Honest, Good Schools Are About Common Sense–Not Rocket Science

If you have never heard of David Kirp, or more importantly read any of his writings, you’re missing a treat.  Kirp, who has a Harvard law degree and was once a newspaper editor, is a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkley.  But he is not an isolated occupier of an office in an Ivory Tower, rather he spends a lot of his time debunking the notion that wisdom is only found at 30,000 feet.

And like me, he evidently believes that when it comes to knowing what is best for K-12 students, the only real “experts” are walking the halls of schools, not going to lunch with their think tank colleagues or sitting behind a desk in another bureaucracy.  I encourage you to read his book about schools in Union City, NJ. Improbable Scholars.

I also urge you to read this article in The New York Times about the transformation of the Union Public Schools district in Tulsa, OK.  Here are some excerpts:

“The class assignment: Design an iPad video game. For the player to win, a cow must cross a two-lane highway, dodging constant traffic. If she makes it, the sound of clapping is heard; if she’s hit by a car, the game says, “Aw.”

“Let me show you my notebook where I wrote the algorithm. An algorithm is like a recipe,” Leila, one of the students in the class, explained to the school official who described the scene to me.

You might assume these were gifted students at an elite school. Instead they were 7-year-olds, second graders in the Union Public Schools district in the eastern part of Tulsa, Okla., where more than a third of the students are Latino, many of them English language learners, and 70 percent receive free or reduced-price lunch.

Union shows what can be achieved when a public school system takes the time to invest in a culture of high expectations, recruit top-flight professionals and develop ties between schools and the community.

Union has accomplished all this despite operating on a miserly budget. Oklahoma has the dubious distinction of being first in the nation in cutting funds for education, three years running, and Union spends just $7,605 a year in state and local funds on each student.   

Last summer, Kirt Hartzler, the current superintendent, tracked down 64 seniors who had been on track to graduate but dropped out. He persuaded almost all of them to complete their coursework. “Too many educators give up on kids,” he told me. “They think that if an 18-year-old doesn’t have a diploma, he’s got to figure things out for himself. I hate that mind-set.”

This individual attention has paid off, as Union has defied the demographic odds. In 2016, the district had a high school graduation rate of 89 percent — 15 percentage points more than in 2007, when the community was wealthier, and 7 percentage points higher than the national average.

Beginning in 2004, Union started revamping its schools into what are generally known as community schools. These schools open early, so parents can drop off their kids on their way to work, and stay open late and during summers. They offer students the cornucopia of activities — art, music, science, sports, tutoring — that middle-class families routinely provide. They operate as neighborhood hubs, providing families with access to a health care clinic in the school or nearby; connecting parents to job-training opportunities; delivering clothing, food, furniture and bikes; and enabling teenage mothers to graduate by offering day care for their infants.

Superintendents and school boards often lust after the quick fix. The average urban school chief lasts around three years, and there’s no shortage of shamans promising to “disrupt” the status quo.

The truth is that school systems improve not through flash and dazzle but by linking talented teachers, a challenging curriculum and engaged students. This is Union’s not-so-secret sauce: Start out with an academically solid foundation, then look for ways to keep getting better.

“None of this happened overnight,” former superintendent Cathy Burden recalled. “We were very intentional — we started with a prototype program, like community schools, tested it out and gradually expanded it. The model was organic — it grew because it was the right thing to do.”

Since I live in Montgomery it is impossible not to compare what happened over time in Tulsa to the current “intervention” going on in Montgomery.  We are lusting after the quick fix and apparently think only high-priced consultants and out-of-state turnaround experts have the answers.

From my vantage point and several years of observation, I think Tulsa is right and we are wrong.

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