As the state-run Newark, N.J., school system slowly begins its transition back to local control, an extensive new study shows that while test scores have risen since the 1995 takeover, clearly defined priorities and effective leadership remain elusive throughout the financially troubled district.
In addition, the study found that teachers’ feelings about the takeover vary, with the most satisfied instructors coming from the elementary and middle school levels. The 89-page study, which was released last week, also reports that while parents are more engaged in efforts to improve the city’s schools, “there is still confusion concerning the purpose of the state takeover” and “division about whether it should have taken place.”
To help remedy that situation, the report recommends that district leaders articulate priorities that are “finite and clearly specified.”
“When school district leaders sit down, they need to say, ‘We’ll accomplish bing, bang, bing, and if we don’t do that, heads will roll,’” said William J. Slotnik, the executive director of the Community Training and Assistance Center, a nonprofit group in Boston that conducted the study. CTAC provides consulting services and conducts research on urban schools.
The study was commissioned last year by the Committee of Advocates for Newark’s Children, a 30-member, nonprofit coalition of business, church, education, and civic groups that is promoting local education improvements.
“The purpose of the study was not to say the takeover is good or bad, but what was the result,” said Gabriella Morris, the coalition’s chairwoman. “It happened. Now, how do we go forward?”
State and local school officials found some welcome news in the report.
Student attendance has risen 1.4 percent districtwide, amounting to nearly 600 additional students on any given day in the 45,000-student district. The 2 percentage-point increase in high school attendance, to 84.4 percent, was significant because Newark lags behind the state average by more than 8 percentage points, the report noted.
8th Grade Gap
The researchers faulted the city school system for lacking an accountability system that would allow schools to collect and track long-term data on individual student performance and recommended that the district develop such a system.
The only multiyear testing data available from Newark elementary schools came from the federal Title I program for low-income students, the study says. Between 1995-96 and 1997-98, 1st, 4th, and 5th graders tested in Newark under the Title I program showed improvement of up to 15 percentage points on versions of the Stanford Achievement Test. In contrast, 3rd grade scores of Title I youngsters declined about 3 percentage points overall during that period.
Meanwhile, the ratio of 8th graders scoring at the top level on a reading, writing, and mathematics assessment rose 3.5 percentage points between 1994-95 and 1997-98.
The study also noted that the two-thirds of Newark’s 8th graders who attended K-8 elementary schools outperformed the 8th graders who attended middle schools, sometimes by as much as 40 percentage points. “I would not jump to any conclusions about how this happened,” Mr. Slotnik said. “You must study the income levels of the students and the climates of the schools.”
As part of the study, the researchers distributed 28,232 surveys to all sectors of the Newark school community, of which 9,781, or 35 percent, were completed.
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In general, elementary and middle school teachers responded more favorably to the state takeover than their high school counterparts, saying that their school climate has improved or stayed the same, and that there is more emphasis now on student achievement than before the takeover.
Some teachers at all levels see improvement, but don’t attribute it to the takeover. For example, one respondent wrote, “This school has improved due to whole school reform, not state intervention.”
Views on Takeover Vary
The positive responses from some teachers raised red flags for some who said they just don’t jibe with the reality of the district, which is facing a $70 million budget deficit that appears to be the result of inadequate bookkeeping. (“State Audits Find New Budget Shortfalls in Newark,” April 26, 2000.)"How can a group that understands we are dealing with this deficit have the audacity to say that the takeover has even a semblance of working,” said Joseph Del Grosso, the president of the Newark Teachers Union, the local affiliate of the National Education Association.
In a recent survey of its own, the union reported that some schools are coming up short on basic supplies such as copy machines, paper, and books at the same time that class sizes are growing.
State Commissioner of Education David C. Hespe saw the new report differently: “This report proves that those who have tried to brand our involvement in Newark a failure are wrong,” he said in a statement.
Elsewhere in the report, researchers criticized the inconsistent implementation of local school improvement plans. They urged the district to create a staff training institute to help address these issues.
“Activity does not necessarily translate into accomplishment,” the report says. “A district that has too many priorities is indicating, in fact, that it has been unable to establish its core priorities.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 31, 2000 edition of Education Week as N.J. Takeover of Newark Found To Yield Gains, But Lack Clear Goals