In our last report [available here] we discussed some of the issues pertaining to the progress of the Kansas City School Public Schools in regaining accreditation. We pointed out that five out of fourteen points toward accreditation have been achieved. There were gains in some areas and losses in others. Four of the five points are not measures of academic quality. Turning around a system that has been highly dysfunctional for decades will take more than modifications in policies and programs. It means major changes in the way business is done. It requires classroom experience and school culture that keeps students motivated and engaged. This is being achieved in some schools but certainly not all. Finally, we talked about the need for real community engagement that calls for parent and constituent involvement in all the schools, not just on a central committee.
In this report we discuss the final three of the six areas we believe need to be addressed.
- Classroom instruction and climate are where academic achievement begins and ends. We often hear that there are some excellent teachers or that it is the fault of the system. Of course there are great teachers, and these heroes should be amply recognized and rewarded. We have heard from teachers, administrators, parents and students who confide in us stories of poor teaching: teachers sitting while the class goes out of control; teachers yelling at and demeaning students; teachers with no clear expectations and standards and not using good pedagogy; and some with excessive absences that leaves the teaching to substitutes who are not prepared. The system clearly needs to be held accountable. Teachers tell us that because their experience is that superintendents and programs change every two years, they will not follow the initiatives of the latest superintendent. Setting high standards for teaching and holding teachers to those standards is not a mysterious process; it is happening successfully in many places.
- We continue to be concerned about budget oversight. One of the responsibilities of the board is to assure that public funds are being responsibly and efficiently handled. Consent agendas containing millions of dollars in expenditures are voted on without discussion–as stipulated under a policy governance model. The assumption is that before appearing on the consent agenda requests have been carefully examined by board members. We do not see much evidence of this happening. Some school boards have a budget review committee composed of members with expertise in financial management. This committee meets with staff prior to the board meeting to examine expenditures in depth. The committee can recommend to the full board whether or not to approve a budget request. A student on a committee to develop a monitoring report suggested that board members abstain from voting if they have not read the packet of requests and justifications.
- To experienced outside observers who understand organizations, the district is in a “bubble” of dysfunction and cannot see out. It is like the fable of the fish that does not know that it lives in water because it has never experienced anything else. The leaders need to get outside the bubble, visit successful districts and boards, and bring in outside resource persons who can provide fresh perspective. They need to come to grips with the vested interests that have held the system hostage for decades. This is why Do the Right Thing for Kids has advocated for outside intervention, including a change in governance.
In future reports we will discuss topics that have attracted our attention in recent weeks including recommendations from “Building Teacher Quality in the Kansas City School District” by the National Council on Teacher Quality. This research report mirrors many of the concerns that we have expressed over the past years. Public money being spent by the district for lobbying in Jefferson City is another topic.
Notes on the August 22, 2012 School Board Meeting
A report on MAP scores and other factors evaluated by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in reaching the decision about accreditation was a major focus of the meeting. Although we could not read many of the charts that were projected on wall screens we were able to discern a positive focus on areas where there were gains and less discussion on several areas in which there were losses. The district administration presented very ambitious plans for overcoming the deficits and building on the relatively small gains. We are glad to hear these plans but are very concerned about whether personnel, funds, and programs necessary to implement these plans will be available.
One board member commented, “We’re moving in the right direction, but we’re not in turnaround mode. What am I missing?” We are wondering whether major new instructional strategies are being planned or whether there will simply be more of the same.
It is easy to say that professional development will be offered to improve teacher and principal performance. We wonder what will be different this time. The plans as outlined will require tremendous cooperation and effort on the part of principals and teachers. It will require considerable time on the part of everyone. Tying teacher evaluation to student performance has been on the agenda of this district as well as others, but when asked, the administration could not point to progress.
Our observers were pleased to hear plans for hiring reading interventionists for 12 schools. Communications Arts scores in 9th-11th grades are down 23 points.
There was a discussion of appropriating public district funds to hire lobbyists to advance the district’s interests, and a $60,000 contract was approved. We will have more to say about this in future reports.