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Bruno: Underhwelmed By Union City Turnaround Story

430890004_98639b3bb7_nMaybe I'm too jaded, but David Kirp's weekend column about the successful turnaround of Union City schools that everyone else found so inspiring left me underwhelmed. necdotes like Kirp's are plentiful in education, but it's usually unclear what lessons we should take from them and this story is no exception.

For one thing, many of the descriptions of Union City's secrets are so unclear as to be meaningless. Kirp's recommendation that the "line vanishes" between "cognitive and noncognitive, thinking and feeling" in schools sounds vaguely pleasant, for example, but doesn't amount to much as education reform policy.

Nor is it clear how "strong leadership" helps to bring about what sound like genuinely impressive school improvements.

Even the more concrete examples of reform fail to illuminate the secrets to Union City's success. Lots of schools and administrators attempt to set clear expectations at the start of the school year and develop cultures of respect and interdependence and many teachers look for "teachable moments" during the day. These practices are mostly unremarkable, and yet they are also the practices to which Kirp attributes many of the schools' remarkable results.

Maybe I'm just too much of a cynic, but stories like this one make me suspect that there's more (or possibly less) to the story than we're supposed to believe. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)


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The point is that there isn't some kind of magic bullet other than actually executing these unremarkable practices consistently over a long period of time.

I think that's a generous interpretation of the article, Tom, but even if you're right that only pushes the problem back a step and the missing information becomes: how, exactly, were they able to implement these practices so consistently over a long period of time?

I certainly don't disagree that more-consistent implementation of unremarkable ideas can lead to significantly better outcomes - that's my attitude toward PBIS - but even still the interesting problem is how to do that.

You don't think universal preschool, with developmentally appropriate activities, is transformational?

Part of the point here is what they didn't do. None of this is data-driven. Yes, these "unremarkable" ideas are the same ones that were leading to good outcomes in many schools, before a squad of hired corporate reform advocates took over and outlawed them.

Get your damned heels off our throats, and let us teach like human beings.

Paul, I agree you are likely too jaded. As the article says there are places all of the country where true reform is happening. Groups of committed professionals are coming together around a vision. They are resisting the call for quick fixes and doing the difficult work of lasting reform. They are using the expanding research on school reform to change lives.

I'd love to hear what it is that fuels your skepticism so I can avoid stepping in it.

"School officials flock to Union City and other districts that have beaten the odds, eager for a quick fix. But they’re on a fool’s errand. These places — and there are a host of them, largely unsung — didn’t become exemplars by behaving like magpies, taking shiny bits and pieces and gluing them together. Instead, each devised a long-term strategy reaching from preschool to high school. Each keeps learning from experience and tinkering with its model. Nationwide, there’s no reason school districts — big or small; predominantly white, Latino or black — cannot construct a system that, like the schools of Union City, bends the arc of children’s lives."

Paul, I credit your overall skepticism, because you sometimes voice reservations about reformy claims. As far as I can tell, though, you've never been moved to write meh column regarding a specific reform turnaround claim, though. Have I missed one?

One thing I'm curious about is your apparent connection with the Making Waves Program. Were you a former administrative coordinator there? Is there an ongoing relationship?

I taught at Richmond High in 95-96, under Al Acuna, and wasn't aware of such a resource. The only program I could find for one particular student, identified as gifted, was a loose association of oil company managers who took kids out very occasionally on their sailboats (rendering their expensive hobby tax deductible).

So, is an external support like Making Waves a better model for real improvement than the kind of internally-led effort described here? Is a public/private partnership a necessary component for impressive improvement?

@Mary - Universal preschool is great, but if that's the only remarkable/unusual practice we can pull out of Kirp's column, that doesn't really change my point.

@Nelson - As I said, lots of schools try these things and fail. Kirp doesn't help us understand why. If the claim is really just that Union City has successfully implemented all of these unremarkable strategies, then the interesting question would be "how did they manage where others have failed?" He doesn't go there.

@Mary - I don't keep a ledger to make sure my "reformy/anti-reformy" books are perfectly balanced.

I was previously associated with MWEP, first as a tutor and then as an administrative coordinator, though I haven't had any relationship with them in years. I don't draw any broad lessons about internal vs. external schools supports from my time there, but would note that as I was leaving MWEP was coming to the conclusion that being an external support may not be as productive as integrating more fully into the school day, and they subsequently opened up at least one charter school.

My cynicism was not the piece itself, which struck me as worth learning more about, but the the "Secret to Fixing Bad Schools." header. ("Secret" and "Miracle" being two words that should be banned by sensible agreement). The "secret" formula -- good teaching, rigorous curriculum and student engagement -- are not a secret. They are merely difficult to achieve, and harder still to maintain.

@Mary - Actually, 5 or 6 years ago then NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein went to Union City and came back with the idea for the much-maligned ARIS data tracking system based on what he saw there.

I actually sat through testimony before the NYC Council from the guy who oversaw Abbott implementation (his name is escaping me -- the hearing was probably in 2007), who credited the distinct success story in Union City (unmatched in other Abbott districts) to two things: universal Pre-K and data-driven instruction.

While data-driven instruction wasn't discussed in the article, that doesn't mean wasn't part of reform efforts in the Union City district or unrelated to the success there. I'm not suggesting that the things outlined in the article weren't equally or even more important. I'm just saying data-driven instruction was not absent from Union City over the past decade and may well have contributed to the positive outcomes there as well.

I was delighted to see that I wasn't the only one who thought the article was a monumental pile of BS.

Skepticism is not only appropriate, but logical. I can't fathom what's up with anyone who swallows the story.

I am thinking that student life is a very essential time. So your life developing needs sometime enjoyment.

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