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.