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KC Schools Need Drastic Reform, Report Says; Changes Could Apply Statewide

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Updated at 1:34 p.m., Mon., Jan. 13 with news of  unexpectedly large turnout at Jefferson City meeting.

To reverse student performance in Kansas City that it calls  “disastrous,” a consultant hired by Missouri education officials is proposing a makeover that would direct more money to individual schools, recruit outside nonprofit groups to run them and address non-academic needs such as health care, nutrition and even laundry services to prepare students better to learn.

Keys to its approach are putting educators in charge of their schools, instead of having their hands tied by rules from a central office, and holding them accountable for success. Leadership of failing schools would be replaced, and universal pre-school would be instituted to give all students a good head start.

The 76-page draft report (see full report and executive summary below) from the group CEE-Trust, being presented Monday afternoon to the Missouri state board of education, concentrated on Kansas City, but its conclusions are designed to be applicable to schools elsewhere in the state.

“Despite decades of well-meaning efforts,” the report said, “schools in too many of Missouri’s districts are not on track to close achievement gaps or equip students with the tools they need to thrive in college, the workplace, and civic life.”

More than 30 minutes before the board meeting was scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. in Jefferson City, several dozen people lined the narrow hallway leading to the meeting room. The crowd was so large that the board decided to move the meeting to a larger venue one block west and delay the start of the CEE-Trust presentation until 2 p.m.

The crowd had been recruited by Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity in Kansas City to protest what they feared the CEE-Trust report might recommend.

The Rev. Rodney E. Williams, co-chair of the group, said they were concerned about a lack of transparency in the creation of the report and a lack of participation by the Kansas City public schools.

He said he felt slightly better about the final recommendations because the state board has a new member from Kansas City, John Martin, who once served as interim superintendent of the school system.

Several members of the crowd held signs. Typical of their messages was this: "We Love our KCPS kids. Will you?"

Report levies harsh criticism of Kansas City

The report had harsh judgments for Kansas City schools, which have been trying unsuccessfully to persuade state education officials to upgrade their classification from unaccredited to provisionally accredited, to avoid the transfers that have drained students and money from Normandy and Riverview Gardens school districts in north St. Louis County.

Noting chronically poor test scores in Kansas City schools, the report said that they could not be attributed solely to the socioeconomic status of a large majority of the district’s students.

“While some might claim that KCPS is making progress,” the draft report said, “other districts are making faster progress, ensuring that KCPS students continue to lag farther behind.”

It added:

“KCPS serves a large proportion of students who are from low-income families, typically defined in school data by their eligibility for free and reduced price lunch. Is it possible that KCPS’s proficiency gap with the state is just a function of this high proportion of students in need? No. The proficiency gaps between KCPS students and the state persist when just comparing results for students who qualify for free and reduced price meals.”

Chris Nicastro, Missouri’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said in an interview that she thinks a new state law gives the state board of education the power to enact the report’s proposals on its own. But, she added, she wants lawmakers involved as well, and the report will be just one ingredient in an overall plan to help struggling schools.

“We have stated repeatedly,” Nicastro said, “that we think it is very important for us to work collaboratively with the legislature.”

Emulate good schools

After studying the Kansas City schools, meeting with teachers, parents and community leaders and applying basic education research, CEE-Trust concluded that the best way to improve education in urban areas is to zero in on individual schools that are doing well, then try to export their formulas for success.

“Individual urban schools in America are achieving incredible results for students from low-income communities,” its report said, “but no urban school systems are achieving incredible results for all – or even most – children in an entire city.”

In successful schools, it added, educators are in charge and make their own major decisions in areas like staffing, curriculum and school culture, free from the dictates of a “one-size-fits-all” central office.

By moving responsibilities from the main office to individual schools, the report said, the amount of funds available directly for schools and classrooms could rise from 5 percent of the district’s total budget to as much as 64 percent. In Kansas City, that would mean a shift of more than $143 million.

Along with such autonomy, though, CEE-Trust said such schools have to be held accountable for results.

Achieving those goals of autonomy and accountability means doing more than just tinkering with an organization that has been in place for too long, the report said.

“This is not about reforming the system,” it said. “Reforming the system has been tried for years and hasn’t worked. This is not about incremental change. Incremental change has been tried for years and hasn’t worked. This is about transforming a school system by ensuring teachers, school leaders, parents, and schools have the conditions they need to thrive.

“Thoughtful dialogue on this issue should not be constrained by the traditional structure of urban school systems. Why should we assume that a system that was designed to meet the needs of 19th-century America could also meet the needs of 21st-century students and families?”

That kind of disconnect has been particularly evident in big cities.

“Simply put,” the report said, “the traditional urban school system does not work. It is not stable. It does not serve the needs of its students. It does not, nor has it ever, produced the kind of results all children, families, and taxpayers deserve. And it does not create the conditions that research shows enables great urban schools to thrive. It is time to think outside the box and have a robust community conversation about how to build a new and different school system that is structured for success.”

