A Failing Grade
February 10, 2017
Thirty-four years ago, a sweeping assessment of K-12 schools released by President Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education shook America to its core.
The report’s title said it all: “A Nation At Risk.” The study’s revelations of an increasingly mediocre American education system smashed patriotic assumptions while hammering home the connection between quality schools and a strong economy, plus a vibrant middle class. The warnings led to numerous reforms at the local, state and federal level.
Yet, more than three decades later, the headline that best describes the K-12 school system in Michigan’s predominant city, Detroit, could be: “A City In Freefall.”
What must Detroit students think when their school is labeled a failure, worthy of closure by the state, only to learn that they will be sent to a new school where failure is the common option?
Across the city, malfunction is everywhere. An analysis by the Detroit Free Press found that only 20 schools citywide – five in the Detroit Public Schools Community District and 15 charter schools – are ranked in the 25th percentile or above, based on the statewide testing system.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Kids sent from one failing school to the next
The state School Reform Office (SRO) proposes closing 38 of Michigan’s “poor-performing” schools. In truth, these schools are not merely trailing – they are a disaster. But the SRO proposes sending Detroit kids from schools that rank in the state’s bottom 5 percent, based on standardized test scores, to schools that rank in the bottom 25 percent.
Planning school closures without presenting an acceptable alternative represents a rudimentary mistake by the SRO. Worse yet, the agency suggested that students in failing schools could transfer to schools in the suburbs, as far as Monroe or St. Clair counties, which would involve an 80- or 100-mile round trip daily. Is this government planning at its worst?
When the list was released on Jan. 20, Natasha Baker, director of the SRO, conceded that transportation issues had not been resolved in a city with an erratic public bus system and a significant percentage of parents who do not own a car.
The new SRO list of Michigan schools headed for shutdown represents yet another effort by the Snyder administration to rely on numbers and spreadsheets to dictate public policies that have a dramatic impact on average families.
While the proposed closures include mostly Detroit schools, the hit-list extends all the way to Muskegon Heights in western Michigan.
At this point, the SRO should be assigned a failing grade, worthy of expulsion from state government.
What must an inner-city parent think when the state offers to ship their kid – without offering public transportation for the long daily haul – to a nearly all-white school amid the cornfields, putting them entirely out of their element? Sounds like a plan that will lead to a whole lot more high school dropouts.
Nothing has worked yet
Clearly, state and city attempts at education reforms in Detroit reflect a failing track record — charter schools, the Education Achievement Authority (EAA), schools of choice, “magnet” schools – each has produced shocking disappointments.
Consider the situation at the Osborn College Prepatory Academy high school on Detroit’s east side. The name sounds impressive, but the school’s student test scores rank among the worst in the state and the facility is slated to close.
One of the few alternative high schools in the immediate area is Denby, once considered among the best schools in Detroit, which is also on the path toward closing. In the latest statewide testing, only 2.5 percent of Denby students were deemed proficient in social studies or in science.
This is part of a pattern: In the 2012 Denby graduating class of 209 kids, only 80 enrolled in post-secondary education of any kind, including community colleges and vocational schools. Yet, this school is one of the destinations recommended by the state for students in one of the four Osborn education programs — all on the closure list.
A basket of unemployables
What must an employer think when facing a job interview with a Detroit high school graduate, knowing that academic achievement in the inner city is largely an oxymoron?
It seems that government at the local and state level has created a large basket of unemployables.
How did we get here? It should be noted that the gradual, systematic closure of nearly all Catholic schools within the city limits – a disastrous decision by the Archdiocese of Detroit – contributed to this mess.
In addition, the divisive, hyper-partisan politics that dominates in Michigan resides at the center of this problem. We lack pragmatic, common sense solutions.
Instead, liberals argue that boosting per-pupil state funding is the answer to everything while conservatives promote for-profit charter schools and online education services that failed dismally in living up to their promise.
Part of this is due to poverty and a lack of proper parenting; part of it reflects teachers overwhelmed by their new role as social worker.
Yet, the immediate reaction to the new closings list was a typical Detroit vs. Lansing political standoff that we’ve experienced for decades.
Mayor Mike Duggan said the SRO’s school closing plan is “irrational.” Gov. Rick Snyder’s office responded that the process is only in a preliminary stage of imposing mandates on the Motor City.
So, with the SRO calling the shots, that’s where we stand.
I wonder, what must a Michigan taxpayer think when the state’s expensive and awkward attempts to improve Detroit’s education system has only led to a downward spiral?
A freelance writer from Macomb County, was the political reporter at The Macomb Daily for nearly 30 years. At the Daily he earned 50 journalism awards and in 2014 he was named by Politico as one of the “Media Stars” in seven political battleground states. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.