Improvise, Adapt & Overcome: An honest discussion about education reform.

I am the mayor of a city with 14 school districts and I have jurisdiction over none of them. If you think I’m looking to change that, you’re wrong.  I’ve been down that road.

I’m a Marine and one thing I learned from my experience in the Marine Corps is that when one road is blocked off, you just have to find another one that gets you where you need to be.  The unofficial motto of the Marine Corps rings true in this case, “improvise, adapt, and overcome.”

Kansas City needs to be a community where every child has access to a high-quality education. Period. End of story.

Or at least that SHOULD be the end of the story.

Far too often adult interests and political rhetoric complicate this very basic idea.  That is problematic for me.
There is a close connection between education and prosperity, both for individuals and for cities.  Where this becomes problematic for me as Mayor is when I cannot keep a business here or attract a business here because of the perception, and to some extent, the reality, that our education system is an impediment. Businesses want to locate where there is a highly-trained workforce.  They also are hesitant to locate in neighborhoods without high-performing schools to which their employees can send their children. Businesses also know that cities that lack quality educational opportunities tend to have higher crime rates.
High crime is bad for business.

We need to turn all of this around.  Last month at the Interim House Committee on Education, I urged state lawmakers, as another legislative sessions draws near, to shift the entire education conversation.  I want to share with you all I feel that is necessary -

Our kids are not a drain on the rest of the state.  I question the line of thinking that brown and black children would magically learn more if they were sitting in seats in suburban school districts surrounded by white kids.  I refuse to believe that all our teachers care about is tenure when the reality is that teachers in our city often use their own money to buy school supplies and often have to be the teacher AND the guidance counselor because the Missouri General Assembly has failed to properly fund social services and education for years.

I want lawmakers to consider that it is not that our families don’t care about the education of our children.
Rather, the reality is that many families are juggling raising their children with working more than one job because it is so hard in the current political and economic atmosphere for middle class families to make ends meet. I reject the notion that we shouldn’t even try to do better by urban kids because it’s too difficult to make changes.

I’m tired of the status quo and so are the people of Kansas City.

I do not pretend to be an education expert but I am a huge supporter of education because it changed my life, so this is personal for me.  I grew up on Kansas City’s east side and my parents both worked two jobs so that my brothers and I could go to the best schools possible.

I know first-hand the transformational nature of education. And I’m sick of seeing so many of our kids unable to reach their full potential because we adults have failed to do our job of providing them with a quality education.

They deserve better.

If lawmakers are truly committed to education reform, then we need to stop playing politics and make the necessary investment to get the job done. That means they must be as committed to investing in education, our social infrastructure, as they are in investing in our physical infrastructure like roads and bridges. That means they defend every child’s right to have a first-class education with as much passion as they would defend every adult’s right to have a gun.

By the way, I noticed a lot more talk during this year’s veto session about guns than I did about children. What does that say about our priorities?  Let’s talk about real, meaningful education reform.

Merriam Webster defines reform as, “improving someone or something by removing or correcting faults and problems; and to improve your own behavior or habits.”  To that end, I propose that when we refer to “education reform” we include reforms to education institutions and reforms to our own behaviors.  Because reforms to both are badly needed. I hate it when people come to me with nothing but complaints.  It’s easy to complain, but more difficult to come up with solutions.

So, I have some suggestions for true education reform:

First, invest in quality early childhood education.  

Early childhood experts tell me that Missouri has consistently ranked near the bottom in terms of state funding for early childhood education for decades.  Consistency is good for many things, but that is not one of them. Trust me, I have to balance our city budget and I understand competing priorities in the budget process. But I dare anyone to name a priority that should be higher than our children.  And if the moral argument doesn’t work for you, look at it from a business standpoint.

Studies have found that for every $1 invested in early childhood education, $8 is returned to the community.
If your stockbroker could virtually guarantee that kind of return on investment, wouldn’t you do it for your own financial portfolio?

Second, help me change the public image of urban education.

Earlier I mentioned all the misconceptions I hear in the news, in committee hearings, and from the general public. I am not here to tell you that everything is rosey.  It isn’t.  But accepting that at face value isn’t telling the complete picture of today’s urban education system.

Urban kids face challenges every day that their suburban and rural counterparts simply do not face. I’m talking about a lack of proper healthcare, random gun violence perpetrated by idiots with illegal guns on the streets of this City and others, and a lack of hope that is passed from one undereducated generation to the next.  In spite of all of this, we have some great students, great schools, great teachers, and great families here.

For example, KCPS offers the Early College Academy, where students earn their high school diploma and associate’s degree from Penn Valley  Community College.

