During a late night drive through the streets of Newark, two rising political stars—Democrat Cory Booker, then mayor of Newark, and Republican Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey—hatched a plan to transform the Newark school system. And so begins Dale Russakoff's The Prize, telling the story of an unlikely partnership to close failing schools, expand charter school options and weaken labor agreements they saw as barriers. Within a year, Booker had caught the attention of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg who agreed to donate $100 million to the cause. 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."
Many have already written excellent summaries of the book (see here and here), so it will suffice to say that implementing a reform plan in Newark was more difficult than expected, and the money went fast. The spending led to mixed results. Some newly minted charters have been successful, while others have not. Graduation rates have increased, but test scores have decreased. To date, the investment has not produced the model of education reform that its dreamers envisioned.
We'll leave it to others to parse whether or not Russakoff's take on the cost of politics, personal ambition and implementation missteps to education reform in Newark is right. NCTQ's lens is squarely focused on her characterization of the district's teachers. Throughout the book, Russakoff includes stories from on-the-ground teachers who were at the heart of many of the city's successes. Russakoff profiles Princess Lee, a kindergarten teacher, as an example: She's hard working, knows how to manage a classroom and can deliver content to students in ways that they understand. But these skills are presented as accessories; in the picture Russakoff paints, the key to Lee's success is that she herself grew up poor and survived dysfunctional schools in Newark. According to Russakoff, the children in Lee's class respect and respond to her because she is able to relate to the poverty and violence that dominate their lives, and she provides a model of how they too can be successful.
Narratives like these perpetuate the idea that the best teachers arrive to their work with certain innate qualities and life experiences that make them more effective with specific types of students. While shared life experiences can lay the foundations for meaningful classroom relationships, many successful teachers of disadvantaged students do not fit this mold. Moreover, this assumption does little to professionalize teaching, nor does it encourage districts to design a roadmap for recruiting and retaining the teaching force they need.
How can school districts get more teachers like Lee into the classroom? Great teachers aren't just born; they are trained. We should certainly work harder to recruit talented people of color and those from low income communities to join the profession, but this has to happen in conjunction with higher expectations of teacher preparation. To begin, districts can identify the skills and knowledge necessary to teach successfully in their schools. From there, districts must convey these requirements to prospective teachers and teacher preparation programs and vet potential hires for them.
The real prize in the American education game is highly effective teachers—and school districts need to be strategic about how to capture that prize for themselves. They can start by abandoning the narrative that great teachers are created only through context and not training.