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Is Union City a national model for school reform?

If you haven't yet, you should definitely read David Kirp's NYT op-ed on Union City, New Jersey's approach to education reform and his forthcoming book on the same. A few years ago I had the opportunity to spend some time learning about Union City's work on pre-k and early literacy and was duly impressed by their success there. Union City's embrace of quality pre-k and systematic effort to create a truly language-rich learning environment and effective literacy instruction across all their elementary schools are truly worth learning from. And their success educating a primarily immigrant and English language learner population is particularly relevant given our nation's changing demographics. The story of how Union City got there is also fascinating, and David deserves credit for deeply immersing himself in both the city's schools and political and education culture in order to tell it.

David also raises some serious issues that education reformers embracing a pro-charter, pro-accountability agenda (and I count myself as one) should take to heart and grapple with: For example, given the high-mobility of low-income families, there can be real value in having a common, vertically and horizontally approach to curriculum and instruction and consistent practices across all schools in a district or community--something that gets lost as we move towards more diverse delivery models. In David's telling, Union City's story also makes the case for a slow, steady approach to reform rather than the urgency and focus on immediate improvement that we often hear calls for today. And it also makes the case that some urban districts, at least, can actually establish a culture of adult trust and collaboration rather than the suspicion and distrust that seem assumed in many of our current education debates.

But....

This line from David's piece gave me tremendous pause:

As someone who has worked on education policy for four decades, I've never seen the likes of this. After spending a year in Union City working on a book, I believe its transformation offers a nationwide strategy.

If what David observed in Union City is so rare--he hasn't seen anything like it in four decades of deep exposure to educaiton issues--doesn't that raise some questions about its broader replicability? There are other reasons to be skeptical of Union City as a national model: For one thing, its very small for an urban district, serving only about 12,000 kids in a very small geographic area. It also has far more resources than the typical U.S. school district--$17,000 per pupil in 2009, thanks to New Jersey's Abbot litigation (which brought significant revenue to the state's poorest districts) and generally high per-pupil expenditures. That's not to discount Union City's success--there are lots of low-performing urban districts that also receive high funding levels. But it does raise some serious questions for those seeking to replicate the model.

Nor would it be entirely honest to champion Union City as a pure counterpoint to accountability-based reforms. It would be foolish to overlook that the city's turnaround came in part as a response to its identification as a failing district and threatened state takeover, or that it's been able to sustain its commitment to a reform agenda and build trust over time in large part because its school board is appointed by a well-respected mayor--freeing it from some of the school board governance conflicts that plague more troubled districts.

The ultimate takeaway,then, must be that this stuff is incredibly complicated. We should want a country with more Union Cities capable of offering a quality education to all kids. But we should also be honest that a lot of school districts are far from that--and many don't have the necessary political and contextual conditions to get there. And we shouldn't hold kids hostage until districts can get there, either. To provide the education all our kids deserve, we need both more Union Cities and more KIPPs, EL Haynes', and Northstars. We also need to be honest about the real limitations of both charter and district models, and creative about how to mitigate some of them. And we need to be honest about ways in which our overarching systems of education funding and governance may create barriers to schools in either sector serving kids effectively.

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