Cami Anderson Talks Ed Reform, Facebook and What ‘The Prize’ Left Out About Newark

Interview with Naomi Nix

By Interview with Naomi Nix

No city has captured the public imagination about the promise and pitfalls of the modern education reform movement quite like Newark, New Jersey.

Five years ago, Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg, former Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Gov. Chris Christie announced on Oprah that the social media mogul would donate $100 million to help turn around the city’s long-struggling public schools. With state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson at the helm, Newark’s school system underwent deep and wide-ranging changes from merit-based bonuses for teachers to a new enrollment system that expanded school choice.

But those changes were met with intense political opposition marked by headline-grabbing protests and the organized support of city leaders. The pushback culminated in Anderson’s resignation in June. Add to that a much-heralded new book, “The Prize”, written by veteran investigative reporter Dale Russakoff, who explores with incredible detail the fallout of Zuckerberg’s gift. (Read Conor Williams’ Seventy Four review: An Urgent Education Catastrophe Overflowing with Culprits and Caveats)

So what should we take away from the reform story in Newark? And what is the future of education in the city? In her first in-depth interview since leaving Newark, Anderson talked with The Seventy Four over email about her tenure as superintendent during that tumultuous time, lessons learned and what’s at stake in saving urban education.

The Seventy Four: If you had to grade your tenure as superintendent in Newark, what grade would you give yourself and why?

Anderson: I’ll leave it to others to grade, but for those measuring, it’s important to remember that five years ago, less than 30% of the students in Newark were operating at grade level. Ineffective teachers had job security and high salaries while more impactful teachers with less seniority, were ignored or laid off as the district shrunk. Dysfunction and inefficacy was rampant as administrators abused both power and funds to dole out lucrative contracts and jobs that weren’t delivering for kids. School infrastructure was crumbling, further impacting student’s ability to learn as buildings fell apart, transportation was unreliable, and few schools even had the Internet. All of this contributed to a broken system that was not providing the best for students and families that were deeply dissatisfied with the status quo but unable to find a clear path forward to get the changes they wanted for their children.

I came to Newark with a clear mandate to fix a broken system. We made substantial progress in five years to do just that. Newark’s lowest performing schools improved dramatically. Unprecedented partnerships with the charter sector brought transparency to how we measured progress, equity and fairness to enrollment especially for the hardest-to-serve students, and a city-wide shuttle service to increase options for families. Our efforts to find a “third way” to deliver radically different results for kids at scale — neither charterizing an entire system overnight nor trying to reform it from the top down — were trailblazing and have already served as a model for many cities. We recruited transformational school leaders who worked with families to reimagine schools, added time for students to learn and adults to collaborate, and invested over $100 million to upgrade facilities and technology. Ninety-five percent of highly effective teachers were retained and we exited over 40 percent of low performers with the help of a nationally-recognized and hard-fought labor contract. A restorative justice approach helped struggling young people take responsibility for their actions and drastically reduced suspension rates. We built a network of programs for disconnected youth, helping hundred of young people come back and finish school. To top it off, graduation rates rose by 12 percent.

Above all, I think our greatest accomplishment was standing up to entrenched interests and creating a sense of momentum around putting kids first.

What was the truest thing said about you and your leadership during your time in Newark, a comment or observation that left you thinking ‘This person gets it.’

On a monthly basis, I had people pull me aside to say things like “We can see you are about kids”. At one event, a grandmother stood on a chair and applauded me for my courage. “We’ve been waiting for this kind of shake-up — push harder, go faster…you have the guts to do it I can tell.” At a meeting with charter parents, they shared, “We are starting to feel like we don’t have to be ashamed for wanting the best for our kids because of you.” An educator who grew up in Newark once told me, “You’ve spit in the face of fear because of your love for kids and this is a tough place to do that.” A local leader told me, “We needed someone with your backbone focused on what’s right for kids or we would have been stuck indefinitely; we are all silently rooting for you.” I’ve always strove to align my core values with my actions, regardless of how hard it is or how many forces are pulling me in other directions. When I heard observations like this, it made me feel like the people to whom I was truly accountable really got it — even if the circumstances made it nearly impossible for them to show support more overtly.

The criticism of you was often vicious and personal. A poster depicting a drawing of you with the word liar scrawled on it in what looked like blood dripping down your forehead was a regular fixture at protests. How did you handle those moments? What did you tell yourself then? What do you tell yourself now?

The challenge of being a change agent trying to keep the interests of kids, not adults, at the core of decisions in a system characterized by patronage and machine politics took a toll. At times, the criticism felt unrelenting and deeply personal. Support from the students, families, and my team helped keep me moving forward as well as my amazing family and friends. Knowing that I was working to change a system to help young people get access to the excellence they so richly deserve also helped keep me focused.

