In America, education was long seen as the great equalizer, but that has become mostly myth. So, over the past decade, there has been a vigorous effort to fortify and rebuild our schools, and in this there is a recognition that we have failed our children, especially those living in poverty, those for whom education could — and should — be transformational. From Chicago to New Orleans, school reform has been engineered by the well heeled and well connected — from hedge fund managers to corporate heads to directors of foundations — who believe that with the right kind of teachers and pedagogy, and with a ­business-like administration, schooling can trump the daily burdens and indignities of growing up poor. “No excuses” has become the rallying cry of the reformers.

Along comes Dale Russakoff’s “The Prize,” a brilliantly reported behind-the-scenes account of one city’s attempt to right its failing public schools. When Russakoff began reporting this book in 2010, fewer than 40 percent of the students in the third through eighth grades in Newark, N.J., were reading or doing math at grade level — and nearly half of the system’s students dropped out before graduating. The schools were so broken that the state had taken them over. Something needed to be done. From this rubble emerged an exciting if not unusual partnership between three individuals who couldn’t have been more different from one another. The city’s black Democratic mayor, the charismatic and ambitious Cory Booker, joined hands with the state’s blustery and ambitious white Republican governor, Chris Christie, to reimagine Newark’s schools. Together, they enlisted Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who pledged a whopping $100 million — to be matched by another $100 million, which the city raised, mostly from foundations and private individuals. It was such an extraordinary gift that Zuckerberg, with Booker and Christie by his side, announced it on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” As Russakoff writes: “Their stated goal was not to repair education in Newark but to develop a model for saving it in all of urban America.” This is what makes “The Prize” essential reading. Newark was to be our compass for school reform.

Russakoff, a longtime Washington Post reporter, had the good sense to recognize the potential power and import of this story early on, and so embedded herself in Newark, winning access not only to the key players — Booker, Christie and Zuckerberg — but also to some remarkable teachers and students whose stories serve as a reality check to the maneuverings of those commanding the reform efforts. A lesser reporter might have succumbed to the seduction of such intimate access to the rich and powerful, but Russakoff maintains a cleareyed distance, her observations penetratingly honest and incisive to what she sees and what she hears. I suspect some may have regretted letting Russakoff in. We couldn’t have asked for a better guide.

When Zuckerberg declared his grant, the agenda was pretty clear: Turn the Newark schools around in five years and make it a national model. But from the get-go, there seemed little agreement as to how best to proceed. More than anything, Christie wanted to break the hold of the entrenched teachers’ unions. Booker wanted more charter schools. Zuckerberg wanted to raise the status of teachers and to reward teaching that improved students’ performance.

Their five-year plan gets off to a rocky start. Initial funds go to a bevy of consultants, most of them white, most of them well connected, some of whom are getting paid $1,000 a day. One educator labels them the “school failure industry.” Moreover, it quickly becomes apparent that this is a top-down effort, with politicians and the well-to-do setting the agenda. When Booker sets up a local foundation to handle Zuckerberg’s gift, the seats on the board go only to donors of at least $5 million. You can begin to see where this story’s headed. Booker shows more interest in his own political career than he does in running his city. Christie hires an ideologue as his point person on the Newark schools. And Zuckerberg, a newcomer to philanthropy, seems frustrated by the inability to negotiate a union contract that would quickly raise the salaries of promising young teachers and pay substantial merit bonuses for high performers.

Moreover, they bring in a superintendent, Cami Anderson, from the New York City schools, whose unbending management style only affirms teachers’ and parents’ worst fears. To be fair, she’s a complicated figure. She doesn’t simply line up behind Booker, Christie and their moneyed backers in their ideological furor to create more charter schools, which as we’ve seen in city after city leaves behind an eviscerated public school system. Anderson, Russakoff writes, “called this ‘the lifeboat theory of education reform,’ arguing that it could leave a majority of children to sink on the big ship.” But Anderson, like the other main characters in this effort, seems tone-deaf to the demands of the community to be involved in the process. It’s the irony of ironies. Public education is the bedrock of democracy — and yet when it comes to repairing our schools the democratic process is too often ignored. What ultimately derails this grand experiment is the unwillingness of the reformers to include parents and teachers in shaping the reforms.

“The Prize” is paradoxically a sobering yet exhilarating tale. For alongside the stories of those calling the shots, Russakoff tells the stories of those most profoundly affected by their decisions: teachers, students and their parents. It’s here where rhetoric, politics and grand plans meet reality. I repeatedly found myself writing in the margins, “Wow,” either because of the heroic efforts by teachers and staffers or because of the obstacles facing their students. Russakoff writes of three siblings whose mother is badly beaten by her boyfriend. The principal goes to court with the mother and helps her file charges while other staff members create a car-pooling schedule to get the kids to and from school each day. Another student, Alif Beyah, continually disrupts his classroom. With unusual self-awareness for a sixth grader, he tells a teacher, “If I get thrown out of class, nobody finds out I can’t read.” So the school assigns a teacher to meet with him in one-on-one sessions, and over the course of the year he jumps three grades in his reading levels. In a school that had one social worker for 612 students, teachers create a special class for children suffering from trauma, offering tai chi, yoga and breathing techniques. But what becomes clear is that these are exceptions rather than the rule. In fact, when Beyah enters high school, most of his support disappears.

“The Prize” may well be one of the most important books on education to come along in years. It serves as a kind of corrective to the dominant narrative of school reformers across the country. I’m not giving anything away by telling you that this bold effort in Newark falls far short of success. Most everyone moves on. Booker is elected to the Senate — and his nemesis, a high school principal deeply critical of his school reform efforts, becomes the city’s next elected mayor. Christie gets caught up in the bridge-lane-closure scandal, and of course is now running for president. Anderson recently announced her resignation as superintendent. 

The one individual who appears changed by the experience is, somewhat surprisingly, Zuckerberg. Last year, along with his wife, Priscilla Chan, who as a pediatric intern cared for underserved children around San Francisco, Zuckerberg announced a gift of $120 million in grants to high-poverty schools in the Bay Area. This time, though, they declared their intent to include parents and teachers in the planning process. But more to the point, a key component to their grants includes building “a web of support for students,” everything from medical to mental health care. Zuckerberg came to recognize that school reform alone isn’t enough, that if we’re going to make a difference in the classroom, we also need to make a difference in the lives of these children, many of whom struggle against the debilitating effects of poverty and trauma. Here is where this story ends — but also where the next story begins.


Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?
By Dale Russakoff
246 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $27.