Transformative Districts

On-screen:  [ETS®. Listening. Learning. Leading.]

Speakers: David Sciarra, Education Law Center; David Kirp, University of California-Berkeley

Speaker: David Sciarra - I'll get right to it. It's a real pleasure to introduce David Kirp to you all here today. David is the James Marver professor — I think I got that right — at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California Berkeley. He has done incredible research in the areas of preschool education, which is something near and dear to my heart, kindergarten through twelfth public school improvement, race, gender equity, higher education — you name it. He's published numerous books and articles, but what he's here to talk about is a book that he published in 2013 called Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American Public School System about Union City, New Jersey.

When I first heard that David was writing and going to publish this book I was so happy because we had been implementing the court-ordered Abbott remedies in New Jersey's urban districts for about a decade. A lot of those districts were making significant progress in improving opportunities — these are very high poverty districts in our state — and nobody was talking about it. It was just so hard to get any public attention, let alone national attention. What was really an incredible story about, not just school reform, but systems transformation of a public school system that served a community that was extraordinarily poor, diverse with a tremendous challenge of immigrants and English language learners and the like. When David published that book I was so happy and it really is an incredible book, I would recommend it all to you. David also is a columnist now, I guess a recurring columnist?

Speaker: David Kirp: Contributing.

Speaker: David Sciarra - Contributing columnist in The New York Times, so you can often see his pieces in the Sunday section of the Times. He does a lot of work on preschool and early education, which I hope he talks to us about. The last thing I'll say about David is we seem to be addicted, in this country, to the narrative of public school failure. Everything is about failure; everything is about failing schools and failing kids and failing teachers and so forth and so on. David is one of the few voices out there with a big platform talking about positive solutions for what we can do to improve educational opportunities for our kids, which is apropos of Bob's work and (inaudible 3:02) Project and the meeting that we have here today. Let me welcome David Kirp. David?


Speaker: David Kirp - Thank you, David. It's great to be here. When David asks you to do something, you do it, so here I am. Thank you for all the balmy weather, which I know is what your winter is going to be like. It's a little intimidating to be here because I confess to math phobia. If I'd had one of you as a teacher I'm sure I would have done a whole lot better. When you stopped memorizing and had to actually learn something, I was done. I remember I had a serious mathematician in college teaching calculus, and we spent about six weeks on the limit theorem. I think six weeks on the limit theorem takes you into what was then graduate instruction. I remember he had a great grading system which was half the distance from your grade to 100. So, if you got a 70, that was an 85; if you got an 80, that was a 90. I got a 29. (Laughter.) If you do the math, I passed. On the other hand, I don't want to embarrass my colleague over here, we had a long conversation about why there needed to be an apostrophe after teachers. I figured this is English meets math.

One of the panelists talked about policy and funding blah, blah, blah. This is not what this talk is, because I really do believe in the power of stories to contextualize larger themes. The pieces in The New York Times, as David said, start with a good story and then look at the evidence behind the story, and then look whether the story has legs. Can you actually do this on a broad scale or is this kind of hothouse program?

I am, as David said, going to talk some about Improbable Scholars. By the way, for those of you who get scared off by a professor writing a book, when I won an award for this there were all these thousands of folks out there watching kind of the Oscars of policy launch. I said, "This is an unlikely book to win this award because my writing heroes are the people who write The Simpsons." How could that be? I said, "An eight-year old can get a lot out of The Simpsons, a college student can get a lot, but something different, from The Simpsons, and I love The Simpsons, get something else." So, you can read the book as a cool story, you can read the book and notice that there's a social science frame around that cool story, or you can look at that 40 pages of end notes and see how I got to where I got. That's the plug for the book. The other plug for the book is that I'm a policy professor, which means I hang around with economists, so I offer you a money-back guarantee. If you don't like the book just let me know, keep it and I'll send you back your money. (Laughter.)

Why should you pay attention to Union City, New Jersey, which is not all that — it's a social light year, but I don't know, 40 miles, 50 miles at most from here. Three miles away from Times Square. It is one of the 100 poorest cities in the country. It is the most crowded city in the country, and that's not because of high-rise buildings, that's because you've got families — three, four, five families living in an apartment behind each family behind — in one room, a refrigerator with one shelf on it for the families' goods. It's an almost entirely Latino school district; 75% percent of those kids come to school from a family in which Spanish is the language of the household; it's the telenovela, not the soap opera; it's futbol and not football.

A big challenge there. These are the kids who, classically, school systems give up on. These are the kids who wind up going to the dead-end high schools and not graduating and disappearing. They have a 90% high school graduation rate now. As compared to, I think we're up to about 81%, 82% nationally. We're just comparing where they are. Seventy-five percent of those kids start college. At the top of the heap, they have had one or two Gates Millennial Scholars, I think, every year. If you don't know about the Gates Millennial Scholars, it's this amazing ten years free ride in higher education for 100 of them a year. They win science fairs nationwide. Remember the story about, I'm just going to say Princeton because it's nearby, the basketball team coming to Princeton and the principal at Princeton High saying, "You know, those guys are really well behaved for kids who come from the city." Coach said, "Those guys are just like your guys."

