Lessons learned: Big money alone can’t fix public schools

broken pencil

Some of Michigan’s top foundations invested millions of dollars to improve Detroit education. The group they formed has closed quietly, falling well short of its goals.

In 2010, major foundations in Southeast Michigan pooled their money to tackle one of the region’s most intractable problems: low achievement in Detroit schools.

Their lofty, if not eye-popping, goal was to ensure that, by 2020, 90 percent of city children would graduate, go on to higher education and not require remedial help in college.

The group that was formed to accomplish those goals, Excellent Schools Detroit, quietly closed on June 30. It fell well short of any of those benchmarks, showing that even the best-funded efforts have trouble improving Detroit’s fractured and unstable educational landscape.

Former officials with Excellent Schools Detroit won’t call its closure a failure because other nonprofits will continue many of its major projects, including a scorecard that rates all city schools and systems to help parents decide where to enroll their children and to help students apply to college.

But after seven years and more than $32 million spent by Excellent Schools Detroit, their key players acknowledge they failed to connect with Detroit parents, could have better collaborated with other reform groups and tried to do too much.

“This work is not for the faint of heart,” said Tonya Allen, CEO of Skillman Foundation and a former board member for ESD.

tonya allen

Tonya Allen, CEO of Skillman Foundation and a former board member for Excellent Schools Detroit, said the reform group failed to connect with parents because it lacked a good “ground game.”

The exit is the latest in a line of well-funded nonprofits that have tried and failed to bring citywide improvement to Detroit schools.

The General Motors Foundation and United Way for Southeastern Michigan, for instance, attempted to reform so-called “dropout factory schools.” The $27 million, five-year program the groups funded improved graduation rates from about 50 percent to 80 percent at only seven Detroit-area schools and couldn't boost scores on the ACT college entrance exam.

This year, General Motors announced it is eliminating the GM Foundation and the United Way announced that it will pare back its focus on dropouts.  

Nationally, Sue Desmond-Hellmann, CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has spent billions of dollars on school reform over the past 20 years, said in a letter last year that the group found school reform is far more difficult than anticipated.

Big money, big goals

Excellent Schools Detroit began as a coalition to support the opening of good schools, the closure of underperformers and to grade the city’s traditional, charter and private schools to help inform parents.

The group formed after Detroit schools earned the worst reading and math scores in the U.S. on the Nation’s Report Card in 2009. Over the past several years, dozens of schools have closed, nearly 100,000 students have left Detroit Public Schools and governance has switched from an elected school board to a state-appointed manager and back again to an elected board.

Excellent Schools Detroit received funding from numerous foundations, including Skillman, The Kresge Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the McGregor Fund.

Ultimately, Excellent Schools Detroit evolved into an idea incubator that spun off several new projects and nonprofits including advocating for early childhood education and launching 482Forward, a parent advocacy group.

Excellent Schools Detroit was among the first advocates to push for the creation of a Detroit Education Commission with some commissioners appointed by the mayor. The commission was initially proposed to oversee the opening of new traditional and charter schools as well as citywide school transportation and enrollment systems, but the Legislature rejected the proposal last year.

Soon, the tasks that Excellent Schools Detroit took on became a hodge-podge, Allen said, and the organization began doing too much with too many segments of the community.

Excellent Schools Detroit came about because the community was saying, ‘This is what we need.’ Then it became three to four different organizations in one,” said Shirley Stancato, the group’s former board president and CEO of New Detroit, a nonprofit born out of the 1967 uprising that seeks to eliminate racial disparities.

“The board had to ask ourselves what’s the best way for us to continue.”

Scorecard lost on parents

Perhaps the best-known among Excellent Schools Detroit’s projects was the Detroit Schools Scorecard that assigned schools letter grades from A to F to help parents make informed choices.

It followed similar report cards. In the past 15 years, the Skillman Foundation did a project called the “Good Schools: Making the Grade” that identified and granted money to high-performing and “improving” schools.  New Detroit also used to issue reports on Detroit’s public schools, before the proliferation of charter schools in the mid-2000s.

The Excellent Schools’ scorecard was far more complex, grading schools across several indicators.  

Few schools did well. The scorecard recommended only 21 K-8 schools where a majority of students are Detroit residents. No schools earned an “A” on the scorecard this year.

“I don’t think (the scorecards) were worthwhile especially because parents  weren’t involved and don’t know how they were put out and who did it. They were plain ignored,” said Helen Moore, 80, an education activist in Detroit for nearly 50 years.

“Nothing ever really progresses unless you get to the parents and have the parents involved.”

Sharlonda Buckman, former board member who until recently was also the executive director of the Detroit Parent Network, a parent advocacy nonprofit group, said more parents didn’t use the scorecard because there weren’t enough paper copies.

“I’m a big advocate for paper – there is a certain percentage of families doing everything online but most families want to hold something in their hands … pass it to a friend, have grandma look at it,” she said.

The data may not have been a hit with parents, but it was beneficial to policymakers and advocates during last year’s legislative debate over the reorganization of DPS.

The Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, a collaboration of nonprofit, business and community leaders, and other supporters, used the data to successfully persuade state lawmakers to reinstate an elected Detroit school board with authority, Allen said.

Lessons learned

The lesson from Excellent Schools Detroit’s demise: Reformers need to figure out what parents want.

They underestimated the difficulty of connecting with parents in a city where children are scattered among 90-plus public schools, dozens of charters and in schools of choice in Detroit’s inner-ring suburbs.

“We needed a ground game that understood how parents were making choices. I don’t think we have mastered that in our city,” Allen said.

Another lesson: Reformers need to collaborate.

Several nonprofits were working on the same problems and duplicating efforts. While Excellent Schools Detroit advocated for early childhood education, for instance, the Kellogg and Kresge foundations are building a coalition to ensure every Detroit child gets access to early childhood education from ages three to five.

shirley stancato

Shirley Stancato, CEO of New Detroit and former board president for Excellent Schools Detroit, said the depth of the city’s educational crisis requires more collaboration among reformers.

“I don’t think we were as collaborative as we could’ve been –  the whole Detroit community –  on kids and schools in terms of looking at this work and who needs to do it,” Stancato said. “And we didn’t realize until we were in the middle of it that there were other people doing some of this work.”