Center High School student Erick Boone was selected by the Meridian International Center and the Youth Initiative for Human Rights to participate in the 2013 Youth Leadership Exchange Program with Central Europe.

While traveling through Central Europe, participants learn ways to impact their community.

Erick believes that the greatest benefits he received from the program was learning how to lead and inspire others for change and to start projects which make a difference to the entire community.

Jada Robinson is a 4th Grader at Genesis Promises Academy.  The United States Tennis Association announced this summer that Jada won the prestigious, nationwide Arthur Ashe Essay Contest.  Next month, she’ll travel to New York City where she will be a special guest at the 2013 Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day presented at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

Two Park Hill High School students are Governors of Boys State and Girls State this year.

Maybe I’m idealistic, I’ve been called worse, but I believe if more people come to understand that all is not lost in Kansas City, St Louis, and other urban education systems then perhaps they will dig a little deeper and be more helpful than adversarial.

Third, when making education policy remember that nothing impacts every facet of community development like education.  

Education impacts crime, health care, economic development, neighborhood stability and everything in between. Therefore, we need a holistic, community-wide approach to education.

Two and a half years ago, I created Turn the Page KC, a community organization dedicated to the goal of ensuring every child in this city can read at grade level by third grade. If we achieve that overarching goal then we will also accomplish something that is immeasurable: elevating the urgency and importance of education in this community. The academic achievement of our young people should be a community-wide priority. We cannot consider our young people as “someone else’s problem.”  I’m doing my part locally to reinforce that and would appreciate help in doing the same at the state level.

Lastly, to reform education, we need to more strategically plan for the future, not just the present.  

That means thinking about the needs of our future workforce. We need curriculum aligned with the needs of a high-tech, global job market. It is no longer enough to teach only reading, writing, and arithmetic. The workforce of tomorrow needs to be trained in information technology, communication (including foreign languages), and critical thinking.

To that end, I’m happy to be a part of DESE’s Pathways to Prosperity Program.  That’s the department’s partnership of employers, educators and policymakers committed to building a system of pathways for high school aged students to and through a postsecondary technical education program and into meaningful work. At the same time, we need to recognize that not every child should or wants to go to college to be a computer wiz. We need to educate our mechanics, our artists, and our furniture makers with as much passion as we educate our doctors and CEOs. Every child has unique potential. We just need to turn that potential into skills for our local workforce.  That is what the employers in this city are concerned about – not teacher tenure, vouchers for private schools, and whether or not kids pray in class.

I’ve touched on a lot here. At times it can be emotional – As I said before, education is personal for me.

I urge state lawmakers to consider my suggestions of investing in early childhood education, changing the public image of urban education, linking community development goals and education, and also strategically planning for the future through our education system.

The education of our children is too important to take lightly.  We must take the necessary steps to make it a priority.

4 thoughts on “Improvise, Adapt & Overcome: An honest discussion about education reform.

  1. Thank you Mr. Mayor, for your comments, insights and interest in the education of all of our children. The State mandates that we educate every child, however, proper assessment of how each child learns, and the resources for educating each child based on their unique needs are not adequately provided.
    I was impressed with the efforts of former MO State Education Commissioner, Bob Bartman, now Superintendent of Center School District , along with Superintendents of surrounding Districts for doing what DESE should have been doing over the years which includes coming up with plans for solutions that would strengthen and sustain Districts where students would not have to leave their home District, surrounding Districts would not be forced to accept students from failing districts, and no District would be in financial straits as a result. **

    Sorry Bob Bartman left the State post years ago, but happy he’s still around and can rally other astute colleagues to do what the Missouri State Department of Elementary and Secondary Education should be doing.

    ** See Kansas City Star Article 11/5/2013

  2. Good Luck with your program. I have some suggestions that would be beneficial to regaining the proper Educational status required of Students in Missouri. I will accept an invitation to meet with you and talk. HOPEFULLY, WE GOT THE “ACCREDATION” pronunciation solved. God Bless. Sellie Truitt

  3. Thank you Mayor James, for speaking up for parents as well as students. As we work together with love and respect for every family the city will change.

  4. First I have to say bravo and amen. Along with standard literacy skills, STEM and STEAM there needs to be proficiency in other types of literacy like data and media. Literacies that can be taught through vehicles like games for social change and creating a learning and innovation infrastructure on top of Google Fiber to connect many of the existing and amazing people, programs and resources of the city.

    I believe that Kansas City as a center, not only physically in the United States, but also ontologically can lead the nation in creating a model of the city of the future. This means taking on smarter city models and creating those end runs his Honor mentions in going around blockages. By making the knowledge, assets and resources of the city legible in an unprecedented way will support the vision of the mayor for education and growth.

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