NYT Opinion: The Secret to Fixing Bad Schools

David L. Kirp is a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of the forthcoming book “Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools” wrote this recent New York Times article (to read the full article, click here):

WHAT would it really take to give students a first-rate education? Some argue that our schools are irremediably broken and that charter schools offer the only solution. The striking achievement of Union City, N.J. — bringing poor, mostly immigrant kids into the educational mainstream — argues for reinventing the public schools we have.

Union City makes an unlikely poster child for education reform. It’s 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.

Public schools in such communities have often operated as factories for failure. This used to be true in Union City, where the schools were once so wretched that state officials almost seized control of them. How things have changed. 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.

As someone who has worked on education policy for four decades, I’ve never seen the likes of this. After spending a year in Union City working on a book, I believe its transformation offers a nationwide strategy.

Ask school officials to explain Union City’s success and they start with prekindergarten, which enrolls almost every 3- and 4-year-old. There’s abundant research showing the lifetime benefits of early education. Here, seeing is believing.

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?”).

Cognitive and noncognitive, thinking and feeling; here, this line vanishes. The good teacher is always on the lookout for both kinds of lessons, always aiming to reach both head and heart. “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.”

From pre-K to high school, the make-or-break factor is what the Harvard education professor Richard Elmore calls the “instructional core” — the skills of the teacher, the engagement of the students and the rigor of the curriculum. To succeed, students must become thinkers, not just test-takers. (Read the rest of the article here)