It might sound trite but I also honestly felt like my struggles paled in comparison to what my students and their families managed on a daily basis from chronic economic hardships, family and community violence, learning disabilities and more. Their resilience put everything in perspective and inspired me to put aside whatever was thrown at me.

To what degree do you think your race or gender played a role in the public controversy surrounding your tenure as superintendent?

I am not from Newark and cities like Newark have a long history of discrimination and racism that is further underscored by a long line of outsiders that have come in promising change but delivered something quite different. I knew, understandably, that people would be initially skeptical of me as an outsider.

The daughter of two social justice activists who raised a multi-racial family of 14, nine adopted because many were deemed “hard to place”, I know progress is often hard-fought and respect is earned. Confronting my white privilege and other advantages early in life made me a fierce advocate for equity with insight about how hard it is to tackle seemingly intractable issues. Twenty years as a change agent has also made me aware that keeping kids, not adult interests, ever-present would evoke the ire of those who benefited for years from the status quo. But polls and thousands of families on waiting lists for charters also indicated to me that there was a real appetite for change. Conversations in grocery stores, on street corners, and in school hallways made me hopeful that trust and momentum could be built; families want excellent schools and they know when they aren’t getting them.

A hard truth: women make up about 75% of teachers, but less than 40% of principals, and 15% of CEOs or superintendents of school systems. We are missing out on a lot of talent because the glass ceiling is alive and well even in education. As a female CEO, I believe you are likely to experience harsh criticisms for actions and attributes that would be lauded if you were a male CEO. Your authority and expertise is challenged often and when you don’t follow advice that you believe isn’t right, many complain you don’t listen or worse — which generally means you are not compliant. The key is to remain open to feedback and to continue growing while not internalizing the persistent stereotypes you face trying to push change as a woman.

One narrative that developed around Newark Public Schools is that you were a kind of a lone ranger left to defend reform in the city on your own. What do you think of that assessment?

Reflecting on my time in Newark, one of the things I am most proud of is the team we built at Newark Public Schools. I spent considerable time recruiting, selecting, retaining, and coaching the absolute best, from principals to central office. There were already many talented individuals in Newark that were often pushed down or silenced by the bureaucracy and I worked hard to identify and support those people. My time in the (former New York City schools chancellor Joel) Klein administration, Teach for America and New Leaders meant that I had a vast national network of amazing professionals that I could mobilize to share their expertise and passion with NPS. Our team was diverse, high quality, and courageous. It would be a disservice not to acknowledge their hard work and impact.

Not to take away from the team you built in Newark, but we wanted to know if you ever felt politically abandoned by either Gov. Chris Christie or his administration or U.S. Senator Cory Booker?

Newark Public Schools status as a state-controlled district is unique and due to extreme circumstances from previous decades. By forming a strategic alliance between the state and the city, Gov. Christie and Sen. Booker jump-started the reform that Newark so badly needed. While they weren’t there for the day-to-day management, I always felt they supported the reforms we were undertaking. It did make things more difficult when they were pulled deeply into other issues that meant their much-needed local advocacy was less present.

Let’s imagine it’s 2011 again and Gov. Chris Christie’s administration offers you the job of Newark schools superintendent. Do you take it, knowing what you know now? Why or why not?

Absolutely, when I look at the successes we’ve accomplished and the impact they’ve had on the kids, I wouldn’t change accepting the job. I’m also beyond grateful for what I learned on the journey.

A rising star in education policy comes to you today and tells you she wants to take over a medium-sized struggling urban school district. What do you tell her?

If you have the passion, focus, and skill-set to step up, do it! When I was offered the post in Newark, I almost didn’t take it. “I am a COO type”, I thought. I am not interested in the limelight, or in being on TV. Several of my friends who have endeavored big things urged me otherwise and I am so glad they did.

I would also share preconditions for success to consider on the front-end:

  • If there is a large investor, work on a memorandum of agreement to ensure their resources will be aligned with the bold plan you put in place.
  • Recruit a high-level executive whose entire role is to negotiate partnerships with the charter and reform sector — or your agenda for equity and systems change could be on a collision course with theirs.
  • Have resources for combatting a political onslaught that is likely to be launched against you if you are doing your job. You need money and expertise for literature drops, paid media, door knocking, message shaping, a social media plan, and correcting misinformation in real time. In the absence of that, you’ll spend too much time on issues that have nothing to do with delivering for kids.
  • Above all, make sure you surround yourself with brutally honest and unconditionally loving friends, family, and mentors to support you through the tough times.

If you ran into Mark Zuckerberg on the street, what would you say to him?

