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9-9-15 Education in the News - Newark, Zuckerberg, and Reform

Star Ledger - Author Dale Russakoff discusses new book on Newark School Reform

By Tom Moran | Star-Ledger Editorial Board The Star-Ledger
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on September 06, 2015 at 1:35 PM, updated September 08, 2015 at 10:15 AM

Five years ago, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced he would give Newark schools $100 million, on the condition that others matched it, which they did.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker inspired the donation, raised much of the matching money, and worked with Gov. Chris Christie to launch what all sides hoped would be a model reform for cities across the country.

So began a pitched political battle that ended with the resignation of Superintendent Cami Anderson, the election of Mayor Ras Baraka, and Christie's agreement to return control of the schools to local voters.

A central tension in this period was the rapid expansion of charter schools in Newark, which now educate nearly 1 in 3 city children.

The charters are doing well, with the best of them achieving outstanding results. But as students moved to charters, money went with them, forcing the traditional system to cut costs and jobs. A political fight was inevitable.

Dale Russakoff, a reporter at the Washington Post for 28 years who has written about Newark for The New Yorker magazine, spent more than four years immersed in this struggle. Her new book, "The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Schools?" is a gripping and authoritative account of school reform and politics in New Jersey's largest city.

She spoke recently with Tom Moran, the Star-Ledger's editorial page editor. An edited transcript appears below. For Moran's column discussing the book, click here.

Q. A review in the New York Times called your book "a corrective to the dominant narrative of school reformers across the country." Do you see the book as mostly critical of the reform movement?

A. I see it as critical of all the players in education, so I don't think reform movement is singled out. There's a real divide in the debate over education, one side versus the other. And the children are caught in the middle.

Q. In Newark, the school board, the city council and the mayor have all opposed the expansion of charter schools. Yet nearly one-third of the students have chosen to enroll in a charter, and 10,000 more are on waiting lists. Are Newark families voting with their feet?

A. People are often of two minds. They're putting their kids in charters but that means the district schools need to right-size by cutting jobs, and that affects their cousin. Everyone in Newark is affected by both trends.

Q. Are politicians demagoguing this question?

A. Some of them definitely are. But that's partly because of the way this unfolded, with reformers coming in and basically dismissing the community, saying, "We know better, we're going to fix your schools and fix you and save your kids." That was a gross thing to do and the push back was natural.

Had they worked with some of the great teachers and principals on the ground in Newark, and the local philanthropists, it would have been a lot harder to demagogue.

Q. Is that a main lesson of the book?

A. It's one of them, but not the main lesson.

Q. What's the main lesson?

A. The reform movement is focused on changing the management of schools, instilling more accountability. Those things are necessary. But they didn't attend to the effects of poverty on children, and that's a huge issue in Newark's schools and neighborhoods.

Their mantra is that poverty is no excuse. That's a fair critique of some true for some people. But if you're not addressing poverty as part of your plan for education, you're not going to have an impact.

Q. Who disputes that poverty is a gigantic obstacle?

A. Verbally, no one does. But if you look at how this money was spent, there wasn't anything systemic or strategic to address the issues that are keeping kids from learning no matter how great the teachers and principals are.

There's a class I write about with 26 kindergarteners, and 15 of them are in families under supervision of state social workers who were monitoring families for allegation of abuse, neglect, or exposure to drugs or domestic violence. They had one of the best kindergarten teachers in Newark. It wasn't enough.

Q. What should the school system do about that class?

A. That school needs extra teachers, tutors, social workers, counselors, and a dean of students whose job it is to be sure there's an adult in every child's life. Those are available in the best charter schools, but not in district schools.

Q. That sounds expensive.

A. Only about half the money that goes into the district actually reaches the classroom. That to me is a big take away. The rest is spent inside the bureaucracy. There is supposed to be an economy of scale in a big system, yet the charters, which get less money per kid, get more money in the classroom.

One way to address this would be to undertake a forensic audit to find out why this money doesn't reach the classroom.

Then you face the tough decisions. The reformerskind of should have put this information before the community, saying, "Here's the money that could be going to kids in the classroom, as it does in charter schools. What tough decisions are we willing to make so that our kids get the help they need?"

Q. It makes me want to pull out my hair to hear that only half the money reaches the classroom. How is that possible?

A. I couldn't figure it out in any detail. But to take one category, the district spends $1.200 per child on custodians. KIPP charter schools spend $400.

Q. Let's look at the Zuckerberg gift. With matching funds, that amounted to $200 million, to be spent over five years. Sounds big, but that's really only a 4 percent boost. Why would anyone expect that to be transformational?

A. I agree. At one point Booker said "We have all the money in the world now. We can do what we want." But it's nothing when it comes to a public school system in a big city. They thought they'd use the money to change the management systems, to create accountability and efficiency.

Q. And a big piece went to financing a teacher contract that included merit pay, right?

A. Yes. But $31 million went to back pay for raises teachers hadn't gotten under the old contract, and only $6 million went to merit pay. Back pay is not education reform, but they wouldn't have gotten the union to the table without that.

Zuckerberg wanted to give the best teachers up to 50 percent more of base salary as a bonus. He believed that with that kind of reward for performance, top graduates would flock to teaching as a career. I think he was disappointed the money didn't go farther.

Q. Let's talk about Booker. I thought he came across as an energetic advocate for kids. The Times review said he "shows more interest in his own political career than he does in running the city." What's your take?

A. I think both those things are true. His reputation in Newark and among those who work closely with him is that he's brilliant and sincere when it comes to articulating an important cause, often one that others are not paying attention to. But when it comes to doing patient work in the vineyards to advance that cause and win grassroots support, that's not his strength.

Q. What about Cami Anderson? What did she accomplish?

A. A lot. Unfortunately, she didn't bring people along with her, and alienated people who could have been allies. But she was the one who bulldozed ahead to get better principals, and freed them from a lot of bureaucratic tasks so they could motivate teachers to do their best work. Some of her choices didn't pan out. But she changed the role of principals in a good way to put a huge emphasis on strengthening teacher quality.

Q. She's been replaced by Chris Cerf, the former state education commission and the man who recruited her. Will he be able to win more support?

A. He might. There's a whole different dynamic now. Cami was here as a long-term superintendent trying to change the district. Cerf is a lame duck already. And Mayor Baraka, who was so opposed to Cami, has made his peace with Cerf on the premise that Newark will get local control of its schools back.

Q. Baraka was her chief critic but embraced many of her reforms as principal of Central High, didn't he?

A. He wasn't embracing her reforms, but embraced many ideas she also embraced, like tenure reform. He told me he had tenured teachers that he spent enormous amounts of time trying to get rid of and then lost the case. He also said merit pay was a good idea, though he felt strongly that it shouldn't be a function of test scores alone. He did extensive test prep work at Central, and hired consultants.

He said to me "I stole ideas from everywhere, including the reform movement." He was about trying to improve his school. I said, "Why aren't you saying this publically?" and he said, "You can't get too far in front of people."

Q. Did you see demagoguery and self-promotion in his criticism of Anderson?

A. I think it was a political calculation that definitely helped his mayoral campaign.

Q. What's your final take: Are kids in Newark better off than they were five years ago?

A. In general, no. The district has been significantly destabilized. Peshine school, for example, got a much better principal, more collaboration among teachers, a lot of buy-in from parents, I thought that positive change was beginning to get traction. Then One Newark came along and Peshine got 200 extra kids from school closings and reorganizations. And last year at Peshine there were continuing crises.

Those children in high performing charters are better off. But those in the district schools are not. So it feels like a wash.

Q. What do you see coming next?

A. Baraka has phenomenal grassroots support in Newark. He is probably the one person in the city who is politically smart enough to lead the change process, if he chooses to. It's clear he's moderating his views on charters. More than half the African-American kindergarteners are now in charters, and charter enrollment is approaching 50 percent of African-Americans. it's close to that for all ages. Baraka is smart enough to read those numbers. It may lead him to pivot on the growth of charters, like Nixon going to China.

He now has Christie's ear. He's a brilliant user of power. So I'm eager to see what he does.

Tom Moran may be reached at tmoran@starledger.com or call (973) 836-4909. Follow him on Twitter @tomamoran. Find The Star-Ledger on Facebook.


Education Week - $100 Million, Mark Zuckerberg, and a Controversial Education Experiment

Published Online: September 9, 2015; Published in Print: September 9, 2015, as How Mark Zuckerberg's $100 Million Gift Found Its Way to Newark's Public Schools


Editor's note: This is an excerpt from The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Schools?, Dale Russakoff's just-published book that details the backstory of how two public figures—a mayor and a governor—attracted an infusion of private money in an attempt to transform a flagging school district. One of the most closely watched philanthropic gifts to public education, the $100 million commitment to Newark, N.J.'s public schools by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg ultimately fell short of its ambitious goal. But the book sheds light on how then-Mayor Cory Booker, an African-American Democrat, and recently elected New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a white suburban Republican, undertook a controversial drive to change the city's school system, including by expanding charter schools, weakening tenure protections, and evaluating teachers based on student test scores. Their aim—and Zuckerberg's—was to "create a model for solving the education crisis in all of urban America," says Russakoff.

