Tag Archives: Newark

Lessons in Managing the Gut-Wrenching Process of School Closures

“I’ve never felt that way before, walking into a room and just being in total knots and also knowing the right thing to do.” That’s how former Denver Public Schools board member Mary Seawell recalls the night she and the majority of the board voted to close Montbello, an academically failing but popular neighborhood high school. As we interviewed district and community leaders for our Eight Cities project, the subject of school closures elicited a nearly universal response: emotionally draining and gut-wrenching angst.

photo of Mary Seawell, former Denver Public Schools board member, by Alexander Drecun — from EightCities.org

Photo of Mary Seawell by Alexander Drecun, via EightCities.org

While the superintendents and community leaders we spoke to acknowledged school closure as a painful but necessary tool, our interviews also reflected a culture shift: Some districts are no longer forcing closures of low-performing schools in the absence of quality alternatives. Instead many districts have started more carefully planning closures to minimize disruption and prioritize student success. Two recently released reports reinforce the need for districts to mitigate the pain of school closures by ensuring better alternatives already exist. Continue reading

What the Providence Public School District Can Learn from Newark

 

The word “hope” may appear on the Rhode Island state flag, but it’s in short supply in Providence Public Schools. A recent report from researchers at Johns Hopkins University reveals that students are exposed to “an exceptionally low level of academic instruction” and in some cases, they have to attend school in dangerous buildings with lead paint and asbestos. At fault are byzantine rules and convoluted governance arrangements, the authors argue. Piecemeal reform efforts have not been enough to overcome ossified institutions, leaving unsafe buildings, low-quality instruction, and sub-par teachers shuffling between schools in a “dance of the lemons.”

The situation in Providence is dire, but it’s an important moment to make real, lasting changes as the spotlight is aimed on their dysfunction. Leaders in Providence — and Rhode Island at large — must focus on systemic change to provide students with safe learning environments and high-quality, rigorous instruction. Reforming an entire school system is a tall order, but other districts with similar challenges show that change is possible. One such example is just 191 miles down I-95: Newark, New Jersey.

Newark’s school system was in serious distress in ways that mirror Providence today: high poverty, dysfunctional bureaucracy, crumbling school buildings, and abysmal student outcomes. A voluminous report detailing the crisis in Newark’s public schools ultimately led to a state takeover in 1995.

Under state management, Newark’s school system was governed by the New Jersey Continue reading

Preparing for Dynamic Systems of Schools

While traditional school districts are characterized by a relatively unchanging stock of schools, performance-based systems with effective parental choice mechanisms and rigorous school oversight are defining the changes taking place in places like New Orleans, DC, and Denver. These systems have one unique common denominator: dynamism, a central concept in modern economics that explains how new, superior ideas replace obsolete ones to keep a sector competitive.

The process happens through the entry and exit of firms and the expansion and contraction of jobs in a given market. As low-performing firms cease to operate, their human, financial, and physical capital are reallocated to new entrants or expanding incumbents offering better services or products.

Too little dynamism and underperformers continue to provide subpar services and consume valuable resources that could be used by better organizations. Too much dynamism creates economic instability and discourages entrepreneurs from launching new ventures and investors from funding them.

Dynamism, however, rarely comes up in discussions about education policy despite a growing number of urban education systems closing chronically underperforming schools and opening new, high-potential schools as a mechanism for continuous systemic improvement.

New Orleans’ system of schools has operated in this reality since Hurricane Katrina. And others like Denver and DC are implementing their own versions of dynamic, performance-based systems. To illustrate, below is a graph of charter school dynamism in DC between 2007 and 2018.

But it’s a novel study on Newark’s schools that provide the field’s best research on a dynamic system in action. Continue reading

Why Legislative Words Matter

This one’s for all the aspiring policy wonks.

In Newark, NJ, the superintendent recently attempted to revoke the tenure rights of a group of teachers deemed ineffective. The state has a statute (“TEACHNJ”) of recent vintage permitting such things.

Kind of. Well, at least eventually.

One of the affected teachers contested the district’s decision, and an arbitrator sided with the teacher. It turns out that, in an arbitrator’s estimation at least, the statute technically took effect later than the district contends.

The arbitrator ruled that the statute’s language officially started the evaluations-with-state-mandated-consequences clock in 2013-14, not 2012-13. That means the district has only one annual performance evaluation of the teachers in question, not the two that are needed to invoke the state’s tenure-removal provision. So even though the district’s action comports with the spirit of the state law, this personnel decision was overturned, and the “remedy is reinstatement with full back pay and benefits.”

Because of the exact wording of legislative language, dozens of teachers are either–depending on your worldview–being indefensibly shielded from the law’s clear intent or rightly defended from an illegitimate administrative action.

If this law’s lack of specificity frustrates you, consider Section 5 of this North Carolina statute. So concerned that the state board would use its existing statutory and regulatory authority to procure an unpopular testing system (e.g. PARCC or SBAC), the legislature actually prohibits the board from acquiring any new assessment system until it is given new, explicit legislative permission to do so. The law goes even further, actually naming the kinds of tests that would probably be acceptable, (e.g. NAEP, SAT, ACT).

This is the endless tug of war between legislative authority and administrative discretion. In the former, a district gets its hand rapped for trying to squeeze too much power from what it considers sufficiently permissive language. In the latter, lawmakers craft uber-specific language to prevent the state school board from using its existing power to act against the legislature’s wishes.