The key takeaways, we'll start there, and the broader themes. You need to start with what I call the magic triangle, and you touched on all points of it in that morning session. You need talented teachers, you need engaged students, and you need a challenging curriculum. That's it; you have to build out from that. Parents get connected to that story, social supports get connected to that story, but that's where you start. You don't start with a system and build your way in; you start with the people. That's my second point, which is the key to success in education — and I heard this here — is building a trust-based relationship, a relationship based on respect between kids and grownups. For that matter, between anybody. A bunch of you are teachers. You're going to behave differently in that school if you think well of your colleagues and you think well of your principal. By the way, the data bears that up. Kids do a lot better in schools where there's a lot of collaboration, and I really appreciate the comments about collaboration time. In Japan, the teachers teach far less in terms of number of hours. They have huge chunks of time for collaboration, for just that reason. So, those are the two key takeaways, that magic triangle and the importance of trust in this story.

I don't have to tell you how deeply politicized K-12 education has become. People scream at each other all the time. I think that's one of the reasons that all of my columns have wound up among the top dozen most emailed columns because they're not screaming columns, they're hearing something that works. In Los Angeles a year ago, there was a school board election and the incumbents' sin in the eyes of the Joel Klein's of the world where he wanted to slow down — is there a tech guy here that can turn this thing off? Can you turn this mic off? The sins of this guy were, he wanted to slow down the expansion of charter schools and actually look at the plans to see how good they were. He wanted to cut that, instead of evaluating — 50% evaluating teachers on the basis of teachers' test score growth, he wanted to cut that to 25%. This is hardly radical stuff. The opponent spent $4.5 million to defeat this guy, and the union spent $1 million to keep him on the board. He won that election, 53-47. Every vote that the losing side spent cost them $63,000. Now, in California that educates six kids for a full year. We had more money spent on the statewide superintendent of public instructions race, which is like the state's superintendent's race, last time around than on the governor's race. It's all about [Vergaro? 12:00], which you may know something about, sort of challenged unions in seniority, etc. It's hot stuff.

On the other side of the story, the disputes over testing, or what I would call premature testing and Common Core standards, became such a hot issue in New York that something like half the Long Island kids didn't take the test. It was a big issue in the last governor's race. On the one side of this conversation, there's a group that calls themselves reformers. Any organizers in this room? Nobody? Here's a tip to organizers. Grab the word "reformer." Reform is not a neutral word. I talk about them as reactionaries and revolutionaries, because the revolutionaries want to bomb the system and the reactionaries want to sort of marketize [sic] it. That's the critique, as you know. It was Michelle Rhee sweeping out the principal in the schools; it was Joel Klein; a number of other folks. Some of it from the Gates Foundation in a bit earlier day. It's all about, you know, think about the market as the way to think about education. You create competition and teachers don't make it in the competition, they leave. You have someone like Eric Hanushek at Stanford saying if you just got rid of the bottom 10% of teachers every year, that you'd close the achievement gap. A lot of emphasis on charter schools as replacement for, not as ways of learning about education, and in some cases, interest in vouchers.

You have also, people who believe that technology is going to transform education. You guys are just going to be redundant; kids are going to learn everything from computers. All of that makes a lot of sense if you're sitting around the table and you haven't been in the school for a long time, which is true of most, by the way. Most academics and policy thinkers on both sides of the aisle. The lefties and the conservatives are equally guilty in this regard. They just invent schools in their head.

The problem with it is none of it works. We were talking about collaboration. Well, if you set teachers up against each other, that's not what you're going to get. You're going to get competition. So if I'm the elementary school or the high school and I've devised this really cool experiment, if I'm at a school that's collaborative, I'm going to bring that experiment to other teachers in the school are going to do it together. If I am competing for bonuses or for my job, I'm going to go hide that because I'm going to be better than you are.

I have nothing against charter schools, per se. The best charter schools are really good. The worst are worse than any public school you can imagine. I remember in Louisiana, for example, they had schools where kids were just at computers doing really bad program stuff and a high school graduate would sort of walk down the hall monitoring what was going on. That charter school, by the way, had one of the nation's best football teams, which is the reason they existed in the first place. My favorite, and this is true, was a school headed by a guy who made students swear fealty to him as the messenger of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, to which public dollars were going. Some of you may recall that there's a thing called a First Amendment out there, but that didn't stop folks. Actually, the commissioner of education says, "I don't know what a good education is," which made one wonder what he was doing being the commissioner of education. Then again, Bobby Jindal's ratings are now someplace in the teens in terms of approval, so maybe life will change down there.

There is, as well, this notion of no excuses. Every teacher, whatever the kids are like when they show up in school, those teachers ought to be able to reform, and that was, and to some extent still is, the mantra of Teach for America. You are in this program for a tiny period of time, you're thrust into a classroom, and you're told your job is to get those test scores up, period. Anybody who spent any time in an urban school knows that kids in poor schools, that bottom 20% or whatever you want to describe in that, come to school with a whole slew of needs. Whatever the school is like, even the worst school is likely a refuge from the neighborhoods in which these kids are. They've had to wave their way through gangland.

I was recently in a school in North Bronx. We drive up and there are eight police cars outside and they're about 12 policemen standing there at the entrance to the school. Go through this then you get the metal detector, get rid of all your stuff, and then you go up to the third floor and there's this really great small school doing really interesting things. They use their extra New York money to provide for a slew of social support for kids. I watched what was going on in terms of the kind of peer coaching. I thought you take away the setting and just listen to the tape, you could be Anyplace, USA, "What was this all about?" I said. This is weird. Before I could get into this school I had to know what was going on. What was going on was not that the police were protecting the school from the students, they were protecting the students from the neighborhood. This was their show of force at the beginning of the day, at the end of the day because the neighborhood was that violent. I asked about the metal detector. "What was the worst thing that you've gotten in this metal detector?" and the answer is there was a kid who worked in a grocery store and he has a box cutter. So he had forgotten about his box cutter sitting in his backpack. All hell broke loose. You don't want box cutters in your schools, but it's not exactly somebody who you would think of as the next whatever.

