In rebuilding our public schools, education policy expert David Kirp says we should stick to what works, like quality early-childhood education and creating word-rich curriculums. In other words, avoid getting carried away by quick fixes and the latest trends. His new book, “Improbable Scholars,” tells the success story of Union City, New Jersey, and argues that all our public schools can benefit from what was learned there.

Interview Highlights

David L. Kirp, James D. Marver Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, member of President Obama's 2008 education policy transition team, and author of "Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America's Schools"

  • Slappy

    Here’s a novel idea: get rid of the trouble-makers, stop putting the lazy and unambitious on a pedestal, and don’t be afraid to fail students. Problem solved.

  • Animalia

    Finally, a voice of reason and someone who knows what they are talking about. As a former public school teacher, this is very refreshing! I especially like what he said about these great and improving public schools doing it all together, with no “heroes” or big personalities! Bravo!

  • Amanda Stupi

    FYI: Jonathan Kozol’s “Death at an Early Age” is the book that Michael just referenced: http://ow.ly/kZ3yd

    • Mark Talmont

      The book is nearly 50 years old, perhaps relevant to a history of education class. Lately Kozol has been decrying “re-segregation” with professional meddlers like Gary Orfield. Massive immigration has made whites a minority in this state and whites are only 25% of the under-21 age group. There is no white majority for “minorities” to integrate into; the psychology around this in the academic/education world verges on the Orwellian.

  • disqus_63X8zNMKNl

    How encouraging to hear a discussion about schools, about teachers and students, from the viewpoint of someone who not only knows what he’s talking about but understands how important it is that children need encouragement and kindness and most of all a realization that we are all part of the “pie,” we are all in this together. Thank you for having this much needed discussion.

  • James Ivey

    I think it’s time to stop talking about the lack of funds as if it’s not something we can do anything about. We talk as if there are two irreconcilable truths here: (i) schools are woefully under-funded and (ii) there’s no money to fix it. We’re a democracy. We decide how much money we spend on government services. I think it’s way past time to put increasing revenue back on the table.

    One question to add: I believe I’ve heard it said before that the single most effective thing in reducing crime, poverty, and blight is universal preschool. Does Mr. (Dr.?) Kirp agree? Are there some projections on long term returns on universal preschool expenditures?

    • Mark Talmont

      The subject has been researched and the results are disappointing. It’s very hard to show any academic effects of preschool that persist past about 3rd grade. I’ve got about 1000 hours of classroom time subbing at the pre/K/1st grade level (in the same district for 7 years so I get to see them later when they’re in higher grades) there is value just in basic socialization that can’t easily be measured.

      The real battle for our collective future can be viewed at the middle school level. That’s where they either make progress or spin their wheels (and get in the way of the other kids’ progress). The emerging “Digi-verse” is building in a basic level of functionality but it’s not really literacy and most of their focus is on fluff like the latest screwball thing on YouTube (if not another stream of ever-more-shocking on-line porn that is ubiquitous and increasingly violent).

      There is a large component that is NOT going to make a serious effort at traditional book learning. We could make a difference with more computer-based instruction (I’ve been in Special Ed classrooms when the ONLY time they settled down was when they were on the computer) plus you can gain compliance on the traditional tasks using computer access as a reward. Also we need more “hands-on” processes because many kids actually need different learning modes than paper-and-pencil tasks. The most insightful writer on this is Temple Grandin, her latest is “The Autistic Brain, Thinking Across the Spectrum” also authored “Thinking in Pictures”; she was just on C-Span BookTV and you might be able to view it online. Anyone dealing with “special ed” would benefit from her writings (she’s a professor with autism).

  • Debbie

    I do not feel like I got an answer to my question about magnet schools and their effectiveness.

    • Mark Talmont

      That’s because the magnet model conflicts with the governing doctrine. Read the guy’s bio, he was on Obama’s transition team. “Common core” is pure politics, a top-down control mechanism masked as yet another fake “reform”. The most insightful thing written on the subject was the letter of protest written by a retiring teacher:

      http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/04/06/teachers-resignation-letter-my-profession-no-longer-exists/ (there are some good comments on the article and a link to the site for a “teacher of the year” who finally couldn’t take it any more and moved to Mali to teach!)

      You could easily find a magnet program somewhere and write a similar cheerleading book about that. Many districts are having success with GATE classes within regular schools (but there is tremendous political pressure against them in the big city–read, way-left-wing–districts.) Last week I was in a 2nd grade GATE class in one of the poorest counties in the state, some of the kids are already Powerpoint wizards. Technology is making a difference for those with access to it.

      The one reform we need is to de-regulate everything and let the teachers teach. How about a one-year amnesty to see what happens? We could still give the tests, actually it would be more efficient to sample rigorously than give them to everybody because of all the cheating. “Common core” looks like it will stamp out diversity (no more Montessori rooms inside public schools, I’ve seen those work too). Never forget, Jaime Escalante taught calculus to barrio youths with no extra help, no computers, (ie the movie “Stand and Deliver”). The political mafia that runs the LAUSD not only failed to build on that success, they killed it off! The “higher ups” do NOT want thinkers, they want a big mob that is easily incited!

  • edu

    What are David’s thoughts on the trend of online education. Kahn Academy for example? What are the keys to successful integration and possible pitfalls?

  • Eulalia Halloran

    As a Montessori trained teacher who has gone through the UC PLI program, I was always amazed to learn that revolutionizing principles of “education” are core to the Montessori preschool philosophy: order and rigor, professionalism, continuity and consistency in curriculum and methodology, multi-age classrooms, inclusive and collaboratie, respect for the child’s ability to learn and independent ablitiy, following their interests to get at the core academic content, freedom of choice, observation and documentation etc.

  • David

    I am a National Board Certified Teacher, and I also collaborate with teachers from around the state. The ideas expressed by Mr. Kirp on this program and in his book certainly resonate with me, and I would encourage people to take a close look at the lessons in “Improbable Scholars.” It would be particularly helpful for school board members, superintendents, and policy makers to read. Too often, our leaders are not truly leading; if you alienate a majority of the people you rely on and need to work with to improve schools – i.e., teachers – then you’re not really leading. You might be a “reformer,” but a true leader understands how to build consensus and motivate team members to reach significant common goals. The question is, how do we redirect the energy wasted in debates over hot-button issues and bring our energy together to push for more fundamental changes that would actually enjoy greater consensus and produce greater results?

  • C.A.

    We have a pre-preschool aged child. I’ve been hearing about Kindergartners having homework. It’s been many years since I’ve been in Kindergarten. I remember it being fun with lots of play (which I’m guessing promoted learning) and some more formal “sit down and learn” time. Why does there seem such a big push earlier and earlier for what seems like rote education?

  • Guest

    Towards the end of the show, a quote was correctly attributed to HL Mencken, but the substance of the “remained mangled. But Mencken actually had to say was, “No one has ever lost money overestimating the bad taste of the American public.”

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