By Carrie Markel
It’s no secret Kansas City is partying like it’s 1985 again, but there is another reason we should be looking to this date as a cause for reminiscence. That same year, a federal judge ordered desegregation of Kansas City, Missouri, School District (KCMSD) with a “cost-is-no-object” model to pay for 15 new schools, Olympic-sized swimming pools, media studios, higher teacher salaries, and a host of other shiny “carrots” to encourage balanced black-white student populations and close achievement gaps.
However, like the Royals who won the World Series for the first time that year, both the baseball team and KC education reform movement saw a massive decline in the decades following their initial success. Twenty-nine years later, the Royals have made a remarkable comeback while educational improvement in Kansas City remains stagnant. Why has so little changed for public schools in Missouri in those same three decades since 1985?
For one, money itself was not a means to an end for the Royals. The team strategically built a roster based on players’ combined talents and skills rather than on expensive star-power. Currently, the Royals rank 18th in the MLB for combined salaries out of 30 teams. In contrast, in the decade following the judge’s order for desegregation, KCMSD received more money per pupil than the 280 other major school districts across the country. And yet, test scores did not rise, black-white achievement gaps only increased, and integration of schools failed miserably. Rather than relying on money to solve our city’s problems, human talent should be the reason for partying like it’s 1985 again.
(2) More than meets the eye.
I’ve heard many remark that baseball is boring, adding that the tailgating and hot dogs tend to be the best part of games. While these people may not be the best exemplars of baseball “fans,” many of them do attend games and help craft the image of the K and a citywide fan base.
Whilst munching on hot dogs, some of these people may not see (and thus, what many others appreciate) is baseball’s subtle complexity. Educational systems share a similar complexity revealed in the vast data sets that we compile for both students and schools, players and teams. And yet, even analyzing and understanding the data does not ensure a home run. Try telling an educator that all we need to do to solve “this education problem” is to hire better teachers without taking into account that 70% of teachers in Kansas City leave the profession before their 5th year and that there are three sets of pension systems in Missouri that restrict teacher movement between school districts.
Rather, attempts to distill the complexities and challenges in education to one root cause is much like saying all the batter needs to do is hit the ball to win the game. And even knowing the statistics to craft solutions “can be misleading,” as Lee Judge of the Kansas City Star points out. For instance, just because an outfielder does not have a high number of assists does not necessarily mean he also doesn’t have one of the best arms in baseball, Lee writes. Thus even when we account for RBI, SB, BA, A, CS, WHIP in baseball and the ELL students, F&RL rates, AYP, and MAP scores in education, there are always unpredictable human variables which, while adding complexity, make the fight worth fighting.
(3) There are two types of fans.
I use the word “fans” here in the utmost sense to mean more than just game attendees and occasional viewers. Fans are people who defend their team no matter how many losses they suffer, no matter how long (29 years kind of long) before the next big win, and despite heartbreaking setbacks like the one witnessed in Game 1 in this World Series (too soon?).
However, two types of people can exist under this “fan” umbrella:
1. Devotees - These are the season ticket holders, never-miss-a-game, scribble-stats-on-napkins, and bring-their-kids-late-to-school-the-next-day kind of fans. Every game is important, every at bat counts, and thus, the World Series is an accomplishment not just for the Royals, but for the people who have seen dozens of rosters cycle through, bullpens exhausted, and watched other leave stadium seats empty.
2. Regular Ol' Fans - These people love the team, there's no doubt about it, but they especially love the team in times like these. They attend games regularly, maybe even hold season tickets, but life does not revolve around the Royals the way it does for devotees.
Why is this important? We see this same split when it comes to education reform in Kansas City. There are many passionate people who feel that the educational system is broken, is in dire need of innovation and change, and will advocate on behalf of students' best interests. But the devotees are the teachers, administrators, parents and reformers who work day-in, day-out, often for long periods of time, with no foreseeable gains. Like the Royals devotees, they watch as others leave the arena. But when the time comes for the majority to rally around a cause...
(4) Kansas City pride is palpable and powerful.
The amazing thing about this city, however, is that no matter whether you were a die-hard, season-ticket-holder-since-birth type of fan, or the bandwagon, I-bought-this-jersey-yesterday kind, the pride for this city is palpable. One only has to look at the mass of blue shirts swelling at the K to the Royals logo blazoned on the side of the performing arts center and downtown Marriott to see visual proof of this.
Much in the same way that we naturally form relationships with people who went to the same school as us, our sports teams are cultural institutions that can unite us around a common cause. There is a local camaraderie that has developed due not just to a city’s baseball team going to the World Series, but because of the very implausibility of them doing so in the first place. The same pride would not, and arguably, could not be present in New York for the Yankees or Boston for the Red Sox because this level of success is not new or noteworthy there. In Kansas City, a place that has long been neglected, flown-over and overlooked, the underdog mentality is precisely what drives us forward.
We have a similar pride when it comes to education where our mayor initiates a campaign, Turn the Page KC, for literacy, where Alta Vista Charter School was named the top-performing HS math department in the state, and the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce publicly declares elementary education as one of its Big 5 initiatives. There is a quiet resiliency to this community that can explode in times of great success and in great need.
(5) An opportunity exists to create something bigger than ourselves.
The Royals have the opportunity to not just repeat history heading into Game 7 tonight of the World Series, but to redefine it. Win or lose this game, there is an opportunity for the Kansas City community as a whole to capitalize on the events from 1985 to now. How we define tonight's win or loss is the true legacy of this World Series because we have the opportunity to show that our baseball team, and Kansas City as a whole, is not a one-off fluke. We have staying power. We have proven time and again that we have the ability to rebuild and transform Kansas City's identity into one that is nationally-renowned not just for barbecue and fountains, but for entrepreneurship, athletic-prowess, arts, and restaurateurs. But it should also be our goal to leave a legacy where future Kansas Citians are partying like its 2014 because of the incredible education opportunities this city has the capability of providing its children.
(6) This is real life.
In order for us to provide this legacy for our baseball team and for our city's children, the lasting power comes not just from the players and educators, but from all Kansas Citians. It will take a collective effort not just to maintain this momentum, but to build upon it. Sam Mellinger of The Kansas City Star published an article this morning stating that "For years and years, the most popular legal aids for Royals fans have been an imagination that's sometimes felt like delusion." After a franchise that has gone 29 years without a playoff appearance and only 1 winning season out of the last 18, some might say it's no wonder, then, that the fans lost their faith in what the team was capable of.
We've lost that same faith in our city's public education system, and to a certain degree, in our city's children. There's only so many reforms, only so many turnarounds, plans, and attempts to improve public education in Kansas City, before a "belief gap" began to infect our community's consciousness. Not only does education reform seem unlikely after decades of mismanagement and failing test scores, but at times, impossible. And as Mellinger writes, even when a team like the Royals can beat all the odds in one season, there are many who will sit in the K tonight and think "those dreams felt so impossible for so many years -- blown draft pick after blown draft pick -- that there can't help but be a sense of wonder now that it's here."
But it will be real tonight. And the reality that faces our city if we hope to keep growing and transforming is also staring us in the face, pinching us out of disbelief: we must now create a world-class education system to realize our city's potential. Don't let this scare you. It was only last season that the thought of a Game 7, World Series appearance for the Royals would have been laughed at. But after the Royals win their first World Series in 29 years tonight, the belief gap for them will finally close, meaning we can do the same for our city's students and for their education.