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Assessing The $100 Million Upheaval Of Newark's Public Schools


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. One of the most audacious exercises in education reform is how journalist Dale Russakoff describes the plan to fix the schools in Newark, N.J., a city beset by poverty and violence. In 2010, Cory Booker, who was then mayor of Newark and is now a U.S. senator, wanted to create a series of reforms in the Newark schools that could serve as a model for other cities.

He enlisted the support of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg donated $100 million with the understanding it would be matched by another 100 million from other sources. The optics were perfect - an African-American Democratic mayor, a white Republican governor and the cofounder of a social media giant come together to rescue the schools.

Russakoff writes that almost everyone on all sides was well-intentioned, and that makes the failures, as well as the successes, of this five-year experiment important to wrestle with. Russakoff chronicles this experiment in school reform in her new book "The Prize: Who's In Charge Of America's Schools." Dale Russakoff was a reporter for The Washington Post for 28 years, covering politics, education and social policy.

Dale Russakoff, welcome to FRESH AIR. Can you give us a sense of where you think the Newark story fits into the larger story about the education reform movement in America?

DALE RUSSAKOFF: Yes. I think this is one city where the ideas of the education reform movement were tried all in one place. Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, had the idea that just to bring of these ideas to one city and use the extraordinary powers of a governor who controlled that school district and the money from Mark Zuckerberg of a hundred million dollars to try everything that - as he said, what was working in the school reform movement. So in that view, it was dramatically expanding charter schools, getting rid of teachers whose evaluations found them to be weak, judging other teachers by their test scores and rewarding them and streamlining the management of the school district so that it ran more like a business.

GROSS: So right from the start, there's a problem. Booker and Zuckerberg announce this gift of a hundred million dollars to reform the Newark schools. They announce it on "Oprah."


GROSS: Which is great, but they hadn't told the community yet. So parents and teachers learn about this big reform movement that's about to hit them from Oprah's show. How did that play in the community?

RUSSAKOFF: Well, it played disastrously in the community because, immediately, nobody understood why do we have to turn on "Oprah" at 4 o'clock to find out what's going on in our own city? And if you want to save the schools for the benefit of our children, why weren't we told? And, by the way, there's a very large consensus on the ground in Newark at this time that the schools really need change, that the schools are failing in unacceptable ways. And so there wasn't really, you know, a roadmap for how to do that, but there were a lot of people, including some very skilled, experienced teachers, who deeply understood the needs of the children in Newark who would have been eager to be part of that conversation. And not only were they insulted that they were left out, there was an agenda that was crafted that didn't have the benefit of their really important insights into what was needed in Newark.

GROSS: So Cory Booker takes the Zuckerberg money and creates a local foundation to handle the Zuckerberg gift and the matching donations. It's called Foundation for Newark's Future. But you're right that the seats on this foundation went only to donors who gave $10 million or more. That was later reduced to $5 million or more, which meant that virtually no one from Newark could afford to serve on this foundation that was trying to change the Newark schools. How did that play in the community?

RUSSAKOFF: Well, that was again totally alienating of the community because there were a number of local foundations in Newark that had been involved for years in education. And, you know, $5 million as an annual gift just was not in their budget. And so they were excluded from having any say, but more importantly, there was no way for the parents, the teachers, the principals, the community leaders - just, you know, really, really intelligence, smart, committed people who had been in the fray for years in the lives of children in education - to be part of this. And so basically, the board decided to spend the money the way the wealthy donors wanted it spent. And the priorities were not about getting money to the classroom or to the children. The priorities were to have to this kind of business model, top-down reform that had become very popular in the reform movement.

GROSS: One of the criticisms of how the money was handled was that $20 million went to consultants, and a lot of the consultants were paid, like, a thousand dollars a day. And you compare that to what teachers make in a year, and that what was their response to that?

RUSSAKOFF: Well, that was another case of, like, you know, this enormous gap between the people who have come to save the Newark children and the people who actually cared for and taught the Newark children. And it became a huge flashpoint because Mark Zuckerberg had indicated that he wanted to give teachers enormous bonuses if they were the top teachers in the district. And that wasn't possible because the district just didn't have the money to pay those bonuses beyond the time that they would have the Zuckerberg money. So there were some merit bonuses put into the contract, but they were relatively small. And the new contract that came out of this reform effort also required teachers in quite a few schools to work longer hours, longer years and to work some weekends for a pretty small stipend that was added to their annual pay. It was $3,000, which they calculated came to about $10 an hour. And they were just - you know, they felt they had been kind of conscripted into working these extra hours and extra days while the people who were in the district, you know, scripting these plans as consultants were getting a thousand dollars a day. And it really became something that turned the teachers - even teachers who wanted - very much wanted change - it turned them against the reform effort.

GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is journalist Dale Russakoff, a former Washington Post reporter who's written a new book called "The Prize: Who's In Charge Of America's Schools?" And it's about the attempts to reform the schools in Newark, N.J.

So let's talk about what the plan actually was for reform - the plan that was put into effect by the then-superintendent of schools. And this plan was called One Newark. You want to give us an overview of what the plan was?

RUSSAKOFF: Yes. Cami Anderson, the superintendent, saw this plan as a way to expand charter schools and stabilize the school district at the same time. This is one of the great challenges of, you know, urban districts where charter schools are expanding rapidly - is, you know, that when children leave the school district and go to charters, the money goes with them, and the school district ends up under tremendous stress. The other huge thing that she did in this was that she created something called universal enrollment.

Newark, throughout all time, had been a city where kids walked to school. There were many small neighborhood schools, and there was no bus system that took kids to school, except in the case of kids with special needs who had to go to special schools. But the average child in Newark just walked to a neighborhood school. And the feeling that she had - and this is a strong feeling in the reform movement - is that children and families should have choice. They should be able to choose to leave a failing neighborhood school if they want to.

And so from One Newark onward, which started in the fall of 2013, no family automatically was sending a child to a neighborhood school. They had to go online and pick one of 60-something schools in the city - some charter, some district - and then algorithm would sort whether they got into that school. In theory, it's a great idea because everybody wants to be able to choose the right school for their kid, but it was a huge upheaval in the way people had always lived in Newark. And at the same time, she was closing, consolidating and rearranging the district schools to make way for the charter school growth and to basically downsize the district, which already had lost a lot of kids to charter schools.

And it turned into a massive upheaval in just the way school was experienced by children and families in Newark. And it was done, again, without a process of vetting with the community to see, well, how if, you know - will this new system work for these children and families? When a school is closed, children had to walk through very dangerous territory, you know, sometimes through gang territory, through drug dealing neighborhoods. And none of that was kind of vetted in advance to see what can we do for these kids to make sure they're safe?

GROSS: Something else that didn't work out as planned - Mark Zuckerberg was hoping to use his hundred million dollars to, in part, negotiate different contracts with teachers to have more flexibility in who got hired and who got fired and who got placed in what school. And then he found out something he didn't know initially, which was the seniority thing was controlled by New Jersey law.


GROSS: And not by anything you could negotiate with the school district.

RUSSAKOFF: Yes. He put up - half his money, he said, he wanted to go to reforming teachers' contracts to create this new flexibility and to be able to reward the best teachers and eliminate the worst teachers. But he had - I guess Cory Booker never made clear to him that seniority protections for the most senior teachers - the way it work is that when there's a downsizing or a layoff, the most senior teachers are protected, and those who have the least seniority go first, regardless of whether the senior teachers are better than the junior teachers who are being left off.

And so those were provisions of state law - the state tenure law in New Jersey. That was something that could be controlled by contract. And so the process of trying to get rid of the seniority protections, which was one of his number one priorities, had to go through the New Jersey legislature. And the legislature in New Jersey is controlled by the teachers' union. The New Jersey Education Association's by far the biggest contributor to members of the legislature.

GROSS: Right. OK. So Zuckerberg had no idea what he was getting himself into in terms of that aspect of his - of his goal. So...

RUSSAKOFF: Yes. I want to point out, though, that Chris Cerf, who was the - at the time, the state commissioner of education, did negotiate with the legislature a new tenure law that won a lot of new accountability measures from the teachers' union. And the one thing that the teachers' union insisted on was that they would make all these compromises, but they had to leave the seniority protections absolutely intact. And so that was the compromise that Christie made. And so the seniority protections became automatically a part of this new contract in Newark, which was supposed to be, you know, in the words that the reformers were using, a transformational contract that would become a model for how to reform school districts all across the country, and it was not.

GROSS: So how far did the Newark model get in terms of shutting down failing schools, consolidating schools, starting new charter schools?

RUSSAKOFF: Well, I think that the most visible thing they did was that they doubled the number of children going to charter schools in Newark in just a short period of time. Twenty percent of kids were in charters at the time this effort started, and within a year or two, 40 percent of children will be in charters. And in Newark, that's an improvement for kids because the charter schools in Newark dramatically outperform the district schools, even though statewide, that's not true of charter schools, and nationally, it's not. But Newark has, you know, a very superior group of charter schools that are doing, you know, a lot of good work with kids.

GROSS: So were the charter schools public schools?

