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Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America's Schools Hardcover – April 1, 2013


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (April 1, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199987491
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199987498
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 1 x 6.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (34 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #60,317 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Guest Review by "Publishers Weekly"

Too many American public school students, especially poor and minority students, lack basic reading and math proficiency and are educated by uninspired teachers. What to do? To find out, UC Berkeley education and public policy expert David Kirp spent a year at in classrooms in a school district in Union City, N.J., that, improbably, works very well, despite its 20% poverty rate and substantial immigrant population. Among the keys to success are mutual help among teachers through mentoring, and more informal support among students through learning centers, as well as a sophisticated bilingual program. Kirp devotes a chapter to Union City’s preschools, which are available to all and focus on pre-K language development skills. Particularly on the high school level, Union City isn’t immune to the bane of contemporary education, “teaching to the [state proficiency] test.” However, Kirp shows how administrators and teachers mine test data to benchmark and help advance students’ progress, so that 89% of those who begin high school graduate compared with 74% nationally. The school system also benefits from a mayor who doubles as a state senator and has secured extra state education funding. This impressive book doesn’t provide a blueprint, but the author describes seven guiding principles for how other school systems can achieve sustained educational success.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* There are no quick fixes is the thoroughly researched and pragmatic counsel offered by Kirp, professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, after his year of observing Union City, New Jersey’s public-school system. Most of Union City’s at-risk students come from poor Latino immigrant families, who experience the disruptions and trauma associated with inner-city conditions. Yet Union City students achieve on a par with their suburban peers. How? Through the district’s generation-long adherence to principles that include high-quality, full-day preschool beginning with three-year-olds; progressive (and joyful) classroom practices; coaching for new teachers; and administrators who use data not to punish teachers but to improve student learning. Kirp’s warm portraits of talented teachers, squirmy students, and visionary leaders prepare the ground for his indictment of today’s soulless test-taking culture and illustrate the effectiveness of Union City’s plan-do-review approach to systemwide ­policymaking, which contrasts starkly with no excuses turnaround strategies touted by celebrity school reformers. While remarkable, Union City is not unique. Kirp profiles diverse districts that also buck the odds for at-risk students by following similar long-term plans. What does not work, Kirp admonishes, is leading by intimidation, exalting market solutions, and impatient school boards adopting policies that result in constant churn—the enemy of success. Slow and steady really does win the race. --Carolyn Saper

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Customer Reviews

I found this book to be well written and beautifully drawn.
Brian Stanley
This is an inspiring book and one of the most hopeful books I've read in a long, long time.
Janice W. Resseger
The factors of success were collaboration, hard work, and good uses of resources.
Mary M. Kirsch

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

25 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Ann Bailey Lynn on March 26, 2013
Format: Hardcover
I've been teaching in a school similar to Washington Elementary for ten years. It's rare these days to read something in education that makes you proud to be a teacher, and proud of the work we do day in and day out as teachers. This book isn't about a white knight or one teacher coming to save the poor kids, it's not about the evil teachers and how one politician came in to save the day, it's not about teachers who are ignoring the system and doing their own thing. It's about the ins and outs of teaching and all of the players involved in making sure children get an excellent education. This book makes me proud of not just being a teacher, but of my whole profession.
And that's not something I've said or written in a very, very long time.
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Janice W. Resseger on March 28, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I've been up late recently reading Berkeley professor, David Kirp's new book about school reform in Union City, New Jersey: Improbable Scholars: the Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America's Schools (Oxford University Press, 2013). "Union City ranks sixty-first nationwide in its concentrated poverty.... It's also the nation's most crowded municipality." Virtually all students are Latino-Latina, many recent arrivals and a sizeable percentage English language learners. And yet, teachers, administrators, and students are all working hard--and strategically. Test scores reflect a transformation in the district in recent years.

