A $200 Million Primer on School Reform

Best-selling author Dale Russakoff recounts Newark's high-profile experiment at IPR lecture

Facebook founder and billionaire phillanthropist Mark Zuckerberg speaks to students in Newark, New Jersey in 2010.

Note: If you would like to view a video recording of Dale Russakoff's lecture, click here.

A failing school district. An impoverished city. A billionaire philanthropist. And a $100 million gift.

This is the story of Newark, New Jersey in 2010, one that author and journalist Dale Russakoff portrays in her New York Times best-seller, The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015).

At a December 1 IPR lecture on Northwestern University’s Evanston campus, Russakoff outlined the successes and failures of this high-profile effort to transform a struggling school district into a “national model” for success. More than 90 people attended the event, which was cosponsored by the School of Education and Social Policy and the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

The veteran Washington Post reporter spent over four years chronicling behind-the-scenes and on-the-ground events. She used her unparalleled access not only to cover the actions of the key decision makers, but also to describe how their decisions filtered down to some of the teachers, parents, and students affected.

“These schools feel the weight of poverty in America as intimately as any of our institutions,” Russakoff said, in stressing the importance of learning from Newark’s efforts at school reform. “And, at the same time, education is our best hope of helping the next generation overcome poverty.”

In introducing her, Associate Provost and IPR Fellow Lindsay Chase-Lansdale praised Russakoff’s “riveting drama” for also detailing the "extraordinary promise of many children in Newark, and the dedication and challenge of numerous teachers and leaders on the ground, despite the enormous challenges and debacles.”

“It’s hard to think of too many social issues that are more pressing” than the ones Russakoff discussed, said IPR Director David Figlio.

Identifying School Failure

Appearing on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in September 2010, billionaire Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, then-Newark mayor Cory Booker, and New Jersey governor Chris Christie announced that Zuckerberg would give $100 million to reform Newark’s failing school system. The gift was ultimately matched by another $100 million from private donors, bringing the total to $200 million.

At the time of Zuckerberg’s gift, Russakoff explained, schools in Newark “were in serious need of reform.” Only 40 percent of students were reading at grade level, and only 54 percent were graduating from high school, compared with 79 percent nationally. Of those who went on to attend community college, 90 percent had to pass additional remedial classes before qualifying for college-level work.

Low school achievement was not the only issue plaguing the city: Newark’s high poverty rates presented another hurdle. Forty-five percent of Newark children were living below the poverty level—twice the national average.

These two long-standing social ills led to a “wide consensus” in the community that something needed to be done, Russakoff said. 

Seeking School Reform

With $200 million in hand, Zuckerberg, Booker, Christie, and others set out to transform Newark’s failing schools, while also creating a national model for fixing struggling urban school districts across the country. They gave themselves just five years to do it. 

(From l.) Dale Russakoff meets with Medill Dean Bradley
Hamm, Associate Provost and IPR Fellow Lindsay
Chase-Lansdale, and IPR Director David Figlio.

The strategies laid out for achieving this goal included rapid growth of the charter school system in Newark, the closure of any failing public schools, and the severance of a teachers’ union contract that tied teacher raises to seniority rather than performance.

These efforts did lead to “a number of good things,” said Russakoff, including an influx of new principals and an updated system for teacher evaluations. 

The reform also led to a dramatic expansion of the charter school system in Newark. Over the next few years, 40 percent of children in Newark will attend charter schools, more than twice as many students as in 2010. Newark charter schools outperform their public counterparts, Russakoff noted, with overall gains in student achievement in Newark largely a result of the performance of charter schools.

But the shift of students from public schools into charter schools has left public schools in a bind: As students leave for charter schools, funding follows them. As a result, many of the public schools in Newark have been closed, consolidated, or repurposed since the reform. So, while 40 percent of students in Newark will be attending high-performing charter schools, Russakoff explained, 60 percent will remain in low-performing, underfunded district schools.

Learning from Newark

While Newark has experienced both successes and failures since the reform, Russakoff described her feeling that “something was missing” from the reform effort.

“There was no plan for addressing the consequences of poverty which permeate the classroom of most traditional school districts,” she said.

Rather than talking to Newark residents and teachers and seeking strategies to help students at the classroom level, the reform leaders in Newark focused almost exclusively on what they called “systems changes,” working from the top down. Moreover, they were all outsiders to Newark, relying on consultants who also were unfamiliar with the community.   

As a result, many of the reforms were missing the type of “social and emotional support” at the school- and classroom-level that people in the community most wanted to see, said Russakoff.

“To improve education for the poorest kids,” she noted, “You need to maximize resources at the school level—a challenge that will require cooperation of every force in education: reformer, union, politician, parent, and philanthropist.”

“You don’t have to solve poverty to improve education for the poorest kids, but you definitely have to address it,” she concluded.

Dale Russakoff is an author and former journalist for The Washington Post. For more information, see her book, The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?

Photo credit: Insider Images, Flickr (top); Jenna Braunstein (inset).