Despite efforts, little progress has been made in educating poor, vulnerable kids

“What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

Among other things, this famous Zen riddle suggests that some problems are extremely complex – and may require more than one approach to a solution.

That’s an important notion when it comes to how to get seriously better outcomes in student learning, especially for urban schools that serve poor, vulnerable and minority children – exactly the ones who most desperately need good schooling.

As a society, we’ve spent countless millions of dollars and decades in trying to resolve this problem without much to show for it.

Take Detroit, where the public schools have been a long-running catastrophe for more years than I can count and yet where, according to one controversial study, nearly half of the adult population may remain functionally illiterate.

In recent years, Detroit Public Schools enrollment has plunged astonishingly-- from 167,085 in 2000 to 49,172 in 2013.

That’s no surprise when you consider that DPS schools are too often overcrowded, under-managed, and violent. What caring parent would want to condemn her or his child to that kind of environment?

And so there has been a corresponding increase in charter schools, often touted as the obvious way to bring good schooling to kids who need it by breaking the inept monopoly of public education. Detroit, for example, now has more than 250 charters serving more kids than the public schools -- some 51,000 children.

What this has meant, however, is thousands more school desks in Detroit than children to fill them. And this excess supply has created ferocious competition between public schools, charters, and charters operated by Detroit Public Schools themselves.

All are struggling to enroll kids to qualify for the state per-pupil foundation grant, currently a little over $7,000 a year.

On a visit last fall to University Preparatory Schools, Detroit’s best and most hopeful public charters, I learned even they are having trouble maintaining enrollment against all the competition, including suburban private schools.

The bottom line is that despite all the concern, all the hand-wringing, all the well-intentioned effort over the years, not much progress has been made in providing good education to poor, vulnerable, minority kids – certainly not the kind of progress that would represent a break from the soul-deadening atmosphere that infests most large public bureaucracies – especially schools.

So now into this debate comes Rochelle Riley, the decent and passionate columnist for the Detroit Free Press. She has made the radical suggestion that residential public schools – boarding schools, in other words – might be worth a try in Detroit.

Riley’s argument is simple: “Michigan doesn’t spend enough time or money preparing its children during their first, 1,000 days of life for lifelong learning. And many parents – caught themselves in cycles of poverty or violence, drugs or other despair – just don’t get their kids ready.” In another column, she urged we give “children living in chaos an alternative to dangerous environments where they aren’t learning and providing help for homeless children whose stability is threatened almost daily.”

To her great credit, Rochelle Riley has asked the fundamental question: What is the sound of one hand clapping when it comes to schools … and parents?

Without exception, every teacher I’ve known has pointed out that parents, family and home life are just as important – maybe more so – as good teachers in nice schools. Many have told me the best predictor of academic success is to count how many parents actually attend parent-teacher conferences.

This is scarcely new. Schools of education, learning theorists, school administrators, teachers and ordinary citizens all agree that what goes on at home is fundamentally important to the learning process. When the Center for Michigan asked citizens in last year’s round of community conversations what could best be done to improve student learning, the top suggestion was to get parents more involved. But when we asked how to do it, opinion splintered badly.

No wonder. How do you compel parents to be responsible? Or even engaged? By what right do you sacrifice the intimate primacy of the family on the altar of improved student learning?

Yet in America for generations, many families of means and ambition for their children’s success choose to send them to boarding schools at considerable expense: Exeter, Andover, Choate. One international school expert I knew, a high-ranking official in UNESCO, once said to me: “The solution to your schools problem in America is simple. Take all the kids who are attending private boarding schools and send them to the worst urban schools you can find.

“Then take all the poor and vulnerable kids from terrible schools in the inner city and send them to boarding school. It won’t take much more than a couple of years.”

So far, as a society, we’ve recognized in theory the obvious: That parents and home life are just as important factors in student learning as schools and teachers. But equally we’ve ignored one obvious solution -- it’s too risky, too politically incorrect, too heretical.

But unless we start looking into the eyes of heresy and staring them down, we’re never going to resolve the question – What’s the sound of only one hand clapping – when it comes to our kids.

