K-12 Education

Lessons Learned from a $200 Million Failure to Reform Public Schools

October 20, 2015  • Rachel Landis, Guest Blogger

Education — often thought of as the great equalizer between rich and poor — has become yet another factor in our country’s socioeconomic divide. With many public school systems largely funded by property taxes, it stands to reason that the wealthier a district, the better the schools (and vice versa).

Many public school reformers believe that challenges related to lacking funds can be circumvented through structural changes, and that schools can be remanaged to overcome poverty. But are school system issues truly structural, or even financial — or perhaps something far more pervasive?

Dale Russakoff, writer and former Washington Post reporter, outlines her position in her first book, “The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?,” which she recently discussed at the Aspen Institute as part of the Alma and Joseph Gildenhorn Book Series.

“The Prize” provides a candid perspective on how three men — Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and then (2010) Newark Mayor Cory Booker — planned to use their powerful positions and a $200 million donation to turn Newark into a national model of public education. Though rich in prestige and resources, the men nonetheless struggled to implement significant change, underscoring Russakoff’s central argument that education reform will not be achieved at the hands of politicians and policy makers, but by supporting students at individual levels while simultaneously addressing the root causes of poverty.

The men largely focused on a strategy proposed by Booker: pushing money into charter schools, while taking money out of the public schools. Their reasoning was fueled by the fact that students had begun flocking to charter schools. Public schools “built for 800 to 1,000 kids [had only] 200 kids in them,” Russakoff noted, leading to the decision to close several public schools and implement charter schools in their place. But the plan had unanticipated consequences.

Russakoff explained:

Schools were closed [or] consolidated, thousands of kids had to change schools because their schools were no longer there, [and] there was a new enrollment system, which instead of people just going to their neighborhood school, kids could choose any school in the city. You could choose a charter or a district school, making it much easier to apply to a charter. And there were preferences for the neediest kids, so you got an extra preference to go to your first choice.

So why was this a bad system? “Because it was done without any information or involvement with the parents,” Russakoff said. “If you’re used to your child just going to the neighborhood school and walking down the block, suddenly that’s no longer what’s going on. You need to apply online. There’s no transportation offered, [despite the fact that] 40 percent [of people in Newark] don’t own cars. And there were school closings.” In short? “The problem was that this was sprung on the people of Newark,” she continued. “They had no idea their entire experience of education was going to change overnight.”

Beyond disrupting the infrastructure of daily education, the author maintains that changes to the Newark school system had a profound negative impact on the students most in need.

It tended to be that they closed the schools that were ‘the lowest performing,’ which also tended to be the schools with the highest poverty. So you’re concentrating the kids with the greatest need in individual schools, and because the district is now in a huge financial crisis, [and] because money follows the kids (kids leave for charters, [and] the district school budget goes down), [and because schools] have trouble downsizing because of tenure and civil servant protections, there have been huge cuts in support services, counseling — the kinds of services that are so necessary in these high-need schools.

Prior to the $200 million donation, schools were provided with resources that, according to the Russakoff, “didn’t [lead to] improved test scores, but [these schools] had a much better environment and culture, and you could believe that this was going to lead to improved performance. And then suddenly they get 200 or 300 more kids [from the public school closures], and they don’t have the support they need to help these kids [anymore].”

Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson ventured that the experiment was “mainly a tale of bad execution as opposed to bad theory and intentions.” And Russakoff agreed — to an extent. While she believes Zuckerberg was honest and virtuous in his ambitions, ultimately the plan was “at least as much about politics as it was philanthropy.”

They wanted to do ‘systems reform’ at the top of the district. They were going to have new teachers’ contracts, new principals’ contracts, new evaluation systems, new data systems — all these new systems. But there wasn’t the concentration on the classroom — how do you get money to the classroom, and how do you develop badly needed supports for these kids who live in extreme poverty and literally need [that support] in order to learn? It was all about systems, and the absence of focusing on classrooms was their theoretical mistake.

Russakoff believes there are many overwhelming obstacles in the way of true school reform in Newark: from dealing with the institutional effects of poverty to rejiggering how the city government is run. But at least for now, Newark — and all school districts facing similar financial issues — can follow the same, simple edict: listen.

“The confrontational, ‘get out of the way, we know what works, you don’t’ [attitude exhibited by Christie and Booker] is counterproductive — politically and strategically,” she said. “There are so many terrific teachers in these failing schools who can tell you how to fix the schools, or how to provide the support kids need that they’re not getting. And if you’re not talking to them, you’re really missing an opportunity for change.”