What’s Really Wrong with Detroit Public Schools

Updated March 10, 2017 |
Detroit Public Schools have the worst test scores and graduation rates in the nation, but there are more problems plaguing the district. Learn about the internal conflict and dynamics that threaten the students' future.
Detroit Public Schools’ students recently won the award of the worst math scores in the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ 40-year history. Couple the disheartening standardized test scores with the nation’s lowest graduation rate, according to NPR, and you have a public school system that has utterly failed its students.  
 
To further complicate the issue, Detroit Public schools are currently fighting an internal battle with Emergency Finance Manager Robert Bobb. Detroit public school teachers, administrators, parents, and school board members are upset about Bobb’s recently issued directive, outlining that all students in the district take an additional standardized test this year.
 
The issue of whether students should have to take this new test – on top of the STARS (Standardized Testing and Reporting), MEAP (Michigan Educational Assessment Program), PSAT, SAT, and ACT tests that they already take – is part of a larger battle for control of academic decisions between the Detroit school board and Bobb.
 
Why Do Detroit Schoolchildren Need a New Standardized Test?
 
Steve Wasko, DPS Executive Director of Public Relations, says that the new standardized test Bobb has ordered – the Quarterly Benchmark Assessment, or QBA – will be used to assess how effective the current curriculum is in helping students to meet benchmarks and achieve adequate academic progress.
 
This particular test’s usefulness, according to the Michigan Citizen’s report, rests on the fact that its scores will be available to teachers and administrators before the school year is over. This quick turnaround for test scores differs from the usual standardized test score timeline, which doesn’t provide educators with information until the following school year.
 
Getting the test results this year, Bobb reasons, will allow educators to make changes and address gaps in students learning in a timelier manner.
 
Record Low NAEP Scores
 
Last year, DPS students’ scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress were the lowest of all large urban districts in the United States, as the Detroit News reported in December 2009.
 
While everyone seems to agree that Detroit’s public schoolchildren need help, the question of how to best improve public education in Detroit is in danger of being subsumed by the battle over who should have the final authority over academic decisions.
 
Legal and Political Battle for Authority of the District
 
Members of the DPS school board say that Bobb’s motives for administering the test are more about political maneuvering than genuine concern for helping students to learn. The school board and Bobb have been engaged in an ongoing court battle over who should have ultimate control over academic and financial decisions in the district. The Michigan Citizen reports that the school board is currently awaiting the judge’s written order, which will determine whether Bobb has the legal authority to make the decision to administer the test, despite the protests of school board members.
 
President of Detroit Board of Education Otis Mathis issued a letter in response to Bobb’s directive that teachers administer the QBA. In his response letter, the Michigan Citizenreports, Mathis demanded that Bobb and his staff “cease and desist from making any further academic decisions effective immediately; specifically, administering this benchmark assessment.”
 
School board members are concerned that Bobb is acting unilaterally without considering input from the school board. An anonymous Detroit school administrator tells the Michigan Citizen that the schools have “no problem with assessment,” but rather are concerned about the way in which Bobb issued his orders. “We’re under a dictatorship, there are no democratic rights, no checks and balances,” the administrator says.
 
Meanwhile, Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm has said in news reports that she supports Bobb’s authority to make academic decisions for the district.
 
School District Officials Defend the Test
 
Some schools have already begun administering the new test.  Other school district officials have gone on record defending Bobb’s decision to implement this new assessment. Tracy Martin, the deputy chief academic and accountability auditor for DPS, says that the test is necessary to determine whether students are making adequate progress towards both state standards and the standards set by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Without the test, Martin tells the Detroit Free Press, educators are just “going blindly […] You absolutely need to have regular formative assessments.”
 
Public relations director Steve Wasko asserts that giving standardized tests such as the QBA is “standard practice across the country.” Speaking to the Detroit Free Press, she asks rhetorically, "Are the critics, self-focused on their adult needs, not interested in knowing what students are learning and using that information to improve teaching and learning? What are they afraid of?"
 
Of course, the answer to Wasko’s question may be that critics are afraid that Bobb and his supporters will use the test scores as leverage in their campaign to give Bobb full control over academic decisions. DPS teachers, shaken by recent layoffs, may also be concerned that the district will ultimately move towards privatizing its education system by closing traditional public schools and opening charter schools.
 
Speaking to the Detroit Free Press, an attorney representing some of Detroit’s teachers in their fight against Bobb’s directive says that the test is “ a stick for [Bobb] to use against the students and teachers to further degrade and then privatize our public education system.”
 
Detroit Public Schools face an uphill battle, and the need to climb upwards from the lowest test scores and graduation rates is critical for the future of their students. Hopefully, all of the internal conflict that currently plagues Detroit Public Schools will give way to a better, brighter future for the students.

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