If You Can't Beat 'Em, Destabilize 'Em!

The typical reform agenda goes something like this: 

We see evidence of this approach in places like New Orleans with its "Recovery School District," and Detroit, where Gov. Snyder's Frankenstein-like "Education Achievement Authority" continues to deprive the students and citizens of local control of their schools. The reformers' tactics are brutal and unforgiving: create a public perception that the schools are failing, the teachers are lazy, the unions are greedy, and the only solutions are to close schools, expand choice, provide vouchers and valorize charters.

However, one of the more subtle, yet damaging, weapons in the reformers' playbook is simultaneously less visible to the uninformed eye and more insidious in its ability to accomplish the reformers' ultimate goal: the destabilization of public education by an intentional, purposeful strategy of near-constant turnover and turmoil in the leadership and teaching force in the schools.

The business world has a name for this practice: creative destruction. It's a term coined by economist Joseph Schumpeter, and "refers to the incessant product and process innovation mechanism by which new production units replace outdated ones." Also referred to as "churn," this business-centered approach to school reform considers students and teachers as "raw materials," and schools as "factories." The goal is maximizing profits, and significant "collateral damage" (i.e., school closings, teacher terminations, student expulsions) is not only acceptable, but expected, in the single-minded pursuit of the reformers' goals.

"Creative destruction" comes in numerous forms in public education, from the year-to-year involuntary reassignment of teachers from one grade level to another, to the practice of having elementary teachers with "all subjects" certifications teach subjects (i.e., music, art, PE) they are unqualified to teach, to moving principals back and forth between schools as though they are pawns in a game of administrative Pong.

An especially egregious example of this sort of intentional destabilization can be seen in the Detroit Public Schools, which has been under state control for most of the previous 15 years  (1999-2005, 2009-2016). Under the Snyder administration, Detroit's schools have suffered from a systematic defunding of facilities and equipment, sub-standard working conditions, safety concerns, drastic curriculum narrowing, and poor teacher morale as a result of the state's takeover. Recent estimates are that fewer than 30% of Detroit's children have access to school music classes, and only 40% have an art teacher. In 2014, Renaissance High School, long considered a bastion of high quality arts programming in the city, suffered devastating cuts to its music program, signaling a troubling trend in priorities from Detroit's educational leaders.

The destructive impact of "churn" in the DPS may be most visible when looking at the district's recent history of administrative leadership.

DPS Emergency Managers

  • Robert Bobb, 2009-11
  • Roy Roberts, 2011-13
  • Jack Martin, 2013-15
  • Darnell Earley, 2015

EAA Chancellors

  • John Covington, 2011
  • Victoria Conforme, 2014

Its hard to understand how a school system can make any sort of sustained progress with a veritable revolving door of administrative transition occurring in the central offices--and this is certainly the case in Detroit: "Under emergency managers Robert Bobb, Roy Roberts and Martin, DPS has shed tens of thousands of students, closed dozens of schools and struggled with persistent deficits...Last fall's (2014) preliminary enrollment was 47,238, less than half of the 96,000 students attending DPS when Bobb was appointed."

It's beyond time to declare Gov. Snyder's approach to education reform in Detroit a resounding failure. The state has had 15 years to "fix" the problems they created through a massive disinvestment of public education in Michigan, and Detroit's children and teachers have paid the price as a seemingly endless parade of highly paid "experts" have failed to turn the ship around.

It's time to turn back control of Detroit's schools to the elected school board (which has been meeting, in exile) and citizens of Detroit, and put an end to this failed experiment in "creative destruction." Fifteen years of "emergency management" have done nothing but damage the futures of a generation of Detroit's youth.

Stop the "churn," Mr. Snyder. Give Detroit's schools back to Detroit.