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Assault on Detroit


US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan labeled Detroit “ground zero” in education reform by video conference. He pointed out that Detroit students have posted the worst scores in the nation in math, reading and science, levels that shocked local and national education officials. Duncan said those results, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress Trial Urban District Assessment, caused some to view the city as having “no viable future if the status quo is allowed to stand.” (From The Detroit News, June 21, 2011)

Hon. Secretary Duncan:

Your labeling of Detroit and its People, including our Children, in a five-minute video conference address on June 21, 2011, is much more than an egregious display of bad manners, arrogance and racism.

The education “reform” movement whose standard you bear may have reached a new low ? especially in your extraordinarily narrow and myopic, even obsessive focus on high-stakes testing of children and phony standards for “accountability” (standards that you apply to children, but never to the politicians and corporate interests who are pushing them). In short, you must have gone completely insane.

Permit me to explain this harsh judgment.

Many studies and competent professional educators have by now concluded that the infamous “No Child Left Behind” Act model of education has failed our children. Indeed, longstanding opponents of these “reforms” have been amply justified by experience in our original assessment of this model: it was designed to punish public school systems and children in low-income communities, predominantly of color, while generating enormous profits for corporate testing and turnaround ventures.

Even advocates of these failed “reforms” (most notably former Bush administration education official Diane Ravitch, in her bestselling book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education”), have evaluated the evidence generated by a decade of such “reform,” and exposed its failure to promote effective education, and its success at enriching and empowering unqualified political operatives like yourself, who are nevertheless pressing ahead amidst wars and recession with a second decade of this failed model.

However, until now as far as I know no one has been so bold, mindless or irresponsible as to claim that the results of a single standardized test battery condemn an entire community to non-viability. Standardized tests have often been shown to be scientifically unreliable for assessing and intervening in educational programs. When used as overly prescriptive guides to policy, they produce wildly divergent results, condemning successful programs working under the most difficult conditions to the label of “failure,” while rewarding far less effective educational systems in better-resourced communities. Perhaps even worse, the corporate “reform” mania for testing reinforces an anti-intellectual, reductionist and counter-productive praxis of “teaching to the test,” instead of real, dynamic education in the modes of critical thought, agency and empowerment through intellectual growth. All this is more than enough to condemn the high-stakes testing regime for which you stand as the federal government’s top bureaucrat. But until now no one has publicly claimed that a community could be condemned to “no viable future” by poor test results. Shame on you!

Your five-minute video conference assessment of Detroit’s community was in support of the third state takeover proposal for Detroit Public Schools since 1999. The first two state takeovers are now widely acknowledged to have inflicted nearly catastrophic damage on this system and the children it seeks to serve, amounting to a peculiar form of institutionalized and politicized corporate child abuse. Now you support yet another ill-planned experiment with the intellectual and cultural welfare of Detroit’s children.

What do you even know about Detroit or its people?

What evidence do you have that Governor Rick Snyder’s new, and vaguely defined “Educational Achievement Authority” and “”Educational Achievement System” will actually improve educational outcomes for Detroit’s children, as opposed to institutionalizing the school-to-prison pipeline in “underperforming” schools for children labeled as “failures,” underwritten by the biased, partisan agenda of the Broad Foundation and other members of what Ms. Ravitch appropriately calls “the billionaire boys’ club,” i.e., the Gates and Walton Foundations?

Will you apologize to Detroit, its people and children for your abusive statements, delivered in the most thoughtless and insulting way?

School “failure” results from the failure of your “reform” agenda to create a new paradigm for education ? not a “race to the top,” but a race to regain our humanity and become well-educated, effective citizens in a democracy. Of necessity, Detroit is learning faster than most places how real education can address the challenges of our community, and how these challenges are opportunities to engage children and people of all ages in educational programs that grow our souls.

I respectfully suggest that Detroiters and others with actual knowledge of our community, and especially Detroit’s children, many of whom are thriving in excellent schools, should write Secretary Duncan and inform him, in your own words, why we are a distinctly viable, creative, flourishing and beloved community:

Honorable Arne Duncan
Secretary of Education
U.S. Department of Education
400 Maryland Avenue, SW
Washington, D.C. 20202

Tom Stephens is a lawyer in Detroit. He can be reached at:




Tom Stephens is a coordinator of the communications working group of Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management (D-REM).  Their web site is at:

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