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Can New Orleans Tell Us How to Fix Schools in Detroit?

Note: Joshua Cowen, an Associate Professor of Education Policy in the College of Education at Michigan State University, joins us this week as a guest blogger. You can follow him on Twitter at @joshcowenMSU.

You don't need to be reading a blog devoted to education policy to know about the ongoing tragedy in the city of Detroit. After years of well-documented economic devastation and a collapse in the city's population, its public schools are both literally and figuratively falling apart. Dank and moldy buildings, halls and classrooms with water leaks, electric wiring and ceiling tiles exposed, poor or non-functioning heating systems and, perhaps most infamously, infestations of rats and roaches have made recent headlines across the country. So have the sick-outs teachers have organized in protest.  

These potentially toxic conditions have taken years to develop, and are only the physical manifestations of the financial and organizational deterioration of the city's educational system. Detroit Public Schools (DPS) have ranked dead last among all major cities nationwide in academic achievement for four years running. The state named an emergency manager to run DPS in 2009, but that appointment has failed to make DPS financially solvent under the weight of debt caused by large teacher pension responsibilities and the loss of revenue as state funds followed students exiting the school system. The current (but soon-to-depart) emergency manager, who gets my vote for this decade's "heckuva job" award, was the citywide emergency manager for Flint before taking on DPS. While in Flint, he supervised the city's now-infamous switch to contaminated sources of drinking water for local residents.

Some folks have compared the task of rebuilding Detroit's infrastructure more generally to the challenges in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Can the New Orleans story help us think at all about the educational circumstances in Detroit? That question received some attention over the summer in coverage of the 10th anniversary of the hurricane, but it's worth revisiting again now after weeks of new focus on the dire conditions in Detroit schools. Katrina led to a complete re-structuring of New Orleans public schools, which now function as a centrally managed portfolio organization dominated by charter schools, with a few lingering traditional public schools and a growing share of private providers receiving public tuition vouchers. Nationwide, New Orleans has by far the largest share—more than 90 percent in 2014of its resident students in charter schools. And Detroit is already at number two, at 55 percent.

State governments in both Louisiana and Michigan have also been particularly active in teacher-related reforms for years. Both have passed overhauls of teacher evaluation in recent years, where teacher jobs are now tied at least in part to student achievement results. Both states, but especially Louisiana, have also made substantial changes to teacher tenure protections. In both, state reforms have weakened teacher unions considerably, with union membership in Michigan plummeting after a Right-to-Work law went into effect, and the elimination of collective bargaining contracts entirely in New Orleans after the hurricane.

The intensity of these teacher and school choice-reforms in New Orleans is yet unmatched nationally, but with apparent improvements in educational quality in the years since Katrina, it seems logical to expect that continuing to overhaul the system of schooling in Detroit should be part of any solution there. The governor's office has proposed what amounts to the creation of a new public school system for Detroit families (with the old system existing only to service debt payments), and there is talk of New Orleans-style "portfolio" system to facilitate parental choice between and within area schools. As in New Orleans, more oversight of school performance is part of that plan as well. Unfortunately, despite the good news coming out of that city, we don't yet know exactly which reforms were beneficial and which had little (or even detrimental) effect.

We do know that in general, charter schools tend to have promising effects on student performance, especially attainment outcomes, but that doesn't mean charters are great everywhere, or that individual schools of choice even in one geographic area are a sure thing. We know that the available empirical evidence suggests that teacher union contracts can hinder administrative flexibility and may lead to negative student outcomes, and we do know that rigid teacher pension systems not only contributed to the debt crisis in DPS but can also affect the composition of the teacher workforce in ways that are not necessarily positive. But none of this tells us how to induce high quality teachers to go to and stay in Detroit.

The point is that whether from New Orleans or elsewhere, research has yet to tell us enough on its own about charter schools, pension changes, teacher contracts or any other reforms to either fully motivate or restrain prescriptions for a policy response in Detroit. This is not to again implore policymakers to wait for dispassionately obtained evidence before they act.  We know a lot about these issues, but we don't know everything and we probably never will. Even if we had such ironclad evidence to apply to every circumstance, good data do not rule out bad decision-making.

So if anything the problem in Detroit, as in New Orleans now and before it, may be the limitation of evidence to entirely determine action. The New Orleans experience and the preponderance of high quality research does suggest that even more school choice and teacher-related reforms may be part of the solution in Detroit. But reformers need to recognize too that the story there, like in New Orleans, remains above all a story of poverty, of government neglect and an all-too-told story about race in America.  

Much of what we know not only about education reform but also the underlying problems of educational inequality depends heavily on local contexts and conditions. The real lesson from New Orleans is that nothing short of what one leader from another time called "bold, persistent experimentation" is probably needed in places like Detroit. Though evidence provides no guarantee, it can help us judge the results. It can also provide a check on any efforts to use the city's tragedy as a banner for a particular political or ideological disposition for or against policy change. That's about all we can expect for Detroit, but let it be enough. 

--Joshua Cowen

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