This is what it feels like to find your voice.
Detroit’s strength has always been its muscle. In the big family of cities, we have always been the hellion, the rebellious child who came late to the party with a beer in his hand with enough charm to get away with it, and with a reputation for throwing a punch when the charm didn’t work. Read More »
This experience stands in stark contrast to a panel presentation I was on for Excellent Schools Detroit at a conference of housing advocates just two days later. The panel’s focus was on the need for an excellent school for every child by 2020, but the audience was clearly preoccupied with the “state takeover” of the district 10 years earlier. Where our city needs a bold future vision, we were stuck on a legislative decision from a decade ago.
When a friend and co-panelist, Dan Varner, rose to speak, his voice trembled with emotion. He could not get over the fact that issues of race and politics were keeping folks from focusing on the deplorable academic outcomes for Detroit kids, and he called the question, “do we care more about race or about kids?”
The follow-up questions were depressing. One young woman opined that all this talk about excellent schools was meaningless because school funding for Detroit schools is not fair. An older gentleman added that a college education is irrelevant because there are no jobs left in Detroit.
As I listened, it struck me that these voices represented a perverse form of apartheid here in America. It’s a belief that favors the bitterness of past wounds over the liberation of forgiveness. It’s a contest to see who can paint the most hopeless reality. It’s a tart pride, really, but it’s apartheid nonetheless. Thank God we have the freedom to let it go.
In the summation of her opinion limiting the extent of Robert Bobb’s authority as Emergency Financial Manager of Detroit Public Schools, Judge Baxter writes that in a marketplace school environment, as envisioned by Robert Bobb, schools with the best teachers will thrive and weak schools will perish, leaving students to fall by the wayside. Whether the judge likes it or not, we are in a marketplace school environment. In Detroit, there are almost as many children attending a school outside of Detroit Public Schools as there are in the district.
Families today have the freedom to choose a charter school nearby or a school of choice in a suburban school district. Such freedom did not exist in the American school system for most of the 20th century. Parents had to move to a different neighborhood or city if they didn’t like the school in their neighborhood, leading to the anti-American consequence that rich folks had a freedom that poor folks didn’t. That all changed in the last 10 to 15 years, and our school systems now have to keep up with the impact of the freedom that parents and students now have to choose a school...
That means districts have to get the very best teachers into neighborhood schools so they will thrive, and that’s exactly what we are asking principals to do—and teachers to be—in our Venture Fund high performing high schools. What those teachers face every day is heartbreaking. One of those teachers recently shared the following note with her principal:
[My student] approached me after class expressing her desire to leave her home. She talked about how her mother is neglectful and drinks and smokes. Sometimes she hits or slaps her and is verbally abusive to her. She says she wants to run away because her mother curses at her and tells her she is ugly and that she will never be anything.
She told me their lights have been turned off. Currently her father is in prison. She said that she is in need of new shoes, clothes, and coats. She doesn’t have anyone to help her with her hair. She says that her mother does not treat her like a mother should.
Our partners at the United Way can help meet some of the basic needs of this student, but no donor or organization can meet the most basic need of all—the unconditional love of a mom and dad. This ends up being the role that many of our teachers hold for their students--in addition to getting them prepared for college. It’s a daunting challenge every day. That’s why every school, regardless of governance, needs to be on the prowl for the best teachers, and needs to be able to keep them there.
Judge Baxter is correct in stating that some parents will not send their kids to school in the optimal, ready-to-learn state. The way to keep them from falling by the wayside is to give neighborhood schools the autonomy to compete in the marketplace. School choice took root more than ten years ago, and it’s not going away, regardless of this judge’s decision.
Perhaps the most frustrating part about watching the Detroit Lions this season is that they are clearly better than their record indicates. It’s as if they have lost so many games for such a long time that they have forgotten how to win. Sometimes you just want to go into a huddle in the game and shake the players and tell them, "You’re better than this. You’re SUPPOSED to win this game."
This is exactly what’s happening in Detroit’s education reform movement. We’re better than we think we are.
Let’s be honest. Most decision-makers in Detroit didn’t believe high school turnaround could work. "You can’t do this with the unions." "You’ll never reform DPS." "We just need to start over."
