Fixing high school in Kansas City: Why “re-investment” isn’t enough (and partnerships are a great idea)

As a stand-alone strategy, “re-investment” – the idea that if more families would re-invest in the high schools we have, our schools would improve – doesn’t benefit all schools equally. This is one reason why the KCPS Board of Education’s recent approval of guidelines to evaluate new school partnerships is so important.

There are a few competing philosophies right now on how “to fix” high school in Kansas City. The one I hear most often is what I call the “re-invest” approach.

According to this perspective, Kansas City doesn’t need more high schools – we already have too many. If everyone would just re-invest in the schools we have, our schools would improve: with more students in classrooms and more engaged families supporting our schools, there will be more course offerings, more sports and extra-curricular programs – and, consequently, more academic success.

To be clear, re-investing in “schools we have” means re-investing in KCPS high schools. KCPS currently serves about 70% of our public high school market. KCPS high schools are bigger than charter high schools (three times the size, on average – click on graphic below) and offer a more traditional “big high school” experience. KCPS schools also have the deepest roots in our community – and the most at stake when new charter high school options open.

I’ve heard the re-invest argument from KCPS administrators as an explanation for why our schools continue to struggle – we need more parent and community involvement. I also hear it a lot from KCPS parents whose children go to signature schools (KCPS schools with special themes or programs that require an application to attend). And I get it: they’ve found something that works well for their children; they believe in diverse public schools and want to help KCPS grow. If other parents similarly re-invested, they reason, our schools would improve.

There is important logic to this argument. Because racism and white flight following desegregation led to the decline of our school district, it’s incumbent upon white middle income families to re-invest in the system to help fix it.

But relying too heavily on “re-investment” to improve school performance – as I think we’ve been doing – doesn’t benefit all schools equally. I’ll explain why.

Imagine you’re a parent looking for a high school for your child. You have choices. Which school from the below list would you choose? Which school do you think other families would choose?

Did you pick option #3?

It’s not a trick question, I’m just trying to make a point. Most people, when given choices and adequate information about those choices, will gravitate to those options they perceive as “best.” This is human nature.

Option #3 has the top scores in all three categories. It probably won’t surprise you that it’s Lincoln College Prep, a KCPS signature school that requires students to test in.

And herein lies my biggest worry with relying too heavily on re-investment:  as a stand-alone strategy, “re-investment” primarily benefits KCPS signature schools – with only limited spillover effects to other schools.

So Lincoln benefits from re-investment, yes. But what about the other four KCPS high schools that aren’t signature schools and don’t have entrance requirements? There are two schools on this list with attendance below 50% and in which *no* students scored above the national average on the ACT (which, in case you’re wondering, is 21). As I wrote last month, it’s these schools that are losing students – on average, 40% of enrollment between 9th and 12th grade.

What’s our plan for helping these schools?

It’s in this vacuum that new charter high schools are opening.


There are a few other reasons I’m wary of relying too heavily on re-investment in existing schools to improve school outcomes:

– It’s a slow process that doesn’t take into account the urgent need to fix failing schools.  If your child doesn’t attend a failing school it’s a lot easier to take the long view on school improvement. It’s hard to relate to that school’s problems – or to understand the urgency felt by a parent whose child does.

– It stifles innovation by externalizing responsibility for school performance. It puts the burden of school improvement on parents and the community – and on students – rather than on schools and the systems that operate them.

– And it doesn’t take into account the growing number of charter high school options becoming available – options that will inevitably cut into KCPS enrollment in all grade segments.

So what’s a better strategy?

High school is our last chance to make learning relevant for students, to prepare them for real life outside of school. This is why Kansas City’s high school problem deserves our time and attention, and requires our best and most innovative thinking.

Because if we want students and families – of all races and socio-economic backgrounds – to make “better” choices, we need to give them better options to choose from.

Right now, the quickest path to starting a new high school or introducing a new school model within KCPS boundaries is to start a public charter school. As I’ve written before, there are several new charter high school initiatives under way.

What would happen if KCPS instead incentivized new school leaders and community initiatives, through a transparent and competitive process, to work in partnership with KCPS to help improve our supply of public high schools? And then was able to direct those schools operators to where they were most needed?

By opening the door to these types of community collaborations, the KCPS Board of Education’s recent unanimous approval of school partnership guidelines is an important first step in the direction of building a more coherent, equitable and innovative system of public schools for students and families in our district.


To read the approved KCPS Board Principles for Education Collaboration & the accompanying presentation from the January 24, 2018 board meeting, click here

To see a full list of public high schools within KCPS boundaries with attendance, graduation and ACT data, click here.



2 thoughts on “Fixing high school in Kansas City: Why “re-investment” isn’t enough (and partnerships are a great idea)”

  1. An excerpt of a Financial Times interview with social innovator Jeff Walker:

    “Successful system leaders exhibit three core capabilities. The leader must
    1) rise above the perspective of his or her own organization (or nation) and map all the different factors that contribute to complex problems.
    2) Next is the ability to foster “shared reflection” and “generative conversation”.
    3) Finally, the system leader learns how to “shift the focus from reactive problem-solving to co-creating the future”.
    Tough stuff.
    Successful education partnerships are guided by a shared core value, namely : student needs above job security. The recent policy shift by KCPS Superintendent Bedell and the BOD signals the district’s desire to cooperate in ending the gross, ineffective redundancy that dilutes our public education funds. Recent posts by the Kauffman Foundation indicate a similar goal.
    Looking forward to your future blogs that reveal how these words led to actions that improved the quality of education for all our students.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Pam, and for your encouragement. The excerpt you shared makes a lot of sense. And I was excited to read that Jeff Walker is also a University of Virginia grad – my alma mater! For readers interested in the FT article Pam references, you can find it here.

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