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) (GreatSchools.org; 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

GreatSchools.org. (2013). “Test Scores for Union City.” Retrieved on 11/1/13 from <http://www.greatschools.org/cgi-bin/nj/district-profile/535#students&gt;.

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.