The Kansas City School Board

A Guaranteed Continued Disaster

Though complaining about the school board has been a popular community pastime since long before our arrival in Kansas City, the tone has become far more shrill recently. With bad years following bad years by our sports teams, major corporations leaving town, and a downtown that can't seem to be like the downtown in other cities, Kansas Citians do indeed feel helpless with the downward drift of urban life. But, some things are within control, and the constitution of the school board is certainly one of them. So I wrote this letter to the Star, which they did publish, chastising the whiners.

Another pitiful school board performance, another mountain of complaints, another stream of "What can we do?" Hey folks, wake up. Every member of the school board was elected by the citizens of the Kansas City School District. These people have been chosen as the representatives of the people. They didn't inherit, buy, weasel or sneak in. They offered themselves as candidates, received more votes than their opponents, and became members of the board. The people have the board they selected. If they don't like what the board is doing, they can vote someone else in. Simple as that.

So, who do the constituents of the district have to blame if they don't like the board's performance? Only themselves

A long column by one of the editorial writers appeared a few days after that, suggesting that the board did not have a mandate to run roughshod over the citizenry. I wondered if, at least in part, this was in response to my suggestion. I sent him this letter; he never replied.

I wonder if your "mandate" article was in response (at least partially) to the letter I had published several days before. In it, I said the school board was elected by the people, and asked those people to quit complaining about the board's actions as if they are the Politburo. Boy oh boy, I never meant to imply that they are not jerks, or thugs, or incompetent, or that they have anything like a mandate. I meant simply this: I hear constantly, and enthusiastically, people griping about the board, as if they are in some kind of lifetime sinecure. The fact that they are elected officials, and most of them are relatively new to the board, seems forgotten. People prefer to believe those in there have been there forever, and screwing up forever, and there is nothing "we" can do, instead of the painful, personally-responsible fact that a new batch is being installed every few years. (And the vote totals would indicate, with so few people voting, that this indeed may be the case!) So, the point was this: if you want people to do what you want, elect people you know who will do what you want. Every election we have the opportunity to select a board that is 'ours'. Why oh why do we always seem to think it is 'theirs'?

I have been thinking at great length about the board these days. I (somewhat pompously I suppose) suppose I understand a big chunk of the problem. These are not bad people, deliberately fouling the environment or hurting kids. They care (or at least some of them do--the board has certainly long been a place to give jobs and contracts to friends and relatives). But their biggest battle is against what they perceive of as racism. Not for children, not for the city, not for anything, and this is important. They are fighting against an idea. An idea they hate beyond all other ideas. An idea they would outlaw if they could. And all reason, all honesty, all discussion, all temperance, and all logic disappear in this struggle against racism.

I taught for four years in the district, at Van Horn High School (or Van Horn Engineering and Technology High School, as it was then known) and would be there still if the district personnel office knew what it was doing. They twice threatened me with layoff, and I acknowledged that threat the year before they could not find enough teachers. I taught 11th grade English for the non-college bound. Every year, as we prepared for our standardized tests, I would spend a lot of time seeking to instill a willing test-taking mood. I believe people perform when it is to their advantage to do so, so I attempted to demonstrate how that was true. We discussed "Black kids score worse than white kids on every standardized test ever devised. Why is that?" We analyzed the possibilities at some length. Among those possibilities is one that must be addressed: black kids are inherently dumber. No way around it. Now, my answer to this possibility in my classroom, and in my heart, was twofold. First, there is no valid way to establish this; there is no test that could conclusively, unequivocally demonstrate it. And more important, even if it were the case, it would not affect my teaching. It did not matter. I assumed the best of my students, encouraged them, and expected good things from them. Even if there were an inherent limitation as a result of their race, each student was far more important as an individual, not as a member of some group with group characteristics that transcended their personal traits. So, though the question must be acknowledged, it must also be recognized as irrelevant.

