A Tale of Two Cities:  School Reform in Newark and Union City, New Jersey!

Dear Commons Community,

David L. Kirp, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley,  has an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times, commenting on the school reform initiatives in Newark and Union City, two school districts in New Jersey. Here is a summary:

“A QUARTER-CENTURY ago, Newark and nearby Union City epitomized the failure of American urban school systems. Students, mostly poor minority and immigrant children, were performing abysmally. Graduation rates were low. Plagued by corruption and cronyism, both districts had a revolving door of superintendents. New Jersey officials threatened to take over Union City’s schools in 1989 but gave them a one-year reprieve instead. Six years later, state education officials, decrying the gross mismanagement of the Newark schools, seized control there.

In 2009, the political odd couple of Chris Christie, the Republican governor-elect, and Cory Booker, Newark’s charismatic mayor, joined forces, convinced that the Newark system could be reinvented in just five years, in part by closing underperforming schools, encouraging charter schools and weakening teacher tenure. In 2010 they persuaded Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, to invest $100 million in their grand experiment. “We can flip a whole city!” the mayor enthused, “and create a national model.”

No one expected a national model out of Union City. Without the resources given to Newark, the school district there, led by a middle-level bureaucrat named Fred Carrigg, was confronted with two huge challenges: How could English learners, three-quarters of the students, become fluent in English? And how could youngsters, many of whom came from homes where books were rarities, be turned into adept readers?

Today Union City, which opted for homegrown gradualism, is regarded as a poster child for good urban education. Newark, despite huge infusions of money and outside talent, has struggled by comparison. In 2014, Union City’s graduation rate was 81 percent, exceeding the national average; Newark’s was 69 percent.

What explains this difference? The experience of Union City, as well as other districts, like Montgomery County, Md., and Long Beach, Calif., that have beaten the demographic odds, show that there’s no miracle cure for what ails public education. What business gurus label “continuous improvement,” and the rest of us call slow-and-steady, wins the race.Slow-and-steady was anathema to Mr. Booker and Mr. Christie, who had big dreams for Newark…

“The real story of Union City is that it didn’t fall back,” Mr. Carrigg told me. “It stabilized and has continued to improve.” …

Newark’s big mistake was not so much that the school officials embraced one solution or another but that they placed their faith in the idea of disruptive change and charismatic leaders. Union City adopted the opposite approach, embracing the idea of gradual change and working within existing structures.”

An important lesson for school reformers throughout the country.  Continuous improvement wins the day.


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