The end came over the last few months, as the group’s board tried to decide its focus for the coming year.

The organization’s longtime leader, Dan Varner, had left last fall to become the leader of Goodwill Industries of Greater Detroit, a workforce development organization, and an interim was in place. But with no permanent leader and a blurred focus, the decision to shut down was clear.

Excellent Schools Detroit is part of a web of nonprofits in education reform that seek funding from the same crop of foundations.

The now-closed group shifted its most promising projects to other nonprofits:

Enroll Detroit, a citywide enrollment system that assists families whose schools are closing or who are facing enrollment barriers, has been assumed by the Detroit Parent Network.

Detroit College Access Network, which works with parents and students to make sure they are ready for higher education, will be a part of the Michigan College Access Network. The data and analytics collection that was used for the school scorecard will be housed at the Skillman Foundation.

Other projects, such as early childhood advocacy, will end because other nonprofits are working on those with more money and success, Stancato said.


Wendy Lewis Jackson, managing director of the Kresge Foundation Detroit Program, said Kresge is encouraged that key initiatives will continue.

"We knew there were risks in entering such a volatile arena as public education in Detroit. We also know ESD has improved the lives of students,” Jackson wrote in an email to Bridge. "The new leadership team and empowered elected board give us particular confidence that Detroit Public Schools can now evolve into a system that effectively serves students across the city."

Deidre Huntington, communications manager for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, said the experience underscores the importance of building coalitions “regionally, statewide and even nationally, as everyone is searching for solutions and approaches to improve academic outcomes for children whether it’s in Detroit or Elk Rapids.”

One final lesson, Varner said: Reform is hard.

“We didn't get everything get we wanted, but we did get folks to come together and work on a solution,” Varner said.

“The lesson is (we learned) the difficulty of getting things done around the world of education.”

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Kevin Grand
Thu, 07/27/2017 - 7:36am

"Former officials with Excellent Schools Detroit won’t call its closure a failure because other nonprofits will continue many of its major projects, including a scorecard that rates all city schools and systems to help parents decide where to enroll their children and to help students apply to college."

It must be nice to have a big chunk of cash lying around with absolutely no clue on how to spend it effectively.

I say this because everything mentioned above not only is available already, but has been for some time now.


Another point worth mentioning is something that Duane has suggested numerous times in the past (obviously to no avail).

Rather than throwing truckloads of money at a problem and hoping for the best, why not look at the problem from a different perspective. Concentrate on the successful school districts around Michigan and find out specifically how they are different ( Hint: Detroit's disproportionally large per-pupil allotment should easily dispel the notion that it's money). Then compare those findings to what is missing in failed school districts.

Or, you can just keep on doing what you've been doing all along and hope that something changes this time around.

Thu, 07/27/2017 - 8:43am

I have been preaching this for years....money cannot solve Education Problems in areas that the vast majority of people are living in poverty. The Unintended Consequences of governmental programs for decades has led to Comfortable Poverty. The success rate of any child today in Detroit Public Schools that was born into poverty without a traditional family structure of nobody having a full time job in the household is nearly nill. Also, don't be fooled by those that say Detroit Public Schools have not been well funded, when one adds up the State, Local and Federal per pupil funding, it is in the top 25 in Michigan. This doesn't include the decades long contributions of the foundations. We continue to hear the Residential neighborhoods are being left behind compared to Downtown and Midtown Development. First, the bankruptcy revealed how archaic city operations have been for decades. Now they are being modernized and services are being vastly improved to residents. Second, with Comfortable Poverty increasing (Low Labor Participation Rate in Detroit of Residents), there will never be the so-called attention to Residential Detroit that many are whining about.

Thu, 07/27/2017 - 9:18am

Your comments are a right-wing cliche. Poverty matters because it creates instable households. Poor families struggle to feed and clothe their children. They move frequently. They hold multiple jobs to able to afford rent. They struggle with health care and finding places to get it. They pay more for everything because they don't have free checking or they are continually paying outrageous, ridiculous late fees. (Consumers power charging 295 dollars to turn on electic which requires a flick of switch.) Require a minimum LIVING wage. Get national health care. Feed kids at school. Provide free safe after school care for working parents. You can't expect much from families making 22000 a year or less. And finally, stop looking to business to solve a problem. Business is about profit, not about the general welfare, not about community needs, not about what makes learning work, not testing corporations making a profit. Empower educators to Educate instead of trying right-wing gimmicks. A child isn't an exploitable resource.

Thu, 07/27/2017 - 9:32am

You hit the mark. (no pun...) You cannot change educational outcomes without addressing the root cause, poverty. The common factor in the success of suburban communities is the stability of the homes the students come from. You cannot separate the horror children in Detroit are living through and expect to educate them, in just six hours a day. That's nonsense. Even in successful districts, you can tie the overall positive outcomes of a building to the level of free and reduced lunches being served daily. Kids aren't coming to school to learn, they're coming to eat. We can dance around this issue all we want to. But unless and until we deal with the violent poverty that exists in Detroit and communities all across America, the outcomes will never change.

Detroit Resident
Thu, 07/27/2017 - 10:12am

Agree with previous two observations and offer my two cents: Establish first rate boarding schools in the city for middle and high school students. Such institutions are often the purview of the well-to-do. But they have also served the middle class. Anyone recall St Francis De Sales, a boarding school for girls back in the day? It was located in Powhatan, VA and close by was St. Emma, a military boy's school. Graduates of these schools went on to college and great careers. Imagine having them in Detroit, today?

Fri, 07/28/2017 - 6:07pm


Poverty can matter, but it isn't what matters.
Commonly people blame poor academic performance on poverty when they compare 'wealthy' schools to 'poor' schools. It allows them to stop thinking and encourages them to look for more of other people's money to spend. In reality if they would stop and think for a moment by asking why the people in the 'wealthy' districts have that added money, they would learn that it was education that facilitate those districts becoming 'wealthy' [learning lead money, not money leadind learning]. The people that earned that added money did it with learning. That provides the kids in those district with a model of learning and kids learn quickest from what they see and hear. Those kids have the added benefit of those same people coaching them on how to learn because their parents had to learn those means/methods so they could learn. And most of all the parents found that learning is built on persistence and they are persistent with their children. In a sense the money is a symptom of learning and not the means of learning.

