Newark's Struggle to Renew Its Schools

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Over the weekend I finally got around to reading the big New Yorker piece from last year on the dismal attempt to reform Newark schools led by Cory Booker, Chris Christie, and Mark Zuckerberg. That piece by Dale Russakoff reminded me of a great video that Nadine posted over the summer profiling three generations of one of Newark’s most notable families: Coyt Jones, who settled in the city from the Deep South during the Great Migration, his son Amiri Baraka, who became one of most influential writers and activists of ‘60s radicalism, and his son Ras Baraka, the current mayor of Newark. Watch it for yourself:
So for me, that video was a vivid backdrop for Russakoff’s essay. From the latter:

[The desperate state of Newark schools] wasn’t always this way. The Newark public schools had a reputation for excellence well into the nineteen-fifties, when Philip Roth graduated from the predominantly Jewish Weequahic High School and Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones), the late African-American poet, playwright, and revolutionary, attended the predominantly Italian-American Barringer High School.

But Newark’s industrial base had been declining since the Depression, and it collapsed in the sixties, just as the migration of mostly poor African-Americans from the rural South reached its peak. Urban renewal, which was supposed to revive inner cities, displaced a higher percentage of poor residents in Newark than in any other city. As slums and dilapidated buildings were bulldozed to make way for office towers and civic plazas, displaced families were concentrated in five large housing projects in the city’s Central Ward.

From Ta-Nehisi’s take on the story:

School reformers promised to clean up a bloated and corrupt school administration. But what emerges in its place is a system in which various “consultants” are paid millions to deliver minimal results. And those results are meant to be delivered on a fast-food schedule.

Andrew Simmons recently wrote a review for us on The Prize, Russakoff’s book-length view of the Newark schools saga:

Without taking an ideological stance in the contentious public debates about the direction of education in America, Russakoff shows readers how a dreamy-seeming union of idealists, money, and opportunity might breed confusion and conflict as readily as hope and renewal. She underscores the maddening complexities of reinvigorating and managing a struggling school system in a downtrodden urban area. Some education reformers characterize teachers’ unions as a major impediment to progress, but The Prize dives into the whole stew of potential obstacles.

As the Newark example demonstrates, when it comes to handling a $1 billion budget (particularly one enhanced by philanthropists’ gifts), school and district administrators, for-profit education consultants, and politicians have much at stake besides improving test scores and vanquishing socioeconomic inequality. Parents and teachers alike may not harbor any love for a bloated school district’s inefficient, ineffective status quo. Nonetheless, they may resist a message of change when they feel the messengers’ tone and tactics are condescending, even “colonial,” as one school board member puts it to Russakoff.

For instance, the son of famous late poet and longtime Newark resident Amiri Baraka, Ras Baraka, an educator and Booker’s eventual replacement as mayor, didn’t like seniority protections for teachers either. However, he was even more turned off by what he called “dictatorial bullying” disguised as cooperation.

A reader commented at the time:

Public schools and their staffs are given a near-impossible task: overcome the neglect, poor parenting, and negative behavior that permeates the lives of a large percentage of the students in less time per day than the kids spend in the outside world. This is not to excuse poorly-run schools and districts or inadequate teachers, but only the most exceptional kid is going to escape the gravitational pull exerted by family and community on him or her. To expect systemic improvements through an injection of funding or “best practices” is absurd.

Your thoughts? Update: A reader recommends this episode of Fresh Air with Russakoff.