This article was originally published in the 2013 edition of the Continuing Higher Education Review.

Why should those of us in higher education pay attention to what goes on in schools like Washington Elementary in Union City, New Jersey? First, 55.5 million students are enrolled in 100,000 public schools across the US (all statistics are from the book), and tens of millions of those students will eventually make it to college and beyond. Second, as a school with a predominantly Latino student body (90 percent), anyone in education should be aware of the changing American demographics and its linguistic and cultural implications. Third, as taxpayers, we need to know that the funding for public education is being managed responsibly. Finally, the material (and perhaps moral) success of a nation correlates with its educational prowess, and as measured by the percentage of college graduates, the United States has fallen from first to 16th among nations (p. 7). So while it may be tempting to dream about global markets and the promises of massive open online courses, the reality is that what is happening in urban and suburban public schools should be of equal if not greater import.

The last time David L. Kirp appeared in the pages of this journal, it was in the form of a chapter from Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education (Harvard University Press 2003). Since then, Kirp has focused his attention on early childhood education in such books as The Sandbox Investment: The Preschool Movement and Kids-first Politics (Harvard University Press 2007) and Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Transforming Children’s Lives (Public Affairs 2011). Kirp’s focus has widened in Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools (Oxford University Press 2013) to cover the entirety of a school system in Union City, New Jersey.

Practicing embedded journalism, Kirp spent more than a year on the front lines of public school education, sitting in on classes and teachers’ planning meetings, interviewing administrators and politicians, and getting to know students, teachers, principals, and the mayor of Union City. And despite the favorable bias of the title, Kirp has a clear-eyed view of people and events, bestowing both praise and criticism as he describes one school system’s efforts to provide a quality education in an unpromising setting.

How unpromising? Only 13 percent of Union City’s residents have a college degree and more than 40 percent have no high school diploma. The largely Latino community is a mix of longer-established émigrés from Cuba and more recently from the Dominican Republic, the Caribbean and Mexico, and Central and South America. At Washington Elementary School, whose students Kirp tracked throughout the 2010 school year, nine out of 10 students receive subsidized meals, three out of four speak Spanish at home, and a similar number are labeled “at risk.” The majority of faculty and administrators are local and locally educated, having received their degrees from institutions such as Jersey City State, Saint Peters, Fairleigh Dickinson, and exceptionally Rutgers.

And yet “from third grade through high school, Union City students’ scores on the state’s achievement tests approximate the New Jersey averages” (p. 8). Nine out of ten students graduated—fifteen percent higher than the national average—and sixty percent go on to college. In other words, in spite of myriad obstacles, these students compare favorably to those from the suburbs, a result as improbable as it is inspiring.

From the first chapter, Kirp’s narrative switches easily between describing the realities of the classroom to research-based analyses of why things work (or don’t). A description of a third-grade teacher’s language lesson, where Alina Bossbaly tells her students, “Don’t just memorize the words, … incorporate them into your writing” (p. 26) is followed by an explanation of why this is important:

Students don’t learn “simply because their teacher gives a lecture or assigns reading, writes sociologist David Cohen. “Most need explanation, demonstration and opportunities to apply what they are learning. They need help trying out and revising their formulations, chances to try again, and opportunities to apply what they learn in new situations.” That’s the nub of Alina’s classroom philosophy. (p. 27)

This kind of back-and-forth between what goes on in the classroom and the theories that underlie activities and approaches makes for easy reading, as do the author’s own judgments, and the liberal use of direct quotes enlivens the book through the final chapter, where Kirp talks about “what Union City can teach America.”

During the time that he spent on site, the author developed close relationships with one third-grade class at Washington Elementary, whose progress he followed from their first day at school through the state tests (New Jersey ASK) in May and the final celebratory school assembly in June. Along the way he also got to look at the workings of the elementary school, the school system, the new $180 million high school, and the politics of Union City and the state. Each venue offers an opportunity to address complex issues, such as the impact of standardized testing on students and teachers; the difficulty of implementing lasting educational reform; the importance of preschooling to individuals and to a school system; the interplay of politics and education; the precariousness of progress.

There is no doubt about the success of the Union City school system, and Kirp is able to explain its improbable results: dedicated staff—teachers, aides, and administrators—who come from the community, understand the needs of their students, and know or are willing to learn the best ways to develop their students; a homogenous Latino population with a high level of trust and community connectedness; a strong mayor whose commitment to the city includes funding for schools. What makes it work, as shown by test results and graduation rates as well as the growth of individuals, is a system-wide effort to go forward and to maintain that momentum. It helps that Union City can spend $18,000 per student and use that money for universal preschool, smaller classes, bilingual education, and technology, but “money does not assure good outcomes” (p. 203). And while Kirp admires teachers like Alina Bossbaly, principals like Les Hanna and John Bennetti, and administrators like Sandy Sanger and Silvia Abbato, his praise is for the culture of the organization: “the system is the star” (Malcolm Gladwell quote, p. 89).

In his concluding chapter, Kirp cites other improbably successful school systems (Montgomery County, Maryland; Sanger, California; Aldine, Texas) and draws up a list of core principles for effectiveness (p. 209):

  • Put the needs of students at the center of decision-making.
  • Invest in quality preschool.
  • Develop a rigorous, consistent, and integrated curriculum
  • Use data extensively to diagnose problems and to pinpoint solutions.
  • Build a culture of high expectations, respect, and positiveness.
  • Embrace stability and avoid political drama.
  • Continuously improve—plan, do, and review—to turn a system of schools into a school system.

Kirp is equally explicit about what does not work, taking to task Joe Clark, Michelle Rhee, and Joel Klein not only for their rigid, disciplinary approaches, but also for the efficacy of their results, calling into question whether their aggressive and confrontational initiatives led to improvements.

The messages that Kirp brings home are that when it comes to public education, change is incremental, meaningful reform is hard to implement, progress can be undermined, and securing gains is a constant task. But “extraordinary feats can be accomplished in a deceptively ordinary school district such as Union City, New Jersey” (p. 217). The journey from ABCs to BA is a long one, but in documenting the success of the Union City school system, Improbable Scholars conveys a message of hope.


(c) 2013 Wayne Ishikawa, Associate Editor, Continuing Higher Education Review, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA

This article was originally published in the 2013 edition of the Continuing Higher Education Review.