How CSAP Works

The Philadelphia Inquirer’s nice piece of investigative reporting into violence in Philadelphia Public Schools rightly exposes CSAP-  Comprehensive Student Assistance Process-as not working to address the needs of students.  Interviews with those on the front lines of education- teachers, principals, students and parents- paint a portrait of CSAP as a “fiction,” “imaginary” and a “paper shuffle.”  While this is all true, just calling CSAP broken misses the stunningly ironic utility of CSAP. It misses how it does work and for that matter works very well.

One indicator of CSAP’s incredible success is its almost exponential growth in the school district over the last few years, to the point where almost a third of the city’s students are currently in some stage of CSAP.  At its current rate of growth one does not have to look too far down the road to see the day when all of the city’s students will be enrolled in the program.  Somehow a program that does not work to address the needs of students is spreading like wildfire the district.   This is because it is working.  Here’s how.

The school district does not have anywhere near the resources to address the needs of it students, many who bring problems associated with living in poverty to school each day.  This is probably no big secret to anyone in the schools.  Despite this inconvenient truth, the school district does have to appear to address students’ needs.  Enter CSAP.

Teachers fill out a mountain of paperwork to get students support and services.  The forms leads to more forms, more meetings, different levels and tiers, and still yield no services (don’t forget, there really aren’t any).   For their part, the services have been cut drastically, strategically leaving only a skeleton crew to fill out forms and paperwork necessary to cover the very fact that there are no services.  In this upside down world CSAP does not yield support and services because it is the support and services.  Students’ needs get addressed on paper, a medium where everything works.

For their part, teachers who try to summit the paper that is Mount CSAP for their students soon learn that many of the forms and checklists point back to them as providing the support and services.   Did you try these twenty interventions?  Did you develop this learning plan?  Did you?… The list goes on and on to the point where teachers often end up throwing in the towel and doing the best they can to help the student on their own.  And yet the onerous paperwork has done more than exhaust them, it has also framed them as the weak link in a system in which the only thing that works is paperwork.  As one teacher in the district poignantly put it to me, CSAP is like “putting  a band-aid on a gunshot wound” in the sense that it addresses students needs by covering them up with paper.

CSAP works- just not for students.