Opinion
School & District Management Commentary

New Beginnings in Newark

By Gloria Ladson-Billings — October 01, 2003 9 min read

Gloria Ladson-Billings is a professor of education at Bank Street College in New York City. This is adapted from her essay in the collection Putting the Children First: The Changing Face of Newark’s Public Schools, edited by Jonathan G. Silin & Carol Lippman (Teachers College Press, 2003).

As an African-American youngster growing up in 1950s and 1960s Philadelphia, I learned that the way to survive the harsh assessment of the peer group was not with brawn but with brains. Kids in my neighborhood respected the spoken word, and we cultivated the African-American ritual of insult known as “playing the dozens.” A good dozens player was someone who could draw word pictures, create metaphors, and tease out similes. One of the places a dozens player went for material was to the object of insult’s family history and heritage. In the semi- sophisticated Philadelphia—far enough North to have shed any Southern traces and large enough not to be a hick town—the worst thing you could be considered was “country.” However, we saved a special set of insults for people from one place—New Jersey—a place we called “the armpit of the nation.”

Of course, we did not mean all of Jersey (as we say on the East Coast) when we tried to denigrate a peer. Everyone knew that growing up in Princeton, or Hopewell, or West Windsor, or even Cherry Hill was nothing to be ashamed of. When we talked about being from Jersey as an insult, we were referring to one of two specific places—Camden or Newark. Camden was Philadelphia’s ugly stepsister. Newark, so pitiful that Lady Liberty turned her back on it. However, in the summer of 1967, Newark stopped being a joke in our community.

In July 1967, five days of rioting in Newark placed it firmly in the consciousness of the entire nation. Although half of the voters in Newark were African-Americans, they had almost no political power. This sense of hopelessness erupted, resulting in a loss of 26 lives and almost $15 million in property damage. From that moment on, the name Newark, like the name Watts, became synonymous with black dissatisfaction and frustration. Unfortunately, the newly found respect that Newark earned in my community and other African- American communities across the nation failed to turn it into a place of black self-sufficiency and deep pride. Instead, Newark was allowed to wither on the vine. Its neighborhoods, schools, and financial infrastructure deteriorated further. What the riots did not destroy, federal and state neglect killed.

In recent years, Newark has come to be seen as a convenient point of embarkation. No one really went to Newark. Instead, Newark was a place through which one traveled to get somewhere else. Passengers flying into Newark were more likely coming to New York City. Newark merely provided a cheaper and more accessible gateway. Passengers flying out of Newark also were likely to be originating from some other place. Much like Oakland, in relation to San Francisco, for Newark, there was no “there” there.

However, unlike Oakland, Newark does not have a major-league professional baseball or football team. It lacks the distinctive identity and sense of place that other municipalities and areas of the state have. It does not have Princeton’s quaintness and charm. It does not have Atlantic City’s glamour and titillation. It does not have the quiet splendor of the Pine Barrens. Although it is New Jersey’s largest city, it remains a placeholder between New York and Philadelphia in the minds of many.

Newark offers us a unique set of perspectives on school reform.

I have seen Newark through a prism of ridicule, respect, and now, regeneration. One aspect of that regeneration is the work of the teachers, administrators, teacher-educators, students, and their families who participated in Project New Beginnings, a collaboration between the Newark public schools and Bank Street College of Education to restructure and reform early-childhood education in Newark’s schools.

Why is school reform in Newark important to an audience beyond New Jersey? Who would want to know about Newark when we have so much data from Chicago, New York, Tennessee, and North Carolina? What does Newark have to offer? I want to argue that using Newark as an example offers us a unique set of perspectives on school reform—perspectives from the ground up—and a more expansive vision of success. It challenges us to move outside the narrow strictures of teaching-to- the-test, testing, promotion or retention, and teaching-to-the-test all over again. It offers us an opportunity to see school reform in the context of authentic education.

After the release of the 1983 report A Nation at Risk, America became obsessed with the notion of school restructuring and school reform. The public wanted a more coherent and rigorous curriculum. It also wanted what was termed the “best and the brightest” to enter teaching. By the 1990s, words such as “standards,” “accountability,” and “curriculum alignment” were commonplace terms to describe schooling. Interestingly, what was once an entire nation at risk became a particular segment of students who were called “at risk.” To no one’s surprise, those students deemed at risk were poor, students of color, immigrants, and second-language learners.

