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  • Writer's pictureAdam Dayan, Esq.

Book Review: Improbable Scholars by David Kirp

I was eager to read Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth Of A Great American School System And A Strategy For America's Schools by David Kirp after coming across an article written by Kirp in the New York Times a few months ago. For purposes of this book, the author spent time auditing classrooms and interviewing school staff in the public schools of Union City, New Jersey. The first third of the book or so is devoted to describing the students, the teachers, the administration in Union City. At some point, the narrative becomes boring, and not very enlightening in terms of pedagogy and educational approach. In much of the book, but especially so in the first third, the author relies on platitudes and quotations that convey very little. In my opinion, this cheapened the quality. In terms of readability, the beginning of the book was slow.

But the book does pick up. Kirp spends some time reviewing the history of New Jersey's educational woes. He explains how the tribulations of the past have played a role in the success that Union City has achieved today. He discusses the Abbott case (or I should say cases since they were a string of decisions over the course of many years) and the implications for the future of New Jersey's most impoverished and needy children. Kirp explores the role that politics plays in education reform. He highlights Brian Stack, the mayor of Union City. These sections of the book are fascinating.

The book continues to pick up steam toward the end. Chapter 9 titled What Union City Can Teach America grabbed my full attention with Kirp's ruminations on controversial authorities such as Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, ruling by fear vs. leading by encouragement, voucher programs and charter schools, the Eli Broad scholarship fund, and the recent cheating scandals. In contrast to some other chapters of the book, Chapter 9 seemed to be thorough and meaty.

To sum up - I probably wouldn't give this book an "A" for readability (contrast with Class Warfare by Steven Brill which is a page turner). The content of the book is somewhat narrow in scope but I guess you had to know that going into it. Nevertheless, I think it does paint a vivid picture of a collaborative, goal-oriented, caring, trust-based, supportive, data-driven educational environment which other schools may be able to learn from. Kirp's presentation of this information made me think about familiar ideas in new ways and I think, on the whole, it was worth the read.


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