The first $1 million in funds raised to match Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million donation to the Newark Public Schools was spent on a consultant-led effort, PENewark, to survey Newark residents on their concerns about the city's education system. Now experts from Rutgers and NYU asked to analyze the results of the two-page, six-question survey say its results are inconclusive–mostly because the survey was too short and its questions too leading.
This is no big surprise. When I was reporting my Nation magazine feature on school reform in Newark, during October and November, longtime community advocates were very skeptical of the survey effort. Civil rights and education reform veteran Junius Williams told me:
Those of us who've been in the community and involved in this whole question of school reform for years, not just months, I think we already know what people want. They want a good school, a safe school. They want to feel welcome in that school as parents, and they want a teacher who knows what he or she is doing and is culturally sensitive. I don't think you're going to find too much variation on that theme. So what are you going to do with that information once it comes in?
Now it turns out there's nothing much at all that can be done with the results of these 20,000 surveys, because they did not fairly or coherently gauge support for specific reform policies.
The consultants who worked on the first survey, SKDKnickerbocker, have now (updated: in partnership with Rutgers and NYU) created a longer version that asks detailed questions about the perceived performance of traditional public schools and public charter schools in Newark. One problem I see, right off the bat, is that the survey doesn't explain the difference between these two types of schools, which will cause confusion. Most people, whether in Newark or on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, simply don't understand how charter schools are created and governed and how they select their students–and they may not know which schools in their neighborhood are charters vs. traditional publics.
On the upside, the new survey does ask respondents to rate their enthusiasm for a long list of reforms, including a longer school day and year, performance pay for teachers, replacing neighborhood schools with charter schools, increased testing, decreased testing, more focus on the arts, and more social supports, such as home visits and social skills training. The survey also measures support for mayoral control of the Newark Public Schools, which is being sought by Cory Booker.
A note on the consulting firm SKDKnickerbocker, which is coordinating this effort: The group has a reputation for working with "independent" candidates such as Mike Bloomberg, Charlie Crist, and Joe Lieberman; they also represent Michelle Rhee in her post-chancellor life, in which she is advising Florida's incoming Republican governor, Rick Scott, and launching Students First, an effort to raise $1 billion in support of improving the country's teaching corps and counterbalancing the power of teachers' unions.
SKD's education reform strategy is very focused on growing grassroots, public support for complex education reform goals such as weakening tenure protections and expanding the charter school sector. That's why they like to get their clients on "Oprah." So their survey effort needs to be seen in that light–more of an attempt to create buzz around school reform than to objectively measure public support for various policies.