Thursday, April 3, 2014

Research Update: Notes on SAB Failure and the New Privatization Plan for SLPS

What follows are some initial reflections on and reactions to the latest SLPS plan, as expressed in two public forums last week.  These form the basis for a deeper analysis of the discourse and practice of corporate-backed school 'reform' in an American city (i.e. St Louis). (*Modified with corrections - April 4, 2014; April 8, 2014).

These are working notes, which reflect my opinion and interpretation.  I welcome correction of errors of fact, and debate about modes of interpretation.  In the spirit of open-ness, transparency, and the public production of knowledge, I welcome feedback:  gustafson@wustl.edu

Notes on the SAB Failure and the Latest Plan to "Improve" the St. Louis Public School System

Bret Gustafson
April 3, 2014

Outside vendors, no!  But wait, what else is going on?

The outsourcing plan – to hire turnaround firms, "outside vendors," or non-profits provoked a strong public reaction.  However, it appeared to serve a purpose at the public forums: to distract the public from deeper consideration of the contents of the plan itself, as well as of the performance of the Special Administrative Board (SAB) over the past 7 years.

A historical note:  Remember how we got here?
For the record, the SAB was created after the state takeover, which was precipitated by a report by the "Danforth-Freeman Commission," recommending the dissolution of the elected school board and the creation of an SAB.  This move was taken after Mayor Slay had attempted to seek mayoral control by way of placing allies onto the elected board (the "Slay slate or "slayte" circa 2003).  To their credit, they went the democratic route the first time around.  Once in office, the Slay slate hired outside consultant Bill Roberti (recalled several times at last week's public forums), who initiated the downsizing of the district, school closings, outsourcing of food services, etc.   This allowed a number of real estate deals to go through with SLPS property, but did little to improve schooling.  The grassroots response (2006) was to retake the elected board with significant public support (despite the mayor's claims that SLPS has no constituency).  When a grassroots majority came to the elected board, the mayoral slate was weakened.  According to observers, the business elite that had funded the campaigns of the corporate reform slate was miffed when poorly funded grassroots candidates beat them.  So the business and political elite moved to take control by dissolving the elected board (i.e. disenfranchising people, and eroding a key democratic institution that brought blacks and whites into dialogue over the public good).  First step, appoint the Danforth-Freeman commission to recommend state control (2006).   Pass legislation focused only on St. Louis that allows state takeover if a district is unaccredited.  Have the state board, DESE, strip accreditation (2007).  Have the alliance of the governor and the mayor and the board of alderpersons name an SAB (2007).  The grassroots coalition sued, but the Supreme Court came down in favor of the corporate elite (2008).  For more on this history, see the excellent account by Peter Downs, "This is Reform?"  For an analysis that is friendlier to the corporate reform side, but which has conceptual flaws primarily because it associates reformism with an end of machine politics (it is not), see Stein and Kimball (2007).

SAB to bring great improvements
The argument made and embraced by city and business elites was that the elected board was dysfunctional and that the SAB would make great improvements.  In fact, just prior to the state takeover, with the grassroots coalition controlling a majority of the board, a very successful [according to people interviewed] superintendent (Diana Bourisaw) had been hired and there was an atmosphere of positive improvement.  After the state takeover and the appointment of the SAB, Bourisaw was promptly removed.   From the corporate reformers' perspective – again, these are my interpretations – the worse thing that could happen would be blacks and whites working together - outside of the control of the old machine politics – to improve their schools.  

Who is the SAB?
As one of the (now disempowered) elected board members said at Saturday's forum, paraphrasing: 'Why is our district run by a real-estate salesman and why isn't he here?"  Well, who is the SAB?

The SAB is led by 'CEO' Rick Sullivan, former CEO of McBride and Sons; a real estate developer who also leads a real-estate investment trust focused on St. Louis (STRAQR).  He was appointed by then governor Matt Blunt.  It also includes local businessman Richard Gaines, appointed by the board of alderpersons of St. Louis.  And it includes the mayor's appointee,  Melanie Adams, former TFA employee, and at the time of her appointment, an employee of the Missouri History Museum (her then boss and former director at the Museum was a Slay ally and former Slayte schoolboard member, the now deeply questioned, to some disgraced, though comfortably retired, Robert Archibald). 

