Reason Saves Cleveland Schools: Follow Detroit Edition?

As Reason Saves Cleveland with Drew Carey, the one consolation for Cleveland is that they were not Detroit. However, Cleveland could look to Detroit’s new school plan as a robust example of how to Fix the Schools.

In a Fix the Schools policy brief, I argue that the bottom line is that the district should seek continuous improvement by assessing performance of all schools, closing the lowest-performing schools, and creating alternative opportunities for students in the least-productive schools.

In Detroit Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb unveiled his plan for a “leaner and smarter” Detroit Public Schools that calls for closing about 45 buildings and rebuilding others.

Within five years the district will be transformed from a district with old schools that are under capacity to a district where 75 percent of students attend new or recently improved schools, said Bobb, the district’s emergency financial manager.

In addition to Bobb’s plan to close schools, Excellent Schools Detroit which is a nonprofit representing 15 community organizations in Detroit plans to financially support the start-up of 70 new private, charter, or district schools.

The group is planning to offer start-up funds to attract organizations and educators capable of opening high-quality public, charter or private schools in Detroit or neighboring suburbs accessible to Detroit students.

What’s driving the initiative is low achievement in many of Detroit’s public and charter schools. About half of the high schools on the state’s draft list of the lowest-performing schools in Michigan are in Detroit Public Schools, in addition to some charter schools.

The most significant part of the Excellent Schools Detroit plan is that it embraces a “school-sector agnosticism” that does not favor district, or charter, or private schools. As the Excellent Schools Detroit FAQs explain:

Our focus is on students, not institutions. We want every school, no matter who runs it, to serve its students well. This plan is designed to foster excellence and not tolerate failure. DPS, like every other school operator, has every chance to improve its schools. The Emergency Financial Manager has made it very clear that DPS intends to compete very strongly to attract more students and families. But we also are not putting all of our eggs in one basket. We believe fostering the opening of new schools — whether they are DPS or charter or independent — is a faster way to get us to our goal.

The district school closures and the Excellent Education Detroit plans embrace Reason’s version of Andy Smarick’s mantra is his great piece The Turnaround Fallacy in which he argues: “Stop trying to fix failing schools. Close them and start fresh.”

Detroit seems to be moving toward the recipe to fix failing urban schools: close failing schools, open new charter schools, give principals control of their budgets, let parents choose schools, replicate great schools, repeat.