How to Fix Public Education

It was once one of the worst school districts in the country, densely packed and crippled by poverty. David L. Kirp on how Union City, New Jersey, became a model for educational innovation.

05.06.13 8:45 AM ET

For years critics have lambasted public schools as fossilized bureaucracies run by paper-pushers and filled with time-serving teachers preoccupied with their job security, not the lives of students. A gaggle of influentials, among them Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, and David Brooks, have said as much, and it’s the message of films like Waiting for Superman and Don’t Back Down, which lionize charter schools as the one sure way out of the present mess.

Look dispassionately at the evidence, however, and you’ll find little justification for the proposition that imposing perform-or-die accountability on teachers or expanding choice for students will cure what ails public education.

But if superstars and clean sweeps can’t deliver that, how can the typical school district, filled with ordinary teachers, most of whom grew up nearby, do it? Enter Union City.

Amid the hoopla over choice and charters, the public schools of Union City, New Jersey—a poor, densely-packed community that’s mainly composed of Latino immigrants, four miles and a psychological light year removed from Times Square—point the way toward a more promising and more usable strategy.

A quarter-century ago, Union City’s schools were so wretched that state officials threatened to seize control of them. But since then the situation has been totally reversed. This district now stands as a poster child for good urban education. By bringing kids, elsewhere dismissed as no-hopers, into the mainstream, it has defied the odds.

Here’s the reason to stand up and take notice—from third grade through high school, Union City students’ scores on the state’s achievement tests approximate the New Jersey averages. You read that right—these youngsters, despite their hard-knocks lives, compete with their suburban cousins in reading, writing, and math.

This is no one-year wonder. Over the course of the past generation these youngsters have been doing better and better. What’s more, in 2011, 89.4% of the students graduated—that’s 15% higher than the national average. Nearly 60% head to college; the top students are regularly winning state-wide contests and receiving full rides at Ivy League universities.

Skeptics will dismiss the narrative of Union City’s accomplishments as a one-off—a remarkable story, granted, but one that’s as rare as the Hope diamond, and for that reason irrelevant anyplace else.

This time the naysayers are flat out wrong.

Three change-minded school systems—very different from one another and from Union City as well—illustrate this point. All three approach the challenge with a Union City–like absence of superstars and fireworks, and all three are succeeding. They are steadily rewriting the script for poor and minority kids, boosting achievement and closing gaps, relying on strategies as research-tested and securing results comparable to Union City’s. Yet each of the three is missing one or more of the elements that a skeptic might claim are the impossible-to-duplicate preconditions of Union City’s success—its small size and homogeneity, its money, its political support, and its students raised in a culture of respeto.

The school systems in Montgomery County, Maryland, a district far larger than Union City with a populace that’s as socially and economically varied as Union City’s is homogeneous; in the recession-decimated farm town of Sanger, California, with half the per-pupil funding of Union City; and in the sprawling, featureless suburb of Aldine, Texas, united mostly by its poverty, are raising achievement levels for all students, with the same slow-and-steady approach that works so well in Union City.

What do these effective school systems have in common? Core principles.

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·        They put the needs of students, not the preferences of the staff, at the center of decision making.

·        They start early by investing in quality preschool.

·        They rely on a rigorous, consistent, and integrated curriculum.

·        They make extensive use of data to diagnose problems and pinpoint what’s required to solve them.

·        They build a culture that combines high expectations with respect and a “we can do it” emphasis on the positive.

·        They value stability and avoid political drama.

·        They are continuously improving—planning, doing, reviewing—turning a system comprised of schools into a school system.

The public schools in Montgomery County, which borders Washington, D.C., to the north, are blessed with generous funding, but there the similarities with Union City end. Its enrollment is ten times bigger and infinitely more varied—half the students, mainly white and Asian, come from privilege, while the rest, African American as well as Latino, live on the edge of poverty. The school system is doing well by all of them.

“Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America's Schools.” By David L. Kirp. 272 pages; Oxford University Press; $16.21.

In 2003, only half the district’s black and Hispanic fifth graders passed the state’s reading test; by 2011, 90% did. Fewer than half the district’s kindergarteners could read in 2003; by 2011, more than 90% could read, and students in the red zone were doing nearly as well as those in the green zone. In 2011, 62% of Montgomery County eighth graders passed algebra and enrollment in Advanced Placement classes, another benchmark, had doubled.

The size and diversity of Montgomery County doubtlessly affected Superintendent Jerry Weast’s strategy for improvement. Still, it followed much the same course as Union City: setting high expectations for its students; sticking to its long-term goals; developing a uniform curriculum; expanding prekindergarten (“it’s at the top of my list of priorities,” Weast tells me); emphasizing early reading; strengthening ties among teachers, principals, and administrators; and making sophisticated use of data to figure out what kind of help would benefit students and teachers the most. And as in Union City, the approach worked.

In 2003 Sanger, a small rural district in California’s Central Valley, was labeled a “failing” school system and put on the state’s watch list, but what a difference a decade can make. Sanger now ranks among the top half of California districts in reading and math, much higher when compared to school systems with a similar profile. In 2011 78% of the Latino students graduated, placing Sanger among the top 10% of districts nationwide.

As in the other high-performing districts, nothing flashy is happening—just a vigilant focus on student learning. Visit these schools, say researchers Jane David and Joan Talbert, who have spent several years studying Sanger, and you’ll see teachers and principals working together, not operating as independent contractors; principals trained to “lead the learning,” rather than to manage the building; a coherent and uniform curriculum; teachers picking up new skills from coaches and from one another; decisions about what initiatives to introduce based on information that specifies, student by student, what’s needed; and “principal summits,” the equivalent of Union City’s face-to-face meetings, which are designed to set common standards for the schools, gauge each school’s progress, and determine what improvements are needed.

Like Montgomery County, Aldine, Texas dwarfs Union City in size, and its population is considerably more diverse. But the well-off and well-educated families that congregate at the edge of the nation’s capital are nowhere to be seen in this pancake-flat part of the country. This is Houston’s poor cousin—the per capita income, $12,858 in 2010, is barely half the statewide average—an unincorporated, census-designated territory without a hub, all strip malls and tract homes.

In the mid-1990s Aldine’s schools were a disaster area. State achievement tests showed that many high school students could barely read or write, and local employers complained that the graduates lacked the skills needed for skilled jobs. In Aldine, as other poor communities, families may move as often as three or four times in a single year; to make sure that these transient students don’t become hopelessly confused, every school needs to teach essentially the same material at the same time.

Just as Union City did, it relied on its own, bringing its best teachers together. They laid out what, for example, every second grader should be expected to know in math, and to assure continuity those expectations were shared with the first- and third-grade teams as well. Hundreds of teachers, working over a single feverish summer, produced a K–12 week-by-week blueprint that faithfully tracked the state standards. Some teachers initially disliked the new approach, the superintendent acknowledges, regarding it as too constricting. “But after the first year, they saw that all children truly had access to the complete curriculum, and our test scores reflected that. We became a Recognized School District in one year. Recognized—that is an honor in the state of Texas. What happened then is teachers were willing to do even more.”

The bottom line is simple enough—running an exemplary school system doesn’t demand heroes or heroics, just hard and steady work. Stick to your knitting, as the saying goes, stay with what’s been proven to make a difference and don’t be tempted by every trendy idea that comes along.

Meaningful reforms are hard to secure and still harder to maintain. So far, Union City and the other high-performing districts that we’ve been looking at have managed to accomplish this feat, and they have a lot to teach the rest of the nation. But even in those places, determining what it takes to do even better is an endless task.

Reprinted from Improbable Scholars by David L. Kirp with permission from Oxford University Press USA. Copyright 2013 by David L. Kirp.