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Journey to Education Excellence

"You can't control the past, but you can control where you go next." - Kirsten Hubbard

Education: High Expectations for Students and Ourselves

By Aaron North, Vice President, Education, Kauffman Foundation

Aaron North

Every student should be able to attend a quality public school. Admittedly, that is easier said than done, though I have yet to meet someone who disagrees with that sentiment.

Too many students, particularly lower-income students in urban and rural communities, are entering adulthood without the fundamental reading, writing, math, and problem-solving abilities that contribute most to opportunities for fulfilling, economically independent lives.

There are millions of teachers, principals, administrators, staff, and community members pouring their hearts and minds into public school classrooms every day. I was one of them, and I learned not to doubt the intentions of people teaching and working in schools—they want what is best for their students even when they struggle to deliver it.

I taught in a high school where nearly every student qualified for free or reduced-priced lunch, and the majority of students entering ninth grade never made it to their senior year. Every student in my ninth grade English classes was multiple grades behind in reading and several were at a kindergarten level. Unfortunately, that is a common circumstance in thousands of classrooms across the country.

The students and families with whom I was fortunate enough to meet at that school taught me more than I feel I was able to teach them. I am grateful for the perspective and humility they helped cultivate within me during my time as a teacher. I learned not to doubt the intentions of families when it comes to their children’s education—they want what is best for their kids even when they struggle to provide it.

All students can achieve academic success, regardless of their background or situation.

People want students to attend great schools. We have the right to be outraged at ourselves as a community when we do not provide those schools to students and families. It is not fair or just in any way that students attending schools in one district are two or three times less likely to be as proficient as their peers just a few miles away. We can all do better.

The Kauffman Foundation’s approach to supporting education in Kansas City seeks to leverage organizations, educators, and community members to support the conditions for a system of high-performing urban schools staffed by highly effective teachers and leaders. The goal of this approach is to increase the percentage of students in Kansas City reaching academic and life outcomes that prepare them for success after high school.

Our recent strategic planning process has compelled us to consider how we can more effectively collaborate and innovate in ways to support those who share our belief that all children are capable of achieving at high levels regardless of socioeconomic or other factors.

Over the coming years, we will explore partnerships and avenues of support with the potential to provide more opportunities to more students in the Kansas City area with progressively better results year over year. Our key strategies are outlined below.

With support from the Kauffman Foundation, the Ewing Marion Kauffman School and its talented staff will continue to serve students with a “whatever it takes” attitude and a willingness to share successes and challenges with the broader community. Our support for schools also will extend beyond the Kauffman School.

We want to increase access to quality public school options by partnering with others to invest in new schools, expanding schools, and turnaround projects in Kansas City. Significant early investments allow schools to embed effective culture, practice, and staffing with a relatively small student population, which often allows those traits to more readily persist as the school adds students over time. We are committed to keeping the door to these investments open to district, charter, or other public school models.

The Kauffman Foundation is committed to supporting programs and schools focused on improving education outcomes.

The Foundation also will seek to invest in schools that may not be in a startup, expansion, or turnaround mode, but have proven or promising results for the lower-income students they enroll. Schools may be district, charter, or private models. These individual school investments will be designed to support improvements, enhancements, or innovations that can be demonstrated and shared with others once implemented.

Additionally, we are exploring ways to invest in the people working in schools or considering careers in education. As a community, we need to continue to inspire, identify, recruit, develop, and retain a pipeline of educators and leaders to serve students.

Funding for scholarships and college completion supports have been part of the Kauffman Foundation’s work in Kansas City since Ewing Kauffman himself initiated the Project Choice program in 1988. That will not change. The Kauffman Foundation is committing approximately $70 million in additional funding over the next eight years to the Kauffman Scholars, Inc. program to provide the scholarships students are working hard to earn. When our last class of Kauffman Scholars finishes college in 2021-2022, the Foundation will have invested more than $140 million in the initiative.

We need to continue to inspire, recruit, develop, and retain educators and leaders to serve students.

Aaron North

Going forward, we are exploring how additional investments and partnerships can provide scholarships to even greater numbers of Kansas City students well into the future based on the successes and lessons learned from Project Choice and Kauffman Scholars.

We approach our work in education with equal parts humility and determination. We take seriously Mr. Kauffman’s statement that, “When we work together, there is no problem in the world that can stop us.”

We will seek the guidance, partnership, and feedback of the people and organizations working to make Kansas City a great place to live and work. There will be disagreements—the stakes are high and passions run deep. There also is common ground. We can stand together in the expectation that no excuse is satisfactory when students grow up in a city where quality public education options do not exist for each and every one of them.

There is no reason why every student graduating from high school should not be prepared for and supported in pursuit of further education. We can do this. We can learn not to doubt ourselves—and teach ourselves to believe there is hope and opportunity for every student in this city.

At the Kauffman School, Students Aren’t the Only Ones Learning Every Day

By Hannah Lofthus, Founding Principal and Chief Executive Officer, Ewing Marion Kauffman School

Hannah Loftus
Hannah Loftus

When the Ewing Marion Kauffman School opened its doors in August 2011, the mission was clear: create college graduates.

Our school prioritizes Kansas City, Missouri’s, six lower-income zip codes during enrollment. Upon entering the Kauffman School as fifth-graders, many of our students’ academic skills are equivalent to those of first-, second-, or third-graders. At the beginning of the year, our reading teachers pair eleven-year-olds with books written for seven-year-olds.

Not in spite of, but because of these challenges, we commit to our students and their families the vision of college graduation. In exchange, they commit to 25 percent more time in school, hours of homework every night, and more rigorous academic expectations than what would be expected in other schools. To fulfill our promises, our staff must find the means to accelerate students’ learning so that they meet grade-level standards and are on track for college graduation.

After three years, we take pride in steady progress. With a new class of fifth-grade students added each year, the Kauffman School is on course to serve more than 1,100 Kansas City youth in grades five through twelve by 2018.

Kids Grow When Teachers Grow

Helping teachers adapt to change and sustain their passion for teaching requires constant evaluation and care from school leaders.

The governance structures that differentiate traditional district, charter, and private schools do not, in and of themselves, drive success or failure. While the curriculum, facilities, technology, and so on lay the foundation, the key ingredient for success lies in what we do to develop teachers. When our teachers grow, and grow aggressively, our students follow right behind.

Within our classrooms and beyond the walls of the Kauffman School, we are building educators through best practices that we can share across the city. And one thing that any and all schools can easily replicate is an unambiguous, effective model for developing high-impact teachers.

Successful replication lies in educating and empowering teachers, honing the best practices we’ve learned, sharing the proven resources, tools, and techniques—and remaining patient, but persistent. We’re running a marathon, not a sprint. We have our students for seven years, and it will take all seven of those years to complete the marathon and achieve what we’ve collectively set out to accomplish. Similarly, we seek to develop teachers who will impact literally thousands of students across the course of their career.

