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Study of KC schools could help St. Louis, too

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: When an outside consulting firm takes a hard look at ways to improve the Kansas City schools, its report may not have the answers to achieving the same goal in St. Louis, but it could certainly be asking the right questions.

The Missouri state board of education voted last week to hire CEE-Trust -- the Cities for Education Entrepreneurship Trust – to develop a plan to help struggling school districts in the state improve. Two Kansas City foundations are paying $385,000 for the study, which will concentrate on Kansas City schools.

But the report, which is due in January before it is presented for public comment, is expected to help devise strategies that can be used in any schools having a hard time meeting state standards.

In Missouri, that could mean Kansas City, Normandy and Riverview Gardens, which are currently unaccredited, as well as St. Louis, which regained provisional accreditation last year but whose scores in the latest school evaluation report put the district back into unaccredited territory.

Robbyn Wahby, education adviser to St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, said the city is one of the early affiliates of CEE-Trust and described herself as “bullish” on its enthusiastic and imaginative approach to coming up with ideas that help schools thrive.

“It’s this hunger to figure out what is working and what is not working and how quickly can we get this information to all of us,” she told the Beacon. “Where are the financial solutions and the educational solutions?

“It’s not proprietary. It’s asking how do we send these quick wins out to as many people as possible.”

CEE-Trust is an offshoot of the Mind Trust, which conducted a similar study for schools in Indianapolis that was released in December 2011. Efforts to put the conclusions of that report into practice have been mixed, as Indiana schools have gone through changes since that time. But Ethan Gray, executive director of CEE-Trust, says that because Missouri education officials were the ones who commissioned the Kansas City study, it already has a more official pedigree.

And, he said, the work won’t just be a case of researchers taking what they found in Indianapolis and imposing their conclusions on Kansas City.

“The good news is that some of that research is going to be similar to what we did in Indianapolis,” he said. “But at the end of the day, we’re going to be presenting a plan to the board of education in Missouri that is going to be distinct to Kansas City because every community has its own opportunities and strengths and politics.”

That is what the Kauffman Foundation had in mind when it agreed to split the cost of the study with the Hall Family Foundation, says Aaron North, director of education for Kauffman.

“We do not have any preconceived outcomes in mind regarding the report, though we do hope for a fresh and creative look at Kansas City’s education sector,” he wrote in an email.

“We will favor programs and ideas that focus on improving academic and life outcomes for students.”

Indianapolis recommendations

To anyone familiar with the problems of urban school districts and the efforts made to fix them, the major conclusions of the Mind Trust’s study of Indianapolis schools will sound familiar.

It noted that only 41 cents of each dollar spent by the Indianapolis Public Schools goes directly to school budgets, with the rest controlled by the central administration.

It criticized a situation in which administrators and teachers have little say over how to do their jobs, schools are not held accountable for how well their students perform and students have little say in where they will attend class.

The researchers concluded:

“We must confront the truth: The system is broken. Much of the best work happens only when talented educators find a way to work around the bureaucracy.”

Presenting what the report called “a bold new vision that focuses relentlessly on creating those conditions for success,” it proposed a plan that included these recommendations:

  • Shift the majority of funding from the central office to individual schools
  • Pay for all 4-year-olds to have a quality pre-kindergarten program
  • Give families more choices for where children attend class, in their neighborhoods or across town
  • Provide teachers with more authority over what and how they teach, and compensate successful ones accordingly
  • Make the mayor accountable for the success of the public school system

The plan, dubbed “Opportunity Schools,” would not cost the city any more money than it is spending now, the report said, outlining a multi-year transition plan to achieve its goals.
“It’s time for our community to engage in a serious conversation about creating the conditions inside IPS that will allow talented teachers and school leaders to thrive,” the Indianapolis report concluded. “We are confident this plan provides a blueprint. We look forward to the discussion.”

