Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Test scores highlight bigger problem

The news this week hit like a sledgehammer. It was about Detroit school children posting the worst scores on record on a national achievement test, and was enough to knock Tiger Woods out of the top spot in coverage for a day. But the golfer was back leading the local news again by Friday, which is a shame.

The fact that children scored so miserably is an outrage that should have people marching in the streets.

“There is no jurisdiction of any kind, at any level, at any time in the 30-year history of NAEP that has ever registered such low numbers,” Michael Casserly, executive director of a coalition of urban school districts called the Council on Great City Schools, based in Washington, D.C. told Crain's Detroit Business.

The NEAP is a national test for fourth and eight graders developed by the National Center for Education Statistics of the U.S. Department of Education.

“They are barely above what one would expect simply by chance, as if the kids simply guessed at the answers,” Casserly said.

There is a wealth of talent among the teachers and administrators in Detroit Public Schools. (I went to four DPS schools). However, without support from parents and other adults in these children's lives to care for them, provide visions and encourage those dreams, they don't have a chance.

I sent emails to a group of friends who are in education and business to sound off on the issue and they confirmed as much. In fact, the emails flew back and forth for two days. One friend who teaches in Detroit said he was lucky if four or five parents showed up for parent-teacher conferences.

DPS Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb did say at a Detroit Parent Network gathering Saturday that the test scores are emblematic of the failure of the district's leadership, which I appreciated. I am sure he also knows that it will take more than the DPS to fix this mess.

I think the failure those test scores highlighted is much bigger than just the system's shortcomings in recent years. I also discount any suggestion that charter schools are the answer, because there is no evidence those institutions produce better students. While DPS needs a radical overhaul in order to effectively educate students and prepare them for success in today's economy, that is only part of the equation.

The reality is that in one in three children in Detroit live in poverty (actually 38 percent), so any solution to our education deficit needs to take into account that our young people don't have what it takes to live decently. Their parents either cannot provide for their basic needs. We all know it's hard to study when you are hungry, don't have a desk at home to study at, or don't have lights, or a stable home atmosphere conducive for learning. We know children aren't going to school because they don't have clean clothes, or because they don't feel safe getting there and back, or walking through the hallways. We also know that some lack the presence of adults in their lives who believe they can succeed (and tell them as much), and that is also important.

I thought it was interesting that folks at the DPN event went so far as to say people should go to jail for what is happening to the district's students. Maybe.

I like their sense of outrage, and hope that it is contagious. We need more hands on deck.

I'm working on a project that would give more people in our community opportunities to help our children (and our adults) in an impactful way. I'll keep you posted on the progress.

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