Review of "The Prize" by Dale Russakoff

The Prize: The High-Stakes, Big-Money Race to Save Our Failing SchoolsThe Prize: The High-Stakes, Big-Money Race to Save Our Failing Schools by Dale Russakoff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dale Russakoff’s “The Prize” is such a good, and important book. It tells us the story of what happened after Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million to remake the failing Newark Public Schools. The book is refreshing in so many different ways. It looks at what happens AFTER the initial media euphoria died down, when the nuts and bolts of governance make the difference between success and failure. The Zuckerberg/Christie/Booker effort, for all the hype, has to be diagnosed with a failing grade. Russakoff gives us the story from the ground up, where efforts to bring change to political systems are won and lost. This one was lost on the ground, and Russakoff speaks truth to all sides engaging in the debate on how to best educate our children. Charters vs. traditional public schools? Merit pay for teachers? “Corporatists” trying to ram top down educational theories and practices onto school districts, rewarding a network of consultants wired into the “ed reform” movement? All that, and much more is looked at in this book, with no ideological ax to grind (that I can detect).

There are many pervasive problems in government, and solving those problems requires a willingness to expend some political capital, as well as really concentrating, time wise, on the task at hand. From the book:
“The Star-Ledger reported that Booker spent more than one in five days out of the city in 2011. Sandberg had taken charge of vetting the $100 million arrangement, which specified in writing that Christie would delegate “strategic and operational” leadership of the state-controlled schools to Booker. But despite her widely respected business acumen, she too was apparently caught off guard. As Booker traveled the country making speeches and moved from crisis to crisis, the Facebook duo stumbled upon an open secret in Newark. Clement Price, the Rutgers historian, summed it up this way: “There’s no such thing as a rock-star mayor. You’re either a rock star or a mayor. You can’t be both.” Another tidbit from the book: “The public face of the engagement effort, announced by Booker in early November as a campaign of “relentless outreach,” was a series of eleven forums for Newark residents. “We want bottom-up, teacher-driven reforms that will be sustained,” the mayor said at one forum, although he missed most of them. “We can now access the resources—whatever we need—but we need a community vision for change and reform.”
Unfortunately our political system does not lend itself to the necessary investments of time and capital by elected leadership. Mayor Booker and Governor Christie come out relatively badly, in spite of good intentions. Both were looking to political futures beyond the positions they were in, and while in our system that is accepted, we must also accept the downside of looking beyond the current political horizon. Mayor Booker has become Senator Booker, and Governor Christie is looking to become President Christie. Superficial decision making in difficult areas, in so many instances, kicks the difficult into the future, and allows opportunity for progress to dissipate.

Russakoff looks at the particulars of the “reform” movement in Newark post donation, including the Booker effort to raise an additional $100 million to match the Zuckerberg grant, the ignorance of Zuckerberg to the realities of making changes to the teachers contract, and the eventual disconnect between the reform movement and the people they are supposed to be helping. Investing time is not the only requisite for success. Good management and clear lines of authority are a necessity for success. The misstep on the teachers contract, and the crazy system of accountability that existed in the Newark public schools, contributed to the ultimate failure. From the book:
“A striking feature of the Newark reform effort, from the beginning, was that no one was in charge. Cerf’s concept of a “three-legged stool” implied that Zuckerberg, the governor (through the state-appointed superintendent), and the mayor would call the shots together. To those trying to carry out reforms, this arrangement was opaque and baffling. One of the consultants tasked with redesigning the district said in a private conversation, “I’m not sure who our client is. The contract came through Bari Mattes’s office [Booker’s chief fundraiser], so that suggests Booker is the client, but he has no constitutional authority over education. The funding is from Broad, Goldman Sachs, and Zuckerberg, but they have no legal authority. I think Cerf is the client, because the state runs the district. But I’m not positive.” In other words, the consultants worked for the person who originally founded the consulting firm. Although Booker, Christie, and Cerf were emphatic about the need to impose accountability on a notoriously unaccountable bureaucracy, it was becoming apparent that no one of them was ultimately accountable for making it happen.”

No clear lines of authority, no one person responsible, and huge change needed. Not a recipe for success. For those thinking that only the “corporatist” reformers come off badly that is not so. The teacher unions get nicked as well, and the status quo is described for what it is, a failure for students. Complicated problems do not lend themselves to easy, or ideologically rigid solutions. When you read this outstanding effort by Dale Russakoff that will become apparent.

View all my reviews

Read “The Atlantic” story on the book here.

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