Inquiring minds hadn’t noticed: Sunday’s New York Times featured a striking piece about the Union City schools.
That’s Union City, New Jersey to you, a city of roughly 65,000 not far from New York itself. As he started his piece in the Sunday Review, David Kirp, a Berkeley professor, suggested it’s an unlikely place for a “good news” public school story:
KIRP (2/10/13): What would it really take to give students a first-rate education? Some argue that our schools are irremediably broken and that charter schools offer the only solution. The striking achievement of Union City, N.J.—bringing poor, mostly immigrant kids into the educational mainstream—argues for reinventing the public schools we have.Union City doesn’t sound like an educational garden spot. But as he continued, Kirp laid out a striking set of facts:
Union City makes an unlikely poster child for education reform. It’s a poor community with an unemployment rate 60 percent higher than the national average. Three-quarters of the students live in homes where only Spanish is spoken. A quarter are thought to be undocumented, living in fear of deportation.
KIRP (continuing directly): Public schools in such communities have often operated as factories for failure. This used to be true in Union City, where the schools were once so wretched that state officials almost seized control of them. How things have changed. From third grade through high school, students’ achievement scores now approximate the statewide average. What’s more, in 2011, Union City boasted a high school graduation rate of 89.5 percent—roughly 10 percentage points higher than the national average. Last year, 75 percent of Union City graduates enrolled in college, with top students winning scholarships to the Ivies.New Jersey is an above-average state in student test scores. As best we can tell from Union City’s latest official “report card,” the district does come close to matching statewide achievement rates in reading and math on New Jersey’s testing program.
As someone who has worked on education policy for four decades, I’ve never seen the likes of this. After spending a year in Union City working on a book, I believe its transformation offers a nationwide strategy.
The passing rates become more remarkable when you “disaggregate” the scores. As Kirp notes, Union City’s student population is largely Hispanic—and those students tend to outperform their Hispanic peers around the state by significant margins.
(It must also be said that Union City’s white students tend to perform less well than their peers around the state, though New Jersey’s report cards don’t seem to let us control for income levels. We’ll guess that Union City’s white students come from much less affluent families than New Jersey’s white kids as a whole.)
In his piece, Kirp goes on to give his ideas about why Union City is doing so well. You can read his explanations for yourselves. We had three deathless reactions:
These are New Jersey’s state-run tests: When it comes to math and reading scores, we only have scores on New Jersey’s state tests to consider. Union City doesn’t produce district-wide scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the more reliable federal testing program. All the cheating scandals you’ve ever heard about have occurred on state-run tests. There’s no reason to think that is happening here. But inevitably, this has to be mentioned.
The world has many different cultures: According to the world's leading authority on Union City, the city is sometimes called “Havana on the Hudson” or even “Little Havana on the Hudson.” Does that mean that the district’s Hispanic students are largely Cuban in their background? If so, do Hispanic kids from Cuban backgrounds tend to do better in school than Hispanic kids from other backgrounds? We have no idea, but the world has many different cultures. All groups of immigrant or first-generation kids don’t perform the same way in school.
Before Kirp, no one said boo: Union City isn’t far from New York City, a major American media center. With school performance of the type described, you’d think someone would have noticed Union City before Kirp wrote this piece. But in a fairly quick Nexis search, we found no sign that anyone has ever said boo about the Union City schools. Kirp’s work will likely change all that. But it’s surprising that this district’s apparent success has managed to fly under radar.
Kirp makes Union City’s schools sound pretty sharp. (Commenters quickly began chiming in with typical miracle stories.) If Kirp is right in his observations, something very good is happening in Union City’s public schools.
That would be a very good thing. Why hadn’t anyone noticed?