Improbable Scholars

Winner of the American Education Research Association Best Book of the Year Award

New Jersey Teachers of English as a Second Language and New Jersey Bilingual Educators Advocacy Award

Improbable Scholars offers a playbook, not a prayer book, for reform that can revive public education.

No school district can be all charismatic leaders and super-teachers. It can’t start from scratch, and it can’t fire all its teachers and principals when students do poorly. Whether we like it or not, most of our youngsters will continue to be educated in mainstream public schools.

The good news is that there is a smart way to rebuild public education and close the achievement gap for all students. That is precisely what’s happening in a most unlikely place: Union City, New Jersey, a poor, crowded Latino community just across the Hudson from Manhattan. This school system, once one of the worst in the state, has ignored trendy reforms in favor of proven game-changers like quality early education, a word-soaked curriculum, and hands-on help for teachers. Now nearly 90 percent of its students are earning their diplomas and 60 percent are going to college. David Kirp spent two years there, crouching in classrooms, talking with everyone in Union City with skin in the education game, from the mayor to the school janitor.

Below the radar, other school systems are also doing well by students who defy the claim that demography equals destiny. These schools are not just good places for poor kids. They are good places for kids, period.

Praise & Reviews

“This powerful book exposes one of the greatest lies in America – that ‘perform-or-die’ accountability for teachers and choice for students will cure what ails public education – and reveals the real way forward. With a gifted writer’s eye for telling detail and a gifted scholar’s sense of the big picture, Kirp shows how a school system in one of the nation’s poorest cities is succeeding without these so-called reforms, and in so doing uncovers the essentials for remaking American education. Brilliant and important.”
Robert B. Reich, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, and former U.S. Secretary of Labor

“What Kirp considers an exemplary public school system that is a demonstrable improvement over what generally prevails now is replicable everywhere, requiring only fiercely hard work. Teachers, concerned parents, political leaders-Kirp’s book has something for everyone, and it deserves the widest possible audience discussion.”
-Kirkus (starred review)

“Kirp’s warm portraits of talented teachers, squirmy students, and visionary leaders prepare the ground for his indictment of today’s soulless test-taking culture and illustrate the effectiveness of Union City’s “plan-do-review” approach
-Booklist (starred review)

“At a time when would-be reformers offer a plethora of miracle cures, Improbable Scholars digs deep into the complexity of transforming urban schools from classroom teaching to the political leadership and community support needed to ensure access and opportunity for all learners. David Kirp’s ability to connect his observations with research provides evidence that the strategies used by Union City are grounded in sustainable-and replicable-reforms.”
-Dr. Carol R. Johnson, Superintendent, Boston Public Schools

“In Improbable Scholars, David Kirp challenges the conventional wisdom fueling today’s school reform agenda. With his trademark insight and fluid prose, Kirp uses a high-achieving urban district to argue that coherence and patience count for more than incentives and a ‘no excuses’ mindset, while pressing the case for a kinder, gentler vision of school reform. Agree with Kirp or not, educators, parents, and would-be reformers need to read this book, reflect on it, and argue about it.”
-Frederick M. Hess, Director of Education Policy Studies, American Enterprise Institute

Improbable Scholars is a once-in-a-generation book on what will matter most in education over the next generation: giving our immigrant-origin students a real chance to achieve the American Dream. This extraordinary account takes the reader from the classroom to the mayor’s office, vividly detailing how a poor urban school district has brought Latino immigrant kids into the mainstream. The story, masterfully told by one of our foremost thinkers in education today, goes beyond the facile cure-alls, clichés, and yes, magical thinking, that plague much writing in education today. This is the one book everyone interested in authentic models for change needs to read.”
-Marcelo M. Suarez-Orozco, Dean and Distinguished Professor, UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies

Improbable Scholars represents the best of what qualitative research in education can provide. Professor Kirp conducted a systematic study of teachers and administrators at work in Union City. Improbable Scholars draws out the intricate linkages among national, state, local, and even school-specific politics and policy: linkages that often are missed by researchers who focus exclusively on one level or the other. And by wrapping this informed perspective in a compelling narrative about how real people operate within institutional and organizational constraints, Kirp provides policy and practical lessons for those who care about improving urban public schools.”
-Ron Avi Astor, Lenore Stein-Wood and William S. Wood Professor of School Behavioral Health, University of Southern California

“My students appreciated the vivid and grounded account, finding it much more accessible than most social research. They were grateful for a book that made a convincing case for urban public schools’ capacity to improve, and that took on corporate ideas about school reform.”
-David Cohen, Harvard Graduate School of Education and University of Michigan School of Education

Improbable Scholars is a compelling, inspiring account of one urban school district’s successful reform, despite poor odds. David Kirp does not peddle the false promise of a quick fix, but rather illuminates the smart work and steadfast commitment of a community of educators. His lucid analysis and lessons for practitioners and policymakers should be required reading for all who set out to improve urban education.”
-Susan Moore Johnson, Jerome T. Murphy Research Professor of Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education

“This engaging, discerning, and compelling book describes vivid examples of powerful and effective schools and teachers attaining academic excellence in low-income schools. It conveys the rich possibilities of public schools and is an antidote to the doomsayers and harsh critics of public schools and teachers. This elegantly written, engaging, and inspiring book provides hope for the growing percentage of low-income, minority, and immigrant students who populate the nation’s public schools. The messages it conveys merit wide reading, discussion, and action.”
-James A. Banks, Kerry and Linda Killinger Endowed Chair in Diversity Studies and Director, Center for Multicultural Education, University of Washington, Seattle