Ethan Gray Guest Post: Kansas City Power Politics

Ethan Gray is CEO of the CEE-Trust and someone I’ve known since he was a graduate student and Ted Sizer told me I should hire him (he was right).  CEE-Trust (an organization that Bellwether provided strategic advice to as it was organizing) is working with the state of Missouri on school improvement work there – with a focus on the Kansas City Schools. Not surprisingly the debate is contentious and below Ethan lays out in a guest post his take on what’s going on:

Earlier this year my organization CEE-Trust was tasked by the Missouri Board of Education to develop a plan to transform failed school districts with a special emphasis on Kansas City Public Schools. For context, KCPS is a system where 70 percent of students are below proficient and the average ACT score is a tick above 16. You can read our executive summary for a detailed overview of the plan.

Earlier this week, we released an open letter to KCPS teachers because, as we say in the letter, “those who benefit by keeping the current system in place have consistently misrepresented our beliefs and what our plan would mean” for the district’s teachers.

During our research phase, our first focus group was with the Kansas City Federation of Teachers. We were surprised when we arrived at union headquarters and saw an inaccurate American Federation of Teachers anti-CEE-Trust flier sitting on the waiting room table.

Around Christmas, before a draft of the plan had even come out, union leaders organized a public event to sing anti-CEE-Trust Christmas carols, falsely accusing us of wanting to privatize the district. Then, when the report draft came out, they put a page on their website with misleading anti-CEE-Trust talking points.

What has genuinely struck me about Kansas City is the extent to which power politics have obscured an honest debate of ideas, despite the common ground between our proposal and what teachers told us they wanted.

For example, teachers told us they wanted more autonomy, better pay, universal pre-k, and the budgetary flexibility to provide wrap around services to better meet the needs of students living in poverty. We were able to address all of those priorities in our plan.

Under our plan, educators run schools and make all key programmatic decisions at the school level, while the system focuses on accountability and a few common services.

Unlike those who want to charter-ize everything, we maintain a central system because it helps guarantee equity and access. Our system sets common enrollment and expulsion policies, ensuring that schools serve all students – especially those who charters have sometimes neglected or counseled out. Our system also provides universal pre-k and citywide transportation.

We preserve collective bargaining rights but shift them to the school level since the district no longer employs teachers directly. Yes, that makes unions work harder to organize. But what is more important, maintaining a one-size-fits-all contract or successfully addressing other important teacher priorities like pay, working conditions, and autonomy?

For example, our plan’s Appendix C shows that a sample elementary school could increase average teacher pay by 20 percent; lower class sizes by 20 percent from state guidelines; hire a full time social worker and part time nurse; hire art, music, and PE teachers; and still have money left over to purchase additional wrap around services. It is possible to meet all of the teachers’ priorities while staying within the budget of the current system.

Take a look at our plan, then take a look at this page from the AFT’s website. We could have put most of that page in the middle of our report and it would have fit right in. Unfortunately, rather then see common ground, interest groups have retreated to their political talking points, even when they don’t fit the actual debate.

We’ve developed a plan for a school system that empowers educators and pays them more, gives parents more meaningful choices, and provides pre-k and wrap around services to address the issues of poverty. We believe that such a school system better meets teachers’ needs and will produce vastly better results for children.

Yet we’ve been opposed at every turn by groups that would benefit under our proposals. Unfortunately, the debate in Kansas City has been shaped more by fear mongering and conspiracy theories than the free exchange of ideas. That’s too bad, because if one thing is clear, it’s that our cities are in desperate need of strategies that can make teaching more attractive and sustainable, while delivering better results for students than the current top-down districts of today.

16 Replies to “Ethan Gray Guest Post: Kansas City Power Politics”

  1. You can’t claim to be anti-labor after issuing a plan which says, “Educators would be able to collectively bargain at the school level if they so chose.”

    If you keep insulting our intelligence and claiming to be pro-kids because you now support wraparound services, you are still using kids as hostages while promoting a corporate agenda.

