Book Review on *The Prize* that I wrote for American Journal of Education Online Forum

Text and link below:

BOOK REVIEW—The Prize – Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?

Review by Bryan Mann, PhD Candidate, Educational Theory and Policy, Pennsylvania State University

Book Details: The Prize—Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? by Dale Russakoff. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. 246 pp., $27.00.

The Prize, a well-crafted piece of journalism with particular relevance to educational policy scholars, chronicles an urban reform initiative in which corporate elites provide money and ideas to Newark, NJ at the request of Cory Booker, who was mayor and is now a U.S. Senator. The ideas in this book written by Dale Russakoff are predictable: tying teacher pay to student performance, loosening tenure protections, enacting school choice, and using quantitative data to evaluate and manage schools. Educational policy scholars have yet to settle debates related to most of these topics, but Booker and partners claim their ideas are the right ones to save Newark students.

This book, through the stories of individuals (Christie, Booker, Zuckerberg, newly hired Superintendent Cam Anderson, teachers, students, etc.), depicts complicated and contentious dynamics related to educational reform and community politics. Most people in the story want a piece of “the prize” from those who hope to keep cushy district jobs to those who want to prove neo-liberal principles can correct an underperforming school district. In sharing the story of these actors and their struggles, The Prize (originally told in The New Yorker) surfaces a key concern in the Newark plan and, fittingly, an issue with educational reform in the United States generally: Reformers should stop imposing reforms on disadvantaged communities and instead assist and serve alongside of them.

The key actors in the book learn this lesson in a way that resembles dramatic irony. Prior to implementation, Booker, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and Gov. Chris Christie stand with Oprah on national television and optimistically announce their plan to bring to Newark outside ideas, people, and money ($100 million of which is Zuckerburg’s) with a promise to create dramatic reform to Newark schools. If the plan proved successful, Booker, Zuckerberg, and Christie said that they would have an educational reform model to share with other cities. Scenes like these make it so that the astute policy scholars who read the book will be able to guess from the start that the reformers are a bit hubristic and unaware of the struggles that their reform efforts will encounter.

A major lesson, which is that imposed policy with little buy-in is a flawed strategy to reform U.S. public schools, is best captured through a few glaring quotes that Russakoff shares near the end of the text. The first is evidence of the frustration of many community members and leaders:

“Education reform comes across as colonial to people who’ve been here for decades…It’s very missionary, imposed, done to people rather than in cooperation with people.” (p. 207, Shavar Jeffries).

This lesson is also captured through the moments of self-reflection of other reformers and leaders, such as when Howard Fuller, former superintendent of Milwaukee, commented about Newark:

“I think a lot of us education reformers — and I include myself — have been too arrogant,” he said. “It’s not even what you do sometimes, it’s the way you treat people in the process of doing it. If your approach is to get a lot of smart people in the room and figure out what ‘these people’ need and then we implement it, the first issue is who decided that you were smart? And why do you think you can just get into a room and make decisions for a community of people?” (p. 210).

And, finally, it is captured through the attitude of Gov. Christie: “I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the school district in Newark, not them” (p. 205).

These quotes hint at why the book is a must read for an undergraduate or graduate policy class. Russakoff puts real-life stories to theoretical policy lessons. Actors in The Prize play roles almost as if they were scripted, and the lessons shared are those policy scholars know all too well: relationships matter, context is king, act when the policy window is open, there is no such thing as a one-sized-fits-all solution, and, most importantly, policymaking does not work well unless people on the ground are included in the plan. Thus, the questionable outcomes of the Newark reform effort come not only in their lack of robust results (counter arguments are a bit more optimistic), but also in how the reforms fractured an already delicate community. That is, even if there were major upticks in “metrics of performance,” the efficacy of the reform agenda would still be questionable because of the divisions at tensions the top-down reforms caused in community relationships.

