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.
*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