In July of 2010, Cory Booker found himself in the company of billionaires and multimillionaires at the posh and secluded Sun Valley Resort, in the mountains of central Idaho, for a ritual mixing of big business and pleasure. The invitation-only extravaganza of deal-making and schmoozing for media moguls and investors, hosted by New York banker Herbert Allen, drew the richest and most famous people in the business. That year's guest list for the first time included 26-year-old Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook. Booker had his sights set on Zuckerberg to fund his and Christie's plans for the Newark schools. As it turned out, Zuckerberg wanted to meet him, too.

The Newark mayor had an extraordinary social network of his own, but for this particular connection, Booker once again had his Yale Law School classmate Ed Nicoll to thank.

When Booker was still a city councilman, Nicoll introduced him to one of his investors, a venture capitalist named Marc Bodnick. Booker remembered Nicoll briefing him: "This guy's a diehard Democrat and also hates the failures in education and heard that you believed in everything from vouchers to charter schools, whatever, and wants to meet you." They clicked in the first meeting.

In what turned into a networking trifecta for Booker, Bodnick later married Michelle Sandberg, whose sister Sheryl became chief operating officer of Facebook in 2008. In mid-2010, according to Booker, Bodnick tipped him that the Facebook founder was planning a significant philanthropic move, "something big" in education. Then Bodnick learned that Sandberg, Zuckerberg, and Booker all would be at Allen's annual Sun Valley mixer, and Booker got another alert. "He said, 'Make sure you connect with Sheryl and her husband out there, because they want to connect you with Mark,' " Booker said.

As always at the Sun Valley event, the panel discussions featured some of the most interesting and compelling people in the country and the world. It was not surprising that a discussion on the future of cities included leaders from centers of commerce, culture, and influence, like Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York, and Richard Daley, mayor of Chicago. The third panelist, whose city had long ago lost its wealth and influence, was Booker. Like Zuckerberg, Booker was a first-timer at Sun Valley, and he poked fun at the incongruity of his presence. He felt, he said, like a community college sitting beside the Harvard and Yale of mayors.

But the incongruity was what made Booker intriguing. He was in fact completely at ease among the rich and powerful. For years, he had been a regularly featured guest at Manhattan celebrity galas and Hollywood premieres, a sought-after speaker around the country at political fundraisers, charity events, and college commencements, a frequent chatting partner on late-night talk shows. Wherever he traveled, he made rich people want to write checks for causes in Newark: Brad Pitt financed housing for low-income veterans, Jon Bon Jovi for HIV/AIDS patients, Oprah Winfrey for battered women. Shaquille O'Neal was developing a 12-screen movie complex and high-rise apartments. Even United States senators marveled at the way this mayor of an impoverished city coaxed money from the wealthiest donors.


Booker and Zuckerberg met at a buffet dinner one night on the deck of Herbert Allen's Sun Valley townhouse, overlooking a golf course and a stream. They shared a table with Amazon's Jeff Bezos and media executive Michael Eisner, among others. Afterward, Zuckerberg invited Booker on a walk and explained that he was looking for a city poised to upend the forces impeding urban education, where his money could make the difference and create a national model. Booker responded with a pitch that showcased what made him such a dazzling fundraiser.

The mayor of Newark understood well that venture philanthropists were looking for a "proof point," a city where they could deploy multiple initiatives and demonstrate measurable improvement in poor children's achievement. He already had pitched Newark to many of them as fertile ground for charter growth, emphasizing its proximity to a huge teaching talent pool across the Hudson River and its manageable size in contrast to New York, where then-Chancellor Joel Klein, a hero of reformers, had shaken the school system's foundations but hadn't begun to reach all 1.2 million students. In raising $20 million for the Newark Charter School Fund in 2008, Booker had emphasized the success of some of Newark's earliest charter schools and New Jersey's generous school funding formula—more than twice the amount per pupil as in California, for example. Now, he was pitching Zuckerberg on the next stage of the vision—Newark as a proof point for turning around an entire school district.

