The Prize

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By Dale Russakoff

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 237 pages. $27

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Reviewed by

Barbara Hall

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Throughout the 1960s, Newark, N.J., was a city in trouble. Nowhere was that more apparent than in the city's 70 struggling schools. Dale Russakoff, author of The Prize, an excellent chronicle, identifies a "cycle of neglect and corruption" over decades that made a terrible situation worse.

In 2010 then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker, N.J. Gov. Christie, and Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, joined in what became known as "the nighttime ride." Christie circulated a proposal titled "Confidential Draft - Newark Public Schools - A Reform Plan." They took to the airwaves and media, trying to spread the word. Their objective was, in Booker's words, for Newark schools to become "a hemisphere of hope. The objective was to make Newark "a symbol of educational excellence for the whole nation." Booker asked Zuckerberg for no less than $100 million over five years. Zuckerberg agreed - if Booker found matching funds.

But all that money, genius, energy, and commitment have not brought systemwide education reform to Newark. It turned out that, as one educator put it, rebuilding a school system was "like building the airplane while we're flying it." Thus The Prize is a book about expectations and disappointment. As Russakoff writes, "The reasons, as I discovered, could fill a book." This book.

Part of it was failure to anticipate the initial chaos that greets change, and the overall inertia of the institution system. In their "zeal to disrupt the old, failed system," reformers "neglected to acknowledge the disruption they were going to cause in the lives of tens of thousands of our children."

Education writing is an art unto itself, and Russakoff is to be credited for a fluid style, with an eye for the incongruous or funny, as when, "during the monster blizzard of December 2010, widely named the 'snowpocalypse,' " Booker rode snowplows and even got diapers for a snowbound constituent.

Some reformers have done better than others. Ras Baraka, an upright Newark mayor and advocate for fine schooling, brought control and grace to his position. Some of Newark's schools are a little better and some are not. The message it: It takes more than Facebook money and will. The stakes remain very high. As administrator Dan Gohl sums it up: "We are faced with the fight for the very life of public education." Russakoff's title comes from one Newark educator whose message was to "keep your eyes on the prize - the children, that is."