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Inside "The Prize" by Dale Russakoff

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Inside The Prize by Dale Russakoff

Former Washington Post reporter Dale Russakoff’s The Prize is a saga of a city and a district in distress. By Chris Borris

The plan to reform Newark, New Jersey’s failing schools was spearheaded by the unlikeliest of bedfellows: bombastic Republican governor Chris Christie, African-American Democratic mayor Cory Booker, and Silicon Valley wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg. Their shared goal was to develop a successful model for failing urban systems. Russakoff’s fascinating and balanced account takes us deep into the troubled district.

Q: Does the title have multiple meanings?
A: I first heard the term in reference to how the district budget was seen as the prize by politicians. As I worked on the book, I began to think of the children and their future as the prize. And I realized Booker, Christie, and Zuckerberg saw Newark’s schools as the prize, the answer to the crisis in urban education.

Q: Was the focus on developing a “model” a major reason they couldn’t fix Newark’s unique problems?
A: The problems were so ingrained and generational that the idea they could “fix them” was hubris, or just a complete misunderstanding of the condition of that city.

Q: At heart, do you think Booker, Christie, and Zuckerberg cared about reforming Newark’s schools?
A: I don’t think anybody was ill-intentioned. They truly believed they could do it. Mark Zuckerberg had revolutionized communication around the world by age 19, so why couldn’t he fix the schools? Cory Booker ended up believing his image, that he was a superman.

Q: Would their first choice for superintendent, deputy New York State education commissioner John King, have been a better choice than Cami Anderson?
A: Yes, in that he would have begun by listening to parents and the community and working to get their buy-in. It was a huge handicap that Anderson didn’t have the ability to listen, though her bullheadedness got her a lot further than another person would have. It’s unfortunate, because there’s so much of the ed-reform movement that is on the right track and understands the problems plaguing urban schools.

Q: Despite some progress, Anderson couldn’t show gains for most students. Was this a matter of growing pains or was damage done?
A: Changes were happening without the resources to support them. The kids weren’t getting what they needed, and schools were straining to the breaking point. Any move toward improvement got overwhelmed.

Q: Should Anderson have cultivated more leaders like Chaleeta Barnes, a Newark resident and Renew school principal who helped convince parents to accept the consolidation of schools?
A: It would have gone so far. Barnes won the trust of these parents and made them decide, “Yes, I will put my child on a bus; I will send him to this new school.” It doesn’t matter how many millions of dollars you spend on PR consultants; you can’t buy Chaleeta Barnes.  

Q: What responsibility does the grassroots opposition bear in the failure to reform Newark’s schools?
A: The grassroots activist network was a serious impediment, but they were reacting to the completely peremptory, colonialist approach of “Get out of the way, we’re going to fix your schools.” The reformers turned themselves into stock characters.

Q: What were Anderson’s main accomplishments?
A: Bringing better principals into the schools. If you get a great instructional leader, they can start developing teachers. Without a good leader, you can’t change a school. She was also right to scream from the rooftops that charters were serving kids well—but there was a cost to the district, which she didn’t figure out.

Q: Anderson left this summer, and Chris Cerf, the ed commissioner who pushed through Christie’s agenda, is in. His task is to return schools to local control.
A: It’s interesting, because Cerf never thought the Newark schools were ready for local control. He will focus on fixing some of the biggest problems, including giving parents real choice in schools. But it’s not like local control is going to solve that problem. There’s still the enormous challenge of fixing what ails the schools in Newark, which is so much bigger than just education.

Book Review: In her riveting narrative of the attempted reform of Newark’s failing schools, Russakoff presents a balanced and comprehensive view of what went wrong—and, to a lesser extent, right. She chronicles the many missteps of the reform effort—conceptualized by the unholy trinity of Cory Booker, Chris Christie, and Mark Zuckerberg and led by forceful, and much maligned, superintendent Cami Anderson—pointing out that “hubris” and a “colonialist” attitude was the reformers’ biggest mistake. At once a cautionary tale and a handbook of school-reform what-ifs, The Prize is well worth grabbing.

Image: Sam Purdy

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in edu Pulse are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.