Walking side by side with Zuckerberg, Booker began, “The question facing cities is not ‘Can we deal with our most difficult problems—recidivism, health care, education?’ The real question is ‘Do we have the will?’ ”Why not, he went on, take the best models in the country for success in education and bring them all to Newark? “There’s no way we can’t count to 45,000 [Newark children of school age] and get all of them into high-performing environments,” the mayor later recalled. The former Stanford football player, big of build, with shaved head, hazel eyes, and overpowering optimism, added, with the confidence of a born winner: “You could flip a whole city!”

“I just thought, this is the guy I want to invest in,” Zuckerberg would later tell reporters. “This is a person who can create change.”

Zuckerberg was disarmingly open about how little he knew at the time about philanthropy. He recently had joined Bill Gates and Warren Buffett in pledging to give away half of his fortune in his lifetime, but unlike older billionaires, he had little time to devote to a foundation. “Running a company is a full-time job,” he explained, somewhat unnecessarily. He said his goal, in addition to helping the Newark schools, was to learn from his experience and become a better philanthropist in the process.

While his personal experience in public education was limited—he’d started out in public schools, graduated from the elite prep school Phillips Exeter Academy, and dropped out of Harvard as a sophomore—Zuckerberg was drawn to the cause by the experiences of his wife, Priscilla Chan, then his girlfriend, and her passion for children. They decided to embark on philanthropy as a couple, and when they began talking about it, early in 2010, she was in medical school, preparing to become a pediatrician in community medicine to care for underserved children. She had no more time for active philanthropy than he did.

Sitting beside Zuckerberg in his glass-walled meeting room at Facebook, Chan said her own life experiences drew her to the challenges facing inner-city children. She came from a “disadvantaged” family, as she described it, in which her Chinese-Vietnamese immigrant parents worked 18 hours a day to build a better life for their three daughters, her father running a Chinese restaurant, her mother working two jobs. Her grandparents lived with them and helped care for her. Two of her public school teachers, to whom she remains close, saw her potential and helped put her on a path that eventually led to Harvard. Chan was the first in her extended family to go to college, followed soon by her two younger sisters.

She recalled her first days at Harvard as overwhelming, but she found an anchor by volunteering in an after-school program for children in two housing projects in the low-income Dorchester section of Boston. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, these kids are me, except I got a lucky break somewhere along the way and things turned out really well. I should help these kids because this is me, and maybe one or two small things can sort of change their trajectory.’”

She teared up and stopped to compose herself. “I always cry talking about this,” she said. Silently, Zuckerberg got up and fetched her a box of Kleenex. “Just power through it,” he said under his breath, pumping his fist like a cross between an athletic trainer and a comic. She laughed, pressed a tissue to her eyes, and continued the story.

Chan worked all four years of college in the program, running it for the last three. More than academics, it involved helping children navigate the day-in, day-out challenges of growing up in poverty, from neighborhood rivalries to health issues.

"Zuckerberg invited Booker on a walk and explained that he was looking for a city poised to upend the forces impeding urban education."

In medical school, she became active in Pediatric Leaders for the Underserved, and as a resident she cared for foster children at the county safety-net hospital in San Francisco. Again she felt a personal connection. “All these Hispanic immigrant families in my clinic in the hospital—I’m like, ‘You are like me, except we have completely different lives,’ ” she said. As for her own “completely different lives”—her childhood versus life as a billionaire—she said, “Anyone would be shocked. You don’t have to have quite the same background I did.”

A different experience of Chan’s influenced Zuckerberg’s view of education and Newark. She spent a year between college and medical school teaching science in a private school in San Jose, and “when she went to be a teacher, coming out of Harvard, a lot of people acted like she was going to do charity,” Zuckerberg said. “My own view was you’re going to have more of an impact than a lot of these other people who are going into jobs that are paying a lot more. And that’s kind of a basic economic inefficiency. Society should value these roles more, and what are the things that are getting in the way of that?”

His hope was to make teaching in an urban school—one of the most important jobs in America, as he saw it—as attractive to the most talented college graduates as working at Facebook. He couldn’t succeed without having his pick of the best people in the business. Why would it be different for public schools?

“Economically, I think it’s probably the most important problem in the world,” Zuckerberg said of the state of public education for the poorest children.

