This is a commentary from our short series on improving student achievement in Detroit Public Schools. Another commentary is available here.
The challenges facing the educational system in the city of Detroit today, especially in the public school system, are deep and multi-faceted. The challenges are a combination of problems that are unique to Detroit and ones that have not truly been solved anywhere. As a result, there is no easy model Detroit can turn to and be sure to reach the desired outcome. Instead, policymakers have to look around the nation and try to find what is working, and combine those positive steps into a program that is right for the city's unique situation. In this paper I will outline some of the shortcomings in Detroit's current policies, then I will highlight solutions from around the nation and how they might fit into a education program for Detroit.. The depth of the educational challenges facing Detroit is so great it borders on unbelievable. In the 2009 NAEP scores, Detroit was simply disastrous compared to every other city measured ("Reading). As a result, any program to improve education across Detroit is automatically going to be climbing a much steeper hill than programs implemented anywhere else. Historically speaking, much of the blame for Detroit's low academic achievement is not directly attributable to the school system. An economic base founded on manufacturing meant that for much of the city's history education was not necessary to hold a well-paying job, which led to a lowering of the premium society placed on education. The subsequent de-industrialization of the city has left it with a massively impoverished population, who's children therefore enter the school system at a marked statistical disadvantage.
What is necessary, therefore, is to enact new policies that will have a direct impact on the city's ability to educate children and prepare them for the challenging modern economy.
One challenge facing many schools in Detroit is the level of preparation students have before they ever get in the classroom. Before a child even enters kindergarden their cognitive, behavioral, and physical development can be significantly impacted by their environment. As a result, early education has become a focal point in many cities for trying to make strides into the education problem. In fact, Kirsten McDonald, a Senior Program Officer at the Skillman Foundation, lists universal early education as the policy she believes could most immediately impact the situation in Detroit, due to its significant impact, its relative affordability, and the existence of successful models around the nation (McDonald).
Currently, early education in Detroit is a patchwork of various programs of various qualities. The Head Start program for 4-5 year olds enrolls 6,592 students in seven programs and the Early Head Start program for 0-3 year olds enrolls 95 students, both of which are run with federal grants (Detroit). Even within that seemingly monolithic "Head Start" label, there are broad variations in quality. In neighborhoods where Head Start is either non-existent or low-quality, some principals have begun running early education programs in conjunction with their elementary schools. While there are some good early education programs in Detroit, for more comprehensive success it is useful to examine programs where other cities are doing well.
One such model program is the Chicago Child-Parent Centers. This is a program run by the Chicago Public Schools that provides preschool at 20 centers in the city to children from the age of 3 until they enroll in kindergarden. Parents are required to take part in either classroom or parent room activities twice a month, in programs designed to better equip them with parenting skills (Chicago). This is important because the Child-Parent Centers are targeted at low-income families, which include a large number of young, single parents who may not ever have had any training or preparation for how to raise a child (O'Keefe).
This combination of programs for children and parents has been shown to have long-term positive results. Compared to students not enrolled in the program, special education placement rates for program graduates dropped by ten percentage points (Isaacs). High school graduation rates and the rate of subsequent college attendance or full-time employment increased. Other positive outcomes for the children include lower rates of juvenile and adult criminal behavior from students who had attended the program. It is also important to note that the program also had a positive impact on parents, increasing the positive parenting behaviors of mothers even after the program and cutting the rate of child abuse in half (Isaacs).
All of these benefits do cost money, and in a time of budget crunches this obviously presents a challenge. However, the cost-benefit analysis of this program is very favorable. Per student, the centers cost Chicago Public Schools an average of $3,457 per year. Analysis has estimated that for every $1 invested in this program, the societal benefits were $7.14 (Isaacs). This is the kind of return that Ms. McDonald was alluding to when she chose early education as an important policy target.
In light of this model, and the positive data coming from the Chicago Child-Parent Centers, as well as other similar programs, I would propose a similar program for Detroit. Under the new policy, early childhood education would be mandatory for every child in the city, as it is now for primary and secondary education. While parents would be free to use private preschools or other programs set up under federal guidelines, the city of Detroit would provide programs modeled on the Child-Parent Centers and other successful preschool programs for all other children.
The benefits of such a program would be far-reaching. First and foremost, it would relieve at least some part of the pressure on the Detroit Public Schools. One of the teachers in
the documentary Hard Times at Douglass High observed that the biggest challenges she faces as a teacher come from things that happen before the students ever enter her classroom, and that is the reality in Detroit just as much as in Baltimore. If every student who entered school had already had some academic and behavioral preparation, it would make it that much easier on the teachers. Additionally, the effects on the program's students are long-lasting, potentially having a positive impact on future crime and employment. Research into similar early education programs has also shown positive effects on young mothers, such as increased educational attainment and lower change of subsequent births.
