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Dale Russakoff

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Dale Russakoff

In 2010, Chris Christie, Cory Booker and Mark Zuckerberg teamed up to launch an ambitious reform initiative in Newark’s public schools. They got an education…though not the one they were anticipating. In her book, The Prize: Who’s In Charge of America’s Schools, Dale Russakoff chronicles the epic struggles involved in bringing dramatic top-down changes to the city’s schools. The why of what worked, and what didn’t, makes for an eye-opening, heartbreaking and occasionally uplifting narrative about the nature of change in urban education. It also answers the question on everyone’s mind: What happened to Zuckerberg’s millions? Russakoff, a veteran reporter who spent 28 years at The Washington Post, first published her tales of Newark’s school reform effort in The New Yorker. She took time out from her October publicity tour to discuss The Prize—her first book—with Mark Stewart.

Radius Stories about money and power typically have heroes, villains and victims. Who was who in this story?

Russakoff: One of the striking things about this narrative is that there wasn’t a hero and there wasn’t a villain. I think there was a very noble ideal at the outset of doing well by every child and creating something that served all kids citywide at a really high level. It happened for some kids, but not for others.

Radius Why is that?

Photo by: Governor’s Office/Tim Larsen

Russakoff: The people who tried to lead this reform effort were very well-intentioned, but they honestly didn’t understand enough about the district or the lives of the children or the realities of teaching in the schools in Newark to achieve what the wanted. They definitely succeeded in bringing in more charter schools—they nearly doubled the enrollment of children in charter schools—and in Newark the charter schools outperform the districts significantly on average. So those are good opportunities for those kids. The problem is that the 60 percent of kids who remain in the district schools really haven’t seen an improvement.

Radius What didn’t the reform effort take into account?

Russakoff: One of the takeaways of my book is that education in any city is part of an “ecosystem” where everything is connected to everything else. There didn’t seem to be a detailed appreciation for the consequences in some cases.

Radius When all was said and done, the Newark Schools superintendent, Cami Anderson, ended up on the bottom of the pile. Did she deserve to be there?

Photo by Guillaume Paumier/guillaumepaumier.com

Russakoff: It’s so complicated what happened with her. She came in very focused on the complexities that education reform presented in an urban setting like Newark. She was focused on the fact that, as you increase the charters, you have to lay off people in the school district and close schools. You’re going to be affecting the families of children who depend on their livelihood on the school district. She also was concerned about whether the charters were serving the neediest kids, about the lottery system that seemed to favor the most motivated parents. She just had all of the complexities right at the forefront and she was raising them with people like Chris Christie and Chris Cerf and the Foundation for Newark’s Future, which was deciding how to spend Mark Zuckerberg’s money and the matching funds. I think that she was trying to speak truth to power in many ways. But that was being done more in private council rather than in the public.

Radius What was it about Anderson (right) that invited so much public anger and criticism?

Russakoff: Most people in Newark did not understand that she had this very nuanced perspective on how education reform should proceed. As things went along, I think she was not successful in listening to the community. She felt that this was such a complicated, vast enterprise. She had to bring all these issues of equity, efficiency and academic improvement, reorganize the bureaucracy, deal with the people who were going to lose their jobs—she had this massive plan. But she decided to unleash it without participation, without parents knowing anything in advance about what would become of their children’s school. It was such an upheaval in the way education was experienced by people in Newark. She was the person behind it and she was not even going to give them a chance to participate in the plan. The community rose up in opposition and she was the obvious target because it was her plan.

Radius Did Anderson base this calculation on any other successful education reform models?

Russakoff: I think she was very much writing the book as she went. The system she and others came up with—which had parents applying online to any school and then using an algorithm to work out which child got into which school based on a series of preferences—this was brand new. The children with the highest economic need, the greatest special education need and those who were in the neighborhood of a school would have first preference. I don’t think that had ever been done, anywhere. She also had a plan where those who were laid off in the school district could apply for stipends that would help them go back to school and train for another job. This was her attempt to deal with the severe unintended consequences that reform can have on the people who work for the school districts. Yet there was no consultation with the unions or the workers who were going to be laid off. They had no say in how these stipends were going to be structured or what benefits they would or wouldn’t get. So there was a lot that she was doing to try hard to address the consequences of reform that were going to be painful to the community, but she wasn’t asking the community if these were the right solutions or if these were going to be the most helpful way of helping people cope.

Radius And what were the optics of that?

Russakoff: Instead of coming across as a positive plan that took the community’s needs into account, it came across as a plan that was being imposed on people. Unfortunately, this fit with the whole pattern of this reform effort. You know, it was announced on Oprah before anyone in Newark knew it was happening. There was an agenda of expanding charter schools and closing the failing district schools that wasn’t previewed at all with the community—even during what was called the “community engagement” effort. There were ten forums, but it was never mentioned that there would be the expansion of charters, the closing of districts, and layoffs.

Radius Let’s look at the positives. What great ideas are buried in this story? One of the schools created a Dean of Family Engagement. There was also Talent Match, a system that paired teachers with certain principals.

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Russakoff: I thought a lot of what was being done was smart. The Talent Match program you mentioned was an excellent idea, because it makes a lot of sense that principals should be able to pick their own team of teachers. I saw that happen in a couple of schools. The change from one principal to the next when that second principal brought in a new team, made a huge improvement in the culture, the learning atmosphere, the parents’ buy-in and the teachers’ sense that they had the support of the administration.

