Opinion

Facebook 'likes' Newark schools. Now what? Invest wisely, Zuckerberg.

Newark schools need real change, not just the kind in Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s piggy bank.

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    Talk-show host Oprah Winfrey, second from left, poses with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (l.), Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker (second from r.) and Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, during a live broadcast of 'The Oprah Winfrey Show' on Friday, in Chicago. Zuckerberg pledged to set up a foundation to donate $100 million to Newark's schools over the next five years.
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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg just ponied up $100 million for the chronically failing Newark, N.J., public schools. Newark already spends $22,000 per year (twice the national average) on each of its 40,000 students, yet less than half graduate. That means the tab for each graduate's time in high school is – take a breath, dear taxpayer – more than $160,000. So will $100 million make a difference? Maybe – if Mr. Zuckerberg focuses it on what really counts.

Some tips: Put simply, teachers rule. Learning in any building rises or falls on the motivation, commitment, and talent of teachers. Yes, a student must want to learn, the parent(s) at home must back up the school each day, and a principal must maintain order. But the yellow brick road to an educated citizen is a series of competent, inspiring teachers using an enlightened curriculum.

Newark is no exception to the US achievement gap that besets low-income and minority students. So be very careful in funding anything that doesn't resonate with core instruction in reading, writing, math, and social studies in the primary grades. Include rigorous measurement. If it moves, test it.

Fire any salaried staff in a program or school you fund if they don't teach at least one class a day. OK, not the janitor. But principals, curriculum coordinators, guidance counselors, even the school nurse and the librarian should teach real kids a real lesson. Headmasters at elite private schools almost always teach a class or two. When everyone is teaching, everyone is responsible for learning.

Be suspicious of anyone with an idea for schooling who isn't linked to parental choice and isn't independent of teacher-union contracts and university-based teacher-certification monopolies. And lawyerproof what you do because in many districts across the country the rise in individual lawsuits makes it look as if kids come to school with an attorney in their backpacks.

How do you lawyerproof a school? One way is to make parents sign a contract on mutual responsibilities. They opt in the same way parents select private schools or move to wealthy suburbs for better schooling.

Pop culture's siren song that everything be "fun" shipwrecks formal learning. Television, movies, MTV, rap music, the cult of celebrity, and yes, your own Facebook have not been kind to good study habits. Good schools help students navigate these time-wasting shoals.

Visit New Orleans and see how it marches to the beat of charter schools, which now teach more than 60 percent of city students.

Prior to hurricane Katrina, the only difference in academic performance between Newark and New Orleans was humidity, a "who dat" inflection, trumpet music, and a lot less spent per pupil.

But the storm's devastation both forced and allowed the city to rebuild its failed schools through the charter model, which combines public funding with private management. (New Jersey's fiscal crisis could be a similar trigger for change.)

Five years after the levees were breached, "N'awlins" is gumbo-good proof a city can get its act together. Statistically significant gains in math, English, reading, and social studies in the past five years give this city serious "cred" in teaching kids who supposedly couldn't learn.

Before handing over the $100 million, read Bill Gates's reflections on the obstacles to success he and his wife, Melinda, have confronted in their foundation's giving to schools.

And remember: Kids are not lab rats for some foundation experiment. Each one is a "being breathing thoughtful breath," as Wordsworth put it. Good schools should purify the air they breathe.

Jim Bencivenga is a former teacher and Monitor staffer.

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