School Reform in Newark:  The Prize… by Dale Russakoff!

Dear Commons Community,

I have just finished reading The Prize:  Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools by Dale Russakoff (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015).  It is a candid, well-researched examination of the school reform effort in Newark, New Jersey that failed to live up to its hype.  Most of the players (Corey Booker, Chris Christie, Newark School Superintendent Cami Anderson) come off poorly, more interested in headlines and public relations than real school reform.  Mark Zuckerberg,  is depicted as well-meaning but completely flummoxed by the trio above.  Below is an excerpt from an Amazon Review:

“In 2010, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg decided to give $100 million to the Newark, NJ, schools. He did so at the behest of then-mayor, now US senator Cory Booker and governor Chris Christie. During the announcement on the Oprah show, they explained that they intended to completely reform Newark’s failing schools and in the process create a reform model that could be employed nationwide. As they say, the devil is in the details, and the details were kept secret from everyone else, including the teachers and parents, until the last possible moment. The most important detail was that they intended Newark to become the primary showcase for charter schools in the nation, and that would happen at the expense of the neighborhood public schools.

The book details what went wrong, and it’s a long list. Most importantly, Christie and Booker were on the make; they were much more interested in their political futures than they were in the well being of the school kids. In addition, Zuckerberg assumed that having lots of money somehow gave him expertise in a field he knew absolutely nothing about. Finally, everyone involved in the project, most especially the teachers’ union and a horde of educational consultants began thrashing around, desperate to get their hands on the prize referred to in the book’s title, the $1 billion Newark school budget and the $100 million grant.

In the end, the project failed. Booker and Christie moved on to bigger and better things, Zuckerberg’s grant was consumed mostly by grasping opportunists, the parents were left frustrated and angered, and the schools didn’t improve. At no point did anyone consult the actual classroom teachers– the people in closest contact with the kids and with the most direct knowledge of what they needed– about how the money might be spent. Indeed, the teachers were pressured into taking de facto pay cuts, while the consultants were being paid $1,000 a day.

It was a fiasco, one that left the situation worse than it was when the original announcement of the grant was made. This book tells the whole sad, sordid story.”

I highly recommend this book as a lesson of what not to do in urban education. It shows that impatience and media-ops are not what make for successful school improvement.  It also rightly demonstrates that parents and teachers are critical to any reform efforts.



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