Once Upon a Time…in Newark
Every Newark mayor since 1962, except for Cory Booker and current Mayor Ras Baraka, has been indicted for crimes committed while in office. Until last year, 4 in 10 Newark public school students never graduated from high school. According to the New Jersey Department of Education, 84.1 percent of students newly-enrolled in Essex County Community College (the closest two-year college to Newark) have to take remedial courses and the three-year graduation rate is 11.8 percent.
Enter Stage Left
So in struts the mighty trio of Christie, Booker and Zuckerberg and, according to the anti-reform fairy tale formula, chaos ensues.
"Their plan gets off to a rocky start," writes Kotlowitz, as "their moneyed backers" exercise "their ideological furor to create more charter schools." They hire "white…consultants" and bring on "ideologue" Cami Anderson as superintendent. Hence, "this bold effort in Newark falls far short of success" and Newark residents live unhappily ever after.
But what really happened? First of all, let's talk money.
…Newark, in Kotlowitz's narrative construct, is a national "compass for school reform." But maybe that's the wrong compass.
A better choice might be Camden, where Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard is successfully, albeit quietly, implementing many of the reforms attempted in Newark: universal enrollment in charter and district schools, an innovative collaboration between charters and traditional schools, comprehensive and ongoing community outreach and a much-praised and widely-shared strategic plan called the Camden Commitment.
…Sherell Sharp, parent of a fifth-grade Mastery North Camden School student, explained to Rouhanifard that "for my daughter, Mastery means that she hops out of bed and is ready to go to school [and] that's after years of her hating school. That's a blessing."
That's a different narrative, isn't it? And it has the virtue of being true.
The Moral of the Story?
The fairy tale about reform would be less concerning if it was limited to Newark. But this neat little fiction is practically becoming a franchise, a kind of anti-reform McDonald's.
Just this past week Louisiana Superintendent John White deconstructed a Grimm Brothers-inspired fairy tale of New Orleans' schools (also in a New York Times op-ed) that follows the same formula as that presented in Kotlowitz's narrative: public schools in trouble (with the dramatic extra element of Katrina); reformers come in and pad their pockets; community ignored; kids suffer. (Also see Peter Cook and Chris Stewart.)
This compelling narrative has one fatal flaw: it ignores the facts.
So does Kotlowitz's review of Russakoff's book. It makes for great copy if you're comforted by familiar tall-tales by the campfire.
But it's less satisfactory if you're concerned with the actual academic hopes and dreams of underserved children.