Soft bigotry of low expectations

Our Michigan Future Schools initiative is designed to create, at scale, open enrollment high schools in Detroit that graduate students college ready who ultimately earn college degrees. We provided funding to help start eleven new high schools. Continue to work with eight of them plus one more. Eight charter schools and one DPS.

Nearly everyone advised us against doing a college-prep high school initiative in Detroit. High schools are more challenging and more expensive that k-8s and urban high school students, who don’t get in to test-in schools, tend to be far behind academically. But despite those impediments there were emerging around the country high poverty/high minority high schools that were preparing a substantial proportion of their students for college success. We believed then––and still do today––that if it is being done elsewhere it can be done in Detroit.

In a column for USA Today, Richard Whitmire writes about IDEA in the Rio Grande Valley. He writes:

Here’s the big question: Is it possible to take thousands of low-income Latino kids, send 99% to four-year colleges and then see two thirds of them end up with degrees? That seems improbable, but the early results from this large scale experiment by IDEA charter schools — serving 15,000 students in the Valley alone — look promising. For eight years in a row, close to 100% of their graduates have been accepted into four-year colleges. … The usual catch with schools such as IDEA is that they’re great at getting their kids accepted into college but lousy at making sure they graduate, a struggle shared by all high performing charter schools serving poor kids. …  Among the IDEA students entering college, however, 62% graduate in six years. That’s good, but IDEA has some doable-sounding plans to boost that to 85%.


IDEA is not alone. The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation just named the Noble Network of Charter Schools, which operates 17 schools in Chicago, the best-performing large public charter school system in America. The Foundation writes:

Noble Network is a growing system of secondary schools in Illinois that serves 10,000 students who attend 16 high schools and one middle school. Noble’s students are 95 percent African-American or Hispanic, and 89 percent are low-income. … In 2014, 100 percent of Noble Network’s seniors participated in the ACT exam and earned an average ACT score of 20.3. Statewide, 50 percent of students are low-income, while Noble’s student population is 89 percent low-income. The average statewide ACT score was 20.7.

Michigan’s average ACT score for the graduating class of 2015 is 19.8. You read that right. The Noble Schools––95 percent African-American or Hispanic, and 89 percent low-income––have a higher average ACT score than all kids in Michigan.

In his USA Today column, Whitmire continues:

What IDEA does is take some of the poorest kids in the world and make college-goers out of every nearly all. Most striking: They have figured out how to do it at scale. They are on track to run 60 schools by 2017, serving 40,000 students. IDEA’s goal is to become the biggest pipeline of low-income college graduates in the state of Texas. It’s not at all far fetched.

If this kind of success can play out in places such as Las Milpas, where describing a student as an English Language Learner seems redundant, what does that say for cities across the country where the education challenges are tough but not this tough, and yet by comparison the education outcomes are awful? It’s says we’re doing something wrong; it says we need to dramatically change the way we educate students in those cities. It says we have to completely change our expectations of what’s possible.

… “We hear that the reason you have poor kids and unmotivated parents is because the schools are crummy,” says IDEA co-founder Tom Torkelson. “Those who say that we have crummy schools because kids are unmotivated and parents don’t care have it exactly backward. The reason that kids don’t care and parents are unmotivated is because they’re trapped in crummy schools.”


Six years into the Michigan Future Schools initiative none of the schools we are working with are close to achieving the college ready and college success standards (similar to what IDEA and Noble are achieving) they committed to. There are some signs of progress. We remain confident that Detroit schools can achieve IDEA like results. But as Whitmire says its almost certain they won’t get there without higher expectations.

What has been most surprising, is not that the schools are struggling to meet high student achievement standards, but how many folks involved with the schools don’t believe that most Detroit kids can meet those standards. From state policy makers to authorizers, districts, management companies, school boards and school building educators (sometimes parents too) there is a pervasive sense that college success is too high a bar for most Detroit kids. That graduating from high school and enrolling in post secondary education is a real accomplishment. The predominant view is that expecting a college degree is too high a bar for kids because of some combination of poverty, families and neighborhoods. All which are seen as being hurdles that schools can’t overcome.

IDEA and Noble provide compelling evidence that quality schools can overcome for many whatever barriers poor minority kids bring with them to school. Its time in Detroit––and across Michigan––that we set expectations that all kids can succeed and stop settling for/accepting (in too many cases celebrating) a lot less.

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