So how do we develop effective teachers? Four key practices drive our success.


In making hiring decisions at the Kauffman School, we look for teachers who have a growth mindset. We ask every candidate to come in and teach a sample lesson in front of students. What happens when we sit down with the candidate after the lesson is critical. Does the candidate self-reflect and call out places where they can improve? When given feedback, is the candidate open to getting up on his/her feet in the moment to practice that section of the lesson again? After practicing for twenty minutes, does the candidate’s technique improve? If we tell students that they can always grow and be better, than we’ve first got to believe it about ourselves. 


Our teachers and leaders deserve to be coached, mentored, and challenged to succeed. Every single week, members of our leadership team meet individually with every teacher and leader. We practice lesson plans, cultivate creativity, and role play tough conversations with colleagues, parents, or kids. And we encourage our teachers to innovate, take risks, and be willing to grow with a team of people who are fully invested in changing children’s lives.

We so highly value the development of our staff that we have structured our school calendar to release students after lunch each Friday. We then undertake three hours of uninterrupted training and coaching. Each morning, the entire staff gathers for a five-minute huddle to review key announcements, kid updates, and give well-deserved shout-outs. Twice a week during that time, staff members are up on their feet practicing a strategy they will try that day in their classroom with a colleague who can give them feedback.

Teaching is a marathon that requires flexibility, passion, and purpose.

Opportunities for Growth

It’s important for teachers in our school to see a path for professional growth. Teaching is traditionally a flat profession. However, the nation’s highest-performing schools achieve great results because they leverage teachers as leaders. These mid-level leader roles of department and grade chairs, mentor teachers, and coaches play critical roles in driving instruction and aligning culture. These leaders innovate within existing structures to develop new systems or adapt existing ones to meet students’ changing needs. For teachers who aspire to expand their impact, these roles—and the significant responsibilities they carry—provide a ladder for growth over time.

Sharing Best Practices

Sharing best practices with other education leaders is one of the school’s goals.

The teacher development lessons we’re learning in the Kauffman School are now being shared with other Kansas City public and charter schools serving similar students and families. In 2014, we founded the Kauffman Teacher-Leader Fellowship to share best practices with sixteen other teacher-leaders across the city. Each month, the cohort meets to learn a new strategy, collaboratively solve problems, and share knowledge with other educators across the city. In a survey, 100 percent of the fellows agreed or strongly agreed that the fellowship was beneficial for their classroom and would recommend it to others. Moreover, 85 percent of participants shared a strategy with one or more educators at their school. These data encourage us that if we continue our efforts at the Kauffman School and beyond, we are well on our way to transforming education in Kansas City.

My New Life

By Koree French, student at the Ewing Marion Kauffman School

When I first stepped into the Kauffman School, I knew my life would change. The first thing they taught me was the four PREP values, which are perseverance, results, empathy, and passion. The three that are most important to me are perseverance, empathy, and passion because they help me never give up and to always work toward a good future.

Perseverance is when you push hard even though it is challenging. I learned this at Kauffman because it has higher standards than most schools, so we have to persevere. Perseverance is not only needed when we take tests. You use it in your everyday life, like when you apply for a job, you have to persevere. When you go to school and do your best, you can have a great future.

Empathy is important to me because it helps us take care of each other. Empathy was shown to me when I had a hard time in math class. Ms. Kwenin never gave up when she worked with me. Now, fractions are my highest scoring skill. I show empathy when I have to work with my peers who don’t understand the assignment.

As for my passion for science, I could go on all day. At my old school, I did science projects all the time and won a science award. Kauffman takes it to another level. We grow plants, record the data, and analyze the world around us. Passion will make whatever you love much better.

Learning the PREP values will help me overcome challenges, and my life will never be the same. These PREP values will help me make my dreams come true.

The Power of Determination

By Khiana Jackson, student at the Ewing Marion Kauffman School

Middle school life is not easy. As a scholar at the Ewing Marion Kauffman School, a prestigious academy that takes fifth-graders under its wings, determination helps me overcome challenges I face both in and out of school. At the Kauffman School, I am growing in my level of determination so I can become my best self.

Before Kauffman, I did not know how to focus on my performance and academics. When I transitioned to Kauffman, my focus on academics grew. I learned determination. Previously, I had typical determination to get classwork done. But at Kauffman, that determination developed into getting classwork done and actually learning the material to use outside of the classroom. Learning a math skill helps me calculate prices at the store when I help my family grocery shop.

Here at the Kauffman School, teachers constantly help students to grow and develop skills that will help them be successful in college and in life. Determination helps me adjust to the level of rigorous learning that the teachers plan for us. Going above and beyond the expectation is always expected at the Kauffman School. We want more than just the average knowledge. We are learning to be outstanding.

Determination not only helps me set goals to better myself, but it also gives me the urge to meet them and overcome any obstacles that are in my way. Because I am working hard to become a doctor, determination will help me study when the material is hard and never settle for anything less than my best.


By Maleah Spriggs, student at the Ewing Marion Kauffman School

I didn’t always have confidence, but at the Kauffman School I increased my self-confidence and love for learning. I have a passion for learning and working hard. Passion helps me meet my goals and increase my self-confidence.

I work hard at studying, especially for my favorite class, English. I love this class because we can show what we have learned from reading books. I learned about the importance of keeping promises and being there for my family and friends. I have a stronger passion for reading now than ever before. When I was younger, I didn’t read as fluently as I do now. Now, I love to read books that are on my level, and I want to grow my reading level.

I have improved my reading skills, and I will keep trying hard to bring my grades up. Sometimes I have low self-confidence, but when I see my strong grades, it lights my fire to learn more. I know it is important to love what you do, and my passion will help me start my own fashion company and dance studio after I graduate college.

By Ethan Gray, Founder and CEO, Education Cities

Ethan Gray
Ethan Gray

Education Cities is a national nonprofit dedicated to helping cities ensure that every child has access to high-quality public schools. As a founding member of this organization, the Kauffman Foundation is among a growing network of city-based organizations that are leading efforts to dramatically improve public education in their cities.

We are in an age of pessimism about the state of public education in America, and it threatens to overshadow what may be one of the most important turning points in American education history.

First, the bad news: nearly every day there’s a new report or op-ed highlighting the persistence of shameful achievement gaps or of America’s decline in international test rankings. Critics bemoan the state of our public schools, the recalcitrance of bureaucracy, and the dominance of forces trying to preserve the dreaded “status quo.” Teachers feel vilified by the reform discourse. Budgets are tightening everywhere. These are, of course, all valid concerns. But there’s good news too, and we must ensure the implications of this good news become fully manifest in policy and practice in the years to come.

