Important New Books

Important New Books

Improbable Scholars by David Kirp, Oxford University Press

I have been up late reading Berkeley professor, David Kirp’s new book about school reform in Union City, New Jersey: Improbable Scholars: the Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools (Oxford University Press, 2013).  “Union City ranks sixty-first nationwide in its concentrated poverty…. It’s also the nation’s most crowded municipality.”  Virtually all students are Latino-Latina, many recent arrivals and a sizeable percentage English language learners.  And yet, teachers, administrators, and students are all working hard—and strategically. Test scores reflect a transformation in the district in recent years.

 Kirp confronts the public education rhetoric war directly.  He spent a year in Union City immersed in classrooms and the way the district works, and he shows us a school system where the emphasis is on improving instruction, connecting with and supporting each student, experimenting with bilingual education, supporting teachers—many of whom grew up in this school district, and focusing way beyond the requirements of the New Jersey ASK standardized test.  An academic, Kirp also presents the research that supports reforms being implemented in Union City.

 An important piece of the puzzle Kirp describes is the universal pre-school New Jersey has been providing for some time in its 31 Abbott districts, the poorest school districts in the state, where opportunity to learn including universal preschool was instituted as part of the remedy in Abbott v. Burke, probably the nation’s longest running and most successful school finance litigation.  (In recent years there has been pressure at the state level to reduce investment in the Abbott districts, a potential threat to the progress this book describes.)

This is an inspiring book and one of the most hopeful books I’ve read in a long, long time.  While it is an entirely secular book, it surely is appropriate reading for the Easter season.  Kirp emphatically rejects the hubris embedded in today’s technocratic school reform where wealthy theorists are content to experiment with shattering neighborhoods and undermining the humanity of committed teachers with econometric Value Added Metric rankings based on students’ standardized test scores, VAM rankings that have sometimes been published in the newspaper.  This is a book about people working every day to build human connections in a place where the public schools have, quite recently, become the heart of the community.

I hope everybody will read this book.  Wouldn’t it be amazing if it became a best seller.

May 7, 2013: Here is David Kirp, writing for, about the ideas in his book.

April 4, 2013: Washington Post writer, Valerie Strauss, exerpts from the book to give you a sense of An Urban School District that Works.

April 1, 2013: David Kirp writing for The American Prospect on the themes of this new book: A Good Old-Fashioned Education.

Give Me Strength: Personal Prayers for School Teachers by Sharon Harris-Ewing, Pilgrim Press

The First Amendment is not an issue here, for these are personal prayers to be offered by teachers—maybe in the night—maybe as morning prayers. They are not intended to be shared with students at school.

The author, Sharon Harris-Ewing, a is a college trainer of teachers as well as an ordained minister. Harris-Ewing knows the frustration, and discouragement of school teachers in these technocratic days when politicians seem intent on blaming teachers for intractable poverty and inequality. Teachers are supposed to restore the American Dream, and when they can’t, we publish their Value Added Measure rankings in the newspaper to shame them.

Here is a taste of Harris-Ewing’s prayers:

“Thank you for the gift of children.”
“May I model the love of learning: actively seeking to expand my knowledge, exploring and valuing others’ points of view…”
“Thank you, God, for the crazy wonderful fun incredible touching revealing silly amazing things that kids say.”
“But sometimes… unfortunately changes seem to be misguided—even reckless—change for the sake of change, a fad, change to promote a political agenda, worst of all, change for the sake of someone’s profit…. Eternal God, give me grace to embrace positive changes—even when they mean more work for me! Give me courage to resist negative changes—even when their allure is strong. Give me wisdom to discern the difference, to teach what matters in ways that work…”

In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer writes about teacher burnout, when teachers become unable to feel what called them to teaching in the first place—when they disconnect from their sense of vocation: “We lose heart, in part, because teaching is a daily exercise in vulnerability…. Unlike many professions, teaching is always done at the dangerous intersection of personal and public life…. A good teacher must stand where personal and public meet…. To reduce our vulnerability, we disconnect from students, from subjects, and even from ourselves.”

Sharon Harris-Ewing has written her little book of prayers to help teachers reconnect, name their truth, and move forward positively in very difficult times.

If I were a pastor, I’d buy a copy of Give Me Strength: Personal Prayers for School Teachers to keep in my office for praying with teachers. I’d also buy a copy to leave in the church parlor or library, someplace where a teacher in need of support might find it.