Book Review

The Prize: Mark Zuckerberg & His $100 Million Gift to Newark Public Schools (Book Review)

The subtitle of Dale Russakoff’s book begs the question — who’s in charge of America’s schools?
In the push-and-pull system of school reformers vs. union members, outsiders vs. insiders, school boards vs. state and federal leaders, elites vs. grassroots, admin vs. teachers, and a host of other stakeholders over the “best interests of students,” it’s not surprising that the book arrives at no definitive answer of the 100-million-dollar question. But, thanks to the charitable fortune of Facebook’s founder, it’s one we need to ask, in addition to the following:
Who’s providing a financial boost to Newark Public Schools (NPS)?
While the simple answer is Mark Zuckerberg, NPS also draws in a matching $100 million from other contributors and foundations. That is largely in part to the dynamic political endeavors of an unlikely political marriage: one between liberal, hyper-involved Newark Mayor (and now U.S. Senator) Cory Booker and larger-than-life, bombastic Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. In looking to provide their vision of a positive future for the state of New Jersey, they examined a common cause to combat what many perceive as a plague to society: run-down inner-city schools. Russakoff quips that “education of the poorest Americans” has become a cause celebre “of the wealthiest since Reconstruction.” This seems to become increasingly true among politicians and the nation’s wealthiest investors – which they call “venture philanthropists” – who give breath to bring that vision to life.
Why are they providing the money?
Russakoff quotes Zuckerberg, who says, “economically, I think it’s the most important problem in the world.” The goal of giving a student a chance resonated with him. For many of these students, lacking chances is a way of life. First, the opportunities at home are as bereft as they are anywhere in the world. This as evident in an interview Russakoff shared of a Kindergarten teacher whose “students couldn’t distinguish between the front and back cover of a book.” The schools who are supposed to pull them out the abyss struggle to accomplish this Superman-like feat, and the American Dream is instead a nightmare of depleted resources and absentee parents, students, and concerns; graduation often is nothing more than the next step perpetuate the cycle of poverty. That caused Christie to elicit the clarion call to “grab the system by the roots, pull it out, and start over,” to which Booker coupled, “I don’t think pouring new wine into old skins is they way. We need to close them and start new ones.”
What happens to the money?
From the beginning, Zuckerberg “made clear that his primary goal was to find a way to attract, nurture, and handsomely reward top teachers.” However, this was a difficult abyss to navigate, as the education cost per NPS student before the investment was $20,000. That only compounds with the flush of money, and when one turns to the appendix of The Prize, we can see only $48.3 million of the $200 million raised went to the teachers, and much of that was meeting a union demand to deliver $31 million in back pay. Instead, only $6 million of that was ear tagged for merit pay, which was Zuckerberg’s ultimate goal. Administrative fees of the money, comparatively, cost $1.7 million, while consultants hired by Superintendent Cami Anderson were paid $21 million ($1,000 a day, more than what many Newark teachers made in a week). Ultimately, the billion dollar question is…
How does the donation change education in one of America’s most difficult school districts? Click To Tweet
There are many elaborate answers to this question. One can note significant improvements of small pockets of growth, including a dynamic satellite (and fully public) elementary school who has the community rally behind it. However, there are many failures. Part can be blamed on there being “too many cooks in the kitchen” in making choices for the students. Others will point to those “cooks” literally locking out the community, their comments, and more so their concerns. Indeed, an all white population of reformers was seeking to institute education reform in the wrong manner: making it top-down rather than bottom-up. Shavar Jeffries, then a candidate for mayor and now President of the pro-charter Democrats for Education Reform, believed the system of “reform” stemming from the Zuckerberg gift came “across as colonial… very missionary, imposed, done to people rather than in cooperation with people.” Ras Baraka, a principal and school board member who would become mayor, used this to his advantage in his campaign slogan: “when I become mayor, we become mayor.” The “we” being the underrepresented and silenced black parents and community members. The “they” – the reformers – were shut out from the process.
What should an educator expect from this book?
If you’re interested in school dynamics, the politics behind education, and the approaches to solving failing inner-city schools, our most complex issue in education today, I highly suggest this book. Russakoff is one of the fairest writers of such a topic that I’ve read, and her praise and criticisms are equal for teachers, administrators, community members, politicians, and other stakeholders. The only group she isn’t overly critical of is the population all of us in education – from the reformers to the performers, those on the scene to those behind the stage – want to help: the students.

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