Education Opinion

Takeover of Detroit Schools

By Walt Gardner — June 29, 2011 2 min read

The news that the 39 lowest-performing schools in the Detroit school system will be placed under the authority of the newly formed Education Achievement System starting in the 2012-13 school year was greeted as a long overdue step (“State Authority to Run Worst Schools in Detroit and Michigan,” Education Week, June 20).

But before applauding the strategy, we need to examine what has happened in other cities that have attempted to turn around their failing schools through similar means.
I wrote about this subject in a Commentary for Education Week (“When States Seize Schools: A Cautionary Tale”, June 13, 2007). Certain facts are worth repeating because of the striking parallels with Detroit’s situation.

In 1989, New Jersey became the first state to assume full control of a local district when it seized the reins of schools in Jersey City. Paterson and Newark followed in short order. The reason was the abysmal academic performance of students and fiscal mismanagement.

Instead of creating the equivalent of the Education Achievement System, New Jersey in all three cities replaced the superintendent, central-office administrators and local school board members, and granted broad powers to a new superintendent. But contrary to expectations, the moves were widely considered as hostile takeovers. That’s because residents deeply resented replacing locally elected officials with interlopers.

Whether residents of Detroit will react the same way is hard to predict. But what is highly likely is that test scores will improve slightly just as they did in the three cities in New Jersey. Reformers will then tout the small rise as evidence of the success of the strategy. This is always a Pyrrhic victory in my opinion, but apparently not so in the eyes of others.

In 1993, California intervened in the Compton school district for similar reasons. Test scores had plummeted and the district was about $20 million in the red. But despite the existence of the state’s management assistance team, which is widely considered to be the model in this specialized field, little progress was made. Nevertheless, in 2001 the state returned control to local officials.

In 2002, New York state seized control of the Roosevelt school district on Long Island after it posted appalling test scores and ran up financial deficits. As in New Jersey, local leaders and residents were bitterly opposed to the takeover, but their opinions were ignored. Predictably, test scores improved only slightly even after five years, despite the infusion of $6 million a year in additional aid.

If the experiences elsewhere are any guide, reformers are promising far more than they can deliver in Detroit. That’s because all of the troubled districts are overwhelmingly composed of poor students. Unless steps are taken to address the deficits that they bring to class through no fault of their own, merely substituting one level of government for another is not the answer.

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.

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