In a blog entitled “Inducements and Illusions,” Bill Johnson pooh-poohs the potential benefit of the Detroit Promise, an initiative announced by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan with the cooperation of the Detroit Chamber of Commerce and several business foundations. The program will provide coverage for tuition and fees to any Detroit student who graduates from a public school in Detroit, whether they graduate from a Detroit Public School, (DPS), the Educational Achievement Authority, (EAA), or a public charter.
In the interest of full disclosure, Bill Johnson is my brother, and though I highly respect him, in this instance I vehemently disagree with him. His primary criticism of the Detroit Promise is connected to an initiative launched in 1987; The Detroit Compact, which guaranteed DPS graduates free college tuition (if they attended a Michigan college or university), provided they maintained at least a 2.5 grade point average, 95% attendance, stayed out of trouble, and scored a minimum 21 on the ACT. The program eventually terminated because not enough students met the criteria, particularly the attendance and ACT standard.
While these standards were not unreasonable, intrinsic and cultural inhibitors; transiency, truancy, and socio/economic challenges were without question major contributors to the lack of success. The Detroit Promise is different; Detroit high school students only need to graduate to continue their education at the community college level.
Mr. Johnson’s contention that this a “dumbed down” standard, and that Detroit graduates in general are social promotion graduates is an unjust indictment against the determination of these students to graduate, and the educators who put them in the position to do so.
Detroit graduates about 3,000 students each year. There are students who, admittedly, barely squeak by, for a variety of reasons, who without the Detroit Promise would surely believe that the opportunity to attend college was beyond their reach.
Detroit is a city which for years has been plagued by violence, poverty, crime, drugs, and other social ills which have filtered into our schools. There is no question that many students who graduate from Detroit schools are in need of remedial programs, particularly in reading and math, to give them an opportunity to become gainfully employed rather than another statistic.
Many students have never experienced an environment where the focus upon learning is not interrupted by disruption and violence in class. A community college setting will not only provide them with an opportunity to learn in peace, but can provide them additional support and guidance.
For those students who are proficient and college ready, the Detroit Promise affords the opportunity for them to take many of their prerequisite courses at the community college level, gain the college experience, and reduce the cost of their overall college education.
Even with this opportunity, schools in Detroit must address those cultural and intrinsic inhibitors to learning that I previously referenced. School funding from the state has to change; an example which is demonstrating growing success in states where “adequacy funding” predicated upon need has supplanted so-called equal funding, recognizing that due to socio/economic and cultural conditions, it costs more to educate students in one town compared to another. Equal does not mean adequate.
The Detroit Promise is but one step toward providing Detroit graduates with an option, not a guarantee. To do nothing is tantamount to acknowledging these students are destined to a life of depravity.
In the words of the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy, “some people see things as they are and ask why, I see things that never were, and ask, why not?’ The Detroit Promise supporters have now answered that question and Detroit’s children are the winners.
Keith Johnson is a former DPS teacher and retired president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers