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"What Kirp considers an exemplary public school system that is a demonstrable improvement over what generally prevails now is replicable everywhere, requiring only fiercely hard work. Teachers, concerned parents, political leaders-Kirp's book has something for everyone, and it deserves the widest possible audience discussion." - Kirkus (starred review)
"Improbable Scholars is one of the most hopeful books that I have read in a long time. It shows why there are no quick fixes and how schools succeed. He describes a model of success that can be achieved in every school."-Diane Ravitch, author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System
" 'There are no quick fixes' " is the thoroughly researched and pragmatic counsel offered by Kirp after his year of observing Union City, New Jersey's public school system...Kirp's warm portraits of talented teachers, squirmy students, and visionary leaders prepare the ground for his indictment of today's soulless test-taking culture and illustrate the effectiveness of Union City's "plan-do-review" approach to systemwide policy making...Slow and steady really does win the race." -Booklist (starred review)
"In Improbable Scholars David Kirp has discerned the essence of what our students and our public education system need: competent and caring classroom teachers and paraprofessionals, working in concert with other adults to surround students with the academic and non-academic supports that deeply impact their learning. This riveting book reminds us that, while there is no magic bullet, long-term success is possible. Labor-management collaborations and community involvement are critical for creating lasting school transformation." -Randi Weingarten, President, American Federation of Teachers
"At a time when would-be reformers offer a plethora of miracle cures, Improbable Scholars digs deep into the complexity of transforming urban schools from classroom teaching to the political leadership and community support needed to ensure access and opportunity for all learners. David Kirp's ability to connect his observations with research provides evidence that the strategies used by Union City are grounded in sustainable-and replicable-reforms."-Dr. Carol R. Johnson, Superintendent, Boston Public Schools
"In Improbable Scholars, David Kirp challenges the conventional wisdom fueling today's school reform agenda. With his trademark insight and fluid prose, Kirp uses a high-achieving urban district to argue that coherence and patience count for more than incentives and a 'no excuses' mindset, while pressing the case for a kinder, gentler vision of school reform. Agree with Kirp or not, educators, parents, and would-be reformers need to read this book, reflect on it, and argue about it."-Frederick M. Hess, Director of Education Policy Studies, American Enterprise Institute
"Improbable Scholars is a once-in-a-generation book on what will matter most in education over the next generation: giving our immigrant-origin students a real chance to achieve the American Dream. This extraordinary account takes the reader from the classroom to the mayor's office, vividly detailing how a poor urban school district has brought Latino immigrant kids into the mainstream. The story, masterfully told by one of our foremost thinkers in education today, goes beyond the facile cure-alls, clichés, and yes, magical thinking, that plague much writing in education today. This is the one book everyone interested in authentic models for change needs to read."
-Marcelo M. Suarez-Orozco, Dean and Distinguished Professor, UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies
"Impressive...describes seven guiding principles for how other school systems can achieve sustained educational success." -- Publishers Weekly
"This powerful book exposes one of the greatest lies in America - that 'perform-or-die' accountability for teachers and choice for students will cure what ails public education - and reveals the real way forward. With a gifted writer's eye for telling detail and a gifted scholar's sense of the big picture, Kirp shows how a school system in one of the nation's poorest cities is succeeding without these so-called reforms, and in so doing uncovers the essentials for remaking American education. Brilliant and important."-Robert B. Reich, Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, and former U.S. Secretary of Labor
Introduction: High Stakes
Chapter 1 The Pie: Room 210, George Washington Elementary School
Chapter 2 New Kids on the Block: George Washington Elementary School
Chapter 3 Gruntwork: The System-Builders
Chapter 4 The Magic Kingdom: Preschool for All
Chapter 5 Mother Theresa meets Mayor Daley: Good Schools = Smart Politics
Chapter 6 Can These Eagles Soar?: Union City High School
Chapter 7 Where Fun Comes to Die (And Be Reborn): George Washington Elementary School -- Reprise
Chapter 8: The Odyssey Continues: Union City School System, One Year Later
Chapter 9: What Union City Has To Teach America: Nationwide, Slow and Steady Wins the Race
Posted March 28, 2013
I have been up late reading Berkeley professor, David Kir's new book about school reform in Union City, New Jersey: Improbable Scholars: the Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools (Oxford University Press, 2013). “Union City ranks sixty-first nationwide in its concentrated poverty…. It’s also the nation’s most crowded municipality.” Virtually all students are Latino-Latina, many recent arrivals and a sizeable percentage English language learners. And yet, teachers, administrators, and students are all working hard—and strategically. Test scores reflect a transformation in the district in recent years.
Kirp confronts the public education rhetoric war directly. He spent a year in Union City immersed in classrooms and the way the district works, and he shows us a school system where the emphasis is on improving instruction, connecting with and supporting each student, experimenting with bilingual education, supporting teachers—many of whom grew up in this school district, and focusing way beyond the requirements of the New Jersey ASK standardized test. An academic, Kirp also presents the research that supports reforms being implemented in Union City.
An important piece of the puzzle Kirp describes is the universal pre-school New Jersey has been providing for some time in its 31 Abbott districts, the poorest school districts in the state, where opportunity to learn including universal preschool was instituted as part of the remedy in Abbott v. Burke, probably the nation’s longest running and most successful school finance litigation. (In recent years there has been pressure at the state level to reduce investment in the Abbott districts, a potential threat to the progress this book describes.)
This is an inspiring book and one of the most hopeful books I’ve read in a long, long time. While it is an entirely secular book, it surely is appropriate reading for the Easter season. Kirp emphatically rejects the hubris embedded in today’s technocratic school reform where wealthy theorists are content to experiment with shattering neighborhoods and undermining the humanity of committed teachers with econometric Value Added Metric rankings based on students’ standardized test scores, VAM rankings that have sometimes been published in the newspaper. This is a book about people working every day to build human connections in a place where the public schools have, quite recently, become the heart of the community.
I hope everybody will read this book. Wouldn’t it be amazing if it became a best seller.
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