July 3, 2010
Holy hell, the KCMO school district does something right
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.