Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and Education Reform

Speaking of Newark, earlier this week the New York Times ran a front-page feature on Mayor Ras Baraka that celebrates him as a practical and collaborative leader. “The radical,” says the Times, “now looks more like a radical pragmatist.”

The same might be said of Baraka’s educational philosophy. While he won his mayoral campaign by strategically making the vote a referendum on his nemesis, former Newark Public Schools Superintendent Cami Anderson, he’s shown a willingness to embrace some reform tenets that are anathema to his biggest boosters like the leadership of the Newark Teachers Union, NJEA, and the cadre of N.J.’s anti-reform commentators.

In other words, Baraka, a former principal of Newark’s Central High School, is an educational pragmatist too.

Last year Dale Russakoff (her new book on Newark, “The Prize, comes out next week) wrote an article for the New Yorker about the stumbles and successes among the team of then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Gov. Chris Christie, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg donated $100 million (Booker raised matching funds) to revitalize Newark’s abysmal school system, one that has been under state control since 1995.

 In 2010, the year that the  Facebook donation was announced on “Oprah,” Principal Baraka’s high school was in trouble too. Student achievement at Central High was so dismal, writes Russakoff, that  “it was in danger of being closed under the federal No Child Left Behind law.” The N.J. Department of Education School Performance Report documents that in 2011 not a single student got a 1550 on the SAT’s, an indicator of college/career readiness.  (Averages were 344 in reading and 358 in math.) Sixty percent of students failed basic skills math tests and half failed language arts.  Twenty-five percent of students dropped out.

Russakoff continues,
 But Baraka mounted an aggressive turnaround strategy, using some of the reformers’ techniques. “I stole ideas from everywhere,” he told me. With a federal school-improvement grant, he extended the school day, introduced small learning academies, greatly intensified test prep, and hired consultants to improve literacy instruction… 
In private, Baraka supported many of the reformers’ critiques of the status quo, including revoking tenure for teachers with the lowest evalutions. Although he publicly embraced the unions’ positions, he told me he opposed paying teachers based on seniority and degrees, as Newark did under its union contract. “We should make a base pay, and the only way to go up is based on student performance,” he said. He told me that many in Newark quietly agreed. But, he insisted, “this dictatorial bullying is a surefire way to get people to say, ‘No, get out of here.’ ” He laughed. “They talk about ‘Waiting for “Superman.” ’ Well, Superman is not real. Did you know that? And neither is his enemy.”
Intense focus on student outcomes. Longer school days. Merit pay.  Tenure reform. Sounds like education reform tenets to me.

Last September Baraka worked with Education Reform Now, Teach For America, the Foundation for Newark's Future (which manages allocation of the Facebook grant), and  the Newark Charter School Fund to give away 5,000 backpacks and school supplies. In a joint appearance at Rutgers with then-Chicago union president Karen Lewis, “Baraka cautioned the audience against believing city activists are opposed all education reform initiatives,” adding, “our kids deserve the best ideas.”

Now, Baraka achieved his mayorship by dissing education reform, particularly Anderson’s universal enrollment plan among district and charter schools, even though this year 40% of parents this year asked for placement in charters. So let’s not sugar coat this. But at the moment he's avoiding  the Bill de Blasio trap of setting himself up as a defender of what The74’s review of Russakoff’s book calls “Newark’s deplorable educational status quo.”

Perhaps Baraka will also be honest enough to acknowledge that, in fact, Newark’s schoolchildren are better off now than they were five years ago.  Back at Central High in 2013-2014, for example, 76% of students pass basic skills tests in language arts, 57% pass the math tests (although no one gets 1550 or above on the SAT’s), and the graduation rate is up to 81%. This year’s school opening went far more smoothly than last year's.  The Newark Teachers Union isn’t pondering any job actions. New Superintendent Chris Cerf is making inroads against dissent and reaching out to the community.

Newark needs pragmatism, not defiance; progression, not panderism; balance, not hysteria.  We’ll hope that Mayor Baraka is that kind of leader.

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