Incentives and The Prize

I'd like to know what economic lessons Tim Harford would find behind Mark Zuckerberg, Cory Booker, and Chris Christie's attempt to transform the Newark school system; Zuckerberg donated 100 million dollars, Cory Booker-- a passionate proponent of charter schools-- raised sums to match this money, and Chris Christie saw this as an opportunity to attack the unions; Dale Russakoff explains all this and more in her book The Prize: Who's In Charge of America's Schools? and the morals of the story are complex, ugly, ambiguous, messy, and occasionally inspirational:

1) there is no magic bullet to fix education in an impoverished city;

2) top down directives, even if they use excellent jargon, don't change broken infrastructure;

3) you can't move kids around willy-nilly in a city like Newark to fill charter schools-- because the kids left behind have no where to learn, and the kids who get moved may have issues with with where they are moved-- gang turf, lack of busing, etcetera;

4) if you don't consult the community before implementing giant initiatives that involve their kids, they will feel angry and oppressed, especially if these directives are ordered by a white superintendent in a primarily black city;

5) you can be a rock-star or a mayor, but you can't be a rock-star mayor;

6) it's difficult to measure what parents and administrators find important in education, so the bureaucracy tends to find important what is easy to measure-- which is usually test scores-- and this can bite you in the ass;

7) consultants know how to bill hours and make a shitload of money from a situation like this (and it seems Zuckerberg has learned this lesson and is trying a different approach in the San Francisco bay area);

8) kids in a city like Newark need all kinds of additional support besides teaching, many of them have experienced horrible tragedy and violence, and they need counseling and psychological support as much as they need reading and math review;

9) Newark's billion dollar education budget is the "prize" sought after by politicians, unions, government and citizens . . . and there is going to be greed and corruption surrounding this much money;

10) there are superb teachers and students in the current system, and smart parents shepherd their kids through, but it's difficult to get rid of poor teachers because of union rules;

11) politicians and philanthropists will eventually lose interest and move on with their lives, but the parents and the kids and the community remains-- so change has to come from the bottom-up, and it needs to come from people that are going to stay in the community-- Booker went on to a senate position, Christie had to deal with Bridgegate and his presidential campaign, and Zuckerberg moved on to a new project-- meanwhile, the two hundred million dollar donation was a drop in the bucket, and got eaten up by consultants, contract negotiations with the union, and some charter schools-- but the main infrastructure in Newark is still ancient and crumbling, teachers still go to work in that environment, and students attempt to learn there . . . and the work needs to be done one student and one teacher and one classroom and one school building at a time, which is far more boring than radical, transformational top-down change;

12) if you want to understand some of the complexities of educational reform, read this book.






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