Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Book Review - The Prize

Dale Russakoff's book The Prize starts like a spy thriller - cloistered in the back of an SUV late at night, two men are plotting a revolution. But unlike a John LeCarre novel, these men - New Jersey's Republican Governor, Chris Christie, and the Democrat running the state's largest city - Newark Mayor Cory Booker, are not engaged in Cold War scheming, but rather, a discussion about how to remake public education in a city that graduates barely half its high school students and most consistently read, write, and do math well below their grade levels.

What unfolds over the following few years is a cautionary tale of what happens when well-intentioned people try to make radical change without understanding how to do it and the arrogance to try it without including the people who would be affected by it. Woven throughout this experiment in public policy are people talking past each other, or not at all, of generations-held suspicions of outsiders, racial tension, and bald political machinations that squander much of the good will and philanthropic contributions earmarked to help the children of Newark.

Of course, things do not start out that way. Buzzing from a splashy announcement that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is donating $100 million to improve schools in Newark (another $100 million in "matching" funds would bring the total to $200 million), all things seem possible. Wrapped in that gift are the demands of education reformers - accountability, metrics, best practices, and of course, that loaded term, "charter schools." Left unspoken, either in the public reveal on Oprah Winfrey's eponymous show or in the strategic planning that would follow, was an interest in engaging those who would be most affected by this change - the families in Newark and the teachers who served them - in its planning, coordination, or implementation.

And perhaps this is unsurprising. The Newark School District has been under state control for more than two decades, stripping locals of much say in how their children are educated while strong union protections offer little incentive for more junior teachers to thrive and allow entrenched older, poorer performing teachers to continue receiving a generous salary even as they fail to meet the needs of the students they are responsible for educating. In this way, the reforms Zuckerberg, Christie, and Booker were all lobbying for were admirable. No one would question that the school system had failed the children of Newark, but, as Russakoff shows, the opportunities presented by this infusion of cash were not fully realized and much of the book reads as an after action report on where the reformers fell short. 

Zuckerberg did a very Silicon Valley thing - he "bet on people." In this case, Booker, who charmed him with his vision for Newark's future, Christie, willing to be equal parts bull in the china shop and model for bipartisan agreement, and the seductive appeal of Republicans and Democrats working across the aisle to help poor children. While Zuckerberg's philanthropy may have been well-intentioned, he was woefully naive about what it would take to make this change possible. Betting on people may make sense when it comes to the latest start-up, but when those people are also politicians, the ROI is likely to be less impressive. One thing The Prize shows is that leadership from any of these three men at various points along the way may have made a difference as the reform effort unraveled. But Zuckerberg is portrayed as largely hands-off, only intervening when timetables had already slipped significantly, Booker's focus is strong at first but wanes as obstacles accumulate and he instead turns his eye to the U.S. Senate, and Christie's national profile diverted his attention, first in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and later, after the Bridgegate scandal broke. 

To take an example, one of the signature needs for implementation of education reform is the mitigation of tenure protection for teachers. Union contracts tend to make it hard to remove poor performing teachers and also allow more senior teachers to "bump" less experienced ones if layoffs occur. The political leadership failed to deliver the type of contract that would have allowed for generous performance bonuses, additional staffing, and the removal of the worst teachers that the three men all claimed would happen. Instead, more than $90 million - or almost half of the entire philanthropic donation - went into the pockets of the same teachers the reformers claimed were failing, in the form of back pay, buy outs, and administrative fees. This failure had a tangible impact on the reform effort - while schools were shuttered, the remaining ones were able to cherry pick the best teachers, but the excess teachers could not be terminated, resulting in costs that would ultimately run into the tens of millions of dollars. Meanwhile, Christie and Booker's hand picked superintendent, Cami Anderson, exacerbated the problem by approving $1,000 a day contracts for outside consultants even as support staff and janitors were being handed pink slips. 

The community does not wrap itself in glory either. Russakoff leaves largely unexamined the lack of personal responsibility of men and women having children when they have no steady source of income or at a young age or without the basic family structure that might improve their chances of success. This is brought into sharp relief when Russakoff talks about poorly attended community outreach events but also at protest rallies against educational reform where parents defend the abysmal outcomes produced by the school system they are protecting through their presence. It makes no sense, yet little time or attention is focused on it. Russakoff leaves it to the reader to find in Appendix II the fact that nearly three-quarters of households in Newark are led by a single parent and that 42% of children in Newark live below the poverty line, but the dots that connect those alarming statistics to the poor performance of the students in Newark's schools rarely lead back to blaming the parents who are raising these children in near third-world conditions. 

Often in The Prize one is left wondering whether the scope of the problem is simply too great to solve. Russakoff highlights the beyond-the-call-of-duty efforts of teachers, principals and school staff who dip into their own wallets to pay for school supplies, arrange rides for students without reliable transportation, and provide ]extra tutoring sessions for the children under their charge, but too often these gains are phyrric, either because of the students' unsettled family life or the simple passage of time and transfer to other educators who do not go the extra mile to help. A case study highlighted in Russakoff's book is a 7th grader named Alif Buyah, who, when we meet him in 2012 has already been held back twice. Through patience and diligence, his teachers nurture Alif, creating a specific tutoring plan, helping him get to and from school, and through his hard work and their support, he is promoted to 9th grade by the end of the school year. But Alif's success would be short-lived. A combination of trauma (a close friend was murdered in front of him), bureaucratic decisions (his school was closed as part of the district's reorganization), and his own struggles without the aid of those who had helped him resulted in truancy, absenteeism and drug use that wiped away all the gains that had been made in that one magical year. 

If there is one grace note in The Prize it is found in the small stories of commitment as illustrated through the educators who, against all of the bureaucratic bullshit, are truly passionate about making a difference in the lives of young people. But the systemic change envisioned in Newark has not come to pass. Achieving such a result would have been hard under ideal conditions, but the unforced errors made by so many along the way ensured the reform effort's defeat. Indeed, the cruel irony of what has happened in Newark is the creation of what is akin to a 21st century separate but equal educational system where about a third of Newark students are hand picked by charter schools saturated in services and money while the rest are educated in understaffed classrooms by a hodge-podge of great, good, and not-so-good teachers - not a particularly good return on a $200 million investment. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

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