Review of Dale Russakoff’s “The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?”

tags: education, schools

Luther Spoehr is a senior lecturer in the Education Department at Brown University, where he teaches about the history of American school reform.

How many of you remember what the landscape of school reform looked like between the “Nation at Risk” report of 1983 and the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2002?  (Now let’s not always see the same hands.)  It featured variety, to say the least.  Responding to concern that a “rising tide of mediocrity” in America’s schools was undermining America’s international competitiveness, charismatic philosophers and practitioners, philanthropists and private foundations, and local and state governments generated and advocated solutions.  For instance…

            ● Ted Sizer wrote Horace’s Compromise (1984), highlighting the difficulties faced every day by classroom teachers, founded the Coalition of Essential Schools, then provided another blueprint (with more to come) in Horace’s School (1992).

            ● E.D. Hirsch wrote Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (1987),  highlighting the importance of providing content, not just skills; founded the Core Knowledge Foundation to spread that gospel; followed up with The Schools We Need—And Why We Don’t Have Them (1996) and other books.

            ● Publisher Walter Annenberg donated $500 million to fund reform projects, including Sizer’s.

            ● Major corporate donors set up the New American Schools Development Corporation in 1991 to fund nearly a dozen “break the mold” schools as models for “whole school reform.”

            ● Advocates for school choice, vouchers, and something new called “charter schools” pushed for their ideas.

            ● In 1989, Wendy Kopp, having finished her senior thesis at Princeton, started Teach for America.  In 1994 two TFA veterans, David Levin and Mike Feinberg, founded the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), setting up “no-excuses” schools with considerable support from Donald and Doris Fisher, founders of The Gap.

            ● At the state level, Massachusetts established the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) in 1993, to guarantee statewide accountability for public schools.  Standards-based assessment was on its way.

            ● At the federal level, there was a lot of talk, but not much action.  During George H.W. Bush’s presidency, an “education summit” of governors at Charlottesville, VA, led to “America 2000,” the centerpiece of which was six statements of goals for the decade.  Then a new president, Bill Clinton (one of the governors at Charlottesville) upped the ante with the eight statements of “Goals 2000,” many of them wordier versions of the earlier document.  In 1994 Congress passed the Educate America Act, which provided $105 million to support “outcomes-based education.”

Even in 1994, $105 million wouldn’t go far, but most school reform activity wasn’t dependent on Washington.  The charisma of reformers like Sizer, the energy of youthful idealists like Kopp, and the willingness of private funders to back them, made a thousand flowers bloom.  Even movies helped the cause.  Heroic teachers became celebrities:  Jaime Escalante was the subject of Jay Mathews’ Escalante:  The Best Teacher in America (1988), but his fame was really established by the popular movie Stand and Deliver (1988);  Edward James Olmos received an Academy Award Nomination for Best Actor for portraying Escalante.   Robin Williams followed with Dead Poets Society (1989); Richard Dreyfuss, with Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995).  Teachers (at least the mediagenic ones) were in; education was hot stuff.

For almost 20 years the foundations funded, the true believers fulminated, and the expert consultants fanned out across the land.  But by most measures, such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) or SAT scores, the needle barely budged.  So, in one of the last bursts of bipartisanship that we would see for years, Congress and the President came together, and on January 8, 2002, as Ted Kennedy and other proud officials beamed while standing behind the chief executive, George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) into law.

Until then, school reform had been helter-skelter, top-down, bottom-up, you name it.  NCLB brought the federal government and muscular “top-down” reform into public education.  With its emphasis on “accountability” for Adequate Year Progress (AYP), mandatory testing for grades 3-8 (and one year in high school), school choice, best practices, “highly qualified teachers,” and corrective action, there was no question about who was in charge. The Obama administration picked up where the Bush administration left off: it added new incentives with its “Race to the Top” program and then pushed for the new Common Core.  Through all the twists and turns, the message was clear:  all American schools were to be brought up to speed by 2014—or else.

Or else…what?  NCLB’s record was mixed, at best.  On the plus side, for instance, it identified achievement gaps more precisely than ever.  But critics—and recently even Obama and his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan—admitted that the focus on testing Math and Language Arts (and on test preparation itself) narrowed the curriculum and slighted other subjects essential to a child’s education.  Not that this should have come as news:  an outpouring of books and articles, such as journalist Linda Perlstein’s vivid Tested:  One American School Struggles to Make the Grade (2007), had been documenting this development for years.

Other parts of the pattern established before the coming of NCLB continued, however.  Philanthropies such as the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation contributed billions to the cause, researchers carried on fights in the literature, and journalists reported, albeit through increasingly jaundiced eyes, the lengthening record of unrealistically high expectations followed by seemingly inevitable disappointment.  NAEP, the SAT, and other measures remained stubbornly resistant to substantial improvement.

