State teacher of year: Who am I to judge Detroit teacher sick-outs?

As the Michigan Teacher of the Year for 2016, I serve as an ambassador between educators and students throughout the state and the Michigan Legislature, Department of Education, and State Board of Education. In this role, I visit schools from Iron Mountain to Monroe to observe educational practices and report on them to state policymakers.

My conversations and observations in a variety of school districts have given me a clearer understanding of the reality of life for Michigan teachers. While the quality of teaching constantly is being challenged, systemic inequity is the greatest obstacle to education. Nowhere is that more true than in Detroit, where the recent teacher sick-outs have put a spotlight on the terrible conditions in which children are supposed to learn.

My sharply contrasting professional experiences illustrate how inequities shape outcomes. I am a native Michigander. I taught roughly half of my career in the Chicago Public Schools and have been in Birmingham Public Schools since 2003.

In Chicago, I had to purchase many supplies my students needed ‒ everything from paper and pencils to notebooks and Kleenex. Most of my students’ parents struggled to make ends meet. Very few parents had high school diplomas. Kids came to school hungry. My students rarely entered kindergarten knowing their letters, numbers and shapes. Few traveled beyond their neighborhood. The threat of gang violence was omnipresent, and kids were lured by what they believed was the easy money that life in a gang offered them. My students lived with daily threats of violence, including from their family. Health care was lacking, and chronic illnesses often went untreated because of a lack of health care resources and access to hospitals. The students in Chicago were primarily politically underrepresented people of color. The standardized test scores in my school were among the lowest in Illinois.

“Poverty matters. There is a one-to-one correlation between standardized test scores and socio-economic status. Period.” ‒ Rick Joseph, 2015 Michigan Teacher of the Year

In Birmingham, I am able to access or obtain nearly any resource my students require. All of my students’ parents graduated from high school, and most have a college degree. Kids typically come to school well-fed. The majority of my students arrived in kindergarten knowing their letters, numbers and shapes and several knew how to read. Students typically travel widely, and many have been abroad. College-educated parents are always willing to volunteer in various capacities. There are few threats to students' safety at home, on the suburban streets where they play, or at school. If a child has a health issue, they are no more than 10 minutes away from a world-class medical facility. The students in Birmingham are predominantly well-represented people of European or Asian descent. The standardized test scores in my school are consistently among the highest in the state.

Though my students' test scores increased profoundly from my last year teaching in Chicago to my first year in Birmingham, I did not feel any sense of accomplishment. I did not dramatically change from an ineffective educator to a highly qualified one, and I taught with outstanding, dedicated, talented teachers in Chicago just as I do in Birmingham. The truth is that our public education systems are wildly inequitable for reasons that are largely beyond the individual or collective control of educators.

Poverty matters. There is a one-to-one correlation between standardized test scores and socio-economic status. Period.

Yes, there are ineffective educators, just as there are ineffective doctors, lawyers, accountants and engineers. Teachers, however, are not responsible for the inequities that render some children ill-prepared for life in a global society while others are destined for success for reasons that transcend what happens in classrooms.

This narrative exists all over our state, I have witnessed it in the funding gaps that exist between debt-ridden urban and rural areas and affluent suburbs, from Detroit to Birmingham, Grand Rapids to Forest Hills, or Lansing to Dewitt. Nowhere in Michigan are these inequities more obvious than in Detroit. The city clearly is on an upswing. The motor capital of the world is rapidly reinventing itself with a cool city vibe that is welcome after generations of economic decline. Public education, however, has yet to share in this renaissance.

Detroit Public Schools teachers, acting independently of their union, recently have staged sick-outs to call attention to the deplorable conditions for students and educators. People have asked for my opinion on these events. My response echoes the words of a far more noteworthy servant-leader than me, Pope Francis. Who am I to judge the actions of teachers who are beyond desperation and anger? Who have had wages and benefits cut? Who have actually loaned money to their employer so it could remain financially viable? Who work in conditions unseen and unsafe? Who fear the governor will turn the district into the country's biggest charter school district? Who feel that no amount of discourse can replace the response that their action has elicited, from the president of the American Federation of Teachers to the mayor of Detroit to the national media?

