Tag Archives: Detroit

The Price of Speaking for the Hidden

You may have heard that the state of Michigan is paying for the pursuit of a lawsuit by the Detroit Public School District against two of its teachers. And you may wonder, just what terrible thing did the teachers do that justifies the state’s payment of $320,000 in legal fees against them?

They are accused of promoting teacher sick outs.

And why would they do such a thing?

Because they cared for kids.

Such is the price these days of caring for kids.

You see, the sickouts brought attention to the fact that teaching and learning conditions in may Detroit schools were horrendous. As reported in CNN, “Black mold grows in the classrooms of Spain Elementary-Middle School.

Rats and roaches run through the halls of Moses Field School and pieces of ceiling have fallen on the heads of students at Palmer Park Preparatory Academy.

At Thirkell Elementary-Middle School, eighth-graders are housed in the gym and pulled to classrooms for core subjects an hour or so a day due to a shortage of teachers.”
Spain Elementary.jpg

Though there had been a pattern of teacher and parent complaints, nothing was done about these issues until Detroit teachers finally took the action of walking out. This direct wide action generated the publicity needed to draw attention to the fact that we must not forget those children we are leaving behind.

The teachers have been victimized for courageously and persistently teaching under impossible conditions, and now, as result of speaking truth to power, they are having the power that the state can bring to bear on them as a mean of controlling, quieting, and terrorizing.

This is the same state has taken no responsibility for its emergency management of the Detroit Public Schools district that the EM has brought to the brink of bankruptcy.

The New York Times reports, “In Detroit, the schools are on the brink of insolvency after a series of emergency managers dating to 2009 repeatedly failed to grapple with its financial troubles, while also falling short on maintaining school buildings and addressing academic deficiencies. “

So the state falls short on maintenance of buildings, has elementary classrooms full of 45 students, runs out of money to pay teachers, and then spends more money to sue said teachers for making all of this visible?

Understanding requires that we remember who it is happening to. It is those who have been most marginalized- in this case, specifically, the poor and black students of Detroit. Those who are easiest to forget. Those who remain most hidden.

And the message of the lawsuit is that there will be price to pay for those who refuse to allow the lives of the marginalized to remain hidden.

In his incredible book, Endgame, Derrick Jensen shares a tenant of civilization that certainly applies here:

“Civilization is based on a clearly defined and widely accepted yet often articulated hierarchy. Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower is nearly always invisible, that is unnoticed. When it is noticed, it is fully rationalized. Violence done by those lower on the hierarchy to those higher is unthinkable, and when it does occur is regarded with shock, horror, and the fetishization of the victims.”

Sounds all too familiar.

Photo from TruthRevolt.org

Accountability and the Erasure of Democracy

We hear a lot about the need for “accountability” in education, but I’m not sure anyone knows what this word means in practice, or what an authentic means of being accountable might look like.  If this word is going to be thrown around so much, then it’s time for those throwing it to think deeply about how it functions.

And in thinking deeply about the role of accountability in education, we need to recognize the increasing, and mostly unconscious creep of economic utilitarianism beyond the bounds of economics and into all aspects of life. Essentially, this spread is represented by the ideology of market fundamentalism, which says that all value is reduced to the single value of economics. That is, all is commodified, has a price, and can thus be measured in terms of its efficiency, which is translated into its ability to reduce costs, to add monetary value as the ultimate value that can then be measured as profit.  As an example of this, see this recent editorial in the Detroit Free Press, which fundamentally uses the ideology of the free market to ask the question, ““Is a College Degree a Lost Cause These Days?” Within the article as part of its set up, the author quotes President Obama, and develops from there.

“Even President Barack Obama has poked fun at the humanities, observing in a 2014 speech that ‘folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.’

Obama later insisted his ‘glib’ comment wasn’t meant to throw shade on liberal arts majors. But it reflected an emerging consensus that U.S. colleges and universities are failing to provide many students with the skills they need to succeed in the 21st-Century workplace.”

The underlying assumption of this thinking is that the purpose of a college degree is reduced to its value on the market, its ability to translate into a job for the holder of the degree, and its ability to propel the economy.  I don’t want to go too far into a richer vision of college of higher education here, other than to note the hidden assumptions of this kind of language. (And to be fair,thankfully the author of the article does go on to, at least,  gently critique these assumptions, first of all within the parameters of economic utilitarianism, and then by suggesting, almost as an afterthought, that education may have an impact on a democratic citizenry.)