It is in this conversation of “did the strategies work?” where Russakoff does not appear to take a definite stance, instead allowing readers to debate about the specifics. This subject certainly has been debated in the blogosphere. The most wrestled over topic—and maybe the most fought over topic in educational reform in general—is the role of school choice in education, namely charter schools. Arguments and counter-arguments in this debate (outside of the book, but often about the book) range from the Newark reform strategy did not work as well as planned because there wasn’t enough school choice to that Russakoff was too charter-friendly and cherry-picked data to add balance to her story. What is interesting (and telling) is that regardless of one’s stance, charter advocates and opponents agree the book is worth the read.

Russakoff herself tends not to take sides about the efficacy of specific reform solutions, but instead points to flaws in each ideological camp. This review will not be as easy on itself. It seems that yes (and this includes the knowledge of information presented outside of the book), the Newark school district needed support and reform and perhaps, in general, there are circumstances where outside, non-profit alternative programs can provide more efficient educational services to communities like Newark. However, how this happened in Newark, and often how it has happened across the country, feels as if charter schools can be a bait-and-switch. Even as the idea of individual choice is a reasonable request, the policymakers of the book, as well as those elsewhere in the country, need to ask if the choice programs they provide represent genuine choice and if the local community actually is seeking this new system of schooling.

Considering this, and the nature of reform in general, the book itself reminds educational reformers of important lessons as they develop education policy. It is vital to include community members and enhance community relationships in the development of school reform. And, of course, there have been those who read and write about The Prize and lambast others for being ideologically comfortable in how the book is received. Reviewers such as these tend to promote top-down change from a mountaintop of educational righteousness, falsely presuming as if those who critique of both the problems and proposed solutions are accepting the status quo. But when reviewers like these (and the interests groups and policymakers they represent, who are aligned with many actors in The Prize) publicly share thoughts like, “It would be nice if intractable problems like achievement gaps between wealthy and poor or white and African-American students could be tidily collaborated away. But that’s not how big, tough problems work” (cited from the previous link), they need to be called on the irony of their claims. One cannot promote a choice agenda and then say democratic choice is inappropriate in deciding if this reform is appropriate. This is especially true of disadvantaged communities that have been exploited for centuries and whose members have a logical fear of further exploitation. It is time we in educational research circles include local communities in our educational reform suggestions and strategies.

Of course, it is important to provide optimal circumstances for students to learn and for teachers to teach. In some instances this will mean making tough choices about clunky, old educational bureaucracies that are not efficient (or even competent). It is true that old-style districts are inefficient and effective in some areas in this country. It may also be true that charter schools and choice can be an answer to solve these issues. But both can be false, and the ideologues of this story show that when they only follow their ideologies children as well as communities suffer.

And no, not all education reform is bad. And not all charter schools are all good. Or vice versa. Reform ideas are strategies, and The Prize shows that a timeless moral stands: people matter. When outsiders try a new plan to revitalize the homes and schools of disadvantaged communities, they should ask them first and then work alongside of them. Educational scholars cannot think of themselves as playing the hero; they need to be allies and servants. The real heroes are those people like Princess Williams, a teacher in The Prize. Ms. Williams, while the “boys in the back room” were pushing their new agenda, organizes her colleagues at a traditional school in Newark to start her own reform plan. She later felt her only option was to switch to the charter sector, which seemed like a difficult decision because of how she valued traditional schools in her community. So she fought strategically for her kids and her community. Instead of forcing these teachers to take sides in situations like this, we should say: Thank you Ms. Williams. As educational scholars we want to ask you, your peers, and your community one question—What do you need from educational researchers in order to help us help you in serving your students and lifting up your community?

Bryan Mann is a PhD Candidate in Education Theory and Policy at Penn State University and a Managing Editor for the American Journal of Education. His work examines both the effects of charter school policies on student outcomes and performance and the demographic effects of these policies. His dissertation explores charter school policy in Pennsylvania, specifically analyzing cyber charter school growth and enrollment and how these developments generally inform theoretical assumptions related to charter school and choice-based policy. 

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