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How bringing real change to Kansas City students has national implications

Real World Learning Case Study

A new case study reveals the keys to the progress of a regional Real World Learning initiative.

How Community Agreements Mobilized a Regional High School Transformation Initiative

Real World Learning Case Study cover

Read the case study, prepared by Getting Smart, that details how regional stakeholders built a framework that, through authentic learning experiences, will prepare Kansas City area students for life after high school.

Students, parents, and employers feel that a high school diploma no longer signifies that graduates are prepared for the real world, nor for the changing demands of the future of work.

But what do graduates need to be successful in life and learning after high school? In Kansas City, education, business, civic and community leaders connect around the Real World Learning initiative to create valuable experiences for students. Together, they provide students with the skills and credentials needed to succeed in the real world, as well as providing the Kansas City region with the diverse, prepared workforce needed for a vibrant community and economy.

A new case study by Getting Smart, a nationally recognized organization that focuses on accelerating and amplifying innovations in teaching and learning, says that the real impact of the initiative has yet to emerge, as more students gain valuable experiences and local employers benefit from a better-prepared workforce.

The initiative, sponsored by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, is the largest and most promising regional high school improvement project in the country, according to the case study.

With more than 80,000 students impacted in 75 high schools in urban, suburban and rural districts spread across six counties and two states, the initiative is expansive in its reach and unusual in the amount of regional cooperation it is generating.

The initiative ‘has achieved remarkable community support and school mobilization. It appears to be an efficient change making strategy that could be replicated in other regions’

Now in its fourth year, the initiative “has achieved remarkable community support and school mobilization. It appears to be an efficient change making strategy that could be replicated in other regions,” according to the case study. The rapid momentum of the initiative can be attributed to several factors, including prior regional cooperation on civic and education programs, as well as strong foundational work such as a landscape analysis that laid out the state of career and technical education in Kansas City and other metros.

This pre-work led to one of the important early decisions, according to the case study, which was the need to balance the soft skills that might help students to be career-ready, and students’ need for valuable experiences such as internships, entrepreneurial experiences, college credit and industry recognized credentials. These experiences, which came to be known as Market Value Assets (MVAs) became the focal point of regional efforts, given that participating schools set a goal to ensure that all students in the Kansas City region graduate, by 2030, with one or more MVA.

The perspective of employers

As important to the high level of regional participation among school districts has been the involvement of the business and civic communities, who stepped up to provide internships and projects for students, the case study says.

Indeed, much of the case for the initiative is based on evolving workforce needs. Recent national surveys conducted on behalf of the Kauffman Foundation confirm this. The surveys, which captured the perspectives of employers, adults and students, show a clear shift in opinion toward having high school focus as much, if not more, on preparing students for careers as for higher education.

Employers in particular seem less interested in traditional academic skills and achievements. For example, in response to a question about their preferences as to the emphasis of high school, 77% of employers chose real world skills over a focus on fundamental subject matter skills like reading and writing.

In Kansas City, high schoolers worked to open the world to younger students

In 2020, the Yellowjacket Early Learning Center wanted to provide their young students the experience of field trips while staying in a safe environment during the pandemic.

Five junior and senior Center High School students worked with early childhood teachers and created virtual and augmented reality experiences for the 3 to 5-year-olds, based on the units the teachers were covering in class or what they thought the students might be interested in viewing.

Emerging models

The case study points out how the frameworks that have evolved from the Real World Learning Initiative have potential to be replicated in other metros for workforce development, but also other programs that need regional cooperation.

To fulfill the need for more skilled and diverse future employees and business owners in the Kansas City area, the case study highlights the Initiative’s five guiding principles:

  • Build Demand: Engage business and districts together to identify opportunities for collaboration in their backyard and support districts’ development of customized approaches to MVA attainment.
  • Reduce Barriers to Entry: Use an opt-in strategy that elevates champions that brings in potential partners instead of excluding them.
  • Build Capacity: Ensure that all stakeholders understand the work, the goals and the needs by investing in technical assistance and clear communication..
  • Learn Quickly: Make new learning a priority by developing learning cohorts with shared learning agendas and foster adoption of new approaches at an accelerated pace.
  • Align Funding with Expectations: Increase the commitment to districts in accordance with meeting/exceeding accountability measures and impact on learning goals.

More broadly, the authors of the case study identified five elements of the Real World Learning Initiative they say could be useful to other changemakers seeking similar high school transformations, or more broadly, in human development work ranging from early learning to adult education:

  • Community agreements on valuable experiences: goal definitions specific enough to drive quality in a framework flexible for schools to adopt in their own way.
  • Planning grants that support priority mobilization efforts.
  • Technical assistance that promotes peer learning across leadership networks.
  • Professional learning experiences that support quality implementation at scale.
  • Data infrastructure including support for core applications and outcome evaluation.