Journey of a Superintendent: Pushing for Higher Standards for Our Students

Dr. Cynthia Lane, Superintendent of the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools

Raymond McNulty with the International Center for Leadership in Education writes of moving from “best practices to next practices” to transform schools. Schools in the United States were once the best in the world. But now we are falling behind our international counterparts, particularly in the areas of science and math. McNulty’s conclusion is that while “best” practices and approaches to education are reporting the importance of developing higher standards, our approach to instruction and teaching for learning is “business as usual.” McNulty speaks of the need for schools to be in front of innovation, launching something new and then improving it based on feedback from the public.

In Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools, we have found ourselves restricted from truly thinking outside of the box to offer “next practice” concepts. The requirements of the Federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), while philosophically correct, have been devastating to innovation.  Innovation has only been encouraged if it fits within the narrow confines of federal and state regulations. If innovation is in the shape of a triangle, we are required to cut off the ends that don’t fit the circle shape of our “business as usual” state and federal concept of school.

We recognized a few years back that, while we have made tremendous progress in the numbers of students meeting and exceeding the standards set by our state, we needed to take a different approach to innovate, cultivate creativity and collaboration, and build relationships that foster teamwork. It became evident to us that our focus on performance requirements of NCLB was falling short for many of our students. In fact, as with districts all across the nation, the increasing performance on these state assessments did not translate into our students being ready for college coursework or technical careers. So, we put a plan and actions in place to prepare each student for the global competition that is their future.

I talked before about the work we have done to implement a rigorous curriculum designed to prepare students to be critical thinkers, problem solvers and ready for the next level of instruction at college and technical centers. We are in year two of this work and it’s not perfect, but there has been a major shift in our focus and expectations for students. We realized that higher standards and a curriculum designed around high thinking require measurement tools or assessment equal to this aspiration. We acknowledged the fact that the Kansas Assessment fell short and was frankly getting in the way of meaningful progress. So we applied for a waiver from regulations under NCLB that required that we administer the typical assessments given in Kansas, and requested authorization to administer college and career readiness measures.

The measures we selected are the ACT for high school, EXPLORE ACT for 8th graders and a nationally recognized college readiness measure, the Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) for use with elementary through grade seven. We believe that having meaningful measures aligned to targets important to the future of our students is a critical step toward preparing our students for their futures, and transforming our schools into places of “next practices” for teaching for learning.

Our local Board of Education led the way to the Kansas State Board of Education who fully endorsed our plan in August. The State Board celebrated with us our desire to raise our expectations and our request to be measured against higher standards. And our students, teachers, and staff have been working tirelessly to stretch toward these higher expectations.

It has been freeing to see quality teaching in all content areas, in the fine arts and physical education. You see, under NCLB, only reading and math performance was ever measured.  Thinking, writing, creativity, the things that are essential to a successful life, were gradually pushed out or de-emphasized so that all resources could be focused on what was tested on the state assessments (reading skills and math concepts). We have worked hard all year (while not hearing from the US Department of Education), and have been confident in an endorsement to raise our standards. Well, we received our official notification on March 20 (with only 9 weeks left in the school year).  Our waiver was granted for the use of the EXPLORE and ACT. Fantastic! Then came the “however.” This was: our request to utilize an assessment with higher standards for grades 3 – 7 was denied. What could possibly be the reason? The official notice states, “I am declining to further expand the extraordinary nature of this waiver to include additional assessments that are not part of the Kansas State assessment system. Although, KCKPS may administer the MAP as an additional tool to inform teaching for learning…”

The only conclusion that can be drawn is that assessments used to measure schools need not have any relationship to informing teaching for learning! In other words, we require that you spend energy, resources, time, to administer a test that has no meaning to student growth and absolutely no connection to preparing students for college and careers!

So… we will do what we have to do. We will comply with administering the state assessments in reading and math. However, we will not detour from our focus on college and career preparation. So we are committed to continue our plan to use the assessment tools needed to reach our goals. We also affirm our commitment to continue to speak out about the needs of our students – to foster innovation, and encourage our schools to be “next practice” focused!  Triangles, not circles. Launching something new is never easy. If Henry Ford had listened to all the naysayers, he would have spent his time trying to build a faster horse rather than the automobile (McNulty). We aren’t creating the next generation transportation system, but we may be educating the person who will. It’s up to us!

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One Response to Journey of a Superintendent: Pushing for Higher Standards for Our Students

  1. Norm says:

    I’m not sure how the ACT exemplifies the standards that students should have mastered before they graduate. The ACT does not measure any kind of content knowledge as the state assessment did a poor job of measuring content knowledge. The ACT is pretty much a reading comprehensions test. It tests how fast one can read and still comprehend what they are reading. I don’t see any actual need for prior sciene knowledge on the test. They give you everything inside of the text that you need.

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