Kalamazoo Promise Can a Universal College Scholarship Reform Urban Education? Academic Optimism Has Unlocked and Unleashed the Aspirations of Teachers, Parents, and Students in an Urban District in the Midwest

Article excerpt

In June, President Obama delivered the first-ever graduation speech by a sitting president to public high school students when he spoke to graduates of Kalamazoo Central High School in Michigan. This was the culmination of the Race to the Top Commencement Challenge in which high schools around the country vied for the opportunity to have the President speak at graduation ceremonies. For an urban high school that once might have been labeled a "dropout factory," this was a big event.

"America has a lot to learn from Kalamazoo Central about what makes for a successful school in this new century," the President said. "You've got educators raising standards and then inspiring their students to meet them. You've got community members who are stepping up as tutors and mentors and coaches. You've got parents who are taking an active interest in their child's education."

And the President noted something else: the Kalamazoo Promise, the community's universal postsecondary scholarship program. Launched in fall 2005 with backing from anonymous donors, the Kalamazoo Promise scholarship provides full tuition for any high school graduate who's been accepted to attend a state-supported Michigan postsecondary institution--whether a community college, trade school, or university. The Promise has made it possible for hundreds of students to continue their education who in the past would probably never have gotten more than a high school diploma. But it's done far more than that. A federally sponsored evaluation has shown that the Promise has been a catalyst for systemic reform, bringing together educators, students, their parents, and the broader community to focus on a common goal: success for all students--not just in high school, but through the college years.

Comprehensive school reform models, or more broadly defined systemic reforms, tend to be highly prescriptive: Outsiders come into a system and tell professionals what they must do to improve school quality and effectiveness. Specific interventions and services, designed for each stakeholder group, are implemented. Typically, these reform models call for professional and leadership development, activities to reach parents and encourage their involvement, and extensive changes to the curriculum. Although many of the packaged reform models are believed to be research based, they get mixed results during implementation. As reformers have learned, creating the synergy needed to bring about and sustain change in struggling urban school districts is difficult and expensive.

The Kalamazoo Promise approached change from an entirely different direction. The Promise pointed to the desired outcomes but did not specify what the district would have to do to achieve them. Instead, it assumed that a strong incentive, such as a universal scholarship program, would prompt diverse stakeholders to work together and figure out what a district needed to do to enable more students to take advantage of the scholarship program. Essentially, what's between the boxes or cells in Figure 1 is what the professionals had to sort out. And they did.


The Promise changed the city and the public schools of Kalamazoo from the day it was announced in November 2005. Its first impact was to lift student aspirations and teacher expectations. It also helped motivate the Kalamazoo Public Schools to take necessary steps to assess and modify the school system so that it could serve the broader goal of preparing more students for success in postsecondary education. (See sidebar.) The process of review, assessment, and then the implementation of new programs mirrors what the authors of externally mandated and funded reform initiatives strive to achieve. But, in this instance, the change was driven by internal initiative rather than an intervention driven from the outside.

Surveys of students and teachers helped evaluators determine the effectiveness of district reforms in reaching desired outcomes. …


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