RUSSAKOFF: Yes, yes, these were public schools. And they're just - they're charter schools, so they're not part of the school district. They're independent.

GROSS: So from what you observed, why is it that the charter schools in Newark perform better than the public schools?

RUSSAKOFF: Well, I think a key reason is that the charter schools get a lot of more money to the classroom and to the school building than the district schools do. District schools, although they get $19,000 to $20,000 per pupil in public funds to spend, get fewer than $10,000 to the district schools for the principals and teachers to spend on educating the kids.

The charter schools, while starting out with less money, get more of it to the classroom. So they get, like, $12,000 to $13,000 per student. And what they do with that money is really critical because they actually use the resources to support kids who would otherwise have a lot of trouble learning because of the issues that growing up in poverty cause for them. So, you know, there are children who literally - and it's not unusual. Children suffer trauma in Newark from having grown up amid violence, family strife and constant instability in their homes.

And so when you go into these charter schools - the one that I spent a lot of time in was a KIPP elementary school called SPARK Academy. There were two certified teachers in every grade from kindergarten through third. There was also a learning specialist or a tutor for every grade so that children who couldn't learn in the small groups that these two teachers set up for those who were academically behind or just struggling - there would be a learning specialist who would push in and do extra work with them.

The charter school had three social workers for 520 kids, and they actually had - the school had their time organized so they did therapy. At this particular school, 70 children had therapy every week for different kinds of emotional issues that were interfering with their learning. In the district school, there's one social worker for over 600 kids. And they don't have time to do any therapy because they're just juggling so much, and they have tons of paperwork they're responsible for.

And in addition to that, the charter school had created a position called the dean of student and family engagement, whose job it was to work with children whose issues outside the classroom were making it virtually impossible for them to learn effectively. So this particular dean would find someone in each child's family to be responsible for their learning. If it wasn't a parent or a grandparent, it would be a neighbor. One time, there was a stepfather who had just come out of prison and wanted to have a relationship with his stepson, and they engaged him to be the sort of chief learning officer for that child. And all of these people were there to be present and to support kids who otherwise wouldn't have been able to learn.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Dale Russakoff, a former Washington Post reporter who's written a new book called "The Prize: Who's In Charge Of America's Schools?" And it's about the attempts to reform the schools in Newark, N. J. Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk about how this plan worked out. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is former Washington Post reporter Dale Russakoff, who's written a new book, "The Prize: Who's In Charge Of America's Schools?" And it's the plan that was put into effect by then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey and Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, who donated a hundred million dollars to help reform Newark's schools. And that was supposed to be matched by a hundred million dollars from other sources.

Why is it that the charter schools are able to get more money directly to the students and teachers than the district schools are?

RUSSAKOFF: I think it's almost like the difference between FedEx and the post office. The district schools have a lot of legacy costs, and some of those are just extra jobs and incredibly sweet, fat contracts that, you know, people who were friends of politicians over the years have gotten. And there needs to be some kind of - almost a forensic accounting of where the money in the central office of the school district is going so that more of it gets to the classroom. And I think that charter schools are just an illustration of what that money could be doing if it were spent differently. The problem is, of course, that, you know, you run up into, you know, union protections and civil service protections and political organizations that have a real stake in keeping things the way they are. So it probably sounds naive to say that that needs to happen, but if it doesn't happen, I don't see what the future of school districts is in cities like Newark.

GROSS: So the education reform movement that we've been discussing in Newark was initiated by then-Mayor Cory Booker who brought in Governor Chris Christie. And then Booker enlisted Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, to donate a hundred million dollars. And then the two politicians kind of moved on to other things. Cory Booker becomes a senator. And you say he hasn't really spoken about the Newark reform initiative since becoming a senator. I don't know if that's changed since you completed the book.

RUSSAKOFF: No, he hasn't.

GROSS: OK. Governor Chris Christie got kind of sidetracked by the bridge scandal and then by his campaign for the presidency. So what does that say about politicians' involvement in education reform?

RUSSAKOFF: Well, it basically shows you that politicians do have their own agendas, and educational reform may be one of them, but other things can supersede. And I think it shows why this really has to be a process that is rooted in the community and has its strong advocates who aren't going anywhere, who are going to stay there and believe in it, year after year, and work for it. It's not something that's going to happen in five years or in, you know - within the term of a mayor or a governor. It's something that's going to take generations and has to be worked at continually.

GROSS: Did you talk to Mark Zuckerberg about what his takeaway was his first big investment in a philanthropic cause?

