No Miracles Here!

May 1, 2003

Again and again, we have been told that Union City's transformation from failing school district to successful one is nothing short of a "small miracle." Despite how flattering it sounds, we disagree, however. There was no miracle here.

Miracles, like lightning, rarely strike twice. Behind every assertion that Union City's success is a miracle is the notion that the change strategies we practiced are not exportable, replicable, or scalable outside of Union City. Different reasons are cited for this dismissal: the size of the district (12,000), the homogeneity of the population (mostly Latino, though from diverse Latino communities), the implementation of advanced technology by Bell Atlantic (now Verizon), the stable and increased funding from the state. Certainly these factors played a favorable role in the transformation. However, many fundamental changes were institutionalized based on well-known and field-documented educational principles, which can be replicated in other districts.

Three core principles guided us:

  1. All children can learn. The vast majority of Union City staff believes this, genuinely likes their students, and has respect for Latino culture, the community, and the Spanish language. Since staff believed that the children were not the problem and that they could succeed, this allowed for the fundamental assumptions that we could change and do better to take root.The question became what to do and how.

  2. Substantial reform cannot be imposed from the top down. The central administration operated with a great respect and appreciation for the teaching faculty and staff, and included them in every aspect of the change process.

  3. Reform models must "fit" the local community. As we conducted our research on education models in 1989,we realized that no external replacement model, no matter how successful somewhere else, could be superimposed on Union City. It would fail. These models would need to be adapted to our particular population and organizational structures at the district, school, and classroom level.

With these global assumptions in place, changes were made in a series of five-year plans that were annually reviewed, amended, and modified.

The district focused on creating a curriculum - with literacy front and center in our reform efforts - that would support students in moving away from rote learning and toward the development of thinking,reasoning,and collaboration skills.We chose to implement the reforms gradually, beginning in elementary classrooms, and then adding classes each year until reform reached every grade level. This decision meant that no student schooled in a reformed learning environment entered a new grade only to face the former method of instruction. It also meant that we were able to take the lessons learned from each successive implementation and apply them toward easing the transition in subsequent years.

In addition to curriculum reforms and incremental scaling, substantial increases in the district's operating budget played a critical role in Union City's efforts. The budget for the Union City School District increased from $37.8 million in 1989 to $128 million in 2001 as a direct result of equitable school funding legislation.

Beginning in 1993, Union City also made a deliberate decision to invest substantially in technology resources. We did this largely out of equity considerations, believing that urban students would once again risk falling drastically behind suburban students if they did not have access to state-of-the-art technological resources. The district built fiber-optic backbones in each of its 11 schools.With a ratio of less than three students per computer, Union City is now one of the most wired urban school districts in the United States, if not the most.

Research conducted by the Education Development Center (EDC) Center for Children and Technology suggests that deep and sustained access to technology has the potential to have a positive impact on both students' learning and on the school community's views of their students' capabilities. But the research also suggests that technology in and of itself, in the absence of other components of school reform,would not produce these kinds of changes.We identified eight key reform strategies integral to the district's success:

  • Instructional leadership at the building level.
  • Effective school improvement teams.
  • Extensive professional development in whole-language teaching approaches and cooperative learning.
  • A strong emphasis on student creativity and the expression of ideas in multiple formats.
  • An emphasis on providing different points of entry into a task for children working at different ability levels.
  • A de-emphasis on remediation and an emphasis on learning for all.
  • Establishment of classroom libraries and media-rich classroom environments.
  • Multitext approach to learning that includes the integration of technology into instruction.

These strategies are replicable.When anchored in the core principles outlined here, these steps can take hold and be sustained long enough to work.The real miracle of Union City is an administration that believed in the potential of educators and the capabilities of students.We backed up these beliefs by making investments where we believed they would count the most.

Originally published in the Spring 2003 issue of Edutopia, a publication of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.


Fred Carrigg
Margaret Honey