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The (Mis-)Use of Data in Dale Russakoff’s The Prize

Mark Weber, PhD candidate, Rutgers University, Graduate School of Education

Full Review: Weber_RussakoffFINAL-1

Executive Summary

Dale Russakoff’s The Prize is one of the most discussed books on education policy in recent memory. Russakoff tells the story of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation toward education “reform” in Newark, NJ, and the subsequent changes in the city’s schools.

Russakoff cites several data points in the course of the book in an effort to generalize the individual stories she recounts. Unfortunately, many of these points rely on proprietary data, rendering them unverifiable. Several are presented without proper context, creating a false picture of the reality of schooling in Newark. Others are contradicted by publicly available and uniformly reported sources.

Russakoff, for example, states that a single charter school has more social workers per pupil than a single NPS school. State data, however, shows Newark’s public district schools have more educational support personnel of many types per student than Newark’s charter schools. Russakoff also compares Newark’s per pupil spending to that of entire states, without accounting for differences in student populations or regional wage differences.

A central theme of The Prize is that Newark’s public district schools suffer from budgetary bloat; state data, however, shows that district schools spend less than charters on administration. Plant spending at district schools is not excessive compared to charters.

Russakoff does acknowledge differences in student population characteristics between district and charter schools. She does not adequately explore, however, how these differences, and differences in resources, affect student outcomes. She also repeats the contention of many of her book’s protagonists that teacher quality is unduly poor in district schools without examining how teacher characteristics have changed in Newark during the last several years of “reform.”

Policy makers should approach The Prize with caution: while an interesting and compelling narrative about the politics of school “reform,” the book’s misapplication of data to uphold its theses makes it an inadequate analysis of education policy in Newark and elsewhere.

 

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