Lessons from Newark

The lineage of modern school reform and where we go next

Democratic Newark Mayor and senate candidate Cory Booker, center left and Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, center right, joins others in Newark, N.J., Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, as they cut a ribbon during an opening ceremony for Newark charter schools.

Since the release of A Nation at Risk in 1983, the school reform movement has generated significant insights and promising practices for improving schools for children in poverty and students of color. The work of trying to radically improve student outcomes also produced glaring missteps and tough lessons. Few efforts demonstrate the complexity of attempting to provide a bold citywide plan to ensure educational excellence for all children better than the experiences in Newark, New Jersey. Much has been written about the political drama during my tenure as superintendent from 2011 to 2014. However, very little has been written about the actual playbook, results, and implications for educational policymakers and leaders.

I was appointed superintendent of Newark Public Schools (NPS) in 2011 by then governor Chris Christie and the state’s education commissioner at the time, Chris Cerf. While most school districts have a local board charged with hiring a superintendent, NPS had lost that authority back in 1995, when the state took control of the district.

As I arrived in Newark, 39 percent of students who entered the system failed to graduate, and only 40 percent of third-graders could read and write at grade level. Enrollment was plummeting. The district’s nearly forty thousand students and one hundred schools still made it the largest in the state, with the majority of students living below the poverty level.

Local politicians and families had grown impatient. For the five years prior to my arrival as superintendent, many elected leaders had become early adopters of a growing national charter school movement that aimed to free schools from government red tape and allow them autonomy to innovate. These supporters included Cory Booker (then a young councilman), school board member Shavar Jeffries (who now heads the charter school behemoth KIPP Foundation), and state senator Teresa Ruiz, among other notable local leaders. Charters weren’t the only new option—other school models, such as magnet high schools (often with entrance requirements) and partner-run small high schools, had gained momentum too.

Some of these schools had notable evidence of improving achievement for Newark students, and it was understandable that they were gaining strong support from local leaders, influential funders, and certainly the families of the nearly 5,500 students who attended them.

But it was clear that the most impactful efforts at improving schools in Newark were working around the very system they were trying to improve. And in New Jersey, these new schools were funded on a per-pupil basis; in other words, the money followed the child out of the traditional system and into the public charter system. Logically, this made sense. But in practice, this proliferation of competitors to district-run schools was creating unintended consequences that few wanted to discuss.

Cami Anderson was tapped as superintendent of Newark Public Schools in May 2011.
Cami Anderson was tapped as superintendent of Newark Public Schools in May 2011.

Building a “System of Great Schools”

Given the perilous state of the city’s schools, the unrealistic expectations around quick achievement gains, and the pressure from ideologues on all sides, many speculated that the superintendent role wasn’t doable. But I was inspired by the scale of the challenge and the ferocious commitment of many leaders in the community.

We started with the theory that the unit of change was the school itself and embraced the idea that what we were building was what my former boss, then New York City Schools chancellor Joel Klein, called “a system of great schools,” not a “great school system.” This was a subtle but profound distinction, because it meant we were seeking to ensure that there were one hundred excellent schools serving every child in every neighborhood—regardless of governance structure.

First, we needed to set a unifying goal for the district: every child would be college ready. That’s right, college, not just career—because we believed that choice of higher education should be up to the student, not simply determined by the inadequacy of their preparation, and because Newark families were demanding this.

In poll after poll, focus group after focus group, they told us very clearly: they wanted their children to graduate college ready. Moreover, they believed that “career ready” was a euphemism for low expectations. Families felt that academic excellence was a passport out of poverty.

Most parents were with us from day one. The challenge was the well-meaning funders and other influencers who wanted to muddy the waters and talk about everything except whether students could read, write, and do math at grade level.

When we started sharing actual data about proficiency rates and the number of young people earning diplomas indicative of their mastery of hard content, we started to encounter real pushback, both within and outside the school system. This was a theme I became increasingly familiar with: often what families say they want can be quite different from what those who speak for them are willing to stand for.

