Let's Stop Beating the Same Familiar Drum About Mark Zuckerberg's Failure in Newark

By now, the conventional wisdom about Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million commitment to improve Newark's schools seems pretty much set in stone: that the gift was a debacle, and a case study in clueless, top-down education reform. In a past post, we referred to the episode as "Mark Zuckerberg's Vietnam"the Facebook CEO marched into territory he knew little about, throwing in his lot with unreliable allies, and ended up with a big defeat.

Dale Russakoff's new book on the reforms in Newark, The Prize, has generally solidified this narrative. And there are a great many critics of the new ed reformers, as well as of big philanthropy in general, who've been thrilled to celebrate Zuckerberg's failure. We get that impulse. After all, there's something very wrong with the outsized influence that billionaires have come to wield in public education, a sphere once thought of as among the most democratic sectors in American society. A whole lot of people have been waiting for wealthy reformers to get bopped on the nose, and be reminded that they can't call all the shots, which is exactly what happened to Zuckerberg in Newark.

Yet there a few problems with letting high-minded civic schadenfreude guide our thinking about Zuckerberg's gift in Newark. For starters, any number of critics of philanthropy are constantly carping about how funders need to take more risks to achieve big changes. Well, taking risks means occasionally failing, and if we really do want philanthropists to take risks, we shouldn't be so quick to trash them for their mistakes. 

That's especially true when funders seem eager to learn from those mistakes, which has certainly been the case with Mark Zuckerberg and education philanthropy. If you take a close look at his more recent and even bigger gift to improve schools in the Bay Area, you'll see that there's a big emphasis on working with local partners, thus avoiding one of the biggest weaknesses of the Newark reform effort. "It's very important to understand the desires of a community, to listen and learn from families, teachers, elected officials and other experts," Zuckerberg wrote in a recent Facebook post. "We now better understand why it can take years to build the support to durably cement the changes needed to provide every student with a high-quality education." Dale Russakoff has said about Zuck's new reform effort that "it's a very, very different and much more humble approach to trying to change education."

But the best reason to stop banging the same familiar drum on Zuckerberg and Newark is this: The charge that reform efforts have been a total, abject failure may not be actually be true. Certainly, it's worth hearing what Zuckerberg and his defenders have to say on this point. 

Zuckerberg's Facebook post is interesting reading in this regard. He acknowledges the "challenges, mistakes and honest differences" that he and reformers made in Newark, but points out that the picture is not nearly as bleak as critics say. In fact, five years after his gift, some parts of that picture are pretty bright. Zuckerberg writes:  

  • Graduation rates in Newark have increased 13 percentage points—up from 56% to 69%—a large improvement in just a few years. We expect these rates to keep increasing as more students go through the improved schools.
  • Newark's charter schools now rank as the 2nd highest performers in the nation. Parents in Newark now have more high-quality public school choices than before.
  • Newark was just ranked in the top 5 urban school districts by the respected Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) on "beating the odds"—meaning they have significantly more schools where students' results beat others of similar backgrounds.
  • The new teacher contract is already making a difference for students by helping to keep the best teachers. Last year, 95% of the best Newark teachers stayed in the district. 

For charter advocates, Newark is a particularly notable success. There are far more students in New Jersey schools than there were five years ago. Dale Russakoff has said,

the Newark charter schools dramatically outperformed the district schools, unlike charter schools across the country, which are more on a par with the district schools and in some cases not as good. The Newark charter schools do much better for kids, and that is one of the things that they're very proud of that they feel they've done for children in Newark.

But as expected, when the charter folks are happy, other folks are not. They make the familiar arguments about public funding being ripped out from under a school district that still educates most of the kids in Newark. We've written before about the difficulty that ed reform funders have in squaring this circlethat the success of charters can diminish resources going to traditional schools.

Experts will surely argue back and forth about how much improvement there has been in Newark's schools and who can claim credit. Our point here is that the narrative around Zuckerberg's $100 million gift seems largely stuck in the past, focusing on the disastrous execution of the reform efforts in the first few years, as opposed to where things are right now, and also dwelling on Zuckerberg's cluelessness or arrogancedespite the fact that he seems to have learned some important lessons as he's moved forward with his education philanthropy.

As well, the overall picture of Zuckerberg as yet another right-of-center funder focused on charters, accountability, and systemic reform now seems outdated. He has written recently that his big focus as an ed reformer will now be on personalized learning. "When students can learn at their own pace in a way that's personalized to their learning style, the results are amazing." That's a goal shared by many progressive reformers, too. Charters are certainly still part of Zuckerberg's vision, but he's no clone of the Walton family.