The Prize

The PrizeThe Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?, by Dale Russakoff, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2015, 246 pages.

This book, written by a veteran journalist, is ripped from what seems like very recent headlines. Its immediacy may mean that we really don’t know the whole story yet, but the story we do know now is pretty dramatic and instructive. Basically, Cory Booker, a rising star in the Democratic Party and Mayor of Newark, New Jersey; Chris Christie, the ambitious Republican Governor of New Jersey; and Mark Zuckerberg, the young founder of Facebook decide they will try to make the horribly dysfunctional Newark Public Schools into a model for how urban public education should work.

The effort starts with an announcement on Oprah by Zuckerberg in September 2010 that he will donate $100 million to the Newark Public Schools. The narrative then starts following two distinct threads – the top-down effort to reform the schools and the heroic efforts by individual teachers and principals to try to improve education in Newark one student at a time. The latter is somewhat hopeful but terribly inadequate. The former is like watching a slow-motion train wreck. The Zuckerberg-funded reform effort runs into hostile politicians, a distrustful public, a growing charter school movement and unions that put their members first and kids second.

By the end of the book you have gotten a fairly good picture of just how complicated our American big urban school districts are and what a struggle it is going to be to effect change. One thing this experiment proved beyond a shadow of a doubt is that just good intentions and a whole lot of extra money aren’t enough to fix a disaster that has been decades in the making.

Reviewed by Bob Sibert