Two NJ Cities Test Today’s School Reform: Disruption and Privatization Fail

I hope you read David Kirp’s fine commentary on school reform in yesterday’s NY Times.  As the author of one of two excellent recent books on school policy in New Jersey—the 2013, Improbable Scholars—Kirp, a Berkeley professor of public policy, is particularly well suited to evaluate school reform in New Jersey.  In yesterday’s commentary he compares the botched school reform effort in Newark, the subject of Dale Russakoff’s 2015, The Prize, with what has been accomplished in nearby Union City, the subject of his own book. Kirp believes the strategies employed in these two school districts have national implications, and he explains: How to Fix the Country’s Failing Schools. And How Not To.

Both Newark and Union City serve students living in concentrated poverty. In 2009 in Newark, Mayor Cory Booker and Governor Chris Christie hatched a plan to expand charter schools, weaken the teachers union, and, in Booker’s words, “flip a whole city and create a national model.”  They convinced Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to underwrite the project with a grant of $100 million.

Kirp contrasts the hubris of Newark’s project to what happened in Union City: “No one expected a national model out of Union City.  Without the resources given to Newark, the school district there, led by a middle-level bureaucrat named Fred Carrigg, was confronted with two huge challenges:  How could English learners, three-quarters of the students, become fluent in English?  And how could youngsters, many of whom came from homes where books were rarities, be turned into adept readers?”

What happened?  “In 2014, Union City’s graduation rate was 81 percent, exceeding the national average; Newark’s was 69 percent.”

“What explains this difference?  The experience of Union City, as well as other districts, like Montgomery County, MD, and Long Beach, CA, that have beaten the demographic odds, show that there’s no miracle cure for what ails public education. What business gurus label ‘continuous improvement,’ and the rest of us call slow-and-steady, wins the race.”  The solution in Union City was already inside the schools; administrators empowered fine teachers and developed a much stronger curriculum by trusting them and helping them collaborate.

Here is how Kirp describes changes begun 17 years ago in Union City when the district was given a year to stave off a threatened takeover by the state: “In 1989, with one year to shape up Union City, Mr. Carrigg, with a cadre of teachers and administrators, devised a multipronged strategy: Focus on how kids learn best, how teachers teach most effectively and how parents can be engaged.  Non-English speakers had previously been expected to acquire the language through the sink-or-swim method.  So the district junked its old approach.  Instead, English learners are initially taught in their own language, mainly Spanish, and then are gradually shifted to English.”  The district also hired more teachers who spoke Spanish or had special training in working with English learners. And a new strategy emphasized reading and writing in every subject, not just in language arts classes. When the Abbott school funding remedy made New Jersey school districts eligible for state funded preschool, Union City developed a model program for all three- and four-year-olds.

Here is how Superintendent Carrigg describes school reform—Union City style :  “The real story of Union City is that it didn’t fall back.  It stabilized and has continued to improve.”  Kirp adds: “Recent changes include the introduction of Mandarin Chinese from preschool on, a STEM-focused elementary school and a nursery for young parents in high school.  Newark’s big mistake was not so much that the school officials embraced one solution or another but that they placed their faith in the idea of disruptive change and charismatic leaders.  Union City adopted the opposite approach, embracing the idea of gradual change and working within existing structures.”

Improbable Scholars, Kirp’s inspiring book about Union City’s schools, is very much worth reading.  For me it is most memorable for celebrating a grow-your-own strategy of teacher preparation.  Kirp, a professor at one of the nation’s elite universities, does not buy into the kind of academic snobbery epitomized by Teach for America, whose mission is to fill the nation’s classrooms with bright Ivy Leaguers who can brag about their SAT scores.  He celebrates the collaborative work of the teachers in Union City, teachers who came up through the city’s neighborhoods and who understand the challenges faced by their students: “It’s unlikely that these teachers would have been accepted by Teach for America. They all grew up within a half hour’s drive from Union City and never moved away… Only a higher education expert or someone who hails from northern New Jersey would have heard of the commuter schools—William Paterson, Jersey City, Stockton State, and the like—that they attended.  Their GPAs weren’t necessarily stellar, and while some of them are more naturally gifted teachers than others, they all had a hard time at the start of their teaching careers.  The best explanation for their effectiveness is what they have learned—and keep learning—from their colleagues.”  (Improbable Scholars,  p. 61)