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In Newark, Start With the Youngest Children

Invest in the Youngest Students

The Zuckerberg pledge of $100 million is a lot of money, but it may not be enough. There is no Superman, silver bullet, or magic formula where urban school reform is concerned. Improving conditions that have resulted from decades of neglect, inequitable funding, and racism will take some time. The problems and possible solutions are complex, and need to be tailored to local social and political contexts.

That said, we know a lot more today about successful urban school reform than 20 years ago. Educational research has affirmed the importance of a number of strategies that Newark’s Mayor Cory Booker ought to consider. I’d recommend starting with attention to the early years: The first five years of a child’s life are critical to later school success.

Middle class children typically grow up with college-educated parents who rear them in ways that harmonize with schooling and provide significant cultural capital; poor children often do not have the same cultural capital when they enter school.

Where extreme poverty exists, comprehensive programs such as the Harlem Children’s Zone with its integrated set of community, school, and social service programs may be needed. Investing in all-day pre-school and kindergarten can promote school readiness and success. But schools will only increase student achievement if they are structured to accomplish this goal.

A study by the Consortium of Chicago School Research found five “essential supports” to creating student success: strong leadership by principals; social trust among principals, teachers, parents, and the community; a cohesive professional community with capacity for growth and dedication to student achievement; a safe and stable school climate; and a strong curricular and instructional framework. An extended school day with rich extracurricular offerings has also shown promise in contributing to student achievement.

Spending $100 million wisely will require applying what we know about educational research to Newark’s political and social context. Mayor Booker and his team should read the work of Gloria Ladson-Billings and Lois Weis on successful teachers; Tony Bryk, Gil Conchas, Ron Ferguson, James Comer, and Jeannie Oakes on successful schools. There are no shortcuts: If we want long-term change, it will require a long-term commitment.


This article first appeared in the 10/6/2010 edition of the "Room for Debate" section of the New York Times. Please see: http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2010/10/05/can-100-million-change-newarks-schools/invest-in-the-youngest-students

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