The secret to fixing bad public schools is that there is no secret. There are plenty of great public schools in the nation, and there are plenty of formerly bad public schools that have since been turned around. Take for example Union City, New Jersey, a once-struggling, mostly poor, mostly immigrant district that now boasts a high school graduation rate of 89.5 percent, ten points above the national average:
Ask school officials to explain Union City’s success and they start with prekindergarten, which enrolls almost every 3- and 4-year-old. There’s abundant research showing the lifetime benefits of early education. Here, seeing is believing.
One December morning the lesson is making latkes, the potato pancakes that are a Hanukkah staple. Everything that transpires during these 90 minutes could be called a “teachable moment” — describing the smell of an onion (“Strong or light? Strong — duro. Will it smell differently when we cook it? We’ll have to find out.”); pronouncing the “p” in pepper and pimento; getting the hang of a food processor (“When I put all the ingredients in, what will happen?”).
Cognitive and noncognitive, thinking and feeling; here, this line vanishes. The good teacher is always on the lookout for both kinds of lessons, always aiming to reach both head and heart. “My goal is to do for these kids what I do with my own children,” the teacher, Susana Rojas, tells me. “It’s all about exposure to concepts — wide, narrow, long, short. I bring in breads from different countries. ‘Let’s do a pie chart showing which one you liked the best.’ I don’t ask them to memorize 1, 2, 3 — I could teach a monkey to count.”
Union City didn't achieve its turnaround with Teach for America, charter schools, or a relentless regimen of standardized testing. Instead, the district empowered its best teachers to design a new curriculum, and it invested in high quality early learning.
We could do that here in Washington State. But we don't. Because we refuse to spend the money. Instead, we'll just continue to blame the teachers and put our faith in the market to do for K-12 education what it did for, say, the banking and housing industries.