Tonya Allen: Stop fighting one another -- fight for real school change

Editor's note: On August 28, 2014, the Detroit Free Press ran this guest column from Foundation President & CEO Tonya Allen. It is reprinted here with permission. Read it on freep.com by clicking here.

The beginning of another school year is here in Detroit, and our city remains without a comprehensive plan to improve schools for students.

Unwittingly, we assume our same actions will produce different results. For me, this brings to mind Moms Mabley’s oft repeated quip, “If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.”

Excellent Schools Detroit, a nonprofit focused on improving school outcomes, recently released a proposal that included recommendations for centralizing some basic services, such as enrollment and transportation, to better support students and their families. The report also called for Mayor Mike Duggan to play a role in helping to improve Detroit’s education landscape.

One of the report’s chief purposes was to begin a wide-ranging community discussion about how to attack Detroit’s poor-quality schools and graduation-rate crisis.

Tonya Allen-Skillman-0463

Tonya Allen, president & CEO The Skillman Foundation

Instead, it seems the predictable battle lines are being drawn once again. The buzz following news media coverage of the proposal last week has been the expected partisan bickering and digging in of heels. All too often when that happens, nothing gets done.

Digging in our heels and pointing fingers is the most irresponsible thing that we Detroiters can do. It is time for Detroit to have a responsible, blame-free discussion about how we improve schools.

It is an undeniable fact that, in aggregate, our system of schools — Detroit Public Schools, the Education Achievement Authority, and charters — are doing a lousy job. Detroit consistently ranks as the lowest performing city on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam, a national measuring stick that compares our students’ competitiveness with those of students in other cities and countries across the world.

Recent news reports provide us no reason to believe that schools will get better. DPS recently proposed increasing class sizes and decreasing teacher salaries by 10%, although those plans have been shelved for now. The district is currently under state control, which it has been for much of the past 15 years. Returning control of the district to a dysfunctional school board is also troubling.

Charter schools, plagued by a flawed state authorizing system that allows mediocre academic performance and little financial transparency for public dollars, offer little hope either.

Throw in the Education Achievement Authority, a 2-year-old statewide turnaround school recovery district that has taken over 15 schools, and you have another controversy-laden district that shows no clear pathway to successful schools for Detroit children.

So how about we have a real, honest conversation about how to change this landscape for all kids? I’d suggest any conversation about improving Detroit schools must include these tenets:

■ Every child deserves a good school.

■ Educators must run schools.

■ All schools and educators must be accountable for academic performance.

■ School choice has to be real, meaning schools are accessible and equitable for all children regardless of their families’ income or where they live.

■ Great schools are possible in Detroit.

If we can abide by these basic beliefs, then everything else should be on the table for us to discuss and debate. If good schools are crucial to Detroit’s future, then why not ask the mayor to join the discussion and potentially contribute to a solution?

The mayor doesn’t need to run our schools. Neither does the governor. Educators do.

However, the mayor can help Detroit schools — DPS, EAA and charter — to improve by simply leveling the playing field.

Detroit, it is time to fight for change and stop protesting against it. Educational change has to be defined by us and for us, which cannot be accomplished if we continue to fight each other.

The Skillman Foundation, as it has done for last 54 years, will play its part — pushing dialogue and evidence-based solutions. And we hope all Detroiters, including Mayor Duggan, will join us.

Tonya Allen is president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation. Follow her @allen_tonya on Twitter.

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8/28/2014 at 11:00 pm