I am not necessarily anti-school choice, nor do I oppose a reasonable number of not-for-profit charter schools that complement existing public schools. When school choice exists in some communities and not others, it is not a viable model. A choice between two poor products is a false choice, especially when a child's future is at stake. If defenders of our current education policy truly value choice, then a student in Detroit should be able to go to school in Bloomfield Hills and vice versa.

The reality is that Americans want good public schools in their communities. By and large, we have them, and have had them for years. The factors that determine standardized test scores have little to do with the dedication, passion and sacrifice that teachers all over the state offer their students on a daily basis. Public education and creative, nimble public education systems must be cultivated on behalf of all students, to help us make Michigan the great state it can and should be.

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Tue, 02/16/2016 - 9:56am
Your comments and findings could not be more accurate, Rick. No one, from state legislators through parents should be putting any energy or effort into school reform without fully, yes fully, understanding (and accepting) what you are saying. I am passionate about school reform especially in our inner cities as you described. I am going to retain a copy of your personal experience and findings and share them with everyone I can. Thank you for your sincerity and genuine interest in REAL school reform. Know you have one strong ally here and let me know how I can help you.
Tue, 02/16/2016 - 10:45am
One small correction. There is not a "one-to-one correlation between standardized test scores and socio-economic status." But it is a very strong relationship. I use the example of the correlation between height and ability to dunk a basketball. There are few exceptions of persons under 5'8" who can dunk a basketball just as there are few exceptions of poor students doing well on standardized tests. The taller you are the more likely you are to be able to dunk a basketball and the higher socio-economic status you have the more likely you are to do well on standardized tests. If the teaching force of a school with high socio-economic status students traded places with the teachers of a school with low socio-economic status students I would expect minimal change in standardized test scores. In the data I've analyzed the father's income and mother's education were much higher predictors of student success than any variable about the school or teaching force.
Tue, 02/16/2016 - 11:22am
I appreciate your correction, Jim, and certainly value your analogy.
Charlene S
Tue, 02/16/2016 - 11:09am
The truth, presented clearly and succinctly. Thank you.
John Miller
Tue, 02/16/2016 - 11:20am
When you say "I am not necessarily anti-school choice," what you mean, of course, is that you necessarily ARE anti-school choice. You only want a limited number of charter school options for parents who feel their local schools aren't measuring up. Personally, I think the parents should get to decide how many options they need - not you, Mr. Joseph. Congratulations on this honor, but all you're doing here is a beautiful job of toeing the MEA line. It would be nice if the Michigan Teacher of the Year represented ALL public school teachers in Michigan - including charter school teachers. Instead, it seems he's more interested in representing the MEA and AFT.
Tue, 02/16/2016 - 11:31am
Actually, Jim, I consider it my responsibility as the MTOY to visit the full range of educational institutions throughout the state - traditional public schools, for-profit charters, not-for-profit charters, catholic schools, independent private schools, institutions like youth homes and psychiatric hospitals, and even home-school settings. On a macro-level, I am interested in studying and advocating for educational models that are the wisest use of our state's resources. I worked for a year in a charter school in Chicago that was part of the Chicago Public School system. That model complemented existing public school offerings because it filled a need that did not already exist. It paid teachers a living wage with reasonable benefits. Furthermore, it did not decimate the larger system, as has happened with the existing public school model that we have in the city of Detroit. Unfettered choice, especially among false choices, is not real choice.
Tue, 02/16/2016 - 8:20pm
The problem with school choice is that while it looks really great on paper, what happens is certain parents can really unduly influence the school. For example, if a student needs consequences for breaking a rule, and the parent sides with their child the school cannot disagree. If the school tries to keep up with disciplinary procedures, the parent just threatens to take their child to a different school.
