The Prize by Dale Russakoff, 2015

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Russakoff follows developments in the Newark, New Jersey public school system after Mark Zuckerberg pledges to donate one hundred million dollars, which will be matched by another hundred million from other donors.

Zuckerberg, Republican governor Chris Christie, Democrat then-mayor Corey Booker, and district superintendent Cami Anderson push for major reforms; the dismissal of the worst teachers, a movement toward charter schools, the shuttering of old and poorly-attended buildings, administrative cost-cutting, and easy access to school choice for parents and students.

With a healthy budget, bipartisan support, and a superintendent with a vision and a plan, the situation in Newark is hopeful.  It’s viewed as a testing ground for reforming low-performing urban schools, which will hopefully become a model for a broader national effort to turn around failing districts.

Sadly, the book is largely an account of how this confluence of factors failed to bring about meaningful or lasting change in the school system and in student performance.

The first major stumbling block was the removal of bad teachers.  Largely due to union protections, they were kept on the payroll after being removed from the classroom.  The worst teachers—those widely viewed as the worst by parents, students, fellow teachers, and principals—ended up being paid their full salaries as their replacements were also being paid. This was the largest conflict with the teachers’ union.

There was also resistance from principals, teachers, parents and community members with regard to closing neighborhood schools to consolidate, cut costs, and get more students to attend charters.  People were resistant to having students travel, to being placed in new schools, and to having some jobs that would become redundant eliminated.

Another source of resistance was the local versus outsider dynamic.  Reformers were outsiders; wealthy, educated, white, and highly-paid (consultants on the project notoriously earned one thousand dollars a day).  Locals felt that their opinions regarding school changes were being ignored.  Those with vested interests leveraged this insider/outsider tension to their advantage by stirring up anti-reform sentiment.

In Newark, the school system was one of the largest employers, in a place with few opportunities and little economic stability for many families.  In a way, the school system was a jobs program that the community was afraid to lose, even in an effort to improve the district.

Even with the stars seemingly aligned, little meaningful change and growth occurred.  This book underlines how important politics and persuasion are in situations that at first glance seem bipartisan.  It also shows how compromise that results from politicking ends up serving both sides poorly.  The reformers were unable to fully implement a system of charter schools and school choice, so it’s hard to even evaluate which side was correct about which system might better serve students.

The book is well-written and easy to follow, despite describing a complex situation.  Russakoff access to so many of the major players in the story impresses, especially considering how strong the opposition between sides became as the process unfolded.  If the experiment in Newark was important, perhaps this account of what happened is equally important, so that lessons about how the sausage is made can be shared broadly and may help future reformers avoid repetition of the mistakes that doomed such a promising moment.

Ideas per Page:1 3/10 (low)

Related Books: Building a Better Teacher by Elizabeth Green

Recommend to Others: Yes, if you are interested in school policy and reform, or in political reform generally

Reread Personally:  No

1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff


2 thoughts on “The Prize by Dale Russakoff, 2015

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