The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Schools?

Dale Russakoff

Book cover

Recommended reading for anyone interested in following current debates around education reform. Briefly, the book is about a huge philanthropic gift that Mark Zuckerberg made to Newark to “reinvent” the education system there, and what happened. (It didn’t go very well.) My wife, who is a doctoral student in the field, really enjoyed it, as did I, a general-interest layperson. The author is a journalist and serialized some version of this work in the New Yorker, and it shows, in a good way–the book is compelling, entertaining, and well-written without being overwritten.

I think the author is also fair. She clearly does not approve of the way Zuckerberg, Booker, and Christie approached the situation, but also doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the status quo system or the forces that aligned against the Zuckerberg project. The book is interesting in its entirety, but I’ll just mention a couple of things that struck me as especially noteworthy. First, it’s clear that the failure was at least in part attributable to the fact that Zuckerberg, Booker, and Christie were looking for quick results, and in particular that the latter two already had their eyes on higher public offices. This facet of the story highlights a key risk around direct mayoral or state control of public school systems–those players are very likely to be looking for something bigger down the road, particularly if they are generally successful. A traditional school board, by contrast, would seem to provide more in the way of continuity. Second, the author makes the point that the public school system in Newark plays a dual or “shadow” role as the employer of last resort. In Newark and many other cities whose industrial base has largely disappeared, the public school system is one of the last and largest providers of decent middle-class jobs. This strikes me as an important alternative perspective on the standard image of the “bloated” public school bureaucracy where even the clerks have clerks. It should be no surprise that charter schools can achieve better results with less funding per pupil, because they are not saddled with this second role. This isn’t to say that the public school system should be playing this role, only that something should be playing it!

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars