Inequality undermines education for Detroit kids, Part 1

Editor’s note: The author, Mark Rosenbaum, a distinguished civil rights lawyer, who represented Cesar Chavez in the 1970s and assisted Coretta Scott King on some legal matters, is the lead counsel in the ongoing Detroit’s right to literacy case that is currently before the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. This is a three-part series Mr. Rosenbaum is writing for The PuLSE Institute for greater public awareness about the issue of inequality and poverty facing Detroit school kids.

By Mark Rosenbaum

Illiteracy is a word that long ago ought to have gone out of usage. But unfortunately, it has not when it comes to large numbers of urban areas in the United States, none more so than Detroit, where the public school system is struggling. Detroit is uniformly regarded as having the lowest literacy rates of any such community.

For example, one national study concluded 47 percent of Detroiters are without basic reading and writing skills. And this number is high compared to recorded results for Detroit schoolchildren. According to the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), the most highly and respected national education assessment, 93 percent of Detroit eighth graders were not proficient in reading, 96 percent not proficient in math.

The last five times NAEP was administered—2009, 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2017—Detroit fourth and eighth grade students scored more poorly than students in any other U.S. city. When this happened for the fourth time, one urban education expert stated that “there is no jurisdiction at any level, at any time in the 30-year history of NAEP that has ever registered such low numbers.”  It comes as no surprise either that Detroit is perennially at the bottom of rankings measuring high school graduation rates and enrollment in higher education.

The causes of some social phenomena are tough to tease out, but illiteracy among Detroit schoolchildren surely isn’t one of them. Up until just last year, for more than a decade, the public school district in Detroit (now Detroit Public School Community District) were operated directly by the state of Michigan and decision-making authority over DPS schools was taken away from the locally elected school board and transferred to a state-appointed “Emergency Manager.”
Beginning in 2011, no local authority remained. None of the four emergency managers or the one transition manager appointed since 2009 possessed any professional competence or experience in K-12 education. The period tracks a dramatic decline in the performance of Detroit students.

There was nothing subtle about how this was accomplished. The schools that Detroit children attended were reduced to schools in name only, lacking stable, supported and appropriately trained teaching staffs, books and other instructional materials, core curricular courses and safe and sanitary physical conditions essential for the opportunity to attain literacy. Over this period, many classrooms were headed by non-certificated teachers, substitutes, paraprofessionals, or even no adults at all.

Students at a number of schools spent a part of each day sitting idly in classrooms, sometimes filled with as many as 60 students from different grades and course periods. In one school, an eighth grader taught eighth grade math courses because no qualified adult was available.  Spanish, for instance was taught in another school by a rotating group of teachers, none of whom were qualified as Spanish instructors, but all of whom identified as knowing some Spanish.

Teacher vacancies at one point exceeded 200 throughout the system. The state legislative response in June 2016 was to pass a one of a kind legislation providing that a “non-certificated, non-endorsed teacher” may teach in the DPS district.

Nowhere else in Michigan may children in public school be instructed by teachers who lack appropriate state-mandated credentials and qualifications.

Mark Rosenbaum is director of the Public Counsel Opportunity Under Law project that is defending the rights of Detroit kids to literacy.  Prior to joining Public Counsel in 2014, Rosenbaum spent four decades with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, most recently as Chief Counsel, and was its legal director for over 10 years.

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