An urban school district that works — without miracles or Teach For America

To listen to some school reformers, you’d think there are no urban traditional public schools that are successful. Here’s a different story, adapted and excerpted from “Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System And A Strategy For America’s Schools” (Oxford University Press), by David Kirp, professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He is a former newspaper editor and policy consultant, as well as the author of numerous articles in various publications and several books, including “Shakespeare, Einstein and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education.” His new book, “Improbable Scholars,” tells the story of the public schools in Union City, N.J., where teachers do an amazing job of teaching high-poverty students without employing “miracle” reforms.

 

By David Kirp

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 90 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 school districts nationwide a usable strategy.

There’s no miracle cure, no secret sauce or Superman—just a handful of game-changing strategies, from preschool to high school, that would be familiar to any educator with a pulse. It’s a tale of continuous improvement over many years—think of it as “tortoise beats hare.” And Union City doesn’t own a patent on the formula. Across the country, from Long Beach, California to Montgomery County, Maryland, school districts big and small, well-funded and meagerly-funded, predominantly Latino and black and heterogeneous, are boosting achievement scores and shrinking the achievement gap.  Though the particulars differ, they’re all using much the same playbook. You don’t hear about these places, because the media thrives on drama and there’s nothing earthshaking to report. Patiently and steadily, these school systems are shifting the arc of children’s lives.

This excerpt takes a ground-level view of one of these tried-and-true strategies, encouraging collaboration among teachers.

 

The Dream Team

Nowhere at George Washington Elementary School are the virtues of collegiality and collaboration more visible than in the third grade. The Dream Team—that’s how other teachers at the school refer to Alina Bossbaly, Marilyn Corral, Jen Schuck, Mary Ann Hart and Irene Stamatopolous. Although their personalities differ greatly, they mesh as smoothly as a 400-yard relay team, and this bond helps to explain why, year after year, their students have been the school’s top performers on the New Jersey ASK, the state’s high-stakes exam. On the May 2010 exam, 79% passed the reading and writing test and an off-the-charts 93% were rated proficient in math—the best results in the entire district.

Not one of these teachers would have been accepted by Teach for America. They all grew up within a half hour’s drive from Union City and never moved away. (Two of them thought about teaching in a ghetto school in New York City, but their friends talked them out of it, and only one has ever taught elsewhere.) Only a higher education expert or someone who hails from northern New Jersey would have heard of the commuter schools—William Paterson, Jersey City, Stockton State, and the like—that they attended. Their GPAs weren’t necessarily stellar, and while some are more naturally gifted teachers than others, they all had a hard time at the start of their teaching careers.

The best explanation for their effectiveness is what they have learned—and keep learning—from their colleagues. These teachers improve, the passable ones becoming solid practitioners and the good ones maturing into candidates for a demonstration video, in good measure because of the informal tutelage that the old hands give the newbies, the day-to-day collaboration, the modeling of good practice, and the swapping of ideas about what’s worth trying in their classrooms. “The most productive thinking,” as the research confirms, “is continuous and simultaneous with action—that is, with teaching—as practitioners collaboratively implement, assess, and adjust instruction as it happens.”

The culture of abrazos, of love and caring, that permeates Washington School is rooted in close relationships of long standing between Principal Les Hanna and the teachers, among the teachers, and between the school and the families. Their ties to the kids come naturally because they have an intimate understanding of their students’ lives. Many of them grew up and still live close by, so when they talk about the students as “our kids,” as they often do, they mean it almost literally.

“Our kids’ lives are truly, truly horrible,” Les tells me. “We have to be there now.” That’s no exaggeration. What’s astonishing is how many of these children thrive despite the jagged edges of their lives. For some of them, just making it to school represents a real accomplishment.

One morning, Marilyn Corral, who teaches third grade, was explaining the difference between a savings account and a checking account to her class when she saw puzzled looks on several faces. “My mother doesn’t have that. She has to spend all her money,” said one student, and other heads nodded. After a lesson on how to be smart with money, a pig-tailed girl pledged to bring her pennies to the bank so that she could buy all the books she wants. In her piggy bank there were only pennies and in her mind pennies could purchase lots of books. “At home everything gets said in front of the kids. There are no boundaries,”  Marilyn tells me, thinking back to an episode when one of her students wasn’t picked up after school. “My dad works till late and he can’t come. My mom left with another man,” the girl explained, as if this were the most normal situation in the world.

These professionals know and trust one another because they can draw on their history of working together, and that eases the path to collaboration. To be sure, there are the outliers, who stand apart from this community, and the grumblers, who look for slights and stir the pot—rare indeed is the organization that doesn’t have its outliers and grumblers. But at Washington such teachers are decidedly in the minority. Almost everyone here wants to belong to their own Dream Team.

