Photo courtesy of Vice

Earlier this year, Detroit Public Schools made an important step towards moving away from the failed model of the traditional public school district when it announced that it would convert 41 of its failing traditional schools into charters.  But since then, as the district’s financial overlord, Robert Bobb, handed over his job over to former General Motors executive Roy Roberts, the district has unfortunately stepped away from that sensible effort, handing off just five schools to charter school operators. Meanwhile the district still plans to shut down 20 of its schools, scaling back from an earlier plan to shut down as many as 71 of them.

But now, with yesterday’s announcement by Roberts and Gov. Rick Snyder that the worst-performing of Detroit’s traditional schools will be taken over by a state agency similar to the Recovery School District in Louisiana that has spurred reform in post-Katrina era New Orleans, there is a possibility that the Motor City can become the next sterling example of how to overhaul the worst that American public education offers. But Roberts and Snyder will have to actually do more than simply do a few quick fixes. More importantly, they must also be aggressive — both in timeline and in efforts — in order for their move to be a success.

Under the Snyder-Roberts plan, a state-controlled agency run by Roberts in partnership with Eastern Michigan University will take over 45 of Detroit’s failure factories, and then begin their overhaul. Under the model, students would attend school for 212 days instead of the traditional 180-day calendar, while principals would be given authority to hire and fire teachers. If a school gets back into shape within five years, a school’s principal (after consulting with a parent’s advisory council) can choose to remain under state oversight, transfer back to the Detroit district or spin off and become a charter school.

The concept sounds good. There is even the possibility that this new agency could bring in high-quality charter school operators to launch new schools, a move that could help give families more high-quality school options. By moving these schools away from the management of the spectacularly failing Detroit district and from under the district’s collective bargaining agreement with its American Federation of Teachers local, there is an opportunity to actually undertake the kind of radical overhauls — including the use of value-added data in managing teacher performance and assignment — that will be needed to give Motown kids greater opportunities for high-quality education. In short, the new agency could actually replicate the success of the RSD in New Orleans.

But the plan, as currently envisioned, is incomplete. Given that far too many children in the Motor City are subjected to dropout factories and worse, that just one percent of failing schools are successfully overhauled within a decade, and the failed history of state takeovers of traditional schools, incomplete is not good enough.

For one, longer school years and school days are not school reform solutions in and of themselves; the district still needs to address such matters as the amount of time teachers actually spend teaching students. Given the dearth of high-quality school leadership within the Detroit system, simply handing management power to principals is also no panacea. The new agency could solve that problem by teaming up with school reform outfits such as The New Teacher Project and the Broad Foundation to develop a corps of top-flight school principals. But Snyder and Roberts haven’t announced whether or not they have moved in that direction.

Let’s not forget the matter of improving the quality of instruction in these schools; just moving laggard instructors from non-management by the Detroit district to the school level won’t actually lead to improving student achievement. Whether Eastern Michigan’s ed school can actually take on the challenge of improving the quality of instruction in those schools remains to be seen. There is also no reason why Detroit should wait until the 2012-2013 school year to begin transferring those schools. In fact, Detroit could make the first step today by creating a separate division of the traditional district that replicates what is going to happen by next year.

Then there is the matter of Parent Power. Giving school-level parent councils a consulting role in the operations of the school isn’t enough. If anything, each of the schools under the Snyder-Roberts plan should have a board of directors with parents holding lead roles in governance and operations. The plan should also allow some form of Parent Trigger, giving the majority of parents the ability to push for more-radical measures if school performance doesn’t improve in any meaningful way.

The move by Snyder and Roberts is certainly worth watching and considering. It is an important step away from a traditional district model that has helped foster the kind of mediocrity in instruction, curricula and leadership that are behind the nation’s education crisis.