‘The Prize’ is a compelling book that won’t settle debates

Dale Russakoff set out to write the story of just what happened when politicians bolstered with $100 million from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg set out to transform a city’s troubled schools.

“My goal was to write a book that was indisputably true,” she said this week during a Skype chat with a dozen students, faculty and staff at Indiana University.

'The Prize,' book coverShe even hoped her book, “The Prize,” might transcend the nation’s polarized debate over schools. That hasn’t happened. Supporters and critics of the Newark initiative take issue with what she wrote. What’s hard to deny is that it is a compelling read with important lessons for urban education.

“The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools” tells what happened after Zuckerberg, former Newark Mayor Cory Booker and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie launched an ambitious plan to fundamentally remake the public schools in Newark.

The plan, announced in 2010 on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” was to transform a struggling district by tying Zuckerberg’s cash to the precepts of the education reform movement: merit pay to reward talented teachers and school leaders, data-driven instruction and no-excuses accountability.

But Newark residents pushed back hard against efforts to close neighborhood schools and open new charter schools. Critics said reform was being done to them, not with them, and they objected to a process that seemed to be driven by outsiders and $1,000-per-day consultants.

By the time Russakoff’s reporting wrapped up, Booker had moved on to the U.S. Senate, Christie was busy running for president and Zuckerberg was talking about mistakes made and lessons learned. Cami Anderson, the sharp-elbowed superintendent brought in to engineer the Newark Public Schools turnaround, stepped down in June. Ras Baraka, a high school principal and a leading critic of the reformers (and the son of poet Amiri Baraka), was elected mayor in 2014.

Russakoff, who covered New Jersey politics for the Washington Post, told the IU listeners that the effort could have capitalized on community support for improving schools, but didn’t.

“There was a lot of consensus on the ground that the schools were in trouble and needed to change,” she said.

But the initiative got off on the wrong foot by launching on “Oprah” before anyone in Newark knew about it. The community split apart, with much of the city clearly hoping the outsiders would fail.

Zuckerberg staked his bet on a conviction that teachers should earn more money with bonuses tied to improving test scores.

“But there’s no data that shows that because teachers get bonuses for success in the classroom, student achievement goes up,” Russakoff said. “I didn’t find anyone (among Newark teachers) who said they had done anything different to get the bonuses.”

Russakoff had extraordinary access to Booker, Christie, Zuckerberg and Anderson, and “The Prize” is packed with candid behind-the-scenes accounts of the politics of reform. The story line shifts between the power players and Newark teachers and students who struggle against long odds.

“The Prize” focuses on two schools, a KIPP charter school and a Newark Public Schools “renewal” school called BRICK Avon. That’s its great strength, a clear demonstration that what happens in schools matters to real children. It’s also the source of what critics like New Jersey teacher Mark Weber see as its flaw: A willingness to accept claims about charter school success without hard evidence.

Russakoff told Tom Moran of the Newark Star-Ledger that the main lesson of “The Prize” is that school improvement efforts won’t succeed if they don’t address the challenges children face out of school.

“The reform movement is focused on changing the management of schools, instilling more accountability,” she said. “Those things are necessary. But they didn’t attend to the effects of poverty on children, and that’s a huge issue in Newark’s schools and neighborhoods.”

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