In the new book Improbable Scholars, education expert and author David Kirp argues that looking outside the mainstream public school system isn't always the right way—or the best way—to reform education in America.
And while there are some successful charter schools, he feels they aren't the answer. In short, he says, "there are no quick fixes, no miracle cures."
"For better or worse," Kirp writes, "it is in nearly 100,000 ordinary public schools that most of our 55.5 million schoolchildren will be educated."
He does feel, as he discusses in his book, that there's a sensible way to rebuild public education. It became very clear to him while spending a year inside Union City, New Jersey, schools.
Union City, he said in a recent interview, "was a district that was in bad shape 25 years ago. It was the second worst in the state, second only to Camden."
The town is made up almost entirely of immigrants, and poverty is rampant. As much as 30 percent of the community is undocumented.
Faced with a state takeover, the rebuilding of Union City schools began. "The school board and the superintendent turned to folks inside the system to fix the problems inside the system rather than looking outside," Kirp says.
Had the changes simply been imposed from the outside, he says, "it would certainly have produced a reaction because it really demanded a lot of recalibrating from teachers. The fact that it was teachers in the system who promoted this, developed this, and went out to explain this made it a lot better."
What Union City has done, Kirp writes in the book, lacks "flash and pizzazz." It's been an ongoing evolution, and one that has boosted test scores, graduation rates, and college readiness. There are eight key factors:
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 expectation for all and maintains a culture of abrazos—caring—which generates trust.
Union City's high standardized test scores are better than the New Jersey's statewide average, says Kirp. The process of preparing for a standardized test in Union City, and the rest of the country, Kirp says "is a complicated dance that the system as a whole, and the teachers one by one, have to manage."
In Union City, in order to keep test scores high, Kirp says, when exam time approaches, as to be expected, "there's a lot more focus on the test."
"The balancing act for teachers and for the schools, as a whole, is to make sure that there's enough of the cool stuff that's still going on so the kids don't burn out and the teachers don't burn out."
Union City is by no means perfect. However, in addition to the ways they have been able to achieve success, there's something that stands out and is not taken for granted in their public school system. That one thing is trust.
It stems from the administration to the teachers, the teachers to the students and the parents, and the school system to the community at large. This makes a big difference and lays the foundation for a strong education system, Kirp argues.
He also notes that the improvement of Union City, and every other school, "never ends."
"If you think as the person who's in charge that you're done, than it's time to move on. There's always going to be challenges." Union City is a school system that recognizes this and keeps marching forward.
"Running a school system doesn't demand heroes or heroics," Kirp writes in his book, "just hard and steady work."
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Jenny Inglee is a Los Angeles-based journalist and the Education Editor at TakePart. She has taught English in Vietnam and tutors homeless children in Los Angeles. Email Jenny | @jennyinglee | TakePart.com