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Think. Discuss. Act. Education Reform

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Review: Improbable Scholars

David L. Kirp (2013). Improbable Scholars. New York: Oxford University Press.


David Kirp’s book, Improbable Scholars, is the latest salvo in the increasingly heated struggle over school reform. Kirp takes an approach that many reformers might find surprising: he essentially argues that the status-quo should remain in place. Kirp - Improbable ScholarsKirp is deeply concerned about the pervasive failure of our country’s education system, yet he says that radical solutions like vouchers, charter schools, eliminating the teachers’ unions or paying teachers by performance will only destabilize and harm the system. Such medicine is worse than the disease, he argues. Instead, Kirp makes the case that our current approach to public schools is fundamentally sound: we just need to do a better job of it. The real issue, he says, is to find principals and teachers who are good at their jobs, to find curriculums that work, and to work hard to do all the little things that make any good organization successful.

The main body of Kirp’s book is a narrative about Union City, New Jersey, a predominately Latino area that happens to be one of the poorest school districts in the state. Yet Union City’s students test at state-average levels and 90% of them graduate high school. Has Union City found the key to escaping poverty in America? Kirp decided he needed to see for himself. The book chronicles his tour of the district, from preschool to high school, to see what makes the Union City schools so effective. He also compares their methods to those of other successful school districts, in order to generalize about the most effective policies.

Factors of Success: Stability and Attention to Detail

Kirp’s underlying argument is that universal public education is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do well. A public school district is an immensely complicated organization, and any number of things can go wrong. He compares a school district to a mechanical watch: there are a thousand little, tiny parts, and if any one of them breaks then the whole watch stops ticking. Even if a lot of schools are like broken watches, Kirp believes in the power of watchmakers. He says we’ve been working with these complex systems for long enough that we know how to make them work. The problem, he says, is that the solutions are difficult to implement. The success stories he describes took the better part of a decade to achieve, with the superintendents pushing and wrangling every step of the way to get their ideas put into practice. Unfortunately, most superintendents don’t get that kind of chance.

You could say that fixing a school district is like trying to repair a watch on the deck of a ship in the middle of a hurricane. Most superintendents only last a few years. Even a brilliant leader who knows exactly what to do will probably not have enough time to see their ideas carried out. Kirp places a lot of the blame at the feet of “impatient” school boards who get panicky if they don’t see immediate results (p. 205).

Kirp says:

This kind of churn is the enemy of success, for with revolving-door superintendents there’s no chance for new ideas to stick. In such places the teachers may well adopt a wait-out-the-new-guy attitude—understandably enough, since the incumbent school chief will be gone before having a chance to implement those bright new ideas (p. 205).

After all, it’s hard to change any large organization, even if the person in charge has the solution in hand. Kirp’s account is full of skeptical teachers and city councils that have to be won over at every point. Often the teachers stand to lose some of their autonomy by the new research-driven curriculums their new bosses propose. In this context, Kirp admits that teachers’ unions can be a huge hassle: if the union opposes the reforms, the reforms probably won’t happen. However, Kirp argues that these are obstacles that can be overcome and maintains that smart school districts around the country are succeeding in overcoming them.

Good Practices in Action

For example, every successful district put a lot of work into reforming and standardizing its curriculum. The new curriculums were informed by the best practices advocated by the leading educational research, but each district typically brought in their best local teachers to figure out how to tailor the expert advice to the local context. A big part of making a successful curriculum is enforcing it: before the reforms, many districts had nominal curriculums, but in practice teachers were free to ignore them. The reforming superintendents went tirelessly from school to school, meeting with teachers and persuading them to take the new policies seriously. They organized regular meetings between school principals to talk about how the process was going, compare notes, and learn from each other.

The reformers also instituted regular evaluation and coaching for teachers. The coaches provided support when the teachers were struggling, but they also helped the teachers to improve on their mistakes and figure out why their old method wasn’t working.

Additionally, they started using in-house testing systems (typically comparable to the state’s standardized test) to generate data for troubleshooting problems. The data told administrators which teachers need additional help, and it told the coaches sent in to help them what issues to work on.

Another key reform was to invest in preschool education. The research is emphatic that good preschools can be an essential preparation for elementary school, especially for students whose parents lack the resources to prepare them at home.

Of course, high-quality universal preschool is very expensive, as are teacher evaluation and coaching systems. Economists have often found that school funding is largely unrelated to outcomes, that some of the best school systems in the world (such as in Singapore) spend far less per pupil than the US does. On the other hand, it might be more expensive to fix a broken school system than to maintain a functioning one. Many of the districts Kirp praises have had to choose which goals to pursue. For example, the schools in Sanger, California were failing ten years ago but now feature one of the highest graduation rates for Latinos in the country. To get there, however, they had to prioritize the needs of the lowest performing students—college graduation rates and AP scores remain very low. The school administrators Kirp interviewed were always talking about how much more they could do if they had more funding.

