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In Newark school reform efforts, gains come at a price

October 23, 2015 at 6:20 PM EDT
Five years ago, Gov. Chris Christie, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and former Mayor Cory Booker launched an ambitious plan to remake Newark’s schools by creating a network of charter schools that would operate almost like a business -- a model they hoped could be adopted nationally. William Brangham speaks to Dale Russakoff about her new book, “The Prize,” which chronicles the reform efforts.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: It was meant to be a game-changer for public education in Newark, New Jersey, a plan launched five years ago that might show the entire country how to remake failing urban schools.

Reporter Dale Russakoff chronicled what became of those efforts in her new book, “The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?”

William Brangham recently spoke with her for our NewsHour Bookshelf.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: It started with an unlikely trio, Newark’s Democratic Mayor Cory Booker, the state’s Republican Governor Chris Christie, and Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, who offered a whopping $100 million grant. They made the announcement on “Oprah.”

The money was to be used to help implement many oft school reform efforts being tried out nationwide, boost pay for the best teachers, open more charter schools and close the failing ones. And there have been successes. Last year, 20 percent of Newark’s black students were enrolled in — quote — “above-average schools.” That’s up from 12 percent in 2010, but those gains came at a price. The community remains distrustful of the reforms and the exodus to charter schools has fueled a budget crisis.

In her new book, “The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?” former Washington Post reporter Dale Russakoff details where reformers got it right and where things went wrong.

I talked with her recently about how Newark’s schools and students are doing five years on.

Dale Russakoff, thanks for joining us.

DALE RUSSAKOFF, Author, “The Prize”: Thanks for having me.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: In your book, you write that the trio behind this initial effort, Cory Booker, Chris Christie, and Mark Zuckerberg, you write about them this way — quote — “Their stated goal was not to repair education in Newark, but to develop a model for saving it in all of urban America and to do it in five years.”

That is a breathtakingly ambitious goal. What was their plan?

DALE RUSSAKOFF: Well, actually, I think they wanted, first of all, to repair education in Newark first, but they saw that they could create some kind of a model that could then be scaled up almost like a start-up business, which is the way Zuckerberg would be comfortable thinking about it at that time.

But what they thought they would do was bring in charter schools and dramatically expand the existing footprint of the charter schools, and then also turn the school district into their version of a high-performing business, with accountability all through the system for the teachers and the principals and using the student performance as the metric that everyone had to focus on.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: I mean, it has been now five years, their stated time frame. How is it going in Newark? How are the kids doing?

DALE RUSSAKOFF: Well, the charter schools in Newark have doubled in — the enrollment has doubled, and 40 percent of children in Newark now go to charter schools, and almost 50 percent of African-American children go to charter schools.

There has been a big exodus, particularly in the most high-poverty districts, which also are the ones with the most — the highest proportion of African-American kids. Those skills have performed a lot better than the district schools. And so the children in those schools are definitely doing better than they probably would have done in the district schools.

As children leave the district schools, the money follows them. And there is a huge budget crisis. There was a $16 million gap in the school budget. They have had to close and consolidate schools. Thousands of kids have had to change schools because schools were closing or consolidating.

Teachers have been laid off. Support staff, which is a huge factor in Newark because there is so much poverty, extreme poverty, violence, family dysfunction, the lack of support staff is a real problem. So, there’s a lot of factors that are affecting the district schools, but in spite of major effort, they have not improved. In many cases, they have gotten worse.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: One of the things that you chronicle so devastatingly in your book is the failure of the reformers to bring the community into the process from the get-go.

Even from the very beginning, many people learned about this simply by watching Oprah on television. How much of that do you think was a factor in the results that they have gotten?

DALE RUSSAKOFF: Well, I don’t know how much of a factor it is in the student achievement results, but certainly in the opposition that the community rallied against this effort, that it was the factor.

You know, people have asked me, was it the unions that brought upon the reformers all this opposition? I honestly don’t think the unions were capable of bringing this much opposition.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: It was just there organically?

DALE RUSSAKOFF: Well, I think the unions helped fan it, but I think that because this whole effort was done from outside, was done to Newark, instead of with Newark — that’s the phrase you hear all the time.

The word you hear most often in Newark in response to this whole effort is disrespect. People felt disrespected. And so I think ordinary parents just ended up flooding every public meeting, every school board meeting, and just trying to stop this in its tracks.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Do you think that would have been different? Do you think if they had actively tried to bring the community along from the beginning, that it would have been different?

DALE RUSSAKOFF: Well, you know, I think bringing the community along is a complicated idea.

I think, had there been a real effort to find out from the best teachers in the district what do you need to succeed, what does the school need to succeed, and has that — have those kinds of ideas been at the heart of trying to improve the schools, I think then it would have been viewed as something that really came more authentically from the community and from the people.

It was — you know, people said from the beginning, and I think it was true, that there was a consensus on the ground that the Newark schools needed dramatic change. Nobody thought the schools — that the status quo was acceptable.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: You write that this was really a collection of some of the broader ideas of the reform movement that have been percolating across the country.

So does Newark say something about the broader national reform movement? What lessons can we learn as far as national educational reform from what has gone in Newark?

DALE RUSSAKOFF: Well, I think that the education reform movement is largely a movement of, you know, well-off people, well-educated people who are very, very concerned about the status of the schools, but — and the status of public education nationally.

I think that there are also people throughout the poorest communities that are also very concerned about education. And I think the challenge that the education reform movement seems concerned with right now is making sure that all of those voices in the community, the affected communities are part of the answer, as opposed to just being told what the answer is.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Obviously, now, five years on, Cory Booker is in the Senate, Chris Christie is trying to become president, but Mark Zuckerberg is still at this, and — but doing it in a slightly different way.

And it seems as if he learned something from Newark or decided to change tack. Can you tell me a little bit about what he’s doing out in California?

DALE RUSSAKOFF: Yes.

Well, he said from the outset that — you know, he was 26 when this started, and he said he wanted to do something to help Newark, but he wanted to become a better philanthropist in the process, but he was very open about how little he knew about philanthropy and about education.

So, he — I think he was serious about that. And the way he’s approaching the latest gift — he gave $120 million that’s going to be used in Bay Area very underserved communities for school improvement. And instead of, you know, looking for a model that can be imposed on the school districts, he — and he’s had his staff of his philanthropy spend a lot of time in the communities to try to make sure that what the community wants is what they’re — that what they’re doing is what the community wants.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The book is called “The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?”

Dale Russakoff, thank you so much for being here.

DALE RUSSAKOFF: Thank you very much for having me.

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