Teaching Profession Opinion

What’s Going Down in Detroit Today?

By Nancy Flanagan — January 11, 2016 6 min read
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I follow K-12 policy and practice across the nation--teacher leadership and teacher professionalism are my personal passion. And I think teachers across the country know far more about what’s happening in public schools in Chicago, New York, Washington D.C. and Los Angeles than what’s happening in Detroit. Which is a shame, because many of the outrages--from democratic

disenfranchising to charter abuses--were pilot-tested here in the mitten state. With the same lousy results they’re getting in bigger cities.

Tell any educator in this nation that you’re a supporter of Detroit Public Schools and especially their teachers, and you’ll get a disbelieving stare or headshake. Most people assume that it’s way too late to save public education in Detroit, that it’s permanently broken.

Most people, in fact, have a lot of incorrect assumptions about the Detroit Public Schools: They were so bad that they had to have an Emergency Manager come in to “save” them 15 years ago. Then, they were still so low-achieving that the state had to disenfranchise their elected board and create a separate, state-run “achievement” district to show some progress. The teachers are weak and lazy, but overpaid. The parents don’t care. And on and on.

None of this is true, but it’s what the nation (and a lot of people in Michigan) assume about the education in the once- great, big-hearted city that put us on wheels: Detroit schools can’t help themselves, and are beyond hope.

Today, a group of Detroit teachers--fed up with Darnell Earley, the same Emergency Manager who presided over the Flint water scandal, and a raft of further harmful offenses to real Detroit children and their education--organized a sick-out. They did so in frustration, knowing full well they would be accused of greediness, or keeping children from their federally subsidized meals. They did so knowing they will be labeled “unprofessional,” led around by their unions (false)--when their actions represent what is ultimately the core of what professionalism means: autonomy over important work.

I have been hearing from Detroit PS teachers all day--sharing a range of anger and fear. Their voices, steeped in first-hand experience, are powerful. Here are some excerpts, the voices of Detroit PS teachers:

  • How DARE Darnell Earley, the EM for Detroit Public Schools and the EM responsible in part for poisoning the children and citizens of Flint, insinuate that it is the teacher’s responsibility for whether children in Detroit eat or not! That sentiment has been used time and again to try and keep teachers “in line.” Teachers are not responsible for the poverty in Detroit. Teachers are not the solution to poverty in Detroit. And this may come as a surprise to some, but not ALL students in Detroit go hungry at home. How insulting to hard working parents to insinuate that if the school doesn’t feed their child, he/she will not eat that day! How disrespectful to the community as a whole.

  • This teacher sick-out is not an action spearheaded by the DFT! We teachers are sick and tired of always being the ones who compromise. We have lent the district money in good faith, we have remained frozen in our pay since 2008, we have taken decreases in health care--and that’s not even half of it! If we were in school today every student and teacher would have had to wear coats hats and gloves, because there’s no heat.

  • I have been a teacher in Detroit Public Schools for 24 years. I feel the need to respond to some of the comments Darnell Earley made during a press conference this week. He described the actions of protesting teachers as “unethical.” I’m curious, then, how he would characterize the learning conditions of the children of Detroit Public Schools that have existed for years. These deplorable learning conditions happen to also be the teachers’ working conditions. We deal with unsafe environments - both in the neighborhoods surrounding our schools and often within the schools themselves.

  • Unlike you, Mr. Earley, students and teachers do not have a driver and security guards. Students who travel to and from school pass numerous abandoned, dangerous buildings and have been robbed, assaulted, and raped. Teachers have been victims of violent crimes and have had their vehicles and personal property damaged and/or stolen, sometimes repeatedly. They suffer verbal abuse and some have been assaulted. Many schools have numerous plumbing problems in the lavatories, drinking fountains, and sinks. Many outdated school buildings are crumbling - roofs, floors, windows, doors, and locks that are broken or in desperate need of repair. Far too many classrooms are overcrowded, creating conditions that are not even safe, let alone conducive to learning. I’m wondering where the concern and outrage over that has been.

  • In the past decade, teachers have lent the district almost $10,000 apiece, that we now fear we may never get back. We have taken a 10% pay cut in a salary that was already significantly lower than surrounding districts. And now DPS teachers have to worry about the security of our pensions and wonder if we will even be employed during the next school year.

  • I felt like many of my colleagues are caught in the crossfire of feeling as though something must be done and this, apparently, was the time, even though the event is not sanctioned. The case seemed so compelling and I wanted to show solidarity and not be one of the “others.” We have all been respectful, for the most part, of other teachers’ decisions. I privately contacted one colleague who seemed to fear the disappointment of his colleagues but couldn’t take the chance of losing a day’s pay to support his family.

  • Recent teacher sickouts ARE NOT a DFT union-led activity. These sickouts have been organized by individual groups of teachers. This is how dysfunctional Detroit is. Teachers, who have been largely apathetic in the past decade even in light of their diminishing pay, benefits and working conditions are standing up and saying No More! The district wants to paint these teachers as uncaring about their students’ welfare when the truth is exactly the opposite. They are taking a stand and saying “Our students deserve better and we will not be complicit any longer.”

  • Mr. Earley, you accuse us of drowning out the voices of our students. You stated we are “using students as pawns to advance a political position.” You have it backwards. The children of Detroit HAVE been used as pawns. Their voices have indeed been drowned out. But make no mistake, this has not been done by the teachers. Educational decisions are now being made by politicians. Schools are being run like businesses. We have been vilified by these politicians. We have been made accountable for things we have little or no control over. We have been forced to administer numerous developmentally inappropriate tests to our students and then we and our students are judged by the meaningless scores. We have watched the debt increase to ridiculous, unsustainable levels under state appointed emergency managers, while the conditions we teach in have deteriorated alarmingly. We have been set up to fail in every way. The successes that happen in classrooms every day, both academic and emotional, largely go unseen, and most cannot be measured or displayed on a data wall. We, as teachers, know our students and what they need. It is heartbreaking to see that our students too often don’t have what they need and certainly not what they deserve.

And, finally, this:

The recent action of teachers is not an attempt to drown out the voices of the students. It is an attempt to finally make their voices heard.

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.