Equity & Diversity Opinion

What’s the Matter with Detroit Schools? Pt III: Say Nice Things about Detroit

By Nancy Flanagan — February 27, 2016 5 min read
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While you’re at it, say nice things about Flint. Both are great cities where democracy has been abandoned in favor of a “dashboard” with “metrics” that tell an “emergency manager” how he’s doing. And now they’re both in the public eye-- one because that management put poison in their water, and the other bankrupt and begging the state to let them rebuild what they once governed.

One thing is certain--chucking democratically elected boards and councils is not the answer.

In the meantime, a hat tip to the teachers who will go to their classrooms in Detroit, and Flint, tomorrow and teach their hearts out. Not much has changed for the better (see 2013 blog, below)--except this: You matter.

What to do about a city like Detroit? What’s the best way to serve the children there, who deserve the same free, first-rate democratic education that children all over this country are receiving?

Is there a way to rebuild a large urban school system, make it leaner, more nimble and responsive? Or do we “unbundle” the district’s publicly owned resources, facilities and human capital and offer them to the highest bidders? Can you really charter your way to 100+ diverse schools, scattered across a huge city, all meeting the needs of equally diverse children? Do we concede the inevitable risk of start-ups failing and adding to the misery and waste index?

What is the preferred solution for schooling in a post-industrial wasteland?

Step One: Stop thinking of it as a wasteland, and re-frame Detroit as blank slate, a canvas upon which we can re-imagine education and other critical services on a human scale. It’s possible if we have the will and persistence to do so, and--key point--these imaginative new forms of schooling are generated from within, rather than imposed by those who believe they know best, or are looking to make a quick buck selling “reform.”

Step Two: Understand that there is no monolithic or comprehensive solution. There is no urban system that Detroit can turn to as template for success (despite Arne Duncan’s insulting comment that Detroit could benefit from a Katrina). There is no sure-fire, replicable school model to “scale up.” There are pockets of success to build on, but reformers are impatient with small victories and building slowly.

Step Three: Acknowledge that race is the hot wire that runs through all discussions about Detroit. Fordham professor Mark Naison says: Education reformers have as much right to call themselves civil rights advocates as Pat Boone would to call himself the father of rock n roll. An apt observation in Motown.

There are competing narratives about what happened to shift a proud and thriving industrial city into a city of empty storefronts and blocks of rubble. Was it the rebellions of 1967, which triggered an upsurge in something that actually started much earlier--white flight? Was it corruption in school and city administration? Or was it the final clear-out of the resources and wealth necessary to building a strong economy, abandoning a hollowed-out city?

Diane Ravitch took an excerpt from the first blog in this series and re-posted it under the title “If This Doesn’t Break Your Heart, Nothing Will.” A long string of 57 comments follows, devolving into predictably simplified sound bites interspersed with thoughtful dialogue: The unions did it! “They” did this to themselves, through fraud and infighting--and deserve what they get! Detroit isn’t really a food desert! (Check this blog, which features photographs of the 111 “full-service” groceries in Detroit, and make your own judgment.)

And so it’s been, for decades now, wrangling over the causes and scope of the problem. Do you ever wonder why families and teachers fight to save “bad” schools? Because often, those schools are the only points of hope in a devastated neighborhood. And besides--who gets to decide which schools are bad, and which are serving kids as well as can be expected?

Right now, the solution of choice in Michigan is removing all power from elected boards and the administrators they hire--and replacing them with “emergency managers.” Over 50% of all African-Americans in Michigan now live in communities where their votes don’t count--their elected officials have been disenfranchised, rendered toothless. The Detroit Public Schools have been under outside management, in various programs and degrees, since 1999. Things have not gotten better.

On the day that I posted the first blog in this series, a friend who teaches at an elementary school in southwest Detroit contacted me, asking if I would write a recommendation for her. An easy task--this teacher persuaded a group of her colleagues to pursue voluntary, after-school professional development a couple of years ago. Just one more good thing happening under the radar.

There’s actually a lot of that in Detroit: A cadre of confident teachers who attempted to develop a teacher-led school. A union-led peer review and coaching project. An award-winning teacher who left DPS to serve as administrator in a start-up charter, but came back after finding that even though Detroit was chaotic, the charter offered no opportunities to share her expertise, to be a genuine leader.

First-world education problems in big, complex urban districts: Constant administrative churn. Disenfranchised boards. No clear idea of who’s in charge. An overdose of “help,” leading to too many new programs to absorb, too much technical assistance and too little attention to relationships or tapping talent already on hand.

There are many small flames of hope and promise. The urban gardening movement, for example. The Hope District. Catherine Ferguson Academy getting grant funding to explore starting an intentional community, a place for young moms to live safely and grow their own food. A faith-based Maker Space. Dozens of publicly funded schools where kids are treated as precious resources. Small victories.

A young man I spoke with in Detroit said: We used to talk, all the time, about sustainability. But that’s a 20th century concept. Now we talk about flexibility, the opportunity for constant growth, change and innovation. No one solution.

Why say nice things about Detroit? Detroit matters to the health of the whole state of Michigan.

In fact, Detroit matters to the entire nation. If we can’t solve problems with flagship businesses like the auto industry, or the problem of educating kids in deep poverty, we’re in trouble. If the gap between haves and have-nots continues to increase, we’re in danger. If we haven’t gotten past old “us vs. them” human divisions, we haven’t moved into the 21st century. And if more states decide that abolishing democracy is the best solution to our economic woes, we all lose. Big-time.

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.