You seem to fail to grasp that businesses must earn a profit because unlike government that simply gets money for being even when they are failing, businesses must deliver results for the people they serve to earn the money to pay all the bills to stay in business. As for profit, it has two functions, it pays ahead for future development and it encourages people to risk their money in the business. For when a business goes bankrupt all the money in the business goes to those the business owes, not like the government where they simply take it from those who were never part of the municipality that fails.

Sun, 07/30/2017 - 8:42pm

Wow. Staggeringly ignorant! Sure, all those families in the good schools are there because they are persistent and know how to learn properly, which magically led to their family wealth. Meanwhile those kids in failing schools just have the wrong kind of family and should just suffer. Read up on the reality of segregation in housing and schools. The article goes into the dark history of its effects. Then rework your theory.

Tue, 08/01/2017 - 11:53pm


I am struggling to understand your remarks and whose comments they are in response to.

The only 'magic' those people who used their learning to achieve financial success was their working smarter to achieve their success, learning was a tool.

As for the parents in poverty, it has nothing to do with their personal qualities [I believe they love and want the best for their children], it is about what they have experienced, what they have learned, what skills they have developed for learning.

Something you may want to consider before leaping to presumptions, until you ask you cannot be sure if who you are talking at isn't speaking from direct or indirect experience, from observation and reading an thinking through what is of public record.

If you want to help someone rethink their theories/ideas you will be most effective by asking them pointed questions about why and how, offering alternative examples and ask if they are exception or how and why does the theory apply, asking for ideas about specific ways the theory could be applied in identified settings.
Simply telling someone to read something you like doesn't go into the how and why is much less likely to get them thinking about their own theory instead of identifying the weaknesses in the paper being read.

As for the 'dark history', in all honest I can't change history and neither can you. Tomorrow will be different than history so our ideas need to be looking ahead not behind.

If it is my theories you find flaws in, point out the flaws in my thinking and challenge me to apply them to the situations that you believe where they would fail. I won't direct you elsewhere for why the theory works, I own what I say and I will be the one that explains it and am willing to put to the test and accept responsibility if it fails. Pick the most glaring flaw and the the least likely setting and I will describe how and why the theory applies.

My theory is based on the reality that we each have to learn everything, humans have no genetic instincts. Child from 'wealthy' parents has to learn how to learn just as the child from 'poor' parents. A student learns only when they are interested in learning, and they are the ones who will decide on when they are interested.

Thu, 07/27/2017 - 4:33pm

Exactly my thoughts! As a Detroiter born/raised in the city, many of the problems with education starts and IS rooted in the family. Personally my parents never enrolled us in DPS as it was obvious we'll most likely get caught up in the mess of trouble or plainly never attend school (as DPS doesn't call parents to inform parents of attendance.) I attended private catholic schooling and all of my 3 brothers are employed and educated.

Many Detroit families that have education issue with their children stem from family instability, job-issues, and just plain not trying to improve their situation. Yea the truth hurts. Unless parents are willing to start giving some effort in their children's future and stop whining, then maybe they will escape poverty.

There are also many Detroit families that do grow normal families in the city as long as there is private schools to attend. It's very difficult to get a good education through DPS, props to children who do.

Paul Russo
Thu, 07/27/2017 - 9:38am

Thanks for a very informative article, I congratulate you for telling the story of Detroit's efforts to solve major problems in their education system.
I hope it starts some real discussions and not the politicians excuses for failure. The school board, union and parents must first accept facts before real progress can start, it's not money alone.

Stephen Banicki
Thu, 07/27/2017 - 10:21am

Maybe too many cooks in the kitchen. Find a good leader, coordinate funding from all sources, monitor results from the leader providing recommendations without strings and let the leader lead.
With Superintendent Vitti I believe Detroit has the right leader. Let him lead but give him room to lead and don't be benevolent bullies.

Nat Pernick
Thu, 07/27/2017 - 10:39am

Public education is an example of a complex system. It is based on interactions between the "parts", which in this case are parents, students, community members and the school system. Successful school systems have a massive amount of parental and public involvement. As Roy Roberts said, if you want to see if a school is successful, examine the parking lot when a school event is going on. So, the solution is to find ways to get parents, or their equivalent (guardians, relatives, or whoever is taking care of the kids) to be more involved. This is a challenge, but is the only thing that will work.

Thu, 07/27/2017 - 10:40am

I was so disappointed to see that there is a Membership Application and Fee of $10 to Join the Detroit Parent Network. This seems counterintuitive to getting parent/guardians involved.

Fri, 07/28/2017 - 6:12pm


What is undervalued is wasted. Free is the surest way to undervalue something.

It membership is truly valuable then people need to invest something to be part of it. Time and again we see where free is under utilized while a nominal fee push people over a threshold to get engaged.

Ben Washburn
Thu, 07/27/2017 - 11:00am

Big Money Alone??? Who came-up with that warped headline? Excellent Schools Detroit only spent an average of $33.00 per year per student on their efforts. That's a pittance compared to the almost $15,000 per year per student that comes from other sources.
I applaud the most of Bridge's centrist reporting. Heck, I'm finally going to shell-out a $200 donation. But this particular headline was ill-founded, and more reflects the kind of thinking that has all too much been coming out of Lansing.
That said, I do agree that just a little more money alone will not make much of a difference in outcomes. Real change will take a lot more money than anyone seems to imagine. Back in the late 70s, I studied a prime example on the outskirts of Philadelphia as to how much it really takes to make a serious difference. The Glenn Mills School pulled 200 young gang leaders off of the Philly streets each year and into a 4-year residential program, which also provided them with a trade. 95% went on to higher education. But, in today's dollars, that costed $75,000 per year.
So, get real. No taxpayer in this State is going to be willing to shell-out that kind of money to make a difference. That means that we must all face-up to the need to find another way.
We all need to face-up to this reality.
Every news story that appears these days assumes that education is some kind of rightly expected public service. Just send your kids to the experts, and they are responsible for turning them into productive citizens!
I take big issue with those underlying assumptions.
Yes, I understand that many parents these days have to work two jobs to just keep their heads above water. But, that is no pass to doing their part in the rearing of their children.
As a "society", we have to elevate and specify our expectations of parents. "We" are an aging population. There are far fewer young people coming after us, They will bear the burden of caring for the most of us. We need to become more accommodating of this fact and more engaged in this transition.
If you want to explore any more of my thinking, just go to plunkbenwashburn.com.