RUSSAKOFF: You know, he didn't want to say anything critical about what happened. He said that he feels that he learned that change comes more slowly in school districts than he thought it did. He found that charters are a much faster way to change the situation on the ground for children and that districts are slower and take a lot more work and a lot more politics.

But what's interesting is that he initially had thought that, you know - this is what Cory Booker had told him and what he banked on - was that in five years, they would have a model for how to turn around a failing school district, how - as Booker said, how to flip a city and take it from very, very poor schools and poor performance of children to what he called a model of educational excellence.

And then Mark Zuckerberg's intent was to go to more and more cities with this model and use his philanthropy to basically solve the urban education crisis. He's not trying to do that anymore, and he's not looking for far away cities with kind of star quality politicians leading them. He's already committed another $120 million, but he's committed it to schools and school districts around the Bay Area, where he is located, so that he and his staff can know the communities where they're going to be working and, as he said, know the desires of the communities and listen to the parents and the teachers and the educators and the community leaders to understand the complex needs of children. So it's a very, very different and much more humble approach to trying to change education.

GROSS: My guest is Dale Russakoff, author of "The Prize: Who's In Charge Of America's Schools?" After a short break, we'll talk about the growing education industrial complex. Then David Bianculli will review last night's Emmy Award telecast and look ahead to the fall TV season, and Kevin Whitehead will review the new complete edition of Erroll Garner's 1955 "Concert By The Sea." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with journalist Dale Russakoff, author of "The Prize: Who's In Charge Of America's Schools?" It's about the five-year experiment to reform the schools in Newark, N.J., a city beset by poverty and violence. The experiment was initiated by then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who enlisted the support of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg donated $100 million to the project, which was to be matched by 100 million from other donors. There's, like, a whole new network of, you know, funders, foundations, philanthropic groups and education consultants who are leaders of one part of the education reform movement. You actually use the word education industrial complex to describe some of them. Now, I'd like you to talk a little bit about - as you describe it - education industrial complex.

RUSSAKOFF: Well, you know, interestingly, there's always been an education industrial complex. The education industry is over $600 billion a year in terms of the amount of money that is spent by all the school districts in the country on private contracts and consultants and textbooks and testing. And, you know, it's just - it's a huge, huge business. But what - what I've found interesting about the education reform movement is that they also have their own education industrial complex. So when somebody who's very friendly to the education reform movement becomes a leader of a school district or when a governor, like Gov. Christie, who's friendly to the education reform movement, is running school districts in the state of New Jersey, all of these consultants just suddenly appear. And they're available to do work on, you know, how to help them develop the best, you know, and most reform-oriented teacher evaluation system, the most reform-oriented teacher and principal contracts, the best data system because the data has to be incredibly cleaned in order to use the data to judge everyone in the system and hold them accountable. And so there's all of these consulting firms and businesses, a lot of them founded or staffed by people who started off, say, in Teach For America, who worked for some of the more famous reform-oriented superintendents and chancellors like Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee. In fact, one of the leaders of this organization called BRICK, which was kind of the bottom-up group of district teachers who were trying to reform schools just by improving the teaching force - he said that he got so many queries from this group of people that he started calling them the school failure industry, which was, you know, just people who showed up when you had failing schools that were the target of, you know, the education reformers or some of the federal grants that were available for failing schools. There was money in failing schools. And he said there was a school failure industry that was trying to compete for it.

GROSS: So I'm sure you've been following this, but Laurene Powell Jobs, who was Steve Jobs' widow, is funding a lot of education reform right now. And what she's trying to do is a kind of crowdsourced education reform. So she's asking teams to submit ideas to her, and then she and a team of judges will pick the best education reform ideas and finance those ideas in the public schools. What do you know about that effort?

RUSSAKOFF: You know, I don't know about it in detail. But it sounds like the kind of thing that might be very exciting in the business world to figure out the next big thing. I don't know that, you know, those kinds of ideas are going to actually transcend into real changes in education because there seems to be a sense that everybody knows as much about how to fix schools as teachers do and as educators do. And a lot of these ideas sound to those of us in the layman's world, like, gee, that's fascinating. That's what's wrong. But if you're really close to the ground and you're inside a school, you know that it's not like there is one thing wrong when a school is failing. There's usually, like, 50 to 100, maybe 500 things wrong. And you have to fix all of them, and it's really tedious work. It's not like a big idea and a new thing. It's something that you have to just do slowly and patiently and often tediously.

GROSS: So with the main part of this experiment ended just in terms of the funding of it, how did the charter schools measure up to the district schools in terms of performance?

