Q&A: Lessons for California from New Jersey’s ‘Improbable Scholars’

Kirp wrote his latest book after spending a year observing schools in Union City, N.J.Students in Union City, N.J., get twice the funding of students in California. They attend two years of full-day kindergarten. Recent immigrants to this country are taught initially in their native language.
For all their differences, though, there are also some core similarities with California districts like Sanger, Garden Grove and Long Beach, which author David Kirp identifies in his latest book, among the beat-the-odds districts. Chief among them: a focus on the long view, with a steadfast purpose and longevity in leadership.
Kirp, a professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at University of California, Berkeley, spent a year observing a third-grade class and other schools in Union City, an impoverished town across the Hudson River from New York City. What caught his attention was a patient, systemic approach to improvement that contrasts with the red-hot turnarounds that often scorch teachers and eventually the superintendents who set them in motion. It’s the difference between flash and substance, soufflé and sourdough.
“This is a tale of evolution, not revolution,” Kirp writes in “Improbable Scholars.” “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.”
Kirp sat down with EdSource Today to talk about the new book and about the similarities (attention to data, long-tenured superintendents, collaborative culture, strong unions) and differences (twice the funding, the longer preschool) he found between Union City and other successful districts he visited in California and elsewhere.
Read on for excerpts or click here for a full transcript.
EDSOURCE: Why did you choose Union City?
David Kirp (Photo by John Fensterald)DAVID KIRP: I’d been pointed to Union City. I went and saw the most fantastic early-education program that I’ve encountered, one that I’d be very happy to send my kids to. And, while I was there, decided I’d go randomly look at the K-8 classes in the building that housed the preschool.
I knew that Union City had good test scores. What I saw was some solid teaching, some very good teaching, and a bit of really inspired teaching. I didn’t see the kind of teach-for-the-test drill-and-kill approaches that I despise. I saw hands-on, project-based learning. And I thought, “How is it that the school district got to be as good as this?”
EDSOURCE: You spent a lot of time in two schools, the Washington Elementary School, and also Union City High School.
KIRP: Washington School, and the elementary-school system, in general, have really seen slow and steady improvement since 1989, when the school system was so bad that the state was about to take it over. And what works there: First of all, a lot of the kids have been to the city’s preschools for two years, and they come really well prepared. But a lot don’t, and these are kids, 75 percent of whom are coming from households where Spanish is the language at the dinner table. This is one of the poorest towns in the country. It’s a town where the unemployment rate is 150 percent of the national average. So it’s a system that works, and a school that works because it’s got a very strong program in reading and writing.
From right at the very start, they’re reading really exciting, interesting stuff. They’re learning pronunciation. … And they are writing every day. They’re writing in journals. And they’re integrating the writing and the art and the science and whatever else is on the teacher’s agenda.
EDSOURCE: And if you went to another school within Union City, you would see that?
KIRP: You would see the same thing, and that’s really important. Across the system, the same curriculum, where kids are becoming fluent in their home language, writing and reading as well as speaking, and then are transitioning gradually to English. New Jersey doesn’t have the same ideological blinders as California does in that respect. You’d find the same regular assessment of kids, which is able to pinpoint where the kids are struggling, and so help gets targeted to address those issues.
And the teachers who are struggling get a lot of support. Elsewhere, the accountability folks – and I put that in quotes – really want to punish the teachers whose kids are not progressing enormously rapidly in these tests. Here, the approach is really different. You figure out what teacher is struggling with what kinds of questions, and you really encircle that teacher with help, whether it’s from mentors within the school who have been at it for a long time and know how to teach a particular skill, or whether it’s through collaboration, which all the teachers are doing.
EDSOURCE: You list seven items that are common to good school systems, and use of data is one of them, and you just mentioned that. And also a consistent, integrated curriculum. That’s another element that you (suggest is) a common theme in all good systems.
KIRP: I knew what people would say. They would say, “This is a charming tale. This is a lovely tale. This is an inspiring tale, but” – And the “buts” would be, they spent a lot of money per student; New Jersey is very generous; they have two years of fully-funded preschool because of the landmark court decision; it’s mayor-controlled …
And so I wanted to look at places that were big and little, places that had Latino and African American students and were heterogeneous in their school populations, places that were generously funded, places that were poorly funded, places that had unions, didn’t have unions, had an elected board, had an appointed board. I wanted to find districts that were defying the demographic odds, including, in California, Garden Grove, Long Beach, and the struggling little town of Sanger, just outside of Fresno. I was finding generally the same pattern. What you didn’t find was people picking up on the gimmick of the moment, whatever it was.