Michigan Observer
Thu, 07/27/2017 - 3:09pm

Mr. Washburn is mistaken on some issues and sensible on others. First of all, the headline is absolutely correct and appropriate. It is obviously true that "Big money alone can’t fix public schools. " Excellent Schools Detroit spent $32 million over seven years. Granted, that isn't much money to operate schools, but that was in addition to the schools operating budget. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation spent billions of dollars over twenty years to little effect. Again, that was in addition to the regular funding.

On the other hand, he does cite a success story involving a residential program. And another commenter cited two residential schools in Virginia that were successful. Perhaps taking the students out of their cultural environment is the key. Some years ago, the federal government ran an experimental housing voucher program that enabled some inner city residents to move to a significantly better neighborhood. It seems that as far as the children were concerned, their age at the time of the move was critical. Those who were under twelve when they relocated were quite successful. Those who were older, didn't derive much benefit.

The philanthropic community has begun talking about the need for "wraparound" services. In other words, they are trying to construct a functioning culture. Mr. Washburn is absolutely right when he says, "Every news story that appears these days assumes that education is some kind of rightly expected public service. Just send your kids to the experts, and they are responsible for turning them into productive citizens!" It is not something that can be subcontracted out. He goes on to say, "As a "society", we have to elevate and specify our expectations of parents. " In this case, "society" is the community these kids live in. The foundations have failed because even with the help of the most skilled sociologists, artificially constructing a healthy, functioning culture by main force is extremely difficult.

Ben Washburn
Sun, 07/30/2017 - 8:15pm

Thanks, Michigan Observer, for your response. It clarified just how difficult it is to address any of these issues.
My first point was that $32 Million over 7 years is not really "Big Money" when it is placed in the context of the actual total cost of providing even a mediocre educational system, when it is based upon being just another governmental service.
Foundations scurry to get public recognition for all of their good works, and the media highlights their response to this critical issue, which only serves to make matters worse rather than better. It telegraphs to the parents of school age children, that someone else, with "Big Money" has intervened to make things better; and they, themselves, can just continue to coast along in reliance upon all of these external forces. It telegraphs to the Legislature, and to all of their constituents, that they have been relieved of any further obligation to finance education. A prince on a shiny white horse has come to save the day. This is a lot like the public reaction to governmental planning becoming blight by announcement.
Just meaning well is rarely enough.
I can not call the case of the Glenn Mills Schools a success story. As I tried to say, that is the scope of investment that would be needed if you expect to have excellent results, and it is ridiculous to expect taxpayers to ever support those kind of costs. It would mean at least tripling our existing income tax. That's never going to happen.
I do support expending existing school funds for certain limited "wrap-around services" as a stop-gap measure.
For example, inner-city schools do need to have a commercial quality washer and dryer on-site. Eighty percent of students come from homes which probably do not have one, and whose parent(s) are no longer eligible for any other public assistance, and can't afford to go to a laundromat. A lot of absenteeism results from kids being ashamed to come to school in dirty, stinky clothes. I have to ask, however, why the school should have to use paid staff to wash these clothes. Why is it unreasonable to expect the benefitting parent(s) to come-in on a rotating basis, and run those machines?
This is the nitty-gritty kind of thinking that I think needs to go into what we specifically expect of parents these days.

Laurel Raisanen
Thu, 07/27/2017 - 11:07am

The EAA was formed about the same time with lots of financial support from the business community and educational leadership from sponsor Eastern Michigan University. Is that where this money was directed? If I remember correctly the educational community (staff) had very little input and the EAA basically was forced on Detroit by Lansing - especially Snyder. I would love to see a story actually telling the truth about what happened in 2010 to Detroit schools. Had there been staff input, parental involvement, more actual planning, would all of that infusion of money to Detroit schools been successful? Probably...but we will never know.

Common Sense
Thu, 07/27/2017 - 11:48am

Schools, just like companies, Fraternities, clubs, and Families, are only as good as its members. Schools will not get better until we resolve our social economic issues. New schools do no good when the students are not ready or care to learn.

Paul Jordan
Thu, 07/27/2017 - 12:19pm

Whether it is Detroit, Flint, or any city where poverty has increased as the population declined, schools' success will depend upon the city and its people becoming generally more prosperous. What, I wonder, has been the effect of the Kalamazoo Promise on attracting/retaining more middle class folks to Kalamazoo and its school district, and on academic achievement & retention? It has been in effect for enough years that some effects should be perceptible.

Thu, 07/27/2017 - 12:25pm

I did NOT like ESD. I thought their methodology was crazy, they didn't engage parents and the variables in which they looked at were of NO VALUE when you are trying to RAISE test scores.

Thu, 07/27/2017 - 1:03pm

I agree with Kellie, as a retired principal who worked with ESD, I witnessed the flawed methodology first hand.
At its core poverty is the reason for many of the lack of educational achievement.

William C. Plumpe
Thu, 07/27/2017 - 1:10pm

The process is step by step. Rome was not built in a day and DPS will not be fixed in a day.
And while innovative teaching and management programs are wonderful and necessary
why can't someone solve the simple yet vexing problem of having enough supplies?
Lofty goals are good for PR but don't really help the bottom line the way adequate supplies, working infrastructure and clean and safe schools would. Fix the simple yet necessary stuff first that effects all students then work on the education strategy. Results are more concrete, changes easier to implement and generally less expensive.

Bob Balwinski
Thu, 07/27/2017 - 1:13pm

Technicality: If you make a baby, you are a "progenitor".....just passing on genes to next generation. If you love and nurture and support that baby through its informative years by expressing the need for education and participating thusly, you can now be called a "parent."
This was a lesson I learned in my 30 years, 2 months, and 2 days as a teacher for Detroit Public Schools.

Thu, 07/27/2017 - 3:11pm

It is difficult to have parental involvement in the learning process when almost 1/2 of the residents are illiterate. It is difficult to have parental involvement in the learning process when 3/4 of the children are from single parent households. Other problems must be fixed before anyone can even attempt to fix the schools.

