Monday, January 17, 2011

Detroit Schools

Once upon a time, Detroit was home to the big three automakers and enjoyed high employment rates thanks to the numerous manufacturing plants producing American cars. As production costs increased and demand for US cars decreased, the Big Three began to shut down plants and relocate operations overseas. GM may relocated its headquarters to China were the top luxury car is Buick.

Detroit's unemployment for November 2010 was 12.4 percent making it the poorest city in the United States (Cleveland comes in second with an unemployment rate of 10 percent for the same period).

One of the many effects of such high unemployment is diminished tax revenues which in turn means decreased operating budgets. The strong unions in Detroit have protected cuts to city jobs so reductions are taken elsewhere. Detroit is now looking at closing half of their public schools! As the article points out, this means high school teachers may be looking at 62 students in one classroom.

It is hard enough to keep 35 students engaged in a classroom. Distractions, talking, texting, sleeping, and just plain disinterest mean teachers have to keep busy maintaining discipline as well as teaching the subject. Managing 60 students in a classroom designed for 25 will be akin to herding rabid cats. Learning will become a third or fourth level priority below safety, security, and order.

Detroit is facing another problem they haven't addressed. If somehow or other they are able to teach 60 students at a time, what will be waiting for those students when they graduate? Nothing indicates that Detroit is on a path to economic recovery which means those students will be without jobs when they graduate. No prospect for jobs means even less incentive to remain in school and study.

For those that may have a Jamie Escalante (the calculus teacher in "Stand and Deliver") in their lives and manage to do well and go on to college, they will have to move away in order to get jobs. The Detroit school system is then training workers for other communities. Those without the grades or drive to excel will get left behind in a dead city. Crime will continue to be the only viable means of income.

The Detroit school situation also causes me to wonder what our high schools are really preparing graduates to do. As recently as thirty years ago, a high school diploma was all that was needed to go out an earn a living. The argument to that statement is the change away from a manufacturing based economy required workers to have a college degree. So high school curriculums changed from producing workers to college-prep, A funny thing happened though on the way to the forum. State subsidies to secondary education became based on performance metrics. The challenge was how to evaluate all of the various state high school programs equally. In Ohio, the answer is the proficiency test.

High schools had to transform again from college-prep to now increasing performance on standardized proficiency tests. The results are students showing up in college without critical thinking skills since their educational focus was performance on standardized tests.

Somewhere in this mess, no one asked what the real role of high schools should be in the 21st Century. My question is why can't high schools still produce graduates who are able to earn a living? Granted the economy is no longer manufacturing based but does every single job required a college degree? Other than professions such as doctor, lawyer or engineer many workers have degrees totally unrelated to their field. If the role of high schools in producing qualified employees were better understood, the situation in Detroit could be mitigated if not avoided.

Detroit can serve as an important wake-up call to other communities. If we can revamp our secondary away from the proficiency exam based curriculum, we may be able to produce a quality workforce.

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