I read two (deeply depressing) nonfiction books this week, and they ended up working together in an interesting way. I was excited to read The Prize: Who’s In Charge of America’s Schools by Dale Russakoff, because it looked, on the surface, like the kind of book I’d assign in my classes. This journalistic account of the reform effort in Newark, NJ focuses in on the players and politics that were involved in Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million dollar gift to the Newark Public Schools and the changes that the gift inspired (hint about the outcome: the Newark schools still struggle).
Now that I’ve read the book, I won’t be assigning it in my classes – not because it’s not excellent (it is!), but because it is so profoundly dispiriting. Russakoff’s research reveals the flaws of a strategy that imposes outsiders’ ideas onto an unfamiliar context. It also reveals the flaws of a strategy that fails to meaningfully engage community members in considering the value (if there is any) of those ideas.
The fact that corporate reform hasn’t been successful isn’t news, but Russakoff’s storytelling helps us understand why. Zuckerberg and his alliance of reformers truly believed that the linchpin of Newark’s problem was the teacher contract, and the bulk of his philanthropic project went to dismantling and rebuilding this element of the Newark school system. But Russakoff gets into the schools and walks alongside the “good teachers.” She finds that the problems involved in teaching are much more complex than just evaluation and tenure. There are questions of how many teachers should be in a classroom. There are questions of social supports and psychological need and supplies and programs. The failure to direct money toward those issues crippled the reformers’ efforts to change the teaching landscape in the city.
Russakoff also looks at the resistance of community members to reformers’ ideas. This resistance persisted even in the face of the schools’ repeated and ongoing failure to prepare kids for graduation. In some cases, the resistance existed for its own sake – ideas were rejected only because they came from an outsider. Zuckerberg ultimately turned his attention to different projects – perhaps with greater wisdom, but away, decisively, from Newark.
With heavy heart, I picked up Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, which just won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. Coates begins this letter to his teenaged son by suggesting that there is no “hope” that can be pulled from his writing. His intent is not to give the reader hope; rather, it’s to expose the way that violence against African Americans is built into the very fabric of American values. He suggests that if your idea of justice involves working toward a more perfect set of democratic relationships between groups of people, you are ignoring the fact that the American foundational idea of democracy was built upon owning and exploiting African Americans’ bodies. It is impossible to work for justice through an ideal that incorporates that ownership and exploitation.
Truthfully, I need to read this book again. I think it will take me more than a single pass to fully absorb Coates’ ideas. But one thing that reading this book did for me was to give me a new way to look at The Prize. Russakoff is most interested in the political tangle in Newark. (Whose money? Whose turf? Whose ideas?) But what if we were to look at this school reform episode with Coates’ discussion of violence in mind? What if we were to insert the words “white and black” for “insiders and outsiders?”
The Newark school project aimed to “shake up” a failing system. The effects of that shake up – closing neighborhood schools, removing teachers, switching leaders – were all changes that were “done to” African American residents by external (and mostly white) hands. The reformers struggled to understand why community members would want to send their kids to schools that repeatedly failed them. Perhaps black community members experienced the “shake up” as just another act of violence against their children, another way to impose physical control. Would looking at school reform in Newark as an act of violence change what we can take away from the project?
It’s nearing the end of Nonfiction November, and one thing I’ve noticed about good nonfiction is that it opens me up to conversations I wouldn’t ordinarily have. Both of these books gave me the opportunity to think about my own assumptions about race and social change in new ways.