EDSOURCE: So you talk about the stability in the system; and it just so happens that, in Union City, they have a strong mayor who appoints the superintendent. The underlying theme is stability and leadership.
KIRP: The one non-negotiable in my list is stability. I don’t care how fabulous a superintendent is. There’s nothing you can do in three years, or fewer than three years, to really build and maintain a system. If you’re a principal, or you’re a teacher in that kind of a churning system, the best thing you can do is to stay out of the limelight and do what you’re doing, because, you know, this great idea isn’t gonna stick, and then there’s gonna be the next great idea.
EDSOURCE: But you also talk about, as an important element, trust. How does that translate to improvement?
KIRP: They’re really related phenomena. … You have to earn it. You have to earn it by showing the people with whom you’re working that you respect them, that you want to treat kids as able to really do whatever it is that’s in their mind to do – that if they really want to get to college, the system will do whatever it can to help them get to college.
EDSOURCE: You know, you talked about creativity and a curriculum that works. At the same time, you have this dichotomy in the book, where, all of a sudden, you’ve got this atmosphere, and then the state test comes up, and you have what you describe as several months of test prepping, and it’s a very different atmosphere.
KIRP: Well, it’s really a complicated dance that these guys perform. I call the chapter “Where fun comes to die.” And then (to be) reborn, because, after the test, they get to go back to what they were doing. It’s a very fine dance.
First of all, the teachers don’t love doing this. They understand why, in the present political and educational climate, those kids have got to do well on those tests. The tests in New Jersey are pretty good. They’re not multiple-choice tests, by and large. A lot of (essays). A lot of writing. All the math problems are word problems. So part of the test prep makes sense, in that what they’re testing are skills that (are) valuable for kids to have. But the teachers are balancing this pressure to get high test scores, which affects everybody.
EDSOURCE: So California is looking to change its funding system, perhaps, and also there’s more money coming into the system. What would you recommend, from what you’ve seen in Union City, that California should establish as priorities?
KIRP: Priority one, two, and three is preschool. We have very modest funding for regular preschools. The average nationally for preschool is now less than $4,000. It is not possible to provide high-quality early education for kids for $4,000, particularly in classrooms in which there’s to be a 10:1 adult-to-child ratio, which is a whole lot different from what you get in K-12. So what did California do? As a back-door way of expanding preschool, it adopted this thing called transitional kindergarten for that group of kids who were too young for kindergarten.
Well, those are the kids who ought to be in preschool. If you go to transitional kindergarten, the rules and regulations set by Sacramento and the Legislature make it kindergarten in a very traditional sense, including the student-teacher ratios in that class. It really is kindergarten. And that’s too bad.
Indeed, the way in which kids are taught in preschool ought to filter up. It’s not that the elementary school teach-to-the-test mentality should filter down.
EDSOURCE: If you were a superintendent looking to sort of replicate, in the long term, not tomorrow, what they’re doing in Union City, where would you start?
KIRP: I’d start at the bottom and build up, which is what Union City did. I’d bring together teachers, the best teachers, to look at the standards and review the available materials in terms of how challenging and exciting and intriguing they are, and how they relate to the new Common Core standards. And I’d have them do the curriculum picking and designing, because that’s one way of building trust. You don’t have some outsider telling you, “You’re not smart enough to do a curriculum. We’re gonna do a curriculum for you.”
And I would be making sure there was time set aside every week for teachers to work together. I’d love to have some money so that I could free up great teachers in the school to spend a few hours during the course of a week working with other teachers while someone was covering their class.
EDSOURCE: But you’re not saying it would have to take 12 years.
KIRP: No. It does not have to take 12 years. You really want to spend time engaging the parents and the community. They are crucial to this story.
None of it requires geniuses to do. All of it is known to any educator with a pulse. And it’s hard to do. You’ve just got to keep at it year after year after year. It really is a story about continuous improvement. It comes right out of the management world.

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