Mishandling The Prize

A new book, by Dale Russakoff, examines the pitfalls of Mark Zuckerberg’s generous philanthropic gift to Newark Public Schools.

Rich Schultz / AP

In 2010, 26-year-old Mark Zuckerberg announced on The Oprah Winfrey Show that he was donating $100 million to Newark public schools. His partners, then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, outlined a broad five-year plan to change the future of education in the crime-ridden, poverty-stricken city, where nearly half of the public-school students drop out of high school. Describing a scene in her new book, The Prize, the longtime Washington Post reporter Dale Russakoff, who also volunteered as a tutor in the district, writes that when it was Zuckerberg's turn in the TV interview to speak, the Facebook co-founder wasn’t able to finish his opening sentence.

At his mention of the $100 million, Oprah interrupted and repeated the number for dramatic effect. The audience exploded. Oprah whooped. Booker, Christie, and audience members stood and applauded. According to Russakoff, Zuckerberg blushed in his seat.

Inspired by his wife (and then-girlfriend) Priscilla Chan’s brief stints as a teacher, and based on his impression that teaching as a profession was undervalued, Zuckerberg wanted to make a contribution to education. While on the show, once the applause died down, he resumed his announcement, citing his desire to see Booker and Christie “turn Newark into a symbol of educational excellence for the whole nation.” The preemptive celebration was telling.

There was a mission that had been vaguely articulated by two charismatic, ambitious politicians to improve the lives for what Russakoff calculates to be more than 38,000 of America’s most disadvantaged children. There was a huge pile of money, with the promise of another $100 million in matching donations from corporate investors and philanthropists courted by Booker. To the television audience of typical Americans, the union of celebrity politicians, crusader rhetoric, and a $200 million gift sparked an attack of the warm fuzzies. Philanthropic foundations including that of Bill and Melinda Gates, Eli and Edythe Broad, and the Walton Family spend nearly $4 billion a year on supporting public K-12 education in America. Zuckerberg’s generous gift was unique in the sense that he was investing in an effort that tasked politicians with tackling an entire district’s shortcomings.

Without taking an ideological stance in the contentious public debates about the direction of education in America, Russakoff shows readers how a dreamy-seeming union of idealists, money, and opportunity might breed confusion and conflict as readily as hope and renewal. She underscores the maddening complexities of reinvigorating and managing a struggling school system in a downtrodden urban area. Some education reformers characterize teachers’ unions as a major impediment to progress, but The Prize dives into the whole stew of potential obstacles. As the Newark example demonstrates, when it comes to handling a $1 billion budget (particularly one enhanced by philanthropists’ gifts), school and district administrators, for-profit education consultants, and politicians have much at stake besides improving test scores and vanquishing socioeconomic inequality. Parents and teachers alike may not harbor any love for a bloated school district’s inefficient, ineffective status quo. Nonetheless, they may resist a message of change when they feel the messengers’ tone and tactics are condescending, even “colonial,” as one school board member puts it to Russakoff. For instance, the son of famous late poet and longtime Newark resident Amiri Baraka, Ras Baraka, an educator and Booker’s eventual replacement as mayor, didn’t like seniority protections for teachers either. However, he was even more turned off by what he called “dictatorial bullying” disguised as cooperation. In the notoriously tough Newark, inadequate social services may keep kids traumatized by crime, poverty, drugs, and abuse from embracing the identity of student, even if higher-quality teachers are recruited to take over the education of these children.

Impeccably researched and originally serialized in The New Yorker, The Prize makes some sense of this Great American Disaster. It shows how well-intentioned reform-minded outsiders may wade clumsily into a school system’s entrenched webs of traditions, allegiances, cultural habits, and underlying conditions. Like an army trying to maintain control over occupied territory—while simultaneously playing Whack-a-Mole with the problems that pop up—they may make more of a mess than the one they mop up.

Russakoff pulls readers in with richly drawn real-world characters. The Cory Booker she portrays is a “politician of the future.” (The Democrat has since taken office as a U.S. Senator.) He shines on the Sundance Channel documentary show Brick City and made headlines rescuing a neighbor from a burning building—an act he immediately shared on Twitter. On an episode of her show after the Oprah announcement, Ellen DeGeneres hands him a Superman costume and calls him “Your Excellency.” He’s spent so much time networking on social media, visiting other cities, and appearing on TV shows that the writer Amiri Baraka, according to Russakoff, dubbed him “The Virtual One.”

Booker may have charmed the don of Earth’s most traversed virtual world, but Russakoff’s reporting remains balanced. She gained intimate access to many of the powerful individuals involved in the Newark initiative and factored in their perspectives along with the stories of teachers, principals, parents, and students.

The politicians had monumental hopes. Facing poor outcomes, complacency, and bureaucratic clutter, Booker, who didn’t attend Newark’s public schools, promised that the city would witness “transformative,” not “incremental,” reform. He also pledged that this work would be “the people’s project.” Instead of starting with the input of teachers, parents, and students, they hired Cami Anderson, a white woman who had the reputation of ‘not playing well in the sandbox with others.” Christie appointed as his education commissioner Christopher Cerf, the founder of the consulting firm Global Education Advisors and the former self-styled “chief of transformation” who helped spearhead former New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein’s redesign of the district. “Change has casualties,” Cerf said to a group of community and business leaders. The key, he told school investors on another occasion, was that, “you have to override political infrastructure.”

