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Book Review: The Prize – Who's in Charge of America's Schools?

The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?, by Washington Post reporter Dale Russakoff, has become one of the year’s most discussed books on education. Russakoff examines the efforts to reform Newark Public Schools through a public-private partnership led by Newark Mayor Cory Booker, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
 
We asked NMSI English director Michelle Stie and AP English content specialist Aubrey Ludwig for their reactions to The Prize.
 
Why did the reformers, led by Booker, Christie and Zuckerberg, believe that Newark could be a national model for public school transformation?
 
Michelle: Newark Public Schools was mired in bureaucracy and struggling with mismanagement. A significant number of Newark’s public school students lived below the poverty line, and fewer than 40% of third through eighth graders were reading at grade level. Newark Public Schools was crying out for systemic change.
 
Aubrey: The ability to create systemic change in educational practice is what drew Zuckerberg to Newark Public Schools. Zuckerberg wanted to elevate the status of teachers by improving salaries and teaching conditions. Zuckerberg also hoped his $100 million gift would lead to experimentation with educational delivery. Newark seemed like a place where reforms such as charter schools, merit pay and revamped hiring practices could benefit kids.
 
What were some of the problems the reformers encountered as they implemented their vision?
 
Aubrey: Russakoff does not pull any punches with her description of the pitfalls. She believes that political ambition, not strictly education, was the focus of how Christie and Booker administered Zuckerberg’s $100 million pledge to Newark’s schools.
 
Michelle: These politically motivated decisions had a huge ripple effect on the community. Newark Public Schools was the largest and most stable employer in Newark; there were few options for the janitors, bus drivers, data clerks and teachers to find other jobs within Newark’s depressed economy. Attempts to “shake up” a calcified employment system was threatening to the larger Newark community. 
 
Aubrey: It is easy to see why the Newark community felt threatened and disrespected by these changes. In some ways, the reformers created their own problems by not communicating adequately with those most impacted by the changes. A key measure of the reformers’ plan—closing underenrolled or undeperforming schools—was met with intense resistance by local educators and parents, who viewed the reformers’ top-down approach as uncommunicative and unresponsive.
 
One of the questions raised by Russakoff in The Prize is “How much of the achievement gap was actually a hope gap?” How does Russakoff define the hope gap?
 
Aubrey: Russakoff argues that a lack of student support, educational and social, fails students and makes it impossible for them to see education as an avenue for hope. It is easy to forget, within current educational practices, that many students struggle with how they understand themselves as students.
 
As educators, how do we bridge the hope gap as Russakoff defines it?
 
Aubrey: The answer is two-pronged. Public education must spend money on training and retaining teachers. Having the mettle to survive in education is incredibly difficult without a professional support system.  Educators must be a meaningful part of the community in which the school exists.
 
Michelle: The true representatives of hope in The Prize are the individual teachers Russakoff profiles. The intense commitment these teachers show to some of Newark’s most vulnerable students is admirable. The question becomes how we can sustain that level of passion without leading to teacher burn-out or disenchantment.
 
Russakoff argues that Booker, Christie, Zuckerberg and their educational team “did not try to have a conversation with the people of Newark.” How can community involvement become a meaningful part of school reform? 
 
Aubrey: Strong schools are the result of having community buy-in. Developing community buy-in prior to an educational overhaul takes time, money and community organizers. I worry that the rate at which people expect educational change to occur often skips this important step.
 
Michelle: Russakoff quotes former Milwaukee superintendent Howard Fuller, who says “I think a lot of us educational reformers—and I include myself—have been too arrogant. It’s not even what you do sometimes, it’s the way you treat people in the process of doing it.” Despite protests from some of the Newark reform team that lasting change demands a complete overhaul of local political infrastructures, Russakoff’s reporting suggests that transformational change, no matter how well intentioned, demands that all stakeholders are included at the table.