Detroit has been for too long a symbol of despair, neglect, and unfulfilled dreams. It has particularly become known for utterly failing to educate its students. Unfortunately, Michael Winerip's article in today's Times regarding what has been done lately to improve Detroit's educational system does nothing to restore a sense of hope about what is possible there. Not that he intended to. He reports on efforts to improve Detroit schools by hiring a $425,000 a year budget guru, lowering teacher salaries by disempowering unions (top salary: $73,700), and moving toward the creation of a whole district of charter schools.
Most of these "reforms" have backfired and have led to an even more rapid exodus from the Detroit Public schools totaling some 8000 students a year. In fact, the deficit has ballooned, the system of charter schools has proved no less successful than conventional schools (easily predicted, by the way, from the existing evidence), and the incentives for teachers to face some of the most challenging students in the world have been sorely depleted.
Winerip's article chronicles some of the heroic work that individual teachers are continuing to do. He includes a brief profile of the 2007 Michigan teacher of the year who remains in Detroit, despite far more attractive offers from a variety of suburban schools. But the article offers no hope whatsoever that educational leaders are attempting to build capacity for better schools in the future or that anything is being done to attract and retain strong teachers. Sure, a few great ones will always hang on, and for this we should be eternally grateful. But highlighting these rare and courageous pedagogues is not the way to build a more sustainable system. To get there, it's going to take a lot more than creative budgeting, an undifferentiated system of poorly regulated charter schools, and a compulsion to put unions out of business.