David Kirp

David L. Kirp, James D. Marver Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, is the author of Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America's Schools, from which this article is adapted.

Recent Articles

College For the Few

Social scientist Charles Murray aims to provoke. This time, it's with four broad-brush, simplistic claims about higher education.

Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools Back to Reality by Charles Murray , Crown Forum, 219 pages, $24.95 A quarter-century ago, a then-obscure social scientist named Charles Murray hit upon a surefire formula for creating a best-seller: 1) Pick a controversial topic like welfare ( Losing Ground ) or IQ ( The Bell Curve ). 2) Make an outrageous claim, adopting a tone of sweet reason and using (often misusing) elaborate social-science tools to impress the statistically unschooled. 3) Give those at the top of the heap license to believe they got there because of merit. 4) Await the brouhaha. 5) Watch the book climb to the top of the best-seller list. In Real Education , Murray turns the spotlight on higher education. He's up to his familiar tricks: This time the provocation is that too many people go to college. Murray loves to make broad-brush, simple-sounding claims -- welfare causes dependency, intelligence is inherited -- and Real Education offers four of...

Audacity in Harlem

Geoffrey Canada founded the Harlem Children's Zone as a "conveyor belt" to transport poor kids from birth to college, by dealing with every need. Can its successes be replicated?

Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest To Change Harlem and America , by Paul Tough Houghton Mifflin, 304 pages, $26.00 It's vintage news that poor kids, especially poor black kids, fare badly in America. Whether the measure is high school graduation, teen pregnancy, or running afoul of the law, wide gaps persist. The impact is life-lo ng -- worse jobs and more unemployment, more years in prison, poorer health, and a shorter life expectancy. Reformers have been trying to narrow those gaps for eons, but the track record offers only modest cause for cheer. Programs directed at adolescents, like redesigning secondary schools, or aimed at dropouts, like the Job Corps, have at best limited impact. Some, like the widely used DARE program, which sends cops into classrooms to lecture students on guns and drugs, are demonstrably worthless. Some initiatives do pay off. Tennessee's STAR program, which radically shrunk class sizes for the first four years of school, has recorded big increases...

Nature, Nurture, and Destiny

The Bell Curve revisited: What science teaches us about heredity and environment.

In making the case for better early education programs, advocates rely heavily on bench science. Neuroscientists are summoned to demonstrate the palpable impact of severe deprivation in the first years of life -- recall the horrific accounts of the Romanian orphans -- and to show, with vivid MRI images, how early experience builds the scaffolding for everything that follows, as the brain incorporates early experience into its biological structure. Mention genetics, however, and the advocates immediately change the subject. Those with an appreciation of history know that the American Eugenics Movement proposed sterilizing the "unfit" and that Hitler's Germany used the research for unspeakable purposes. When psychologist Richard Lerner wrote about the misuse of genetics, he pointedly titled his book Final Solution . And you don't have to be a history buff to recall that, in the mid-1990s, The Bell Curve became the bible of social conservatives with its conclusion that genetically-based...

You're Doing Fine, Oklahoma!

Thirty years ago, the national movement for universal preschool came heart-breakingly close to success. But Richard Nixon's 1971 veto of such a measure -- it "would commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing over against the family-centered approach" -- proved to be Washington's last word. As this window of opportunity slammed shut, the debate shifted away from securing preschool for all, focusing instead on expanding opportunities for children from poor families. But across the country, the universal preschool movement is thriving. Unlikely champions -- among them a conservative Democratic governor, an ex–newspaper publisher, and a billionaire oilman -- have become activists. The appeal is partly altruistic (for children, it's the right thing to do) and partly hard-nosed economics (for society, it's a surefire investment in the future). What's most surprising is that bedrock Democratic states aren't in the vanguard...

Scandalous Schools

"The Condition of California School Facilities and Policies Related to Those Conditions," a 2002 report by nationally recognized facilities expert Robert Corley, is written in stilted bureaucratese, but the conditions it describes are the stuff of exposés. Corley describes peeling lead paint on classroom walls; leaky roofs; deathly hot classrooms, their windows blacked out against the heat; bathrooms "reminiscent of third world slums," or else padlocked; vermin-infested buildings. These aren't rarities: The report estimates that a third of the schools are in "poor condition" and 10 percent -- some 800 buildings, housing more than 400,000 schoolchildren -- are in "unusually poor condition." A General Accounting Office study, published in 1996, ranks California's school buildings the fourth worst in the nation. Where is Michael Harrington when we need him? If these were gas-station restrooms or greasy spoons, you'd give them a wide berth. But the students trapped inside for six hours a...