In 2009, as this discordant symphony of change blared on,  former Washington Post reporter Dale Russakoff decided to follow one particularly ambitious effort that aimed to “transform” (that’s always the word) the impoverished, corrupt, dysfunctional public schools of Newark, New Jersey. She stayed on the story for five years, from brash beginning to downbeat finish. Her book identifies and analyzes a by-now-familiar script for school reform:  An idealistic rich guy (Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg) offers what seems like a lot of money ($100 million, with matching funds to follow) to make Newark’s schools work again.  He forms a partnership with ambitious politicians (New Jersey’s Republican Governor Chris Christie and Newark’s Democratic Mayor Cory Booker), both already eyeing higher office.  Because Newark’s schools are already under state control, it seems likely they can get what they want.  Christie appoints Christopher Cerf, self-described “chief of transformation” (that word again) under Joel Klein in New York City and founder of the very twenty-first-century-sounding “Global Education Advisors,” to run things.  It’s a media jamboree:  in 2010  Zuckerberg, Christie, and Booker announce their five-year plan on the “Oprah Winfrey Show.”  Ellen DeGeneres gives Booker a Superman costume.  Over thirty-five thousand disadvantaged kids are going to have their lives changed for the better! It is going to be a model for the whole country! 

Other familiar characters arrive in the city:  the thousand-dollar-a-day consultants who parachute in to set up teacher evaluation, data systems, and the like (their fees: $21 million); the teachers, caught in a whirlwind of jargon and changing expectations; their union, angry about the new threats to seniority policy and other entitlements; the district’s support staff, anxious about losing their jobs in an impoverished city with few other places to turn for employment; political rivals, most notably Ras Baraka--Central High School’s principal, city councilman, and son of the radical playwright Amiri Baraka,—who, unlike Booker, doesn’t neglect his local base and ends up succeeding Booker as mayor.  Most notably, perhaps, is the new superintendent, Cami Anderson, brought in partly because she seemed willing to do what Cerf deemed most necessary:  “override political infrastructure.”This was “top-down” reform with a vengeance, and the results (or lack of them) were entirely predictable. 

Russakoff reports all this with admirable even-handedness and fair-mindedness:  she notes, for example, that Anderson at least improved the district’s basic administrative functions.  But too much of Anderson’s operation was self-serving and isolated from the people it was supposed to help.  Passive-aggressive opposition wore her down.  She’s now gone.  Booker, whose eloquence and charisma made him far more popular outside the city than in it, moved on to the Senate in 2013.  Christie, who wanted to show that bipartisanship could work, jumped into the presidential race but got caught in traffic.  The consultants, specialists in what one skeptic caustically refers to as “the school failure industry,” moved on to other gigs.

Meanwhile, the teachers and children remain.  To her great credit, Russakoff does not lose sight of the daily life of schools.  She highlights some school leaders and teachers, such as Princess Williams, a creative kindergarten teacher at the Avon Avenue School, who go far more than the extra mile to help their students get out from under the stifling weight of low (or no) expectations, poverty, and violence.   When one disruptive, remarkable middle-schooler, the title figure in the chapter “Alif Rising,” tells his teacher, “If I get thrown out of class, nobody finds out I can’t read,” a principal, assistant principal, special ed teacher, and basketball coach team up to support him with counseling and intensive reading instruction that moves him up three grade levels in one year.  An inspiring story, for sure.  But there are many other Alifs who don’t attract such support.  And when Alif himself gets to high school, trouble reappears.

Russakoff’s chapters about Princess Williams and Alif show yet again that teaching requires local, situational knowledge, and how much effort is required to put it into action.  And they provide a valuable counterpoint to all the high-level maneuvering depicted in the rest of her book.   She doesn’t quite get around to explicitly answering the question in her book’s subtitle: “Who’s in charge of America’s schools?”  (The answer seems to be, everybody and nobody.)  And she doesn’t venture far into some of the most familiar swamps of contemporary controversy—say, over curriculum (the Common Core is barely mentioned), or the value  of charter schools, or any of the many other monotonous-but-hypnotizing arguments that go on and on these days.  What she does show, clearly and convincingly, is the disconnect between policy and practice, and how much policymakers need to learn about providing appropriate support for teachers.  If this book doesn’t convince policymakers and the public of the perils and pitfalls of top-down reform, I don’t know what will.

Mark Zuckerberg, at least, may have gotten the message.  In 2014 he and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan, announced they were giving $120 million to improve schools in some of the San Francisco Bay Area’s low-income neighborhoods.  Some of it is to provide out-of-school support for students, including medical and mental health care.  (One hears echoes of the Harlem Children’s Zone.) Parents and teachers are to help with the planning. 

From the decentralized, frenetic reforms of the late 1980s and 1990s, to the narrowly-focused, top-down, test-driven schooling of the 2000’s, the pendulum of school reform has swung from one extreme to the other.  Is it too much to hope that it may now be settling toward the sensible middle, and that we will have the patience and provide the resources to keep it there?

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