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

Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools
by David L. Kirp
Oxford University Press, 262 pp.


If you believe that education can only be reformed by center-right business notions—that privately run nonunion charters will outperform public schools; that teachers need to be goaded into doing a good job—David Kirp is here to tell you that absolutely the opposite is true. Generous funding, tied to a rigorous and rich curriculum, with testing as a diagnostic tool, can produce extraordinary results. Kirp, a professor at the University of California Berkeley who has written extensively about education for decades, is most recently the author of Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools, a beautifully rendered account of the schools of Union City, New Jersey. Kirp spent the entire 2010-2011 academic year visiting classrooms in Union City, a low-income, mostly Latino school district of 12,000 students, located five minutes from the gleaming towers of Manhattan. His story is written with the empathy that characterizes Jonathan Kozol’s books on urban education, but with a far more hopeful message.

Kirp quickly falls in love with the children he studies, a group that includes many undocumented students who face difficult home lives. “Be my father!” one boy, Joaquin, cries out one day, a reminder that Joaquin’s father has been gone for two years. Another boy, Andres, calls out, “Be my father.” Writes Kirp, “That’s harder for me to hear because Andres is in fact living with his father.” And when Kirp goes to Paris for Thanksgiving, a boy named Tomás asks, “Can you return? Do you have papers?”—an indication of the fragile lives these children are living.

Nationally, high-poverty schools are twenty-two times less likely to be high achieving than middle-class schools. That was generally the case with the Union City school district, which ranked next to last in the state in 1989, Kirp notes, sparking the mordant response, “Thank God for Camden!”

But today the situation could hardly be more different. Union City students, overwhelmingly low income and Latino, score at roughly the New Jersey average in reading and math from third grade through high school—this in a state where scores are consistently among the very best in the nation. The graduation rate is 89.4 percent, compared with about 70 percent nationally. Union City High School, according to the American Institutes for Research, ranks among the top 12 percent nationally, and sends students to top colleges.

What happened to turn around an entire high-poverty district like Union City? Generous funding, for one thing. Union City is the beneficiary of a series of New Jersey Supreme Court rulings, including one in 2011 that decreed that the state would have to rescind budget cuts and spend an extra $500 million in impoverished school districts. Among the extras this money bought was a high-quality preschool program. Beginning at age three, students in New Jersey’s high-poverty school districts are entitled to receive free preschool, six hours a day and 245 days a year, taught by teachers with college degrees in small classes. Although the program is not compulsory, about 90 percent of Union City children participate.

Many high-poverty New Jersey districts got this extra funding but continue to fail, while Union City students have flourished. Trenton, for example, embraced what Kirp calls “the Great Leader Theory,” hoping that superstar principals would jump-start individual schools, but has had little success. Union City, instead, pursued system-wide reform, with a number of key elements. The district adopted a consistent curriculum across classrooms, with a relentless focus on early reading and expanding the vocabulary of students. Tests are used as diagnostic tools, rather than to punish, and every new teacher gets a mentor.

In a district where students come from a number of foreign countries, the Union City schools also do the important work of instilling a strong sense of American identity. At an end-of-year school ceremony, children hoist flags from more than fifty countries, says Kirp. A roar goes up for the Dominican Republic flag, but the “longest, loudest cheer is heard when the flag of the United States, their new homeland, is unfurled.”

Kirp is emphatic in noting that Union City achieved its success by hewing to fundamentals. There are no charter schools in Union City. And while teacher’s unions have come under fire for much of what ails public education, Kirp says, Union City’s teachers are part of a strong union, as are other teachers in New Jersey’s highly ranked schools.

Of course, Union City schools are not immune from national education policy. Kirp is concerned that the No Child Left Behind Act causes teachers to skip interesting lessons like plant experiments because science is not among the tested subjects in elementary school. He also worries when teachers provide extra learning sessions only for the “cusp” kids—those just within reach of passing the tests.

To his credit, Kirp does not join the militant anti-testing crowd. “High-stakes exams contributed to making Union City’s schools better,” he writes; if used properly, to identify areas for student improvement, “testing can be a force for good, especially for the have-less kids on whom schools have too often given up.” Unlike many state tests, New Jersey’s assessments measure students’ critical thinking skills rather than just their ability to memorize material. “Teaching to this kind of test means readying students to become problem-solvers,” notes Kirp.

Skeptics will likely ask whether Union City’s success can be replicated in high-poverty districts elsewhere, given the district’s relatively small size. Likewise, as Kirp points out, sociologist Anthony Bryk has found that Latino schools are often an exception to the “straight-line connection between poor neighborhoods and failing schools.” Trust levels are higher in Latino schools, Bryk found, and “Latino neighborhoods tend to have significantly more social capital and neighborhood organizations” than other poor neighborhoods. Would Union City’s programs work with African American students, who continue to bear the legacy of the nation’s most egregious forms of discrimination?

Yes, says Kirp, in places like Montgomery County, Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C., for example, which educates ten times as many students as Union City. Montgomery County, which includes wealthy white areas alongside more diverse and low-income communities, has devoted extra funds to lower-income “red zone” schools than to the wealthier “green zone” schools—for such interventions as reduced class size and extended learning time. The approach has worked. Kirp writes, “In 2003, only half the district’s black and Hispanic fifth graders passed the state’s reading test; by 2011, 90% did.”

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.

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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."