Mark Zuckerberg's money lays path for change in Newark schools

Most of Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million donation has been spent on brokering a new teachers contract that creates performance-based pay and opening new schools.

Joanne Rutherford’s first graders at Peshine Avenue Elementary School in Newark, N.J., start class by drawing constellations. The classroom is equipped with a smartboard and a fancy projector, but those weren't bought with the $100 million donated to the city's public schools in 2010 by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. In fact, you won't find any of Zuckerberg's largess in Mrs. Rutherford's classroom. At least, not obviously.

“In some ways it’s less tangible," explains Newark Public Schools Superintendent Cami Anderson*, "but in many ways, it’s a lot more systemic and a lot longer lasting.” Anderson says Zuckerberg’s money isn’t buying things, it’s changing how things are done.

“Most significant from our standpoint," she says, "has been the support that he and other philanthropists gave to achieve a breakthrough labor contract with the Newark Teacher’s Union.”

Yes, a labor contract. Some $50 million helped broker an agreement with the union to accept a new teacher evaluation system and pay based on performance.

Kim McLain, who heads the Foundation for Newark’s Future -- the group in charge of doling out Zuckerberg’s money -- says this wasn't dictated by Zuckerberg, but it fits with the vision behind the donation.  

“One of the things that we firmly believe in is that in order to have a really good educational system, it starts with the teacher in the classroom,” she says.

Zuckerberg’s gift has also been used to help open several new schools, including charter schools, and to create a centralized system for tracking student progress.  

This doesn’t mean that everyone in Newark is toasting the founder of Facebook.

“It’s an agenda about which I have serious doubts,” says Paul Tractenberg, founder of the Institute on Education Law and Policy at Rutgers. He disagrees with the new approach, arguing that it will “weaken collective bargaining, weaken job security of teachers, [and] hold teachers accountable based largely on standardized test scores of their students.”

Superintendent Anderson says Newark’s underperforming schools need bold ideas and a break from the past.

“Private philanthropy can be a critical catalyst to remove systemic barriers that the system can’t remove," she says, because "the system is the problem sometimes.”

What will the changes mean for the first graders in Mrs. Rutherford’s class? It will be some time before these reforms can be judged on student preparedness and graduation. Like most investments, the returns aren’t instant.

Click here to see how the Foundation for Newark's Future has divied up Zuckerberg's $100 million donation so far.

*CORRECTION: The original article misspelled the name of Newark Public Schools Superintendent Cami Anderson. The text has been corrected.

About the author

Sabri Ben-Achour is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the New York City bureau. He covers Wall Street, finance, and anything New York and money related.
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Turnaround Children defends Orange pullout; sets eyes on Newark

National Writers Union
Member ID 63315

ORANGE, N.J. - An education think-tank with a mission to reach at-risk children in under-performing schools has prematurely suspended its programs in the local schools, it has been learned.

Tax documents filed with the IRS by Turnaround For Children Inc. disclose the program's unexpected suspension.

The documents, a public record, also reveal that Turnaround was forced to return the remaining part of the grant that funded the program.

"Management decided to terminate its three-school program earlier than planned," Turnaround officials told the Internal Revenue Service.

Turnaround officials blamed the short-lived program's demise on a "shift in organizational priorities."

But officials failed to disclose what they meant by the change or who instigated it.

Turnaround officials say they suspended their request for the remaining funding they were to receive for the Orange project, but they made no mention of the amount of funding they had already received and the amount they were still due.

Orange school officials were not available for immediate comment, but Turnaround spokesman Kate Felsen issued this statement on June 24:

"Turnaround for Children had a fruitful partnership with three schools in Orange, New Jersey during the 2010-11 school year. Our hope was to expand the partnership, in particular to deliver a significant amount of professional development to teachers and to increase our engagement district-wide. Unfortunately, Orange Public Schools did not have the capacity to take on the professional development we had to offer during the 2011-12 year. For this reason, we ended our partnership amicably."

Felsen also said she was "sorry that you did not speak with me before posting your piece on our Facebook page and tweeting out messages over the weekend characterizing our work inaccurately."

Though Turnaround proudly announced the Orange project in its September 2010 newsletter, there is no evidence on the organization's web site that Turnaround officials ever notified the public of the program's suspension.

The program's failure is all the more ironic in view of Orange Supt. Ronald Lee's report to his bosses in 2010 that "plans for expansion are in the works." The program at the time was in three schools. Then, as soon as it began, it was gone.

The failed Orange program comes amid a report from American Institutes for Research - which audits school-intervention programs - that such projects have mixed success.

"Many turnarounds are short-lived," researchers wrote in their recent report. "Studies of turnaround schools, as well as anecdotal evidence collected from hundreds of turnaround leaders, consistently show challenges in maintaining and
building on the early successes."

They also cited a school-improvement study that found "substantial fluctuation in test scores of schools that initially appeared to be turnaround successes" but which in the subsequent year saw failing test scores. "Some met the targets one year only to fail the next," the report said.

Moreover, "some schools lost additional funding when they met performance targets and had to abandon the extended learning-time programs that had helped them raise student achievement."

Turnaround is currently working to introduce its programs into some Newark schools.

Ted Cohen is a veteran newspaper and radio reporter. He can be reached at tedcohen@hotmail.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @TedCohen1.

FMI: http://www.turnaroundforchildren.org/

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