What’s the good news? Over the past ten to fifteen years, it has been empirically proven that great schools can help every child thrive, even those children from our most disadvantaged communities. Simply put: all kids can learn. It sounds so obvious, but until great school models like KIPPYES Prep, or Achievement First started closing achievement gaps and sending waves of disadvantaged kids to college, our nation wrote off these kids as trapped in an inevitable cycle of poverty. Our only strategy focused on “tracking” them away from college and towards the trades. But now, we can no longer use poverty as a justification for what President George W. Bush called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Leading the Charge for Systemic Improvement

So how do we get more great schools into the urban areas where they are needed the most? How do we create the optimal conditions for great schools across an entire city? These are the central questions that motivate my work with the Education Cities. Education Cities is a network of thirty-four city-based education reform organizations in twenty-seven cities, all of which are trying to transform their public education systems and provide a high-quality school for every child in their communities.

Central to our work together is the belief that systems don’t reform themselves; it takes outside-the-system leaders to catalyze major systemic change. Our network includes the nation’s most innovative outside-the-system education organizations, groups like New Schools for New OrleansThe Mind Trust in Indianapolis, the Philadelphia School Partnership, and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, Missouri.

We call many of our member organizations the “harbormasters” for education reform in their communities because they’re working to create vibrant education ecosystems. Our members invest in talent pipelines like Teach for America, support the growth of high-quality charter schools, work on policy issues, and think creatively about how to position their cities to attract the best and brightest into the education sector. Any city that’s making progress on education issues has a strong harbormaster working to aggregate funding and leverage talent to drive major systems change.

Education Cities serves as a convener, incubator, and consultant for these city-based reformers. We bring our network together to share challenges and discuss new strategies for improving schools. We incubate multi-city collaborations, leveraging the power of the national network to inform local projects. And we provide consulting services to our members and to other city-based groups based on the national lessons learned that we continually track.

Our hope is that over the next several years our members will create much better conditions for schools and educators in their cities, and that there will be a growing number of schools in those cities delivering dramatically better results for kids. We’re at a very early stage in this work, and few cities have significant clusters of schools that are close to or outpacing state averages. In fact, New Orleans is on a trajectory (within the next two or three years) to be the first city in the nation to outperform its state’s averages. But to get these kinds of results, we believe every city needs an effective harbormaster. That’s why we hope to help existing harbormasters become more effective while working to seed new harbormasters in cities that are lagging behind.

Supporting ‘Greatness at Scale’

One of the most important aspects of our work is to catalog what we consider national best practices. These best practices are part of an Education Cities  report, “Kick-Starting Reform,” in which we profile three of our most effective members and draw some core lessons learned for leaders in other cities. These lessons provide a sort of road map for cities that are lagging behind, suggesting steps they should take to build an effective harbormaster organization.

As we look to the future and try to shift the pessimistic narrative about public education in America, we will need some proof-point cities. Most cities have a few great schools. Some even have multiple school networks that are delivering great results. But no city has figured out how to give every child a seat in a high-quality school.

At a recent Education Cities event, we began to grapple with the fact that no big urban district anywhere in the country is providing high-quality schools systemwide. It’s not for lack of trying. There are a lot of really smart people who have tried to fix districts. There are a lot of really smart funders who have invested in fixing districts. And there are a lot of talented educators who have given their hearts and souls to their kids in urban districts. It’s not the people; it’s the system.

Education Cities completed a report for the Missouri Board of Education, “The Conditions for Success,” outlining a plan to intervene in unaccredited districts, with a special focus on Kansas City Public Schools. As part of that project, Education Cities and its partners at Public Impact looked at high-performing urban schools nationally and identified a few core conditions that seemed necessary to their success: What are those conditions?

First, educators run schools and make critical decisions about staffing, curriculum, culture, and school calendars. Second, schools are held accountable for improving student results. Districts weren’t really designed to give educators real autonomy, nor to provide a strong layer of accountability. If districts don’t or can’t create the conditions schools need for greatness, then what does that mean about the future of public education in our country? Since we know schools that operate under these conditions can deliver life-changing results for kids, how we answer this question will say a lot about our generation of reformers and civic leaders.  

Education Cities will continue helping city harbormasters work to answer this question. We are planning major projects on school governance and district transformation. But our chief hope is for educators, policymakers, and community leaders in cities across the country to see the promise of great schools, and use that promise as motivation to confront the challenging but necessary work of transforming the systems that are preventing greatness at scale.

Follow Ethan Gray on Twitter:@ethanlgray

By Laura Loyacono, Director, KC STEM Alliance

Laura Loyacono
Laura Loyacono

The KC STEM Alliance is a collaborative network of Greater Kansas City area school districts, higher education institutions, and local business interests working together to meet the growing demand for highly skilled professionals in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

About the KC STEM Alliance

Established in 2011 with a $3.2 million grant from the Kauffman Foundation, the Alliance is a first-of-its-kind umbrella organization designed to support and provide program management for two nationally recognized STEM programs, Project Lead The Way, a middle and high school engineering and bioscience curriculum, and US FIRST®, which runs the popular Robotics and Lego League competitions. The Kauffman Foundation played a major role in introducing both of these hands-on programs to the Kansas City community in the past decade.

Housed at the University of Missouri – Kansas City’s School of Computing and Engineering, the KC STEM Alliance serves more than 15,000 local students and 600 volunteers in 95 schools. Ultimately, the initiative aims to prepare students to pursue careers that require specified knowledge in science, technology, engineering, or math.

Our hope is other communities interested in establishing or buoying their own STEM initiatives will learn from our experiences. While there is no simple formula for taking a program from concept to up-and running, here are some key ingredients that have helped us establish and work toward shared goals.

Build Relationships

The single most important thing we’ve done over the years is to bring school administrators and teachers together from across district boundaries. Project Lead the Way coordinators, representing more than 25 school districts, meet each month. Together we discuss the implementation of Project Lead the Way, but in reality we build alliances, compare notes, and plan professional development. 

Sometimes the most important thing we do is as simple as compare our school calendars so we can schedule events without conflicts or competing interests. Other times, we develop policy recommendations for national organizations or work on grants for submission to state departments of education for the benefit of the region. Perhaps most significantly, we develop mutually agreed upon evaluation standards for our programs and discuss potential problems or system issues before they arise.

The same goes for private industry and post-secondary schools. Though many are competitors in the marketplace, employers are happy to work in tandem on issues of common purpose. Organizing FIRST Robotics Competitions in our region is a good example. To stage FIRST events, we rely on our network to recruit and train more than 250 volunteers—and that’s over and above the hundreds of mentors that work directly with the teams.

It is essential that these relationships be in place if we are going to work together for change. It may take years for something to pay off, but we consider it a long- term investment.  

Understand and Respect Differences Between Schools

We work with urban, rural, and suburban schools, charter schools, private schools, and home schools. It is critical to understand the environment in which they each operate. 

Kansas City is home to more than thirty individual school districts that span a state line and seven counties. There are districts that have the flexibility and funding to implement large-scale programs at multiple high schools. Others are one-high school districts, and some barely have the resources to get programs off the ground. Charter schools operate essentially as individual school districts; they are bound to processes similar to traditional public school districts but allocate their resources differently.

