Restructuring Detroit K-12 education

As the legislature debates restructuring K-12 schooling in Detroit, a reporter asked me why Excellent Schools Detroit (ESD) hasn’t worked. I am a founding and continuing Board member of ESD.

If worked means a substantial increase in the number of quality schools in the City of Detroit––or for that matter outside of Detroit but serving lots of Detroit kids––then clearly it hasn’t worked. None of us involved in the creation and operation of ESD these last six years would claim that the quality of schooling has substantially improved in the city.

But that isn’t a realistic standard to judge an organization that doesn’t operate or authorize schools; nor sets education policy at the state or local level; nor regulates schools. Student achievement in Detroit––or any other urban area in Michigan with similarly low student outcomes––can’t substantially change until state policy changes. (In fact state policy change is the key to improving too low student achievement for all of Michigan. Low student achievement is not just an urban problem.)

One can make a very strong argument that state policy changes enacted soon after the creation of ESD have far more to do with the lack of progress on student outcomes in Detroit since 2010. The main policy changes were the creation of the Education Achievement Authority and removing the cap on charter schools without quality standards.

The effect of those changes was to increase the supply of schools in a city with declining demand. Which created an oversupply of capacity which destabilized all schools and schools operators in the city. And the new operators did not noticeably increase the quality of schools in the city.

Bad policy trumps good advocacy and school support non profits!

ESD was founded in 2010 by a diverse group of civic and education leaders who shared a concern that far too many Detroit K-12 students were enrolled in low quality schools. They adopted an approach for improving the quality of schools in Detroit based on the twin pillars of high student achievement standards for all Detroit students and being governance neutral. That what matters is student achievement not whether the school is a DPS (there was no EAA then), charter or independent school.

Arguably the most valuable service ESD has provided is its annual report card of all schools that educate Detroit students. Its has from its inception maintained a high bar. Measuring all schools––without regard to governance––on whether students are being prepared for post secondary institutions without the need for remediation. In addition to providing parents with quality information as they choose a school(s) for their student(s), the report cards have provided data that demonstrates that far too many DPS, EAA, charter and independent schools are not providing their students with a quality education.

Those report cards make a strong case that there is a real need for a government entity like the proposed Detroit Education Commission that will have the authority to increase the number of high quality schools and decrease the number of low quality schools in the city without regard to governance.

The data are clear: what is most needed in Detroit now is some government entity with the power to bring supply and demand in balance––at both the city and neighborhood level––and do so in a way that improves the overall quality of schools without regard to governance.

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