Book Review: Improbable Scholars

Union City, where failure is no longer an option

In Improbable Scholars, David L. Kirp addresses a popular and pressing question: How can our nation raise achievement for impoverished and minority students? Kirp aims to unearth the answer by studying the case of an outlier district: Union City, New Jersey. Union City has the familiar list of statistics (93% are poor, 98% are students of color, and more than 75% speak a language other than English at home) (; Kirp, 2013, p. 16) that seem to doom similar students around the country to poor test scores and high dropout rates. But Union City is bucking these trends, and Kirp wants to show us why. He paints a wide-ranging portrait of the district, moving from the classroom to the district headquarters, from the preschools to the mayor’s office, from the distant past to the present, and converges on a few key assertions: Union City has done so well because cultivates internal expertise and leadership that then focuses on long-term, incremental change, using a cycle of “plan, do, review” at every level. Ultimately, he points out that the vast majority of America’s children will continue to be educated in traditional public schools, and urges leaders and policymakers to study Union City for lessons they can apply to other districts.

According to Kirp, Union City’s success rests on a solid foundation of mostly consistent, home-grown, hard working educators. Many of the teachers and administrators he profiles grew up in New Jersey, attended regional colleges, and have spent their entire careers in Union City schools. Kirp spent months observing and interacting with the third graders of Alina Bossbaly, a teacher with nearly 30 years’ experience in Union City. He describes her energetic, nuanced teaching that is targeted toward the academic, emotional, and linguistic needs of each child in her classroom. Alina has also been a leader among her grade-level team, guiding collaborative planning, modeling lessons, and coaching her colleagues. Alina’s sort of teaching, experienced and skilled, is not universal in the district, but is increasingly common because of strong leaders like Alina’s principal, Les Hannah, who has also spent her life in the district. Les Hannah knows how to win over parents and how to coach teachers, but also know how to strategically deploy her strongest staff to help others grow. In turn, principals like Les are both pushed and supported by the central district office staff. Sandy Sanger, the superintendent, collaborates with a dream team of curricular and language experts like Fred Carrigg, who revamped the district’s literacy curriculum starting in the 1990s.

Clear, high expectations, accompanied by appropriate support, are a common theme from the classroom to the district office in Union City. The district leaders hold their principals to “The Blueprint for Sustained Academic Achievement,” a checklist that collects best practices of the most successful principals from around the district; principals require teachers to have their daily planbooks organized and at the ready for any visitors; and teachers require their students to read, to write, and to think critically. At every level, instructional leaders are also examining assessment data for evidence of student learning and to find weak spots to target for improvement. Decisions in Union City are driven by data; all leaders operate on a cycle of trying, reviewing the outcomes, and adjusting. This district-wide focus on data and best practices are a big part of Union City’s success, according to Kirp: since Union City began to implement these practices in the 1990s, they have gone from the second-worst performing district in the state (“Thank God for Camden”) to about the state average, performing similarly to suburban middle-class districts in the state.

Kirp profiles few specific initiatives that have also contributed to Union City’s achievements. The city has invested heavily in early education, and all 3- and 4-year-olds living in the district may attend full-time preschool (and most do). Yet another internal expert, Adriana Birne, is charged with ensuring that pre-school students all receive high-quality education, and spends a great deal of her time coaching site leaders and helping align the pre-K curriculum across the district. At the other end of the age spectrum, Union City has invested in a modern, fully equipped campus for all its high school students. Another strong instructional leader, John Bennetti, was tapped to coordinate the goals and teaching methods of the huge, diverse staff there. Unsurprisingly, both the pre-schools and the high school are seeing the sort of difficult, incremental, yet consistent progress that Kirp says characterizes Union City as a whole.

Kirp acknowledges some circumstances that set Union City apart from other districts striving to improve. For example, a decades-old New Jersey Supreme Court decision mandates much higher funding levels for the districts with most at-risk students than most similar districts in other states get. This money has made the universal pre-school program possible in Union City. Union City also has a particular brand of insider politics that have allowed reform-minded district leaders to select their staff, and an incredibly popular mayor who is also a state representative and who has made improving the schools his top priority. Still, Kirp maintains that this does not mean that Union City’s achievements cannot be replicated. He devotes a chapter to describing three other districts, all with similarities and differences to Union City, that are also defying statistical trends and successfully educating their low-income students by focusing on incremental, data-driven change.