We recently received our first formal evaluation results last week, and it is evidence that they were wrong.
In one year, the turnaround schools in Detroit reduced the number of chronically absent students (the leading indicator of high school success) by 25%--a “statistically significant” result, according to the evaluator. It’s even more significant when you consider that the trend of chronically absent students was probably going in the wrong direction for most of the last forty years. We dramatically changed the trend line in just one year, as the chart below indicates.
9th Grade Chronic Absenteeism Trends, Planning vs. Full
Implementers, 2004-5 to 2009-10
While one or two charter high schools are being built each year for a couple hundred kids, we are transforming school cultures, expectations and results for more than a thousand young people last year alone.
It’s easy to be a critic, to point to the fact that chronically absent rates are still too high (they are), or to point out that this is only a one-year blip (it isn’t).
The fact is that we achieved statistically significant results despite confronting persistent challenges, including the departure of seven school leaders in ten turnaround schools across four school districts. Despite those challenges and many others, we had a breakout year.
And guess what? We’re going to keep hitting more challenges along the way. But things are going to keep getting better.
Teach for America’s return to the region signals to the nation that Detroit is a vibrant center for real educational reform and a region that draws the best and the brightest to it, not sends them away. Since its start, facilitating the return of Teach for America has been a top priority of United Way’s Greater Detroit Education Venture Fund.
The enactment of Public Act 202 of 2009, allowing alternative paths to teacher certification, was a critical component needed for Teach For America to return to Detroit. United Way and volunteers lobbied Michigan’s legislature and worked with Governor Granholm and the bill’s sponsors and supporters for more than a year to pass the bill and pave the way for TFA’s return.
Teach For America is the national corps of top college graduates and professionals who commit to teach for two years in under-resourced schools and become lifelong leaders in the pursuit of educational equity. Teach For America’s Detroit corps members will be part of a national incoming corps selected from an applicant pool of more than 46,000. Among these applicants were 12 percent of all Ivy League seniors and more than 1,300 individuals from across Michigan, including 7 percent of the senior class at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, 3 percent of seniors at Michigan State and 20 percent of seniors at Kalamazoo College. The University of Michigan-Ann Arbor was the top producer of Teach For America corps members in 2009.
“We’re excited to return to Detroit and join the innovative efforts of leaders across the city to expand educational opportunity for all children,” said Wendy Kopp, founder and chief executive officer of Teach For America. “We are inspired by the leadership of Governor Granholm, United Way for Southeastern Michigan, and the Skillman Foundation, and are tremendously grateful for the support from school leaders, community groups, and local philanthropists in Detroit. This commitment will enable us to develop a strong pipeline of dedicated teachers and education leaders for the city.”
A growing body of rigorous research demonstrates that Teach For America corps members are highly effective in the classroom. An Urban Institute study published in 2008 and updated this year found that high school students taught by Teach For America teachers outperformed their peers, even those taught by fully certified teachers. The updated study is available at www.caldercenter.org/upload/TFA_final_v-March-2009.pdf.
Teach For America’s network currently includes more than 7,300 corps members in 35 regions and some 17,000 alumni across the country working from every professional sector to level the playing field for children and families in low-income communities. Detroit is home to some 215 Teach For America alumni. Nationally, about two-thirds of Teach For America alumni remain in education, where they are starting schools, serving as principals and district administrators, and winning accolades in the classroom, including 2007 teacher of the year awards in two states and the 2005 National Teacher of the Year Award.
Collaboration is often the first step and Denise D. summed it up perfectly. She said:
“Having the opportunity to network with policy makers, funders, and program operators who are all dedicated to early child development was very beneficial. Too often, we remain in silos. Finding common goals and missions enhances collaboration in the spirit of one mission: that children enter school ready to learn.”
Cynthia S. echoed her comments: “I really enjoyed the summit. The part I like the most was the networking and sharing of ideas.”
In addition, Brenda J. wrote: “The summit was very inspiring. To see leaders collaborate was awesome. We have to take whom we have and do what we can. I believe what I saw was a movement to help our children grow up successfully. I was glad to be in attendance and I will do what I can to spread the word to others.”
