Education
12:44 pm
Mon February 3, 2014

The long road ahead for Detroit education reform

Benchmark: Schools

Ana Rosa Cabrera joined several moms in a classroom at Bennett Elementary for a Zumba session one morning earlier this month. The moms stretched and danced as their instructor, a Spanish-speaking ball of energy dressed in fluorescent greens, directed them in merengue-like maneuvers from a DVD playing on a TV screen.

Exercise finished, Cabrera collected her four-year-old son, Diego, who had been scribbling on a chalkboard, and headed down the hall. A workshop had started in the library about HighScope, a nationally-recognized preschool program.

Last year, the nonprofit Detroit Works Project collected more than 70,000 surveys from city residents and concluded that the best way to resurrect city schools, and perhaps the city itself, was to enlarge schools into community centers offering all manner of services and job training.

Bennett Elementary, in heavily Hispanic southwest Detroit, is one such place.

Like schools across the city, many of Bennett's students are poor, their test scores generally below the state average.

Like schools across the city, many of Bennett’s students are poor, their test scores generally below the state average. Principal Josette Buendia said offering community programs is one way to get students invested in their education. Indeed, student attendance is high at Bennett. “Students see parents here and they know obviously school’s an important place to be,” Buendia said.

For more than a generation, nobody has been able to improve citywide performance at Detroit’s public schools.

Not the state, which stripped the school board of its authority and has run the Detroit Public Schools district for 12 of the last 15 years. Not the mayor, who the state also stripped of power in 2013, putting the city in the hands of an emergency manager. And not Detroit residents, most of whom now send their children to mediocre or academically struggling charter schools to avoid DPS.

The scores were so low and so far behind the scores of other participating large cities that it seemed as if Detroit's students had just blindly guessed at the answers. Scores have increased only marginally since.

  In 2009, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called Detroit “ground zero” for public education, worse than New Orleans, a town destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. That was the year Detroit’s public schools recorded the worst scores in the history of the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, known as the Nation’s Report Card. The scores were so low and so far behind the scores of other participating large cities that it seemed as if Detroit’s students had just blindly guessed at the answers. Scores have increased only marginally since.

So after years of reform, Detroit now has three struggling systems – Detroit Public Schools, the state reform district known as the Education Achievement Authority (EAA), and dozens of charter schools.

Improving these schools will be critical to virtually every aspect of Detroit’s recovery – gaining population, attracting new business, and job and revenue gains.

Just as Mayor Duggan aims to improve city services in the next six months, experts say steps can be taken now to restore trust in Detroit’s schools. The program at Bennett is but one idea.

In the months ahead, Bridge will be monitoring Detroit’s schools for initiatives that improve teaching and learning. That’s a task not only for Detroit leaders, but for the state as well. For instance, the Legislature is now developing a statewide system for educator evaluation. If done right, this system will better identify teachers’ strengths and weaknesses and give them the training and support they need to improve in the classroom. The real test then will be whether city and state leaders use this information to ensure more high-performing teachers are steered to low-income schools, to teach the students who need help most.

Bridge will look for examples of smart innovation, including continuing education that focuses on training students and adults for jobs in Detroit’s growing economy. DPS, for instance, now holds night classes where adults receive training for jobs in the construction trades. By the fall, a new vocational training program is planned for high school students to get job training and associate degrees.

“When we restore the public trust that we are not only capable, but we are in fact providing children with a great education, then that will also contribute to Duggan’s goal of having Detroit’s population increase by 2017,” said John Covington, chancellor for the EAA.

David Arsen, a Michigan State University professor of K-12 educational administration, is among those calling for more money for city schools, noting that it costs more to educate low-income children who generally begin school well behind their more affluent, suburban peers.

Excellent Schools Detroit, a nonprofit, said leaders’ failure to collaborate on education in the city has created an oversupply of underpopulated schools and some neighborhoods lacking a single high-performing school. ESD also recommends that Detroit create a single k-12 transportation system similar to that in Washington, D.C., that would bus students regardless of whether they attend DPS, an EAA school or a charter.

Ultimately, the real test of education reform is whether students improve in Detroit classrooms. Are more students finishing high school prepared for college or career? Are more students taking Advanced Placement tests? Are students who go on to community college or universities actually graduating and landing jobs?

Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington in Seattle, who visited Detroit earlier this month, said she wants to see a greater focus on raising expectations; creating the kind of no-excuses culture that produces results, even in low-income schools.

During her visit, Lake said she got the feeling that too many Detroiters had become desensitized to failing schools. “People took for granted that the schools are going to be bad and improvement would be slow,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be that way.”

*This story originally appeared in Bridge Magazine

Support for the Detroit Journalism Cooperative on Michigan Radio comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Renaissance Journalism's Michigan Reporting Initiative, and the Ford Foundation.