The language of accountability is language which unconsciously and uncritically propels these assumptions. And because it does so in a way that is unconscious, it serves to continue to hide these assumptions.  It presents the world of economic utilitarianism as an unquestioned given.

And it is well past time to question.

conditionsecosystem for market fundamentalism

Thankfully, in Education, Accountability, and the Ethical Demand: Can the Democratic Potential of Accountability be Saved?, Gert Biesta has done a lot of this questioning and should be trusted as a guide. (See the link below to the full article.)

Biesta starts with a paragraph that shows that the current mode of accountability has reconfigured the relationship between the state and its citizens from a political relationship to an economic relationship, that is, “..state as provider and the taxpayer as consumer of public services.”

This seems subtle, but nonetheless, this shift is crucial to understand.  A political relationship is one where citizens work together in a mutual relationship. A consumer relationship, one determined by economics, is one in which a consumer is recipient of services, and therefore to be served in ways that are measurable so that consumer choices can be made clear.  It thus becomes necessary for the provider of those services (the state in the case of education) to quantify its services in order to provide information to the consumer so that proper choices can be made.  A political relationship, on the other hand, is one that suggests accountability and responsibility are mutual.  A teacher has accountability in this relationship to a context of mutual relationships- the students, the parents, the community and the ways that the community is served by the education of its members. In an economic relationship, the consumer is a passive recipient, and one imagined as outside of the bounds of community. The single consumer is to be served, and the values of this service are inherently economic values. That is, the consumer is a recipient of the state’s services, one with the need for “choice of” state services, and whose “vote” and democratic responsibility is reduced to his/her choices. The implication is that as a recipient of services, the consumer is not engaged as a member of the state, and determines the values of these services within the context of the value of how he/she will economically benefit from these services.  The connection between the consumer and the broader community is obscured, and the value of the education to the broader community is wiped clean. Along with this, because of the importance of the availability of consumer information in a market of choice, the value of an education must be quantifiable. As a result, the “accountability” of education to its consumers is reduced to the single, but easily measurable, dimension of test scores. Why do students want to “do well” in school? In order to receive the grades and test results to that will allow them into a “good” college so that they can earn a marketable degree.

Pure economics.

Pure individualism.

Biesta writes, “Crucially, the language used is an economic language that positions the government as provider and the citizen as consumer. Choice has become the key word in this discourse. Yet ‘choice’ is about the behavior of consumers in a market where their aim is to satisfy their needs; it should not be conflated with democracy which is about public deliberation and contestation regarding the common good.”

It is important to recognize that in this shift from citizen to consumer is the fact that the purpose of education is completely obscured and uncontested. There is little room, if any, for the conversation of outcome. Why should someone be educated? In ways does the broader context of relationships benefit, not just the relationship between consumer and the state, but the relationships of a community? These questions disappear because outcomes are assumed and the focus thus becomes on the process of acquiring these easily quantifiable outcomes of economic value.

Biesta again: “To put this point differently, according to the logic of the market, the relationship between the state and its citizens is no longer a substantial relationship but has turned into a strictly  formal relationship. This reconfiguration is closely connected to the rise of the culture of quality assurance, the corollary of accountability….Quality assurance is about efficiency and effectiveness of the process itself, not about what the process is supposed to bring about. In this light, it is easy to see why the …government’s constant emphasis on ‘raising standards’ is ultimately vacuous: it lacks proper (democratic) discussion regarding which standards or ‘outcomes’ are most desirable. The same problem underlies much of the research of the ‘school effectiveness and improvement industry.’ These studies mainly focus on the effectiveness and efficiency of processes, without addressing the far more difficult normative and political question regard what these process ought to bring about.” (Emphasis added)

So we have a situation where consumer “choice” is “driving the market” of education. At the same time, this current shift allows no place for the most important question of purpose. There is no discussion of what we hope to bring about with an education, and, because of the unquestioned assumptions and constraints driven by an “accountability” system which can only measure efficiency and limits the purpose of education to the attainment of test scores, we have created an education that has as its purpose the creation of consumers.

Is this what we want?

And just as importantly, is democracy being lost as a result?

Biesta suggests that democracy is being lost. (And the evidence of current zeitgeist would certainly do the same.)

