Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America's Schools [NOOK Book]

Overview

No school district can be all charismatic leaders and super-teachers. It can't start from scratch, and it can't fire all its teachers and principals when students do poorly. Great charter schools can only serve a tiny minority of students. Whether we like it or not, most of our youngsters will continue to be educated in mainstream public schools.
The good news, as David L. Kirp reveals in Improbable Scholars, is that there's a sensible way to rebuild public education and close ...
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Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America's Schools

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Overview

No school district can be all charismatic leaders and super-teachers. It can't start from scratch, and it can't fire all its teachers and principals when students do poorly. Great charter schools can only serve a tiny minority of students. Whether we like it or not, most of our youngsters will continue to be educated in mainstream public schools.
The good news, as David L. Kirp reveals in Improbable Scholars, is that there's a sensible way to rebuild public education and close the achievement gap for all students. Indeed, this is precisely what's happening in a most unlikely place: Union City, New Jersey, a poor, crowded Latino community just across the Hudson from Manhattan. The school district--once one of the worst in the state--has ignored trendy reforms in favor of proven game-changers like quality early education, a word-soaked curriculum, and hands-on help for teachers. When beneficial new strategies have emerged, like using sophisticated data-crunching to generate pinpoint assessments to help individual students, they have been folded into the mix.
The results demand that we take notice--from third grade through high school, Union City scores on the high-stakes state tests approximate the statewide average. In other words, these inner-city kids are achieving just as much as their suburban cousins in reading, writing, and math. What's even more impressive, nearly ninety percent of high school students are earning their diplomas and sixty percent of them are going to college. Top students are winning national science awards and full rides at Ivy League universities. These schools are not just good places for poor kids. They are good places for kids, period.
Improbable Scholars offers a playbook--not a prayer book--for reform that will dramatically change our approach to reviving public education.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Too many American public school students, especially poor and minority students, lack basic reading and math proficiency and are educated by uninspired teachers. What to do? To find out, UC Berkeley education and public policy expert Kirp spent a year at in classrooms in a school district in Union City, N.J., that, improbably, works very well, despite its 20% poverty rate and substantial immigrant population. Among the keys to success are mutual help among teachers through mentoring, and more informal support among students through learning centers, as well as a sophisticated bilingual program. Kirp devotes a chapter to Union City’s preschools, which are available to all and focus on pre-K language development skills. Particularly on the high school level, Union City isn’t immune to the bane of contemporary education, “teaching to the test.” However, Kirk shows how administrators and teachers mine test data to benchmark and help advance students’ progress, so that 89% of those who begin high school graduate, compared with 74% nationally. The school system also benefits from a mayor who doubles as a state senator and has secured extra state education funding. This impressive book doesn’t provide a blueprint, but the author describes seven guiding principles for how other school systems can achieve sustained educational success. Agent: Carol Mann, Carol Man Agency. (Apr.)
From the Publisher

"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

Library Journal
Offering a sensitive portrayal of a school community and an account of how it achieved positive outcomes, education expert Kirp (public policy, Univ. of Calif. at Berkeley; Kids First) details here his year observing the classrooms of Union City School District in New Jersey. He notes the schools' improbable success—a result, he claims, of teacher mentoring programs, acquisition of additional state funds by the city's mayor, and individual contributions from within the student community. Unlike other education reform books that target one cause of decline or one solution (e.g., The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education by Diane Ravitch), Kirp's book shows that reform is possible only if we understand the complexities of how an organization functions. More a case study or biography of the symbiotic relationships at work within school administrations, there is little analysis here, leaving the onus on the reader to tease out the book's specific and practical applications. VERDICT This honest account of one school district's struggle will be an empowering read for practicing educators who enjoy real-world feel-good stories. Those looking for immediate application should look elsewhere.—Rachel Wadham, Brigham Young Univ. Libs., Salt Lake City
Kirkus Reviews
Hopeful news from the education front. George W. Bush's teach-to-the-test No Child Left Behind Act has done untold damage to American education, as has the wholesale defunding of public school systems in favor of private schools that are mostly reserved for the wealthy. Kirp (Public Policy/Univ. of California; Kids First, 2011, etc.) observes that in recent years, "fewer white students and more poor and nonwhite students have enrolled in public school," with the predictable result that public schools have in the main become uncompetitive since they are underserved. He examines the case of Union City, N.J., to show that this is not a requisite destiny: There, in an area of deep poverty ("below such famously troubled cities as Mobile, Milwaukee, and Oakland"), a committed group of administrators, teachers and parents have formed an educational community to defy the odds. "Community" is an operative word, and the secrets for forging it and bringing new life to the classroom are, by Kirp's account, fairly few. He identifies some of the keys ones: high-quality, all-day preschool for all children beginning at the age of 3, then "word-soaked classrooms" that emphasize language skills (and therefore thinking skills). Against the prevailing English-only ethos, Union City teaches immigrant children fluency in their language, then fluency in English. The school system actively reaches out to parents to form educational partnerships, and there are plenty of abrazos--hugs, that is, to create a culture of caring. 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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199987511
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 3/4/2013
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Sales rank: 242,496
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

David L. Kirp, a nationally-known education expert, is James D. Marver Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. In seventeen books and scores of articles in newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Nation, American Prospect, and the Atlantic, as well as in leading academic journals, he has covered the education waterfront from cradle to college. After the 2008 election, he served on President Obama's Transition Team.

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Table of Contents

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
Notes
Acknowledgements
Index

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 28, 2013

    I have been up late reading Berkeley professor, David Kir's new

    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.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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