Why ARE Students Fleeing the

Detroit Public Schools?

Judge Borman Made A Grevious Error

Michael Peterson, PhD, Director

Whole Schooling Consortium
Division of Teacher Education
College of Education
Wayne State University
September 9, 2006

Judge Borman made a great mistake in this decision. She should have continued to insist that the district negotiate and reach a settlement. Now they have little incentive to do so. It also appears clear that they have not been negotiating in good faith all along (note Brian Dickerson’s quote by Jerome Watson of DPS that "There's no substantial progress," he scoffed. "There's not going to be a deal today"). This should have been cause for a ruling of contempt of court. Both the action of the judge and that of DPS administration will serve in the fairly short run to make worse what they say they want to avoid – increasing the number of students leaving Detroit Public Schools.

With all the discussion of 'great harm' to the school district caused by the strike which, it is said will cause the district to lose more students, it's interesting that I've seen literally no discussion regarding this question: "Why ARE parents and students leaving the Detroit Public Schools?" You'd think, with the loss of tens of thousands of students over the last ten years that the DPS administration would have sought to ask parents and students who have left why they did so and use this information to make changes in the district. I know of no effort to do this. One must wonder: “Why?”.

Over the last 15 years, as a faculty member at Wayne State University and Director of it’s Whole Schooling Consortium, I worked with a dozen elementary and high schools to help facilitate school improvement and have taught some 1,200 Detroit teachers in my classes at the University. These experiences have led me to some tentative conclusions regarding why students and parents seek to leave Detroit schools. Let me share those and suggest actions that may make a difference in the medium to long run. Please note that the statements below are certainly not true of every school and teacher in Detroit. I know some amazing, competent, courageous, caring teachers, among the best anywhere, who work in the City. But a culture and way of being has been built that provides a heavy tide against which these wonderful people must swim to help their students survive. It is that culture that must change.

Most fundamental, neither parents nor students feel respected in too many schools and classrooms. Neither do teachers feel respected and supported by the administration. The present conflict is typical and expected in virtually every school in Detroit – the administration treating teachers with disrespect, making commands rather than engaging teachers in collaborative decision-making. Go to a gathering of parents in virtually any school in Detroit and listen and you’ll hear an amazing string of stories of contempt and disregard that often border on psychological abuse. The request by the Detroit Federation of Teachers itself for automatic transfer of students with substantial behavioral problems illustrates the problem. Anyone familiar with the district knows of these ‘administrative transfers’ that do nothing but ship kids with problems from place to place without attempting to deal with their needs and problems.

This fundamental issue of lack of respect and collaborative engagement among adults leads to many other problems. Detroit tests students with standardized tests many times per year using valuable resources of time and money on testing rather than teaching. It has invested in quick-fix attempts at teaching by installing programs such as Open Court that literally tell teachers what to say and do. Creative teachers are not able to pull on their student’s interest and use their own judgment to deal with needs of children. The system literally punishes teachers for engaging students in thoughtful learning and inquiry outside the established rigid system, thus seeking to create both teachers and students who don’t think but simply regurgitate what has been presented to them. Students in such classes lose interest, become angry, bored. Students who have special learning needs, from gifted to students with disabilities, fall through the cracks since they don’t respond well to a one size fits all process of teaching. Detroit’s solution to this is to segregate such students in special programs, a practice that produces poor learning outcomes.

It’s a bit like upper administration in Detroit for the last 20 years has sat in offices and asked: “How can we create schools that will insure that students and parents will leave?”  As we are seeing, their plan is working quite well.

Which brings us back to teachers and the present strike. If anything is clear about good schooling it is this: it is about having good teachers who are treated with respect who can, in return, treat students and parents with respect and create classrooms and schools where a sense of care and community are fundamental, where students of great differences learn together about subjects that interest them and connect to their lives.

If Detroit is to survive as a school system it MUST seek to create such schools. And the first step is to create a working partnership with teachers, to recruit a cadre of truly quality teachers, to create a new culture of care and learning in schools.

In the short run, we can expect the number of students leaving Detroit Public Schools to substantially increase unless different directions are taken by the administration. Given how teachers are being treated, who would want to teach there? Who would go to work in a district where they freeze pay for 3 years, ‘borrow’ part of your salary to meet a budget deficit and then give administrators a large salary increase, threaten to fine and put you in jail if you protest? Who would do this? They include: a number of wonderful, committed people who believe they have a calling to urban children; teachers who have so many years in the system that they would lose much money by changing districts; and a growing cadre of individuals who can’t get work elsewhere. Given this reality, who would want to send their children to Detroit schools? 

What’s needed? A long-term effort to build classrooms and schools based on practices and a culture of respect and engagement described above that engage teachers in an ongoing partnership with administrative leaders, parents, and the community.

However, if the administration continues to ram concessions down the throat of teachers they will create their worst nightmare.

Note: The website of the Whole Schooling Consortium has much information regarding what such classrooms and schools look like and how to go about creating them. Go to: www.wholeschooling.net