Tue, 02/16/2016 - 11:24am
Thanks. Context is everything. Was just also reading Dec. Atlantic article on the federal study of Palo Alto high area students at Gunn who have had rashes of teen suicides since 2010. Too much and too little of different types of resources build expectations; emotional supports matter, as do more tangible resources. These are each necessary, albeit not sufficient in and of themselves. Thanks for your focus and use of the " bully pulpit". It means a lot in these beleaguered times for educators. Best regatds, B. Cherem, UM-Flint , teacher prep in Special Ed and Ed. Leadership
Tue, 02/16/2016 - 11:34am
Thank you!!!!
Tue, 02/16/2016 - 11:43am
Sounds to me like the problems you described in Chicago are more due to the breakdown of society and the family unit than monetary – “Very few parents had high school diplomas. Kids came to school hungry. My students lived with daily threats of violence, including from their family.” A 70% out of wedlock birthrate and kids being raised by single parents (very few of which have high school diplomas, according to you) certainly does not help matters. School choice is probably not going to fix this. But here’s a novel idea, let’s rewrite the state constitutions in those states that have Blaine amendments (like Michigan) and allow Protestant and Catholic schools to compete with state run schools. Faith based schools teach kids about morality and the importance of God in their lives. They also tend to have high scholastic standards and achievement and most of their students graduate. And the usually do all this with smaller budgets than public schools. Oh, wait a minute, I forgot, the teachers unions don’t like this idea because teachers at faith based schools aren’t paid as much as teachers at public schools and don’t have to be union members.
Tue, 02/16/2016 - 11:53am
Gus, the issue is not one of competition between any kind of schools. Resources are scarce and must be used in collaboration between and among schools of all kinds. The real determinant of student success on a systemic level is poverty, and so any school - public, parochial, or private - takes the consideration of poverty into account when measuring student achievement. Protestant and Catholic schools in areas of concentrated poverty have students who struggle to achieve for the same reasons their counterparts in public schools struggle to achieve. Furthermore, private schools have the ability to select their students and dismiss them, while public schools educate all children, even those with a range of needs and issues.
Bob Balwinski
Tue, 02/16/2016 - 1:09pm
Gus, Aid to parochial schools is unconstitutional in MI. Blaming teachers for this is inappropriate and off the mark.
Thu, 02/18/2016 - 11:22am
As a taxpayer and a lover of Federalist papers, it makes me very uncomfortable to pay for a religious school..I am not Catholic. I don't want my money going to an institution I have no say,belief.or responsible for cultural trauma..evident in boarding schools .in US and Canada pd for by tax payers. Still reverberating today in Native communities including Detroit. ...It has nothing to do with unions.....It's antithesis of of Constitution and Federal papers 10 and 51. .which I read in public schools. ..Funny an adult whom went to a religious school thought I was quoting from propaganda from Fox...Partially right 18th century political op ed prop...So private doesn't mean quality. .Private means a loss of knowing the kids in the neighborhood. ..Community. .Often I ask if I find out a person grew up in my area you know so so..because it was tightlyknit...I went to private I really didn't know anyone in neighborhood. . That should a greater concern. ..cohesiveness. .more polarization. ..
Tue, 02/16/2016 - 1:10pm
Thank you for your words - they describe many of the problems different school districts, especially in the news and awareness, Detroit's, face. But the bigger issue it seems is the entire life picture the children of Detroit face - as well as any child in a limited educational and socioeconomic situation, whether inner city or rural based. We as a society dump too much responsibility for how our children "turn out" on teachers - realistically a teacher will spend at most 6 hours a day with children which can be from 30 children in an elementary classroom to 180 children in a higher grade level setting - even if a private tutor working 1:1 all day we are still talking average of less than 30 hours a week. And teachers accept this responsibility which isn't right in the first place to place on them. There are 168 hours in a week. Take out about 70 for sleep for a child - there are 100 awake hours in a week - 70 or so not in classrooms. The math shows us much. And its been a time of economic decline for Michigan - we are coming back, but that takes time and education investment. Our culture values "stuff". So somehow we have to translate that idea from "physical stuff" to "the stuff of people". Education and exposure to new ideas is definitely part of it, but only part. Michigan can only be as strong as its weakest residents. Judge the Detroit teachers? No. Judge all of us that have gotten more stuff for ourselves while allowing Detroit or Grand Rapid or any other city or community to struggle? I think yes.
