Observing the Catastrophe of Detroit's Public School System

Category:  Opinions
Wednesday, January 27th, 2016 at 9:36 PM
Observing the Catastrophe of Detroit's Public School System by The Spectator

It was recently in the news that teachers from the Detroit area school district were going on what was to become a self-proclaimed “sick out,” which differs from a regular protest or “sit-out,” because they were not protesting for higher wages or better pensions. Instead, they were protesting for the reversal of the deplorable conditions in which their students were being asked to learn. Photos began to surface over Twitter of black mold infesting the floorboards, hazard signs plastered over school restrooms and windows with the glass falling out of them. Some teachers sent in photos of waste bins collecting the rainwater that was flowing from inadequately sealed rooftops. Others sent in photos of students taking turns sitting on the floor due to an over-enrollment in class size.

The pictures were shocking enough for most of the outside world, especially the world comprised of those of us who have been afforded an adequate if not superior education. This is an education consisting of modern technology in classrooms, well-unionized and salaried teachers, extra-curricular opportunities, and high graduation rates. We often turn a blind eye to what now has the negative connotation of “inner-city schools.” These schools’ realities are, especially in locales like Edinboro, a somewhat intangible reality we seem to forget about until the CDC or FDA releases a scathing indictment on the conditions in which the lower-income earners’ children are cast into educational environments reminiscent of a third-world system.

And while the comments that sometimes accompany these articles are as disheartening as, “Why aren’t the teachers just staying after work to fix the conditions? If they have pride in their school it shouldn’t be such a hard choice to make,” or “This is what happens when you let progressive-liberals run the school systems in Detroit, millions of dollars in taxes and this is the result,” you have to remind yourself that these are merely the disgruntled and increasingly vocal fringe of society that is reasonably frustrated with the improper learning environments we’re leaving to the most disenfranchised portions of our society.

It’s obviously not a far reach to state these are the students who are the most at risk if they do not receive a proper education. A proper education would include a curriculum where their rights as a U.S. citizen are disclosed, basic life skills are addressed, and the right tools are instilled in students to make them able to articulate the challenges they are inevitably going to face. To turn a blind eye on the circumstances of the children of Detroit is to accept education plays an inconsequential role in not only the formative years of our nation’s youth, but the possibility for them to grow into an even more promising future.

Where did this apathy and dilapidation come from? The easy scapegoat is to point fingers at uninvolved parenting, uncertified teachers, and poor budgetary planning, but the history of Detroit’s and other cities predicaments stretches back further.

“The only difference between Detroit and the Third World in terms of corruption is Detroit doesn’t have goats in the streets,” wrote investigative journalist Charlie LeDuff in his exposé “Detroit: An American Autopsy.” Though Detroit is riddled in a myriad of corrupt politicians, such as Gov. Rick Snyder — now notorious for his horrendous mishandling of the Flint water crisis, its educational woes seem to stem exclusively from two sources. The first source is the obvious collateral damage of the city’s economic decline. The second source for the Detroit Public Schools’ financial fallout can be attributed to the boom of charter schools.

The city’s charter sector expanded rapidly between 2010 and 2013, according to educationnext.org. Thirty two new schools opened, a 42 percent increase in just those three years, bringing the total number to 109. By percentage of total enrollment, Detroit has the third-largest charter sector in the country after New Orleans and Washington, D.C. Detroit Public Schools (DPS) is in constant battle with the allure of the charter schools that offer, in most cases, the highest-bidder a shot at an adequate if not superior education, or so it would seem. Between 2005 and 2012, DPS lost two-thirds of its enrollment or more than 84,000 students.

But the real irony lies in the fact that students who are leaving the system for charter schools are not performing any better. Charter schools offer slightly more hope than traditional district schools. According to a 2013 report by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University, nearly half of Detroit’s charter schools outperform district schools. Given the very low bar set by the district, achieving those standards are not too difficult. The other half of Detroit’s charter schools have outcomes that are statistically indistinguishable from the city’s poorly performing traditional district institutions.

For evidence of this, one needs to look no further than Detroit’s results for ACT testing. In the city of Detroit, 2,623 high school juniors took the four-subject ACT test (reading, science, math and English) last year. Based on their ACT scores in the four subjects, only 93 of those students, or 3.5 percent of the total, met or exceeded the minimum level of academic achievement to be considered “college ready” in all four subject areas.

In some ways can’t we say the same is happening on our own state campuses, or our own state high schools? It’s no secret that every single Republican representative in the state legislature has voted repeatedly to recess despite having no budget in place, causing hundreds of school districts to cut teachers, programs, and consider the possibility of shutting down. And what for our colleges, which are becoming increasingly more expensive for the typical student who must take out loans to finance their post-secondary experience? What for the actual “liberal arts” that are supposed to be a part of a liberal arts degree? Where is the funding and support for professors of the humanities, where are the Smart boards for the art studios; the walls not filled with asbestos for the dwindling philosophy department?

The solution to this problem is only partially reliant on parents who motivate their children to learn and make an effort to encourage their child’s natural curiosity. It’s only partly reliant on teachers who go the extra mile to make sure their students are conceptualizing key concepts and learning in an environment that encourages comfort in trying and failing and trying again. It is only partly up to the children who we place in these predicaments to be determined to beat the statistical odds of poverty, to fight the status quo with what little educational opportunities they are afforded.

Ultimately, it is in the hands of the state, which are reliant on the tax payer and the federal government to spend our salaries how they see fit. Detroit has systematically devalued education. The result is a city with 36 percent of its population living below the poverty line.

A study performed by Northwestern University found the benefits of education were most obvious for students from poor families. They found that a 10 percent increase in the money available for each lowincome student resulted in a 9.5 percent increase in students’ earnings as adults. A public investment in schools returned 8.9 percent annually for a typical pupil who started kindergarten in 1980.

“Those increases in instructional expenditures proved to have large dividends, significant economic returns, in the lives of these children,” the research concluded. “We’re always searching for what can break the cycle of poverty from one generation to the next.”

Hint, education plays what is arguably the most significant role.

Our viewpoint is voted on by the staff of The Spectator.

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