When Good Intentions Meet Social Realities

Last month Dale Russakoff wrote a fascinating article in The New Yorker about school reform in Newark, New Jersey. It is a saga of what can happen when educational reformers, with the best of intentions and ample resources, attempt to implement school reform without fully understanding the meaning of  community, the strength of neighborhood loyalty, and how attached struggling families are to their local public schools.

The overwhelming majority of the people living in Newark are poor, very poor. More than 73 percent of the native-born population live below the poverty line, and most of the poorest people in Newark are African-American. The public school system has a long history of failure; in 1995 the state took over Newark’s public schools.

When Cory Booker was elected to the City Council in 1998, he was a strong advocate of new school management and charter schools. When he became mayor in 2006, he set out to completely overhaul the public schools in partnership with Governor Chris Christie and Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, who contributed $100 million to jump-start change. Cami Anderson, an experienced and savvy educational reformer, was brought in as superintendent.

It all sounded hopeful and positive. Zuckerberg’s generosity could be the catalyst for real change. But there was grassroots pushback as reform plans emanated from the superintendent’s office and charter school companies rushed into Newark’s neighborhoods. Despite the efforts of the reformers to explain their plans, communication between them and the community became strained.

The conflict came to a head this year, and on May 13, Ras Baraka, a community leader and outspoken critic of the school reforms, was elected mayor. He was supported by the teachers union and neighborhood organizations. He defeated Shavar Jeffies, who had backing from the finance community and charter school advocates.

For more than 30 years, there has been an intense public and policy debate about the best way to turn inner city schools into real places of learning. Many dedicated educators, scholars, philanthropists, advocates, and politicians have struggled to solve the puzzle of urban education’s chronic underperformance. Billions of public and private dollars have been spent promoting various reforms.

It is too early to tell if the educational reforms in Newark will succeed in spite of the political turmoil they engendered. But we can be sure that lasting reform is most likely to succeed if it works within the context of community building and partnership with families, churches, and other neighborhood organizations.

Building a community-based model of educational change will not be easy – genuine change is always difficult. But it might be made easier by adhering to certain principles:

  • Begin with the people who live with the problems
  • Listen to community needs
  • Include all stakeholders
  • Develop a shared vision
  • Find solutions that can be managed locally
  • Measure success and failure using multiple measures

What happened in Newark is an object lesson; good intentions can be undone by political conflict. Our sense of urgency should be balanced by thoughtful planning and community collaboration. We need humility, mutual respect, and courageous reasoning if we are to serve our most vulnerable students and enable them with the tools of success.