What are you doing in Harlem?! Seriously, I’d thank him for investing in the future of children in underserved communities and his continued dedication to refining his approach and helping kids. He’s one of the most important leaders of our time and the fact that he’s willing to give of his time and money to dare to build a better reality for kids is critically important.

Can you elaborate on your relationship with him? Do you think you and Mark Zuckerberg shared the same vision for Newark schools or could those goals have been better articulated on the front-end? Tell us about a time of disagreement.

Everyone working in Newark shared the same vision: radically improving outcomes for students and delivering on their extraordinary potential. We were all, and still are, working to achieve that goal. I had the pleasure of meeting Mark several times and felt his personal commitment to equity and young people was inspiring.

If you ran into Dale Russakoff, what would you say to her?

I respect Dale and am glad she wrote a book that put the stories of Newark’s students and families squarely in the middle of a national conversation. I also think some of her criticisms of me and school reform are fair and important to reflect on.

But I also think “The Prize” trivialized or ignored critical pieces of the puzzle. Her book glosses over our constant work to find new ways to foster dialogue when traditional paths were blocked. My team and I spent the vast majority of our time talking to and listening to people — not just in schools or big public meetings, but at the grocery store, in small roundtables, and at local hang-outs. In these intimate discussions, we heard and felt support and enthusiasm for change. Also, while some of the changes we made will take years to bear fruit, the impressive progress we made is undeniable.

For her to suggest that the jury is still out on our impact is troubling.

Is there a way to organize families — the parents and the children who do want choice and opportunity and change — and leverage that against some of the loudest protestors?

My experience is that change happens one conversation at a time, one classroom at a time, and one school at a time. When the cameras are off, conversations with Newarkers are encouraging; families are demanding excellence and the community is highly engaged. This is a tremendous, untapped power that is very difficult to mobilize. Families in poor communities are focused on getting their students into the best school possible and attending to the economic hardship they are facing. Community members who dare to voice support for change are targets of intimidating phone calls, threatening home visits, and public bullying by power brokers who benefit from an indefensible the status quo. Ugly politics inject money to pay for organizers and ad campaigns that intentionally spread misinformation and fuel mistrust — and focus on trying to discredit the leader. Growing the charter sector means laying off Newarkers and shrinking the traditional system which has clear and emotional effects in the community even when there is a strong demand for them.

I think these facts can be overcome but we have to be willing to support the boldest leaders in communities like Newark, and to keep the voices of families, not power brokers, front and center. We also need to confront the basic truth that politics and reform are inextricably entwined. The key will be figuring out how to rally people around the cause rather than undermining those who are speaking hard truths. We must hold up those trying to change dysfunctional practices that are good for adults but bad for kids.

What’s your assessment, after years of leading the charge: Can struggling urban school districts like Newark’s be truly turned into excellent school systems? If so, what does it take to make that happen? If not, why not?

I’ve been in education reform for over 20 years and one thing that is striking to me: you can visit two classrooms, literally down the hall from one another, and see students mastering vastly different material. Schools in the same neighborhood serving similar students, sometimes on the same block, often achieve radically different results. And while it is undeniable that students and families wrestling with the crippling effects of poverty face unthinkable challenges in school, there are students, teachers and schools all over this country beating the odds. If excellence can occur for one student, all of the students in one teacher’s classroom, or young people in one school, it can and must happen for all kids at scale.

Research shows and my personal experience confirms great schools that attain consistently good results in high-poverty neighborhoods have similar ingredients. These schools always have an exemplary leader at the helm who is coached by a supervisor who is also a transformational leader. They have the freedom to pick and retain game-changing teachers and to align their budget with a clear theory of change. Their money and time isn’t tied up in bureaucratic red tape. Families are partners, even if they are struggling economically, and are enthusiastic about dropping off their student. Students spend more time at school and educators spend more time collaborating. Adults attend to students social and emotional need as well as to academic rigor.

If we can create systems where these conditions for success are present at scale, we can deliver on the promise of our students.

What is your biggest regret and the thing you will look back on with the most pride from your time in Newark?

I will be the first to say that school reformers – myself included – can continue to improve the quality and cultural competence with which we communicate. But, I lose sleep worrying that the well-orchestrated drama around school reform in Newark is perpetuating the wrong lessons. These efforts slow down change and young people who deserve better, now, are hurt the most.

Today, we live in a tale of two Americas: one in which people of means are prepared for a 21st century economy and another in which young people — the vast majority of whom are poor, black and Hispanic — are trapped in failed systems because the politics of change are so hard. We all suffer the consequences, not only in lost lives and higher prison rates but in other ways, like a stunning lack of diversity in board rooms, higher education institutions, corporations, nonprofits, and school reform organizations.

This isn’t just about school reform but the future of our country.

Photo by Getty Images

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