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An Education in Making a Difference

BCG’s J. Puckett on Transforming Schools
October 07, 2010 by J. Puckett
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  • October 07, 2010

    Now that the handshaking, backslapping, and cheering have subsided, skeptics are starting to take a hard look at Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift to the public schools in Newark, New Jersey. The 26-year-old billionaire announced the grant on September 24 on The Oprah Winfrey Show amid a renewed outcry over America’s education crisis, stimulated by the disturbing documentary Waiting for “Superman.”

    Such philanthropy certainly is laudable. But cynics rightly point out that unless Newark radically changes the way it spends money on education, Zuckerberg’s generosity is unlikely to significantly improve test scores and graduation rates. With a $940 million annual budget, Newark already spends more on each of its 40,000 students than practically any district in the country—with chronically dismal results. And even if Zuckerberg’s gift is fully matched by other donors, bringing the total to $200 million, those funds will be spread over five years. That’s just a 4 percent annual increase.

    Adding to the concern, Zuckerberg did not specify how the funds should be used. Newark mayor Cory Booker predicted that the grant will help “change the paradigm of urban education.” But he also failed to outline a plan, other than to say that he endorses accountability, greater support for teachers, and “schools of excellence,” whether they are charter or district schools.

    If invested intelligently, however, the cash infusion might indeed achieve the dramatic change that Zuckerberg and Booker seek. How? The first dollars should go to developing a plan for a comprehensive transformation of Newark’s education system. This process should study best practices from around the United States, engage a broad range of stakeholders, and promote innovation.

    Most of Zuckerberg’s remaining money could be used as seed funding for programs aimed at achieving long-term structural change. They should include a system to pinpoint the strengths and weaknesses of each school and to track their performance. They should also include a battery of programs to upgrade administration, teaching skills, and the involvement of parents and guardians.

    There are several successful U.S. role models, such as New Orleans and Dallas. In a recent Brookings Institution study of 37 U.S. urban school districts, those two cities showed the highest improvements in student performance, from a starting place similar to Newark’s.

    Both cities benefited from financial boosts focused on building infrastructure and transforming educational practices. New Orleans received $165 million in disaster relief following Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, and Dallas voters approved a $1.35 billion bond issue in 2008. What really catalyzed performance gains, however, were generous philanthropic grants aimed at developing comprehensive educational reform strategies for New Orleans and Dallas.

    The turnaround in New Orleans has been especially sharp. In 2004, 94 percent of high-school seniors fell below basic English proficiency levels on exit exams and 96 percent scored below math standards. The system was $300 million in debt and riddled with corruption, and had gone through eight superintendents in eight years. That was before Katrina destroyed 35 of 126 schools and damaged most of the rest—and the district was forced to lay off 4,000 teachers to avert bankruptcy.

    The new books and schools procured through federal funds certainly provided a boost. More important, though, control of 112 New Orleans schools was transferred to the state-run Recovery School District, which implemented sweeping change. By 2008, the city had 48 charter schools run by three different governing bodies, offering diversity and opportunities for innovation. These charter schools are publicly funded and are held to strict accountability and performance standards, but they control their own curriculum, staffing, and operations. New Orleans also invested in national talent, recruiting a proven reformer from out of state as superintendent, 40 new principals, and top-flight teachers. Test scores have improved impressively—even in most publicly run schools.

    Dallas’s schools have also improved their test scores and graduation rates. Under a plan developed by the Dallas Achieves Commission, which included parents, teachers, business leaders, grass-roots groups, philanthropists, and government officials, the district overhauled its curriculum, administration, and talent. Because Dallas has many children that arrive at kindergarten with little preparation, it made early childhood education a high priority for investment. It set up innovative programs to improve the capabilities of school leaders and teachers. It cut costs from the central office that could be redeployed to schools. And it launched programs for engaging parents and guardians, including scorecards for each school’s performance and “refrigerator curriculum guides” explaining what the children are learning and the help they need at home.

    Most of the big institutional changes in New Orleans and Dallas cost tens of millions of dollars, rather than hundreds of millions. But they required smart, proven approaches to leveraging those resources for maximum results and transformational change. The degree to which Newark can do the same could determine whether Mark Zuckerberg’s gift will be a wasted opportunity or the beginning of another great American education turnaround story.

    J. Puckett is a senior partner at The Boston Consulting Group, which acted as an advisor to the Dallas and New Orleans school districts.
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