Ensuring “Four-Ingredient” Schools

With our North Star established, we rolled up our sleeves to improve the district, school by school. There was a large and growing body of research and evidence about high-performing schools in high-poverty neighborhoods. Combined with our team’s years of on-the-ground school transformation experience, we zeroed in on four basic ingredients that every high-quality school possessed: people, content, culture, and conditions.

Our aim: ensure that every NPS school was a four-ingredient school so that we could make steady progress toward college readiness for all. Our philosophy: focus on what works regardless of ideology, which often led to “third-way” solutions—combining the best of seemingly disparate views or forging a new path to transcend old, binary thinking. Our mantra: implementation matters.

People. It’s critical to have the right people in the right seats, from the leadership team to the teachers to mental health professionals to custodial staff.

We know intuitively the power that a great teacher has, and a growing body of research reinforced this belief, showing us that teachers are the most significant in-school factor determining a child’s level of achievement. Further, the most significant factor in getting great teachers in every classroom is the quality of the principal.

We focused on leadership from day one in Newark. I’ve never been to a great school with a mediocre principal, and I have never been to a failing school with a terrific principal (except perhaps at the very beginning of a turnaround). Within two years, we had replaced nearly one-quarter of our principals through aggressive recruiting and selection, giving preference to Newarkers and leaders who not only knew instruction but thought of themselves as community organizers and change agents.

Many states at this time were starting to use quantitative test score data in teacher evaluations, and New Jersey was eager to follow suit. However, my team and I felt that the science for such “value-added” approaches didn’t hold up when it came to determining the effectiveness of individual teachers. Not only did we feel that using the value-added approach in teacher evaluations would be unfair to teachers, we also knew that including such a poison pill in our new evaluation plan would create a backlash that could sabotage the entire effort. We took a lot of flak from hardline education reformers, who had become fixated on using test scores as a shortcut to accountability and who worried that our questioning the use of test scores in teacher evaluations would water down reform.

To help non-charter schools accelerate the “people” ingredient, we negotiated what was widely considered an ambitious contract with Newark teachers. Despite agreeing to key labor reforms after more than two hundred hours at the bargaining table, some in the Newark Teachers Union and their national affiliate, the American Federation of Teachers, vociferously advocated against them within weeks of the contract being ratified by an overwhelming majority of teachers. Both groups had a long track record of preserving some of the sacred cows of teacher labor negotiations: seniority-based placement, infallibility of teachers with tenure (regardless of what they do), and resistance to any form of accountability—no matter how nuanced. Meanwhile, we found many of our own ideas to be popular among everyday teachers, who told us the quality of the teacher in the classroom next door is a factor in whether or not they want to stay at a school. I was pushing largely because I believed then—and still believe now—that teachers unions need to evolve to become part of the solution or they will become obsolete.

We also had to completely restructure and reimagine the central office to be in service to schools and families. This required breaking senior leaders into new teams and inviting them to clearly articulate how they would enable the four school-level ingredients. It also meant crafting clear plans with goals aligned with good management and coaching—not simply doing what had always been done.

Content. A high-quality school needs high-quality and culturally competent curricula. It also needs frameworks, protocols, and data that drive great instruction and continuous improvement.

I started in Newark about a year after the Common Core State Standards had become a force nationally and the same month that New Jersey adopted a version of them. Common Core gave us an unambiguous and evidence-based target. It also served as a catalyst to scrutinize our curricula with a more rigorous lens.

The research here is undeniable; high-quality, culturally competent instructional materials are critical to ensuring that students are truly internalizing difficult content. Historically, though, we had all underinvested in this area in the early reforms after A Nation at Risk.

High-quality instructional materials are an ingredient that is hard to get right when you are working only at the school or small-network level. Scale is your friend. These decisions are better made at a system level, where content experts can dedicate the necessary time to addressing academic needs and cultural contexts, as well as coherence and alignment between the plethora of different curricula and assessments. It is also the area that, at the time in Newark, brought the most consensus. We did “teach-ins” for administrators, educators, influencers, and families who all really seemed to get and support the mandate for good, rigorous content that was consistent across the city.

Culture. Schools with intentionally curated environments characterized by high standards alongside high support produce better student outcomes.

From day one in Newark, we focused on the seminal research work and promising practices that had emerged, connecting how kids feel, how adults feel, and student outcomes. Years after comparing student achievement results to staff, student, and family survey responses, researchers Tony Bryk and Barbara Schneider found that the schools with high levels of trust were far more likely to get beat-the-odds results than their counterparts. Economists like Ron Ferguson and social policy experts like Christopher Jencks found a direct correlation between adult expectations, student surveys, and student outcomes.

Relatedly, an area where I have seen some of the greatest challenges for adults in establishing and preserving culture is in response to conflict and disruptive incidents. How we handle student discipline, struggle, and conflict is where adult biases show up the most. This is a problem not only from an equity and justice lens but also from a student achievement standpoint. Often students who need the most support and time on task are being excluded the most. Students can’t learn when they feel shame and helplessness. So it is no surprise to me that data shows that the relationship between the discipline gap and achievement is more than correlative—it is also causal.

For these reasons, we hired administrators who showed skill in building culture and partnering with families. We created an entire central-office team focused on student well-being and discipline.

We made progress, but admittedly, the playbook on culture is harder to run for many reasons. Too often, discussions about what student culture should feel like are preachy, ideological, or theoretical—devoid of practical, research-based, promising practices. Building culture is far from a paint-by-numbers task. Effective cultures don’t feel the same in every school, but they do share key components. This is nuanced and hard to teach to administrators. The culture work requires us to surface and address adult biases about what kids can accomplish and what is considered “dangerous” behavior, and this can cause real discomfort and resistance.

Conditions. This ingredient is all about strong operations and infrastructure.

It is important to address the physical environment and the day-to-day operations. None of the other ingredients of a strong school or system can succeed if we don’t address the conditions in which our children learn and our teachers teach. In Newark, we had a lot of work to do on this ingredient.

When I started, Malcolm X Shabazz High School had a river running through its fourth floor on rainy days. Many schools didn’t have air conditioning, in a city where average temperatures reach above a humid ninety degrees for months. Some schools weren’t even wired for internet access, and only a few had laptops to check out to students for the day.

Local leaders openly talked about a “rolling start” at the beginning of the school year, which referred to the fact that it took weeks to sort out the basics: enrollment, special education schedules and services, buses, and even books. Honestly, I had never heard of a system where instruction didn’t start on day one.

Some of these intolerable conditions were due to bad public policy and some were because of poor management. My team and I would say we could tell if a school was getting results by how visitors were greeted at the door (if at all) and how quickly families could get the answer to whatever they were asking. We created school operations managers to attend to the operational needs of the school. At the time, this got me in trouble with the administrators’ union (because I was seen as encroaching on district administrator roles and jobs). Even today our approach to operations is considered innovative, which just shows how little we prioritize the conditions in our schools.

The One Newark Plan

While establishing a focus on college readiness and building four-ingredient schools was our primary focus right out of the gate, we knew we had to make progress on a citywide plan that addressed the schools beyond our purview. Looking at the full picture in Newark, you saw that everyone was doing their own thing, and the unintended consequences of this lack of coordination were becoming more evident and unsustainable every day.

From our earliest school visits, we could see that the poorest neighborhood schools were emptying out and becoming concentrated with the highest-need students and the lowest-quality staff. The diversity and variety of school models wasn’t materializing; with all the new schools, we weren’t actually providing a lot of choice, just more flavors of “no excuses” ice cream at the elementary level and a bunch of run-of-the-mill high schools.

Meanwhile, every year, including my first, our district had to cut about $50 million. While there was certainly a lot of bloated bureaucracy to streamline, more than 80 percent of that money was wrapped up in people. Newark Public Schools employs many Newarkers in a city with double the national poverty rate.

As a city, we had to ask ourselves: “Is it even possible for every child in Newark to have access to a school that meets their needs? Even those children facing the longest odds?”

Our team had no choice but to stare down these questions, which led us to some unconventional and controversial answers. The first thing we had to do: try to rise above political arguments rooted in ideology and self-interest about what type of school models should exist. There were about a hundred schools in Newark. We knew we would get to excellence more quickly if we had a variety of governance structures: traditional, charter, magnet, partner run, and hybrid. But we also knew we couldn’t simply let a thousand flowers bloom and allow others to die, especially when those vulnerable schools were serving our students with the highest need. We also knew that the community deserved excellence citywide.

We pored over our own data: student enrollment trends across governance models, overall city population trends, facilities assessments, and (of course) student outcomes. We fanned out and hosted more than a hundred community-based meetings with faith-based leaders, nonprofit executives, families in struggling schools, families in high-performing schools, charter advocates, charter operators, private schools, local funders, elected officials, union leaders, and early childhood providers. We began to socialize the idea that we needed one citywide plan across governance structures, as well as the harsh reality that the district’s footprint had to shrink. We wanted to find a way to preserve the best of the new-schools movement while also addressing some of the unacceptable consequences of its uncoordinated growth.

This process—over the course of about a year—led to a comprehensive plan we called One Newark. The plan opened with three core values to drive our collective decision-making: equity, excellence, and efficiency:

  • Excellence: We must ensure that every child in every neighborhood has access to a “four-ingredient” school as quickly as possible and that no kid is in a failing school.
  • Equity: We must ensure that all students—including those who are facing the longest odds—are on the pathway to college and a twenty-first-century career.
  • Efficiency: We must ensure that every possible dollar is invested in staff and priorities that make a positive difference for all students.

We launched headlong into implementation in the winter of 2013–14.

We started publishing “family-friendly” snapshots—across both district and charter schools— so that community members could see how their schools were doing in comparison to schools with similar populations. We looked at overall proficiency but also at growth, critical in a city like Newark with low proficiency rates across the board. We also compared schools with similar student populations to one another.

We created a simple red, yellow, and green system so that the community could see the landscape clearly. “Red schools” were low-proficiency, low-growth schools. Green were high proficiency and high growth. Yellow schools were “on the move” (low proficiency, high growth) or “to watch” (high proficiency, low growth). The color-coding was clear and intuitive, and many in the community started talking about “no red schools.”

We placed an emphasis on transparent data about how schools were doing with students in poverty, students with disabilities, and English learners. We created standard measures—across district and charter schools—to report on student retention. People from all sides fought us on this level of transparency—the unions, some charter schools (which weren’t obligated to share their data with us), and some funders who worried we were reducing children to numbers. But many families and policymakers embraced the information. There’s no perfect system, but there was no way to make a citywide plan without a decent measure of school quality.

We performed detailed enrollment analysis and defined the need for a common definition of a “minimum viable school.” From a funding standpoint, schools with fewer than 500 students are hard to sustain with a staffing model that ensures things like appropriate class size, electives, teacher preparation times, and staff to attend to running operations. Newark had a lot of “red” schools that were also not financially viable, and many of them were in the poorest neighborhoods.

We also looked at demand data—who was applying to charters and from what neighborhoods, who was seeking new small high schools and from what neighborhoods, and which neighborhoods were growing and which were shrinking.

The picture was becoming increasingly clear: the need for a course correction was long overdue. We had traditional schools where 80 percent of families were on charter school waiting lists, but the district’s resistance to collaboration and the charters’ insistence on growing only one grade level each year meant large-scale closures and consolidations were inevitable.

The district had too many elementary schools overall, due to a population decrease, neighborhood shifts, and charter growth. We didn’t have enough early learning centers to meet the increased demand. We had too many selective high schools. Most of the new small high schools being incubated downtown were serving families from other wards, while iconic and historic high schools were emptying out. The picture was bleak. We had to make some hard decisions.

We decided to be radically transparent about our findings and the implications in a proposed ward-by-ward plan. Some charters should take over existing schools with high demand, keep families who opted in, and keep the buildings and the school name, instead of simply continuing to build new schools one grade at a time. Some elementary schools needed to convert to early learning centers. Some small high schools that were performing well needed to move into our comprehensive high schools, and some underperforming partner-run high schools needed to close. Magnets had to change their enrollment process. And some buildings had to be shut—some condemned, some repurposed, and some sold, potentially to charters.