Thu, 07/27/2017 - 3:26pm

By reading this article this cabal of organizations have learned nothing from spending all that money. They have two glaring flaws in their thinking, the first is that they ignore the student, by all appearance the closest they get to the students is talk about their parents. In reality even parents that want their children to learn are at the mercy of what the children are interested in doing [learn or not learn]. Until these people spending all of loads of other people's money stop and begin including the students and trying to understand through their 'eyes' why they do or don't learn they are doomed to failure.

The other fatal flaw in their thinking is that they don't understand how to draw in and engage people with different perspectives. It seems that they only talk to educational 'professionals' and don't consider perspectives outside the K-12 community.

If they want to engage parents maybe they should first talk to parents with children that have learned and succeeded academically, in different environments. Asking them what are the barriers they faced and how did they overcome them and why they overcame them. Similarly include successful students asking them what barriers they had to overcome, how and why they overcame them.

Even if they try this I hope they draw someone in to lead the structured conversation that has proven success at drawing in people not experienced in such a process.

I would encourage them to read ; Originals; How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant [about how to find original ideas], Wealth, Poverty and Politics by Thomas Sowell [to better understand how culture impacts the individual and to consider how each student creates their own micro culture that can even overpower the parents culture]. And once they decide that learning is a habit they should consider any number of books on the power of habit, how to create good habits, and even The 5 Second Rule by Mel Robbins for a technique in starting new habits.

But their minds are so comfortable where they are, all we can expect them to do is more of the same and get the same results.

The Esquire Abb...
Thu, 07/27/2017 - 6:20pm

The evidence of the bureaucracy as well as the hierarchy of state mandated control mechanisms rendered the previous efforts as "defunct" which worked toward making these most astringent efforts to reform the "district" as well as empower educational achievement accompanied with "excellence" within the urban setting literally non-effective. When you have such an interference on the higher level both manipulating and monopolizing the infrastructure, you will have confusion as well as disharmony. Any possible degree of true "reform" must be systematic and strategically aligned at the grassroots left instead of at the corporate level without the interference of the state "political" regime . Schools, community grassroots leaders, students, parents, grandparents and other associate child care providers must unite for the cause of bringing both stability as well as innovative "sustainability" into reality. The Urban Model of Reform as I refer to it. We had this in the early 90's through the Area Offices A-F!
The new phase initiative must indeed be "child based," "child centered" and unquestionably "child focused" in order to attain the ideal results of performance standards the replicate achievement. Until we go back and re-align with these efforts, the structure will continue to crumble.

Thu, 07/27/2017 - 8:20pm

The fact that the EDS can admit that they are ineffective and it was time to pull the plug says a lot more for them than can be said for many other such entities! Most just fail continue to fail make excuses, throw around blame and ask for more money, and then rise out of the ashes (Detroit Public Schools!!!!) As EDS says It's all about culture and we're not very good at that!

Fri, 07/28/2017 - 1:12am

'We' are bad at culture because we make no effort to understand culture; how it works, why it works, how to use expectations to focus cultures and how to help people create their own culture even inside existing cultures. Few if any think past how to manipulate those in cultures for personal gain. It isn't until you come face to face with cultures and have to work around them because the needed results that you have to start learning the practical side and that people can create their own culture of one as a starting point.

We can each look at our past and see how and why cultures affected how we acted.

Sun, 07/30/2017 - 4:33pm

I'm certain that if you start pointing out problems in a culture you will be labeled a bigot, a racist, elitist, prude etc etc. Our nation has gotten to the point where such thinking is forbidden. So short of this just keep throwing money at it.

Wed, 08/02/2017 - 12:12am

I have watch and experience what you describe, that is the result of lazy thinking.

If people would realize that each person establishes or selects a micro culture [kids especially, that handful of people that they interact most often with] they live in. If people acknowledge the personalize micro culture they will see that micro culture is much more fluid and controllable than the broader cultures, and it can be change simply by changing who is include in it. The best way to see it is in a school, in who the academically successful kids include in their micro culture and who the less successful kids include. I was a less successful and my micro culture were a few that we played together everyday after school and on weekends, we never studied and our testing reflected that. But ask people to recognize that and to use it to help kids learn is inconvenient, just won't happen.

Talking about reality, especially when it doesn't fit the agenda, can easily cause people to lash out and discourage those challenging the agenda.

Fri, 07/28/2017 - 12:03am

Wow! Many of the comments that I have read are quite disturbing and frankly elitest, and dare I say, somewhat racist. The idea that built boarding schools within the city and taking kids away from their families so that they'll have better influences instead of their parents is unbelievable. Ask the Native American communities how well that worked out for them. Making children feel ashamed of their parents or their culture, is never the right answer. Giving families "vouchers" to move them to "better" neighborhoods instead of tackling the problems within these neighborhoods leaves a huge group of families to fend for themselves and leaves the communities even more devastated than before as the roll models, or those positive mirrors are being removed.

Besides, that's what a lot of Detroit families tried to do when moving to Southfield. What happened there? White families started moving their kids out of the district in droves because all of a sudden the schools for some reason weren't as good as they used to be. I wonder why since they had the same teachers, the same facilities, and the same funding as before, the only difference was the influx of brown children?

Placing all the blame on the parents, especially those living in poverty isn't fair either. As a teacher and now a parent I have an evolving perspective. I used to think getting parents involved and to cared about their kid's education was the key, but there's more to it than that. Most parents want what's best for their kids. Many parents have no clue what to look for in a school, what makes a school good, nor how to go about holding the powers that be (not always just the teachers or schools, but more likely politicians that don't have the first iota of an idea of what it takes to help make kids successful) accountable, much less know what really and truly goes on everyday in the schools. This is not just a problem for poor parents and caregivers, but even middle class or upper class parents as well. Most parents will walk into a school building and see that it is clean and/or new, with kids in uniforms and sitting quietly and think the school is safe and therefore "good" and will not dig any deeper than that. And I give credit to the parents that do because it requires a lot of research, time, and multiple visits to schools to accurately determine if a school is really good and not just vapid eye candy. That is a lot for any parent (I've been looking for 4 years now, for kindergarten, and still have more work to do). Now imagine if a parent's main concern is gettting and keeping food on the table, a roof over their heads, and clothes on their back that don't have the time, energy, and probably not the education to seek this information out. Not to mention even if they know that their kid's school isn't good, it may be the closest school to them and they have no transportation to get them somewhere else, or don't know what to do to be an advocating activist for reform, nor probably the time because they may be working more than one minimum wage jobs to support their families. While all communities have their fair share of trifling, self-centered, self-absorbed, uninvolved, totally checked out parents (found in rich, poor and everything in between families alike) to say that parents are always at fault, and "it starts at home" is unfair and you sir/ma'am are missing the larger picture. Sometimes there are things of greater priorities and things that may be beyond their control that must be taking into account and perspective.

