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Education for Profit in Detroit

“Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck.”

—Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit”

It seemed like a scene from an auction block. This past Tuesday at the House of Representatives in Lansing, MI, the education committee held a hearing on a bill (HB 6004) which would help drive a deeper stake into the heart of public education in Detroit, transferring absolute power to the Education Achievement Authority (EAA), a “public body corporate,” as its chancellor, John Covington, defined during his testimony, which currently occupies over 15 (9 elementary/middle, 6 high) Detroit Public Schools (DPS) and services 10,000 students. It is a bill aimed, in plain terms, at shipping off larger swaths of Detroit’s kids (worth $7,000/yr, roughly $42 /day) into a private system.

The hearing room was packed full and overflowed: mainly from a coalition of Detroit activists, public school teachers and board members, lawyers, journalists, professors, parents and students who had come—some by bus. some by cars—to Lansing to plow through the avalanche of myths and lies which filled up the four-hour hearing. Beyond Covington, other testifiers included EAA parents, principals, teachers and students, all singing the same tune about “changing the culture of the schools.”

The EAA is, in theory, a bidder on the block,  merely a contractor seeking to eradicate its main competitor, Detroit Public Schools (along with the elected school board), thereby gaining strong territorial and financial control over a 50,000-student district—a predominantly poor and Black, severely at-risk district, a blight-drenched district undergoing (much like New Orleans post-Katrina) disaster capitalism, absolved of all electorally bestowed power and subject to the whims of a sorely-hated emergency financial manager. The EAA is, as well, a for-profit industry, which like any other is ever-expanding, or at least seeking to.

Covington explained his Detroit office is a measly 13-person staff with limited budget, 74% of which goes to paying salaries; at the helm is a chancellor, redesign officer, and a CEO (or, as Covington wishes he/she be known, “regional director”) who reports to an 11-member non-elected board and would “help us expand across the state.” The EAA, which had a proposed $96 million budget for the 2012-2013 year, was recently granted $35 million by the Department of Education to expand statewide. But this move would run against the comfort of certain empowered communities in the greater Michigan which voted down (77 out of 83) the emergency financial manager law (Public Act 4) almost as resoundingly as the Detroit community (82%) last Tuesday.

The EAA was formed last year, August 2011, through a partnership between Eastern Michigan University’s board of regents and DPS, at the behest of Michigan’s CEO governor, Rick Snyder, who appointed a former GM executive to “manage” the school system. (The Dean of Eastern Michigan University’s College of Education seats on the 11-member EAA board, whose chairman is the ex-DPS emergency financial manager, Roy Roberts—his tenure was called to an end on election day.

The EAA currently operates the “lowest-achieving” 5% of schools in the city; lately rebranded “priority schools,” prior to that “failing schools.” The EAA brands itself a “different system for a better outcome.” It is in design a corporate district which siphons public funds and outsources various educational services to its clients. High performance is the promise, “student-centered curriculum” is the package, technology is the teacher, and “failing” children are the products.

The EAA is unabashedly market-driven, in logic and language (Covington: “we’re looking at the data to make data-informed decisions”). In addition to being state and federally funded, the EAA is also foundation-funded, amongst its benefactors Skillman and Kellogg, as well as Bill and Melinda Gates, the charter-crazy couple deeply invested in blowing open the education market. The EAA is religious, as the Gates are, about “teacher incentive pay,” a seductive scheme to de-skill teachers into test score generators.

Covington called for an end to the old order, the “horse-and-buggy” system, which fails, he said, to take into account the individuality of each child. He offered the EAA model as refreshing against a stale system delivering “curriculum disconnected from student’s histories.” Absurdly, he also drew from Jonathan Kozol’s classic 1991 text, Savage Inequalities, to give a dramatic address defending the dignities of failing children who, yes, need saving. Invoking one of the children captured on the cover, he stared deeply at the committee members before asking rhetorically: “What is it about me that you can’t teach?” And then answered: “absolutely nothing.” He said to not intervene, as the EAA is, constitutes a “crime against children.”

The EAA model is based on the novel idea that every child learns at different speeds and should advance accordingly. And so each child is subscribed to a computerized, individualized lesson plan. This is meant to emphasize “mastery” over “seat time.” And so children in the same classroom are allowed to be isolated into individual learning silos, and progress is charted through the lesson plans in personal netbooks given to each student. “Our platform is very dependent on the use of technology,” Covington explained.  The children have to “master content” before “we move them,” from level to level. This is to put students “in charge of their learning” and get them “college, career, and workforce ready.”

