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Why Did Corporate Reformers Overlook Newark's Children and Families?

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As the climax approached in Dale Russakoff's compelling New Yorker article, "Schooled," a Newark mother asked the key question of Superintendent Cami Anderson, "Did you think this through with our children in mind?" The mother then questioned Anderson's motives. After all, corporate school reformers energetically set out to demolish the city's schools but they had not adequately planned a way to replace them.

Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a carpenter to build one. As incomprehensible as it seems, Newark proved to be one more example of technocrats who have strong feelings about what a school system should look like, but who have little idea about why inner city schools work the way they do. Reformers have long proclaimed their intent to bulldoze the education "status quo" so "disruptive innovation" would magically release "transformative change." But they are clueless about what it would take to build a barn, must less an urban school system.

Russakoff's excellent account of the implementation of the "One Newark" reform is a case study of what happens when sincere outsiders, with little or no knowledge of teaching and learning, try to implement their ideals. Sure enough, the mother had a right to be suspicious. If elites were redesigning schools for their own children, they would have done more than spout off the conventional spin that was drafted by their high-dollar publicity agents and consultants. But, when experimenting on other people's children, Newark's market-driven reformers played it by ear and ramrodded their agendas before other stakeholders could realize what was being imposed.

Cami Anderson exemplifies the essence of accountability-driven school reformers. She taught just long enough to add support for the maxim of "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing." Anderson, as well as former mayor Cory Booker, Governor Chris Christie, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, sincerely believe that they lead a righteous crusade. Zuckerberg did not claim knowledge of the inner city, but Booker, Christie, and Anderson clearly were less concerned about battling the educational effects of poverty than defeating teachers and other special interests who supposedly won't do "the right thing."

Russakoff vividly recalls the story of how Booker and Christie recruited Zuckerberg and other "venture philanthropists," who sought to recreate Newark schools in their preferred image. They leaped before they looked and, believe it or not, they didn't even hire a superintendent until they were a year into the rushed process. So, by the time they hired Anderson, her job was playing "sixteen-dimensional chess." She had to hurriedly complete their half-designed (and half baked) theories, and ram them through, before stakeholders could question any single piece of their complicated dreams.

The Newark saga, like other grandiose school reform schemes, seems so disconnected from the reality of urban poverty and education that it is easy to see why families would conclude it was just another land grab. To these social engineers, however, it was a virtue to have a vision that was so all-encompassing that it would only work if no concessions to opponents (i.e. parents, as well as educators) could be made.

This was a time when the Billionaires Boys Club was congratulating itself for promoting "Waiting for Superman," the film portrayal of failed schools as simply a product of craven unions and due process rights of teachers. Reformers saw themselves as Supermen engaged in mortal combat with the forces scheming to co-opt change.

Russakoff's "Schooled" is a brilliant case study of the risky gamble which is output-driven reform. To understand why the hubris of Newark's technocrats failed is to understand why the test, punish, and reward system of market-driven reform has done the seemingly impossible. Competition-driven reformers have thrown billions of private, state, and federal dollars at awful high-poverty schools, and they have largely made the most challenging of them worse.

The New Yorker's "Schooled," and the book that will follow, join a vast body of social science literature and excellent journalism which explains why the corporate reform game plan was almost certainly doomed from the start. Edu-philanthropists still seem oblivious to the history of how and why its key components have repeatedly failed in New Jersey and elsewhere. Russakoff, however, presents the single best account that I've read of the simplistic way that reformers personalized these complex issues - dilemmas that are rooted in interconnected social, economic, and historical forces.

The venture philanthropists who imposed Cory Booker's cockeyed opinions on the entire system weren't interested in researching and vetting plans for social change. As a wealthy donor told Russakoff, "Investors bet on people, not on business plans, because they know successful people will find a way to be successful."

And, sadly, that answers the mother's question. Why make plans when the charismatic mayor asserts so confidently that "we know what works?" Because the elites thought they knew Booker, they saw no need to understand the families that Booker said he would help.

When corporate reformers placed their bet on Booker, they bought his dog and pony show and believed his exaggerated tales of using choice and competition to help poor children of color. They were unaware that Booker's vision was a largely based on a series of public relation's sound bites generated by the best public relations campaign that "astroturf" think tanks can buy. They had no idea of why the poorest children and families would inevitably be collateral damage in a foolhardy wager.

It is no comfort to the families of Newark that they were less the victims of a conspiracy against them, but of an unconscionable oversight. Nobody played out the chess game and anticipated how children would be affected because they were not a serious consideration. After the elite do-gooders saw the successful Cory Booker tell his story, it never occurred to them to ask about the other stories of Newark school patrons.