10/02/2012 03:00 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2012

Why We Shouldn't Avoid Talking About Reform in Education

Recently, a notable and respected community leader here in Newark, New Jersey cautioned me not to use the word "reform" -- or at least, to be mindful of the potentially negative connotations it carries in the education sector and in our community. Fair enough. It is nearly impossible to utter the word these days without inspiring a strong reaction, whether for or against what the user may or may not intend.

But fears over word choice have to take a back seat to the critical needs of our students. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million gift to Newark education, establishing the Foundation for Newark's Future, gives us a tremendous opportunity to transform the school experience and improve real outcomes for students, families and teachers. Here in Newark, we shouldn't avoid talking about reform when we are already seeing the benefit of change in real and meaningful ways for students.

Effective learning starts with an effective teacher. Reforming, or transforming teaching -- and thereby dramatically improving the skills, impacts and experiences of teachers in classrooms -- requires that we provide resources that enable teachers to make what is sometimes a lonely profession into a collaborative and iterative one. New research evaluating the effectiveness of various reform efforts concludes that a focus on cultivating teachers' "social capital" -- the benefits to students when teachers effectively work in partnership -- can be tremendously effective, and a significant predictor of student achievement. Teachers coming together to consciously reflect on their practice and their students' growth is instrumental in any professional development program.

In response, the Foundation for Newark's Future distributes grants directly to groups of teachers through a program called the Teacher Innovation Fund (TIF). Founded on the principle that educators are our greatest resource, TIF supports 101 teachers in 25 teams at 19 schools across Newark's five wards in their efforts to form professional learning communities that can collaboratively design and implement programs to dramatically improve student outcomes.

To be clear, many teachers would say that collaboration is something they do naturally, but it should not be taken for granted. Rather, it should be celebrated, encouraged and supported. And frankly, the importance of our partners is the critical element here. Programs like TIF require that everyone be at the table, and they are: the bold leadership of our superintendent, the vital partnership of our union, the student-centered focus of our charter sector, along with the persistence of our community leaders. Each of these players supports strong, practice-based professional development for our teachers, and the foundation is delighted to have had the opportunity to continue implementing such an initiative.

While TIF is a new program, we are already seeing positive results for our children. At Technology High School, a team of teachers is implementing the student-centered Progressive Math Initiative. As part of this work, these teachers spend hours of their free time mapping the math curriculum to the new "Common Core" standards that are being rolled out nationwide. They are leaders in making the Common Core a reality for all of Newark's schoolchildren.

And at Central High School, students have been exposed to an inquiry-based social justice curriculum that advocates an end to violence in Newark, while memorializing those who have been victimized. Students took part in inter-generational dialogue and created a documentary among other activities. The TIF grant also led to a partnership with the New Jersey Performing Arts Center where students worked with artists to create a spoken word performance at NJPAC's Black Box Theater.

At John F. Kennedy School and New Jersey Regional Day School, autistic and speech-delayed students are learning to communicate with the use of iPads in the classroom (an initiative first sparked when a teacher bought an iPad for her class with her own money).

Following the initial rollout of the Teacher Innovation Fund, FNF hosted a series of teacher discussions to evaluate its effectiveness. Over the course of four meetings, more than 40 teachers and administrators shared instructional techniques and early findings from these programs.

This is how progressive professional development evolves and gets results for teachers and their students. And this approach -- without a doubt, an expression of reform -- creates a teacher-tested pipeline for ways our entire school district can give educators the opportunity to pilot and test promising new practices that can eventually be used to inform wider policy and program implementation, including the Common Core, special education and other areas of practice.

This month, a second round of applications will open for the Newark Teacher Innovation Fund. The most notable additions are the expansion of opportunities to pre-k teachers as well as our call for district-charter joint applications. We fundamentally believe that in order to transform education, we must start early, and that includes supporting early education educators. Teachers at charters and district schools can benefit from each other's experience, and to ensure we are true to the original ideals of charter schools, we must create and support pipelines for them to interact and share resources.

Traditional professional development still has its merits. I am not advocating for doing away with what Ross Hunefield of Noble Charter calls "old PD," where experts in a certain field or topic provide instruction and guidance to teaching professionals. But at the Foundation for Newark's Future, we believe it is critical to provide the resources for teachers to explore the effectiveness of collaborative methods, as the TIF grants enable them to do. These collaborations can impact and improve not only how these teachers innovate classroom learning, but also how they work together and engage in professional development for years to come.

If Newark's Teacher Innovation Fund is the very definition of reform, then we should all welcome it -- not only the word, but also what it means in action, for our teachers, our students and our community.