What happens when big philanthropy efforts fail?

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Dale Russakoff's "The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?" explores the flaws in one group's plans to reform education in New Jersey.

Interview by Kai Ryssdal, Produced by Daisy Palacios Tuesday, September 22, 2015 - 13:21

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

Image of The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Schools? The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Schools?

Author: Dale Russakoff

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2015)

Binding: Hardcover, 256 pages

In 2010, Mark Zuckerberg, Newark Mayor Cory Booker and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie went onto Oprah Winfrey's show to announce new efforts to reform schools in Newark that would be funded by a $100 million donation from Zuckerberg. Journalist Dale Russakoff has followed the story of the donation and reform efforts, and their ultimate failure in her new book "The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?"

On how Booker and Christie began their work together:

When Christie was the U.S. attorney, he got involved in checking allegations of intimidation against the campaign workers for Cory Booker when he ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2002. And so the two of them got to be friends and stayed that way in spite of the huge polarization that developed between the two parties, and as it turned out, they had the exact same views on education. This is really common; you’ll find Democrats and Republicans who both agree that charter schools, and much more accountability for teachers, and rating teachers by test scores, and laying off the weakest teachers and rewarding the best ones — that all of those ideas that came out of the education reform movement are the same agenda that you find in a lot of Republican and Democratic camps, and Cory Booker and Chris Christie were examples of that.

On why they wanted their education reform to have national reach:

[Booker] had learned that the hedge fund billionaires and a lot of the people who had become very active in education reform think this way. They think about proof points and scaling up reform the way they would look for a proof point to scale up a startup. I think it dovetailed with the way Zuckerberg was thinking about the role he wanted to play in philanthropy, because here’s somebody who at age 19 transformed global communications from his dorm room. So, why wouldn’t he think that he could have that kind of transformational impact in philanthropy as well?

On the plan’s biggest flaw:

A huge, huge flaw from the beginning, which set off an explosion in Newark, was that they didn’t involve the people of Newark at all. I mean this was announced on Oprah, and the parents of Newark school children found out that a revolution was coming to their schools at the same moment that Oprah’s national audience found out about it. The message from the beginning was "you people have failed, you don’t know how to fix your own schools. We’re going to do it for you, and we’re going to save your children.

On the successes of the plan:

I think the main thing the reformers would tout as an accomplishment is that they dramatically expanded the number of kids in charter schools in Newark with their philanthropy. The other thing that they did was they used almost half of Zuckerberg’s money to subsidize a new teacher’s contract that has a lot more accountability measures to ensure that teachers and principals are helping children grow and learn. The problem was that the district schools where 60 percent of children still are have been greatly destabilized by this whole process. There’s a lot of stress and budget cuts and chaos that district schools are trying very hard to contend with, but if you look at the student performance in the district schools, it’s gone down and not up in the last five years.

On the future:

Well I’m not sure that Chris Christie and Cory Booker were really the right people to figure it out. They had other agendas … they didn’t focus on the granular issues, and they also didn’t try to find the people in Newark who were the most expert on what the real issues inside the district were. But the assumption is that in a district that’s failing, nobody knows what they’re doing, and in fact there are incredibly dedicated teachers and principals who understand exactly what’s wrong and are dying to have the opportunity to fix it. And had they been the planning committee for this reform, I think you would have seen a difference, and you would’ve seen people who were willing to stick with it from Day One, morning, noon and night, to try and make change happen, and that was the opportunity that was missed.

The big takeaway:

I hope they don’t draw the conclusion that it’s hopeless [to reform schools], because it’s not. Just don’t do that way. 

You can listen to our full interview with Russakoff and read an excerpt from "The Prize" below:

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