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Dispatch From Detroit

On Friday morning, I had the pleasure of speaking about education reform on Points North, the regional NPR call-in radio show. The other guest was Howard Walker, the local state senator--and the topic was privatizing public education.

The senator, who spoke first, said that his constituents, here in beautiful northern Michigan, supported and were satisfied with their public schools and teachers, and wouldn't be likely to change what they were doing if new legislation to permit wide-scale hiring of non-unionized, free-lance teachers is passed. The problem the law was designed to address was those terrible urban districts downstate--that's where we need drastic solutions, where schools were failing.

This is a familiar dodge to those who live in the suburbs and semi-rural areas in many states: Not my problem.

Senator Walker tossed out a few well-worn chestnuts about being "college ready" (ACT averages have gone down in Michigan since all juniors in public schools--not just the college-bound--are now required to take the test). Not that there's a shred of evidence that hiring cheaper, less-invested teachers will raise achievement data. But it is a way of diverting concerns and laying blame at the feet of teachers.

Friday afternoon, I got a long e-mail from a good friend who teaches in a K-8 school in Detroit, arguably the most "failing" school district in America, let alone Michigan. I'll let her tell the story:

This is the situation at our DPS school: A____ now has 52 fifth grade students in her class. They are crammed wall to wall. B____ has 45 fourth graders, and there are 30 kindergartners in each class. All our other classes are at the limit or 5-10 kids over. The 7th and 8th grade classes are at 50 each.
This news is not getting out to the public. Mr. Roberts has assured everyone that the needed teachers are in place but it is not the truth. In fact, we don't have prep (elective) teachers. We have one gym teacher and one computer teacher for the whole building, grades K-8.

I have stopped sending my students to physical education because they are doubling up the classes and I feel it presents a safety problem for my students. Instead I take them to the little gym during my prep time and teach the class myself. The gym situation is the same for all grades -- doubling the class size. The poor teacher! It presents a safety issue for ALL our students.

When the computer teacher is pulled to sub, I take my students to the computer lab and teach that, too. That leaves no prep time for me, but my kids love to go to the computer lab. We have NO lunch supervision aides, either. C___ (a teacher) is doing lunch duty every day with a kindergarten aide who's paid with Title I money, so that is a violation of federal law. And almost daily, we are threatened with losing even more teachers.
I have stopped posting and tweeting about Detroit Public School due to the new laws in Michigan. I feel that given the downsizing they are projecting in the next few years, I just can't risk everything. I need my job. Please do not name our particular school or teachers. And pray for [long list of teacher colleagues and mutual friends].
The public needs to know. They need to be outraged! I really feel this is a conspiracy to destroy DPS--and it is working.


Remember: this is the school district Arne Duncan recently claimed just might be the "fastest-improving district in the nation."

Doesn't sound like improvement to me. But then, I'm a teacher.

Thoughts:

• Most of the proposed "solutions" for failing urban schools (co-locating charters, weakening union control, limiting curriculum to tested subjects, evaluating teachers based on student test scores, packing absurd numbers of kids into classes, etc.) are designed to highlight problems rather than enrich the student experience. Our most vulnerable kids become pawns in this political game.

• Every person in Michigan needs to be concerned about public schools in Detroit. In fact, in a globalized world, Americans need to be concerned about concentrated poverty and achievement gaps in all stressed and struggling schools. Our well-being as a nation is interconnected with the whole educational system.

• I never used to believe in Great Education Conspiracy theories--that dark forces were trying to shoot enough holes in the ship of public education to make it sink, whereupon a huge market for materials production and human capital would open up. Lately, I've been pretty sure that's exactly what's happening, beginning in places like Detroit.

What do you think?

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