Category Archives: Newark

Schools vs. Standards

An important research study just came out on Newark charter schools.

And over at Education Next, there are three commentaries assessing the impact of the common core standards.

Taken together, these pieces offer a useful jumping off point for reflecting on what’s working in education reform.

Newark Charter Schools

Marcus Winters used Newark’s unified enrollment system to try and figure out the effect of enrolling in the charter sector. This is an innovative methodological approach that was pioneered at MIT (through Arnold Ventures funding).

Winters found large effects: a +.25 standard deviations increase in a student’s score in math and ELA. The effects were even larger for two prominent non-profit charter operators, KIPP and Uncommon.

To put this effect into context, Winters notes the results are larger than “80% of other educational interventions that have been recently studied using an experimental design.”

Of course, test scores aren’t everything. It’s also important to note that these non-profit schools can only exist if parents choose to enroll their children in them.

Uncommon and KIPP are two of the most in demand school operators in the city.

These schools are passing both the parent test and the academic results test. Hopefully, over time, they will also pass the life outcomes test by helping their students succeed in building a meaningful and financially secure life.

State Standards

Common core state standards are now in their 10th year. All three commentators in Education Next agree that research has found no positive achievement effects at scale.

Mike Petrilli, however, argues that states should stay the course, and that we should see positive results over the coming five years.

On one hand, I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about Common Core. Ultimately, I think school operator quality is much more important than standards and assessments.

However, many educators I’m close with, including many of the nation’s best charter leaders, have said that the new standards are more rigorous and have pushed them to be better.

Certain states and cities, such as Tennessee, Louisiana, and Washington D.C., have used higher standards as key part of their successful reform efforts.

To the extent we’re going to have state standards and assessment, better they be good rather than mediocre. Highly effective leaders can use them as part of their improvement strategy.

But I think the sobering results of the first ten years of Common Core should put their cost / benefit in perspective, especially since so few states have been able to use the new standards to jumpstart improvement efforts.

At the very least, no one should fool themselves into thinking that better standards and assessments are going to be a major cure for our nation’s most struggling schools.

Progress One School as a Time 

Zuckerberg, Oprah, Booker…. the Newark story has had no shortage of drama.

But through it all the steady growth of great non-profit schools has radically increased educational opportunity for families in Newark, particularly for African-American and Hispanic students.

Newark is also an all boats rising story: the traditional school system has gotten better as well.

Yes, it would be wonderful if we could pass laws that made all public schools great in a short period of time. But we can’t. You can’t legislate institutional effectiveness.

Newark shows the best path forward for most cities: grow great schools.

Better to take a decade to get something right rather than layer on sweeping reform after sweeping reform after sweeping reform.

A thoughtful response from Chris Cerf

Chris Cerf, the current superintendent of Newark and the former state superintendent of New Jersey, posted a thoughtful response to my post on the Newark Harvard study.

A couple of thoughts.

First, I’ve had the opportunity to interact with Chris on and off over the past decade, and I have immense respect for his heart and mind. Kids in New Jersey are better off because of his leadership.

Second, I appreciated the tenor of Chris’ post. A primary reason I write this blog is so that  people in the education reform family can have public disagreements and learn from each other. Chris’ tone and use of data helped me get smarter on Newark.

While there is some cost to this approach (those who oppose our work can try to exploit our disagreements), ultimately, I think the gain of learning through public debate is well worth it.

Over the long haul, our success will have more to do on whether or not we continually delivered great educational opportunities for children than whether or not we win or lose the PR fire of the week. And putting our ideas out there for public testing is a good way to get smarter on how we deliver better opportunities for children.

As for the substance of Chris’ points, you should read the piece for yourself, but I found the below two graphs to be useful.

The first compares Newark’s overall performance to similarly situated districts in New Jersey (DFG A -> the green line). Newark’s relative performance to similarly situated districts has improved greatly over the past seven years.


