How to begin to stop the decline of Detroit's schools

This commentary was published in the Detroit Free Press on 11/04/15.

 
It’s that time of year again. I’m frustrated. I’m worn out and worn down. The onset of winter and dwindling daylight always mess with my emotional equilibrium. But Mother Nature isn’t to blame for my chilly mood. 

Allen Tonya

Tonya Allen, president & CEO of The Skillman Foundation

Announced last week, the bleak news about student performance in Detroit Public Schools has become an all-too-familiar and numbing element of the season, and something that Detroiters dread. For the fourth time in a row, Michigan’s biggest city ranked dead last among urban school districts that took part in the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam.

As if that weren’t discouraging enough, Detroiters were also warned last week by the state treasurer that DPS – which has been managed from Lansing for the past several years – could be insolvent by spring.

Charter schools in Detroit, for the most part, have also failed to provide viable choices for parents seeking quality opportunities for their children. The news last week that the U.S. Department of Education turned down the state’s request for a $45-million grant to expand charter schools should surprise nobody.

DPS apologists and charter demagogues alike ignore how poorly each sector has served Detroit schoolchildren, and, predictably, have taken to the airwaves and Twittersphere to spout self-serving and oft-repeated bromides that only feed the dysfunction. Tis the season.

The perpetual malaise in the Detroit education ecosystem is why a diverse group of unlikely allies came together nearly a year ago to form the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren. Seven months ago, after working intensely for 100 days, the Coalition published its Choice Is Ours report, which laid out a comprehensive plan to make quality schools the new norm for Detroit families.

Key findings focused rightly on solving the most-pressing issues holding Detroit schoolchildren back. Some of them include:  

  • Principals and teachers make or break a school, and we’ve got to support them and build successful schools around them.
  • A DPS financial solution is only part of the answer. We need a different kind of DPS to emerge that is lean and focused on academics, that has fewer administrators, that does a better job of training teachers, and that ramps up early literacy efforts to ensure all students are reading proficiently by the end of 3rd grade;
  • All schools should be held to the same high standard of excellence, but given the freedom to decide how to get there;
  • School choice, and local control, should be protected;
  • And, finally, the establishment of a new nonpartisan entity, the Detroit Education Commission, to be an organizer of citywide services for all students, and to bring much-needed coordination for the opening and closing of schools across the city.

These initial pragmatic steps would put Detroit on the long road back to excellence. For Detroit schoolchildren to reach their destination there needs to be continued leadership well beyond the triage phase of the work. Getting on that difficult road is the only way to bring about the badly needed education transformation for Detroit kids – when high-performing schools once again are the norm. 

To accomplish this transformation, we have to be focus on making real change:

  • Give schools the authority to make real decisions about their budgets and staff, and then hold them accountable to high expectations;
  • Hold parents and students accountable too for doing their part. That means kids show up every day, do their homework, and enthusiastically participate in their school communities;
  • Ensure that all schools are held to high standards, and close the low-performing schools that shortchange schoolchildren and families;
  • We need all hands on deck to help create the conditions that make Detroit a place where teachers want to work, and we need to develop and retain the most-capable teachers.
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Sustaining Detroit’s historic turnaround requires all of us to pull together to bring the city’s schools back to national prominence. We can do this. We can once again make November gloominess all about November weather. 

Tonya Allen, one of five co-chairs of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, is president & CEO of the Skillman Foundation. The Choice Is Ours report is available here.

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