It's an interesting, complicated world in which we live. The thing about charter schools is the good ones, and there's some good chain charter schools, you're not going to educate 50 million kids. It is not going to happen. There aren't that many geniuses out there to run schools. It's part of the failure of Newark. You have a superintendent who says we want to hire genius principals and let them go. The problem with that is kids move. Poor kids move a lot. Kid going to genius A school, even that's real good, moves over to another neighborhood and genius B is doing something totally different, they get lost in that process. You can't do it. Ironically, all the school systems that the reformers admire are systems which are highly centralized systems with sets of standards that people are working from which teachers are treated as professionals. They're going to enact what those standards are. They're not so crazily test-driven and so — accountability matters, and it matters to me, as well, but they're just not so driven by accountability measures.

Technology. On Wednesday I went to — a friend of mine runs an incubator for education apps. This was eye-opening. This stuff, some of it was amazing, and it was amazing because it wasn't going to replace teachers; it was going to support what they do. The one that I like most, and is most relevant to this group — so a kid is having trouble with his homework, and they are actually working on math at this point. Eighth grade kid is just stumped by a math problem. What's she going to do? She's got nobody to deal with. She takes a photo, posts it on this app. Within five minutes, 1 of 3,500 math experts around the world is connected. Within 15 minutes, that person is tutoring this kid on that math problem. Wouldn't you love to have that kind of support? It's fabulous, and now if you want — the end of the day — and this tutor is not just going to give them the answers. The end of the day when they're done, the kid takes an exam and photographs the exam and the teacher in India or wherever grades the exam and sends it back. It's amazing. It's a real simple one.

It turns out that when we read, we don't always read line by line. Some of us are old enough to remember Evelyn Wood speed-reading course. This is the tech version of this. What they do is they highlight the end of a line and the beginning of the next line with different colors, so your eye actually is forced to do this. The data on this stuff is fantastic in terms of the impact that it would have. That's easy. That's not replacing teachers. Clay Christensen at Harvard business school, the guy who developed this model of disruptive technology, which is really interesting for some businesses, tried applying it to schools and said, "Okay, by 2020 three-quarters of kids are going to be learning on computers," and that was in 2012. It's pretty bold, right? 2014, he says maybe a quarter of kids are going to be learning on computers.

I'm not anti-technology, but technology has got to be part of what it is that teaching is about. I think the biggest misunderstanding is that teaching is just about the inculcation of knowledge that's testable in some way. I want to say — I want to challenge you to answer more fully the question that was posed by one of the folks from ETS®, which was how do you know, aside from the fact that the kids are there and enthusiastic, that they're doing well? Which is really the question of, okay, they're doing portfolios; that's lovely. How do you evaluate the portfolio in a way that I, as an outsider, can understand it? You've got to be able to answer that question. You've got to be able to answer that question to me. I'm your buddy in this story.

But you get Eric Hanushek, he's the guy who's going to close the achievement gap by firing the bottom 5% of teachers. He says, "I don't know anything about teaching; teaching is a black box to me," which is the way economists would think about this, but teaching, as you know, is anything but this — it's kind of like this production. In come students here and out come better performing students. Again, if you don't have — if you don't deal with the messy business of human connections, trust-based, respect-based relationships between teacher and student, it's not going to happen. If kids get that you don't respect them, you don't have high expectations for them, you don't set limits, you don't show warmth, they're gone. Most folks in this room read Holden Caulfield, have read Catcher in the Rye at some point. All kids are Holden Caulfield. They're all good detectors of phonies, they get it and they're going to respond accordingly.

What I want to talk about a bit, before I get to Union City, I want to contextualize this more broadly, because since I've been writing for the Times, I've looked at programs that serve youth in varieties of ways. I'd argue that the success of all of those programs is rooted in this kind of human connection, respect-based learning. Start with preschool, which David was talking about. How many of you have been in a preschool in the last year? Good, wonderful. For the rest of you, if you want to make your day, go to preschool in the morning, don't go in the afternoon, it's kind of a semi lost cause by that time. Go in the morning and think you're going to observe, and those of you who have been in preschools know you are not going to observe. If the preschool is any good, kids aren't going to come running over to you, but they're going to enlist you in the projects that they're doing. Talking about project-based learning, you talk about math education, the best math education is things like big math for little minds. It's already out there. They're doing it on a mass scale. What it is that Bob and others are trying to do for older kids, they are doing it?

Here's Kirp's Law about teaching. The very best teaching is preschool teaching, and those guys and gals get the lowest salaries and the least respect. You go up the curve of salary and respect on one hand and on this angle, quality of teaching. No respect to the group that's here. Then you get to me at the end of the story, terrible teaching, respect, and salary. It's just really interesting to think of how it is that that should happen.

One of my fantasies — maybe ETS® will do this — is to get teachers from all the different grade levels together, because I think the pedagogical problems are very similar, and devise a set of cases for teachers across the age range of students to work out together. Among other things, it would — there's still lots of teachers who still think, "Oh, those preschool teachers, they're just in the babysitting business," still. Among other things, it would do stuff for that. Record it, post it, do all that stuff.