Of course, the educational challenges in Detroit stretch far beyond early childhood, and so it is critical to implement new policies for the public schools as well. The challenge is that not every school faces the same problems, and so policies that are too rigid or formulaic run the risk of only addressing the issues at certain schools, or none at all. Instead, it is becoming increasingly apparent that what needs to happen is the devolution of authority to the individual building level. This can take a variety of specific forms, as I will show, but what is important to note is the common thread running through the experiences of schools across the nation: when solutions are developed by those closest to the problem, they are more likely to succeed.
The most basic conviction that undergirds this approach to education is the belief that the goal of the system if giving students the best chance possible to succeed. To that end leaders in cities like Washington, D.C., New York City, and San Diego have all taken steps to free their schools to rise to the occasion. In Washington this took the shape of the Center City Consortium, which brought together a group of parochial schools and implemented standards-based teaching to empower teachers to reach achievement goals. From 2000 to 2005, the schools in the Consortium achieved "reading growth of 60.6 percent, 78.1percent growth in math, and 34.1 percent growth in language arts"(Davis, Jr.). In New York City, chancellor Joel Klein created an atmosphere of accountability that transformed the principal from an agent of the bureaucracy to the C.E.O. of his or her school" (Mahler). Since Klein took over (he has since resigned, but many of his policies remain) the high school graduation rate has moved from less than 50% to 63%. "Since 2006, the city's elementary and middle schools have seen a 22-point increase in the percentage of students at or above grade level in math (to 54 percent) and a 6-point increase in English (to 42 percent)" (Mahler). San Diego took failing ratings for some of their schools and used the opportunity to turn them into charter schools, which have since seen rising test scores (Williams).
Detroit has already taken steps in this direction, but I believe more is needed. For example, Detroit is already a city of choice for education, meaning students are not tied to their neighborhood schools. Additionally, charter schools are a vibrant and growing presence in Detroit, and emergency financial manager Robert Bobb says he plans to turn 41 of Detroit's 142 schools into charter schools (Dawsey). Non-profits like the Skillman Foundation also support this goal, promoting work done at individual schools (McDonald). With all of these solid steps in place, what Detroit needs now is a clearer unified vision across the city. This is important both because the costs of major transformations are high and because achieving results through an attitude change requires by-in from all the groups involved in the educational process. Specifically, I support policies that give principals more control over their buildings. For example, in New York new schools were started whose principals did not have to choose teachers based on seniority. The addition of standards-based instruction like in the Consortium in Washington also has great potential to bring up Detroit's dismal test scores.
As a student receiving a liberal arts education at a public university, there is a natural tendency to value education for its own sake and to say that the academic improvements that can be made with policy changes are their own reward, and I do believe that that is true. When a child is born in an area under a policymaker's jurisdiction, that policymaker has a moral obligation to give them the best shot at the best life possible. However, for a policymaker concerned with maintaining the lives and well-beings of all the citizens in a city, those kinds of idealist concerns may be insufficient to make a change, particularly when that change will involve laying out already scarce resources. I argue that steps taken to combat Detroit's education problems, such as the two ideas laid out in this memo, will in fact benefit the city as a whole.
There can be no argument that Detroit is staring down the barrel of an economic gun, and many people fear the trigger has already been pulled. As the largest city in the only state in the Union to lose population in the last decade, Detroit can hear drastic times calling for drastic measures, but it is also reasonable to be gun-shy about spending even more money. Creating a new early education entitlement would involve an expenditure of serious money, as would the disruptions caused by restructuring school accountability. But these are the kind of expenditures that are necessary if the city is going to be able to lift itself out of poverty. A more educated population attracts business, reduces crime, and restores confidence.
Chicago. Chicago Public Schools. Child Parent Center (CPC). 2011. Web.
Davis, Jr., Martin A. "It's All About the Kids: A Glib Phrase Becomes a Driving Force for Change in Inner-city Washington." FWD: Arresting Ideas in Education 2.2 (21 July 2005). Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. Web.
Dawsey, Chastity P. "DPS Board, Robert Bobb Meet to Discuss Roles, Powers." Detroit Free Press 29 Mar. 2011. Detroit Free Press. Gannett. Web. 8 Apr. 2011.
Detroit. Human Services Department. Child Development. 2010. Web.
Isaacs, Julia. Model Early Childhood Programs. Issue brief. Vol. 4. Brookings Institution, 2008. Impacts of Early Childhood Programs. Web.
Mahler, Jonathan. "The Fragile Success of School Reform in the Bronx." New York Times Magazine 6 Apr. 2011. The New York Times. 6 Apr. 2011. Web.
McDonald, Kristen. Telephone Interview. 11 Mar. 2001.
O'Keefe, Mark. Telephone interview. 6 Mar. 2011.
"Reading." The Nation's Report Card. National Assessment of Educational Progress, National Center for Education Statistics National Assessment Governing Board Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Web. 11 Feb. 2011.
Williams, Joe, and Thomas Toch. "Extreme Makeover: Two Failing San Diego Schools Get New Start as Charters." Ideas at Work (2006). Education Sector. Web.