Benchmark: Schools

Ana Rosa Cabrera joined several moms in a classroom at Bennett Elementary for a Zumba session one morning earlier this month. The moms stretched and danced as their instructor, a Spanish-speaking ball of energy dressed in fluorescent greens, directed them in merengue-like maneuvers from a DVD playing on a TV screen.

Exercise finished, Cabrera collected her four-year-old son, Diego, who had been scribbling on a chalkboard, and headed down the hall. A workshop had started in the library about HighScope, a nationally-recognized preschool program.

Last year, the nonprofit Detroit Works Project collected more than 70,000 surveys from city residents and concluded that the best way to resurrect city schools, and perhaps the city itself, was to enlarge schools into community centers offering all manner of services and job training.

Bennett Elementary, in heavily Hispanic southwest Detroit, is one such place.

Like schools across the city, many of Bennett’s students are poor, their test scores generally below the state average. Principal Josette Buendia said offering community programs is one way to get students invested in their education. Indeed, student attendance is high at Bennett. “Students see parents here and they know obviously school’s an important place to be,” Buendia said.

For more than a generation, nobody has been able to improve citywide performance at Detroit’s public schools.

Not the state, which stripped the school board of its authority and has run the Detroit Public Schools district for 12 of the last 15 years. Not the mayor, who the state also stripped of power in 2013, putting the city in the hands of an emergency manager. And not Detroit residents, most of whom now send their children to mediocre or academically struggling charter schools to avoid DPS.

In 2009, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called Detroit “ground zero” for public education, worse than New Orleans, a town destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. That was the year Detroit’s public schools recorded the worst scores in the history of the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, known as the Nation’s Report Card. The scores were so low and so far behind the scores of other participating large cities that it seemed as if Detroit’s students had just blindly guessed at the answers. Scores have increased only marginally since.

So after years of reform, Detroit now has three struggling systems – Detroit Public Schools, the state reform district known as the Education Achievement Authority (EAA), and dozens of charter schools.

Improving these schools will be critical to virtually every aspect of Detroit’s recovery – gaining population, attracting new business, and job and revenue gains.

Just as Mayor Duggan aims to improve city services in the next six months, experts say steps can be taken now to restore trust in Detroit’s schools. The program at Bennett is but one idea.

In the months ahead, Bridge will be monitoring Detroit’s schools for initiatives that improve teaching and learning. That’s a task not only for Detroit leaders, but for the state as well. For instance, the Legislature is now developing a statewide system for educator evaluation. If done right, this system will better identify teachers’ strengths and weaknesses and give them the training and support they need to improve in the classroom. The real test then will be whether city and state leaders use this information to ensure more high-performing teachers are steered to low-income schools, to teach the students who need help most.

Bridge will look for examples of smart innovation, including continuing education that focuses on training students and adults for jobs in Detroit’s growing economy. DPS, for instance, now holds night classes where adults receive training for jobs in the construction trades. By the fall, a new vocational training program is planned for high school students to get job training and associate degrees.

“When we restore the public trust that we are not only capable, but we are in fact providing children with a great education, then that will also contribute to Duggan’s goal of having Detroit’s population increase by 2017,” said John Covington, chancellor for the EAA.

David Arsen, a Michigan State University professor of K-12 educational administration, is among those calling for more money for city schools, noting that it costs more to educate low-income children who generally begin school well behind their more affluent, suburban peers.

Excellent Schools Detroit, a nonprofit, said leaders’ failure to collaborate on education in the city has created an oversupply of underpopulated schools and some neighborhoods lacking a single high-performing school. ESD also recommends that Detroit create a single k-12 transportation system similar to that in Washington, D.C., that would bus students regardless of whether they attend DPS, an EAA school or a charter.

Ultimately, the real test of education reform is whether students improve in Detroit classrooms. Are more students finishing high school prepared for college or career? Are more students taking Advanced Placement tests? Are students who go on to community college or universities actually graduating and landing jobs?

Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington in Seattle, who visited Detroit earlier this month, said she wants to see a greater focus on raising expectations; creating the kind of no-excuses culture that produces results, even in low-income schools.

During her visit, Lake said she got the feeling that too many Detroiters had become desensitized to failing schools. “People took for granted that the schools are going to be bad and improvement would be slow,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be that way.”

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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S Jackson
Thu, 01/30/2014 - 9:47am
Does the Detroit score include all of the school systems in Detroit, ie DPS, EAA and charters?
David Zeman
Thu, 01/30/2014 - 1:00pm
With regard to the test scores from the NAEP/TUDA that prompted Duncan's remarks, they do NOT include charter schools. As of 2009, the Detroit charter school scores are excluded from the Trial Urban District Assessment because their scores are not included with DPS' standardized test scores (AYP), according to the NAEP website.
Thu, 01/30/2014 - 1:17pm
More money, more money, more money. That seems to be the liberal-progressive-Democratic theme song. Maybe the way to tackle the problem is to identify the root cause -- find out how many children in Detroit are from single parent households, being raised by a mother on welfare. Fix the family unit and watch how quickly test scores improve. But that doesn't fit the Democrats' agenda.
Fri, 01/31/2014 - 5:30pm
Your generalization about Democrats is ignorant, as is your generalized solution of "Fix the family unit". How, exactly, would you fix the family unit? I agree that having more intact families would be helpful, but how do you propose that you make this happen? I assume from your comment on Democrats that you see yourself as a conservative. Wouldn't most actions to "Fix the family unit" involve government overreach? I wouldn't think that a conservative would support that, since that is a constant argument against liberal proposals. But it is a social issue, so it is alright for conservatives to be hypocritical. Less funding certainly isn't the answer. The fact is that these kids are not as prepared to learn when they get to school as their suburban counterparts. This is due to a variety of reasons, with one of them being that they come from single parent households. And no, not all of these single mothers don't work and are on welfare. Many of them do work a lot and still need to receive assistance to get by. A lot of them need to work at times that don't allow them to help their kids with their homework, even if they want to. And there are some who couldn't help them with their homework due to their own lack of education. If we want these kids to be as prepared as kids outside the city, we need to fund universal pre-K - money. If we want them to be able to keep pace and get the support that kids outside the city get, we need to dedicate additional resources for after-school help, etc. - money. If we want them to have a better teacher-student ratio with qualified teachers (which is a proven way to improve performance), it needs funding - money. All this Republican government has done is cut funding to public schools, spread it even more thin by increasing the number of Charters and deterred any talented person from becoming an educator. So yes, a big part of it is more money, but that funding needs to be directed where it is needed.
Sun, 08/10/2014 - 11:58am
Gus, how would you fix the root cause without and investment of time and money? Even in a business you invest in research and improvement on an ongoing basis.
Charles Richards
Fri, 01/31/2014 - 9:28pm
Ms. Pratt Dawsey says, " The real test then will be whether city and state leaders use this information to ensure more high-performing teachers are steered to low-income schools, to teach the students who need help most." How are they supposed to do that when teacher assignments are governed by the strict seniority rules of union contracts? I certainly applaud the views of Robin Lake, who "said she wants to see a greater focus on raising expectations; creating the kind of no-excuses culture that produces results, even in low-income schools."
william Ward
Tue, 02/04/2014 - 9:55am
The Republican controlled state legislature has eliminated seniority for teachers in Michigan as well as gutting unions by imposing so called "right to work" legislation ( which should rightly be called the "right to work harder for less pay and reduced benefits).
Sat, 02/01/2014 - 8:08am
Experience shows that the key to education success is parental involvement in education at home and at school. Without it, all the teacher training in the world and the best facilities will not produce success.
J. Strate
Sun, 02/02/2014 - 1:00am
I recall a talk by Ken Meier of Texas A&M a number of years ago who has done extensive study on K-12 schools in Texas. What works? He found high performing school districts had effective, experienced, and long tenured administration, high academic standards, high parental involvement, demanded hard work from students, and possessed a stable academic curriculum. There's not much there that most adults like to talk about--class sizes, more money, public vs. charter vs. parochial. Well trained, experienced, motivated, and well-paid teachers are probably part of the mix also.
william Ward
Tue, 02/04/2014 - 10:04am
The EAA is totally fraudulent and has never attempted to address the needs of the lowest performing students, the premise upon which it was founded. Instead, the EAA is set up to enrich a few at the expense of taxpayers. If the goal was to help the targeted students, efforts would have been made to attract and retain the best, most experienced staff, instead of trying to hire the cheapest possible workforce which includes many Teach For America recently graduated college students with no teaching experience ( some of whom have never even taken education classes in college). Most of these poorly paid, ill-prepared young people do not last even one year in the classroom. So much for addressing the needs of the children.