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    This is a commentary from our short series on the Detroit public schools. Another commentary is available here.

    For many years, Detroit's public schools have been struggling to keep students enrolled until graduation and upon graduation be prepared with skills for the workforce or college. In the past decade, data collected from No Child Left Behind testing has painted a somber picture of the district. This past year Detroit's students had the lowest scores ever recorded on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests. Arne Duncan, the US Secretary of Education, refers to Detroit as "ground zero for education". Whether or not this is true, Detroit's low point gives it the ability to try new solutions to problems and measure their effects from the ground up. While nonprofits and other organizations such as teachers unions play an important role in improving student achievement, policies targeted at the problem can spur much-needed change in the district.

    . Detroit has been losing students rapidly in the past several years. Many of these students leave the district, and others go to charter schools. Charter schools in the area serve over 50,000 students, and recently Robert Bobb has announced that next year, 41 schools currently operated by DPS will be opened as charter schools. This move will save the district more money than simply closing the schools, as the charters will lease the properties from DPS, and it makes the transition easier for students of these schools. ("Huffington Post") Detroit currently has the 3rd highest percent of students in charter schools of large cities in the US, trailing Washing D.C. and New Orleans. More than 60% of students in New Orleans attend a charter school, a phenomenon that structurally began with Hurricane Katrina crippling the school system. Before the hurricane, however, the district was underperforming, and the majority of schools were marked as failing. Now, nearly six years later, New Orleans is hailed as the major success story of charter schools. Although all the students are improving, 8th graders in New Orleans's charter schools did better on Louisiana's math and reading tests than 8th graders in traditional schools. ("Rebuilding Detroit Schools: A Documentary") A study by the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) examined the Washington D.C. school system and the differences in test scores by students from charter and traditional public schools. It found that even after controlling many variables such as family income, household size, etc, students at charter schools still showed more improvement than those in traditional public schools. This proved that differences in test scores were a direct result of the schooling the children were receiving at the charter schools. (Nichols, and Ozek) Currently in Detroit, charter school students are outperforming students in public schools. Whereas the high school graduation rate for DPS is 58%, the high school graduation rate for charters in Detroit is 78%, and while about 20-30% of public middle and elementary schools in Detroit made AYP last year, 85-90% of Detroit's charters made AYP. ("Rebuilding Detroit Schools: A Documentary")

    Charter schools are able to create such improved student outcomes because they operate with a greater degree of autonomy than traditional public schools. They are not under the direction of a school board, and are free from union constraints. This gives them the freedom to extend the school day or have students come in for summer classes as well as freedom in financial decisions. More importantly, these schools can set their own curriculum and easily tweak it once they know what works and what doesn't.

    One problem with all of these freedoms, however, is that there is a lack of transparency in charter schools. Because they are independent and able to make all of their own decisions, it is more likely that fraud will go undetected. Also, if a charter school is failing, it is difficult to shut it down. Because charters are short, usually 3-5 years, districts with shut down schools then have the problem of relocating displaced students. Charter schools, especially when concentrated in urban areas, can also be detrimental to traditional public schools. This is because they attract a self-selecting population of students with involved parents - parents who were concerned enough about the public schools in the area to pull the children out and find a new school for them. These students tend to be more high-achieving than their counterparts that stay at traditional public schools. This leaves the public schools with the lowest performing students, making it difficult to impossible to increase their student achievement. Additionally, public school districts and teachers unions are not usually the biggest proponents of charter schools. Charter schools take away some of the district's power by introducing competition and leaving them with fewer students, and take away power from the teacher's union because they do not have to follow the union's terms on teachers' pay, hours, etc.

    These critiques show that charter schools, while very important in urban education reform, are not a magic bullet. They are essential to spurring change in districts such as Detroit, and are a way for cash-strapped districts to bring about reform without investing much of their own capital. Currently, the majority of these problems are not addressed by policy because typically, policy is focused on improving student achievement in the traditional schools, and in the past, once charters were authorized, the district doesn't follow up with solutions to problems brought on by charters. A study by Education Sector on charter schooling provided recommendations for school districts with regards to charter school policy. They point out that districts should "measure school and student outcomes across a broader range of indicators than simply test scores", that laws related to charter school closure should be clarified and that a plan be set up for displaced students, and provide incentives to schools that do show significant gains and allow for their expansion. (Mead, and Rotherham) Charter schools have proven that they can be extremely successful, especially in urban areas such as Washington D.C. and New Orleans, but care needs to be taken to avoid falling into some of the problems that charter schools can bring. An improved charter school system in Detroit offers the promise of increasing student achievement in the district through the innovative ways that charters operate. Detroit Public Schools should adopt policies that allow for more charters to open, following the New Orleans model, and should also create policies that address the recommendations of the Education Sector.

    Another area in which Detroit Public Schools could work improve in to increase student achievement is teacher and principal training. In 2000, the Chattanooga school district in Tennessee had 8 of the 20 lowest performing schools in the state within its borders. In each of these schools 20% or fewer of their 3rd graders were proficient in reading, with most schools having a proficiency rate around 12%, and one with a proficiency rate of 4%. These schools were also among the bottom 20 in language arts, social studies, math, and science proficiency rates. Other problems were also apparent. Each of these schools had at least 10 teachers with less than three years of teaching experience and had very high teacher turnover rates. Essentially, the students that needed the most help were getting instruction from the most inexperienced teachers.

