Dale Russakoff: Test Case

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg pledged $100 million to help fix Newark’s schools. A new book explains why the reform movement went awry.

Reporter Dale Russakoff spent four years observing the school reform movement in Newark for her new book.
Reporter Dale Russakoff spent four years observing the school reform movement in Newark for her new book.
Photo by Sarah Weiser

Dale Russakoff is not an education reporter. During her 28 years with the Washington Post, she covered the environment and other beats. Then one September day in 2010, the Montclair resident read the news that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was planning to go on the Oprah Winfrey Show and announce a $100 million gift to Newark’s failing school system.

“I was fascinated,” Russakoff says. “I didn’t have a judgment about it, I just thought, this is amazing.” Also amazing: the unusual partnership between then Newark mayor Cory Booker, a Democrat, and Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, that sparked Zuckerberg’s interest.

Russakoff spent the next four years observing, cataloging, scrutinizing and despairing over how flawed the plan to fix Newark’s ailing schools turned out to be. What she learned is contained in her new book, The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?—due this month from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The timing couldn’t be better. Less than three months before the publication date, Cami Anderson, Christie’s hand-picked Newark schools superintendent, left her post and was replaced by Christopher Cerf, the former statewide education commissioner.

New Jersey Monthly talked with Russakoff about Zuckerberg, Anderson and the fate of Newark school reform.

New Jersey Monthly: How did Zuckerberg get involved?
Dale Russakoff: One of the things that drew him was that both Booker and Christie were rising stars in their respective political parties, and they were cooperating on this issue, which was kind of astonishing. Oprah said, “That is so beautiful” when all three of them went on her show to announce the $100 million gift. And it was beautiful.

NJM: Was the school reform movement in Newark a true bipartisan partnership, or was it more a Booker initiative that Christie joined in?
DR: Booker had a lot more to do with it. He’s the one who had for years been advocating for charter schools’ expansion. And he was early to the cause of taking on the district and all its dysfunction. But Christie also adopted the cause when he ran for governor. He ran very much on a school-reform platform.

NJM: The $100 million pledge from Zuckerberg was announced in September 2010. Five years later, we know they haven’t achieved a fraction of the transformation they planned. But have there been some improvements?
DR: It definitely hasn’t been a success, but it hasn’t been a total failure. When they started out, they were hoping they were going to have this model to use all across the country. And that’s part of the syndrome…the education reform movement is very much built on applying the rules of high-performing business to this huge, sprawling public bureaucracy. The idea that you can fix it in large part by using data to make decisions—that’s something that’s coming from the business sector. They were using the language of a startup when they said within five years, we’ll have a model of how to turn around a failing urban school district. The idea was, if you can do it in Newark, you can do it anywhere. And if that was the goal, they did not succeed at all. Mark Zuckerberg has very quietly stopped looking for the next city to bring his model to.

NJM: So what went wrong?
DR: The reform movement in Newark came in with an arrogance and a sort of self-righteousness that alienated people who otherwise would have been aligned with them…. What was really left out of the formula the reformers brought to Newark was an understanding of the community and the feelings of the people who live there.

NJM: Booker was able to raise another $100 million from donors after Zuckerberg made his pledge. In your book, you detail where the $200 million went. The numbers are mind-blowing—only $6 million for merit pay for teachers and $1 million for teaching training, but $21 million for consultants. Were there any material gains made for Newark schools because of the pledge?
DR: I’m sure [advocates] would say that the new teachers’ contract, which is part of the new labor-management system they passed in 2012, has had benefits for the schools because teachers who don’t earn a rating of effective or better don’t get a raise anymore, and they’re less likely to stay in the district. The new system makes it easier to fire teachers…. You could say that a system is in place to have better teachers. I don’t know that there’s evidence yet that has had an effect, though. Students’ test scores have gone down in the five years since they started all this. Which is very depressing.

NJM: Is there any research that justifies the expansion of charter schools and test-based accountability of teachers as the basis for education reform?
DR: No.

