David Kirp’s new book, Improbable Scholars, tells the quarter-century story of the Union City (NJ) victory in creating a successful, largely minority and poor school district as measured by test scores, college admissions, parent surveys, teacher accounts–take your pick. It is a story where stable city and district leadership, over the course of a generation, worked to build strong preschool, elementary, and secondary programs with cadres of knowledgeable and experienced teachers and administrators who stayed the course and who used new technologies to advance district goals. Stable leadership. Committed educators. Persistence. Adequate funding. Kirp lays out these and other principles that he extracted from the long-term school reform in this New Jersey district. For a conversation with Kirp and the President of Teachers College, Susan Fuhrman about the book, see here.
Of course, Union City is not the first nor last district to have turned itself around over a few decades and stayed effective. We know of Long Beach (CA), Aldine (TX), Montgomery County (MD), Sanger (CA), Cincinnati (OH) and many more. See, for example, Greg Anrig’s Beyond the Education Wars. The seven principles that Kirp extracts from Union City’s success mirror features of these other districts.
However, a long list of such districts that have learned the importance of adequate funding, strong preschool programs, continuous district leadership, supporting teachers, and building cultures that honor both teaching and learning does not add up to an easy recipe. For sustaining “good” districts is a set of inter-connected complex tasks that require ingenuity, resources, committed educators, and luck. Oops! I forgot to mention time. The very ingredient that policy elites eager to scale up school-by-school innovations, build new district structures of school choice, and add high-tech scrimshaw often forget or ignore.
For the dominant thinking among federal and state policymakers is a rush-rush strategy of transforming low-performing school districts through fear, sanctions, and putting money on the stump for districts to grab. See Race to the Top. I have written about the the short-sightedness and, yes, foolishness of such strategies for individual schools but now I want to ask the simple question: with so many examples of school districts, big and small, past and present, raising student achievement and sustaining that achievement, why do policy elites keep preaching widespread school failure and reaching for more online schooling, outsourcing schools to private and for-profit managers, wholesale restructuring, and closing schools?
OK, I admit, the question is not simple. It points to the continuing split among reformers over the role of the school in combating poverty–the “no excuses” brand (e.g., ex-chancellors Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee)–and joining schools with community services early and systematically from prenatal through age 21. Squeezed resources, of course, make choices inevitable so the “no excuses” crowd whose slogan also means that reforming schools is much cheaper than the alternative continue to dominate the media and the conversation over what works while ignoring the striking results of investing limited resources in those districts that have the know-how and are creating success, however measured, over the long-term.
Books like Improbable Scholars and Beyond the Education Wars show a mix of large and small districts provide sufficient examples of what can be done within current governance and structures without resort to the next quick-fix-it solution coming around the corner.
The evidence is there. Policy elites choose to ignore such evidence because it is slower, requires different allocation of resources, and challenges the current orthodoxy that U.S. schools are irreversible failures and need total transformation.