KC school leader sees need for change

April 24, 2011


— John Covington hesitated before becoming this city’s 26th school superintendent in 40 years. A blunt-talking African-American from Alabama, he attended the Broad Superintendents Academy in Los Angeles, which prepares leaders for urban school districts, and when he asked people there if he should come here, their response, he says, was: “Not ‘no,’ but ‘Hell no!’” He says they suggested that when flying across the country he should take a flight that does not pass through this city’s airspace.

How did this pleasant place become so problematic? Remember the destination of the road paved with good intentions.

This city is just 65 miles down the road from Topeka, Kan., from whence came Brown v. Board of Education, the fuse that lit many ongoing struggles over schools and race. Kansas City has had its share of those struggles, one of which occurred last year when Covington took office with a big bang: He closed 26 of the district’s 61 schools. Kansas City had fewer students but twice as many schools as Pueblo, Colo., where Covington had been superintendent.

Thirty-five years ago Kansas City’s district had 54,000 students. Today it has less than 17,000. Between then and now there was a spectacular confirmation of the axiom that education cannot be improved by simply throwing money at it.

In the 1980s, after a court held that the city was operating a segregated school system, judicial Caesarism appeared. A judge vowed to improve the district’s racial balance by luring white students to lavish “magnet schools” offering “suburban comparability” and “desegregative attractiveness.” And he ordered tax increases to pay the almost $2 billion bill for, among other things, an Olympic-size swimming pool, a planetarium, vivariums, greenhouses, a model United Nations wired for language translation, radio and television studios, an animation and editing lab, movie editing and screening rooms, a temperature-controlled art gallery, a 25-acre farm, a 25-acre wildlife area, instruction in cosmetology and robotics, field trips to Mexico and Senegal, and more.

Neither test scores nor the racial gap in academic achievement improved, and racial imbalance increased. Today, African-Americans are 28 percent of the city’s population and 63 percent of public school students. And Covington (“We’re not an employment agency. We are a school district”) has survived the tumultuous process of closing schools. He won the support of a narrow majority on the elected school board. Except for one incumbent board member who ran unopposed, all those candidates in the next election who had opposed the closures were defeated. Now what?

He wants more money, but, in Missouri, 70 percent to 75 percent of dollars for schools are local dollars, and the last increases of Kansas City property taxes were the ones the judge ordered two decades ago. There has been no ballot measure to raise taxes since 1969.

To find what he calls “highly effective” teachers, Covington is seeking help from Teach for America. This year he has 39 of its teachers. For next year, he wants 150 more, which would make them more than 13 percent of his teachers — one of the highest percentages of any district in the nation. To achieve this, he has $3.2 million from such local philanthropies as the Hall Family Foundation and the Kauffman Foundation.

He wants to abandon “the industrial model” of education, which is anachronistic for children “who come from the womb with a laptop in one hand and a cell phone in the other.” He says if someone who attended Kansas City’s schools in the 1950s were put in a classroom today, the only striking difference would be the ethnic composition of the class.

Covington wants to blur, even erase, the distinctions between grades K through 12, teaching individual children at whatever level they are learning.

He wishes the school day and year were longer, but this would require money, the scarcity of which shapes collective bargaining with the teachers union: “We give them language instead of money.” By language he means work rules. He says the resulting rules mean, for example, that some teachers will not stay five minutes after school for a meeting. “Overall,” he says delicately, “the relationship with teachers is somewhat volatile.”

So, he is asked, is Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker sensible in wanting to confine teachers’ collective bargaining to questions of salaries? Covington: “It makes sense to me.”

— George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 1 month ago

Aside from a gratuitous jab at collective bargaining at the end, and the expression of your apparent wish for mini-dictators running the school systems, what's your point, George?

independent_rebel 7 years, 1 month ago

I normally agree with many of Will's articles, but this Covington character is a joke. I came across this gem of an article about Covington and his "ideas."


jhawkinsf 7 years, 1 month ago

We can pick apart each part of this story, but what stands out is that the system has been broken for a long time. We can blame this administration or that, this program or that, but in the end, the problems of today have been a long time in the making. What the article does not mention, glaringly, is the role of parents. I've done no comprehensive studies, I'm just a parent who has had the chance to talk to teachers I've come into contact with. They all agree, education is a partnership between the school and parents. It's my sense that parents are less involved now than they were decades ago. From my perspective, the parent/teacher relationship has become much more adversarial than it was years ago. Why? I can list a million reasons why but I'm not sure that's particularly helpful. We can get into long discussions about how society has changed for the better here, for the worse there. In the end, a path to excellence will fail just as no child left behind unless parents involve themselves in the process of cooperative partnership.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 1 month ago

" From my perspective, the parent/teacher relationship has become much more adversarial than it was years ago. Why?"

Have you personally had experiences with teachers that you would classify as adversarial?

If so, what do you think made it so? Was it something that was within the power of either teachers or parents to change?

jhawkinsf 7 years, 1 month ago

From my observations, the hostility that makes it adversarial has been brought into the relationship almost exclusively by the parent. I did not mean to imply that the teacher brought the hostility. I think teachers are now behaving in much the same way the did decades ago. It's how the parent is reacting that is different.
Years ago, a teacher might contact a parent and say "Johnny is misbehaving". The parent would deal with Johnny's misbehavior in an appropriate manner. Now it's more likely that the parent would defend the actions of Johnny and tell the teacher, administrator, etc. how they best deal with this situation or they might just have to go to the "Board" or get a lawyer. Too many parents see school as daycare. During those hours, Johnny is their problem. Too many parents think it's the school's responsibility to teach Johnny. Reinforcing learning at home to them is a luxury that parents don't have time or energy for. Parents are working hard, many are single parents and after all, it's the school's job. Although not 100%, most of my dismay was directed at parents, not teachers.

independant1 7 years, 1 month ago

We can pick apart each part of this story, but what stands out is that the system has been broken for a long time.

Teaching used to be considered by some a vocation. Now? Teachers are just administering a program.

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