Kirp’s message is that there is no silver bullet, or even a solid blueprint that other districts can imitate. He rejects the calls of the school-reform mainstream for more charters, more testing, more high-stakes teacher evaluations, no excuses, showing that these are flashy, flash-in-the-pan ideas that do not lead to sustainable change. Rather, improvement like that seen in Union City grows out of consistent leaders dedicating themselves to reliable, proven strategies, and adjusting (not abandoning) course according to information about students. He emphasizes that Union City’s ability to buck the statistics comes out of hard, unglamorous work by normal, persistent (and not necessarily charismatic) people. While some of Union City’s circumstances are unique, Kirp’s message is that this is a model for success that any district can follow.

References (2013). “Test Scores for Union City.” Retrieved on 11/1/13 from <;.

Kirp, D. L. (2013). Improbable scholars: The rebirth of a great American school system and a strategy for America’s schools. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Book Review: “Educating Emergent Bilinguals”

This review was originally published in Linguistics and Education as “Bilingual education for bilingual students.”  It reviews the book Educating Emergent Bilinguals by Ofelia García and Jo Anne Kleifgen.

On October 11, 2011, the LA Times reported that the Los Angeles Unified School District had reached a settlement with the federal Office of Civil Rights in which the district agreed to major changes in how it educates English language learners. While the agreement itself is not relevant to this discussion, comments from readers of the article are disturbingly revealing of public perception of the issue of English learner education:

“The kids are dumb because the parents do not care to help with homework, and complain when the school gives it. School and education is not portrayed as important. It is shameful that young parents arenot talking english with their children” – artbrns at 10:37 PM October 30, 2011 

“IF your parents speak no english and do not encourage you to learn english and place value on education the odds are you are going to fail. It all starts at home with the parents not the school. Stupid parents = stupid off spring” – runningman55 at 10:04 PM October 23, 2011

“Why are we focusing all our effort, money and training on teaching the worst performing students academics? Not only do they get very little out of this exercise, but their failure creates such a bad self image at the expense of teaching this student population productive skills they may excel at.” – TheSearcher at 8:31 AM October 13, 2011

As a former teacher of a bilingual classroom, I desperately wanted to respond to the ignorance of these commenters, but lacked sufficient knowledge about English learner education to write a compelling reply. Now, instead, I would like to mail them all copies of Educating Emergent Bilinguals. Ofelia García and Jo Anne Kleifgen’s book, Educating Emergent Bilinguals: Policies, Programs, and Practices for English Language Learners, seeks nothing less than a paradigm shift in how educators, researchers, and policymakers view and seek to serve the students traditionally known as “English language learners.” Of course, few working in education would espouse views as blatantly discriminatory as the ones cited above, but the authors use their book to show how this population has been consistently, systematically underserved, and how the educational system can be made more just for language minority students.

Fittingly, García and Kleifgen open their book with a question of language: they argue that students with a home language other than English should no longer be known as Limited English Proficient or English Language Learners, as both terms focus on students’ current linguistic deficiencies. Instead, they advocate for the term emergent bilinguals. This phrase draws attention to the reality that as students acquire English, they are, in fact, adding to and further developing their home language, which itself is a powerful tool for learning. What initially might seem a simple, even unnecessary, change in terminology actually encapsulates the cause that the authors champion throughout the book: the field of education needs to entirely rethink how such students should be taught, focusing on bilingualism as an asset to be nurtured and leveraged.

In the first three chapters, we meet the emergent bilinguals and learn about their problems at school and the programs and policies designed to address their needs. Citing many demographic studies by other researchers, the authors show that in the United States, most emergent bilinguals are Spanish-speaking, urban, and poor, and only a small proportion are enrolled in educational programs that make any use of their home language. Contrary to popular belief, about half of English learners were born in the US. In chapter three, the authors outline the major types of programs designed to serve English learners, which run the gamut from English-only with no support (what they call ‘submersion’ programs) to dual-language maintenance models that extend through all years of schooling. They go on to explain how the policy climate has come to disfavor bilingual education more and more over the last fifty years, with federal funding for home-language programs drastically declining, and some states even outlawing bilingual education.

