A new book studies the transformation of the Union City school district, and offers a nationwide strategy for improving underperforming schools

The timing of David Kirp’s new book couldn’t be better. At a time when so-called reformers argue that firing teachers, closing schools and opening charters is the only way to improve troubled systems, Kirp’s study of how one district turned itself around is a must-read for education policymakers. The real answer, it turns out, is there is no easy answer—just hard work, collaboration and commitment.

New Jerseyans should take a special interest in reading Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools. Why? Because this success story is set here in Union City, Hudson County.

The following excerpt is from the introduction of Improbable Scholars. Throughout the rest of the book, Kirp details his visits to the classrooms of Union City, especially those of George Washington Elementary School. The NJEA Review visited that school and some of its classrooms. We also met with building and district administrators, including Superintendent Stanley Sanger and Assistant Superintendent Silva Abbato, as well as Union City Education Association (UCEA) officers Dave Pressey (interim president) and Pete Rizzo (grievance chair). The trust and respect that exist between staff and management in Union City were evident. And although some of Kirp’s observations weren’t in line with the way local members view things, everyone agrees that virtually every school district in the country could learn a thing or two from what Union City has accomplished.

Public schools that transform children’s lives

Slow and Steady

Amid the hoopla over choice and charters, the public schools of Union City, New Jersey—a poor, densely-packed community that’s mainly composed of Latino immigrants, four miles and a psychological light year removed from Times Square—point the way toward a more promising and more usable strategy.

A quarter-century ago, 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. This district now stands as a poster child for good urban education. By bringing kids, elsewhere dismissed as no-hopers, into the mainstream, it has defied the odds.

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 approximate 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.

This is no one-year wonder. Over the course of the past generation these youngsters have been doing better and better. What’s more, in 2011 89.4 percent of the students graduated—that’s 15 percent higher than the national average. Nearly 60 percent head to college; the top students are regularly winning statewide science contests and receiving full rides at Ivy League universities.

Nowadays, the reputation of a school system depends heavily on its high-stakes achievement test scores. The pressure keeps intensifying as the U.S. Department of Education and its handmaidens in the state capitals expect that, year after year, more and more students must prove their proficiency in the three Rs. New Jersey, like many other states, has made the outsized pledge that by 2020 every student will graduate high school prepared for college or career.

Union City’s schools are constantly struggling to balance this command against other priorities—sparking students’ creativity, responding to the health problems and emotional baggage that many of these youngsters bring with them, generating a sense of community within the schoolhouse. Sometimes these schools succeed in maintaining that balance, always they try. What’s more, those dazzling test scores don’t depend on drill-and-kill instruction—the schools aim to turn kids into thinkers, not memorizers.

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.

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.

Here’s the essence:

  1. High-quality full-day preschool for all children starts at age three.
  2. Word-soaked classrooms give youngsters a rich feel for language.
  3. Immigrant kids become fluent first in their native language and then in English.
  4. The curriculum is challenging, consistent from school to school, and tied together from one grade to the next.
  5. Close-grained analyses of students’ test scores are used to diagnose and address problems.
  6. Teachers and students get hands-on help to improve their performance.
  7. The schools reach out to parents, enlisting them as partners in their children’s education.
  8. The school system sets high expectations for all and maintains a culture of abrazos—caring—which generates trust.

Slow and SteadyThis is a tale of evolution, not revolution, a conscientious application of what management guru W. Edwards Deming calls “total quality management.” “Improve constantly and forever the system of production and service,” Deming preached for half a century, and many Fortune 500 companies have profited from paying attention. So has Union City.

The bottom line is simple enough—running an exemplary school system doesn’t demand heroes or heroics, just hard and steady work. Stick to your knitting, as the saying goes, stay with what’s been proven to make a difference and don’t be tempted by every trendy idea that comes along. Of course that’s much easier to say than to do—otherwise we wouldn’t be talking about an achievement gap—but you don’t have to be a genius to pull it off.

Success stories are to be found across the country—in communities that spend frugally on their students as well as those that are lavishly funded, in big cities as well as rural communities and in districts with black, Latino, and poor white students. In each instance, as we’ll see, the school system has taken the same playbook—the same priorities, the same underlying principles, the same commitment to hard and steady work—that Union City uses, adapting it to suit its circumstances.

I first heard about Union City because of its renowned prekindergarten program. After spending time in preschool classrooms so magical that I wished I were four years old again, I checked out what was happening in other grades. Was life as good for eight-year-olds and adolescents as it was for three- and four-year-olds?

When I parachuted in to a dozen or so classrooms, casually and unannounced, 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. But I wanted to go beyond the superficial and find out what really made the place tick.