Let me just give you some more examples. Program called Diplomas Now. Diplomas Now love-bomb students, who by fifth grade are showing signs that they're going to be failures. They're missing a lot of classes, they're failing courses, and they're discipline problems, and they basically love-bomb these kids. They use City Year folks to connect up with individual kids, sort of buddies. They use an organization called Communities in Schools to focus on kids with greater needs and to pinpoint this kid needs this kind of support. Then there's a backbone organization that keeps track of everything. The teacher is engaged in all of this from the beginning, so this is not something that is going on apart from the teacher. Notice the essence of this. The baseline is that relationship between those City Year kids and whoever it is that Communities in Schools connects these kids up and how the teacher is going to change her relationship with that student because that student is going to be different as a result of that kind of intervention.

Right across the river there is something called Internationals Schools, with an S, this is not the international baccalaureate schools. Internationals Schools admit — they're high schools. They admit only kids who have come to this country in the last three years. They have something like 120 different nationalities represented in their schools. They are in three of the boroughs in New York and in California at this point. Those kids graduate, given an extra year, graduate in five years at a rate that's pretty close to the citywide average for New York. Think about that. Think about where they're coming from. Somebody who's speaking Burmese when she shows up, she's going to be one of the group that's graduating the citywide average twenty percentage points better than the English language learners in the regular school system. It's project-based learning, kids teaching one another, use of ESL-scaffolded language to help kids learn. Its use of projects that aren't just about words. To go back to the Ferris wheel example, if you want to measure the height of the Ferris wheel, you're not going to go out there with a ruler or get a big ladder and do this; you're going to figure out how it is that you construct an answer to this question. That's math. When I saw the projects they were doing as seniors, they just blew my mind. Just to say that they really could have been college projects. There you have another model, but it really depends on those teachers getting engaged with those students. By the way, another reason these kids learn English, they want to date one another. Kind of hard for a Burmese girl to date a Latino boy if they don't have a language together and do some learning if a common language is going to be English.

Youth build takes high school kids, high school dropouts, a third of them have been in jail, a third of them have been pregnant or dads of pregnant kids; 75% of those kids get their GED or high school diploma or an industry recognized certificate. Half of those kids, overall, go to college. What's going on? What is the program? It's small group instruction plus youth build. They're out there building houses in the neighborhoods that they were terrorizing. They're seen in those places as the good guys. I happened to be there at a day that they just finished their first 30 days in the program and they were so excited. I went up to a couple of them and I said, "So you guys dropped out of high school and here you are all excited about this stuff. What's going on?" I heard a phrase that I heard over and over again in such different context. "Here they have your back." They have your back, which means, among other things, getting out of the classroom. A kid's got an appointment with older kids, got an issue — hasn't paid traffic fines or is going to juvenile court and scared to death. Figure out a way to accompany that kid or find somebody who will accompany that kid, show that you really care or are engaged in this.

Math. I read about the Chicago math program, which you can find just by googling my name and Chicago math would get you there. Here's a program for the kids we're talking about, first round of this is ninth grade African American boys who are between two and six years behind. Do the simple math, nine minus six equals three. They're having problems adding three-digit numbers. At the end of the year — this is a very elaborately done control group study — the end of the year, those kids gained an average of an extra year, and the kids at the bottom of the ladder gained more. How did they do that? For one thing, they grouped kids by where they are in terms of math. So the kids who are at third grade level are working together. Then, they paired these kids, two kids to one tutor, like a City Year tutor, a math kid, an hour a day five days a week. An hour a day, five days a week. To the best of my knowledge, almost no dropouts from this program. If they continue this program with these kids, even the ones who were hopeless in terms of math when they start out, they got a shot at graduating from high school if they stick around for an extra year. Again, it's that relationship that's going on.

City University of New York Community Colleges, there's another famous study — I also wrote about this. You can find it, again, by googling. We focus a lot on access. We focus too much on college access, for reasons that we've talked about. There probably could be more kids going to college, a lot more kids getting decent training for real jobs. We don't spend anything like as much time on college persistence, college success. Six-year graduation rates for four-year colleges is 61%, the three-year graduation rate for Community Colleges is 34%. You want to know where the debt is, and the unpayable debt, it's those dropouts because they aren't going to be able to reap the return on their investment. City University of New York Community Colleges did the following — by the way, what they accomplished at the end, they went from a 32% graduation rate to a 66% graduation rate. All these things, if there's any economists in the room, they all do wonderfully on any benefit cost test that you could possibly devise, every one of these.

What did they do? They asked the kids, they asked the students, "What do you need?" Many of them have work obligations or family obligations, so they group schedule them. They're concerned about money, so they get last dollar scholarships, which is probably not a big deal because these kids are all Pell Grant-eligible kids, but it's nice to know. It's expensive to ride on the subways in New York. They get free Metro cards. It costs $1,000 a year for textbooks; that's a pretty amazing figure. City University Community Colleges buy the books, loan them to the students. All of that's nice, but if you asked the students what really mattered to them, it was having counselors, social workers, psychologists who they met with — sometimes in group, sometimes one-on-one, a lot one-on-one — during the year and what did the kids say when I asked them why they were so important? This is now going to become a mantra, it is they had our back.

Union City. I'm going to be relatively brief about Union City because you can read the book. I spent a year there, and I was able to go every place in that system. I'm a policy guy, so I didn't realize how lucky I was. I spent about a quarter of my time in a third grade class of kids learning English while they're prepping for the first high-stakes test. I was Mr. David in that group, couldn't be Mr. Kirp because I'm not a teacher; couldn't be David because — so I was Mr. David. Those kids were so affectionate. One day I walk into the class and I get 17 kids mobbing me. Seventeen eight-year-olds are going to be really too much for a guy who's older than eight. We wound up with table one, go hug Mr. David. They were fantastic. From there, to the school, to other schools, to the school system and the administration, to the mayor and the politics of the place, up to Chris Christie and talking about the teachers as treating the kids as drug mules — you all remember that New Jersey-ites? Horrible moment. Then Washington looming in the background with No Child Left Behind.

What did I find? Why did the system succeed? It's really simple. They built a system of supports from preschool to high school. I can briefly run through them. Two years of high-quality preschool, paid for by the state because of a court decision, the added decision. Some districts kind of took that not so seriously; they just leapt on it. You walk into those schools — my test of a school system is would I send my kid there? Absolutely, just 100% clear that I would do that.

These kids come from — the curriculum focuses on language, it is really a word-soaked curriculum. On the walls, reading stories, writing and drawing and doing science experiments, a journal of some kind or another, the beginning of every day. How do you teach kids English? First you teach them Spanish, because the linguists will tell you if you don't have a foundation in your home language, you're always going to be shaky in a second language. California substituted ideology for pedagogy, unfortunately, and we can't do that. Here, that's what they did. It's not as though, okay that was the Spanish class now we're going to move you into the English class. They looked at individual kids and the progress they were making. They would move kids from a Spanish-only to a kind of sheltered English to an English language class. Then they would group them at tables depending upon their language competency and their subject matter competency.

The third grade class had 17 kids, not a lot of kids, but our teacher had four preps — language plus skill level for that class. She's kind of a ballerina working her way around that classroom. Had mentors for the teachers, other teachers advising, senior teachers advising their junior colleagues. Had coaches who came into the class. They rarely sent teachers to conferences, but in the trade it's called spray and pray. I'm out there, the sage on the stage, gives you something, maybe, you can take home. I've got parents involved in a very deep way, and you had liaisons who really knew the community well. When I called home and said, "Where has Juan and Maria been for the last couple of days? Are they sick, can we do something? Can we get homework to them? What's going on?" - that's a real relationship in those schools. They paid a lot of individual attention to the kids.

When I left, I realized that we have IEPs — individualized education programs — for special needs kids. Basically, Union City has IEPs for most of its kids. Generally, they don't call them that, but they're planning what's going on. One wonderful example is how they assign special needs kids in high school. Usually what happens is the high school assigns non-special needs kids, then they put special needs kids in as they fit in those rooms. Union City flips it around. They start with the special needs kids. What subjects are needed in a self-contained class? What subjects can they work in a regular classroom with support? What subjects they find on their own in a regular class? Then they build everything else around that.

They do the same thing now with the toughest education problem, which is students who show up as teenagers — 13, 14, 15 — who are really illiterate in both Spanish and English. They've got five years to teach them English, Spanish, English academics, and America. Those kids, they don't do as well as the Internationals Schools kids, but they come close. They're graduating at about a 60% rate. They don't turn them into grinds. These guys, a lot of them run student organizations. I was talking to the young business leaders, which a lot of them that's where they see themselves going. It's the parents' dream to earn some money for themselves and the family. Last year, 3 of the top 20 students came from this immigrant group.

It's a really impressive program. They have a lot of testing in this program, but they don't use testing in a punitive way; they use it as a supportive way. They can tell if fourth grade teacher is doing better or worse than she did last year, better or worse than her colleagues. If it's math, better on numbers problems than word problems. Then they look and see, what about the kids? Are there groups of kids who fit into this category? The support goes to the teachers to improve what they're doing, often from other teachers helping, and to the kids themselves.

Union City has built a system. It's got a very strong administration. It has an, essentially, uniform program in its schools — essentially. Why? Again, because kids move. You can leave one school on Friday, go into another school on Monday and you're going to be pretty much in the same place in what it is you're doing. The superintendent meets twice a year with all the principals and they have what they call face-to-face meetings. The agenda is always the same. Where were we last time? Where are we now? Where are we going? Those meetings are followed by unannounced visits to classrooms and schools by the curriculum folks, not to do got-you with the teachers, but to go back to the principal and say, "Mr. Smith in that second grade classroom really needs help doing X, Y, and Z."

I'll tell you one story that puts all this together. What you had in that school district, you have high expectations. Over and over again you heard teachers really talking about the kids can go as far as — you want to do real well? We are there for you. We think you can do it, we know that you can do it. It's a warm place. I talked about respeto y abrazos. Abrazos is literally embraces. That's what's there.

One story kind of encapsulated it for me. I walked into an eighth grade math class, not taught by somebody who is sitting here, but by a woman probably in her fifties, looking kind of dowdy. She's got her back to the class, writing stuff on the board. This all looked very familiar to me — scarily familiar. What was interesting was I walk in, in the middle of this class, it's dead quiet and kids are taking notes. Remember where we are. (Inaudible 0:44:16) community, most of these kids not speaking English when they show up, etc., etc. High unemployment rate. Here these kids are absolutely quiet. I go up to the teacher and say, "No disrespect, but it's just amazing that you get a bunch of adolescents to just be totally attentive. How do you do this?" She says to me, "I'll tell you a story. Last week had a new kid come in, and when I was writing on the board, he starts making fun of me to the kids around him. They tell him to shut up. After class, that group of kids goes up to her and says, ‘Miss Jones, don't worry — '" and you can fill in the last phrase. Want to do this in chorus. "We have your back." Plot that across the way. That's what that system is like.

