Read Along: No, I Will Not Walk 500 Miles (Or, Dale Russakoff's The Prize)

Last weekend marked the 7th Annual Big Walk -- a 50-mile hike from Metropark Station in Iselin, NJ to Penn Station in New York, NY. Following the East Coast Greenway, the event has been billed as the "longest, most diverse and perhaps toughest urban hike" that the Freewalkers organization offers. Because I haven't had my sanity checked in a while, I decided to sign up and attempt to trek all fifty miles. SPOILERS: I didn't get all the way back to Manhattan. I had to bow out around the 30-mile mark (after ten straight hours of walking) because of two particularly painful blisters. I had read all of these articles on how to prevent blisters on long-distance hikes, and I'd thought that I was prepared with my broken-in Merrells and multiple pairs of REI merino wool socks. Apparently, I need to raise my game next time and wrap my toes up in Moleskin before starting out. Lesson learned. I will conquer you next time, 8th Annual Big Walk.

One of my preparations for The Big Walk was downloading a ton of new education tomes on my Audible account. I thought that since we were trekking through New Jersey, it would be appropriate to start off with Dale Russakoff's The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Schools?. The book chronicles the attempted restructuring of the New Jersey school system after Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million philanthropic gift. It was also the book that I was most excited about reading (or listening to, as the case were). Having been a Teach for America corps member back in the late 2000s, I met Cory Booker a few times. He visited my Institute site back when I was working as a School Operations Manager, and he spoke frequently at TFA benefit dinners. Cami Anderson also popped up at various events. (This was back when she was the Superintendent of District 79 -- the city's alternative programs for students, ages 18-21, which includes the public school on Rikers Island.) These were the Ed Reform leaders that were held up as exemplars for us. Every TFA corps member was striving to be the next Booker or the next Anderson -- the reformer that could create that systemic, "transformational" change.

But, as Russakoff has uncovered, that "transformational" change wasn't all it was cracked up to be.

1. Glut and Greed
I remember the exact moment that I lost faith in the current iteration of the Education Reform Movement. I was having coffee with a friend who worked for a principal pipeline program. He pointed across the street to a five-star restaurant and said: "Our CEO's having lunch in there right now. We process receipts for those lunches all the time. Hundreds of dollars."

"Are you serious?" I asked, looking down at my own $1.50 cardboard cup of black coffee.

"One time," my friend said, leaning closer, "our CEO left his iPad at home when he was headed to the Aspen Institute. He had us transfer the money to his account so that he could buy a new one when he landed."

"A new iPad?"


Sitting there, wondering how I was going to buy spiral-bound notebooks for all of my students (none of whom could afford even the most basic school supplies) out of a second-year teacher's salary, I remember feeling duped. Why was I funneling every cent of my disposable income into the classroom when our leaders (many of whom had never taught a day in their lives) were out wining and dining on Park Avenue with their wealthy compatriots? I've watched these "Civil Service Celebrities" get shuttled to and from star-studded events in private jets. There's so much glut and greed in the Education Reform Movement that you can't help but come out the other side embittered and disillusioned. The Prize mentions two consultants who were brought in, both of whom billed the NJ Department of Education for $1,000 a day.

You can go back and read that number again. I'll wait.

$1,000 a day. And, to add insult to injury, the consultants billed for overtime when they worked more than eight hours a day. Meanwhile, teachers labor day in and day out for little more than $66,000 a year in New Jersey. Does the NJ DOE honestly believe that the work done by these consultants -- sitting in their offices, attached to their tablets and cell phones -- could ever be more important than the work that the average teacher does everyday? Thankfully, The Prize spends many chapters pointing out that the grassroots work done by teachers and principals had way more of an impact on Newark student achievement than anything done "top-down."

2. "Getting Rid of" Communities (A Little R&H)
One of the Teach for America core values is Respect and Humility -- or, as our program directors sometimes called it, R&H. This was back when TFA intentionally placed corps members in the neediest public schools instead of striking deals with charter schools due to local hiring freezes. Our TFA program directors encouraged us to remain humble in our placement schools. We should learn from the veteran teachers, respect decisions made by administrators, and defer to the judgment of parents. However, in the very next breath, they told us that the school system was failing, that "bad teachers" needed to be pushed out of classrooms, that the unions needed to be dismantled, and that low-income communities needed to be saved. Apparently, they needed to be saved by a bunch of recent Ivy League graduates?

The Prize frequently cites how the education reformers wanted to "get rid of Newark" in order to "save" Newark. I've seen even the best-intentioned educators, administrators, and policymakers fall into this community disengagement trap. Many charter networks seem to view parent and community committees as afterthoughts. They're managed by school social workers who already have way too many responsibilities -- counseling students, liaising with ACS (the Administration for Children's Services), and filling out scads of paperwork. Education reformers seem very interested in struggling minority children -- but not nearly as interested in struggling minority parents. Just look at The SEED Schools. They literally take the children away from their families and communities through their public boarding school model.

I'm not judging the work that SEED does. (After all, many of the wealthiest and most elite families also choose to send their children away for their educations.) But something about this mindset, that we should "save" the children because the parents are "scorched earth" where nothing good can grow, smacks of racist GOP conservatism. As The Prize argues, if we want to make long-term, sustainable changes in low-income communities, then those changes need to be initiated from inside the community; they can't be forced on families from outside. Education reformers need to trust parents to be agents of change instead of viewing them as adversaries.

3. The Problem with Philanthropy
On the issue of trust, let's talk about the problem with philanthropy. In the past, donors used to trust that non-profit directors knew how to manage their organizations. They would make fiscal contributions and rest assured that their money was being used for the common good. Nowadays, those donors have transitioned into being "venture philanthropists." They insist that their money be used in whatever way they see fit, regardless of whether or not that's what's best for the organization's constituents. Much of the Zuckerberg money, for instance, was allocated for labor-related reform. Specifically, Zuckerberg wanted to implement a system of merit pay that he believed would attract top-tier teachers to the neediest schools -- despite the fact that studies have consistently shown that teachers are motivated by positive school environments, not increased pay.

While Russakoff asserts that the titular "prize" refers to the Newark school system, I definitely saw the prize as being the Zuckerberg money. The politicians were so busy scrabbling to get their hands on the "prize" (which could only be unlocked through another $100 million matching grant) that they lost sight of what the money was meant to accomplish. It's a common mistake in non-profit management. You stray from your mission because you let the donors decide what they want to fund; as the subtitle ("Who's in Charge of America's Schools?") implies, he who holds the checkbook sets the agenda -- no matter how unqualified he may be.

One of the few "happy endings" in The Prize actually comes from Mark Zuckerberg who learned from his first foray into philanthropy. According to Russakoff, he now consults with low-income communities about their needs and invests his money accordingly. Good for him. If only more philanthropists would follow his example.

Day Seven (31 Days of Trip Planning): Reached out to Dr. Amanda Piesse, the supervisor of Players at Trinity College. Hopefully, I'll be having coffee with her and the current Chair of Players. Can't wait!

No comments

Back to Top