How is Kansas City Public Schools doing? Citizens ask us the same ques­tions they have been ask­ing for decades:

  • District offi­cials say they are doing bet­ter, that they have “turned the cor­ner.” Is it true or is it spin?
  • If bet­ter, is it in a few areas or all areas, and is it enough improve­ment to mat­ter?
  • Is any­thing being done that will turn the dis­trict around in a major way? Will the new board make a dif­fer­ence?

As 2014 comes to an end, here is our view­point. Regaining pro­vi­sion­al accred­i­ta­tion was a gain, and we con­grat­u­late the staff and board for their hard work. A care­ful exam­i­na­tion of the data, how­ev­er, indi­cates that pro­vi­sion­al accred­i­ta­tion is more a polit­i­cal vic­to­ry than an aca­d­e­m­ic one. When grad­ing school dis­tricts, a num­ber of fac­tors are tak­en into account by the State Board of Education. Some of these, such as atten­dance, grad­u­a­tion rate and col­lege readi­ness, account for a large part of the district’s scores but say lit­tle about whether stu­dents are learn­ing what they need to learn to be suc­cess­ful after grad­u­a­tion. There are some gains and some loss­es in aca­d­e­m­ic achieve­ment. Points toward accred­i­ta­tion were earned in part by spe­cial tutor­ing giv­en to a select sub­group of stu­dents who were close to the next achieve­ment cat­e­go­ry. How about the rest? We are attempt­ing to obtain those data. Experienced teach­ers tell us that improved test scores gained by teach­ing to the test are unlike­ly to stick.

In an ear­li­er post­ing we list­ed a series of chal­lenges to the board and sug­gest­ed that deal­ing with these chal­lenges depends on the board’s will­ing­ness to deal with tough issues. How are they doing on these chal­lenges? Our assess­ment:

1. Be bold…start ask­ing tough ques­tions. We hope some tough ques­tions are being asked in set­tings oth­er than pub­lic board meet­ings because although we have heard some, we have not heard enough. The tough­est ques­tion: What is dif­fer­ent in the class­rooms?

2. Demand a focus on real stu­dent learn­ing rather than accred­i­ta­tion points. The dis­trict state­ments we hear focus on regain­ing pro­vi­sion­al accred­i­ta­tion and the progress that is sup­posed to indi­cate. What plans are there for mov­ing stu­dent achieve­ment to the lev­el of oth­er suc­cess­ful urban dis­tricts? What is the dis­trict plan for mid­dle and high school stu­dents who are present­ly under­achiev­ing?

3. Come to grips with the ele­phant in the (class­room). Major stud­ies such as Building Teacher Quality in the Kansas City, Missouri School District by the National Council on Teacher Quality state that suc­cess­ful class­room per­for­mance requires clear stan­dards for teacher per­for­mance and a sys­tem for rec­og­niz­ing and reward­ing good teach­ing and deal­ing with poor teacher per­for­mance. Saying that we are “offer­ing pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment cours­es” is not an answer. Do eval­u­a­tions reflect stu­dent per­for­mance? Are teach­ers eval­u­at­ed month­ly? Quarterly? Are eval­u­a­tors trained? Do eval­u­a­tions impact future employ­ment and com­pen­sa­tion? Is the dis­trict recruit­ing teach­ers from top lev­el uni­ver­si­ties? Teacher atten­dance was an issue raised in the NCTQ study. Does this con­tin­ue to be a prob­lem and has track­ing teacher atten­dance improved?

4. Find out what pro­grams have the high­est pay­off for stu­dent achieve­ment.
We are glad to see more effort to devel­op ear­ly child­hood pro­grams. They need to be rig­or­ous prepa­ra­tion for suc­cess­ful aca­d­e­m­ic careers. We need to assure that at risk chil­dren do not enter kinder­garten two years behind their peers.

5. Insist on school board meet­ings that con­vey a pro­fes­sion­al image, deal with the real issues, and pro­vide data to the public…instead of spin. This is an area that has drawn our atten­tion. We are hear­ing com­plaints about lack of trans­paren­cy, trust, account­abil­i­ty and pos­si­ble vio­la­tions of Missouri sun­shine laws caused by, for exam­ple, fre­quent­ly clos­ing the 5:00 p.m. board busi­ness ses­sions, not pub­licly post­ing advance meet­ing notices, and avoid­ing dis­clo­sure of vot­ing by show­ing deci­sions in the closed meet­ing min­utes as made by con­sen­sus. This is curi­ous behav­ior by an orga­ni­za­tion striv­ing to gain pub­lic trust. We will have more to say about this issue.

6. Don’t accept the excuse that scores are low because many of the district’s stu­dents are “at risk”. The com­mu­ni­ty is count­ing on you to chal­lenge this excuse.

Now that pos­si­ble changes in gov­er­nance and inter­ven­tion by out­side bod­ies have been fend­ed off polit­i­cal­ly, at least for the present, the respon­si­bil­i­ty clear­ly lies with the dis­trict to for­mu­late and imple­ment a bold turn­around plan. Some in the com­mu­ni­ty are glad to get the school dis­trict out of the press and to set­tle for the claim that they seem to be doing a lit­tle bet­ter. However, we sense a grow­ing con­sen­sus that there is not an actu­al turn­around, and we won­der if there tru­ly is a bold plan to devel­op one.

Our Challenge to the Community:

We chal­lenge the cit­i­zens of Kansas City not to ignore the stu­dents of Kansas City Public Schools and to insist that every child in every class­room receives an edu­ca­tion that will equip them with skills need­ed for post high school train­ing, col­lege and careers.  It is up to the com­mu­ni­ty to pay atten­tion, be informed and hold the dis­trict account­able.

As Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro recent­ly said, “Somebody has to stand up and say, ‘It’s not OK’” that too many chil­dren are fail­ing.  Kansas City stu­dents mat­ter, regard­less of where they live and their cir­cum­stances. 

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One Response to Our Challenge to the School Board

  1. Elizabeth Fischer says:

    I admire your per­sis­tence. I keep hear­ing good things about schools with lots of p/r appeal, but until it’s good for all the kids, it’s not good enough.

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