Here's the good news. There isn't an educator with a pulse who doesn't think all that makes sense. Here's the bad news. It's hard and it's constant. If you declare victory you are done. You guys are teachers — when I teach two sections of the same class at the same time, they're going to be very different experiences. That dynamic between that bright, engaged student, talented teacher — we hope — and challenging curriculum is going to look different. So, too, if you think system wide. You have to learn system was not doing well by those adolescent, immigrant kids who were illiterate, functionally, in Spanish and English, so they reinvented a program. The same thing is true of the special needs kids. It's fabulous. Go to the high school, which looks like a Taj Mahal — Union City is a very flat-looking district — and rising up on the hill there's the school, so impressive that the football stadium is carved out of the middle of the school, like a half an egg sitting there. They have three years of Mandarin Chinese in that school system, and my first reaction is Mandarin Chinese? My second reaction was yeah, Mandarin Chinese. Imagine that these kids are going to graduate tri-lingual.

I left Union City and I thought it's a great story, but educators are going to think, "It's a great story, but it has nothing to do with me." I went looking for districts which had higher test scores than you'd expect, given the demographics, and where the achievement depth was smaller. I found, essentially, the same thing. The particulars would vary, but system of supports was very much the same thing. What they all have in common is stability. A stable leadership.

I was hearing about the school in the Bronx where you've got all this turnover and building a system that's going to be impervious, it's got to be somehow be stronger than the change in the people who are there. That's tough, and it's tougher if you're trying to do this at a school level and it's tougher still, impossible, if you're trying to do this at a district level. I don't care if you're a MacArthur Genius Award winner, you are not going to take any urban school system and really strengthen it in a serious way in three years. It's not going to happen. Three years is the average tenure of an urban school superintendent. They are either get fired or they're looking elsewhere for something else, bigger school system, more money, whatever. You need stability. You need the city, and all these places that had superintendents that had been around for a good long while, they got the successors built into the system. That's tough, but that is, I think, the biggest policy challenge, because if you don't have that kind of stability, you really are not going to be able to build the sort of system I'm describing.

Americans are a really impatient people, as we know. How long do you think San Bernardino is going to be in the news? It's a big event. Remember the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut? You do know, because people have said not since Newtown, Connecticut, but it went away. Remember the bombing in Beirut? Probably not. What about the daily bombing in Baghdad? We really cycle through stuff very fast. Here, that's fatal. The bottom line message is somehow to get across to folks that Aesop really got it right, that sometimes the tortoise does beat the hare. Thank you.


Speaker: David Sciarra - Okay, we're going to open up for questions. I was asked to give a few reactions to David's talk, and I'll just give some very quick, just very quick points about this. The backdrop for what David talked about in Union City was a substantial infusion of funding into these school districts, beginning well before David got there. He talked about decade; it takes time. Back in 1999, 2000 under court order, the state had to put money into Union City. It was equivalent to what we spent in our highest suburbs in New Jersey, such as Princeton and places around here. That resulted in a significant year-to-year, not episodic, but stable year-to-year funding on a level that everyone knew was adequate for a high poverty district like Union City.

The other thing that happened was that the court ordered the state to fund what they called supplemental programs. I think the one takeaway from David's presentation is when he talked about all the different programs and staff and resources in those programs — guidance counselors, social workers, parent liaisons; I was writing them all down as he was talking about them — those all take money. Poor kids and poor schools need more. They need more than schools that serve more advantaged kids. Fortunately, we've had a court that's been insistent about that for over two decades. The result of that was, more money on top of an adequate base to provide a lot of this support, I think David called it, in school districts like Union City that were essential to build those relationships and connections. It wasn't always just on the teachers. There were sufficient guidance counselors, social workers in the schools, nurses, folks to work with parents, and so forth and so on. That all came about through the infusion of extra funding into the system.

The biggest supplemental program that the court ordered was preschool. In 1998 we had the benefit of the first high court ruling of any state Supreme Court, essentially holding that for poor students and poor schools, public education has to start at age three. That launched the implementation of a program that many of us know in this room, which is considered to be the nation's strongest universal preschool program, which is Union City and 30 other districts, the Abbott Preschool Program, where a lot of the issues that we were talking about in terms of teacher quality and supports were addressed. Such as additional staff, teacher certification, comparable pay for teachers that were teaching in public school classrooms or Head Start programs and community providers, so forth and so on. It's a huge support, I think, for what that district needed to move forward.

The last point I want to make, though, is that Union City is an example of money spent well and spent effectively. We have these endless debates in school finance reform in the states, which is oh, money doesn't matter and we talked about Eric Hanushek is Mr. Money doesn't matter runs around the country testifies in the court decisions that money won't make any difference, just follow fire the bottom 5% and that'll do it. Of course, money matters, and adequate funding matters, and extra funding to provide the kinds of supports and the conditions for the relationships that we're talking about here today matters. We also have to work at making sure that these systems — this is a big problem — that these systems effectively and efficiently use those resources, deploy those resources in ways that is designed to sustain long-term systemic improvements in school systems. That is an area we have done very little work and experimentation and research and evaluation, even though it's critical. I want to thank David for bringing his incredible message here today and so, with that, let me open it up for questions for David.

Female Speaker - Maybe your book outlines this, but if we want to recreate another Union City, what are the first three things an organizer needs to go back and do?

