Williamson: Let’s transform Detroit schools

Michael Williamson

Sometimes it is just confounding to read the news about schools and education. Currently we are reading about the governor’s efforts regarding the Detroit Public Schools. We are also reading about the FBI investigation of corruption in the Education Achievement Authority (EAA) and the plea bargain agreements of some of the education reform fraudsters involved.

One thing is certain. Detroit school reform has been successful in creating newfound wealth for reformers, even if it was unsuccessful in improving the education of students. This is not different from the pattern repeated in district after district across the United States. Whether fraudsters are involved or not school reform is more successful at wealth transfer than at improving learning.

School reform is a big business. School reform profits curriculum companies, technology companies and high-priced consultants.

Schools do not need more money. Nor do they need more computers, software, or consultants. Urban schools need transformation. But, one thing over 40 years of experience in education has taught me is that transformation cannot be imposed from the outside.

Example after example of failed top-down interventions, pockmarked by theft and fraud, epitomize school reform. State intervention in Detroit’s schools has done little to improve the quality of teaching and learning for Detroit’s children.

Transformation of teaching from the outside fails as well. An untold number of young education careers crash on the shoals of failure in urban schools. Well meaning idealistic youngsters recruited to urban schools fail to connect with the children and families they serve.

Transformation must occur from the inside out. It must have authenticity. It cannot be given, it must be created. It must be owned by those subject to the transformation.

What would I recommend? Break the rules.

Give control of the schools to the parents. This does not mean a district school board for 45,000 students. That is not local. Instead, place each operating school directly in the hands of a local school council responsible for hiring, firing and budget.

Relieve schools of the teacher credentialing quagmire. Teacher credentialing rules serve university interests, not children. Let schools hire the best and brightest and most committed people from within the community to teach the community’s children.

Relieve schools of arbitrary calendar and attendance rules and regulations. Schools are either a place to put children or a place to teach children. If the primary purpose is keeping children off the streets and accounting for their whereabouts calendar and attendance rules are important. If the primary purpose is to teach children, measure results instead.

Relieve schools of arbitrary curriculum structures. This is not suggesting that elements of learning be neglected, but it does suggest the Common Core structure, or any other externally developed set of grade level standards may not fit a specific school community.

I have little confidence these recommendations will be well received. Far too much money and far too many adult interests are involved for them to be accepted.

Perhaps someday we will trust people in urban communities to manage their own welfare, care for their children, and build their own futures. Today, however, the experts are firmly in control. They are more than willing to make all of the decisions they believe children and families need. For a price, of course.

Michael Williamson has worked with education-related businesses, school districts, and charter schools. He lives in Northville.