Why Detroit’s new school leadership won’t matter much

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Detroit has seen three sweeping governance changes in the power structure of Detroit’s public schools over the past decade. And last week, DPS got its 10th leader since 1999 with the appointment of another emergency manager, Darnell Earley. At least one other idea to change the chain of command is currently on the table.

The ongoing search for the best leadership hierarchy for Detroit schools is an important conversation.

And ineffective.

Michigan has a bad talk about Detroit public schools, say experts and teachers. When it comes to Detroit’s schools, arguably the worst in the country, the current conversation needs to focus on implementing educational strategies that work in the classroom, rather than another set of arguments about who should be in charge. , say these school experts.

Continuously low test scores and declining student enrollment have shown that changing the governance model – shifting control from an elected school board to mayor or state oversight – has done little to help. improve Detroit schools. After nearly two decades of state intervention, the struggling Detroit school district has evolved into three school systems, all with their own challenges – DPS, a large and growing network of charter schools, and the ‘Education Achievement Authority, the statewide reform district that operates 15 underperforming schools in the city.

“I don’t think a governance solution is what’s going to fix the schools in Detroit,” said Tonya Allen, president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation and co-chair of the news. Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren. The coalition includes local leaders and educators and formed in December with a 90-day mission to make recommendations on Detroit schools to the mayor, governor and legislature on school governance, finances and academic expectations.

“A lot of things are working. Our biggest obstacle is stability, ”Allen said. “We didn’t get stuck on anything. But it’s hard to reform when you’ve screwed up governance.

Change change again

Excellent Schools Detroit, an advocacy group with a representative from the coalition, suggested that Mayor Mike Duggan be involved in creating a portfolio system in Detroit that would give the mayor control over key operations such as transportation and l ‘registration in Detroit, for DPS, EAA and charters.

But Duggan has refused to say publicly whether he wants to control schools, play an important role, or sit on the sidelines. Perhaps in a show of power vested in the coalition, his office referred questions about the future of school reform from Detroit to Allen.

Any change in power structure that the coalition, state legislature, and governor’s office are considering for Detroit schools is, at best, another opportunity to do something lasting to improve education, studies show. . But this change of power – as with any governance structure – has little impact on learning if it is not accompanied by rigorous and proven teaching methods.

For example, researchers at the Institute on Educational Law and Policy at Rutgers University in Newark studied governance models in nine cities, including Detroit, until 2010. Researchers were unable to conclusively link a specific form of governance to improved student outcomes, concluding that quality reforms in the classroom are having an impact on results regardless of the governance model.

Improvement is possible in poorly performing schools. The Pont 2014 series, “The smartest children in the country” illustrated how schools in Massachusetts, Tennessee, Florida and Minnesota surpassed Michigan academically or made tremendous academic progress on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test, also known as Nation’s Report Card.

The series showed how sustained and evidence-based policies, such as high academic standards, extensive early childhood education programs, and greater investment in low-income, under-performing urban schools can be rewarded. .

In Detroit, a majority of students now attend charter schools, which on average reach roughly the same rate than traditional public schools.

Tom Watkins was the state superintendent and, by law, a member of the Reformed Detroit School Board in the years following the state takeover of DPS in 1999. Over those six years, the scores the state-standardized MEAP test accelerated growth, but was not sustained. Since then, Detroit student scores on the NAEP have remained the worst among 21 major urban cities since the state appointed the first of four emergency managers for the DPS in 2009.

If the adults around the table, from educators to the coalition, to the mayor, the legislature and the governor, are not focusing on the fundamental questions of teaching and learning strategies, they are not talking about improve schools, Watkins said. Improving Detroit’s schools doesn’t depend on who’s in charge, said Watkins, now president and CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority.

“We’re almost two decades with Detroit,” Watkins said. “Does anyone look like we’ve stopped the bleeding?” It’s much easier to balance the pounds. It is difficult to educate children. Real change is needed.

