Thompson: Why Cory Booker Should Have Respected Newark's Families and Teachers
Dale Russakoff’s New Yorker article, Schooled, recounts the failure of the “One Newark” plan to transform Newark schools. One of the key contributions of Russakoff’s excellent narrative is her portrait of the personalized nature of the edu-philanthropy process. As one wealthy donor said, “Investors bet on people, not on business plans, because they know successful people will find a way to be successful.”
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million in seed money after being blown away by then-mayor Cory Booker. Zuckerberg explained, “This is the guy I want to invest in. This is a person who can create change.”
Booker created a confidential draft plan to “make Newark the charter school capital of the nation.” Because it would be driven by philanthropic donors, no openness would be required. “Real change requires casualties,” Booker argued, and stealth was required to defeat “the pre-existing order,” which will “fight loudly and viciously.”
Had they bothered to study social science research, cognitive science, and education history, hopefully the edu-philanthropists would have realized that Booker’s approach to “One Newark” could be great for his political ambitions but it was doomed as method of improving schools.
The corporate reformers’ lack of curiosity in an evidence-driven plan for improvement is doubly frustrating because, as David Kirp documented, a successful experiment in systemic improvement was conducted in the nearby Union City schools.
Union City embraced high-quality early education. As Kirp explained in Improbable Scholars, it used research-based reforms to turnaround a school system that had been one of New Jersey’s worst. Kirp shows how we can build great schools on the strengths of our democracy. Their successes did not come from outside technocrats, but from a local culture of “abrazos” or caring. Rather than firing our way to the top, Kirp shows that school improvement must come from trusting relationships. The secret sauce of Union City’s success was “respeto,” or respect.
The equally good news is that school improvement is best achieved by the “grunt” work of “continuous improvement.” Rather that gambling on “disruptive innovation” and “transformative” change, real reform requires a modest ethic of “plan, do, and review.”
Sadly, Kirp seems to retrospectively explain why Booker embraced the reform ethos. The hard work of planning, implementation, and trial and error is not as dramatic as a Democrat leading a blood-in-the-eye assault on his party’s constituencies.
On the other hand, even though huge amounts of money was wasted on “One Newark,” the corporate reformers’ evidence-free emphasis on heroes and villains made for a compelling narrative. After reading Russakoff’s New Yorker article and, presumably, the book that will follow, the Billionaires Boys Club might rethink their cavalier approach to evidence and start to plan for science-driven policies.-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via.