The authors use the rest of the book to argue from various angles their central point: emergent bilinguals need a rigorous education that meets their cognitive and linguistic needs, and this means programs must make significant, consistent, and deliberate use of the home language. García and Kleifgen’s firmly ground their position in the extensive literature on this topic, both empirical and theoretical, citing dozens of other authors who concur that the most effective instruction for English learners makes use of all the cognitive resources students have, the most central of which is their home language. The theoretical constructs they employ, drawing heavily on the work of seminal researchers like Jim Cummins, are themselves interesting and compelling, but García and Kleifgen go beyond theory to additionally discuss practical implications for the classroom.

García and Kleifgen use chapters 4-8 to demonstrate the unjust and inequitable practices English learners face in school. For example, language often becomes the primary focus of emergent bilinguals’ education, so they may miss out on content instruction to attend English classes. Additionally, due to the exclusion of the home language from so many classrooms, emergent bilinguals often cannot understand content instruction even when they are present for it. But unjust treatment of emergent bilinguals extends beyond issues of language. English learners are often exposed to simplified curricula that do not engage them in cognitively demanding tasks and do not address issues relevant to their lives as cultural and linguistic minority students. They are overidentified as needing remedial and special education services, and are drastically underrepresented in advanced placement and gifted and talented programs. Some of these disparities are due to standardized testing that fails to reflect the capabilities of emergent bilingual students. Many tests are not valid for this population because they conflate language and content mastery. Finally, schools rarely recognize the valuable contributions that families of emergent bilinguals can and do make to their education, and thereby exclude yet more resources that could be drawn on to improve the learning of emergent bilinguals.

At the end of each chapter and in the last section of the book, García and Kleifgen lay out specific alternative practices which, if implemented, could significantly improve the education of emergent bilingual students. They never shy away from their fundamental recommendation, that effective education of emergent bilinguals must be bilingual. They encourage educators to take full advantage of the linguistic and cultural resources students bring to the classroom, even when it is not possible to have an entirely bilingual program (e.g. in schools where emergent bilinguals speak many different languages). For example, they describe classrooms in which students are encouraged to write using multiple languages, or to discuss content with peers using whatever linguistic resources can help the group make meaning.

García and Kleifgen repeatedly emphasize that education for emergent bilinguals should never sacrifice content instruction to language instruction, and argue that, in fact, content and language objectives should mutually support each other and be present in every lesson. They make the case that rigorous content instruction should include an explicit social justice focus with an emphasis on issues relevant to the marginalized communities from which students come, and that schools should look to parents as sources of knowledge and partners in instruction that relates to community context. Finally, García and Kleifgen point out that in the No-Child-Left-Behind era of high-stakes testing, it is vital that assessments of English learners be valid, and not inadvertently test English when they mean to test content knowledge. As a result, they feel that assessment of emergent bilinguals should be flexible: there should be more options to use the home language in assessment, or to assess students using performance-based measures.

Educating Emergent Bilinguals is truly a call to action for all adults who care about the future of emergent bilinguals in the United States. García and Kleifgen make a strong case that current policy and practice does not in any way align with what research says about what is best for these students, beginning with the fundamental question of what to call them. They clearly organize the existing research on best practices for emergent bilinguals and they solidly ground the work in established theories of academic language development. Significantly, they follow up every criticism of the current system with a specific recommendation for change, all the while staying true to their argument that the best instruction embraces bilingualism both as an end in itself and as a means to academic achievement. This book is an excellent resource for policymakers, researchers, and educators who are interested in taking specific action to improve the education of English learners. It is also a book that could address a general lack of awareness in US society about language, and that might help Americans appreciate that bilingualism is not a threat, but something that can enhance the learning of all students.


Blue, Howard. “LAUSD agrees to revise how English learners, blacks are taught.” Los Angeles Times. October 11, 2011. Accessed November 4, 2011. <,0,542585.story?track&gt;

García, O., & Kleifgen, J. A. (2010). Educating Emergent Bilinguals: Policies, Programs, and Practices for English Language Learners. Teachers College Press. Retrieved from

O’Brien, I. (2012). Bilingual education for bilingual students. Linguistics and Education, 23(2), 211–212. doi:10.1016/j.linged.2012.02.002