People are ask­ing mem­bers of Do the Right Thing for Kids if we think the new Kansas City Public Schools Board will make a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence. With three new mem­bers and a new pres­i­dent, can the board bring about a real turn­around? Our answer: It depends on their will­ing­ness to deal with tough issues.

  1. Be bold. Your job is not to appease the admin­is­tra­tion but to track their per­for­mance and hold them account­able. Establish feed­back sys­tems that reg­u­lar­ly tell you the per­for­mance on cru­cial vari­ables. Stop being intim­i­dat­ed by accu­sa­tions of med­dling and start ask­ing tough ques­tions like, “Why are we still using so many tem­po­rary sub­sti­tute teach­ers?” Remember, the board “owns” the dis­trict, and you are ulti­mate­ly account­able.
  2. Demand a focus on real stu­dent learn­ing rather than just gain­ing accred­i­ta­tion points. Accreditation should be a by-prod­uct of effec­tive per­for­mance. Examine the MSIP stan­dards to under­stand what goes into the scores for College and Career Readiness, Attendance, and Graduation Rate—none of which is a direct indi­ca­tor of stu­dent learn­ing. Yet these fac­tors account for most of the district’s claims of “progress” for pro­vi­sion­al accred­i­ta­tion. For exam­ple, College Readiness includes ele­ments like num­ber of cer­tain cours­es offered regard­less of enroll­ment. Compare ACT scores (among the low­est in the state) as indi­ca­tors of col­lege readi­ness. Questions to ask: What are the essen­tial qual­i­ties of a high per­form­ing pub­lic school sys­tem? What mat­ters, not for adults, but for our stu­dents’ futures?
  3. Come to grips with the ele­phant in the (class)room. Virtually every major study on turn­around in pub­lic edu­ca­tion rates class­room per­for­mance as the num­ber one pri­or­i­ty. The issue that no one wants to deal with is that while we have some great teach­ers and some who are doing just okay, we also have teach­ers who are not bring­ing about learn­ing and are “break­ing lit­tle souls” (as one of our men­tors put it) with their abu­sive behav­ior. Yet con­se­quences are rare, and all teach­ers receive the same rewards. Do not allow the myth to con­tin­ue that noth­ing can be done about this. Unless you deal with this prob­lem, stu­dent learn­ing is not going to improve sig­nif­i­cant­ly. For exam­ple, dis­trict data show the gains of the “thresh­old” stu­dents tagged for spe­cial tutor­ing in grades 4–8 account for most of the small gains in stu­dent achieve­ment; there is very lit­tle over­all gain due to class­room instruc­tion. (See “Building Teacher Quality in the Kansas City, Missouri School District” by the National Council on Teacher Quality: www.nctq.org)
  4. Find out from the experts what pro­grams have the high­est pay­off for stu­dent achieve­ment, i.e. rig­or­ous preschool, longer school days and longer school years. Shift resources from low­er pay­off pro­grams to these. Be tough.
  5. Insist on school board meet­ings that con­vey a pro­fes­sion­al image, deal with the real issues, and pro­vide data to the pub­lic instead of pub­lic rela­tions pre­sen­ta­tions aimed at cre­at­ing a pos­i­tive spin.
  6. Don’t accept the excuse that scores are low because many of the district’s kids are “at risk”. It is being proven all around the coun­try and the world that with the right teach­ers and the right cul­ture stu­dents from high pover­ty back­grounds can learn.

In spite of the PR hyper­bole, the dis­trict is in dire straits—enrollment is falling, stu­dents are like­ly to con­tin­ue to trans­fer, way too many stu­dents are grad­u­at­ing who can­not read and do math, good teach­ers are get­ting dis­cour­aged and leav­ing, and pub­lic con­fi­dence is low (7% turn out to vote). We need a com­pre­hen­sive plan for reform, with pri­or­i­ties. No excus­es. Let’s get at it!

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