Opinion
Education Opinion

Investment Opportunity or Fixer-Upper?

By Nancy Flanagan — March 09, 2010 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The rest of Ed World is staggering around, trying to get this school improvement thing right. Newsweek tells us that firing bad teachers is our #1 effectiveness strategy. A superintendent at a high-needs school in Rhode Island is praised by the President for the dramatic gesture of “firing"--sort of--100 teachers. Everyone now knows that reconstitution applies to more than orange juice. A whole lot of get-tough and not much what-next.

Most of the angst centers on what to do about schools in urban and rural poverty--and most of the proposed solutions feel like the same old punitive shtick: throw the bums out, don’t waste money trying to fix a crumbling system, start over.

But then there’s Kalamazoo, where a group of private investors has decided on a very different and almost radical strategy: work with, enhance and challenge the people and assets already in place. The Kalamazoo Promise offered all graduates of Kalamazoo Public Schools financial assistance for a college education--a full scholarship for those who spend their entire K-12 tenure in KPS. While the scholarship isn’t based on grades, test scores or good behavior, students must meet acceptance requirements for the college they choose, and maintain a 2.0 GPA while a full-time college student.

Kalamazoo is a rustbelt city which looks a lot like middle America, demographically--with 62% of the student population on free/reduced lunch. But it has some real assets: Western Michigan University is in Kalamazoo, plus a comprehensive community college. The Kalamazoo Area Math and Science Center offers a rigorous accelerated HS curriculum for qualified students. Michigan also has a broad range of public colleges and universities in all selectivity and cost tiers. If a KPS student can get into college--the money is there.

Enrollment at KPS is up--11% the year after the Promise was announced, refilling the state aid coffers and reversing a trend of advantaged families moving to nearby suburban districts. The Promise has drawn new businesses to the area, and significantly increased the number of teachers applying for jobs in Kalamazoo. The district began to promote National Board Certification for its teachers through a negotiated salary incentive, rewarding teachers for investing in their own professional growth.

Charter schools in the area closed, due to low test scores and student migration back to KPS. Attendance at parent-teacher events increased and local businesses, eager to ride the wave, offered goods and services. Kalamazoo’s (strongly unionized) teachers tell me that the new college-focused climate--a sea change, one teacher called it--outweighs the dozens of new instructional challenges.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Most policy solutions to our thorniest educational troubles begin with a problem-fixing mindset. If only we could ________ (fire bad teachers/get the right curriculum, governance or leadership/add more time or resources), then we could whip these schools into shape. Race to the Top conditions were predicated on what’s wrong and came with pre-chosen solutions.

The Promise isn’t like that. It simply offers a great gift--a significant investment, one that can change hundreds of students’ lives. It offers students a concrete and tangible goal, and its residual benefits have spread across the community, rather than remaining concentrated in the schools. The Promise has become a community point of pride. And--best of all, I believe--it has changed the families, re-energizing an old American dream: that our children will achieve more in their lives than we have.

Kathleen Kosobud, who met advocate moms from Kalamazoo at an education conference wrote something that every would-be urban school reformer ought to consider:

As a white, middle class professional, I just didn't think about all that it would take to make something such as the Kalamazoo Promise a reality for children who would be the pioneers--the first children in their families to enter college. A group of mothers in Kalamazoo organized to help their children successfully achieve the Kalamazoo Promise. They saw the "Promise" slipping away from their children--the carrot, alone, was not enough. On their own initiative, the mothers found the human resources to teach them about the unspoken rituals that would help prepare their children for college. They learned to visualize the future differently for their children. They engaged in all of the rituals of preparing for college: taking the tests, taking them again, if necessary; visiting local colleges; reading about colleges online, or through brochures; learning about the application process, and so on. They found the human resources to support their children through tough academic courses and to mentor them through developing their portfolios of experience to supplement their applications. This group of mothers went on to teach others what they had learned. These mothers, these pioneers, pressured the schools to see their children as worthy of effort; increased their knowledge and skills in the service of their children, and helped to make the phenomenal success of the program a reality for their children. It wasn't the schools, alone, that accomplished this. It was mothers who bravely stood up for their children and demanded to be educated so that their children would have the opportunity. We need to remember that parents are a vital part of the success that their children experience. When we help parents to build the capital needed to transcend the boundaries of class, we can achieve much.

As we handicap the horse-race for federal dollars, let’s ask whether we’re fixing problems or investing in possible futures.

Addendum, March 14: I was contacted by Dr. Janice Brown, Executive Director of the Kalamazoo Promise, with an update on the project. Kalamazoo Public Schools have now experienced a 17% upswing in growth, over four years, a most impressive figure in economically depressed Michigan. Brown says the community has been mobilized and resources are aligning to support all students in Kalamazoo.

For a CBS video of Katie Couric interviewing Dr. Brown, click here.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Evaluating Equity to Drive District-Wide Action this School Year
Educational leaders are charged with ensuring all students receive equitable access to a high-quality education. Yet equity is more than an action. It is a lens through which we continuously review instructional practices and student
Content provided by BetterLesson

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP