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.”

Face time

On the hot seat: McQueen to explain latest testing blunders to angry Tennessee lawmakers

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen is under fire for her oversight of the state's standardized test, known as TNReady, which has had a string of high-profile problems since its rollout in 2016.

Facing mounting pressure over testing problems that have plagued Tennessee for three years, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen goes before lawmakers Wednesday to explain what went wrong this time — and what the state is doing about it.

McQueen is scheduled to appear at noon before a joint legislative hearing of several committees, and she’s expected to recount some of the same things she shared in an email Tuesday evening with district superintendents.

The former classroom teacher and university dean said she was “completely devastated” Tuesday morning when technical problems derailed online testing for a second state day.

She announced a three-day extension of this spring’s online testing window to May 9 to provide schools with more flexibility because of the problems.

She reported that, despite the snafus, more than 120,000 tests were completed on Monday and Tuesday.

And she was contrite. “I want to personally apologize to each of you and to your many staff, teachers, and students who have been handling these issues with patience and a positive attitude. We are very grateful,” she wrote.

But the reception on Capitol Hill in Nashville is not expected to be friendly, even as McQueen has numerous fans there for sticking by major reforms approved by the legislature in 2010 as part of Tennessee’s First to the Top education overhaul.

This week, lawmakers have gotten an earful from educators and parents angry that TNReady wasted two school days for older students who were supposed to take the standardized test online. Only last fall, McQueen had assured lawmakers she’d put an end to TNReady problems when scoring errors emerged in the second year of testing.

The anger reached a boiling point on Tuesday, with House Democrats calling for McQueen to step down and Republicans discussing last-minute legislation that would clip TNReady’s wings.

“We’re fed up,” said Rep. Mike Stewart, a Nashville Democrat who chairs his party’s caucus. “Commissioner McQueen had one thing she had to do this year, and she failed. We need another commissioner.”

But lawmakers can’t fire McQueen. Only Gov. Bill Haslam can do that, and he’s the one who hired her in late 2014. The Republican governor also has championed his education commissioner through good and bad — including the failed rollout of online testing in 2016 and Tennessee’s big gains on national tests from 2011 to 2015.

Asked about the legislative saber-rattling, a Haslam spokeswoman said the governor has “complete confidence in Commissioner McQueen” and called for patience while the state and Questar investigate a “deliberate attack” by hackers on the testing company’s data system — the alleged source of Tuesday’s testing problems.

"The governor has complete confidence in Commissioner McQueen."Jennifer Donnals, spokeswoman

“This was an outside attack on the testing system, and the system worked as designed to protect private student information,” the spokeswoman, Jennifer Donnals, said in a statement. “Eliminating testing as a response would only serve to accomplish the very disruption the hackers intended. The governor understands and shares the frustration of teachers, students and parents and appreciates their patience while this attack is being investigated.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers barreling toward the finish line of this year’s legislative session huddled to seek legislative remedies to this week’s testing failures via a bill sponsored by Rep. John DeBerry of Memphis and Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown. One amendment would require the state to administer only paper-and-pencil tests in future years. A second would require the state Department of Education to “hold harmless” students, teachers, schools, and districts for the results of this year’s TNReady tests, which are incorporated into teacher evaluations and students’ final grades and determine which low-performing schools will face intervention.

TNReady shockwaves

Memphis school board discusses dropping TNReady scores from teacher decisions after testing failures

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board chairwoman Shante Avant.

School board members in Memphis on Tuesday evening expressed their outrage after a second day of state testing failures, with calls ranging from creating a local version of the high-stakes exam to not using TNReady scores in the district’s own evaluations of its teachers.

“If the state can’t be of assistance to us in that process,” of teacher evaluations, board chairwoman Shante Avant said, “I don’t think they need to be a part of the process.”

Board member Teresa Jones said Shelby County Schools ought to look to alternative measures to evaluate teachers.

“I don’t think we can make human capital decisions and have evaluations until we have a test that is actually functioning at a level that we can trust,” Jones said.

The board did not vote on changing teacher evaluations. The angry declarations came after two days of glitches in state testing in Tennessee — first with login problems and then what the state called a “deliberate attack” on its testing vendor’s data center. This week’s testing failures is the latest in the chain of a tumultuous multiyear rollout of the state’s new online test.

TNReady scores are factored into teacher evaluations to show student growth and mastery. Shelby County Schools uses those teacher evaluation scores to determine pay raises and school assignments, among other uses. The test scores are also the basis for state intervention strategies for low-performing schools, but school board members do not have control over that.

Though the state Department of Education assured district leaders student information was not compromised, board members were not convinced.

“It seems to me that not only process has been compromised, but the test scores have been compromised as well,” said board member Chris Caldwell. “I don’t know how any reasonable person could think this is a way to do high-stakes testing.”

And one board member even said the district should create its own test to show student growth and achievement instead of relying on the state.

“We owe it to our teachers, to our parents, to our students to say ‘no more’ until the state of Tennessee can give us a test that we can trust and that we know will follow through from the beginning to the end,” said Stephanie Love. “I think it’s time for us to come up with our own test to know where our children are, where they need to go and a plan to get them where they need to be so they can graduate and be successful.”

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the disruption of state testing impacts students and how they approach the test, which could ultimately lower their scores. All high school students are testing online this year, and districts had the option of including middle school students in the switch from paper this year. High school principals in Shelby County Schools have discretion over when they will schedule exams during the state’s testing window.

“Test results are good to see benchmarks where kids are, but we should have multiple measures to determine how a school is doing and what kids are learning,” he told board members. “Putting all your eggs in one basket and that basket breaks, it just creates a lot of concern.”

Earlier in the day, some state legislators echoed board members’ concerns by calling for the immediate resignation of Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. Another said he planned to file a bill scrapping the online version of the test and making sure the test results aren’t used in Tennessee’s accountability system for teachers and schools.