Cami Anderson is CEO of ThirdWay Solutions, which supports leadership teams to achieve goals in pursuit of racial equity and social justice. She spoke with Chris Herhalt about her time leading reforms at the Newark Unified School District from 2011 to 20­15. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg had donated $100 million to the district live on Oprah Winfrey’s show in 2010, and the move to reform schools in the city had the support of the state’s Republican governor and Newark’s Democrat mayor. Anderson speaks about what worked, what didn’t, and what others can learn from her experience.

Chris Herhalt: You mention in your chapter that “often what families say they want can be quite different from what those who speak for them are willing to stand for.” How difficult is it for an administrator to navigate this and help guide everyone toward the best solution?

Cami Anderson: It was particularly challenging in Newark, but you see it now across the country. One of the things that are so interesting about this case study is the level of polarization—how politicians and folks from outside leaped on every single thing to try to amplify it, which made getting the solutions right super hard. That seemed unique to Newark at that time, and now it’s everywhere.

The example I gave in the chapter was how we presented student data. We developed a transparent system of looking at school quality. It was a combination of how many kids were reading, writing, and doing math at grade level, and also how many kids were growing, because schools that were serving kids in higher need—below the poverty level, English learners, students with disabilities—sometimes their overall proficiency rates weren’t going to be the same as other schools. Our system looked holistically at questions like: How’s this school doing, achievement-wise (using proficiency and growth)? How are kids feeling (using surveys)? Is the school growing or shrinking? All of these factors lead to a comprehensive way to talk about school health.

And families liked it. They would say things like thanks for the color-coding system, thanks for telling the truth, thanks for letting us know that the third grade’s not doing as well as the fifth grade. That level of transparency was useful for families. And I know as a mom, I appreciate that, too. And then you had external forces—sometimes funders, sometimes politicians, sometimes union leaders who didn’t live in Newark—who were saying we can’t reduce kids to numbers, and the system is flawed for these seventy-five reasons, and you’re saying bad things about our schools, this sort of thing.

Herhalt: In the One Newark experience, you write about taking on all entrenched interests equally. You have to push up against teachers’ unions, charter school hard-liners, standardized-test evangelists, basically opposing any ideology and just going with what works best. What can other jurisdictions learn from your experience?

Anderson: Well, I often think that decision makers, whether they’re superintendents, mayors, elected officials, or other kinds of prominent people, make decisions based on who is loudest at the microphone. I write about several examples in my essay: “You should use test scores to evaluate teachers,” said a whole bunch of national advocates who felt that was going to move the needle; or “You should grow the charter footprint from 10 percent to 40 percent.” And I write very clearly about the profound negative consequences of that kind of decision making. I think leadership is the opposite of pandering to individual agendas. It’s listening to the people most affected by decisions: families and students. And often, the families and students who are in need of the greatest amount of support are not the ones at the microphone. And they’re hardest to hear because everybody wants to speak for them.

But you also need a clear and coherent strategic game plan. You have to articulate a theory of action that delivers for the community and for kids. You can’t make random micro-decisions to make people happy. Making decisions based on whoever’s loudest at the microphone is the enemy of progress, even though I understand the forces that try to make leaders do just that.

Herhalt: You speak about the importance of having all political leaders on-side—Chris Christie, Cory Booker, etc.—and how hard it became when they all left the conversation for various reasons. Is having political offices in agreement necessary to embark on changes of the magnitude you attempted?

Anderson: We had spent a great deal of time building a political coalition of the willing, and that was Governor Christie, it was Mayor Booker, it was local officials, it was faith-based leaders, nonprofits, and other prominent local voices. We spent a good chunk of effort creating high-level alignment around our plan with those individuals. And I think that is somewhat necessary. That said, I also lay out in great detail in the chapter how I think we could have created an even more long-sustaining political coalition of folks by concentrating more on local leaders connected to individual schools. We call them neighborhood influencers. I feel like those people might be even more important because they’re less likely to be subject to one political election or one wedge issue on which they made their campaign. It’s mission critical to get those neighborhood influencers and grass-roots organizers committed to a long-term vision. That’s where the staying power is.

Herhalt: Can you speak about the revelation you had about spending less time paying attention to what you called the “green ring” power brokers and elected officials? Why do you think that is often what occupies an education administrator’s time? How did you break through that?

Anderson: Well, I’m not sure we totally did, but we made progress. Again, the individuals in the power class, they often—not always—will be pushing on issues that are extremely self-serving. Like, “hire my girlfriend, make sure my daughter gets an assistant principal role, put my friend at the front of the pile for that contract.” These are all actual examples from my time at Newark. And they are accustomed to leaders giving them what they want, because people need their support. Actually, I won’t say who it is, but I had a power broker say to me, “If you don’t do X, I’m going to make it my business to tell everyone you’re a racist.” What this individual was asking for was completely inappropriate. I would never have done it.

So, you have the micro self-serving pieces, and there are versions of this in every community. And you have the more issue-based or program-based pieces, such as, “I’ve been on this board for this many years, and so I’m going to come and advocate for this thing”—even though when you look at their results or the big picture, it actually doesn’t make sense.

Herhalt: If you embrace school choice as part of the solution, as you did in Newark, how important from an equity perspective is it to also have a universal enrollment with one single application as in Newark? Is it a problem if you have one without the other?

Anderson: I think it’s critical. I don’t think it’s just universal enrollment. The entire One Newark plan was necessary, in my opinion, or else “choice” is just a way of having more kids win and more kids lose. Newark was a particularly unusual set of circumstances that made the need to address equity alongside choice even more profound, but this is true everywhere. You need a universal enrollment system that ensures that kids who are in the back of the line are not always in the back of the line. There are always coveted seats. Who gets access to them? Is it the person who knows how to work the lottery? Is it the person who knows how to call the politician or is it the kid with a disability and a fifth-generation Newarker? So, it’s universal enrollment and a comprehensive neighborhood-by-neighborhood plan.

Herhalt: Do you think education academics are properly accounting for the continued racial discipline gap in schools? If it is indeed hampering achievement, do we need to focus more attention on eliminating it?

Anderson: When I left Newark, I started something called the Discipline Revolution Project because I felt like even the most equity-minded and bold education leaders that I knew were not focused enough on this issue. I think that the K-12 system, including reformers, has inadequately diagnosed the problem, let alone focused on solutions. Too few educators realize just how much adult biases come into play when it comes to responding to behavior and incidents. This has two dire consequences: one, the kids potentially in need of the most support are getting the least because they’re being put out, and two, shame and exclusion are the enemy of the psychological safety you need to learn. So, it’s having a direct impact on student outcomes, and it’s also potentially having life-ending consequences.

One out-of-school suspension doubles the chances that you are connected to the juvenile justice system, which makes it a statistical certainty that you’re going to be connected to the criminal justice system for life. Just one. And as you go up, two makes it four times as likely; three makes it seven. So, it’s both an insidious everyday problem because of lack of time on task and student achievement, and a massive moral problem. There’s more and more research that says not only is school discipline correlative to horrible life outcomes when it comes to criminal justice, but it’s causal. In my opinion, it’s a massive epidemic and an under-discussed and under-acted-upon one, which is why I’ve dedicated a bunch of my time to it since then.

A quick aside: I was the superintendent of alternative high schools in New York City. In that capacity, I oversaw the thirty-, sixty-, ninety-day suspension centers, the one-year suspension centers, the schools for kids on probation, the schools for kids in juvenile justice, the schools on Rikers Island. And I can tell you two things. One, I don’t need data, but my eyeballs could tell you that the percentages of black and brown students in all of those centers were not the same as students citywide, by any means. The number of transgender and openly gay students was way higher. I had something like 50 percent of my kids on IEPs [individualized education programs] and/or 504 plans, so I didn’t need charts or data based on my experience.

