Sarah Carr is the author of “Hope Against Hope,” which tells the story of the New Orleans schools after Hurricane Katrina. She directs the Teacher Project, an education reporting fellowship at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

The Prize
Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?

By Dale Russakoff

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 246 pp. $27

Five years ago, a cluster of superstars aligned for an unprecedented and ambitious reform of Newark’s long-struggling school system. Two formidable politicians, Newark’s Democratic mayor, Cory Booker, and New Jersey’s Republican governor, Chris Christie, put aside partisan differences and conspired to overhaul the Brick City’s schools. The revamp sought to open more charter schools, change the teachers’ contract to more easily fire weak teachers and reward high-performing ones, and aggressively close schools with lagging test scores.

These reforms are being tested and debated in cities across the country, but Booker and Christie enlisted some particularly deep pockets to help bring them to Newark: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million in grant money with the condition that the New Jersey politicians find donors to match it. When the earnest young billionaire, the suave mayor and the tough-talking governor announced the gift during an episode of Oprah Winfrey’s talk show in September 2010, raising another $100 million seemed easy. With free publicity, ample political capital and gobs of Silicon Valley cash, what could go wrong?

‘The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Schools?’ by Dale Russakoff (HMH)

Just about everything, it turns out, as documented in former Washington Post reporter Dale Russakoff’s incisive new book, “The Prize.” Russakoff gives her accounting in chapters that (roughly) alternate between the stories of key leaders — especially Booker and Newark school Superintendent Cami Anderson — as they attempt to impose top-down reform on a skeptical community, and the tales of educators and students working to improve their own lives and schools. The narrative is rooted in vivid, sometimes incongruous events, from the buffet dinner at a Sun Valley townhouse where Booker first pitched his vision to Zuckerberg, to the bloody handprints that a charter school leader found on the walls of her school one morning, detritus of a late-night brawl involving nine young men.

Russakoff doesn’t give us her own opinion of the controversial school reforms introduced in Newark; she analyzes their impact through the perspectives and experiences of her melange of characters. Their stories all speak to one overarching question: Can a band of technocrats, granted nearly dictatorial power and an injection of cash, reinvent a long-struggling urban school system? By following the classic journalist’s maxim of showing rather than telling us how to think, Russakoff gives her story a powerful punch: We think and feel deeply because she presents actions and images that illuminate the issues.

The effort’s leaders encountered countless unexpected obstacles, including fierce community opposition, philanthropists hesitant to give money to a centralized district rather than to charter schools, and a potent and charismatic foe in Ras Baraka, who succeeded Booker as mayor last year. Russakoff provides insights that should prove useful both to contemporary school reformers and to citizens hoping to understand their efforts. She also captures the fragility of the bipartisan alliance surrounding school reform. Christie and Booker remained devoted to working together in the interest of Newark’s schoolchildren — until their cooperation interfered with their political self-interests. (By late 2012, when the Newark teachers union had agreed to a new contract that made it easier to reward good teachers and penalize bad ones — in exchange for a shockingly large hunk of Zuckerberg’s money — Christie refused to share the podium with Booker, who had hinted that he might challenge Christie in the next governor’s race.)

Russakoff also subtly highlights the troubling cultural disconnect between come-lately reformers and long-established community members. In a small but telling scene, the newly arrived Anderson introduces herself to an older school security guard with a jaunty “Hi, I’m Cami.” Her face expressionless, the guard responds, “I’m Ms. Grimsley.” The exchange underscores citizens’ wariness of the reformers and hints at the new superintendent’s obliviousness to local customs, including deference to age and experience, and a tendency to attach honorifics to names: “Please call me Ms. Cami” might have gone a long way. During her tenure in Newark, Anderson sometimes betrayed a mixture of naivete and disregard that hindered her ability to do her job well. (She resigned in June.)

In a prescient scene, Zuckerberg’s wife, Priscilla Chan, explains that she views the problems of urban schools “from the ground level, through the needs of individual children,” whereas her husband sees them as “systemic and economic.” Russakoff writes that “every brand of education reformer shared the same end goal — to reverse the damaging tide of poverty that robbed the poorest children of their potential. The big difference lay in where they started: from the top down or the bottom up.”

If Russakoff takes a side in “The Prize,” it’s Chan’s. She recounts a prominent education leader advising Booker that he should spend almost every morning having breakfast with parents at different public schools if he hoped to really improve the Newark district. But Booker spent more time attending lavish dinners and visiting corporate boardrooms, wooing potential donors and winning prominent allies. Russakoff leaves the haunting impression that had Booker followed the (unnamed) education leader’s advice and spent more time with his least-empowered constituents, he might have grown into a less-successful politician — yet a far more substantial one.

For all its admiration of the bottom-up approach to education reform, “The Prize” is essentially a top-down book: It is most revealing in unmasking the limitations and hypocrisies of the powerful, and less so in capturing the complicated lives of Newark families and teachers. The book includes poignant and heartfelt sections on Princess Williams, a gifted kindergarten teacher and Newark native, and Alif Beyah, a 14-year-old reading at a second-grade level. But when teachers appear, they tend to be portrayed as dedicated saints, while the students are defined mostly by their deficits: victims of community violence, academic failure and economic struggles. Sadly, these challenges are as real as the bloody handprints on the charter school walkway. But one of the limitations of the contemporary reform movement is the underlying — at times, subconscious — premise that poor children of color come from homes and communities full of nothing but dysfunction. And Russakoff, like many reformers, depicts impoverished children mostly as lost souls in need of saviors.

Overall the book makes an important case for a more humanistic approach to educational reform and philanthropy. It’s up to journalists, politicians and school officials to take the next step to better understand “the needs of individual children,” as Chan put it. For those who grew up in the same environment as society’s least empowered, that understanding comes more naturally. For others, it requires the hard work of showing up again and again where these families live, play, worship, work, eat breakfast and attend school. Without this kind of commitment, we won’t ever see education reform that has the potential to radically upend an inexcusable and racist status quo — not in Newark or anywhere else.