July 3, 2010

Holy hell, the KCMO school district does something right

Posted in Uncategorized tagged at 4:48 pm by chavisory

The Kansas City, Missouri school district, which could kindly be described as eternally struggling, is instituting reforms which would allow all students to progress through all subjects at their own pace.  (Forget grade levels, KC schools try something new.)  They’re doing away almost entirely with age-grading, in favor of grouping students in each subject by ability regardless of age.  Students who finish the high school curriculum in any subject early will be able to move on to college work.  (I would also hope that if students who finish early don’t wish to or aren’t ready to start college classes, they’d simply be given the free time.)

(Incidentally, I grew up in the Kansas City area but did not attend the KCMO school district; my town was served by the Park Hill district.  It was considered a “good” school district–it’s probably still ranked among the best in the state–but I was miserable.)

Superintendent Covington is brave and brilliant for making this transition.  A high school diploma will mean something again–that students have actually mastered something of their own initiative–whereas right now, in most places, it means that you sat there for 13 years and didn’t try to do anything too hard.

I could have finished the high school English curriculum by the end of 8th grade, in the time that I spent reading the whole textbook by the end of the first week of school every year and then sitting through the rest of the year zoned out and angry while the teacher tried to control the discipline problems of kids who just didn’t care.  The math curriculum between 3rd and 8th grade was meaningless–you just had to sit in math class because most kids had gotten long division and fractions but weren’t ready for algebra.  No more in downtown Kansas City.  I just about want to cry when I think about all the art classes I didn’t have time to take, that I could have if I weren’t stuck in classes that meant nothing to me or were absurdly below my ability level.

What might this end…  Labeling kids failures for not learning the same things the same way at the same time as people who just happen to be the same age.  Teaching to the lowest common denominator.  The busywork required to keep all students in a class achieving on the same mediocre and arbitrary level.

What might this create…  Respect and encouragement rather than punishment for independence and self-direction, active learning and risk-taking rather than passive obedience.  A healthier social environment, with kids able to befriend and work with a diverse set of other students continually and based on shared interest, instead of being confined almost exclusively with people only their own age for 13 years.  Invaluable mentoring relationships with teachers who will be able to spend time guiding students independently in their own goals.

If I had to name a single policy change that would do the most to change the public school institution from a place where I would not dream of sending a child, to one that I’d be thrilled to support, this would be it.  Merde to Kansas City, and may many others follow their example.


  1. brandy said,

    Wow, this is awesome! I’ve been saying for years that if I ever got the chance to design/help design a school, age-based grades would be the first thing to go. I never imagined that an entire metro school district would try it, let alone KCMO! My one worry is that there are SO many implementation factors that could go wrong, I hope that if anything does go wrong people don’t just scrap the whole effort. This is EXACTLY where 21st century education needs to go.

  2. Sarah O. said,

    I think this is a good move, but I hesitate to get excited about it just yet. First of all, I understand that you didn’t enjoy PH, but I did. That district played a huge part in making sure I had the support that I needed. Now that my mother has passed away, we are moving to keep Julius in that district because I trust them to help him stay on track. I should also mention, he is also a gifted child.

    This hasn’t made local news, at least not in any obvious way. I hadn’t seen it before this. I think that may be because the district has been such a miserable failure for so long that anyone who cared about it has already moved their children to another school. Does it have any sort of accredidation yet? If not, then not only will the diplmoa not be of much help if the kids want to go to college, but any college level “classes” they may take would not be respected.

    I like the idea, don’t get me wrong. And I like that KCMO is trying something, anything, to make things better. I worry, though, that they are doomed to fail and that their failure may be used as an example of why districts shouldn’t do this in the future. You know this, but the district is bad. Bad enough that you could give me a free house and I wouldn’t send my kids to school there. I don’t know that you can come back from that.

    Oh, any by the way, PHHS was on a list lately that ranked based on AP classes taken per student. I know that isn’t a great judge of a school, but they were around 254 or so. It came to the top, I believe, 6% of districts that made the list. I don’t remember who made the list, either. There was only one other local school that made it, and that was Sumner is KCK. Don’t get me started on Sumner, I have major issues with them, too! My husband went there 🙂

    • chavisory said,

      I’m pretty sure that the district didn’t actually lose its accredidation (correct me if I’m wrong); it’s just been off an on under court supervision.

      I presume that college classes offered would be dual-credit through whatever the local community college down that way would be (Penn Valley?), like PH’s partnership with Maple Woods.

      I’m glad to hear Julius is doing well–I will say this about PH’s gifted program: It was a life-saver, but it wasn’t remotely enough–particularly in middle school. It broke down to one hour per day of actual appropriate instruction. The other six were still spent hearing effectively that I should just be dumber and how selfish and demanding I was for wanting to be able to do more.

      I know this won’t be a panacea; Kansas City still has *many* more problems than this one; I just hope that people are willing to give it a try for a few years and evaluate it on its own merits, rather than giving up when it fails to immediately alleviate all of that district’s problems which were *decades* in the making. And I’m so impressed that the superintendent would be willing to risk so much in terms of public opinion, to do anything at all not to write off the kids who are left.

  3. Jay Furr said,

    Did you really mean “merde”??

    • chavisory said,

      Yes Jay, it’s what we say in dance instead of “break a leg.”

  4. This is a very interesting experiment and a forward-thinking strategy! I’m going to forward this to my sister who is a teacher and therefore has a lot of difficulty with class size and mixed ability.

  5. Emily said,

    I agree, Amy, very interesting. I will keep my ear out for more about this. It seems like a major shift, which educational systems are slow to make, so I’m curious how they will go about it. What I have found in education is that things that don’t immediately have a positive effect are often scrapped before they’ve had a real shot. Hopefully that will not be the case here!

    • chavisory said,

      I’m hopeful, because it seems like other districts have had good results previously; KC isn’t just doing this alone in the dark.

      It seems to me that the problems of mixed ability classes are artificially imposed by everyone being required to learn the same material in the same time frame…get rid of that arbitrary and completely unrealistic imposition, and many of the difficulties of mixed ability classrooms should (theoretically) be vastly reduced. Wasn’t that how one-room schoolhouses worked? Everyone essentially worked alone or in small groups, wherever they were in the material, with the teacher’s help as needed, but there was no age component to progress through the grades. You just moved up as you mastered each level.

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