KIPP Thrive Academy opened in the closed district Eighteenth Avenue School in 2015, one example of the public education reform efforts of the One Newark plan.
The charter school KIPP Thrive Academy opened in the closed district Eighteenth Avenue School in 2015, one example of the public education reform efforts of the One Newark plan.

Another anchor of the One Newark plan was ensuring that every family had equal access to choice. Both psychologically and practically, it didn’t make sense for one-third of families to get what they wanted and the rest to get what was left over. For starters, this dynamic was creating an almost civil war–like atmosphere, with charter and non-charter families pitted against each other and magnet and nonmagnet families screaming at each other in meetings. Also, one goal of establishing high-performing schools in high-poverty neighborhoods is to feed the groundswell of belief that kids can achieve. Newark’s choice system was helping create a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure in the non-charter schools.

This is where universal enrollment came into play. All families could access the system and apply to all schools. An algorithm gave preference to kids in the neighborhood, followed by kids in poverty, then kids with disabilities, and then everyone else at random.

Book cover of "The Prize"
Dale Russakoff’s award-winning account of education reform in Newark revealed the challenges in turning around the city’s public school system.

It was a game changer. Now all schools were required to think about how to market themselves and own their quality, or lack thereof. By year two, more than three-quarters of the families of kindergartners and ninth-graders were using the system. At one point, we opened a family support center to help families exercise choice. We had planned for a soft launch, but word got out and more than a thousand families showed up on the first day, and the situation almost devolved into chaos. While our critics crowed about our operational failure—and it was indeed a failure—it also showed how much family demand there was for choice and quality. This is one of the hundreds of examples I’ve had throughout my career that defies the ridiculous stereotype that poor families don’t care about education.

The universal enrollment system may have been hardest on some members of Newark’s political elite who were used to the benefits afforded to them in an unfair, transactional system. I recall one meeting in which a prominent official—previously a supporter of mine—yelled, “You made a liar out of me! I told my cousin I could get her kid into this school!”

Our team knew that the tenets of the plan were bold, unconventional, and controversial and that the politics were going to be tough to navigate. Choice, charters, labor reforms, and teacher excellence polled well. Laying off Newarkers and teachers and “closing” traditional schools or turning them over to highly successful charters were wildly unpopular. But to have the plan succeed citywide, you couldn’t have one without the other.

To add a deeper degree of difficulty, while the plan was emerging and leading up to the official launch, we suffered a series of seismic political blows. In September 2013, the Bridgegate scandal broke and increasingly sidelined Governor Christie. Shortly thereafter, then senator Frank Lautenberg tragically passed away. Mayor Booker, who had also been an active and strong supporter of the plan and was working hard to build momentum around it, announced he was running for that U.S. Senate seat. His announcement also spurred the need for an earlier-than-expected mayoral election where the leading candidates spent considerable time spewing hatred about charters and about me personally (although backstage and publicly, they had previously supported both). Shortly thereafter, Commissioner Cerf resigned. To use a sports analogy: the entire offensive line left the field.

The overall approach was comprehensive, and it had to be to ensure that none of our kids were trapped in failing schools, the district didn’t go bankrupt, communities weren’t living with vacant buildings, and the city was on a path to success. I described the plan to author Dale Russakoff as “three-dimensional chess” in an effort to convey why all the pieces had to happen at one time and couldn’t be phased. There were too many interdependent parts to a very complex system, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. Unfortunately, in her 2015 book about Newark, The Prize, which went on to become a bestseller, this quote fed an inaccurate portrayal of me as a top-down, cold technocrat—a narrative that was taking shape across much of the media coverage about our work in Newark. It couldn’t have been further from the truth—the emotional pieces of what needed to happen were not lost on me or the team. I lived with my husband and baby son in Newark and had conversations with neighbors in grocery stores and local watering holes on a daily basis. It all felt so heavy, but also necessary.

Results and Lessons

During my tenure and the subsequent years under Cerf, our district teams improved outcomes for students in every neighborhood and every age group—from early childhood to high school.

In early childhood, we secured a $7 million Head Start grant (becoming only the second district in the country to do so) to add more than one thousand early childhood seats. We brought early childhood standards to life and sounded the alarm to focus on the importance of high-quality early learning. Newark went from having fewer than half of our residents eligible for free early childhood programs (which was most families) in those programs to enrolling nearly 90 percent.