While each of these policies is essential for a functioning school district, Kirp insists it’s the little things that hold all the pieces together. Schools need to have a culture of high expectations, respect and positivity. They need to “put the needs of students, not the preferences of the staff, at the center of decision making” (p. 209). But good policies aren’t enough to make the whole system believe in these values. The real question is whether the powers-that-be are prepared to be put in the leg work required to make it happen.

For example, in Montgomery County, Maryland, “Deputy Superintendent Frieda Lacey became famous for ‘appearing in principals’ offices with a list of names of qualified African American students in their buildings who were not in AP courses, and talking with students themselves about why they were not enrolling” (p. 200).

Meanwhile, Montgomery Superintendent Jerry Weast managed to convince residents in the wealthier neighborhoods in the district that their own children’s schools should actually get less funding than the schools in poorer neighborhoods–that the wealthy folks’ property taxes should go to subsidize the education of other people’s children. He argued that a universally successful public school system would improve property values across the whole county, raising everyone’s boat. It was a hard sell, but he convinced them.

In Union City, many principals didn’t want to use the new teacher evaluation system because they were afraid of conflicts with teachers. The superintendent’s office had to work with each principal just to persuade them to use the system that was already in place. Every school has its own culture and way of doing business, and the superintendent had his hands full keeping them all on the same page. In many districts, principals are given free rein to do whatever they want, and this makes it hard to focus on best practices.

A good school system needs to be efficiently managed, with a lot of cooperation at all levels of the system, and an eye for the long term. This is why Kirp is so skeptical of charter schools and market-driven reforms.

Why Free-Market Reforms Get in the Way

He admits that charter schools might have some role to play as centers of innovation and experimentation, but he insists that this role must be minimal, “at the margins” of the system (p. 214). The whole idea behind charter schools is that they would be independent from the public district, under the assumption that the public organization was a mess. But if the public district is functional, then this independence makes it hard to coordinate between different schools. More importantly, in Kirp’s eyes, the reformers who put all their hopes in charter schools are giving up on the rest of the system, and he insists it’s not too late to give up.

Kirp is also derisive of merit-based pay, arguing that it’s entirely the wrong way to motivate teachers. The idea of merit-based pay is to measure student achievement and tie teachers’ salaries to the outcomes, so that the best teachers will make more money and the worst will be fired. Kirp agrees that student performance should be measured and teachers should be held accountable for the results, but he thinks it’s a better idea to send a coach or counselor to help teachers find a better solution, instead of just docking their pay

In general, Kirp argues that radical school reformers have entirely the wrong approach. Their standard method for an underperforming school system is to demand an instant turnaround, or else the principal and the majority of the teachers will lose their jobs immediately. The assumption is that teachers know exactly what to do in order to get good results from their students but are simply too lazy to do it. The administrations of these reformers, such as Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein, have been the opposite of what Kirp advocates: short, stormy, full of bravado and lacking in on-the-ground technical expertise. They work by coercion instead of persuasion, alienating their potential supporters, often firing principals for seemingly arbitrary reasons. Instead of getting everyone on the same page, Kirp says, these reformers create an atmosphere of mutual hostility and distrust, where everyone’s too afraid for their job to think about the long-term future of their students.

Many reformers portray teachers’ unions as the villains of the story, but Kirp is convinced that the unions can be reasonable, that it’s even possible to bring them to the table and give them a hand in designing the reforms. He says,

In every one of these exemplary districts, trust has been achieved even as teachers are both evaluated and supported far more intensively than in a typical school system. It isn’t the union that makes or breaks a district’s efforts to change outcomes for poor and minority students–it’s the district’s commitment to turning the personnel they have into the professionals they need (p. 207).

Kirp’s opponents in the reform movement are not yet persuaded, however. Russ Whitehurst of the Brookings Institute, a leading advocate of market-based education reforms, argues that Kirp’s account makes for a nice story but that it’s essentially lacking in quantifiable solutions. He argues that qualitative solutions like “collaboration” and “mutual trust” are unhelpful, because there’s no way to measure them to determine whether you’ve achieved them or not. Such approaches are not falsifiable and therefore of little practical benefit (Whitehurst, 2013).

Free-market reformers like Whitehurst typically agree that good teaching methods and good administrators are necessary for a successful school district; the question is how those abilities can be achieved. They argue that the current incentive structure for schools has not led to very good results, and a shift to market-based incentives will do better. Kirp’s idea is that a free-market system will be even worse, and the only way to get a better education system is, essentially, to keep the current system but to try harder.

Questions for Reflections and Discussion

1. Do you agree with Kirp that competitive reforms like merit-based pay are a bad idea? Do you think the current incentive structures in schools should be maintained?

2. In your mind, what does it take for a school to be successful? What are the most important factors?

3. How well do you think your local school district is doing at instituting the reforms Kirp recommends?


1. School reform requires a long-term focus on making concrete changes to the way schools are run, and this requires having everyone in the system on board with the changes.

2. Market-based reforms, like charter schools, merit-based pay and school vouchers, according to Kirp, will only lead to conflict and disorganization.

3. Reform requires hard work and persuasion to make sure all the pieces are fitting together.

Peter Bass
© 2018 CYS




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