Sunday, October 25, 2015

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

The following posts are about educational reform in Newark.  It's really important that we reformers study what happened here closely and learn from it.
A good starting point it to read the new book by Dale Russakoff, The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Schools? Though I don't agree with what many people view as the main take-away from the book – that reformers messed things up royally and things aren't much better for Newark kids – it's still very much worth reading for a variety of reasons, not least of which are the heart-breaking stories of the lives of some of the kids in Newark and the heroic attempts by many teachers and principals to help them by in many ways becoming social workers, not just educators. The book does an especially good job of highlighting the amazing work being done at KIPP's Spark Academy by its rock-star principal, Joanna Belcher, and her team.
But don't stop there – it's equally important that you read the perspectives (see below) of Cami Anderson and many other commentators who were directly involved or had a front-row seat.
As you read, I hope you'll keep in mind a few things:
·       There's hard philanthropy and there's easy philanthropy. A good example of the latter is donating a lot of money to an already rich institution (Harvard, Lincoln Center, etc.) to fund a building that will be named after you forever. What could be easier? You just write a big check, everybody sings your praises (and certainly nobody criticizes you), and you feel great. In contrast, what Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Ackman and the other philanthropists, along with the people doing the hard work on the ground like Cami and Cory Booker, is the very hardest type of philanthropy imaginable: trying to fix a deeply broken, dysfunctional system, all the while being shot at constantly by incredibly powerful entrenched interests who will fight to the death to preserve the status quo that's working very well for them, thank you very much.
·       The $200 million (Zuckerberg's $100M, matched) over five years is a drop in the bucket (4%) of the total spending on Newark's schools (~$1 billion/year).
·       In light of these two things, there was ZERO chance of a "transformation" of Newark's schools in five years. Shame on us for setting such an absurd expectation. (In fairness though, how do you raise $200 million unless you promise something really exciting?) A journey of 1,000 miles requires many small steps, not one quantum leap.
·       If the average kid in Newark was getting a horrific education five years ago and now it's merely mediocre – or, put another way, if only 5% of Newark kids were getting an education that gave them any chance in life and now that's 25% – and the trends are moving in the right direction every year (which is exactly what I think has happened and is happening), then this is cause for celebration, not condemnation.
·       It was a terrible mistake to announce Zuckerberg's gift on Oprah, without telling anyone in Newark beforehand. It would be hard to think of a better way to feed the well-founded suspicions that Newarkers have about do-gooder outsiders parachuting into their city with big money and bold ideas – some of which might not be very good because the outsiders didn't bother speaking to the people of Newark.
·       That said, it's really eerie how Newark is playing out just like DC did: a horrifically bad school system, but with some good charters providing exit visas from hell, a dynamic (bald, black) new mayor brings in a young, reform-oriented outsider superintendent, the forces of the status quo marshal enormous resources to ensure that all hell breaks loose, the mayor leaves/voted out, the super follows…and the columnists have a field day condemning the reforms for their many mistakes and utter failure and everyone despairs at every fixing an urban school system (at least in the absence of a hurricane). But look at where DC is today: the reform continued, without as much drama, and the average kid in DC is a heck of a lot better off...
·       So in summary, keep in mind that the final story hasn't been told...

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