From the Daily: Teach for Detroit

BY THE MICHIGAN DAILY

Published February 2, 2010

With the lowest math scores in the nation and staggering illiteracy rates, there is no question that Detroit Public Schools are in a state of emergency. And educational crises like Detroit’s are the reason that Teach For America was created. The program benefits teachers and students, offering TFA volunteers experience and students a valuable education. But financial failure in the district has caused massive downsizing and made it impossible to employ both TFA and union teachers, forcing TFA out of Detroit. Despite financial difficulties, TFA’s mission is too important to the city to be nudged out. DPS must salvage its mismanaged budget to pay for teachers that will revitalize education.

TFA — a non-profit organization that places recent college graduates in low-income schools — came to Detroit in 2001 to help combat educational inequality. But the program hit a stumbling block when it was forced to terminate a contract with Marygrove College, where TFA teachers were obtaining certificates. The district’s unbalanced budget added to the problem, leaving few open teaching positions. After only a year in the city, TFA left Detroit. Participants were given with the choice to finish their 2-year contracts or find another teaching location.

District-wide downsizing made it seem that to remain in Detoit, TFA teachers would have to take the places of teachers from Detroit’s Federation of Teachers. But the issue isn’t as simple as the teacher’s union versus TFA. In reality, both are needed in the city and school district. It would be misguided to lay off long-time Detroit teachers who have shown a commitment to the city through years of teaching in a struggling system. But it would also be wrong to reject volunteers with a desire to bridge the city's educational gap. And TFA gives Detroit an injection of young professionals, which the city needs to jumpstart its economy.

But the bottom line is that Detroit students need more teachers. In a district with an incredible lack of resources and students who are falling far behind the national average for test scores and graduation rates, teachers dedicated to educational quality are essential. Detroit needs teachers of varying backgrounds and skills who can provide students with a wide array of learning opportunities — and that means taking measures to increase the number of teachers in Detroit. The state and city governments need to work together to ensure both the Detroit Federation of Teachers and Teach For America positions to work for the betterment of students.

The burden here lies with both the state and DPS itself. For years, the district’s money has been grossly mismanaged. In early 2009, Gov. Jennifer Granholm appointed Robert Bobb as DPS's emergency financial manager to clean up the district's disastrous finances. Bobb has started to reverse some of the damage caused by corruption and inefficient spending, but the district is far from equilibrium. So while the state has a responsibility to Detroit — and to districts across Michigan that have been hit hard by budget cuts — to provide adequate funding, DPS’s must be accountable for using its finances for the benefit of its students.

Re-establishing a TFA program in Detroit isn’t the key to complete educational revitalization in the city, but it is part of the solution. DPS must prioritize its spending to focus on obtaining teachers that will provide students with the resources needed to succeed.