For the Christie administration, overriding the infrastructure involved hiring waves of for-profit education consultants shortly after the Oprah announcement—including a $3 million contract for Cerf’s old firm. Russakoff reported that a total of $21 million of the $200 million donation ended up going to “technocrats” who commuted from Manhattan with high salaries amounting to as much as $1,000 a day. These consultants were skilled at marketing reform efforts, developing systems for evaluating teachers, designing data systems, and reorganizing bureaucratic hierarchies. They didn’t know the community or interact with students in person, but, according to Russakoff’s account, were fluent in education-reform jargon. In a poor, predominantly black and Latino district, their whiteness, high salaries, and talk of “moving the needle” created tension not only with the on-the-ground employees they were tasked with motivating but also the school board and the union.

There were other casualties. Money was funneled toward agonizing union negotiations as part of efforts to amend the teachers’ contract—including $30 million in back pay as a compromise in exchange for a merit-based pay system—and positions which didn’t entail direct, meaningful contact with students, like teacher coaches and curriculum-design experts. These hires, according to Russakoff, detracted funding that could’ve been otherwise spent on early-childhood education classrooms, G.E.D. and continuing-education programs, and additional teachers, which could have reduced class sizes.

Amid the grant-led reform initiative, the ambitious Booker and Christie moved on to campaigns for higher office in 2013 and 2015, respectively. (Christie also seriously considered running for president in 2012.) Newark’s public-school enrollment dropped as children transferred to charter schools, which as of the book’s completion, reportedly served 40 percent of the city’s children. These shifts took a toll on schools’ budget. The drop in the traditional public-school population led to school closures and a purge of more recent hires. Christie, Booker, and Cerf advocated for the expansion of charter schools, but, despite Anderson’s warnings, apparently failed to consider the effect this might have on the district’s remaining students, many of whom had to attend new schools and cope with larger classes and fewer resources. Ultimately, Russakoff shows how dramatically overhauling a school system in the name of education might disrupt a community and hurt students.

Russakoff’s observations offer searing, though indirect, commentary on the outcomes of the $200 million project. The book is rife with spectacular examples of reformers defining their success exclusively on their own terms. Anderson, for example, tied her own pay bonuses to education gains finalized close to the end of the year. Russakoff memorably analogizes that move to tailoring an answer key to a test-taker’s responses; Anderson never missed a bonus, perhaps because she could decide on the goals once she knew the results. Still, Russakoff gives Anderson her due. Student registration, for example, unfolded with unprecedented smoothness; she freed principals from having to attend to rote paperwork so they could coach teachers in the classrooms; she recognized that trimming fat in the district would eliminate jobs integral to a stable community.

At the same time, Russakoff also notes how, at a 2013 event celebrating her first two years in office, Anderson gave a speech to charter-school advocates, consultants, and civic leaders in a room plastered with posters inaccurately hailing her accomplishments. It wasn’t a public event, barring potentially frustrated Newark parents from crashing the party. In a follow-up questionnaire, she asked attendees for feedback about the posters, but the choices for each response excluded options that would allow negative feedback; the choices ranged from neutral to intensely positive.

Plant metaphors help illustrate the rhetoric of American education reform. Dead schools require greener thumbs. The husks of once-formidable teachers and principals are yanked from stubborn perches. New visions refresh tired soil. Students rise like fresh stalks. Booker spoke early on in the initiative of breaking an “iceberg of immovable ... failing schools” and letting them “melt into many different school models.” He said that they would “flower, just like cherry blossoms.”

What actually happened fell short of the imagined transformation. Newark was a hard place to get a good public education, and it still is. Some, but hardly all, of the charter schools are performing well, but test scores elsewhere are uneven. Since 2011, 60 percent of principals across the district departed their positions. And while graduation rates have somewhat improved, the general consensus seems to be that that status quo persists. The district’s future is tenuous amid budget cuts and layoffs. “Two hundred million dollars and almost five years later,” writes Russakoff, “there was at least as much rancor as reform.”

The Prize is a cautionary tale. When reading, one may see ways around the stumbling blocks that Newark’s leaders neglected to anticipate. Those who believe philanthropy can bolster the futures of marginalized American schoolchildren may gain some inspiration, though not the sort that Booker and his allies envisioned in 2010. In 2014, Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan announced another round of generous donations for education: $120 million in grants dedicated to improving conditions at Bay Area schools in low-income neighborhoods. They partnered with parents and educators, and designated funds for mental-health services and improved medical care for children’s communities.

Clearly, Zuckerberg learned from Newark: Reform may be possible, but it can’t come crashing down from above. Money alone doesn’t solve problems. Invest in plans, not politicians.

This week, Steve Jobs’s widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, announced a sleekly marketed $50 million education-focused project that also eschews incremental changes in favor of new models. Her plan involves encouraging teams of educators (and students) to submit plans for alternative ways to envision the high-school experience, the most impressive of whom will receive grants by next fall. As bold and invigorating as the ideas may be, her advisers are Obama appointees, celebrities, district administrators, start-up specialists, and corporate vice presidents—not teachers, principals, or public-school parents. Wealthy citizens who care about education in America will likely read The Prize. As they seek new ways to solve the problem, like good students, they should take its best lessons to heart.