Column: Detroit needs a new model of education

Diane Ravitch

Education in Detroit and in Michigan is in crisis. Detroit is consistently ranked as the lowest performing urban district in the nation. Michigan’s student performance has sunk nearly to the bottom of national tests in the past decade.

Education is a crucial investment in children and in the future of our society, but something is terribly wrong in this city and state.

Detroit has been a petri dish for free-market reformers for the past generation. Since 1993, the state has operated on the theory that competition among public schools and privately managed charter schools will lead to rising achievement in both sectors. After nearly 25 years of trying school choice, it is time to admit that the theory was wrong.

Gov. Rick Snyder and the Legislature tried another experiment on Detroit: The Education Achievement Authority. The lowest scoring schools were gathered into a single district where they were immersed in technology and were subjects of another trial of privatization. That failed too.

What works?

First, children should start school healthy and ready to learn. Just days ago, the Kresge and Kellogg foundations announced a 10-year, $50 million program to improve and coordinate programs for early childhood education and health for the children of Detroit. That’s a wonderful step forward.

Second, honesty requires a frank acknowledgment that Michigan’s unique experiment in free-market ideology has failed. Nearly 80 percent of the charter schools in the state operate for-profit, and these for-profit schools perform worse than nonprofit schools, according to a report last June by the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes at Stanford. Why continue to fund failure? Why waste taxpayers’ dollars?

Third, the competition between charter schools and public schools has drained the public schools of the resources they need to thrive and improve. Yet most charters are no better than the public schools.

Since 1993, the state of Michigan has been engaged in a massive experiment has thoroughly tested whether school choice is the answer to poor academic outcomes. Two generations of children have passed through the schools of Michigan since the school choice experiment began.

The experiment has failed.

In 2003, Michigan was ranked in the middle of the pack on national tests. By 2015, Michigan had fallen to the bottom. A report by Education Trust concluded that the declines had been across the board, among all racial groups and income groups: “It’s a devastating fall. Indeed, new national assessment data suggest Michigan is witnessing systemic decline across the K-12 spectrum. White, black, brown, higher-income, low-income — it doesn’t matter who they are or where they live, Michigan students’ achievement levels in early reading and middle school math are not keeping up with the rest of the U.S., much less our international competitors.”

The only way to improve education in Detroit and Michigan is to admit error and change course.

Michiganders should acknowledge that competition has not produced better schools. Detroit needs a strong and unified public school system that has the support of the business and civic community. There should be a good public school in every neighborhood.

Every school should be staffed with credentialed and well-qualified teachers. Class sizes should be no larger than 20 in elementary schools, no larger than 24 in middle and high schools. Every school should offer a full curriculum, including the arts, civics, history, and foreign languages. Every school should have a library and media center staffed by a qualified librarian. Every school should have fully equipped laboratories for science. Every school should have a nurse and a social worker. Every school should be in tip-top physical condition.

Students should have a program that includes physical education and sports teams, dance, chorus, robotics, dramatics, videography, and other opportunities for intellectual and social development.

That is what the best suburban communities want for their children. That’s what will work for the children of Detroit and the rest of Michigan.

Diane Ravitch is a historian of education at New York University. Her last book was “Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.”