The Need for Detroit to Boldly Embrace the Hollywood Model
Over the past couple of years, Detroit Public Schools and the emergency financial managers who have run its operations on behalf of Michigan’s state government, have struggled to develop a road map to determine its future. Under former czar Robert Bobb, the nation’s most-atrocious failure cluster planned to spin off 41 of its schools into charters — and only managed to convert five of them. Then Bobb’s successor, Roy Roberts, shifted gears, teaming up with Gov. Rick Snyder and Eastern Michigan University to form a state agency modeled off of the successful Recovery School District in New Orleans that would take over 45 schools. But the Education Achievement Authority will only have 15 schools under its control by the time the new school year starts.
So it isn’t hard to view Robert’s announcement yesterday that he’s allowing 10 of Detroit’s high schools to essentially become charters with some skepticism. After all, the number of schools that may actually end up being spun out of the district could be far less than even that miniscule number, or worse, won’t happen at all. But the good news is that Detroit is slowly admitting that the traditional district model no longer works, either for the city or the children forced to attend the district’s woeful schools. It now needs to go further and fully embrace what Dropout Nation calls the Hollywood Model of Education that ends the traditional model once and for all.
Under Roberts’ latest plan, each of the 10 high schools would be overseen by a five-person board that includes a business operator, a parent and three others appointed by the district. They would then be in charge of school budgets, curricula, and hiring, controlling all of the federal dollars allocated to the district for them (and 97 percent of other school funds not allocated for servicing the district’s debt). In theory, the school would actually run itself, while contracting with Detroit for school lunch and other services.
For the most part, the plan sounds good. It is a small step in the right direction. The fact that Detroit is not looking to just bring in charter operators from the outside and actually taking steps to grow capacity in the city limits also makes sense; the inability to find national and regional charter school operators and other school players willing (or capable) of doing the work is why a similar effort in D.C. profiled last year in a report by the Education Sector has had limited success in terms of the number schools actually spun off. So is Roberts’ other plan to essentially become a service provider to other schools and districts, offering its expertise is handling school lunches, transportation, information technology, and building services (if Roberts actually implements the plan as envisioned). And it is good to see the district admit that it is “facing both an academic and financial emergency.”
But the plan still doesn’t come close to accepting the reality that the traditional model of centralized district bureaucracies is obsolete — and doesn’t do what needs to be done in order to help Motown’s kids get a high-quality education.
In controlling the majority of seats on local school boards, Detroit still maintains too much control over school operations. Given the district’s past failures in running school operations, Roberts should scale back the district’s role to that of an oversight agency. The fact that families only get one seat on each of these boards once again shows that Detroit doesn’t get it. As I noted in this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, the only way families can truly be engaged in schools (and help their kids get the high-quality education they deserve) is by giving them majority power over operations.
The bigger problem lies in the fact that Roberts’ school spinoff plan is what the average baseball player would call small ball thinking. Given past opposition to similar plans from local education traditionalists and the American Federation of Teachers’ Motor City local, this is understandable. But a small-ball plan won’t lead to any real improvements in school or, ultimately, student achievement.
Roberts needs to accept the reality that Detroit needs to ditch the traditional district model. This includes spurring the opening of new charter schools in the city, and continuing with transitioning the district from being an education provider to a school support services operator. It also means making plans to hand off the rest if its schools to charter school operators, universities such as Wayne State, community groups, churches, and even coalitions of families and others. The latter won’t be easy. After all, there are the capacity issues on the ground — including the lack of strong charter school operators willing to take on failure mills. But as former Center for Reinventing Public Education boss Paul Hill has pointed out, capacity isn’t developed until the need for it comes into play; in short, the concept of growing your own capacity must be accepted as a reality. More importantly, there are models upon which Parent Power and community groups can build, including Chicago’s famed Providence St. Mel (which was taken over from the Second City’s Catholic archdiocese by school principal Paul Adams); the growth of blended learning — and the model set by pioneering outfit Rocketship Education — also allows for new opportunities to provide Detroit kids with high-quality education.
The children of Detroit deserve better than either the status quo or Roberts’ small-scale plan. It’s time for the district to get out of the education provider business once and for all.