It can be a complicated environment to maneuver, but with creative thinking and cooperation, we can help schools find solutions. For example, Summit Tech Academy is in the Lee’s Summit School district, but a regional agreement allows PLTW students from more than fourteen smaller high schools (within the district and from other districts) to take advanced courses such as the Senior Capstone Engineering Design and Development course. Students identify as Ruskin High School students, but they travel to the tech academy to collaborate with students and STEM employers from throughout the region to complete their projects.

Find the Champions

We pay special attention to identifying the leaders within schools or businesses to be our primary contacts. We build relationships within the human resources departments that see our organization as key to building a pipeline to meet future workforce needs. And in some cases, we cultivate relationships directly with an engineer or individual within a company who is willing to advocate for our organization from within.

Often parents become aware of FIRST Robotics through their child’s school and become interested in advancing the program to other parts of the community, or volunteering on a larger scale. Individuals, who are involved in professional engineering societies or civic organizations outside of their companies, often help us open doors that we didn’t even know where there.

Involve the Right Decision Makers

The driving force to adopting a new STEM initiative in a school may come from a parent, teacher, and community organization like the YMCA or Boys & Girls Club.  Once we determine that there is interest from within a school or organization, it is up to us to make sure we pull in the leadership. 

Sometimes, we find ourselves making introductions within organizations—a teacher may contact us about starting something small at her school and not realize that the superintendent is working on a larger-scale plan. Or a parent leader may contact us about a grant for his own child’s team, but is not aware that his employer has already made a sizeable donation to benefit all teams. We also do a lot of match making. Sometimes a school leader will contact us and ask us about a specific program. We get that leader and her key decision makers, including building administrators, into a similar program at another school. 

In all of our communications efforts we are keenly aware that companies would like us to respect the process within their organizations. Frequently this means that we limit our direct communication with individual employees, instead opting to send announcements, volunteer opportunities, or requests through one key contact within the company. We take the same approach with schools, limiting communication with individual teachers, instead opting to communicate with district or building administrators to share information. This may slow things down, but it creates buy in and builds trust over time.

Strengthening STEM skills within a community takes commitment and collaboration from many parties. But it’s a win for everyone: students and their families, schools, and industry.

Follow Laura Loyacono on Twitter: @stemkc

The Lasting Impact of KC FIRST®

Jackie Thompson is a walking, talking prototype for KC FIRST and the Kansas City region’s FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC).

FIRST had a major impact on me, absolutely,” Jackie said. “I was always a good student and science always made sense to me, but my experience with FIRST and FRC… it wasn’t just something that happened in my past. It’s been an ongoing series of events and experiences that have stayed with me and helped mold me into the student and person I am today.”

That person is a second-year graduate student at the University of Kansas Medical Center, pursuing a doctorate degree in biochemistry. But just seven years ago, she was a junior at Paola High School getting ready to compete in what was the first-ever Greater Kansas City Regional FIRST Robotics Competition.

“To be honest, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be on the robotics team,” Jackie recalled. “I had a lot of respect for the kids who were really into engineering and wanted to design and program and build robots, but that wasn’t me. I liked chemistry. I wasn’t sure I’d fit in.”

It was Jackie’s physics teacher, Dean Scherman, who encouraged her to get involved. “He was the coach and mentor for our team, and he’s the one who really led the way in terms of showing me how I could contribute.”

Jackie soon found herself fully immersed as the project manager for the Paola Panther Robotics—Team #1108. “I was working on community outreach, marketing, web design, fundraising…” Jackie explained. “I learned so much about time management and team work. When I look back, it’s not so much about the technical skills I learned, it’s more about the leadership and business skills I gained.”

Students who participate in KC FIRST programs often echo Jackie’s opinion about the benefits of participation. “We had twenty-two students on our team, and we all came with different gifts and talents and skill sets. You spend a lot of time together, especially during the six-week build period. We had dinner together most every night—different parents would supply our meals. It was like a family. You grow to depend on each other and count on each member to bring what they can to the table to support the team.”

After completing her undergraduate degree in Chemistry at Baker University, Jackie headed to KU Med to study proteins and the role they play in human health and disease. “Proteins are responsible for nearly every biochemical process in the body, from storing memories to oxygen circulation to breaking down the food we eat. I see them like robots, little tiny molecular machines. In my research and work, I find myself using the same problem-solving strategies I first learned with the robotics team.”

“I give a lot of credit to Mr. Scherman,” Jackie added. “And to all the mentors and coaches and volunteers who gave so much time and energy. It’s so encouraging to have adults who believe in your talents and abilities, but it was on us. They inspired us to put in the time, to do the work… then gave us ownership for the success. They expect us to excel.”

Jackie’s coach and mentor, Dean Scherman, died in the fall of 2009 from pancreatic cancer. He was honored with the Woodie Flowers Award posthumously in 2010 at the Greater Dallas FRC Regional. “I had a great respect for Mr. Scherman,” Jackie said. “I know his life influenced my decision to work in biomedical research. And, it’s one reason I’ve stayed involved with KC FIRST.”

During college, Jackie served on the FRC Regional Planning Committee. “I was around motivated, brilliant professionals who provided me with so many role models. I saw adults working in all kinds of STEM-related careers who were volunteering their time to create this nurturing environment for kids. And they were all so supportive of me as an undergrad and offered guidance as I made decisions regarding graduate school.”

After graduate school, Jackie hopes to step back in as a FIRST volunteer. “I would love to be able to stay in the region and pay it forward with KC FIRST, you know, help guide someone the way my FIRST family guided me.”

Implementing Common Core Standards

By Katherine K. Merseth, Senior Lecturer and Director, Teacher Education Program, Harvard Graduate School of Education

Katherine K. Merseth
Katherine K. Merseth

Money, resources, and passion: that’s what it is going to take to raise student performance outcomes in public schools across the United States.

While no easy task, we have the framework to do this. The Common Core State Standards detail what K-12 students should know in English language arts (ELA) and mathematics. Implementing these standards simply has to be done. If we don’t, we are shortchanging our students—and our future. 

However, we need to approach Common Core implementation with our eyes wide open. This transition is going to be a sea of change in terms of how and what teachers teach, and how students are assessed. Implementing Common Core successfully will require enormous professional development for teachers; solid communication with educators, state government, parents, and students; and a realistic approach to funding.

The Genesis of Common Core

It is important to understand how we arrived at these standards. Education for K-12 students in the United States has been a patchwork of different levels and standards since the creation of public schools in the late 1700s. The founding fathers supported the idea of a “common school” for each community governed by a local school board, but they did not think that it was the federal government’s responsibility to run these schools. In fact, the word “education” is not mentioned in the United States Constitution. Funding and implementing public schools, including curriculum, standards, and testing, was left to the states.

As a result, student performance outcomes across the country are inconsistent. For example, a student living in one state might be deemed competent or proficient on one state test and deemed in need of improvement in another state.

Three key factors led to the development of the Common Core Standards by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and Council of Chief State School Officers:

  1. inconsistent student performance
  2. desire for a unified set of standards for K-12 education
  3. stagnant academic performance of students as compared to their global peers

The Common Core standards were developed to provide a clear framework of what K-12 students across the country should know at each grade level in ELA and math.

Launched in 2009, the final version of Common Core Standards was completed in June 2010. As of this writing (November 2014), they were adopted by forty-five states, the District of Columbia, four territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity. Alaska, Texas, Nebraska, and Virginia have not adopted the standards. Minnesota has adopted the standards in ELA but not in math.

We need teachers who see education for these children as the civil rights issue of our time.”

Katherine Merseth

Challenges Facing Common Core

Despite the appearance of overwhelming support, an underlying tension has surfaced because some states do not want the federal government determining how they run their local schools or what their students need to know. Some states are threatening to pull out of the Common Core while others are having second thoughts.

Although I believe the Common Core will prevail, there are several key challenges that need to be addressed for the standards to have a successful impact:

Watch the Kauffman Sketchbook “Fixing Schools,” featuring Katherine Merseth

Professional Development: Transition to Common Core also will require significant professional development to support teachers in learning different approaches to teaching. No longer the sage with the content knowledge, teachers will be the guides on the sides who help students discover, own, and understand material at a much deeper level than they have before. In math, for example, Common Core will require that teachers ask “why or how” more than they ever have before. Instead of asking a student what is 8 times 8 the teacher may ask: How many ways can you multiply two numbers to have a product of sixty-four? Not only will teachers need to be strong subject matter experts, but they also will need to know how and where to find the information they need quickly.

Cost: Implementing Common Core standards will not be free. States will need to buy new books and other materials that align with the Common Core standards. A 1990 Algebra I text book, for example, is not going to stress the problem-solving skills that students will need to know. And, because testing will be on computers, school districts may have to increase their technology budgets, making individual computers available in every testing session.

Communication: Legislators, administrators, parents, and students will have to understand that this is a new game. Teaching will look and feel different and testing practices will change (and cost more). And as a teacher, I know that if you don’t tell students and parents that a change is coming, there will be a lot of push back.

Assessment: The interplay between content, the student, and the teacher is like a triangle—if one point changes, then the other points change as well. With Common Core, all three points are changing. This will require different assessments—and with the exception of a few pilot tests, we simply aren’t ready. It’s going to be extremely challenging to build assessments that measure in a reliable and valid way what a child can do at this higher level. That is one reason that the National Education Association and the American Federal of Teachers recommend slowing down implementation of Common Core to give us ample time to get the system of assessment right.

Test Scores: We must be realistic about test scores; they will not be the same initially. In New York, where Common Core was adopted early, test scores dropped, and parents were not happy. I believe the new tests will go through various iterations and they will get better—but states will have to decide to ride out the period when their students do not look as good academically as they once did. Or lower the standards, which we might let states do initially, but we should press them to increase the level of the bar every year.

Impact on Urban Schools: Implementing Common Core will be particularly challenging for urban schools. It’s not that these children can’t learn, it’s that we often have had low standards for them. The first thing I recommend doing is to focus on ages three through third grade. We know that if a child is not reading at grade level by the time she’s in third grade, she will not likely graduate from college or even high school. I would train teachers how to teach effectively using Common Core standards and teach parents how to help their children at home by reading to them. Next I would make every effort to get high-quality teachers into classrooms in urban areas, in rural areas, and in suburban areas. We need teachers who see education for these children as the civil rights issue of our time. We must stop the practices that leave these children behind.

Change is hard. Especially if you are implementing it in a massively large school system consisting of 52 million kids, 16,000 districts, and 100,000 schools. But we must. Because while students make up 20 percent of our population, they are 100 percent of our future.

The Whole is Greater than the Sum of its Parts

The Story of the Kansas City Education Funders Collaborative

A roundtable interview with:

Tracy McFerrin Foster
Tracy McFerrin Foster

Tracy McFerrin Foster
Vice President, Hall Family Foundation

Aaron North
Aaron North

Aaron North
Vice President, Education, Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation

Denise St. Omer
Denise St. Omer

Denise St. Omer
Vice President, Community Investment, Greater Kansas City Community Foundation

Carey Wilkerson Looney
Vice President and Secretary, H&R Block Foundation

Urban public education is in crisis. Evidence of poor academic performance, the struggle to recruit and retain great teachers, and the unintended consequences of low expectations are all challenges that should and must be overcome. There is no single solution that will address the urban education crisis. Districts, charter school operators, philanthropic organizations, universities, and others have poured significant resources into finding ways to bolster student achievement at a time when a great education is more critical than ever to a life of opportunity and independence.

Four foundations with long-standing commitments to urban education began working together in 2010 as the Kansas City Education Funders Collaborative to more intentionally explore the effectiveness of their respective activities and find ways to work together to improve student academic and life outcomes. The H&R Block Foundation, the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation, the Hall Family Foundation, and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation established a set of shared beliefs and principles, then began working on ways to support schools serving lower-income students in the Kansas City area based on this common starting point.

Leaders of the organizations comprising the Kansas City Education Funders Collaborative met to discuss the origins of the group, their beliefs, and hopes for sustainable impacts on students in Kansas City’s urban schools.

How did your organizations decide it was better to move forward together than alone?

Tracy McFerrin Foster, Hall Family Foundation:
The Hall Family Foundation has a history of working collaboratively on various community initiatives, so when the Kauffman Foundation convened a meeting with several education funders in late 2010 to discuss the landscape of education in Kansas City, the Foundation was eager to participate. That December, four of the foundations that came together committed to contribute at least $50,000 each to establish a fund with the goal to improve student academic outcomes in Kansas City-area schools. We agreed to be “sector-neutral.” We cared about quality seats and quality education, in whatever type of school it might take place.

Carey Wilkerson Looney, H&R Block Foundation:
Collectively, we developed a vision that all children in the greater Kansas City area will have access to schools that meet or exceed state standards. We agreed to partner with schools to implement research-based best practices in teaching and learning.

Funders Collaborative Beliefs

  1. The solution is bigger than one person, program, or organization.
  2. We, as adults, are accountable for ensuring that all children have the educational opportunities they deserve.
  3. We have an abiding interest in, openness to, and commitment to learning from what works in other cities—and in our own.
  4. We are unwilling to wait for whole-system reform to improve the quality of education for low-income students. We can do something now.
  5. Student and school achievement data must inform decision-making.

Funders Collaborative Guiding Principles

  1. All children can achieve at high levels. Poverty does not justify low expectations. Children perform to the expectations we set.
  2. Teaching causes learning. Teacher effectiveness is the most important in-school variable related to student achievement.
  3. All parents deserve—and have the right to expect—quality school options for their children. All parents want what’s best for their children.
  4. Great teachers come from both traditional and non-traditional pathways. It’s what they are able to accomplish in the classroom, not the path through which they arrived there, that matters most.
  5. The school model—whether charter, district, or private—is irrelevant. What matters most are existing “conditions” within the school (e.g., appropriate degrees of autonomy and accountability, effectiveness of school leadership, and a positive school culture).
  6. Community plays an essential role in setting high expectations for our schools and for ensuring our schools meet those expectations. Informed and sustained community involvement is essential for the success of our schools.

What did the Collaborative do first?

We wanted to develop a strategy with each member having an equal say, so, in early 2011, we hired a consultant (Education First Consulting) and explored four potential strategies. They included (1) supporting teacher effectiveness, (2) supporting turnaround schools, (3) promoting public engagement in education, and (4) supporting “green shoot schools,” or those with the potential to serve as proof points of best practices in urban education. “Green shoots” is where we landed. We decided we wanted to work with people who were committed to creating some proof points in Kansas City, and we felt it could be done. 

Denise St. Omer, Greater Kansas City Community Foundation:
Separate and apart from their working relationship, our Collaborative members set expectations internally and laid a ground work for trust and honest, open conversation from the outset. When we meet, we have a safe space where we can disagree and challenge one another’s thinking. That approach allowed the Collaborative to continue and to grow.

What has the Collaborative funded?

Our first grant was to a program called Donors Choose. While our foundations probably would not support the program individually, we felt that collectively our funding made a statement in support of public school teachers. With our goal being to expand the number of quality seats in Kansas City, we felt it was important to support the teachers in those classrooms. We were interested in helping those teachers who were motivated enough to go through the Donors Choose application process to try to get the tools and resources they needed for their students.

Aaron North, Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation:
Donors Choose was a first test for what our Collaborative could do. We started in June 2011 with a matching grant of $25,000 and set up a program called “Match for KC.” We focused on funding requests from teachers in area school districts with high concentrations of students eligible for free and reduced lunch, both district and charter. Since that time, the Collaborative’s contribution has funded 574 projects for 224 teachers at 124 schools.

And with the matching grant framework, the Collaborative has contributed a total of $116,000 over three years, matching grants of $115,000 from other groups and individuals to support area public classrooms.  

What else?

With Donors Choose going well, we decided to target professional development and invested in the 5Essentials program from the University of Chicago. In 2013, twenty-nine area schools participated in the 5Essentials evaluation process and are working with the Collaborative to identify areas for professional development that would equip teachers to improve outcomes for students. Additionally, the Collaborative offered to engage more Kansas City schools in the 5Essentials process in 2014.

Number one for all of us is: what is a good school? What does it look like? How do you define it? It was great to bring 5Essentials to Kansas City. It’s research-based with a survey tool that can help schools diagnose whether they have the five essential components for school success—effective leaders, collaborative teachers, involved families, supportive environment, and ambitious instruction. It has given us a framework to make grant program decisions, and it helps schools help themselves. 

The 5Essentials program really focuses on school culture, and I think the results really challenged the perceptions of many schools that participated. For us as funders, it challenged our ideas of where and how we can be helpful to schools. We’re coming together and getting feedback from the schools on where philanthropy can help them the most.   

The feedback we’re getting is, if they could address just one Essential, the majority would choose ambitious instruction. 

We know as funders that we are not going to be in a position to make grants to every school. I think one of the unintended benefits of our convening 5Essentials sessions is that the participating schools are starting to look for ways to come together, share resources and, then, approach us as funders in a way that will allow us to leverage our dollars and have a greater impact. 

There are many things about school culture that you don’t need money in order to address.

Tracy McFerrin Foster

Have you found other unforeseen benefits of the Collaborative’s outreach?

We expressed to the schools when we were starting with the 5Essentials that there are many things about school culture that you don’t need money in order to address.

I’ve been proud of the schools and the conversations we’ve heard in these sessions. The schools have been very open about their survey results. A lot of the schools really owned the areas for improvement because these are indicators for higher performance, not measurements tied to any one standard or test. As a Collaborative, it gave us an apples-to-apples comparison and also an enhancement over the raw data we typically get. Ideally, the schools will also hold each other accountable for their ideas. It’s harder to sit there and say, “I need $100,000 for project X, Y or Z,” if another school is looking at you and saying, “Do you really need that?”

The schools identified their biggest needs to be collaborative teachers and ambitious instruction. So, the discussion turned to opportunities for professional development (PD). One idea raised was that the funders could bring in a national program or leader in PD, and the schools could coordinate their school calendars so their PD days would be the same.

Our investment has been modest on the front end. Like Donors Choose, we’re looking for ways to provide targeted support with the potential for high impact.

Funder leverage can be more than money. During the strategic planning process with Education First Consulting, the Collaborative learned that it could strive to be a critical voice on education issues, giving the seal of approval or advocating for a specific action. It could help to conceptualize an idea through analysis, fact-finding, and focused attention. It could also try to be a catalyst, to convene, initiate, and provide a non-partisan point of view. I think that’s the space the Collaborative has occupied to this point – we have not provided big grant dollars. As we move forward, I think we’ll be even more focused on how to support schools (leaders and teachers) to really get to the nuts and bolts of improving academic achievement for their students. 

How do you balance the interests and initiatives of the Collaborative with those of your individual foundations?

The Collaborative allows the H&R Block Foundation to increase staff knowledge of education efforts that are supported by our peers, improve knowledge of best practices in education, and invest in opportunities that otherwise would not fit within traditional guidelines of our foundation. Personally, working with the Collaborative has been an outstanding professional development opportunity for me, providing invaluable insight into best practices that could be implemented locally for the benefit of Kansas City students.

An interesting offshoot of our group is that it has led to the launch of a similar collaborative in early childhood education. I think the way the early childhood collaborative works and functions will be very different, but, at its core, it’s the same idea. Are there areas where we can come together? Can we fund efforts together that we might not be able to fund individually? It’s changing the landscape of how funders interact. 

A huge part of this is simply demonstrating the value of the communication. I feel people show up to our meetings because they want to know what’s going on, but they also want to share what they’re doing and hear what others think. They answer questions about projects or initiatives, and then ask questions of others.

We’re sending a clear message that we, as funders, work well together, meet regularly, and share information. Hopefully, that’s made it easier for organizations to approach us collectively for funding, understanding that there truly is shared communication. 

What lessons have you learned?

The first thing that comes to mind is the need to establish a trusting relationship within the collaboration. You establish the rules of the game. Anything that’s said in the meeting stays in the meeting. You’re free to give your unvarnished opinion about things, and everyone’s views are respected. Another lesson is that successful collaborations take time. They take work. 

We decided that no matter how much money your foundation put in, each organization gets one vote—and majority rules. We also rotate where we meet so each organization has ownership. Establishing those operating principles was an important early step.

We try to document what we do and the feedback we receive. Individuals change roles, but we want the Collaborative to have continuity and sustainability of focus. 

I would add to the list that it takes time. Get started, build slowly, find a couple of early initiatives that are at appropriate scale and for which you can set target outcomes. For us, Donors Choose was one level of complexity; then, 5Essentials was a much different level of complexity and potential. And our next initiative may build on that.

When we first started, we purposely tried to stay under the radar. We did not publicize that there was a Kansas City Education Funders Collaborative. We didn’t want people to think, “Oh, here’s another pool of funding. How can we apply?” We never envisioned this being a group that sat around and waited for people to show up and ask for funding.  

The last lesson learned is that if you start off saying, “We’re about student outcomes, and this is how we believe this can happen,” it can be sector neutral, and we want to work with people who want to work on this in a really meaningful way. This is how we set up the Collaborative—focusing on student outcomes—and I think that was a great part of defining the principles and values to which we’ve been committed.

Finally, what do you all see as the biggest challenges in public education?

For me, the challenges are not unique to Kansas City, and my answer has changed from when I first started this work in 2010. I really think that the biggest challenge is the complexity of the issue. When you think about public education in most of our major cities, you’ve got to think about the public policy environment, poverty, culture, attracting and keeping effective teachers and leaders, governance, and the list goes on and on. There are so many varied elements that go into delivering a high quality education, that it is just so complex. But that said, I can’t think of any issue that is more important to the health and vitality of a community, so we have to find a way to meet the challenge.

I think for me personally, the biggest challenge is how we change the culture of low expectations. We know that all children can achieve. But what we also know is for children to be able to achieve it is critical that the adults have high expectations for them. And I worry sometimes that we don’t have high enough expectations. As a community, we face a lot of challenges. I think we need to be careful that we don’t allow those challenges to become excuses for poor performance. I think we hear that a lot of these children can’t achieve because they are poor, or they live in a bad neighborhood. Those are challenges, not excuses.

Making Wishes Come True

How Teach For America Inspired an Innovative Startup

An Interview with Beth Schmidt
Founder and Executive Director, Wishbone

Beth Schmidt
Beth Schmidt

Beth Schmidt is a former Teach For America corps member who taught tenth grade English at Locke High School in south central Los Angeles. Today she runs a nonprofit organization that aids low-income students. Launched in 2012, Wishbone is an interactive online platform designed to provide funding to send low-income high school students from New York City and the San Francisco Bay area to extracurricular programs. In this interview, Beth shares how her TFA experience inspired her to start her company, what running a nonprofit is like in what she calls “the new age of nonprofits,” and how education and entrepreneurship make perfect bedfellows.

How did Wishbone come about?

I started Wishbone to send low-income students on these after-school and summer programs that are otherwise pretty much cost prohibitive for those kids.

What was the inspiration for the idea?

I was teaching tenth grade English in south central Los Angeles. I assigned my class to research and write about any after-school or summer program in the Los Angeles area. I asked them to match their passion to the program that they wanted to attend. There were papers that started with the sentence, “Nobody has ever asked me what my passion is.” So I’m sitting there heartbroken, thinking, “I have to send these kids on these programs.” But I was on a teacher’s salary at the time, so I couldn’t afford to send them all.

How did you raise money?

A couple of ways: I ran a marathon to raise money to send seven of them, and I took the teacher route and stapled together packets about my students with their photos. They each had an excerpt from their essay about why they wanted to attend the program they selected. So it all started with a teacher’s packet that I mailed to friends and family.

So was it the direct appeal that made people respond?

Donors want to know where their dollars are going. They want to know their donation is making a difference. Wishbone was designed to allow people to meet the student they’re supporting, learn about that student’s dream, and see the price tag for the program they want to attend.

I like to err on the side of transparency because I think it motivates people to give more. That was really part of the whole design for Wishbone.

Can you tell us something about the kind of programs students attend and what happens when they are able to have these experiences?

We’ve sent kids to a wide range of programs. We had one student who is taking flight lessons. I think he did over sixty hours of flight school with Wishbone. We have students who want to go to ID Tech Camp and learn how to code, and we have students who want to learn about stem cell science.

It’s very powerful what can happen within a small community when one kid has that “aha” moment.”

Beth Schmidt

It’s interesting to see that a lot of lifelong skills like confidence, grit, and persistence develop when you match a student’s passion with activities they can pursue outside of school. It’s very powerful what can happen within a small community when one kid has that “aha” moment. The biggest thing we’ve seen at Wishbone is that these kids come back into their school and become the experts on whatever they’ve done. It’s incredibly powerful to see peer groups come together and realize, you know, I can do that too.

The pieces that keep me really engaged are the results we find when we track students. We see their grades go up. Their engagement levels go up. I’m not as close to the students as I was when I was teaching, but I’ve seen what a game changer this can be for them.

What made you think this idea could become an entrepreneurial venture?

I never thought I would start an organization. That wasn’t on my to-do list in life at all.

I was a teacher, so the thing that fueled me was seeing the faces of my students. I think you have more guts, ambition, and drive when you see something firsthand. However, I always tell entrepreneurs who are looking to start something, there better be an authentic need that you see. Right? You can’t just come up with an idea and not test that need.

When you see a real need, and you see a way to close that gap, there’s not really a choice to turn away from it.

It’s a roller coaster. But the piece that’s unwavering is your solid belief that this is an issue, and there’s a specific solution to it. So for Wishbone, it’s really clear. There’s an opportunity gap. Low-income kids are prohibited from path-changing opportunities, and the solution is to get them those opportunities.

How do we find opportunities to be innovative within the school system?

If you look at schools, you can see that we are teaching the same way we’ve taught forever. We have this stale system right now that needs to be reinvigorated. That’s an invitation for innovation.

We need to bring technology and new ideas into the field of education in general. We’re in the right place, and I think we’re bringing in the right kind of energy with entrepreneurs who have been in the classroom.

Strong leaders are going where it’s very difficult to go.

Social enterprises are being created in both for-profit and nonprofit models. What influenced your decision to structure Wishbone as a nonprofit?

I think nonprofits are coming in to a new age. For a long time, even when you win with nonprofits, you really don’t win because you’re doing it all over again the next year. I remember when Wishbone earned its first $25,000, and I thought the organization had it made. And then you realize, oh boy, this isn’t going to get me very far.

The pitfall to nonprofits is when you fundraise and fundraise and fundraise, year after year, and nobody wins. Your model is not sustainable. You are constantly looking for new people to fund you, and it’s not fun for anyone. So thinking about sustainability early on in a model is imperative.

The positive piece is that new leaders are looking at nonprofits as a sustainable market. When I realized I didn’t want to run a marathon again to raise money, I knew I needed to figure out a new sustainable method for sending kids on programs. 

There are ways that we’re looking to remain sustainable as opposed to continually fundraising year after year for our full amount. That’s important to think about when you’re looking at scale. It’s the kind of new nonprofit way.

The future of philanthropy, I believe, is definitely through technology. It’s one of the last fields to come online, and I think we have so much capacity to be able to give online. The nonprofit sector is behind the game a little bit, but Wishbone is at the forefront encouraging people to go online.

