More Questions About “The Prize”

image from scholasticadministrator.typepad.com

Dale Russakoff’s book about Newark continues to be the subject of a lot of admiring attention – and sales. (It’s apparently the top education book on Amazon right now.)

On Twitter, BuzzFeed’s Molly Hensley-Clancy described it as “Uncomfortable & unsparing – the only side it takes is a kindergarten teacher’s.”

Before I forget: Russakoff is in DC at Politics & Prose on Wednesday — don’t miss it — and is doing a WNYC event in Newark two weeks from today.

But some of the coverage and commentary has generated questions about some of the most basic aspects of the Newark story Russakoff is telling us: Did Newark kids in non-charter schools do better or worse than they had in the past? Did charters benefit directly from the Zuckerberg effort? Was there organized opposition to the effort that’s not captured in the book? Did Russakoff’s portrayal of Newark residents lack the nuance of its portrayals of reform leaders?

Let’s start with the issues of test scores and charter funding:

Last week, WNYC New York Public Radio ran three Jami Floyd-hosted segments about the book and what happened there. In one of them, Zuckerberg “got snookered” & Cami Anderson’s demeanor was toxic, according to the Newark teachers union president.  In another, KIPP NJ head Ryan Hill claimed that kids are better off district-wide (not just in charters) and that Newark charters got no Zuckerberg money.

According to Russakoff, however, district kids are worse off than they were before. Increases on HS exit tests don’t mean anything, she tells me, especially since there weren’t any substantive increases on ACT test scores for comprehensive high schools. NJASK scores for every tested grade (3d thru 8th) went down, not up over the five year period covered by the grant. 

But not everybody agrees with that assessment. District kids have “made modest improvements,” according to the Star-Ledger’s Tom Moran. “Reading and math scores for K-8 students have been flat for the past four years. In high schools, the share of 11th graders proficient in reading jumped from 68 percent to 80 percent, while math scores were flat.”

According to KIPP NJ’s Hill, district schools are flat or slightly up (which “puts the lie to the notion that charter growth hurt the district”). His view is that Russakoff is underplaying the success of the charters and leaving the impression that the district kids left behind are worse off. (Renew schools did worse, but the gap in scores between Newark kids and the state didn’t widen, according to folks at KIPP NJ.)

So did district kids do better, worse, or about the same? This would be worth clearing up.

About the money, Hill says that charters didn’t get Zuckerberg money but did get some of the matching money — roughly 30 percent of the $200 million total. He claims that WNYC clipped the explanation about the money out of the interview that aired. (My view on that is not to blame the interviewer but perhaps avoid saying you didn’t get any Zuckerberg money when, really, you did.) Russakoff says $65 million went to charters — including $25 million in Facebook money. That’s about the same as teachers got in back pay and merit bonus money from Zuckerberg, right?

What about the reporting, then?  Here, too, there are some new questions worth pondering:

In response to my original post about the book suggesting that it under-reports the union-funded opposition efforts that were going on behind the scenes, Russakoff notes that she reported the spending in the Baraka/Jeffries race ($5 million for Jeffries from DFER et al vs. $600,000 for Baraka from the unions) and that Baraka still won easily — showing that union insurgency wasn’t playing a large role (and that her book didn’t go lightly on unions). The unions latched onto opposition that already existed but according to Russakoff didn’t generate or even fund much of it on their own. In this view, the union-affiliated groups like the NJ Working Families super PAC were applauding/taking credit for something that they didn’t actually do much to help accomplish. In another view, a complete picture of the Newark dispute would have included these actors even if their impact and funding sources aren’t known or measurable.

Meanwhile, Sarah Carr’s Friday review in the Washington Post praises Russakoff’s book like many others have — but also raises a different kind of issue regarding the book, pointing out that there are some uncomfortable parallels between reformers’ mis-steps and Russakoff’s coverage. Carr chides Anderson for being inappropriately informal in one key scene (“’Please call me Ms. Cami might have gone a long way,” notes Carr). But she also describes Russakoff’s journalism as “top-down” in its portrayal of community members, teachers, and parents of Newark. (“When teachers appear, they tend to be portrayed as dedicated saints, while the students are defined mostly by their deficits.”)

Carr’s critique of Russakoff’s journalism might be as troubling or worse than the questions I’ve raised or that have come up from the WNYC segments. None of them undercut the valuable work that Russakoff has done shining a bright light on some enormous flaws on the reform side of things. But they do suggest that the picture may not be as complete or nuanced as ideally it would have been.

Related posts: Russakoff ExplainsBest & Worst ReviewsCountdown To “The Prize”

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.