  2. John – not sure if your comment is meant for me or Andy. To be honest, I don’t really know what you’re saying here. A) we’re pro labor – thus the preservation of bargaining rights and ability for schools to pay teachers more. B) We believe schools should be able to provide wrap-around services to children who are growing up in poverty, so our plan gives schools the budgetary flexibility to do so. Whose intelligence are insulting?

  3. Union contracts must be system-wide. Otherwise, you are just inviting divide and conquer. If you really don’t know why, then do you know the difference between propoganda and the lessons of history.

  4. John – that’s a pretty narrow vision. How do you feel about the AFT unionizing charter schools? University Prep in NYC is one of the schools we profile in our report. It’s one of the top 5 schools in the city. Check it out:

  5. John –

    Teachers unions have already agreed to various contracts that contain provisions that are not system-wide or have localized options. That’s old news.

    There is plenty of lively debate about how much variance is preferable/acceptable/efficient/and all that from various viewpoints and also about what provision should be systemic and which ones shouldn’t but it’s not some sort of Rubicon no one has yet crossed.

  6. I understand. When unions were given a series of offers they couldn’t refuse, they made concessions that they wouldn’t have willingly made. And look at the damage that was done in New Orleans, Philly, and elsewhere.

    Now, the teacher-bashing and union-bashing reforms of the last decade have failed, and now that teachers are fighting back, its a new day. (its the same thing as the way that unions accepted Arne Duncan’s coercive policies but now it is the second term and now we have an actual record to fight back against, and we will).

    If you want to embrace Community Schools, that’s great. Community schools need to be the antithesis of the corporate reforms that deputized teachers as the agents for overcoming poverty and punished us for failing to make the reform theories work. If you are serious, districtwide CBAs must be the default. We can negotiate thin contracts in individual cases. But, you all need to face facts. You can’t continue to attack teachers, as you expect us to not fight back. If we’re going to make wraparound services work, we need to be partners. Checks and balances must be enacted in advance.

  7. Ethan,

    For what its worth, I’d support a deal where the handful of NYC charters who agreed to take all of the “same students” in return for not paying rent. But, I’m not willing to continue down the path that made us so vunerable to divide and consquer. If you want a new day, offer concrete checks and balances on the ground floor, don’t expect teachers to continue to depend on the kindness of market-driven reformers.

    If you want Community Schools, as I do, why not state explicitly that a systemwide CBA is the default?

  8. John,

    We agree on the need for all schools to serve all types of students. That’s why we maintain a central system for accountability and common enrollment and common expulsion policies. Zero tolerance for creaming or counseling out. But in our system, the schools are the employers, not the system. Thus bargaining at the school level. Perhaps the middle ground is CBAs at the school network level, since we assume many schools would self-opt into networks around common themes or for economies of scale re: back office.


  9. Ethan,

    Bargaining at the school level is a recipe for age discrimination.

    With all due respect, in recent years, school reform has degenarated into an effort to drive Baby Boomers out of education, and that it a huge reason why it has failed. Whether we’re talking charters or SIG, the incentives encourage the removal of the people with the most knowledge about teaching and learning.

    I’d recommend you look at the middle level. You can find funding for your ideas with or without the help of the union-bashers. But, you can’t replace our knowledge.

    If you’ve really got zero tolerance for creaming and pushing out, that must be a first. If you think you can produce top down regulations that work, why not nail down zero tolerance for age discrimination?

    In fact, why don’t you borrow from previous regulatory efforts from outside education and send people into schools pretending that they are fifty year old teachers applying for jobs, as well as parents of students with a long history of violence and disruption? Then, if your site-based leaders don’t behave the way you say they do, you could throw the book at them. Dollars to donuts, however, if you don’t give a green light to charter leaders to discriminate, you won’t get qualified applicants.

    Or, as I would suggest, go back to the system that works best, districtwide collective bargaining agreements, with thin contracts when necessary. Given the history of the last ten years, don’t you think you owe it to teachers to nail down protections against one more bait and switch?

  10. Since I was a first-grade teacher for many years, I’ll make this simple:

    No doctors, lawyers, teachers are going to allow an outside group to “organize plans” for them.