“I am convinced that the recommendations that will emanate from the coalition will be a big educational matter and that perhaps the emergency manager is a temporary solution which is a prelude to a long term solution, hopefully, which places the teaching, learning and children before power, politics, control and adults.

Here there everywhere

The Rutgers study, “Urban School Governance and Improvement: Lessons for New Jersey from Nine Cities,” examined school reforms in Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, Hartford, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, DC The researchers concluded that “effective governance is necessary, but not sufficient, to advance school reform. The researchers found that adopting a new governance model brought a higher level of public commitment to education, more public and private funding, “and more attention to success.”

But not necessarily better schools.

Urban areas like Detroit need to focus on what is generally known about school reform – that it requires effective building-level strategies, “strong leadership from the principal; recruiting, retaining and supporting high quality teachers and administrators; as well as tackling the myriad of issues outside of schools related to poverty and its effects are also essential to improving urban schools, ”the research found.

Yet Michigan has tried time and again to change the governance of the DPS, espousing the changes as a solution to power struggles, inept leadership and financial difficulties as well as the precursor to greater success.

In 1999, the state legislature passed the Michigan School Reform Act which replaced Detroit’s elected school board with a council appointed by the mayor and including the state superintendent (or a representative).

The law gave residents of Detroit the option to vote to return to an elected council after five years. In 2005, the state-run DPS exceeded the budget by $ 200 million and solved it on a bond to avoid the deficit. The people of Detroit voted to turn the schools over to an elected council. A new elected school board sat in 2006 and chose a new superintendent in 2007 – Connie Calloway, a leader of the small school district of Normandy, Missouri.

A deficit has started to accumulate again, fueled by a historic decline in student numbers and school closings. That deficit soared to over $ 300 million in 2009. And in a third change in governance structure in a decade, Governor Jennifer Granholm appointed the first emergency finance director to take power over the budget. elected board of directors.

Every few years, as the structure of leadership and governance has changed, classroom reforms have changed – reading programs have come and gone, after school tutoring programs. Now, community partnerships that bring social services to buildings as well as extracurricular sports, arts and music are the reform of the day.

A new chef

Last week, Governor Rick Snyder appointed Darnell Earley, former emergency manager at Flint, to be the fourth emergency manager in relation to DPS. He also said that it would be essential to find ways to improve the results.

In the wake of the appointment, State Representative Sherry Gay-Dagnogo (D-Detroit) led a delegation of state lawmakers on a tour of Detroit schools. A former DPS teacher, she said teachers and students have shown further improvements in teaching.

Gay-Dagnogo, who is part of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren and promotes a form of board-elected leadership, said improved education will come when academic policy aligns with leadership decisions.

“The main things we are aiming for are academic solutions,” she said. “These must be financed by the finances and governance that allow them to be put in place. None of these conversations are mutually exclusive. “

Gay-Dagnogo, who is part of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, said the next chapter in schooling in Detroit must be to rally around specific teaching best practices.

If school improvement in Detroit is a chicken or egg debate, what needs to change first, governance or classroom practices? Schooling should be a priority in the discussion, said Stephanie Griffin, one of two teachers in the 31-member coalition.

A 10-year-old veteran, Griffin teaches at Brenda Scott Academy, an EAA school and has taught in charters. According to her: students must learn to read from the third year; the same rigorous content should be used in all schools, and school leaders should seek the advice of teachers and also reduce and cap the time spent on standardized tests.

“Solve all the education problems in Detroit?” I don’t think that’s our goal, we’re more realistic than that, ”Griffin said of the coalition’s work. “Our main concern is to improve the education of the children of Detroit. This is what must finally happen.

Bridge Magazine is a partner of the Detroit Journalism Cooperative (DJC), which is made up of five nonprofit media outlets focused on the city’s future after bankruptcy. The group includes Michigan Radio, WDET, Detroit Public Television and New Michigan Media. Support for the DJC comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Michigan Reporting Initiative of Renaissance Journalism and the Ford Foundation.


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