Review of Dale Russakoff’s The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?

Promises to address issues within urban educational systems are typical for political and popular discourse. Americans remain firm in their belief that education is the key to greater social mobility and opportunity. This often stands in the face of decades of urban decline, discriminatory policies, and retrenchments of social safety nets. The effects of crime, joblessness, and an insufficient tax base cripple neighborhoods and communities. School systems reportedly carrying the dead weight of corruption, unproductive workers, and low test scores becomes the vital fix in this environment.  The reformation of schools is presented as a get out of jail free card of sorts; at the very least granting hope to school-age children and youth. And we must not forget that political careers live on with handshakes and demonstrable talking points of commitments to equal opportunity for “disadvantaged” Black and Latina/o communities.

In The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?, Dale Russakoff masterfully captures the complex issues, ideologies, and struggles faced in many urban school systems across the nation. The Prize recounts the story of Mark Zuckerberg’s 100 million dollar commitment to fix Newark’s school system alongside then-Newark, New Jersey mayor, Cory Booker, and the governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie. In 2010, they planned to dramatically improve Newark’s schools in five years, providing a model for reforming urban school systems across the nation. Yet, presently Newark schools are still considered low-performing. So, what went wrong?

I was deeply struck by the dismissive lack of community engagement and input in working to reform Newark schools. Parent and community voice was practically ignored in deciding how funds would be spent. This immediately created problems in a city historically divided by race, ethnicity, and class. The exclusion of the community exacerbated age-old tensions of outsiders parachuting in to control resources and ultimately make decisions viewed by the community as not in their best interest.

The Prize details the stories of several Newark natives committed to improving education and their community. Princess Williams, a kindergarten teacher was able to connect with students due to her own upbringing in Newark. She understood the unique struggles of growing up in poverty or an unstable household. Markedly, she never expected less than excellence from her students. She held high expectations in spite of formidable circumstances. Tynesha McHarris, a community organizer who led forums under the belief that community input would be used to direct school reforms, was motivated to contribute by her lived experiences of knowing “when Newark kids got locked up exactly what schools they’d come from.” McHarris reflects that Newark residents agreed that schools were failing students, yet, the community wanted the district to acknowledge and address the impacts of poverty on learning. McHarris listened to community voices expressing not only the need for greater help in supporting Newark children and families, but the varied ways community members, themselves, wanted to contribute to improving schools.

The Prize is an important read for practitioners, researchers, and policy-makers in the field of education. As we seek to promote greater equity in education, The Prize reveals that money, effort, and innovation is not enough. We must recognize and respect that parents and community members are valuable knowledge holders on schools and children in working towards meaningful change.