Heard on the Tour: Detroit

Cody High School Principal Johnathon Matthews (center) speaks to Student Forum attendees, who included Secretary Arne Duncan, Detroit Mayor David Bing, Gov. Granholm, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russlyn Ali in addition to Cody students.

Cody High School Principal Johnathon Matthews (center) speaks to Student Forum attendees, who included Secretary Arne Duncan, Detroit Mayor David Bing, Gov. Granholm, and Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali in addition to Cody students.

This week we went to “ground zero” for our second stop on the listening and learning tour. We listened to a community hobbled by the decline of an industry that was once the engine of the city’s economy, a housing market bust as bad as it gets, recent political strife the likes of which one couldn’t make up in a Hollywood screenplay, and a school system suffering beyond compare. Today we listened to Detroit.

We heard heart wrenching stories about unfulfilled dreams from policy-makers, community leaders, educators, parents, and student themselves. We heard from teachers struggling to teach with few needed supports. Teaching, for example, rigorous high school science using a laboratory that is devoid of even the basics, like running water. We listened as high schools seniors told us that more than half of their peers starting with them in the 9th grade were either dead or in jail by the 12th grade. We heard from community activists and elected officials begging for national attention and support in their moment of urgent crisis.

But today, we also witnessed hope, responsibility and courage. Hope that finally the forces were aligning for positive change and sustainable reform. Hope in a new Mayor with the will to do whatever it takes to fix an utterly broken school system. Hope in a Governor with the passion and commitment to help an ailing people. We witnessed courage by everyone to confront the challenges head on; steely determination by students to thrive, no matter what; parents taking ultimate responsibility for their children’s future; and teachers finding creative ways to restructure their schools to meet their students’ needs. More than anything, we saw an entire community united with the spirit of survival.

Today we listened to a city ready to transform its schools from a national disgrace to a national model. And, albeit with a heavy heart, we were inspired.

Russlynn Ali

Assistant Secretary, Office for Civil Rights


  1. Secretary Duncan,

    I believe there is room for improvement by everyone involved in raising a child. This would include medical practioners (getting the correct diagnosis), parents (fully involved in a positive way in their child’s education), teachers (getting the specific training for the job they have accepted and spending the time it takes to do that job), administrators (getting out of the office and leading their faculties), state education departments (overseeing their districts–not playing favorites for political gain and not looking the other way), and the federal department of education (if you give money to states and districts, you should be involved, not just a pass through for funding.)

    Today, as I review your website, I am concerned about you “discretionary grant funding.” A quick look at your awards will tell you that California seems to be getting more than its fair share. Maybe they do have better grant writers, but some adjustments could be made–I have noticed this in the past and could only assume the having the Speaker from California might help.

    The other problem I see with Discretionary grants is that most Federal Program Officers are not paying attention to the grants they administer. Some require the grant to have an “outside evaluator”, but the federal officers will only talk to the project director and not to the evaluator or anyone else in the organizations. As an accountant, I can tell you this leaves room for manipulation of funds and deviation from the intended grant purposes.

    I appreciate an opportunity to share my feelings with you and I would be more than willing to lend my 39 years of teaching and managing federal programs in any way I can to see the educational process for our children improve.

  2. I read the posts where the schools need more parent involvement and sometimes schools do not want parent involvement. I offered to give my school district everything they needed to teach my children, and all the outside help they needed as well, adn my school district refused to talk to anyone and anything I gave them, colored paper so the letters would not float, offered a computer so he could write more easily which I was told if I gave my son a laptop to use at school I would endanger the rest of the students with radiation poisoning. Parents can get involved and it woudl help but only if schools were cooperating with teh parents as well. It works better and has proven to work better when the schools communicate and work with parents and outside sources to help children, but in some cases it does not happen no matter how hard a parent tries.


  3. The challenges in Detroit are many. Solutions have been offered to the State Department of Education, the local school district financial manager, and to Mr. Duncan. My proposal was sent to each of these entities over two months ago. So far, I guess they all deem the proposal not feasible. However, based on some of the “news” coming forth, some of the identical things that I proposed are now being considered for the “smaller schools in a school”.

    What we need is: Mandatory parental involvement, A change in grading systems from A-F to A or F, creative, innovative teachers who are not chained to a textbook, and a local school district that recognizes that all students learn in their own unique way and therefore their needs should be addressed; not the districts.

    We also need to realize that until we stop providing assembly-line teachers, we are never going to engage our students in the process of learning. Learning should be student-centered and inquiry-based. Teachers should be facilitators of knowledge; not purveyors of knowledge. All stake-holders need to be accountable for the success or failure of a student; not just the teacher.

