Kansas City Schools

The Greatest Educational Disaster Anywhere?

Several years ago, an article appeared in the Kansas City Star that was especially damning of teachers. The author, Barbara Shelley, dragged out the usual foolishness that teachers determine the school's success. While the quality of teachers is a key component, the administration is the source of support or obfuscation. A good principal can make a good school, a bad one will invariably make a bad school. Teachers are at their mercy. I wrote the following letter to her, She never replied.

Many of the names and references are out of date, but the idea is still valid.

Dear Barbara,

There are two jobs that nearly everyone feels better at than those who actually have them. One is coaching a sports team. Though few of the multitude of critics ever have had the chance (or necessity) to demonstrate their prowess, the radio and paper are full of those claiming they could do a superior job. The other is teaching. I have been hearing most of my life about how teachers should just do this or change that or get back to the basics and then we'd have the education system we used to have. Thus, I read your recent column on the state of Kansas City's schools with the dismay I usually reserve for the ramblings of Lance Lowenstein. He had always seemed unique in his ability to utter an abundance of foolish and uninformed statements based upon nothing other than his confused psyche. However, your article brought several new players into the picture. The ignorance about the reality of Kansas City schools (or any schools, for that matter) is matched only by the arrogance of those who think they know best. I taught at Van Horn High School for four years, though I no longer do, thanks to Mr. Newsome's eagerness to wean us of state money. Van Horn was neither a demoralized school nor had a demoralized staff. Since I will not again teach in Kansas City, I can say whatever I want without fear of reprisal. You are wrong, the school board is wrong, the people you quote are wrong, and the community is wrong. The teachers are not the problem.

(I will use male pronouns for convenience, though most problems are equally divided among male and female students.)

The problems in the Kansas City's schools are many. Possibly the original plan was wrong, though I don't believe so, and we will never be able to determine if that was the case. However, what was wrong was the half-assed implementation of that plan, the many foolish public relations fiascoes, and the virulent hostility of the press. I will leave plan implementation alone, other than to say that a certain ugly racism was underneath much of the criticism. "Why do those niggers need fencing or tractors or a planetarium or ...?" Doubt that? I think not....In what other district is building quality buildings that meet Federal regulations so openly resisted? But Dr. Marks did more to harm this district and its reputation than any thug, drug-dealer, or teacher. The suburban residents left the city to get good schools. It was (and is) important for them to have that opinion validated. So, nearly all the news media (whose customers are the affluent suburban or private school patron) were slanted to show the inherent flaws of the system and its practitioners. The district certainly can share the blame. It spent visibly, abundantly, and wastefully. It is interesting though that few seem to think spending money on sports arenas or gambling palaces is a waste of money; somehow building quality schools is a different category. Combining this with an almost willful desire to air dirty laundry in public, admirably assisted by The Star and local television, and you have a public relations disaster that could never be overcome.

Imagine a courtroom. Decorum reigns. Should a defendant, lawyer, clerk, or observer mouth off, insult anyone, go to sleep, or disrupt the proceedings, the judge has powerful options. He can incarcerate or fine them. They must obey, regardless of their dissatisfaction, or face stiff consequences. He has police to enforce his decrees. People fear those options and the enforcers, and thus usually behave. Those who have nothing to lose and so feel comfortable shouting or spitting can be manacled, muzzled or removed, in chains and forcibly, if necessary. As a teacher, when a student swears or disrupts or goes to sleep, I have no recourse. None. There is absolutely nothing I can do. If I send him to the office, I will probably be criticized for bad classroom management or an uninteresting curriculum. I may get a note telling me the student should be kept after school, in my room, on my time, but should I decide to enforce detention, if he fails to show I am again without recourse. Imagine a judicial system where we had to ask people to do what we want and if they refused we were expected to carry on anyway. Trials without order or sentences that are only recommendations would carry little weight.