NJM: Do we have to solve issues of poverty and despair before we can begin to repair the education system, or are these parallel goals?
DR: I feel it is parallel. Of course you can improve education without solving poverty—but you have to address poverty to improve education. I’m not saying you can make education great without solving poverty, but there are so many things that could be done better.

NJM: How big a role did the selection of Cami Anderson as Newark schools superintendent have in the fate of the reform movement?
DR: She came in one year into this effort, and so many things had already happened. It was clear that the reform movement was being imposed on the people of Newark, that the thinking in the community was, “This is not our vision, this is your vision.” She came in as the choice of Christie, and a lot of people thought, “How can we possibly trust her?” She had a lot of strikes against her when she first arrived, and she had to deal with that. The vitriol for outside control, for outsiders running the lives of Newark people, has been in place so long, since way before Mark Zuckerberg.

NJM: Why does the reform movement call for the conversion of weak schools to charters rather than just trying to improve the existing schools?
DR: There’s this thought that these schools are so dysfunctional, and the culture has become so negative, that you just have to close them. And I just don’t get that. You might need to get new staff, or bring in new leadership, but there doesn’t seem to me to be a flat-out reason that a district school can’t be excellent, that it has to be made into a charter school.

NJM: Not all charters have stellar results, though, as you point out in your book. How do you explain that?
DR: Some are not as well run as others. But one reason charters schools often do better is that the parents who choose charters, even if they’re no better off financially than district school parents, are much more motivated as a group. Kids in district schools—this is not universal—but a lot of them don’t have any support at all.

NJM: The 2012 Newark teachers’ contract, which emphasized test-based teacher accountability, was lauded by reform advocates as transformational. Was it?
DR: No, it wasn’t transformational. It was a step toward trying to emphasize teacher performance to a degree that it hadn’t been. It used to be that if you remained in the district, your salary went up every year. It was automatic. What this was saying was your salary would go up only if your performance improved. And it’s so obvious—of course teachers shouldn’t have their pay raised if they’re not effective. But who’s to say what’s effective? That was mainly in the hands of the principals, and some principals did an extraordinary job of evaluating, and others did it as a way to bully people, to club the teachers that principals didn’t like.

NJM: Has anyone proven a correlation between merit pay for teachers and student achievement?
DR: No.

NJM: Two years after arriving in Newark, Anderson announced her One Newark plan for school reform. How did that work out?
DR: Many families took the opportunity to choose schools outside their immediate neighborhoods, so the plan definitely expanded parental choice. But the overall quality of schools barely changed, so just having a choice didn’t mean that children ended up in better schools. And transportation wasn’t made available to all kids, which limits the meaning of city-wide choice when 40 percent of families don’t own cars. The plan closed three K-8 very low-performing district schools and replaced them with three K-4 charters, which significantly improved opportunities for those kids. But the school closings and consolidations displaced thousands of students and caused chaos in district schools, which is why there was such a loud public uproar.

NJM: Why did Anderson leave her job?
DR: She was forced out. It wasn’t her choice to quit.

NJM: What has been the reaction in Newark?
DR: People are generally glad that there’s some movement to return control of the schools from the state to Newark, but wary of how long that could take. At the grassroots level, there’s no more affection for Chris Cerf than there was for Cami Anderson, but he has signaled that he’s going to address problems caused by One Newark and also launch some initiatives [Mayor Ras Baraka] has long wanted—like possibly a community school with extensive social services for kids and families. Those things would be popular in the community and might buy some good will for him.

NJM: If Newark was to be a test case and a national example for education reform, what were the lessons learned?
DR: The main lesson I learned during the four years I spent in Newark is that you have to listen to the people on the ground, because there’s a lot of them who know exactly what the problems are and how to fix them. And if you alienate them, you have no chance.

NJM: Was it the plan or the implementation that was flawed, or both?
DR: Both. Well, I think the plan was flawed, so no matter how well you implemented it, it wasn’t going to work. What happened in Newark, though, was that the implementation caused an explosion.

Tammy La Gorce is a frequent contributor.

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