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How Much Education Reform Can $100 Million Buy Without Addressing Poverty?

A riveting new book examines why Mark Zuckerberg's expensive project to transform Newark's schools went belly-up.
Published: September 13, 2015

(l-r) New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and Newark Mayor Cory Booker on NBC's Education Nation in September 2010. (l-r) New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and Newark Mayor Cory Booker on NBC's Education Nation.

In September 2010, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, flanked by then-Newark mayor Cory Booker and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, appeared on Oprah to announce to make an important announcement.  “We’re setting up a $100 million challenge grant so that Mayor Booker and Governor Christie can have the flexibility they need to turn Newark into a symbol of educational excellence for the whole nation.” Excitement and expectations ran high, but they weren’t able to deliver on that promise. What happened in Newark became a cautionary tale of the pitfalls of ill-conceived and misguided education reform efforts in urban school districts -  the focus of a compelling new book by journalist Dale Russakoff.

In "The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?" , Russakoff delivers a riveting account of celebrity politics, big philanthropy, extreme economic inequality, the charter school movement, and the struggles and triumphs of schools in one of the nation’s poorest cities.

NEA Today recently spoke with Russakoff about what went wrong in Newark and what lessons we can draw from the experience.

While Zuckerberg’s intentions may have been good, educators and many others have long said that philanthropists with no education policy experience shouldn’t lead major school reforms, and your book shows us why. How can a philanthropist best contribute to improving school quality?

Dale Russakoff: Zuckerberg realized he needed to know a lot more about Newark itself. He relied on people who told him what the schools needed, but those people might not have known as much as they needed to. It’s important to work very closely with the people on the ground and in the districts rather than on consultants or other people who say they know what’s going on. There are so many teachers, principals, administrators and and community organizations who are intimately familiar with what they need and who want what’s best for students. Also, Zuckerberg was told there was too much grassroots opposition to change and to avoid getting involved there at the outset. He was told to fight the powers that be rather than engage them, but the reality is there are so many teachers, principals, parents and community members who could have really helped him and his advisors to think about how best to help and do so strategically. Any philanthropist should do due diligence and be in tune with what the community’s needs are.

What was the biggest lesson Zuckerberg seemed to learn from his experience in Newark?

DR: There’s always going to be opposition and there will always be people bent on stopping you at any cost, but I think Zuckerberg learned that you need real consensus from the people who really want to do the tough work to improve schools. He needed to tap into those people as allies and even as messengers and there would have been less of a push back. There were some committed people at the grassroots who could have helped by leading community change.

The_Prize_RussakoffA lot of the money Zuckerberg pledged went toward charter schools. In Newark, what was effective and ineffective about these schools?

DR: What makes charter schools effective is their structure – they have incredible flexibility. The KIPP school, for example, was able to get a lot more money to the classroom than the Newark district, partly because their bureaucracy is much leaner. This flexibility allows charter schools to target funds to where they are most needed. If that school needed two teachers in early grade classrooms, it got two teachers. If there were lots of kids falling behind who needed tutoring and an academic interventionist was needed in every grade, they got that.

There were also charter schools that closed down because they were so poorly run. Not only were kids not learning, they weren’t even safe because there was so much chaos resulting from poor management. Without strong management, you can’t create a learning environment where kids can succeed. What makes a charter school ineffective are the same things that make a public school ineffective - poor leadership, an unmotivated staff, and the absence of a commitment to serving all kids, no matter what their needs.

In "The Prize," you profile a young boy who attempts to hide his illiteracy by disrupting class. He finally gets the support he needs and jumps three reading levels, only to lose support in high school. Why don’t kids in poor urban districts continue to get the support they need throughout their school careers?

DR: There was a special education teacher who was in the process of going through a certification course to teach a program that was new to her that would help kids who hadn’t learned to read in a traditional classroom. Before she was certified she had to teach the program to a student who had huge reading deficits but wasn’t classified. So the vice principal at school paired her with this young man. He came to her every day of seventh grade during his free period and she gave up her prep period to tutor him. Once he started trying, he did very well and everybody fell in love with him and wanted him to succeed. He had a web of support around him, but then he went to high school there wasn’t anything like that. I don’t think anyone understood how fragile his reading ability was. They just knew he was struggling so teachers sent notes to the principal that he didn’t belong in their class. I don’t understand why no support network followed him.

There needed to be much more of a continuum for individual kids. Whatever support there was for middle school disappeared in high school and students and teachers had to start over again. A file should go with each student detailing what each one needs to succeed.

If the needs of the community had been addressed and the parents and grandparents and other community stakeholders were included in the reform effort, what would have been different in Newark?

DR: I’m sure the reformers would say nothing – they’d say it would be all about consensus and nothing about change. I believe there could have been change. There wouldn’t have been the uprising.  The community should have been given a chance to be part of the process. There’s a principal in the book who came from a school that was closing but who led the consolidation of that school with the other. He was able to convince parents and the community that they had a chance to make the school they wanted. Just like that principal did, there were many people all along who were waiting to lead major school improvement efforts but were simply left out.

If Zuckerberg was able to see that reform efforts fail when the debilitating effects of poverty aren’t addressed, why don’t corporate reformers recognize this?

DR: I think the reform movement got caught up in the “poverty is an excuse for failure” notion. It is abundantly clear that concentrated poverty is an issue in an urban district like Newark. Maybe the schools don’t solve the problem of poverty, but they have to address it. That wasn’t part of the plan in the Newark reform effort. Zuckerberg’s wife is the one who came to that conclusion. As a medical student and resident, she had focused on the most underserved children. She saw firsthand that they have neurological issues form living in fear and poverty and living in strife . She recognized that if that’s not addressed, they can’t learn at level they need to. Her goal is to start a school where trauma is addressed as part of addressing each child’s learning needs. I don’t think a lot of corporate reformers have that experience or perspective.

Why do they seem to lay the blame solely on bad teachers and the unions who protect them rather than seeing the bigger picture of poverty and how it effects a learning environment?

DR: I think they make it sound like its simple to fix education when they say that teachers and their unions are to blame. There’s an obsession in the corporate world to measure everything. You measure the good and bad and get rid of bad. But it’s very hard to reduce education to measurement. There was a teacher in the book who had 26 kids in her class, half of whom were welfare cases. They’d been neglected, abused, exposed to drugs in their homes, or were hungry. How can you measure the effectiveness of that teacher without taking those issues into consideration? Everything in business is about data and metrics, and they are right that we have too little measurable data in education. Bureaucracy does get in the way. But that’s just a piece of it.

What do you hope the education community will take away from this book?

DR: I would say to all sides that there’s a lot more to education than your argument allows. The reformers and anti-reformers have their arguments, but there’s a big hole in the middle of all these issues that affect children and need to be addressed. If everyone could see the big picture and see how many needs aren’t being met and focus on those rather than on who is right or wrong, the conversation could be a lot more productive. The reform movement has all these ideas but they don’t acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers. The system isn’t fixed. Everyone needs to face how much needs to be done and addressing poverty is a big part of it.

Photo: Getty Images

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