Highland Park's Shameful Schools: Vilifying Mom, Teachers and Unions Isn't The Cure
With its announcement yesterday that it's suing the state of Michigan and the Highland Park school district for failing to ensure that Highland Park schoolchildren are literate, the state chapter of the ACLU has taken dead aim at the one issue that consistently falls through the cracks in the school-reform debate: The actual performance and preparation of our children.
The numbers the group offers to buttress its case are as sad as they are shocking:
65 percent of students aren't reading at a proficient level by fourth grade and 87 percent of them aren't proficient in mathematics
Seventy-five percent of seventh-grade students aren't reading at a proficient level and 93 percent are not math proficient
By 12th grade, more than 45 percent of aren't graduating, while 90 percent fail at reading, 97 percent at math, and 100 percent are failing at social studies and science.
Personally, I think it's well past time someone started doing more than just demonizing teachers. Teachers alone don't destroy school districts, and their unions don't drag down literacy rates. And enacting policies that punish districts by driving them deeper into poverty seems to court the same sort of failure that these "reform" proponents swear they're trying to reverse. It takes a village to wreck a child.
It's no secret, of course, that even before school reform became such a hot-button issue around here, the schools in places like HP and Detroit were struggling mightily. State intervention, as far as I can tell, has only exacerbated the problem.
Attacking unions; overselling standardized test prep; shuffling contracts from one crappy vendor to another; overcrowding class rooms in blatant violation of the most basic academic best practices and celebrating it as change — these are the smoke-and-mirror tactics that have seem to have largely defined "reform" efforts in Michigan. And they have done nothing to prevent our children from falling further behind.
Critics will charge that some parents have failed, too, a point the ACLU doesn't ignore. But the reality is that millions of taxpayer dollars go into schools in cities like Highland Park and, emergency managers or not, these districts continue to churn out children who aren't ready to compete in the 19th Century let alone the 21st. Instead, we get the sorts of stats that read like figures from the Jim Crow South, figures that won't change just by closing buildings or vilifying mom and Mrs. Crabtree.
So now, without even getting caught up in the sticky politics of the reform debates, the ACLU has found a way to dramatically underscore just how abjectly state and local government have failed these children. For them, the argument isn't about Rick Snyder's antiunion agenda or Roy Roberts' putrid ideas or Jennifer Granholm's wholesale delivery of state districts into the hands of EMs. It's about the fact that, no matter who's in charge, Johnny should be able to read—and if he can't then stakeholders, all of them, need to be taken to task.
This morning, Michigan ACLU executive director Kary Moss took a few minutes to chat with Deadline Detroit and answer a handful of questions about this unique lawsuit and what the group hopes to accomplish.
This sort of suit has never been tried before. What does it set out do?
Simple: We want for the child to be put back front and center—for everybody.
How much of this lawsuit stems from school reform efforts in the Highland Park school district, which is set to become all charter schools next year?
This is not a pro- or anti-charter case. This is not a pro- or anti-union case, not a pro- or anti-teacher case. And it's not a school funding case. What we did was to create a case where we could represent 976 children and make sure they have a voice in all these reform discussions.
Do you expect the suit to affect reform efforts?
I hope one of the results of the lawsuit will be that we can serve as a way to dislodge some of the more volatile and entrenched ways in which discussions of reform happen. They are insufficient. For example, when was the last news story you read talked about literacy rates in Highland Park? When was the last time you heard anybody associated with discussion about reform in Highland Park address the literacy rate. You won't see any news article that addresses that. Everyone is talking unions and deficits and charter schools. How much attention is being put into the programs themselves that are needed to turn this situation around?
Highland Park has garnered a lot of attention, but hasn't witnessed a lot of wholesale educational success. Can the schools really be transformed?
Yes. There's there is a lot of literature and experts who have successfully worked to turn around schools in high poverty districts. It can be done. We will bring in those education experts to help advise people who deal with these challenges.
For one, Education Trust Midwest did a study making that argument and looked at schools in Michigan. They call them turnaround schools, where they have been able to put in the kinds of intervention programs that do have results. We'll bring in the experts who'll say how to do it.
Your critics will charge that this suit takes the focus off of parental responsibility, that it blames schools but not the mothers and fathers primarily responsible for these kids. How do you answer that contention?
There's a lot of blame to go around here—but the bottom line is, we have 100 percent failure in fourth grade in science and social studies and 90 percent of children not proficient in reading. No one party can take blame. The fact is, money has been spent in Highland Park—and the district hasn't been educating these children. Let's fix it.
To read the ACLU's complaint and to find out more about the suit click here.