01 May 2008

Looks Like Detroit May Be Next to Take Out the Trash

An editorial in the Detroit News caught my eye this week. There's definitely some hyperbole involved, but that just makes it all the more interesting. Here's the start:

Detroit Public Schools teachers are following a suicidal path if the union members continue to be the major obstacle to reforming the city's schools.

They have to accept their share of the responsibility for the district's failure and recognize their jobs depend on regaining the confidence of parents who are increasingly choosing other education options.

The Detroit Federation of Teachers is among the country's most militant education unions. It has fought efforts to improve teacher quality, instructional rigor and more effective spending. The union's resistance to change, combined with the incompetence of Detroit administrators, has placed the school system at risk.

There are plenty of articles and reports out there about the decline in the public school system in the city. Nancy over at Teacher in a Strange Land has lived and worked in Michigan for many years and has her own unique insight on the issues. I can only look at things as an outsider as such, but the kinds of roadblocks described ring just as true here.

I'm not convinced that charter schools or other private initiatives will solve any of the problems. We still have the same students, families, and accountability measures. In many cases, we have the same teachers and administrators. I would agree that significant changes to the system may be necessary, but I think its shameful that the schools themselves don't make the push for it.

Those Detroit teachers who want a better working model and better results from their classrooms should not allow themselves to be held hostage by union factions.

The union is holding leadership elections this fall. Teachers who want change should use those elections to make an impact. Currently, militant members tend to control the union.

But in other cities, teachers tired of their union's knee-jerk resistance to change are making their voices heard. And in some case, they're actually leading the reform movement.

In Los Angeles, teachers have voted to turn over their public school to a charter operator that puts students' needs first.

The New York United Federation of Teachers is teaming up with the charter school operator Green Dot to open a high-performing school. The Chicago affiliate is exploring such a venture as well. Green Dot is unionized, but under a contract that rewards performance rather than seniority.

AFT-Michigan President David Hecker says his union would be interested in working with Green Dot to transform an existing troubled Michigan public school. It's a small step, but potentially an important one.

By now, Detroit teachers must realize the path they're on leads to destruction. Their tired cry for more state money has gone unanswered and, given the economy, will continue to be. Their only hope for maintaining their jobs, and what for many is their life's calling, is to embrace reform.

Teachers who wield union contracts to block changes that could benefit students will find themselves on the street, and that's where they belong.

Meanwhile, a school board member in an area district has resigned because union leadership there has harassed her family and her to the point where she can't continue because she is "unwilling to subject [her] innocent children to organized abuse by this teachers union." For more on area union woes, click on over to see what Dr. Pezz and Ryan have been dealing with. Teachers in right-to-work states should be envied.


Nancy Flanagan said...

Hey, S-Goddess!
You've been busy over here this week.
Thanks for including me in your Carnival Journey on Wednesday, and thanks especially for writing about Detroit.

There are two major dailies in Detroit--The News and the Free Press--and they have very different editorial viewpoints, with the News (quoted in your blog) coming down on the business/conservative side pretty uniformly, and the Free Press being a more moderate paper, editorially. The News hasn't had one nice thing to say about the Detroit Public Schools in decades, and will always take the stance that privatization and school choice are the desirable options, and unions are the root of all evil, in both the auto industry and in schools.

And that's the thing about the Detroit Public Schools--they are a clear reflection of all that's wrong in Detroit itself--poverty, corruption, dysfunction, and vestiges of old-school unionism where parties working toward the same goal (better cars, better schools) believe they must take an adversarial stance since they're so accustomed to it. Detroit's mayor has been indicted in an 8-million dollar coverup; while the auto industry dies, unions and politicians keep duking it out on the sidelines.

To say that the teachers are responsible for the failures of the system is hyperbole: "fought efforts to improve teacher quality, instructional rigor and more effective spending." Detroit teachers have learned to keep their heads down and teach, as wave after wave of "reform" is imposed on them, while they're trying to teach kids who watch the still-governing Mayor on trial later in the evening, on TV.

The DPS teachers' union has been reacting to bad conditions and bad decision-making for a long time that it's reflexive. They may be militant and not progressive, but there's a reason why. Editorials like this will pop up more frequently, as charter schools bid to take the best teachers out of DPS.

Do I think charter schools in Detroit are a good thing? Absolutely. But poking at the unions and pointing out that teachers don't stand in the way of progress is not the way to build a cadre of good teachers.

Really enjoyed the blog!


The Science Goddess said...

I'm so glad you weighed in and left a comment! I knew you would have more inside information than the rest of us.

I think most (if not all) public schools are in react mode to the mandates and reform measures which keep coming at us, but I also think that all too often, unions are placing the blame on local administrations instead of addressing the real source of reform efforts. As a result, the kids are getting caught in the middle.