Defying the Odds: Academic Achievement in Newark
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently examined a report comparing more than 100 U.S. schools with their international counterparts. On the surface, the results seem disheartening—middle-class American students are lagging behind not only kids with similar backgrounds in other countries, and in many cases, even those who are more disadvantaged. But Friedman highlights several bright spots—schools that appear to defy these patterns—and among them, the Uncommon Schools Newark.
By Paul Bambrick-Santoyo, Managing Director, Uncommon Schools Newark, North Star Academy Charter School. North Star is part of the Uncommon Schools network of 32 free, public charter schools in New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts.
In Newark, we’re too often forced to grapple with the myth that our children can’t reach the same academic heights as children elsewhere. With so many families struggling economically and with a nation-wide achievement gap that leaves low-income students at a gross disadvantage, general sentiment is that we simply can’t expect our students to overcome the statistics stacked against them.
The students at North Star College Preparatory High School have proven that myth wrong once again, this time on a global scale. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) gave U.S. high schools a rare chance to take a test based on its Program for International Student Assessment, (PISA), the internationally recognized assessment that tests what 15-year-olds know in reading, math and science. The test also measures key competencies such as critical thinking and problem solving. For the first time, this new test made PISA-based data available by individual school—not just by country.
The results: if North Star was a country, it would rank 10th in the world in reading. The U.S. ranks 17th.
What can we learn from our extraordinary students? That teaching and leadership are immensely powerful, because teachers and leaders can put our students on the international playing field through hard work – together. Every student, teacher, and leader in this country can attain those heights. It doesn’t take financial means or inborn talent: it takes a relentless cycle of learning, failing, trying again, succeeding, and learning some more. It takes the hours upon hours of practice that enable humans to reach expertise in whatever they choose to do.
The teachers and leaders of Newark, as well as the students, are a living testament to this. North Star’s students work so incredibly hard every single day. Their teachers work closely with instructional leaders who coach them continuously up to the next level. Every week, they make a few small improvements to their teaching that bring them, step by step, to mastery.
There is no question that the power of great schools and strong leadership can change life trajectories. And there’s no question that schools everywhere can do this work. Scores of educators across the globe have implemented the instructional leadership strategies employed by North Star to bring them such success.
The beauty of an internationally recognized test like PISA is that it gives us even higher standards to meet. North Star’s students impressed us with their top ten scores, but Shanghai raised the bar for us if we wish to have students ready for the global marketplace. In Shanghai, even the lowest-income students outperformed the wealthiest students in the U.S. That’s incredibly humbling to learn: if those students can reach such heights, we can surely strive for the same for our students. The children of Newark—and of every city—certainly deserve it.