In 2010, Mark Zuckerberg donated $US100 million to fix the failing school system in Newark, New Jersey. His goal was turn the schools around in five years.
A lot of people have called the investment a failure, with multiple sources tearing into Newark Public Schools for squandering his money and not delivering on any of the goals it set out to achieve.
Now, it seems, Zuckerberg is hitting back against those characterizations, with a post on Facebook touting the improvements that the city of Newark has seen as a result of his donation.
“Graduation rates in Newark have increased 13 percentage points — up from 56% to 69% — a large improvement in just a few years,” he wrote. ” We expect these rate to keep increasing as more students go through the improved schools.”
He also spoke to the strength of the charter school network in Newark, stating that, “Newark’s charter schools now rank as the 2nd highest performers in the nation.”
And, citing a study by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, he said that Newark public school students perform better than students from similar backgrounds in other areas.
He noted, obliquely, that mistakes and challenges occurred, though he didn’t delve into specifics of those prevalent in Newark, nor any of the lessons-learned.
Perhaps, in a nod to some of the biggest criticism of the project — that the executors of the plan were tone-deaf and unconcerned with the desires of the community — he discussed the importance of community participation.
“It’s very important to understand the desires of a community, to listen and learn from families, teachers, elected officials and other experts,” he wrote.
And he avoided talking about what was, arguably, the biggest failure of the project for Zuckerberg.
At the onset of the project, he envisioned teacher contract reform to be a centrepiece of the reform and contributed $US50 million — half of his total donation — to go to working on that cause.
Zuckerberg wanted to be able to create more flexibility in teacher contracts to reward high-performing teachers and to fire teachers with poor records of student achievement.
But instead, the opposite occurred. Chris Cerf, the New Jersey commissioner of education at the time, worked with the Legislature and was able to negotiate some new accountability measures in teacher contracts. But the teachers’ union only agreed upon those measures if the seniority protections remained intact.
In his Facebook post, Zuckerberg touches on teacher contracts only to tout the fact that Newark is retaining it’s best teachers and that 95% of teachers stayed in the district last year.
It doesn’t appear that, for all the criticism of the Newark project, Zuckerberg is any less committed to public school reform, though it seems that he is employing a different strategy this time around. Last year, he committed $US120 million to school districts around the San Francisco Bay Area.
“He’s committed it to schools and school districts around the Bay Area, where he is located, so that he and his staff can know the communities where they’re going to be working and know the desires of the communities and listen to the parents and the teachers and the educators and the community leaders to understand the complex needs of children,” journalist Dale Russakoff said on NPR.
Russakoff has tracked the five years since Zuckerberg’s donation in a book called “The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools.”
“It’s a very, very different and much more humble approach to trying to change education,” she said.
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