Kansas City officials hope the new system will help the district, which has been beset with failure. A $2 billion desegregation case failed to boost test scores or stem the exodus of students to the suburbs and private and charter schools. The district has lost half its students and will close about 40 percent of its schools by the fall to avoid bankruptcy.

Covington said he wants to start the system in five elementary schools in hopes of spreading it through the upper grades once the bugs are worked out.

“This system precludes us from labeling children failures,” Covington said. “It’s not that you’ve failed, it’s just that at this point you haven’t mastered the competencies yet and when you do, you will move to the next level.”

As they plan for the change, Kansas City teachers and administrators have visited and sought advice from a Denver-area school district that uses the reform.

A replicable system

Adams County School District 50, in Denver, had about 10,000 students this past school year and saw its elementary and middle students make the shift. The reform will be phased into the high schools starting in the fall.

Count 11-year-old Alex Rodriguez as a convert to the new approach. He said he used to get bored after plowing through his assignments. He had to bring books from home or the library if he wanted a challenge, because the ones at his old school were one or two grade levels too easy.

“I liked school,” he said. “But it was hard sitting there and doing nothing.”

His parents transferred the high achiever and his three younger siblings to the Denver-area district after learning it was trying something new. His father, Richard Rodriguez, has been thrilled with the turnaround.

“I wish school was like this when I was growing up,” he said.

There also is growing interest in Maine, where six districts, with a combined 11,248 students, are transitioning to the reform, starting with staff training and community meetings and gradually changing what happens in classrooms.

“It is incredible what is happening in the classrooms in Maine that are trying it,” said Diana Doiron, who is overseeing the effort for the state’s education department.

Education officials in Kansas City, Maine, and elsewhere said part of the allure is the success other districts have after making the switch.

Marzano Research Laboratory, an educational research and professional development firm, evaluated 2009 state test data for more than 3,500 students from 15 school districts in Alaska, Colorado, and Florida. Researchers found that students who learned through the different approach were 2.5 times more likely to score at a level that shows they have a good grasp of the material on exams for reading, writing, and mathematics.

Greg Johnson, director of curriculum and instruction for the Bering Strait School District in Alaska, recalled that before the switch there were students who had been on honor roll throughout high school and then failed a state test for graduation.

Now, he said, if students are on pace to pass a class like Algebra I, the likelihood of them passing the state exam covering that material is more than 90 percent. He said he is proud of that accomplishment and said teachers love it.

“The most die-hard advocates for our system are our teachers because—especially the ones who were back with us before the change—they saw where things were then,” he said. “They see where things are now, and they don’t want to go back.”

Links:

Kansas City School District

Pearson’s DRA2