Introducing The Skillman Visionary Awards
K-12 Education

Part 1: Tonya Allen answers critics of CFDS recommendations

It’s been less than 48 hours since the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren announced its recommendations.

We have received praise, and we have received criticism. It’s what we expected. We knew our recommendations were not going to please everyone. We


actually have complainants from the left and critics on the right. This gives me comfort — because it shows we aren’t playing to either ideological position.

Our recommendations are focused on doing what’s right for children and what’s right for Detroit. And what’s right to us is: (1) stabilizing and rightsizing the education landscape, (2) equipping school leaders and educators with autonomy and marrying it with high accountability, (3) creating an even playing field where schools benefit based on merit not governance type, (4) calling out state policies that are exacerbated in Detroit but quickly eroding education performance across our state and (5) calling for the state to acknowledge the realities of shrinking school districts across this state and asking it to stop making schoolchildren bear the brunt of our slow and poor response at the state level.

Over three blog posts, I’m going to address the critiques that are being lobbed at the Coalition’s report and give you my responses.

They claim our recommendations will not impact academics: A few indicate that the findings aren’t very inspiring — and not likely to boost academic options for kids.

  • The main culprit in sliding academic scores is the lack of stability for students in Detroit. DPS decline and the unmitigated opening of new charter schools is creating an unstable environment for schools, teachers and students. Every school is being destabilized by this. If you don’t believe me just look at the data. As the city’s education system’s stability has eroded, so have academic outcomes. One example: African American students scored dead last among all 50 states, a dramatic fall from 28th just eight years earlier.

    This is the status quo, which some are defending.

  • The most important determinant of academic achievement is what happens in the classroom. That’s why we are proposing professional development for teachers, so that they can be successful. We also recognize that good talent costs money. We are paying for what we are getting in Detroit. Top pay for teachers has decreased from $72,000 in 1998 to $66,000 in 2015 regardless of your merit or credentials; good teachers are leaving Detroit in droves as a result.
  • We are calling for universal early childhood, a strong citywide turnaround strategy for low-performing schools, a focus on Career Tech and college prep, strengthened special education services, which is critical especially with the high number of students in the city, and stronger school accountability and autonomy for building leaders.
  • There are no silver bullets for improving education. We have to realize this and do the hard work it is required to improve outcomes for children. Those who believe that good schools are determined by governance— traditional school or a charter school— usually work behind computers and not in front of children.

They aren’t convinced governance should be returned to DPS board: They admit that six years under state emergency management has not erased the debt or fixed academics. And they worry that simply returning control to an elected board won’t improve education.

  • We absolutely agree. We need the DPS Board of Education to make a significant pivot. Its members have to move from being democracy fighters and toward being academic leaders.
  • This is why we are calling for a top to bottom transformation of DPS. We are also calling for an operational and financial audit that the elected board can use to develop a plan to transform the district. The board will require everyone’s help to make the pivots required to achieve academic excellence.
  • We are recommending that the district exit emergency management, which likely requires a financial oversight entity.
  • Academic achievement has decreased and the debt has increased since emergency management. Despite many’s dislike for the Detroit school board, they have not done more damage than the state’s management.
  • Democracy is messy. This is not a ringing endorsement for the current school board. We are calling for the civic community to do its responsibility and to support the preparation and selection of school board candidates. If the school board hasn’t worked, then we as a community haven’t been diligent in ensuring great candidates. “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”
  • Lastly, we are not defending the current board, not are we blaming them. We are defending democracy. And we are not suggesting that our recommendations will address all of the problems in Detroit Public Schools. We will need deep support to turn the district around.

They feel we are unfairly critiquing charter schools and authorizers: They suggest that we are singling out charter schools for special scrutiny and not DPS. They say “some” charter can do a better job and that charter authorizers should continue to enjoy the same freedoms to locate schools throughout Detroit.

  • Detroit has nearly 230 schools, both DPS and charters. Only five public schools serving Detroit students top the state average in reading and only do seven in math. Some charters don’t need to improve. All charters do. And so do all DPS schools. The scrutiny is on all schools and so is the demand for quality.
  • We are actually calling for the same standard for all schools. We want schools to compete on merit and quality not governance.
  • Charters are now more than half of the delivery system of schools in Detroit. They can no longer operate as individual entities without contributing to the greater good of all students.

In part two later today, I’ll discuss critics who have attacked the recommendations regarding DPS debt, the EAA, and our authority to make recommendations at all. Read the full report at and see the full picture of what the Coalition and its dozens of leaders believe is the right way forward to fix schools for all kids.

Tonya Allen is president & CEO of The Skillman Foundation. Follow her on Twitter @allen_tonya. Follow the Foundation @skillmanfound. And get in on the conversation about the recommendations by using #ChoiceIsOurs.

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