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What Did Mark Zuckerberg Learn in Newark?

Deconstructing the city’s $200 million education fiasco, a TC panel with author Dale Russakoff asks: Is anyone the wiser?

In 2010, Mark Zuckerberg rocked the world of education philanthropy with an audacious $100 million gift to Newark, New Jersey, contingent on the city raising a matching amount. Zuckerberg, the young billionaire founder of Facebook, announced the gift to a cheering audience on the Oprah Winfrey Show, accompanied by Democrat Cory Booker, Newark’s rock star mayor at the time, and Republican Governor Chris Christie, already harboring presidential aspirations. The three promised that in five years the city’s deeply troubled school system – taken over years ago by the state, and still mired in cronyism and gross mismanagement – into “a symbol of educational excellence for the whole nation.”  

Five years later, Zuckerberg’s Newark project had foundered on the jagged rocks of local Newark politics and become a national symbol of failure. So in December 2015, when Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, announced another sensational philanthropic venture – a limited partnership that would make private investments and direct any profits from those to the couple’s charitable causes – it seemed reasonable to ask:  What did Zuckerberg learn in Newark, and will those lessons translate into better outcomes for this new enterprise – and for education philanthropy itself?

“Zuckerberg didn’t have a map for the treacherous path from failure to success.”
— Dale Russakoff

Those are some of the questions that author Dale Russakoff tackles in her widely hailed book, The Prize: Who’s In Charge of America’s Schools?, published last fall, which chronicles the Zuckerman gift fiasco in Newark.

 

Russakoff, a longtime journalist with The Washington Post, appeared at Teachers College last month to speak about her book, and to discuss public education in Newark with Nicholas Lemann, Dean Emeritus of the Columbia School of Journalism, who has written extensively about school systems and the history of testing; and Basil Smikle, Executive Director of the New York State Democratic Party and a TC doctoral student in education policy.

The moderator was Jeffrey Henig, TC Professor of Political Science & Education and co-editor, with Frederick Hess, of The New Education Philanthropy: Politics, Policy, and Reform, published in December. 

One of the most intriguing threads of Russakoff’s book is the bipartisan partnership between Booker and Christie. Russakoff recaps a nighttime ride through Newark in 2009, when the two politicians made a pact to transform Newark’s schools into a “hemisphere of hope” for school systems across the nation. Booker then wooed Zuckerberg, who was looking to make a big gift to reform education.

“Philanthropists do philanthropy the same way they made money. New philanthropists think the way to solve a problem is to blow up the institution that created it, and make new institutions.”
— Jeffrey Henig

But “Zuckerberg didn’t have a map for the treacherous path from failure to success,” said Russakoff, quoting from her book – and as it turned out, neither did Booker and Christie. Moving quickly with almost no input from local school leaders or parents, the New Jerseyans spent $20 million on New York City education consultants “who couldn’t find their way around Newark,” Russakoff said, to design a complete remake of the schools. They hired Cami Anderson, a white Californian, to lead the virtually all-minority system. And they invited national charter school enterprises to run the growing number of new charters across the city.

Anderson was to execute an ambitious plan that was inspired by reform efforts in other large, urban school districts, dubbed “Newark One.” Booker did raise $100 million to match Zuckerberg’s gift, as outside corporate and philanthropic interests descended on the city and imposed an expensive, aggressive program to close and consolidate underperforming neighborhood schools and replace them with charter schools.

 

Students at some of the charter schools performed well and pushed the city’s average test scores higher. But charters were criticized for failing to serve the city’s neediest children, Russakoff pointed out. The charter schools also siphoned public money and enrollment from the traditional school system, prompting  the closure of schools that, as bad as they were, served as oases of relative order in Newark’s chaotic neighborhoods and as publicly funded employers of last resort in a city long abandoned by private capital, Russakoff said.

The result was fierce fighting that pitted state and city officials and the education reform industry against the teachers union, parents, and local politicians and civic leaders. In May 2014, after Booker decamped for Washington to replace the late New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg, Ras Baraka, a high school principal and fiery opponent of “Newark One,” was handily elected mayor. The son of the poet and political firebrand Amiri Baraka, the new mayor symbolized for many the retaking of power by the community.

As Newark and its schools continue to struggle, Henig asked, “What lessons can be taken seriously by people who would make a difference?”  

“Go to the schools, ask the teachers and parents. They’ll tell you how to teach their kids.”
— Basil Smikle

Russakoff pointed to three major flaws in the reformers’ efforts. First, Booker and Christie didn’t account for the central role that poverty plays in the failure of any urban school system. Instead, they approached the city’s schools crisis as a purely educational challenge that could be solved by setting higher standards and hiring the right teachers.  

Second, the reformers didn’t understand or admit that turning around a school system entrenched in poverty and neglect is not a short-term proposition. Zuckerberg, Booker and Christie said it would take five years, but change on that scale takes decades, Russakoff said.

And third, despite all the money they spent on consultants, Booker and Christie did not engage the real experts – the principals, teachers and parents they hoped to help, Russakoff said. Local residents learned of the Zuckerberg grant on the Oprah Show, along with the rest of the country. After local residents excoriated her at a few public hearings, Anderson took to meeting privately with funders and consultants. She unveiled Phase 2 of the plan – the closing of underperforming neighborhood schools – at an invitation-only cocktail reception, attended mostly by New Yorkers, at the plush, downtown New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

 

The failure to tap local experience, talent and skills proved particularly egregious in Newark, said Smikle, a longtime Harlem political consultant. The city has a unique history of racial discord and a pervasive distrust of outsiders – even xenophobia. “There’s lots of tension around philanthropists coming into the neighborhood and calling the shots,” he said.

Newark became a national poster child for the “fundamentally undemocratic” nature of the so-called New Philanthropy, said Nicholas Lemann. Although corporate foundations value the same accountability and measurable goals that stockholders demand of big business, they have no customers and “are very lightly regulated,” Lemann said. And with brash, new philanthropists like Zuckerberg “trying to move the needle in a big way,” he said, “it’s no big surprise that some folks are upset by this.”

Indeed, “philanthropists do philanthropy the same way they made money,” Henig said. “New philanthropists think the way to solve a problem is to blow up the institution that created it, and make new institutions,” using their successful corporations as a model. For Zuckerberg, that meant recruiting the best teachers he could find and paying them top dollar to stay in the classroom – and to do that, Anderson had to fire higher-paid tenured teachers.

That approach upset the compensation system in Newark’s public school system that had been hammered out over the decades by the teachers unions and city leaders, and it met with fierce opposition from rank-and-file teachers and principals, even from some who were actually benefiting from the new pay scale and bonuses at charter schools. At heart, their opposition reflected the fact that earning a good salary – the measure of a person’s value in Zuckerberg’s Silicon Valley – is “not why teachers teach,” Russakoff said. Rather, they work in impoverished districts like Newark out of a passionate desire to help improve children’s lives.  

So what’s the takeaway – not only for Zuckerberg, but all would-be school reformers?

“That all schools matter,” Smikle said – and that while the formula for fixing them will vary from school to school, the wisdom and talent necessary to fix them can be found in the classrooms and in the community.

“Go to the schools, ask the teachers and parents,” Smikle said. “They’ll tell you how to teach their kids.” – Patricia Lamiell
 

Published Friday, Feb 26, 2016

Jeffrey Henig
Jeffrey Henig, TC Professor of Political Science & Education
Basil Smikle
TC doctoral student Basil Smikle, Executive Director of the New York State Democratic Party
Nicholas Lemann
Nicholas Lemann, Dean Emeritus of the Columbia School of Journalism

Deconstructing the city’s $200 million education fiasco, a TC panel with author Dale Russakoff asks: Is anyone the wiser?

In 2010, Mark Zuckerberg rocked the world of education philanthropy with an audacious $100 million gift to Newark, New Jersey, contingent on the city raising a matching amount. Zuckerberg, the young billionaire founder of Facebook, announced the gift to a cheering audience on the Oprah Winfrey Show, accompanied by Democrat Cory Booker, Newark’s rock star mayor at the time, and Republican Governor Chris Christie, already harboring presidential aspirations. The three promised that in five years the city’s deeply troubled school system – taken over years ago by the state, and still mired in cronyism and gross mismanagement – into “a symbol of educational excellence for the whole nation.”  

Five years later, Zuckerberg’s Newark project had foundered on the jagged rocks of local Newark politics and become a national symbol of failure. So in December 2015, when Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, announced another sensational philanthropic venture – a limited partnership that would make private investments and direct any profits from those to the couple’s charitable causes – it seemed reasonable to ask:  What did Zuckerberg learn in Newark, and will those lessons translate into better outcomes for this new enterprise – and for education philanthropy itself?

“Zuckerberg didn’t have a map for the treacherous path from failure to success.”
— Dale Russakoff

Those are some of the questions that author Dale Russakoff tackles in her widely hailed book, The Prize: Who’s In Charge of America’s Schools?, published last fall, which chronicles the Zuckerman gift fiasco in Newark.

 

Russakoff, a longtime journalist with The Washington Post, appeared at Teachers College last month to speak about her book, and to discuss public education in Newark with Nicholas Lemann, Dean Emeritus of the Columbia School of Journalism, who has written extensively about school systems and the history of testing; and Basil Smikle, Executive Director of the New York State Democratic Party and a TC doctoral student in education policy.

The moderator was Jeffrey Henig, TC Professor of Political Science & Education and co-editor, with Frederick Hess, of The New Education Philanthropy: Politics, Policy, and Reform, published in December. 

One of the most intriguing threads of Russakoff’s book is the bipartisan partnership between Booker and Christie. Russakoff recaps a nighttime ride through Newark in 2009, when the two politicians made a pact to transform Newark’s schools into a “hemisphere of hope” for school systems across the nation. Booker then wooed Zuckerberg, who was looking to make a big gift to reform education.

