Goldman School of Public Policy - University of California, Berkeley

David Kirp

James D. Marver Professor of Public Policy

Areas of Expertise

  • Children, Youth and Families
  • Education
  • Race & Ethnicity
  • Law
  • Politics
  • Ethics
  • Early Childhood Education
  • Higher Education
  • Community


David L. Kirp, James D. Marver Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, is a former newspaper editor and policy consultant as well as an academic. His interests range widely across policy and politics. In his seventeen books and scores of articles in both the popular press and scholarly journals he has tackled some of America’s biggest social problems, including affordable housing, access to health, gender discrimination and AIDS. His main focus has been on education and children’s policy, from cradle to college and career.

His latest book, Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for American Schools, has received the Outstanding Book of the Year award from the American Education Research Association. It chronicles how a poor urban school district (Union City, New Jersey, four miles and a light year from Times Square) has transported Latino immigrant children, many of them undocumented, into the education mainstream: 90 percent of those youngsters are graduating from high school and 75 percent are going to college. It takes the reader from a third grade classroom to the administrative headquarters, where the crucial if undramatic system-building gets done, and the potent politics of the community. The book also shows how the lessons from this school district can be applied nationwide. As with his other writing, Improbable Scholars is aimed at a broad audience as well as policy-makers and practitioners. In recent months, he has written for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, American Prospect, The Nation, Slate, Daily Beast, San Francisco Chronicle, Huffington Post and New York Daily News and lectured at the National Science Foundation, Center for American Progress, National Institute for Early Education Research, American Federation of Teachers, Economic Policy Institute, Teachers College-Columbia, New School University, University of Virginia, Boston College and NYU.

His work with government agencies and foundations, as well as his teaching and his community activism, address these issues at ground level. Between the 2008 election and the Inauguration, he served on President Obama’s Transition Team. Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Transforming the Lives of Children (Public Affairs 2011) makes a powerful argument for building systems of support that reach from cradle to college and career. Excerpts and opinion pieces appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The American Prospect and The Nation. That book won the National School Board Journal award for the best education book of 2011.

From the beginning of his career, as a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and founding director of the Harvard Center for Law and Education, children’s issues have been David Kirp’s main focus. The Sandbox Investment: The Preschool Movement and Kids-First Politics (Harvard 2007) emerged from his spending several years crisscrossing the country, crouching in prekindergarten classrooms and nurseries across the country and talking with experts in the field. Excerpts appeared in leading newspapers and magazines including the New York Times Sunday Magazine and the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine; opinion pieces ran in the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. It was chosen as a San Francisco Chronicle 2007 “best book” and received the Association of American Publishers Award for Excellence. His account of the market-oriented drift of higher education, Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education (Harvard 2004), received the Council for Advancement and Support of Higher Education’s research award and has been translated into numerous languages.

Long committed to developing a new generation of public leaders, he is a recipient of Berkeley’s Distinguished Teaching Award. He twice received the Gustavus Meyers Human Rights Award, for Learning by Heart: AIDS and America’s Communities and Our Town: Race, Housing and the Soul of Suburbia. He frequently consults with nonprofits and government agencies at the federal, state and local levels. He has also lectured at universities across the country and around the globe, among them Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Brown, NYU, Princeton, Chicago, UC-San Diego, Rutgers, UCLA, New School, Glasgow, Ben Gurion, Wellington, Melbourne, Trento, Oslo, Bergen, ITAM (Mexico), Vigo (Spain) and McGill, and has been a visiting scholar at the Federal Reserve.

David Kirp is a graduate of Amherst College—a former trustee of his alma mater—and Harvard Law School. He serves as a member of the board of Friends of the Children and on the international advisory committee of Escuela Nueva, a Colombia-based nonprofit that in the past quarter-century has brought effective education to nearly 10 million students across Latin America. At the Goldman School of Public Policy at Berkeley, he launched the New Community Fund, to promote greater student diversity, an education and youth policy scholarship and an eponymously-named scholarship.

Recent Speeches in 2013
"Building a System of Supports for Parents," Positive Parenting Program International Conference
"How to Fix Our Schools," Rutgers University (sponsored by Education Law Center and New Jersey Advocates for Children)
“Improbable Scholars and Kids First,” Day-long colloquium, Industrial Areas Foundation
"New Directions In Education Reform, Teachers College, Columbia University
"Uncommon Scholars," New School Center for Urban Affairs
"Technology and Education Reform," National Science Foundation
"Early Education and Later Success: Union City and Beyond," Center for American Progress (cosponsored by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Bellwether Partners)
“Fables to Live By: The Tortoise, the Hare, and Educational Reform,” Boston College
“Back to Basics in Education Policy,” University of Virginia
“The Direction of Education Reform” (with Pedro Noguera), NYU
“Educating the Next Generation,” Google Forum
“From First to Worst—and Back Again? Fixing Norfolk’s Public Schools,” Norfolk Leadership Council and Old Dominion University
“From OK to Good to Great: San Francisco Public School System,”  San Francisco Unified School District “Visioning” Conference

Curriculum Vitae

Download a PDF (163KB, updated 01-22-2013)

Working Papers

  • Invisible Students Bridging the Widest Achievement Gap

    GSPP Working Paper: GSPP10-003 (April 2010)

    African-American boys have long fared worse in school. This paper documents this achievement gap, then assesses a number of evidence-based strategies that hold promise of bridging that gap. Those strategies range from high-quality early education and skill-building reading programs to mentoring initiatives and interventions that address stereotype vulnerability. Much of the existing research has not isolated the effects on black males, and the paper offers new data that demonstrates those impacts. A sequence of interventions, which begin before kindergarten and continue during college, is recommended.

    Download a PDF (141KB)

Selected Publications

  • Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System a Strategy for America’s Schools

    by David L. Kirp. 2013, Oxford University Press.

    No school district can be all charismatic leaders and super-teachers. It can't start from scratch, and it can't fire all its teachers and principals when students do poorly. Great charter schools can only serve a tiny minority of students. Whether we like it or not, most of our youngsters will continue to be educated in mainstream public schools.

    The good news, as David L. Kirp reveals in Improbable Scholars, is that there's a sensible way to rebuild public education and close the achievement gap for all students. Indeed, this is precisely what's happening in a most unlikely place: Union City, New Jersey, a poor, crowded Latino community just across the Hudson from Manhattan. The school district--once one of the worst in the state--has ignored trendy reforms in favor of proven game-changers like quality early education, a word-soaked curriculum, and hands-on help for teachers. When beneficial new strategies have emerged, like using sophisticated data-crunching to generate pinpoint assessments to help individual students, they have been folded into the mix.

    The results demand that we take notice--from third grade through high school, Union City scores on the high-stakes state tests approximate the statewide average. In other words, these inner-city kids are achieving just as much as their suburban cousins in reading, writing, and math. What's even more impressive, nearly ninety percent of high school students are earning their diplomas and sixty percent of them are going to college. Top students are winning national science awards and full rides at Ivy League universities. These schools are not just good places for poor kids. They are good places for kids, period.

    Improbable Scholars offers a playbook--not a prayer book--for reform that will dramatically change our approach to reviving public education.

  • Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Transforming Children’s Lives and America’s Future

    Kirp, David L. Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Transforming Children's Lives and America's Future. New York: PublicAffairs, 2011.

  • The Sandbox Investment: The Preschool Movement and Kids-first Politics

    Kirp, David L. The Sandbox Investment: The Preschool Movement and Kids-first Politics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2007.

  • Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education

    Kirp, David L. Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2003.

  • Almost Home: America’s Love-Hate Relationship with Community

    Kirp, David L. Almost Home: America's Love-hate Relationship with Community. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2000.

  • Educational Policy and the Law

    Kirp, DavidEducation Policy and the Law. 4th ed. N.p.: Thomson, 2001.

David Kirp Discusses “Improbable Scholars” at Stanford University

David Kirp Discusses “Improbable Scholars” at Stanford University

David Kirp

Event: David Kirp on his 2014 AERA Outstanding Book Award - Improbable Scholars

Date: April 18, 2014 Duration: 85 minutes

David Kirp Discusses “Improbable Scholars” at the City Club of Cleveland

David Kirp Discusses “Improbable Scholars” at the City Club of Cleveland

Professor David Kirp

Date: April 4, 2014 Duration: 57 minutes

David Kirp Speaks on Improbable Scholars in Somerville, MA

David Kirp Speaks on Improbable Scholars in Somerville, MA

David Kirp

Event: Improbable Scholars Talk with author David L. Kirp

Date: March 19, 2014 Duration: 90 minutes

David Krip Speaks on “Improbable Scholars” at Center for American Progress

David Kirp

Event: Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools

Date: April 2, 2013 Duration: 82 minutes

David Kirp Discusses “Improbable Scholars” on C-SPAN2 Book TV

David Kirp

Event: Book Discussion on Improbable Scholars

Date: March 26, 2013 Duration: 68 minutes

Authors@Google: David Kirp

Authors@Google: David Kirp

David Kirp

Date: February 12, 2008 Duration: 56 minutes