study shows

The $100 million question: Did Newark’s school reforms work? New study finds big declines, then progress

PHOTO: TechCrunch/Creative Commons
Mark Zuckerberg

It was announced with much fanfare on Oprah in 2010: dramatic changes were coming to Newark’s schools, financed with $100 million from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Those changes — including a new teachers’ contract and the expansion of charter schools — proved controversial and challenging to implement. But there hasn’t been a clear answer to the key question: Are students learning more now than they were then, thanks to the reform effort?

A new study, released Monday through the National Bureau of Economic Research, is among the first to try to answer.

It finds that by 2016, Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011. But the results are not uniformly positive. It finds no impact in math. And in both subjects, the reforms seem to have come with a cost: student achievement declined substantially in the first three years of the changes.

The study was funded by the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by a number of Harvard researchers, including Tom Kane, who said that the study’s results were independent of its funding source.

“This study confirms the progress that is being made in Newark schools,” Newark schools superintendent Chris Cerf said in a statement, “and shows that reforms undertaken — particularly in areas like citywide enrollment and expansion of high quality schools — are making a real difference for Newark students.”

Their findings have both educational and political import.

The 2010 announcement was heralded as a rare and powerful bipartisan alliance, with Democratic Mayor Cory Booker and Republican Governor Chris Christie united in their plan to make sweeping changes to Newark’s struggling schools and backed by Zuckerberg’s millions.

(The money — $100 million with another $100 million match — seemed eye-popping, though it only accounted for 4 percent of school spending in the city over the five years of the grant.)

The changes would include not only charter schools and performance-based pay for teachers, but also the closure of a number of district schools, and new enrollment system encompassing district and charter schools.

The initiatives soon came under scrutiny. Residents and students pushed back forcefully against some of the changes implemented by schools chief Cami Anderson. Ras Baraka, a school principal and sharp critic of Anderson, was elected mayor in 2014, beating Shavar Jeffries, who was more amenable to the reforms. Anderson was replaced by Cerf in June 2015.

Journalist Dale Russakoff wrote a largely critical account of changes that focused on how a large share of the Zuckerberg money went to high-paid consultants. Since, media reports have largely suggested that the approach failed and that the money was wasted.

Now, the central characters have largely moved on. But Zuckerberg and Booker, now a U.S. senator, are rumored to have national political ambitions, including potential runs for president in 2020.

Here are the key takeaways:

The overall effect of the reforms on student learning was mixed.

“By the fifth year of reform, Newark saw statistically significant gains in English and no significant change in math achievement growth,” the researchers conclude. “Perhaps due to the disruptive nature of the reforms, growth declined initially before rebounding in recent years.”

Source: “Assessing the Impact of the Newark Education Reforms”

The research, also released as a non-technical report, looks at two ways the reforms may have affected students: by making existing schools better and by moving students to more effective schools, including charters. Moving students to better schools did help, but existing schools didn’t consistently improve – and in the first three years got substantially worse in both subjects.

Something we still don’t know is what the cumulative impact of the reforms was on a student who attended Newark schools for five straight years. The study doesn’t answer that.

Another perhaps surprising finding, considering the common description of Newark schools as failing: The district had a growth rate before the changes that was about average for similar districts in New Jersey.

Students seemed to benefit from school closures.

The study finds students whose school was closed subsequently saw higher test score growth, particularly those moving into better schools. That’s consistent with other research. But Newark did not seem to close its worst schools, and even shut down a few schools that were average or above average. That might have limited the positive effects of closures.

Charter schools continued to outperform the district, but have grown less effective.

Part of the reform strategy was to expand Newark’s charter sector, since charter schools had been shown to substantially raise student test scores, relative to the district. The latest study found that charters continued to do better than the district, but the gap has essentially been cut in half.

That’s because charters’ effectiveness has decreased since 2011. It’s not clear why, but three times as many students attend charter schools in Newark now compared to 2010. That influx of new students and accompanying growing pains may be part of the explanation. 

The study also shows that charter schools serve different students than the district. Newark’s charter students are more likely to be African-American and female, and less likely to have a disability or limited proficiency in English.

The study comes with a few important caveats.

The spike in test-score growth toward the end of the five-year grant coincided with the introduction of a new test aligned with the Common Core, the PARCC. It also coincided with an increase in students opting out of state tests, both in Newark and statewide. The researchers try to account for this, but it’s not entirely clear if those changes skewed the findings.

Also, the researchers came to their conclusions by comparing test score growth of Newark’s students to students with similar backgrounds and in similar schools across New Jersey. That doesn’t guarantee that the study is able to isolate the effects of the reforms, but does allow for comparisons to places without the Zuckerberg money or attention.

The results don’t show whether the reforms “worked” — because that’s a complicated question.

