‘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.”


‘This Is Not a Test’: a passionate book on schools, teaching

Jose Vilson’s blog is a must read for anyone who follows and cares about public schools in the U.S. It’s a smart take on education policy and politics with a strong focus on the crucial issues of race and poverty.

His new book, “This Is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class and Education,” is even better – an open-hearted account of the joys and frustrations of teaching in an era of polarizing disputes about how to improve schools. With teachers, especially teachers of color, too often voiceless, the book fills a big gap in the conversation.

ThisIsNotATestBut readers looking for a political tract or a detailed expose of reformist errors won’t find it here. Neither is it a slog through the pros and cons of various education policies. The book is structured as a memoir, grounding Vilson’s perspective in his own experiences.

“What you’re about to read,” he writes, “is the most honest account of my life up to this point and how my sense of self has influenced my identity as an educator.”

The son of a hard-working Dominican mother and a mostly absent Haitian father, Vilson grew up in poverty in New York. He was a good student, a “math nerd” who mostly thrived in public and Catholic schools and went on to study computer science at Syracuse University. Continue reading

Superintendent debates, urban education forum

The Indiana superintendent of public instruction campaign is finally getting some attention, less than two weeks before the election. A debate will take place tonight (Oct. 26) between Republican incumbent Tony Bennett and Democratic challenger Glenda Ritz. It’s in Fort Wayne and runs from 7-8 p.m., sponsored by Northeast Indiana Public Radio and the Andy Downs Center on Indiana Politics at IPFW.

This event has a standard election debate format: two rounds of questions, posed alternately to each candidate, followed by closing statements. There will be no studio audience, but Northeast Indiana Public Radio will broadcast the debate, and folks can listen online. Kyle Stokes of NPR State Impact Indiana will moderate. As of Thursday, he was taking suggestions for questions.

Bennett and Ritz appeared Wednesday night in a forum at Wabash College. They didn’t debate, though. Indianapolis Star columnist Matthew Tully asked questions, first to Bennett, then to Ritz. You can watch on Wabash’s Youtube channel. Continue reading