Aside from the networking opportunities, we felt it was important to hear from the real heroes – the parents and caregivers who do this work every day. I was thrilled so many of you agreed, and Nancy G. wrote, “It was the parents that touched me the most. Hearing their words sent a clear message that you are on the right page, making a difference one child at a time.”
Many of you agreed that the summit was inspiring and energized you to continue to move the work forward in your own ways.
Michelle M. wrote: “I left the summit feeling very energized and proud to be a member of the early childhood community. For the first time in my life I feel like I can make a difference in the world, or at least in the world of Michigan. I am ready to get started!”
Michael E. wrote: “The main take-away for me is how well defined the objective is regarding Early Learning Communities and how doable it is to reach the thousands of caregivers and children. The goal and the action plan are an inspiration.”
Evelyn B. wrote: “I was amazed and excited that there is more focus on Early Childhood Development and the importance of developing literacy skills early.”
Debra S. wrote: “Lots of information shared in a short period of time. The many presenters were interesting and very supportive of early childhood. We all need to do our part to follow up and make sure our voices are heard on behalf of children.”
David B. wrote: “At the nudging of a friend, I went to the summit. I did not know very much about the subject matter, but was pleasantly surprised to learn all about the topic and found the day to be extremely powerful. I met some very committed and talented people and now have contacted one elementary school principal and proposed that our synagogue would "adopt" that school and provide a committed group of mentors to help the students.”
We also got some amazing suggestions that I will continue to consider as we move forward:
Roberta C. wrote: “I am a former school nurse and was surprised to see the lack of health care professionals at this meeting. School nurses, public health nurses and community health nurses are in the community and are one of the first health care professionals to identify at risk children...Schools of nursing need to do developmental assessments on children for their pediatric training and what a great partnership that could make.”
Michelle L. wrote: “I really enjoyed hearing about all the great work we do to help children and families. The audience was great, but we have to include more businesses and community organizations to get the word out to everyone. We do wonderful things in early childhood education, so let's tell the world!”
I am inspired, encouraged and challenged by your thoughts and feedback. I truly believe we can have a contagious impact on our neighborhoods and communities to create nurturing, literacy-rich environments for children ages 0-5 in Southeastern Michigan.
Through our Early Learning Communities, the Reading Village, and Imagination Library, we will start with those 8 neighborhoods and 40,000 children I mentioned, and will add the hundreds of us now empowered and inspired to change conditions. Caregivers, parents, educators, childcare providers, and the leadership of the business and nonprofit communities can collectively create the contagious impact we desperately need.
I urge you to remain inspired and challenged to be a part of this work. I will reach out to you with news and opportunities, and for your valuable input moving forward.
This post was originally published in the Detroit Free Press on May 15, 2009
President Obama said Monday that he wants to close down 1,000 schools and reopen them with a new principal and staff in each of the next five years. Such a bold move is an extension of the game plan that the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, employed as CEO of Chicago Public Schools, in which he closed failing schools and opened new ones through a competitive process with higher standards and accountability.
Duncan was in Detroit Wednesday at the United Way’s national conference, and talked about what states can do to win hundreds of millions of additional dollars to close the achievement gap. As part of the stimulus legislation, Duncan was given authority over $5 billion in discretionary funding– an astonishing amount of money in comparison to the $17 million that his predecessor had before him. It’s intended as a lever for transformation—not just “school reform”—and he intends to use it.
Since the passage of the stimulus legislation, Obama and Duncan have urged states to close schools, turn around schools, and charter more schools if they want to be competitive for Duncan’s discretionary money, which he calls “the Race to the Top Fund.” Their embrace of charter schools represents a sea change in politics, but it really has nothing to do with charter schools at all. It has to do with the fact that America needs to get real serious real quick about closing the achievement gap.
Unfortunately, here in Michigan, we can’t seem to grasp that this is a “both…and” strategy, not an “either…or.” It’s almost like we’re still arguing about whether America will ever be able to elect an African-American as president. The jury’s no longer out on that one, and it’s no longer out on how to close the achievement gap.