And they then may be stunted … forever.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Sandra Smith
Tue, 02/18/2014 - 8:34am
Tue, 02/18/2014 - 8:57am
I agree that home life is important but boarding hasbeen tried as well, Boys Hope Girls Hope has done it for years (over 20). Its expensive and it can only be done on a small scale. Not to mention that kids have to go home...and can bring bad habits back to everyone. Instead we need to focus one creating a hunger for education based on identifying what a child wants to do in life. Career counsiling, shop class, career day, have to be introduced to more possibilites of what they can do and be and then encouraged/guided when they identify it. Thats whats going to fix this issue in the urban schools. Thats what makes a kid from poor upbringing surpass life's obstacles...focus on the goal, not temporary removal of some obstacles.
Tue, 02/18/2014 - 9:00am
That is, when the kid focuses on the goal (where they want to be in life).
Mike R
Tue, 02/18/2014 - 9:33am
Once again I applaud Phil Power and Bridge for starting a conversation. I don't yet know what I think of boarding schools as a solution, but I am excited to have them become part of the overall discussion and debate about how to improve educational opportunity in Michigan. Shining a spotlight on new ideas -- whether ultimately they're judged good, bad, or indifferent -- and inviting exchange are the things Bridge does best.
Tue, 02/18/2014 - 9:35am
Thank you for this thoughtful piece. It's clear that our educational system in Michigan is broken and despite the best efforts of well-intentioned lawmakers and caring educators, we continue to fall farther behind in our effort to raise the educational attainment of our most vulnerable children. After years of experience working on the board of a nonprofit preschool dedicated to serving at-risk, urban families, I tend to agree with Rochelle Riley when she says that "Michigan doesn’t spend enough time or money preparing its children during their first, 1,000 days of life for lifelong learning. And many parents – caught themselves in cycles of poverty or violence, drugs or other despair – just don’t get their kids ready." We know from long experience that children from the families we serve are just as capable of learning and behaving appropriately as children from affluent families and they do so while in our facility. The problem is that Michigan has not made programs like ours universally available so that all children have the advantage of being able to spend their days in safe, calm, educationally-rich environments. We spend our board meetings worrying about how we can continue to operate financially because our families can't afford to pay what it takes to keep the doors open and state-aid is inadequate, too. There are only so many grant proposals we can write or bake sales we can sponsor. It is an ongoing struggle. We know with certainty that kids who spend most of their time in their early years in chaotic home environments without regular nutritious meals, scheduled nap times, daily exposure to books and mentoring adults, etc., are already far behind when they enter kindergarten and research shows that they continue to lose ground because of those early-year deficits. We have to fix that in Michigan. Make quality preschool and wrap-around care free, universally available, and well-monitored. Demonstrate to those children that there are caring, organized adults who will give them the safety to learn and flourish. It will be a lesson they will take into later school classrooms. and we will go a long way toward helping our public schools continue that work and fixing what is broken in Michigan's educational matrix.
Darryle Buchanan
Tue, 02/18/2014 - 10:24am
We live in a state that has to get its priorities straight, first. In Michigan we spend more than five times as much to warehouse a prisoner annually than we do to educate a child; and for typically a much longer period than the thirteen years of education, K-12. If we continue at this pace our issue won't be education but the ever expanding need for more prison space. We are in effect creating the cycle the most of these students are trapped in.
Tue, 02/18/2014 - 11:14am
JR is right. We have to give children very early in life the fundamentals to health and learning. Provide it to families that need it without a cost, because we will pay more later with children and teenagers in jail.
Lori Ettema
Tue, 02/18/2014 - 11:19am
It seems to me that all of the focus on early childhood education is focused on the state or other institutions taking over for what parents should be doing. I agree that children did not ask to be born into a poor parenting situation and that they need help. But, I'd also like to see discussion on what we can do to help people do a better job of parenting so more early childhood education can take place at home. And before that, lets help young people make better decisions about even becoming parents at all. I know there will be no easy solution but it needs to be part of the discussion.
Tue, 02/18/2014 - 11:45am
Residential schools have great appeal considering what they offer: structure, predictability, safety and security. These are the things missing in many homes of the disadvantaged. Many children do not know where they will be spending the night, who will be looking after them, and whether they will make it to school the next day. Food and hygiene are secondary but necessary. A residential school would offer these missing pieces, but what goes on in the classroom still needs attention to help solve more issues. Class sizes for disadvantaged children need to be small (10-15 per teacher) and taught by teachers schooled in the best instructional practices with essential materials. Let's encourage the EAA to begin with the latter while establishing some pilot residential schools that include the latter requirements. Bring on the evaluaters and celebrate the results! Yes, it will cost money, but if education is the state's priority, it's time to fo what's necessary, not the same old traditions harder and faster!
