When Newark Had Great Schools

In large numbers, today’s parents have started opting out of two decades of “education reform.” And it’s not just excessive testing they’re objecting to.

Reporter Dale Russakoff documents how a highly publicized and well-funded effort at “education reform”, driven by a business model obsessed with numbers and data, was imposed on the Newark public school system. That model has utterly failed to motivate learning in Newark. The resounding failure of today‘s “education reform” movement in New Jersey’s largest school system should demonstrate that we need to put forth a different ideal for teaching and learning.

Fortunately, a prototype already exists for a successful system for educating kids in Newark— that is— the Newark schools that educated me.


Nothing To Make Them Want To Get up In The Morning And Go To School.

From Dale Russakoff ’s reporting in The Prize: Who’s In Charge of America’s Schools (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015) we are able to follow the money that was Mark Zuckerberg’s initiation into philanthropy in 2010. That year he made a famous announcement on the Oprah Winfrey Show. He said he was looking to “revolutionize” public education in Newark by partnering with, then, Democratic Mayor Cory Booker and Republican Governor Chris Christie. They would promote “transformational change” in Newark’s failing public schools. The Facebook billionaire pledged $100 million personally, and would raise as much in matching funds. This extraordinary city-state-private philanthropic partnership was hailed as the national model for bi-partisan “education reform.”

The scheme was seriously flawed to start off. The Booker-Christie-Zuckerberg paradigm for educational transformation meant pouring money profusely into the administrative infrastructure at the top, so as to impose full-strength “education reform” all the way down. An extra two hundred million dollars came into their school system, but the kids of Newark got nothing to make them want to get up in the morning and go to school.

Russakoff makes us privy to the values that corporate education reformers hold dear when they make decisions about teaching and learning for our children. For two hundred million dollars, the well-intentioned philanthropist financed a state of the art informational infrastructure for the administration of the Newark schools— designed to expedite the collection of numbers and data about classroom instruction. However, inside Newark’s actual classrooms, nothing was changed, except that kids had to spend more and more time doing “skills-based instruction,” which is another name for “test preparation.” Teachers call it “drill and kill” — a succession of tedious, hard to motivate sample test exercises, with contents derived from disjointed narratives, showcasing analytical thinking skills. These exercises, training kids in how to think for the test, constitutes the operational curriculum for all “education reform,” grades k-12.

What might Mark Zuckerberg have accomplished in the Newark public schools if he, instead, consulted with the Center for Arts Education in New York City? Here is an advocacy group holding that all children should have “equal access to a well-rounded education of which the arts are a central component.” With $200 million, Zuckerberg could have financed all music teachers, instruments and uniforms in all city schools for the next 20 years. By now, he and Booker and Christie could be visiting any school in Newark and hearing music played by an established marching band, or a junior orchestra, or belted out by a top notch school choir. This morning, so many Newark kids could have been getting out of bed, eager to go to school to practice their music or to perform. This would be the kind of instructional paradigm likely to motivate that transformative change Zuckerberg first imagined.



Joe Del Grosso: “Fiasco”

One sizzling day in August, 2014 I went on a sentimental journey back to Newark where I grew up during the Eisenhower years. Russakoff notes that Newark’s schools “had a reputation for excellence well into the nineteen fifties.” I paid a visit to the late Joe Del Grosso, who had just narrowly been re-elected president of the Newark Teachers’ Union. Joe had taught for 24 years in one elementary school, and, at the time, had served 19 years as president of the NTU. He was a proud Newark native. He showed me his collection of yearbooks, including the prized one from Weequahic High School, 1950, which contained Philip Roth’s graduation picture. Portnoy’ s Complaint takes place at that same school.

“The man meant well,” Del Grosso said of Zuckerberg. He had no animosity or sarcasm in his voice whatsoever. “You’d think his people would at least want to come talk to those of us most directly involved with kids— the teachers. No one asked me what I thought.”

When I asked him for one word to describe the result of Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropy in Newark, the career teacher and union leader sighed, “A fiasco. All that money— and our teachers can’t see even the slightest impact on kids in classrooms.”

That observation was shared by Vivian Cox Fraser, the president of the Urban League of Essex County, when she described education reform in Newark, “Everybody’s getting paid, but Raheem still can’t read.”

Russakoff ’s reporting confirms their impressions:



During the next two years, more than twenty million dollars of Zuckerberg’ s gift and matching donations went to consulting firms with various specialties: public relations, human resources, communications, data analysis, teacher evaluation. Many of the consultants had worked for Joel Klein, Teach for America, and other programs in the tight-knit reform movement, and a number of them had contracts with several school systems financed by Race to the Top grants and venture philanthropy. The going rate for individual consultants in Newark was a thousand dollars a day.


In addition to spending that twenty million on consultants, the zealous reformers were so eager to link teacher pay to student test results, that they used forty-eight million dollars more of Zuckerberg’ s “transformative” philanthropy to settle the expired teacher’s contract so that the new one could be more tightly aligned to future test data.

I asked Joe to tell me a story about something he did as a new teacher that a young teacher in Newark could not do today.

“It’s not like they can’t, but it’s more likely they won’t take a chance,” he began.



Finding The Love To Unlock The Curiosity

Mr. Del Grosso had a student who would do no work in any subject, and could barely read in fifth grade. But he saw that the boy liked games. So one day, the teacher brought a chessboard into class and set up the pieces next to his desk. He called the student over for a supposed conference about his work. The boy was riveted to the visual drama of the lineup of the players.

“What’s that?” the student asked.

“It’s a game called Chess,” the teacher replied. “And the object of the game is to kill the king.”

The kid’s eyes lit up. “Kill— the king?”

Joe showed him how. “Each player has a move.” He demonstrated.

The conversation ended with Mr. Del Grosso going into his desk drawer and handing over three beginner books about Chess. “Study these over the weekend and you will learn how to play.”

Years later, the former-student wrote to his old teacher, telling him how those books forever changed his attitude about reading and school.

Every veteran teacher can tell a story about finding the love to unlock the curiosity latent in a reluctant learner. That is why teachers teach. Most of us do not come into this profession to earn bonus bucks for striving hard to move points up on test scores. Merit pay schemes have been historically unproductive for that very reason, generally failing within five years of their implementation. (See Dana Goldstein, The Teacher Wars.) Most of us are motivated to teach by our ideals and, even more so, because we get personal satisfaction building special relationships with those young characters in our classes. The best of us want to use our knowledge, skills, discipline and heart to make a difference in the lives of our kids, above and beyond the academic content we are paid to deliver.

The teachers from the generation who taught me in Newark came out of  this humanistic tradition. My generation of teachers came out of this humanistic tradition. Professionals today still share those same ideals about what it means to be a teacher. That explains why the most recent MetLife survey of teacher satisfaction reports, “Teachers are less satisfied with their jobs than they have been in decades.” Why? Because our school system no longer cherishes humanistic ideals, nor any ideals. The business model now controlling the instructional infrastructure of our nation’s classrooms is not about American ideals, but about the global competition for jobs and the “real” world of work.



Once Successfully Immersed In A Progressive Educational System

Dale Russakoff ’s reporting has pulled back the curtain on the machinations behind the “education reform” movement. Her research proves that corporate “education reformers” have priorities that do not intend to support children and their teachers having meaningful learning experiences in classrooms. (See John Tierney’s prescient analysis in, “The Coming Revolution in Public Education,” The Atlantic, April 25, 2013.)

An editorial in the Newark Star-Ledger on April 17 warned New Jersey parents not to opt out of the new state PARCC tests. ”Now that we finally have a better assessment tool, we decide to cry ‘testing fatigue’?” the editors scoffed. The local paper would seem to be all-in with teacher accountability by-the-numbers, and a curriculum whose only meaning to  children is that it is supposed to make them more successful on their tests.

The editors of the Star-Ledger should know that when Newark education was at its best, children from working class families–like Joe Del Grosso and me—recited poetry and sang songs in our classrooms and at weekly assemblies. We played musical instruments and had regular gym classes with trained Physical Education teachers.  We performed plays, pageants, recitals, and did folk dances. We learned history and geography. We listened for and imitated our teachers’ singing voices as well as their reading voices. We made little potholders and nick-knack shelves, gaining confidence working with our hands.

Newark kids were once successfully immersed in a progressive educational system, common enough at the time but not universal, where humanistic values— such as moral character, broad-mindedness, independent thinking and good citizenship— provided the intellectual authority for a well-balanced curriculum consisting of the liberal arts and sciences.

Yes. In certain grades back then, we had to take the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. Thinking back on the Newark of that time, I can’t remember ever spending any time preparing for them.


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