You won’t find any Teach for America recruits, and with good reason—they would destabilize the school. Bright they surely are, but raw intelligence does not translate into skill in the classroom. Fresh out of college and with only the briefest of training, they are at the very beginning of the learning curve. Not only are they less effective than experienced teachers; studies show that their students fare no better in reading and actually do worse in math than the students of equally inexperienced credentialed teachers with bachelor’s degrees from second and third-tier colleges. Washington runs on loyalty and longevity, but 80% of Teach for America teachers quit after two years, many of them headed for careers in law or business. Presumably those who sign on care for children, at least in the abstract, but these cosmopolitans have been parachuted into a community about which they know nothing.

Les Hanna appreciates that the third-grade teachers are among her most valuable assets. When the principal is picking people to staff after-school classes that prep students to pass the ASK, plum jobs that pay $50 an hour, or deciding who should get new classroom computers, they usually emerge as winners. While they deserve it, Les’s decisions can stir resentment, and the “Dream Team” label sometimes comes with the sour taint of jealousy. “If they’re so good, why not break them up and let them inspire the other grades?” grumbled a sixth grade teacher, doubtlessly hoping to knock them off their pedestal. “When the ASK test scores came, that teacher was only interested in how her own students did, not how sixth grade did,” Alina tells me. “That’s all you need to know—there’s no teamwork in that grade.”

“We never use the Dream Team label to put ourselves above everyone else,” says Alina. Just as she perceives her colleagues’ faith in her ability to “Bossbaly-ize” her students, extracting the best from them every year, as both a compliment and an incitement, she regards the “Dream Team” sobriquet as both an accolade and a goad. “C’mon, girls, let’s keep up the good work because it’s expected of us,” Alina cheers on the crew. “We take a lot of pride in what we do. Just like the kids want to be praised by other teachers, we want our parents and our administration to be proud of us. There’s no ‘I want my bulletin board to be better,’ no complaining. We do it together. The attitude is contagious. It happens—you make it happen.”

The teacher has traditionally been treated as if she were a modern-day Queen Victoria who reigns supreme in her classroom and rarely leaves her monarchy. No one questioned what these teachers were doing, but no one came to their aid either, so they had to sort out the what’s and how’s of teaching on their own. Engaging in shoptalk with the teacher down the hall, pulling apart a particular lesson, or sharing ideas about how to handle a certain kind of student makes them better at their job. A wise district like Union City doesn’t leave these exchanges to happenstance—it carves out time for teachers to work together.

It’s reality TV minus the camera crew on the second floor of Washington, where the third grade classrooms are clustered. Alina is the group’s de facto leader, and from one moment to the next she may be the strategist, the influential, the calming influence, or the shoulder to cry on (occasionally she’s the one doing the crying). “I see the good in every person,” she says, and only rarely does she have an unkind word about anyone.

Among these teachers, only Alina has non-English-speakers in her class, although other classes include students who are in an English-only environment for the first time. In the room around the corner, Irene Stamatopolous presides in no-nonsense, meticulously organized, and perpetually unflustered mode. “Irene is the first one done with everything,” marvels Marilyn Corral, whose classroom is adjacent to Alina’s. “It’s like she has a rocket up her butt, like she’s on speed.” But Irene, who came to Washington in 1990, wasn’t always so sure of herself. “My first year was rough,” she recalls. “The kids weren’t learning and I felt like I was teaching to the walls. I put it all on me. I thought that these children should be competing at the same level as children everywhere, and that’s still my goal every year.”

Some kids in Irene’s room came to the United States just a couple of years earlier, and this is their first experience in a class where everything is in English. Other school districts treat students like these as if they were born speaking English, tossing them in with everyone else. In Union City, these children are assigned to a teacher like Irene, who’s trained to teach English as a Second Language, as they ease their way from one language to another.

Marilyn Corral, whose classroom is next door to Alina’s, adds spice and drama to the mix. She has Alina’s vivacity, with a bit more jalapeno tossed in. Instinctively, she’ll fight if she feels she’s been wronged, and Alina the diplomat sometimes finds herself talking Marilyn down.

Jen Schuck, one room farther down the hall, calls to mind the girl next door grown up, everyone’s best friend, and she’s the shyest in the group. Mary Ann Rick, a tall, angular woman who could have sat for a Modigliani portrait, hovers slightly outside the frame. While that’s partly due to the school’s layout—her classroom is the farthest away—her personality doesn’t lend itself to easy sociability. “I’m not really part of the social world of the other teachers,” she tells me. “I’m intrapersonal—I value the quiet time.”

The quintet has been together for a long time—Mary Ann, the latest addition, joined the group in 2005, a year after Marilyn. Such familiarity can breed contempt, akin to what happens in a dysfunctional family, but these teachers genuinely like and, what’s more important, respect one another. Personality and teaching style are intertwined, and if you spend some time in their classrooms you can readily detect the variations. Alina will most likely be pirouetting among groups of students, Irene will be firmly in command, Marilyn passionate and boot-camp tough, Mary Ann nurturing, and Jen a gentle and soothing presence. Good teachers can’t be shoehorned into a single mold. They are five distinct personalities, five teaching styles—and five capable professionals.