Yes parents have a huge roll, but if this is a difficult task for me as a teacher, who is also middle class and comes from a middle class, eduacated background, along with others like me, you can best believe it is 10 times as much for those living in poverty whose main objective is simply survival.

But poverty isn't the only problem, schools and politics/politicians don't make it easy for parents in poorer districts either. There is a lot of knowing how to navigate the system and knowing how to effectively advocate for students that come into play. DPS hasn't always been horrible. There were phenomenal magnet schools at one time. My mother pulled me out of a prestigious private school to put me into one of the DPS magnet schools in the 80s, not for a lack of money but for a better education, and I must say, attending that school, (as well as many others who went there have noted as well) was a defining moment not just in my education but also my life. My education was better at that DPS school than at my expensive private school, even if it didn't have the same material amenities and was in the heart of the Cass Corridor long before it became the trendy and hip Midtown. I went to school with the children of immigrants and prostituts, with drug addicts and pips working the corners near the school and we had a rich expansive, rigorous, yet nurturing educational experience. And while the parents were a very key and essential component, so was the school community that reached out, supported, nurtured, educated, and made parents feel welcomed and valued.

Too much nowadays we get caught up in test scores, AYP, rigor and bamboozeled by the glamor of money as a quick fix, that forget there is a lot more in school that makes schools and an education great, that we forget what it means and how to be a community, and that communities should be nurturing and supportive of its members, not judgemental and full of blame, that never helps anyone.

Moreover, while money doesn't solve all problems, it sure does help when used effectively. Someone else commented that DPS got more money than many other districts, well guess what, areas in the most need need MORE funding not less. They need money put in the proper places, like developing and sustaining wrap-around services for kids and their families, having more qualified, well seasoned teachers that reflect the student population who can mentor and support students and younger educators alike, healthy meals programs for all students so they can think while in school and won't have to worry about where their next meal will come from, having robust arts and sports programs to support learning and student motivation. This would be a better use of the money, not focusing on test scores that don't equip students with skills for the long run.

But honestly the biggest thing we probably need to do is get rid of private schools and focus on supporting schools that will educate and sustain all students. All our public schools should be good schools, not just the magnet schools, or schools in wealthy districts. It shouldn't be as stressful as it is today to send your kid to primary school. But that will probably never happen here where people believe that those who have money are somehow better or more deserving than those who don't or that by throwing lots of money at schools will make them better without addressing and working through the root problems which are primarily issues of poverty, access, equity, and institutional racism. Money doesn't solve those problems. People do.

Fri, 07/28/2017 - 6:36am

Oh my goodness Dara. You wrote a flavored rambling op-ed that advocates all failed ideas, and said really nothing other than to get rid of private schools really! Really?@! Maybe you should move to a socialist country. I can only imagine the lessons / op-ed that you spewed to your students. Wow. The same Ole Racism, inequity, etc. People make choices in life and Blacks in Detroit need to admit that having ~75% of babies born to single mothers already in generational poverty DOES NOT BODE WELL for SUCCESS in Education. Period. Until people like you stop the Blame Game, nothing will change....and nothing will in Residential Detroit in our lifetimes.

Fri, 07/28/2017 - 3:46pm

First of all, I was not playing the blame game, that's what you were doing. And I agree, people make choices and have to live with the consequences of their choices, however there are many reasons why people are living in poverty and being a single mother can be ONE contributing factor. Underlining racist beliefs are a huge contributing factor for the poor state of our public education system in the United States. But white children living in rural areas, with or without married parents aren't doing too well either in this system either. The only ones who are doing fairly well are middle to upper class kids, regardless of color, regardless of their parents martial state. All I was saying is that their are many factors for failing inner city public schools, and that many parents, no most parents are doing the best they can with what they have and this system doesn't help or support them, so why not create schools and communities that do, so all kids can have a shot at being successful despite the choices of their parents? And what's wrong with certain socialist ideas, especially if they work? Finland schools and students are quite successful, so are the Danish, the Dutch, Canadians, and Germans, all of which are blowing out the USA in international examinations (PISA) that focus on skills and applied knowledge than rote memorization. And their models of education is quite different from ours and starts with leveling the playing fields. Why not try something different, (that by the way worked well in the 1970s-80s), because what we have going on here isn't. And I was a fabulous teacher thank you very much.

Fri, 07/28/2017 - 10:34pm

Dara- You are living in a dream world and are afraid to accept facts and reality. We can all point to statistics...sure there are White Rural Students on par with Black Inner City Students. However, Black Students are doing very very poorly regardless of environments. As I said, Blacks have a severely disadvantage because of decades of lack of traditional family structure. I am reminded of former Michigan Supreme Court Justice and Michigan Health and Human Services Director Maura Corrigan saying that every time she would go to Detroit to mentor students, she would ask the students if they knew any married people.....the vast majority said they did not. Very sad. Blacks have an issue and it is not good. Look at Southfield Public Schools. They are in the top 5 of per pupil funding in the state most years and yet they are at average and mostly below average at state academic testing. Southfield Schools are 95% Black. How do you explain that? As the newspapers report, only 15 % of Blacks admitted to Wayne State graduate. There are very few Blacks at Michigan's Largest Catholic University, the Univ of Detroit Mercy. I had to do a research project years ago for my employer....The majority of Blacks in Congress either were Catholic and/or had a Catholic School education. Your comments provide a such a variety of subjects that my comments are a variety of such. Bottom line is that one cannot succeed if one always considers Black vs White or blames / depends on others peoples money for success.

