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Conversation with David Kirp

July 17, 2013

In my last post, I wrote about David Kirp’s book, Improbable Scholars. Kirp shared some additional thoughts with me by phone, and as the last blog post grew increasingly long, I decided to write this section as a foll0w-up post.

I began the conversation by asking Kirp what his experiences have been like since publication, what kinds of reactions he’s heard. The main thrust of the book has been advanced for a while even before the book came out, as in the New York Times op-ed that received over 300 comments, and so Kirp has been receiving feedback on this work for quite a while, and most of it positive. When people raise questions to Kirp regarding the broader application of his findings in the book, the questions often sound like those he anticipates in the final chapter of the book, the same questions I was asking as I approached the final chapter. Anyone can appreciate the solid work that has produced lasting improvements in Union City Schools, but… what if other districts have less funding, different governance structures, different student populations, a larger population…? It’s natural I suppose for many of us to look at a system held up as a model and question how well the model aligns with other systems that might need to improve. The final chapter of the book includes examples of districts that differ from Union City in significant ways, but demonstrate similar improvements by adhering to the same essentials that Kirp outlines in the core of the book.

Other common reactions to the book include people wanting to know what they can do to improve their own schools and districts. Apparently there’s a similar dynamic at work in Union City, with outsiders coming in search of answers, a series of steps they can take to replicate success. The simple answer from Kirp is, “There’s no easy fix. Do your homework. Start with the kids, teachers, and materials.” The eventual solutions won’t look the same in each place, but they’ll have some key elements in common, and if Kirp’s overall thesis is correct, those solutions will evolve gradually over time, with shared ownership and buy-in, and will achieve lasting results in an atmosphere of trust and stability. As an example of how important those qualities are, Kirp pointed to attempts to improve schools Orange, New Jersey. They brought in “a bunch of Union City folks” and made some progress in school improvement efforts. However, when the political winds shifted in the next school board election, there was a shake-up in personnel and the improvements faded.

I asked Kirp if Union City’s model was also an argument for “home-grown” talent development, entrusting district leadership who have established themselves in the community – as opposed to the “let’s fly in Paul Vallas!” approach to reform. Kirp said that ultimately, it’s the stability that matters more than the question of an insider or outsider running – “a revolving door is a big problem.” Without commenting on Vallas in particular, Kirp said if he were counseling a school board, he’d want to see a long-term plan for a new superintendent (with benchmarks to evaluate along the way), so that district staff members and community members would know that there will be support and follow-through when changes are introduced. He also suggested that the agreement between the board and superintendent should “make it expensive to fail.”

The core of Improbable Scholars is Kirp’s immersion in Union City: for the entire 2010-11 school year, and portions of the following school year, Kirp had “carte blanch” access to schools and classrooms, and also had ample time spent with the district administration, the mayor, and even the families of some students. In such a situation, it’s natural that the writer/researcher would begin to identify with the subjects, and Kirp addresses that issue head on, especially when describing how he bonded with a particular third grade class. Critics can raise the issue of objectivity, or the potential weakness of what seems an anecdotal approach to analyzing school improvement. Both in the text, and in his conversation with me, Kirp responds to that idea by arguing that there’s room for multiple approaches in writing and researching. While arguing for the necessity of spending the time and energy to develop a deeper understanding of Union City schools, Kirp also made good use of relevant data, reporting, and research to round out and support his observations. And there are some critical descriptions and analyses within the book; Kirp does not pretend that everything he saw was working, nor that everyone he met was doing a great job. I asked if he’d heard any negative feeback or negative responses from people in Union City, anyone unhappy with the book. Kirp replied that he hasn’t, a fact he attirbutes to his care to ensure that criticisms were judicious, honest, relevant, and thoughtful.

Looking further ahead, I wondered if Kirp thought Union City schools were a lock to maintain their quality for the future. After all, Kirp’s claim is that there are multiple essential elements that need to be in place for sustained improvement. What about the challenges? One area that Kirp mentioned in reply is also addressed in the book, the necessity for teachers and school leaders to “find ways to deal with test-based metrics without losing your soul.” What about the overall success of Union City? I asked “What if you go back in five years?”

“I’d place a good bet on 2018,” he replied. He feels that everything necessary for sustained growth is well in place – from state funding to local leadership. “There are people waiting in the wings; a clear succession is there. It’s not fragile.”

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