Newark Students are the Losers – Again

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Newark, New Jersey schools were just awful.  So awful the district was going to be taken over, about 10 years ago, by the state.  Once upon a time the Newark School District was given a chance, and $200 million dollars from philanthropic sources, to develop a merit pay plan that would improve the district, facing a state takeover.

Nat Malkin and RJ Markus have the story in the74million.org.

Did it work? It’s impossible to say definitively, but Newark made progress.

Without the energy, or attention, that opened the door to merit pay, Newark’s district and union leadership have abandoned the possibility of refining and improving a system that considered student outcomes first in favor of guaranteeing outcomes for teachers.

Teacher union officials (the ones who negotiate the contracts for the Newark, New Jersey school district) have won an unthinkable victory, getting rid of merit pay when it no longer suits their purposes.   It is to be hoped school administrators and philanthropists have learned a lesson here.

District leaders have knuckled under in 2019 and left merit pay concept dead on the side of the road, exactly where teacher union officials wanted it now that there’s no more money in it for them.  The money’s gone and teacher union officials are back guarding the henhouse again in Newark.

Last month, Newark’s school district and local teachers union agreed on a contract that eliminates a key part of one of the most ambitious, and tumultuous, education reform overhauls of the past decade: merit pay for teachers. The uncommon alignment of three factors — state control of Newark schools, energetic support from then-Mayor Cory Booker and then-Gov. Chris Christie, and $200 million in philanthropy led by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg — brought hope that Newark could radically reimagine teacher pay by aligning compensation with student success.

Less than 10 years later, all three ingredients that fueled those reforms have gone away, and now, so has merit pay. Instead, Newark is retreating to the same system it had before: paying teachers based on their highest academic degree and years of experience. In other words, it’s out with the new and in with the old. In doing so, Newark’s union and district leaders have chosen to return to a pay system poorly aligned with student learning goals and closed the door on building one that works for students and teachers.

Under Newark’s merit pay contract, part of teachers’ compensation was linked to their performance ratings, with highly effective educators receiving bonuses of up to $5,000 — and even more money available for teachers in hard-to-staff subjects or struggling schools. Low-performing teachers would not see any raises. Automatic salary increases for all advanced degrees were abandoned for one-time bonuses for completing approved programs.

The union celebrated the return to the old system, exulting, “This contract removes the last vestiges of corporate reform from the district. No more renew schools, no more performance pay. This contract is a message to our enemies that your evil is not welcome in Newark or any other public schools.”

That’s rich, given that the union was all in favor of merit pay when it came with $31 million in back pay. Union chief Joseph Del Grosso latched onto that deal, later saying, “We had an opportunity to get Zuckerberg’s money.” Which explains why 62 percent of the union at the time endorsed the new contract — merit pay and all.

The union overwhelmingly embraced “corporate reform” when doing so served its interests. Now, having pocketed the money, it is celebrating the dismantling of the last, and arguably biggest, piece of Newark’s reforms.

What is lost in this whimper of an ending isn’t the “right” set of education reforms; reformers in Newark circa 2010 certainly didn’t get everything right out of the gate. Rather, it’s the opportunity to get it right that was lost. Newark had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to remake teacher pay, but rather than building and improving on that system, it retreated to a system that is not likely to benefit the city’s children.