Throughout the 1990s, the nation’s schools began interpreting a vast array of curriculum standards, performance indicators, and standardized tests, into what the education historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban, in Tinkering Toward Utopia (1995), call the “grammar of schooling.” What the public learned from this beehive of reform, restructuring, and standards activity was that rich white school districts were high-performing, while poor districts serving children of color were low-performing. Almost every large urban district is low-performing and serves mostly students of color. To those who have toiled in urban school districts for many years, this disparity was not news. The so-called achievement gap is an ever-present fact of urban schools. However, the data revealed that after years of narrowing the gap, students of color in urban schools were slipping further and further behind. What the furor over school reform highlighted was just how completely white flight, an eroded tax base, and political negligence had devastated urban schools.

The awful condition of urban schools also made them fertile ground for a variety of research agendas and programmatic changes. The push for accountability forced urban school administrators to look for quick fixes to bring their students up to mandated academic standards. Thus, prescriptive programs in reading and mathematics found their way into many urban classrooms. In some cases, these programs added to the “de-skilling” of teachers because they required them to follow daily scripts in their teaching. Urban districts spend millions of dollars purchasing programs that purport to boost student performance on standardized tests. And although there have been some modest gains in some urban districts, the achievement gap between white and African- American, Latino, and Native American students persists.

What the public learned was that rich white school districts were high-performing, while poor districts serving children of color were low-performing.

Where does Newark’s Project New Beginnings fit into this school reform discourse? What is happening in Newark that makes it worthy of consideration? In thinking about how to answer these questions, I was reminded of my own work with successful teachers of African-American students. In that work, I tried to ask a very different kind of question. Instead of accepting a notion of total school failure, I wanted to understand what happens in those classrooms where teachers were able to support high levels of performance among African-American students.

I referred to the work of these teachers as “culturally relevant pedagogy.” Their pedagogical practices rest on three propositions: academic achievement, cultural competence, and sociopolitical consciousness.

Academic achievement refers to the proficiency students are able to demonstrate as a result of pedagogical experiences that their teachers plan and implement. Such academic achievement is not merely student performance on standardized tests, but, rather, a more robust and authentic learning that students are able to put to use in a variety of settings.

The second proposition, cultural competence, often is more difficult to grasp. It refers to the development of relevant cultural skills in one’s culture of origin, along with that of the dominant society. Children of color and children who are English-language learners must have the opportunity to learn the dominant discourse—not to assimilate and lose their sense of self, but to participate in the civic and economic culture of their world. But they also need to be fully conversant in the strength, beauty, and power of their own cultures. The task of teaching in such communities is to help students become bicultural and fluent across cultures.

In my own teaching, I have found that one of the more difficult tasks is helping my white students understand that they have a culture that shapes their thinking and perspectives. Once they begin to recognize the power of culture on their own thinking, they become more open to the idea that students’ cultures help them make sense of the world. Another point of helping teachers discover the influence of their own culture is to allay their fears about trying to learn every student culture with which they interact. Instead, we want teachers to recognize culture, writ large, as a learning influence as powerful as psychological and sociological factors.

One of my more difficult tasks is helping my white students understand that they have a culture that shapes their thinking and perspectives.

Finally, culturally relevant teaching is characterized by its attention to sociopolitical consciousness. It is not enough for students to demonstrate academic achievement and cultural knowledge. They also need to understand the wider social context to make sense of social inequity and injustice. This is the kind of education the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire referred to as he sought to politicize the masses in Brazil (and later Guinea Bissau) through literacy. The teachers in my study found ways to engage their students in meaningful social/political activities outside the classroom. One teacher helped her students appeal to their local City Council concerning a vacant strip mall. Another got her students involved in a project with veterans at the local Veterans Administration Hospital. In both instances, the students learned that their communities lacked some basic goods and services, and that their education could be put to use to address those needs.

The real message from Newark is that school reform is not a generic task, any more than child-rearing is a generic task. Every circumstance, every setting has its own needs and challenges. School reform works when it is tailored to the specific schools and involves the active participation of the teachers, administrators, students, and families in those schools. Rather than focus on the “things” of school reform (curriculum, tests, scheduling, organization), effective change finds its focus in the people.

The real message from Newark is that school reform is not a generic task.

By highlighting the human capacity, Project New Beginnings was able to bring the students’ success, not “school accountability,” to the forefront of their work. Project New Beginnings in Newark takes us on a journey of hope within reform. It reminds us of the vital need for coalition and collaboration. Like the civil rights movement of the 1960s, it demonstrates that success in a struggle is about neither vanguard leadership nor grassroots organizing—it is about both. This is a story not of prescription but of possibility, not of directives but of direction, not of selling out but of buying in. It is urban education at its best and the redefinition of what it means to be “from Newark.”

Gloria Ladson-Billings is a professor of education at Bank Street College in New York City. This is adapted from her essay in the collection Putting the Children First: The Changing Face of Newark’s Public Schools, edited by Jonathan G. Silin & Carol Lippman (Teachers College Press, 2003).

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