Sara Mead on School Reform
Sara Mead with an important response to the recent NYT op ed on how the success of the school system in Union City, NJ is supposedly a counter-point to the reformers’ agenda. Rather, it’s a great case study of the importance of mayoral control! Also, it shows that more money helps – AS LONG AS it’s married to reform. And reformers have never questioned the importance of teacher engagement, collaboration, and teamwork. Our argument is that this is impossible unless you identify and reward good/great teachers and get rid of the turkeys. Even a few turkeys can drag down an entire school – but the unions fight to the death to block the removal of even the worst teachers.
There are other reasons to be skeptical of Union City as a national model: For one thing, it’s very small for an urban district, serving only about 12,000 kids in a very small geographic area. It also has far more resources than the typical U.S. school district--$17,000 per pupil in 2009, thanks to New Jersey's Abbot litigation (which brought significant revenue to the state's poorest districts) and generally high per-pupil expenditures. That's not to discount Union City's success--there are lots of low-performing urban districts that also receive high funding levels. But it does raise some serious questions for those seeking to replicate the model.
Nor would it be entirely honest to champion Union City as a pure counterpoint to accountability-based reforms. It would be foolish to overlook that the city's turnaround came in part as a response to its identification as a failing district and threatened state takeover, or that it's been able to sustain its commitment to a reform agenda and build trust over time in large part because its school board is appointed by a well-respected mayor--freeing it from some of the school board governance conflicts that plague more troubled districts.