A QUARTER-CENTURY ago, Newark and nearby Union City epitomized the failure of American urban school systems. Students, mostly poor minority and immigrant children, were performing abysmally.
New Jersey officials threatened to take over Union City’s schools in 1989 but gave them a one-year reprieve instead. Six years later, state education officials, decrying the gross mismanagement of the Newark schools, seized control there.Then, in 2009, you get the combo of Chris Christie, the new governor (and now would-be president) and then-mayor of Newark (now in the U.S. Senate), Cory Booker working together, believing they could find the ed reform way forward. Fast-forward to Oprah in 2010 and we see Facebook wunkerkind, Mark Zuckerberg, saying he is donating $100M to Newark schools for just that experiment.
What did Union City do? They stuck with what resources they had, facing a student population that was three-quarters ELL.
In 1989, with one year to shape up Union City, Mr. Carrigg, with a cadre of teachers and administrators, devised a multipronged strategy: Focus on how kids learn best, how teachers teach most effectively and how parents can be engaged.
The Union City reformers opted to focus initially on the youngest children, whose potential for improvement was greatest. When New Jersey began to fund preschool for poor urban districts in the late 1990s, the district seized on the opportunity to devise a state-of-the-art program that enrolled almost every 3- and 4-year-old in the community.Guess who did better?
Today Union City, which opted for homegrown gradualism, is regarded as a poster child for good urban education. Newark, despite huge infusions of money and outside talent, has struggled by comparison. In 2014, Union City’s graduation rate was 81 percent, exceeding the national average; Newark’s was 69 percent.Newark spent $20M of that $100M on...consultants. Newwark hired a TFAer , Cami Anderson, for their superintendent and she closed schools and stopped coming to Board meetings because she got tired of being heckled because she wouldn't listen to parents, teachers and community.
What explains this difference? The experience of Union City, as well as other districts, like Montgomery County, Md., and Long Beach, Calif., that have beaten the demographic odds, show that there’s no miracle cure for what ails public education. What business gurus label “continuous improvement,” and the rest of us call slow-and-steady, wins the race.
Newark’s big mistake was not so much that the school officials embraced one solution or another but that they placed their faith in the idea of disruptive change and charismatic leaders. Union City adopted the opposite approach, embracing the idea of gradual change and working within existing structures.