Reinventing Public Schools

Jun 22, 2011

What is perhaps most remarkable about Governor Rick Snyder’s dramatic plan to save the state’s failing schools is that it has sparked essentially no opposition. Though it is being talked about primarily in terms of Detroit, the new Educational Achievement System is eventually meant to be extended statewide.

Here’s how the governor says it will work. Those individual Detroit schools among the lowest-achieving five percent in the state will have the coming year to clean up their act. If they haven’t shown drastic improvement by next June, they will no longer be governed by the Detroit Public School system.

Instead, they will move to a new authority, the Educational Achievement System, which will be run by what sounds like a state school board. It will be chaired, at least for now, by Roy Roberts, the Detroit Public Schools’ Emergency Financial Manager, and consist of eleven members. Seven will be appointed by the governor, two by the Detroit schools and two by Eastern Michigan University.

Eastern, which was originally a teachers’ college, will be heavily involved in both running the new authority, and in helping these failing skills get up to speed. It is suspected that some of them struggled in part because of difficulties dealing with the notorious and often corrupt or incompetent Detroit school bureaucracy.

Supposedly, the new Educational Achievement System won’t just replace one set of officials with another; it should give individual schools and teachers and principals more freedom to figure out and solve their own educational problems, using whatever works.

Within a few years, the plan is to extend the authority’s reach to other failing public schools around the state. Now, there are a lot of questions for which we apparently don’t yet have answers.

For example, what if one of these failing schools still fails to improve under the new authority? What happens then? There are also questions about union contracts and how they would work and be transferred to what would be a new employer.

However, the state has several months to work all that out. This governor seems clearly to be a pragmatist, concerned first, last and always with what will work. There’s no doubt that the Detroit Public Schools are failing to educate a vast number of students, and the governor is trying to fix that.

This country achieved the greatness that it did in large part because of universal, free, and community-based public education.

That’s a tradition as old as Abraham Lincoln walking long distances to primitive one-room schoolhouses, and the immigrants  who landed at Ellis Island and whose kids went to New York schools with names like PS 137, and went on to learn English and sometimes, become literary titans like Irving Howe, or, like David Sarnoff, build and run huge corporate empires.

That classical model clearly doesn’t work any longer, at least not in many places, and the governor’s plan is an attempt to reinvent public education and make it work for the modern era.

There are bound to be some bugs in the new Educational Assessment System. There always are. And as the governor has acknowledged, reforms won’t mean much if the students’ parents, or their equivalents, aren’t dedicated to their kids’ education as well.

But all of us need to hope this succeeds.