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Improbable Scholars Garners Responses, Questions

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The author of a new book on reform efforts in a large urban district offers a school turnaround model that, he argues, can be scaled and applied almost anywhere. In Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America's Schools (Oxford University Press, 2013), David L. Kirp, professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, chronicles dramatic school improvement in Union City, N.J. Kirp believes that not only is Union City's success unprecedented and unexpected, but the district also offers lessons for urban school leaders nationwide.

The tenets of Union City's school success include blurring the lines between cognitive and noncognitive learning; a school culture built around "pride and respect in 'our house' "; and a dedication to high pre-kindergarten enrollment to prepare students for school early. School climate features prominently in Kirp's portrait of Union City, as he argues that teacher, student, and leader buy-in to a positive school culture can hold the keys to rapid school improvement.

Last week, Sara Mead, an associate partner with Bellwether Education Partners who blogs for Education Week wrote that the book "raises some serious issues that education reformers embracing a pro-charter, pro-accountability agenda" should seriously consider.

Mead refrains from endorsing or discrediting Kirp's argument, while citing a number of ways in which Union City might be considered exceptional and not a typical urban district (its size, its relative wealth). Nevertheless, she considers the book an important read for education policymakers, scholars, and leaders. Mead hosted a recent panel discussion on the book at the Center for American Progress, a recording of which is available online.

Kirp has published a number of opinion pieces in connection with the launch of his new book, including "The Secret to Fixing Bad Schools" (The New York Times, Feb. 9, 2013). In response to that essay, another Education Week blogger, Walt Gardner of the eponymous Reality Check, meets Kirp's optimism with skepticism, pointing out that scalability and sustainability are major challenges that Kirp and others may overlook when offering "concrete illustrations" of successful school turnarounds as the basis for national models. Gardner questions the notion of scalability and the search for a national model, cautioning, "Just because a handful of schools manages to overcome such obstacles does not mean they possess a silver bullet."

The threat of teacher burnout also looms large in the narrative of "high-flying schools," says Gardner. Rapid school turnarounds may produce quick results, but a blistering pace of change can be hard to maintain. Gardner argues that this particular sustainability issue has yet to be satisfactorily resolved, and that Kirp's New York Times op-ed may skip over it too easily.

While reactions to Improbable Scholars vary, it has generated a great deal of discussion about the relationship between school climate and school improvement, a debate bound to continue as school climate issues play a prominent role in the education conversation nationwide.

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