The public schools in St. Louis City are struggling to meet the needs of students, maintaining enrollment numbers, and retaining teachers. Additionally, there is low confidence and little investment in the public education system. This research asks public school leaders from district and charter schools to chart the system leading to these challenges with the goal of developing a vision for long-term interventions that fosters an ideal system for students. This study asks the question, “What is the system structure underlying challenges for public schools in St. Louis and how can it be restructured to foster a sustainable system of schools that leads to academic growth and well-being in students?” Using a method called System Dynamics (Forrester, 1968) with Community Based System Dynamics (Hovmand, 2014), this research resulted in a concept model of the current system.
Two community based system dynamics (Hovmand, 2014) group model building workshops were conducted with 17 school leaders from the local district and charter schools systems in St. Louis City. School leaders were asked to define the variables and causal relationships that lead to and result from decreasing enrollment, teacher retention, and student needs being met across all public schools in the city. Qualitative causal loop diagrams were created together through a group model building process. The model was then translated into a system dynamics (Forrester, 1969) stock and flow concept model.
A conceptual model was developed based on maps from participatory group model building workshops with school leaders. The model demonstrates several concurrent feedback loops contributing to the behavior of the system. 1) Concentration of Students with Complex Needs - academic gaps drive fewer enrollments of students from families with the resources to leave the public and charter school system, leading to a higher concentration of students with academic gaps. 2) Teacher Retention - the demand on teachers to reduce academic gaps with a dwindling budget drives teacher stress and turnover, increasing the demand on remaining teachers. 3) Meeting the Needs of the Whole Child - Teachers are tasked to help students meet academic goals while supplementing instruction with wraparound support and the time required to support pull-outs, creating additional strain on teachers to fill gaps. 4) The Systemic Cost of New Schools - The demand for new schools to address academic gaps increases the number of schools in the system, raising the system-wide cost of school operations, buildings, and overhead for a dwindling number of students.
Conclusions and Implications
The model, as defined by school leaders, depicts a set of reinforcing mechanisms that are driving the public school system into an accelerating decline. Understanding the student and parent perspective will be necessary to supplement a fuller understanding of the system. Implications for policy are that coordinated intervention will be required to change the trajectory of this system. Many of these loops operate with significant delays, so the effects of interventions will require patience and the acknowledgement that system behavior may get worse before it gets better.