Kirp confronts the public education rhetoric war directly. He spent a year in Union City immersed in classrooms and the way the district works, and he shows us a school system where the emphasis is on improving instruction, connecting with and supporting each student, experimenting with bilingual education, supporting teachers--many of whom grew up in this school district, and focusing way beyond the requirements of the New Jersey ASK standardized test. An academic, Kirp also presents the research that supports reforms being implemented in Union City.

An important piece of the puzzle Kirp describes is the universal pre-school New Jersey has been providing for some time in its 31 Abbott districts, the poorest school districts in the state, where opportunity to learn including universal preschool was instituted as part of the remedy in Abbott v. Burke, probably the nation's longest running and most successful school finance litigation. (In recent years there has been pressure at the state level to reduce investment in the Abbott districts, a potential threat to the progress this book describes.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By S. Rabinovici on April 25, 2013
Format: Hardcover
So far as I'm concerned, David Kirp is a national treasure. I observed his analytical skill and effort on behalf of improving public policies for children while I studied for my PhD at UC Berkeley. I now use his editorials and excerpts from this book in the classes I teach in Public Policy at Mills College. In particular, his careful efforts to document, unpack, and de-mystify real life success stories cut through the pervasive cynicism and fatalism that prevent forward progress on educational reform. It's not that we lack for good ideas--it's just the lack of political will and visionary leadership (on the micro and macro scale) that stand in our way. My hope is that the bottom up strategies portrayed in this book will both inspire (and embarrass) us into action--if these communities can make their kids the priority, there's no reason left why each of us can't join them in doing so in our own available ways and means.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Steven A. Peterson TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on January 11, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
We all know--from standardized scores--that American students in K-12 compare indifferently with students from other countries. Much work has been done to identify why American scores often tend to be mediocre in terms of international leaders.

This book uses a case study--of the Union City, NJ school district--to determine what factors may be at play in students in this poor district doing better than anticipated. Once a very poorly performing school district, student performance improved greatly.

How? The book addresses this in several ways, including describing the work that certain teachers do, the role played by administrators, and so on. Tools included early childhood education, student-centered teaching, and so on.

One central point: No au courant reform suggestions need apply in this district. Too many reform advocates begin with a prior notions as to what will work, and do not use data to identify what works and what doesn't.

On the other hand, this book is a case study, with sample size=1. It is hard to generalize from a case study, so one should not say "Eureka, we have found the cure." What happened in this city and school district may features elements that would not translate well elsewhere.

At any rate, a good book for generating ideas about what works and what might not be so effective.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Loyd E. Eskildson HALL OF FAME on January 10, 2015
Format: Hardcover
Kirp spent a year observing the schools in Union City as background for the book. Based upon his observations, he claims Union City offers 'a playbook for reform that will dramatically change our approach to reviving public education.' Components include a good preschool, support for teachers, parental involvement, high expectations and a demanding curriculum that teaches thinking - not rote memory, and patience. None of the 'reform' prescriptions were utilized, nor did technology play a special role. But Union City's playbook sounds almost identical to what most schools declare they're doing - eg. his recommendations sound like platitudes.

Kirp claims dramatic improvement in the proportion of pupils meeting standards. Perhaps. However, I've seen too many such claims that were later explained by changes in those standards and/or their 'cut' scores.

Further, the Union City schools aren't outstanding - just average to somewhat above average. In reading, Union City ranked 140th out of 266 districts in New Jersey in the performance of Hispanics at 7th grade. In mathematics, it ranked 69th. Overall, Union City is middling in teaching reading and doesn't even get into the top quartile in math.

His description of some of the teachers sounds like those written about others previously - eg. Marva Collins in Chicago, Jaime Escalante in L.A. Yet, we've generally been unable to clone those outstanding teachers, despite decades of trying. And there's also an important difference between Union City and most inner city schools - it has very few blacks (about 5%).

Bottom-Line: If one is going to draw conclusions for dramatically improving America's public schools, at least begin with a district that has outstanding results.
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