How bad schools got better

Twenty-five years ago, the public schools in Union City, New Jersey were so bad the state threatened to seize control. “Fear of a state takeover catalyzed a transformation,” writes David Kirp, a Berkeley professor,  in the New York Times.

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.

Union City is the sort of places where expectations are low:  Most students come from low-income, immigrant families. But, gradually, principals became educational leaders, teachers learned to work together and “parents were enlisted in the cause,” writes Kirp, a public policy professor at Berkeley who spent a year in Union City. The district’s “best educators were asked to design a curriculum.” Excellent teachers mentored the not-so-good teachers.

Union City decided to provide two years of pre-kindergarten classes that teach cognitive and noncognitive skills. Nearly every 3- and 4-year-old enrolls, Kirp writes.

One December morning the lesson is making latkes, the potato pancakes that are a Hanukkah staple. Everything that transpires during these 90 minutes could be called a “teachable moment” — describing the smell of an onion (“Strong or light? Strong — duro. Will it smell differently when we cook it? We’ll have to find out.”); pronouncing the “p” in pepper and pimento; getting the hang of a food processor (“When I put all the ingredients in, what will happen?”).

. . . “My goal is to do for these kids what I do with my own children,” the teacher, Susana Rojas, tells me. “It’s all about exposure to concepts — wide, narrow, long, short. I bring in breads from different countries. ‘Let’s do a pie chart showing which one you liked the best.’ I don’t ask them to memorize 1, 2, 3 — I could teach a monkey to count.”

Union City High School was on the “needs improvement” list — until it improved. Principal John Bennetti is persuading students that education can be a ticket out of poverty.

On Day 1, the principal lays out the house rules. Everything is tied to a single theme — pride and respect in “our house” — that resonates with the community culture of family, unity and respect. “Cursing doesn’t showcase our talents. Breaking the dress code means we’re setting a tone that unity isn’t important, coming in late means missing opportunities to learn.” Bullying is high on his list of nonnegotiables: “We are about caring and supporting.”

Bennetti wants teachers to expect more of students and prepare them for success in college.

Turnaround districts like Union City aren’t “magpies, taking shiny bits and pieces and gluing them together,” Kirp writes. “Instead, each devised a long-term strategy reaching from preschool to high school. Each keeps learning from experience and tinkering with its model.” He writes about Union City’s transformation in  Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools.

In the State of the Union speech, President Obama said he’ll work with states “to make high-quality preschool available to every child.”  I guess that means he’ll propose federal grants.

Obama is wrong when he says high-quality preschool is critical for all children. Children raised by educated parents tend to do well whether they go to preschool or not. By promising preschool for all, Obama diverts funding from the disadvantaged children who really do need a high-quality (and high cost) preschool education to develop language and behavioral skills that aren’t being taught at home.

About Joanne


  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    It would be interesting to know what the ‘crats were saying to desperate parents before the state started looking into the situation.

  2. Stacy in NJ says:

    Union City’s nickname in Jersey is Havana on the Hudson because after Miami it has the largest population of Cuban immigrants to the US. Some of the success of the turn-around relates to the local culture.

    • Well that makes sense.

      Those who’ve had the pleasure of experiencing socialism unfettered by the tedious inefficiency of representative forms of government tend to be intolerant of glorious but unmet promises.

      • Riiiiiiiiiiight….

        So much for that theory.

        From wikipedia:
        As of March 23, 2011, there were a total of 28,503 registered voters in Union City, of which 18,589 (65.2%) were registered as Democrats, 1,839 (6.5%) were registered as Republicans and 8,062 (28.3%) were registered as Unaffiliated. There were 13 voters registered to other parties.[115]
        In the 2008 presidential election, Democrat Barack Obama received 74.6% of the vote (13,657 cast), ahead of Republican John McCain with 23.9% (4,366 votes) and other candidates with 0.8% (150 votes), among the 18,305 ballots cast by the city’s 32,030 registered voters, for a turnout of 57.1%.[116] In the 2004 presidential election, Democrat John Kerry received 64.8% of the vote here (10,894 ballots cast), outpolling Republican George W. Bush with 32.0% (5,375 votes) and other candidates with 0.3% (90 votes), among the 16,811 ballots cast by the city’s 27,727 registered voters, for a turnout percentage of 60.6.[117]
        In the 2009 gubernatorial election, Democrat Jon Corzine received 76.8% of the vote here (8,611 ballots cast), ahead of Republican Chris Christie with 20.2% (2,265 votes), Independent Chris Daggett with 1.4% (152 votes) and other candidates with 0.8% (89 votes), among the 11,218 ballots cast by the city’s 27,373 registered voters, yielding a 41.0% turnout.[118]

        • Thanks for that cut-and-paste job but my endoscope’s at the shop so I’m unequipped to find the meaning in your post where it most probably resides.

          In any case, the article is a hymn to the district system since, left to its own devices a school district inevitably produces the poorest educational outcome up with which the public will put. The rare exceptions are inevitably due to some singular individual and are irrelevant to the institution of public education.

