Jacques: Education experts descend on Detroit

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

If Detroit can't get its school problems solved, it won't be for lack of quality advice from national education experts.

As city and state leaders seek to figure out how best to salvage Detroit Public Schools and improve performance across a complex network of school choices, top school reformers from around the country want a piece of the action, too.

Last week, Michael Petrilli, CEO of the D.C.-based Fordham Institute, and Eric Chan, a partner at the Charter School Growth Fund, were a few of the latest to drop in on Detroit. Excellent Schools Detroit, which is helping lead the conversation locally about improving all city schools, invited them to town to discuss how best to create the right environment for quality charter school growth.

The more insights, the merrier. Other cities have undergone major school turnarounds, and there are consistent guidelines for success. When asked what Detroit needs to do to start showing results for kids, Petrilli and Chan echoed similar ideas.

"Deal with low-performing schools, and encourage high-performers," says Petrilli, whose organization works to raise the quality of U.S. schools. "There are concrete things we can do."

Both experts say that Detroit has done well opening the door to charter growth, but not on pairing that growth with excellence. Also lacking is a common framework for evaluating schools to decide which charters should replicate and which should go away. Weeding out the worst-performing schools—and authorizers—is a vital step, they say.

Detroit should look closely at the models that are working, such as in New Orleans, D.C., and Memphis. The school landscape in Detroit is complicated, which poses some unique challenges. That's partly why the education debate in Detroit is attracting such high-profile expertise.

For example, Paul Pastorek, the former Louisiana superintendent of education who chartered most schools in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, has worked with Gov. Rick Snyder the past year to craft a plan for Detroit and other districts.

But even the best experts don't have an easy solution. DPS is sinking with debt and declining student enrollment, while more than half of Detroit students attend charter schools. Throw in the Education Achievement Authority, the statewide reform district that runs 15 schools in Detroit, and you have quite the puzzle.

Chan's non-profit group funds the top charter management organizations in the country, and he'd like to get involved in Detroit. The Charter School Growth Fund invests in school operators like KIPP, Rocketship, Aspire and Great Hearts Academies. The fund works in 23 states and many of these school networks claim to have closed the achievement gap between low-income and affluent students.

But those top management companies have shied away from Detroit because of the unstable environment that currently exists. With a dozen different authorizers opening and closing schools in Detroit, Chan says this creates unpredictable enrollment and limits the expansion potential for highest-rated operators. That could change, however.

"As an investor, I'm optimistic," Chan says. "I sense you're heading in the right direction."