Dale Russakoff's The Prize and How Corporate School Reform Failed in Newark

Dale Russakoff's The Prize is a wonderful account of the way that Cory Booker, Chris Christie, Christopher Cerf, Cami Anderson and other corporate reformers largely squandered the $200 million opportunity created by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg to improve the Newark schools. The subtitle of this invaluable book is "Who's In Charge of America's Schools?"

By now, most people interested in education policy are aware of The Prize and its main themes of hubris, and what happened when elites jumped in, imposed their opinions on others (who they knew nothing about), ignored social science and history, and refused to listen to the community or the professionals who they sought to transform. And they did so without even bothering to formulate anything resembling a plan.

When a plan was finally devised, its competition-driven, reward and punish approach was given the unintentionally ironic title of One Newark.

As Russakoff concludes, "For four years, the reformers never really tried to have a conversation with the people of Newark. Their target audience was always somewhere else." Elite reformers were seeking "a national proof point" which would demonstrate how they could provide incentives and disincentives to solve society's problems. As one reformer from the NewSchools Venture Fund explained, the new edu-philanthropy sector "understands leverage. If you get education right, you're going get people jobs, reduce incarceration, et cetera. So the idea is to help people analyze what's not working and inspire entrepreneurs to solve problems."

One of the many great things about The Prize is the way that Russakoff borrows the terminology of educators and reformers to explain both the facts of urban life and the scholarship that reformers dismissed, as well as the mentality that allowed them to be so destructively obstinate. One of the most quotable characters is the past and current czar of other people's schools, Christopher Cerf.

Cerf touted himself as the New York City schools' "chief of transformation." Working for the NYC Chancellor Joel Klein, who embodied the hurried, slash and burn style of school improvement, Cerf learned that the search for consensus was part of the problem. The stacking of casualties was part of the solution, and central to meeting his self-proclaimed "altruistic" goal. Cerf came to Newark to manage its schools because that troubled system "was a perfect test." Transformative change was possible because it had long been under state control and "we still control all the levers."

Weirdly, Cerf also spoke in opposition to "top-down, prescriptive policies", blaming them on bureaucracies. It is hard to square that ubiquitous reform soundbite with Cerf's other statement:

We can't have any more talks about respecting the community. Who is the community? Is it the last generation of students, now voiceless, who dropped out? Is it the last five people who had a mic? Is it the parents who are lining up for charters, or is it the loudmouths? There's a level of ignorance and basic conspiracy-mongering and micropolitical decision-making that inevitably dominates any decision on education. ... It's all to the detriment of educating kids. They're literally not entitled to have their voice taken seriously ... I have to do what is right.

After a long pause, Cerf said, "Just wait until we name a white superintendent."

The reformers did not have to wait long. The new outsider selected to run Newark's school was Cami Anderson, who was equally domineering, even if she was more knowledgeable about education. Sadly, despite having a better understanding of how policy actually works in real buildings, Anderson was just as devoted to the Billionaires Boys Club's ethos of leveraging change.

As seems to be so often the case with contemporary school reformers, Anderson "styled herself as lone champion of the defenseless, speaker of inconvenient truths." After a disagreement with Christie and Cerf, she said privately, "I'm the supe! ... I've got a billion dollars and they've only got a hundred million." Moreover, Anderson might not have been as clueless as Cerf et. al in terms of what actually happens in schools, but her language was just as much of an impediment to the conversations that were needed.

Russakoff provides a brief tour of the reform-speak that undercut real communication, as well as a thoughtful analysis of how it helped undermine One Newark. Reformers demanded "BHAG" or "Big Hairy Audacious Goals." Their goal was "'transformational' -- never incremental -- change." These social engineers ignored the reasoning of critics because it was "invariably 'fatally flawed.'" Reformers would drive transformation by expanding the "bandwidth," creating a "robust talent pipeline," and putting "the right people on the bus in the right seats." The right people obviously could not be found in Newark, and recruiting them was a major part of the $21 million price tag for consulting fees.

Cami Anderson and other corporate reformers sought to "move the needle." Her job was to "pull the right levers." On one hand, she was the practitioner of "sixteen-dimensional chess," even though strategies were described in terms of discrete "buckets." When facing a complex problem, however, leverage-driven reformers could "bucket those two ideas together." On the other hand, reformers were preoccupied by "optics," which meant that discussion of the most controversial issues had to be done in private to prevent the public from misunderstanding the mandates being imposed on them, the teachers and staff, and the students.

Anderson was replaced by Cerf in an agreement that will eventually return local control to Newark. According to Education Week, he hopes to "build trust and bolster his commitment to listen, restore civility, and treat people with dignity." He has:

Also promised to attend every school board meeting, an expected requirement of any superintendent, but one that has deeper resonance in Newark. Anderson, who had been subjected to some personal attacks, did not attend board meetings for nearly a year before she resigned.

On the other hand, as Russakoff explains in the timely conclusion to The Prize, "even in the aftermath of the uprising against One Newark," Cerf has "no regrets about imposing changes unilaterally" because:

You have no chance of giving these kids the lives they deserve if you don't essentially override the local political infrastructure -- no chance at all. I honestly don't think there's a logic-based counterargument to that... There's no chance this political culture would have been able to rise above the question of who gets what. They had their chance.