A Response to Chester E. Finn’s Open Letter

Dear Checker,

Your otherwise thoughtful letter to Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan is marred by the false premise from which it starts.

Buying into The Prize hook, line and sinker, you fall into the same trap as so many others: confusing a good story for an accurate historical narrative. Russakoff’s book is anything but that.

ednext-aug2016-blog-cerf-response-cropIn fact, the Zuckerberg gift made a massive difference in the lives of children in Newark, and continues to do so today. See “Chris Cerf Reviews ‘The Prize’: The Book Was More Balanced Than the Book Tour

Some data points worth noting:


• NPS’s four year graduation rate is now 70%, an eye-popping 10 point gain since the start of the reforms.
• On the PARCC this year, NPS students achieved a more than six point gain in ELA, a 3 point gain in math, and especially noteworthy gains in elementary schools and Algebra.
• NPS students are exhibiting significant gains in the SGP, the state-wide growth measure — with 4x as many schools now performing above the state average in ELA and 2x as many in math.
• Math proficiency rates have more than doubled compared to students in demographically comparable districts.
• Newark students are now doing better than over 80% of those 37 comparable districts in Math and 72% in ELA  – tremendous progress by any measure.
• According to a study by the Center for Reinventing Public Education, Newark parents have access to a higher percentage of schools that “Beat the Odds” than in any comparable city in the country.
Twice as many African American children are attending schools that beat the state average compared with 2011.

Parent Involvement and Choice

• With the implementation of universal enrollment, students and parents in Newark have more quality school options today, and more parents than ever before are taking advantage of the options.
• For the 2016-17 school year: 59% of Kindergarten families preferred a school that was not in their neighborhood; and 44% of Kindergarten families preferred a charter school as their first choice.
• According to a 2015 Brookings Institution report, Newark made the most progress of any school district in the country in providing choice to parents, ranking as the 3rd district nationally in providing parents with school options (behind only NYC and New Orleans).
• Compared to 41 other regions nationwide, Newark has the second-highest performing charter sector based on charter students’ high growth rates in reading and math relative to similar students in district schools, according to a 2015 CREDO study
• 30% of students now attend a charter school, a figure that more than doubled in this period.   This fall, 50% of African American students will attend a charter school.

Teaching Improvements

• Newark Public Schools has completely redesigned the way it hires, evaluates and supports its instructional staff
• Over the past 5 years, NPS has filed nearly 140 tenure charges (compared to less than 10 over the entire previous decade).  As a result of  those charges, 110 individuals are no longer with the district while many of the rest are still pending.
• According to an independent analysis conducted by American Institutes for Research, the new teacher contract has:

• Allowed expansion in the school day in more than half of schools.
• Rewarded teachers based on effectiveness rather than simply years of experience and degrees attained.
• Retained more high performing teachers (In 2013-14, teachers rated as “effective” and “highly effective” were retained at rates that exceeded 90 percent, while only 72 percent of “partially effective” and 63 percent of “ineffective” teachers returned to the classroom.)
• Allowed for the design of a Common Core aligned Master’s program for teachers


• NPS received  national recognition this year from The Learning Counsel, a national education research institute, which named NPS as one of the most  innovative districts in the country in utilizing technology in the classroom

I would be the first to acknowledge that, notwithstanding this progress, we have a long way to go.  And to be sure, the path we have followed has had its bumps. But this record utterly belies your blithe summary of the work and presents a weak foundation upon which to offer your unsolicited counsel to Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan.

Christopher D. Cerf
Newark Public Schools

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