And two, I would see the same kids at each of our programs. Literally. I would see a kid in our suspension center, then I’d see them at the probation site, and then I’d see them on Rikers. This idea of the school-to-prison pipeline, a lot of people don’t like that term because it’s uncomfortable. I actually think it’s incredibly accurate, and I’m frankly shocked we don’t have more urgency as a country around it. My team has been doing its part to try to sound the alarm. And so, you can see why, because of my experience, certainly in New York, I was committed to not having that happen on my watch in Newark. It’s sort of surprising to me how little focus we have on this issue nationally, still, to this day.

Herhalt: You speak of instilling a school culture of “high expectations and high support.” Often schools that struggle have one or the other but not both. What can be done to address this?

Anderson: I think it’s will and skill. When you look at the research, adults need to think: you’re going to learn this hard thing. You can do this hard thing. I’m going to stay at it when you aren’t getting this hard thing, but I’m going to give you a million on-ramps. If you need seventeen on ramps, I’m going to give you eighteen. And that includes both academic and behavioral expectations.

You don’t hear, “Well, that kid just can’t read, and they never will.” Well, sometimes you do. But it’s the same thing with behavior, just basic executive functioning, being able to de-escalate yourself, knowing how to organize yourself, knowing what to do when you’re bored—these are all teachable things. So, I’m going to hold the bar. I’m not going to lower the bar, and no matter what you do, this bar is here, but I’m going to do everything and anything I can to get you over it. That should be the mindset.

You can’t just say, “Meet this bar. Jump, jump!” I stress this all the time in our work with behavior. You have a kid who has a really hard time de-escalating and what are you doing? You’re issuing them a warning? Because they’re just going to learn that overnight? Grownups take months to learn new things, but we don’t afford that mindset to kids.

The skill side has to do with resources and brass tacks. How do you set up multi-tiered systems of support so that you can identify kids earlier and have a repertoire of things to offer them? The kids that need the extra scoop of support, you need to have both a system to identify them and research-based strategies to help them.

Sometimes the young people who are communicating with negative behavior need other support. For example, I just worked with a whole system on this idea of de-escalation. Part of the discussion we had: if you escalate a kid, everybody’s mad, game over. Teachers found these techniques helpful. They weren’t telling me, “Well, I can’t believe you don’t understand my job.” Instead, they were saying, “Oh, good point. I can learn how to de-escalate. And that would be a whole new world.” This is very much a mindset, some of it is a skill set, and some of it is tied to resources that could help.

As a field, I think we undervalue conversations about school and classroom cultures that promote high expectations and high support. We don’t do enough research. What do we say in business, “culture eats strategy for lunch”? But somehow in K­–12, it’s “we’re going to buy the perfect curriculum and we’re going to find the perfect teacher.” While I believe in those things too, but we just don’t talk about this piece with enough precision, in my opinion.

Herhalt: On curriculum, you say that “scale is your friend” and decisions are better made at a system level. In your opinion, should curriculum development be handled at a more macro level—such as state or nationwide?

Anderson: I think you need a little bit of both. There’s nothing wrong with having clear national standards and a rational curriculum market and actual reading experts making reading curricula. That is, to me, necessary. And that doesn’t prevent people from doing, as we did, a whole Newark history module in high school because Newark history is so rich. It’s like US history. I am not a managed-instruction fan. I don’t think like “everyone read this one page on this day.” There are people who disagree with me on this, and there have been people who have succeeded with it.

I do believe in clear national standards and expertly chunked curriculum and a rational curriculum market. I just want there also to be the space and time for local officials and teachers to make sense of that, and tweak it and use it. And by the way, good teachers love good curriculum. Great teachers often say, “Oh my gosh, thank you for the gold.” And then they take it, and they look at their thirty kids, and they figure out how to implement it in ways that help lift all boats.

I’m 100 percent for high-quality instructional materials that are written by and developed by experts who frankly know way more than me and certainly more than an individual. And this is not just in Newark. I don’t want my neighbors picking my son’s curriculum, either. There is expertise in developing high-quality content, and our kids don’t have time for us to pretend that’s not the case.

overlay image