A new statewide structure

That new organization, CEE-Trust said, would have the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education set up what the report calls a Community Schools Office unit to oversee such offices in areas around the state. Working with local advisory boards, the offices would recruit groups that could take over individual schools, using increased autonomy to have a greater portion of education budgets dedicates to the classroom, not to administration.

The offices would operate under a performance contract with the state, outside of the existing evaluation structure. They could get more support for what is working and use successes from elsewhere to try to improve local student performance. Once schools reached an acceptable level, control would return to locally elected boards.

The CEE-Trust report took particular care to defuse what it apparently thought would be objections to the plan from established education groups.

“We also want to address upfront what this plan is not,” its report said.

  • “This plan is not about privatizing public education. This is about reimagining public education so that the system is structured in a way that it creates the conditions through which a great public school emerges in every neighborhood.
  • "In fact, one of our recommendations will ensure that public schools cannot be privatized.
  • “This plan does not call for an all-charter system. We believe there is an important role for a central system (a Local Education Agency or LEA) that unites all public schools, but that role is substantively different than the role that the school district currently plays. In addition, more than 30 percent of Kansas City students are enrolled in public charter schools. Many of these schools are low performing. Charters clearly are not the answer in and of themselves. But any citywide plan must address existing charters since they serve so many students; thus, we have developed clear strategies for how to ensure that existing charters improve and future schools are higher quality.
  • “This plan is not anti-labor. On the contrary, a key focus of our plan is enabling teachers in communities like Kansas City both to earn substantially more than they do now, and to take control of their schools in ways that are impossible in most districts. We believe that teacher’s unions can be strong allies for improving schools.”

Asked whether such concerns had come up during the firm’s research, Ethan Gray of CEE-Trust, who headed up the team that wrote the report, said in an interview:
“We’ve unfortunately seen over the past several months a variety of people opining and speculating what might be included in this plan without waiting until the plan actually came out. We thought we would address those notions head-on.”

Two views of KC schools

The Kansas City schools have been unaccredited since the beginning of 2012, but they have so far avoided transfers of students under the law that prompted such actions in Normandy and Riverview Gardens last summer. That reprieve could end soon, though, following a recent ruling by the Missouri Supreme Court that essentially said that the law that forced the transfers in St. Louis County also applies in Kansas City.

When the latest evaluation of Missouri school districts came out last summer, the Kansas City schools showed improvement, moving into the range that could earn provisional accreditation. But efforts by the district to have Nicastro recommend such a change to the state board have fallen short.

Credit DESE website
Chris Nicastro

Instead, Nicastro has said that under the newest version of the state’s evaluation system, the Missouri School Improvement Program, schools would have to show at least two years of growth before her staff would recommend an accreditation upgrade.

The CEE-Trust report seems to back her decision. In one section, it listed the shortcomings of the district’s academic performance, despite improvements shown last year:

  • “70 percent of KCPS students are below proficient in math and English Language Arts (ELA).
  • "ELA proficiency rates have declined in some recent years, despite improved management and operations.
  • “Very, very few students graduating from KCPS are ready for college based on their ACT scores.
  • “While science and social studies scores have improved this past year (mirroring statewide trends), proficiency rates in those subjects are still below 30 percent.

“And average KCPS student achievement growth is lower than state predictions based on similar districts’ results, meaning that KCPS students could fall further behind their peers over time.”
Asked whether there was any hesitancy to label such a record as “disastrous,” Gray of CEE-Trust said in an interview:

“It’s important to recognize that this is a moral issue as well as a legal and structural and governmental issue. Communities have a desire and an obligation to provide opportunities for young people….

“I think there would be a problem with anyone not calling that a disaster.”

Though administration of the district has stabilized after years of frequent turnover – the report counted 26 superintendents in 45 years – CEE-Trust said that front-office changes can’t mask poor student test scores.

“While some argue that the system has been stabilized after years of dysfunction,” its report said, “one must ask: What good is stability if most students still cannot read, write, or do math proficiently, or graduate from high school ready for college or careers?”

Controversy over contract

The CEE-Trust study was paid for with $385,000 donated by the Kauffman Foundation and the Hall Family Foundation, both of Kansas City. The state board of education awarded the contract last summer – a move that later drew criticism when emails revealed that members of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education staff were involved in the writing of the CEE-Trust proposal.

That story, in the Kansas City Star, talked of “secret plans” to transform the city’s schools despite an improved showing in the latest statewide evaluation. Nicastro has defended her action, saying that the CEE-Trust report will be  just one factor in the department’s own plan to help struggling schools in Missouri.

Asked whether the controversy might have an influence on the report’s recommendations being adopted, Nicastro said the focus should be on improving schools.

“It’s not a time to be looking backward,” she said. “We’ve been waiting in Kansas City for years to figure out what we should do with the school system.”

Many of the conclusions in the CEE-Trust report were similar to those included in its research on schools in Indianapolis. Implementation of those recommendations has stalled because of changes in education leadership in the city and the state of Indiana.

CEE-Trust is expected to present a final version of its report next month after public comment; DESE is expected to have its plan, taking into account the CEE-Trust report, its public hearings in Normandy and Riverview Gardens and other information, in March.

Conditions for Success - Executive Summary and Full Report by St. Louis Public Radio

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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