Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Lesson of Detroit

Last week a group of children in Detroit, Michigan sued the governor, the state board of education, the superintendent of public instruction, the director of technology, management and budget, and the state school reform/redesign officer.

The lawsuit runs over 100 pages, but the table of contents provides a pretty clear outline of the argument:

1) Literacy is a fundamental right
2) The state of Michigan's role in securing educational rights (subheadings: it has one)
3) The failure to provide access to literacy in plaintiffs' schools
4) Failure to deliver evidence-based literacy instruction and intervention programs in plaintiffs' schools
5) Failure to ensure educational conditions necessary to attain literacy (including failure to provide course selection, to maintain a decent physical plant for education, to meet students' needs, to provide a supported and stable staff, and to demand accountability with charter and school closings).
6) The state's failure to implement evidence-based reforms to address literacy

The details and accounts of the state's failure is stunning, almost unimaginable, from a "lake" in a classroom cordoned off with tape to the math classes taught by an eighth grader for a month-- and that's not because nobody was paying attention, but because that was the solution the school came up with for their staffing issue.

A lot of outrage has been expressed as the lawsuit's details have spread, supported by photographs from many sources. Yesterday, columnist Nancy Kaffer tried to explain to Detroit Free Press readers what the suit was about and just how bad things are for the largely African-American student population of the five schools named in the suit. But here's the part of her piece that jumped out at me:

Detroit's traditional public school district (the former Detroit Public Schools, now the newly created Detroit Public Schools Community District) has operated under state oversight for most of the last 16 years. The schools haven't gotten better. Nor have schools removed from the old DPS and placed in the state reform district, the Educational Achievement Authority. Nor have, in aggregate, the charter schools that were supposed to offer parents better options (at the literal expense of traditional public schools) delivered on that promise. The State of Michigan played a strong hand in the creation of this three-part system, and so the suit argues that it is responsible for fixing it.

Michigan has run the entire table of reformster ideas-- takeover of the district, creation of an achievement district, and charter operators brought in to replace the publics. Detroit is now a reformy buffet. Moreover, Detroit should be a beautiful display of how well the various reformster policies work. Except that it isn't, because they don't.

Detroit is a case study in state authorities looking at a system in crisis and saying, "Let's try anything, as long as it doesn't involve actually investing money and resources in the children of Those People." Detroit has been a city in crisis for a while now, and that has allowed leaders to say, "We have a chance to fix education in this city and let some people make good money doing it. And if we can only get one of those things done, well, let's go with the money-making one."

When a crisis happens-- a hurricane hits, the bottom is ripped out of a local economic driver-- that opens up a gaping area of need in a state, officials can respond one of two ways. They can call on people of the state to rally, to provide aid and assistance to the affected communities. Or, they can try to build some sort of firewall between the affected communities and everyone else, try to insure that everyone else is protected from any effects, any cost created by the affected communities. The citizens of a state are like mountain climbers roped together and hanging onto the side of a precipice. When one loses his grip (either because of accident, weather conditions, or because he was pushed), the others can either try to haul him back up, risking trouble themselves, or they can cut the dangler loose. If they're extra cynical, they can sell the dangler an umbrella "to break his fall," and congratulate themselves on having saved him before they cut him loose.

Michigan's leaders have treated the tragedy and decline of Detroit as an opportunity to sell umbrellas. They have stripped poor non-white citizens of democratic processes, of their very voices, while stripping critical systems like education and water for parts. The ship has been sinking and Michigan's leaders have decided to fill the lifeboats with bundles of cash rather than human beings.

Michigan's leaders have had the chance to try just about anything with Detroit schools, and they have tried everything-- except actually trying. They are a rich relatively at the hospital telling the doctors taking care of their sick family member, "Do anything it takes. Well, anything that doesn't cost any more money."

I find it striking that the lawsuit uses the language of reformsters, from "educational rights" to "evidence-based," and I do hope the lawsuit has legs (similar lawsuits have not fared so well in the past). But like New Orleans, Detroit is a reminder that what some reformsters say ("Let's try creative new solutions to provide education") and what they actually do ("Let's avoid spending any money on Those People-- at least not any  that we can't at least recoup as revenue") are two different things.


  1. Peter,

    What are you and these plaintiffs talking about?

