Saturday, March 24, 2007

Historic Moment for St. Louis School System

The Missouri State Board of Education made an historic decision this week to takeover the St. Louis Public School System

Report from CNN

State of Missouri Votes to Take Over St. Louis School System

I am happy with this decision. It was something that was long overdue. SOMETHING had to be done to break the culture of failure and corruption in the St. Louis Public School system. The St. Louis Public school system requires a massive overhaul...sweeping fundamental changes, not cosmetic fixes. The fundamental changes that are needed require outside intervention.

The St. Louis Public School system has been haunted by corruption, mismanagement, and a culture of poor performance & low expectations for far too long. Many of the officials on the School Board and many of the school administrators were incompetent. The Mayor of the City, Francis Slay, wanted to deal with these issues, but he had little power to do so. The position of Mayor in the City of St. Louis is weak in terms of actual power. The Mayor has no control over many of the City's governmental institutions.....including the Police Board and the School Board (among other things).

In recent years the School system went from one Superintendent to another. Micromanagement and thuggery from the School Board prevented many of the Superintendents from being effective. It is a system that needs fundamental change. However, any kind of proposed change was always met by resistance from the School Board and by the Teachers Union. The Teachers Union seemed to be interested in keeping the status quo of failure, low expectations, poor performance and no accountability. The Teachers Union fought back any effort to hold teachers to higher standards, and worked in concert with the School Board to prevent anyone from coming in and turning the school district around. This situation led to a culture of corruption and failure that no one seemed to be able to break.

An outside consultant group was even brought in a few years ago to try to make fundamental improvements, but that didn't even work. The consultant group was also stonewalled by the Teachers Union and the School Board. However, the consultant group did manage to uncover, for all to see, a level of mismanagement and corruption that is best described as obscene. It basically showed that the St. Louis Public school system was a free-for-all for many many years....with no one really in charge and no one being held accountable. Teachers were having social get-togethers, and calling them "official school business" and charging the food and beverage costs to the school district account. They eventually ran up a tab of a half a million dollars. That is just one story of many. There are also safety issues (in some schools... gang activity and violence are so common that it is the norm), making it hard for the serious students to learn. Student attendance, grade inflation, kickbacks, low teacher pay and a lack of well trained teachers, crumbling schools, and all sorts of other problems also plagued the district. Most of the good teachers leave the district for suburban schools when they get the chance, because students (and parents) are often not held accountable in city schools, and there tends to be fewer disciplinary problems in the burbs. Plus the pay is much better....for less headache.

Do you recall the movie Lean on Me with Morgan Freeman as Joe Clark? This is the reality in many of the schools in the city of St. Louis. Same issues, different time.

Now the incompetent School Board (which was never able to get anything done because of infighting and personal interests of the members) has finally been shut down. Locally they were a news spectacle. It seemed as though every week or two you would hear another crazy story about the St. Louis School Board. I think the leaders of the School Board actually liked the media attention and kept whipping up drama.

Superintendents (some of them good) were constantly fired or threatened with being fired. Whenever a Superintendent wanted to make fundamental changes to improve the district and wanted to improve teacher standards and teacher performance, they were always fired by the School Board, usually with the support of the Teachers Union, which was fighting to protect bad teachers and poor standards...the status quo....although this was detrimental to the students. Approximately 4 Superintendents met that fate over the last 7 or 8 years or so. The outside consultant group was also told to leave and many of its recommendations were ignored. The School district built such a bad reputation that for a while, no one wanted the job of Superintendent. Now the School Board can BS around all they want... they have no more power after June of this year. A 3 member State governing board will take over at that time. The board will consist of an appointee of the Mayor, an appointee of the Governor, and an appointee of the President of the City's Board of Alderman. The State Board will control the St. Louis School system for at least 6 years.

But no matter what changes the State puts in place (and they will be making changes), not much will change without more involvement from parents. The management of the school district is only half the battle. Many of the parents of St. Louis Public school students don't have control of their children and are not involved in their children's education (many don't care and don't want to be bothered with it). This is the same kind of problem seen in urban school districts across the country. It would be nice if the State could pass a law that would compel parents to be more active in their childs education, and to participate in school meetings, etc.

The State meeting almost became a riot. The students, likely encouraged to act up by some of the Teachers (and the Teacher Union) and by a few former Board members, almost tore the place up when things did not go their way. The meeting was held in the Missouri State Capital. For the past several days, adults had been feeding a lot of misinformation to the students (particularly the Juniors and Seniors) regarding the worth of their diplomas and their ability to enter college...when at the end of the day, this was not a major issue. However it was part of why students were so fired up (which was what some of the adults involved wanted).

After watching these videos, I get a better understanding of what teachers must go through in the classroom everyday. No wonder there is an exodus of teachers from City schools. It is clear that many of these students have no good parental guidance in their lives. They have no sense of bounderies or a sense of right from wrong. This has led to a culture of bad behavior. And instead of correcting unruly behavior, many of the parents support it and work against the teachers. This is why there has been a breakdown in discipline. Teachers have to be scared of the students. If you look at the video (second video) you hear one of the adults saying "he didn't do anything". Evidently she must not have seen the young man shove the State Capital Police officer.

This was supposed to be a "Civil Disobedience" protest. But I don't think some of these kids really understood what that meant. "Civil Disobedience" is passive....not in shoving, etc.

This incident just makes the City of St. Louis look bad....especially the St. Louis Public Schools (as if it needed anything else to make it look bad). In an ironic sort of way, this incident only supports the State takeover, because it shows that the city has students who appear out of control...or uncontrollable....which is in fact part of the problem.