These beliefs did not blind me to the very real problems my students had reading. I recognized their profound deficiencies . . . in all honesty, I suspect very few of my students were within three years of an 11th grade reading level. I did a lot of oral reading to them, attempting to model the skills I hoped to teach. I regularly used editorials from the Star, as they were short, often on topics of some interest to them, and expressed an opinion which was defended with evidence and reason. Early in my career, I read one that included the word 'obsolete' in the first sentence. As soon as it came out of my mouth, I recognized not one of my students knew its meaning. I asked, and this was verified. In a room of twenty sixteen and seventeen year olds, not a single one was familiar with the word. Not one.

I became a teacher to share literature with people whose lives could be improved by it. But I could not do that, as the kids I had could not even understand the words in a selection; the ideas behind those words hidden by a virtual foreign language. I had to consistently back up my expectations, seeking simpler and simpler texts, as almost everything we read was basically impenetrable, with unknown words in every paragraph, and often in every sentence. Once the ideas were reshaped in words they did know and understand, those ideas often became the meat of some fascinating discussions. The ability to think, the desire the think, and the recognition of the merit of thought, were all there. But the all-important tools required for thought were not.

Vocabulary problems, which I believe are the root of nearly all reading difficulty, are not an indication of anything other than lack of exposure to that vocabulary. (As an aside, we misunderstand the solution, as these kids can sound out words wonderfully; they just have no idea what those sounds mean.) The students in the Kansas City School System were, and are, significantly behind their cohorts in the suburbs, with the black kids farther behind than their white peers. The tests, while problematic, do not lie. These substantial reading comprehension problems produce poor results in all standardized testing. Even the math portions require reading. But the board will not even allow such a thought about the kids in the district to be posited. They revel in a world of fantasy, where the kids are working hard and struggling and caring and doing their best, and would perform as well as the kids in the suburbs if they would just try harder on the tests. The source of the firing of Superintendent Benjamin Demps was not his "take it over now" announcements. Those damaged him, as they were seen as disloyal and abandoning the kids to the rednecks. But the coup de grace was his telling business leaders that district graduates could not hold a job with their companies. That was heresy, disloyalty, treason, and sedition all in one sentence. If a white superintendent had spoken those words he would have been excoriated as a racist--no expression of any doubt about students and their level of learning is ever seen as anything other than a racist remark. The party line, adhered to at all costs, is that these kids are as good as any other kids. Period. Evidence does not matter. Those who doubt--proponents of charter schools, rural districts beggared by elaborate building projects in Kansas City, or recalcitrant superintendents, are scorned and chastised and hated and ignored and called racists. And that is indeed the trump card. Once tarred as a racist, all further suggestions, ideas, or proposals are ignored, as racists must spend all their time trying to untar themselves. They are removed from all future consideration. Racists are not invited to the table, as their thoughts have no importance..

I attended a board meeting some months back. Two interesting things were revealed. The vituperative hatred of Southwest Charter School, an institution an uninformed observer might have assumed sold children into chattel slavery, was astonishing. Every mention of it was full of bitter bile and a desire to obstruct and confound it in all legal ways. And, more important as an example of their eager embracing of blinders, was the end of the meeting. At the conclusion, citizens who had gotten on the agenda were given three minutes to speak on any topic. A man got up and attempted to read a prepared statement, one he obviously had not written himself as many of the words were indecipherable to him. He blamed his not having his glasses, but it was apparent by his stumbling and mispronunciations that he was an exceedingly poor reader. So he spoke extemporaneously, rambling incoherently about how he goes to a middle school and reads to the kids, and they love to see him come and hang all over him when he does, and these kids love reading, and there's nothing wrong with our kids, and they love learning, and on and on. I cringed with embarrassment at this performance. Here was an obviously nice man, making what seemed to me a pitiful and desperate defense of an educational system that had clearly failed him some time before. He spoke far beyond the allotted three minutes, and my discomfort grew. This man went to a school and read to middle school kids? How could he read anything aloud? His misuse of the language was disheartening, and I am not just seeking to impose some arbitrary "white" standards on him. He was truly incomprehensible at times. And did he not know that kids love any excuse to postpone schoolwork, and would be happy to see any evasion? Then, after this lengthy garbled monologue full of praise for the district, its hard-working teachers and wonderful students, the board and all the audience gave this man a standing ovation.

