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What Puts Union City's Public Schools in a Class of Their Own?

For noted researcher David Kirp, part of the secret comes down to 'no quick fixes, no miracle cures.'

University of California-Berkeley professor and researcher David Kirp, author of “Improbable Scholars, The Rebirth of a Great American School System and Strategy for America’s Schools.”
University of California-Berkeley professor and researcher David Kirp, author of “Improbable Scholars, The Rebirth of a Great American School System and Strategy for America’s Schools.”

Union City schools have long been among the superstars of New Jersey’s struggle for educational equity -- if not the nation’s.

One of the 31 districts that fall under the Abbott v. Burke school finance rulings, the Hudson County district has been held up as a model of success for more than 20 years.

It’s where a strong majority of students pass the state’s tests, where inner-city education works, and where the burden of urban poverty and crime are almost always shed at the school door.

University of California-Berkeley professor and researcher David Kirp spent the last three years delving deep into Union City and its schools to see what lessons could be learned as school reform, especially as it concerns urban schools, remains a roiling debate in New Jersey and beyond.

Kirp’s provocative answers are in his new book, “Improbable Scholars, The Rebirth of a Great American School System and Strategy for America’s Schools” published by Oxford University Press. It has caught the attention of all sides in the nation’s debate about school reform.

NJ Spotlight excerpts some of Kirp’s argument here, from the introduction to his new book. Kirp also plans to speak in New Jersey later this month at Rutgers' Bloustein School (March 25) and Union City Performing Arts Center (March 26).

When it comes to Union City, David Kirp is both poet and pragmatist, describing the tired urban enclave as "a poor, grimy, soulful, and densely-packed community that’s mainly composed of Latino immigrants, four miles and a psychological light year removed from Times Square."

His pragmatism is immediately evident, both when he touches on Union City's public schools and when he widens his focus to take in some of today's most loudly championed educational theories, what Kirp calls, "the hoopla over choice and charters."

"A quarter-century ago," Kirp writes, "Union City’s schools were so wretched that state officials threatened to seize control of them. But since then the situation has been totally reversed."

Kirp fills out the figure with facts: "Over the course of the past generation these youngsters have been doing better and better. What’s more, 89% of the stu¬dents graduated -- that’s nearly 20% higher than the national average. Nearly 60% head to college; the top students are regularly winning statewide sci¬ence contests and receiving full rides at Ivy League universities."

He continues:

"Here’s the reason to stand up and take notice -- from third grade through high school, Union City students’ scores on the state’s achievement tests approxi¬mate the New Jersey averages. You read that right -- these youngsters, despite their hard-knocks lives, compete with their suburban cousins in reading, writing, and math. (The italics are the author's.)

Kirp is equally clear-eyed when discussing what hasn't happened in his "soulful and densely-packed community":

"What makes Union City especially headline-worthy is the very fact of its ordinariness, its lack of flash and pizzazz. The district has not followed the herd by closing schools or giving the boot to hordes of allegedly malingering teachers or soliciting Teach for America recruits. And while religious schools educate a small minority of students in this city, not a single charter has opened there."

In fact, what is happening in Union City is almost mundane -- if it weren't so extraordinary:

"When boiled down to its essentials, what Union City is doing sounds so obvious, so tried-and-true, that it verges on platitude. Indeed, everything that is happening in Union City should be familiar to any educator with a pulse."

So matter of fact (in fact) that it can be broken down into a list of eight key elements:

  • High-quality full-day preschool for all children starts at age three.

  • Word-soaked classrooms give youngsters a rich feel for language.

  • Immigrant kids become fluent first in their native language and then in English.

  • The curriculum is challenging, consistent from school to school, and tied together from one grade to the next.

  • Close-grained analyses of students’ test scores are used to diagnose and address problems.

  • Teachers and students get hands-on help to improve their performance.

  • The schools reach out to parents, enlisting them as partners in their children’s education.

  • The school system sets high expectations for all and maintains a culture of "abrazos" -- caring -- which generates trust.

There are two more essential elements that Kirp identifies: time and patience. "This is a tale of evolution," he reminds us, "not of revolution . . . Or, as he says elsewhere, "no quick fixes, no miracle cures."

It's only fair to let both the poet and the pragmatist have the final say:

"When I parachuted in to a dozen or so classrooms, casually and unan¬nounced, I sometimes saw competent teaching. More often the teaching was very good and occasionally it was world-class. Those time-serving teachers derided by the pundits were nowhere in sight."

"Based on these initial impressions, Union City readily passed my 'Golden Rule' test -- I’d be happy if my own child went to school there.

Aaron Fischer is director of editorial operations at NJ Spotlight.

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