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.


Learning Needs Teaching

This editorial was written in response to the question, “How does K-16 education need to change to prepare young people to become effective citizens and cultural change agents in the 21st Century?”  It was originally published in the Green Money Journal “Whole Mind Education” issue (Winter 08/09).

Learning Needs Teaching

If we want to prepare our nation’s young to be active, engaged citizens, we must address the failure of the education system to effectively prepare the 13 million children growing up in poverty – nearly one-fifth of our nation’s youth – for full societal participation. And we can reach them, if we are willing to do what it takes to provide our nation’s most needy students with outstanding instruction.

One month after graduating from college in 2007, I flew to San Francisco to join the ranks of Teach for America (TFA) and get trained on the essentials of teaching.   Two months after that I was handed my very own second-grade bilingual classroom in East Oakland and met my 20 darling, enthusiastic, and mostly seriously below-grade-level students. My students came to me with many challenges that I had never faced during my childhood education. Half of them had had a series of substitutes for most of first grade, and as a result didn’t learn to read until the very end of the year when the school finally found a permanent teacher. A few had transferred into the bilingual program from an English-only class, whose teacher (according to veterans at my school) had generally ignored her non-English-speaking students. One student’s parents were illiterate and had no phone. Another’s father was in jail. Another lived in a one-room converted garage with three sisters, a jobless father, and a mother who takes in sewing to support her family. Many were undocumented immigrants and had no health insurance. All were low-income non-native English speakers. They have many factors stacked against them, and statistically speaking the odds of their achieving academically are not good. Of the 13 million children growing up in poverty in the United States (approximately 19% of all US children, White & Chau, 2009), half will not graduate from high school. Those who do will perform, on average, at the level of eighth graders in well-off communities (Teach For America, n.d.).

However, all is NOT lost for my students or those like them. While there is much controversy in the educational community about the effectiveness of TFA, there is no doubt that their foundational principle promotes an important and under-recognized truth: the achievement gap between low- and high-income students can be narrowed or even closed with good teaching. If we want to prepare our nation’s young to be active, engaged citizens, we must address the failure of the education system to reach this huge sub-population, nearly one-fifth of our nation’s youth. Addressing the myriad effects of poverty on education is a complex process that will take a long time, but we can make an immediate and far-reaching impact on achievement by addressing the role that good teaching plays in education. We need better training to create a corps of teachers who have the skills needed to minimize the achievement gap, better pay to attract the best teachers to the areas that need them most, and on-going training and support to retain great teachers in these difficult environments.

First, teacher training, recruitment and evaluation must be based on student performance outcomes. Student achievement is the only worthwhile measure of teacher achievement. How to measure student achievement is a very controversial issue, but the refrain I heard throughout my TFA training holds true: “No one is teaching if no one is learning.” TFA has been observing and analyzing their most successful teachers for years in order to distill the teacher characteristics necessary for maximum student learning, .   This research has led to a document known as the Teaching as Leadership (TAL) Rubric, which is used to recruit, select, train and constantly evaluate corps members. It consists of six broad traits and 27 sub-traits that TFA has found to be present in the classrooms of virtually every classroom where low-income students are achieving: setting ambitious goals for students, investing students and their influencers, planning purposefully, executing effectively, continuously increasing effectiveness, and working relentlessly (Teach For America, 2009). This sort of model (not necessarily the TAL Rubric itself) must be adopted nationwide. Teachers must be prepared and evaluated according to the proven best practices as demonstrated by student achievement, which aren’t just programs or curricula but which are mindsets and approaches to teaching.

In addition to improving teacher effectiveness by focusing on student outcomes, a great deal more must be done to attract the best teachers to the schools that need them most – where the students are furthest behind. They can achieve, but they and their educators must work twice as hard to overcome the extra obstacles they face. These schools need teachers who go above and beyond what is traditionally required of teachers. I, and every other TFA corps member I know, regularly put in 60-70-hour weeks, more than 20 hours beyond what we are paid for, but we cannot build a sustainable education future on self-sacrificing volunteers. We need to support dedicated teachers with salaries comparable to those of business professionals who put in a similar number of hours. It must be worth the while of excellent teachers to stay where the work is most challenging but most necessary.

Which brings me to my third recommendation: teachers, particularly in low-income schools, must get more support in order to reduce teacher turnover. In 2006 the National Education Association reported that 50% of teachers leave the profession within their first five years. According to a study released in 2007 by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, “so many teachers leaving the profession creates a self-perpetuating cycle of failure in some school systems, as a lack of experienced mentors and a sink-or-swim environment lead to trouble in the classroom and demoralization” (Nelson Hernandez, “Teacher Turnover Costs Systems Millions, Study Projects,” Washington Post, 21 June 2007). The first years of teaching are extremely challenging and often demoralizing, particularly when students perform at several years below grade level. Had I not been provided the constant technical and moral support of my TFA advisors and, in particular, a corps of peers going through the same experience, I might not be able to sustain the energy necessary to stay in teaching. To keep teachers in low-income schools, they need regular one-on-one mentoring from master teachers that includes frequent opportunities for both parties to observe each other teaching. Furthermore, they need the opportunity to participate in formal social and professional networks of teachers in similar schools, and not just through required credentialing classes. Both of these things have been invaluable in helping me and my fellow corps members stick with teaching in the face of great challenges.

In sum, if we as a country are willing to invest in what it takes for all children, even the most disadvantaged, to receive outstanding instruction, then we will be well on the path to preparing our children for the challenge and opportunities of 21st Century citizenship.


O’Brien, I.  “Learning Needs Teaching.” Green Money Journal. Whole Mind Education issue (Winter 08/09). Issue 70, Volume 17, No. 2.

Teach For America. (n.d.). Our Mission. Retrieved January 02, 2015, from

Teach For America. (2009). Teaching As Leadership: Online Navigator. Retrieved January 02, 2015, from

Wight, V. R., & Chau, M. (2009). Basic Facts about Low-income Children, 2008: Children Under Age 18. New York, NY. Retrieved from