In 2015, the Center on Reinventing Public Education named Newark as the top district in the country based on its share of high-poverty, high-performance elementary schools. By 2019, more than one-third of Black students attended schools that exceeded the state average, compared with 10 percent in 2011. The number of good schools and schools “on the move” grew every year due to our district-run turnaround approach, charter conversion schools, and some outright closures and consolidations. Newark was among the top four cities in the country for student outcomes of Black students living in poverty.

The citywide graduation rate rose 14 points, closing the gap with the state average by 7 percentage points—with almost double the percentage of students graduating having passed the state exit exam. About 87 percent of Newark graduates who enrolled in college returned for a second term, far exceeding national averages despite high poverty rates.

And we saw signs that the overall community—despite the political rancor we encountered— was starting to believe in the “system of great schools.” For the first time in decades, student enrollment was increasing overall in Newark, as was the population of the city.

Because we felt responsible for every child in Newark, we engaged all families, charter and district, with equal vigor. This was a good and mission-aligned approach, but it was almost impossible to execute, given the tensions (both perceived and very real) inherent in growing the charter footprint. The conundrum is perfectly exemplified by the mother who called in to ask me a question on-air during a local NPR show. She had just dropped off her kids at North Star Academy Charter School, she said, because she needed them to have access to excellence. At the same time, she was on her way to my office to picket against me on behalf of her nephew, who had lost his job as a school aide due to the smaller footprint of the district.

Our strategy all along was to be up front about failure and embrace accountability. Again, while our radical transparency seemed like a good idea on its face, it turned out that a lot of people don’t want to hear their school is failing—no matter how carefully crafted the message. We prioritized students who were at the back of the line. Our universal enrollment system gave preference to students from the poorest neighborhoods and those with disabilities. We revamped the magnet school admissions process to look at multiple factors for student admissions at the central office. These were good decisions for children, families, and equity, but it also put us in the crosshairs of power brokers who were used to getting what they wanted and considered coveted seats theirs to give out. They also had access to the biggest microphones and would use them to mobilize the community against our efforts.

Some charter school operators and their supporters mobilized their constituents in opposition to these citywide efforts as well. They wanted to grow where they wanted to grow, not necessarily in alignment with supply-and-demand patterns or the overall plan.

Charters weren’t the only group stuck in their own goals and plans—and at least most of their concerns were in service of building quality schools. School-based partners and vendors, local nonprofits, funders, and other leaders all had their individual projects, schools, and pet issues. The incentives to keep doing one’s own thing were profound. I was stuck in a daily loop of explicit and often threatening demands to support individual agendas—many of them having nothing to do with what was best for individual neighborhoods and schools, let alone the collective.

We had to find a way for the idea of choice to lift all boats, but it wasn’t happening—and it can’t happen without good public policy and collective action. I’ve had many school choice advocates dispute this. Some will have you believe that the mere presence of competition somehow magically raises everyone’s game. It certainly didn’t happen that way in Newark, nor in the dozens of systems I have worked in since. The One Newark plan should have been envisioned before the unintended consequences were at our doorstep. Maybe that would have given us more time.

I also made mistakes. My messages were not straightforward and sticky enough. This work, as you can see, is complex and multifaceted, and I could have paid more attention to how to ensure good, proactive, community-friendly communication.

More critically, I needed to develop a more sophisticated understanding of how to see the community in relation to the system of schools. In Figure 1, the center is the school, and the next level out is the families and students. The next ring is influencers—folks connected to the school who have direct influence on that specific school. The next ring is community-wide partners—community-based agencies and other city agencies like police and child welfare. And the outermost ring is elected officials and power brokers—for instance, pastors of large congregations, thought leaders, and community-based organizations serving the city.

