Continuing Change in Newark
Education Next with an in-depth look at the excellent progress being made in Newark under Chris Cerf, building on what Cami Anderson started:
The contentious years ahead were the subject of a high-profile book by former Washington Post reporter Dale Russakoff, The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Schools, which was published just as Cerf became superintendent. The book focuses on the difficulties in implementing change in Newark, despite bipartisan leadership, financial support, and the attention of education watchers nationwide. A major theme, according to Cerf, is a "narrative of failure" in Newark schools.
Changing that narrative is a critical challenge, he says, one helped by evidence of improvement in recent years. The suspension rate is down 37 percent. The graduation rate has risen to 70 percent from 61 percent in 2011. And about one in three Newark students attends "beating the odds" schools, those that outperform schools with similar demographics in their state in reading and math, according to a 2015 study by the Center on Reinventing Public Education.
Newark has retained 95 percent of teachers evaluated as "effective," Cerf says, even though the district pays salaries lower than in surrounding towns. Only 63 percent of teachers who did not earn "effective" ratings remained in the district. The district also has invested heavily in new curricula in mathematics, science, history, and the arts. And more than half of Newark schools now have longer school days.
The premise of The Prize, Cerf says, was that if he, Anderson, and Booker had moved more slowly and worked harder to build local support for their ideas, they would have gotten a warmer reception. But, he says, that analysis is flawed.
"For Dale to criticize Cory and Cami for failing to have overcome political saboteurs, but give a complete pass to the saboteurs themselves, tells only part of the story. There was a vicious campaign of misinformation that was designed to thwart any changes."
The Value of Listening
Cerf has set two major goals for Newark schools: to give every student in the city a chance to attend a successful school, and to meet state requirements that would allow the district to regain local control. Unlike Anderson, who was charged with using the Zuckerberg largess and the state's backing to bring about the dramatic changes envisioned by Booker and Christie, Cerf views his job as making sure those changes take root, grow, and eventually bear fruit. Both jobs are difficult, and require different skills and temperaments. Anderson had to be bold and was under pressure to get quick results. Cerf has to build on and improve Anderson's initiatives, while preaching patience and building and maintaining productive, long-term relationships with major constituencies in the city: families, the advisory board, the teachers union, and the mayor's office.