Q&A: Washington Post Reporter Dale Russakoff On Why the Big Plan for Saving Newark's Schools Failed

In her critically acclaimed book The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Schools, Washington Post reporter Dale Russakoff tells the story of how an ambitious plan to turn around Newark's failing schools -- devised by then-Mayor Cory Booker, Governor Chris Christie, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg -- crashed and burned.  She talked with The National Book Review about what attracted her to the story, and what the lessons are.

1.  This is a big country with a lot of school districts and schools.  What made you want to write about the Newark school system?

The announcement of Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million gift to Newark on the Oprah Winfrey Show got my attention.

I had written frequently about Newark as a reporter in the New York bureau of the Washington Post, and I was fascinated by the city, which is in many ways a metaphor for what has become of so many once-industrial cities in the U.S., with the exodus of jobs, money and the middle class.

Here you had a conservative, suburban Republican governor and an urban, Democratic mayor completely aligned on the issue of education reform, saying they were going to use this philanthropic bounty to turn one of the nation's more troubled school districts into a model of educational excellence.

As a journalist, I'm especially interested in exploring big public policy ideas to see whether they impact the lives of people they're supposed to help--and then trying to understand why or why not.

Because Newark to me is such a representative city, I saw this as an opportunity to look closely at what the education reform movement meant for urban school systems.

2. Your protagonists seem like an unlikely alliance – Democratic Senator Cory Booker, Republican Governor Chris Christie, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.  How did come together and how well did they work together?

They all came together because Cory Booker, as mayor of Newark, wanted to transform the Newark schools, which had been controlled by the state at that point for 15 years.

The previous governor, a Democrat, was closely allied with teachers' unions and the party bosses and had no interest in upending the status quo. When Christie won an upset victory in 2009, campaigning in part as an opponent of the teachers' union, Booker saw an opportunity to bring more charter schools to Newark and apply the principles of the education reform movement to the school district -- close failing schools, weaken tenure and seniority protections for teachers, impose strict accountability for student performance so as to eliminate the weakest teachers and reward the best ones with merit pay.

They wanted a philanthropist to fund these initiatives and when Booker learned through a supporter that Zuckerberg, at age 26, was looking to make his first big philanthropic gift, he persuaded him that Newark was ripe for a revolution in education.

3. There is a big debate in education circles about how directly more money translates into better outcomes for kids.  Zuckerberg gave $100 million to the Newark schools. How much did that improve actual educational outcomes for actual Newark students?

The money didn't begin to have the transformational effects that the three men promised on the Oprah show. They did succeed in doubling the enrollment in charter schools from 20 to 40 percent of Newark children. In Newark, students in charter schools perform much better than those in district schools, although they don't always have the same representation of children in extreme poverty or with severe disabilities. So this is a significant improvement for those students.

But 60 percent of children in Newark remain in district schools, and the performance of students in Kindergarten through eighth grade has actually gone down in traditional public schools. In some grades, reading scores are down by as much as nine points. This is a reflection, in part, of the severe financial and organizational stress placed on district schools by the large exodus of children and dollars to charters. 

4. Charter schools were a big part of your story and they were able to make some tremendous educational strides.  Do you think they are a better model than public schools, or was there something else at work?

Charters are only as good as the people who run them and teach in them, and nationally, they do not perform better than traditional public schools, although in Newark they do. As I said, Newark charters in general do not have the same levels of child poverty or students with severe disabilities as the school district, although this varies considerably from one charter to the next, and some do come close to matching the district.

The main difference I noticed is that charters do not have the enormous legacy costs that the school district shoulders for all sorts of reasons and some of them get significantly more money to individual schools than the district does.

This enables the best-run charters to support children and teachers in a way the traditional public schools can't. Some of them have extra teachers in the classroom, extra tutors, extra social workers, even in some cases an extra administrator devoted to addressing the very real and severe impacts of poverty on children's readiness to learn.

Many children in Newark are traumatized from witnessing violence and family strife and many are years behind academically.

One charter school principal told me that without these extra resources at the school level, it simply wouldn't be possible to have better results than district schools do.

5. You have probably heard the hackneyed education line, “No one goes into this job to get rich.” You cite many examples of gifted public school teachers who volunteer to transport kids, work extra hours tutoring, even show up at court with abused mothers. Are the corporate reformers missing something about the character of committed teachers and administrators when they “incentivize” them with money?

Education reformers are insistent on merit pay for teachers, but the research has yet to show a connection between merit pay and higher student achievement, with the exception of one study in Washington DC. Some reformers believe they can lure a higher class of candidates into teaching if they promise to reward them for performance, as employers in the private sector would.

But I was struck by the number of teachers I interviewed who did get the merit pay (it ranged from $5,000 to $12,500) who told me it didn't motivate them.

They said what motivated them was making a difference in their students' lives. When I asked what would make them better at teaching, they answered almost uniformly, "A good principal."

6. You wrote empathetically about the lessons Mark Zuckerberg and his wife learned from this experience. What do you think the lessons are of the great Newark school experiment?

Philanthropists need to know the communities where they are working and understand the real needs of children and teachers in those communities before scripting strategies for changing public education.

It's not only politically perilous to impose changes on communities from the top down. It's just not smart philanthropy because you can't understand schools or why they fail unless you see the system through the eyes of the best teachers and principals as well as the most concerned parents and community members.