The study is focused on standardized test scores, a significant limitation that means it doesn’t speak to other effects of the reforms on students. A separate analysis, funded by the Community Foundation of New Jersey and also released Monday, points out that high school graduation rates in Newark rose substantially in 2016 and 2017, after remaining flat between 2012 and 2015. Enrollment in the city schools has also trended upward in recent years. 

Source: “Moving Up: Progress in Newark’s Schools from 2010 to 2017”

The results also don’t account for political turmoil or the sense that the reforms were done to — rather than with — the community in Newark, whose schools had been under state control for a over two decades. An agreement was finalized in September to return them to community control.

“Ultimately we’re giving the parents the opportunity to have their democratic rights back,” Baraka told NPR, who argued in the same interview that the Zuckerberg dollars had not improved the school district. “There is no real kind of causal relationship between that money and the development of the traditional public schools in Newark.”

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.

union power

Gutting Wisconsin teachers unions hurt students, study finds

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

The high-profile fight to limit union power was replete with drama — including a recall election and state legislators fleeing to neighboring states.

In the 2011 battle in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker ultimately came out the victor. The controversial law passed, Walker won the recall, and the Democratic-aligned unions have lost much of their power.

But new research points to other losers in the fight: students in the state’s already struggling schools.

The first study to assess how Wisconsin’s high-profile weakening of unions, particularly teachers unions, affected students finds that it led to a substantial decline in test scores.

The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments for a case, known as Janus, that could dramatically scale back union power across the country — essentially taking aspects of the Wisconsin model national. And they give credence to concerns from unions and their defenders that weakening teachers bargaining power would ultimately make schools worse, not better.

A report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress released Wednesday highlights this research — and the fact that teacher pay and average experience declined in the wake of the law, known as Act 10 — to argue that weakening unions ultimately harm schools.

“Those concerned about the quality of public education — and of all public services — should understand that Wisconsin’s Act 10 and associated budget cuts have not had the positive impact on education that its proponents claimed it would,” the CAP report argues.

Still, the research, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, only assesses the short-term impact of Wisconsin’s law. It adds to a complicated set of research findings on unions that doesn’t render a clear verdict.

Short-term effect in Wisconsin is negative, especially for low-achieving schools

The new research looks at the effects of Wisconsin Act 10, which became law in 2011 and severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt of unions.

The paper’s author, Jason Baron, took advantage of what was essentially a natural experiment set up by the law. Act 10 did not affect all school districts at once — a handful of school districts were allowed to maintain union rules until their existing contract expired up to two years later. That helped isolate the immediate impact of the law.

Baron found that weakening unions led to declines in test scores, particularly in math and science. The effects were fairly large, comparable to sharply increasing class sizes. And the harm was not evenly distributed: Schools that started out furthest behind were hurt the most, while higher achieving schools saw no impact.

Other research may help explain why.

The law led to big cuts in teacher compensation, particularly for veteran teachers and especially in health insurance and retirement benefits, according to one paper. There was also a spike in teacher retirement immediately following the law’s passage.

As compensation drops, it may become harder for district and teachers to recruit and keep teachers. An increase in retirement also reduces teacher experience, which has been linked to effectiveness.

Another study found that some Wisconsin districts moved from a single salary schedule to a performance-based pay system after Act 10’s passage. Those performance pay systems were more likely to be adopted by higher-achieving districts, potentially allowing them to lure effective teachers away from struggling schools.

“Following Act 10, high-performing schools filled vacancies from teacher retirements by poaching high-quality teachers from low-performing schools through attractive compensation schemes,” the paper concludes. So while those retirements might have hit all districts equally, high-performing districts were better able to make up the difference — at the expense of low-performing schools.

There is one study that complicates the narrative in Wisconsin. As retirements spiked, it found that academic achievement actually increased in the grades that teachers left. It’s not clear what explains this.

The larger question of how teachers unions affect learning remains up for debate

A number of other recent studies have examined the relationship between teachers unions and student outcomes outside of Wisconsin. The results aren’t consistent, but the trend has been more positive for unions of late. A caveat: Some of these studies have not been published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

  • On recent efforts to weaken unions: Research in Tennessee found that it led to a drop in teacher pay, but had no effect on student test scores. But a study of four states, including Wisconsin, that recently weakened unions found evidence of reduced teacher quality as a result.
  • On what happens when charter schools unionize: Two studies in California came to differing conclusions. One found that when charters unionize, student test scores go up, but the other showed no impact.
  • On the initial rise of collective bargaining: Another paper finds that students who went to schools where districts negotiated with unions earned less money and were more likely to be unemployed as adults. But this study looks at a fairly old data set — examining those who attended schools between 1965 and 1992.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if any of this research is likely to influence the Supreme Court, as it considers the Janus case that could make life more difficult for unions. Last month, Chief Justice John Roberts called empirical studies on political gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook.”