Despite the fact that opponents of democracy argue that elected boards only have personal agendas (an allegation), it might be equally hypothesized that the structure of the SAB is one giant conflict of interest (as yet to be fully explored).   However, this is broader than issues of individual qualifications or characteristics, and I make no judgement of individuals.  Beyond these individuals, it is very hard to understand who precisely has the power to shape decisions of the SAB.  What is clear is that it is not the public.  

Is the Corporate Reform Model a Failure to Date?
Rigor as quality or 'bondage'? "Achievement has been flat"
Since the SAB has had control, we see the results in the district's own presentation last week:  failure to impact education in any significant way for a huge chunk of the district's struggling schools.  In Dr. Adams' words:  test scores have been basically flat.   

Of course, they will blame that on everyone else (teachers, mostly), but if the SAB was said to bring great improvement,, it has not.  A thorough empirical evaluation might conclude that it has failed. Indeed, the SAB itself, via Dr. Adams' presentation appears to be saying as much, at least about the 18 poorest schools in the "Superintendent's Zone."

But, Corporate Reformers' Idea of Success?
From the perspective of the corporate-backed reformers, however, the SAB could be seen as a huge success.  It paved the way for the rapid growth of charter schools, a number of real-estate deals in key redevelopment areas of the city, a general cultural and political shift away from a democratic understanding of schooling and toward a "CEO" business model, a weakening of an already weak teachers union, and the removal of the public from any real participation in any school-related decision making.  From the perspective of corporate education reformers, this must be seen as a huge success, as well as an ongoing, and unfinished struggle to completely eviscerate public schooling in St. Louis.  More on this below.

What has the SAB Done? Criminal Neglect, Incompetence, or Planned to Fail?
Dr. Adams said at both public forums (amid many other points and data) perhaps the most heart-wrenching thing about the trauma facing kids in these struggling schools, which run about 97% free and reduced lunch and confront the daily violence of poverty and lack of access to public services.  He made reference to the deaths of a number of students during this school year, and to the great impact this has in  the schools, alongside of the daily violences of poverty that children young and old must grapple with, inside and outside of schools.  This is why we have social workers and counselors in schools, or should.  But in these "high-need" schools, these needs are grossly underserved.  Paraphrasing, he said something to the effect of (have to check the notes): 'My trauma people are tapped out'.  He showed figures that in the most struggling schools the social workers had been cut to .2 or .3 time, meaning a day or two per week.  

My trauma people are tapped out
How did the schools get to such a situation?  Is this incompetence, immorality or mere criminal neglect?  Surely they will say, there is no money.  Yet, the cuts and downsizing have been part of the plan to bring schools to the point of failure.  Various local representatives of corporate-backed reform are all constantly tweeting that we need to think about the kids (and not listen to teachers, employees, the public, or the elected board).  Well, apparently nobody has been thinking about the kids in these schools over the past 6-7 years.  

Criminal neglect and democratic evisceration?
Under the prior elected board, at least schools were staffed with the basics - nurses, social workers, and the like.  What would you be thinking if you were sending your kids to a school with absolutely no (or close to nil) support system?  But, under the Slay/Danforth/SAB/corporate legacy, this is the situation that exists.  What kind of administrator or 'school board' who is really thinking about the kids cuts social workers in struggling schools to .2 or .3 time?  This seems to my untrained legal and moral sensibility some kind of grounds for a legal challenge and should be the cause of moral outrage.  

Yet because of the uproar over the outsourcing plan - and because public forums are quite rare and the media is firmly on board with the corporate elite –  the public has not been able to concentrate on, and discuss  issues like this.  When indeed might the public be able to sit in front of the SAB and ask, "What indeed have you been doing to get the schools in this situation?"  As we saw on twitter and at the forums, the corporate class will simply say, "your three minutes are up"  or, "thank you we will take that into consideration."  Democracy and participation have been eviscerated.  The public forums were a show.    

As below, many of the other data points in Dr. Adams' slide presentation were things that should have been remedied before. Their persistence after years of SAB control borders on criminal neglect.  Or, at least that's how I would see it if my kids were in one of those "high-need" schools.

What Else is in the "Plan" that the Public is Overlooking? The Control Model
The plan incorporates ideas from a pro-charter (i.e. pro-privatization) Harvard economist Roland Fryer. The main ideological thrust, though not clearly demonstrated to be good for students, schools, or communities, is to use 'charter school methods' to improve schools.  This means longer hours, more tutoring, more 'flexibility.'  (Note that the phrase "high dosage tutoring" which sounds like a medical injection for a patient, along with other phrases in the SLPS plan, come directly from Fryer's document).  Flexibility is of course a euphemism for hiring and firing at will. 