“Philanthropists do philanthropy the same way they made money. New philanthropists think the way to solve a problem is to blow up the institution that created it, and make new institutions.”
— Jeffrey Henig

But “Zuckerberg didn’t have a map for the treacherous path from failure to success,” said Russakoff, quoting from her book – and as it turned out, neither did Booker and Christie. Moving quickly with almost no input from local school leaders or parents, the New Jerseyans spent $20 million on New York City education consultants “who couldn’t find their way around Newark,” Russakoff said, to design a complete remake of the schools. They hired Cami Anderson, a white Californian, to lead the virtually all-minority system. And they invited national charter school enterprises to run the growing number of new charters across the city.

Anderson was to execute an ambitious plan that was inspired by reform efforts in other large, urban school districts, dubbed “Newark One.” Booker did raise $100 million to match Zuckerberg’s gift, as outside corporate and philanthropic interests descended on the city and imposed an expensive, aggressive program to close and consolidate underperforming neighborhood schools and replace them with charter schools.

 

Students at some of the charter schools performed well and pushed the city’s average test scores higher. But charters were criticized for failing to serve the city’s neediest children, Russakoff pointed out. The charter schools also siphoned public money and enrollment from the traditional school system, prompting  the closure of schools that, as bad as they were, served as oases of relative order in Newark’s chaotic neighborhoods and as publicly funded employers of last resort in a city long abandoned by private capital, Russakoff said.

The result was fierce fighting that pitted state and city officials and the education reform industry against the teachers union, parents, and local politicians and civic leaders. In May 2014, after Booker decamped for Washington to replace the late New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg, Ras Baraka, a high school principal and fiery opponent of “Newark One,” was handily elected mayor. The son of the poet and political firebrand Amiri Baraka, the new mayor symbolized for many the retaking of power by the community.

As Newark and its schools continue to struggle, Henig asked, “What lessons can be taken seriously by people who would make a difference?”  

“Go to the schools, ask the teachers and parents. They’ll tell you how to teach their kids.”
— Basil Smikle

Russakoff pointed to three major flaws in the reformers’ efforts. First, Booker and Christie didn’t account for the central role that poverty plays in the failure of any urban school system. Instead, they approached the city’s schools crisis as a purely educational challenge that could be solved by setting higher standards and hiring the right teachers.  

Second, the reformers didn’t understand or admit that turning around a school system entrenched in poverty and neglect is not a short-term proposition. Zuckerberg, Booker and Christie said it would take five years, but change on that scale takes decades, Russakoff said.

And third, despite all the money they spent on consultants, Booker and Christie did not engage the real experts – the principals, teachers and parents they hoped to help, Russakoff said. Local residents learned of the Zuckerberg grant on the Oprah Show, along with the rest of the country. After local residents excoriated her at a few public hearings, Anderson took to meeting privately with funders and consultants. She unveiled Phase 2 of the plan – the closing of underperforming neighborhood schools – at an invitation-only cocktail reception, attended mostly by New Yorkers, at the plush, downtown New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

 

The failure to tap local experience, talent and skills proved particularly egregious in Newark, said Smikle, a longtime Harlem political consultant. The city has a unique history of racial discord and a pervasive distrust of outsiders – even xenophobia. “There’s lots of tension around philanthropists coming into the neighborhood and calling the shots,” he said.

Newark became a national poster child for the “fundamentally undemocratic” nature of the so-called New Philanthropy, said Nicholas Lemann. Although corporate foundations value the same accountability and measurable goals that stockholders demand of big business, they have no customers and “are very lightly regulated,” Lemann said. And with brash, new philanthropists like Zuckerberg “trying to move the needle in a big way,” he said, “it’s no big surprise that some folks are upset by this.”

Indeed, “philanthropists do philanthropy the same way they made money,” Henig said. “New philanthropists think the way to solve a problem is to blow up the institution that created it, and make new institutions,” using their successful corporations as a model. For Zuckerberg, that meant recruiting the best teachers he could find and paying them top dollar to stay in the classroom – and to do that, Anderson had to fire higher-paid tenured teachers.

That approach upset the compensation system in Newark’s public school system that had been hammered out over the decades by the teachers unions and city leaders, and it met with fierce opposition from rank-and-file teachers and principals, even from some who were actually benefiting from the new pay scale and bonuses at charter schools. At heart, their opposition reflected the fact that earning a good salary – the measure of a person’s value in Zuckerberg’s Silicon Valley – is “not why teachers teach,” Russakoff said. Rather, they work in impoverished districts like Newark out of a passionate desire to help improve children’s lives.  

So what’s the takeaway – not only for Zuckerberg, but all would-be school reformers?

“That all schools matter,” Smikle said – and that while the formula for fixing them will vary from school to school, the wisdom and talent necessary to fix them can be found in the classrooms and in the community.

“Go to the schools, ask the teachers and parents,” Smikle said. “They’ll tell you how to teach their kids.” – Patricia Lamiell
 

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