Skip to Content

### Newark’s Teachings: Unveiling Insights

Establishing a “Network of Excellent Schools”

Given the precarious state of the urban educational institutions, the impractical anticipation of swift progress, and the influence from various ideological factions, there were doubts about the feasibility of the superintendent position. However, I found motivation in the enormity of the task at hand and the unwavering dedication of numerous community leaders.

Our journey commenced with the concept that the fundamental unit of transformation was the individual school itself. We embraced the vision that what we were constructing was akin to what my former superior, the then Chancellor of New York City Schools, Joel Klein, termed as a “network of excellent schools,” as opposed to a “superb school system.” This distinction was subtle yet profound, signifying our commitment to ensuring the presence of one hundred exceptional schools catering to every child in every locality—regardless of the governance framework.

Initially, our priority was to establish a cohesive objective for the district: every student should be prepared for higher education. Yes, you read it correctly, college, not merely _career_—as we firmly believed that the choice of pursuing advanced education should be the prerogative of the student, not dictated by the insufficiency of their preparation. Furthermore, the families in Newark were vocal in their demand for this.

Through numerous surveys and focus group discussions, it became evident that families were unequivocal in their stance. Additionally, they viewed being “career ready” as a euphemism for setting low standards. Families perceived academic excellence as a means to break the cycle of poverty.

While most parents supported our vision from the outset, the challenge arose from well-intentioned benefactors and influencers who sought to divert the conversation towards peripheral issues rather than focusing on the fundamental aspects such as literacy, numeracy, and critical thinking skills.

As we began sharing concrete data regarding proficiency levels and the percentage of students attaining diplomas indicative of their mastery of challenging subjects, we encountered resistance from various quarters, both internal and external to the educational system. This pattern became a recurring theme: the desires expressed by families often differed significantly from the stances adopted by their representatives.

Ensuring Schools with the “Four Essential Components”

With our guiding principle established, we delved into the task of enhancing the district, school by school. Extensive research and empirical evidence highlighted the characteristics of high-performing schools situated in economically disadvantaged areas. Leveraging this knowledge alongside our team’s hands-on experience in school revitalization, we pinpointed four fundamental elements integral to every successful school: personnel, curriculum, ethos, and environment.

Our objective was clear: to transform each school within the NPS into an institution embodying these four essential components, thereby advancing steadily towards preparing all students for higher education. Our approach was grounded in practicality: focusing on effective strategies irrespective of ideological leanings, often leading to innovative solutions that bridged divergent viewpoints or charted new paths beyond traditional dichotomies. Our guiding principle: execution is paramount.

Personnel. The presence of competent individuals in key roles—from the administrative team and educators to mental health practitioners and support staff—is crucial.

The transformative influence of an exceptional teacher is widely acknowledged, a belief substantiated by a growing body of research revealing that [ppp1]. Moreover, the pivotal factor in ensuring the presence of outstanding teachers in every classroom is the quality of the school principal.

We were resolute in our stance from the outset in Newark. A remarkable school invariably boasts an exceptional principal, while a struggling school seldom features an exemplary principal (with rare exceptions during initial turnaround phases). Within a span of two years, we overhauled nearly [ppp2] through a rigorous recruitment process, prioritizing candidates from Newark and individuals who not only excelled in pedagogy but also viewed themselves as community mobilizers and catalysts for change.

During this period, many states commenced incorporating quantitative test scores into teacher evaluations, with New Jersey eager to follow suit. However, our team harbored reservations about the efficacy of such an approach in evaluating individual teachers. We believed that relying on the value-added method for teacher assessments would be unjust to educators. Moreover, we foresaw that introducing this contentious element into our new evaluation framework could trigger a backlash capable of undermining the entire initiative. Our skepticism towards the utilization of test scores in teacher evaluations drew criticism from staunch education reform advocates fixated on using test results as a simplistic yardstick for accountability, apprehensive that our skepticism might dilute the essence of reform efforts.

To expedite the enhancement of the “personnel” aspect in non-charter schools, we brokered what was widely perceived as [ppp3] with Newark teachers. Despite endorsing key labor reforms following extensive negotiations lasting over two hundred hours, the national affiliate, the American Federation of Teachers, vehemently opposed these reforms shortly after their ratification by an overwhelming majority of teachers. Both entities had a longstanding tradition of upholding certain entrenched practices in teacher labor negotiations: reliance on seniority for placement, unwavering support for tenured teachers regardless of performance, and resistance towards any form of accountability—regardless of its nuanced nature. Conversely, our proposals resonated well with ordinary teachers, who emphasized the pivotal role played by the teacher in the adjacent classroom in influencing their decision to remain at a particular school. My persistent advocacy stemmed from the belief—then and now—that teachers’ unions must evolve to be part of the solution; otherwise, they risk becoming obsolete.

Furthermore, we undertook a comprehensive restructuring of the central office, reimagining its role to be service-oriented towards schools and families. This necessitated the reorganization of senior leaders into new teams, tasking them with articulating clear strategies aligned with the four school-level components. It also entailed devising coherent plans with objectives synchronized with effective management practices and mentorship, rather than adhering to conventional approaches.

Curriculum. A high-caliber educational institution necessitates top-notch, culturally sensitive curricular materials. Additionally, frameworks, protocols, and data should steer effective instruction and continual enhancement.

My tenure in Newark commenced approximately a year subsequent to the nationwide implementation of the Common Core State Standards, coinciding with New Jersey’s adoption of a variant of these standards. The advent of Common Core presented a definitive, evidence-based target. It catalyzed a critical evaluation of our curricula through a more stringent lens.

The significance of [ppp4] is indisputable; superior, culturally relevant instructional resources play a pivotal role in ensuring students genuinely grasp complex subject matter. Regrettably, this area had been underemphasized during the initial reforms following the publication of A Nation at Risk.

Achieving the right balance in high-quality instructional materials poses a challenge when operating solely at the school or small-network level. Scale emerges as a critical factor. Decisions in this domain are best made at a systemic level, allowing content experts to devote ample time to address academic requisites, cultural nuances, as well as ensuring coherence and alignment across a myriad of curricula and assessments. Notably, this aspect garnered unanimous support in Newark at the time. We conducted informative sessions for administrators, educators, influencers, and families, all of whom exhibited a strong grasp of and backing for the imperative of implementing robust, rigorous content consistently across the city.

Ethos. Schools fostering purposefully cultivated environments characterized by high expectations coupled with robust support mechanisms yield superior student outcomes.

From the outset in Newark, we prioritized seminal research findings and promising methodologies that underscored the interconnectedness of student sentiments, adult perceptions, and academic achievements. Years of correlating student performance data with staff, student, and family feedback led researchers Tony Bryk and Barbara Schneider to conclude that [ppp5] were significantly more likely to achieve commendable outcomes compared to their counterparts. Economists like Ron Ferguson and social policy experts like Christopher Jencks established a direct link between adult anticipations, student surveys, and academic results.

In a related vein, navigating conflicts and disruptive incidents posed a significant challenge in cultivating and preserving a conducive environment. The handling of student discipline, adversity, and discord often lays bare adult biases. This issue is not merely a matter of equity and justice but also significantly impacts student achievement. Frequently, students in dire need of support and extended learning opportunities face disproportionate exclusion. Learning becomes arduous when students grapple with feelings of shame and helplessness. Consequently, the association between the discipline gap and academic performance transcends mere correlation—it assumes a causal relationship.

To address these challenges, we recruited administrators adept at fostering a positive culture and collaborating with families. We established an entire central-office unit dedicated to student well-being and disciplinary matters.

While progress was made, navigating the intricacies of fostering a conducive culture posed challenges for several reasons. Discussions on the desired student culture often veered towards being preachy, theoretical, or ideological, devoid of pragmatic, evidence-based, promising practices. Cultivating a positive ethos is far from a standardized process. Effective cultures may vary across schools but share common foundational elements. This nuanced aspect proves challenging to impart to administrators. Addressing adult biases concerning student capabilities and defining what constitutes “risky” behavior necessitates confronting discomfort and resistance.

Environment. This element pertains to robust operational frameworks and infrastructure.

Addressing the physical setting and day-to-day operations is paramount. None of the other components of a robust school or system can thrive without addressing the conditions under which students learn and teachers instruct. In Newark, substantial work was required in this domain.

Upon my arrival, Malcolm X Shabazz High School witnessed water seepage on its fourth floor during rainy spells. Several schools lacked air conditioning in a city where temperatures soared above ninety degrees with high humidity for prolonged periods. Some schools lacked internet connectivity, and only a handful possessed laptops available for student use.

Local discourse often referred to a “rolling start” at the beginning of the academic year, signifying the extended duration required to resolve fundamental issues: enrollment procedures, special education accommodations, transportation logistics, and availability of educational resources. The notion of instruction commencing on the very first day was alien to me.

Several intolerable conditions stemmed from flawed public policies and inadequate management practices. We gauged a school’s efficacy based on the visitor experience at the entrance (if any) and the promptness with which families received assistance. We introduced school operations managers to address the operational needs of schools. This innovative approach drew criticism from the administrators’ union, perceiving it as an intrusion into district administrative roles and positions. Even today, our operational strategy is deemed pioneering, underscoring the scant emphasis placed on school conditions.