'The Prize' shows complexity of school reform

AP News
|
Posted: Sep 28, 2015 2:46 PM

"The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Schools?" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), by Dale Russakoff

No matter where you fall in the school reform debate, a new book makes it clear there are no easy answers and no quick fixes.

"The Prize," by former Washington Post reporter Dale Russakoff, is a meticulously reported and incredibly well-written account of what happened in Newark, New Jersey, when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg agreed to invest $100 million to help Republican Gov. Chris Christie and Democratic Mayor Cory Booker carry out their vision of "transformational" school reform.

Russakoff tempers some of the rosy, business-model school reform rhetoric by noting that research shows academic achievement is influenced more by a child's home life than by classroom instruction, and that teachers say they would rather a good principal and supportive work environment than merit pay.

However, she also points out that even a politician who spoke out against charter schools employed many of their strategies — extended school days, small learning academies, intensified test preparation — to turn around his failing school. And she cites one school leader, who initiated a teacher-centric reform effort, replying to a rumor in frustration: "No, we are not a charter school. But what is it about charters that's scarier than four percent proficiency in math?"

The book details many of the difficult choices that needed to be made. Should cuts be made to the bloated administrative staff, even if it increases local unemployment and neighborhood blight? Should the reformers strike a deal to get the teachers' union onboard with the changes in exchange for paying back pay, instead of using that money to develop early childhood and dropout programs? Should the reformers move swiftly to implement change before political winds change, or take the time to seek feedback from the community and adjust the plans as needed?

Some of the missteps and miscalculations are painful to read about, especially because the players are generally well-meaning.

The emotional heart of this book, however, are the students and teachers on the front line. Russakoff gives an up-close look at some amazing teachers and how they make learning fun and engaging, even for students who are disadvantaged and have so much catching up to do. A wrenching story of a 14-year-old who reads at a second-grade level illustrates what an enormous difference a teacher made when she believed in him and invested in him, turning his life around. And for students with difficult home lives, it becomes excruciatingly clear the importance of having counselors, tutors and social workers, of which there were never enough in the district.

"The Prize" contains ample examples of how to botch a reform campaign, but it could also serve as a blueprint for how to more thoughtfully and successfully undertake the challenge of improving the nation's schools.