Without real education reform, Detroit’s recovery is a mirage. The city’s population cannot rebound without functioning schools and our workforce will not be prepared for the future without high-quality instruction.
For far too long our schools were neglected and left to struggle without resources, accountability and a talent strategy. That is why when I joined the EAA, I immediately instituted financial control and established an ethics hotline. All major contracts are now competitively bid through an open process and our board approves all contracts above $250,000. Needless to say – we needed to clean house.
That is the ethos we espouse at the EAA. So, when someone violates the trust of our students and families, we show them the door. This is the standard I set down when I took over as head of the EAA a year ago.
Improving education for Detroit students is not an easy task, but it is one our teachers and staff embrace with every fiber of their being. I have had the great pleasure to lead some extremely talented and dedicated educators who come to work each day fired up to improve and turn around some of the most struggling schools in our country. I know why they do it and it’s not for fame or money; it’s because they want a better future for our children.
Sadly, some in the education community do not share this same sentiment and continue to focus on the imagined perfection of the past. This small but vocal group continues to oppose any educational reform and aims to reassert the status quo at every turn. Such clamoring makes interesting headlines, but it does nothing to improve education for our students.
At the EAA we are committed to working with parents and they tell us they simply want their children to have a fighting chance at success. This is not an easy endeavor. I see first-hand how dire the circumstances are from every angle. In the year I have been here, I have seen our kids experience trauma on a regular basis. Even a student’s basic effort to get to school is subject to the threat of violence by sexual predators and abandoned houses.
Giving students a fighting chance at success means addressing these issues, but also providing our teachers and principals with the training and tools they need to make a difference within our schools. Teacher training and leadership development was two of the key recommendations from the Coalition for the Future of Schoolchildren. I was proud to participate in these conversations and wholeheartedly support those recommendations. In fact, the EAA is taking the lead on growing our Detroit talent base of teachers and future leaders through our Achievement Leadership Institute. This dynamic program is for aspiring and current principals and provides them with training they need to run high performing schools.
Our teachers deserve the best professional development we can give them and that is exactly what we are doing. This doesn’t make headlines, but it is making a world of difference in our faculty and, most of all, in our classrooms.
We also know that a great leader in every school is critical to improve student outcomes, and we have raised the standard for what leaders need to be able to know and do before we ask them to take such a great responsibility. This year our principals and their teams have been tasked with implementing a new curriculum aligned to the Common Core. In fact, this week I was at Denby High School and listened to an impassioned teacher talk about teaching the first AP statistics class the school has had in over 20 years. At Burns elementary middle school I peered into a class room and watched as 8th graders diligently crafted focus statements in response to reading informational text. Our teachers are passionate about providing quality instruction and students are learning.
Yet these two experiences are merely a highlight reel of a district that is comprised of 15 schools and nearly 7,000 students. These isolated instances are not enough. This is hard work to raise the level of rigor in our classrooms, but our students deserve nothing less.
As our elected leaders debate the best route to reform success in Detroit and across Michigan, let us not forget that the business of education is students. Our kids deserve the same resources that all students throughout the state receive. When we truly put students first, we all benefit as a city as region and as nation.
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(Editor’s Note: Veronica Conforme is chancellor of the Education Achievement Authority of Michigan.)