The positive effects of Newark's education reforms

Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research has released a study that provides the first look at how Newark schools are faring after the enactment of controversial reforms. Kicked off by an infusion of $200 million from the Startup: Education Foundation (now the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative) and other philanthropists in 2010, the reform included curricular overhauls, scaling up charters, dramatic staff changes, and school closures. The initial findings indicate that these disruptive changes are improving student achievement.

The study examines student growth on New Jersey state achievement tests from 2009 to 2016—before and after funding—comparing students of similar academic achievement and demographics to other lower-income districts in the state, as well as to overall state results. Analysts also look to determine which reforms were responsible for the changes in growth. As the scope of reforms is quite large, they break them into two categories: within-school reforms, such as personnel changes, new teacher contracts, and curriculum reform; and between-school reforms, including closing low-performing schools, the expansion of charter schools, and the implementation of a universal choice system that allowed families to submit a single application to attend a district or local charter school.

Analysts find that student growth dropped in the first two years of reform, before rebounding in the 2014–15 and 2015–16 school years. By the final year of the study, overall achievement growth was 0.09 SD above the state average in English, an improvement of 0.07 SD from the implementation of the reforms. In math, growth was statistically the unchanged from the beginning of the study. These trends mirrored the results as compared to other low-income districts in the state.

Analysts also find that between-school reforms, driven by changes in enrollment between schools, consistently improved achievement growth over the course of the reform efforts. Major enrollment changes started in the 2012–13 school year, as a number of Newark’s lowest performing schools were closed, and expanded in 2014–15 with the adoption of the universal choice system. The result was that schools that added more academic value grew faster than schools that added less, so more students were in better schools. The analysts calculate that this movement accounted for 62 percent of Newark’s improvement in English growth.

One major uncertainty of the study is that the dramatic rise in test scores in 2014–15, which occurred across the state, though more dramatically in Newark, corresponded with New Jersey changing the state test from the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (NJASK) to the PARCC assessment. PARCC emphasizes different, more critical thinking skills in math and English than NJASK. Thus the bump in scores could be more related to the test change rather than the reforms taking place at the school level.

These results do not, as some reformers may be tempted to claim, mean that Newark’s dramatic reforms are a blueprint ready to be exported to other districts. Rather they are a product of unique set of circumstances, including a previously strong charter sector and a state controlled district. Still, they are at least as tentative vindication for local officials who persisted in enacting reforms in spite of much controversy and the departure of philanthropists and high-profile supporters.

SOURCE: Mark J. Chin, Thomas J. Kane, Whitney Kozakowski, Beth E. Schueler, and Douglas O. Staiger, “School District Reform in Newark: Within- and Between-School Changes in Achievement Growth,” Center for Education Policy Research (October 2017).