Improbable Scholars: the Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools

This book review was shared by Jan Resseger, Minister for Public Education of the United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries and chair of the National Council of Churches Public Education and Literacy committee.

I was up late last night 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.

9780199987498_p0_v3_s260x420Kirp 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.)

This is an inspiring book and one of the most hopeful books I’ve read in a long, long time.  While it is an entirely secular book, it surely is appropriate reading for the Easter season.  Kirp emphatically rejects the hubris embedded in today’s technocratic school reform where wealthy theorists are content to experiment with shattering neighborhoods and undermining the humanity of committed teachers with econometric Value Added Metric rankings based on students’ standardized test scores, VAM rankings that have sometimes been published in the newspaper.  This is a book about people working every day to build human connections in a place where the public schools have, quite recently, become the heart of the community.

I hope everybody will read this book.  Wouldn’t it be amazing if it became a best seller? Many of the communions of the National Council of Churches are committed to justice in public education, with special attention to expanding access to quality education for the children our society has too often left out.  This is part of the heritage of the Council, whose Governing Board spoke prophetically in a 2010 pastoral letter, An alternative Vision for Public Education: “We… affirm that our society’s provision of public education—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public—while imperfect, is essential for ensuring that all children are served. As a people called to love our neighbors as ourselves, we look for the optimal way to balance the needs of each particular child and family with the need to create a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children.”

If you’ve read it or you want to, comment on the blog to start a discussion, or tweet us @NCCEndPoverty



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