What Zuckerberg’s $100 Million Bought Newark Public Schools

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

In 2010, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg gifted $100 million to the Newark school system to make some radical and controversial changes, including new teachers’ contracts and expanded charter programs. A new study released through the National Bureau of Economic Research looks at how students are faring in the aftermath of that overhaul, concluding that English scores have risen but little has changed in the area of math.

The study has one big caveat: It was funded by the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative. Still, it shows mixed results.

From the report:

Prior to the reform, Newark’s student achievement growth in Grades 4–8 was comparable to the state average for similar schools in English, but above the state average in math. The above average math growth at baseline was driven by strong achievement gains in the charter sector (since achievement growth in Newark district schools was not statistically different from the state average in either subject.) After five years of reform, Newark overall saw statistically significant and educationally meaningful improvements in English achievement growth and no significant change in math achievement growth, above and beyond gains observed by similar students in similar schools throughout New Jersey.

A large portion of the English gain in achievement growth (62 percent) came from students switching schools, from “less effective schools” to “more effective schools,” as the study diplomatically puts it.

“Even while the typical school was seeing declines in achievement growth through the 2013-2014 academic year … students were shifting to schools with higher achievement growth as some of the least effective district schools were closed and enrollment at higher performing district and charter schools increased,” according to the report.

In both subjects, student achievement declined in the first three years following the changes. The researchers conclude that this was perhaps “due to the disruptive nature of the reforms.”

(Credit: The Center for Education Policy Research)

The study’s findings are being taken as a positive by Newark schools Superintendent Chris Cerf, who said it confirms that progress is being made, 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,” according to Chalkbeat.

The school overhauls have received a lot of critical press thus far. Journalist Dale Russakoff’s book on the changes focused on the portion of Zuckerberg’s $100 million that went to high-paid consultants. And other stories, like this one from Business Insider, suggest that the approach, over all, failed.

Russakoff has also focused on how trauma outside the classroom in disadvantaged communities like Newark undermines the efforts of teachers to help students succeed. Some compelling research suggests that schools need to be more comprehensive in serving children, offering psychological services alongside Common Core.

Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.

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