August 6, 2014 at 1:00 am


In Detroit schools, the emperor is naked

Without structural change, Jack Martin, Detroit schools' emergency manager, left, won't fare any better than his predecessors Roy Roberts, right, or Robert Bobb. Gov. Rick Snyder is at center. (Clarence Tabb, Jr. / The Detroit News)

Most of us remember the Hans Christian Andersen saga about the emperor who was fooled into thinking that his nonexistent garb could only be seen by smart people. It took an innocent little boy, who didnít know anything about anything, to blurt out the truth that the old dude was nude.

Thatís how I feel about education, both in Detroit and even in Michigan. I am not an educator, and Iím certainly not an innocent little boy, but even I can see that the education weíre giving to our kids is, to be kind, wildly inadequate. Even worse, we are getting less competitive with every passing year. Other cities, states, and countries are leaving our kids in their dust. Iíll explain this a bit more in a minute.

First, a little background. I was born in Detroit, and I love Detroit and Michigan. Iím honored to serve as vice chair of the Detroit Financial Advisory Board. Along with most of you, Iím thrilled that Detroitís bankruptcy process is going far better than any of us could have guessed. The key judges ó Steven Rhodes and Gerald Rosen ó are doing a first-class job. The movers and shakers ó the Penskes, Gilberts, and Ilitches ó are all in, and the on-the-ground team of Mayor Mike Duggan and Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr are already making good things happen. Street lights are coming on, abandoned houses are coming down, crime rates are better, some antiquated fire department work rules are gone, and we have world-class management in buses and information technology. Amazing.

Second, Iím with the growing group of Detroiters agreeing with a new BHAG ó big, hairy, audacious goal ó for Detroit. That goal is to be one of the top five cities in the country in which to live and work by 2030. That is certainly aspirational, but I believe that it is clearly within our sights ó except for education. Unless we do something game-changing on education, we have no chance to make the BHAG.

Detroit is at or near the bottom compared with other big cities, including others with high percentages of poor kids. And itís pretty much everywhere you look ó only half of our 5-year-olds arrive at school ready to learn, fourth graders are in the bottom 10 percent in reading compared with other big cities, with an appalling 3 percent rated as ďproficient,Ē median reading levels at some high schools are at fourth grade levels, graduation rates and ACT scores are dreadful, and we are falling further behind other large American school districts. Even our best school ó Renaissance High School ó doesnít make the top thousand American high schools on the US News and World Report list. Guess where the rest are?

Just because you may not live in Detroit, donít talk too loudly, because Michigan is no great shakes either. In terms of progress, Michigan is one of only six states that have gone backwards in the last decade. Our fourth-grade kids are reading at 2003 levels. Tennessee, which was worse than Michigan 10 years ago, is now better. Compared with the best state, Massachusetts, we are nowhere.

Itís not that we are not trying. Jack Martin, the latest in a talented parade of emergency managers for Detroit public schools, is leading a team that is as dedicated and hard-working as anyone could ask. But theyíre stuck in a system that canít possibly succeed.

So, what do we do? Weíve proven that we canít focus in 100 directions. Could we laser-focus on a few things that can really move the needle, as other cities and states have done? Weíve shown that we can mobilize to attack 60,000 streetlights and 80,000 abandoned houses. How about 120,000 of our most precious assets? Our kids.

Do we know what to do? Absolutely. Fortunately, there are many role models who have already done it. Most of us know, for example, that the U.S. is no paragon of excellence in K-12 education. We are somewhere around average or below compared with other countries. Yet right here at home, just to pick one, Massachusetts stands out. In the last 20 years, Massachusetts has become as good as the best countries in the world. Could we do it by 2030? I think so.

How about having the governor designate Detroit as a pilot for big changes in education outcomes? In my view, Mayor Duggan is fully up to a task like this. We canít be patient with incremental change. We need an ax, not a scalpel, and some glass needs to be broken. We need to take some leaves from the Massachusetts book. We canít have everybody and his sister approving competing charter schools. We need to ask why the best charter school operators wonít even come to Detroit. We canít be scared to weed out non-performers. We canít continue to produce too many less-than-qualified teacher candidates and throwing them into a sink-or-swim school environment.

And we canít wait. Our kids are drowning every day in this sea of mediocrity that we have given them.

Ken Whipple is vice chair of the Detroit Financial Advisory Board.