Branch Brook is the elementary school with the highest grade three reading scores in the city; Camden Street school (it's not in Camden) has the lowest. It turns out Camden Street takes students from all over Newark with diagnoses of autism, cognitive impairment, and behavioral disabilities.
Yet the Star-Ledger, Advocates for Children of New Jersey, and Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson neglected to tell us this rather important fact.
I had just focused on the special needs of Camden Street's children; however, the invaluable Bruce Baker from Rutgers dropped by, and left some Chanukah gifts! Courtesy of the good doctor, here's some more data for us to consider:
The scatterplots tell us that Branch Brook's children are less likely to be classified as eligible for free lunch; in other words, less likely to live in poverty. That's not a knock on Branch Brook: over half of the kids there are eligible. It just means it's less of an issue than at Camden Street.
Some other info:
And here we see Branch Brook has a much smaller population of black students. It is worth pointing out Branch Brook has many more Hispanic students than Camden Street.
I don't have time for a complete analysis of these two schools, but Bruce's graphs, combined with a look at the needs of the students, make it clear: these schools are serving different populations of students.
This is not an excuse; it is a look at the facts. I don't understand how some would dismiss information like this then turn around and claim we must make education a data-driven enterprise. Data means nothing if you don't know how to interpret it. And so:
- Cami Anderson may turn out to be the best superintendent Newark ever had, but she should be judicious in her use of data to identify the problems in Newarks' schools; simply stating the district needs "better leadership" is ignoring the obvious.
- ACNJ may be a champion for New Jersey's poorest, most vulnerable children, but if they are going to take on that role in education, they've got to do better than this report.
- Jessica Calefati may be a fine reporter, but she has got dig deeper if she's going to tell the story of Newark's children.
- Branch Brook and Camden Street may be great schools, or they may have problems. Maybe Branch Brook should be doing much better; maybe Camden Street is working miracles. But we won't ever really know until we look much more carefully at how each school is run and the characteristics of the kids they serve.
Forgive me, but I'm going to preach a little here. Because this teacher-blogger has walked the walk, and I have some words for those of you who sit on the sidelines and point fingers at my brothers and sisters standing in front of these classrooms: back off. Shallow comparisons between the Branch Brooks and the Camden Streets are useless and more than a little dangerous. Unless and until you've really looked at these schools - or any schools - and made the case that something has to change, you have absolutely no right to assume that the people who lead them or work in them are the problem.
Have you ever sat with an autistic child and tried to get her to look you in the eye when she speaks? Have you ever had 150 lbs. of screaming 8th grader bearing down on you with fists flailing? Have you ever had to clean a child covered in his own filth? Have you ever had to come home to your own children after a day trying to teach a girl with a functional IQ of 60?
For that matter: have you ever tried to run a school for these beautiful, deserving children with a governor who slashes your staff's pay at the drop of a hat, a mayor who spends his day hobnobbing with billionaires, and an education commissioner who refuses to let your community run its own schools?
If you haven't, you should be very careful about where you're pointing fingers. I'm all for accountability - I think it's critical for great public schools. But the principals and teachers of Newark and everywhere else are doing a job none of you well-heeled "reformers" would or could ever do. Until someone makes a good case against these people, who day after day do the work of the angels, they have earned the benefit of the doubt.