Zuckerberg’s Expensive Lesson
It’s just hitting bookstores, but Dale Russakoff’s new book, “The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?,” has already become a source of enormous contention, both in Newark, where the story takes place, and among education advocates of various stripes.
The plotline revolves around what happened to the Newark school system after Mark Zuckerberg, the young founder and chief executive of Facebook, donated $100 million in 2010 to transform the city’s schools, a sum that was matched by the prodigious fund-raising of Cory Booker, Newark’s former mayor (now the state’s junior senator). The stated goal of the grant, according to Zuckerberg at the time, was to turn Newark’s schools into a “symbol of educational excellence for the whole nation.” Five years later, with the money basically gone, I think it is fair to say that hasn’t happened.
Russakoff’s story, in brief, is that Zuckerberg, knowing little about education reform, naïvely put his faith in the charismatic Booker, a champion of the reform movement. Booker advocated the usual things: more teacher accountability, more charter schools and new agreements with the teachers’ union that would allow for the best teachers to be rewarded — and the worst to be fired.
She goes on to describe a series of blunders by the reformers, including huge sums for consultants, the hiring of an abrasive superintendent, an unwillingness to fund useful programs that weren’t “transformative” enough, and a top-down approach that infuriated the people of Newark, who felt they were being dictated to by wealthy white outsiders.
Almost half of Zuckerberg’s grant was spent (or committed) to help gain new labor contracts; out of the $200 million in his money and the matching grant, a full $21 million went to buying out unwanted teachers and other staff members. Yet Zuckerberg didn’t realize until too late that New Jersey state law — not teacher contracts — imposed the seniority system he was trying to get rid of.
The education reform community is furious at the way it is portrayed in the book; one such critic, Laura Waters, described “The Prize” as “a fairy tale about reform.” Others believe that Russakoff overlooked some of the good things that have taken place in Newark, especially in the area of teacher training. And that the public schools are at least marginally better than they were.
But Russakoff doesn’t let those propagating the status quo off the hook, either. She describes the schools system as an “employer of last resort.” She shows the enormous impediments to real change imposed by the teachers’ union.
Most telling is her comparison between the resources that a very good charter school, Spark Academy, has at its disposal and those available to the public schools. The KIPP charter network gets $16,400 per pupil, of which $12,664 is devoted to Spark, its elementary school in Newark. The district schools get $19,650 per pupil, but only $9,604 trickles down to the school. Money that the charter school is spending on extra support is being soaked up by the bloated bureaucracy in the public school system. It is a devastating fact.
Here is another one: The primary change in Newark has been the increasing number of students — over 30 percent now — who are being educated in charter schools. I realize that many in the education reform community will applaud this fact, especially since those students have, by and large, shown enormous progress in test scores (though Russakoff is quick to note that as in all cities, some Newark charters failed “dramatically”). It’s great for the 30 percent who are learning from charter school teachers. But as Russakoff puts it in the most poignant line in her book, “What would become of the children left behind in district schools?”
The original idea behind the charter school movement was that this competition would spur traditional public schools to improve, to better compete for students. Instead, just as white flight drained urban school districts of white middle-class students when their families fled to the suburbs, now is there a new brain drain, with the black and Latino children of ambitious parents fleeing urban public schools now that they see an alternative.
There is another way to approach reform, a way that includes collaboration with the teachers, instead of bullying them or insulting them. A way that involves the community rather than imposing top-down decisions. A way that allows for cross-pollination between charters and traditional public schools so that the best teaching practices become commonplace in both kinds of schools.
As for Mark Zuckerberg, his experience in Newark does not appear to have deterred him. Last year he pledged to give $120 million in grants to high-poverty schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. This time, however, he is insisting that he will collaborate with parents, teachers, school leaders and officials of both charter organizations and school districts, according to an op-ed he wrote with his wife, Priscilla Chan, in The San Jose Mercury News.
Apparently, Zuckerberg has learned his lesson. What will it take for the rest of us to learn?