Review: 'The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Schools?' by Dale Russakoff
Dale Russakoff's "The Prize" offers an incisive account of what went wrong in reforming Newark, N.J., public schools. (Sam Purdy photo / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Dale Russakoff's "The Prize" investigates education reform in Newark, N.J.
It's easy to feel cynical and even angry while reading "The Prize," a stunning account of efforts by wealthy outsiders and ambitious politicians to fix Newark's failing public schools. Veteran journalist Dale Russakoff's narrative is rich with details and anecdotes that showcase the quality of her writing and bring Newark to life for people who have never lived or visited there. "Driving through Newark was like touring archaeological layers of despair and hope," she writes.
But don't forget: This book also is the product of hard-edged, investigative reporting. With the help of behind-the-scenes accounts, Russakoff exposes a cast of characters who often become less likable as the pages turn and reveals much of what went wrong with education reforms in Newark, despite an infusion of cash from philanthropists.
The story likely will unnerve educators, reformers, taxpayers, politicians, parents and students anywhere — even the book's main title provokes distrust: Newark politicians' idea of a "prize" relates more to helping adults than uplifting and educating schoolchildren.
"In impoverished cities," Russakoff writes, "the school district with its bloated payroll was often the employer of first and last resort. Over the years in Newark, numerous politicians had actually taken to calling the district budget 'the prize.'"
It was clear the schools desperately needed help. Like many impoverished urban districts, Newark faced monumental challenges, from dismal graduation rates to dilapidated buildings and dysfunction in tasks as routine as inputting attendance data. Also monumental would be the task of fixing those problems.
In a chronology stretching from late 2009 to 2014, Russakoff paints a not-always flattering portrait of the main players who were spring-boarding school reforms:
Super-rich Facebook guru Mark Zuckerberg has limited personal experience in public education and knows little about philanthropy. He has never visited Newark schools though he's in discussions about a king-sized gift to the urban district. He ultimately pledges $100 million, with the caveat that another $100 million would have to be raised from other donors.
Then-Newark mayor Cory Booker is a rising political star in the Democratic Party with lofty academic credentials and he impresses Zuckerberg. Booker becomes known as the Twitter-savvy "Mayor Hollywood," and he aspires to higher political office. He wins a U.S. Senate seat in 2013, exiting while education reforms are ongoing in Newark.
Republican Gov. Chris Christie takes office in 2010 and takes charge of Newark schools and its $1 billion annual budget (the state had taken over the long-troubled school district in 1995). He too is ambitious and begins laying the groundwork for a presidential campaign. In the fall of 2013, Christie gets distracted by the "Bridgegate" traffic jam scandal. He's now running for president.
Cami Anderson, the strong-minded Newark school superintendent, charges into the district with gusto, top credentials and experience with reforms. But she draws fierce resistance over changes such as closing schools and laying off counselors, clerical workers and other staff even as she gives raises to her leadership team. She also takes criticism for not involving key constituencies — such as families of schoolchildren.
Russakoff notes that Anderson didn't always tell the whole story.
For example, in June 2013, the superintendent rattled off several district accomplishments to big donors, among them improvements in student performance in a number of schools.
"The real story was more mixed," Russakoff explains.
The improvements Anderson cited were based on her own school rating criteria, "(but) based on state standardized test scores, Newark children had declined in proficiency since her arrival, in math in all tested grades, and in language arts in all but two."
In addition, Anderson neglected to report that all eight reconfigured schools were falling behind the rest of the district, though several reforms had been applied, such as longer school days, new curriculum and improved training for teachers.
This summer, Anderson resigned. The Newark district now has a new superintendent and is focusing on getting out from under state control, according to news reports.
With all the money put into reforms, how could students lose ground on such key measures of performance?
It's not surprising given the profound challenges facing Newark. Like other urban districts, including Chicago, poverty is overwhelmingly high and is highly predictive when it comes to test scores. Poor kids, as a whole, usually score worse than affluent students, based on national and state data.
