Books, Blogs, Ideas: Interview with David Kirp
Author and scholar David Kirp narrates the story of a turnaround, and gives hope to struggling districts.
News flash: running a successful school district is a grind. "It's slow, patient work," says Kirp, author of Improbable Scholars, a riveting examination of the transformation of Union City, New Jersey's schools. "There are no silver bullets, no Superman, no Michelle Rhee." There's no resting on your laurels, says Kirp, just continuous hard work fueled by collaboration.
Q | Is there something about Union City that allowed it to soar the way it did-the unique sense of community, the activist mayor?
A | All the things you mention, plus the fact that it's relatively small, that parents are engaged-those are all pluses. The minuses are that 75 percent of kids are coming from homes where Spanish is the home language. You've got insularity, which is both a good and a bad thing.
Union City and the other turnaround districts I talk about have all been stable. That's key. You can vary the curriculum. Some places have more money. But if you don't have stable leadership, I don't care how good the rest of it is, you're not going to have a successful school.
Q | How does a district create a sense of ownership?
A | That is the $64 question. It's trust. It's the building of a culture of collaboration. At Union City High School, when Principal John Bennetti sticks his head into a classroom it's because he's interested in how the teaching is happening, and he will have something useful to say. He's not there to punish. You reward successes and you work to support and improve those who are less successful.
Q | Using the data to improve learning is gospel in Union City. Is true assessment on the radar for many districts?
A | It's on the rhetoric. Here's what happens. Some districts use only the state test, and the results sit in the superintendent's or principal's office. Other districts have developed their own assessments and the same thing happens.
Q | The early ed program in UC is a convincing argument for universal PreK.
A | If this were 1950, we'd be having the same conversation about kindergarten. In the State of the State addresses in 2013, 27 governors included a discussion of preschool, and 14 of them were Republicans. The danger is not that PreK is not going to spread. It is. The danger is that we're going to try to do it on the cheap.
Q | Will it take a failing grade to make other districts see the wisdom of slow-immersion bilingual programs?
A | It's hard to implement, it demands certain skills of teachers, and it's expensive—you can't do it in a large class. But it's expensive only if you compare it with the cost of wastebasketing a whole generation. We get to choose.
Q | Can you talk about the power of collegiality?
A | The notion that you evaluate individual teachers is troubling because it sets teachers in competition with one another. You want teachers to work across the third grade, you want the science teachers to work together. If I was designing an evaluation system and I wanted to look at kids' improvement, I would look at the science students, the third graders, not Mary Smith the chemistry teacher.
Q | It's tempting to rail against testing, but it was the threat of a state takeover because of low scores that spurred the reforms at UC.
A | One of the things good testing will do is to set a benchmark against which realistic expectations can be framed.
I love what Montgomery County does, where you've got a panel of teachers and administrators reviewing the work of teachers whose students are consistently doing badly, and showering them with help. If there's improvement they keep working with them; if it's not working out, the teachers leave. The union signed on to this. You invite the union into conversations about education policy. Then what you get is a much more collaborative relationship.
Teachers who can't maintain order or get a concept across shouldn't be teaching. That's something on which reasonable adults should agree. Teachers are professionals and should be treated as professionals. Part of being professionals is setting standards for ourselves.
Review: Improbable Scholars
What do pro basketball coaches and school superintendents have in common? As David Kirp argued in a recent piece on Slate, they're likely to get sacked before they've reached their full potential. Improbable Scholars makes a persuasive argument for the long haul. (NBA coaches will have to find their own golden-tongued persuader.)
The failing district Kirp profiles transformed itself not through a "Superman" or Uber-charters but through the continuous work of school leaders and a strong culture of trust. Through their nose-to-the-grindstone approach, Union City's leaders-and teachers-turned around a district about to be declared dead by the "mandarins in Trenton."
The narrative takes us from star third-grade teacher Alina Bossbaly's Room 210, where she "Bossbaly-izes" her kids with a mix of dulce y duro (sweet and tough), to Washington Elementary, with its gem of a principal, to the high school and district. In the process, we root for Union City-and find hope for a thousand Union Citys across the country.
Dog-Eared Book: What's on your bedside table?
"The most dog-eared book on my shelf is Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point. It's all about how to create ownership and support of ideas so they will tip. As a superintendent who has led several initiatives, it has been a great tool to create the buy-in for the changes needed to help us meet our vision." -Nancy Golden, superintendent, Springfield Public Schools (OR)
"What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy by James Paul Gee. Gee's work drained my highlighter and an entire pad of sticky notes. Harry and Rosemary Wong's The First Days of School has been dethroned as my 'go to' book on education, as Gee expertly crafts a winning metaphor between good game design and good instructional design that doesn't get bogged down with the fads of gamification. He touches on everything from social learning and the importance of identifying zones of proximal development to the many roles both gamers and learners must play, often simultaneously, to be successful within their respective realms." -Ben Rimes, K-12 educational technology coordinator, Mattawan (MI) Consolidated School District
"For public speaking, the book Make Your Point! by Kevin Carroll and Bob Elliott offers a simple, memorable model to help make communication effective. I come back to it whenever I need help thinking through exactly what needs to be said in a public address." -Brian Osborne, superintendent, South Orange-Maplewood (NJ) SD
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