Bob Frank
Tue, 02/16/2016 - 2:04pm
I found myself wanting to highlight so many lines in your op-ed piece. You have made it abundantly clear that poverty does matter in the outcome of a child's education. My two sons who taught in the alternative Detroit schools also have informed me that poverty does matter. Thank you for article. I'm going to forward it to my out of town friends. Continue using your award to speak out on this vital subject--the education of our youth.
Jan of MI
Tue, 02/16/2016 - 3:17pm
Rick's excellent insight should be shared far and wide. His unique background of having taught at both ends of the economic spectrum gives his words great credibility. It is time that the attacks on our schools and teachers end and that we find ways to bring Michigan schools back to the top of the heap rankings instead of the 40th of 50. We could look to Minnesota as an example of how to do this.
Tue, 02/16/2016 - 5:01pm
I'm not sure why you won't judge the DPS teachers for their union inspired sick out because the only people hurt by this were the students. The time off not only robbed students access to education but denied them access to the low/free school lunch problem.
Tue, 02/16/2016 - 7:50pm
If schools had not have closed due to teacher absence, there would have been no publicity surrounding the conditions of the schools and thus no action. As it stood it took weeks of closures to get any notice from the press.
Tue, 02/16/2016 - 8:18pm
How can you blame teachers for doing whatever they can to let people know how horrible the conditions are at the school buildings No one would listen to them And by the way I'wouldn't want my child eating lunch prepared in a building full of black mold
Tue, 02/16/2016 - 10:52pm
If the sick outs had not been done, do you think anyone would be paying attention to the deplorable conditions in the buildings? Did you miss the buckled gym floor? Mice and rat droppings all over? Classrooms cold in winter, stuffy and hotter than hades in spring and late summer? I have worked in those conditions with those children and DPS teachers. Perhaps the sick outs will accomplish something.
Wed, 02/17/2016 - 9:02am
Not all sick out's were initiated by the union. The union had asked them not to call in sick on some of the occasions. People did it on their own.
Tue, 02/23/2016 - 11:15am
Thank you to the teachers, parents and students who took to the streets to show us what was going on. And the response of the Michigan Legislature is to "shoot the messenger." "Thanks" to Senator Geoff Hansen for introducing a bill to punish teachers and unions for bringing these deplorable conditions to the public notice.
Tue, 02/16/2016 - 7:35pm
Rick, you literally hit the hammer in the nail. It's good to know that you are not that detached from the reality of what children of Urban public-school settings and educators have to deal with on daily basis
Tue, 02/16/2016 - 8:12pm
This is so true...thank you for writing this for all teachers in the state. This makes me feel terrible, but I actually had to resort this year to giving extra credit for bringing in science supplies. This just further emphasizes the fact that money is buying opportunity for students. When you have 130 students and 275 dollars for the year that includes money for markers, band aids, science supplies, construction paper, staples etc..what other choice do you have?
Tue, 02/16/2016 - 8:25pm
Thank you for speaking out on the root of the problem in American schools -- Poverty.
RJ Webber
Tue, 02/16/2016 - 8:46pm
Thank You for being an advocate and ally for all kids Rick:)
Mary Rose
Wed, 02/17/2016 - 12:41am
We keep throwing money at a problem that is so complex. Money can't fix it. Family is the key. Children born to women without an education and without a father figure is a recipe for disaster. No one wants to call out society on the enormous problem. If a child woke up in the morning in a household where two parents cared and had expectations for that child's success, there would be a chance for that child. If the child saw his/her parents working or going to school he/she would have role models. I'm a retired elementary principal and I could share a thousand sad stories. They almost all start the same dad, no education, no money. Let's talk about it and change the future.
Marilyn McKenna
Wed, 02/17/2016 - 7:26am