Chan cast a questioning look his way, smiling as if in amusement. “We’re different,” she explained. He saw the problem as systemic and economic, while she viewed it from the ground level, through the needs of individual children. In her view, investing in children had value for its own sake. “It’s the coolest thing, because you never know what they’re going to do later on and you can’t really follow up on it. You just sort of have this idea, ‘Who knows what that kid’s going to do?’ ”

In emails and documents Booker and Zuckerberg sent back and forth after their talks in Sun Valley, their stated goal was not simply to repair education in Newark but to develop a model for saving it in all of urban America—and to do it in five years. Booker argued that by succeeding in a district as challenging as Newark, Zuckerberg would emerge with a model that he could take to one city after another.


“Newark Schools' Journey to Local Control Begins ”

In August, Booker sent Zuckerberg a proposal, prepared with the pro bono help of McKinsey consultants. It was titled “Creating a National Model of Educational Transformation.” On the cover was a color photograph of Booker surrounded by African-American children, all reaching skyward, as was the mayor. The document referred repeatedly to Newark’s potential as a national model. “Our youth population is manageable in size, making Newark an ideal laboratory for community change,” it said. Newark would “coordinate a critical mass of local and national partners with proven models of excellence to deliver high-impact programs and best practices.” The last page listed four criteria for success, only one in boldface: “Blue-print for national replication across America’s urban centers to transform the lives of its youth.” The language of national models left little room for attention to the unique problems of Newark, its schools, or its children.

A few weeks later, Zuckerberg invited Booker to Palo Alto to talk more, and they continued the conversation by phone, in secret (the name on Booker’s private schedule was “Mr. Z.”). No one in the New-ark schools or local politics was to know what was afoot. The talks went late into the night, with Sheryl Sandberg on the line as well as Booker’s chief education adviser, De’Shawn Wright. “The mayor, Sheryl, Mark, and I were on the phone at two or three o’clock in the morning, talking about education reform and what are the levers of change and how do you do it systemically and what are the hurdles with politics, policy, and legislation that would get us to this utopia of education,” Wright said.

Zuckerberg made clear that his primary goal was to find a way to attract, nurture, and handsomely re-ward top teachers. Like almost every school district in the country, Newark paid teachers based on how long they had held their jobs and how many graduate degrees they had earned, although neither correlated with increased effectiveness. In other words, teachers who transformed students’ lives received the same pay as the deadwood. “Who would want to work in a system like that?” Zuckerberg wondered aloud about circumstances that applied to almost all of America’s 3.3 million public school teachers.

The world Zuckerberg worked in could not have provided a sharper contrast to the Newark public schools. At Facebook, he sat in a gymnasium-sized room filled with coders in their 20s, many of them pursued by tech companies around the world with offers of signing bonuses that dwarfed the annual salaries of experienced Newark teachers. Around the workstations were red-lettered motivational signs: STAY FOCUSED AND KEEP SHIPPING. MOVE FAST AND BREAK THINGS. DONE IS BETTER THAN PERFECT. WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU WEREN’T AFRAID? In the Newark schools, which Zuckerberg had never visited, nothing moved fast, much was already broken, and most people were afraid of change.


A month after their conversations in Sun Valley, Booker gave Zuckerberg a six-point agenda drawn from the McKinsey document, which in turn was based on the original plan Booker had devised for Christie. It called for a data system to track student progress and hold everyone accountable for it; new school models, including charters, single-sex schools, and schools for students at risk of dropping out; recruitment and training of top-quality educators for future openings; a community-awareness program to build public support and services for disaffected youth. The top agenda item for Zuckerberg was a new labor contract that would significantly reward Newark teachers who improved their students’ performance, a shift he believed would raise the status of the profession. “Over the long term, that’s the only way they’re going to get the very best people, a lot of the very best people,” he concluded.

Booker asked Zuckerberg for $100 million over five years. The mayor conceded, however, that he did not know at the time what the initiatives would cost. He chose the number largely for its size and the public attention it would draw to the effort. “We knew it had to be big; we both thought it had to be bold, eye-catching,” said Booker. Zuckerberg agreed, with the caveat that Booker would have to match it with another $100 million from other donors. Booker didn’t blink, although this meant raising a king-sized amount of money in an economy still reeling from the financial crisis of 2008.

In late summer 2010, Booker called Christie with the $100 million news.

Dale Russakoff spent 28 years as a reporter for The Washington Post, covering politics, education, social policy, and other topics. The Prize (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is her first book.

Excerpted from The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? by Dale Russakoff. Copyright © 2015 by Dale Russakoff. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Vol. 35, Issue 03, Pages 24-25, 28