Detroit is bankrupt financially, but not because the public education teachers have negotiated rich contracts. If anything Detroit teachers are paid too little given the hardship of their work. The education problem in Detroit, I think, is with the quality of education, and of life. Parents leave Detroit, if they can afford it; students who can’t leave the city avoid the Detroit system by transferring to private schools, by commuting to schools in the suburbs, or by staying home. Fewer than half of Detroit students are in the Detroit public schools.
The average salary for a public school teacher in Detroit is (2013) $51,000 per year. That’s 3% less than the national average and $3,020/year less than the Michigan average. While some Detroit teachers are paid over $100,000 per year, a factoid that angers some on the right, that’s a minority of teachers, only those with advanced degrees and many years of seniority. For every one of these, the Detroit system has several assistant teachers, substitute teachers, and early childhood teachers earning $20,000 to $25,000/ year. That’s an awfully low salary given their education and the danger and difficulty of their work. It’s less than janitors are paid on an annual basis (janitors work more hours generally). This is a city with 25 times the murder rate in the rest of the state. If anything, good teachers deserve a higher salary.
Detroit public schools provide among the worst math education in the US. In 2009, showing the lowest math proficiency scores ever recorded in the 21-year history of the national math proficiency test. Attendance and graduation are low too: Friday attendance averages 71.2%, and is never as high as 80% on any day. The high-school graduation rate in Detroit is only 29.4%. Interested parents have responded by shifting their children out of the Detroit system at the rate of 8000/year. Currently, less than half of school age children go to Detroit public schools (51,070 last year); 50,076 go to charter schools, some 9,500 go to schools in the suburbs, and 8,783, those in the 5% in worst-performing schools, are now educated by the state reform district.
The state of Michigan has taken over the 5% worst performing schools in Detroit through their “Reform District” system. They provide supplies and emphasize job-skills.
Poor attendance and the departure of interested students makes it hard for any teacher to handle a class. Teachers must try to teach responsibility to kids who don’t show up, in a high crime setting, with only a crooked city council to look up to. This is a city council that oversaw decades of “pay for play,” where you had to bribe the elected officials to bid on projects. Even among officials who don’t directly steal, there is a pattern of giving themselves and their families fancy cars or gambling trips to Canada using taxpayers dollars. The mayor awarded Cadillac Escaldes to his family and friends, and had a 22-man team of police to protect him. On this environment, a teacher has to be a real hero to achieve even modest results.
Student departure means there a surfeit of teachers and schools, but it is hard to see what to do. You’d like to reassign teachers who are on the payroll, but doing little, and fire the worst teachers. Sorry to say, it’s hard to fire anyone, and it’s hard to figure out which are the bad teachers; just because your class can’t read doesn’t mean you are a bad teacher. Recently a teacher of the year was fired because the evaluation formula gave her a low rating.
Making changes involves upending union seniority rules. Further, there is an Americans with Disability Act that protects older teachers, along with the lazy, the thief, and the drug addict — assuming they claim disability by frailty, poor upbringing or mental disease. To speed change along, I would like to see the elected education board replaced by an appointed board with the power to act quickly and the responsibility to deliver quality education within the current budget. Unlike the present system, there must be oversight to keep them from using the money on themselves.
She state could take over more schools into the reform school district, or they could remove entire school districts from Detroit incorporation and make them Michigan townships. A Michigan township has more flexibility in how they run schools, police, and other services. They can run as many schools as they want, and can contract with their neighbors or independent suppliers for the rest. A city has to provide schools for everyone who’s not opted out. Detroit’s population density already matches that of rural areas; rural management might benefit some communities.
I would like to see the curriculum modified to be more financially relevant. Detroit schools could reinstate classes in shop and trade-skills. In effect that’s what’s done at Detroit’s magnet schools, e.g. the Cass Academy and the Edison Academy. It’s also the heart of several charter schools in the state-run reform district. Shop class teaches math, an important basis of science, and responsibility. If your project looks worse than your neighbor’s, you can only blame yourself, not the system. And if you take home your work, there is that reward for doing a good job. As a very last thought, I’d like to see teachers paid more than janitors; this means that the current wage structure has to change. If nothing else, a change would show that there is a monetary value in education.
Robert Buxbaum, August 16, 2013; I live outside Detroit, in one of the school districts that students go to when they flee the city.