An audacious plan to fix the schools in Newark, N.J., (a city beset by poverty and violence) can educate us all about effective school reform. In 2010, the mayor of Newark (Cory Booker) enlisted the support of the governor of New Jersey (Chris Christie) and together, they secured $100 million in funding (with the goal to supplement with matching funds) from Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerburg to turn around failing Newark public schools. Their goal was to implement all the currently accepted “best” ideas in education reform: 1) expand charter schools 2) fire teachers with bad evaluations 3) reward teachers whose students received good test scores and 4) manage the school district like a business. They believed that successful execution of these strategies would make the Newark, N.J. school district a model for school reform nationwide.
The failures and successes of this well intentioned effort reinforce and inform the working model of One School at a Time.
First, what worked in this grand experiment?
There was one major improvement- the number of children going to public charter schools in Newark doubled in a short time. In Newark, charter schools dramatically outperform district schools because while starting out with less money, they get more resources directly to the kids in the classroom (for example, 2 teachers and a learning specialist in every grade, more social workers and a dean of students to help at risk kids with challenging home environments).
Now, what didn’t work?
Newark community members, teachers, parents, students and principals were never included in the process of identifying what the challenges were and how best to fix them. The local’s knowledge was not honored and acted upon. Outside consultants and administrators made decisions (driven by the opinions of wealthy donors) without community input. This top-down approach poisoned the community’s process. Stakeholders felt invisible and alienated and consequently, they rebelled against the outsider’s well intentioned efforts.
The deadline to complete the reforms was 5 years. And these reforms were spearheaded by politicians whose political terms were finite and whose priorities shifted with the demands of the next election.
The reforms did not address the needs of the whole school but focused on addressing just a few elements.
The funding for the reforms was not sustainable. Zuckerburg’s primary goal was to reward the best teachers and eliminate the worst teachers. For instance, Zuckerburg wanted to pay enormous bonuses to the best teachers. But this was not possible since after 5 years, Zuckerburg’s funding would be gone and the program discontinued. In addition, Zuckerburg was not informed that teachers were protected by state laws so that most senior teachers kept their jobs in downsizing events, regardless of how well they did their jobs.
Large sums of money were paid to the consultants in the “school failure” industry and few resources trickled down to the schools.
The process of change must be rooted in the community for the change to be successful. Community members and stakeholders should be involved at every step of the process. They need to be driving the bus.
Change takes a long time- generations. The process must be spearheaded by people who live in the community and who are dedicated to staying there for the long term. Politicians and outside NGOS move on. The local people endure.
A school is an ecosystem- fixing just one thing will not repair the whole: Dale Russakoff, the author of “The Prize: Who’s In Charge Of America’s Schools? states,”But if you’re really close to the ground and you’re inside a school, you know that it’s not like there is one thing wrong when a school is failing. There’s usually, like, 50 to 100, maybe 500 things wrong. And you have to fix all of them, and it’s really tedious work. It’s not like a big idea and a new thing. It’s something that you have to just do slowly and patiently and often tediously”.
Funding must be long term and sustainable.
Resources need to go directly to the schools. Funding highly paid outside consultants to fix other people’s problems does not typically yield the intended results.
One School at a Time incorporates these lessons into our very core:
One School at a Time uses a community-based approach and requires partner schools to identify their own needs and develop and implement their own strategic plan. Parents, teachers, community members and administrators are engaged and involved in every decision that is made.
One School at a Time partners with schools for the long term. All schools remain in our local school network, even after successful execution of their 5 year plan. Long-term relationships with our partner schools build trust, good working rapport and community empowerment.
One School at a Time recognizes that a well functioning school is composed of much more than just buildings and infrastructure and we take a “whole school” approach.
Each partner school in the One School at a Time network is required to assist and encourage the next partner school, thereby building a local network of ongoing resources and support. Schools now look to each other for information, support, and training instead of to an outside NGO. By empowering a coalition of highly functioning public schools, One School at a Time creates the leverage needed to ensure that the Ugandan government allocates more resources to our partner schools.
One School at a Time believes that the best qualified people to solve the challenges at our Ugandan partner schools are the teachers, parents, school administrators and community members of that school. 97% of One School funding is allocated to our Ugandan programs.
To learn more about the work of One School at a Time: https://1schoolatatime.org/how-we-work/
This blog was informed by the following resources:
“Schooled”, Dale Russakoff, May 19, 2014, New Yorker
An Sept. 21, 2015 interview with Terry Gross (Fresh Air) and Dale Russakoff, who documented the Newark reform experiment in her book, “The Prize: Who’s In Charge Of America’s Schools”: http://www.npr.org/2015/09/21/442183080/assessing-the-100-million-upheaval-of-newarks-public-schools