David Kirp at UESF Assembly
Over the past several years, UC Berkeley professor and author David Kirp observed firsthand how the people of Union City, N.J., a low-income community with mostly English learner students, turned their school district around. What’s so astounding about this turnaround? It isn’t based on the latest research or policy debated in Washington, D.C., or in state capitals across the country, but on wisdom that most classroom teachers and staff already know.
Kirp shared his findings and his new book, Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America's Schools, with teachers and paraprofessionals of the United Educators of San Francisco (UESF) Assembly last spring. Here are some of his conclusions.
1. The best teaching in the world is great preschool teaching. A community school is a great preschool that is age-appropriate.
2. Evaluation of teachers should contain a focus on grade level achievement, fostering cooperation and mentoring among staff.
3. Professional development works best when it brings mentors and master teachers into the classroom, rather than pulling teachers off-site in a conference style setting.
4. Data can be a valuable tool, if used correctly, to pinpoint the help students need and to discover where teachers need assistance. Instead of focusing on punishment, assessments should be used to boost performance.
5. Stability matters. Low turnover of administrators, principals and teachers makes it possible to build a culture of trust. Stable teaching is the result of people in a school district developing strong relationships.
6. Supporting community and families is essential. Liaisons in schools who know the parents and can offer access to support services to families make it much more likely that parents will get involved.
7. School districts with large low-income and English learner student populations should focus on three main goals: a strong bilingual education program, a focus on literacy and preschool, and a broad and robust curriculum.
8. Though there are local differences, there is consistency among school districts that outperform expectations. All of them have carefully built pillars of support based on a sense of trust between administrators, teachers, staff and parents.
UESF members agree. President Dennis Kelly says, “Kirp’s research validates what we as professionals have known all along.” He adds that it may be a great gift for local administrators. Says elementary teacher Cathy Sullivan, “His push for a developmentally appropriate and word-rich curriculum for elementary school students is exactly on target.”
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