Chris Cerf Reviews ‘The Prize’: The Book Was More Balanced Than the Book Tour

By Chris Cerf | December 9, 2015

This article originally appeared at Education Post, and was accompanied by an in-depth interview with Superintendent Chris Cerf.
The book was considerably more balanced than the book tour. As Dale Russakoff’s “The Prize” got out there, and in dozens of presentations on the radio and in bookstores around the country, it became a very simple and reductionistic story that was distorted in a number of important respects. (Conor Williams also reviews “The Prize” for The Seventy Four: An Urgent Education Catastrophe Overflowing with Culprits and Caveats)
Probably the biggest casualty was the failure to acknowledge the many successes that have occurred over the course of the last several years:
Graduation rates
The Newark Public School graduation rate is 70 percent this last year. That is up from the high 50’s four years ago. It has been up every single year for the last three years, and the 5-year graduation rate is now nearly 73 percent. That should be an above-the-fold, banner headline.
Beating the odds
When you disaggregate the data and you really look at the numbers, you’ll see that the percentage of African-American children who attend public schools in Newark that beat the state average has doubled, and that is combining traditional schools and charter schools, but you see a substantial increase in both.
A recent study put out by the Center on Reinventing Public Education out of the University of Washington entitled Measuring Up: Educational Improvement and Opportunity shows that 40 percent of Newark students are enrolled in so-called “beat the odds” schools, as compared to the average across the country of 8 percent in other cities.
Newark is by far the best performer among every city in the country in terms of the percentage of beat the odds schools. I think an excellent reference to this is a piece on NJ Left Behind called Getting Past False Dichotomies.
Parent engagement
The work of the last several years also reflects how deeply we value the reality that parents know what is best for their children and should be put in the driver’s seat when it comes to choosing which school they want to send their child to.
The Brookings Institution recently recognized Newark as having made the most progress of any school district in the country in providing choice to parents. It is entirely fair to point to executional missteps in implementing this significant change, but balance requires crediting the successes as well.
New teacher contract
We are also proud of the work that resulted in a new collective bargaining agreement, a really groundbreaking contract with our teachers. That, in combination with work we did with the New Teachers Project — and with the benefit of the new state tenure law — has enabled us to completely redesign the way we hire, evaluate and support our staff.
It is a stunning success that 95 percent of our highly effective and effective educators have remained in the district in our classrooms, while less effective teachers have chosen not to return far more frequently. No longer are teachers compensated solely on the basis of time served; it is a combination of years of service and effectiveness. Of the 115 tenure charges filed over the last several years, mostly for ineffectiveness, 89 of those individuals are no longer with the district. (Virtually no such charges were brought before 2011.)
Because of the success at the bargaining table, more than half of our schools now have a longer day and extra learning time. Teachers and administrators in those schools also receive record amounts of intensive professional development.
Restorative justice
Another deep investment that is paying dividends is a district-wide commitment to restorative justice as a means of addressing discipline issues. The district’s suspension rate is down 37 percent and new systems are in place to assure that students with behavioral issues are not pushed into educationally inadequate settings.
Russakoff also gives no weight to striking improvements in education technology. Because of the work over the last four years, last month Newark Public Schools was nationally recognized for its “well-developed strategy to transition the district towards the use of digital curriculum and content that creates effective change towards the teaching and learning process.”
More educational options
Lastly, we have many more school options for our children now than we did four years ago. Some would prefer just to focus on charters. Charters do serve 29 percent of the students in the city, but the district also brought in Bard High School Early College, which graduated 51 students last year with a college degree as well as a high school degree. Other new non-charter public schools brought to the district include Eagle Academy for Young Men, Girls’ Academy for Newark and several new transfer schools for over-age, under-accredited youth.
I am well aware that there are many things we have tried that have not yet succeeded and that not all achievement trend lines are positive. Perhaps the most balanced perspective is simply to say that we are still in the early innings.
But for Russakoff to declare that the work of the last four years has been “a wash” is preposterous. The only way that she can do that is by disregarding an overwhelming body of data, generalizing from the negatives, and treating the positives as incidental anecdotes. That dismissive approach, in my view, is not only inaccurate, but disrespectful to the students, parents and educators who have really put their shoulder into change and endured a great deal to bring that change about.
