Public school students rallied in front of Newark City Hall in April 2014 to protest reforms under Superintendant Cami Anderson, depicted here as a "liar." Photo: Newark Student Union

The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?
Dale Russakoff
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27 (cloth)

I was the worst teacher in the Houston Independent School District.

I know this from a meeting with a district administrator in the spring of 1993. Hired as a sixth-grade teacher a few days before the start of the school year at Rusk Elementary School, I had come to Houston as part of a large group of young and idealistic Teach For America corps members. My ambitions exceeded my abilities. I knew the subject matter, but I was shaky at classroom management and I knew little about the lives of my students, one-fifth of whom lived in nearby homeless shelters. Nor did I know much about the city; when I arrived in Houston after six weeks of Teach For America summer training in California, it was my first visit there or, indeed, to the state of Texas. Still, when the principal observed my classroom that fall to carry out a state-mandated teacher evaluation—the Texas Teacher Appraisal System, or TTAS, as it was known—she rated me as “above average.”

As I got to know the school, I learned about its chronic low performance and history of administrative and teacher turnover. The school seemed to be in crisis—parents, teachers, and students were all complaining. Together with some other new teachers, I made proposals to the principal for some modest reforms to disciplinary procedures and class scheduling.

I came to realize that the principal—also in her first year at the school and her first job as a principal—didn’t care at all for me, an outsider with an Ivy League degree and a batch of reform ideas offered up a mere few months after arriving. When she returned to my classroom in the spring for my second required evaluation, I received a terrible score, placing me in the lowest ranking on the TTAS scale: unsatisfactory. I went to visit the district supervisor for TTAS, and she informed me that she had never seen such a low rating. I recall the wry smile, kindly signaling her understanding of the desperate situation at Rusk: “Congratulations, Mr. Reich. According to this assessment, you are Houston’s worst teacher.”

A few months later, Rusk Elementary School became ground zero for a new citywide effort in education reform. The superintendent, Rod Paige, who would later serve as secretary of education under President George W. Bush, “reconstituted” the entire school. Every administrator and teacher was reassigned, and a new principal was brought in. It was a particularly severe form of top-down reform: evacuating the building of all adults and starting again with a fresh team. When I was interviewed by the new principal, I stressed my desire to contribute to her vision of reform. To my surprise, I was one of only three of the twenty-nine teachers at Rusk to be rehired. While I played a very minor role during the next year in improvements at Rusk, out of Rusk’s new faculty grew one of the most successful charter organizations in Texas, YES College Preparatory Schools. And for a decade following reconstitution, Rusk’s performance on state accountability measures showed steady gains. Top-down reform in Rusk’s case looks very much like a major factor in the school’s improvement.

• • •

In The Prize, Dale Russakoff tells a more recent story of the fiery politics of education reform, focusing her impressively reported tale on the schools of Newark, New Jersey. Where my experience in Houston involved only one school, Russakoff documents a top-down effort at districtwide reform that was intended to be a model for the nation and that included, from the start, an unusual array of larger-than-life characters.

In late 2010 after multiple meetings with the Democratic mayor of Newark, Cory Booker, and the Republican governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made a record-setting $100 million donation to spark districtwide reform, conditioned on another $100 million in matching funds. Zuckerberg’s aspiration was to disrupt business as usual by rapidly expanding the number of charter schools in Newark, restructuring teacher contracts to facilitate hiring and firing of school personnel, and installing a teacher evaluation system with merit pay. Russakoff spent several years on the ground in Newark observing the reform effort and interviewed many of those involved, including Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, and the handpicked superintendent who oversaw the reforms, Cami Anderson.  Russakoff’s story about top-down reform is interwoven with beautifully drawn accounts of the efforts of an amazing pair of leaders, kindergarten teacher Princess Williams and school leader Dominique Lee. Through their eyes and those of their students, the majority of whom are growing up in poverty, we see the effects—intended and unintended, beneficial and pernicious—of the top-down reform effort.

The Prize is a story of failure despite the ubiquity of good intentions, smart people, ample money, and a widespread determination to improve. Zuckerberg’s 2010 donation did not create a national model for school reform. It is doubtful that it made much difference in Newark. Scarcely four years later, Newark elected a new mayor, Ras J. Baraka, a high school principal (and son of the writer-activist Amiri Baraka) who campaigned on the call to take back control of  the schools from outsiders. Booker had departed for the United States Senate, Christie had his eye on a run for president, and Cami Anderson, fearing for her family’s safety, had moved out of the district and stopped attending school board meetings. Newark today is likelier more resistant to reform than it was in 2010.

There is no doubt that Newark’s public schools were deeply dysfunctional. Shockingly low graduation rates (about 54 percent at the high school level, although estimates vary) and dismal academic achievement had long plagued the district. Data systems were antiquated and broken. Administrative positions were doled out on the patronage system. Russakoff quotes the young and enterprising school leader Dominique Lee responding to community anger at outside reformers who, they worried, would turn their school into a charter school: “No, we are not a charter school. But what is it about charters that’s scarier than four percent proficiency in math?”