Tighten School Control, Ignore Wider Issues: The Incarceration Model
Even were these to bring improvements of some kind - when kids are doing that poorly, minimal improvements on test scores might not be that difficult, in the short term –  they imply the imposition of new techniques of student and school control aimed at the poorest members of our community.  This does not reflect an approach to improving schools and communities, but reflects the broader charter school mentality that dominates those focused on low-income communities.  It is a school-focused policing (a form of control, I don't mean actual "police") and discipline mentality:  apply more methods of control, more hours of work, more pressure on teachers, more restrictions on parents and community, more "rigor."  
From St Louis Post-Dispatch, April 3, 2014.
Certainly don't want to change society? 
Though ridiculed on twitter by a representative of the reformists, one community member at the forum invoked Exodus 1:13-14, to equate this focus on "rigor" with bondage and bitterness, not as quality.   
This is a new form of rigorous control implemented against the poorest of the poor, which does nothing to address their reality.  All of this sounds good to corporate bosses, but does absolutely nothing to address the deeper problems of our schools:  community rebuilding, public neglect, lack of jobs, poverty, and under employment created by a very skewed vision of growth imagined by those who wield the region's economic power.
"rigor and bondage" and "they made their lives bitter"
- a metaphor for the corporate plan?
(as per a speaker at the public forum)
(Exodus 1:13-14)

And, the real privatization that is happening: more charters
 Another major issue that everybody glossed over was the one line about the partnership with KIPP Charter schools in Dr. Adams' slides.  Nobody said anything, but KIPP plans to open (*corrected 4/8*) 1, up to 6 total in the next five years, new schools.  (*Note this was in fact announced in July of 2013, when the partnership was set to allow KIPP to have access to SLPS property, with the first school the former Mitchell Elementary, closed in  , will be the first. Stay tuned for more reflections on the charter expansion and the rather illogical argument that schools need to be closed so they can be reopened under new ownership.  On parent participation and charter governance, see the case of Grand Center.*)   A working hypothesis is that the corporate reformers/SAB do not ultimately think they can get away with outside vendor/private turnaround firms.  However, by reinforcing the idea of "failing" schools (despite the fact that this is basically a self-indictment of their own failure), they open space for more public acceptance of charters.   Sure enough, as I write, today's paper (strategically after the public forums are over) announces KIPP expansion plans in St. Louis. I foresee them saying, "Well, these schools have clearly failed, but we are not going to outsource them, but we really do need 6 or 8 new KIPP charter schools."  Note also that the Regional Business Council has just given KIPP $225,000 to help expand its programs.

Note: pro-charter advocates will say that charters are public schools.  (This is currently under debate in NY, where when it favors them, charters argue that they are not public, and change the argument when it suits them otherwise).  In any event, charters are a form of outsourcing, and outsourcing is a form of privatization of public goods, public control, and public accountability.  Whether or not some charters are successful is irrelevant to understanding this deeper political process that is underway.  I would wager that none of the children of the suit and tie wearing class at the breakfast at Central Library would consider enrolling their children in any of these KIPP schools.

Finally, if you can't blame it on teachers, then blame it all on a black man: Dr. Kelvin Adams
As a number of commenters at the forums attested, Dr. Adams is put forth as the one bearing the burden of this plan (The 'Adams Plan'), when in fact, he is no more its author than are the people of St. Louis.  However, when we talk about failure, as we should, the corporate reformers can surely point to this man, and say, well, we had hopes for Dr. Adams' plan, but it failed.  He failed.  Since it did, or rather, since he did, we must now turn to outside providers and more radical solutions.  The SAB was not good enough to achieve absolute control.  Enter outsourcing, charters, etc.  A deeply cynical politics of designed failure?  Manufactured crisis?  Dr. Adams bears responsibility to be sure, but not he alone.  He gets paid good money to be accountable, and to his credit he can often be heard saying "I will take care of it."  But there is a much bigger process going on that can not be reduced to a single employee of the SAB, Dr. Adams.  Nonetheless, from the perspective of the corporate reformers the logic appears to be: Make sure there is a black face up front to take the blame, and carry on.