“Waiting for Superman.” Once again, Hollywood has painted a picture of public education. Educators: Whether we like it or not, everyone is an armchair educator. We can spend our energy debating and defending our practices. Or we can choose to focus on continuing to improve outcomes for our children. I choose our children.
I am proud of the work we are doing here in the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools. In 1996, the district looked into its collective mirror, (long before No Child Left Behind), and said, “We must change!” At the time, the district was failing its students with only 540 of the 19,000 students meeting state standards in mathematics. Reading performance wasn’t much better, with 2,300 kids performing at or above the standard on state assessments. Commitment from district leadership and the School Board lead to an overhaul of the way schools were structured. These changes have led to dramatically improved results. While much work is still needed, 14 years into a systemic reform, more than 60 percent of students are meeting or exceeding state standards in math and reading, and the graduation rate is approaching 80 percent. Many “urban” districts would celebrate these gains, and we are proud of our work. It shows that, when the adults are focused and willing to make sacrifices and do their work differently, public school can work.
At the same time, I like to think about our recent history as the prologue to the real story. The real story is just beginning, and has yet to be written. For the next phase of the journey, “striving for excellence” has to be our mission. Now, you might be thinking: “How can ‘excellence’ be the next step, when KCKPS continues to have nearly 40% of students not meeting standards?” Well, you told me that “excellence” is what this community wants, and what our children deserve. I have listened to students, parents, community members, teachers, principals, and staff over the last several months, and the next phase of our journey has become clear to me. We are ready to strive to become one of the top school districts in nation.
Yes, in this time where it’s in vogue to criticize public schools, we are taking the steps necessary to provide every student with an excellent educational experience. I know, there are plenty of people who doubt our ability to succeed. It’s almost easier to be skeptical and a non-believer, than it is to believe. But I have confidence that we will be successful. For me, the key to our success is really quite simple. The key is recognizing, “It’s up to us!”
That’s it. We must recognize that, if we are going to provide each and every student with an excellent education, we must be willing to look at our own practices, and do whatever it takes to be better at what we do as adults. Yes, I know that many of our kids walk through our doors with incredible challenges (90% of our students qualify for the free or reduced price meal program). But I refuse to spend my time and energy talking about things we don’t control. Rather you will hear me talk about the power of educators to help our students overcome their challenges, if we do our jobs well. The research is clear – highly effective teachers and leaders can provide educational experiences that overcome poverty, crime, neglect, lack of family involvement and a long list of other life-altering circumstances.
At the same time, I don’t want to leave you with the wrong impression. Educators can and must do a lot to change live outcomes of children. But the responsibility to mold our youth doesn’t just fall on the shoulders of educators; it belongs to everyone. Educators, families, and community, we all have a part. In fact, we have a moral obligation to do whatever it takes for our kids.
In this space, I will share my journey as the appointed leader of a good urban school district, as we move toward becoming an excellent school district. Join me as I reflect on our work to ensure that every student exits high school fully prepared for college and careers, and at every level performance is on-track and on-time for success. Engage with me as I share our work to ensure every student has access to a highly-effective teacher and a fully-implemented college preparatory curriculum.
You see, we can spend our time “waiting for superman,” or can realize that our mission is to “Inspire Excellence: Every Grownup, Every Child, Every Day. Remember, “It’s Up to Us.”