Luther Spoehr: Review of David L. Kirp’s “Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools” (Oxford, 2013)

tags: book reviews, Luther Spoehr, David L. Kirp, Improbable Scholars, education policy



Luther Spoehr, an HNN book editor and senior lecturer at Brown University, teaches about the history of American school reform.

David Kirp, professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and a longtime observer of American education, has written an invaluable book that is remarkable for its good sense and insight, and even more remarkable for appearing in the midst of an ongoing educational conversation that has long been marked by an almost willful air of unreality.  For at least thirty years, writing aimed at the general public and educators alike has embraced false dichotomies (skills v. content); false analogies (schools as businesses); dubious panaceas (vouchers, charters, high-stakes testing); and sloganeering disguised as curriculum reform (“21st century skills”).  A quick tour of the past three decades can remind us of how the atmosphere got polluted—and make clear why Kirp’s book is such a welcome addition.

In 1983, “A Nation at Risk” sounded its alarm about American public education, and popular narratives about what was wrong and how to fix it popped up like spring flowers.  Unfortunately, they were often simplistic and extreme.  Even the movies, which both influence and reflect what many people are thinking, got into the act.  Remember “Stand and Deliver” (1988), with Edward James Olmos’s uncanny impersonation of Jaime Escalante’s classroom heroics?  (Jay Mathews, the Washington Post’s excellent education writer, came out with a book shortly thereafter, showing that Escalante wasn’t exactly the Lone Ranger: he had help.  But Mathews’s book was dramatically subtitled, “The Best Teacher in America.”)  Hardliners were more taken with heroic principals.  Remember Joe Clark, his baseball bat and bullhorn, in “Stand By Me” (1986)?  He became a celebrity, even though, as Kirp notes, his school remained a mess and within a few years he was out of education and trundling around the “motivational speaking” circuit.

The penchant for the rhetorically grandiose seeped into policy with the standards movement of the 1990s (the standards were always to be “world class,” in schools that would “break the mold”) and then, most emphatically, with the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001.  Every child was to be taught by “highly qualified teachers” (often inflated by superintendents and commissioners into “great teachers”), and schools that failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress were subject to being “transformed”—after all, schools were supposed to be in a “race to the top.”

As is well known by now, the results of all this legislation, regulation, and rhetoric are decidedly mixed.  Students most in need of an enriched curriculum are often treated instead to studies focused (with what is almost invariably termed “laser-like intensity”) on math and language arts—or, more specifically, on the specific skills needed to pass exams in these areas.  NCLB has also given rise to a new literature of educational heroism, with titles like Saving the School:  The True Story of a Principal, a Teacher, a Coach, a Bunch of Kids, and a Year in the Crosshairs of Education Reform, and Hope Against Hope:  Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America's Children.  Almost inevitably, the story’s arc is brief.  Soon afterward, most of the lead characters disappear from the educational stage just as quickly as Joe Clark did. 

For instance, Linda Perlstein, a former Washington Post reporter, gave us Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade (2007).  One of the best of this genre, it told us how high-energy principal Tina McKnight mobilized the faculty and students of hard-pressed Tyler Heights Elementary School in Annapolis, Maryland, to make Adequate Yearly Progress for a second straight year.  As an inventory of the mixed bag that is NCLB, it’s highly effective.  But we don’t hear that within a few years, Tina McKnight was gone, and after the Maryland School Assessments were reconfigured it became difficult to determine whether a school was in fact improving over time.

The most obnoxious, would-be-heroic narratives of school reform, sometimes journalistic, sometimes autobiographical, celebrate new renditions of Joe Clark, who, instead of bringing bats and bullhorns to intimidate the students, bring corporate-style macho to intimidate the teachers.  The most egregious example is probably Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the Washington, DC, public schools, whose (shall we say) aggressive management style does not seem to have done much for the DC schools, but has done wonders for advancing her career as celebrity and fundraiser for her own organization, called (with unintended irony, I’m sure) “StudentsFirst.”

In the face of all the bombast, self-promotion, clichés, cure-alls, and quackery, David Kirp’s Improbable Scholars is a most welcome breath of fresh air.  Nearly bombast-free (the word “Great” in the subtitle is one of very few missteps), it features balance, careful observation, and common sense.  It focuses (with, I might say, “laser-like intensity”) on the 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.”  This success story traverses 25 years, not the past year or two, and Kirp summarizes the “strategy” it depicts in eight simple statements:

“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.”

Kirp recognizes that this summary “verges on platitude,” but, as usual, the genius is in the details, and his nuanced analysis of how Union City’s teachers and administrators “plan, do, and review,” over and over, shows time and again that local knowledge that tempers theory is essential.   Whether working to find the proper balance between English and Spanish instruction for individual students, or deciding how heavily student test scores should count in student placement, or enriching the curriculum while still preparing students for the unavoidable New Jersey “Assessment of Skills and Knowledge,” the system relies on teachers and administrators to collaborate and arrive at a considered professional judgment.

This can happen in Union City because of its educators’ sense of community, commitment, collegiality, and, perhaps most underestimated by the rest of the educational world, continuity.  Superintendent Sandy Sanger and Mayor Brian Stack (“part Boss Daley, part Mother Theresa”) have held office for over a decade.  Stack is also a New Jersey state senator, and his connections to state government paid off when the state threw itself into improving its schools:  the biggest prize, a new $180 million high school that replaced the city’s ancient, rundown facilities.  Union City also benefits because it is an “Abbott district,” so designated because of a New Jersey Supreme Court decision that has mandated extra funding for needy districts since 1985.

As Kirp makes clear, none of this would be working without the close cooperation of Union City’s teachers, many of them veterans with close ties to the predominantly Cuban-American community.  There are stars—Kirp’s portrayal of the remarkable Alina Bossbaly, a teacher for 30 years, demonstrates that—but they star not only as teachers, but also as mentors and collaborators in professional development.  There are some bad teachers, too, but fewer and fewer of them as the years have gone by.  And there are a lot of good teachers who are getting better. The system’s ethos insists on continuous, steady improvement and provides support to help make it happen.  There are no two-year temps from Teach for America:  they “would destabilize the school[s].”

Of course, nothing is forever, and there are other destabilizing factors coming into play in Union City.  Immigrants from different cultures are adding diversity, but may challenge unity.  Gentrification is proceeding apace: will the affluent new residents care about the local schools?  But Union City has adapted and doggedly improved for a quarter-century.  Its schools perform above the state average and well above what would be predicted for their demographic.  To adapt an adage, eternal vigilance is the price of education.  But I’d bet on them. 

And I’d bet on Kirp’s “strategy.”  As he rightly says, “No school district can be all KIPPs and 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…For better or worse, it is in nearly 100,000 ordinary public schools that most of our 55.5 million schoolchildren will be educated.”  If we can turn down the volume, pay less attention to hawkers of magic elixirs (vouchers by the gallon, choice by the pound, testing by the ton), and heed voices such as Kirp’s, I’ll be more willing to bet on all of us.



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