The second compares Newark’s traditional school performance to similarly situated districts in New Jersey (DFG A -> the green line). Newark’s traditional school performance was fairly flat until 2014, but has grown rapidly since then.


I’m not sure that Chris and I disagree on the data story.

Both of us, I think, would say that the early gains in Newark were driven by the open / close / shift strategy.

As for the improve the traditional sector strategy, Chris points to the last few years of growth to demonstrate that the reforms are starting to deliver for all schools – and that now that the foundation has been set, these gains will likely continue.

I emphasized the flat results for the first four years of the district improvement strategy and wondered whether the improve strategy was worth it – or whether putting more resources into the open / close / shift strategy would have laid an even better foundation for long-term gains.

It’s a great question to grapple with.

Lastly, our interpretations of the study go to an even more fundamental question of how we measure success: should a city’s reform efforts be evaluated on the cumulative gains it achieved during the transformation process, or should it be evaluated on the gains being delivered once a city is through a transformation process?

When we partner with a city, our team holds ourselves for cumulative gains over the initial 5-10 years of reform, but perhaps a more important metric is whether a city achieves a new and better equilibrium by the end of the reforms.

Chris has pushed me to think hard about this question, our team will be smarter for it.

Could Newark have achieved more?

Harvard researchers just published a study on Newark.

In large part due to Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift to the reform efforts, the city has seen a lot of coverage, including the well done book The Prize.

Most of this coverage has been negative.

The Harvard Study: Teasing Out Annual Effects From 2010-2016

The Harvard study found that the Newark reforms, in the most recent year of the study, had a positive impact on ELA (.07 SD) and no impact on math. In the early years of the reforms, the achievement effects were negative.

Unfortunately, the researchers only looked at annual effects (were there positive or negative effects in any given year) rather than calculating cumulative impacts (what was the total impact over these years). Because of this, we can’t perfectly compare the Newark results with results of other city based studies, such as Doug Harris’ evaluations of the New Orleans efforts.

What Caused the Positive Effects? 

While the authors didn’t calculate the cumulative effects of the reforms, they did do something wonderful.

The authors separated out the effects of two different strategies: (1) improving existing schools vs. (2) expanding high-performing schools, closing low-performing schools, and facilitating the transfer of students out of low-performing schools and into high-performing schools.

The improving existing schools approach included replacing large numbers of principals, renegotiating the union contract, implementing new data systems, and extending learning time.

The open / close / shift enrollment approach included adding to the enrollment of high-performing charter and district schools, closing underperforming schools (11 traditional schools and 3 charters), and implementing a unified enrollment system that made choosing schools much easier for families. These reforms increased charter enrollment from 14% to 28%.

The results are striking.

In math, the improve strategy achieved a .08 negative effect in math while the open / close / shift strategy had a positive .04 effect.

In ELA both strategies had positive effects, but the open / close / shift was responsible for 62% of the overall positive effect.

Perhaps most importantly: the open / close / shift strategy achieved positive effects in every year of the study. 

Opening and closing schools, and shifting student enrollment, increased student learning.

Could Newark have Achieved New Orleans’ Level Gains?

In roughly the same number of years as the Newark reforms, New Orleans achieved positive .2-.4 standard deviation effects.

New Orleans, of course, relied much more on the open / close / shift than it did on improvement.

As noted above, we can’t do a direct apples-to-apples comparison of the studies. But I’d be surprised if Newark’s cumulative effect is as large as the New Orleans effect given that Newark saw negative effects in 3 of the 5 years of reforms.

We’ll never know if Newark could have achieved similar gains to New Orleans, but in many ways the Newark circumstances were more enviable than those of New Orleans.

Newark is home to one of the highest-performing charter sectors in the country, while New Orleans had no large effective charter operators in the city right after Katrina.

Newark’s initial philanthropic investment was much larger than that received in New Orleans after Katrina. And the public per-pupil in Newark is about 3x that of New Orleans.

