Synopses & Reviews
The conventional wisdom, voiced by everyone from Bill Gates to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, is that public schools are so terrible that simply reforming them won't do the trick. Instead, they must be "transformed," blown up and then rebuilt, if they're going to offer students a good education. We relish stories about electrifying teachers like Jaime Escalante, who made math whizzes out of no-hoper teenagers in East LA, or inner city charter schools like the KIPP academies. But success in the public schools of an entire city-a poor, crowded city, with more than its share of immigrant Latino youngsters, the kind of kids who elsewhere will likely drop out or flunk out? That sounds as elusive and improbable as the Loch Ness monster.
But no school district can be all charismatic leaders and super-teachers. It can't start from scratch, and it can't fire all its teachers and principals when students do poorly. Great charter schools can only serve a tiny minority of students. Whether we like it or not, most of our youngsters will continue to be educated it is in mainstream public schools.
Improbable Scholars shows that there's a sensible way to rebuild public education and close the achievement gap for all students. Miracles aren't required-instead, we need to make smart use of what we already know can work. This is precisely what's happening in a most unlikely place: Union City, New Jersey.
What makes Union City so headline-worthy is its ordinariness, its lack of flash and pizzazz. The school district has ignored trendy, blow-up-and-rebuild reforms in favor of old school ideas like top-drawer early education, a word-soaked curriculum and hands-on help for teachers. When good new strategies have emerged, like using sophisticated data-crunching to generate pinpoint assessments of the help that particular students need, they have been folded into the mix.
A generation ago, Union City's schools were so bad that state officials threatened to seize control of them. But the situation has entirely turned around. Here's the reason to stand up and take notice-from third grade through high school, Union City students' scores on the high-stakes state tests approximate the statewide average. In other words, these inner city kids are achieving just as much as their suburban cousins in reading, writing and math. This is no one-year wonder-year after year, from 1990 onward, the students in Union City have steadily improved. In 2011 every senior passed the state's exit exam and received a diploma, and nearly 60 percent of those graduates enrolled in college. The best students are winning national science awards, Gates Millennium Scholarships, and full rides at Ivy League universities.
These schools are not just good places for poor kids. They are good places for kids, period. They pass the Golden Rule Test-- you'd be pleased if children you love were educated here.
Improbable Scholars will change your mind about the possibility of reviving public education.
"Too many American public school students, especially poor and minority students, lack basic reading and math proficiency and are educated by uninspired teachers. What to do? To find out, UC Berkeley education and public policy expert Kirp spent a year at in classrooms in a school district in Union City, N.J., that, improbably, works very well, despite its 20% poverty rate and substantial immigrant population. Among the keys to success are mutual help among teachers through mentoring, and more informal support among students through learning centers, as well as a sophisticated bilingual program. Kirp devotes a chapter to Union City's preschools, which are available to all and focus on pre-K language development skills. Particularly on the high school level, Union City isn't immune to the bane of contemporary education, 'teaching to the test.' However, Kirk shows how administrators and teachers mine test data to benchmark and help advance students' progress, so that 89% of those who begin high school graduate, compared with 74% nationally. The school system also benefits from a mayor who doubles as a state senator and has secured extra state education funding. This impressive book doesn't provide a blueprint, but the author describes seven guiding principles for how other school systems can achieve sustained educational success. Agent: Carol Mann, Carol Man Agency." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
No school district can be all charismatic leaders and super-teachers. It can't start from scratch, and it can't fire all its teachers and principals when students do poorly. Great charter schools can only serve a tiny minority of students. Whether we like it or not, most of our youngsters will continue to be educated in mainstream public schools.
The good news, as David L. Kirp reveals in Improbable Scholars, is that there's a sensible way to rebuild public education and close the achievement gap for all students. Indeed, this is precisely what's happening in a most unlikely place: Union City, New Jersey, a poor, crowded Latino community just across the Hudson from Manhattan. The school district--once one of the worst in the state--has ignored trendy reforms in favor of proven game-changers like quality early education, a word-soaked curriculum, and hands-on help for teachers. When beneficial new strategies have emerged, like using sophisticated data-crunching to generate pinpoint assessments to help individual students, they have been folded into the mix.
The results demand that we take notice--from third grade through high school, Union City scores on the high-stakes state tests approximate the statewide average. In other words, these inner-city kids are achieving just as much as their suburban cousins in reading, writing, and math. What's even more impressive, nearly ninety percent of high school students are earning their diplomas and sixty percent of them are going to college. Top students are winning national science awards and full rides at Ivy League universities. These schools are not just good places for poor kids. They are good places for kids, period.
Improbable Scholars offers a playbook--not a prayer book--for reform that will dramatically change our approach to reviving public education.
About the Author
David L. Kirp
, a nationally-known education expert, is James D. Marver Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. In seventeen books and scores of articles in newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times
, Los Angeles Times
, The Nation, American Prospect
, and the Atlantic
, as well as in leading academic journals, he has covered the education waterfront from cradle to college. After the 2008 election, he served on President Obama's Transition Team.
Table of Contents
Introduction: High Stakes
Chapter 1 The Pie: Room 210, George Washington Elementary School
Chapter 2 New Kids on the Block: George Washington Elementary School
Chapter 3 Gruntwork: The System-Builders
Chapter 4 The Magic Kingdom: Preschool for All
Chapter 5 Mother Theresa meets Mayor Daley: Good Schools = Smart Politics
Chapter 6 Can These Eagles Soar?: Union City High School
Chapter 7 Where Fun Comes to Die (And Be Reborn): George Washington Elementary School -- Reprise
Chapter 8: The Odyssey Continues: Union City School System, One Year Later
Chapter 9: What Union City Has To Teach America: Nationwide, Slow and Steady Wins the Race