Detroit Public Schools and Hope

Submitted by Bill Lucas on Thu, 12/17/2009 - 01:52

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), administered in association with the U.S. Department of Education, is used to measure what students know and can do in academic subjects.  For the first time in the test's 40-year history, Detroit Public Schools students took part this year. The mathematics results for large urban districts were released last week.  Detroit students scored the worst that any district's students had ever scored on the test.  

Scoring the worst of urban districts is one thing, but scoring the worst of any district ever is something else entirely.  Between two-thirds and three-quarters of the students in the combined grades did not reach "basic" skills, defined as those "that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade."  We need to look at why this may have happened and what actions could possibly be taken to improve the competency of Detroit's public school students.

There are several potential causes for this: lack of adequate teaching resources; failure to devote teaching resources in the school hours available; failure by parents to enforce homework demands made on students; and kids that are actually not mentally equipped to learn the subject matter, possible due to "negative selection" of students left in the district.  Additionally, there also may be an attitude throughout the district, and the city for that matter, that there really is no point in trying; that certain factions have rigged the system for profit and patronage and any hope of personal advancement is a waste of effort.

I'll mostly leave the teaching resources to someone else's musings.  There should be comment out there already on that subject, and if there's not, that's a problem, too.  I'll start with the students.

Is it possible that only the "dumb" kids are left?  Talented students have been leaving the district for as long as there have been well-equipped private or suburban schools and parents with the resources to get their kids into them.  Eventually this leads to just the poor kids left in the public schools.  Studies have long confirmed a strong correlation between income level and academic achievement, so the deficit of achievement should not be a surprise, even if the magnitude is.

Even within the district, city-wide "magnet" schools siphon off talented students.  Neighborhood schools are left with the students whose performance, potential, or parents could not get them into a magnet school.  Without a seed population of good students, the rest of the kids may have little way of recognizing exactly what is good effort and achievement.  They may achieve even less of their natural capability than they would have with better examples next to them in class.

This gets us into the "nature vs. nurture" argument, except in this case both may be in play and we'd just be arguing about which is more to blame.  In my view, each person has a natural maximum achievement that they are capable of reaching. (They never reach it, but I'll get to that in a moment.)  There is wide variability between different people on how high their natural maximum is.  Joe may have a natural ceiling that is much lower than Mary's, and Pat's may be way higher than Mary's.  Together, and along with everybody else, they define that bell curve of people's innate ability.

Similarly, the environments in which students exercise and develop that ability vary widely.  Some environments offer challenging, individualized attention, while others are basically the babysitting arena to which parents send their kids each day.

So they both vary - what's my point?  I believe that the fraction of our natural ability that we actually achieve in life is very small, that practically none of us come anywhere near the maximum that we could achieve.  This means that the variability of natural talent is diminished as a factor in determining our level of achievement.  Were we approaching our maximums, the less able among us would reach a ceiling and stop progressing, while the more able would continue on to their higher maximums.  As I don't believe that to be the case, the environments in which we learn take on more importance in determining how well we do.

If this is true, "negative selection" doesn't mean as much.  So what if the natural abilities of the group of kids that remain in the district are less, on average, than those that left.  Their maximum attainable achievement is many times higher than they are at right now, so improving their learning environment will help draw that out.

One approach would be to try to establish mentoring programs where good and good-hearted students from ANY district are rewarded (with credits or items of real value, like college vouchers or laptops) to come to neighborhood DPS schools on a regular basis and work with the students.  Students will respond to good, real role models.  

Another tactic would be to reward those teachers who demonstrably raise students' performance, and to withhold raises from those who do not.  The idea that we should allow a teacher to "graduate" to higher pay just by showing up is as regrettable as promoting a student to the next grade level merely because s/he showed up.

One thing that that ass**** crook Kwame Kilpatrick got right was education.  He gave two masterful speeches during his mayoralty that implored parents to start supporting their kids in education, mostly by enforcing attendance, homework and citizenship.  He was right.  I'm not a parent in the district, but somehow I think that to a large degree this hasn't happened yet.

Talking about the environment for Detroit's schoolkids eventually gets us into what they might strive for.  The belief that achievement rewards success can be powerful.  So what signals are the city and district sending to students?  It appears to me that they're trying to tell students that if you cheat better than the rest, you'll be rewarded.  That if you holler out of turn at enough school board meetings, you'll get enough camera time to get elected to that same board and earn a manager's salary for it.  If you are friends with someone who gets elected to a city position, you'll get hired to city jobs ahead of people who actually trained for those positions.  That if you're friends with someone higher up, you won't actually have to show up for your job either.  That if you do your job honestly and report on malfeasance, you'll be fired for it (and threatened with worse).  That if you shake down vendors vying for city and district contracts, you'll get wads of cash and be in position to repeat it.  That if you set up a sham company to bid on city and district contracts that get approved by friends of yours, you and your friends will get a cut and it will all be paid for by someone else.  How can the city's students NOT take that message from everything we've seen in Detroit for the last 35 years?  

We need to make sure Robert Bobb's protection detail is manned and paid for by the state, because we need him to keep rooting out the crooks in the school system.  We need the school board to keep acting like they have so the state will have cause to kick them out (again) and appoint an academic manager.  We need the feds to keep up their prosecution of graft in the city.  We need the city of Detroit to declare bankruptcy so that the state can take over its operations.  We need Jennifer Granholm or her successor steer clear of politics (and anyone with any connection to Detroit government for that matter) in naming an administrator after the bankruptcy.

Why am I offering all these necessities predicated on replacing city and district hierarchies?  Because the crookedness is too ingrained in them now for any hope of them reforming themselves.  We've just seen the tip of the iceberg in corruption.  (I've been told by someone who experienced it personally of malfeasance by a guy I went to grade school with, and have not seen it make the papers.  He was relatively new in the position, so he obviously learned it from someone else there.)

The slate needs to wiped clean by someone else.  They won't do it themselves.