    According to Campbell Brown and "The 74", all is well in Detroit's "Brave New Charter/Choice Paradise." A couple months ago (July 2016), "The 74" responded to a similar takedown of Detroit schools from THE NEW YORK TIMES (from a:

    THE 74:

    "After a quick read of Kate Zernike’s recent article in The New York Times (“A Sea of Charter Schools in Detroit Leaves Students Adrift”) I thought for sure I was on the editorial page. Isn’t that where you’d expect to read advocacy pieces whose tiny kernels of truth lie hidden beneath distortions, exaggerations and misrepresentations?

    "We expect more from professional journalists. Detroit’s 115,000 school children, along with their parents, families, teachers, administrators, and education activists deserve better than the one-sided depiction offered by The Times.

    " ... the Times’ article leads one to believe the existence of charter public schools and school choice is somehow the cause of poor academic performance in the city. To the contrary, charter schools serve as life rafts for parents fed up with the historic and chronic failure of DPS, a system rife with graft, corruption and greed as too many adults have been literally stealing the futures of thousands of school children for decades.

    " ... "

    " The Times grossly distorts the academic performance of charter school students when compared to DPS students. The truth is, on average, when considering all grades and all subjects, proficiency on state standardized tests is higher for students in Detroit’s charter public schools than for students in DPS.

    "The article also misses the primary proof point from Stanford University’s 2015 CREDO study. This landmark study confirms that students in Detroit’s charter public schools are gaining an additional three months of learning per year when compared to their DPS counterparts. After a few years in a charter school environment, this really adds up to help kids achieve better outcomes.

    "The author also incorrectly asserts that Detroit charter schools utilize selective admissions, which is strictly prohibited by federal law. At the same time, 20 percent of DPS 'choice' schools actually do use testing results, a minimum GPA requirement, interviews and/or letters of recommendation to screen out undesirable lower-performing students.

    "In the end, this piece totally lacks objectivity and balance, especially when you consider that a large number of charter school critics are quoted in the story while not a single charter school supporter is quoted on the benefits of charters in Detroit.

    "The bottom line is that parents have the right to choose the best educational option for their children, and they deserve accurate information about school performance in order to make the right choices. It’s too bad parents in Detroit aren’t getting this from The New York Times."

    (The above piece was written by Gary G. Naeyaert, the executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project (GLEP), a non-profit advocacy organization supporting choice, quality, and accountability in public education. The Dick & Betsy DeVos Family Foundation is a funder of the Great Lakes Education Project and The 74.)

    Who are you going to believe?

    ... these plaintiffs? OR

    ... Campbell Brown, the actual protector and defender of both Detroit's schoolchildren and the rest of the 74 million children in U.S. schools?

  2. Thanks for an excellent piece. The lawsuit may or may not have legs, but several of the plaintiffs (and their actual, hidden agenda) bear watching. We who live in Michigan and are passionately hoping that Detroit's public school system is not taken off life support, are watching this lawsuit with skepticism. Some (not all) of the folks pushing for this have been in the spotlight for other, far less noble, "school activism."

    So--watching very very cautiously and not saying much.

    A couple of years ago, the MI ACLU filed a similar suit, claiming that the Highland Park schools had failed to teach children to read. (Highland Park has been dissolved, kids dispersed to charters and open-enrollment publics--another trick that the legislature and governor have made possible.) I am a huge fan of MI ACLU, but until I see what the remedies, solutions and reparations look like, it's hard to believe that taking these things to court is the right plan. In the Highland Park case, the judges held that there was no right to learn to read in the constitution. Done.

  3. The galling point about the DoEd is the phony claim to a commitment to the well being of the children and youth of our country. Leaders within the world of social services, public education (including higher education) are gifted in writing noble speeches and policies and then hanging students out to dry while they themselves actually rake in the dough. Their disdain and disgust for business enterprise as inherently and crassly greed driven is a smokescreen for the actual greed and self-interest they display in their actions and words.

    They even make a point of expressing their concern for the dire straits of the most vulnerable population whom you regularly refer to as Those People.

    These same people claim to abhor racism in all its forms.

    They abhor racism, greed and self-interest. Just ask them, starting with Arne Duncan, and including mayors like Rahm Emanuel.

  4. It's all well and good to say the solution is Mo Money, except there is no big untapped pot of dough to be had. The economy of Michigan, like a lot of industrial states has had virtually no growth since the millennium, so there's no new taxpayer to tap. Add the cost of generous pensions and you have a problem from hell.

    1. No untapped pot of dough is right. The rich have tapped all the pots. You seem okay with that.

    2. Quite right.

      The Rich have all the money and pay none of the taxes,
      The Middle-Classes do all of the work and pay all of the taxes,
      And the Poor are there to scare the daylights out of the Middle-Classes.