Radius They also brought in a whole new teacher evaluation system.

Russakoff: It was something a consulting firm wrote up, but it had a lot of input from teachers and principals. It was a very useful tool because it described in detailed terms what “good teaching” was. The principals were supposed to go in and observe teachers and give them very specific feedback on what they could do differently. That was all to the good.

Radius So what prevented the reform effort from being more effective as a whole?

Russakoff: The problem was that there was much more support needed at the teacher and classroom level—because, of course, that where the children and the needs are—and that was not the focus of the reform effort. The changes were all management changes at the top. A lot of that came from the fact that the district was really dysfunctional in the way it had been managed from the top-down in the past. But the resources that were needed in the schools and classrooms are just not there in the district schools. And that has a lot to do with why, instead of improvement in the district schools, performance has actually gone down during this time.

Radius $100 million sounds like a lot of money, but proportionally it was a small fraction of the budget.

Russakoff: Yes. And it was $100 million over five years. That meant $20 million a year in a district that spends $1 billion a year. That’s 2 percent. So that’s not going to have a dramatic effect. Let me add that, with Cami Anderson in the superintendent’s role, there were a lot of changes made in the school districts. It’s just that, when you add $100 million over five years to $1 billion a year, you’re not going to see explosive changes. Still, many parents were saying “Where’s the $100 million? Where’s the Zuckerberg money?”

Radius And what was the answer?

Russakoff: It was going into management system changes at the top level of the district and wasn’t going into the classrooms. It did subsidize the expansion of charter schools. Charter school parents were seeing that influx of money more than parents in the district schools.

Radius Hopefully, Mark Zuckerberg (right) and other philanthropists won’t shy away from helping troubled school systems in the future. What do you think he learned from this experience? If he does this again will he do things differently?

Russakoff: Oh, I think he already has started acting differently. His second gift is a similar amount to schools in the Bay Area. His wife, Priscilla, taught for one year in a private school in San Jose and, actually, that had a big effect on him and his decision to give this gift to Newark. When they went out with friends and she would mention that she was teaching, they would act as if she were doing charity work. He thought, Priscilla’s doing more important work as a teacher than a lot of people in these very well-paid tech jobs. He believed there’s something wrong with our society when teachers aren’t rewarded the way that young people coming out of college and going into business are rewarded. He felt that a new kind of teachers contract, which would reward teachers much more handsomely, would be critical in getting the most skilled people in the country to go into teaching. He thought that was what he was going to do with his philanthropy.

Radius So how are they doing things differently?

Russakoff: They are approaching it much more as a bottom-up effort. The staff is going to community meetings so it can understand what the community wants, and learning from teachers both in charter and district schools, as well as principals and district leaders. I think they are trying very hard to learn from what happened in Newark.

Radius What are the take-aways for the reader of The Prize about inner-city school reform in general—besides the fact that it’s incredibly difficult and complicated?

Russakoff: My hope is that it will be obvious from reading the book that the resources that are available for urban education have to get to the schools. Spending money in the central office is not serving the kids in the best way possible. You mentioned the school that had a Dean of Family Engagement. That happened to be a charter school, which did get more resources at the school level. There are jobs that exist in the school district that you wouldn’t create today—they are historic, they have been there throughout all time, and no longer serve the kids in the best way possible. By contrast, charters start fresh and are able to put a lot more of their resources at the school level. That was why that school was able to have a dean whose job it was to make sure that each child had an adult—if it wasn’t a parent, then somebody in that child’s life—who was going to be responsible for making education a priority for that child. That charter school also had two teachers in every classroom in the early grades, where the district only had one. It had a tutor for every grade, where the districts tended to only have one or two for the whole school. It had three social workers and the district schools only had two. Those two social workers did therapy with 70 kids a week, which gives you an idea of the intense emotional needs that kids come to school with in Newark. Schools aren’t equipped to address those needs, and even the best teachers aren’t always able to reach those kids. The idea that a great teacher can “overcome” poverty goes only so far when the needs of the children in their class go beyond academic needs. There have to be more resources here to address that. I would like to hope that there will be more concentration on figuring out how to get the money that is available in public education to schools and principals, so that money can be reallocated to build support around the children, and to help teachers reach them.

Radius Is that a political decision or a management decision?

Russakoff: That is a huge political challenge.

Radius Why?

Russakoff: Because the money that’s concentrated in the school districts has unions behind it and civil service behind it. Making those changes will be one of the biggest fights of all time. But if you look at the cost of not making those changes, it could be that more and more families will be leaving the school district for charters—and the district is going to have to be laying people off anyway. The idea of figuring out how to rethink school districts so that they can serve children with the same resources that the best charter schools do, might be a more palatable option when you look at it that way.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dale Russakoff, a RADIUS reader, lives in Montclair. To read more of this conversation, log onto www.radius-newark.com. The Prize ($27.00 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) was published in September. In The New York Times Book Review, Alex Kotlowitz said of The Prize: “Russakoff maintains a clear-eyed distance, her observations penetratingly honest and incisive to what she sees and what she hears. I suspect some may have regretted letting Russakoff in. We couldn’t have asked for a better guide.”