains a black hole to me and thus I suspect everyone. I’d like to know how funding decisions are being made, who’s at the table when they’re being made and how all of this is tied into district decision-making and planning?” Booker created an advisory foundation to help manage the Zuckerberg gift, but seats on the board were reserved for donors who contributed $5 million. Reform decisions continued to be made in private, and the public announcements from Chris Cerf and Cami Anderson were continuously met with angry mobs.

OD: Opening more charter schools was instrumental to the new coalition’s plan. How does the operation of a charter school differ from the operation of a public school?

SB: Russakoff depicts a few major differences between the charter schools and the district schools.  As you noted while reading, Owen, Russakoff doesn’t spend much time discussing the impact of selectivity bias and attrition bias on the performance of charters. Whenever she draws a comparison between the charters and the district schools, she makes some allusion to these factors. Instead, she investigates how day-to-day operations differ between the two and the causes of those differences.

She finds that more money ends up getting to the classrooms of charter schools because the operators are free from the problems of a complicated bureaucracy. Reviewing the financial documents of a KIPP school and a district school, the charter network sent their school $12,664 per child while the district sent only $7,597. Now, the school system is given $20,000 per student every year–how is it that less than half of that amount finds its way to the schools themselves? According to Russakoff, it gets lost in the system’s central bureaucracy, covering the salaries of non-essential personnel and dubiously protected facilities and leasing contracts. Dominique Lee, an administrator at a district school called BRICK Avon looked into the cost of janitorial services. On the private market, services  would only cost the school $400 per child, whereas the union-protected city contract cost the school $1,200 per child.

To be clear, I’m not implying that opening more charters necessarily improves the schools, and Russakoff wouldn’t say that either. In fact, the reformers plan to expand charter schools does considerable harm to the district schools and their budget. Anderson’s 2013 plan diverted $249  million from the district into charter schools, leaving the budget with a structural deficit of $100 million. It also projected the closure of up to 12 district schools and extensive layoffs. As a result of opening enough charter schools to serve forty percent of the children of Newark, Anderson would be leaving the district, which had set out to do much more, with much less.

However, I think Russakoff brings to light a crucial issue in school operations. There is tons of talk about teacher accountability–but why not direct that fervor towards bureaucratic spending accountability? Teacher accountability offers a much simpler and clearer narrative for the public, supplemented by specific horror stories like New York City’s rubber room for teachers. I think that someone ought to take up the reins for a  “forensic accounting of where money in the central office is going so that more of it gets to the classroom.”

OD: The titular “prize” is the billion-dollar annual budget that Newark Public Schools receives. It’s telling that Russakoff chooses this as her title. As she points out, the district is the top employer in a city where productive industry has been scarce for decades — it’s no surprise that the community would use it to support their families, even when that means bloated bureaucracy and starved school budgets. It helps to keep this in mind when you see union-aligned politicians arguing against any budget cuts whatsoever in a bureaucracy that clearly needs to be trimmed–it’s essentially a choice between starving school budgets and starving family budgets.

That’s an awful choice for a community to have to make! But anyway, that perspective, which Russakoff provides, helps inform why districts like Newark end up with so much graft and self-dealing. (Check out this piece on former Detroit star principal Kenyetta Wilbourn for a first-hand account.)

SB: Very interesting, I’m glad you bring that to light. And, if only to be fair, it’s worth pointing out that the same kind of financial hemorrhaging happens when private management comes in. The consultants, who received $1,000 a day for work whose relevance was questionable at best, had been past associates of Cami Anderson. Private reformers have developed what has been called “the school failure industry.” It’s hard to make a clear comparison, but it’s obvious that corruption of this kind is not solved by simply cutting through union protections and political machinery with third-party management.

OD: Of course the district should undergo the “forensic audit” that Russakoff suggests. More money should be going to the children in the classrooms, especially when that means more social workers, counselors, teachers assistants, etc. But it has to be understood w/in the context of a depressed local economy where middle class jobs are scarce.

The charter schools in Newark aren’t weighed down by that economic drag, and Russakoff shows how kids and teachers benefit from leaner bureaucracies and more agile administrators. There’s no question that kids are better off when their schools can provide them with more, faster. But the existence of charter schools doesn’t answer the question of wider economic impacts when the district shrinks.

SB: The last thing I’d like to touch on is the challenges with what Russakoff refers to as “bottom-up reform.” Zuckerberg’s initiative took an approach at changing the system from the top-down, focusing on reorganizing the ways schools administered funding and evaluated their workers. Bottom-up reform begins in the schools, where teachers and administrators take a more involved role in the culture and organization of their specific institution. She describes the work of one program called BRICK Avon. This organization was comprised of a handful of determined, motivated individuals who take on the task of improving their school. They had had strong ties to the community for years before they created their organization. And they achieve results by searching out better curricula and training teachers in it. Under their management, they raised the standards of teaching in their school, and end up pressuring the most recalcitrant and unsuccessful teachers to leave. They sought out grants, and extended the school day by ninety minutes. However, the obvious problem, which almost makes my skin crawl to ask: is our only hope to wait in the wings for motivated, culturally literate individuals to emerge and embed themselves in communities of need? Or can we imagine and create effective mechanisms to galvanize bottom-up changes?

But let’s leave our discussion on those questions. We’d appreciate any readers who want to post a comment and point us towards more resources. Check back with us on January 31st when we continue our conversations on books about education. Many thanks to Owen Davis, be sure to follow him on twitter at @of_davis.


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