Feature                                                       Pages 22-27


Game Changing in Union


A new book captures the incremental business of rebuilding a remarkable New Jersey school system without charters, mass firings or closures of failing schools


Loosely coupled systems. That’s how Karl Weick, a renowned student of organizational behavior at the University of Michigan, describes school districts. There’s really no system at all, adds Weick, just “largely self-functioning subsystems,” a loose confederacy in which each school goes its own way.

What distinguishes Union City, N.J., a school district where I embedded myself as a researcher, is that, over time and with a strategy of continuous improvement, it has built a system in fact, not just in name. This organizational transformation goes a long way toward explaining the district’s headline-worthy success in bringing poor immigrant youngsters into the educational mainstream.

Kirp Union City supe
Union City, N.J., Superintendent Stanley Sanger has overseen the development of homegrown instructional and assessment practices leading to a major turnaround in student performance.

Union City makes an unlikely exemplar. It’s a poor community, four miles from Manhattan, with an unemployment rate 60 percent higher than the national average. Three-quarters of its students come from families where only Spanish is spoken, and it’s estimated that a quarter are undocumented. Most would be labeled “at risk,” educators’ euphemistic way of saying they are likely candidates to drop out or flunk out.

Proven Tactics
In communities like this, the public schools often operate as factories for failure. Not so in Union City. Reading and math scores in the 11,000-student district approximate the statewide average. What’s more, in 2011, the district boasted a high school graduation rate of 89.5 percent, about 10 percentage points higher than the national average. Three-quarters of the Class of 2012 enrolled in college, with top students winning scholarships to the Ivies. Immigrant youngsters manage the double feat of learning a new language while learning new subjects. Two of the top 10 graduates in the Class of 2012 came to the United States just four years earlier. After spending a year there, working on a book, I believe its strategy offers a usable model for districts nationwide.

When boiled down to its essentials, Union City’s approach sounds so obvious that it verges on platitude. Nearly 2,000 youngsters, almost all of the 3- and 4-year-olds in the community, attend full-day, top-drawer preschool. The schools compensate for the fact their students don’t hear much English outside school with a heavy dose of reading and writing. Immigrant youngsters develop a solid foundation in their native language before transitioning to English. The curriculum emphasizes problem solving, not memorization, and flows naturally from one grade to the next. Because poor families frequently move during the year, all of the schools teach essentially the same material.

Using close-grained analyses of students’ test scores, beleaguered teachers and struggling students receive hands-on help. The schools work hard to connect with parents, providing school uniforms to families that can’t afford them and helping them navigate the public bureaucracies so that they can secure food stamps or green cards. Crucially, they enlist parents as partners in their children’s education.

Year after year for a quarter of a century, this district has stuck with these proven game changers, improving at the margins. Without charter schools, mass teacher firings or closures of failing schools, Union City transformed schools that used to miseducate students into a seamless preschool-to-high school system.

Dire Consequences
During the 1980s, the Union City schools, never especially distinguished, degenerated into an outright embarrassment. The buildings were falling apart and the teachers were demoralized. What mattered most, the students weren’t learning.

The situation grew so dire that in 1989, the state threatened to seize control. Hometown pride is more than a cliché in Union City, and its leaders couldn’t conceive of an occupying force running its schools. They won a one-year reprieve, but the state’s message was unambiguous — if students’ performance didn’t swiftly improve, it would step in.

Other school districts faced with state takeover have sought expertise from outside, but Union City turned to a mid-level bureaucrat, Fred Carrigg, who had spent almost his entire career there. His assignment was simply put and impossibly difficult: Over the course of a summer, he and a team of curriculum specialists had to reinvent the curriculum.

Carrigg, then director of bilingual education/English as a second language, was chosen because he knew a lot about reading and bilingual education, both vital to the success of immigrant youngsters. “Everything starts from the fact that our kids can’t read,” he argued. By the time they are 4 years old, a classic study has shown, children from poor families have heard 30 million — 30 million! — fewer words than youngsters growing up in a professional household. Most begin school far behind and never catch up. This language deficit is even greater, the problem more acute, when, as in Union City, English isn’t their native language. To have a realistic chance of closing that gap, they need a literature-filled, word-soaked education.

Previously, the schools hadn’t given much thought to selecting textbooks. Carrigg required each team member to unearth research-tested strategies and match them with materials designed to sharpen the skills of thinking, reasoning and collaborating. Equally daunting, he insisted that all students — English speakers, Spanish speakers, gifted students and special education youngsters alike — be situated on the same academic path. Although the pace of teaching would differ, the end result would be the same. Instead of pulling students out of their classes for remedial education, which disrupted the rhythm of learning, specialists would work with students in the classroom.

