Wednesday, February 22, 2017

On Education: Experience and Ideology (Part 2)

In September 2003, a friend called and suggested I look at an ad in the newspaper. St. Louis Public Schools was looking for a director of communications.

For the three previous moths, the school district had been in about as complete upheaval as could be imagined. The reform majority on the school board hired a New York management consulting firm that specialized in massive restructurings to run the district. The day the firm arrived to take over, the school district disclosed that it had a huge budget deficit (illegal under Missouri law). By the time I saw the newspaper ad, more than 700 people in the central administration office had been dismissed (think about that number for a moment), bus and cafeteria services had been outsourced, school closings were underway, and curriculum changes were being implemented wholesale.

You can imagine the headlines. The protests. Parents up in arms. District employees up in arms. Teachers doing wildcat strikes. The non-reform minority on the board leaking school board discussions to the media. School board meetings that were borderline riots (a “good” meeting, one administrator told me, was one where fewer than five people were arrested).

My entire experience had been in corporate communications. What did I know about urban public education?

I applied for the job. I was one of 10 people selected for interviews. All 10 candidates were told to arrive at the same time. We sat in a conference, and were called out one by one about every 10 minutes. Looking around the table, I could see I was (2) the oldest, (b) one of four whites, and (c) the only male. I was called last.

Three people comprised the interview panel – the administrative vice president to whom the communications job reported, the acting superintendent (from the management firm), and one of the management firm consultants. They followed the standard behavioral interviewing script until, without warning, the acting superintendent threw the script up in the air and yelled, “Why the hell do you want this job?”

My answer must have been sufficient. An hour later I found out I was hired, and needed to be at a teacher focus group that afternoon. The job would start the next morning. When I walked in at 8 a.m., I found out that two television stations and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch were waiting for interviews – about the teacher sickout that was underway. When I asked who on the staff could give me information and a position statement, the secretary said the superintendent was at a breakfast and the other key staff people had left the building, because they were afraid I would ask them to be interviewed. “You’ll have to wing it,” she said. An hour later, I was told that there was no communications budget – it had been eliminated as a cost-saving measure (the year before it had been $1 million+).

Every day produced multiple crises. A school board member got into an argument with a high school principal than almost came to blows. Another school board member attached an administrator. A school experienced food poisoning, blamed on the outsourced contractor. And then there were the usual incidents associated with an urban school district.

I think I have some insight into what it must be like working at the Trump White House.

I visited most of the schools in the district. I was constantly talking with teachers, principals, central office staffers, parents, and news media. I attended school board meetings packed with 400 people inside and more than 2,000 outside. I saw teachers who were performing daily miracles with no resources, and teachers who were showing up simply to get a paycheck and a pension. I attended public meetings of the teachers union, because it was inevitable I’d need to respond for the district.

I learned a lot. Perhaps I learned too much. But one lesson that stuck with me was to be aware of a certain phrase. If you heard anyone say “But it’s for the children,” you knew that it wasn’t about the children at all, but about some other agenda. (I’ve also learned the same is true for the school district I live in; this may be a universal truth.)

So when I see what just happened during the Betsy DeVos confirmation hearings in Washington, I have a reaction based on the experiences in my own school district, which I described last week, and the experiences I had with St. Louis Public Schools.

When its contract expired, the management firm wasn’t rehired. The harsh things it did – school closings, layoffs, contract outsourcing – likely saved the district financially. A couple of years later, the Missouri Department of Education removed the district’s state accreditation and appointed a board to run the district. Within just the past few months, the district once again became accredited.

Charter schools (and a voluntary transfer program involving the suburban school districts) have had an impact on St. Louis Public Schools. Yes, they’ve siphoned funds away. But they’ve also forced the district to compete, consolidate, and improve academics.

Children in the inner city deserve far better school systems than they’ve been given.


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