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Education Opinion

Can Anything Save Detroit Schools?

By Walt Gardner — May 27, 2015 1 min read
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The usual solution offered by corporate reformers for turning around failing schools is competition. Faced with the threat of losing students, teachers will rise to the occasion to make their school so appealing that parents will continue to enroll their children. But that hasn’t happened in Detroit (“Detroit Fatigue,” Dome, May 15).

Four emergency managers have been unable to reverse plummeting enrollment and control the district’s debt. In 2000, Detroit Public Schools had 167,085 students. Today they have 47,238. Meanwhile, the deficit has ballooned to $170 million, with the district owing $53 million to the state pension system.

Charter schools haven’t been a panacea. In fact, they’ve posted worse test scores than the state average in every area, with the exception of social studies, where they tied. If competition were indeed the answer, then there should be a significant difference in performance. But there isn’t. Detroit is not alone. The most comprehensive study of charter school performance relative to traditional public schools found that 83 percent of charter schools perform either worse or no better than traditional schools.

The Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren unveiled a plan in March calling for the state to assume some of the district’s debt and for students to be educated by a new entity called the City of Detroit Education District. I fail to see how the latter recommendation will do much. Detroit has a large low-income population. What can the new district do to educate students that the old district has not been able to do?

Although attention has been focused on schools in Detroit, it’s important to note that they’re not the only ones failing to meet expectations in the state (“Suburban Detroit schools underperform,” Detroit News, May 15). A new study by the Pacific Research Institute that looked at 677 Michigan public schools with less than 33 percent of students classified as low income found 316 or 47 percent had half or more of their students unable to meet proficiency on the 2013 Michigan Educational Assessment Program or the Michigan Merit Exam.

I don’t doubt that poverty plays an inordinate role in student performance. But the evidence at least in Michigan indicates that even middle-class students aren’t exactly excelling. What’s going on there?

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.