Empower through choice


There’s general consensus that failing Detroit Public Schools need restructuring. It’s fairly unanimous that site-based management would make it easier for stakeholders to have a voice in school decisions.

But there isn’t much excitement in Emergency Manager Roy Roberts’ DPS 2012-13 Action Plan that will allow 10 high schools to govern themselves this fall. It’s only a small first step in the right direction.

The Roberts plan includes an ambitious potpourri of bureaucratic adjustments that may or may not do much to improve an education delivery system that has been immune to meaningful change for the past 40+ years. Regulated by a central bureaucracy and unsure of its direction, DPS programs tend to be fragmented and ineffective.

It’s difficult to see, for example, how peddling central-office functions such as food and police services to other schools throughout the region would be part of a comprehensive blueprint for improved educational quality.

While there is reason for cautious optimism about extraneous elements of the larger plan, empowering schools with the autonomy to make their own decisions has some merit, albeit slight.

School-based planning councils composed of parents, business partners and administrators are a plus. Giving principals more control over budgets, curriculum and hiring decisions gives schools a better chance to operate more effectively. Theoretically, schools won’t be held hostage to a distant central bureaucracy that has trouble getting basic supplies to school, much less keeping tabs on its shrinking budget.

The plans also shows that Roberts is finally getting the message that what separates the good from the bad schools is that the good ones have clear goals, strong leaders and teachers with greater independence and involvement over every aspect of school operations. But hold off on the applause.

In its optimal form, self-governed schools empower people, rather than bureaucrats. It’s fair to ask, though, will these councils – these schools — have meaningful authority to make real decisions about who gets hired and fired, how budgets are spent and how and what children learn? More fundamentally, is the authority delegated from central office to schools – or is the authority shared?

How this shapes up bears watching.

It’s also important to remember that self-governing, site-based or empowered schools is just a means. Empowering existing schools to change themselves is not the only or preferred path to reform.

Almost everything in American life is organized around giving people a range of choices. But under the proposed site-based management model the options available to Detroit children remain limited. It would be easier and more desirable to empower educators and parents to start new schools

Detroit’s shrinking student population and school-closing program offers  the ideal environment for “schools of choice” that fit the different needs of students in different neighborhoods through specialized programs. Students and parents could effectively attend the learning venues they want instead of what “experts” at the central bureaucracy think they need.

Unfortunately, the Roberts team doesn’t understand there is a difference between a self-governed school and a professionally run school among which parents can choose. It has yet to learn that rescuing the district from “academic bankruptcy” requires a bit more common sense.

This plan doesn’t take the value of creative schools into consideration. It does nothing to create environments where kids are more apt to want to come and learn. At best, this is a modest education reorganization model  that sets reform objectives too low.

Detroiters, meanwhile, are fed up with excuses for high dropout rates and graduating students who can barely read or compute. The city can’t afford school experiments that continue to turn out kids who lack the competence of self-discipline to hold down entry-level jobs. They are demanding and deserve more certainty.

More choices, blended with empowered schools, could ease parental and students frustrations and arrest the deterioration of a school system in a perpetual managerial and education free-fall.


1 thought on “Empower through choice

  1. It is too late for an incremental approach. Much better to rip the bandage off all at once and be done with it. Many years ago I wrote about systemic change where schools are independently managed, preferably as charter schools, and the district served as the sponsor and evaluator, and perhaps a service provider in a limited number of areas.

    Roy Roberts and the district have the opportunity to make real change for the students of the Detroit by making it a place where the priority is to offer an excellent educational product that truly prepares them to be productive and contributing citizens in the community, state and nation. I know that there are teachers and principals in the district who have the skill set and knowledge to make this work if they were freed from the nonsense. To let this life-changing opportunity go to waste would be a shame and a travesty.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *