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

The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?
By Dale Russakoff
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015 – Learn more)

matt-renwickReviewed by Matt Renwick

Toward the end of The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?, Dale Russakoff, a former reporter for the Washington Post, describes the success one Newark (New Jersey) school experienced at the end of the year:

Still, the teachers and leaders at Avon were bringing new hope and purpose to the school, and parents as well as children seemed well aware of that at the kindergarten graduation ceremony on June 22, 2012. Nineteen of Williams’s twenty-three students were marching; four were being held back. The graduates arrived early in their Sunday best. Girls wore flower-print dresses, white dress socks with ribbons threaded through them, and braids adorned with multicolored barrettes and beads that matched their dresses. Boys wore dress pants and dress shirts. Williams wore a tailored black and white dress and heels.” (p. 147)

prize renwickA reader could easily pass that fact in the second sentence (“four were being held back”) without thinking twice, mindlessly immersed in the context of the situation, unaware that the previous year, nine kindergarten students were retained.

The effort and expertise that Princess Williams, the students’ teacher, provided and displayed was impressive. She wrote personal letters to families, prepared individualized learning plans, and used frequent formative assessments to provide the best instruction. That only four students were held back, a reduction by more than half, is a celebration at Avon Elementary School in Newark Public Schools in New Jersey.

This school district, and the $100 million dollar donation it received in 2012 from Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, is the subject of The Prize, Russakoff’s true account of how the money was tragically spent.

The term “the prize” is how educational leaders, politicians, and reformers refer to the large district budgets of poor performing city schools. The four main characters are not students and teachers. Instead, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, then Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Zuckerberg, and Cami Anderson, newly appointed superintendent of the district, are the major players. It is through the eyes and observations of Russakoff that we get a first-person account (she was a tutor in the district) of how politics and power lead to a gross mismanagement of the generous donation.

Good intentions

In the beginning, intentions were good. As Christie and Booker, a Republican and Democrat respectively, drove around the inner city of Newark, they pledged to come together and “get the system on the right track” (p. 5). Through their various networks, the two politicians found Zuckerberg, who was currently looking to make a significant investment in a district in need. His pledge, matched by other donors with various interests, was announced on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show to obvious fanfare.

The power of celebrity, along with the always-impending election cycle, led the two politicians to hire Cami Anderson as Superintendent of Newark Public Schools. Anderson, a former district administrator for the larger district of New York City, was a proponent for expanding publicly funded charter schools to quickly turn around failing public schools.

This short term thinking about “fixing school,” along with some investors’ expectations for privatizing public education, led to predictable results: An exodus of public school families to privately managed charters, a narrowing of curriculum to ensure test results were better, and a lot of money spent on charter school consultants and public school unions, instead of on students’ immediate needs and Newark families and communities.

In its review of the book, The Atlantic magazine summed up the results this way:

(The Prize) 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.

What I appreciated most about The Prize is the objectivity Russakoff brings to her account. For example, charter schools are not inherently bad and public schools, at least in their current form in Newark, have not been the answer. All four main players start this initiative with the best of intentions.

While Christie, Booker, and Anderson have now all moved on to different endeavors, with evident indifference about the results of the Newark experiment, Zuckerberg seems to have learned from the experience. With the guidance of his pediatrician wife Priscilla Chen, the couple are now investing in smaller community organizations in impoverished areas of San Francisco.

This book is required reading for all educators (and education reformers) and for anyone who is confused by all the talk and reports about education in the inner cities of the United States. I think it is so important that others read The Prize that I will personally mail my hard copy of the text to one person who leaves a thoughtful comment on this post.

Matt-Renwick-ASCD-cvrMatt Renwick is a 16-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th grade teacher in a rural school outside of Wisconsin Rapids, WI. After seven years of teaching, he served as a junior high dean of students, assistant principal and athletic director before becoming an elementary school leader in Wisconsin Rapids. Matt blogs at Reading by Example, tweets @ReadByExample and writes for EdTech magazine and other publications. His first book, Digital Student Portfolios, is available at Amazon. His new book from ASCD/Arias, 5 Myths about Classroom Technology, will be published in December.

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3 Responses

  1. Mary Langer Thompson says:

    What a good idea, to give away your book. I would love to read it, since I’m still reeling from the Parent Trigger takeover in the district from which I retired as principal.

    • Matt Renwick says:

      Congratulations Mary – you are the winner of the book. I will email you with a request for a mailing address. I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did.

  2. Mary Langer Thompson says:

    Thank you! I’m looking forward to reading it.

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