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Turning Around High Schools: Detroit Takes A Bite


Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been talking a lot lately about the urgent need to turn around the country's lowest-performing schools, which include 2,000 high schools with disastrously low graduation rates. As you've probably heard, he's issued a veritable call to arms to the education world—with a particular plea to the charter-school sector—to jump into the fray and make these schools work.

In that light, what's happening in Detroit bears watching. The district's emergency financial manager, Robert Bobb, announced that he's hired four companies to revamp 17 of the district's 33 high schools. This shocked the school board, which thought Bobb was supposed to confine himself to the district's horrific financial problems, not step into the school-improvement business. (UPDATE: Thank you to the Detroit News for clarifying in their reports that the district has 22 high schools, so the takeover would involve three-quarters of those schools)

Detroit isn't the first to hire outside companies to make its worst schools better, of course. Philadelphia has been doing that for eight years. (A flurry of conflicting reports about the success of that venture make it a little hard to figure out exactly how successful it has been.) And Philly was the site of some pretty angry demonstrations by folks opposed to a for-profit company's role as manager of some of the schools. That company, Edison Schools, which is now named EdisonLearning, is one of the four companies hired in Detroit.

As the national school-turnaround campaign takes shape, I'm going to be very interested to see what sort of role the for-profit companies take in revamping high schools. It isn't hard to find experts to tell you that secondary schools are the toughest nuts in the school-reform world to crack. How many districts have the resources and skill to revolutionize their high schools? If they did, don't you think they would have done so by now? As Duncan puts on the pressure to make high schools work, it would seem predictable that states and districts will turn more and more to outside groups—whether nonprofit or for-profit—to do the work they can't seem to do. Are these sectors up to the job? What do we have to gain, and what are we risking, by turning that work over to them?


Bringing in private companies to manage schools doesn't create a market. Without market disciplines, it matters little who actually runs schools. Companies that exist primarily on government contracts are just as wasteful and ineffecient as state bureaucracies.

In the UK, Tony Blair tried employing private companies to run 'education action zones', all that happened was that we added another layer of management on what is already an over-managed activity. That experiment has now gone to the vast grave-yard of failed education initiatives.

The thing that depresses me about reading American education blogs is the belief that better management can fix schools. If this were actually true, it would appear that Americans are terrible managers. You would do better to heed the words of George Patton, one of America's greatest generals: "Never tell people how to do things. Just tell them what to do, and they will amaze you with their ingenuity".


Very encouraging words from you, Sir! The Progressive Era has never left public education in many ways. This managerial hubris rests upon the belief that social sciences are akin to physics and the natural sciences- and it just isn't so. No social experiments can reveal any laws because, unlike in physical things, no constants exist in human relationships. Humans make decisions and change their minds all the time. Humans are not clay. Really, all historical situations concerning humans are utterly complex, partially unknowable, and definitely unrepeatable.

Further, I would modify General Patton's words and say: "Never tell people how to do things- nor what to do- and they will amaze you with their ingenuity". How about that?

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