Education

Harvard, MarGrady studies reveal overall gains for Newark's public schools

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Superintendent of Newark Public Schools Christopher Cerf addressing the state Board of Education last month immediately prior to the historic vote restoring local control to the district Credits: Elana Knopp
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Superintendent of Newark Public Schools Christopher Cerf and Board of Education Chair Marques-Aquil Lewis at a recent board meeting Credits: Elana Knopp
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Adding to a growing body of evidence of overall progress made by Newark's public schools and life outcomes for Newark students, two studies released this month by Harvard University and MarGrady Research reveal significant gains made by the school district.

Studies reveal that Newark’s district and charter schools are providing better results for students, showing improvement in growth rates in recent years in English/Language Arts (ELA) and Math that are consistently higher than the state average.

The studies also confirm the latest data out of Newark Public Schools, which reveal the district has made significant strides in closing the achievement gap, with NPS students making faster gains than their peers statewide and a dramatic increase in high school graduation rates between 2011 to 2017.

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Core standards such as a district-wide curriculum, improved student assessments, new evaluation standards for teachers, teacher retention and school choice have significantly helped in moving the district forward.

In addition, the implementation of reforms—such as citywide enrollment and the expansion of high quality schools—are also cited as two areas that have made a real difference for the district.

The district regained local control of its school district last month after more than two decades under state control, forced to relinquish self-governance in 1995 after an administrative judge deemed the district’s schools and students as failing.

Twenty-two years later, with the unanimous nod from the state’s Board of Education, the district is now working in close partnership with the state, with a full transition plan expected within the next few months.

Newark Public Schools Superintendent Christopher Cerf took the helm of the district in 2015 after a tumultuous run by former school superintendent Cami Anderson, an appointee of Governor Chris Christie who stepped down eight months before her contract expired.

Cerf, a former New Jersey education commissioner, stepped into the role with the goal and directive of returning the district to full local control, expressing confidence at the time that the district could regain self-governance.

Cerf said the studies confirm the progress that is being made in Newark schools and shows that reforms undertaken are making a real difference for Newark students.

“Whether you look at PARCC scores, student growth percentile, value-added scores, or graduation rates, student outcomes are trending in a positive direction in Newark,” Cerf said. “The data shows us that the seeds planted in earlier years are now yielding rewards for students. Today, thousands more Newark students are reading and doing math on grade level than just a few years ago and as a result, these students have a better chance at attending college or pursuing a meaningful career when they leave our schools.”

Newark’s public schools were catapulted into the national spotlight in 2010, when Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced he was creating a $100 million challenge grant to improve public education in Newark.

While the city has received extensive coverage on the implementation of education reforms, as well as on the upheaval immediately following the widespread changes, scant analysis of the actual effectiveness of these reforms has been published.

Harvard's Center for Education Policy and Research Study

The study out of Harvard’s Center for Education Policy and Research by researchers Thomas Kane, Douglas Staiger, et al, entitled, “Assessing the Impact of Newark Education Reforms," reveals that Newark's public schools are providing positive results for students and that reforms have empowered families to choose better schools for their children.

Focused on results using a specific measure of growth on value added between 2010 and 2015 and comparing students in both district and charter schools to students with similar prior achievement, demographics and peers elsewhere in the state, the study shows how reforms are now improving life outcomes for Newark students across all schools and aligning with analysis NPS has shared in recent years.

The study shows Newark students in grades 4-8 in both district and charter schools improving significantly in their net rate of growth in English/Language Arts.

Prior to the reforms, Newark’s average rate of student achievement growth in math was above the state average, with math achievement growth remaining constant in 2015, according to the study. These results come prior to the latest math results out of the district, which show a marked and steady improvement.

The rate of student achievement growth initially declined in both district and charter schools in English and math in the early years of reform, before improving in 2014, with steady improvements shown throughout.

The study also reveals that shifting enrollment from lower to higher achievement growth schools—due to between-school reforms such as school closures, new school openings, and expanded student choice—was responsible for significant gains in English/Language Arts. 

In an exclusive TAPinto Newark interview last month, Cerf said a successful outcome for all of Newark’s students is the ultimate goal.

“The central component to our philosophy is that we are indifferent to how a public school came into being,” Cerf said. “If it is successfully educating children, we want to support it. We have completely taken politics out of who gets into what schools. We have neutral equity-based rules to allow parents to make the best decision for their kids.”

District gains in PARCC scores, graduation rates and matriculation are a direct result of the foundation that has been set in place, Cerf said.

The district was one of the first in the state to adopt Common Core standards, an educational initiative that details what K–12 students should know in English/Language Arts and math by the end of each grade.

NPS revealed final 2016-2017 PARCC scores last month, which showed the percentage of NPS students meeting or exceeding expectations across all grade levels has significantly increased, with proficiency rates going up significantly over the last five years and citywide growth of Newark students dramatically outpacing similar districts.

When compared to the 37 most demographically similar districts in the state, Newark has gone from the 42nd percentile to the 83rd in math, and from the 44th percentile to the 81st in English.

Strong gains have also narrowed the opportunity gap between African-American students and the statewide average by about 25 percent in ELA and 20 percent in math in just two years.

Since 2015, NPS has seen greater gains in grades 3-11 in both English/language arts (ELA) and math than statewide gains for the same time period, with an 8.7 percent improvement in ELA and a 5.3 percent increase in Math.

