I'm currently reading Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America's Schools by David L. Kirp. (Yes, I have a bit of a problem. Even on spring break I'm thinking about teaching. I'm aware of this problem but I don't see a change coming anytime soon.)
It's one of the most refreshing reads about education policy that I've read in a long time. Kirp follows Union City, New Jersey's school system and cites what works. It's not revolutionized teaching methods, it's not firing teachers, it's not bringing in Teach for America recruits. It's what all good schools do- responding to their students, providing students what they need, promoting collaboration between teachers, analyzing data and providing universal preschool to four year olds.
He writes of the time he spends in George Washington Elementary getting to know the students, the teachers, and the administrators. He writes about the ins and outs of teaching children who just came into the country, of administrative decisions, of within school teacher politics, of the concerns of the parents. His portrayal of Washington Elementary reveals a school similar to the Think Tank, where I taught last year. Very similar students and families, dedicated teachers and a commitment to collaboration.
Reading Improbable Scholars is making me proud to be a teacher- it makes me proud of my years at The Think Tank, and proud of the work I'm doing this year with my brand new school. For once I'm reading something about education policy and not fretting over the politics of it all. Kirp reflects hard working teachers who are determined to do what's best for kids, despite state and national policies. He reflects hard working administrators and politicians who are also equally determined to do what's best for kids. In this portrayal he reminds us that we're not powerless as teachers, which is exactly what my teaching soul needed this week.
One aspect that makes Union City stand out, however, is their commitment to bilingual education. Their students become proficient in their home language first and then transition to learning in English when they are ready. His descriptions about this program make me drool in jealousy. Frequently we'd watch children at The Think Tank struggle because they weren't grounded in any language. Having only a minimal use of Spanish and English they were forced into a languageless state of being. After all, if you don't have words how can you think and reason? For various reasons their home language wasn't secure, and yet we were forcing them to learn another language. The result tended to be weakness in both languages, which doesn't help reasoning and problem solving skills in the long term. I love reading about how Union City created supports for these children to guarantee that this doesn't happen.
Bi-lingual education is a hot-button political issue and sadly I don't see it changing anytime soon here in Virginia. But it's good to know that somewhere out there is an entire school system following the research and making a difference.