People, Politics & Business

Scoundrels, Educrats, Rogues and Champions


CJ Westerberg, December 17, 2009 10:59 PM

David Bowie.jpg

Panic in Detroit is Not Just a David Bowie Song. 
What's Happening in Education in Detroit May Be a Warning To Other Vulnerable Districts Across the Country.

Putting on some clothes I made my way to school
And I found my teacher crouching in his overalls
I screamed and ran to smash my favorite slot machine
And jumped the silent cars that slept at traffic lights

Having scored a trillion dollars, made a run back home
Found him slumped across the table. A gun and me alone
I ran to the window. Looked for a plane or two
Panic in Detroit. He'd left me an autograph
"Let me collect dust." I wish someone would phone
Panic in Detroit.

                                              -David Bowie, Panic in Detroit

"New York City's embarrassment is Detroit's education reform 'revolution' ", states Amber Arellano, columnist at The Detroit News, in a powerful blog post at Eduwonk today.  She continues:

"This month the Detroit Public Schools posted the lowest student achievement results in the 40-year history of the NAEP.   Educators began weeping when briefed on the news. And city charter schools, once Motown's hope for change, on average are performing just as terribly as the school district.

As if Detroit's education's reputation couldn't get any worse, consider: new teachers' contract, if ratified today, would create Detroit's first Rubber Room.

Call it a "creative" contract as some economic analysts have -- or call it devastating for school reform. Either way, the Rubber Room is a long way from Detroit's state-appointed Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb's earlier negotiating goal of ridding of teacher seniority.

Bobb faced two significant hurdles during contract talks: 1) among the most militant and backward teacher union locals in the U.S.; 2) improving the worst performing urban school district by almost any measure."

(For those unfamiliar with Rubber Rooms, these are essentially buildings that are "holding tanks" for teachers charged with incompetency or other more severe infractions.  New York  spends millions per year on these rubber rooms with hundreds of teachers being paid to do nothing, due to the protection laws of unions.  The New Yorker did a piece recently here.)

So here you have a triple whammy situation in Detroit:  first, big problems in the schools.

Secondly, with Detroit's unemployment rate hovering at 50%, which could very well be higher since we all know how that measurement does not include "who are able, yet not willing" after a period of unemployment, we must ask what's happening to the kids on the home front?  You've got parent(s) who are no longer working, most likely depressed with low self-esteem, no structure, possibly involved with substance abuse - so that potential role modeling support system (if there was one in the first place) has been seriously compromised. 

Thirdly, this is also a community where the automotive industry was their birthright and a forever generational route to well-being, good wages, and a secure job.  Wages always went up regardless of business profits, with no thought that they would go away, or for workers to think about widening their education and skills beyond what served them well for generations.

Three related stories:

*  A disturbing story in yesterday's Detroit News here.   It includes scenarios that witness  "morsel of progress, finger pointing and theatrics", and reads like a soap opera.  Did anyone mention the students?
*  Earlier this week, parents did their bidding by wanting to throw teachers in jail.

*  Yesterday, Shepard Smith from Fox News said he would burn down the schools before he would send his kids to them.   This was in response to the 4th grade national test results for Detroit schools revealing that 69 percent were below basic proficiency.  See his video below.

I just spoke with a foundation person involved in the education space who warned that Detroit is the example that could be followed by other vulnerable districts.   Here are the take-aways from that conversation:
You cannot have this type of unemployment without huge effects to the school system. In the case of Detroit, this is the tipping point.   You have taxpayers moving out as soon as they can.  If you have kids just not showing up anymore, the whole system falls apart.  Everyone starts jumping ship, either mentally, physically or emotionally, or all three.   Mom or dad may have already checked out and are leaving a world lost to a kid growing up.  The drop-out rates are on an upward trajectory.  You still have big school buildings that need upkeep.  With decreasing student enrollments, the taxpayers dollars go down, so it becomes a vicious circle.  Intervention has to happen on multiple levels:  at the school, at home, at work.  Government, foundations, community volunteers, businesses have to step in.  Significant measures must be taken - no baby steps here.  Unions can no longer operate like it's "business as usual".  There has to be real leadership.

Makes me crazy thinking about how these kids' lives and futures are being bounced around like a political basketball.

                                                                                     --   C.J.




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