“The role of parents and students in the ‘accountability loop’ is indirect: they can ultimately hold the government accountable for the ‘quality’ of the public services it delivers. But this relationship is itself apolitical in that it positions citizens as consumers who can ‘vote’ about the quality of the services delivered by the government but who do not have democratic say in the overall direction of content of what is being delivered (if delivery is an appropriate concept in the first place).” (Emphasis added)

So there is input through “choice’ that parents have in the processes of education, and the efficiency and quality of these processes. (However, I would go further in saying that the processes of education, that is the pedagogy, is also obscured when the information used to determine such choices is reduced to the dimension of easily quantifiable test scores.) Importantly, though, what is lost in the shift from citizen to consumers, is the choice of purpose, what is the direction we want to education to go? For what purpose do we want our children to be educated? This question is no longer available for contestation.

“The core problem is that while many would want the culture of accountability to emphasize accountability to the public, it actually creates a system focused on accountability to the regulators and the like, thereby removing the real stakeholders from the accountability loop.’ In this respect, the current technical-managerial approach to accountability actually produces economic relationships between people and makes democratic relationships difficult if not impossible to establish.”

What does this look like? What’s the end game of the language of accountability? It creates a system that conflates economics and democracy, and, in doing so, privileges economics at the expense of democracy. It allows democracy to be sacrificed to the god of “economic efficiency” with the allowance of little to no contestation of such shifts. It allows, for instance, the democratically elected Detroit Board of Education to be completely marginalized and replaced by an Emergency Manager. In a very real way, the voice of the people is eliminated and replaced with the voice of consumers and profiteers who are alienated from the context of political community.

According to an analysis featured by Diane Ravitch, this is ultimately what this shift to accountability looks like in Detroit:

“While falling enrollment is often cited as a reason for “right-sizing” the district, the loss of students is the inevitable outcome of starving the schools of funding and relentless attacks on teachers’ jobs and conditions by the Democratic-run city. In the past three years alone, the district cut over a half billion dollars in operating costs, including increasing health care premiums, cutting per-student funding, freezing pay steps for teachers and closing schools. This is not enough, however, and Snyder and his Democratic Party accomplices aim to fully convert the new district into a system of charter schools, which remain outside of public oversight and are a lucrative source of income for politically connected business hucksters.”

Unless we all quickly take responsibility for democratic spaces that are disappearing under the illusion of accountability, this will also be what your local school district looks like.

Please take the time to read all of Biesta’s piece here:

http://www.lsuctgc.com/Biesta_-_Accountability.pdf

For a richer alternative view of the purpose of higher education, see William Dereshiewicz’s Excellent Sheep.

Photo from here

Still Waiting for Democracy: When the State Takes Over From the State

If you’re paying attention to education matters in the state of Michigan, you know that Michigan’s Governor Snyder has come out with his plan for what is to become of Detroit Public Schools.  In a nutshell, it consists of creating two school systems, one that will exist only to contain and deal with existing debt, and the other to run as a debt free portfolio system  of common enrollment that will contain what is left of traditional public schools in Detroit, and charter schools.

There are some interesting quirks in this plan.  Most interesting to me is that this plan implicitly recognizes that the previous state takeover of DPS was a failure.  Governor Snyder’s response to this failure is this plan, which essentially is a state takeover of a failed state takeover.  ( Remember Einstein’s definition of insanity?)

As Detroit Data and Democracy points out, the consequences of the state takeover, originally in 1999, from the fairly elected DPS board of education have not been positive:

“…by 2002, the district was well into a cycle of decline from which it has not recovered:

  • A positive general fund balance turned negative, inducing austerity measures that impacted programming.
  • Cuts interrupted the academic progress the district had been making relative to the rest of the state.
  • With worsening academics, parents began to leave the district for charters and suburban schools.
  • The resulting enrollment decline led to a worsening financial position for the district, prompting further cuts.
  • Further cuts produced a further decline in academics, which led to more enrollment loss.”

Even the controversial Detroit Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren has made It clear that the state of Michigan is responsible for current DPS debt.

“John Rakolta, chief executive of Walbridge and another co-chair of the coalition, said Detroit Public Schools operated with a surplus in 1999, before the state took over the district. Its operational deficit is now $170 million and it has about $2.1 billion in accumulated debt, according to the report.

