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John Thompson: An Improbable Tale of Successful Reform

Guest post by John Thompson.

David Kirp begins his new book, Improbable Scholars, with the sentence, "Educators have grown wearily accustomed to being slapped around." School "reformers" have lambasted public schools as "fossilized bureaucracies run by paper-pushers and filled with time-serving teachers preoccupied with their own job security, not the lives of their students." The elites have promoted films with the message that charter schools are the answer, even though they are no more effective than traditional public schools. Kirp describes charters as a "kinder gentler face of privatization." "These privately run academies" have become the "playthings of the super-rich."

Kirp then dissects the dramatic turnaround of the entire school system of Union City, New Jersey, and he shows how we can build great schools on the strengths of our democratic culture. Its answer did not come from technocrats from the outside, but from a local culture of "abrazos" or caring. Rather than firing our way to the top, Kirp shows that school improvement must come from trusting relationships. The secret sauce of Union City's success is "respeto," or respect.

Union City's transformation was made possible by an activist New Jersey Supreme Court that ordered the state to produce equity. This allowed the funding of high-quality preschool, reduced class sizes, professional development in English as a Second Language and methods of motivating and engaging students, and one-on-one coaching of struggling teachers and students.

Union City transformed itself by the "win win" policies of:
a) Creating high-quality preschool for all;
b) Providing "word-soaked" classrooms;
c) Teaching immigrants to be fluent in their native language and then in English;
d) Coordinating its early education and its challenging curriculum;
e) Using diagnostic data;
f) Offering hands-on help for parents and students, and
g) Reaching out to parents.

Improbable Scholars is a very, very hopeful book. It shows that humane, democratic, and thoughtful policies are the key to building humane environments that produce thoughtful citizens for a democracy. It is also tough-minded. Creating the coordinated learning environments that transformed Union City will not be cheap or easy.

In the first place, as Gordon MacInnes explains, high-quality preschool cannot just be high-dollar daycare. New Jersey invests $12,000 per student in it. The professional development of preschool teachers takes as much skill and diplomacy as coaching public school teachers. Early education must teach young children self-control and inner-directedness. A diverse collection of for-profit preschools must be integrated into an aligned pre-K through 3rd grade system. We cannot forget that teaching children to read for comprehension by 3rd grade, as opposing to merely decoding, is rocket science.

The same sensitivity must be invested in organizing teams of teachers for providing instruction that engages students and fosters critical thinking. This requires the time-consuming process of collaboratively aligning and coordinating curriculum. Kirp (and others) convince me that both vertical and horizontal curriculum alignment, where subject matter is taught according to a system-wide schedule and yet where teachers also make adjustments in order to build an instructional team, is possible in the early grades. I would have liked more information from Kirp, however, as to how that process can avoid becoming a top down mandate for scripted instruction for high school. Kirp makes it sound like Union City High School is reaching a nice balance (and he indicates that Montgomery County has also backed off from its initial impulse to take too much autonomy away from teachers.)

Since New Jersey has high-stakes tests that stress critical thinking Kirp seems less worried than he would ordinarily be about the dangers of standardized testing in that state. But, he still describes the abusive test prep season that it prompts and warns of that it could threaten Union City's successes. He also recounts teachers' growing complaints against standardized testing.

And, that leads to a final challenge. Union City and, apparently, a few other districts carved out a way to support effective teaching during an age of accountability. It is hard to see how many other systems can emulate Union City's success until the high-stakes testing mania stops. Kirp even expresses worries about the future of the best of Union City's schools if testing continues. On the other hand, if we want to help poor kids, rather than assault teachers, Kirp has laid out the path to sustainable school improvement.

What do you think? Can systems without Union City's funding follow its path? Is it possible for schools to emulate Union City in an age of test-driven accountability? Are you as hopeful about Union City as I am?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

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