Publication Date: 2006-04-23
from The New York Times. April 23, 2006.
How refreshing to see the Times op-ed feature the notion that improving family wages increases student test scores. Quite a contrast to their ugly and ill-informed editorials.
ON May 9, Newark will elect a new mayor. For the first time in two decades, it will not be Sharpe James. The new mayor will face numerous challenges as he tries to ensure that Newark's downtown "renaissance" expands to other neighborhoods, many still troubled by poverty and crime.
Few of these challenges will be more important than improving the Newark public schools, under state control since 1995. In the next year, the district ? the state's largest, with nearly 43,000 students ? will be eligible to return to local control under the state's new accountability law. Even if that happens, the new mayor will still lack direct authority over a district operated by the State Department of Education. But he can nonetheless make an enormous contribution to Newark's schools.
Student achievement, fiscal management and overall district operations have improved since 1995. The performance of fourth graders, for example, has risen steadily in the last few years. But the Newark public schools continue to face significant problems. Achievement in the eighth and 11th grades remains unsatisfactorily low across the district. Over 60 percent of Newark's 11th graders failed the state math test in 2005, compared with 25 percent statewide.
In addition, with the exception of those students in its magnet programs, Newark high school students have very low proficiency rates on state examinations: in 2005, only 52 percent were proficient or highly proficient in the language arts, compared with 83 percent statewide. In 2003, 41 percent of seniors graduated with the less desirable alternative diploma, 31 percent earned the more rigorous standard diploma and 28 percent failed to graduate.
And while some of Newark's schools are among the highest performers in the Abbott districts ? the 31 low-income urban school districts identified by the State Supreme Court ? many are among the lowest.
Given the challenges of building upon district successes for more of its schools, the new mayor can do a number of things. By law, he cannot directly become involved in the operation of the district. However, unlike Mr. James, the mayor can and should develop a close working relationship with Marion Bolden, the state-appointed superintendent, establishing a collaborative approach to school improvement.
A cooperative relationship between city hall and the Newark public schools may help the district's efforts to obtain support from national philanthropic foundations. For example, to date Newark's public schools have not received any money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has given hundreds of millions of dollars to reform urban schools in the last decade.
Newark's new mayor, buoyed by mayoral control over schools in cities like New York and Chicago, may eventually seek legislative action to duplicate that feat. Before doing so, however, he should weigh carefully the evidence on the effectiveness of mayoral control, which to date is mixed. Nor is it a realistic option until Newark is returned to local control.
In addition to working with the state superintendent, the new mayor should use his bully pulpit to lobby for symbiotic partnerships with business, higher education, community-based organizations and parents. For while school-based reforms are necessary, they won't be enough to improve achievement. In practice, policies like those that raise the minimum wage and create entry-level jobs with health insurance and prospects for advancement are crucial to creating an environment in Newark's neighborhoods that will support the efforts of school reformers.
When low-income urban families are provided with increased wages and social supports, the school achievement of the children typically improves significantly. During the 1990's in the inner city of Milwaukee, for example, an innovative program that offered poor families an earning supplement and subsidized health insurance and child care produced significant improvements in academic performance, particularly in reading and comprehension tests. The development in Newark of full service schools that collaborate with health providers and job preparation programs ? connected to employers with pay scales above the minimum ? would be a step in the right direction.
In short, the new mayor needs to use the power of his office to develop a plan for urban educational improvement that recognizes that an entire community, not just the school system, is responsible for the education of its children.
Jean Anyon is a professor of urban education at the City University of New York. Alan Sadovnik is a professor and associate director of the Institute on Education Law and Policy at Rutgers-Newark.