Last night’s forum on Governor Snyder’s failed education reform experiment in Detroit — the Educational Achievement Authority — drew close to 200 attendees who packed the Little Theater at Pioneer High School, nearly all of whom stayed for the entire 2+ hours.
Professor Christopher Robbins from Eastern Michigan started off the evening with an overview of the politics and the decades-long efforts by corporate interests that have brought Detroit schools to where they are today. He spoke eloquently about how the original intent of public schools as an essential focal point of our communities with and essential role in our society has been perverted into a profit center for corporations. By intentionally starving the schools, he said, they’ve been set up to fail so that they can be taken over made into profit-generating operations using our tax dolars. “There’s an adage, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’,” said Robbins. “Their philosophy is, ‘if ain’t broke, break it so corporations can reap the benefits.”
Professor Tom Pedroni from Wayne State University explained how the EAA came into being, how it was originally portrayed, and what it has transmogrified into. “Student Centered Learning isn’t student centered,” Pedroni said. “Calling it that is just following the habit of naming things the opposite of what they really are.” He also explained how difficult it has been to get ANYONE to pay attention to this story despite the fact that they’ve been trying since the beginning. He also noted that the Teach for America signature high school where two-thirds of the teachers are from TFA saw a 42% decline in enrollment this past fall. “Why is that?” he asked, “If this program is so great, wouldn’t you expect enrollment to INCREASE?”
Detroit activist Helen Moore started her remarks saying, “The title of my sermon tonight is ‘How to Kill the EAA’.” “The Detroit Public Schools had a $93 million surplus when they were taken over by the State of Michigan,” Moore said. “Today they are in deficit.” She said that EAA Chancellor John Covington was sent from Kansas City — where the school system he headed lost its accreditation shortly after his departure — to “destroy Detroit public schools”. She told the audience how instrumental her group Keep the Vote/No Takeover has been at encouraging parents to find alternatives to the EAA. The EAA lost almost quarter of their students after the first year. “Some of that drop wasn’t by accident,” she said with a grin. “We HAVE power!”
The next two speakers were former EAA teachers. Kamilah Harbin is a graduate student at EMU and was a substitute teacher in the EAA. She echoed Pedroni’s comments about the farce of “Student Centered Learning”. “It’s not ‘student centered learning’,” Harbin said. “It’s test-centered learning.” She described being instructed by her administration to literally teach to the test. If an item wasn’t going to be on the test, they were told to skip over it. The victims are the students, she told us. “The real educators are leaving the EAA. The students see it as another adult they have come to trust walking out on them.”
The other teacher was Brooke Harris who was fired from the EAA for speaking out, the first teacher to do so publicly. She painted a nearly unbelievable picture of what it’s like in Mumford High School where she taught. “I had 61 students in my first period class,” she said. “In a room designed to seat 20.” One of the first lessons involved listening to a white man give a lecture on how black kids in failed schools should feel about their situation. Although she taught upper classman in high school, the lessons involved Sesame Street-style puppets and animations designed for elementary school kids. Harris also talked about how the EAA administrators pitted TFA teachers against veteran teachers. “I had only been teaching for five years,” she said. “There’s no way I should have been considered a veteran. But compared to a TFA teacher, I was. She said she and many of the other veteran teachers refused to use the BUZZ computer program but the TFA teachers, with no other training to fall back on, used it exclusively and were rewarded for it.
I finished the evening by asking people to think about what a perfect “educational surge” would look like. “If you wanted to do something fix schools everyone admits are struggling, what would that look like?” I asked. It would have four elements, in my opinion: The best resources available, the best teachers available — teachers who are well-compensated and well-supported, the best proven teaching models, and the best administrators and support staff. In every case, I told the audience, the EAA has done the exact opposite. “It’s impossible to see this as anything but designed to fail,” I said. Finally, I told the crowd that my target audience with my EAA writing is not really Democrats and opponents to the EAA. They are all pretty much on our side. My audience are the Republicans who are unsure about the EAA. “All of us,” I said, “need to be educators” within our sphere of influence.
State House Representatives Jeff Irwin and Gretchen Driskell both gave brief remarks at the conclusion of the events, supporting what they had heard and encouraging the audience to reach out to their friends, families, and coworkers to make sure their voices are heard in Lansing.
For an excellent look at last night’s event, check out the livetweeting from the amazing Detroitucation on Twitter.
Last Saturday evening, I spent a couple of hours defending my printing of a quote by a Detroit teacher I had interviewed who said the way kids are being treated in Detroit reminded him of the Tuskegee Experiment. I agreed with him on this. This was inappropriate hyperbole, I was told, and I as a white man had no business “using” it. My response to them was that, if you don’t see the connection, you don’t fully comprehend the gravity of the situation in the EAA. This literally IS an experiment with children’s lives. A report out this week shows that kids who don’t go to college have far lower wages, much higher unemployment, and far less fulfilling lives than those who do go to college. A high school diploma is worth less today in terms of income than it has ever been.
Many of the kids in the EAA won’t graduate from high school and, if they do, their likelihood of going to college is significantly diminished by the substandard “education” they are receiving. As Helen Moore put it, this is just another piece of pipe in the school to prison pipeline that is filling our prisons with a disproportionate number of African Americans.
Last night, several of us referenced the Tuskegee Experiment. Any of you out there who think that’s somehow inappropriate need to spend some time in Detroit talking to the people who work, struggle, and raise families there every day. Ask them if the experiment being conducted on their children — an experiment that will all but ensure that they won’t be successful as adults — is somehow less important than another experiment conducted on African Americans. Trust me; you don’t need to rely on a white guy for the answer to that question.
Keep this in mind when you consider the comparison to the Tuskegee Experiment: if this new model is so promising and so excellent, why is it not being tested in affluent schools? Why is it only being done in schools with nearly all minority students? It’s because their lives aren’t seen as being as valuable as the white kids in the suburbs and the experimenters know that the people who live in these communities lack the political power to resist.
That, I would contend, makes it every bit the atrocity that intentionally infecting black men with a disease was.
Photos by Anne Savage, special to Eclectablog.