          • Allen…
            You can play dumb all you want, but the fact that the inhabitants of this city vote overwhelming Democratic belies the pathetic little point you were trying to make.

          • Why? Because being a Democrat means you have to make cow eyes at the district-based public education system? Time to wake up and deal with the winds of change.

            There are lefties who are capable of finding fault with some of the sacred tenets of the public education lobby. You may have practice your disdain on people with whom you have quite a bit in common if you allow yourself to notice that fact. There may be some resulting heartburn although not, I’m sure, introspection.

            As for the Cubans who’ve enjoyed the educational benefits of observing at close hand the multitudinous wonders of socialism I doubt they’d be easy to persuade that socialism and education are inextricably intertwined or that they should joyfully consume what socialism American-style extrudes on their plate.

          • As usual allen, your arguments are utterly incoherent… so you are crowing that this is proof that the citizens (overwhelmingly Democratic) are turning from socialism… and yet, part of the solution was government funded 2 years of pre-kindergarten classes… sounds like increasing public education, not decreasing it. Just admit it… you got caught talking out of your azz… you thought you were going to score a couple cool points by linking this to the Cuban population which you assumed would be Republican/conservative/anti-government… but the simple fact is… NOTHING in that article points to your inferences.

          • And as usual you’re incapable of a reply that doesn’t include personal insults and, oh by the way, ignores the subject in preference to your prejudices.

            Union City’s renaissance is a fact, as measured by those tests that supporters of the district system hate when it doesn’t tell you what you want to hear and are happy to use when it does, but the bland, unsupported, assertion that pre-K is an important part of that renaissance is disproven by no less then the well-documented failure of Head Start.

            But the implied paean to Head Start’s hardly the only indication that this opinion piece is in service of the sacred status quo. No, there’s the exciting news that these wondrous results were achieved without the closing of a single, rotten school or the firing of a single, rotten teacher.

            Oh Huzzah and *there* you evil, corporatist minions who seek the downfall of the sacred institution! Here’s proof that the district model is perfect as it is and thus still sacred. Let’s all move on. Nothing to see here.

            Of course there is something to see in Union City. It’s just that our dear professor’s not the person to reveal facts that don’t serve his agenda. But on the basis of what has worked transformations in other schools and districts, there’s going to be a single person or a small group of people who aren’t willing to accept the inherent slide towards mediocrity that’s structural to the district system and by the confluence of hard work, courage and good luck have changed a lousy district into an average district.

            Sadly, that’s not a model that travels well but good luck to Union City’s kids and parents.

  3. Classics Mom says:

    Why is anyone making this about politics? I know plenty of Democrats who thoroughly support education reform, school choice, homeschooling, and vouchers. In fact, where I come from, I wager most of the parents who use charter schools are Democrats! Also, supporting a social safety net such as social security and medicare does not make one a socialist. I suggest you look up the meaning of socialism.

    • Because the public education system is, by it’s nature and genesis, “about politics”. You may cling to the illusion that getting the politics out of public education is a good idea and possible but that’s like proposing to get the “wet” out of water.

      If you want to get the politics out of education you have to get the education out of politics.

      • Classics Mom says:

        True, but currently there are many politicians on both sides of the aisle who support education reform. Also, I believe that many of the problems inherent in public schools have more to do with fuzzy educational theories than with Democrats.

        • Indeed. And the reason there’s some degree of bipartisan agreement that the same, old excuses aren’t acceptable any longer is because they’re the same, old excuses.

          My belief is that it’s the essentially political, as opposed to educational, nature of public education that provides a rationale for those fuzzy educational theories. When you’re trying to maintain a status quo any, old excuse for failure, that puts of a threat to the status quo, is acceptable.

          If throwing parents and taxpayers a bone in the form of thrillingly new, but ultimately worthless, educational theories puts off the day of reckoning even a day then then it is worthwhile. Politically.

  4. English As A Second Language holds all immigrants behind, not access to pre-school. Pre-school is selling another program, parents should be intimately involved with the children during the pre-school years, to teach, to nurture, to show, to bond…simply using closed caption on you TV, now wide screen helps more then doing nothing use. I was raised by “Pepo Y Mi Ma” Cubans-no Americans that overcame their difficulties thru hard word & taught others. We all didn’t know we were poor, we were just “the working poor” that went to work everyday.

  5. Interesting. And in Texas, we’re dissolving a school district for exactly the same reasons.

    Well, maybe, now that it’s been announced the usual suspects are screaming.

    Especially those connected to the Special Ed department; which seems to have been run as a familial kingdom for years.

  6. Joanne, I have enjoyed many of your columns since a local put me onto your Courageous COnversations reports since our local school district is about to the Mr. Singleton’s next extortion victim. However, I’d like to hear you expand on your last sentence. I seem to take from it that because these kids have lousy parents, the rest of us have to dig out of our pockets for their becoming civilized. I use that term civilized because of your use of the term behaviorial skils. Why allow them to have kids to begin with? We all know the characteristics involved here.