The Union City school district was in the spotlight Tuesday night when teachers, administrative officials, parents, and educators from around the state packed the high school’s performing arts center for a conversation with an academic whose new book focuses on the recent success of the district.
David L. Kirp, the James D. Marver Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, recently spent a year on sabbatical in Union City schools, where he witnessed what his book “Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools” describes as a “promising and usable strategy” for struggling districts around the country.
“I almost called the book ‘Tortoise Beats Hare,’ because that’s what’s happened here,” Kirp told Gordon MacInnes, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective, who interviewed him onstage. “Union City reminds us that there are a handful of established game-changing strategies for improving public schools.”
The introduction of Kirp’s book summarizes the current climate of public education in America. Only seven of 10 students nationwide graduate high school, and while college enrollment statistics are on the rise, only a little over half of enrollees go on to graduate. The United States currently ranks 16th worldwide in college graduation rates.
Meanwhile, the test scores of students in Union City equal the New Jersey average and far surpass the average of urban districts. In 2011, 89.4 percent of Union City High School students graduated, and 60 percent went on to college.
“These youngsters, despite their hard-knock lives, compete with their suburban cousins in reading, writing and math.” – David Kirp
Much of the evening’s discussion focused on the trends in the education conversation today, described by Kirp and Superintendent Stanley Sanger as the “search for a silver bullet.” Beginning with the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind legislation and continuing into the Obama administration’s fixation on charter schools, districts have taken to obsessing over test scores while allowing the development of children’s cognitive abilities to fall to the wayside, said Kirp.
“There are some great charter schools out there,” Kirp said. “But the fact is that they only educate a percent of a percent of students.”
The widely-renowned Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) schools, Kirp writes, only enroll 33,000 students, .00059 percent of the country’s school-age population.
In an op-ed that recently appeared in The New York Times, Kirp wrote that to succeed, “students must become thinkers, not just test takers.” According to him, that is what’s happening in Union City.
He described one of his first experiences in Union City, when he visited Suzie Rojas’ preschool class at the Eugenio Maria de Hostos Center for Early Childhood Education during Hanukkah, and the students were cooking latkes, a traditional meal associated with the holiday.
“Every aspect of the lesson was a teachable moment,” said Kirp. The professor explained that in a time when pundits and policymakers often disregard preschool as “babysitting,” Union City is laying the foundation for what becomes a successful student from elementary school through high school.
“Here’s a little secret – good education is preschool education adapted to the developmental equivalent of older students,” he said later.
Kirp also praised Union City’s teachers, many of whom he said are “lifers,” people born here or in the surrounding area that never really left. Besides Rojas, Kirp singled out Alina Bossbaly, a third grade teacher at George Washington School, and John Bennetti, the principal at the high school.
“Every day, Ms. Bossbaly is figuring out what’s best for each child, rather than batch-processing them,” Kirp wrote in The Times.
Finally, he highlighted the district’s strategies for educating its Latino students. Rather than employing the widespread English as a Second Language classes, Union City schools have bilingual classes, which teach in Spanish as much as they do in English.
“It’s very important that students have a grounding in their home language before trying to learn in another language,” he told MacInnes.
Challenges here, and nationwide
Kirp was quick to point out that his book, while certainly a celebration of Union City’s schools, “offers a playbook, not a prayer book” for reforming public schools, and that there’s still a long way to go. He pointed out that despite the high school’s glowing graduation rate, many of the seniors pass their classes at a ninth grade level. And many of those who go on to college end up in remedial classes.
“And the chances are that if you that if you end up in a remedial class in college, you won’t graduate,” he said.
Kirp also warned against investing too much in a solution from above, in this case, Trenton or Washington.
“The problem of public education in this country isn’t going to be solved by remote control,” he said. “I don’t want to say that you can just leave any district on its own and it’ll be okay, but in my experience, if you trust people, they will rise to the occasion.”
Kirp railed against educational policies at the state and federal level, calling the proficiency levels devised by Trenton “just a number thought up by some egghead.”
“There’s not a magic number for doing this,” he said. “What is magical is watching these kids progress.”
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org