Union City’s schools are on the march!


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 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.
Union City doesn’t sound like an educational garden spot. But as he continued, Kirp laid out a striking set of facts:
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.

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.
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.

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?


  1. This may be one of those too-good-to-be-true stories. We'll have to wait to see (though as a proud product of New Jersey public schools many years ago -- admittedly, in a much more prosperous and privileged part of NJ -- I have high hopes). What I remember finding interesting when I read the piece (sorry, haven't re-read it to comment) was the faith administrators placed in teachers. The opposite of Rhee-World. I think that's what made this piece a breath of fresh air (and what prompted the many enthusiastic comments).

    Of course, if ALL that's driving this story is an uncritical, hey, I got a counter-narrative! Well, then, Houston, we've got a problem. But unlike Mr. S. (as I read him), I don't believe anyone can help but approach "facts" except through narrative frames. Which is not to deny that when I kick a stone, my foot hurts. To the contrary, therein lies the corrective: a hurting foot provides the impetus to recalibrate, to reframe.

    More reports needed on Union City. That's why it's called "journalism," a day-to-day reporting -- and there are many days ahead.

    1. Bob from Jersey CityFebruary 14, 2013 at 1:58 PM

      Go re-read the story.

  2. What took place in Union City is not rocket science. Indeed, an even more impressive educational transformation took place in FInland. Importantly, both Union City and Finland did not adopt the corporate-style model of "reform."

    In his article, David Kirp identifies way Union City has successful. "Ask school officials to explain Union City’s success and they start with prekindergarten, which enrolls almost every 3- and 4-year-old." Kirp notes that "There’s abundant research showing the lifetime benefits of early education. Here, seeing is believing."

    He also points out that teaching for learning in Union CIty is a matter of both "Cognitive and noncognitive, thinking and feeling; here, this line vanishes." As one teacher tells him, "I don’t ask them to memorize 1, 2, 3 — I could teach a monkey to count.” Instead, the instructional focus is thinking and not test-taking.

    In Union City, educators use words like "character" and "family" and "respect" to describe their ethos. These words escape con artists like Michelle Rhee, and Bill Gates, and Joel Klein. In Union City, "No Teach for America recruits toil in its classrooms, and there are no charter schools."

    Kirp points out that when Union City faced sanctions, the district sought to redefine itself. "The district’s best educators were asked to design a curriculum based on evidence, not hunch. Learning by doing replaced learning by rote." And perhaps most importantly, the "schools are generously financed."

    Clearly, other school systems can do what Union City did. But that means ditching the corporate-style "reform" currently in vogue, and relying on research. It also means trusting in teachers and giving them the autonomy and resources and support they need to educate well.

    It worked in Finland. And in Union City. And it can work elsewhere.

  3. "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?"

    The answer is no, they are at present from much more diverse and often disadvantaged backgrounds...a lot of Dominicans, Salvadorenos, Venezuelans, and Columbians, among other Central and South American groups. And they are increasingly from poorer rural areas, rather than the capitals, as had been the case up until a few years ago. I live in Union City and have two daughters in one of its excellent elementary schools.

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