Q&A

Q. How did you come to write The Prize?

A. I spent 28 years as a reporter at the Washington Post, almost half of that time in the New York City bureau, writing periodically about Newark. I live only twenty minutes from Newark and have been fascinated by the city since first reporting a story there in 1995.  It’s a very troubled, and easily overlooked city, but with its golden past and daunting present, it’s a metaphor for many of the forces that changed urban America in the last fifty years. I’ve also been interested in education most of my life, as a journalist, a parent, and a classroom volunteer, both in my own suburban town and in Newark. So when I saw that Mayor Cory Booker had persuaded Mark Zuckerberg to give $100 million to the Newark schools, I knew that whatever came of this gift, it had the makings of a riveting tale about education, philanthropy, politics, race – not to mention some very interesting public figures. As a journalist, I have often examined large public policy developments, looking at their origins –Whose idea was this? What was their thinking and motivation? What was the political context?—as well as how they played out in the daily lives of people affected by them. I saw what was happening in Newark as an opportunity to explore how the democratic process worked – or didn’t – for very disadvantaged children. I began my reporting on the day that Booker, Zuckerberg and Governor Chris Christie announced the gift five years ago on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and the more I explored, the more interesting the story became.

Q. This is a Newark story, but is it also a national story?

A. Absolutely.  Newark is a metaphor again, this time for the titanic battle underway over the future shape of education in America. This is a very close-up look at the education reform movement  — that very potent combination of billionaire philanthropists, charter school leaders, social entrepreneurs and politicians in both parties who are seeking to upend the status quo of traditional public schools governed by large, usually unionized bureaucracies. Teachers’ unions get all the attention among the reformers’ opponents, but school districts are the largest public employers in most cities, so this involves custodians, security guards, cafeteria workers, nurses, secretaries, classroom aides—not to mention political bosses eager to influence who gets these jobs. Readers meet these people in The Prize, and it becomes clear, in human terms, why it’s so hard to change public education. In Newark, parents were dissatisfied with the district schools, but many of them joined the opponents because they felt the reformers had deprived them of a voice in their children’s education.

Q. What’s new here? 

A. Almost everything is new. The Prize explores the raging, national debate about education by taking readers into the worlds of those trying to disrupt the existing system as well as those who are being disrupted. They will find out what billionaires – in this case, Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan – are thinking when they put huge amounts of money into trying to reform education in urban America. They’ll also learn what kind of calculations reformers like the superintendent, Cami Anderson, make in executing sweeping changes over loud opposition from the community. They’ll also see teachers and parents on the front lines, trying to make sense of upheavals in their schools even as children’s lives in Newark remain as challenging as ever. What I found is that, at the ground level, teachers and parents in district and charter schools have a lot of common ground because they’re dealing with mostly the same challenges. It makes me think there’s a lot more room for consensus than the highly polarized national conversation suggests.

Q. What led Mark Zuckerberg to give $100 million to Newark, a city he hadn’t even visited?
A.
 The short answer is that he was swept off his feet by Cory Booker. Zuckerberg was 26 at the time, and this was his first philanthropic gift. He had known of Booker’s national reputation as a sort of urban Superman who was turning back the tide of crime and poverty in one of the nation’s poorest cities. When they met in 2010, Booker’s pitch was that he and Zuckerberg would deploy the best ideas of the education reform movement in Newark’s downtrodden school district, emerging in five years with a model for turning around school systems across urban America. It sounds wildly unrealistic in retrospect, but these were the kinds of promises being made in the heady days of the education reform movement. There was tremendous faith in the power of entrepreneurial approaches – particularly charter schools and teacher-accountability — to improve inner-city education and, in the process, lift a whole generation out of poverty.

Q. This venture had the backing of rising stars in both the Democratic and Republican parties – Booker and Christie – and one of the richest men in the world. With all that money and power on their side, did the reformers succeed in turning Newark into “a hemisphere of hope,” as Booker envisioned?

A. In a word, no. But this question cries out for more than a simple, one-word answer. The Newark reformers made a lot of mistakes, for sure. They bypassed parents and the community in the belief that they knew what was best for their children, fueling a furious political backlash. They spent more than $20 million of the philanthropy on high-priced consultants, who have built something of an education industrial complex alongside the reform movement. But even under the best of circumstances, the challenges of educating the country’s poorest children are a lot bigger and more powerful than politicians and billionaires alone. The reformers made their biggest bet on “systems” change, as opposed to classroom-level changes – a better data system, a new teacher evaluation system, a merit pay system in the teachers’ contract. They weren’t wrong about the need for better management systems. But it’s clear that much more support was and is needed at the classroom level for children who are years behind academically or who can’t learn because of trauma from violence, extreme poverty or family strife. Four years after the Zuckerberg gift, student achievement in Newark district schools has actually declined slightly, based on third-through eighth-graders’ standardized tests.

Q. So does the nation have to solve poverty in order to improve urban education?

 A:  This is a debate that I find distressingly counterproductive. The reformers say that teachers’ unions use poverty as an excuse for their own failures. The unions say reformers blame them for all that ails inner city schools. It became clear to me that they’re both right. Readers of The Prize will conclude that you don’t have to solve poverty to improve education for the poorest kids, but you absolutely have to address it. Research has shown for generations that experiences at home and in neighborhoods have more influence on children’s learning than do those in classrooms. One of my goals was to explore how this works. There’s a boy in The Prize who arrives in seventh grade reading at a second-grade level. After failing almost all his life, he makes miraculous progress that year, with Herculean help from teachers, a principal, a vice principal, and a basketball coach. This was one of the most exciting things I witnessed while researching the book. But the support network doesn’t go to high school with him and he starts failing again. And then he witnesses the murder of his best friend. This is just one kid, but it’s an illustration of how little consistency or predictability there is in children’s lives in Newark. Schools can do a lot—and the book illustrates that–but they can’t defeat forces like these. As one of the characters put it, great teachers and principals are “part of the pie, but that’s not all of the pie.”

Q. How did you go about reporting this book?

A. As I said, it was important to me to get far beyond the ideological arguments. So I spent a lot of time talking with and listening to people at every level, basically to be able to see education as each of them saw it. I had two interviews with Mark Zuckerberg and his wife. I spent many hours in Cory Booker’s mayoral SUV, talking with him as he traveled the city. I interviewed Chris Christie, logged a good bit of time in the opulent offices of education philanthropists, and attended national conventions of school reformers. I also sat in on quite a few of Cami Anderson’s executive team meetings and her training sessions with principals. At the same time, I spent long hours observing and interviewing teachers, principals, social workers and students in district schools as well as charter schools. And I interviewed children and parents in their homes and just hung out with kids to get a feel for their lives. I also went to easily a hundred public meetings – school board meetings, union meetings, community rallies, local political campaign rallies, PTA meetings. As always happens with reporting, I found some of my richest material when I least expected to, from just hanging out or observing rather than interviewing.

Q. Are charter schools an important part of the solution?

A. Charter schools are as good as the people who run them and teach in them. Some charters in Newark are excellent – I reported intensively on one of them – and some are weak. Demand for charters is growing in Newark, and their students far out-perform those in district schools, but that’s not true of charters in most of the state or the country. So just being a charter school doesn’t make a school bad or good. However, charters are much better structured to get dollars to classrooms than is an urban school district, which has legacy costs from having served as an employer of last resort for decades. For example, the well-run charters in Newark have two teachers in each kindergarten class, and in every math and English class through grade three, while the district has only one. They also have more social workers, more academic interventionists, and lots more support when a child’s family is in crisis. It’s hard for district schools to compete with that, so they continue to lose students. Another issue is that, as children leave district schools for charters, state dollars follow them. To make ends meet, school districts in Newark and other cities where charters are growing fast have to continually close schools, cut programs, lay off teachers and reshuffle students. The district schools still enroll a majority of Newark children, including a higher percentage of those living in extreme poverty or with learning disabilities, but they’re now less equipped to serve them. This is a big problem that reformers, school districts and state governments should address together.

Q. Where did you find hope for children in inner city schools?

A. There are some absolutely amazing teachers and principals who grew up in Newark and in cities like it who are now teaching in and leading district schools as well as charter schools. One of the characters in the book, Princess Fils Aime, is a great example. Unfortunately, some –not all — of the reformers in Newark approached the task with hubris and overlooked talented people already working hard and effectively on the ground. Many Newark residents saw reform as something “done to” them rather than “with” them. People like Princess, who grew up in Newark, share the vision of the reformers, but they have a very different approach. There are some very promising leaders waiting in the wings.

Q. There are some major public figures in this book – Zuckerberg, Christie, Booker. What do we learn about them?
A.
    You learn a lot about public figures by watching them off-stage – that is, when they’re engaged in something other than what they’re known for. Education reform was important to all three of them, but it wasn’t their primary job. I want people to read the book, so I’ll just say that anyone interested in these men will learn a good bit about them from The Prize. I found Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, who is his partner in their philanthropy, to be the most interesting of the public figures in the book. Remember, Zuckerberg was only 26 years old when he made this gift, and he said at the time that he intended to learn from the experience to become a better philanthropist. He and Chan learned a lot from Newark, some of it the hard way, and they changed the direction of their philanthropy as a result. They are serious and inquiring about their work, so it will be interesting to see what they do as philanthropists over the long term.