The ‘Ford Tahoe’ narrative
Beyond these significant omissions, “The Prize” sacrifices accuracy for an engaging storyline. Her general narrative is that now Senator Booker, Governor Christie and Mark Zuckerberg drove around the city in a Ford Tahoe and came up with a reform plan that they imposed on the city of Newark without ever engaging the community in a conversation about the merits of the plan. As she tells it, that plan involved an emphasis on charters and labor reform. To put it charitably, that is a pretty dramatic overstatement.
To begin with, there was no plan to “charterize” the district. Ever. I personally went to Washington, talked to Randi Weingarten, and said, “If you will work with me on a nation-leading collective bargaining agreement, we will make sure that the great majority of the philanthropy goes into traditional public schools and that Newark would not follow the path of New Orleans.” And that is exactly what happened.
Russakoff knows that. In fact, she reported on the Weingarten meeting, and yet she insists that flipping the district to charters was part of the narrative that was cooked up in the back of that Ford Tahoe and imposed on an unwilling and uninformed city. It is simply not true.
Secondly, she says, well, all this stuff about labor reform and educator effectiveness should have been more broadly discussed in the community. Well, I will tell you that as State Commissioner, I presided over 560 districts in the state of New Jersey, and not one ever negotiated a collective bargaining agreement in the context of community meetings. That’s just not the way it’s done.
In fact, many of the changes that have radically altered our human capital work came not from a precooked plan but from a law that was passed unanimously by both houses of the legislature—the tenure reform law of four years ago. So, again, it is more than a little bit odd to suggest that all this was a secret plan hatched in the back of a Ford Tahoe that should have been the subject of community conversations.
Russakoff is very complimentary of charter schools, spending a good deal of time focusing on KIPP’s SPARK Academy. But she never recognizes that charter schools were an organic part of a larger approach to change that was organized around the idea that we really don’t care how a school comes into being as long as it is a great public school.
Rather than crediting us with the creation of some great public schools or crediting us with closing some bad charter schools, she treats these events as something other, something alien, something separate from the work of the past four years.
Politics and resistance
Her central premise that we failed to engage the community rings truer. But, here again, she overplays her hand. Even accepting that we are guilty as charged with respect to failing to bring the community along with the work—which I think is generally accurate, worthy of lots of reflection and has already been the basis of many changes—the book is politically naive in its almost willful disregard of the background politics and the union games that turbocharged the rhetoric and added immeasurably to the decibel level in the city.
Put it this way: Even if all of us had had personality transplants or had engaged the community at a much more comprehensive level, a good deal of the tumult came from deliberate political strategies that leveraged legitimate concerns into a political agenda. It is my humble view that much of the noise would have happened regardless of all else, including deeper “engagement.”
For their own reasons—which I trace to the strike in Chicago, an internecine battle within the Newark Teachers Union and the political challenges faced by the governor at the time—Randi Weingarten and the unions abandoned their initial conciliatory outlook. Nothing reveals this more then when they took to the street with bullhorns saying “they’re trying to privatize public education” when they knew perfectly well from private meetings that that was not the goal or strategy—in fact it was the opposite.
And who could deny that other elected officials in the city found it politically advantageous to magnify the disagreements rather than work to resolve them? My point is not to minimize the failure to earn the trust of important parts of the community. But by ignoring the other half of the story, which is about raw urban and union politics, her overall narrative is skewed and incomplete.
Good, bad and ugly
Undoubtedly, “The Prize” has done much good, especially by shining a light on the maddening intractability of much that needs fixing in urban education. If the message is to avoid the hubris that often comes with reformers’ deep convictions about the urgency of dramatic change and to engage stakeholders in a deeper and more open way, she has done the field a service.
But the book has done harm as well. The Zuckerberg money made a huge difference in Newark, and continues to do so today. Yet “The Prize” has caused some philanthropists to question additional investments in public education, reading the book as a call to double down on charters since “districts are not fixable.” That is a shame.
No less of a shame is the book’s curious unwillingness to delve into the role of interest groups and politics in undermining change. Efforts to inflame passions rather than responsibly address points of difference appear to be an inevitable concomitant of system change in districts across the country.
Perhaps in her next book, Russakoff will give equal attention to that aspect of the work and take a more balanced view of reformers, philanthropists and public officials who want to do something significant to address the profound injustice of schools that fail impoverished children.
Also at The Seventy Four: The Unwritten Appendix to ‘The Prize,’ By Those Inside Newark’s Improving Schools
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