All children deserve the greatest opportunities and expectations. We as educators are able to share with our students so many varied backgrounds. It serves everyone the uniqueness of the individuals each educator influences. Lives are changed and made whole through the caring aspect of the educator. Children need the opportunity to grow and blossom. It is always important to have the child as the center of education. Each child is unique.
Susan Radzilowski
Wed, 02/17/2016 - 3:40pm
I am a parent who put two children through Birmingham Public Schools from grades 7 - 12. My children graduated from Groves in 2008. One is a college graduate who is in the early stages of a promising career. My other child is preparing to begin his graduate studies at The Univeristy of Michigan. While attending Birmingham Public Schools, my children had opportunities for music, sports, theatre, school trips to Europe, New York City and Toronto. At the same time my two children were in the Birmingham schools I was employed as a School Social Worker in Detroit Public Schools where I worked for almost 30 years. My husband and I were constantly amazed at the stark difference in educational opportunity made available. Thank you for sharing your observations. I could not agree more.
Thu, 02/18/2016 - 5:59pm
So your answer to our underperforming school problem is to eliminate poverty? Given that we've been on this road since New Deal and we've seen less over all but more concentrated poverty, what is your solution? There are no examples of successful schools in very poor areas? Do you really think that restricting some parents ability to choose educational options doesn't just cause these families to move to other districts, leading to not just schools but geographic areas of less diverse, stratified wealth and concentrated poverty? How does this help? This appears to be exactly what we have now? I can't help thinking school by zip-code is one of our worst ideas.
Sat, 02/20/2016 - 2:11pm
Mr. Joseph, Your piece claims funding is a major part of the problem. Have you compared total funding per student (from all sources) for the districts you compare? Doing so, you might find there is little correlation between funding and student performance. And yes, that includes DPS. We live in your school district and our children attended your school, a "school of choice," within the school district. Education is a critical issue to us and I follow it very closely. Per student funding - could part of the problem be decades of mismanagement in some districts? Could there be administration-heavy cost structures in some districts? Could some districts be improperly shepherding their administrative expenses by not searching out lower cost services (yes, outsourcing)? Compare Birmingham or Bloomfield to DPS. You say the issue might be addressed if we transferred DPS students into wealthier districts. Even with mismanagement, I suspect funding is not the main problem. The hurdle for lower income districts might be more related to family situation. Single parents. Generations of families where a focus on education has been missing. That is a monumental hurdle for schools to fight: students who have no desire to learn (through no fault of their own) and parents who do not encourage them to learn. Missing role models. This is a truly sad situation in that lack of education makes economic upward mobility nearly impossible. No amount of money dumped into the school house will change that. We need more creative solutions - ground-breaking new ways to address the real underlying causes of underperforming districts.
Mon, 02/22/2016 - 3:07pm
Excellent piece and very timely, especially given the release earlier this month of Accountability for All: 2016 (The Broken Promise of Michigan's Charter Sector) which reports that fully 80% of charter schools in this state are fun by for-profit organizations. The report further documents that 80% of charters have academic achievement below the state average in reading and math. Each year, $1 billion of taxpayer dollars are siphoned off to charter schools which have so far not had to meet the accountability standards public schools are held to. Significant improvements could be made in public education with those dollars.
Barry Matthews
Tue, 02/23/2016 - 11:25am
Following is my response to an editorial in the Ludington Daily News which praised the bill introduced by State Sen. Hansen to punish Detroit teachers. Regarding the Detroit Teachers “sick out” and the lack of support for a resolution of the crisis in our area, including LDN editorials and the bill introduced by Sen. Hansen. Have any of you, especially Sen. Hansen made a trip to Detroit to inspect the conditions at the schools there? From the videos shown on the national news networks (even Fox News), the problems appear pretty serious and like the Flint Water Debacle, are long outstanding. The Detroit School System has had an emergency manager controlling the operations for at least eight years. That is no longer an “emergency”, it is an ongoing