Dilapidated buildings left in disrepair make for poor school environments, and gangs and violence plague city neighborhoods, causing trauma and distractions at home and at school.
In a moving portrait of life at Newark's Central High School, Russakoff described a class project: Google Maps of the routes students used to walk to school. Certain areas were labeled "Danger Zone" or "Killing Zone." "Territory controlled by the Crips gang was colored blue; the turf of the Bloods gang was in red."
It's hard to imagine such a project in an affluent school filled with white students.
Educators and policymakers say the most disadvantaged students should get the best teachers, but that doesn't always happen. And struggling students can benefit from one-on-one help from a cadre of staffers, from social workers and counselors to mentors and tutors — but that takes money.
Wealthy philanthropists invested millions of dollars into their own playbook for reforms that spread to Newark and other cities, including Chicago: Close failing schools with low enrollment and test scores; create "charter schools" that get public money but are run by private groups; and move to a business model that makes fundamental changes in hiring, firing and evaluating teachers.
That usually means eliminating union seniority rules to more easily get rid of ineffective teachers, revising traditional salary schedules to allow merit pay for the best teachers and evaluating teachers based on their students' performance.
Those efforts are what the millionaires consider to be transformational, as Russakoff notes.
"Transformation was a popular word among education reformers," she writes. The various educator reform organizations, often financed by foundations, businesses, venture capitalists and other wealthy donors, promised transformational teachers, transformational principals, and superintendents with "transformational skill and will" who would enact "transformational, sustainable and replicable reforms."
In fact, in Illinois, when new Gov. Bruce Rauner was pushing earlier this year for a new state school superintendent, he described the current superintendent as a good person. But, "he's not transformational. We need transformation," Rauner said.
The transformation in Newark involved another sort of prize: big money for consultants.
In an appendix to the book, Russakoff outlined "Where the $200 Million Went," which means the $100 million Zuckerberg gift and matching donor money.
Of that, $21 million went to consultants for "communications, data systems, strategic planning, financial analysis, human resources management, reorganization of district offices, teacher and principal evaluation frameworks, advice on teachers' contract negotiations, design of universal enrollment system, analysis of student performance data."
It's hard to imagine that not one person from the local district, however troubled, could have handled at least some of those tasks.
At least $1 million went to New York City consultant Bradley Tusk to manage a "community engagement campaign." Tusk is a former Illinois deputy governor who worked in the administration of Rod Blagojevich. "There was no public disclosure of Tusks' hiring or his qualifications, which included no experience on the ground in Newark," Russakoff writes.
The pay was lucrative — $1,000 a day for consultants in Newark and elsewhere on the East Coast.
That prompted this comment from a local Urban League president: "Everyone's getting paid, but Raheem still can't read."
One of the long-standing questions in the education reform movement has been why failing schools can't be revived rather than replaced by charters, to minimize disruptions for kids. Some charters are good and others aren't, just like traditional public schools.
Reforms were happening in regular Newark schools, with some teachers devoted to helping underprivileged kids succeed. But they didn't always get the resources they needed and that charter schools received.
Outside of Newark, Priscilla Chan — Zuckerberg's wife — came across as one of the book's most passionate and empathetic characters.
She had come from a disadvantaged family whose immigrant parents worked 18 hours a day, Russakoff wrote. "Two of her public school teachers, to whom she remains close, saw her potential and helped put her on a path that eventually led to Harvard."
After the experience in Newark, Zuckerberg and his wife plan to focus on improving education for children in low-income communities in the San Francisco Bay area. Chan is working with educators and researchers to develop a school that would operate alongside a community health center, to provide medical and mental health care as well as other services for children with the greatest needs.
Russakoff ends her book with hope and a word of caution, saying that urban public schools are being asked to overcome the devastating effects of poverty:
"This is not an excuse. It is a simple but urgent plea to put the real needs of children at the center of the national conversation about education reform, which in its ideological divisiveness is in danger of leaving them behind."
Diane Rado is an education watchdog reporter for the Chicago Tribune. She covers K-12 investigative and policy stories.
By Dale Russakoff, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 246 pages, $27
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