Sunday, February 10, 2013

So crazy it just—worked already

A truly inspiring education story in today's Times, from Union City, New Jersey, teaser for a forthcoming book by David L. Kirp (Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America's Schools, to be released this April).

It's about one of those districts that seems to be doomed by factors entirely outside a superintendant's control—
a poor community with an unemployment rate 60 percent higher than the national average. Three-quarters of the students live in homes where only Spanish is spoken. A quarter are thought to be undocumented, living in fear of deportation. [jump]

But because of a comprehensive program developed over the last 25 years, from near-universal pre-K to literature seminars in high school, it looks very different:
From third grade through high school, students’ achievement scores now approximate the statewide average. What’s more, in 2011, Union City boasted a high school graduation rate of 89.5 percent — roughly 10 percentage points higher than the national average. Last year, 75 percent of Union City graduates enrolled in college, with top students winning scholarships to the Ivies.
And yet it hasn't achieved this by becoming a factory for the production of test scores:
It hasn’t followed the herd by closing “underperforming” schools or giving the boot to hordes of teachers. No Teach for America recruits toil in its classrooms, and there are no charter schools....
Nor, it might be added, did it divide the big high school into imitation charter schools so they could fire the Russian teacher and the track coach and hire more principals and assistant principals. What did it do?
To any educator with a pulse, this game plan sounds so old-school obvious that it verges on platitude.
Eugenio Maria de Hostos Center for Early Childhood Education.
They did, honestly, what teachers have been begging them to do for decades.
The district’s best educators were asked to design a curriculum based on evidence, not hunch.
There's nothing wrong with quantified data—indeed, it's necessary—but you mustn't confuse it, as the Rhees and Duncans do, with reality, and it has to be, as most of theirs isn't, reliable. (Did you see Rhee on the Daily Show last week, explaining that she knew her data was garbage, but gee, you have to go to war with the data you've got, not with the data you might wish to have, you know?)
Learning by doing replaced learning by rote.
Students who have studied how to take the tests don't actually know the material, they just know how to look as if they do; whereas students who have learned the material and ignored the test will do fine on the test anyway.
Parents were enlisted in the cause. Teachers were urged to work together, the superstars mentoring the stragglers and coaches recruited to add expertise.
Collaboration is hard to achieve when you've got a two-way race to the top and the bottom, where the superstars are moving to hipster Hoboken on their merit pay while the principal gets brownie points by denying tenure to the stragglers and eventually dumping them and you've got a staff turnover rate of 20% and more. That's an appealing strategy to "leaders" who like to make "tough decisions", like punishing Greece for borrowing from German and French banks, but it doesn't improve the situation. And guess what? Money does.
That these schools are generously financed clearly makes a difference — not every community will decide to pay for two years of prekindergarten.
Doesn't mean you should drop it on the school from a helicopter (with Greece that could be a good idea). Spend that money carefully—above all don't give a cut to rent-seeking charter school managers—but it has to be spent.
Union City High School class of 2011. Photo by Doug Bauman/The Jersey Journal.

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