As I See It

Let teachers lead so Kansas City schools can succeed

Updated: 2014-02-09T23:59:07Z

By ETHAN GRAY

Special to The Star

Last month our organization, CEE-Trust, released a draft plan for the future of Kansas City Public Schools. We have been gratified by the positive feedback we’ve received from many parents, teachers and members of the public, yet we have also read and heard a number of inaccurate descriptions of the plan.

Today we want to set the record straight.

Early on in our research process we hosted focus groups with local teachers, parents, administrators, and faith and community leaders. Simultaneously, our research team — led by a Harvard Ph.D. and Rhodes Scholar — was researching the common elements of the nation’s highest-performing urban schools.

The research shows that great urban schools are united by two conditions: First, they put educators in charge of all major decisions; second, they are held accountable for student success.

What that means in practice is that in great schools, educators control the curriculum, culture, calendar and staffing — not some top-down district bureaucracy. Educators have authority over their budget, and make decisions about how to spend their resources. In short, great schools empower educators to be professionals. In return, schools are held accountable for achieving results.

During our focus groups we heard that for any plan to be successful it must create the conditions to attract and retain the very best teaching talent.

That’s why our plan is pro-teacher.

For example, we give teachers the power to start and lead schools, while giving schools the budgetary control and flexibility to increase teacher pay and provide students with wrap-around services.

We protect pensions, health benefits and collective bargaining rights. We want the pension system to stay exactly the same. All teachers would be guaranteed health benefits. And teachers could collectively bargain at the school level if they so chose.

Parents and, most importantly, children benefit, too.

Under our plan, we guarantee and fund pre-kindergarten for every 3- and 4-year-old in the boundaries of the Kansas City district.

We would guarantee children a spot in their neighborhood school, but parents could choose to send their children to any other public school in the city if they thought it would be a better match.

There would be different school models to choose from — Montessori, African Centered, Science and Technology, and more — ensuring students could select a school that fostered their passions.

A citywide transportation system would ensure that families have a real choice over what school to choose, and that in-district family mobility wouldn’t require a child to switch schools.

We would preserve all the rights parents have under the current system and give them the right to vote with their feet.

Schools would be required to uphold common enrollment and expulsion policies. That means schools would have to serve every child; they could not enroll only the strongest students, or counsel out those with special needs or academic or behavioral challenges.

Over a short transition period, we expect that most schools would be established and organized by groups of the best Kansas City teachers in partnership with parents, unions and community members.

Similar to the vision of the late Al Shanker — former President of the American Federation of Teachers — these schools would be founded and led by teachers, rooted deeply in the community, and held accountable for strong results.

Some high-performing surrounding districts or charter schools could apply to operate schools, too. But they’d have to clearly demonstrate the potential for success before they’d be allowed to enter the system.

We encourage you to review our full draft for yourself, and we look forward to sharing our final plan in mid-February.

Ultimately, we believe that if Kansas City empowers its educators and parents, drives resources to the school level, provides all children with the benefits of pre-kindergarten and holds schools accountable, then the city could create unprecedented opportunity for future generations. After all, that’s the promise of a great education system.

Ethan Gray is the founder and CEO of CEE-Trust. He lives in Denver.

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