Jersey Jazzman: “The Prize” Is Strong on Politics, Weak on Policy

Mark Weber, who blogs as Jersey Jazzman, is a New Jersey public school teacher and a Ph.D. candidate in school finance at Rutgers University.  He read Dale Russakoff’s The Prize, about the five year experiment on Newark’s children by then-mayor Cory Booker, Governor Chris Christie, and philanthropist-Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and he explains, “As a literary work, I enjoyed The Prize. Dale Russakoff is a fine writer, and her detailing of the politics behind the effort to reform Newark’s schools is compelling and important.  But as a source for data points about Newark’s schools and the results of those reform efforts, The Prize comes up short.”  Weber has published his analysis, The (Mis-)Use of Data in Dale Russakoff’s The Prize, at the New Jersey Education Policy Forum.

Weber understands that as a writer, Russakoff used the stories of particular schools to illustrate her report on Newark’s schools, but he alleges that when she uses data to back up her analysis or generalize from the stories of two particular schools whose staffs she interviews at length, she elects not to use data from the state of New Jersey that is both verifiable and widely available.  Carefully analyzing the data that New Jersey provides about public schools across the state, Weber contradicts several of Russakoff’s themes: that Newark Public Schools (NPS) suffer from budgetary bloat due to poor allocation of funds while Newark’s charters are more efficient; that charter schools provide much deeper support for students by adding extra professionals like social workers; and that Newark’s public schools poorly serve the children due to a weak teaching staff.

Do Newark’s schools suffer from budgetary bloat while charters are more efficient?  Weber cites data from Bruce Baker the national school finance expert: “In 2010, Dr. Bruce Baker analyzed the relative per pupil spending of NPS with controls for differences in wage costs and poverty.  Newark is ranked at the 8.5 percentile nationally, and at the 12.4 percentile in New Jersey.”  After comparing data that is publicly available, Weber explains that, “NPS spends far more per pupil on education support services than any Newark charter school,” and “NPS has a lower per pupil administrative cost than any charter school in the city.” He adds that charters do not incur the same kind of costs as the district schools, because host school districts must cover “transportation, food services, tuition payments for out-of-district placements, debt service, and so forth.”  Weber compares costs for custodial services in Newark’s public and charter schools because, as he notes, “A running theme of The Prize is that a large portion of an urban school district’s budget goes to patronage employment, which leads to ‘bloated payrolls’ that divert funds away from instruction… The notion that inordinately high salaries due to patronage keep plant costs high is contradicted by the fact that NPS’s plant expenses are right at the median when compared to Newark’s charter schools.”

Do Newark’s charter schools do a better job of serving students and their families by hiring more support professionals? “Russakoff spends much of The Prize describing two Newark schools: BRICK Avon, a K-8 elementary school that is part of the Newark Public Schools (NPS), and SPARK Academy, one of the schools that is part of the TEAM/KIPP charter school network.”  Russakoff emphasizes the number of school social workers at the KIPP school and the lack of any social worker at the public school. Weber explains, however, that BRICK Avon’s lack of a social worker is an anomaly in the Newark Public Schools, and though it lacks a social worker, the school is staffed with a school psychologist and a counselor, while the KIPP school has neither.  The public school also has access to support professionals employed at the district level, professionals who move among several buildings.

Are Newark’s public schools staffed with weak teachers while the teachers at the city’s charters are more effective?  Weber charges that Russakoff simply failed to investigate this issue and instead relied on received wisdom from the people with whom she spoke in Newark.  “Many of the protagonists in The Prize believe that NPS schools suffer from poor teacher quality.  Russakoff dutifully reports their misgivings; what she doesn’t do is challenge them to show that the poorest performing schools in the system have the weakest teachers.  Nor does she explore how teacher characteristics changed following (Cami) Anderson’s ‘Renewal’ plan.  In my 2015 testimony to the JCPS (Joint Committee on Public Schools), I presented evidence on how the teaching staffs at the ‘Renew’ schools had changed following their reconstitution…. (S)taffs had become less experienced and had fewer black members following ‘renewal.’  Both teacher experience and teacher-student racial alignment (particularly for racial minority students) have been found to be beneficial for student achievement outcomes… Teacher quality is a central theme of The Prize, yet Russakoff spends little time exploring how teaching staffs have changed in Newark under the reforms brought about by the Zuckerberg donation.”

Weber concludes: “Russakoff presents too many figures out of their proper context.  She relies on single comparisons rather than looking at the entirety of the city’s public district schools and its charter sector.  Her use of proprietary data that cannot be vetted is unwarranted, especially when public data is available.  And she does not adequately challenge the assertions of the ‘reformers’ in her story, potentially leading her readers to conclusions that are not borne out by the available evidence… (T)he notions that NPS  is an unusually bloated system, or that charter schools divert more funds toward student instruction, or that Newark’s ‘reformers’ have accurately identified its poorest-performing schools, are simply not supported by the evidence… (W)hile The Prize is a worthy read for its political narrative, its misapplication of data renders it inadequate as an analysis of education policy.”