Tue, 02/18/2014 - 1:49pm
This is a thoughtful column. In Brazil and some of the other relatively prosperous developing countries in Latin America, there are governmental programs providing modest financial support for parents whose children attend school regularly and whose children get regular medical check-up. It is hard to imagine that many would strongly endorse such a program in this country. However, one can imagine an experiment in which parents receive a modest financial sum if their children make progress in school and remain healthy. Parental involvement might also be required. This might be an experiment worth trying in this country.
J. Strate
Tue, 02/18/2014 - 4:29pm
There's no single bullet for improving the education of disadvantaged children. Ken Meier's work in Texas identified five factors: capable, experienced, and tenured administrators; parental involvement, high standards; hard work (homework), and a stable curriculum. Twenty years ago nobody wanted to take The Bell Curve seriously. It identified low intelligence as a problem. Things can be done here: prenatal care; better nutrition in early childhood; the removal of toxic chemicals (especially lead) from the home, immunizations, more extensive and better pre-school education. Getting parents to be responsible? Somebody may know if there are any social interventions there that would work; perhaps making substance abuse programs more accessible would help. The local churches can reach out--nothing works like religion to turn people's lives around. Kids aren't going to learn if they are not well fed--the brain is a greedy organ that needs fats, proteins and carbohydrates. Serving kids a health breakfast and lunch at school, if it's not already happening, would help.
Tue, 02/18/2014 - 9:10pm
Father Cunningham, of Focus Hope, envisioned an urban boarding school, it was to be at the site of the old Bell building on Oakman Blvd.. 50 yrs. ago President Lyndon Johnson declared a 'War on Poverty' to improve the quality of life for all Americans. The federal government has spent a lot of money trying to make things right. However good the intentions(or was it?), the quality of life for many Americans has not significantly changed. 50 yrs. of public education reform, to increase national literacy has not produced a more literate nation. Public education has gone through so many reform movements that people don't understand each other. The politics of public education just creates more layers of confusion. Every reform movement repeats one before it, they just change the order of the words and add some new 'edujargon'. There are many approaches to educating 'poverty children and adults' that work. The problem is that if you get rid of poverty, some people would have to change their careers or get a 'real job'. ijs
Wed, 02/19/2014 - 9:21am
a principal of an elementary school in downtown Lansing when asked by neighbors what might as a community we do for the school to improve the quality of learning and teaching. He said, quite eloquently, make this a boarding school. It is a way to give the students stability, food, and attention, missing from their lives at home. This was in the late '90s. I have never forgotten the concept, and here is it again. I had heard it once before the the early 90's about saving the young children on American Indian Reservations. A boarding school, within the community, run by the elders, educators, and selected parents. Hopefully, in more and more situations, we will embrace the notion that its about the kids, not the parents. Penny
Wed, 02/19/2014 - 12:10pm
I have come to realize that Mr. Power exhibits many of the characteristics of those who believe in magic. Every article he writes seems to be his quest for that magician that can fulfill his dreams with that magical ‘big idea’. I call this a quest for magic because he identifies the next ‘big idea’ and never explains why it will work, how it was built, or how it will help the individuals. When the scientific approach is used there is research, a hypothesis, testing, validation, and description of how it can be used. Mr. Power looks to leap over a scientific approach to the ‘big idea’ to fulfill his dream. I wonder if those who look for magic ever learned how to learn from history, how to seek the root causes before promoting a solution. I wonder if they ever learned it wasn’t the answer to the first why asked, it was the answer to the last why asked that revealed the root cause. I wonder if they ever learned that categorizing people, actions, and results is comfortable, but recognizing that people are individuals who make choices and the means to address the issues must include that individuality factor in an effective solution. Mr. Power seems to categorize everything raise about education, the ‘poor’, race, and that seems to prevent him from looking into those categories and at the individuals to better understand the root causes of problems. He suggests that minorities fail academically because they are minorities, he fails to recognize that there are minority groups in our schools that generally succeed while others don’t, he seems to lack interested in why. He looks for that magical ‘big idea’ that will make all succeed academically. He never seems to look at his categories as an aggregations of individuals so he never looks for individuals that succeed and try to understand why and how. I can look at Mr. Power’s current bit of magic and see how it could address some barriers to academic success, but success will still be determined by the nature of the individual students. Some will flourish in the proposed setting and other will be destined to failure, and both will be due to their own expectations. Mr. Power’s magical ‘big idea’ will not fulfill his dreams to create broad academic success in Detroit and across the State for there is no magic in education, it is up to each student to determine if they succeed or fail. I would encourage those who are seeking the magical ‘big idea’ that will spend other people’s money on, will be turned into law and government control, to look for success, to learn to listen, to ask why and how until they have asked the last why, and then listen to the answer. I believe in miracles, I don’t believe in magic, and as good as this idea maybe it is neither.