The EAA is also based on the notion that kids must be trapped in school for longer hours and longer days than those in the traditional system, to “compete” with national and international peers. EAA schools, overseen by “management providers,” warehouse students longer one hour (daily) and 40 days (yearly).

The EAA “curriculum framework,” which was lauded as “innovative” and “engaging,” is “very dependent on the use of technology,” even though several committee members noted how unreliable technology generally is.

The darker side, of course, is the permanent replacement—eerily, as with the auto plants which betrayed Detroit—of bodies with machines. Across the city, veteran, community teachers are being laid off in droves, stifled with unemployment checks or if lucky enough paid measly wages while working semester contracts as subs, to make room for the classroom of the future: where no teacher would be needed because the computer would be able to interact with each student, individually, 100 times more efficiently than any human being ever could. (And with performance as the end goal of education, the grand bargain would be made.) Such a classroom would still have teachers, but of a different kind, playing more supervisory roles, more managerial and technical; this workforce would not need teaching certificates, experience, or education, rather the ability to operate computer software, essentially knowing where the on and off buttons are.

At the hearing, four EAA teachers testified, two young white females and two young Black males. One of the white teachers touched on her role in the classroom; she explained it as identifying “years of bad habit and breaking that for them.” The other told a wild story of a delinquent, violent kid whose life was magically transformed by the EAA model. There were also two Black male teachers who chanted the same mantras—of making kids “stakeholders” in curriculum, giving them “ownership of education.” One suggested the EAA’s cyber pedagogy (“online platform”) is actually a move from the didactic form, where teacher is dispenser of knowledge and student the passive vessel, or what Paulo Freire identified as the banking model (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Chp. 2). He said the EAA model, which offers a shopping mall style of education, is ideal because kids get to choose in the classroom what and how they want to learn. For example, as one of the white teachers explained, if a kid likes basketball, she would tailor his math lesson plan to include some basketball references.

As expected, there were three very young student testifiers, two of which were on “Level 17.” All spoke glowingly of the EAA, saying unlike their experiences in the DPS system, “students are not in hallways, they’re in classrooms,” their peers are “learning faster” and hitting the “learning targets.” When asked by a representative what makes this system so special, one of the students explained: “That’s the thing about the EAA. You have a special bond with your teachers.”

There were also two parents present to recycle the same endless bromides that the EAA is innovative and life-saving; that it “works better,” enabling formerly lagging students to proceed at a “faster pace”; that EAA teachers are “more into the children.” It was all very revealing when one of the parents shared her observations of the culture inside her kid’s school. “It’s like they’re more calm,” she said. Students “line up to go to the bathroom. They’re a lot quieter, there’s no running in the hallway.”

And yet, within the suffocating fog of lifeless language and market slogans, refreshing was the strong voice of state Board of Education member, Marianne McGuire, who in the brief moments she spoke questioned an unaccountableeducation authority which “travels in its parallel universe,” defying community-elected school boards and occupying public school buildings; she spoke against the brazen “taking of local resources.” In most places, she quipped, “that would be called stealing.”

By this point, time had been bled out to accommodate the EAA fanfare, denying any members of the Detroit delegation time to tell a different story (they were asked, and plan, to return next Monday).

One who had gone to tell a different story was Helen Moore, long-time education activist in Detroit who had brought with her a framed copy from the Thursday, Sept. 4, 1997, edition of The Detroit News, which held a front page headline: “Detroit’s state school test scores soar.” Moore had planned to ground the alleged decline of DPS in historical context, as a direct consequence of the 1999 state takeover which systematically drained out and wrecked a once-vibrant public school district.

In June 2010, Education Secretary Arne Duncan had said “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina” because it offered the “chance to create a phenomenal school district” out of the ashes of displaced families and abandoned communities. In Detroit, as is often said, the disaster wasn’t natural but man-made, strategic and calculated. The neoliberal response, however, is no different than New Orleans post-Katrina: market forces (foundations, non-profits included) have descended just as viciously to buy out bodies they consider disposable from communities they consider uneducated.

And just as in New Orleans, throughout the City of Detroit, from the South West to the East Side, community coalitions are gathering and task forces are forming to fight out this battle for the soul of public education—a fight, no doubt, for the long haul.

Tolu Olorunda is a writer and cultural critic currently living in Detroit. He is also author of The Substance of Truth (Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2011), a collection of essays on education, culture, and society. His writing has appeared widely online and in print. He can be reached at: tolu.olorunda@gmail.com.

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