    Any authentic changes in public education will have to be initiated by parents and teachers.

    Also, I don’t know anything about this “failed system” in Kansas City, but let me guess: Does this school district have many impoverished children in it?

  11. Why are the stats so “poor” for the schools?
    What has been going on that prevented students from graduating from high school with the academic achievement that would allow them to be accepting into Stanford, Harvard or MIT?
    As for Why should we assume that a system that was designed to meet the needs of 19th-century America could also meet the needs of 21st-century students and families?
    why shouldn’t we?
    See above.

  12. John,

    Thanks for the thoughtful back and forth. I want to be sure I fully understand your argument. What do think are the primary drivers of what you are calling age discrimination? I have a read several different views on this…some suggest giving schools hiring authority leads to budgetary pressure to employ less experienced, less expensive teachers. But under a strong accountability system schools have an incentive to focus on results, thus they should employ teachers with the experience to be highly effective. Another argument could be that baby boomer teachers got their training pre standards-based-reform, thus may have a cultural disconnect from schools that have a more accountability-focused orientation. My own view is that age discrimination in any field is simply wrong. But I’m curious as to your views as to what the key drivers of “age discrimination” in this sense would be, and whether there are any other protections that could be in place other than via system wide CBAs.


  13. I notice you write about “strong” accountability systems. To do what you want, you need effective accountability systems. I’ve been to a county fair or two, but I’ve never see an accountability system that, real world, will do what you want. Can you give me a single example in any sector where accountability systems did what you expect of them?

    When you have strong accountability systems, most of the time people focus on “results” not results. Job #1 is circle the wagons and find someone else to blame when the inevitable failure occurs.

    Baby Boomers like me came of age during Standards Based Reform. Now we have the opposite – standardized test based reform. You are right about veteran teachers opposing test-driven accountability. That’s why we’re labeled as “culture killers.”

    Also, we need checks and balances. Principals should not be allowed to take an individual’s salary and benfits into account. That’s why some firewalls are essential. And, in an age of reform, without seniority, districts have the ultimate green light to commit age discrimination.

    Reformers seem to still think its all good. Hard work is enough. I can tell you, however, in the inner city there isn’t any substitute for experience. That why reformers got everything they wanted and still failed. They created SIG game plans and test-driven pedagogies, for instance, that veteran teachers knew were doomed. So, they move ahead with a bunch of rookies and failed even worse.

    Finally, age discrimination is real and huge, but it is hard to prove. You can’t do that with numbers. It would require a legal discovery process. Soon, I bet, we’ll start finding smoking guns. And, that brings me full circle. I’d like unions to work with supporters of community schools. But, if you aren’t willing to work with us on things that are esential to us, the battles will just get worse.t

  14. Ethan,
    By the way, I used to assume that the big reason why my district was driving Baby Boomer out was cultural. They hired a bunch of twenty something administrators who really believe that mantra. Transformation schools pushed out up to 80%, removing the best as well as the worst teachers, usually over silly stuff – like the ridiculous cover your ass paperwork that is imposed by SIG..

    But, we’ve had changes and top administraors have been communicating more. I’ve changed my mind. Now that I’ve seen some of the numbers that administrators saw, I believe that ridding systems of our salaries and benefits was job #1. When central office administrators face impossible options, the results aren’t ever pretty.

    Ironically, back when our district had a reform movement that made since, our mantra was, “We can’t be another Kansas City.” But NCLB accountability turned us into another KC.

  15. “For context, KCPS is a system where 70 percent of students are below proficient and the average ACT score is a tick above 16. ”

    Can’t have context without race.

    KCPS is 59% black, 26% Hispanic.

    I suspect the bulk of these students are also poor. The average black ACT score is 16.9, average Hispanic score is 18.8.

    Considering that most blacks and most Hispanics aren’t poor, the simple truth is that Kansas City schools are probably neither better nor worse than any other urban, high poverty, black and Hispanic school district.

    But boy, it sounds sooooooo dramatic. Like, you know, the teachers are doing a bad job and if they’d just let the reformers come in, they’d have those high poverty kids at a 20 ACT score in no time.

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