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Research Note: On Average, Are Children in Newark Doing Better?

Bruce D. Baker & Mark Weber, Rutgers GSE

PDF of Policy Brief:Baker.Weber.NewarkBetterOff.NJEPF.11_15_15

In this research note, we estimate a series of models using publicly available school level data to address the following question:

Q: Did students in Newark (combined district and charter) make gains on statewide averages (non-Newark) on state assessments, controlling for demographics?

Specifically, we evaluate changes in mean scale scores on state assessments (NJASK) for language arts and math grades 6 to 8.

Newark Reforms Since 2009

Schools in the city of Newark have undergone a series of disruptive reforms since 2009, including substantial increases in the numbers of children served in charter schools, adoption of a unified enrollment system, ratification of a performance based teacher contract, and school closures, reconstitutions and reorganization.[i] Some of these reforms were instituted following the much publicized gift of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, chronicled in Dale Russakoff’s The Prize.[ii]

A commonly asked question in the aftermath of these disruptions is whether students in Newark on the whole are better off than they were before these reforms? That is, were the disruptions and resulting political turmoil worth it? Some have chosen to speculate, based largely on anecdotal evidence, that children in Newark must be better off today than before these disruptive reforms.

Chris Cerf, former NJ Commissioner of Education and current State Superintendent of Schools for the Newark Public Schools, asserts that the past few years have brought significant positive changes for Newark’s schools:

Whether the measure is graduation rates, improved instructional quality, last year’s improvement in the lowest-performing schools targeted for special intervention, a nation-leading new collective-bargaining agreement, the addition of many new high-quality public schools, increased parental choice, or a material increase in the proportion of effective teachers, the arrow is pointed decidedly up in Newark.

“To be sure, as is always the case, the evidence of improvement is textured and in some respects uneven. The many positive indicators and trend lines, however, paint a picture of hope and progress that is completely at odds with the pessimism that has made its way into the standard storyline.”[iii]

Tom Moran, Editorial Page Editor of the Star-Ledger and a consistent supporter of the Newark reforms, writes: “The growth of charters has not damaged the kids in the traditional system. In fact, they’ve made modest improvements.”[iv] In a post on his Facebook page, Mark Zuckerberg, whose $100 million gift was the catalyst for the NPS reforms, writes: “No effort like this is ever going to be without challenges, mistakes and honest differences among people with good intentions. We welcome a full analysis and debate of lessons learned. But it is important that we not overlook the positive results.”[v]The chief-of-staff for Cory Booker, former mayor of Newark and current U.S. senator who was instrumental in secure Zuckerberg’s donation, states: “Newark students are quite simply better off now than they were five years ago.[vi]

In these conversations, “better off” is often reduced to whether or not, on average, across district and charter schools, student test scores for children in Newark have improved. That is, are students achieving more than they otherwise would have, had there been no such disruptions? It remains far too soon to measure longer term outcomes, including graduation rates, college attendance or economic outcomes.

While we are unable to compare against what might have been in the absence of reforms, we can at least evaluate whether children in Newark have made progress when compared to statewide averages, controlling for student population characteristics.

Conclusions

In a recent interview, Russakoff stated that she did not believe Newark’s students are better off today than they were five years ago: “…it feels like a wash.”[i] The analysis herein, while admittedly narrow in scope and short in time frame perspective, finds that Russakoff is correct. Average state assessment scores in grades 6, 7 and 8 are pretty much right where they were – relative to non-Newark students – in 2009.

Follow-up analyses are certainly warranted, but limited by changes in state outcome measures.

[i] http://www.nj.com/opinion/index.ssf/2015/09/author_dale_russakoff_discusses_new_book_on_newark.html

[i] Weber, M. (2015) Empirical Critique of One Newark: First year update. New Jersey Education Policy Forum. https://njedpolicy.wordpress.com/2015/03/12/empirical-critique-of-one-newark-first-year-update/

[ii] Russakoff, Dale (2015) The Prize: Who’s in charge of America’s schools? New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

[iii] http://www.njspotlight.com/stories/14/12/01/op-ed-dispelling-five-falsehoods-about-newark-s-school-system/

[iv]http://www.nj.com/opinion/index.ssf/2015/09/newark_moran.html

[v] https://www.facebook.com/zuck/posts/10102461248065941?fref=nf

[vi] http://www.nj.com/essex/index.ssf/2015/11/newark_power_brokers_back_zuckerbergs_school_donat.html

 

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