On Political Books

July/ August 2013 Union City Blues

How a poor New Jersey town and its teacher’s unions turned around its schools.

By Richard D. Kahlenberg

Significant as Montgomery County’s “red zone” approach has been, Kirp fails to discuss a far more effective educational strategy employed by the county. Under an inclusionary zoning initiative, public housing units are made available to low-income families throughout Montgomery County, in the affluent green zone as well as the working-class red zone. An important 2010 Century Foundation report by RAND Corporation’s Heather Schwartz found that low-income elementary school students whose families were randomly assigned to housing units in the green zone and attended green zone schools had far more significant achievement gains than those assigned to red zone neighborhoods and schools—even though students in the latter group were showered with extra financial resources and did pretty well.

The omission of integration strategies is surprising, because in other contexts Kirp has written powerfully about the benefits of housing and school integration. In a 2012 New York Times article, for example, Kirp wrote, “The experience of an integrated education made all the difference in the lives of black children—and in the lives of their children as well.” Given legal constraints on using race in student assignment imposed by the Supreme Court, more than eighty school districts now pursue integration by socioeconomic status, an approach that not only raises student achievement but also allows low-income students access to the kind of middle-class social networks that are powerful determinants of employment.

Despite this lapse, Kirp is to be credited with providing critical balance to our education debates. While much ink has appropriately been spilled on the success of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools, Union City has done something in many ways even more impressive: taking low-income children who happen to live in a jurisdiction and helping them make dramatic achievement gains. (The one time KIPP tried to take over a regular public school population, in Denver, Colorado, it failed.)

Like the KIPP approach, the Union City strategy involves large amounts of money, which makes it less attractive to policymakers than getting tough with teachers and their elected union representatives. But as Improbable Scholars makes clear, the success in Union City suggests that money spent on effective educational strategies is likely to pay substantial dividends for years to come.

Buy this book from Amazon and support Washington Monthly: Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools

Richard D. Kahlenberg , a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, is the author of "All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools Through Public School Choice" and the editor of "The Future of School Integration: Socioeconomic Diversity as an Education Reform Strategy."