Editorial: Detroit teachers, do what’s best for kids

The Detroit News
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti high fives Caimile Moreland, 5, in the hallway during his visit at Schulze Elementary School.

Nikolai Vitti is now two years into his role leading Detroit’s public school district. He hit the ground running with a variety of overdue reforms, but his honeymoon with the district’s teachers union appears to be over.

Vitti has worked to overhaul the district’s outdated curriculum, recently reporting students are showing signs of improvement in the essential subjects of reading and math. Detroit’s students have for too long scored the lowest in those subjects among all urban school districts in the country. So this is positive news.

Similarly, Vitti has combated high levels of chronic absenteeism among the district’s 51,000 students. 

Again, welcome progress.

But it’s discouraging to see the Detroit Federation of Teachers fighting changes that would benefit students, who still have a long way to go to catch up with their peers.

The teachers union last week voted unanimously against a new school calendar approved by the Board of Education in April, and has said it plans to picket the May school board meeting.

They don’t like the calendar because it includes starting before Labor Day, an additional five professional development days and an abbreviated winter break.

As an increasing number of Michigan districts are seeking waivers from the state to start earlier in the year, this is a bad look for the Detroit Public Schools Community District, which is consistently the worst performing. We’ve argued lawmakers should do away with the post-Labor Day start, which is fiercely defended by the state tourism industry.

Of all the districts that should use tools like year-long calendars and other innovative solutions, Detroit ought to top the list.

DFT president Terrence Martin told The Detroit News, “We are very clear that the calendar not only affects students and parents, but also our dedicated and hard-working DFT members."

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Martin is absolutely correct that the calendar affects the district’s families. What he’s advocating, however, would negatively affect them. If the union cares about what’s best for Detroit kids, opposing these common-sense changes is counterintuitive. Plus, Vitti says he designed the new calendar with input from parents and students.

The teachers union should also weigh carefully whether it wants to pick a needless fight with Vitti, who has been their advocate in both securing pay raises as well as working to improve poor building conditions.

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Teachers around the country, including those in West Virginia, Los Angeles, Kentucky and Arizona, have turned to strikes the past year to force lawmakers and superintendents to bend to their demands. 

The walkouts seem to be contagious, but we hope Detroit’s teachers avoid such antics.

Detroit schools appear to be on the upswing. Teachers should partner with Vitti and his team to sustain the momentum.