Who's really responsible for the low academic scores in Detroit's schools


  • Detail, cover of Metro Times, Sept. 6, 2017

Read about Detroit's public schools in major newspapers long enough, and a strange kind of "now-you-see-it, now-you-don't" becomes apparent.

Every time some new, grim statistic comes out about Detroit's school system, it often seems to occur in a vacuum, often completely unrelated to any narrative about how the district got there. The scores are bad. The finances are troubled. Despite talented and committed leadership, the district just seems to have the worst luck teaching students and remaining solvent.

But when those stories concern the emergency managers who've struggled so gallantly against an entrenched opposition and bureaucratic inertia, the spirit remains upbeat. After all, you can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs, right? For the most part, and with the exception of February 2016 when Darnell "Let Them Drink Flint River Water" Earley was rushed out of office, Detroit Public Schools' emergency managers have been presented as fiscally conservative leaders taking on a tough job, but playing by the rules. (It just so happens that a new one was appointed just as the old one's term was about to expire, thereby letting emergency management drag on for years and years.)

Metro Times has said it before, but it's worth repeating the obvious again: The district was thoroughly wrecked by Lansing-appointed emergency managers. Between 2009 and 2015, the school district went from 95,000 students to 48,900 students, and from almost 200 schools to 103. And despite closing dozens of neighborhood schools and losing so many of its students to charters or neighboring schools of choice, emergency managers crippled the district with debt.

But with emergency managers now gone, the reporting can seem amnesiac, lacking context.

For one example, look at this news story from 2013, when the district's debt was $3.5 billion. It takes the article 12 paragraphs to acknowledge in one sentence that Lansing-appointed emergency managers were responsible for that debt.

Or take a look at this week's report that Detroit's public schools have the lowest test scores in the nation. It's a tightly focused news story all about the reactions to the low scores. It seems to be mostly about tweaking the curriculum. But it could be so much more.

Of the scores, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says, "They are indicative of a school system that has not implemented best practices regarding curriculum, instruction, academic intervention and school improvement for over a decade."

Well, that sounds very official. It also sounds needlessly complicated.

More simply put, ever since Lansing began jerking the district around under Gov. John Engler, many Detroit schools have been educational institutions "in name only."

You see, those low scores are at the heart of an active lawsuit against Gov. Rick Snyder, Detroit's emergency managers, and officers of the Michigan Department of Education. It was filed on behalf of a bunch of Detroit students who charge the defendants with not providing them with the opportunity to learn. We covered that lawsuit last year, saying:

Some classrooms have no textbooks at all, and what books they have are "grossly insufficient" or "decades out of date, defaced, and missing pages." In addition to books, schools also lack basic supplies such as chairs, desks, pens, pencils, and even toilet paper.

Then there are the dangerous and unsanitary conditions seen so widely on Twitter: decrepit and unsafe buildings with leaking roofs, broken windows, falling ceiling tiles, black mold, contaminated drinking water, and dangerously overcrowded classrooms, as well as rodents and other vermin. Schools were sometimes closed or dismissed early due to extreme, unsafe classroom temperatures.

The schools also suffer a dearth of properly trained and certified teachers. When stand-ins are available, many don't have teaching credentials. The lawsuit even mentions one eighth grade student who "taught" a seventh and eighth grade math class for a month because no teacher could be found. ...

Taken together, the lawsuit describes a sort of "throw a book at them and hope they learn something" method of education — only without the book to throw. [Lawyers for the plaintiffs] argue that the students are simply "warehoused for seven hours a day" in "an unsafe, degrading, and chaotic environment" that is a school "in name only."

These are the sorts of facts that help bring why Detroit's students are at the bottom of the barrel into focus. The students cannot learn because the district was utterly destroyed by autocrats focused on austerity. The conclusion was so inescapable last year we wrote: "The same government that gives you toxic waste for drinking water also gives you a school district that cannot teach."

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