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Banding Together

Union City's Teachers and Administrators Work Together to Improve Student Achievement

Union City's Teachers and Administrators Work Together to Improve Student Achievement

by David L. Kirp

The report of a blue-ribbon commission chaired by Joel Klein, former chancellor of New York City's public schools, and Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state in the administration of President George W. Bush, came as a shocker. U.S. Education Reform and National Security, published in the spring of 2012 and carrying the imprimatur of the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations, ominously concludes that the miseducation of America's students poses an imminent threat to our country's capacity to defend ourselves. “Educational failure puts the United States' future economic prosperity, global position, and physical safety”—physical safety!—“at risk.”1

What can be done to avert this catastrophe? Klein and Rice plump for giving parents more choice about what school their children attend, arguing that charter schools and vouchers will generate needed innovation. The old-line public schools cannot merely be reformed, the report contends: if these institutions are going to do a decent job of educating our kids, a discipline-and-punish regimen of strict accountability is needed. Schools whose students aren't improving at a sufficiently rapid pace should be shuttered. Teachers' livelihoods should depend on how their students fare on high-stakes reading and mathematics tests, with pay raises handed to some and pink slips to others. Teachers should be recruited from among the top colleges, as Teach for America does, rather than being drawn mainly from run-of-the-mill education schools.*

For years, critics have lambasted the public schools as fossilized bureaucracies run by paper-pushers and filled with time-serving teachers preoccupied with their job security, not the lives of their students.

Washington has been delivering a similar, if less bombastic, salvo ever since the No Child Left Behind Act became law in 2002. The Obama administration's $4.35 billion Race to the Top initiative, the crown jewel of its education reform agenda, morphed into NCLB on steroids, as the U.S. Department of Education deployed the carrot of new money to prod the states into expanding charter schools and closing low-performing public schools.2

Look dispassionately at the evidence, and you'll find little justification for the proposition that imposing perform-or-die accountability on teachers or expanding choice for students will cure what ails public education.

NCLB, with its hyperemphasis on the three Rs and its command to close or remake “failing” public schools, was supposed to end what President George W. Bush called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” But a decade later, scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, the nation's report card, have improved only slightly; and poor, black, and Latino students haven't been able to close the achievement gap. What's more, despite the hosannas for charters, the bulk of the research shows that, overall, they don't do a better job than traditional public schools.3                                    

In short, there are no quick fixes, no miracle cures.

But if superstars and clean sweeps can't deliver that, how can the typical school district, filled with ordinary teachers, most of whom grew up nearby, do it? Enter Union City, New Jersey.

Amid the hoopla over choice and charters, the public schools of this poor, densely packed community that is mainly composed of Latino immigrants—four miles and a psychological light year removed from Times Square—point the way toward a more promising and more usable strategy.

A quarter-century ago, Union City's schools were so wretched that state officials threatened to seize control of them. But since then, the situation has been totally reversed. The district now stands as a poster child for good urban education. By bringing kids, elsewhere dismissed as no-hopers, into the mainstream, it has defied the odds.

Here's the reason to stand up and take notice: from third grade through high school, Union City students' scores on the state's achievement tests approximate the New Jersey averages. You read that right—these youngsters, despite their hard-knock lives, compete with their suburban cousins in reading, writing, and mathematics.

This is no one-year wonder. Over the course of the past generation, these youngsters have been doing better and better. What's more, in 2013, more than 90 percent of the students graduated—that's nearly 15 percent higher than the national average. Moreover, three-quarters of them enroll in college, and top students are regularly winning statewide science contests and receiving full rides at Ivy League universities.