Detroit Coalition Aims for ‘Quality’ Schools by 2020

Published April 26, 2010

Educators, parents, city administrators, and private foundations have united to advance a plan they say will substantially improve Detroit’s failing schools over the next decade.

The project, called Excellent Schools Detroit, has high-profile backing from the Skillman Foundation, Kellogg Foundation, Michigan Chamber of Commerce, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, and Michigan Superintendent of Schools Mike Flanagan. The goal is to raise $20 million to place all Detroit students in “quality” schools by 2020.

The project defines a quality school as one that graduates 90 percent of its students, with 90 percent of those graduates going on to college. Just 60 percent of the city’s students graduate from high school, and only about half of those high school graduates enroll in college, according to Louis “Lou” Glazer, president of Michigan Future Inc.

Scoring ‘Way Too Low’

The Excellent Schools Detroit plan, which Glazer helped draft, paints a grim picture of the current state of Detroit’s schools. Only 3 percent of the city’s fourth graders and 4 percent of its eighth graders rate as “proficient” on the National Assessment of Education Progress. The students could have done about the same if they’d just guessed on the test, Glazer notes.

Just 2 percent of the city’s high school students are prepared for college-level math, and only 11 percent are ready for college-level reading.

“That’s way too low,” Glazer said.

The situation in Detroit is not defined simply by economics or the location of schools, Glazer says. He notes numerous disparities between schools in the same parts of the city, with some nearing the goal rates and others failing miserably.

“We are inspired by schools where students are engaged, enthusiastic, learning, and optimistic about their futures,” Excellent Schools Detroit says in its plan. “There are dozens of schools like these in Detroit and hundreds of them across the country. We need many more of them. And we are collectively committed to reaching that goal. The children are counting on us.”

Plan Emphasizes Flexibility

The effort doesn’t favor one type of school — private, public or charter — over another.
“Our theory is to let the schools develop their own black boxes rather than trying to design a single system for everyone,” Glazer said.

Glazer says the major difference between the schools that are succeeding and those that are failing is the attitude of the educators. “We’ve tried to be smart about what is and what isn’t working around the country,” he said.

Project coordinators concede their plan is aggressive and many details are still to be worked out. But they say they can’t continue to sit back and wait for things to improve under the current educational structure.

Citywide Focus

“Our focus is on students, not institutions,” said Carol Gross, president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation. “This is a citywide plan to help all children. For too long, much of the focus has been on adults, on issues like who has power and who doesn’t; who gets to hand out contracts and who doesn’t. Enough of that!

“It’s time for the children to take center stage,” Gross continued. “Detroit has to improve its schools faster than any other city has done. Everybody needs to be accountable for results. Children will not thrive unless we can hire the most talented school leaders to run our schools and great teachers to teach in them. We need many more talented educators. We have some, but we need more.”

Goal Is 70 New Schools

Previous reform plans have focused on telling Detroit public schools what to do, Gross said.

“By contrast, our plan focuses on spelling out what we as leaders are committed to do through our own organizations,” she explained. “We want to open 70 new high-performing schools. We believe a single point of accountability is the way that we should go. The mayor of Detroit should have responsibility for Detroit public schools.”

But Gross says mayoral responsibility does not necessarily mean “mayoral control,” which is highly controversial.

“There are far too many schools—charters and others—that are failing our kids, and many of them are not part of the Detroit public school system,” said Robert Bobb, emergency financial manager of Detroit’s public schools. “The great thing about the citywide education plan is that we will now have assurance that someone is watching, an organization that is independent of Detroit public schools and of the charter providers.”

‘Waiting Is Over’

The Excellent Schools Detroit plan emphasizes quick action, with special focus on the lowest performing schools.

“Low-performing schools, whether they be public, private, or charter—and there are failing schools in all of those categories—need to be closed as soon as possible and new schools opened by leaders and organizations with a track record of educating urban kids well,” said Doug Ross, chief executive officer of New Urban Learning, a nonprofit organization that manages University Preparatory Academy in Detroit.

“The vision of this group is an education marketplace in Detroit with common high performance standards,” Ross said. “The old plan said to parents: Wait, be patient, give us another five years. This plan says the waiting is over.”

Excellence Set as Standard

The Excellent Schools Detroit plan includes three strategies:

Enforce Real Accountability. All schools, no matter who controls them, should be held to the same standards of excellence, the report says. Parents, students, and the public have the right to know which schools are succeeding and which are not.

Create Excellent Schools for Every Child. The plan calls for zero tolerance for “schools that year after year fail to educate their students. The status quo is indefensible. Without dramatic changes, we won’t be doing students any favors. And this citywide plan is about them—and their futures.”

Under the plan, failing schools would be closed. Though parents often do not want “their” schools closed, reformers say closures need to be part of any improvement plan.

Recruit and Develop the Best School Leaders and Teachers. “The new schools will not be successful unless we can reward, recruit, develop and keep enough talented principals to lead them and excellent teachers to teach in them,” the plan says.

Glazer adds that educators need to believe students can succeed. “If students don’t succeed, then it’s the educators who need to change, not the students,” Glazer said.

Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.

Internet Info:

Excellent Schools Detroit: “Taking Ownership: Our Pledge to Educate All of Detroit’s Children”: