Good Intentions: Making High-Profile Education Donations More Effective – Part 1

Excerpts from a longer piece. Introduction is here.

Mark Zuckerberg probably wasn’t wrong to think that all policy is ultimately political. No decisions that impact the lives of public school students are devoid of political impact and import. His chief mistake, in my opinion, is that he sought the support of politicians first, and the ambitions of a handful of people became more important than the children and families in question. I won’t recount the entire story from inception, but suffice it to say that former Newark Mayor (and current New Jersey Senator) Cory Booker and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and their teams pushed around Zuckerberg, an inexperienced philanthropist and public figure, in order to accelerate their political trajectories, which worked better for Booker than it did for Christie. The saga is chronicled in detail in “The Prize: Who’s In Charge of America’s Schools?” by Dale Russakoff, a former writer for The Washington Post, a newspaper now owned by a different tech billionaire.

The largest portion of the aforementioned $200 million has been spent on labor and contract costs (Russakoff, 2015). $48 million went to a new contract for district teachers – they had been without one – of which $31 million was apportioned for back pay. An additional $21 was spent on buying out “unwanted” employees, negotiations for which occupied months of time. I feel that this is inevitable, even if the scale might change in a different district. If a future tech titan wants to save a district, the infrastructure of the extant system is going to be very expensive to update and/or discard. No such district, even if desperate for aid, is going to roll over without fighting to take care of its current employees. Whereas Zuckerberg might have wanted a blank slate on which to innovate and create, future donors might look this expenditure as a lesson for what will be required to make lasting changes in any district.

According to Russakoff (2015), Zuckerberg “was looking for a city poised to upend the forces impeding urban education, where his money could make the difference and create a national model” (p. 24). We will discuss later what differences his money did and didn’t make, but the fact that almost half of the pledged donation ended up satisfying contract costs suggests that trying to change the direction of a massive system is never going to be as simple as handing out money. Russakoff (2015) wrote of Zuckerberg, “his goal, in addition to helping the Newark schools, was to learn from his experience and become a better philanthropist” (p. 25). Ultimately, it’s fair to wonder who learned more from the money that was spent – the children of Newark or Zuckerberg.

Zuckerberg’s then-girlfriend, Priscilla, saw the problem differently than he did. “He saw the problem as systemic and economic, while she viewed it from the ground level, through the needs of individual children” (Russakoff, 2015, p. 27). Zuckerberg sought top-down change through Booker, Christie and others perched above rather than within the Newark school system, and accordingly found strong resistance from day one. Future donors might conclude that they could avoid spending half of their money on, essentially, fighting the district if they worked with the district in the first place.

Nearly $60 million went to the expansion of charter schools (Russakoff, 2015). Charter schools can be beneficial to their students and families if a true investment is made in the community. As with many of the changes made or attempted, the problem isn’t so much with what was done but with how, and especially with the implication that district schools were something of a lost cause. Russakoff’s book spends a detailed section following a child named Alif at a district school with severe behavioral issues who shows marked improvement when receiving concentrated attention. Not every child at district school can be given the level of attention Alif received, and charters were pitched to district families as an escape rather than a compliment. Booker, Christie and Zuckerberg envisioned a Newark in which there “would be no more Alifs” (Russakoff, 2015, p. 53), a message they thought would resonate, yet for which they chose the wrong messengers.

The last major component of the financial outlay was the $21 million spent on consultants (Russakoff, 2015). One such consultant was hired to manage the community outreach, which is a smart, prudent plan, yet the person they chose had zero experience within the city of Newark. Future donors will absolutely make use of consultants in some fashion. but the consultants chosen should not be people who are seen as complete outsiders. A straightforward fix would be to source community liaisons from local educational institutions, or those with ties to the district. Outsiders can prove effective and be of service, but their perspective must only be part of the story rather than the primary focus.

The issue of consultants and their provenance is an important factor in any future nine- or ten-digit donations. If we assume they will be employed – and they will – then they can be beneficial or detrimental to the district, like charter schools. If the consultants are seen as imposed on the community, then the community is likely to fight them on principle. And sometimes their intentions are viewed negatively because there is little to no transparency in the process.  If the consultants are profiteers or “flexians” like Christopher Cerf, who bounced from one massive corporation to another on his path to and through Newark schools, they are unlikely to be greeted warmly by the constituents.  Unfortunately, many of the decisions regarding the expenditure of the Zuckerberg money were made behind closed doors, which left no room for accountability. “The merging of public and private business only progressed from there,” Russakoff (2015) wrote (p. 64), and constituents were left to watch with no input into the process.

Ultimately, though, the goal was to help Newark’s students, and even if they poured money into places that one wouldn’t expect to have helped, if the students improved in learning, then it would potentially be worth the mistakes and the surprising expenditures. And the students did marginally improve in learning, with a few caveats. “On net, by the 2015–2016 academic year, Newark students had seen a significant improvement in the rate of growth in English and no significant change in math” (Chin, 2017, p. 1), according to a Harvard report on the reform. “Much of the net change in achievement growth in Newark was driven by shifts in enrollment due to school closures, new school openings, and student choice, as opposed to improvements in achievement growth within existing schools” (Chin, 2017, p. 1). In other words, some students really did have better outcomes after all of the changes that were made to Newark, but the district itself was not strengthened. Newark students had a higher change of improving in English, but only because they were likelier to attend new schools. The students at traditional district schools were not better off in English, and overall there was no improvement in math, as noted above. The report also specified that none of this improvement would have occurred had parents of children attending closed schools not moved them to charters or other high-performing schools, and noted that student achievement plummetted initially before rebounding in the years directly before the study was conducted.

So was this a success? By the most basic definition, yes, Newark students had a marginally higher chance of academic achievement – in English – after the reform than they did beforehand. But if Zuckerberg wanted to, as mentioned above, “create a national model,” then a meager improvement in English achieved only by closing the worst schools and opening charters is hardly revolutionary. Education reformers have promoted school choice and charter expansion in districts around the nation for two decades now, and the goal of Zuckerberg’s donation was to prove something new and different. As it stands, he offered more proof for what was already known, that, yes, forcing a district to close its worst schools and fire its worst teachers does improve outcomes for students. But they utterly failed to address systematic issues across Newark, issues that will leave the community vulnerable whenever the funding is depleted. The people who gained the most were the consultants and the politicians – more so than Zuckerberg himself and his rapidly deteriorating public image – and I doubt a parent would feel more confident sending their child to a Newark public school now than they would have before Mark and Cory visited Oprah.