School reform failed in Newark, according to most reviewers of Dale Russakoff’s The Prize, writes David Steiner in Education Next. However, the “stubborn facts” in this “compellingly readable book . . . complicate this conclusion out of all recognition.”
“The combination of an extraordinary (and perhaps extraordinarily naive) 2010 donation of $100 million from Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, the high-octane political antics of Mayor Cory Booker, and the very dedicated but consultant-reliant and at times tone-deaf district leadership of Cami Anderson converge to create an education drama of the first order,” writes Steiner, who is a John Hopkins education professor.
Five years later, Newark’s district-run schools had improved on some measures, but achievement scores were flat.
However, the city’s expanding charter schools proved to be a “success story,” Steiner writes. “Charter students in Newark gain an additional seven and a half months in reading and nine months in math” per year of schooling compared to similar students in district schools, concluded a 2012 CREDO report. Expanding the city’s charter sector helped many students.
Russakoff praises “public school teachers who kept their heads down and did wonderful work in their classroom,” writes Steiner.
(These teachers) took it upon themselves to glean many lessons from the city’s best charter schools, and found charter school leaders eager to help. They organized themselves as a nonprofit agency through which they raised private money to purchase the rigorous, early literacy program, developed at the University of Chicago for kindergarten through third grade, that was used in the two leading charter networks—the TEAM schools of the national KIPP organization and North Star Academy, a subsidiary of Uncommon Schools.
Ras Baraka, now mayor of Newark, opposed the reforms. But, as principal of a low-performing high school, he “mounted an aggressive turnaround strategy, using some of the instructional techniques pioneered by the reform movement.”
Newark schools have improved, writes Chris Cerf, who was state commissioner of education and is now superintendent of Newark Public Schools. Graduation rates are way up, he writes. “More students attend beating-the-odds schools.”
The Zuckerberg money made a huge difference in Newark, and continues to do so today. Yet The Prize has caused some philanthropists to question additional investments in public education, reading the book as a call to double down on charters since “districts are not fixable.”
School choice is the most powerful tool for change in Newark, writes Rashon Hasan, a school board member, in Education Post.