From the start of the school year in September 2010 to graduation day, nine months later, I dug deep into the life of this district and I returned several times the following year to pick up the threads of the story. With carte blanche to explore, I spent many days crouching in classrooms, talking with teachers and hanging out with kids, becoming “Mr. David” to a gaggle of third graders. I trailed after principals, joined top-echelon administrators’ meetings when critical policy decisions about the school system’s priorities were being made, and spent time crisscrossing the city with the hyperenergetic mayor who makes the schools’ business his business.

The school system and the Swiss watch

A Swiss watch, like a school district, is designed as an intricate system with a great many moving parts, the balance cock, the regulator, the hairspring study—those parts connect, one to the others, and if one of them breaks the mechanism will stop working. But there the analogy breaks down— while skilled watchmakers know how to take a watch apart and put it back together, their counterparts in education don’t possess the same grasp of the whole.

Slow and SteadyWhen scholars probe the schools (and they’ve written scads of books and articles about them) they focus on one particular aspect of the system—what makes for a good teacher, for instance, or what are the traits of an educational leader; how should reading be taught or how should achievement tests be used; does investing in technology reap benefits, and what about in-service training?

Although a watch is a complex mechanism, compared to a school system it’s as simple as an Erector set, and none of the many tools in the education researchers’ kitbag, from number-crunching to ethnography, can encompass the whole. The research supplied me with the high-powered lenses I’ve used in making sense of what I saw, extracting the patterns from the particulars. Yet it can capture only a partial truth, for when it comes to education everything connects, from the crucible of the classroom to the interplay among teachers, from the principal’s skill as a leader to the superintendent’s success in creating an intermeshed system from a host of separate schools and the politicians’ role in setting the limits of a school district’s autonomy. I’m brave (or foolhardy) enough to try my hand at being a watchmaker, coming at these schools from all angles.

This story begins in Room 210, a third grade class whose students start the year speaking little if any English and who, eight months later, will be taking the first high-stakes tests of their young lives. The classroom makes a logical starting point, for no matter how well-intentioned an initiative, how adroit the principal or managerially savvy the superintendent, if the teacher can’t ignite fires in the students then the rest of it doesn’t really matter.

All kids possess Holden Caulfield’s innate talent for sniffing out the fakes and phonies. The good news is that they can be galvanized by teachers who they intuit are committed to their futures. What Barack Obama said in his 2012 State of the Union Address—“every person in this chamber can point to a teacher who changed the trajectory of their lives”—fits all of us. That’s the goal of the teacher who presides in Room 210—to have an enduring impact on these kids’ lives.

Slow and SteadyFrom the classroom to the school to the district our story opens up. The best teachers will thrive even in the educational equivalent of the Sahara desert, but most teachers will do a lot better if they are part of a group effort, are given coaching, shown how to use information about their students to best advantage and encouraged to forge a “we’re in this together” sense of rapport. That’s where George Washington Elementary School, where Room 210 is located, enters the picture.

The narrative expands to encompass other schools, each with its own persisting challenges. Can an excellent preschool system be fabricated out of more than thirty different prekindergartens of wildly different quality, some run by the public schools and others operated as businesses? Can a visionary principal, new to the job, reform the oversized high school, which like secondary schools everywhere has become infamous for battling reformers?

Many school districts operate as loose confederacies, with each school going its own way, and only pockets of excellence amid the underwhelming , but Union City has worked hard to make the pieces fit together. For the district’s administrators, maintaining a cohesive system is a never-ending grind and constantly striving for improvement is harder yet. For the system-builders in Union City the 2010–11 school year is especially rough, for a soup-to-nuts state review is looming. School systems aren’t autonomous; they operate in a world largely delineated by the politicians who oversee and fund them. In Union City, the Democratic mayor, who doubles as a state legislator, has been a godsend, and because of his clout there’s a spanking new preschool and a $180 million high school. With a Republican in the governor’s office, can he continue to work wonders?

Union City has done well by its children—very well indeed—but wherever you look there’s unfinished business. The kids in Room 210 aren’t all turning out well; not all of the teachers at Washington School are able (or willing) to improve; the quality of the preschools remains uneven; the high school isn’t having an easy time going from “good enough” to good, let alone to great; and some of the ties that bind the system show signs of fraying.

It would be a mistake, however, to regard these as evidence of failure. Rather, they deliver a salutary reminder that America’s public schools cannot be quickly and easily transformed—that, despite the belief of those who drafted the saber-rattling 2012 report, U.S. Education Reform and National Security, there’s no magic bullet. In Union City, as in every school district, simple answers cannot be found and there’s always work that remains undone.

Reprinted from Improbable Scholars by David L. Kirp with permission from Oxford University Press USA. Copyright © 2013 by David L. Kirp.