Regions that are serious about improving student achievement and closing the achievement gap will have robust portfolios of schools that include traditional public and charter schools. Despite being in high poverty environments, they will be high performing because they share two factors: autonomous and relentless leaders, and an equally talented and committed staff. These schools districts will have vibrant partnerships with nationally renowned models, like Teach for America, New Leaders for New Schools, the New Teacher Project, and KIPP, all of whom have an inspirational record of closing the achievement gap in every city that embraces them.
This is the region we are dedicated to shaping at the United Way for Southeastern Michigan. Last year, we launched a $10 million venture fund to turnaround schools and attract the best educational talent to the region with leadership gifts from AT&T, the Skillman Foundation, and the Ford Fund, along with the donations of people throughout Southeastern Michigan who give to the United Way. We funded our first network of five turnaround high schools that will go from graduation rates of less than 60% to higher than 80% in the next four years. We have brought in some of the best turnaround partners in the nation who have successfully transformed schools in other cities, and we are actively courting Teach for America back to the region.
In our effort to accomplish this in partnership with school and union leaders, parents and community members, and the corporate and philanthropic community, we simply ask for a common commitment to President Obama’s inaugural challenge of letting go of the arguments of the past. They have become a fender-bender on the side of the road that too many leaders are too inclined to stop and argue about while the rest of the nation passes us by. Instead, let one question guide every decision we need to make in light of the educational opportunities that lie ahead: “How will doing this improve student achievement?” Such a simple question, such a vital lens, has the power to get our kids in that race to the top.
Michael Tenbusch is vice president of educational preparedness for United Way for Southeastern Michigan.
I bring this up in light of the firing of GM CEO Rick Wagoner, a generous supporter and friend of the United Way. Read More »
In a stormy sea.
And we owe each other
A terrible loyalty.
I remember like it was yesterday the day my Dad came home in the summer of '81. He called us four kids into the living room to tell us that Ford had laid him off--but we were going to be OK. I didn't hear anything after the "but." I remember going up to my room and vowing that I would turn my paper route and lawn mowing money into groceries to provide for our family. It turned out my dad was right. He got a job teaching that fall at University of Detroit High again, and our family was fine. But the pain I felt that day, and the responsibility I assumed that day, would stay with me for a long time.
Twenty-four years later, on June 26, 2005, I lost my own job unexpectedly. I called my wife from the office and told her the news.
What we face in Michigan is a dilemma faced by all 49 other states. Schools that have increasing numbers of kids in poverty have decreasing numbers in student achievement. But some schools are beating those odds, and the question is, how can we bring schools like them to scale?
The issue is not one of governance. There is no consistent data supporting mayoral-controlled schools, charter schools, or traditional public schools as the solution to this issue. If you allow this to become a question of governance, you are missing the boat.
The issue is how to build and sustain high-performing schools in high-poverty communities across the state.
The question is whether we'll be stuck in TWWADI--The Way We've Always Done It.
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After talking about what a great thing Obama's victory was from a spiritual perspective, our pastor shook things up a little bit. "I want all you white people to get out of your seats. Go hug an African-American, and ask for their forgiveness." Now I couldn't imagine anything more hokey, and so I slunk into my chair and hugged my kids. Read More »
Dr. Gabriela Gui, the school's infectiously enthusiastic leader, greeted us with smiles and a lot of high-octane energy. She explained that she is an immigrant from Romania: "I started out here as a substitute…No that's not right. I started out here cleaning toilets and sleeping in my car. But then I became a substitute, then a teacher, an assistant principal and a principal…I can tell you that the new Cody High School is going to be one of the best high schools in all of Michigan."
She had my heart at that cleaning toilets part. But not others. Read More »
The dropout epidemic has been defined by John McCain and others as the civil rights issue of our time. Why then, do those of us fighting for that right spend so much time in conferences trying to get consensus on what to do?
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First, the term "Count Day" is itself a misnomer. Count Day is actually a ten-day period, and the fourth Wednesday after Labor Day is simply the first day in that accounting period.
Second, the concept of incentivizing students to come to school on this one day is representative of the emphasis being on the wrong things. Read More »