School Reforms Need Reforming

Dale Russakoff’s article in the New Yorker entitled “Schooled” is about former Newark mayor Corey Booker, current New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and Mark Zuckerberg’s attempts to transform Newark’s struggling school districts.  The article details the reforms proposed by an energetic Booker and a Republican governor who, while not popular in Democratic Newark endorsed the plan with a quip: “Heck, I got maybe six votes in Newark. Why not do the right thing?”  After becoming enthralled with Booker, Zuckerberg agreed to provide funding for the reforms to the tune of 100 million dollars.  There was great optimism at the outset.  But things quickly went downhill.

Millions of dollars were spent on consultants.  This riled the district personnel and the residents.  They were seen as carpetbaggers making a profit off of the district’s misery.  Russakoff quotes Vivian Cox Fraser, the president of the Urban League of Essex County: “Everybody’s getting paid, but Raheem still can’t read.”

Moreover, a major component of the reforms was to close schools that were underperforming and open new charter schools in their place.  On the advice of the consulting firm Global Education Advisers, 11 low performing district schools were to be shuttered.  In their place would be several charter schools and themed public schools.  This created the most animus within the district.   Leading the outcry was former school principal, now newly elected mayor Ras Baraka:  “Co-location is more like colonization,” Russakoff quotes him as saying.

Before moving into the US senate, Booker appointed Cami Anderson as superintendent of the district.  Anderson would be the captain who would navigate the district through these changes.  Instead the combination of Anderson presiding over very unpopular initiatives and her off-putting management style, caused her to navigate her family away from Newark for fear of physical harm.

As of now, Anderson is still at the helm of a ship that is quickly taking on water.  Booker is in Washington.  Christie is posturing for a presidential run.  Zuckerberg it seems has moved on.  The reforms have not produced, as of yet, the gains in academic performance that were promised and students are still failing.  The people who have benefited the most from all this business were the consultants and Ras Baraka, who became Newark’s mayor in large part due to his spirited challenge to the reforms.


Booker, Christie, and Anderson - The Leaders of School Reforms in Newark (courtesy of NJ.Com)

Booker, Christie, and Anderson – The Leaders of School Reforms in Newark
(courtesy of NJ.Com)


I could’ve seen this coming.  The well meaning reforms in Newark suffered from the same flaw I’ve seen time and again.  There is little to no emphasis on the neighborhoods, families, and students.  We are spending far too much time tweaking the system without placing attention on those who are served by it.

I came to this conclusion in a roundabout way – through understanding how the Internet grew so quickly.

An Environment of Motivated People

The modern Internet has its genesis in the minds of academics and computer engineers more interested in solving communications problems than anything else.  Using federal funding, the first communications on what would become the Internet was sent between two computers at UCLA to another at Stanford.  This was in 1969.  For the next 25 years or so, the world of computer networking was made up of university academics, federal officials, and computer geeks.

In the mid 90’s, the federal government opened up the Internet to private business.  Businesses could connect more people online by building needed infrastructure and selling Internet access to citizens. As businesses entered into the telecommunications market, the government’s focus was on making sure that as many people could get access as possible.  From the mid 1990’s at least until now, that has still been the government’s role, and can be seen quite clearly in these policies:

  • Telecommunications Act of 1996 –  Prevented monopolies in telecommunications.  The idea was to increase the amount of competition in providing Internet service, for the benefit of the consumer.
  • Federal Communication Commission Policy Statement: Preserving the Free and Open Internet in 2010 – The FCC codified its support for network neutrality in this statement.
  • The National Broadband Plan of 2010 – This was a part of President Obama’s stimulus plan.  Through targeted government investment, the FCC aims to provide broadband access to everyone in the country.

It was these policies that have allowed for the now iconic examples of pizza fed college students starting companies and becoming billionaires.  Indeed, we tend to associate the Internet with big names like Facebook, Netflix, and the Huffington Post.  But just like in the physical environment, we find the life of the digital environment not in these few companies but in the energy and ingenuity of ordinary people.  Ordinary people create new hashtags for Twitter, upload funny and informative videos to YouTube, they write code and share it publicly on websites like Github, and so on.  They do it for a variety of motivations, from vulgar profit seeking to status seeking to a desire to inform.  The type of motivation does not matter as much as having it.

Digital Environment Lessons for the Physical Environment

The growth and vibrancy of the Internet suggest that along with a good structure in place, there needs to be people willing to take advantage of that structure.  The dysfunctional bureaucracy associated with education is only part of the problem.  This is why the reforms that Booker envisioned and Zuckerberg bankrolled will only have modest gains at best.  In all the emphasis on the institutional arrangements of public education, the people – the community, the parents, and the children themselves – were forgotten: “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”, Russakoff writes.

One wonders if any of that consulting money went into understanding how to change the culture that produces apathetic students.  As an analogy, the federal government could have put all the bright minds together and come up with all the plans for the Internet they wanted – but if it wasn’t for people at the ground level who were willing to take advantage of those policies, it wouldn’t have mattered.  In Newark, what is needed is a critical mass of students who are eager to leverage the reforms put in place.

History has shown – from Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century to Asian immigrants from the 1960’s until now – that communities, families, and students who value education and respect the educational experience can and will do well in America’s public school system.  Even if the schools they attend are not as well funded, groups with cultures that emphasize learning still do well.

If leaders are going to invest resources in school reform, some of that money has to go into understanding how to change the perceptions that the neighborhood, parents, and students have.  The neighborhood as a collective needs to see the school as a welcoming place where dreams come true, where parents can come at anytime and assist in its operations.  Parents need to find more ways to get involved in the educational process.  They need to adopt parenting strategies that are conducive to bringing their charges to school full of respect for teachers, administration, and knowledge itself.  All this can help create motivated students.

Now that is hard to do.  But if we diverted just a fraction of the resources away from infrastructure, technology, teacher salaries, and consultants, and towards the cultural aspects of learning we could begin understanding how to accomplish this goal.

As I write, I can hear a standard refrain: “this is blaming the victim”.  To be clear, the digital environment was in no way created through people simply “trying hard” or “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps”.  It was a combination of a good system nurtured by sound government policy, within which there were people with the drive and initiative to take advantage of it.  It takes both individual and institution.

And so it is school reforms than need reforming.  It is not only class sizes, or dilapidated buildings, or old textbooks, or poorly trained teachers, or teacher unions.   There is an apathy towards education, a deficit of motivation for learning, and a lack of respect for teacher authority.  Until school reforms begin addressing these issues, we will never make lasting improvements to education in the United States.

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