    Four years later, the landscape of the district is strikingly different. After these dismal test scores were released, the Benwood Initiative was founded as a partnership between the Benwood Foundation, the Hamilton County Department of Education, and the Public Education Foundation. It focused on many things, but those that may be helpful to Detroit were the focus on "improving teachers' knowledge and skills through effective and comprehensive professional
    development, most of which is school-based or embedded, building the capacity of current and future school leaders to serve as instructional leaders, adept at identifying and responding to students' and teachers' learning needs, and distributing leadership or decision-making authority across schools and central office." (Handley, and Kronley) This plan did include a few other initiatives that helped it achieve at least a 60% proficiency rate across the schools involved, but these would be less helpful to Detroit's public school system.

    The Benwood Initative's teacher training programs do not send them to professional development conferences or hold seminars where the teachers are given instruction on how to run their classrooms. Instead, it relies on "Master Teachers". These experienced teachers do not evaluate teachers like principals do, rather they follow them through their classes, building a relationship with the teacher and guiding and improving their instruction of the students. In this role, master teachers become aware of specific problems the teachers face and relay this information to the principle and other school management so the problems can be solved. Additionally, the district employs consultants focused on specific areas needing improvement. These consultants are very experienced in their fields, and work hands on with teachers to help with the more difficult areas of reform. The Benwood Initiative also sponsors Initiative-wide professional development opportunities focusing on problems such as classroom management and parental engagement. (Handley, and Kronley) Currently, such a comprehensive teacher education is not in place in Detroit. This is most likely because of the expenses associated with running such a program. Even though it is expensive, this program has greatly reduced teacher turnover in the Chattanooga school district, and increased the number of experienced teachers.

    Beyond teacher improvement, the Initiative also recognizes the important role principals play in school reform. The Initiative realized that principals today must be prepared to have a variety of roles aside from the traditional managerial role, and most principals are not trained in these other roles. Most of these roles involve engaging with teachers, sitting in classrooms, and fostering teachers' professional growth. The Benwood Initiative provides instruction to principals on how to take on these roles through on-site leadership coaches, participation in the Leadership Initiative, and through assistance from the Public Education Foundation. (Handley, and Kronley).

    Both of these initiatives could be applied to Detroit and would be keys to improving student achievement. It is estimated that teacher turnover costs Detroit over $25 million annually and this does not account for lost teaching quality. ("Policy Brief") Benwood's program drastically reduces teacher turnover, increasing stability in schools, keeping effective teachers in place, and keeping new teachers at the school until and after they have reached peak effectiveness. Aside from these statistics, teachers have the ability to drastically improve student achievement. This doesn't mean that teachers are entirely responsible for low student achievement rates, but it does mean that they have the ability to impact students in a way that school administration and other reforms cannot. Because of this, it is extremely important to make sure that they are as effective as possible in the classroom.

    While both of these reforms could be adopted and would improve student achievement in Detroit Public Schools, they both would face at least a few roadblocks. The teacher's union fiercely opposes charter schools and is not likely to be open to increasing the number of charters, or reforming how the charters operate, and charter schools with mediocre or below average student performance are likely to oppose policy that would regulate or shut down charters if they are not successful. As for the second reform, in improving teacher instruction in schools and giving principals better direction on how to fill their roles, even more challenges would be faced. The Benwood Initiative, is extremely successful, but it is focused on only a handful of schools. Widespread reform in DPS would involve over 10 times the number of schools participating in the Benwood program, and it also must be taken into account that this program is very costly. Detroit already faces serious budget problems, ones that are not likely to be resolved soon, and unless a foundation was willing to dump resources into such a program it would be fiscally impossible. For this reason, the first solution has the greatest chance of adoption. It decreases costs of the district by leasing its existing buildings to charters, and prevents too many students from being displaced. It has already been set in motion by Robert Bobb's announcement to convert 41 of the district's schools to charters by next year. This move indicates that

    Robert Bobb is open to involving charters in reforming the district, and will pave the way for the district to implement improved policies on charter schools.

    These solutions are just a few of many possible solutions aimed at improving student achievement in urban areas. Detroit Public Schools' status as "ground zero" gives it the ability to try innovative reform strategies, but proponents of these strategies should not forget that at the heart of improving achievement in the district is the students. The main goal of these reforms should be ensuring that all students in the district receive a quality education that will enable them to be successful.

     

    References:

    • "41 Detroit Public Schools to Become Charter Schools." Huffington Post 14 Mar 2011: n. pag. Web.
    • Handley, Claire, and Robert Kronley. "Challenging Myths: The Benwood Initiative and Education Reform in Hamilton County." Benwood Foundation, Mar 2006. Web.
    • Mead, Sarah, and Andrew Rotherham. "A Sum Greater Than the Parts: What States Can Teach Each Other About Charter Schooling." Education Sector, Sep 2007. Web.
    • Nichols, Austin, and Umit Ozek. "Public School Choice and Student Achievement in the District of Columbia." CALDER, Dec 2010. Web.
    • "Policy Brief: The High Cost of Teacher Turnover." National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, n.d. Web.
    • "Rebuilding Detroit Schools: A Documentary." Michigan Radio: 25 Jun 2010. Radio.

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