Thursday, October 28, 2004

Revisiting Detroit School Reform -- Implications for the Twin Cities

Posted by Craig Westover | 1:03 PM |  

Thanks to Policy Guy for his post “Revisiting Detroit School Reform,” a summary of a Detroit News interview with John Engler, former Michigan governor, about school reform in Michigan's largest city. Engler gained notoriety for advocating a state takeover of the perennially dysfunctional schools.

Reading the text of the interview, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the MPR Town Hall meeting on the Minnesota Achievement Gap. From the questions of the interviewer to Engler’s comments about the Detroit school system, the obvious conclusion is neither the media nor the school system has a clue as to how to reform education -- but that doesn’t stop them from insisting that the public school elite are the only one’s qualified to figure it out.

The first question posed to Engler had to do with low test scores -- was that the reason he was so dissatisfied with public schools? Engler’s response --

Something to give these kids a chance. It was stunning there was such a passive acceptance of a lousy school system by the community leadership.
And Engler cut no slack in where to place the blame.
In fact, there was more interest in a few union jobs and a few people with positions and titles than the 160,000 kids that were in the district. There was a fight to preserve the status quo, but when they talked about the status quo they were talking about their jobs and ... I guess to what extent something can be described a perk or benefit.
Still the reporter didn’t get it and followed up Engler’s question with a another question about test scores and drop out rates and a bit of local corruption. Again Engler responded --
It's the kids . . . .We knew that more than half weren't even graduating, but these were called graduates in the Detroit Public Schools and they couldn't make it. And so everybody was trying to figure out how do we remediate the problems. Here you've got a district, which was one of the higher spending districts in the entire state of Michigan, performing so poorly that its graduates were in immediate need of remediation in order to go to the next level.
Beginning to sound familiar? One impression I reported from the MPR Town Hall Meeting was --
My main frustration was that most of the suggestions for closing the gap were one-off program ideas or attitude adjustments, which the panel acknowledged as “excellent ideas” that they “needed to look into” or that they were “already addressing” and making “good progress” on.
With similar frustration, Engler responds to the Detroit News writer’s question about progress in the past five years.

[T]his is the problem I have so often: people have been so conditioned to accept poor performance that any sort of glimmer of hope, any sign of improvement is seized upon as 'aren't we great, aren't we doing it now.' And we are not. We are not close to where we need to be. And this is not a Detroit-only problem. I thought at the time Detroit was among the more acute cases in the country, but there are a lot of other systems.
Evidence of the clueless connection is this edited-for-brevity exchange between Engler and the writer over the value of school choice. (Full exchange here.)

Q: You talked about charters and school choice, some make the argument that at the time Detroit was going through this reform the climate prevented any real progress. How can you improve the district when the kids are draining from the district and money is tied to each student?

A: They should lose children and the district should be smaller because they are doing a poor job. We won't buy cars from a company that doesn't make good cars. We won't buy consumer goods from a company that makes poor products.

Q: Their argument is how do you improve when there are nearby charters just opening up.

A: And for the same money, they are hiring a staff and paying for all their overhead and paying for their building too. ... That is like shooting the messenger a little bit. Why are the parents so deeply unhappy they are willing to take the risk on a charter school, which is a start-up school. Although today they are getting a little more tenure and experience ... Why would someone do that, leave the schools? ... They are not losing those kids to other schools inside Detroit. Most of them are being lost, the minute anybody gets any income to get out of Detroit they do, if they've got children of school age.

Q: Should there have been a moratorium on charters?

A: No. That's not the way the world works. Let me take a time out from the competition for five years, 10 years while I get better so hopefully when we start competing again I am able to compete. That's not the way it works. You either compete or you perish. How many former car companies used to call Detroit home? Everybody should stop making cars so theirs can get better for a few years?

Engler’s sentiments were echoed locally yesterday by Omar Wasow, a speaker in the Partnership for Choice in Education, St. Paul Chamber and Citizen’s league Educational Speaker Series. Wasow, a technology entrepreneur, executive director of, who is active in the charter school movement in New York, noted in his presentation that a major problem with school systems is they don’t learn -- they don’t know how to learn.

School systems, said Wasow, spend a great deal of time focusing on the average school when a more productive and business-like approach would be to look at the outliers -- the failing schools and the successful schools. Failing schools should be closed and successful schools replicated. Public schools systems, however, lack incentive to do this.

Engler concurs that a school is a business.

Absolutely, it's [a school is] a business. The business is the children and their education and that's a real serious business. That is part of the problem, people think 'Well, it's just the schools.' Well, no it's more than the schools. It's where our children go for an education and they can't fail. ... I use the auto industry as a metaphor because it's something people in Michigan understand, people in Detroit understand. But you have parents who work in the auto manufacturing ... They are trying to figure out how can we improve this process to get a better product. How do we get this much more quality, this much more strength, this much more whatever? And you go to the schools and they are offended when you ask them how many kids came to school today. They don't know. I mean it's an absurd situation.

One can argue, as I’m sure local education leaders will, that Engler’s comments are about (sneer here) Deeeetroooit, not the Twin Cities. But after attending the MPR Town Hall and then listening to the edited version that went out over the air, I don’t see much difference in attitudes. School choice, especially free-market school choice is still very much a taboo topic among "public" school educators, and fixing the system a more urgent matter than educating children.