Kirp Early Childhood
Strengthening early childhood education for all youngsters has contributed to marked gains in student outcomes in Union City, N.J.
The Early Years
Not only would the curriculum change, the pedagogy would change, too. Instead of teaching everyone at the same time and pace, students would spend several hours daily working together in learning centers. This approach matched the needs of a community where a typical classroom might include a half dozen youngsters with a solid academic background, two who were functionally illiterate, three special-needs students and four non-English speakers.

Such innovations might sound bone dry to noneducators, who get into a lather about classroom matters only when hot-button topics like evolution or sex education are on the table, but they recast the entire enterprise of teaching in Union City.

Because the first years of school matter so much, Carrigg’s group spent its initial summer revising the K-2 curriculum materials. For teachers, changes of this magnitude require considerable hard work. Not only did they have to devise new lesson plans, they also had to learn a new way to manage classrooms where students weren’t always seated in tidy, readily controlled rows.

When students in the lower grades started to do better, state officials loosened their grip. As Carrigg’s team’s plan was implemented in the upper grades, test scores continued their steady rise, and in 1995, the state gave the school district a clean bill of health. Parents began to take notice, and many who had sent their children to parochial schools returned to the public schools in Union City.

Help also came from an unlikely source, the New Jersey Supreme Court. In the landmark Abbott v. Burke case, the justices read the state’s constitutional guarantee of “a thorough and efficient system of education” as a charter of equality for urban youth. After that 1993 ruling, money began flowing into the state’s poorest cities, dubbed the Abbott districts.

In Union City, every Abbott dollar went to enhance instruction. Class sizes shrank, teachers received training in English as a second language and project-driven learning, specialists worked one-on-one with teachers, and computers were installed systemwide.

In 1998, the state court went further, mandating high-quality universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds in the Abbott districts. While many school chiefs disdained the prekindergarten requirement, Union City embraced it. It was a tall order. The school district had to convince parents of the benefits of an early education that prepares toddlers for school.

Because the public schools couldn’t house all of the 3- and 4-year-olds, the administration had to strengthen a host of private mom-and-pop day-care centers where TV watching, snack time and naps had been the main attractions, converting them into genuine preschools, with small classes staffed by college-educated teachers who understood child development. Within a few years, prekindergarten became a marquee program, and as the youngsters progressed through the grades, its long-lasting impact grew ever plainer.

Systemwide Attention
“The real story of Union City is that it didn’t fall back. It stabilized and has continued to improve,” says Carrigg, who worked in Union City for more than two decades. It is indeed a system, not a cult of personality, that has been constructed, and the commitment to continuous improvement is its cornerstone.

“The organizations that are most successful are the ones where the system is the star,” writes Malcolm Gladwell, author of Tipping Point. “The talent myth assumes that people make organizations smart. More often than not, it’s the other way around.” That captures Union City’s approach — people come and go but the organization endures.

Few superintendents sweep people off their feet. There’s no glamour to what they do, no dash and swagger, either. It’s just the daily grind. “We’re worker bees,” says Silvia Abbato, the assistant superintendent in charge of academics.

Ask Stanley (Sandy) Sanger, Union City’s superintendent for the past decade and himself a graduate of the city’s schools, what accomplishments he’s proudest of and he’ll tell you about two things — the school district’s blueprint, which lays out the elements of an effective school, and its homegrown assessments of student performance. That recital of the mundane typifies the incrementalism that keeps this system humming.

The “Blueprint for Sustained Academic Achievement” emerged in typical Union City fashion, as a practical way to solve a problem. In 2005, the district’s reading and math test scores slipped, prompting serious soul-searching.

One plausible explanation was the uneven quality of the principals — too many managers and too few education leaders. That realization led to the blueprint. Abbato, its principal author, studied what principals in the highest-achieving schools did and catalogued those effective practices. The 73-item checklist is a how-to book. Though the precepts sound self-evident, some principals weren’t following them. Take the first item: “Analyze testing results for targeted students [those on the verge of passing] to maximize student potential.” A history of counterproductive behavior underlies that dictate.

Purposeful Data

David Kirp
David Kirp embedded himself for a year inside the Union City, N.J., schools to document the remarkable systemwide turnaround.

Union City has invested considerable time and money to design reading and math tests. These assessments — the second item on the superintendent’s list of major accomplishments — mimic the state’s tests, and students’ scores have proven good predictors of their performance on those tests. The results are supposed to focus teachers’ attention on skills the students haven’t acquired, such as solving word problems or making sense of complex prose passages, and pinpoint which teachers most need help.

The “no excuses” camp of education reformers, who believe teachers’ fate should rest largely on students’ test scores, would salivate at this opportunity to reward and punish teachers. But Union City uses the data to improve the system. The results are intended to trigger one-on-one conversations between the principal and teacher, leading to a plan for improvement.

Abbato realized from her school visits that some principals, perhaps fearful of confrontations or unaware of what steps to propose, were stashing the scores in a desk drawer. Hence the first precept of the blueprint: Use them.

Other checklist items sound similarly commonsensical: “Conduct professional development with staff,” “assist the administration in the development of the school’s budget,” “review teachers’ plan-books for instructional strategies to support best teaching practices,” “deploy data-driven decision making,” “emphasize learning experiences that require all students to use higher-order thinking skills,” and “develop in-depth knowledge about concepts and be able to apply what they learn to real life situations.” Each one addresses a failure of leadership that Abbato encountered. Veteran principals may not want — or be able — to do things differently, but retirements have generated an opportunity to build leadership capacity.

No Snooper-Vision
“Face to face” sessions are a key to building that capacity. Twice annually, senior district administrators spend an hour or two at each school, conferring with principals and their top assistants. In preparation, each school produces a binder that lays out new initiatives, such as launching an artist-in-residence program or finding attention-grabbing activities to attract parents. But Union City’s reputation rests heavily on its students’ test scores, and those data drive the conversations. The district’s blueprint, with its benchmarks for demonstrating effective leadership, hovers in the shadow.

The school’s leadership is peppered with questions by Sanger, who mainly focuses on the big picture, and Abbato, who dives into the teaching and testing. Others from the central office inquire about the bilingual program, the use of technology and the budget.

The top administrators are on the lookout for innovations like an electronic plan book that one school developed to replace handwritten teachers’ reports. “When we find a good idea, we bring it to the other schools,” says Sanger, who has worked in Union City schools for 32 years.

Within a few days of a visit, each school receives a summary of the discussion that highlights what’s working well and what requires rethinking.

While principals are encouraged to flag their problems, the understandable urge is to cast the school in the best possible light. “We’re probably getting 20 percent bull,” Sanger estimates, “but you can get a sense of what’s real and what’s fabricated.”

The central administration often follows up with an unannounced visit, something the superintendent calls “supervision, not ‘snooper-vision.’” Abbato leads a team that drops in on classes to observe lessons, talk with teachers and students, and peruse students’ portfolios. They share what they’ve learned with the principal, sometimes proposing changes. These two managerial strategies, the face-to-face and the site visits, are designed to keep the schools in alignment, delivering the same high caliber of instruction.

Make no mistake — this school district doesn’t own the patent for success. Although most of its students pass the state exams, a disappointing few perform outstandingly, and the 2,400-student high school, while enormously improved, remains a work in progress. What matters is that improvement is treated as an ongoing enterprise.

Long-Term Approach
In 2003, Fred Carrigg went to work at the New Jersey Department of Education, assigned to show floundering urban systems how to adapt Union City’s system-building approach to fit their circumstances. “Don’t think about it as a miracle,” he cautioned. “Miracles can’t get duplicated, but the approach that we took can be used anywhere.”

To Gordon MacInnes, the assistant commissioner in the state education department who oversaw the implementation of the Abbott rulings, the explanation for Union City’s success is straightforward. “Good management matters,” he says.

Administrators flock to school districts like Union City that are beating the odds, eager for a quick fix, but they’re on a fool’s errand. These school systems — and nationwide there are a host of them, big and small, generously funded and penny-pinching, predominantly African American or Latino or heterogeneous — didn’t become exemplars by behaving like magpies, taking shiny bits and pieces and gluing them together.

Instead, each of them spent years devising a coherent preschool-to-high school system of supports. Nationwide, there’s no reason school districts cannot construct a system that, like the schools of Union City, bends the arc of children’s lives.

David Kirp is the James D. Marver professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. E-mail: kirp@berkeley.edu. He is the author of Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools (Oxford University Press, 2013), from which this article is adapted with permission of the publisher.


Give your feedback

Share this article

Order this issue