Sun, 07/30/2017 - 9:01am

Are you black, Mark? Do you know any black people? Have you lived in a black neighborhood? Your breathtaking stereotyping of all black people suggests not. I bet you're a big fan of The Bell Curve. I'd suggest you work on your self-esteem. Your rants suggest that you denigrate others to feel superior. Sad.

Michigan Observer
Fri, 07/28/2017 - 10:47pm

Darla says, " most parents are doing the best they can with what they have and this system doesn't help or support them, so why not create schools and communities that do, so all kids can have a shot at being successful despite the choices of their parents? " She neglected the small detail of how you "create schools and communities that do," support them. Where is her blueprint?

Sun, 07/30/2017 - 7:34pm

People have an inertia in their thinking and actions, they stay where they are no matter the results. Don't expect other to others to create such a 'blueprint' without a nudge
Why don't we talk about it here so others may get a starting point, a nudge into action.

The KIPP schools [New York, Houston] where the students succeed academically in settings much like Detroit, could be a good source of ideas to consider for such a 'blueprint.'

Chuck Jordan
Sun, 07/30/2017 - 11:19am

Dara, thanks too for your thoughts. This issue is incredibly complex and certainly money won't "fix" it. But money in the right places like basic resources (books), master teachers in places they are most needed (poorer schools), and small class sizes in earlier grades would be a start. Finland is a good model too.

Sun, 07/30/2017 - 7:20am

But sir I am sure you have never really experienced what poverty is all about and had two parents in the household---maybe not always getting along or with money and drug problems but always staying together. You had an advantage from the beginning because of your race, your education, your family structure and economic status. With such advantages it is not surprising that you succeeded and others less fortunate failed. If you are black, poor, badly educated and economically disadvantaged that's an awfully big mountain to climb. Not impossible but awfully big compared to the mountain you had to climb to get where you're at. Being mean spirited helps nobody and makes you look bad. Lay off the misplaced anger and demagoguery and try to use your mind rather than waste it in senseless rants.

Fri, 07/28/2017 - 10:39am

Dara, thank you for your well thought out comments obviously based on personal experiences. While I don't agree that poverty is a race issue, I do agree that there are apparently a higher percentage of children with brown skin impacted by an educational system which is clearly not meeting their needs. Until the culture/community/environment in which a child lives is respected by those who are intent on educating them, all the money in the world isn't going to "reform" them. I recall talking with an elderly gentleman in Harlem in 1964. He lamented the impact of the high rises being constructed for housing "for the poor people" on the future of his community. He realized the community was going to be gone. I agree with you that all parents regardless of status need to feel their opinions are valued and experience being part of their kids schooling. Reestablishing community in schools in the way you suggested, would go a long way to solving many of the issues. However, it takes a top down support of good teachers. If they aren't motivated and given free rein to educate the kids in their classroom in whatever way works for those kids (and their parents), they are worse than poor babysitters. We are quick to criticize and find fault and that negative energy only digs the hole deeper. It is past time that positive reinforcement and rewarding good results (NOT standardized test scores, which have caused more problems than good.) Does it really matter if the scores at Midland Dow are higher than inner city Detroit? What difference does it make if genetically/environmentally prepared students have higher test course than kids who have not been so? It is the responsibility of the educational system to respect and teach them where they are and not burden them with unobtainable expectations. Good teachers do that and should be rewarded as should the parents, many of whom survived a bad educational experience. Administrators who support those good teachers and parents, also deserve to be recognized and rewarded - It is all about motivation - healthy breakfast and lunch, phys ed, music class, art, tutoring for parents by other parent volunteers perhaps. If school is enjoyable, they will learn

Fri, 07/28/2017 - 7:47pm

It matters what the scores are if they are indicative of learning.

The more important thing is to learn why those in Dow High are scoring better, for in reality the difference between the schools is the student culture. For the success in Dow High is driven by the learning expectations the students have of themselves and of those that they include in their micro culture. While in Detroit the expectations for learning is left to the adults and the system, and the expectations are lower than those kids have in Midland.

We are part of a learning base economy and it is those who have learned how to learn that have the greatest potential to succeed in this economy. I doubt many of the kids from Dow High will stay in Midland, but they will take the learning they did their everywhere they go. I suspect the kids in Detroit will stay in or around Detroit and will struggle because they didn't learn how to learn. Too many people didn't expect them to score high on the tests and even discounted the test.
I doubt the test have much lasting impact but learning what it takes to score high on the tests are the tools they can use for a lifetime. It is analogous to a football team, they work hard to score high in the game [their test], but they did their learning in practicing to score high. Just as what their learning preparing for each game will be something they can draw on later in life no matter what the game score was, so is it true of the academic tests.

Sun, 07/30/2017 - 9:20am

Thank you, Dara, for the most sensible comment I've seen here. Poverty impedes learning. Period. Until we get real about addressing the fact that the United States has the highest level of childhood poverty among all developed nations, very little will change in education. Blaming the children and their parents may make one feel smug and superior but it does exactly nothing to help the situation. Read about the history of housing segregation in Detroit. You can't literally wall off a population and then blame them for the results. The dismally ignorant and racist comments here are heartbreaking. Unbridled capitalism is unsustainable and will either collapse or be modified to a more human-centered system where poverty is tackled head on. Living wages, worker cooperatives, worker representation, elimination of Citizens United, ensuring very school has the resources necessary for learning, affordable higher education, universal healthcare instead of the insurance-bloated rationing mess we have now -- those are just a start. I hope we get there, for the sake of our children.

Sun, 07/30/2017 - 5:37pm

Shoegaze- Your policies don't work....Give examples. You live in a dream world. It takes individual initiative and equal opportunity to succeed. The US has spent TRILLIONS in the last 5 decades to eradicate poverty and those government programs don't work. It is human nature that once somebody gets something they don't want to give it up no matter how trivial ...from a tax deduction to a government or charity handout to a restaurant discount....it is human nature. Living wages / increase in minimum wage never works....because there are people that lose their jobs. I challenge you to read the reports on the recent Seattle increase in minimum wage, the data is in. Also, why do you think McDonalds as a corporation has turned the corner from years of decline....it is because living wage / minimum wage increases in cities across the country has forced McDonalds to install ~3000 self ordering kiosks with another 2000 planed in the next few years. Supply and demand forces wages. I can go on and on.