crisis leading to disaster. It seems that the only time we actually attempt to resolve a crisis, is when the populace, in this case the teachers and parents, finally stands up and says, “Enough!” That is what is happening in Detroit. The rest of us must listen. Yes, there is a pay dispute but many other problems are apparent, most of which will not be resolved by cutting teacher's pay once again. I submit that access to a quality education, presented by qualified educators, in a safe environment, well maintained, heated and lighted buildings, with up to date materials and methods, is the RIGHT of every child in the State of Michigan. Our failure, as a society, to provide this Right is a crime we commit at our peril. Our very future depends on a well educated workforce and electorate. Every person denied the Right of an education, should sue for a lifetime of damages because the damage is permanent and passes through generations. It is not time to “take our country back”ward; it is time we strode forward to a better tomorrow, building on the best of our past, and throwing off our failures. We must elect legislators and a governor who are dedicated to serving our people's best interests. And those best interests are not finding more ways to reduce spending and cut taxes, screaming with ever louder voices to demonize our public servants, particularly those in the educational fields. Michigan now ranks near the bottom in nearly every area that counts. Unfortunately, we get the government we elect. We can and should do better.
John S.
Mon, 02/29/2016 - 5:54pm
A local school board can't tackle the problem of poverty if it's the root cause of poor educational performance. At best it will be able to cobble together interventions (perhaps with federal and state resources) that will yield positive outcomes with the resources at hand. Ken Meier's research on Texas schools may be helpful. Advice: competent and stable school district leadership; high academic standards; hard work; parental involvement, stable curriculum. How to deal with hungry children, marginally involved parents, inadequate supplies, student health problems? Teachers are street level bureaucrats and should be given the resources and discretion to address and solve or at least lessen the seriousness of these problems. Teachers are professionals with the best knowledge of what needs to be done. Policy makers should listen to them. They are the solution, not the problem.
Thu, 07/07/2016 - 9:57am
Thank you for a straightforward overview of the dynamic. Those of us that are work directly in/with the schools fully appreciate the frustration in a way that perhaps is not apparent to people reading or hearing about the stories in the media. It is not a single solution, nor a single frustration issue and you provided an excellent illumination of the many issues that are involved.
Thu, 07/07/2016 - 10:40am
As I sit here in the autumn of my life, with no pension and on a fixed income, I can not believe that everyone wants to dig deeper into my pocket. Just this morning the Free Press reported that Medigap insurance is going to skyrocket. Previously reported was a new tactic that is starting to spread through the suburbs to add 14 mils to property tax in a way that avoids Headlee. How about looking at the overhead structure in schools. How about really going after those that steal from the children as evidenced by recent reports of 12 DPS principals and another report of a PTA treasurer. How about making sure that those we elect to boards and commissions have some knowledge about what they are doing instead of just name or color recognition. And remember that Federal and State money still comes from my and your pockets. While I am not a member of the TEA party, I can surely understand why people are angry. No, life is not fair. Some of us just want to enjoy what little of it we have left.
Thu, 07/07/2016 - 11:35am
While the article speaks to known but ignored, systemic inequities (for-profit is GREEN and, FOR-PROFIT!), it's also important to be cognizant of subconscious marginalization. What color are "people of color" and, do they have any descendants?
Sat, 07/09/2016 - 11:26pm
Basically you are anti school of choice. I don't want public schools in my neighbor. I would prefer private schools with a voucher system. I think the public school system a cross the state is a mess and isn't focused on the Interest of the students. In regard to the economic status. My parents were very poor when I was growing up. They made sure I had food everyday and did my homework. They didn't get tattoos and booze and complain. We need to start holding the parents accountable. Many get public assistance, from food stamps to section 8 housing. The tax payer can't be held responsible for the inadequacy of the parents. I have no compelling need to help these people. They need to start helping themselves and their kids.