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Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America's Schools 1st Edition

4.4 out of 5 stars 41 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0199987498
ISBN-10: 0199987491
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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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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (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 (41 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #475,234 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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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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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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
David Kirp writes a highly readable, sensible book that makes the case for investing in public schools and supporting solid tried-and-true educational improvement programs and the administrators who lead them. His book focuses on a long term observational study he undertook in one small urban school district-- Union City, NJ. Over many chapters he details how Union City is succeeding in improving learning for the highly impoverished students who live there, by building its program from a strong pre-school program on up. The city has a strong bond between the mayor and the schools; the "politics" of the school system are there for all to see, but the leaders of the city and the school use the political process to focus on the best interests of the students.

Kirp shows how the district is succeeding, even in the face of a very strong teachers' union and very rigid tenure rules. Some reforms don't work out, but people don't get fired for trying, as long as they are willing to keep working for the goal of improving student learning.

In the last few chapters, Kirp describes other districts that are quite different from Union City, but are succeeding using some of the same principles: keeping children's learning as the focus, not letting a focus on test score improvement supplant genuine reforms of the curriculum and instruction, and supporting good leaders over the long term. District school boards that regularly fire school leaders for failure to find a quick fix, or otherwise support high turnover in teacher and administrator ranks are doomed to repeated failures.
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