Speaker: David Kirp - In each of the cases in which school systems became exemplary, better than you'd expect systems, there was a crisis of some kind. Union City's crisis came ten years before David's story begins. It was so bad — second worst in the state according to the data that was being collected at the time. Their rallying cry was thank God for Camden. (Laughter.) They were threatened with state takeover, had to clean house. Local pride drove that effort. Local pride plus a state that really cleaned — I mean, this was a politically corrupt system — really cleaned that out. The role the community organizers played over time was to push for quality and to get parents to speak out for not just their own kids, which is the primary thing they need to do, but to speak out for the improvement in those schools.

Every place that I can think of had its own crisis. In a place called Aldine, Texas, which most of you have never heard of — I certainly hadn't — it's Houston's poor cousin. More kids than Boston or Washington or Cleveland or Detroit. With $8,000 per kid to spend, where if you go to see the superintendent and you want a cup of coffee, there's a jar you put in a quarter to get the cup of coffee. There the employers came to the school system and said, "We can't hire your graduates because they can't read and can't write or do any math." That was really a local pride issue.

In Montgomery County, which is a very interesting bifurcated county. One of the richest, most educated on one side of the freeway and a poor immigrant community on the other side of the freeway. They brought in a superintendent who basically said what David said, "Poor kids — you've been spending a dollar per scholar. It's not going to work. You've got to redistribute the money." Then he said everybody's going to be better off because the kids in what he called the green zone are going to improve and the kids in what he called the red zone are going to improve more. How did he improve performance in the green zone? There weren't enough AP classes, so that was the low-hanging fruit; he added advanced placement classes to that. What do they do at the schools in the red zone? He added the kind of community liaisons and social support, more teachers, smaller classes, curriculum revamping, and data that showed by any metric that you care to look at, improvement along the key factors, including math in eighth grade is one of those moments along the way in the narrowing of a gap.

Different stories, different places, no magic elixir, but community organizers are good at organizing parents. This sort of southwest industrial, those guys, that's what they are good at doing, getting parents organized around the issue of the moment — whatever that is. We need buses to take our kids to and from school — doesn't matter what the issue is. What matters is that it's the parents' issue. Start there. Start with the parents, not with I know what it takes to build systemic reform and work your way out from there.

It happens two ways. It happens from the top down — crisis, school system revamping — and it happens from the bottom up — parent pressure for concrete changes with increasing sophistication about what it takes to get a good education.

Female Speaker - Hi, how are you Mr. Kirp?

Speaker: David Kirp - I'm good, thank you.

Female Speaker - Thank you for all the information that you shared with us today.

Speaker: David Kirp - Can people hear in the back?

Female Speaker - Okay, I just have to get it closer. My name is Elan Drenning (sp? 59:36). I actually work in Camden City. I wish I could go back to a couple of comments that were made earlier, and to some that you made about Teach for America. I don't know, having done Teach for America myself, if I should repent with this crowd or not. (Laughter.) I do think it's worth visiting and talking about and exploring before I entered the classroom in Camden, New Jersey, I was an attorney. I taught third grade there just for two years, and I would have loved to stay in my classroom. [1:00:09] It was not sustainable for me because a lot of the things you were discussing in terms of socioemotional skills and self-advocacy and having students be stakeholders in their own community and parent engagement. All of the things that were working for Union City, my principal was not a fan of in a lot of ways. It wasn't my Teach for America experience that was driving that; I was very much a proponent of those things, and I'm still working in education in my district trying to bring restorative justice to the discipline policy that we have going in schools. It's not that I've left this work; it's just that I had to change the way that I see my impact. Operationalizing, essentially, where I see my voice as most significant and building coalitions between parents. When you have a third grade teacher who's also an attorney in an IEP meeting, things can get weird. I'd like to talk about —

Speaker: David Kirp - There's a question embedded here, I can tell.

Speaker: Elan Drenning - For sure. I want to know what the opposition to Teach for America is — not that I want it to be an op-ed answer, but I do want —

Speaker: David Kirp - Let me tell you about Union City. Union City has no Teach for America teachers, and the reason is real simple. It's not as though the people who go into Teach for America are not idealistic. It's not — although some of them are résumé padding, as you know. If you want to go to business school it's a good, cool thing to do for a couple of years. If you look down the road, a lot of them are like you. You went back to being an attorney, right?

Speaker: Elan Drenning - I work in school discipline.

Speaker: David Kirp - Right, working in that area. People run for school boards. They do various and sundry things. Why are there no Teach for America teachers in Union City? In a typical district, every place in the country, not New York where teachers would flock, or L.A., or whatever. Most people who are teaching were born, grew up, went to school, went to college, got married, bought a house, and raised kids within an hour and a half drive from where that story began. Most teachers across the country — and that builds camaraderie. When they talk about "our kids" they mean our kids.

If you add a Teach for America teacher to that mix, A, she's going to be gone most likely, and B, she doesn't know anything about the community, so she is going to be a disruptive influence in that school. In Camden, the mind boggles as I try to think about Camden and what it is that might rebuild that system. Fortunately, there aren't many places like Camden. One could think about Newark more profitably, because there are the elements that you could build on. I think if you've got a school system in which there is stability, in which teachers want to stay and do stay — that's why I am a critic of Teach for America. I'm less potent in my language than Bob is. That's the best I can do by way of an answer to that question. We need a mic over here and over there, wherever.

Male Speaker - There was a lot of talk this morning about how teachers engage with the students, and the kind of curriculum that allows them to meet students at the places where they are, and the necessity for altering the traditional curriculum so that can be done. What kind of curriculum were they doing in Union City, and how did they get teachers to begin to be able to meet the students where they were?

