The Prize: Who is in Charge of America’s Schools?

bowl-817780_1280I just finished reading Dale Russakoff’s book The Prize on the collapse of the Newark school reform effort.  Newark was supposed to be the  poster child for school reform.  Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook donated $100 million dollars.  Cory Booker, Newark’s mayor became a television celebrity.  Governor Christie was a staunch supporter until he wasn’t.  Cami Anderson was hired to lead the charge.  She left.

The book reads like an adventure story beginning with Booker and Christie trolling the streets of  Newark in the dead of night.

I thought The Prize would be about charter schools.  It really was not.   It is about…

parents, politics, and the power of money.  Somehow it is more than that.  It  is a great read.

Russakoff sees Newark as “a metaphor for much of urban America, saddled with the consequences of racism and inequality, made worse by ill advised government policies and economic change”.  Reform became a mission made real by a $100 million gift and cadre of talented and influential people.  In their enthusiasm, they forgot the power of a community to save itself, given  a chance.

If you work in and around schools, over time you may find some evidence of the inertia, seeds of destruction, and self serving bureaucracy found in Newark.   Alliances have been built that resist change or are susceptible to questionable ethics and outright fraud.  Ignored too long, districts can confuse their goals, and children’s needs take second place.

When attacked, educators may have a sense of martyrdom and entitlement from time to time.  After all, some say, staff could be so much more in the business world, but they choose serving the needs of children.   It is easy to forget that many such people are attracted to education because they value making the world a better place by guiding children to realize who and what they can be.

Suppose, however, that the schools are all that the urban poor have of their own.  A culture can develop that is based on economic survival.  Poverty and its effects surround them.  Educators are often the only members of the middle class.   They do what they can, but it is not nearly enough.  Everything deteriorates.  The district gets pulled apart by charter schools that draw district funds and do little to improve achievement.  Huge cuts in funding loom.  Philanthropists arrive on white horses to fix the schools.  Their first thought may have been that everyone is a loser and needs to be replaced.  They know best what the community should want.  But, they do not.

This happened in Newark.  A charismatic mayor, Cory Booker went on a mission to save the schools.  When he landed the huge donation from Facebook’s foundation, he got side tracked, and forgot the schools.  He spent his time on television and hobnobbing with politicians.  Little progress was made on his reform agenda.  He hired a superintendent, Cami Anderson, who imposed change without understanding what families wanted and needed.  She, the mayor and the state took over the schools.

As reforms were implemented people became restive.  The superintendent became secretive and manipulative.  Soon there were demonstrations.  The superintendent began to hide.  It got ugly.  The mayor got ambitious and clashed with the governor.  A new mayor was elected, but he and the city now have to wrest control from the governor and the state superintendent.

Zuckerberg and his wife learned some lessons, according to Russakoff.  They left Newark, and their foundation is now focused in the San Francisco Bay Area.  They are working through parents, teachers, school leaders and officials of charter organizations and districts, rather than politicians, to understand children’s needs.

The Prize is a story about good intentions gone awry.  They turn into political struggles, condescending and arrogant management policies, and money wasted.  They are thwarted by community mistrust which led to rebellion.  Note that none of this mentions the children.  It may be an opportunity lost for them.  If their parents stay involved, workable strategies to improve schools may emerge.

The Prize gives little insight into what works in schools to break the cycle of poverty.  The Newark example explains what did not work.  Individual teachers, given adequate support, are effective.  Some lessons learned about charter and district collaboration have emerged.  Small steps are being taken.  I will post them next.  What we do know is that, in the last analysis, parents own the schools.  Without them, nothing good will happen.




Posted in Newark, Public Education, Reform, Resegregation, Teachers.


  1. Dale Russakoff was on Fresh Air, speaking about her book, today. 9/21/15. Check the archives of Fresh Air on NPR; it’s faster than reading the book!

  2. I am now reading this book and finding it to be one of the most depressing books I have ever read. I sure hope it has a happy ending but I am not optimistic.

    • Call me optimistic, but I think that what happened could turn out better than anticipated if strong local leadership is supported.

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