John Q. Public
Wed, 02/19/2014 - 9:22pm
You want to hear heresy? The answer is...local control, with some children left behind. No do-gooder ever wants to admit that there's no single solution for which people are willing to make the necessary sacrifice. Those who work in high-level government positions all have the enormous egos required of someone who thinks he has all the answers, or at least the one big answer--what Duane only semi-tongue-in-cheek calls "magic." If you returned decision making to the local level, you'd find literally scores of different solutions that are not transferable across district lines. Some locales would find no solution, and some of those children would sadly get left behind. It'd be a hell of a lot fewer than are now, though. We're committed to efficient ineffectiveness when the solutions lie in inefficient effectiveness. Districts are unique, and the solutions are, too.
Charles Richards
Thu, 02/20/2014 - 3:55pm
The Economist of November 9, 2013 listed the percentages of seven different British ethnic groups that scored five GSCEs grade A to C including English and math in 2012. All these pupils were eligible for free school meals. Fifty-eight percent of black Africans reached this level of achievement. Fifty-seven percent of Bangladeshi's did so. Forty-eight percent of Pakistanis were successful. Blacks from the Caribbean had a success rate of forty-six percent. Forty-four percent of mixed white/black Caribbeans were successful. Indians were successful forty percent of the time. And white British had a success rate of thirty-one percent. All of these students came from a similar economic background, so it's obvious that income levels don't determine the variation in success rates among ethnic groups. It must be cultural. Something that Rochelle Riley puts her finger on when she says, “Michigan doesn’t spend enough time or money preparing its children during their first, 1,000 days of life for lifelong learning. And many parents – caught themselves in cycles of poverty or violence, drugs or other despair – just don’t get their kids ready.” Whether or not Michigan spends enough money on children during their first 1,000 days, they spend pretty much the same everywhere. (Actually, when you take the Great Start Readiness Program into account, the state spends more on low-income kids.) If there is a deficiency then, it is among those who Ms. Riley describes when she says, "And many parents – caught themselves in cycles of poverty or violence, drugs or other despair – just don’t get their kids ready.” In effect, Ms. Riley is asking the rest of us to compensate for their failures. The British black African immigrants seem to have a fair amount of success without extra help.When Ms. Riley calls for residential schools she is implicitly admitting the nearly complete breakdown of Detroit's culture. Mr. Power says, "On a visit last fall to University Preparatory Schools, Detroit’s best and most hopeful public charters, I learned even they are having trouble maintaining enrollment against all the competition, including suburban private schools." What he did not say was how successful the schools were. How do they compare to their competitors? And shouldn't they have to work very hard to maintain enrollment? All schools should face severe, unremitting pressure to do better. Are we concerned about the ease and comfort of teachers and administrators, or the excellence of the student's education?
Sun, 02/23/2014 - 6:36am
Phil - there are 297 charter public schools in the entire state, and there aren't 250 in the city of Detroit. It's closer to 100.
Sun, 02/23/2014 - 9:28am
Vouchers. More money is NOT the answer. Geniuses were delivered with a McGuffey’s Reader and a chalk board, and parents spanking their kids asses for failure and disrespect at school.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 02/23/2014 - 11:35am
Duane is right that there is no magic and I'm sure Mr. Powers realizes that. There is nothing wrong with looking at options. I would suggest the root of the problem is poverty and segregation. If there is a way to reduce poverty and segregation then there is a way to improve education. Unfortunately there is neither the will or the resources to do that. I would start with good prenatal health care for all pregnant women. The US ranks near the top of most countries in preterm births. The problems for these students starts before birth. Adequate food and health care for pregnant women and young children would make more difference than anything we can do in the classroom. Again, it's easier to build more prisons.
Mon, 02/24/2014 - 12:17am
Chuck, Why do you presume Mr. Power doesn;t believe in magic? Does he explain anything about the solutions he wants Lansing to turn into law and fund with other people's money? If it is poverty then why are their 'poor' kids that succeed academically? If it is segragation then why are their kids in those groups that succeed? Could it be more about the community culture (lack of support for academic success) that createsbarriers to academic success? Could it be family structure that is a barrier to academic success? Could it be a lack of expectation by people because they have justified academic failure based on economic status? Could it be factors that are more prevalent in certain socio-econmic groups then being in those groups? I encourage looking for the successes to determine what barriers they have to overcome and learn the how and why they succeed.