Figure 1: The community in relation to the system of schools

Figure 1: The community in relation to the system of schools

We knew it was critical to focus on our families and students, and we knew it was a tremendous amount of our work to build collective action focused on them. I give us high marks for our dogged and strategic work on the red ring. But in retrospect, we spent far too much time with folks in the outermost ring—the political and power class—and not enough with those in the orange. It wasn’t until nearer the end of my tenure that we started to create a database for each individual school’s orange ring. I came to realize a hard lesson—that while the politicians and power brokers confidently spoke for the community, they were often after a political win: a contract, a coveted spot in a school, a policy, or a job for a family member or friend. I wish I could take precious minutes I spent with those in the green ring and reinvest them in the orange ring.

The painful but informative experiences I had in Newark, along with a long career since then of working with systems leaders across the country, have convinced me that collective action is the missing link for change at the systems and community levels. Too often, we interchange concepts of true grassroots organizing and community engagement and sidestep the obvious truth that power brokers and special interest groups have an organized, well-resourced, and often outsized influence on speaking for the community.

Among the lessons Anderson learned as superintendent in Newark was the value of engaging community and systems leaders alike in collective action.
Among the lessons Anderson learned as superintendent in Newark was the value of engaging community and systems leaders alike in collective action.


The insights I’ve shared above are not based on any specific ideology. They were developed out of necessity and refined through years of application and practice across a wide variety of settings—from New York to California and many places in between, in both districts and charter networks, in small school communities, and in the largest cities and states.

It may seem like a lot to tackle, and indeed it is. But if we are to truly transform our systems at scale, we can’t simply cling to one specific ingredient or hew to a single governance ideology. The surest way to avoid bias and ensure a holistic strategy is to zoom out to the community-level goal. Make the community—not just one school, network, neighborhood, or district—the unit of change.

The story of Newark should push all of us to define the role of the “system” and why it is so critical and yet so difficult to fulfill that mandate for an entire community. In short: the system should manage the incentives, policies, guardrails, and resources to ensure that every child has access to a high-quality school by doing four things.

Enable “Four-Ingredient schools. As discussed above, we the value of a game-changing principal in every school and an excellent educator in every classroom; the impact of high-quality instructional materials that are culturally competent; the research on school culture and handling discipline; and what conditions have to be in place to enable achievement. Systems leaders should set direction and advocate; procure best-in-class materials; set policy to incentivize districts, schools, and charter management organizations to implement what we know works; and sanction practices antithetical to student progress.

Ensure quality and equity. The paradigm of districts versus charters sadly guarantees that many kids—particularly those with the most challenges—are left behind. Policymakers and community leaders should be held accountable when they allow kids and families to fall through the cracks. Leaders need to be accountable for ensuring all kids access high-quality schools. Our new accountability systems should correct for mistakes we made before, from focusing only on proficiency and meaningless graduation rates to treating growth, college-readiness, and retention as critical outcome measures.

Break bureaucracy. A fundamental way to clear a runway for accelerated school improvement is to actively tear down past practices and federal, state, and local policies that block individual schools from innovating. We need more of a “whiteboard” approach than one that tweaks decades of dysfunction. Policymakers and community leaders need to wake up every day wondering what they can do to ensure that people running schools have the time to do the right thing as opposed to managing byzantine policies and procedures from competing departments.

Create cross-system and community-based solutions. The students who face the most challenges have generally been failed by multiple systems. Statistically, they are likely to be students of color. Too often they are labeled “special populations” and further marginalized out of classrooms and into separate and unequal programs. To truly reverse patterns for students that systems have failed the most, we need cross-agency and community-based solutions with school success at the core: more out-of-the-box ideas to aggregate services and help students who are the most vulnerable succeed.

I share these ideas and epiphanies humbly and with tremendous gratitude to the countless friends, colleagues, and mentors in this sector who helped shape my beliefs about this work. It’s been more than a decade since I arrived in Newark and forty years since A Nation at Risk. My hope is that we’ve all gained a bit of useful perspective and are ready to roll up our sleeves and put the lessons we’ve learned into action.

Cami Anderson was superintendent of Newark Public schools from 2011 to 2014. She is the Founder and CEO of ThirdWay Solutions.

Excerpted from a chapter of A Nation At Risk +40: A Review of Progress in US Public Education, a collection of essays published by the Hoover Institution that reflects on education reform in the four decades since the landmark 1983 report.

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