The New York Times fails me again

October 6, 2010

Some of you know that I am obsessed with Newark. In the last year I have just been more obsessed with Guatemala, which might be described as the Newark of Central America. Or maybe Newark is the Guatemala of the United States?

In any case, the link above actually leads to my thesis, which was largely inspired by my sense that the media obsession with Cory Booker was fueled by a fundamental misunderstanding of African-American community politics. So when I heard that Mark “I-have-made-an-entire-generation-of-Americans-profoundly-unproductive” Zuckerberg was giving Booker $100,000,000 to reform Newark schools, I rolled my eyes and groaned a little about white people. But that didn’t mean that I didn’t watch the Oprah announcement, because I am, after all, a middle class Hoosier girl, and I like watching people get lots of money. (And I’m currently underemployed.)

And it served me right, because Cory Booker surprised me. He talked, at some length, about how Newarkers need to develop the policies that will transform their school system.

But when The New York Times weighed in with one of their “Room for Debate” features, they didn’t include a single person from Newark in the discussion. Yes, Pedro Noguera balances out the crazy free-market folks, but isn’t the first rule of journalism that you seek out people with knowledge and experience to interview about a given issue? When the range of educators working in Newark includes people like Junius Williams- a veteran of SNCC and former head of the National Bar Association- and Ras Baraka- the son of Amiri Baraka- you would think that it wouldn’t be too hard to find just one person who could right a coherent three paragraph essay about schools. But that would suggest that The Times actually looked, which seems unlikely.

Of course, columnist Judith Warner would accuse me of feeling “slighted” by “whip-smart policy makers who believe they know best,” as she so thoughtfully described DC residents who recently voted out Adrian Fenty, the patron of my personal favorite, Michelle Rhee. Actually, the column was titled “Is Michelle Rhee’s revolution over?,” and actually went so far as to compare Tea Party rage with the frustrations of parents and community members who were consistently sidelined and ignored during Fenty’s tenure. The elitist edge to this attack is that Rhee and Fenty made people “feel bad,” not that they made serious political missteps. The Times, like most “reformers,” seem to think that criticism from activists and educators who have worked in the field for years can be quickly disregarded because a)these people are part of an establishment that must be completely razed to be reformed and b)critiques of the “top-down” model boil down to people feeling “left out.”

Both of these assumptions are wrong. The utter failure of No Child Left Behind is proof that real reform requires not razing schools, but rebuilding them. To do that, you can’t simply fire every employee with experience and bring in a new staff of former-business executives and Ivy League grads, and then when they fail close the school and ship all the students elsewhere. You have to work consistently and carefully over time to facilitate professional development for teacher, provide interventions for struggling students and build a network of community partners and parents who can support student learning outside the classroom.

You need this network not so you can make people “feel good” but because children learn more when their parents and community are engaged and invested in their development, hence the Harlem Children’s Zone, which famously made the cover of The New York Times Magazine.

Geoffrey Canada was on the Oprah show the day of the announcement, so I can only hope that Booker picked up some pointers. Initial buzz about the announcement suggested that the money would be used to implement the Promise Neighborhoods model (the Obama administration’s HCZ style initiative) in Newark. But, at the end of the day, the people of Newark should, and must, be allowed to take responsibility for their own schools, and the lives of their children.

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One Response to “The New York Times fails me again”

  1. Lamont said

    Mark “I-did-so-have-a girlfriend-at-Harvard” Zuckerberg actually gave $100,000,000. Other than that, right on! (to use a phrase once popular in Newark.)

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