“Improbable Scholars”: Urban Students Can Get a Great Public Education, Too


A nurturing culture is at the forefront of Union City’s success.

David L. Kirp’s 2013 book, Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools, shows us that the average urban school system can be a great one–but that takes a lot of doing. Kirp offers a case study of Union City, NJ, a small but heavily urban district comprised largely of first- and second-generation immigrants from Latin America. While many urban school districts languish, Union City students put up test scores that are on par with their suburban counterparts nationally. High school graduation and college entrance rates also rival those of students’ more privileged peers.

How do they do it? It’s wildly complicated.

Controlling What They Can Control

Kirp closely examines Union City’s school system from all levels: classroom, building, district, preschool, and the mayor’s office. Each level comes with its own issues, and still more issues intertwine with other entities throughout the system. Throughout the book, Kirp lays out how years of effort have coalesced into the districts’ infrastructure of practice. That structure features vital elements such as a coherent curriculum across schools, so moving within the city limits affects students less; a culture of observation and coaching toward improvement for all teachers and principals but particularly for novice ones; collaborative support among teachers within grades and departments; and differentiated learning opportunities for all students on a daily basis. These elements were developed through years of collaboration by teachers and school leaders at all levels of the district.

However, all of these elements stem from Union City’s commitment to bilingualism and multiculturalism. Many students begin their schooling at UC knowing only or mostly Spanish. Instead of force-feeding students English-only instruction, teachers ensure that students are fluent in written and spoken Spanish before focusing on English (though instruction happens in both English and Spanish). This philosophy posits that Spanish fluency actually leads to better English fluency, and UC leaders see bilingualism as nothing but an asset. In fact, many high school students elect to take languages such as Mandarin because they have already met their foreign language requirements at a young age.

This focus on fluency in both languages requires pinpoint matching of students and teachers based on students’ and teachers’ abilities. That matching in turn requires an in-depth knowledge of the abilities of everyone involved. School leaders have made a commitment to understanding the potential of their human resources and which classroom will benefit each student the most.

These schools also maximize their parental resources through meaningful and manageable parental involvement opportunities. And teachers further bridge the gap between home and school by emphasizing Latino cultural principals such as abrazos (a nurturing culture) and respeto (a collective of mutual caring and sharing). These values are already a part of children’s lives in the community at large, so they are a perfect groundwork for building a community of learners at school. Parental liaisons on staff also help ensure that student, parent, and school needs are being met.

Perhaps just as importantly, many of the faculty and staff are from Union City and the surrounding area, and a sizable number of them are immigrants themselves. Kirp shares some of their fascinating stories and relates just how connected these adults are to the personal experiences of their students. Teaching and leading is undoubtedly easier when one understands what it’s like to struggle in learning a new language or to miss loved ones living in a distant country.

Outside Forces

Naturally, money has made developing this infrastructure significantly easier. New Jersey spent over $18,000 per pupil in 2012, as compared to a mere $7,200 allotment in Michigan. Those high levels of funding have been secured by decades of hotly-contested NJ Supreme Court decisions.

As Kirp points out, “Of course money doesn’t assure good outcomes, just as money doesn’t guarantee happiness, but it still can make a considerable difference.” Perhaps he should have added, “. . . if you know how to spend it.” Kirp himself discusses other cases in New Jersey with the exact same funding levels–Elizabeth and Trenton–that tried isolated, building-level reforms that failed to produce gains. The city of Orange also adopted UC’s systemic approach to district-wide reform and made significant gains in test scores until the school board was ousted and the comprehensive approach was abandoned.

Clearly, Union City Public Schools is an entity that knows how to use its resources effectively. In 2009 it opened a massive, consolidated high school that is fully-equipped with 21st century educational technologies. A well-funded state initiative for preschool for low-income students is well-monitored by the school district and helps ensure that students begin elementary school ready to learn. And even with budget cuts constantly looming, the district makes every effort to avoid cutting personnel through outsourcing some services, insourcing others (a rarity these days), and eliminating positions after some administrators retire. UC stands as a shining example of the possible returns that can stem from extensive state funding for schools.

Union City also has the benefit of the enormously powerful and influential Mayor Brian Stack, the title character of Kirp’s “Mother Teresa Meets Mayor Daley” chapter. An ardent champion of UC Public Schools, Stack has used his political muscle (he’s also the local state senator and appoints the school board himself) to bring in talented school leaders and valuable government education grants.


The Union City School District is not without its challenges. Funding streams are not particularly stable, as state-level funding has been battled in the New Jersey Supreme Court for decades. Teacher buy-in and even principal buy-in has been difficult to navigate as the district has introduced new reforms. Some old-guard squeeky wheels remain. The student population is highly transient, and despite curriculum standardization across the city, those reforms are of no benefit to students who move outside the district.

And then there’s perhaps the greatest anathema to every modern classroom: the nearly omnipresent burden of standardized testing. As Kirp relays in near heart-wrenching detail, the progress of even the most successful and veteran teachers essentially grinds to a halt as students prepare for their state-mandated testing every year. Aside from the terror felt by teachers and administrators that their heads are on the block if test scores are labeled unsatisfactory, they must also contend with losing sizable amounts of instructional time. Kirp notes that even such rich educational opportunities as elementary school science experiments are put on the back burner because they’re not focused specifically on literacy or math skills. While these educators acknowledge the usefulness of metrics in school improvement, this overemphasis on standardized testing is significantly hampering student learning.

Detractors Abound

Despite the countless challenges, Union City has become a resounding urban education success story. Everybody wants to know what the secret sauce is. The easy answer is money, but as mentioned before, things are not that simple; increased funding does not always translate into improvement. Union City features a rather unique mix of characteristics that contribute to success: a tireless mayor with the power to appoint a cooperative school board; copious revenue streams that are currently guaranteed by state supreme court rulings; a homogenous ethnic population that actively supports values of community support and respect; and a small-sized district for an urban setting.

Skeptics point to these traits and claim that such a setting cannot be replicated. Kirp admits that they’re right about that, as every district and situation is different. However, he asserts that significant change is possible elsewhere and under very different circumstances. He sites the school districts of Montgomery County, MD, Aldine, TX, and Sanger, CA, as examples of vastly different programs that have turned their struggling districts around. Progress tends to be slower in these areas, however, which Kirp mostly attributes to less per-pupil funding.

Leadership: The Common Bond

The constant across these examples of sustained school improvement is leadership. Big or small, rural or urban, well-funded or barely scraping by, homogenous or diverse, Improbable Scholars asserts that meaningful change is possible with the right educational leadership at every level of the system. It makes a strong case for the power of a collective commitment to the mission of public education and to constantly improving leadership at all levels. And just as importantly, the book stresses the importance of school leaders’ abilities to adapt to whatever circumstances come their way. Improvement does not happen in a vacuum.

The students of Union City come to school with so many challenges, the same sorts of challenges that millions of students face throughout the country. However, those children now have a fighting chance to succeed thanks to tireless school leaders, teachers, parents, and the community at large.

Further Reading:

Kirp, D. L. (2013). Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

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