The Good News about Detroit

I’m not going to introduce this blog post with a context-setting string of depressing statistics about Detroit. Let’s just say that, when I was in the Motor City last fall, I came back with an anxious feeling – There was a lot of work to do.  When could we get started?

Through the winter and spring, that feeling persisted. My colleague, Brad Bernatek, is from Detroit. (This is perhaps my one chance to tell someone that he’s a Wolverine before he does.) This spring, he was invited to sit on a panel of national education experts to talk about standards and accountability in other school districts around the country. He, too, was compelled by the story of Detroit Public Schools (DPS), and the ambitious efforts of groups such as Excellent Schools Detroit, a coalition of local funders who envision better schools for Detroit’s students by any means necessary. Between Brad’s and my preoccupations with this place, it wasn’t hard to talk us into going back.

This week, Brad and I returned to Detroit to catch up with this group of funders and get their reactions to a very busy spring for education reform in the city. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder unveiled new policy that allows the state to take over any district that is low-performing, announced a new emergency financial manager for DPS (Roy Roberts), and pronounced that district “in recovery,” allowing the state to override existing contracts and establish an alternative central office called the EAS (Educational Achievement System), that will serve the lowest-performing schools in the district. State legislators passed teacher tenure reform. Dramatic reform at this level has not been seen since the early days of Joel Klein in New York City or in post-Katrina New Orleans. Oh, and before all of this happened, Roberts’ predecessor, Robert Bobb, laid off every teacher in the district last May.

While some may feel that these changes are a little like ripping the steering wheel out of a car (a Ford?) while you’re heading down Interstate 94 at 70 miles an hour, I am here to tell you that a few people in Detroit believe it’s good news.

Here’s why:

  • Some believe these policies will remove a lot of road blocks and give reformers a green light to redesign a dysfunctional and chaotic system that is long overdue for an overhaul.
  • Emergency Financial Manager Roy Roberts is seen as a credible and well-connected leader for this newly structured system – A driver with a good track record, if you will. On paper, he’s a former GM executive. But one local funder told us that he’s also a strong, visible community leader in his own right, as well as a major philanthropist. He isn’t an educator, but his responsibilities will require more management prowess than direct content expertise, as he will sit above the DPS and the EAS. Also, he will have the talents of Doug Ross, founder of the CMO New Urban Learning and a local hero in education reform circles, leading DPS’s new charter school office.
  • The local philanthropic community – as represented by the reform leaders participating in Excellent Schools Detroit – remains committed and focused on the success of schools and students. They’re keeping their eyes on the road. ESD partners are engaging directly with Mayor Bing and Mr. Roberts to ensure reform efforts at DPS align with the potentially dramatic changes that to come with redevelopment. The leadership of The Skillman Foundation and United Way, in particular, are recognized widely for their vision and voice, and are further supported by the coordinated efforts of their partners W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Kresge Foundation, Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, McGregor Fund and the Detroit Regional Chamber. Right now, they have to be the headlights and turn signals – making sure that implementation heads in the right direction. And you can bet they will continue to be the dashboard that helps all of us understand what progress is being made.
  • There are untapped talents and resources in Detroit. We heard a lot of folks talk about leveraging the local assets that already exist in the community. It’s not just about the wealthy elders who have stayed. It’s also about the many young, innovative, energized people who are interested in getting involved. See the virtual network of doers at Michigan Corps as an example. Collectively, they will be the gas that fuels the long-term success of this effort.
  • Out-of-town talent is also beginning to roll into Detroit. TFA has returned to Detroit with a corps of 100 teachers. The Strive Network is sharing their model, which we’ve held up as a great example of collective impact, with local leaders. And our friends at Mass Insight are also sharing their school turnaround model. Kiva, the online micro-lending organization, is even starting its first US-based effort in Detroit.  It’s beginning to feel like Detroit is getting the attention it deserves. Let’s hope this talent does not behave as road-trippers at a rest stop.

Reflecting on our visit and where New Orleans is five years later, I am hopeful. We came at a time when just about everything is unknown (Who will fill the remaining key leadership positions on the new leadership team? Will Detroit get help from the major national funders, like Broad and Gates? Where will the Mayor prioritize investments for the city’s redevelopment?), and a lot will change in the coming months. Obviously, there will be many challenges ahead, but I think it’s also an important time for the rest of us to say, Folks, start your engines!

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