    Until those in power really sit down and take a close look at all of the challenges facing students and teachers; especially in the inner cities; there will be no true reform of the public educational system.

  4. I believe that we need more parent accountability. How can teachers expect to teach students that have no home support? How about the special needs children whose guardians won’t get them tested and identified to get the help they desperately need. I teach in PA and early intervention is available to every child but it is the parent’s responsibility to begin the process. A phone call is all it takes to begin helping a child. How can we achieve this?

    I am a Pre K Counts teacher in Berks County, PA. This is a wonderful, no cost program available to families who qualify based on income and special needs. What I would love to see is this program expanded across the country into every state. I know President Obama wants this but it takes more than just want. Children need this basis to achieve in school.

  5. I’m so glad to hear those who comment on the day to day realities that teachers face which are far more significant than the issues that seem to get most of the attention.

    Here are some real problems I have dealt with in my 8th grade History classroom: Students who are apathetic and lacking any true self-respect. Students who have no respect for their teachers. Parents who enable their children’s bad behavior & lack of effort. Students who- miss school, are transient, are pregnant, are physically abused, are emotionally abused, are sexually abused, have to parent younger siblings, are in foster care, don’t have enough to eat, are suffering from the loss of a parent, are struggling to deal with divorce, are sick but their parent can’t or won’t get them to a doctor, are in a gang or being pressured to be in a gang, have been arrested, are abusing drugs, are cutting themselves, are suicidal, have parents who are never around…

    Most school years I have at least one student in every one of these categories. When kids are dealing with all types of problems like this, how does a teacher get them to focus on the importance of passing a test at the end of the year?

  6. Aloha America,
    I need help at the grass roots level on my life’s mission, increasing our nation’s graduation rate, especially for the marginalized students.

    I have contacted Mr. Duncan’s office, but I think they think my approach was based on my experience in Hawaii, and they probably think it won’t work in the inner city of Detroit. I can hear it now. But, I refuse to internalize the complaints, it’s a waste of energy.

    Any educator that wants their special education, bilingual eduaction, regular education student to become inspired with success stories (real graduates) and have a real T shirt shop to inspire students to learn about what made our country great in the first place, entrepreneurship.

    So where in the world did I ever teach to meet my state’s most winning art students? Detroit, Michigan, Southwest Detroit (the heart of gangland) was my test ground. I’m on Facebook. Let’s talk America. A lot has happened since I quit abusing heroin as a young person. Some of us change through education. We wish to tell our story. Remember America, Detroit is ground zero.

    Aloha from Kaua’i
    Malama Obama

  7. In Illinois, the State requires every third year high school student (normally, 11th grade) to take college entrance exam (ACT) as part of the achievement level test for that grade. Oops!!!Not every third year high school student has had the necessary coursework (algebra 2,geometry, chemistry, etc.) to do very well on achievement expectations. Why not? Some third year students have had to retake coursework failed in 9 and 10 grades and have not completed the core area work to meet standards on ACT. Also,some students are on the vocational preparatory avenue of curriculum…not the college prep avenue.
    This is not aiding students in drop-out prevention, but feeding it.
    Students who have special needs in learning difficulties tend to do poorly on this college admission screening exam as well. What’s wrong with this picture? Time for legislators and NEA leaders to put their heads together for a solution to such atrocities in education and come up with solutions that work better in reality, rather than just looking good on paper.

  8. I’ve reviewed all comments to this thread. All speak truth. The most recent stated we need smaller classes. True. Unfortunately, that would mean more schools. More schools, an eventual outcome, mean more money. More money needed for more teachers. The cycle goes on.
    What of requiring more accountability on the front end of education? What about retaining students until they hold basic skills? Let them repeat a year, or two if necessary. Failing to address initial inadequacies creates growing hurdles to future levels of mastery.
    One last thing: What is happening to the American language? Teacher conversations are peppered with: “We was .., they was, you was…” How will the students learn basic grammar if the persons in charge of such instruction have yet to gain the skill?

  9. We have to make students and parents accountable. We as teachers are expected to keep up to date web pages, call our assignments into homework hotline, email parents, and keep our online gradebook constantly up to date. What do parents have to do? Nothing. They do not even have to ask for progress reports. If the parents don’t know how their child is doing, somehow it is the teacher’s fault. You have to be kidding?! I should not have to work at 110% unless the kids and parents do too.