Newark students also didn’t have to go through the immense trauma of Katrina.

That being said: perhaps New Orleans style reforms would have not worked in Newark.

Maybe the politics would not have allowed for it… though it’s worth remembering that Shavar Jeffries, now the CEO of Democrats for Education Reform, was only about 2,000 votes away from beating Ras Baraka in the 2014 Newark mayoral race.

Or perhaps the charter sector would not have been able to grow much faster than it did; notably, charter effects did decline as they enrolled more students… though perhaps more charter capacity would have emerged under better conditions.

All told, my guess is that Newark did not increase educational opportunity as much as it could have.

A 2010 Prediction 

On this blog, I try to be honest about both my mistakes and successes.

It would be disingenuous for me to write a post arguing that, in 2010, no one could have predicted which strategy would have been better.

The fact is that I did predict this. In 2010, when it became clear that there was going to be major reforms in Newark, I created a powerpoint deck to give advice to national educational leaders. In the deck, I modeled out how quickly I thought you could expand great schools and close failing schools.

Given the relatively small size of Newark public schools (50,000 students), as well as the number of high-quality charter schools, I felt confident that the vast majority of Newark students could attend a high-quality school within ten years.

This ended up being the strategy we took in New Orleans.

It was not the strategy taken in Newark.


I have a lot of love for the philanthropists, political leaders, and educators who spent the good part of a decade trying to make things better for kids. I know many of them well and have had nothing but positive interactions.

In terms of rigorous third party research results, we also knew a lot less in 2010 than we do now. There have been a wave of recent studies documenting the positive effects of expanding the best schools and closing the worst.

And while we still suffer from a dearth of research on citywide turnaround efforts, outside of the early results in Lawrence, Massachusetts, we really haven’t seen a citywide turnaround reform effort significantly raise achievement without a focus on opening and closing schools (research has shown that Washington D.C. improved their public schools, but the city also leaned heavily on opening and closing schools).

So perhaps the better question is not what should have Newark leaders done in 2010, but what should similarly situated civic leaders do in 2017?

Civic leaders should embrace strategies that maximize the expansion of the best schools and close the worst schools.

Of course this need not be the only focus of a city turnaround effort, but the Newark study has increased my belief that it should be the primary focus.

What’s Going on in Newark?

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I’ve written a bit about Newark: on reports glossing over of the exceptional performance of Newark’s charter schools; on the “lesson” of the Newark reform efforts; and on what we should make from the fact that families overwhelming rank the best charters highest in their enrollment preferences.

In all these posts, I try to navigate the complicated facts of excellent charter performance, high family demand, and voter preference for Mayor Baraka, who, to some extent ran on a platform against the Newark education reform efforts.


Now we have an additional piece of information: Newark’s “Unity Slate,” which consisted of two charter supporters and one candidate backed by the mayor, just won seats onto the Newark school board – a board that may see schools returned back to it in the coming years.

Here are the vote counts:

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The two charter supporters placed first and second.

How to interpret this election?

You could interpret it as a truce: that the unity slate is a sign that political leaders want to wind down the education reform wars.

You could interpret it as a reversal: that Baraka’s power has ebbed and that the charter community’s power is on the rise.

You could interpret it as a signal: that in school board elections voters are willing to take their support of high-quality charter schools to the ballot box.

My guess is that all of these interpretations hold some truth.


I recently wrote about a recent poll that showed that New Orleans voters support charter schools and unified enrollment systems.

In Newark, we have evidence that public school parents have a strong preference for high-performing charter schools, and that voters are electing school board candidates that support charter schools and choice.

This evidence of what local communities actually prefer seems pretty far removed from the national narratives on Newark and New Orleans.

Both these cities are extremely complicated. They have long histories of institutional racism and poverty. I don’t think that one poll, election, or set of test scores can tell the whole story.