RUSSAKOFF: Well, the Newark charter schools dramatically outperformed the district schools, unlike charter schools across the country, which are more on a par with the district schools and in some cases not as good. The Newark charter schools do much better for kids, and that is one of the things that they're very proud of that they feel they've done for children in Newark.

GROSS: And do you think that that's largely because their charter schools have more resources?

RUSSAKOFF: I think that's a big reason. I mean, the charter schools also do not have as needy a population as the school district, but they still have a very, you know, high percentage of kids with - who get free and reduced-price lunch. And they have more kids now who have special needs, so they are serving a broader population than they used to, although still not the same need level as the district schools.

GROSS: I'm just wondering this whole accountability movement of, like, testing and collecting data and analyzing data and holding teachers accountable, is that adding a whole new layer of expensive bureaucracy?

RUSSAKOFF: Yes, it has. I mean, they spent millions - literally millions of dollars on a human resources consulting firm to, you know, get a new teachers evaluation system and teach everybody in the district - you know, principals, department heads, senior teachers - how to use it and how to use it to hold teachers accountable. And the state, which - and, you know, this was an initiative that came straight from the federal government. The Race to the Top that President Obama and Arne Duncan, the education secretary, put in place encouraged states to change their laws so the teacher evaluations were based increasingly on the student test scores - how students - whether students grew or not on their annual tests would determine whether teachers were rated effective or ineffective. And interestingly, I spent some time interviewing the measurement scientist who developed the system in New Jersey for measuring whether students grew or not from year to year on their standardized tests. And the state is using that measure of growth to say whether a teacher is effective or ineffective to some degree. And this measurement scientist said that the system was never intended to judge teachers. It was only intended to measure whether children are growing or not because it doesn't tell you why they're growing or who caused them to grow or why they're failing and who caused them to fail. All it tells you is whether they are progressing or regressing. And the teacher is a factor in that, but there are so many other factors that he said, you know, this is just not the way this data should have been used.

GROSS: That's especially interesting coming from the guy who created the system...

RUSSAKOFF: Yes, and he...

GROSS: ...To collect the data ...

RUSSAKOFF: ...And his system

GROSS: Yeah.

RUSSAKOFF: Yes, and his system is being used in 35 states, I think.

GROSS: Being used to evaluate teachers, right?

RUSSAKOFF: Yes. Yes, it's the growth measurement, how - you know, it measures whether students have grown from year to year on their standardized tests. And this is now the data that's being used to evaluate teachers in more than half the states.

GROSS: I'm wondering what your takeaway is from the Newark education reform attempts in terms of what seems to work and what doesn't. What are some of the lessons learned as far as you're concerned?

RUSSAKOFF: You know, the main thing that I am struck by was just by witnessing what this particular charter school was able to do with the extra resources that came into the building and the classroom. The principal of the charter school, who is very proud of their student results because they - you know, they do far outperform the school district - said unequivocally she never would have these results if she didn't have these extra resources. In other words, if she only had the resources to work with that the school district schools had, she couldn't have done this, and her students couldn't have done this. So to me, the biggest takeaway - and again, as I said, it's a huge political enterprise that can't be done easily - but it's to figure out how to get resources to individual schools within school districts to meet the needs of children because they really don't have the resources to meet them now in cities like Newark.

GROSS: So listen, Cory Booker really made himself available to you. You spent a lot of time talking to him. You spent a lot of time in his SUV driving around Newark back when he was mayor and was one of the people - people pushing through this education reform plan in the Newark schools that we've been discussing. Do you think he's sorry that he talked to you? Because you've pointed out so many things that didn't work out right, you know, so much conflict that ended up as a result of this plan. He left while it was being implemented 'cause he was elected to the Senate.

RUSSAKOFF: I - I'm sure that he wishes that he hadn't made himself as available. But I don't think it would've really changed. In fact, I think that the book's helped. And he's helped by, you know, seeing the passion and the - the ability that he has to bring national attention to issues, often issues that other people aren't focusing on, like, you know, inner-city schools and currently, you know, the issue of mass incarceration. I think that what he has an incredible talent for is that - is framing issues and getting the nation to pay attention to them or at least getting a wide audience of people to pay attention to them and to pay attention to him in the process. But what he wasn't strong on was in the patient, tedious, kind of unglamorous work of taking those promises and hammering them out into a different reality. He tended to have - you know, to be ready to go on to the next thing.

GROSS: Well, Dale Russakoff, thank you so much for talking with us.

RUSSAKOFF: Thanks so much for having me.

GROSS: Dale Russakoff is the author of "The Prize: Who's In Charge Of America's Schools? After a short break, David Bianculli will review last night's Emmy telecast and look ahead to the fall TV season. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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