Gains were especially pronounced in grades 3-8, indicating that the district is setting a solid academic foundation for students.

NPS results show that the district compares favorably to other urban districts such as Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Albuquerque, particularly when it comes to low-income students. Newark outperformed more than 80 percent of similar urban districts in New Jersey, with citywide results showing all Newark students outperforming several other PARCC statewide averages.

NPS data also shows that 40 out of 56 NPS schools have improved in ELA, while 43 out of 56 have made gains in Math.

Precise three-year cohort district data—groups of the same students measured over time—reveals that third-grade students who stayed with NPS showed consistent growth in both ELA and math.

Graduation rates have also significantly increased in recent years.

When the state took over more than two decades ago, just 54 percent of Newark’ students were graduating. Today, that rate has increased by 23 percentage points to 77 percent, with the expectation that it will rise to 78 percent by year’s end.

In addition, last year's NPS graduating classes saw more students matriculating to some of the country’s top colleges and universities, with students receiving full scholarships to schools like Harvard, Princeton and Rutgers.

Giving parents greater access to high-performing schools while closing low-performing schools was also shown to have a positive and educationally meaningful impact on student achievement, according to the Harvard study. The district has achieved this by closing the lowest performing charter and NPS schools, along with universal enrollment.

In 2013, the district announced an agreement with most of Newark’s charters to form a universal enrollment system for all Newark families. Intended to make the admissions process easier and more equitable, families considering a new school could submit a single application for nearly all of Newark’s schools—district or charter—and be matched by a computer program that considered both their preferences and school capacity. 

Citywide enrollment is now at an all-time high, with more students enrolled in public schools, which topped 50,000 for the first time in recent history during the 2015-16 school year. 

“The sum of these results show us that thousands more Newark students are reading and doing math on grade level, and graduating on time, than there were in 2010,” states the Harvard study. “This is the goal of any educational improvement effort and our hope is to build on this progress and continue to improve these outcomes for Newark students.”

MarGrady Research Study

MarGrady Research study “Moving Up: Progress in Newark’s Schools from 2010 to 2017,” by educational researcher Jesse Margolis of MarGrady Research and NYU, analyzed the district's progress since 2010—including both NPS and charter schools—looking specifically at the effectiveness of educational reforms pertaining to student outcomes and achievement.

Margolis also presents analyses for NPS alone in order to uncover emerging trends when looking at the traditional school district.

Overall and across every analytic approach, Margolis cites positive growth in grades 3-8, as well as consistent gains going back to 2010 for both district and charter schools.

“When looking only at district schools, after results that were flat or modestly declining during the early years of reform, the city’s traditional public schools have seen large gains in recent years,” states Margolis. “As student demographics have changed little over the past seven years, these gains appear to reflect real improvement, rather than a different student body.  Replicating other researchers’ analyses, I find similar results on their own metrics—positive growth over the past seven years.”

Margolis cites three areas of reform: Talent—replacing principals and developing a new teacher contract that focused on differentiated compensation and a new model of educator evaluation; Curriculum—focusing early and intensively on the Common Core curriculum; and Portfolio—closing low performing schools, opening new schools, and simplifying the choice process.

Margolis notes that educator talent was a significant focus during the initial years of the city's education reforms, with the district identifying the right talent to lead schools, creating a coaching and evaluation system that could recognize and build teacher quality, and rewarding and retaining the best teachers.

Many principals in NPS schools were replaced in the first few years of the reforms, while principals that remained received far greater autonomy around decision-making for strategic planning, staffing and budgeting.

Additionally, the rolling of out of a new teacher evaluation system alongside a new teacher contract in 2012 played a significant role in the shift, according to the study. 

The new contract shifted how teachers were paid, with teachers—for the first time in NPS history—having to earn their raise based on their evaluation rating.

With the new contract in place, retention was differentiated by effectiveness—with 95 percent of highly effective teachers staying from one year to the next and more than 220 tenure charges brought by the district, resulting in more than two-thirds of these teachers leaving the district.

The new talent strategy brought increased academic rigor, rolling out Common Core-aligned curricula in English and math across grades K-8 beginning in 2013. This rollout occurred two years prior to the first Common Core-aligned state assessments in 2015, as NPS began focusing on the Common Core earlier than many districts. 

Finally, changes were made to the overall portfolio of schools in Newark. Beginning in 2012, 10 low-performing district schools and three charter schools were closed or consolidated with other schools, while more than a dozen schools were renewed in the early years of reform. This resulted in significant staff turnover and a longer school day for students and teachers at those schools. 

During this time, the city saw growth in the percentage of students being served by charter schools—from 12 percent in 2010 to 31 percent in 2017.

Although charter school enrollment in Newark has risen in recent years, the study notes that these gains did not translate into an equal decline in enrollment in the district, with enrollment in district schools holding steady. 

“On every measure I have analyzed or reviewed, Newark’s schools are making gains,” Margolis states. “There are more students enrolled, those students’ test score proficiency and growth has improved relative to similar students, and they are substantially more likely to graduate from high school on time. While one may debate the causes, any fair reading of the recent data on Newark’s students should be one of success and continued progress.”  

In September, Cerf noted that both public and charter schools have done well, with the district celebrating the overall success of its students.

“That’s why I think the state returned us to local control,” he said during last month's sit-down. “There is a sense of unity that I think has been lacking in past years. We have a unity of purpose in giving kids a free public quality education.”

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