05/01/2011 12:20 pm ET | Updated Jul 01, 2011

How to Get the Newark Experiment Back on Track

One of the nation's most compelling education experiments -- a $100 million-plus infusion aimed both at saving Newark school children and building a national school reform model -- appears at risk of early derailment.

Six months ago, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced a $100 million donation to help turn around Newark schools, to be matched by another $100 million raised by Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who is currently at the $44 million mark.

Sounds promising, but what looked like a win-win project quickly slammed into public hostility from local teacher union officials and some politicians.

Booker plans to use the money in part to close failing schools, welcome in high-performing charter schools, lengthen the school day and weaken tenure protections for teachers and principals.

Even with $200 million in new money attached, that kind of agenda is running into profound opposition.

At one recent hearing, a Newark city council member compared the proposed changes to the Tuskegee experiment, where black men were unknowingly enrolled in a medical trial to explore the impact of untreated syphilis. Another council member won applause for this statement: "I know you're not supposed to look a gift horse in the mouth. Well, we're checking this one out."

Be calm, advises Booker. The silent majority of Newark wants serious school reform. It will happen.

My advice to Booker, based on chronicling nearly four years of similar controversial changes in Washington, D.C., led by former chancellor Michelle Rhee: Don't be so sure about that. In Washington, the silent majority never showed up, which is why she's the "former" chancellor.

The Newark experiment can get back on track, but only if Booker, Zuckerberg and others there learn the lessons Rhee learned too late in Washington.

The biggest takeaways: Never assume you can act first and explain later. Never assume the wisdom of your chosen reforms is self-evident. Respect your constituents enough to listen to them -- and make the case for your agenda.

In Newark, what set off the fracas was a leaked plan to open new alternative high schools and co-locate charter schools in existing, lightly-enrolled public schools.

To education reformers, that's not experimenting with children; that's just following best practices. What needs explaining?

But to Newark teachers, politicians and parents, that looks like experimentation, just as the Rhee reforms in Washington -- in which she brought in outside operators to take over some failing high schools -- looked to many like fly-by-night experiments. To Rhee and her team, the reasons for the drastic reforms were obvious: They were failing schools. What needs explaining?

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson -- Rhee's fiancé -- knew better. He came to Washington shortly before the 2010 mayoral primary to campaign for former D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, who appointed Rhee. What Johnson heard going door to door made it clear why Fenty and Rhee were rejected by voters.

In the African-American community, failing to fully explain reforms in advance appears disrespectful, Johnson told me: "If we don't trust what's being done, then this potentially becomes another experiment on our community."

The most sensitive urban education reforms are firings, the kind of firings current Newark educators assume will happen as new school start-ups look for staffers that fit their education models. In many American cities, the black middle class owes much of its roots to employment in local schools -- central office, teachers, teachers aides, principals. Anyone trying to interrupt that history risks severe retribution.

In Washington, Rhee concluded that some of these employees were doing more harm than good and fired them by the dozens. To Rhee, whose plan was to boost student learning by boosting the quality of the teacher standing in the front of classroom, those firings -- roughly 400 teachers were fired or pushed out for performance reasons during her time there -- were unavoidable.

Fenty and Rhee assumed that improved student learning would justify those firings. They were partly right. Test scores did improve, but the political blowback from the terminations proved to be devastating.

It was a remarkable sight to see. On D.C.'s mayoral primary day, I stood outside Sousa Middle School, one of Rhee's brightest examples of school turnarounds -- a turnaround achieved by swapping out the entire staff.

Voters coming out of Sousa had to know that rejecting the mayor threatened those reforms, yet they overwhelmingly chose Fenty's opponent.

Why? Because Rhee fired teachers, they told me, and did it for no apparent reason. Hearing that -- while standing in front of one of the nation's most dramatic school turnarounds -- was sobering.

The final Rhee lesson Zuckerberg and Booker ignore at their peril: Take seriously the argument that schools alone cannot solve the problems of poverty.

Today's "no excuses" school reformers repeat the mantra that any child can learn, and attack as defeatists -- or even as soft racists -- those who suggest otherwise.

Those who think poverty hinders learning, including thousands of rank-and-file classroom teachers, are deeply frustrated by what they see as a narrow-minded and callous dogma.

Booker and Zuckerberg should admit that poverty matters. Then, they should make a compelling argument that, while schools alone can't overcome poverty, when there are enough really successful schools in really tough neighborhoods, schools can make a serious dent in those problems. Isn't it worth doing with schools what's doable?

It is, which is why Booker, Zuckerberg and their band of Newark reformers need to keep fighting for aggressive school reform -- but do it in a smarter way.

Whitmire is author of The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes On The Nation's Worst School District.

(This commentary originally appeared in The New York Daily News)