Category Archives: Newark

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.