    Our administrators then come at the end of the year and want us to pass them. Or they come up with course recovery where they can earn the credit for the course by going to class for 10 days. Summer school is a joke too. As long as they show up they are to pass. However, then when they go on to the next grade, they fail again. How are we helping them? All we are saying to them is that we will pass you along so do not put any effort.

    We as an education system talk so much about the standardized tests. That is the least of our worries. We need to worry about the day-to-day teaching. We need to stop dumbing down our curriculum to make all kids pass. We need to make them reach for the stars. Our country will never be competitive with other nations if the education sytem continues the way it is. We do not teach greatness. We teach mediocrity.

    We need to worry about the lack of respect students have for their teachers, peers and their school building. We need to worry about the parents who are completely uninvolved in these kids lives. We need to come up with alternative places for a few kids who can not work in a regular school environment. We need smaller classes. I can not tell you how important this is for discipline measures. Most of all education has to be controlled at the local level and not by people in Washington who know nothing about how education works.

  10. I wonder what plans there are to improve the accountability system. It has been widely known for over 50 years that the standardized tests which have been recently instituted for the No Child Left Behind act and state accountability standards are highly discriminatory towards poor and non-Caucasians. This clearly discriminates against many children and against inner-city schools.

    When an employer recently tried to institute a testing system for employees, it was immediately thrown out due to the outcry of discrimination. How can we rectify this kind of discrimination against our children and schools, yet still strive toward excellence and reasonable measures of accountability?

  11. As the product of the Detroit Public Schools from the 1940s and 50s, when Detroit Public Schools were considered excellent, I want to see the schools revitalized and enriched so they will again be considered a world class district.

    As a graduate of Cody High School who then went on to earn degrees at Wayne State University and as a retired educator, I know that we can bring about the change that is necessary to bring back the Detroit Public Schools. We just need the will and the resources to make it happen.

    A biology lab with no running water is not a lab it is just another classroom. A computer lab without a working computer accessible to each child, is just another under supplied classroom. We need to make certain we supply urban and rural schools to the same level as our wealthier suburban school districts. We need to provide equal opportunities for all our children.

    We need to make certain that when our children enter kindergarten they come with some basic tools/skills. It is important that children have access to high quality early childhood education programs and that new parents have access to information and/or classes to help them better understand the importance of their role in preparing their child for the future.

    There are many things that can be done in the area of education reform if we just have the will to get it done. Let’s hope we are finally turning the corner. Punishing schools for not succeeding is counter productive we ought to be sending in teams to help these school turn things around.

  12. I would like to comment on NCLB. I think we can achieve success with most of our children. However, there are anywhere from 3 to 6 children in our classes (out of approx. 30 students) each year who are defiant and lazy. I teach 4th and 5th grade math. We hold tutoring sessions during school, we hold remedial sessions after school. These kinds of children, usually boys, fight teachers when they try to help them. They are disrespectful, and try to disrupt classes. They behave this way with all of their teachers.

    I don’t mind being held accountable for most of the children, but I don’t think it is fair to judge a teacher by the way this type of student operates. They are controlling and non compliant. I know of no other job in the entire earth where a person’s success is determined on something they have absolutely no control over. This needs to be changed. These students and parents need to have accountability. No exceptions.

    Another area of concern, is we have students who are marginal because they miss so many days of school per year. We need laws fining parents who let their children lay out of school when they are not sick. We at least need to require them to bring a doctor’s excuse when they are out.

    We also need more planning time for elementary teachers, especially. We have 1 to 1 1/2 hours of paper grading a day.
    This doesn’t include the hours of planning we have to do. Then, if we have children who are tested by Virginia’s VGLA system, we have to spend another 6 to 12 hours a week creating the notebook and grading the work and making sure we have every bullet of every sol covered. I like planning and creating student work, but I don’t like working over 50 hours a week.


    Sharon Oestreicher

  13. I can seriously relate to the sudden need for critical tchnology and teaching material, such as a textbook to teach. What do we expect from the children who are forced to be in a self inclusion classroom with one teacher.
    If we are really about educating tomorrow’s leader the classrooms would be adequately supplied with textbooks that are current and computers. Nos. schools are being informed they are taking computers.
    Don’t hold teachers and students compatible if the govt. is not going to provide the money. More teachers are leaving the teaching field as quickly as they enter. Teachers spend half their income on the kids. Tax time you can only write off the $259.00. A teacher spends this the first week of school.

  14. Standards should be raised, even if it means differentiated diplomas. The International Baccalaureate program should be standard college prep in our high schools. It is rigorous and a tough sell to statistic sensitive administrations.As a counselor I was unsuccessful initiating it in my high school. They were too concerned with all the kids being above average and massive honor rolls.

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