It isn’t that teachers and education leaders in Union City, New Jersey haven’t heard of the newest and greatest developments that are supposed to transform education so American students rival those from Finland or South Korea. It’s just that they believe it takes more than pedagogical or technological razzle-dazzle to help kids learn successfully — so they’re keeping it traditional.
Looking in from outside, Union City – a largely minority town in the low-income part of the state – should, like many similar towns, be struggling to get their kids to class every morning, much less actually getting them to graduate and go to college. A closer look at demographics such as an unemployment rate 50% above the national average and with 75% of students are from homes where English isn’t spoken would only strengthen that impression.
Yet after reaching something of a nadir in 1989 when the Union City schools were rated second worst in the entire state, things began to change.
Over the course of the past quarter-century, the situation steadily improved. Now Union City is the poster child for a successful urban school system. From third through eighth grade, students’ scores on the state’s reading and math tests are as good as or better than the statewide average. In 2011, 89.5 percent of the students graduated from high school—more than 10 percentage points better than the national average—and nearly 75 percent of them enrolled in college. Top graduates regularly win state science awards and scholarships to the Ivies, and the school runs a nationally known program for the newest Americans. Some of these kids do remarkably well—two of the top ten graduates in the Class of 2013 came to the U.S. just four years ago, speaking no English.
According to David Kirp writing for the American Prospect, there’s no secret in the turnaround. It isn’t a high-performing charter school or a timely infusion of technology. The district gives control to those people who know the students best – teachers and school administrators. The curriculum taught in the city’s classroom was designed by the best instructors and includes almost no rote memorization and places a focus on problem solving.
Because all schools and all teachers share the curriculum, there’s never a question confronting teachers about what each new crop of students learned in the prior year. Each instructor can pick up exactly where the last one left off — something supporters of the Common Core curricula identify as a selling point to address the difficulty of teaching students who change schools frequently.
Since poor families frequently move among neighborhoods, every school teaches essentially the same material. Close-grained analysis of students’ test results are used to diagnose their individual problems. Immigrant kids develop a solid foundation in their native language before learning English. Beleaguered teachers and struggling students get hands-on help. The schools reach out to parents, providing school uniforms to families that can’t afford them, helping them through the public bureaucracies that distribute welfare checks and green cards, enlisting them as partners in their children’s education.