Changes in Detroit, DC and Beyond

These are amazing times in public education. For openers, there’s the huge competition for $4.35 billion in federal money. Of the 41 competitors in the Race to the Top, only two were chosen in the first round. The message seems clear: go home and clean up your act.

Michelle RheeNow, I don’t know how many of you out there looked at any of the original proposals. I read into four of them and can tell you that the writers (using that term loosely) have invented a wonderful substitute for Ambien, a perfect cure for insomnia. I think the average proposal came in at somewhere between 800-900 pages—of turgid prose. Had I been sentenced to read all of that stuff, I think I would have thrown up my hands, torn out my hair, screamed, and then given the money to the states with the shortest proposals.

I hope this time the Duncan team will tell the competitors in the second round: “30 pages max! If you can’t say it in 30 pages or less, don’t bother. Put all the rest in appendices, thank you.” (I recall the wisdom of “If I had more time I would have written a shorter letter,” attributed to Mark Twain and others.)

A second remarkable event is the new contract between the Washington Teachers Union and Michelle Rhee. It took 2+ years, but it may have been worth the wait. Assuming it’s ratified by the City Council and the members of the union, this contract essentially ends the tyranny of seniority and introduces a strong dose of pay-for-performance. Does the contract have implications beyond Washington? I think it does, and I base that on Randi Weingarten’s remarks at the press conference. She went out of her way to brand this as ‘unique,’ using that adjective four times in the space of a couple of sentences to try to convince listeners that it applied only to DC and no other cities, states, towns or unions. As Hamlet noted in watching the overheated acting in the famous ‘play within the play’, “Methinks the lady doth protest too much.”

Change is here, and it’s no longer possible to talk about paying teachers simply based on years in the classroom and number of college credits. Those days are over, I think thanks largely to Rhee. What the new systems will look like, I don’t know, but I am willing to bet that anyone arguing for ‘seat time and credits’ will be laughed out of town.

And finally, Detroit, where I am now preparing a report for PBS NewsHour. This city’s schools are a mess. How bad? On the most recent NAEP results for cities, only three percent of 4th graders scored at a proficient level in math. That’s not a misprint: 3%!

Detroit schoolMost people I’ve talked to blame the State for what it did when it took over and ran the schools from 1999-2005, but that’s about all Detroiters agree on. Detroit has an Emergency Financial Manager, Robert Bobb, who has extraordinary authority, thanks to the Governor and the Legislature.

Since arriving just over a year ago, Bobb has closed schools and turned over a lot of rocks—and found corruption under quite a few of them. The Detroit School Board is suing, saying that Bobb has no authority over academics, only finances. Bobb responds that anything that money touches—and it touches curriculum, of course—is under his authority.

Members of the Board are also upset that unnamed private foundations are paying $145,000 of Bobb’s annual salary of $425,000, and that’s in court as well.

Lost in the shuffle, I fear, are children and young people, even though everyone claims to be putting the kids first.

What’s going to happen? I have no idea. If this were a baseball game, you have to say that it’s only the second or third inning. But, unfortunately, it’s not a game.

(Photo credits: Top – David Clow – Maryland; Bottom – Stephen Voss.)

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4 thoughts on “Changes in Detroit, DC and Beyond

  1. You are dead on about Detroit and it will only get worse. We will not walk our kids through unsafe streets to schools that are over full because there are so many schools thrown together. How many other places are proud of small classrooms. He gets paid and our staff and kids lose out. He’s as bent as the slime that was under those rocks. He is even closing the one school meant to help the Deaf kids. They will have to go to Flint for the next closest day school for the deaf. He cares nothing for the special ed kids.

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  2. I have yet to hear education officials focus on the experiences of children and young people in schools, or their experiences once they leave school. While everyone is busy covering up misdeeds, placing blame elsewhere, or negotiating policy, another generation of students will not be prepared to make positive contributions to their families and lives, and society. It would be a great case study to find 25 years worth of students from some of the countries worst schools, and document where they ended up during all this reform.

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  3. If you have been paying attention to what’s going on in Washington in the last day, and how Michelle Rhee withheld information about a surplus brought about because she fired 266 teachers in the fall due to an erroneously calculated budget shortfall, you will conclude in very little time that there is no chance of this contract going through.

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  4. The one thing I don’t hear people mentioning in their discussion of performance pay, or at least not mentioning very often, is how one includes those teachers who teach non-tested subjects. Moreover, the payment increase for “college credits” should not be dismissed so lightly; there is evidence to support the link between content knowledge and student achievement. On the other hand, its been my experience that many teacher preparation programs are woefully inadequate at actually preparing teachers. Perhaps the solution is not to strip incentives for gaining additional academic credits, but rather to make the gaining of those credits more meaningful and useful for teachers.

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