Back to School, Back to War? A Review of David Kirp’s Improbable Scholars
David Kirp, Improbable Scholars (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
If the spring lightly turns a young man’s fancy to thoughts of love, August turns his mind—and everyone else’s—back to school. And things are bad at school this year. If we’re not sequestering away education from low-income students, we’re having debates over whether educational leaders with whom we disagree are “loathsome” enough to belong “in a special place in hell.” Or, heck, we’re worrying that the new Common Core State Standards are part of the UN’s Agenda-21-driven plot to “Sovietize” American education.
There’s no shortage of dire statistics about the current state of American education. Only one-third of fourth graders are reading on or above grade level. Students who read below grade level by the end of first grade have only a 10 percent chance of ever catching up. Only one-third of American eighth graders test at proficient or above in math.
When things are this bad, it’s easier to point fingers than to offer solutions. And that’s what we do. Welcome to The Education Wars.
David Kirp’s Improbable Scholars admirably resists that tendency. While Kirp spends considerable time identifying and criticizing his villains—Teach For America corps members, No Child Left Behind, Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, etc—the bulk of his work is constructive. Kirp is determined to offer an alternative vision for remaking struggling American schools and districts.
His alternative takes its bearings from the schools in Union City, New Jersey, a mid-sized suburb twenty miles from Manhattan. While the district is hardly analogous to an urban school system—e.g. Detroit, the District of Columbia, or nearby New York City—its demographics still present considerable challenges for educators. Over 90% of Union City’s students qualify for free or reduced lunch benefits. Fully 96% of students are Latinos, and 35% of students have only “limited proficiency in English.”
These—and related statistics—are what make the success of Union City’s scholars so improbable. A great many education policy analysts believe that such demographics are inflexible destiny. Yet Union City’s students are far outpacing expectations. Kirp puts it bluntly:
From third grade through high school, Union City students’ scores on the state’s achievement tests approximate the New Jersey averages. You read that right—these youngsters, despite their hard knock lives, compete with their suburban cousins in reading, writing, and math…What’s more, in 2011 89.4% of the students graduated—that’s 15% higher than the national average.
Far too many American school systems face similar challenges and slump to embarrassing results. What’s Union City doing differently?
District leaders have invested heavily in early education—especially PreK. Educators worked hard to develop a rigorous curriculum designed to get the best from their students. The mayor sets high expectations for the schools but also knows how to grease the statehouse wheels in search of extra funding. These additional resources are incorporated into long-term plans in pursuit of sustainable successes. Squabbles between adults are usually secondary: students come first. Hard-charging leaders atop the town’s political and educational systems pick similarly devoted colleagues and foster a collaborative culture of excellence. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, “they make extensive use of data…[and] are continuously improving—planning, doing, reviewing—turning a system comprised of schools into a school system.”
Sadly, this comprehensive approach makes Union City the exception, rather than the rule, in American education. Equally sadly, Kirp’s narrative is similarly unique in the world of education policy debates.
Too often, education wonks latch onto monistic solutions to complicated problems. They seize on one—maybe two—of the sensible planks comprising Union City’s approach, and insist that it has the potential to save American education. In stark, admirable contrast, Improbable Scholars makes clear that there’s no magic catalyst lurking behind Union City’s impressive performance. The key, if indeed it is a singular “key,” consists of thoughtful, comprehensive reforms to the entire system—and the broader district culture.
Kirp resists such reductionism, and it dramatically improves his analysis. He goes out of his way to connect each of Union City’s reforms to the whole—education research, shifting community dynamics and demographics, institutional limits, and more. This holistic approach makes Kirp’s bigger point more compelling. If nothing else, he insists, Union City’s experience shows that there is no easy “blueprint” for remaking a school district. Reformers who want “the four or eight or twelve steps we have to take” to solve our education problems “are on a fool’s errand.” Reforms need to be comprehensive, interconnected, and carefully considered within a community’s particular context.
Improbable Scholars is not without internal tensions. At times, Kirp seems to downplay evidence from his time in Union City that would upset the crispness of his thesis.
For instance, Kirp worries that education reformers like Klein are too aggressive to blame individual teachers and school leaders for problems beyond their control. He decries test-based accountability measures. He argues that this approach cannot inspire better from educators—it can only frighten. Throughout his narrative, however, Kirp identifies problem individuals who fall far short of meeting their students’ needs. For the story Kirp offers here, these educators cannot be dismissed for their performance—they must be tolerated until the problem goes away. The 4th grade teacher whose boring lectures undercut the the dynamic 3rd grade teachers’ hard work and repeatedly lead to low test scores? She gets shuttled down to teach 2nd grade. The obnoxious assistant principal undercutting the school’s team culture? He retires. The nostalgic, athletics-obsessed principal of the glitzy new high school? He delegates academic duties to an assistant principal and eventually retires.
It’s not that Kirp is blind to the problem. “For the sake of the students,” Kirp writes, “[inept teachers] should be fired, but the job security rules in the teachers union contract make dismissal nearly impossible…This is maddening—inexcusable, really, because it puts the adults’ priorities above the kids’ needs.” The same goes for the high school principal. Kirp asks, “With the old guard still firmly in place, focused more on gridiron wins and losses than teaching and learning, just how much can [committed educators] realistically accomplish?” Nonetheless, he presents Union City as a place where tough, discomforting decisions about inept teachers and administrators never have to happen. In his telling, incompetence is present and identified—and then largely tolerated.
This is related to a deeper tension in Kirp’s work. Throughout Improbable Scholars, Kirp argues that Union City’s steady, collaborative approach outperforms districts (as well as schools and classrooms) that opt instead for transformational leadership. For instance, he contrasts Union City’s systematic approach with Trenton’s (unsuccessful) embrace of the “Great Leader Theory.”
Kirp has Klein, Rhee, and idealistic Teach For America corps members in mind, but his narrative suggests that Union City’s schools floundered until they found effective leadership at all levels of the system. Kirp’s descriptions of the difference-maker certainly sound charismatic in the Klein/Rhee mold: “Fred Carrigg, wiry and tightly wound, is usually smarter and more knowledgeable, certainly more self-confident, than anyone else in the room…[He] tosses off ideas like the New England Patriots’ Tom Brady throws touchdown passes.” There’s more: Carrigg’s district quarterbacking is ably assisted by “Gordon MacInnes, the strong-willed state official whose job was to give teeth to [a New Jersey Supreme Court PreK ruling].” Careful readers will suspect that Kirp’s real objection has little to do with strong education leadership and more to do with the substance of policies Rhee and Klein have come to represent.
These policies lurk just offstage through most of Improbable Scholars. Kirp’s focus on cautiously adjusting schools and districts is consciously designed to contrast with the “no excuses” model. While Kirp is right to urge stable, sustainable improvement over wild experimentation, it’s not entirely clear that these are the only available choices. Kirp is well aware that incremental progress is inadequate to the depth of the problems that low-income American students face. When a Union City principal calls his school’s first year a “dress rehearsal,” Kirp accuses him of “seemingly forgetting that for nearly 600 students it was a live performance.” It’s a good zinger, but one that seems in tension with the book’s broader narrative. Indeed, later on, Kirp is considerably gentler with struggling administrators at Union City’s new high school.
These tensions should not be overstated. Like any book that engages seriously with controversial education policies (and some of the hyper-controversial people who implement them) Improbable Scholars necessarily jumbles some of the customary categories. Purity is the province of the perpetual critic, and Kirp deserves praise for choosing a tougher, more constructive path.