Let's Build Schools Worthy of Our Democracy

The accountability-driven school "reform" movement came of age during the ascendancy of the Lee Atwater/Karl Rove scorched earth politics. It was founded on the principle that demonizing opponents is just another means for achieving political ends. Accountability hawks have since characterized teachers and our unions as the enemies of children.

At first, educators were dumbfounded by the venom and the mendacity. Why would they think they could help students by libeling us? Even now, teachers have not found good ways to respond.

I have long been perplexed by the dilemma that test-driven "reform" created. Teachers cannot remain silent as our integrity is assailed and as corporate "reformers" follow their marketing plan and launch one outrageous attack on public schools after another. For instance, they took the public relations tactic of pitting charter schools that did not accept the more-difficult-to-educate children, claiming that they served the "same" kids, and twisting the outcomes to supposedly show that traditional public school educators were betraying our students.

When teachers and scholars refute those falsehoods, we sound like naysayers. When we use social science to explain why it is bubble-in silver bullets that don't measure up, we step into their punch. When we debunk one made-up success story after another, educators come off as negative.

In fact, few things are more wonderful than teaching. Through most of my career, I loved one great class after another, five times a day, five days a weeks, and most of the rest of my time was devoted to rewarding interactions with students. Nothing in my experiences in urban schools or with my fellow citizens indicates that working people must be continually kept under the bosses' thumbs, so that they won't rob future generations blind.

So, I get flustered. I still don't know how to respond to teacher-bashing without sounding defensive. How do I counter the absurd claims about high-performing charters or that "High Expectations!" within the four walls of the classroom can, systemically, overcome concentrations of extreme poverty without sounding pessimistic?

For that reason, the thing I most enjoyed about David Kirp's Improbable Scholars was not his balanced analysis. Being taught so much about the way that Union City, New Jersey used high-quality preschool to help overcome generational poverty was my second favorite experience with Kirp's book. Tied for second place was his vivid descriptions of teams of great teachers and their enchanting students. Also tied for the second best thing about Kirp's narrative was his account of how Union City moved from one of the New Jersey's worst school systems to being a model for turning around our nation's toughest schools.

The best thing about reading Kirp's book was the hope that jumps from every page.

Anyone wanting to understand the joy of teaching should grab Improbable Scholars. Persons frustrated by the difficulty of producing real and sustainable improvement in inner city schools or, for that matter, any other seemingly intractable problem, should start with Kirp. He explains why we don't need risky experiments in "disruptive innovation;" school improvement is best achieved by the "grunt" work of "continuous improvement." Rather that gambling on theories of "transformative" change, we need a modest ethic of "plan, do, and review." Real learning does not come from fear; it grows out of a culture of "abrazos" or caring.

Rather than depend upon single-minded ideologues like Michelle Rhee or Joel Klein, who demand total obedience and drive out dissent, Kirp shows that teams of adults who bring all types of personalities to the classroom can bring the best out of children whose temperaments are equally varied. Real learning does not need rewards and punishment; it grows out of a sense of community, of trust and "respeto," or respect. Rather than fire our way to the top, we need school cultures of "raining love." Rather than imposing lockstep scripted instruction in basic skills, we must teach young children self-control and inner-directedness. Our schools can then succeed by honoring our students with a challenging authentic curriculum.

Gray-haired liberals like me will love the reminder of what a nurturing and inclusive agenda can still accomplish. Improbable Scholars is the story of immigrants' dreams coming true. Its heroes are not technocrats or children of the elite stooping to save the poor, but second generation Americans and other locals coming together to create a ladder for today's newcomers.

School transformation was made possible by an activist New Jersey Supreme Court that ordered the state to produce equity. This allowed Union City to fund high-quality early education, reduce class size, collaboratively create homegrown professional talent, and provide one-on-one coaching to struggling teachers and students.

No, Kirp has not made me forget the travails of my inner city students. Neither have I forgotten their resiliency. I learned through experience that the moral core of children is the rock on which educational excellence can be built.

Similarly, Union City transformed itself by the "win win" policies of:

a) Creating high-quality preschool for all;
b) Providing "word-soaked" classrooms;
c) Teaching immigrants to be fluent in their native language and then in English;
d) Coordinating its early education and its challenging curriculum;
e) Using diagnostic data;
f) Offering hands-on help for parents and students, and
g) Reaching out to parents.

In doing so Union City reminds us of something that should have never been forgotten. Build on our strengths and we can have public schools that are worthy of our constitutional democracy. Build respectful learning cultures and educational success will come.

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