Speaker: David Kirp - That's a great question, and I want to start by saying although I can claim to some knowledge about a bunch of things, good and bad curriculum, specifically, is not something that I can talk about. I can talk about that question in a way that I think is useful.

The curriculum was started with a group of teachers looking at how kids learn, and then working backwards to figure out what curriculum would best work for that. They didn't pick — New Jersey, for example, had one of six "evidence-based curriculum" that you're supposed to choose from for preschool. They got a waiver. They had put together a curriculum that they thought was better, and they sold it because the teachers were developing it. And the same thing is true in every curriculum revision. It's a group of teachers who revise the curriculum during the summer.

I'll go back to my comment about preschool teachers are the best. The further up the system you go, in terms of age level, the harder it is to convince teachers that they're teaching kids and not subjects. In high school, what do you do? I teach math. No you don't. You do, but you teach math to students. If you don't get that — that's hard to do. It took a lot of very effective — a change in leadership in that school, someone who knew and cared a lot about teaching and learning and getting teachers to work differently. At the elementary school, the preschools were great in terms of what they were doing. The kindergartens, then, were old school. They brought the preschool coaches into the kindergarten and first grade and revamped those classrooms and teaching methods so they were a segue from kindergarten.

I'll tell you the teachers who just love circle time. Love it when the kids are — you know, Mother Hubbard and her shoe — just came to learn and that kind of controlled chaos that goes on when you've got centers. We talk about centers as some kind of magic thing, equipment breaks down, this kid is having a hard time, that group isn't getting it, how do I work with all of those groups? But they like it. They learned and they liked it. They got support from other teachers; they got support from coaches in terms of how to do it. I don't think the — the "what" matters, and they figured out the "what" themselves, the stuff. But the how, how did they get — which is the other real question you asked — how did they get it across to folks? That's really important. This is building on the community and believing you've got talented teachers and they know better how to get to those kids and selling it from outside the system.

By the way, I don't know if you've ever taught in a room as inhospitable to learning as this one in what is meant to be a discussion of pedagogy, which is why I am roaming around the room.


Male Speaker - It's nice to see you moving closer to everybody, though, that's good. The question is, now what is the involvement of student voice like in Union City?

Speaker: David Kirp - I think it's a great question, and I'll talk about the high school as an example. Anything that the high school kids — under the principal who is there now — and I talk about this a bit in the book — if the kids want to do something, it sort of doesn't matter what it is. If there are a group of them who are committed to some extracurricular activity — interestingly, one of those groups was boys want to learn how to knit, including some football players, just to break down whatever stereotypes people have in their heads. If they could find a faculty advisor — and you got rewarded if you were a faculty advisor who wanted to work with those kids. They started, whatever, a lacrosse team. Lacrosse in Union City, how interesting; it's not Princeton.

Early on in the tenure of this new principal, a student was killed in a tragic car accident. Her boyfriend, who was drunk, ran the car into a tree. He had lots of plans. He was the new guy, he was the academic guy, he was going to reform — okay, it's all halt. The students planned the memorial ceremony. What a signal. You start out. You do it. That's what I can say about student engagement.

Male Speaker - David, will you take one more?

Speaker: David Kirp - Sure.

Male Speaker - One more, then I promised David (inaudible 1:09:37).

Speaker: David Kirp - More or less one o'clock.

Male Speaker - Is this on? Yes, it is. Your comment about this room being horrible for teaching, is completely true. I'm an elementary teacher —

Speaker: David Kirp - By the way, if you're sitting back there, you know the fact that you're paying attention is fantastic, but you're in the far bleachers.

Male Speaker - An elementary teacher thinks about how to set up a room, a high school math teacher, if he said, "God, this room isn't conducive to doing math" — my question is, do the arts play any place in changing these schools, and if they do, could you talk about it?

Speaker: David Kirp - Yes. To indulge in the stereotype, there's a huge amount of artistic talent in the Latino community and they take full advantage of it. If you go look at the shows from the elementary school to the high school, they're unbelievable. They have a big music program. They have a big arts program — painting, sculpture — and that student stuff is all around the walls. In elementary school, all the kids' art is plastered around. In high school, the art from the art classes is plastered around. They do two other interesting things that districts could copy in a minute. They have this huge entryway as you walk into this school and they have an athletic hall of fame with the trophies — and they actually have life-sized, cardboard-y kind of sculptures of players who were there — and they have an academic hall of fame sitting right next to it, equal time for academics. Then, you walk down the hall, Ms. Jones, Mr. Gomez, BA Drew, MA Rutgers on the door. That's easy, right? You could just do that tomorrow in your schools, cost you ten bucks to get somebody to print those things out and put them on the doors.

It just sends the signal. We the teachers invested time and energy to be able to be here with you. That's the message — don't have to say it. That's both the arts and the other things in which they want to embrace multiple talent. The school, as I said, it's got three years of Mandarin. It also has really good programs and things like aeronautics and got a serious program in cooking — this is not home ec, this is serious chefery. They are listening to what students want. With Mandarin Chinese, the now superintendent went to a fancy Long Island district, saw they had Mandarin Chinese and she said, "Why not? Why shouldn't we have Mandarin Chinese?" So, they have Mandarin Chinese.

Thank you, it's been great to be able to spend time with you. I appreciate it.


On-screen: [ETS®. Listening. Learning. Leading.]

End of Transformative Districts video.

Video duration: 1:13:00