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Dazzling in the “Anti-Flash”

by Daniel Heimpel

Last month, the 25,000-member American Educational Research Association selected David Kirp’s “Improbable Scholars” for its 2014 Outstanding Book Award.

The honor, reserved for education’s intellectual heavyweights, is not only a nod to Kirp’s scholarly achievement, but more, an acknowledgement of the power of marrying journalism and policy into a narrative that can drive public interest where there is seemingly so little: systems change.

Kirp, a professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California Berkeley, said that the prize was a “total surprise.” As he sees it, the book was written as much for the general public as it was for scholars and policy wonks.

“Improbable Scholars” takes the reader into Union City, N.J., where the 2010-2011 school year becomes the backdrop of a drama that moves from a “word-soaked” third-grade classroom to the politics that make for an exemplary public school system.

Instead of focusing on high-flying charter schools or charismatic self-anointed school reformers, Kirp keeps the focus squarely on the incredible, complicated and at times sublime struggle to incrementally improve public education, whether on the classroom, school, district, state or federal level.

“This book is anti-flash,” Kirp said in an interview. “I am making an argument that will both be familiar and a challenge to educators.”

The through-line of the book – that “running an exemplary school system doesn’t demand heroes and heroics, just hard and steady work,” – is a truism in all public endeavors. The question is: How do you turn “steady work” into a story? Let alone a story that touches people and makes them want to act.

“It takes a journalist-plus,” Kirp, who once worked as a newspaper editor, explained. “I did a lot of work constructing this story into narratives and cliffhangers.”

Kirp’s journalism-plus promises to take the reader beyond the simple anecdotes that many reporters use as little more than a storytelling device.

“I think people respond and embrace stories,” Kirp said. “But if all they have is the story, it is a one-off. And that is classically true in journalism where one stands for the whole.”

In “Improbable Scholars,” characters are given respect and are seen as elements in the greater system, not emblems of the system in its entirety.

Third grade teacher Alina Bossbaly, “a tiger prowling among her cubs,” is not a representation of every teacher in Union City, but a picture of one among many doing her best.

“There is a huge place for literary policy writing,” Kirp said.

It is true that the Internet rent journalism apart, leaving husks or memories of many news media flagships. It is also true that there is a bubbling new journalism, filled with non-profit entities and thoughtful news junkies who have taken advantage of new media to do more – more cheaply – than was possible before.

But there is also a vacuum. The Fourth Estate has slumped on its foundations, and while we still look to the journalist to soldier on, I have turned my eyes elsewhere.

Whether it is Kirp’s “journalist-plus” or what many call him – a public intellectual – there is both an opportunity and necessity for the type of writer he is and the writing he does.

“Improbable Scholars” gave me a clear picture of the commingling of research, policy and human life. This rendering of the world gives me understanding, the power to act, to inject myself in the great public business that is our schools, the reshaping of our society.

This was once the job of our journalists, and in that eroded edifice many still labor on. But, as the complex problems continue to wash over all of us we need something more. A journalist-plus, a public intellectual to respond with complex yet comprehensible solutions.

Read “Improbable Scholars.” Kirp dazzles in the “anti-flash.”

Daniel Heimpel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections, and the publisher of the Chronicle of Social Change.

[This article was originally posted on The Chronicle of Social Change.]