The City of St. Louis is out of control in many ways. The urban blight, the poor schools, the crime, and the bad parenting are all things that have exacerbated the city's problems.

Watch the Video of the State Board Meeting

Watch unedited portion of the protest, where things get ugly

Additional Sources for This Report

From the New York Times

From the Guardian


Anonymous said...

I am a special education teacher for some twenty years in the St. Louis Public Schools. While I agree that there has been a longstanding pattern of administrative mismanagement, parental apathy or direct hostility, and a culture of low expectations; I take exception to the comment that...'the good teachers eventually leave.' Some of us are DEDICATED URBAN EDUCATORS WHO WANT TO BE HERE. THIS IS WHERE WE ARE NEEDED. For many years I have communicated the need for reasonable discipline, and higher expectations both academically and behaviorally. I also realize that the teachers have not only no say in any decisions, including those involving curriculum selection and discipline; but they have been routinely undermined by parents, the press and administrators. Our children face many more obstacles to effective learning than children from more affluent and economically stable homes. In the past--the politicians--Mayor Slay included--DID NOT CARE. SLAY HIMSELF ORCHESTRATED SCHOOL BOARD MEMBERS WHO BROUGHT IN THE TURNAROUND TEAM YOU BRIEFLY MENTIONED, ALVAREZ & MARSAL. This turnaround team closed alternative schools for profoundly emotionally disturbed youth, and handed over their education to a private company with no professional credentials. You spoke of several 'facts' but you cited no official sources. Consequently, your credibility is doubtful at best. It is perfectly fair to hold those who were in positions of authority to make decisions--accountable. The teachers had no authority. To hold teachers accountable for decisions over which they had no input is not only unfounded, but unsound. Perhaps before you judge the teachers; you should actually witness more than a few videos.
As for the state takeover; I would offer this thought--why did the state have to disenfranchise the voters to address needed change? Why couldn't the state have offered assistance to teachers in 'the trenches?' Why couldn't the state have challenged the tax abatements which robbed the district of badly needed funds to retain qualified teachers? Why didn't the media ask these questions? More attention was paid to the taxpayer funded baseball stadium. Again, more corporate welfare at the expense of our children. I find your reflections to be highly biased and lacking in any credible sources. I agree, SOMETHING HAD TO BE DONE. WHY MUST THIS MANTRA USUALLY JUSTIFY AN UNJUST AND UNWISE SET OF ACTIONS. SOMEDAY I WILL WRITE A BOOK OF MY EXPERIENCES, AND THEN MAYBE YOU WILL LEARN---SOMETHING.


Brian said...

I just want to clear a couple of things up (i'll try at least).

You said:
I take exception to the comment that...'the good teachers eventually leave.' Some of us are DEDICATED URBAN EDUCATORS WHO WANT TO BE HERE. THIS IS WHERE WE ARE NEEDED.

I tried to be careful with some of my words...

What I stated was "most" do leave. A lot of the young teachers... (from what I have gathered from other people in that field) start off in the SLPS...but after they get their full credentials, get some experience under their belts, or after they get fed up with the system there.... they move to one of the better county school districts...where the pay is also higher. Or they find another field.

I did not mean to offend the good dedicated career teachers in the SLPS. I know they are out there...working hard every school day. I see them as victims of this mess as well.

I know they don't have the power to deal with the problems. That's why I focused my displeasure on the administrators and the school board. They make the policies that guide the district. And they are also often the obstacles to progress...obstacles to fixing many of the problems.

I have always thought that the best approach might be a bottom up approach where the teachers play a bigger role in developing policy....rather than a top down approach primarily from the school board and superintendent. The teachers are often in the best position to know what the kids needs are, to know what the problems are and how to deal with those problems. I hope the new 3-member State board consults with veteran teachers like yourself(from across the St. Louis area) to help them turn the school system around.

And regarding the eroding city tax base...which impacts the Public schools... yes... the tax breaks for the companies (money that could be spent on improving schools) might be a problem. But then again... the problem of the eroding tax base did not start with the construction of the ballpark, ballpark village, etc. This has been going on for 20,30+ years starting with White Flight. The same problem that effects public schools in urban communities across the country.

Mayors of cities like Detroit, St. Louis, etc... are in a tough position. As they try to revitalize their cities... they are in a situation where they must attract businesses to come in. Often the only way to do that is to offer tax breaks. But in the long run... I think these deals are more positive than negative. (in many cases anyway)... because the new businesses, often bring residual business and revenue into the city... such as more sales tax as a result of more people visiting those businesses and renting homes near these new developments.

I think the Federal government should do more to improve some of these inner city schools. I think teachers should be paid more and deserve more respect...especially from parents and students.

But I stand by my statements regarding bad teachers (and SLPS being sort of a haven for them). I try to make a distinction between the good teachers and the bad ones.
I am sure you recall the RFT article regarding the teachers awarding A's and B's to students who are not even in class???????
Here is the link to the report.

There have also been a few other issues with bad teachers in the SLPS. I am not just making these things up as you suggested.

However, I have nothing but respect for the good veteran teachers who keep going to work everyday because they feel they have a mission... (knowing that they could probably earn more money elsewhere...but continue to stick with their mission for the students).

Although I do hope that the Teachers Union could be revamped... with some more progressive leadership... that could be more flexible...more willing to compromise in order to get things done, etc. The Teachers Union in place now seems to be overly concerned with protecting the status quo (including protecting bad teachers and the culture of low expectations, corruption, poor behavior of students and teachers, etc). The backbone of that culture has to be broken if progress is to be made.