School Reform: A Family Affair

“I went to school here myself. So did my nieces, my brothers, my sisters, and now my daughter. I don’t see why it has to change,” said Seleta Carter, a mother in the Newark, New Jersey Public Schools. Her daughter’s school was scheduled for closing. A mere 20 percent of students read at grade level. The building required urgent repairs to meet minimum safety standards. Officials promised Seleta and fellow parents a better education for their children at another school. Why not embrace the opportunity? Who would choose to stay in a failing school?

I just finished reading Dale Russakoff’s new book, The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools, a spellbinding account of a well-intentioned reform of the dysfunctional Newark Public Schools. Mark Zuckerberg and partners pledged 200 million dollars to help Newark children receive the educational opportunities they deserved. Mayor Cory Booker and Governor Chris Christie committed their political capital to the quest. An epic tale of turmoil ensued. Power grabs, money grabs, lies and rumors formed subplots. Reform failed. Newark struggles today with the aftermath, the money spent, the old ways renewed. Zuckerberg moved on much the wiser. Today Mark and his wife are investing 124 million dollars into San Francisco Bay urban schools. The top-down model is reversed to a bottom-up. The money is only released school by school as neighborhood consensus is reached. I applaud their commitment after the disaster in Newark.

Don’t be quick to judge Seleta Carter for resisting change. She cares about her daughter. Indeed, Ms. Carter knows every teacher. She actively participates in the parents association. As John Stoehr, Yale University professor, rightly points out, “When you don’t have much in life, your margin of error is thin.” Seleta Carter preferred to maneuver with a dysfunction she knew than a dysfunction she didn’t. Indeed, she could not imagine a system that collectively worked. Seleta knew who the gangbangers were in her neighborhood. She knew which teachers to avoid and which teachers to pursue. Seleta can protect her daughter. How does she protect her child at a school she doesn’t know? Seleta Carter no longer seems irrational, uncaring, or naive does she?

Seleta Carter instructs all of us. Change is rarely easy. Reformers may have clear eyes and pure hearts but that is not enough. All parties need to be heard. We must earn trust and then we must deliver a better service. Howard Fuller, former Milwaukee Superintendent of Schools, said of the Newark reforms, “I think a lot of us education reformers – and I include myself – have been too arrogant. It’s not even what you do sometimes, it’s the way you treat people in the process of doing it. If your approach is to get a lot of smart people in the room and figure out what ‘these people’ need and then we implement it, the first issue is who decided that you were smart? And why do you think you can just get in a room and make decisions for a community of people? You don’t think they’ll respond the way they responded? I’m not saying you can ever create this level of change without resistance, but I don’t see how this is politically sustainable over time.” I say, amen.

So where did the 200 million dollar go in Newark? At least 90 million went to the Teachers Union to get them onboard. Joe Del Grasso, head of the union said, “We had an opportunity to get Zuckerberg’s money. Otherwise it would go to the charter schools. I decided I shouldn’t feed and clothe the enemy.” Charter schools received almost 58 million dollars. This investment created a 60 million dollar drop in public school revenues. Another 21 million dollars landed  in the pockets of consultants. The remainder managed to find their way to specific projects. Far too little of the money found its way to the classrooms.

Schools never stand in isolation. We serve the intertwined needs of children and communities. Montello is not Newark but we share most of the structural dynamics of community. Princess Fils Aime, a reform-minded educator in Newark, said, “Finding a way to connect these worlds is my focus now so that we can ask every school: What does this particular school need in order to meet the challenges of the neighborhood it’s situated in? We have to be able to show children: Why is this education meaningful?” Everyone has a right to answers to these questions. Every change should move the ball forward. How do we get better? How do we galvanize a team effort to best serve our children? My experience tells me this: be patient, be respectful, be faithful, fight for essential principles, and compromise on the non essentials. Take the time to understand the Seleta Carters who may resist change. Never shut the door. They are family.