“The reformers never really tried to have a conversation with the people of Newark.”

So what went wrong? Russakoff puts tension between top-down and bottom-up reform at the heart of the story. That tension comes in two varieties: reform imposed by outsiders versus reform that engages Newark educators, parents, and residents; and reform driven by leaders and their agendas rather than by classroom teachers and their students’ needs. On both counts, Russakoff suggests that reformers made mistakes from the earliest days: local educators learn about Zuckerberg’s donation and the mayor’s grand plan from their joint announcement on The Oprah Winfrey Show; initial efforts to involve local residents are described by a member of the foundation that disbursed Zuckerberg’s donation as “public relations”; Booker builds a national profile by tweeting about his personal involvement in snow removal and spends considerable time outside of Newark raising money; and Christie responds to local resistance to Cami Anderson by saying, “I don’t care about community criticism. We run the school district in Newark, not them.” In the book’s brief conclusion, Russakoff writes, “The reformers never really tried to have a conversation with the people of Newark.” This, she thinks, doomed the effort.

In one sense she’s obviously right. In a city long suspicious of outsiders, of course it would be difficult to impose reforms that aimed to unsettle the teacher union, threatened the jobs of local residents, and was funded by a West Coast, twenty-something billionaire educated at Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard. In a blistering 1968 speech to American college students volunteering in Mexico for a summer, Austrian priest and social critic Ivan Illich excoriates them for their pretension in thinking that they, as outsiders who possessed no understanding of the local culture or history, might do anything useful. If they must be do-gooders, he advises them to head to an American inner city, where they will at least have some understanding of those with whom they work. “If you insist on working with the poor, if this is your vocation,” he says, “then at least work among the poor who can tell you to go to hell.” Despite their good intentions, because the outside reformers either ignored or were tone-deaf to local politics, and because of their hubris in seeing Newark as a “proof point” for national reform, Newark citizens did tell them to go to hell—through multiple protests and, conclusively, at the ballot box.

But Russakoff’s top-down critique misses a critical point. In education, the meaning of reform from below is clear: it involves the classroom and school building where teaching and learning take place. And indeed no reform can succeed that does not in some way change what happens there.  However, in American education, there is a near-total absence of top-down governance. What top-down reform actually constitutes is therefore surprisingly elusive. Unlike the centralized school systems in most other countries, American schools are governed by crisscrossing local, state, and federal authority and financing. They are subject to local school board elections characterized almost uniformly by exceptionally low turnout, and they are frequently locked into teacher union contracts that strip principals of the power to hire and fire their own faculty. In other words, there is no single “top” in American education. There are only multiple, relatively weak points of leverage outside the classroom and school building: a superintendent, a school board, a mayor, the teachers union, a governor, a state school superintendent, the federal secretary of education. The decentralized system of American education is what explains the failure of many, perhaps most, attempts at school reform at any scale. Quite literally, there is no such thing as the American school system; there are more than ten thousand public school districts in the United States.

Russakoff leaves no doubt that the reformers could have acted with greater savvy about local politics, inviting Newark citizens to be participants in—rather than subjects of—their experiment. It is not unfair to blame the reformers for their patronizing behavior. Even so, this criticism loses some of its force when considering why the moment for education reform in Newark seemed so promising.

What made the 2010 Newark reform effort attractive to its advocates was an unusual confluence of circumstances that seemed to create an unparalleled opportunity for change. The city had been stripped of control of its schools in 1995 because of longstanding corruption and intractably dismal academic performance. Cory Booker’s 2010 mayoral reelection secured the power of a popular African American Democrat who had taken a strong stand on education, often criticizing teacher unions against the grain of his own party. In the same year, New Jersey citizens elected Chris Christie, a Republican, who had been born in Newark and who, as governor, became manager of Newark’s public schools. Booker and Christie, odd political bedfellows, agreed to work together on education in Newark. This, coupled with the growth of the charter school movement and unusually high per pupil spending in Newark, thanks to a state supreme court decision, presented a rare opportunity for reformers to act. It took Hurricane Katrina to wipe clean the governance structure of public education in New Orleans. Newark in 2010 generated similar circumstances without a natural disaster.

Reflecting on the failure of the Newark reform efforts, Christopher Cerf, state education commissioner under Governor Christie, expressed no regrets: “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.” It is a measure of Russakoff’s skill that fair-minded readers might feel a small bit of sympathy for Cerf when she quotes his statement. Perhaps outside-in, top-down reform efforts are sometimes necessary to shake up ossified and corrupt local dynamics, even if they result in having the reformer thrown out.