Sun, 07/30/2017 - 8:54pm

You can parrot the rightwing propaganda all you want. Here's an article (from Fortune no less) debunking the Seattle study. Your world is ending. Your stodgy conception of "the way things must be" is growing ever more irrelevant. Thank God for the wisdom of the younger generation who will soon be implementing positive changes for a humane society, despite the best efforts of people like you.

Earl Newman
Sun, 07/30/2017 - 5:45am

Here is a question for everybody who talks about improving education in our society: Have you asked any educators what should be done? Here's another: What about youngsters? Have you asked any youngsters what should be done? These questions should be addressed by the Skillman Foundation,General Motors, he United Way, and yes, even the Center for Michigan. Just don't ask the governor or the legislature.

Sun, 07/30/2017 - 4:34pm


Yes, and every time I have been told to leave it to the professional educators.

I have tried raising the topic with a couple of the organizations you mention and they either are set in what they are doing or they have no interest in a conversation, especially with the purpose of developing different approaches to try for different results.

William C. Plum...
Sun, 07/30/2017 - 7:07am

And maybe no matter what you do the scope and number of problems are just so vast that you will always need to be trying to fix something. These initiatives didn't exactly fail but ran their course doing what they could and were no longer able to function in the new environment they helped to create. Maybe the idea is to always expect the need to fix something---there are no magic bullets---and just try to make sure that new programs are in place to take the place of the ones that have been retired. And that you have learned something and moved a step or two forward. And remember that even if you don't solve all the problems the problem solving process itself has value. To me that sounds a lot like how life works so I think that's a good sign.

Steve Banicki
Sun, 07/30/2017 - 10:06am

The school board should be applauded for their appointment of Dr. Vitti as the new superintendent. From all initial appearances he is in process of figuring out what needs to be done and developing a plan to get there. What he presently lacks are the funds and other resources to get there. Hopefully the non-profits that tried and failed will stay involved and work through the Board and Vitti.

As good as Vitti appears to be he is not Houdini. He needs resources, money, to develop and implement a long-term plan. Without resources the greatest plan in the world will not happen. I hope the nonprofits continue to provide the resources needed to make the improvements we all want. This improvement will come through DP$.

It is time to close the distraction called charter schools and focus, focus, focus.

Marvi Hagopian
Sun, 07/30/2017 - 12:05pm

To really get a handle on education issues read "The Schools We Need and WhynWe Don't Have Them" by E. D. Hirsch. Then talk with Marion Joseph, Louisa Cook Moats, and Alice Furry, women who moved California in the right direction and raised student performance in low income districts from below 20th percentile scores overall to above 80 percentile scores. Unfortunately, politics took it all away. Now we have lost all of those gains. When will people pay attention?

Ben Laird
Sun, 07/30/2017 - 6:17pm

Educational data has for years shown that the majority of parents don't want a choice in where there child goes to school . They simply want a quality public school in their neighborhood. "Choice" js not a solution to for improving education for most students particularly in poor neighborhoods.

Sam C.
Sat, 08/12/2017 - 10:25am

I agree Ben. Fully support and fund local public schools. Work through the local school system to solve education problems, not around them.

Thomas Pedroni
Wed, 08/02/2017 - 7:43pm

Chastity Pratt Dawsey: your piece, while it includes many important facts, bypasses many of the most crucial ones. For example, you do not mention Skillman's relationship to the larger so-called education reform movement, through national foundation partners like Walton, Gates, and Broad. Nor do you mention Skillman's participation in a coalition of similar organizations in other cities (New Orleans and Indianapolis, for example) through CEE-Trust. You do not mention the core role Skillman and ESD played in the advocacy for and creation of the EAA, alongside the Broad Foundation. You do not mention their call for the disbanding of the elected Detroit Board of Education, and their close partnership with Emergency Management as a "single point of accountability" when the mayor was unwilling to take control of the schools. You do not mention their advocacy for the original EM law, PA4, in the state legislature. You do not mention ESD's funding from the Walton Foundation. You do not mention their key role in bringing TFA back to Detroit, and the impact this had on veteran teachers. In general, the two major weaknesses of your piece were (1) not connecting ESD and Skillman to the national market-based educational reform movement, with which it partnered and with which it shared a fundamental ideological commitment to educational free markets as a long-disproven salve for the public sector, and (2) not clarifying the groups that Skillman and ESD shut out-- established grassroots educational movements, educational practitioners, and the world of research. Your piece leaves the reader with the impression that Detroit's school problems proved to be insurmountable despite dedicated and expensive intervention by the foundation community in Detroit. The truth is that Skillman and ESD, arguably much more so than DeVos, contributed to a significant worsening and fracturing of Detroit's educational landscape. It didn't need to be this way, and it wouldn't have been had Skillman and ESD given more credence to grassroots organizations, local democracy, and educational practitioners and researchers, and less credence to the American Enterprise Institute, the Broad Foundation, and the inheritors of the Walmart fortune. Because you bypassed so much information that is core to this story, and that has been widely available in the research literature for years, you actually misshape reader opinion much more than you would have had you not carved away such important facts. If you want any of the supporting information to which I allude, I am happy to provide it.

Rob Burgess
Wed, 08/09/2017 - 7:32am

The Skillman Foundation and others who contributed $32 million toward Detroit Schools should be commended.

In 15 years from school years ended 2002 to 2017, during administrations of Governors Granholm and Snyder, Detroit Schools went from roughly 160,000 students to 45,000 students, an enrollment decline of 72 percent. During that same time, total state aid to the district declined by $766 million or 65 percent. (source of above: Michigan Department of Education State Aid Status reports)

As a result, schools were closed and staff were laid off. The level of staff morale must have been low to say the least.

Ask K-Mart, Sears, or Radio Shack what happens when an organization has a rapid decline in revenue and customers (or students in this case).

I do not know what the answers are and obviously our urban schools in Michigan had challenges even before 2002 and continue to have problems. But what I do know is what has happened in the last 15 years (20-25+ years?) has only exacerbated the problem by creating a huge financial sink hole surrounding districts which were already were facing difficult educational issues.