The Newark Charter School Fund, the Progressive Policy Institute and The 74 recently held a conversation with David Osborne, author of "Reinventing America's Schools: Creating a 21st Century Education System,” followed by a fireside discussion with Superintendent of Newark Public Schools Christopher Cerf and NCSF Executive Director Michele Mason.
Osborne, who has authored several books--including the New York Times bestseller "Reinventing Government"—presented his vision for education reform for cities like Newark and offered up charter schools as 21st Century models of public education.
In his recently published book, Osborne profiles the most dramatic improvements currently taking place in cities such like Denver, Washington D.C., and New Orleans--cities that Osborne said embrace a public education system that relies on school autonomy, accountability and choice.
The event, held at Great Oaks Legacy Charter School in downtown Newark, was attended by a number of distinguished guests, educators, students and alumni, including former president of the New Jersey Charter School Association Sarah Tantillo and current NJCSA president Nicole Cole, among others.
Osborne outlined the thesis of his book—that public schools should be treated as charter schools—and noted that traditional schools are saddled with a centralized and hierarchical organizational model that is more than a century old.
“Key decisions were made at headquarters," he said. "The schools were cookie-cutter and school districts were monopolies."
The charter model is beginning to spread to school districts, said Osborne, citing New Orleans as the fastest growing school district in the country, with all schools to operate as independent public schools as of next year—the first school district of its kind in the country.
“It is a network of schools operated by independent leaders,” he said of the charter model. “The people who run the schools can actually run the schools. It’s a shift from rules to accountability through results.”
New Jersey was the 25th state to enact charter school legislation since the New Jersey Charter School Program Act was passed and signed into law in 1995 under former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, with the state’s first charter schools opening in 1997 with 13 schools in five counties and fewer than 1,000 students.
Today, 89 charter schools in 17 counties across the state serve nearly 50,000 students, with Newark boasting 21 charters of its own.
Osborne lauded charters for offering different kinds of schools for different kinds of kids and railed against the "one size fits all" model of education.
“Putting all kids in one kind of school is profoundly unfair to kids,” he said.
Mason, who emceed the event, noted the progress Newark schools have realized over the last few years.
The district has made significant gains in recent years, with core standards such as a district-wide curriculum, improved student assessments, new evaluation standards for teachers, teacher retention and school choice have significantly helped to move the district forward.
Marked improvements in PARCC results in both ELA (English/Language Arts) and Math over the last five years have propelled citywide growth of Newark students, while graduation and matriculation rates have increased dramatically.
“It’s such a critical time to be having this conversation,” Mason said. “We are starting to see some really great gains.”
Both Cerf and Osborne expressed pride and excitement at the progress the school district has made and discussed increased collaboration in the city between district and charter schools.
“The myth is that collaboration between the charter and district sector doesn’t exist but that’s not true,” Osborne said. “We need to collaborate on education and share what’s working, but we also need to be prepared to do political battle and win.”
While Osborne emphasized charter-district collaboration, Cerf noted that realizing tangible gains in the district has always been his highest priority.
“I can guarantee you one thing,” Cerf said. “If our goal six years ago was to have collaboration, we would have been stuck in the same place. Collaboration is not my highest goal; improved grades and graduation rates are. If we can embrace that value, then the opportunity for collaboration is possible.”
Cerf noted the improvements the district hopes to build on.
“Very few schools have success without a great leader,” he said. “Change starts in the classroom. I’m a big believer in the autonomy in exchange for accountability model, which is a charter model.”
Cerf also touched on other germane issues, such as the need for an improved state funding formula, PARCC testing and his future goals for the district.
“I will feel very, very satisfied if the foundation we’ve built is something upon which a better house is built,” he said.
Mason lauded Cerf for his success in moving the district forward.
“You really have been the right leader for us,” she said. “This success is a reflection of you.”