These teachers are often in and out of one another’s rooms, swapping materials and helping out, covering if one of them arrives late or has to leave for a meeting. And while some teachers safeguard the student projects that they have devised as if they were top-secret documents, everything that’s generated by a member of the Dream Team is open-source. “We are all very different women who complement each other when we get together,” says Marilyn. “We plan, we share our ideas. If something works well for me or I have a cute activity I give it to my girls—I want them to look good too.”

Sometimes I go to lunch with these women for ropa vieja and plantains at Gran Via, the Cuban hangout a few blocks away. Typically there’s some girl talk, banter about who’s getting married or whose kid has gotten into college. But the conversation often loops back to their work—what their students are up to, how they reacted to the latest writing prompt, what belongs in the all-important plan-book.

 

Walk by Room 210, Alina’s classroom, most Thursdays at 9 a.m. and the din that rockets off the walls sounds like a gaggle of adolescent girls careening out of control. But the voices you hear aren’t those of students—these are the third grade teachers deep into planning mode. In every Union City school, the class schedule gives teachers in each grade forty-five minutes a week for brainstorming, and the Dream Team uses this time to tackle the questions that arise in the practice of their craft.

On this mid-October day I’m sitting in the back of the room, scrunched in a chair designed with an eight-year-old in mind. Alina, Marilyn, and Irene gather around a table piled high with papers, all the projects that they’ve devised. They are all talking at once, raising their voices so that they can be heard, while Jen is taking notes. “We get so excited,” says Alina, who sounds super-excited. They are preparing their plan-books for November, a month away, and despite the racket this is serious business.

Hollywood portrays great teachers, like Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society,” as great ad-libbers, but in this era of hyper-accountability a teacher must get the minutest and pickiest details exactly right. “We have to show what we’re doing to the nth degree,” Alina tells me. “Otherwise our paychecks could be withheld.”

Even though the New Jersey ASK is more than half a year away, it is already on their minds. On the state’s 2010 exam for second graders, a trial run for the high-stakes test, the seven-year-olds had a hard time making sense of the passages they were asked to read, and those are the kids these teachers have inherited. “Their vocabulary is extremely small because many of them speak English only when they’re at school,” says Alina, by way of explanation. “When they’re home, Spanish is what they hear and they’re watching Spanish TV.”

Words, words, and more words—if these youngsters are going to prosper academically they need to become immersed in a world of language. The more words you know the faster you acquire new words, the research shows, and so the third grade teachers spend lots of time honing the skills of comprehension. All their classrooms feature ever-expanding word walls, and each child is given a dictionary, something that most of them have never seen. “It’s your tool, like the computer,” Alina tells these computer-savvy youngsters. “You need to use it a lot.”

“The key is to make sure that from kindergarten on, every student understands the gist of what is heard or read,” writes literacy expert E. D. Hirsch Jr., and that’s what these teachers are aiming for. If all goes well, their students will emerge from third grade with a bigger and more evocative vocabulary. They’ll be using hundred-dollar words like “gorgeous” and “exquisite,” not just “pretty,” and they’ll know how to extract the central themes from what they read, not just regurgitate the story line. Those skills make for good writers as well as successful test-takers.

Third-grade math is just as demanding. By year’s end these students must understand fractions; know how to convert 3/12 into its simplest form; complete the pattern, 1/3, 2/6; estimate the volume of a rectangle; and use the metric system. “Although the timetable is crushing,” says Marilyn, “we like to extend certain topics even if it takes more time.” They want their students to come away with an understanding of what they are doing, not simply memorizing formulas. That ability too will serve them well in later grades.

While every teacher uses the same basic material, each of them can add to that core, and there are scores of books from which to select. Characteristically, the Dream Team chooses together, and today they are in search of a good opening question for a story their classes will soon be reading—a question that will bring the tale to life. In making this kind of decision they have character development in mind, not just on the page but among their own students.

“I try to run my classroom as a community,” Jen tells me. “Of course I want them to become better readers, writers, and mathematicians, but in the long run I really want them to become good people, respectful and responsible for themselves.” When I ask Alina how the team makes its decisions, she responds by describing how a particular writer spins an especially engrossing tale. “Great author, great situation,” she summarizes. “Those stories teach the students about character, about the importance of respect and the need to talk things through.”

These five teachers know intuitively that efforts designed to shape children’s values can have a powerful long-term impact. They bat around several candidates for the opening gambit. “What moral lesson did you learn?” . . . “What are the moral messages behind the story?” . . . “What lessons did the author want to teach?” Eventually they agree that they’ll ask how the author’s moral message can be incorporated into everyday life. Each of them inserts that theme in her plan-book and each will launch a classroom dialogue with that question. But what happens next depends on their students’ reactions, and in each class the ensuing discussion will bend in distinct ways. “A lot of the time inspiration comes from the kids,” Jen explains. “Someone will say something that will spark an idea, and then my entire lesson will take a turn.”

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | April 3, 2013