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What’s the Matter With Detroit Schools? Pt. I

By Nancy Flanagan — February 20, 2016 4 min read
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Three years ago, in February of 2013, I spent five days at a conference around social justice, in Detroit. I wrote the next three blogs on what I saw and what I learned. I went back and re-read them today, in light of the recent events in Detroit. Have things gotten better in Detroit--or worse? Here (and over the next few days) are the edited blogs from 2013. Things have not gotten better, at all, under the most recent Emergency Manager, Darnell Earley (who also had a hand in the Flint water crisis).

In addition to the lockstep teaching to the tests, the teachers have posted horrifying pictures of dirty, unsafe buildings on social media. Their own Emergency Manager threated them when they called in sick to stage a protest--and told them they had a professional duty to snitch if they overheard planning for additional sickouts. The legislature’s going after them, too. Here’s the view from 2013:

You’ve probably seen the fun--and enlightening--meme/hashtag:#FirstWorldProblems.

Running out of hot water after a 10-minute shower? First world problem.

Can’t get the book you’re dying to read on Kindle? First world problem. And so on.

Most of our American problems end up being first world problems, including those in education. If you want proof, think back to the faces of children in Haiti after a devastating hurricane season, when makeshift schools were finally organized and they could spend part of their day sitting on benches, learning, with dozens of other children. Puts being reassigned to a portable in perspective, doesn’t it?

However. I just spent the last five days in Detroit. I’m a firm believer in saying nice things about Detroit--much more about that later, in Part III--but if you’ve driven around in Detroit lately you know there are large chunks of the city where the term “first world” doesn’t apply.

A panelist at the North Dakota Study Group, meeting in Detroit over the weekend, gives us some horrifying statistics: There are 50,000 homeless people in the city. There are 30,000 houses with no running water, 10,000 occupied homes with no power, and 40,000 homes in foreclosure. One-third of the land in the city is empty, vacant--and there’s no supermarket in the city limits, so 90% of purchased “food” comes from 7-11s, gas stations and fast food outlets. Burned-out houses are everywhere, and there are entire neighborhoods where unemployment is universal.

How did Detroit go from being a vibrant, workingman’s city full of large brick homes, ethnic neighborhoods, a place where the efforts of a growing and thriving middle class were visible everywhere--to a third world city in a first world nation? What impact has that had on public education in Detroit? And what can be done to educate students left in Detroit to believe in their own intellectual strengths and boundless creativity?

I spent 30 years teaching at the edge of the suburban ring around Detroit. When I started teaching, in the early 1970s, Detroit Public Schools had resources suburban districts envied: rich, extensive programming, beautiful old school buildings with handcrafted tiling, libraries with fireplaces and glass-front bookcases, a well-organized and experienced teaching force. A strong (but threatened) tax base.

Yes, I know about the checkered history of Detroit Public Schools--the slow slide from excellence to mismanagement. The strikes--and what happens when entire schools are filled with children born into deep poverty. I also know that for the past 14 years, a variety of power players, including three governors (one of them a Democrat), have decided that Detroit Public Schools can’t handle their own affairs. And the alternative--heavily marketed start-up charters--haven’t shown that they’re the go-to answer, either.

The teachers I admire most in the world teach in the DPS system. About half of the National Board Certified Teachers in Michigan teach or taught in Detroit, by far the largest group in a single district in Michigan. Many of them have been offered jobs in charter schools looking to advertise their teaching excellence, but they prefer to keep working in neighborhood schools, where they’re most needed. And it’s not about preserving their seniority rights or the “fabulous” salaries public schools offer veteran teachers, because all that went away with a succession of professionally humiliating decisions by “emergency managers.”

Back in the 1960s, Detroit activist James Boggs wrote about work vs. jobs. Work is labor--intellectual and physical--that leads to social contribution. The lunch-bucket auto workers who performed the same tasks on the line, day after day, were also putting a great country on wheels, building a national image--Motor City--and sharing in the good life (the local exemplar of which is a cottage in northern Michigan). Honest work.

A job, by contrast, is an economic exchange. You do what I want you to do, and I give you money, in return. Teachers in Detroit--teachers everywhere, in fact--have been shifted from the complex work of instruction and curriculum-building, to pursuit of “targeted learning goals” set by an outside management organization. A job, one that managers can fill with the lowest-cost employee available.

Teaching somebody else’s curriculum, based on nationally established standards, using predetermined instructional methods. Regular testing to evaluate “efficacy.” Following a pacing chart set by someone who’s never met your students. Being accountable to a “fidelity” expert.

These are first-world, technocratic problems, too. And they’re not amusing. They’re a threat to democratic education, and perhaps democracy itself.

In Part II, a visit to Catherine Ferguson Academy in Detroit, and more questions about the markers of a democratic education, and the ability of the people to uphold the nation’s best idea: a free, high-quality, fully public education for every child.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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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