Rakolta placed the cause of this operation deficit at the feet of state government and state policies, saying it has been accumulated under the state’s watch.” (Emphasis added)

By all metrics, the quality of Detroit Public Schools has worsened under the care of the state of Michigan.  And yet, as an explanation of the historical context given as the rationale for continuing state control (from a FAQ released by the sate), Snyder (or his communication people) says: “First, the state initially took control of Detroit Public Schools under Gov. Engler.  After a time they were returned to the local school board for operation. Unfortunately the state was forced to step in and take over again under Gov. Granholm.” The word “forced” here certainly reveals a position, as if the state was a victim of external circumstances, even when the circumstances were self-created.  History does, in fact, matter. (Rule of thumb; historicize everything.)  The logic would dictate that now, using the same wording and assumptions,  the state, unfortunately, is “forced” to step in and take over from the state.

I don’t see such honesty anywhere in Governor Snyder’s recommendation.

Democracy, in this situation, is, at best, obtuse.  Points to consider:

1.  The democratically elected DPS board currently in exile is given a role- to run, along with the current Emergency Financial Manager, (don’t ask me how this might actually work) the debt ridden portion of the district.  Worse than its previous role as an appendage to democracy, it is now relegated to a new role as the large colon of democracy, the processing function of all of the feces that is left over. Have fun with that.

2. The school board that actually gets to do the role designed for traditional school boards will be appointed, four of the members will be Gov. Snyder appointees, and three will be Mayor Mike Duggan appointees.  After a period of seven years, these state appointed school board members will be gradually replaced by a properly elected school board.

Seven more years of waiting for democracy.

The implied narrative of the whole plan continues to be that the existing context of race driven poverty is completely irrelevant, and that the mostly black people of Detroit are not worthy of democracy.

In a curious article endorsing Snyder’s plan, the Detroit Free Press wrote a very telling paragraph,

“We hoped Snyder would honor Detroiters’ right to self-govern, recognizing the importance of an elected board. But the realities of Lansing, and the need to invest state funds in the district, mean that all-local control would be politically unpalatable to the outstate lawmakers’ whose support will be required to move this plan forward. This is a compromise that, at first glance, we can live with.”

Did you get that? Detroiter’s right to self-govern is “politically unpalatable.” A compromise the Free Press suggests we live with.

Wow.

Democracy has become politically unpalatable for some people in America.

Today.

Scary times.

Democracy is For Some People

” None of us is free until all of us are free.”  Martin Luther King

Let me start by being very clear.

I am a patriot. I am a believer in the stated ideological foundations of the United States of America.

I am a believer, for instance, in the ideal of democracy.

NOUN
a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives:
“capitalism and democracy are ascendant in the third world”

synonyms: representative government · elective governmentPowered by OxfordDictionaries · © Oxford University Press\

Yes, good old-fashioned democracy. The governing by the whole population “typically through elected representatives.”

And when I, as an idealistic citizen of the United States of America, see situations that undermine democracy I get a wee bit upset.

With this context in mind, let me bring you up to date on the establishment and recommendations of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren.

First of all, let’s go back to the ideal of democracy and the fact that this coalition is making recommendations to the Governor of the State of Michigan, Rick Snyder.  Consider:

*  That the democratically elected Detroit Board of Education, in exile since the imposition of a governor appointed (i.e., not democratically elected) emergency financial manager, did not have a say in the recommendations.

*  That it is clear who did have a say- the members of the  Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren.

With all due respect, how were they picked?

Honestly, I’m not sure.  Everywhere I search, news articles say this coalition was “created” or mysteriously “formed.”

Duh. We know the coalition was created, and that, as a result of this creation, it also was formed. So much for investigative journalism.

Who created it?  The evidence suggests that it came from the Skillman Foundation.  It’s important to note that a foundation has co-opted, intentionally or not, the task of what was formerly given to democratically elected governmental agencies. A foundation has somehow taken, been given, or had this task land its lap.

To me, as a believer in the democratic principles supposedly inherent in these United States, that is a problem.

The coalition has 5 co-chairs, and for the sake of my framing, as an example, I would like to focus on one of them, John Rakolta.  Now, I don’t pretend to know John, his perspective or his intentions.  In fact, I think it’s important to note that, given all of the evidence since his involvement with the coalition, it seems that he has been open-minded and fair.  (See, for instance, his pointing out that the state is responsible for much of DPS’s debt accumulated while under the control of emergency management.) My gripe is not with John Rakolta, but with the usurpation of democracy that has placed John Rakolta as co-chair deciding the fate of public schooling in Detroit.

Rakolta is the white, very rich CEO of Walbridge Construction, a company that has been involved in a number of construction projects for the very poor, over 80% black Detroit Public Schools.  On the surface, it seems that this might be a conflict of interest.  On another level, the question comes to me, how does the CEO of a construction company (or anyone else for that matter) become a co-chair of this coalition? Who elected him?  Is this how a democracy is supposed to function?  According to the web-site of the Skillman foundation, the coalition is made up of, “…independent, diverse cross-section of Detroit leaders who came together to move swiftly to make recommendations for changes that will improve the city’s education system.” Who determined what a “Detroit leader” is? Who didn’t? Why is the decision-making process that has historically been made by elected school board members given over to unelected “Detroit leaders” as determined by a foundation?

DemocracyinAction

Again, I have no perspective on the intentions of Rakolta or anyone else involved with this project.  My question simply is, who put them in charge, and why do their recommendations trump the recommendations of others in a functioning democracy? Why do these chosen but unelected officials have more say than the fairly elected representatives of the citizens and parents in Detroit?

In trying to get at some answers it may get a bit complicated, so hang with me.

Let’s start by conducting a thought experiment.

Imagine that your local community (or use Grosse Pointe, or Birmingham, or Bloomfield as potential examples) had their locally controlled, democratically elected school board replaced first by an emergency financial manager, and then by a group of self-appointed citizens. How might that be accepted?

My guess? Not so well.

So why is it ok in a city that is 80% black with 40% living in poverty?

I’m stuck with the conclusion that it is ok because that city is 80% black, with 40% living in poverty.

Oh, did I play the race card? I’m sorry.

Let me be more subtle, then, and quote the all too common sentiment of Gary Naeyaert, the head of the Great Lakes Education Project, a pro school choice advocacy group, as printed in the Gongwer News Source,

“Enough is enough, and it’s about time we recognized that the Detroit Public Schools are academically and financially bankrupt, and they’ve lost the privilege of educating children in Detroit,” Gary Naeyaert, executive director of GLEP, said in a statement.”  (Emphasis added)

I’m guessing, then, that democracy is a privilege afforded to some, and not to others. Coincidentally, the places where that privilege is denied is in cities that are overwhelming black and poor, with eroded infrastructures that make financial and academic issues exceedingly difficult to address.  In other words, because of the organizing principles of poverty and race, because of the increased financial and academic stresses caused by such circumstances, despite the heroic efforts of many involved in working in such stressed conditions (to be fair, many of whom served as members of the Skillman coalition), all driven by the false narrative of “failing schools,” “they” deserve to have the “privilege” of democracy removed. It seems “they” haven’t earned it in these United States. Such an attitude might be likened to colonialism- that old idea that, since “they” obviously can’t make their own decisions, “we” need to “help them.”

Now many people will say that my analysis simply isn’t realistic. That, in the real world, such a lens simply isn’t politically practical. That it simply isn’t realistic to expect people to think this way.  Many people will say, what’s the beef?  Look at the results- the coalition actually made three huge, and, to me, surprise recommendations- to have the state of Michigan assume much of DPS’s debt, to dissolve the controversial EAA, and to return power back to the DPS board of education (kind of).

My problem, again, starts with the undemocratic nature of this process itself.  It is a process that wouldn’t be allowed, at this time at least, in other communities.

Let’s be honest. Democracy is for some people.

And it also is a process that concluded with a recommendation that retains control in an entity that is outside the auspices of democracy.  It is returning some power back to the board, but, in spite of the rhetoric, much of the actual and deciding power is recommended to stay with another newly created coalition, essentially creating a portfolio system.

“Regarding the coordination and oversight across the education sectors

  • The State establish a new, lean board/legislative body, the Detroit Education Commission, to coordinate and rationalize citywide education functions for all Detroit schoolchildren, with members appointed by the Mayor. The DEC will set and hold all schools to the same performance standard.”

In other words, the DPS school board will work under the umbrella and auspices of the Detroit Education Commission. So yes, democracy is reinstated, at least, you know, kind of. Right?

In a very real, very practical way, democracy is only for some people.

Honestly, I have no illusions that this will go away.  I have no illusions that Governor Snyder will reinstate democracy in Detroit.

But I do think we should all be asking ourselves an important question:

Is this what we should accept in these United States?

Looking Back to the Future in Detroit (& Everywhere)

Mary L. Mason and David Arsen have just come out with an analysis of the effectiveness of Michigan’s Educational Achievement Authority in Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority and the
Future of Public Education in Detroit: The Challenge of
Aligning Policy Design and Policy Goals. (Arsen is a well-respected professor at Michigan State University.) The timing of this report is important as the EAA serves a predecessor to the current clamor in Detroit (and elsewhere) for a “portfolio district” based on the New Orleans model. Not only does it serve as a dispassionate indictment of the EAA, it doubles as an indictment of the market fundamentalism of Michigan’s Governor Snyder and all others who look to loosen public education from the locally held context of democratically elected accountability.  Finally, it serves as a warning to Governor Snyder’s upcoming announcement on schools in  Michigan.

Arsen and Mason carefully unveil the sordid history of the development of the EAA and its impact.

As the report is long, I have highlighted excerpts.

You are welcome.

(The whole report is so worth your time- read it here http://education.msu.edu/epc/library/papers/documents/WP43MichigansEducationAchievementAuthority.pdf)

It  begins by providing the vision behind Snyder’s plan:

“The Governor’s Education Agenda: Disruptive Innovation
In April 2011, soon after assuming office and just two months before announcing the EAA, Governor Snyder issued a special message setting forth his agenda for public education (Snyder, 2011). Noting the mediocre performance of Michigan’s public schools by several measures and the need to compete on a world scale, the governor called for sweeping changes in the provision of educational services. The plan offered a hopeful vision of educational innovation, entrepreneurship, and markets that would usher in improved models of instruction and student outcomes across the state. The policies would disrupt the prevailing complacency and mediocrity, ‘jettison the status quo’ (p. 2), and move Michigan ‘from school systems to systems of schools'(p. 8)”

The governor’s agenda called for an expansion of charter schools and online education and changes in teacher employment policies. To expand charters, it called for removing the cap on the number of charter schools and permitting a charter board to oversee multiple schools under a single charter. To expand online education, it called for reducing state and local regulations on seat time, length of school year, length of school day and week, and the traditional
configuration of classrooms and instruction. The governor stated that: ‘every child in Michigan who needs or wants up to two hours of daily online education must receive it’ (p. 8). Finally, he also called for changes in teacher tenure laws that would make tenure more difficult to attain and ease the dismissal of tenured teachers, as well as changes in the way teachers are evaluated and paid and alternative routes to entering the teaching profession.”

The report covers the EAA’s nuanced approach to democracy:

“…responsibility for the EAA’s accountability rests almost exclusively with the governor. The system is designed to be accountable to him or her. The governor appoints a majority of the board and executive committee while the other members are appointed by people who themselves are governor appointees. All can be removed at any time. Board members, therefore, cannot exercise much independent discretion. Interested parties may express their views to the EAA board and executive committee, but formal opportunities to do so are more limited than in the case of traditional public schools.”

The academic effectiveness as measured by Snyder’s approach to achievement:

“In the second year, MEAP scores, reflecting a full year in the EAA, showed that few students were meeting state standards. EAA Chancellor John Covington, however, announced that scores did show improvement toward meeting the standards (Education Achievement Authority, 2014b). Wayne State University Professor Tom Pedroni analyzed the scores and found that the majority of students made no progress or declined (Pedroni, 2014). Covington’s
statement, unlike Pedroni’s, did not provide detailed information on the procedures used to generate conclusions regarding test score trends.”

It covers the EAA’s approach to the clamoring for “accountability” by Snyder and his cronies:

“In an era when ‘accountability’ has become a dominant consideration for the evaluation of education policies, the EAA has charted a distinctive course. The accountability provisions of Michigan’s EAA policy are underdeveloped and rest very narrowly on the governor’s actions.”

And it ends with some excellent suggestions:

For funding:

“Michigan has tried to do school turnaround on the cheap, hoping
that it could be accomplished with negligible new public resources while merely reconfiguring school governance and management….It is also important to recognize that Michigan’s overall school funding system fails to adequately account for the additional costs associated with student poverty and special education status in the delivery of needed educational services. Michigan’s lowest performing schools have disproportionate concentrations of high-cost students. Future efforts to turn them around

should address this disadvantage by changing school finance policy so that the state revenues that districts and schools receive more closely match the local costs they confront.”

Technical expertise:

“If Michigan’s turnaround strategies are to have any hope of success, they must draw more deliberately on existing research-based knowledge and technical expertise in teaching and learning.”

And, importantly, trust:

“Research indicates that trust is strengthened when parties have ongoing relationships in which their interactions demonstrate benevolence, support, and concern. Trust is also promoted when the behavior of those in authority positions is characterized by open communication, transparency, consistency, integrity, and a willingness to share control. The importance of trust for the turnaround of schools designated as ‘failing’ can scarcely
be overstated. When teachers and administrators feel threatened, or held accountable for problems beyond their control, it erodes trust and ultimately impedes change. The changes may include cutting jobs, altering the way administrators share power, and adopting new teaching
materials and practices. Establishing trust among students, parents, families and surrounding local communities is also important. Unless care is taken, state turnaround interventions can easily create contentious and distrustful school and community environments that weaken the foundations for sustained improvement.”

Please read the whole report!

(Again, you can find it here: http://education.msu.edu/epc/library/papers/documents/WP43MichigansEducationAchievementAuthority.pdf)

For more background:

On education reform in New Orleans:

Accumulation by Dispossession

The Best Article Ever About New Orleans’ Charter Schools

On the EAA:

Getting the Role of the Teacher Right

Eclectablog’s EAA

Connecting race and “failing schools”:

The Racist Narrative of Failing Schools

Overview of corporate reform represented by Snyder’s approach:

Education Corporate Reform 101: What Parents Need to Know

On my up close experience with disruptive innovation in Michigan:

Disrupting Innovation

Can We Be Honest? Probably Not

If we were really honest with ourselves, and we’re not, we would be forced to come to the conclusion that the so-called “achievement gap” isn’t going anywhere soon.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not giving up.  I will continue to work, educate, learn and do all I can to make this gap go away.

It’s just that I continue to despair at the degree of denial we are operating within.

Let me explain directly.

The “achievement gap” is a frame created and maintained by white dominant culture.  This frame functions to externalize the problem.  The lack of “achievement”  within this frame, is a problem with minorities who are affected by it, and all efforts are therefore directed to changing minorities, those who own the problem.  (See here for more of my concerns with the language of “achievement”.)

See how nifty that works?  The problem is “those” people.

In addition to externalizing the blame, the frame of the achievement gap also  individualizes the blame.  If we just change “those people” we can solve the problem.  This logic of this as a “people problem,” leads to the tired, failed rhetoric such as “the number one factor in student performance is the quality of the teacher.”  Even though, as scholar Elias Isquith says, “… pretty much all honest education reformers now acknowledge, teachers are not the number one impact on whether a child escapes poverty. The number one impact is family [and] the socioeconomic status of the neighborhood.”  

Again, don’t get me wrong, the frame has done some good.  The data it provides is so incontrovertible that we are no longer able to deny that there is a problem.

It’s just that language of “achievement gap” obscures what the problem is.  It’s not a people problem.

The problem is that we have an equity gap.  Our white dominant, competitive culture that is oriented around “achievement” simply works in ways that privileges some at the expense of others. And, if we were honest, we would recognize that you can’t talk about equity without including race. Yes, poverty is a huge problem.  But all too often speaking about poverty becomes an excuse for not talking about race.  And race and poverty are all too often tied up with each other.

By way of quick example, my state of Michigan has created the Education Achievement Authority as a state run district to “turn around” the state’s lowest performing schools.  It’s a technical solution to this people problem of underachievement.  Addressing the achievement gap was the excuse for doing so.  It is no coincidence that those 15 schools taken over by the EAA fall within the boundaries of Detroit, a city that is over 80% black with a poverty rate of close to 40%.  As the Metro Times has recently revealed, those children captured by the EAA have been treated as subjects in a poorly run experiment.  This is not education, it is child abuse, but these are children who are invisible, and therefore subject to experimentation that maintains the invisibility of its abuse.

Detroit is separated from Oakland County by one road.  Oakland County is among the 10 wealthiest counties in the United States with a population of over a million.  Its population is close to 80% white.  None of its public schools has been taken over by the EAA.

One road.

So, this might lead to some questions. But that will make us uncomfortable.

I’ll ask anyway.

How can two areas that are so different in make-up, in wealth, in race, in privilege, be separated by one road?  How can one be so white and so rich, and the other be so black and so poor?

Senator Paul Ryan and others would say this is a cultural problem.  That there is a “culture of poverty” that perpetuates this division.  His frame thus insinuates that the problem is with minorities.

He’s wrong.

It’s an equity problem, and you can’t address equity in this country without addressing the historical context of race.  As Paul Thomas writes, “…race is a marker in the U.S. for access to equity and the coincidences of poverty and privilege. …If we were to begin to build the U.S.—in both policy and public behavior—around goals of equity for all, then segregation would either be eliminated or reduced to a dynamic that is no longer a marker of injustice…

You simply can’t address equity without addressing the dominant culture of whiteness.

