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Author chronicles "Rebirth of a great American school system”

David Kirp brings good news of turnaround in Union City Schools
David Kirp’s book new book is "Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools."
David Kirp’s book new book is "Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools."

David Kirp’s book, Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools (Oxford University Press, 2013), is different from many education titles on the market. While other authors go to great lengths examining where our schools fail, Kirp, a former journalist who is a public policy professor at the University of California at Berkeley, shows what works.

Over the course of a year, Kirp became a fixture in Union City, N.J.’s schools, particularly the Washington School, where third graders came to know him fondly as Mr. David. “They basically gave me a passport to go anyplace I wanted, no questions asked,” he says. “I could hang out with the superintendent, the mayor, in the classroom, or the school, and embed myself as a kind of anthropologist.”

What he found was a school system that had quietly defied the odds and overcome challenges presented by language barriers, poverty, broken homes, and government mandates. More importantly, the experience helped him identify other districts having success similar to Union City’s, but that also were flying under the media radar.

How did Union City come to your attention?

When I was writing my previous book, Kids First, I was looking for a great preschool program. And when I asked folks, they said, “Union City is the right place to go.”

So, I went to Union City and spent a day and really loved the preschools. But I then thought, “Well, I’m in the schools. Let me just take a quick look at K8,” because I already knew how well the district was doing in terms of state test scores. What I found was so impressive that I thought, “OK. What’s going on here? How did this happen?”—particularly since I had heard this used to be a really horrific district.

Union City was under threat of a state takeover at one time. What was the turning point?

The district was smart enough not to go outside, which many places would do in this circumstance, but to look inside to find someone who actually knew something about bilingual education, who actually knew something about literacy—the two biggest issues for the district.

It was Fred Carrigg [executive director for academic programs in the district] and the team that he pulled together. He was smart enough to pick people who reached beyond his circle of acquaintances to really connect to the entire district.

They were smart enough to realize they had to go from school to school to sell what it was they were doing, because they were asking the teachers to behave very differently from the way they had in the past—new curriculum, new pedagogy. The plan is the easiest part. Making it happen is what matters.

The secret ingredients turn out to be not so secret.

Right. They take a lot of things that every educator with a pulse knows matter, put them together to create a system of support, and keep stirring, to use that metaphor.

You never stop stirring the pot and adding a pinch of this and a dab of that as new ingredients come down the road to make this better. Think of it as choucroute, which just stays in the pot forever and keeps evolving over time.

Much of what is going on in Union City is informed by the fact that it is a multicultural community. Why was it important for the foreign-speaking students to continue learning first in their home language before tackling English?

These kids come to school, but many of their parents aren’t really literate in Spanish. They speak it, but they don’t really read it or write in any sort of sophisticated way. That’s the language that these kids have learned at first.

Linguists will say if you don’t get a grounding in your home language you never really can fully master any language because you are just abandoning your starting point. Strengthen the home language so it’s easier to transition to a new language—that way you aren’t just dropping kids in the same pool without a life raft.

And most of the teachers are local to the community.

They are basically homebodies. Many have spent their lives within an hour’s drive of Union City. I think that’s very important.

We tend to think, “Oh my god. These are teachers from second- and third-tier schools. Who knows how good they were in school? They’re just not the right caliber.” And that turns out to be wrong for two reasons.

First, the teachers teach each other, and they have good supports. Second, the fact that they are local means they are going to stick around. Also, the kids really are, in some more-than-metaphoric sense, their kids. These teachers aren’t flying in on a rescue mission and then taking off having burnished their credentials. They are there for the long haul.

And they become true role models for these kids.

They do. One of the teachers, Alina Bossbaly, has a great phrase: “dolce y duro”—sweet and hard. Some of them are sweeter, some of them are harder. That’s a personality thing.

But they all care, and that’s the secret sauce. This is a school in which the kids are genuinely respected and appreciated and encouraged, and not just constantly being judged.

Washington School was and is still on the state’s watch list after the New Jersey ASK performance test. But it’s undeniable that these kids are succeeding and, in many cases, thriving. Why is there such a disconnect between the tests and what’s really going on in the classroom?

Consider who these kids are. If you’ve got 75 percent of the kids whose home language is Spanish, it takes time to really acquire full mastery in English. And I’m going to say something heretical: I don’t care about third grade test scores. Have you ever had somebody apply for a job and say, “I did proficiency plus in my third grade score?”

What you do care about is that 90 percent graduation rate. And that includes these kids. What you care about is the fact that half of the kids who show up as 14- or 15-year-olds from Latin America, who are barely literate in Spanish at the start, but go on to learn English and learn all the academic stuff in four years—half of those kids graduate.

Compare that to the graduation rate for all Latinos in New York City. It’s better. And the Latino kids in New York City, I can assure you, are a whole lot richer and more acculturated than this particular subset of kids.

So what matters to me isn’t so much what happens in the test world. I think Union City is bending over too far backwards. It has to bend over backwards to satisfy the state tests. But those tests are not the be all and end all. The be all and end all is getting these kids believing in themselves, graduating, and enrolling in college. That’s what matters.

Do we rely too much on standardized tests?

Yes. And we can segue to the Common Core. The Common Core curriculum is great. It’s an improvement over what many states are doing. But if we actually use Common Core-developed curriculum and give teachers a chance to implement, make sense of the curriculum, and then develop a portfolio of evaluations which included a whole bunch of students’ work—not just more tests—we’d be in great shape.

My hope is that The Common Core gets us out of this narrow focus on literacy and numeracy at the expense of everything else that kids ought to be learning in school. But my fear is that we’re going to have testing on steroids as we fail to believe the teachers have any capacity to judge the progress of their students.

Now every subject is going to be tested, so that means you are going to get test review all the time. We need to find a way to build in accountability without distorting the learning process.

You dismiss critics who say “What works in Union City can’t be replicated here. We’re different because [fill in the blank].”

Of course it can be replicated. There are variations in what these guys are doing, but strong early education, heavy emphasis on reading, support for teachers, is building a system. Many of these districts have a common curriculum across most of their schools. It is working elsewhere, but they aren’t getting written about because they don’t have a Michelle Rhee running around, or they don’t have a hurricane story to tell like New Orleans.

In one sense, Union City has it harder than most places because they’ve got to weave together more than 30 private schools along with the public preschools to build their system. And they do it. But it takes a long time.

My criterion in judging these programs is, would I send my own kid there? Would I send my kid to the Union City schools? Absolutely, without a doubt. I think that they would actually be better off there than at some fancy suburban school district nearby, because they’d get life lessons and they would get academic lessons.

If a kid is really bright they get teachers who are going to push them farther. If a kid isn’t really bright they are going to get lots of support as well.

Every kid deserves what you’d want for a kid you love. They’re not deserving of this fancy package. They’re not all entitled to go to Paris and work as an intern in The Louvre or work for the mayor of New York City for one summer.

But they are entitled to decent support in summers and after school. They are entitled to some version of what it is the middle class families take for granted. That’s Union City. Union City is giving kids what you’d want for your kids and what I would want for my kids.

Tim Goral is senior editor.