As ideal – and somewhat idealistic – as the proposals for Indianapolis may have sounded, they quickly ran into reality. The district came up with its own answer to the Mind Trust report that basically said that reform was already underway and results were improving. Then, backers of the Mind Trust approach won school board seats and hired a new superintendent.

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teacher Association, said her organization feared that the recommendations by Mind Trust would lead the Indianapolis schools to sweep in new staff while ignoring those who have been there for a long time and have good ideas about what the system needs.

“If I were a veteran teacher,” she told the Beacon, “this is something I would be a little bit afraid of.

“I think if you pull back layers of all things they were saying, they were probably laying the groundwork for more parental control or charters or definitely breaking from what I would consider to be a solid traditional public school.”

Gray, at CEE-Trust, said that while the debate continues in Indianapolis, the concepts behind the report are sound and can inform the inquiry into Kansas City schools as well.

“Our intellectual frame is how do we create conditions that support great schools and great educators,” he said. "I don’t think we can assume that the present system is the only one that works. In fact, it is not working.

“No urban system in America is achieving good results for kids, so our moral responsibility is to make sure that every child has access to great public schools.”

Reaching that goal, he said, will require the realization that though specific procedures may be different, the basic approach remains the same.

“We need to focus on learning what we can from high-performing urban schools across the country and analyzing the conditions that have enabled their success,” Gray said. “The next question is how can you create those conditions, not just for individual schools but for a whole system.”

He noted that the timeline for the Kansas City report is tight, with initial results presented for public comment by January. But, Gray added, there is no time to lose.

“We would love to have the luxury of more time,” he said, “but to be honest, the longer that we wait, the more risk we have that another class of kids will be stuck in a system that isn’t serving their needs.”

Could St. Louis benefit?

At St. Louis City Hall, Wahby’s enthusiasm for CEE-Trust and the work it does is as much about the approach it takes to the problems of urban education as it is about particular solutions it has recommended.

She notes that education officials in cities like St. Louis, Indianapolis, Nashville and San Jose began talking several years ago about how their leaders could best respond to pressure on mayors to help improve the schools for the people who elected them.

“We had to figure out what’s keeping school districts from being successful,” she said. “How could we use these new nonprofit groups that are popping up?”

Mostly, she said, urban leaders wanted to try to move away from what she called a “microwave mentality” that sought instant success and quickly moved on to the next big idea if the last one didn’t show quick results.

Wahby described that approach this way:

“It’s after-school programs. Let’s all go do after-school. Oh, damn, test scores didn’t go up, so it’s not after-school.

“It doesn’t work that way. I think that is what we are realizing, that it takes a lot of things.”

While working to become more patient, she said she has also tried to make sure that education reformers are asking the right questions of the right people – people who sometimes have an investment in keeping things the way they are.

One way in which the mayor’s office has shaken things up has been its support for charter schools in the city. Wahby has worked to help groups that want to start charters put together acceptable proposals -- and then gives them more help as they work their way through the approval process.

Notably, when evaluation scores for Missouri schools were released last week and the St. Louis Public Schools had a reading that would have placed them back into the unaccredited category, a statement from Mayor Slay’s office concentrated on praise for scores that showed that “charter schools are a strong alternative for a quality, free public education for students in the city of St. Louis.”

It added:

“The MSIP5 charter school results are proof that kids can and want to learn and that educators want to teach and lead in a city where innovation and entrepreneurialism are supported. The result is good education options for families who want to live in the city of St. Louis.”

So when she was asked whether Slay would want to get the power over St. Louis public schools that the Mind Trust report urged for the mayor in Indianapolis, Wahby’s response wasn’t surprising.

On charters, she said:

“We created an environment where we would allow high-quality schools to open and persuade low-quality schools to go out of business or have sponsors shut them down. We’ve seen a real jump in the achievement of kids. Are we there yet? No.”

And on having the mayor in control of the school system:

“If called upon, I think the mayor would be open to it. We’re not asking for it. I think that’s the distinction here. It’s not something that’s coming from our office, but we would never shy away from the opportunity.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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