But this is something that the evidence says we just aren’t ready to be honest about.

 

No Water, But Lots of Tests

I was recently at a social event when I mentioned to an educator friend that I was off to protest the Detroit water shut offs the following day.  I also added that every educator should be there.

She paused and looked at me, and then asked, “Give me the nutshell explanation that connects water shut offs to educational issues.”

Without the nutshell part, here goes…

Some Context- Detroit Today

As a city on the forefront of what David Blacker calls the  “neoliberal endgame,”  Detroit is a fascinating, if tragic study.  Detroit is under the rule of an Emergency Management.  The laws allowing for the emergency manager were promoted by ALEC legislation (sound familiar educators?) and have disenfranchised the voters of Detroit in favor of a ruler, Kevyn Orr, who has virtually no accountability in our so-called democracy.  Upon acquiring this office, Orr almost immediately led Detroit into bankruptcy.

At the same time, Detroit Public Schools have been under Emergency Management since 2009.  Clearly, this experiment isn’t working in Detroit.  As quoted in Eclectablog:

“What the Detroit schools situation shows is that the problems in Detroit aren’t simply financial and they aren’t simply a matter of poor management. Without addressing the core issues of poverty, blight, crime, and a host of other modern plagues experienced by our aging urban cores, no amount of cost-cutting, privatizing, experimental teaching models, or management gimmickry is going to have the desired impact.”

In addition, the lowest 5% “performing” schools in the state, as measured by achievement data, have been removed from Detroit Public Schools and put into a newly created state-run district, the Educational Achievement Authority.  The EAA is run by a governor appointed superintendent who doesn’t have the pesky obstacle of democracy in his way.  This district is, to no surprise, failing miserably.

Water

So it is in this very general context that the water shut offs are occurring.  Some background:

In May of this year, the Detroit Water and Sewage Department began a crusade to collect unpaid fees by residents of Detroit.  They are currently shutting off water access to any Detroit resident who is either $150 or two months behind in payment. This will affect over 120,00 account holders over a 3 month period at a rate of 3,000 shut offs per week.  (The suspicion of many is that the shut offs are occurring in the midst of Detroit’s bankruptcy in order to make DWSD more attractive for privatization.)

Mind you, this is occurring in a major US city, the richest country in the world, that has a poverty rate of 44%, is over 80% black, whose residents have already have their democratic vote similarly cut off, in a state that is surrounded by 4 of the largest fresh water lakes in the world.

At the same time, commercial interests in Detroit owe over $30 million in water bills, yet their water flows evenly.  (See more here.)

Hmm….

It seems that many of those factors have a strong correlation to the false narrative of  “failing schools.”

Coincidence?

Me thinks no.

Water

Market Fundamentalism

The foundation of neoliberal market fundamentalism is the assumption that all things, including human beings, are valued according to their worth in the market place.  This value is determined by level of  “achievement.”

In education, achievement is measured by test scores.  Those who score highest win.  Those who don’t are punished- and the means of this punishment is defunding, the closing of schools, the loss of local agency, and the correlating re-opening of schools as for profit charter, a race that Michigan is winning hugely with over 80% of its charters being for profit.

In other areas of life, achievement is measured by job status and salary.  Worth is determined by ability to pay.  The less you are able to pay, the less you are actually valued. Those in poverty really aren’t worth much.  Their “value added” to the efficiency of our economy is a negative. Such humans are punished with a system that blames them for their poverty, and then shuts off such necessities for human life as water.

The logic of blaming schools, teachers and students for their problems, in spite of the context that they exist within, is the same as the logic of blaming the poor for their problems, in spite of the context they exist within.  Our market driven system’s answer is to develop “incentives” to drive behavior. Achieve, in spite of the forces working against such achievement, or have your schools defunded and shut down.  Pay, in spite of the forces working against your ability to so, or have your water shut off. (No coincidence that these forces in both contexts are identical.)

Neoliberalism uses the politics of austerity to blame, punish, and then profit.  It erases the context of poverty for the purpose of privatizing the common good.

The United Nations has determined that the water shut offs are inhumane.  So very true.

At the same time, the shut offs simply follow the logic of neoliberalism.

And it is the logic of neoliberalism that those of us who are not in the 1%, including educators, are really fighting.