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Think. Discuss. Act. Education Reform

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Review: How to Fix the Country’s Failing Schools

David Kirp (2016, January 10). “How to Fix the Country’s Failing Schools. And How Not To.” New York Times.


A few years ago, Newark’s charismatic mayor Cory Booker boldly proclaimed he could turn around the city’s failing schools in just five years. Like so many urban public school departments, Newark’s schools had been an embarrassment for decades. What the department needed, Booker said, was a radical new approach. With support from Governor Chris Christie and a $100 million grant from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Booker implemented a dramatic plan to bring accountability to Newark’s education system. Failing schools were shut down, charter schools were started to compete with the regular schools, and teacher tenure was weakened to make it easier to hire and fire teachers.

Five years later, Newark’s schools aren’t doing any better. Meanwhile, according to David Kirp, professor of public policy at the University of California, the nearby school district of Union City, New Jersey, has quietly begun to accomplish what Newark failed to do. Union City’s schools were once as bad as Newark’s, but now they’re doing much better: Kirp cites that 81 percent of Union City students graduate, compared to only 69 percent in Newark.

Union City has succeeded, Kirp says, precisely because they worked quietly and with little fanfare. He argues that the solution to failing school districts is to have skilled, competent teachers and administrators who work together with mutual trust and support. The only way to create this kind of healthy organization is to build slowly, from the ground up. Investing in teachers’ professional development is not flashy, but it works. Kirp says that,

Newark’s big mistake was not so much that the school officials embraced one solution or another but that they placed their faith in the idea of disruptive change and charismatic leaders. Union City adopted the opposite approach, embracing the idea of gradual change and working within existing structures.

Education reform is a sort of political Rorschach inkblot test, where everyone can see something different in the same image. While it’s hard to dispute Kirp’s argument that slow and steady is effective, many observers would question whether Union City’s schools are really doing so well. Its standardized test scores are still in the same range as Newark’s and well below the state average. Furthermore, Newark is a very large district with seventeen high schools, compared to only one high school in Union City. The sort of organizational competency Kirp is looking for might be seventeen times harder in Newark.

Some critics say the real problem is in thinking that perfect schools can solve all of society’s problems. If everything that’s wrong with the world—poverty, racism, bad nutrition, overworked parents, homelessness, neighborhood violence, etc.—all contribute to bring down students’ performance at school, it does not necessarily mean that better teachers can make all of these problems go away. This is what education journalist Dana Goldstein calls “magical thinking”: the idea that teachers are these supernatural creatures who can miraculously solve poverty. She argues that this attitude makes it much harder for teachers to do their job. Poverty isn’t going to be erased in a single generation no matter how much we invest in teachers, and the average teacher already struggles with feeling guilty for each and every student’s failures.

In Kirp’s account of Newark’s reforms, he implies that creating charter schools and limiting teacher tenure are not the answer and may even be counterproductive. Cory Booker promised to turn Newark’s schools around in 2009, but the current regime in Union City began its efforts twenty years earlier, in 1989. If Kirp is correct that a long effort is key, perhaps Newark’s methods will be successful if given enough time. Newark’s recent failures don’t necessarily mean their reforms were misguided.

Kirp’s primary point, though, is that the short-term, top-down approach favored by Booker and funded by Zuckerberg will never work, no matter how much time they have. Kirp’s argument echoes a surprising survey done by business writer Gregory Ferenstein about the political views of Silicon Valley technology elites, such as Zuckerberg. Ferenstein’s research found that while tech leaders are generally liberal, they are mostly fine with inequality.

Ferenstein says that “Deep down, a lot of them believe that a small minority—like them—create a hugely disproportionate share of the world’s wealth.” They tend to support “equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome.” Because of this, they’re skeptical of investing in mass education that might improve people’s lives but likely won’t lead to any radical new discoveries. Instead, many would prefer a system of educational “‘diamond finders’—large nets that give opportunity to the rare geniuses born into poor circumstances.”

Ferenstein’s survey suggests that the controversy of education reform has more to do with each side’s social values and underlying worldview. Perhaps they disagree over methods like charter schools and teacher tenure because they have different goals. Kirp, on the other hand, argues that these radical reformers are barking up the wrong tree. He argues that the disruptive, top-down approach of charismatic leaders with bold plans might be a good way to make a technology company, but it’s counterproductive when applied to a school department.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. When you see a dysfunctional organization, is your instinct generally to get rid of everyone or to support slow and incremental progress? For example, if you’re a sports fan, are you generally pleased when your team fires its coach after a losing season?
  2. Do you think that schools are the best leverage point to reduce poverty and other social problems? If so, what do you think should be done when schools aren’t good enough and poverty persists? If schools are the best solution to a limitless problem, then what should be our approach to school reform?
  3. Do you think that a few geniuses are responsible for most of society’s progress, or that the leaders simply get disproportionate credit for everyone else’s work?


  1. David Kirp argues that Cory Booker’s school reforms in Newark failed because he tried to radically change the system from the top down. Instead, the only way to create a healthy organization is to build from the ground up.
  2. While Kirp is also critical of Booker’s other policies—like charter schools and reducing teacher tenure–there’s still a lot of disagreement about the merits of these methods. Many education reformers disagree strongly about what the schools are even trying to achieve—for example, whether test scores are a valid measure of student success.
  3. Disagreements about the goals and methods of school reform reflect deeper disagreements about the role of the individual in society. Some reformers, like the technology leaders polled by Ferenstein, seem to prefer individual achievement over broadly shared success.
  4. Some critics argue that extreme optimism about school reform is counterproductive, that encouraging teachers to be perfect is harmful to the profession.

Peter Bass
© 2018 CYS


Gregory Ferenstein (2016, Jan. 9). “I quizzed dozens of Silicon Valley elites about inequality. Here’s what they told me.”

Joe Posner (2014, Sept. 6). “As if teachers’ jobs aren’t hard enough, they’re asked to fix poverty, too: 150 years of magical thinking on teachers.”

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