Are there parallels between your life as a teacher and your life as an entrepreneur?

Teach For America really forced me to innovate on the fly with my students. So even though there was structure around what we were learning and our goals—and backwards planning toward those goals—you’re dealing with real live tenth graders, and a lot can come out of that. So that’s entrepreneurial in and of itself. You’re creating lessons on the fly, realizing that your first five plans didn’t work so the sixth has to work. It’s very similar to starting your own organization from scratch. 

In the beginning, I think Teach For America was focused, rightfully so, on recruiting a group of teachers to succeed in the classroom. What they didn’t realize was that those same skill sets are transferable to entrepreneurship. I don’t think I would have been able to start a company as easily as I did—and it wasn’t easy—if I didn’t have that classroom experience with Teach For America where you are constantly knocked down, and you have to get up, and accept it as just part of life. 

It’s a tall order, and I think those skill sets absolutely translate to the resilience you need to build a company, fail along the way, get up, and keep going. There are very humbling moments where you’re constantly learning and iterating.

To me, they go hand in hand, entrepreneurship and education. You have to have fresh ideas to change something that’s broken, and right now education is a little bit broken.

There are so many smart and dedicated people working to improve schools, and there’s so much at stake. Where do you think we should focus, and where do you find hope?

From childhood, we send all our students through this very standard education system that just doesn’t breed an excitement for learning. A lot of what Wishbone’s about is reinvigorating the angle of fun in learning, putting passion at the forefront of education. The more we can do that, the more we are going to get people who come out of school and think anything is possible. That energy is going to continue when kids get out of school and they realize the world is open to them.

If you can believe in the potential for people to empower themselves and succeed, you have to believe that we can change a system that’s broken. So I’m an eternal optimist about the educational landscape. This is a very special time. So many people are really supportive of education right now, both financially and also in terms of human capital, ideas, and thoughts. Now is the time to put all of our energy into it and really move forward.

I mean, if you believe in the potential of people, you have to believe in the potential of education in America. Those things go hand in hand.

Follow Beth Schmidt on Twitter: @schmidtea

Beth Schmidt tells the story of Wishbone’s start. View more videos of Schmidt on the Khan Academy Series “Interviews with Entrepreneurs.”

10 Ways Cities Can Create a Climate of Improvement and Innovation

By Tom Vander Ark, CEO, Getting Smart

Tom Van Der Ark
Tom Van Der Ark

Lots of educators talk about innovation these days, but we don’t talk much about how innovations in learning are created or how they spread.

There is a hunch catching on that ecosystems matter for producing and scaling innovation. This hypothesis is based on two significant threads of evidence—talent and tech.

  • Talent ecosystems. Much of the widespread improvement in urban education over the last decade is a function of human capital initiatives and charter school networks—they improved talent and execution. Teach for AmericaNew Leaders, and smart district leaders like Terry Grier in Houston have demonstrated that an aggressive talent development agenda produces results. When combined with data-informed high-fidelity implementation, the results of a talent ecosystem can be quick and dramatic improvements in student achievement.

  • Tech ecosystems. Most innovation comes from startup companies—and most startups are launched in a technology ecosystem that includes successful companies, talented engineers, world-class universities, venture investors, and quality of life. New York City and the California Bay Area are the best examples of powerful innovation ecosystems producing network effects making them the best place in the world to start a company.

These lines of evidence suggest that technology-based innovations in learning will most frequently occur and spread in innovation ecosystems. But things are a little more complicated in education.

Consider three inequalities:

  • OD>ET: Learning, especially for children, is and will remain a distinctly relationship-based enterprise, so organizational design and development (OD) will remain more important than education technology (ET)—but it’s worth noting that the most important innovations combine OD+ET and add iterative development and strong execution.

  • SB>IS:There are significant barriers (SB)—including the Gordian knot of federal, state, and local policies combined with contracts and traditions—to creating an innovative school (IS) that is student-centered and competency-based. There is little focused R&D investment and almost no capacity (or incentive) to make productivity-improving capital investments.

  • LC>ID: a highly decentralized system of local control (LC) and weak improvement incentives dampens innovation diffusion (ID). Highly effective school models are ignored, productive tools go unused, community assets are underutilized—it’s almost as if a good idea won’t walk across the street in education.

Leadership Matters

Despite the obstacles, what Rick Hess calls cage-busting leadership can overcome barriers and inspire execution and innovation at scale.

Leadership (and stable governance) has had more to do with the extent to which schools incorporate innovative tools and methods than proximity to the tech economy. To date, cage-busters have built talent ecosystems but not necessarily tech ecosystems.

Ten years ago, a handful of us realized that a portfolio approach was the only solution—that cities needed to open innovative new schools, close failing schools, and work aggressively to improve the rest.

Portfolio has gone mainstream and is powering improvements in three dozen cities with support of think tanks like the Center for Reinventing Public Education and “harbormasters” like CEE-Trust members.

Ecosystems Emerging

The tech disconnect began to close in 2010 with the introduction of tablets and the explosion of mobile applications.

Education venture investment accelerated (see Boosting Impact), edtech incubators and accelerators opened in major cities, and foundations funded innovative pilot projects.

The learning tools revolution became an undeniable bottom-up, outside-in change force.

Tom Vander Ark

Teachers, parents, and students began adopting learning tools and resources at an unprecedented rate—the revolution became an undeniable bottom-up, outside-in change force.

For example, it’s interesting how two teachers in Baltimore or a principal in Columbus, Ohio, can help change the energy level in a city—time to clear out the library for a fab lab and blow out the walls for a learning lab.

Now cage busters like them are asking, “Can an urban district remain relevant if not connected to the current needs of the tech economy?”

Next Steps

How can cities more intentionally foster a climate that encourages improvement and innovation?

There are (probably) ten steps to building a learning ecosystem:

  • Build a city innovation agenda with learning at the core. Students deserve the opportunity to work with adults that expect them to participate in innovation economy.
  • Ensure stable and effective governance to give innovation a place to grow.
  • Raise/align some funds and make a few smart investments.
  • Invest in a talent pipeline of teachers, leaders, and edupreneurs.
  • Incubate innovation including learning models, supports, and EdTech.
  • Incorporate new tools into strong school improvement efforts and networks.
  • Open new schools—particularly competency-based flex models that create new options and interesting field trips.
  • Add digital opportunity with expanded access to part-time online learning.
  • Measure and iterate; try stuff, test hypotheses, and run short-cycle trials.
  • Advocate for equity and a long-term view; protect advances; lay the groundwork for a new policy environment.

It’s early in ecosystem thinking, but the rationale and early mover advantage make a compelling case—at least that is the thesis of the Smart Cities book recently published.

Many major cities are making real progress, the tool set is getting better, the talent pipelines are filling up, investors are lining up, and the formula for expanded access to learning is becoming clear.

Follow Tom Vander Ark on Twitter: @tvanderark