But I do think we good evidence in both of these cities that charter schools are providing a better education, that families recognize this, and that voters support policies that continue the expansion of access to high-quality charter schools.

Now, we are seeing these preferences show up at the ballot box.

Time will tell if this is a blip or the emergence of longer-term voting trends.

The Big Short, David Kirp, Newark, Union City, New Orleans


I saw The Big Short last night. It is an excellent movie and I agreed with much of its implicit and explicit critique of banks, government, and consumers.


David Kirp has a piece on Newark in the New York Time today. He argues that Union City (district reform) is a better path than Newark reforms (including expanding Newark’s charter schools).

He did not mention New Orleans in his piece.


I’ve written a lot on Newark.

You can read the shortest and most direct version here.


As with most great movies, in The Big Short the audience feels connected to the protagonists.

In The Big Short, the protagonists are those betting against the big banks by shorting the housing market.

Here is how I personally related to the protagonists: I feel like I hold an opinion that most people view as wrong (that charter districts will outperform traditional districts); that I have data to support this case (New Orleans + CREDO analysis of urban charter markets); and that many people are either ignoring or misinterpreting this data.

Of course, this is a fairly self-serving way of looking at the world (and watching a movie). And the world is surely more complicated than this. As such, I try to check myself as often as I can.

But most of us who takes sides on an issue, except in moments of deeply honest reflection, are the heroes of our own story – and I’m no different, especially when caught up in watching a great movie.

I’m sure that David Kirp views his tribe as the protagonists who are fighting against the corporate reformers who have all the power and money.

There is some truth in this.


Another way to say all this: strong opinions are inherently egoistic, as such, it is often best that they are weakly held.

I sometimes worry that my strong opinions are no longer weakly held.


What I loved about The Big Short – and financial markets as a whole – is that there is a way to call bullshit.

You can short the people who are wrong.

I wish there was an accepted way to do this in public policy that actually worked.

First, I want there to be a way to more quickly correct policy beliefs that I believe are harming children.

Second, I want to hold people (including myself) accountable for our beliefs.

Third, as with most competitive people, I want to win.

I try to keep the first reason, rather than third reason, at the forefront.



Last year, when Doug Harris’ study came out and demonstrated that New Orleans had achieved greater academic gains than any other urban school district that the researchers knew of, I thought this would change people’s opinions on whether the reforms worked.

I’m not sure that it did.

Instead, the argument shifted to the gains coming at too high of a cost. And to the gains not being replicable in other cities.

In short, the goal posts were moved.

If you have not made a bet, you can move the goal posts all day long.


Of course, I might be wrong about my beliefs.

If I end up being wrong, I hope that I am honest enough to close down this blog with a post that says: I was wrong.

Most of all, I’ll be saddened that I devoted a good bit of my working years to something that did not help anyone.

Joe Nocera Has Not Learned the Lesson

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Joe Nocera just wrote a column.

It’s called Zuckerberg’s Expensive Lesson.

He writes:

It’s great for the 30 percent who are learning from charter school teachers. But as Russakoff puts it in the most poignant line in her book, “What would become of the children left behind in district schools?”

If this is the most poignant line in Russakoff’s book, I feel no real urge to read it.

The answer to Russakoff’s question is very clear: the children left behind in district schools could also attend charter schools if these charter schools were given all they needed to expand.

If the original reform plan had been to make Newark an all charter school district, 100% of Newark students would likely be attending a charter schools within the next year or two. Russakoff’s question would be moot.

So what’s the lesson?

Here is the wrong answer:

If X works and Y doesn’t work, the solution is to keep on trying to fix Y.

Here is the right answer:

If X works and Y doesn’t work, the solution is to expand X and reduce Y until all you have is X.

This may sound callous, but it’s not.

The callous thing is to force kids to keep on attending awful schools because the solution that would get them into good schools doesn’t make you feel good.

Who Speaks for Families in Newark?


At times, I’ve been critical of reformers who claim to be organizing families when these reformers are really advocating for their own beliefs.

I think it is equally wrong when politicians and community leaders claim to speak for parents when when these leaders do not listen to what families want.

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Mayor Baraka wrote:

Things are no better for parents. Under One Newark’s universal enrollment scheme, a secret algorithm determined what school was the “best fit” for each child. Often, this ended up placing each child in a family in a different school, none of which was the neighborhood school the parents chose.

In Newark, the results of this year’s enrollment process just came in. Some important pieces of information include:

– 76 % of families received one of their top 3 choices.

– 50% of all K-8 applicants tried to get into North Star Academy Charter School during the first round of enrollment this year; 40% chose TEAM Charter Schools.

– Three hundred families selected the sibling link option, which allows families to prioritize keeping siblings together over their school preferences for each child.

One of Mayor Baraka’s campaign slogan’s was: “When I become mayor, you become mayor.”

Families are being very, very clear about what they desire. Nearly one out of every two families in the city wants to attend North Star Academy.

Mayor Baraka, if he truly speaks for these families, will fight to deliver the educational opportunities families in Newark clearly want.

Ultimately, the power of a unified enrollment system is that it allows for families to speak for themselves.

Families, however, do not have the power to translate their desires into educational realities; only government leaders can do this.

Mayor Baraka, while he does not have formal control over the school system, does have incredible influence.

He should use this influence to honor the desires of public schools families in Newark.

Mayor Baraka is Half Right


Ras Baraka, the recently elected mayor of Newark, just published an op-ed in the NYT. You can read it here.

Mayor Baraka makes a couple of points:

1. The state of New Jersey took over Newark schools about 20 years, and this has been a total failure.

2. The recent major philanthropic investment in Newark has mostly been a failure.

3. Things aren’t getting better.

4. The school system should be transferred to mayoral control.

5. The following reforms should be implemented: expand pre-k, train teachers, reduce class sized, overhaul curricula, and raise expectations.

I’m sympathetic to much of his argument.

Twenty years of state control has not resulted in significant citywide improvement.

The philanthropic investment in teacher compensation was poorly spent.

Things in Newark aren’t getting better at a fast enough rate.

Yet, interestingly enough, the mayor does not detail the one bright spot of state intervention: the growth of high-performing charter schools.

CREDO studies indicate that Newark charter schools are amongst the best in the nation.

On average, Newark charter schools deliver an incredible nine months of additional learning a year (when compared to Newark’s traditional schools).

Nine months.

Admittedly, it would not surprise me if the charter sector is not yet serving its full fair share of the most at-risk students. But the city’s new unified enrollment system should correct this.

Reports indicate that Newark’s charter sector is on pace to grow to serving 40% of Newark’s students.

The most direct path to making Newark an excellent educational system is to go even further. Let great charter schools expand so long as they keep providing Newark students excellent educational opportunities.

The mayor rightfully calls for a great school in every neighborhood. Expanding charters could achieve this, as well as give parents additional great schools to attend in the case that they do not wish to attend their neighborhood school.

Much of the other reforms the mayor desires – expanded pre-k, better trained teachers, lower better curricula, higher expectations – could all be achieved via a charter school strategy. Many of the best charters in Newark have already adopted these practices.

And, I suspect, the best traditional schools in the city would adopt many of these practices if they were granted charter status and given real autonomy.

But, ultimately, it should be up to schools to decide whether or not to adopt these reforms.

The irony of Baraka’s critique of top-down reforms is that, instead of giving every school in Newark true freedom, he proposes another set of top-down reforms. These top-down reforms are simply his instead of the state’s.

Newark could become the nation’s highest performing urban school system in the country.

There are very few cities in America where the charter sector is so high-performing, and has so much capacity to grow, that providing an excellent education to every child in the city is within such close reach.

All Newark has to do is free all of its schools from top-down mandates, both the state’s and the city’s.

Or to put it another way: Newark needs to let great schools thrive.