Reconstitution at Rusk Elementary School in Houston was a drastic top-down change, deliberately bypassing—indeed eliminating—the school’s leadership and faculty. So too was Michelle Rhee’s dictatorial tenure as chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public school system. Russakoff notes the parallels between Newark and Washington, mentioning that the backlash against Rhee fueled the ouster of the mayor, Adrian Fenty. She describes Rhee’s successor, Kaya Henderson, as far more collaborative despite pursuing an agenda nearly identical to Rhee’s. What Russakoff doesn’t consider is that Rhee’s take-no-prisoners manner might have been an important, even necessary, precursor to the very possibility of Henderson becoming chancellor, pursuing Rhee’s reform agenda with a kinder face.

If bottom-up reform means starting with students and teachers in each individual classroom, the U.S. decentralized governance system guarantees that whatever works in one classroom or school cannot be easily exported to another. Russakoff’s book ends with one of the teachers she profiles, Princess Williams, quitting her public school job to work with a charter school in Newark. Williams doesn’t think charter schools are intrinsically better, but their freedom from a crisscrossed governance system makes it likelier that funds reach the classroom and meet the needs of particular children. “Budgets tell you a lot about values,” she says.

Indeed, the decentralized nature of American school governance explains the attraction of education reform that involves starting charter schools rather than reforming public schools. The tension between charter schools and Newark’s schools is a second major theme in Russakoff’s book. Charter schools receive public funds and are publicly accountable, but they are independently managed, usually by a nonprofit. Charters are typically exempt from a host of rules and regulations that apply to ordinary district schools. Most significantly, charters are free to hire their own teachers apart from union contracts and tenure rules; they can also create curricular and classroom schedules as they wish.

Charter schools have spread quickly across many states. Imagined initially as a mechanism for stimulating innovation and as a means to create modest competition with public schools, they represent a political compromise between Republicans, who tend to prefer a voucher scheme, and Democrats, who tend to support teachers unions and public schools. In 2000 charter schools enrolled barely 250,000 students across the country, less than 1 percent of public school students. They now enroll nearly 2.5 million students, or 4.6 percent of all public school students. In districts such as Washington, D.C., and New Orleans that have been the focus of the kind of education reform planned in Newark, enrollment in charter schools can exceed 50 percent according to some estimates.

What makes charter schools a threat to public schools, and by extension to school districts and teachers unions, is simple: when students and their families exit the public school system and enroll in a charter school, the school district loses the public funding attached to that student; it flows instead to the charter school. If sufficient numbers of students enroll in charter schools, public schools must slash budgets and, ultimately, close schools and ax staff. As the number of students attending charter schools grows, jobs in a district are on the line.

Over the course of the reform effort in Newark, parents and community members organized protests against plans to open more charter schools. Their reasons were many, including resistance to the patronizing tone of outside experts who seemed agnostic about involving the community in reform. But one reason, not uncommon in urban districts where the number of charter schools is growing quickly, deserves particular mention: the concern that many residents could lose stable, well-paying, middle-class jobs. In Newark, Russakoff reports that more than 80 percent of the district budget went to salaries and benefits and that the ratio of administrators to students was twice the state average.

The threat to the livelihood of adults in Newark was real. When Cami Anderson faced a budget crisis in 2013, partly related to the growing number of students exiting for charter schools, she cut more than two hundred positions in the central office, resulting in layoffs of Newark residents who had no comparable job prospects. Many of these adults had kids. Anderson noted, ruefully, “We’re raising the poverty level in Newark in the name of school reform.”

School reform is often discussed as a battle among competing visions of what is best for children. Yet the tension between district and charter schools reveals that it can just as often be a battle between rationally motivated adults who care about stable jobs and reformers who exhibit little or no concern for adults, only for children. School districts are frequently one of the largest employers of residents in large cities. And of course, adults, not children, vote in elections.

Seen this way, local resistance to plans to expand the charter school sector should have been no surprise. Nor is it surprising when Russakoff reports, near the end of her narrative, about the frequent protests against Cami Anderson. As charter schools grew in number, parents in Newark could opt to enroll their children in either a district or charter school. Dissatisfaction with the district schools was great enough that almost half of all applicants to kindergarten preferred a charter school. Yet this took place at the same time that the community grew more vociferously opposed to charters. Russakoff explains: “Many charter parents had relatives who worked for district schools or other children who attended them, and they too were adamantly against closing [public] schools and eliminating jobs—even though both were inevitable consequences of the growth of charters. ‘You see parents dropping their children off at charter schools and then joining a picket at Two Cedar Street [the district headquarters] because I laid off their cousin,’ Anderson said.”

Plenty of books reveal how complex social problems resist easy solutions. But only rarely does a book show us complexity through sympathetic portraits of smart, likable, well-meaning individuals at every level of a reform effort. Several excellent books on American education have been published in the past year: Elizabeth Green’s Building a Better Teacher, Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars. Russakoff’s The Prize is at the head of the class.