I appreciate parental support, and know that the uneducated can help in the process of education. But the illogic in this speech, the meandering incomplete semi-thoughts pasted between cliches and Pollyannaish positiveness, and the joy with which this was received, forced me to the conclusion that if the board were watching a school burn down with a thousand students inside, they would be happy if they were assured that good kids had performed good work in there. This man had the right attitude, and to this group of powerfully caring people, attitude is the only thing that matters.

One of the complaints against modern liberalism, and a powerful one it is, is that contemporary liberals act as if to oppose them is not to be wrong but to be evil. The school board sees all opposition to it not as policy to be evaluated but as a jihad between those who care and those who do not. Soldiers in a religious war do not take advice from infidels.

The Kansas City School Board has defined where the lines are drawn, drawing them irrevocably, and in doing so has lost touch with reality. They do not believe education is deficient in Kansas City, nor they will even admit the possibility. For in admitting the schools are producing meaningless diplomas, they, in their tortured logic, admit black kids are dumber than whites. Certainly, this would appear to be a stretch to one not properly initiated, but to them, the connection is clear. Any acceptance of problem in the district can only mean something wrong with the students in the district. Which is ironic, for my first year at Van Horn was in the room next to a longtime teacher in the district, one who is famous for being a radical defender of it. She knew her kids in her Honors English were completing work that would not qualify as even adequate in the regular classes in suburban schools. She had no solution to this dilemma, but did what she could with the seniors she was given. Individually, most teachers are working hard. I met far more good teachers, dedicated, innovative, and persistent, in Kansas City than in any suburban district. But they are given so little to work with, and so little support in their objectives, that they face nearly insurmountable obstacles.

And I worry more for the future. As the standardized tests replace diplomas as the sole objective, students will be coached, coaxed, cajoled and coerced into improving those scores. I have no doubt if every principal in every school nags their staff and students with enough persistence, test scores will go up. However, as the importance of testing goes up, the quality of the teaching will go down. Imagine a teacher trying something new and being observed by their principal. The principal, concerned only with improving scores, will wonder how this technique will help. A creeping conservatism and fear, the old "playing to not lose" will creep in, as teachers are brow-beaten into toeing the line at all costs. Much like the personnel managers who hire only candidates from the right school with the right degree, even if they have no particular enthusiasm for them, teachers and principals will keep to the safe, the known, the conventional, the tried-and-true, for they cannot afford to try something unknown with a community hovering over their shoulders. There is everything to lose and very little to gain by attempting the new. And with that, a decrepit and tottering system will eventually fall, as businesses that ossify do. Which is probably why, somewhere deep down, the school boards defenders oppose competition so fiercely.

And, I may add, test scores may be raised by illegal means as well. I have been told that in one school district, some teachers have agreed to change a few answers on tests. It only takes one or two more right answers to significantly move the scores of kids in the lower-middle of the pack. I have a friend who did his student teaching at a prominent, suburban school district. Students there were given practice tests that had the same questions as the actual test. And of course, some allegations of similar cheating at Van Horn have appeared as well.

Until we stop looking at the color of our students' skin, and no longer see them as victims of an inherently oppressive system that hates them and wants them to fail, we will continue with dismal school performance. The problems of the black community lie in a culture that thinks of academic performance as a "white thang", and "white thangs" as thangs to be avoided.

We are certainly in trouble in urban, and suburban, education. But we must define accurately what the problems are before we can ever hope to fix them. If we keep blaming the racists, who, as far as I know do not write, take, or score those danged standardized tests, then we will have plenty of righteous anger but very little success.

Note: I did my student teaching at East, then taught for four years at Van Horn. Here's the journal of my student teaching experience; the data upon which I base my claims.

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