Harris: Think outside the box in reforming DPS

Greg Harris

Detroit is pursuing a new strategy to contend with the vicious cycle of poor academics and massive debt expected to top $515 million by June 2016.

Yes, the situation is dire. But it is also solvable if Detroit is willing to seize this moment to reinvent education. For Gov. Rick Snyder's recent plan to pay for itself, however, a per pupil spending level should be set for the newly proposed Detroit Community School District from the balance that comes after subtracting the payments (channeled to DPS) required to retire its debt within 10 years.

A reduced per pupil allocation doesn't necessarily translate into bad schools. In Washington, D.C., for example, two districts exist: the traditional unified district, and the all-charter district that contracts with five dozen organizations to administer 115 schools. Despite substantially less funding and higher student poverty rates, the charter kids outperform their district peers.

For Detroit to accomplish similar results, the new district should go all charter. There is no other way to reduce administrative and contract costs for a district that, as reported by the Detroit News, "has among the highest per-pupil costs for administration in the state."

Even greater savings could be achieved by adopting new staffing models that bring blended learning to scale in order to reduce costs while improving academic outcomes. Detroit could apply the example of the vaunted Rocketship network of charter schools. Instead of having one teacher (average salary $67,000 in metro Detroit) for every 25 students, you have one highly rated teacher for every 75 students, and two teacher aides (with, say, $25 per hour contracts) assigned to them.

From its current 3,000 teachers, Detroit would retain its top one-third rated teachers based on student growth data, and assign two teacher aides to each of them. Salary costs (excluding benefits) would be reduced from $201 million to $119 million , just about erasing the $97 million deficit projected for 2016. Augmented by $30 million in central office savings, you actually have a surplus to support enrichment programming and strategies to help Detroit kids succeed.

While a combination of existing high performing public schools and vouchers for private schools can serve some students, the remaining population should be directed to newly created, technology-based learning hubs within existing school buildings. With the governor's proposed $100 million in start-up costs for capital improvements of facilities, the moment is now to invest in technology.

Why should Detroit make this bold shift to technology? With 6 in 10 Detroit school kids not proficient in reading, and 8 in 10 not proficient in math, the human capital clearly doesn't exist today to educate kids at adequate levels. Without focused blended learning interventions, there will be a considerable lag time before Detroit kids acquire even basic levels of learning. Moreover, given the high mobility rates of impoverished schoolchildren, a technology driven system would allow them to pick up where they left off if they switch schools.

Detroit could embrace a model where teachers and their assistants guide kids through online learning platforms. A wealth of computer modules and tablet apps are available today for individual learning experiences including the Go Know learning games developed at the University of Michigan.

Panels of Detroit educators and cross-sector leadership could oversee transparent bidding processes from proven vendors that are developing groundbreaking learning tools.

A can-do Detroit could retire its debts, make the pension system solvent, while most importantly, emerging as the most technologically advanced and high achieving urban school district in the country.

Dr. Greg Harris is the state director of StudentsFirst in Ohio. He served as interim CEO of Excellent School Detroit in 2011.