Back to school shopping in Michigan takes on a whole new meaning in this era of free market school choice.
Parents are still scouting deals on pens, pencils and backpacks, but now schools are also on the prowl for students. The gimmicks they’re using borrow the best—and the worst— from retail.
In the frantic effort to fill seats and meet budget targets, schools, particularly schools in the city of Detroit, give away uniforms and gift cards to places like Foot Locker or Target. They offer bounties to parents who recruit friends and family.
One principal rented an ice cream truck and drove it from neighborhood to neighborhood looking for students to lure to his school.
Too often the best gimmick—not the best school—wins.
“Schools are giving away gym shoes, gift cards and Kindles, among other materialistic objects,” said Jameka Robison, a Detroit mother of two school-age children. “The thing is, shoes wear out. The gift cards are useless once funds are depleted. Kindles become obsolete when a new version is released. Education is forever! I'd prefer a school sell me on their science lab, their test scores, even their plan for when a student may become distracted and misbehave.”
Parents and students as customers is the heart of school choice, and it can be a powerful force for reform—if the customers are well informed, know their children’s learning needs and have objective, user-friendly and truthful information. Or if all the choices in the market are good choices.
But if parents struggle to make sound choices—and most do—then the power of the market to improve the quality of education is diminished and schools are reduced to selling themselves in silly and superficial ways just to get noticed.
“I recall being sold on skylights so the children could acquire Vitamin D,” said Robison. After making a disappointing school choice in the suburbs for her son, Robison learned more about what differentiates good schools from bad ones and enrolled her two children in University Prep Science & Math (USPM) elementary and high school in Detroit. (*Disclaimer—Margaret Trimer-Hartley is a member of the Advisory Board for Bridge Magazine and also superintendent of UPSM.)
What makes a school good?
The question has been discussed, dissected and debated for as long as public schools have been in existence. Yet, there is no national consensus on what a school should be. There are, however, many schools that succeed at many things—workforce development, college prep, community service, citizenship. Today the choices are vast and parents can choose a school—and assess it—based on what is important to them.
One thing is certain: customer satisfaction alone is not a reliable indicator of student achievement or school performance.
Thousands of parents keep their children in low performing and failing schools, particularly in Detroit, while seats in higher performing schools sit empty. And polling shows they have no intention of moving them—even when they acknowledge the schools are low performing.
Ignorance, low expectations, transportation—or lack thereof—safety and personal relationships drive the selection of schools far more than academic performance, instructional model or student interest and ability.
Organizations like Excellent Schools Detroit (ESD) and the Michigan Association of Public School Academies (MAPSA) are trying to change that by educating parents and influencing their decisions for the better.
The ESD Scorecard, released this month, is one effort. The Scorecard literally grades schools in the Detroit area on culture, student proficiency and student growth and publishes a directory of results with the goal of steering more families to high-performing schools and away from low-performing schools.
The tool isolates five essential elements of a good school. They are:
- Effective leaders
- Collaborative teachers
- Involved families
- Supportive environment
- Ambitious instruction
Jocelyn Brown, another Detroit parent, appreciates such tools, but said savvy parents do not rely only on data or what is written about schools.
“They go by word of mouth and what they see,” she said. “Look at it this way, if every poll or column written about Detroit were accurate then it would be impossible to believe there are intelligent children being educated here.”
Educators often say that children rise or fall based on what the adults in their lives expect of them. Schools are the same.
The more parents hold schools to high expectations and demand that each child’s academic and social needs be met, the better schools will become.
On the other hand, the more they jump at gift cards and ice cream bars the more schools will deliver gimmicks and goodies at the expense of quality instruction.
Margaret Trimer-Hartley is superintendent of the University Prep Science & Math Academy in Detroit and a former head of communications for the Michigan Education Association. She was also an education reporter at the Detroit Free Press.