That is the plight of the teacher. It used to be successful because students and parents believed in the value of what they were obtaining at school and implicitly bought in. Now, should I attempt to call a parent, I face innumerable obstacles. The only way I can contact them is by calling, since no more than 10% attend conferences or open house. So they may have a phone, may be home, may actually care, and may be able to do something. However, much more common are responses of despair or ignorance: "Well, he's really a lot of trouble, isn't he?" or " Can't do much with these kids." or "I'll beat that bastard until he's black and blue!" Either way, the student will be back in my class, having conclusively demonstrated who has the power in my room. Principals live in fear of the superintendent, who lives in fear of the public, and DMC and Judge Clark. High suspension rates, especially if not racially balanced, make all those groups restless. So, I am forced to restrain, humor, ignore, entertain or bribe to get something approaching appropriate behavior. Because I cannot ultimately control what occurs in my classroom, I am forced to spend more time reacting to childish or disruptive behavior and less time teaching. However, there are so many kids who have never learned the skills necessary to function in my class, it is in their interest to continue to disrupt my class and avoid facing their own deficiencies. The same lack of parental interest, structure encouraging academic achievement, and culture that emphasizes live for today is visible in my room. It is a powerful antidote to success.

Now, let's be specific. So, what would you do with a student who's sleeping? Don't tell me I should do something without telling me what that something might be. If I wake him, he may stay awake and he may not. How many times do I continue to wake him? If he is a troublesome, or frequently absent, student, what do I gain by having him temporarily present, if not cognizant? At least, if he is asleep, he will cause trouble to neither me nor the class. Since my job, as I have chosen to define it, is to help those who actually want to learn, I will let him sleep. If he doesn't care, how much time should I spend attempting to make him care when there are students right there who want to learn and have already experienced having their educational time wasted by those with no interest in the process.

The dedication and talent of most of the teachers I taught with in the Kansas City school system surpassed most other teachers I have met. I had the pleasure and honor to work with a number of gifted, dedicated, and diligent educators. That certainly does not mean every teacher in Kansas City is great. But is it reasonable to assume, as nearly everyone seems to do, that the distribution of poor teachers in the Kansas City schools is greater than anywhere else? Why? I believe that most of Kansas City's instructors are more talented and more dedicated than most of their peers both locally and around the country. What is my evidence? First, I have lived in many different states. I attended high school in another state, in a much-praised and highly regarded district. Wherever I live, I always ask how many excellent teachers people had while they were in high school. The usual response is two or three. These responses come from people who graduated in the "when I was a kid" glory days of American education. Yet my students felt that they had had a minimum of one excellent teacher per year. I have taken classes at both UMKC and CMSU and consistently found many of the KCMSD teachers to be the most interesting, most excited, and most eager to learn. I have attended and presented at state and national conferences. I know that excellent teachers are hard to come by. Especially considering how they are paid. None of those critics full of answers seem eager to actually apply for this job that pays so poorly in comparison to comparable occupations. I had a Master's degree and after four years experience I would have made a little more than $31,000. With benefits far below those available in business. That's a little more than your average dishwasher, but how many professionals with similar experience and requirements make that little? Very few. Even in Kansas City. I have a friend who teaches in the Chicago suburbs. Top teacher pay in his system is $82,000. No one can achieve that here. "You get what you pay for" is still true. Except, in education, you often get more than you deserve considering how little you're willing to pay.

A painful percentage of students attend school because they get free meals, lots of socialization, a chance to parade new clothes or shoes, and a place to be safe. I wish this were not the case. But it is. Until these students have a motivation that includes self-improvement, education will never be the experience you want it to be. These kids drop out not because school is not meeting their educational needs but because they reach a point where they can no longer make it. Teachers demand more than those students can or are willing to do. When they see they will not graduate with their class, they drop out. It is high standards and high expectations that drive many kids away from school. If it were easy and comfortable and accommodating, more kids would graduate. If merely handing them a piece of paper is the goal, then let's reduce the standards. But if getting graduates who have actually accomplished something is the goal, then let's raise those standards even more. You followed your slander with a completely different article about a Vietnamese immigrant who learned and thrived. Probably no bad teacher could have inhibited her progress. But she shows what motivation can accomplish. Sorry, Mr. Benson, Judge Clark, et al. The schools do not force anyone who wants an education out. They did not force a sufficient number of troublemakers out. By trying to appease everyone, they satisfied no one, and will be cast adrift to sink or swim as best they can. I fear the consequences when they drift under and can no longer plead for help. As we withdraw the life preserver we have given to the Kansas City schools, let us notice what we do with it. Will we give it instead to bloated athletes in the form of a subsidized arena? Or rich casino owners eager for a little TIF? Or Mr. Miller Nichols, barely struggling by on how ever many millions he has? Once that preserver is gone, it will never be tossed again. I am not so foolish as to say money is the answer. I know that a lot of money was wasted in the Kansas City schools. But I also am not so foolish to think that if money is not the answer, lack of money is.